Chasing the aurora borealis.
It was nearly Christmas, and two in the morning, or thereabouts; it was difficult to tell these days when light barely broke the horizon and most of life was lived in the darkness. Nathan arrived in the central square, where icy wind whistled down the gaps between houses, where harsh electric lights strung between the low buildings seemed only to make the darkness beyond seem thicker. The smell of snow got into his mouth and made him sick; it was between his teeth and under his tongue and no matter how much mulled wine he drank or reindeer he ate it still returned.
The square was empty now, gone were the merry tourist parties of dogs and men, the jolly women selling hot drinks. All that was left were the tracks where they had been, impacted snow that froze over, creating traps for the unwary. Nathan had slipped several times in the first few weeks of his stay, and had treated it like falling over ice skating: at first shocking and painful, but just part of the enjoyment of the thing. Get back up and start again. These days his shoes had better grip, but as he walked he still avoided the dark patches of ice.
Today he had a total antipathy to everything and everyone around him. This was a feeling most often felt on the N29 back from whichever club his friends had dragged him out to that night, when it was raining and the bus stank of vomit and stale bodies, and the windows were soaking wet on the inside. He hadn’t expected to feel this way in the frozen North. All that was good and healthy and even polite in him had been rubbed out by a bitterness and anger that was all consuming. He had got to the stage in his mood where he was quite enjoying it.
He got to the door of the bar and stood outside for a moment. There would still be people there at this time, probably, but he wasn’t sure he wanted company. The wooden door of the building seemed to mock him, it looked just as it was supposed to, as he had imagined it in London. He pushed it open, and a wave of warm air greeted him, the smell of dried meat and open fires and stale beer. A few heads turned as he walked in, and Klaus waved from a table near the back. Nathan went straight to the bar and bought a shot of the local spirit he had trained himself to drink without throwing up.
He made his way over to Klaus’s table. Klaus was sitting, as was his wont, surrounded by young backpackers, lured by childhood tales of Father Christmas, reindeers and the very real but much more objectionable Christmas market. For weeks they had been traipsing through the town, complaining about the food, the price of alcohol, the dark. Nathan knew himself to be extremely superior to them. He greeted the table and was introduced to a host of identikit faces.
‘This is my good friend, Nathan. Nathan moved here three months ago to see the Northern Lights, but the Northern Lights didn’t want to see Nathan! He hasn’t seen them yet!’ Klaus laughed delightedly, showing his yellowing teeth. ‘It’s been an unprecedentedly quiet time for them’ A woman who had been introduced as Alice or possibly Kirsty, looked alarmed and asked ‘Really? I thought it was pretty much a given at this time of year?’
Nathan admired her certainty. Even when he had left for Norway all those months ago he had nurtured secret doubts about whether he would ever get to see them.
‘What do you mean, you’re going to Norway?’ Julia had said. Nathan had just put the plastic bag, heavy with tarka dahl and garlic naan down on the table, moving a dirty plate to make room for it. He was looking away from her.
‘I’m going to Norway. Tromsø, in fact’. He had picked the place because of the crossed ‘o’, he loved it, it marked out all that he wanted from the country.
‘What or where the hell is that?’
‘It’s on an island in the Northern part of Norway. I can show you on a map if you’d like.’
‘Um, ok. And can I ask why exactly?’
‘Isn’t it obvious? It’s time for a change of scene.’ Nathan had moved to the sink and extracted two reasonably clean looking plates from the drying rack.
‘but…are you insane? For how long?’
‘Why would you think it’s insane to move to Norway for six months?’ he said, offering her one of the plates.
‘Six months?!’ she took it but hardly seemed to notice she was holding it. ‘it’s like you’re not even hearing yourself’
‘Yeah, didn’t I say? It’ll be fine, I’ve got a little bit of money saved up, and it’ll be great, a real encounter with what matters, none of this nonsense about cities and Twitter and fucking can-I-put-this-fucking-meeting-in-your-diary. I feel better already.’
Julia turned to look at him, eyes wide. ’Please tell me you haven’t quit your job.’
‘Er, well, I could but that would be a lie.’
‘You have got to be joking.’
‘Why shouldn’t I have an adventure? You did it, why shouldn’t I? I’ve been working since I left uni and I’m so unbelievably sick of it.’
‘Maybe because we’re in a relationship, and maybe you should talk these things through with your girlfriend before you do them? Maybe because you’re twenty fucking seven and should have grown up by now. Maybe because I went travelling when I was 20 and then bloody got over it?’
Her escalation in volume had taken him by surprise. ’Fuck you,’ he said.
‘No fuck you, Nathan! Do you understand, apart from anything else, this is it for us? Don’t expect me to be hanging around when you deign to come back. Jesus, everyone said you were a shit but I stuck around, what a joke.’
‘Julia, please calm down. Can’t you see this has nothing to do with you? I’m perfectly happy in this relationship. It’s just something I have to do.’
‘What on earth are you going to do for six months in a small town in Norway?’
‘I don’t know, write a novel? Read all those books you bought me for Christmas? Meditate? I guess see the Northern Lights,’ this was said with an affected disinterest, as this was, of course, the real purpose of his visit. He felt that seeing this, nature at its most beautiful and strange, would somehow fix a fundamental flaw in himself.
‘Meditate! Christ.’ It was typical of Julia to latch onto the stupidest thing he had said.
‘Can’t we just eat and forget this ever happened?’
‘Not really, given that you’re moving to Norway. It won’t be like the pictures, you know, and then what? You’ll be unemployed and homeless with fucking frostbite.’
‘Can’t you see the romance in it?’ Nathan asked, ‘the frozen tundra, the dogs running away into the distance, the fear of a polar bear striking at any moment? I dunno, I just feel like, if I saw those lights, everything will, you know, fit into place. And then I’ll be able to settle down, and figure things out. Don’t you think?’
‘I think you’re an idiot.’ Julia said, and plunged her spoon into the dahl in disgust.
Julia had not been alone in her estimation of the situation. Nathan’s friends were appalled. Some even went so far as to suggest that Nathan was doing this as a sort of imperialistic tourism, expecting to see igloos and people in fur coats. Nathan wasn’t an idiot; he knew that there was Twitter and email in Norway as well as in old soiled London. But the promise of the white snow purity had entered his soul, and he could not be dissuaded.
He downloaded language learning apps on his phone and worked out his notice at his job going through the exercises on his commute, although nothing really seemed to stick in his head. He assumed that it would all come tumbling out of his mouth when he got there, and refused to worry too much. He changed his screensaver at work to the first stock image he could find of a frozen wasteland, and crossed off each day in his mental calendar.
Julia moved all of her things out of his flat one night when he was having leaving drinks with his colleagues. He wasn’t surprised, although a little sad when he called her,
‘Darling, I’m sorry, but I have to go.’
‘You’re an idiot, Nathan, and when you come back I hope you’ll have finally figured that out.’
‘I’ll call you when I get back.’
‘But why are you going?’ the Norwegian girl sat next to him on the plane had asked him. Nathan thought gloomily that he should have a good answer to this question by now.
‘Well, I guess because I’m tired of the sordid business of life. I’m tired of waking up every morning and looking forward to going to bed at night. I want to have an adventure,’ he said, flipping the fastening of his seatbelt up and down.
‘Ah yes, of course, I know what you mean.’ She nodded, satisfied, ’But Norway seems like a strange place to look for it. I would have an adventure in London. London is the greatest city! I had adventures there, like staying out all night dancing and having such funny conversations with strange people in your pubs. Everyone was so friendly, in London. It wasn’t at all like I thought it would be.’
That had sounded terrible, but Nathan showed polite interest, ‘Yes, exactly, so you know what I mean. Adventure.’ And, he added to himself, snow and ice and not understanding labels in supermarkets and something secret, something magical, about the north. It was a place where the urban sprawl had not quite won out against nature. ’Maybe I’ll even see the Northern Lights.’
‘Oh yes, probably. You can see them everywhere at this time of year.’
The plane began to descend and the conversation subsided. Nathan looked out of the window at what he assumed was his first sight of Norway. It was underwhelming, the grey monotony broken up every now and again with a pool of shining water in which sulky clouds examined themselves.
Nathan lost sight of his companion at the baggage claim, with a feeling of relief. He wanted to really experience the moment of arrival, of disconnection, and having to make awkward conversation marred it.
His phone beeped. ‘Welcome to Norway! Texts and calls will be charged at your standard network rate.’
He arrived eventually in the central square of the town, where all the action took place. It was low-rise, unassuming, with small buildings made of stacked wood, chimneys blaring with smoke, and the sound of bells and busy shouting in the air. The snow creaked underfoot, freshly fallen; it lay on top of the week’s work, the grimy cart-tracks, like a blessing. Close by, a man tightened the reigns on a sleigh, whispering to the dogs as he went. It was exactly what he had longed for, and he could feel the grit left on his soul by London being scrubbed away.
He could taste the cold, dry air, it filled his mouth and nose and left him feeling rather breathless.
An expedition was setting off on the far side of the square, and the dogs were barking in excitement. Through the stiff air, it looked like a scene from some long-distant time, an expedition off to hunt a narwhal, or to dig a hole in the ice and fish out a sleeping seal, strip it of its thick wet blubber and cook it on a fire made on top of the thick ice. The sleigh bells were jangling, and the men, for they were all men, seemed to stand tiptoe in their haste to be off on the hunt, their dogs and themselves straining to stay in place, when they longed to be off, racing over the frozen wasteland towards some mythical foe.
Nathan headed for a bar in the square, it was the first port of call for people returning from their trips out of the town, and as such would provide a good vantage point for witnessing the true life of Tromsø. It had sounded very authentic in the guidebook.
He ordered a beer in halting Norwegian from the girl behind the bar. She smiled and said in perfect, accent-less English, ‘No problem, that’ll be 58 krone.’
This was an experience he became very used to in the coming months: even as his Norwegian improved slightly and his appearance weathered to be less offensively English, the people of Tromsø still recognised his foreignness on sight.
This first time though, it took him aback. He mumbled a thank you and took the beer, a brand familiar from home. He sat down at a table near the door, eager to observe. It was relatively empty, and in the air was the smell of day old stew and the sourness of the toilets. A door swung to and fro and he could see a chef in whites wiping down a stainless steel counter. He would occasionally call out to the barmaid, who steadfastly ignored him. Nathan fiddled with the beer mat, peeling it off the sticky tabletop, spinning it around on its corner.
The other clientele consisted of two hulking men sat at the bar who lifted their heads routinely when the door opened but otherwise limited themselves to a conversation conducted entirely in grunts, and three or four women taking a break from work for a swift drink and a sit down; Nathan considered their group warily and dismissed them as friend potential. Otherwise, the bar was deserted, and Nathan was disappointed. He eyed the barmaid, she was attractive enough, but he felt a strong disinclination to engage in acts of objectification. He felt like that sort of behaviour was out of place in Norway.
‘Dude, hello,’ Nathan looked up from contemplating his hands, and didn’t much like what he saw. A man in a very tatty fur coat had appeared from nowhere, and was holding out his hand to be shaken. ‘I’m Klaus. What’s your name?’
Nathan shook the proffered hand gingerly and, after much prompting, told Klaus his name, age, how long he had been here and the name of his street in London.
‘Ah yes, I know it well, I know it well,’ Klaus said in response to the last.
Nathan was extremely unconvinced that this Norwegian man who had by all appearances never been out of Tromsø knew his back street in North London well, but he smiled and nodded just the same ‘Have you been in London often?’
‘Very often, Nathan, very often. I know it like the back of my hand.’
‘You certainly speak very good English’
‘Well, in Sweden, if you don’t speak good English everyone thinks you are stupid,’ Klaus said, and, noticing the look of surprise that Nathan swiftly wiped from his face, added ‘You didn’t think I came from this dump, did you? No, I am from Stockholm! It’s a beautiful city, full of beautiful women, not like this shithole.’
‘Oh, right. Then what are you doing here?’
Klaus waved his hand airily and offered to buy Nathan a drink.
It was some hours later that Nathan found himself talking to a blonde woman at a house party in the outskirts of Tromsø. It was a well attended house party, full of young people, and Nathan was forced to acknowledge that Klaus had his uses. He was explaining, in English, with a fair degree of coherence given his drunkenness, that his Norwegian was very bad, but that it definitely wasn’t his fault.
‘It’s terrible how in England no-one speaks any other languages, I really, I’m ashamed of my country when I go abroad,’ Nathan said, hoping his self-deprecation would show her how he was different from the other tourists who came here.
She did not look impressed. ‘The problem is that you don’t try.’
He nodded, attempting to make it look like a nod that dismissed all the disadvantages of his countrymen and pointed out how well he was doing with his broken words of Norwegian. She continued to look unimpressed.
‘How long are you here for?’ she asked, politely. Her English was perfect, except for a slight inability to say ‘ex’ which came out as ‘eks.’
‘I don’t know. Maybe permanently.’ She raised her eyebrows. At last he had said something surprising.
‘People keep asking me that. Because life at home is tedious, uninspiring.’
‘What do you want to be inspired for? I mean, for what do you need inspiration?’
‘I don’t know…but surely, life is nothing without some inspiration?’
She looked confused, as if he’d said something mad. ‘But, that doesn’t make sense. Inspiration is for something, surely. Are you a writer?’
‘No, no, nothing like that.’
‘Oh,’ The conversation seemed to draw to a halt and both Nathan and the girl looked at the floor. After a short silence, she smiled and waved her empty glass, excusing herself. Was she right, did inspiration have to be for something? Probably this girl had never wanted anything other than what she already had, probably she was entirely satisfied with the town she had been born in, and that was why she couldn’t understand him. Really, he was wasted on these people, Nathan thought.
He was left standing alone in the too-bright room, and looked around for a place to sit down. He immediately tripped over the door frame, which was, as in all the Norwegian houses he had seen thus far, raised. Recovering himself with little grace, he opted for a casual lean against the nearest wall, and swallowed stale tasting beer from the can he was holding. There was a sofa full of amorous couples, giggling through wet kisses. He had never felt so free of emotional attachment, he had gone beyond where such things were necessary. He would be an ascetic, living like a monk and experiencing only the pure and the natural.
He hadn’t seen Klaus for some time, but this wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, he reflected, it might not be a bad thing if he never saw Klaus again. Tomorrow, he decided, he would go and see the Aurora.
The months had passed like this, with Nathan’s enthusiasm for Norway gradually fading. He had actually been on several tours, to no avail, and yet the town was full of enthusiastic Northern Lights-seers, heads close together as they gushed over the tiny pictures on their camera phones. However, he was loath to tell this chirpy and attractive backpacker girl about his tantrums and his disappointment.
‘We’ve got a tour booked through our hostel tomorrow! They said it’s almost definite,’ she said
‘That’s what they said to me when I first came,’ Nathan said darkly, in a tone meant to imply extreme depth of experience. Alice or Kirsty did not seem impressed. A boy leaned over from the other side of the table and said, ‘Do you reckon we’ll get our money back if it doesn’t show up?’
‘If so, I’d be a much richer man than I am now,’ Nathan said with a hollow laugh, though many tours did offer money back guarantees. But his mood was improving with the prospect of these people’s disappointment, and their London accents and dress had reminded him pleasantly of home.
‘Listen, to make up for your probably wasted trip, why don’t I buy you some akvavit?’ he said, and instantly regretted it. They all agreed, however, and Nathan found himself involved a toxic round of drinks with what seemed to be more and more backpackers. Pretty soon the room was gently spinning and he noticed with a surprised burst of pleasure that Alice or Kirsty’s hand was on his leg.
‘I think it’s so brave what you’ve done, Nathan,’ she said, ‘giving up everything and moving here in pursuit of something indefinable, it’s so grand. It’s like what the Romantic poets might have done, if there’d been, you know, planes and stuff’
Nathan was pleasantly surprised that she seemed more intelligent than he’d assumed. Most backpackers that passed through here hadn’t even heard of the Romantic poets, let alone understood how much he had in common with them.
‘You should come with us, tomorrow. I bet we’ll see them. I’m a bit of a lucky charm, you know.’
Nathan smiled at her, ‘I bet you are.’
Some time later, he found himself back at his guesthouse, Alice or Kirsty in tow. They had stopped several times to kiss on cold corners until the weather had prevented them waiting any longer. Nathan reflected that his sojourn in Norway had, at least, definitely made him more attractive to women.
Nathan woke up some hours later with the sinking feeling he had been asleep for far too long. It was impossible to tell what time it was in the endless darkness, but he felt groggy and ill in a way only excess sleep can make you feel. There was no-one lying next to him, and the bed was cold, Kirsty or Alice must have woken up much earlier. He supposed that he had missed the trip to see the Lights, but didn’t much care as he was sure they wouldn’t have seen them. He didn’t much want to see her again.
Nathan got up out of bed and looked groggily around him. He was naked, but the efficient Norwegian heating system protected him from the ever-present cold. He peered out of the window, to see that it had snowed, again, and swore. Crossing the bedroom to get to the ensuite, he tripped over the door ridge, the previous night’s alcohol blunting his flesh memory that usually kicked in and made him remember to step over it. He swore again. He found his mobile on the rim of the sink, where he must have left it the previous night.
Before looking at it, Nathan splashed his face with water, and, feeling slightly better, rubbed the excess off with a towel. He was annoyed to receive a text from who he now saw was definitely Kirsty. She must have put her number into his phone herself. Annoyed firstly because he hadn’t remembered giving her his number in the first place, but more so to read her message: ‘We saw the lights! It was amaze. Sorry you missed it. Maybe see you around in the next few days?’
‘You see, Klaus, the thing is, the fucking thing is, that it turns out you can’t escape your demons, you just can’t. You take yourself with you, Klaus, and you are the problem, wherever you go and whoever you pretend to be, the one person you can’t break up with or move to a different country to avoid is yourself. Jesus. I wish I had realised this earlier,’ Nathan sat down heavily, and put his head in his hands.
‘Nathan, it’s as I’ve always said to you. You had a perfectly good life with a perfectly good girlfriend and house and you lived in London, the capital city of the world! You complain too much.’
‘When have you ever said that to me?’
‘Always, Nathan my friend! Perhaps not out loud, but it was so obvious I didn’t think it was necessary’
‘You’re probably right’ Nathan said. ‘So then, what should I do?’ He took a moment to register that he was, actually genuinely, asking this overweight dreadlocked Swede for advice.
‘Go home! Come back to us on your honeymoon and then the lights will come out for you. Probably.’
‘But marriage is a bourgeois construct designed to entrap us in an impossible vision of monogamy,’ Nathan said, half-heartedly.
‘Yeah, whatever, man. But you get so much more sex than when you’re single.’
Nathan conceded that this was indeed the case. He was tired, and wanted an overcast mild spring day more than he had ever imagined he could want one. Daffodils! And daylight! He absentmindedly scrolled through Facebook on his phone, past photos of nights out and strangers’ babies, feeling further away than ever. He checked Julia’s Facebook page, she grinned out at him from cafes and outside landmarks – she had been to Paris recently.
‘Alright, you know, you’re right.’
‘What?’ Klaus had long stopped expecting conversation, had been intently studying the table for several minutes.
‘I should go home, I should get back together with Julia, if she’ll have me, and stop fucking around. It’s a cosmic joke, this lights thing, and the only way to fix it is to stop trying.’
‘Well, I’ll drink to that!’
When they stumbled out of the bar that night, after celebrating Nathan’s imminent departure with several rounds of aquavit, Nathan had begun to even feel a little sad about never seeing Klaus again. He had proved himself to be a real friend, of sorts.
It was dark, of course, but the lights of the square twinkled a little more friendly. Klaus was mumbling to himself; he became increasingly incoherent when they had reached this level of drunkenness.
But then Nathan saw it, it was happening. The sky above them hung with cold ribbons of light, dancing to themselves as if lost in a music of their own making. He looked, and looked, and told himself off for not looking enough. Klaus tried to take a photograph on his phone, and swore because his phone camera didn’t work well in low light.
‘Shut up!’ Nathan hissed furiously, trying to concentrate on the green and purple light show happening above. All was still, and quiet, and Klaus subsided into quiet too, gazing upwards. For a moment Nathan felt a glimmer of what he had hoped to feel, the sense that the immensity of nature, scary as it was, could actually make everything ok. That you could lose yourself in it.
Eventually the intensity lapsed and Nathan became acutely aware of the pain in his neck and freezing feet.
‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ Klaus said ‘I never thought you’d see them, tonight of all nights. What are you gonna do now?’
‘Oh would you just be quiet? said Nathan, gingerly massaging his neck. Klaus, unperturbed, headed off, merrily calling his goodbyes down the street. Time to go home, thought Nathan, and turned off the main street back to his guest house, under the still flaring lights.