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Updated: 10/06/2013
 
Home > 66° North (Far North) Chapter One > 66° North (Far North) Chapter One
66 North   January 2009
Iceland was angry. As angry as it had ever been since the first Vikings stepped ashore in Reykjavík’s smoky bay one thousand years before.
        And Harpa, Harpa was angrier still.
        She stood with four thousand other Icelanders in the square outside the Parliament building shouting, chanting, banging. She had brought a saucepan and a lid, which she beat together. Others had all kinds of kitchen implements, as well as tambourines, drums, whistles, a trawler’s foghorn, anything that could make a noise. A tiny old lady next to her stood straight and defiant, banging her Zimmer frame against the ground, yelling, her eyes alight with fury.
        The din was chaotic. The earlier rhythm of the crowd had deteriorated into a cacophony of anger, disjointed chants of “Ólafur out!”, “Rotten Government!” and the simple “Resign!”. It was the middle of January and it was cold – there was a dusting of snow on the ground. Making noise kept Harpa warm. But the shouting and banging also gave vent to the anger and the hatred that had been boiling inside her for months, like volcanic steam spitting out into the cold air from the country’s geothermal depths.
        It was getting dark. The flares and the torches that many had brought with them glowed brighter in the failing light. Lights blazed inside the Parliament, a small building of blackened basalt.
        The people had gathered, just as they had gathered every Saturday for the previous seventeen weeks, to tell the politicians to do something about the mess that they had got Iceland into. Except this was a Tuesday, the first day of the Parliamentary session. The protests were becoming more insistent, the noise of the people was building up to a crescendo, the Prime Minister and the government had to resign and call elections. Ólafur Tómasson, the former Governor of the Central Bank and now Prime Minister, who had privatized the banks and then connived at them borrowing more, much more, than they could ever repay, he had to resign too.
This was the first time Harpa had been to one of these demonstrations. At first she hadn’t approved of them, thought violence and conflict was not the Icelandic way, that the demonstrators didn’t understand the complexities of the situation. But, along with thousands of other Icelanders, she had lost her job. She could do the sums, she knew that the debt that the Icelandic banks had run up would take the nation decades to pay off. Markús, her son, was only three. He would still be bailing them out when he was forty.
        It was wrong! It was so wrong.
        Ólafur Tómasson was to blame. The other politicians were to blame. The bankers were to blame. And Gabríel Örn was to blame.
        Of course she had played her own part. That had kept her away from the earlier demonstrations. But now as she banged and shouted, the guilt just added to her fury.
        Proceedings had started in an orderly way, with rousing speeches by a writer, a musician and an eight-year-old girl. Icelandic flags had been waved, protest banners fluttered, the atmosphere was more carnival than riot.
        But people were angry and getting angrier.
        The police in their black uniforms and helmets formed a line in front of the parliament building, ushering in the politicians through the mob. They carried batons, shields and red canisters of pepper spray. Some squared up to the crowd, broad and tall. Some bit their lips.
        Eggs and pots of skyr, Icelandic yoghurt, flew through the air. Protesters dressed in black, their faces covered in balaclavas or scarves, ran at the police line. The crowd surged. Some people, many people, shouted for the protesters to leave the police alone. Others cheered them on. The police lines buckled. Now it wasn’t just yoghurt being thrown, it was flagstones as well. A policewoman fell to the ground, blood running down her face.
        Whistles blew. The black uniforms raised their canisters and squirted pepper spray into the throng.
        The crowd recoiled. Harpa was sent reeling backwards and tripped over the man behind her. For a moment she thought she was going to be trampled. A boot crunched her leg. She lay on her back and raised the saucepan in an attempt to protect her face. Anger turned to fear.
        Powerful arms lifted her to her feet and pulled her back from the crowd.
        `Are you all right? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to knock you over.’
The man was lean and strong, with thick dark eyebrows and deep blue eyes. Harpa felt a jolt as she looked up at him. She couldn’t speak.
        `Here, let’s get back out of this.’
        She nodded and followed the man as he pushed back through the mob towards the edge of the square, where the crowd was more sparse. The hand on her arm was broad and calloused, a fisherman’s hand, her father’s hand.
        `Thank you,’ Harpa said, bending to rub her shin where the boot had dug into it.
        `Are you hurt?’ He smiled. A stiff, reserved smile, but betraying concern.
        `I’ll be OK.’
        A kid barged past them, spluttering as he ripped off his balaclava and rubbed his eyes. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen. Another protester tipped back the boy’s head and poured milk into his eyes to soothe them.
        `Idiot,’ Harpa said. `All this isn’t the police’s fault.’
        `Perhaps not,’ said the man. `But we need the politicians to take notice. Maybe this is what it will take.’
        `Bah, it’s pathetic!’ A deep voice rumbled from just behind them. Harpa and her rescuer turned to see a broad-shouldered middle-aged man with puffy eyes, a scrappy grey beard and ponytail frowning down on them. His stomach hung out over his jeans and he was wearing a broad-brimmed leather hat. Harpa thought she recognized him from somewhere, but she wasn’t sure.
        `What do you mean?’ said Harpa.
        `Icelanders are pathetic. This is the time for a real revolution. We can’t just sit around and talk politely about change and bang our pots and pans. The people need to take control. Now.’
        Harpa’s eyes widened as she listened. But with the fisherman next to her, her fear was diminishing and the anger reappearing. He was right, damn it. He was right.
        `Aren’t you Sindri?’ the fisherman asked. `Sindri Pálsson?’
        The man nodded.
        `I’ve read your book. The Death of Capital.’
        `And?’ The big man raised his eyebrows.
        `I thought it was a bit extreme. Now I am not so sure.’
        The big man laughed.
        Now Harpa knew where she had seen his face. He had been a punk rocker in the early eighties, a one-hit wonder and had re-emerged two decades later as an Icelandic anarchist writer.
        `My name is Björn,’ the fisherman said and held out his hand. Sindri shook it.
        `And you?’ he asked Harpa. She could smell alcohol on his breath and she recognized the look of interest in his eyes as he examined her. She might be an unemployed single mother in her late thirties, but men still liked what they saw, especially older men.
        `Harpa,’ she said, glancing quickly at the man named Björn as she did so. He smiled. God, he was attractive. There was something about him, or maybe it was just something about her, the afterglow of letting out all that anger.
        He was certainly more attractive than Gabríel Örn. Pity he was a fisherman. Rule one ever since she had been a teenager was don’t date fishermen.
        `Ólafur out!’ Sindri roared, punching a fist in the air.
        The big man was a magnificent sight, bellowing his lungs out, his ponytail bobbing.
        Harpa glanced at Björn. ` Ólafur out!’ she shouted.
        Night fell. The protest intensified. The older protesters left: the proportion of demonstrators with their hoods up and faces covered increased. The Christmas tree in the middle of the square toppled: in a moment it was on fire. Drums beat, people danced. Harpa and Björn stuck to Sindri, who moved through the throng chatting to all and sundry between bellows. Following him, Harpa felt part of the crowd, and her anger flared again.
        Finally, the police had had enough. `Gas! Gas!’ the crowd shouted.
A moment later something stung Harpa’s eyes. She bent over and Björn pulled her away. Something tickled her throat. They ran back out of the square, surrounded by hundreds of people, escaping before all but a particle or two of the gas reached their lungs. They lost Sindri for a moment, and then found him talking to a young man with his shirt off plunging his face into a bucket of water. The boy had spiky red hair and his torso glowed pink in the cold and the light of the flares. Sindri seemed to be congratulating him and slapping him on his back. The boy was shivering, but he was angry and the anger was keeping him warm.
        The crowd was dispersing, at least for the time being. Tear gas made the square uninhabitable.
        They were standing a couple of hundred metres away from the square, right next to the impressive statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, who was that first Viking settler to step ashore in Reykjavík’s smoky bay.
        `At least the gas doesn’t bother him,’ said Sindri. `If the country was still run by people like him they’d know exactly what to do with the bankers and the politicians.’
Harpa admired the statue’s strong muscles. `I wonder if he really looked like that,’ she said.
        `He always seemed a bit camp to me,’ said Sindri. `The way he’s leaning on his shield, sticking his hip out.’
        `Oh, no,’ said Harpa. `He’s all man.’
        `He was probably short and fat with a double chin,’ said Björn.
        The three of them laughed.
        `Come back to my place for a drink,’ Sindri said to Harpa and Björn. `It’s just around the corner.’ They exchanged glances: if you will, so will I.
        `OK,’ said Harpa. So they followed Sindri, together with the boy who was still bare chested, waving his shirt in the air in disgust.

`Another one, Harpa?’
        Harpa nodded as Sindri refilled her glass from the brandy bottle. Her head was pleasantly fuzzy, the alcohol adding to the chemicals released by her own body during the glorious turmoil of the demonstration. It was weeks since she had had a proper drink. She had always been suspicious of people who drank in the middle of the week, but this was no ordinary Tuesday.
        They were in Sindri’s small flat, the five of them: Sindri, Harpa, Björn, the red-haired boy and a short, neatly dressed man, young enough to be a student, who had latched on to them somewhere along the way. The boy’s name was Frikki, and the student’s Ísak.
        Sindri was enjoying himself, playing to the small crowd, and in particular playing to her. He had seated her next to him on a tatty sofa, Björn and Ísak the student sat on old armchairs facing them, and Frikki was slumped on the floor. The flat was a dump: small, cracked ceiling, scratched wooden floor, books, newspapers, magazines and ashtrays filled with cigarette stubs everywhere. There was washing-up in the sink in the alcove of the room that acted as a kitchen. The only things brightening up the place were three or four landscapes dotted around the walls, the biggest of which portrayed a farmer carrying an unconscious girl over the moors.
They had finished a bottle of red wine and were on to the brandy.
        Harpa played up to Sindri; she was flattered by the attention and what he said was interesting. But it was Björn she was most aware of. He sat coolly listening to Sindri, calm, composed and furious. He wasn’t trying any of the classic male competition for her attention, but she did catch him shooting the occasional glance at her.
        She was enjoying herself. For a moment she felt guilty about leaving Markús, but her mother would be very happy looking after him. She was always telling Harpa to stop moping around, to get out more and meet a man. She was right. Since Gabríel Örn had betrayed her, Harpa had spent nearly all her time cooped up in her little house in Seltjarnarnes.
        `I know I don’t look like it,’ Sindri was saying, `but I am a farmer. Or at least my family are farmers. Until the bank forces them to sell up, that is.’
        `What happened?’ Harpa asked.
        `Everyone’s getting squeezed,’ Sindri said. `Even the farmers. My brother, who runs the farm now, can’t make his payments. So it’s finito.’ Sindri made a throat-cutting sign with his forefinger. `Just like that. A farm that has been around for generations, that was mentioned in the Book of Settlements, is destroyed. It breaks my heart.’
        It was Harpa’s understanding that farms were one of the few sectors of the economy actually doing well with the fall of the króna, but she didn’t want to contradict Sindri in full flow.
        Sindri turned to her. `It is the farmers who are the real soul of Iceland. Like Bjartur there.’ He pointed to the painting of the peasant carrying the girl. `I did that, you know.’
        `It’s good,’ said Harpa. And it was. You could tell the brushstrokes were by an amateur, but the painting managed to portray nobility in a harsh but beautiful landscape.
        `The farmers and the fishermen,’ Sindri went on, taking the compliment in his stride. `Men who will work hard in tough conditions, who save, who fight to earn a living on the fells or on the waves. And not just men, women. We have the toughest, most independent women in the world. We have needed them to survive. And now these bankers, these lawyers, these politicians, all they know how to do is spend and borrow, spend and borrow. The kids of today don’t know how to do real work, what it’s like to tramp over the fells in a howling gale looking for lost sheep.’
        `Some of us do,’ said Frikki. `Until two weeks ago I spent all my waking life in a hell hole of a kitchen producing food for these guys to eat. And the prices they would pay! Ten thousand krónur for some swordfish flown in from the Pacific when we have perfectly good fish of our own all around us.’
        `Sorry, Frikki,’ Sindri said. `You are right, not everyone has forgotten. There are many of us perfectly good Icelanders still willing and able to do real jobs. We have always been here. It’s just no one has listened to us.’
        Harpa wondered whether Sindri had ever done a `real job’ since he had left the farm. But he had a point. He was just the kind of guy she would have dismissed with contempt as an ignorant idealist a couple of months before, but now she thought he had a point.
        `What chance have I of finding a real job?’ Frikki asked. `There’s nothing out there.’
        `What about you, Björn?’ Sindri asked.
        `I’m a fisherman,’ Björn said. `From Grundarfjördur. I rode down here on my motorbike this morning for the demonstration. And I agree with you, Sindri. I go out as often as my quota will allow, and I still can’t earn enough to pay off my debts. There are many like me. The banks told us to borrow in foreign currencies because the interest rates were lower. And now they say that not only have my own debts doubled because of the collapse of the króna, but I have to pay off all the money the banks borrowed from the British and the Dutch to lend to me too. It’s absurd. Mad.’
Harpa felt distinctly uncomfortable with the way the conversation was going.
Someone else had noticed her discomfort. `What about you, Harpa?’ It was Ísak, the student. He was watching her closely. She could tell he had somehow guessed what she was, or what she used to be, despite the months of unemployment. Was it the way she spoke, her clothes, something about her attitude? Harpa didn’t like him. There was something creepy about his cool detachment, something at odds with the outrage of the rest of them. But she had to answer his question.
        `Like Frikki I have lost my job.’
        `Jesus!’ Sindri snorted. `Another one!’
        `And what job was that?’ Ísak asked quietly.
Harpa could feel herself blushing. Embarrassment. Shame. Guilt. They all washed over her. She felt they were all looking at her, but she avoided them, staring down into her glass of brandy, letting her dark curly hair flop down to hide her eyes.
There was silence. Björn coughed. She looked up to meet his eyes.
She had to accept who she was. What she and people like her had done. How she had been used as well.
        `I was a banker. I worked for Ódinsbanki until two months ago when I was fired by my boyfriend. Somehow I never quite managed to get hold of all the cash everyone else had. And what cash I did have was tied up in Ódinsbanki shares which are now worthless.’
        `Didn’t you see it coming?’ asked Ísak.
        `No. No, I didn’t,’ said Harpa. `I believed it all. The story that we were all financial geniuses, younger and quicker and smarter than the others. That we were the Viking Raiders of the twenty-first century. That we took calculated risks and won. That the wealth was here to stay. That this was just the beginning of the prosperity, not the end.’ She shook her head. `I was wrong. Sorry.’
        There was silence for a moment.
        `Capitalism carries the seeds of its own destruction,’ said Ísak. `It’s as true now as it was a hundred and fifty years ago when Marx first said it. You wrote about that, Sindri.’
        Sindri nodded, clearly pleased at the reference to his book. `At least we have heard an apology,’ he said.
        `We’re all screwed,’ Björn said. `All of us.’
        `Can’t we do something?’ said Frikki. `Sometimes I’d just like to beat the shit out of these guys.’
        `I know what you mean,’ said Björn. `The politicians aren’t going to do anything, are they? Is Ólafur Tómasson really going to lock up all his best friends? They appoint these special prosecutors, but they’ll never get hold of the bankers. They all disappeared to London or New York. And they want our money to clean up their mess.’
        `It’s true,’ said Harpa. `Óskar Gunnarsson is the chairman of my bank. He’s been skulking in London the whole time. He hasn’t been seen in Reykjavík for the last three months. But some of the others are still here. I know they still have money stashed away.’
        `Like who?’ said Ísak.
        `Like Gabríel Örn Bergsson, my former boss. When he was encouraging me to take out a loan from Ódinsbanki to buy shares in it to prop up the stock price, he was selling those very same shares himself. When he made bad loans to companies in the UK, it was me who took the blame, even though I had told him not to do the deals. And when the bank was nationalised and they brought back the old rule that two people in a relationship couldn’t work together, it was me who was fired.’
        `Sounds like a nice guy,’ said Björn.
        Harpa shook her head. `You know, he never was a nice guy, really. He was funny. He was successful. But he was always a bastard.’
        `So where is he right now?’ asked Ísak.
        `You mean at this minute?’ said Harpa.
        Ísak nodded.
        `I’ve no idea,’ Harpa said `It’s a Tuesday night. He must be at home – I’m quite sure he wasn’t at the demo. He lives in one of those apartments in the Shadow District, just around the corner.’
        `Do you think he knows where the money is?’
        `Maybe,’ said Harpa. `Yeah, maybe.’
        `Why don’t we ask him?’ said Ísak.
Sindri smiled, the puffy skin under his eyes rumpling. `Yeah. Get him over here. Let him tell us where those thieving bastards have hidden the money. And he can try to defend how he treated you. How he treated all of us.’
        `Yeah. And I’ll smash his face in,’ Frikki slurred.
        Harpa’s immediate reaction was to refuse. It wasn’t as if Gabríel would ever tell a bunch of drunk strangers the details of the complicated network of inter-company loans that Ódinsbanki had set up. They wouldn’t understand him even if he did. But on the other hand … On the other hand why shouldn’t Gabríel meet the people he had screwed? Own up to who he was as she had just done? Why the hell shouldn’t he? The bastard deserved it, boy did he deserve it. Revenge feels good when you have had a couple of brandies.
        `All right,’ she said. `But it will be difficult. I’m not sure how I can get him to come here.’
        `Couldn’t you say you had something you needed to discuss with him?’ Sindri said.
        `At a bar, maybe. Or at his house. But not with a bunch of strangers.’
        `Get him to meet you at a bar in town and we’ll stop him on the way,’ said Ísak.         `Bring him back here.’
        Harpa considered Ísak’s suggestion. `OK,’ she said. `I’ll give it a go.’
        It was nearly midnight. The bars in Reykjavík would still be open, but it would be hard to force Gabríel out.
        She pulled out her mobile phone and selected his number. She was surprised she hadn’t deleted him from her address book. He should have been deleted totally from her life.
        `Yes?’ he answered with little more than a croak.
        `It’s me. I need to see you. Tonight.’
        `Uh. What time is it? I’ve just gone to sleep. This is ridiculous.’
        `It’s important.’
        `Can’t it wait?’
        `No. It’s got to be right now.’
        `Harpa, are you drunk? You’re drunk, aren’t you?’
        `Of course I’m not drunk!’ Harpa protested. `I’m tired and I’m upset and I need to see you.’
        `What is it? Why can’t you tell me over the phone?’
Harpa’s brain was fuzzy, but an idea was emerging. `It’s not the kind of thing you can discuss over the phone.’
        `Oh, my God, Harpa, you’re not pregnant are you?’
Gabríel had obviously stumbled on the same idea.
        `I said not over the phone. But meet me at B5. In fifteen minutes.’
        `All right,’ said Gabríel and hung up.
Harpa rang off. `Done,’ she said. B5 was a bar on Bankastraeti, a street that rose eastwards up a gentle hill from Austurvöllur, the square outside the Parliament building, to Laugavegur, the main shopping street. She and Gabríel Örn used to go there with their friends on Friday nights. `I know the way he will take, we can cut him off.’
        `Let’s go,’ said Frikki.

Sindri’s flat was on Hverfisgata, a scruffy street which ran parallel to Bankastraeti and Laugavegur, between those roads and the bay. As they spilled out into the open air, Harpa felt exhilarated. The frustration and misery of the last few months were pouring out. Sure, the bankers and the politicians were to blame, but one man was most to blame for ruining Harpa’s life.
        Gabríel Örn.
        And in a moment he would come face-to-face with the ordinary decent people whom men like him held in such contempt. He would try and weasel out of it, but she wouldn’t let him. She would force him to stand in front of them and apologize and explain what a shit he was.
        The cold didn’t sober Harpa up, but it energized her. She led the way, hurrying the others on. The Skuggahverfi or Shadow District was a new development of high-rise luxury apartments that lined the shore of the bay. Only a few had actually been finished before the developers had run out of money; they looked down on their half-completed brethren, and the condemned buildings surrounding them, like Sindri’s place, yet to be demolished. She was only about a hundred metres from the spot where Gabríel Örn would cross Hverfisgata on his way to B5.
        A couple of snowflakes fell. It was late, but there were still people on the street, jazzed up by the demonstrations. Down at the bottom of the hill towards the square outside Parliament, flames rose out of a wheelie bin, illuminating hooded shadows flitting around it, and two firecrackers went off.
        Harpa led them down one of the little side streets off Hverfisgata, on the route she knew Gabríel would take. Sure enough, there he was, head down against the snow.
        She stopped in front of him. `Gabríel Örn.’
        He looked up in surprise. `Harpa? I thought we were going to meet at the bar?’
Harpa felt a surge of revulsion as she saw his face. He was a couple of years younger than her, a little flabby around the jowls and neck, fair hair thinning. What had she ever seen in him?
        `No, I want you to come with us.’
        Gabríel Örn glanced behind her.
        `Who are these people?’
        `They are my friends, Gabríel Örn, my friends. I want you to talk to my friends. That’s why you have to come back with me.’
        `You are drunk, Harpa!’
        `I don’t care. Now come with us.’
Harpa reached out to grab Gabríel on the sleeve. Roughly he shook her off. Frikki growled and strode up to him. The boy wasn’t wearing a coat, only his Chelsea football shirt, but he was too drunk to care.
        `You heard her,’ he said, stopping centimetres away from Gabríel. `You’re coming with us.’ He reached out to grab the lapel of Gabríel’s coat. Gabríel pushed him back. Frikki swung at him, a long wide arc that someone as sober as Gabríel had no trouble avoiding. Gabríel was a good fifteen centimetres shorter than Frikki, but with one hard jab upwards, he caught Frikki on the chin and felled him.
        As Frikki sat on the ground, rubbing his jaw, Harpa was surprised. She had never expected Gabríel to be capable of such physical prowess.
        Gabríel turned to go.
        The anger exploded in Harpa’s head, a red curtain of fury. He was not going to walk away from them, he was not.
        `Gabríel! Stop.’ She reached out to grab him, but he pushed her back. She lurched into a low wall surrounding a small car park. On the wall was an empty Thule beer bottle. She picked it up, took three steps forward and, aiming for the bald spot on the back of Gabríel Örn’s head, brought it crashing down.
        He staggered, swayed to the right and fell, his head bouncing off an iron bollard at the entrance of the little car park with a sickening crack.
        He lay still.
        Harpa dropped the bottle, her hand flying to her mouth. `Oh, God!’
        Frikki roared and ran at the prone body of Gabríel Örn, launching a kick hard into his ribs. He kicked him twice in the chest and once in the head before Björn grabbed him around the waist and flung him to the ground.
        In a moment, Björn was on his knees examining Gabríel Örn.
        The banker was motionless. His eyes were closed. His already pale face had taken on a waxy sheen. A snowflake landed on his cheek. Blood seeped out of his skull beneath his short thin hair.
        `He’s not breathing,’ Harpa whispered.
        Then she screamed. `He’s not breathing!’