Our own archipelago
Two days since midsummer passed. We partied all night on summer cottage decking and drank strong beer with a bear’s face snarling at us from the tin. We sweated it all out in a sauna that smelled of birch. When the heat crescendoed, we dived into the chilly sea, blood racing and hearts pumping. Repeated the process until we collapsed on sofas and futons and floors, our skins pink and new, the sun never truly dipping below the horizon. At best it was a purple crimson glow around 4am, a clean comedown light. After our conversations were put to bed, the only noise was the splash of mating grebes out on the water and the tremolos of passing oystercatchers.
The morning after, Edla and I said goodbye and left for the archipelago.
“I can’t really talk right now, Elliott. I’m on holiday, you know that. I came to get away from all this for a while.”
“He’s bad and getting worse. I think we need to talk about care. A home or something.”
“Can we speak when I get back?”
“Okay. I’m just worried, you know?”
My brother hangs up and I pinch the bridge of my nose.
I’m standing on the rocks, looking out over the waves in a borrowed fleece that smells of winter storage and old tobacco. The wellingtons Edla has lent me are a lurid crimson with floral patterning, child’s boots from her summer holidays here long ago; boots that barely fit, the rubber biting hard into my flesh. I wiggle the toes of my right foot to fight off pins and needles, stamp down on hard stone to keep the blood flowing. Clear water is breaking on a pebbly shore.
It’s wet here; the rain, of course, but there’s an all-pervading dampness in the air I breathe. It lays trapped in the bulbous mosses and silent sphagnum that carpet the island. Everything is lush and green and damp. I can hear the creaking of wood. My own breathing is too loud in this place. I hear a tiny splash, like a coin dropped in an ornamental pond. An arctic tern, snow-white and jet-black with a blood-red bill, climbs into the air, two small fish hanging from its beak.
I search in the pocket of my borrowed fleece and dig out my phone. The one bar of reception hesitates. I promised myself I wouldn’t use it, but the situation, well, it’s hard to switch off from the world. I look at the last text from Elliott, all lists of instructions and what-ifs and what-to-dos about dad. I watch the tern dive again, picturing the word ‘orphan’ emblazoned in neon letters on a giant billboard.
I put the phone back in my pocket, the text unanswered. I have the awful knowledge that this scenario, it’s nothing new, is happening to a thousand other families right now, has happened a thousand times before and will continue to happen for as long as there is sun in the sky. As long as people celebrate solstice and midsummer, shit like this will be happening. I can’t decide if that makes it all better or indescribably worse. It’s absurd, unfair, selfish, but my dilemma is just another cliché.
Over there, somewhere, is Sweden. I squint and try and make out a landmass but can’t tell if what I see is simply wishful thinking, another island of the archipelago.
We rowed to the island this morning, my arms aching and a hand punctured with splinters. In the city I have no opportunity to do things like this. I look admiringly at the angry blister forming on the inside of my right thumb. It’ll leave a scar, and I’m glad. It’s the mark of something having happened. You could see scars as a sign of trauma; or a record of having lived and survived. My city hands are only good for thumbing messages on my phone and obligingly clicking a mouse at work. I will look at this scar in the future and think: I was there, and I did that.
Edla drove the sixty or so miles from the rented summerhouse where we’d partied with our friends. An hour and a half of torrential rain, the road signs bleeding from Finnish into Swedish. The Swedish words easier to comprehend for an English speaker, the Finnish ones stuffed with ‘k’s and as long as your arm.
On the drive we stopped for petrol. Standing on the roadside verge were badly made statues of grinning goblins and an inquisitive moose with a distended nose, made from lacquered papier-mâché.
The arctic terns glide through the air. I think of the solstice celebrations back home that I always wanted to be a part of but never was. Dad always liked that stuff, visited those kind of places with Elliott. I was mum’s girl, never interested. Or was I told girls should not be interested in such things? Now I’m keen to do this stuff and he’s no longer there, not really. It’s hard to see him slipping away. When the mind gets carpet-bombed by dementia, where does the self go?
I’ve never seen the sun set at Stonehenge, or sat surrounded by the stones at Avebury. It seems so much easier to take part in someone else’s customs, to be the tourist. This, I promise myself, has to change. I throw a mottled grey pebble into the water and listen to its splash. I head back to the cabin.
Inside, the fire crackles and pops, eating up splintery logs and bits of balled-up newspaper printed with out- of -date headlines. I sip the whisky Edla hands me and pull the wellingtons off my feet. Warmth pools in my stomach. I stare out of the window at the clear sea, the light dimming slightly, though darkness here is an impossibility.
After a while, the fire begins to wane. I volunteer to head to the wobbly woodpile in a mildewed and dusty shed, set away from the summerhouse. A rusted hoe and a recently-used garden fork stand propped against one wall. I fill up a wicker basket with chopped logs whose bark flakes off in dusty spurts and walk slowly through the wetness back to the cabin. A carved greeting hangs by the door, a mallard stamped with the word Valkommen!.
Edla pours more drink as I place logs on the fire. She’s spread out dark rye bread and a kind of pickle spread you squeeze from a tube like toothpaste, some pickled herring and local smoked salmon, the colour of St Pancras station. The taste is unbelievable. The fire, the whisky and the quiet; this is the kind of place where you’re supposed to unburden yourself to a trusted confidant. So I talk a little about dad, about one of his confused angry flare-ups, the smashed wine glass, the small shards and the dotted beads of bright red on my calf like a gory archipelago. His jumbled apologies and my faith in him retreats like the outgoing tide. I knew it wasn’t his fault, exactly.
It’s hard to vocalise these things, but the words flesh out the situation, putting meat on its bones. Talking to Edla it becomes this living, breathing thing that can’t be ignored.
“He needs proper care,” she says quietly. I place a slice of salmon in my mouth and chew, thinking.
Edla drains her glass, changes the subject by tapping the window and gestures outside.
“Tove Jansson lived on an island near here.”
I nod but she can see I don’t know what she means.
And I giggle like a kid, choking on my whisky, picturing dumpy hippo-things somewhere out there on the archipelago.
It’s odd to be sitting here, in the childhood retreat of my best friend. We met at university in Brighton, a long time ago now, a different life spent punching the air at left-wing gigs and smoking Golden Virginia by a windy shore. I miss the English Channel and the burnt skeleton of the West Pier. We went our separate ways, but even when I haven’t seen her for half a year it feels as if no time has passed. And these days we have our instant messaging, the free video calls. Nowhere to hide, now.
Our conversations are never a struggle, silences never awkward. As I grow older, I realise that finding someone who really understands what you’re talking about is a rarity. It’s something to hold on to. I never had it with mum, Elliott, or dad.
Edla’s face is flushed with fire and alcohol. ‘The island over there,’ she says, pointing out of the window toward one of the neighbouring islands, ‘once my grandparents were here for summer with the family. They did it every summer. One evening they were just sitting down to dinner, and they saw these things come out of the forest. Moose. A family of moose who needed to get from one island to the other, they’d got stranded somehow. My grandpa would always tell that story of the family of moose swimming from one island to the other. They don’t like to swim normally. It feels like I saw it myself.’
I think of huge papier-mâché beasts falling apart in the water. Before I can reply, a mobile starts buzzing. I listen to Edla speak in rapid-fire Swedish to her grandmother, letting her know that we made it to the island OK, that we have enough logs on the fire and that we’re eating well. Edla’s grandmother is 87 and has lived in the area all her life. She heard the rumble of Russian guns during World War Two and her husband died long ago. She speaks no word of Finnish and yet here we are, in Finland. I try to imagine what dad would think of those animals crossing the archipelago and the muffled boom of a war too close for comfort.
I’ve let the battery run down on my mobile.
“When I was a little child,” says Edla, handing me a thermos, “I was sitting right here on these rocks like we are now.” I sip hot coffee and look at the distant islands. “I was maybe six. So this is in the eighties of course. And I see something come up out of the water and I run in to tell grandma and grandpa that I’ve seen a whale! And grandma she scolds and says, “Silly Edla there are no whales here”, and I say, “ no, but grandma come look, look!”And she looks, and she sees what I saw but it was not a whale. You know what it was?”
“A Russian submarine. Cold War. It shouldn’t have been there and there it was.”
I picture a rusted sub rising by the burnt Brighton pier.
I say, “At Midsummer, I was sitting next to Tuomas out on the pier and he was just scribbling in a notebook. I asked him what he was writing and he said, with not a hint of humour, “I try and write down my dreams. I had a dream I was the only one left alive on an island and the invading army were coming and I knew I was going to die. The army, I knew, were the Russians””.
“A very Finnish nightmare!” laughs Edla.
I don’t tell her about the boozy sauna kiss, his smile as I poured water onto hot coals and the smell of birch heavy in the air. I felt so British and uptight there, trying not to look at the Scandinavian girls or Tuomas’s genitals as he jumped into cold water.
It’s as dark as it’s going to get and the sky is a bruised plum colour. I’ve hauled on my wellingtons to head to the outhouse. Dad always enjoyed the outdoor life; mum was mortified at the thought of pissing in anything that she couldn’t flush. I walk down the rough path, careful not to slip on the moss. By the outhouse, in the undergrowth, I hear a rustling and see the shuffle of some furry animal disrupting the peace. It waddles out in front of me. It looks like a raccoon, marbled dark brown and creamy white fur, and reminds me of a giant stocky pine marten. It snuffles around for a bit like the hedgehogs used to do back home in mum’s garden, before the illness took her. It disappears off into the purple haze. Does it live here, or swim between the islands?
I am not sure what I have seen.
“Look, Elliott, I don’t know, I really don’t.” Finally I’ve buckled, recharged the phone and am taking one of my brother’s calls. I’m in the kitchen. His voice is crackly and breaking up.
“What am I supposed to do? I can’t just up and leave my job, leave London. He needs proper help. We’re not qualified.” Though, as I say it, the thought of leaving the city through circumstance rather than choice has a real appeal.
“I know, I know,” he says. He sounds tired. I can hear Edla laying the table in the other room and humming some Swedish song tunelessly to herself. She said to me the other night, “The best way to guess what someone’s going to do is look at what they’ve already done.” I examine a chipped mug with Papa Moomin staring back at me.
I say, “Look, I just don’t know. Talk when I’m back. I’ll come down and see you both. Okay?”
Hanging on a hook in the kitchen is some old tourist tea towel. London’s Open Spaces – cartoonish illustrations of Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens and Leicester Square. My gut churns at the thought of returning.
Edla’s family own half of the island. Another family uses the eastern half for their own gatherings. After we’ve eaten, we head out for a walk around the circumference. The other family is absent so it’s just the two of us. This tiny island in this deserted archipelago feels like a country in miniature. We clamber over the huge rocks at the shoreline, almost slipping on green-black seaweed. Fallen branches crack beneath our feet, as loud as gunshot in the silence, as we head through a patch of trees. I hear a scratching above me – a rust-coloured squirrel high up in the evergreens. Then the ground softens, becomes marshy, making me think fondly of the salt-marshes of the English coast where I grew up and where dad still lives. Finally we reach the other summerhouse. Signs of recent life are dotted about. The remains of a children’s party, a few lurid burst balloons lying limp on the lichen, silver streamers tied to twigs and fluttering in the wind.
Clearly the family spent their own midsummer celebration out here. Near the waterline, I find an offering left to appease something or someone, like a Christian cross spliced with the Green Man. It’s held in place with near-invisible wires that I stumble over as I approach.
Perhaps inspired by this melancholy scene, Edla says, “Two years ago, there was a murder near here. No crime ever happens so it was a big deal. Some lady, a biologist for the trees I think, she set up home here. One of the older men in the area, a lonely man, he fell in love with her but she did not love him back, and he shot her out in the woods. Very sad.”
I wonder why she’s telling me this.
It takes a good forty-five minutes to circle the island. I point out a nesting grebe obscured by yellow reeds. We pass a boat covered with a mildewed and mouldy tarp.
My phone is back in the cabin.
My arms ache pleasantly. I can feel the wooden oar chafe against my blister, now plastered over but still smarting. Edla hangs off the side of the boat, her camera slung low around her neck like a mid twentieth-century anthropologist. We edge away from our island, Edla snapping away at whatever takes her fancy. I focus on navigating past a clump of barely submerged rocks, the tips of green reeds brushing against my arms and face. The sky is a dull blue, the sun lurking behind sullen cloud.
An oversized gull watches us from a rocky outcrop. Further out on the water is a solitary swan with a banana-yellow beak, bobbing on the gentle waves. It’s different to the ones on the canals back home, but I don’t know the right name for it. ‘Swan’ suddenly doesn’t seem good enough.
I row for a long time. My shoulders throb and hot blood flows through me. Cold spray hits my face. I look at Edla, her buttoned up jacket the colour of white lichen. She’s attempting to photograph the unknowable swan but it’s too far away for her lens. The only sounds are the click of the camera, the slap of oars on water and the low sighing of the wind.
Slowly, as we head toward Yttergrund, the lighthouse comes into view, red and white like a lifebuoy. I lose rhythm as I stare at the isolated tower, one of my oars slapping the water like a useless withered limb. In this landscape, the lighthouse feels imposed, the centrepiece of some post-Soviet science fantasy.
Edla lowers her camera, squints at me, and speaks loudly over the wind, “The lighthouse is empty now. The lighthouse keeper, he was an alcoholic, a drunk, and he fell to his death one day, from the lighthouse, and since then out of respect, I think, no one uses the lighthouse. He has no wife, no family. I don’t think it is needed anyway. The lighthouse I mean.”
I begin to row again, keen now to get to this bigger island and its ghosts.
“Edla,” I ask, spray entering my mouth, “do you ever get orca around here?”
“I think not, no.” And she shakes her head solemnly. I’m disappointed, but her apologetic expression makes me laugh.
We reach our destination, hitting land and hauling the boat up onto the bank, tying wet rope around a tree, emptying the boat of water with a small plastic scoop. I look at a damp and mildewed information sign welcoming us to Yttergrund, with a green map of the island dotted with points of interest: a few wooden red cabins, a windmill, and the lighthouse oversized and majestic, stretching into the sky.
If our island is a country then this is a lonely continent. I stop to look at the illustrated sign by a WC building, see a smiling seal resembling a jolly fat man. Bees buzz from plant to plant and Edla keeps snapping away with the camera seemingly at random. The lighthouse remains a constant in our field of vision.
At the island’s other shore huge rocks lift out of the water and we clamber up, jump and shriek like schoolgirls over the gaps between, a tiny taste of daring.
Yellow-green algae grows in small rock-pools, almost fluorescent. Edla heads toward the water’s edge in search of more imagery. I sit down, pull out the small pair of binoculars I brought with me and spot two of the yellow-beaked swans floating like showboats on the open water. The buzzing motorboat is now nowhere to be seen. The sky is huge like the skies of the Thames estuary and I feel an odd sensation that’s some mix of nostalgia and homesickness, but for a place I’ve never been and things I’ve never experienced. I feel tiny and enjoyably insignificant.
On the rocks we eat our packed lunches, share a cigarette, have a nip of whisky from Edla’s hip flask. I ask Edla about the creature I saw by the outhouse.
“The raccoon dogs!” She claps her hands in glee. “The Russians bred them for fur for their armies. They escaped and went wild. I see them lots on the island. They are from China, originally, I think.”
Feral, not wild, I say to myself.
And then we reach the lighthouse. It’s punctured with austere black windows and the red-white metal panelling curves up high above the tree-line. Amongst the woods and the lichen, the smiling seals and brackish algae pools, it resembles an abandoned piece of alien technology, its use opaque. I remember a Russian sci-fi film I saw in my university days and try to picture the lighthouse keeper drunk and isolated, losing himself in this place. Perhaps sipping spirits by a fire, alone and with only yellow-billed swans for company. That final tumble. The impact of bone on earth. What happens to the self on impact? What do all these experiences add up to? I worry that, in the end, I’ll end up as just an anecdote, a story that someone tells to an inquisitive visitor long after I’ve lost control of my own story. I wonder what Tuomas is doing back at the summerhouse surrounded by the smell of birch.
It’s hard to think soon it will be only me and Elliott, alone in the world, only the two of us to make up that word ‘family’.
I pull my phone out, the one bar of reception looking firm. I text my brother: I’m sorry I’ve been like this. When I come back, we’re going to do what we have to do. We’ll get it sorted. It’s been hard to take in. I really do care.
I crane my neck and stare up at the lighthouse. You should see this, dad. You should see the rainbows rising vertical from far-off islands at five in the morning. Fill your lungs with this air and feel white lichen in your palm. See the Soviet subs rise like leviathans. I think you’d like it. You’d have been able to tell me what that swan was, about the raccoon-dogs, why in this part of the country they all speak Swedish. I’ll try and tell you all about it when I get home.
For a second I entertain a fantasy: me, mum, dad and Elliott, rowing from island to island in our own archipelago, laying out wreaths at midsummer, chopping wood for a fire that would never end, happy and with nowhere else to be. The four of us looking to the lighthouse for guidance. Huddling in our cabins against the winter storms and lashing rain, shelling crayfish in summer, watching moose swim from shore to shore. Then I let the thought go.