Sigrid hasn’t been back to the island for twelve years and she’s not sure why she’s going there now.
The ferry chugs through the waves and she leans on the railing, watching the familiar shoreline grow closer. For a moment she feels like she’s stepped inside a memory. She closes her eyes and breathes deeply, filling her lungs with the scent of diesel and salt water. There’s something metallic too, and a faint whiff of rotting seaweed. It smells like all of her childhood summers rolled into one, like going for the same walk every day, swimming in the same water, seeing the same people, watching raindrops trickle down the same window pane. It’s the same three flavours of ice cream, and the endless hiss of waves crashing onto a pebbly peach.
“Hey, sorry, it’s just…”
That voice. Sigrid hasn’t heard it in over a decade, but somehow, here on the ferry back into her past, it seems only natural that he should be there. She snaps her eyes open and stares into a familiar face. Well, a familiar pair of grey eyes. The lower half of his face is obscured by a beard that looks like a cross between a bird’s nest and a dust bunny.
“Oskar,” she says, and then, because her brain is still catching up, she blurts out, “Nice beard.”
He ignores it. Thank any supernatural beings that may be listening.
“I thought it was you,” Oskar says. He leans against the railing beside her. “What are you doing here? I mean, I thought you went to Australia because you never wanted to be above the Arctic Circle again.”
“I needed a holiday. My parents have a cabin on the island.”
“Really? So this is the island you used to complain about? It looks gorgeous.”
And it does, with the sun glinting on the waves, and green slopes stretching up to the sky. But she knows there’s nothing beyond those slopes, just the ocean.
“Mhm,” she says. “Not much fun when you’re seventeen.”
“Fair enough. Are you here with your parents?”
She shakes her head. Is this what they’re going to do? Awkward small talk? Fine, if that’s what he wants. They’ve nearly reached the island anyway. She just needs to fill a couple of minutes.
“What brings you here?” she asks.
“I’m on a hiking holiday.”
Oskar’s beard twitches. He’s probably grinning at her, that lopsided grin she used to love. And that’s probably why she invites him over to the cabin.
“I mean,” she adds, trying and failing to stop babbling, “it’d be nice to catch up. Just, y’know, talk.”
“Sure, I haven’t got any other plans. I’ll just go and tell the people I’m travelling with.”
She wonders whether they should exchange phone numbers, but settles for giving him directions to the cabin. As soon as he’s gone from the deck, she buries her face in her hands and groans. Oskar! Effing Oskar! What’s he doing here? She feels like a schoolgirl again, tongue-tied and gangly and as far away from cool as it is possible to be.
Then the ferry docks, and the real world comes streaming back with bright colours and a swathe of disconcerting little changes. Even from a distance she can tell that a number of new cafes have sprung up along the harbour. She hoists her duffel bag onto her shoulder and heads down to the village, walking as quickly as she can. The road, which used to be unpaved, is now smooth black tarmac. The campsite has expanded into a field behind the school, and a new row of fancy modern houses, all glass and polished concrete, is perched on a hillside. Sigrid can’t help thinking how out of place they look, like bricks thrown into a botanical garden. She steps around a group of tourists who have stopped in the middle of the road to take photos, hearing snatches of German and English, and other languages she doesn’t know. It’s not as overcrowded as the islands further south, but there are enough tourists to make their presence known. The village has changed to accommodate them. There’s a tour operator offering whale watching, while another one has a sign outside that proudly announces midnight sun guided walks - whatever that means. There’s even a souvenir stall, which is doing a roaring trade in mass-produced knitwear and garish snowglobes with plasticine fjords in them.
But beside the village school, old Mrs Fredriksen’s grocery store looks the same as ever. Sigrid has plenty of supplies in her bag, but if she’s going on this trip down memory lane she might as well go all the way. The bell above the door tinkles as she enters. The interior looks exactly like it did twelve years ago, down to the rack of faded postcards by the door. She grabs a basket and chucks in a few items at random - chocolate, apples, a loaf of bread - and sets it down by the till where Mrs Fredriksen is doing the crossword.
“Hello, dear,” Mrs Fredriksen says. She hasn’t aged a day. Perhaps she always looked ancient.
“Hi,” says Sigrid. Should she ask about her family? Her parents would. But she doesn’t actually know Mrs Fredriksen’s family very well, beyond vague recollections of an annoying grandson. Maybe best if she keeps her mouth shut.
“Goodness,” says Mrs Fredriksen, and there goes Sigrid’s plan of pretending to be just another tourist. “If it isn’t little Sigrid!”
Sigrid forces a smile onto her face as Mrs Fredriksen prattles on. “I hardly recognise you, dearie! You’ve cut your hair! Oh, don’t get me wrong, it looks lovely. It’s been simply ages since I’ve seen you, are you here for the summer?”
“Just a couple of days,” says Sigrid, stuffing the groceries into her bag and handing Mrs Fredriksen some cash. “I haven’t got time for a long holiday.”
“Oh yes, your parents mentioned your job. Something at a hospital? They’re ever so proud. Here’s your change, dear. Lovely to see you again, do come by for a nice cup of tea some day.”
Sigrid is out of the shop before Mrs Fredriksen has finished talking. The cabin isn’t far. She wants to lock herself inside, or perhaps lock the island outside. Why did she have to go and invite Oskar? Stupid, stupid, stupid. The word echoes around Sigrid’s brain with every slap of her sandals on the road. The people I’m travelling with… He’s probably married to some woman with a cheerful smile, a woman who knits in the evenings and loves to go skiing. He’s not going to come visit his old girlfriend in a lonely cabin overlooking the sea if he’s married. Or perhaps he’ll bring his wife along. And kids. Does Oskar have kids? He probably does. Two or three snotty-nosed little brats that he dresses in matching outfits. With tiny hiking boots. Damn and blast. She can’t call him to cancel because she didn’t ask for his number. She can’t even hop on a ferry back to the mainland, because the next ferry doesn’t leave until morning. She had planned that, of course, catching the last ferry of the day. If she hadn’t, she might have turned around and headed straight back to the mainland the moment it docked.
Once in the cabin, she chucks her duffel bag onto the bed. Her parents must have been here recently, because the place is spotless. She extracts a bottle of wine from her bag, fetches a glass from the tiny kitchen, and heads back outside. Her family owns a small plot of land down to the beach. There are nice sandy beaches on the other side of the island, but here on the northern coast it’s all pebbles and seaweed. She perches on a rock, pours herself a glass of wine and stares at the sea. The sea ignores her. The waves roll on as if she isn’t there.
Sigrid is nearly halfway through the bottle when Oskar shows up. She’s been thinking of Oskar at eighteen, so it’s a bit of a shock when she sees him walking down the beach towards her with a full beard and - she squints a bit - a couple of grey hairs at his temples. He’s alone, too. No happy family in tow. Maybe he left them in the village.
“Hi,” he says.
“Hi,” she replies.
He sits down beside her, and they watch the sea together for a while. The sun is creeping towards its lowest point on the horizon. It won’t set for another three weeks at least, but somehow it still feels like night.
Sigrid is the first to break the silence. “Who are you travelling with? Friends? Family?”
The real question hangs between them, unspoken.
“Friends,” Oskar says. “We’ve just pitched our tents at the campsite. They’re just some people I met on this hike.”
“I thought you were coming here to hike.”
“It’s a long distance trail.” There’s that grin again, making his beard twitch. “All along the Atlantic coast, from North Cape down to Portugal.”
“Damn.” Sigrid looks away from him. Back to the sea, which is still ignoring her. “How long will that take you?”
“A year? Two years? I don’t know, I’m not in a hurry. I can’t do it all in one go anyway. I’ll have to take odd jobs here and there. And I might find a better destination halfway through, who knows.”
Belatedly, Sigrid realises she’s been sipping wine all this time without offering to share. She extends the bottle to Oskar. “You want some of this? Shit, hold on, I’ll get you a glass.”
“That’s all right.” He pours half of what’s left into her glass, then raises the bottle to his lips. “Cheers.”
She takes a gulp and has to stifle a laugh when she sees Oskar frowning at the label as if the bottle has let him down. She can’t help but giggle. “Don’t tell me you never learned to drink wine?”
“It’s not the most inspiring wine, that’s all. Merlot can be a bit bland. Very mellow, but not much else.”
“Oooh, you’ve become a wine snob!”
“Did you think I wouldn’t outgrow my uncle’s moonshine?”
Sigrid shrugs and takes another sip of her wine. She has always loved the mellowness of this particular wine. It’s getting a little chilly outside now that the sun has sunken so low, but she has brought an old woollen cardigan which she hugs tightly around herself.
“How have you been?” Oskar asks after a while. “What did you do after Australia? You travelled on, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. Spent three months there, no, four months. Then a few weeks in New Zealand, before going on to South East Asia. Thailand, Cambodia.”
“Wow. You always did say you were going to see the world.”
“And after that? I remember someone saying you studied abroad.”
She nods. “In the UK. Molecular biology. Got a PhD and everything.”
Oskar lets out a whistle. “And now? Are you a famous professor?”
“Hardly. Try junior research scientist at a pharmaceutical company. At least I will be, if I accept the job offer I got.”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because,” says Sigrid, gesturing helplessly at the sea, which looks the same as it always does. She knows it’s full of life, everything from algae and plankton to whales and dolphins. But at the surface it’s always just grey. Perhaps it’s the wine, because she finds herself telling Oskar things she hasn’t dared admit to herself. “It means settling down and focusing on a career and spending another ten years of my life making sure I don’t fuck it up, because once you’re out, you can never get back in, and what’ll I do then? Once I’ve settled down and become my parents I’ll probably end up buying a holiday cabin and spend every summer there for the rest of my life. I tell myself that won’t happen, but I know it will. It’s just like Australia. What an epic adventure that was. I saw exactly what all the other eighteen-year-olds see on their gap years. And then I studied, and studied some more, and got a degree, like all the other clever students at uni, and that’s it. That’s my life.”
“Is that why you’re here? To think about your life?”
“I guess I am.” She picks up a pebble and tosses it into the sea. “I hate this place. I used to dream about leaving.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Of course he does. It was the only thing she talked about when they were at school together. She used to drag him to the library to pore over atlases. It seems like a lifetime ago. God, they were so young and stupid. They’d been together barely a year when she went off on her gap year, and both of them had been so convinced it would work out. They had lasted a few dozen text messages, a handful of emails and three phone calls, the third of which had consisted of them tiptoeing around each other because neither wanted to be the one to say they’d been drifting apart and perhaps it would be best if they just ended the whole relationship. True love, indeed.
“Do you think we would’ve lasted if you had come with me to Australia?” she says.
“Nah,” he says immediately. “We were idiots. We would have had some terribly dramatic fight the first time we ran out of petrol or couldn’t find a nice hostel. And if you had stayed, we would have found another reason to have a theatrical break-up. I might even have borrowed a guitar and tried to serenade you to win you back, if you were the one to break up with me.”
“Good point. Better this way.” She hesitates before asking, “Why didn’t you want to come with me?”
Oskar shrugs. “Time. Money. Life in general, I suppose. You know that.”
She does. He always wanted to settle down and be the kind of person who fit in, who had a summer cabin on the coast. A steady job and financial security.
“Well, how about you?” she asks. “How has your life been? Did you get your white picket fence?”
“I did. Got a job in a nursing home, bought a house, then put up the fence with my own hands. Everything I ever dreamed of.” He raises the wine bottle. “I sold the house earlier this year, when I decided to go for this walk.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. You can sell houses, you know, after you buy them.”
“Are you trying to give me some sort of advice? I’ve had three-quarters of a bottle of wine, I can’t do hints.”
“Too subtle? How about this: there are ferries back to the mainland. Don’t stay somewhere you hate just because everyone else does.”
“The ferry doesn’t leave till morning.”
“It’s nearly morning.”
“It’s 2 am.”
“That leaves you plenty of time to pack.”
“I haven’t unpacked.”
Sigrid tosses back what’s left of her wine. “Fine. What’s with the beard, anyway?”
“I can’t be bothered to carry a shaving kit on trail.”
It does suit him, especially in the golden light of the midnight sun. He no longer looks like the boy she had once fallen in love with.
“You’re not my type, though,” she says.
“I don’t think we were ever each other’s type.”
“We were idiots.”
“Yup.” He puts the empty bottle down by her empty glass and yawns. “I still am. We’re starting early tomorrow, I need to get back to the campsite to sleep.”
“So you can hike to Portugal tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Portugal, or anywhere else that seems interesting.” He gets to his feet, kicks a couple of pebbles aside. “Goodnight, Sigrid.”
They hug, briefly, and then he’s gone. Sigrid picks up the bottle and glass and takes them inside. Her duffel bag lies unopened on the bed. She can’t be bothered to put on pyjamas or brush her teeth, but lies down fully clothed, watching the sunlight stream in through the window. Perhaps she falls asleep eventually, she doesn’t know.
In the morning, she heads down to the harbour and buys a ticket for the first ferry back to the mainland.