They had always planned to go whale watching in Iceland.
The 4X4 rumbles through the snowy scenery, the sound of the guide’s voice washing over her. Gunnar is well versed in his country’s natural history – so far, they have seen fissures, extinct volcanoes and a waterfall; but he loves the land’s mythology too. Before he started lecturing them, Deirdre hadn’t realised that Catholicism and superstition were so intertwined in Icelandic folklore, or that the Huldufólk (‘hidden people’) played such an important role.
“You would call them Elves,” Gunnar says in his lilting accent, “and Icelanders believe that they are descended from Adam and Eve. God told Adam He was coming for tea, so Adam asked Eve to wash the children – they had many children. But Eve was lazy and she only washed half of them, and then Adam was embarrassed and hid his unwashed children so that God would not see them, and these hidden children became the Elves.”
Since it happened, Deirdre had hidden herself away too. Others’ sympathy was too intrusive while her grief was still raw; and then she had got used to being alone and had let her heart freeze over.
Gunnar tells the driver to stop and makes them get out of the jeep. They are standing on a cliff top, looking out to sea. “For many months,” Gunnar says, “tourists can see whales in the water, but we are two weeks – maybe three – too late for whales.”
The travel agent had said as much when she had gone in to book the holiday. “Whale watching finishes in October. You might be lucky with the Northern Lights.”
She had booked it anyway. It had been on their bucket list. She wonders now if they should have been more spontaneous instead of making lists of things to do when they both retired.
Deirdre lets her mind drift back to the present. Gunnar is telling another story. This time, it is the legend of Red Cap. There was a fisherman, he says, who was stranded on an island inhabited by Elves and took one of them as his wife. She bore him a child but he longed to return to his own people. She allowed him to leave but said he must promise to arrange a Christian baptism for their baby in the village church. When the fisherman arrived home, he forgot all about his Elf-Bride and his Elfchild; and eventually, he asked a local girl to marry him. But on their way to the church, the Elf-Woman appeared in front of them with the baby in her arms, reminding him of his promise and begging him to acknowledge his paternity. This is the spot, Gunnar says, where their confrontation happened.
The fisherman refused the Elf-Woman’s request, pushing her and the child out of his way, and then the Elf-Woman became angry and cursed the fisherman, transforming him into a whale. He was wearing a red cap at the time, so the whale had a red head and became known as rauð hetta or Red Cap. In some versions of the story, the fisherman’s bride-to-be flings herself into the sea after the whale, and in others, she wastes away from grief.
Those are a young girl's reactions, Deirdre thinks sadly. At 54, she is too old for such dramatic gestures; her own sorrow has been tightly controlled.
They get back into the 4X4 and continue their journey. Yesterday, Gunnar took them to see an extinct volcano. Snow had fluttered around their faces as they walked to the man-made entrance cut into the side of the rock. Once inside, Deirdre had found herself in a large, airy cave with nothing to suggest this feature had once spewed molten lava. Copying the others, she had stretched out her fingers and felt the uneven surface of the walls.
“How do we know it’s extinct and not dormant?” The woman who asked the question fiddled nervously with her smartphone.
Gunnar gave what was obviously a rehearsed answer but Deirdre didn’t hear any of it, her mind returning to the last weeks with Martin. His cancer had lain dormant for years, waking up in time to give him an aching back for a week, and then he was gone. Disease was as destructive as a volcano; it just killed on a smaller scale.
Their destination today is a waterfall. Öxarárfoss is part of a National Park, Þingvellir – about 48 kilometres away from Reykjavik. Deirdre stands with the rest of the tourists and observes the rushing water which, Gunnar says, freezes over entirely in the depths of winter. Þingvellir lies between the tectonic plates and Gunnar shows them where to stand on the atmospheric path along one of the fault lines. Originally, he says, Iceland did not exist, but when North America and Europe ripped apart, a new island was formed in between them, bridging the two continents. Even now, they are tearing away from each other at a rate of 1mm to 18mm every year.
She feels a stab of something more painful than the biting cold of late October weather when he says this, aware that she and Martin have been ripped apart too and that every year, he will seem a little further away from her. His death has made her as empty as the extinct volcano and as frozen as a winter waterfall.
She knows she should be taking photos, but her fingers are too numb to operate her phone properly and, despite the layers of thermal clothing, she feels chilled to the bone.
Returning to the jeep, she catches sight of her face in the wing mirror and grimaces: frost glistens on the tiny, invisible hairs on her face, transforming her into a grotesque version of the Snow Queen from Anderson’s fairy tale. Didn’t she have a shard of ice in her heart too?
Driving back to Reykjavik, the others wonder out loud if there will be time to stop off at one of the hot springs. The Blue Lagoon is the most popular, Gunnar says, but it must be pre-booked. What about arranging a trip for the last day? The spa is only a twenty minutes’ drive from Keflavik airport.
“I’d like a boat trip,” Deirdre says suddenly.
The others turn round, surprised. They’re not used to the single woman in their party voicing her opinions.
Gunnar explains again that it is too late for whale watching, but Deirdre shakes her head. “I don’t care if I don’t see whales. I’d just like to go out in a boat.”
After a while, Gunnar strokes his beard and says he thinks it can be arranged. It might be expensive since none of the others want to go with her, but she doesn’t care. She made a promise to Martin and she intends to see it through.
That evening, she eats by herself in the Mimir restaurant. Her excursion companions are staying at the Radisson too, but they’ve turned up their noses at the plokkfiskur and rúgbrauð, preferring to wander further afield to find something more compatible with their English palates. Perhaps they would have tried the ‘prix fixe’ menu, but she thinks they were put off by the typo which promised a dessert made from a “delicious subtle blend of mouse, ice cream and cream”. Through the large floor to ceiling windows, the sky is as black as widow’s weeds, and then a sudden burst of colour illuminates the night as green and purple and blue and white light begins to dance and twirl. The travel agent had mentioned the aurora borealis, but Deirdre had thought she was just trying to make a sale.
Pushing back her chair from the table, she stands up, trying to get a closer look, then waits impatiently for the waiter to bring her bill. Quickly, she scribbles her name and room number on the pad in front of her before departing the hotel, wanting to stand outside for this incredible light show.
When she finally crawls into bed, hours later, she realises she has not thought of Martin since leaving the restaurant.
Gunnar collects the others early the next morning for a four-hour drive to Vatnajökull. They’d offered days ago to take her with them to see the famous ice caves, but she’d said no. Now she huddles inside her jumper, thinking she’s made the right decision. The caves can’t be any colder than her own heart has been since Martin left her. Although… The previous evening’s colours swirl in her mind; perhaps she is starting to thaw a little.
Her two hours’ boat ride is not until the afternoon and the Old Harbour is within easy walking distance, so she busies herself packing her suitcase for the flight home tomorrow. The 15”x5” cardboard tube is still carefully wrapped in her spare clothing. She lifts it out gently, her fingers tracing the bluebell wood design. 100% biodegradable. It was what he wanted.
When she steps aboard the RIB speedboat later on, the scatter tube is tucked in her capacious handbag. They’d wanted her to leave the bag in the ticket office, but she’d refused, promising to take full responsibility for its contents. It’s technically too late for whale watching, the guide says, but they should see dolphins. Deirdre feels the outline of the tube through the canvas of her bag and thinks of Martin and the whales and the dolphins, and a fissure seems to open inside her heart.
Far out to sea, the other passengers are pointing phones and clicking cameras. Deirdre thinks of the plans they made and how she needs to do what she promised. She’s carried her dead husband around for six months now and it’s time to set them both free.
Reaching into her bag, she removes the cardboard tube that contains her husband's ashes then slowly and deliberately drops it over the side of the boat. The dormant volcano of her grief erupts, tears of hot lava spilling down her cheeks, and she weeps for all the things on their bucket list that they will never do and for all the missed opportunities they wasted when they thought time was no object.
Gradually, the hot tears become a cooler waterfall. Anyone who looks at her will think her face is wet from the spray of the sea.
Dusk is already falling as the boat begins its homeward journey. For now, the sky is grey; but later, colours will dance again in the darkness and she will dance with them.