Petrified night-trolls near Lake Ugly, 6th September 2014
The night-troll children were fishing down by the lake, dragging in net after net of salmon. So entranced were they by their bountiful haul that they forgot to keep an eye on the night sky. As the first glimmers of dawn infused the darkness, the mother troll rushed out of her cave to call her children to safety, only to discover them petrified. While she stared in shock, the morning light sloped on up the hill to strike her and she became petrified too.
So there they are, lumps of stone, one large boulder at the top gazing down at the smaller ones stuck forever on the shore of Lake Ugly.
We were told that story on the first day when we had yet to learn each other’s names.
Volcanically heated pool at Landmannaglaugar, 6th September 2014
She stands in her swimming costume, water up to mid-thigh, her hand raised as though shielding her eyes from the sun. Except I don’t remember the sun shining. I remember the wind later that night, strong enough to rattle the hut’s corrugated iron roof as we lay in columns in our sleeping bags, surrounded by gentle breaths and ferocious snores. And I remember the snow the following morning that drove into our ears and nostrils as we trudged our way through the rhyolite mountains, the most dramatic scenery in Iceland, had we been able to see it through the blizzard.
Her face is dark beneath the shadow of her hand so that if this were the only photo I had of her, I would have nothing to remind me of her features. Perhaps she is waving. At me? At the group admiring the first person brave enough to get into the volcanic pool?
“Come on you lot,” she is saying. “It’s beautiful in here.”
I hadn’t expected the unevenness of the water’s heat or the softness of the mud which moulded itself round my weary feet.
That first night she slept three people away from me. I noticed where she lay and as I said good night to everyone in general, I was really only saying good night to her.
View down from the top of a small volcano, 7th September 2014
The moss covering the sides of the volcano is ancient, grown from seeds blown on the wind from Europe. It takes for ever to re-form if disturbed, so it is important to step carefully.
From up here, the landscape is tri-coloured; green, black and grey; moss and lava. But at its moment of creation, the valley must have crackled and blazed orange and red, and sulphur must have poisoned this untainted air.
Way below, in the group of ten or so red and blue coated people, she stands, except I cannot tell which one she is in this photo. I had hoped she would climb too, rather than stay all the way down there in the tired-leg crowd. I hadn’t wanted to ask, or make it obvious that it was her company I enjoyed above the others’; it was only our second day.
But she is down there, and I am up here, and I must have lingered long enough to take this photo before I trod my delicate way back down.
Ice cave, 8th September 2014
She is bent over, her backpack hard against the cave’s blue roof, stuck like a tortoise.
“Do you think there are any trolls in here, Emma?” she is calling.
Perhaps she didn’t use those precise words, but she used my name; she knew it by then, and I knew hers.
“Yeah.” I laughed. I know I laughed because even in the photo she is comical.
“Ahh!” She struggles, trapped in an ice cave with trolls.
“Don’t worry,” I call. “The elves will rescue you.”
Elf church, 8th September 2014
Elves are peaceful beings, as long as they are treated with respect. They resemble small humans and are the light on trees and flowers; that better side of nature in which feet aren’t frozen with glacial water and wind shards don’t penetrate waterproof coats. And they have a church where they marry, this one; a rock formation with a roof like an elf’s hat.
Here in Iceland you should be kind to strangers; you never know who, or what, they might be.
We had been strangers.
In the hut at Hvangils that night, I slept next to her. A room for twelve with three sets of double bunk-beds. When the couples and men had been matched up, she and I were the only two left. Perhaps I dreamt of the elf church and romance that night. I don’t remember. But I do remember her loose arm across my chest, her breath on my cheek.
On the plateau at Heljarkambar after the scary climb, 9th September 2014
She cried and held onto the chain attached to the side of the hill.
“You’re all right,” I said.
She didn’t believe me.
“Nothing’s going to happen.”
Volcanic scree slithered beneath her feet. The earth was untrustworthy. I had lied; something could very well happen.
“One small step at a time.”
I had never seen anyone actually frozen with fear before.
“You can do it.”
She shook her head, eyes shut tight.
“One tiny step.”
Behind us someone was crying and someone else was telling them just to take one small step.
I put my hand over hers and eased the fingers off the chain. She attached herself to me, jarring me backwards, but I didn’t mind if we fell down the slope together; I would have gone anywhere with her.
“That’s it. And another. Good.”
Every movement was made awkward by the stiff trembling in her legs.
“Not far now.”
Twenty metres could have been the other side of the world for all the courage she had to find within her to cover the distance.
“No, don’t look down, just look at the chain in front of you. It’s not going anywhere.”
When the chain ended she crawled onto the plateau, grasping hold of the ground and sobbing:
“You saved my life.”
In the photo, this one taken on the plateau only a few minutes after the scary climb, she glows with the ecstasy of survival.
Crossing a river near Thorsmork, 10th September 2014
Our boots are tied round our necks and our trousers rolled up as we wade, facing slightly upstream, holding onto a guide rope. Someone in blue with a cream hat, whose name I don’t remember now, is mid-stream. A queue has formed.
She sought me out, moving among the group to find me, not for anything in particular, just to walk with me and talk. Egg and chips; that would be our first meal back in the world of running hot water and showers, away from this surreal place of black sand and blue ice lakes, where one is encouraged to believe the fabulous.
She held my hand as we walked and, once we had crossed the river, she steadied herself on my arm to dry her feet with her socks, first one, then the other. I didn’t get a photo of her boots going back on, I was too busy feeling the weight of her grip on my wrist.
Walk past the waterfalls to Skogar, 11th September 2014
Eleven waterfalls, one after the other, after the other, until the river flings itself over a sixty metre high cliff. Water racing down, losing energy with every fall, collapsing, inevitably, into the uniform sea.
How many waterfalls can you see in one afternoon and keep saying, “Ahhh,” at? Believe me, it is somewhere less than eleven.
“I can’t look at them any more,” she says, striding ahead. “My eyes are all full up of waterfalls.”
This is our last day of walking and whether she looks or not the waterfalls matter, because we are passing each one of them together, losing energy with every step together, descending, inevitably, back to normality, together.
Geysir, 12th September 2014
There is a stone engraved with ‘GEYSIR’ in the foreground, just in case I forget where we are. Behind the stone, water vapour trails rise out of the earth. Next to it eight people have lined up to pose for this photo.
We are sightseeing on the way to the airport. In less than six hours we will part at Gatwick and holiday friendships will become a list of email addresses, scrunched somewhere in a drawer, and these photographs.
Could we ever be anything other than strangers who had been kind to each other? Perhaps I should have left the question unthought and contented myself with these photos, as I am now, grateful for what had been. But this was the world where fantasy and reality were one.
Geyser at Geysir, 12th September 2014
A steaming, blue-grey dome is caught the moment before it recedes. We are being taunted by a bubble of water building up its breath, preparing to explode, or not. And as we wait, untouching, even though we have touched so often and are close enough now to touch again, I ask:
“Shall we keep in contact?”
“Could do,” she replies.
“That’d be great. Maybe we could meet up.”
The dome rises to a metre high.
“We could go walking or something. Or perhaps another holiday like this one?”
I reach out and touch her arm.
“You know I’m not gay,” she says.
The water has slunk back into its black hole.
“I know,” I say. “Do you think I didn’t know that?”
“I did wonder,” she says.
“You needn’t have wondered,” I say. “I knew.”
The water re-emerges in a rush.
“If you’d prefer not to meet,” I say. “That’s fine too.”
She doesn’t answer; she is watching the geyser.
That picture of the boiling water spouting thirty metres into the air remains snapped on my retina alone. I was unable to hold my camera; my hands and heart had turned to stone.