I met John’s father four years after Arthur passed away. At the time, we were very different people in most ways except for the fact that our academic interests overlapped, and the fact that we were both quite lost and quite fascinated by one another.
Ivan is almost a decade older than I am, but is just as bewildered by life despite the years and qualifications and publications he has on me. This quality only became apparent to me after I’d let him get under my skin. Initially I’d found myself drawn in by certainty he seemed to have about most things that I lacked. The comedian Tina Fey quips that talent is not sexually transmittable, at the time I was hoping that at least confidence might be.
A medievalist specialising in Norse text, Ivan was one of my lecturers in the final year of my literature degree at the University of Oxford, where by some fluke I had been offered a place when I applied at the age of nineteen having written my application letter on a sticky bar table in Svolvaer, a town on the Lofoten archipelago 85km east of where I’m from that I ran off to at eighteen. This was where I served pints listening to weird jazz for a year in a tight knit fishing community and was mostly left to my own devices, which was what I wanted at the time.
A couple of regulars made up my coterie of friends, mostly men with fantastic beards and not so bad stories who were much older than me and who took a rather paternalistic interest in my life and what it was I was doing there. I didn’t really divulge much though they knew I was grieving something that I needed distraction from.
One man in particular became special to me, he was there most nights and had an obsession with heritage that quickly rubbed off. He’d bring in dusty old books with beautiful black and white engravings that described the Viking settlements that had sprung up across the archipelagos over a thousand years ago. He told me about how fishermen were drawn to this rugged place for all the Arctic Cod that have been migrating here to spawn each year since the ice melted at the end of the last Ice Age, and talked about how old the villages really were, one of which is located on the southside of our island having been founded in the twelfth century by a king who built a fisherman’s hostel and a church here.
I started supplementing my friend’s knowledge with tidbits gleaned from trips to the local library which I’d make just to have something to do that felt meaningful and which helped bring a bit of a sparkle to the inescapable sea of emptiness that had followed Arthur’s death. It became a special little hobby of ours, a shared one. It was nice to share something with someone, even if it was with an old man I barely knew whose fascination and enthusiasm for examining facts and fictions from a long time ago gave me things to think about besides my own all-devouring misery.
When I left for England I couldn’t really find the right words with which to thank him. I couldn’t really find the right words for anything real, after Arthur. They’d stick in my throat, somehow, sound childish and confused when I practised them, gave me stagefright. Good words only came for the things I could make sense of, ideas and concepts I could pin down and insist on after carefully examining them. I think that was what drew me into the world of interpreting text. Characters and events, you get to read them so many times, to study them from every possible angle, you achieve some sort of mastery over the situation, or at least your understanding of it.
The real world, well that’s still something that baffles me, no matter how many simulations of it my work takes me through. In fact, the more I apply the reasoning system that works so well with my texts to the work of understanding whatever is happening to me and why, the more my own system fails me.
Piles of stones
When I was ten years old my Dad drove us all the way up to Aberdeen, to grab a ferry from there up to Kirkwell, Orkney’s largest town. Then we went further north still, with another ferry, to a historic settlement called Jarlshof that’s steeped in thousands of years of history and is located on the Shetland islands in the North Sea halfway between the British isles and Norway. The journey had started out from our hometown in Hull, and took a remarkably long time, three days in fact, just to get there, then three days back. I think we only stayed for around five days, the trip costing so much that my parents couldn’t justify spending much longer.
It had always been his dream to go. It’s a fantastic place, humans have settled there since the Neolithic times, and it was a site the Vikings colonised in the 8th century, their remains dug up in the thirties and turned into a historical site that testifies to around 500 years of Viking occupation.
My sister resented the adventure, didn’t understand the point of sitting in a car for all that time just to stare at a pile of stones, but she was older than me, and missed her friends and was at that age of rolling eyes at everything. I on the other hand was entranced, all the more so as every little stone seemed to come with some ancient story attached to it. I liked standing in that place thinking about these worlds I’d never known, imagining who populated them and how they lived and most of all I liked listening to my Dad telling me stories about them that he’d remembered.
He’d always been interested in Viking history, was convinced that his roots could be traced back to settlers involved in the capture of York in 867, not that there’s much evidence to be found that supports his case.