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Black Ice: Chapter 18

...As we walked over I heard the international sound of male cursing and spanners clinking. It sounded quite friendly. It didn't look friendly. Behind the Ford, lying alongside an old Triumph motor-bike, was one of the most frightening men I've ever seen. He was on his back, muttering through a cigarette which bobbed on his lip. When he saw me, both the cigarette and the ring spanner in his hand stopped moving...

Reluctant spy Sam Craven sees the seemier side of Iceland.

To read earlier chapters of Colin Dunne's brilliant Cold War novel please click on
http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

Alongside the slums of the civilised western world, Breidholt is gracious living. They don't have the dead dogs and the heaps of wrecked cars and acres of smashed glass that you find in a well-appointed British slum, or the beggars and the pickpockets that you find in southern cities.

You don't find any of these things because in Iceland poverty is practically illegal. There is almost no unemployment, and what little deprivation there is gets mopped up by a social service system that makes Santa Claus look tight-fisted.

So the worst they can show you is Breidholt. It's stuck up on a boulder-strewn hill overlooking the town, high up where the rain and the snow and the wind don't miss a thing, big bare blocks of flats in the glass-and-plastic period of architecture. As I say, in some parts of Naples they'd call it Snob Hill; even so, with shabby washing flapping on the balconies and hardboard up at the broken windows, you could see why the Icelanders weren't too proud of it.

A boy in an outsize tartan jacket stopped chasing a cardboard box, which was being driven by a hard wind, to have a look at us. He tugged the sleeve of his jacket across his trickling nose as Christopher repeated the name and address, then he pointed into a corner of the car park, at an old Ford Escort that had been given a lime-green spray job. By someone, if the paint on the windows and ground was any indication, in the advanced stages of Parkinson's Disease.

As we walked over I heard the international sound of male cursing and spanners clinking. It sounded quite friendly. It didn't look friendly. Behind the Ford, lying alongside an old Triumph motor-bike, was one of the most frightening men I've ever seen. He was on his back, muttering through a cigarette which bobbed on his lip. When he saw me, both the cigarette and the ring spanner in his hand stopped moving.

His head was towards me so that it had that chimpanzee look of all upside-down faces.

When I moved round he looked a lot worse.

He was short in the same way a cement-mixer is short and he looked just as solid. All he was wearing was a soiled red tee-shirt and ragged canvas shorts. His exposed limbs were so bulked up with muscle that they looked foreshortened. Golden hair, sawn off to a ginger bristle on his head, covered his pale hard limbs in a fleece and burst in springy tufts from his exposed belly and over the neck of his shirt. His biceps were blue with tattoos.

Pale blue eyes stared up at us. He didn't move. He didn't speak. He even ignored his cigarette as it flared briefly in the wind.

'I'm looking for Palli Olafsson,' I said, bending down. He gave no reaction.

Christopher said something presumably the same thing in Icelandic and although his eyes shifted over to the new speaker, he still didn't reply.

Again Christopher asked, mentioning his name, and then I heard him say the address. The man on the floor grunted and pointed with his spanner at a double-door entrance forty yards away.

As we went he sat up and took a swig from an open bottle of Polar beer. He didn't look like a man with contacts but he must've had some good ones: Polar beer is export only.

'Not the most welcoming of chaps,' Christopher whispered.

'Or places,' I said.

Inside the entrance, the wind, which whirled scraps of litter in a sad dance on the bare concrete, couldn't shift the smell of stale urine and despair. On the metal door of the lift someone had scrawled 'No Nukes'.

The apartment we wanted was on the fourth floor. The door was open. From inside, a gust of wet heat and raw pop music surged out.

That's another old Icelandic trick: when you get your heating cheap - by plugging into all that bubbling just below the earth's crust - all you do is open the door or the window when it gets too hot.

I rapped on the door, rapped again, and then moved slowly down the half-dark corridor. Christopher was a couple of steps behind me. The air was damp and smelt of dead goats. I saw why when the corridor opened out into a large cramped untidy room. The sunset on the carpet had been extinguished by a few hundred spilled dinners and the walls had been used for finger-printing chimney sweeps. Chunks of cheap plastic-cohered furniture filled the place. Over the backs and arms of chairs, and from a thin wire stand, hung wet baby clothes. That was what gave the room its own highly individual atmosphere.

In a blue, white-lined cot balanced on a wooden stand, a baby lay with its fat arms above its head like Marciano at the end of a fight.

The mother was asleep too. Not restful angelic sleep but smashed-out exhaustion, sprawled in the sunken seat of a sagging black armchair.

Perhaps a year ago her hair had been in that squared-off blonde shape, only now most of the blonde had gone and it was dull with dirt. The American eagle on the front of her shirt had lost most of its glitter and she wore baggy trousers. She was yesterday's youth suddenly grown old, and on the left side of her face she had the blue-brown bruise that you always find on women like that in flats like that.

'Excuse me,' I said. I had to repeat it twice before she stirred. She opened her eyes and lay there.

A burst of Icelandic behind me reminded me that Christopher was there. It struck me then that if Batty had sent him to keep an eye on me he was keeping well out of the firing line.

'English?' the girl said, yawning. 'Why come here?' She rooted down the side of the chair and came up with a packet of Camels. She coughed as she lit one.

'Why do you want Palli Olafsson?'

Christopher spoke again, and in bad English she said: 'If it is private you can tell me. I am his girl.'

She rose, smoothing down her clothes and pushing the limp hair back from her bruised face. A soft wail came from the cot. She was there in one movement, changing the cigarette to her left hand so she could stroke the child.

'This is his home?' I asked.

'Oh, yes. His home.' She glanced at a bottle of vodka on top of the television set. 'You like a drink?'

'No, thanks. Is he around?'

Picking her way among the debris of baby clothes and to) ducks and green and red wooden bricks, she went to the window. She made a fuss of opening it, pretending to wipe the sweat off her brow. 'Better,' she said, as the cold wind puncned through the rotten warmth of her home.

Again Christopher started talking and she replied to him in rapid Icelandic.

'Sorry, Sam, she's not terribly helpful. Says he's gone out and she doesn't know when he'll be coming back. She wants to know who you are naturally enough, I'd say.'

As I'd suggested, he told her I was a London journalist who was writing an article about Iceland. That made her laugh.

'Palli can tell you all about Iceland. No problem he can.'

Her sharp laugh halted suddenly. I heard another noise, a cough, a man's cough, coming from the next room. Then it was followed by a deep sleepy groan.

I swopped nervous glances with my friend. Neither of us knew what to do. She resolved it for us then by skipping over to the window and shouting to someone below.

'Damn!' said Christopher. 'That was Palli. With the motorbike. She just told him to run for it.'

We could hear her laughing behind us as we raced for the lift.

When we got down he'd gone. As we went back to the Daihatsu, the little boy in the tartan jacket made his fingers into a gun and shot me. In his other hand he was holding the Polar beer.


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