Chapter no 24 – Svalbard

The Midnight Library

She woke in a small bed in a little cabin on a boat. She knew it was a boat because it was rocking, and indeed the rocking, gentle as it was, had woken her up. e cabin was spare and basic. She was wearing a thick fleece sweater and long johns. Pulling back the blanket, she noticed that she had a headache. Her mouth was so dry her cheeks felt sucked-in against her teeth. She coughed a deep, chesty cough and felt a million pool-lengths away from the body of an Olympian. Her fingers smelt of tobacco. She sat up to see a pale-blonde, robust, hard-weathered woman sitting on another bed staring at her.

‘God morgen, Nora.’

She smiled. And hoped that in this life she wasn’t fluent in whichever Scandinavian language this woman spoke.

‘Good morning.’

She noticed a half-empty bottle of vodka and a mug on the floor beside the woman’s bed. A dog calendar (April: Springer Spaniel) was propped up on the chest between the beds. e three books on top of it were all in English. e one nearest to the woman said Principles of Glacier Mechanics. Two on Nora’s: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic and a Penguin Classic edition of e Saga of the Volsungs: e Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. She noticed something else. It was cold. Properly cold. e cold that almost burns, that hurts your fingers and toes and stiens your cheeks. Even inside. With layers of thermal underwear. With a sweater on. With the bars of two electric heaters glowing orange. Every exhale made a cloud.

‘Why are you here, Nora?’ the woman asked, in heavily accented English. A tricky question, when you didn’t know where ‘here’ was.

‘Bit early in the morning, isn’t it, for philosophy?’ Nora laughed, nervously.

She saw a wall of ice outside the porthole, rising out of the sea. She was either very far north or very far south. She was very far somewhere.

e woman was still staring at her. Nora had no idea if they were friends or not. e woman seemed tough, direct, earthy, but probably an interesting form of company.

‘I don’t mean philosophy. I don’t even mean what got you into glaciological research. Although, it might be the same thing. I mean, why did you choose to go as far away from civilisation as possible? You’ve never told me.’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I like the cold.’

‘No one likes this cold. Unless they are a sado-masochist.’

She had a point. Nora reached for the sweater at the end of her bed and put it on, over the sweater she was already wearing. As she did she saw, beside the vodka bottle, a laminated lanyard lying on the floor.

Ingrid Skirbekk Professor of Geoscience

International Polar Research Institute

‘I don’t know, Ingrid. I just like glaciers, I suppose. I want to understand them. Why they are . . . melting.’

She wasn’t sounding like a glacier expert, judging from Ingrid’s raised eyebrows.

‘What about you?’ she asked, hopefully.

Ingrid sighed. Rubbed her palm with a thumb. ‘Aer Per died, I couldn’t stand to be in Oslo any more. All those people that weren’t him, you know?

ere was this coee shop we used to go to, at the university. We’d just sit together, together but silent. Happy silent. Reading newspapers, drinking coee. It was hard to avoid places like that. We used to walk around everywhere. His troublesome soul lingered on every street . . . I kept telling his memory to piss the fuck off but it wouldn’t. Grief is a bastard. If I’d have stayed any longer, I’d have hated humanity. So, when a research position came up in Svalbard I was like, yes, this has come to save me . . . I wanted to be somewhere he had never been. I wanted somewhere where I didn’t have

to feel his ghost. But the truth is, it only half-works, you know? Places are places and memories are memories and life is fucking life.’

Nora took all this in. Ingrid was clearly telling this to someone she thought she knew reasonably well, and yet Nora was a stranger. It felt odd. Wrong. is must be the hardest bit about being a spy, she thought. e emotion people store in you, like a bad investment. You feel like you are robbing people of something.

Ingrid smiled, breaking the thought. ‘Anyway, thanks for last night . . .

at was a good chat. ere are a lot of dickheads on this boat and you are not a dickhead.’

‘Oh. anks. Neither are you.’

And it was then that Nora noticed the gun, a large rifle with a hey brown handle, leaning against the wall at the far end of the room, under the coat hooks.

e sight made her feel happy, somehow. Made her feel like her eleven-year-old self would have been proud. She was, it seemed, having an adventure.

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