Petrification

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.

“Try it.”

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.”

“Sure.”

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.




Superstitions

Ffion raises her head from the pavement, merely as a matter of experiment. The brain is a smart device, Ffion knows that, smart in that whether she lies with her head on the side, parallel with the flagstone, or slightly raised, as it is now, at what might possibly be thirty degrees from the horizontal, she perceives the world to be orientated the same way. The reality of Ffion’s perception is that the lamp posts in Fishers Way continue to point straight upwards, as does the step ladder above her and indeed the cat, who remains sitting obediently upright in its box, its black nose resting against the hole she cut for it to look out of.

[private]“Yo,” Ffion says, lying her cheek back on the pavement; the brain certainly is a smart device.

The other thing that Ffion has observed, about life and about nature, as she lies here, is that gravity sure is a major force. Quite how gravity works, Ffion is uncertain. She can describe how any two lumps of matter attract each other with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the distance between them, and she can come up with an absolute measure of that force for any two given bundles of particles, including her current attraction to the cat, given that she knows his or her weight. Oh yes, she can provide an objective measure for the gravitational pull between her and that cat, easy peasy. But what exactly is this compelling attraction between two bodies, and how does it work at a distance? Yes, that is the question she should really be considering; what on earth is gravity? Such a basic question.

Time to ponder. Ffion has time to ponder, and to lie, and to experiment with her visual perception of the street that she normally hurries along on her way to work at the university without giving it much of a second glance. All these things Ffion has time for right now.

A car turns the corner, then revs as it approaches the long straight parallel with her position on the pavement outside her house. Unnecessary consumption of fuel, Ffion thinks. Gentle on the gas; carbon footprint and all that. And, as if to obey her, the car slows as it passes, then accelerates away.

Her stars said that she should not venture out today. According to the advice for Leo she should stay in and adopt a more flexible attitude, the result of which will be that things will work out magically. Quite how the two actions of staying in and adopting a more flexible attitude hang together, Ffion isn’t sure; perhaps that was why Celeste the Psychic had needed to add a phone number after her advice.

Now, if Ffion were to assume that birth rates were evenly distributed across the year, probably an incorrect assumption but one that she will stick with for the purposes of her current deliberations, then a twelfth of the population would be covered by Celeste’s edict to stay in, and if they all obeyed that advice, what would happen to the economy? Hospitals would shut, children and teachers would be forced to play hooky, and by the time the evening ended there would be enough magically worked out unspecified things in the country to fill a rainbow. Tempting as it had been to engage in a live consultation with one of Celeste’s team of astrologers in order to define the abstract terms ‘flexible attitude’, ‘things’ and ‘magically’, Ffion had decided on her current alternative approach.

The cat mews. Ffion stretches out, feeling the gaps in between the paving slabs with her toes. Another car turns the corner into the street. That’s two cars in five minutes. She wishes she had kept an accurate count of the cars that have passed in the hour she has been here so she could assess the relative rates of bike and car usage along Fishers Way at 9pm on a Friday evening. The car slows, stops, then reverses.

“You OK?”

“Fine,” Ffion replies.

“Need an ambulance or anything?”

“No.”

“You’ll get cold.”

And that is true enough, in some ways. Certainly she will ultimately get cold, but she ate macaroni cheese before venturing out, the source of food energy which will keep her adequately heated for a while, despite the continuing flow of heat energy from the more warm her to the less warm atmosphere.

“Eventually, I will get cold,” she says, knowing that someone, somewhere will have calculated the time it would take for her to drift off into hypothermia, given the prevailing weather conditions and the temperature of the ground, and she gives some thought to what shape that graph of her declining body temperature would take. Does the body maintain its temperature for a certain time and then drop suddenly? Is sixty-two minutes on a side street on an average evening in May (temperature 10 degrees Celsius) long enough? The Nazis had carried out experiments dropping Jews into vats of freezing water and monitoring their body temperature. Moral issue: should those experimental results be used to design safety suits for people falling into the North Sea, given that they were obtained through torture and denial of humanity? Should some sort of positive come out of such cruelty or should those measurements be destroyed in recognition of the abominable suffering caused?

Oh dear, this is becoming hard; should she be including philosophy here?

The car engine falls silent. A door clicks open, clunks shut.

“Are you injured?”

“No.”

“Sick?”

“I’m very well, thank you.”

The man sniffs. Ffion is tempted to lift her head again, take a proper look at this man, but now someone is trying to interact with her she finds her situation slightly embarrassing. The cat has retreated to the back of its box.

“Nice evening,” the man observes.

“Average,” Ffion responds, for in terms of temperature, cloud cover and precipitation it is no nicer nor nastier than should be expected for the time of year. In many ways the evening is not noteworthy at all.

“Are you mad?” he asks.

Ffion laughs. That is a great question. She certainly isn’t mad, so she should say no. But wouldn’t a mad person, by definition also say no, since if they said yes they would have a sane insight into their condition which would negate a diagnosis of madness. For a moment Ffion considers the possible double negatives in this thought process before deciding that the logical conclusion of her argument must be that only a mad person would deny their madness.

“Yes,” she replies thus demonstrating not only that she isn’t mad but also that she has a keen sense of irony, which would be nice to have.

The feet back away. Nice shoes, sky blue, canvas baseball boots, not too shoddy, not too new. The cat’s nose appears at the opening in the box.

“That your cat?”

“No,” Ffion replies. Strictly speaking she should add that she has borrowed it, but she can see how that might be misconstrued in these circumstances, particularly as the man’s voice has a certain calmness about it, an authority.
“I am looking after it,” she decides to add to explain its presence.

“I’m thinking that you might have taken a tumble,” the man says. “Knocked into that ladder there, or perhaps the cat wriggled in its box and sent you off balance and you fell.”

“Oh, no,” Ffion says. “That didn’t happen.”

“A rather unlikely set of occurrences, I agree,” the man says.

He pokes his toe at the cat box, shifting it slightly. Then he says:

“When I see a cat in a box,” he pauses; perhaps she will look up at him, take a peek, “I always think of …,” he stops.

“Of what?” Ffion asks, her throat unusually tight, her heart rather more active than necessary for her current inactive state, as she hopes that that the word Schrodinger might be voiced.

“Forget it. You’re all right?”

“Yo, look at me. What could be wrong?”

Schrodinger’s cat. Why hadn’t Ffion revisited that whole excellent thought experiment as she lay here? She will give it some consideration now. A cat sealed in a box with a diabolical mechanism made up of a small amount of a radioactive substance and a phial of poison. If the radioactive substance decays, the phial shatters and the cat is killed. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory implies that after a while the cat in the box is simultaneously both alive and dead. Mad. Brilliant. The reductio ad absurdum of quantum physics. Ffion could happily spend quite a bit of time discussing that with the right person.

The feet step away, swish, swish.

Sod it. She has completed her task. She sits up, her back stiff from the stone pavement.

“Hey,” she calls. “Thanks for stopping.”

The man raises his hand, opens the car door. Then without getting in shuts it again and walks back towards her.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“Experimenting.”

He looks at the cat and the ladder.

“On what?”

Now Ffion has been asked the question, she wonders why she is doing this? An empty evening, an irritation with Celeste the Psychic and an unsettling urge for some magic in her life don’t seem very compelling reasons any longer. Sod it; he has asked.

“Friday the thirteenth,” she explains. “Walking under a ladder, touching the cracks in the pavement, being out against an astrologer’s advice, a black cat. I just wanted to prove that superstitions are bollocks.”

The man stands for a while.

“So, what is your hypothesis?” he asks.

Her hypothesis? Even thinking about voicing it feels stupid.

“You really want to know?”

The man flicks his hands as if to indicate that she doesn’t know what she is talking about.

“OK,” Ffion says, “I’ll tell you what my hypothesis is. To prove that being superstitious is ridiculous, I set the hypothesis of ‘If I breach at least five superstitions then I will meet the man of my dreams’.”

Why she had set meeting the man of her dreams as her experimental outcome, Ffion isn’t sure. Men had never been much of a feature in Ffion’s life, not even in her dreams. Not because of any particular aversion on her part, simply that it appears that her rigorously analytical approach to life isn’t something that the men she meets find attractive in a woman.

“Stupid, hey?” she adds.

“Yeah, really stupid,” the man says. “Unscientific too.”

The cat mews again. Ffion probably shouldn’t have picked a strange cat off the street and put it in a box.

“It lacks a quantitatively measurable outcome and as such is un-provable,” he says.

“I know,” Ffion stands up, rather stiffer than she had expected, and folds the step ladder.
She had pondered over defining the man of her dreams in absolute terms: a degree might be one thing on the list, but how much did that really matter; and then certain measurable criteria for the way he looked, height, eye colour and so forth. Someone who would talk and listen to her, perhaps, but that lacked the specificity of duration and amount of verbal interaction. So she had abandoned all that and decided that should such a situation arise, she would set her measurables based on whatever experience came her way.

“Still, eh,” she adds.

She lifts the step ladder onto her shoulder.

“What about the cat?” the man asks.

“I guess we can let it go now,” Ffion says.

The man bends down.

“But,” he says before lifting the lid, “when I open it, will the cat be dead or alive?”

It is now that Ffion decides that canvas shoes will have to be included in her list of measurables for the man of her dreams. Yes, sky blue canvas baseball boots; those are certainly a good start.[/private]