First three chapters of Skaparinn (The Dollmaker) translated by Sarah Bowen
Friday and Friday evening
Sveinn hung the last ones out to dry, the hook pierced the back of the neck. Mercifully the hole would be hidden by silky soft hair once the heads were added. He placed a ruler between the ankles; it was important that they dried slightly apart, otherwise they might handle awkwardly, like apprehensive virgins. And there they hung, all four of them, all body type number 4. He straightened himself up, eased the small of his back with a damp, aching hand and admired their colouring, golden brown as though they had wandered naked all summer in the sunshine, shielded only by a fine haze of cloud. The colour mix had worked perfectly and he made a mental note to write down the proportions before the numbers faded from memory.
He didn’t consider himself an artist although others sometimes gave him that dubious accolade. He was a craftsman, a master craftsman in his field yet he didn’t puff himself up over it – for what is self-satisfaction other than the flip side of stagnation? He would not be guilty of either. His job was to craft as skilfully as he could, to create an illusion of human consciousness – shining out of blue or hazel eyes, floating behind half-closed red lips, framed in blonde, raven black or auburn curls – and to let his beautiful girls go into the world in the hope that they would bring their owners joy.
He took off his rubber apron and hung it on a nail by the door, washed his hands in the cubby-hole off the drying room, put his watch back on and when he saw that it was well after eight he realised his stomach was rumbling, his jaw was stiff and his temples were throbbing unbearably. His finger joints were on fire and pain ricocheted round his wrists and elbows. It was the same every time, when he relaxed his concentration his body began to protest.
He tried to recall what was in the fridge as he propped up the door-frame. It would have been quicker to wander into the kitchen, open the fridge and scan the contents, but that was beyond him right then – he needed to let the tiredness ebb away before he did anything, but at the same time he knew he couldn’t unwind until he had some food inside him.
What was there? Minced beef nearing its sell-by date, onions, potatoes, flatbread, butter. Anything else? Cheese, tuna in oil, wafer-thin slices of processed smoked lamb in cumbersome packaging. He didn’t feel like cooking – he thought the knives and wooden spoons would be so heavy. Heavier than the steel which he used in his girls’ joints. Heavier than lead. It was a mercy the base of the box didn’t give way under them.
He could get himself flatbread and coffee, but it went against the grain to let three hundred grams of minced beef go to waste. There were a couple of restaurants nearby, but he wasn’t ready to face people after working many days on end.
No, there was only one thing for it now; to shift himself from the door-frame. Although he longed for nothing more than to take it with him into the kitchen and to lean against it while the onions and mince browned in the pan. One foot in front of the other, it could be done. A pleasant problem compared to an empty fridge and having to go out to the shops. Or if he’d been broke and needed to borrow cash to go shopping, which had sometimes been the case when he was a student and before the doll-making really got going.
Four medium sized potatoes in a saucepan, just enough water to cover them; he couldn’t help a wry smile when he needed both hands to carry the pan from the sink to the stove. If the pain in his joints was anything to go by these working bouts really didn’t agree very well with his body. And now the little finger on his right hand had been numb since early January thanks to a trapped nerve in his arm.
Two red onions, one beginning to sprout. He took one of the heavy knives from the second drawer down and used the point to draw back the kitchen curtains and let in the gleaming white May sun. At nine in the evening the light was still bright and dazzled him for a few seconds, so he wasn’t sure whether there was a car in the drive or whether it was a trick of the light – a green smudge which danced before his eyes as they grew accustomed to the brightness. He would put butter and salt on the potatoes. The very thought of butter made his stomach skip like a hearty dig in the ribs. Yes, it was a car, a bright green Renault, and a woman with long wavy blonde hair was getting out – he automatically thought Honey-Golden Susie – but that was perhaps the only doll-like thing about her.
What was she doing here?
Whatever it was, she would have to wait while he ate. The mince was in the pan, the pan on the hob. He tasted some of the raw meat – it got his stomach juices going. He concentrated on the feeling of hunger which left him little attention to give to the woman hunched over the open boot of the car. Perhaps she was going to sell him something. Or talk to him about Jesus. He would soon shut the door in her face.
A jack. Wheel-brace. Only now did he notice that one of the tyres was completely flat.
The woman dragged the spare tyre out of the boot and rolled it along to the front of the car, leant it up against the grill and attempted, rather comically, to get the dirt off her hands by shaking them and patting her palms. Good girl, he muttered, with tears in his eyes from the onions, when he saw her sure movements. She seemed to know what she was doing, even if she was wearing a pure white woollen coat and fancy shoes. Off with the hub-cap in one swift movement, that’s it, take up the wheel-brace and loosen the locking wheel-nut.
The last time he’d had to do this he’d begun by jacking up the car and then had to jack it back down so he could loosen the nuts. The shame of it hadn’t run very deep, it didn’t wound his male pride; he hadn’t been quite with it that was all.
The woman pushed the wheel-brace with her foot but the nut didn’t budge. She stood on it as though it were the edge of a step, held onto the car roof with both hands and bounced up and down in a determined fashion but nothing happened. She tried the nut above, but to no avail and flung the brace onto the gravel, flopped her elbows down on the roof and buried her face in her hands.
She looked like she was about to burst into tears and without thinking he turned off the heat before heading for the door, rather too quickly as he then came over dizzy. On the way out he determined to be friendly.
Is it stuck solid? he asked, and despite his voice sounding harsher than he’d intended she gave a lop-sided smile.
Yes, she sighed and judging from the sigh and the stoop of her shoulders she was almost as tired as he was. Her eyes were edged with crow’s feet, her eyebrows drawn in permanent worry lines, and she had a sensitive mouth with a dimple on one side. I thought breaking down outside a garage was too good to be true, but I see it’s not a garage any more, she said and looked over at the neat lawn where there were none of last year’s dead weeds to speak of and the newly sprouting grass was even greener than the surrounding vegetation.
They moved to bigger premises down the road ten years ago, he said and bent down for the wheel-brace, slotted it over the nut and applied his full weight but nothing happened. He laughed in disbelief. Who on earth can have done these up? he muttered.
Dad! she replied, the dimple becoming more pronounced as a shadow flitted across her face. He was a taxi driver and the seniors European bench-press champion.
I can well believe it, he said and ran his eyes over her ample frame. There was certainly no shortage of flesh on the bones of this statuesque family. He looked back at her face to contemplate once more her sorrowful smile but it had already disappeared and her face was expressionless.
He couldn’t keep his eyes off her hands. Without registering what was different about them. And her wrists. They were complex. Alive. You could say they were practical. He recalled the blind musician – what was his name? Ray Charles, wasn’t it? – who would feel the wrists of women to see if they were beautiful. Clever of him. It wouldn’t exactly have been gentlemanly to run his fingers straight over their faces before asking their name. What would Ray have felt if he had slid his hands over these strong wrists?
She stuck her hands into her coat pockets and watched him, her face betraying expressions he could in no way decipher.
What? she asked.
Nothing, he said and stared at his feet which seemed far away, covered in mist. The very presence of the woman in the white coat made him tired – he was in no state to deal with this. I have a small sledgehammer in the shed, he said. I’ll fix this for you when I’ve had something to eat. I haven’t had anything since this late yesterday evening.
She raised her eyebrows and glanced around as though searching for some other alternative. At that his head cleared and he added, with all the warmth he could muster but feared it sounded more like sarcasm or outright impatience: If you wouldn’t mind sitting with me in the kitchen in the meantime I guarantee you will be ready to go in an hour and a half.
She followed him hesitantly and he was grateful to her for sparing him the oh, I really shouldn’ts and other insincere apologies. It was best this way. He didn’t want her to leave immediately, for although he needed to unwind he was keenly aware that he hadn’t seen another human face for days. He wanted to look at a face that moved, it didn’t matter if she had nothing to say or was full of empty chatter, he didn’t have the energy to listen or make intelligent comments in any case.
The woman laid her coat over the back of a chair and flopped down on the one next to it. She glanced around with little sign of interest, didn’t say much and barely moved, evidently because she understood that he was hungry and tired. He didn’t want her to be understanding; the thought of understanding women made him shudder. Millions upon millions of understanding women throughout the world who thought little and said even less.
He was taken aback by this thought which had come to him unbidden because it was so unlike him or the image he had of himself. It was as if he had a radio transmitter in his head and some unscrupulous type was dictating what was going on there. He turned the heat back on under the pan, tossed some spices in and set the table for two without so much as a word that his visitor was welcome to join him. He didn’t believe in wordy explanations, they always became nonsensical, and he didn’t believe in helping people to make decisions either. If a person was too reserved to help themselves or so polite they left the food untouched, then that was their affair.
The mince was cooked through but the onions were still half raw. It didn’t matter much. Sveinn opened the glass cabinet and after a moment’s hesitation decided not to bother with the wine glasses and use small tumblers for the wine instead. Otherwise she might think he had unrealistic romantic ideas about the meal. He picked up a half full bottle of red wine and said: I hope you don’t think this is inappropriate, but I like a glass of wine with my meat.
She shook her head and her eyes lit up a little. It was obviously alright for him to unwind; she was clearly not the type to read something into every single thing. She didn’t even seem to take in what was going on around her properly.
What was she thinking anyway? He was well aware that fatigue made him appear drunk. Didn’t she hesitate before following a boozer into his house?
She poured out two glasses of wine and helped herself from the pan. That was the last thing he noticed as he almost forgot she was there because it took all his exhausted attention to slice his potatoes in half and smear a dollop of butter over the smooth surface. Salt. Oh, God! Tears came to his eyes at the very thought of the taste of buttered potatoes with salt.
When he next looked up she had finished her glass and was replenishing it. Well, now! he thought and must have relaxed slightly because he was genuinely delighted that a strange woman was sitting down to eat with him although they were both rather unforthcoming.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to undo the bolts, she said and glanced quickly at him before she turned her attention to the fork in his hand. That’s why I was hoping the garage would still be here and the guys wouldn’t have all gone home.
She shook her head and added: When dad changed a light bulb he often broke the bulb and the fixing and sometimes he pulled knobs off doors. I think he did it deliberately so that we would tell these stories about him, she said and laughed, and he couldn’t help laughing with her. Mainly because the wine had made her ears red.
Is he still alive? he asked.
We buried him last week, she replied. It was a heart attack. He had stopped driving but carried on lifting weights even though the doctor and I had both begged him to ease off.
An unpleasant feeling which Sveinn had been trying for days to keep at bay settled heavily around him. He couldn’t help thinking about that fellow who had killed himself the other day. And now when a strange woman talked about her father’s death he had the feeling that men were dropping all around him like flies. As though the hand of death were caressing him, poking his ribs to see if he was fat enough for the slaughter. Which was rather far-fetched considering both men were old enough to be his father.
That suicide case had managed to force its way into Sveinn’s life. Sveinn had refused to be interviewed by the journalist but nevertheless she had printed a photo of him next to her article which somehow implied that he was indirectly responsible for the tragedy.
What about the guys who’d sold him his television, weren’t they equally to blame? If the old man was soft in the head and muddled fantasy with reality that wasn’t Sveinn’s fault, and certainly not the doll’s fault who, the tabloid said, had accompanied him in his death. And yes, the man had torn her head off, sliced off her breasts and ripped her skin to shreds before he shot himself with an old hunting rifle.
Sveinn had done his best to make the journalist see how lacking in taste it would be to cover this story at all. That the self-destruction of an old man was not newsworthy, no matter how many sex-aids he had in his cupboard or whether he chose to destroy some of his possessions before he looked down the barrel. But she wouldn’t listen, keen to prove herself in her new job and as fascinated by his girls as everyone else. And just as most people felt obliged to veil their interest with moralizing, she justified her inquisitiveness by making out that this was about something she as a journalist had a duty to expose.
He observed the woman sitting opposite him at the table more carefully. She resembled typical drawings of the first women settlers; large, round eyes and big, round bosoms that rested firmly on a sturdy, solid torso and legs like two magnificent pillars. Without getting up he reached across for another bottle and opened it discreetly. He wanted to see her drunk. If she chose to drive home in that condition it wasn’t exactly his fault.
On the other hand, it wasn’t right. He had some responsibility towards her while she was not quite herself, unbalanced in a beautiful peaceful way, not at all hysterical, and there she was sitting in his home while he was wanting to top her up with wine even though she was driving and had almost been shedding tears on the roof of her car a little earlier. He wanted to know more about her loss and the pain it had clearly left her with. He wanted her to say something crass, to make a fool of herself, be degraded by sentimentality. There was no other way to give vent to something inside which he couldn’t put his finger on.
Later that evening she sat in the living room, although it barely deserved the title; it was a small room off the kitchen with three comfy chairs and a little table. She sat there sleeping, her mouth half open and covered with the coat and blanket he had put over her. Her face looked child-like and peaceful in sleep and with her lips parted like that she reminded him of the face design he called Lovely, but this face didn’t have the popularity he felt it deserved. She would be far from pleased when she woke up but there was no point in waking her – she was in no fit state to drive home anyway.
He had changed the wheel. When he had succeeded in getting the thing off it emerged that there were dents in the steel-rim from the nuts – this father of hers must have been a giant of a man – and while he abused the sledgehammer and was applying his full body weight to the wheel-brace, she had worked her way down the second bottle of wine. Even so it hadn’t been as if she got wildly drunk. She’d just succumbed further and further to the tiredness until he’d offered her a more comfortable seat and almost at once she had nodded off. But this was not before he had discovered that the reason for her being here was part of a mysterious search for psychological help for her two daughters. What else could she have meant?
Both my daughters have lost their grip and yet they’ve barely started out on life and I have to do something, she had replied with an inebriated shake of the head to his question why she was here, her downturned mouth quivering slightly.
That was the only time she had really seemed vulnerable and the only vulgarity she had treated him to all evening. She was clearly one of those who can drink themselves to a stupor without losing self-control.
He sat down in front of her at the table, felt for her right hand under the blanket and found it on her thigh, the palm facing upwards and the fingers in a relaxed curve. He slid her hand out from under the blanket and examined it; the woman who called herself Lóa did not flutter an eyelid. She might as well have been on drugs. One could be forgiven for thinking he had knocked her unconscious with the wheel-brace rather than offer her food and wine.
Transparent nail varnish, slightly beginning to flake. A partially healed cut on her index finger. That must have bled somewhat, he thought. Her hand was warm and he turned it over and looked at the bones showing through the skin.
Her hands were not remarkable, quite the opposite, they were quite ordinary. He had been mulling this thought over earlier in the evening when he was out in the covered driveway and when he thought about it the hands were the main thing that stopped his girls looking like people. Their fingers bent in odd directions, their wrists were stiff and no bones could be seen gliding on the backs of their hands. He had no idea how he could design something similar to what he was now holding and admiring in his hand.
He had almost forgotten his weariness but now it swept over him inexorably and he laid Lóa’s hand on the arm of the chair, pulled a corner of the blanket over this exhausted work of art and unbuttoned his shirt on his way to bed.
Lóa’s eyelids were glued together from yesterday’s make-up. The clatter of the letter-box had woken her and she could hear the postman’s footsteps fading and became aware of a raft of discomforts pressing in on her. She was so desperate to pee that she doubted she could even stand up. Her slumped position filled her with alarm, because instead of lying on her front as she usually did when she slept, she was sitting half upright with her chin down on her chest and it felt as if her right hand was floating in mid-air. She pulled it towards her and placed it on her cheek, used two fingers stiff with cold to prize open one eye and then the other, merely to find herself staring at a blank wall covered in pale green wallpaper with a dark green pattern on it. Her body felt sweaty but her feet felt cold and heavy and she looked down to see that someone had covered her over with a coarse checked blanket which she didn’t remember seeing before. She was still wearing her shoes and her coat was in a pile on the floor.
Of course. She wasn’t at home but at the house of this man who had helped her change the tyre. Her tongue was dry in her mouth. Margrét. Ína. The heartbeat that thumped right from her crotch to her mouth was of almost epic proportions and she thought of everything which could have happened to her daughters left alone that night.
The cold hit her as she threw off the blanket. Still, she didn’t dare bend over to pick up the coat and just eased herself carefully to her feet; she felt pins and needles spread out from her groin as the blood began to circulate freely round her legs once more and she set off in search of the bathroom. She passed through the kitchen which bore no traces of last night’s meal and the morning sun flooded the room and made her eyes fill with tears for the second time since her arrival here. There were cobwebs in the corners but otherwise the kitchen was neat and tidy – much tidier than her kitchen had ever been. Except perhaps when she had just moved out with the girls from their father seven years ago and tried to compensate for the upheaval by having everything just so.
Knives clung to the magnetic strip along the wall and kitchen utensils hung from iron hooks; pans, wooden spoons, ladles, whisks and forks. The cupboards were made of oak, old and small. The work-surfaces were low, the drawers shallow and the doors of the eye-level cupboards had been removed so that the crockery was on view, white and stacked as if in a guest-house.
The kitchen table was covered with a yellow cloth and in the middle lay her car keys and mobile – the clock on the mobile said 6:47. Hopefully the girls had not noticed her absence. She was particularly anxious about Margrét who often took a while to calm down if there was no-one around when she woke. She was fifteen, going on sixteen, but really needed an eye kept on her day and night.
Leading from the kitchen was a hallway with three closed doors. There were two large strip lights in the ceiling but no switch to be seen and she didn’t come across one even though she patted the walls around the doorway in case it was hidden from view in the half-dark. A tiled floor stretched before her in the gloom and her heels resounded despite her efforts to tread softly.
She felt uncomfortable nosing round a strange house but there was nothing else for it as the pressure on her bladder was impelling her forwards. And if the owner woke up and found her he would surely understand that there was no way she could wait to relieve herself of a whole bottle of red wine from the previous evening.
She opened the first door very carefully to reveal a small room facing south like the kitchen. Her eyes quickly became accustomed to the light and when she saw the man lying there in a single bed against the wall under the window she was so taken aback that she trod on her own toes in her rush to back hurriedly out of the room. But he was sleeping so soundly it was hard to imagine that he would ever wake again and she allowed herself to pause a moment. Mainly to take a deep breath so she didn’t knock into something or inadvertently make a noise shutting the door.
There were no curtains in the window so the sun was visible in the blue sky and her car stood waiting for her, no longer standing askew from the puncture, thanks to the man who lay sleeping with his arms around the duvet. He had old-fashioned black underpants on – no boxers or designer lettering on the waistband – and she remembered that he had a name. Half-naked men were rarely nameless and this one, with the back of his dark head resting against the hard head-rest and his face hidden in the fold of his duvet, was called Sveinn.
He had folded his clothes over the back of the chair before he went to bed and she also noticed a large wicker basket next to the wardrobe, obviously used for dirty laundry and next to that was a little shoe-cleaning box with brushes and cloths. This touched her in a way she couldn’t quite fathom and mustn’t dwell on now. She shut the door silently and fumbled her way further down the hallway, found a doorknob and tried it, but the door was locked.
Behind the third door was an empty room, streaked with light which forced its way in through the greyish blinds. The layer of dust on the blinds caused Lóa to screw up her eyes so everything looked fuzzy round the edges. The rug was dirty and the smell of lubricating oil reminded her of those hours she had spent in her youth waiting aimlessly for her father at the garage. Because taxis need to be polished regularly, as he never tired of telling her. For his taxi was a top of the range West German model and looked almost brand new when it had a good coat of polish. At the funeral she had the irrational feeling that she was waiting for him.
Ína had sat by her side in her best dress which was slightly too tight and swung her feet which didn’t quite reach the floor. Lóa had sat there with tears in her eyes, her head drooping as she clutched tightly onto Ína’s coat, looking round now and then as if she was a child again waiting in a dirty tearoom where there was nothing to do other than suck on a sugar-cube and look at bikini-clad girls on the walls.
Just as she was about to close the third and final door she saw from the way the faded streaks of light fell on the floor that the hallway carried on, that there was not a wall at the end of the hallway but more darkness from which came a slightly sharp smell reminiscent of varnish and vinegar. She fumbled around on the other side of the wall until she found a switch and row after row of strip lights sputtered into life with buzzing and flickering noises and a large, windowless room appeared. This was the section of the house which from the outside had looked like a small Nissen hut attached to the main building and the fluorescent lights were suspended on cables from the convex ceiling.
Women’s torsos hung in the corner furthest from the door – their feet held apart with a ruler. There were four of them, all exactly the same design, with such pert breasts that the skin-coloured nipples pointed straight up in the air. Their arms hung slightly out from their bodies and not by their sides, as people do to keep their balance on board a ship. The way they held their arms made them look alive even without their heads and Lóa felt surrounded. Her shoulders tensed and the pressure on her bladder became almost unbearable.
She longed to escape but an ominous fear overwhelmed her and she stood frozen to the spot. She exhaled quickly, took a deep breath, hesitated in the doorway and looked carefully around her. Not a sound, no movements other than her own. She was alone there, no-one was watching and she had nothing to fear. Now she had to think clearly, reassure herself that she was indeed awake and try to come up with a convincing explanation for this grotesque scene.
Yesterday evening, just before she nodded off in the armchair, Sveinn had told her he made dolls but she hadn’t exactly been paying attention and maybe she had imagined something romantic. Puppets with extraordinary nobility in the lines of their carved faces or pale china dolls in creamy white silk dresses. It was hardly possible to dream up something more unromantic than this.
As she took a long comforting breath to rid herself of the final dregs of fear, the doorway to her memory opened a crack wider. Their skin was silicone – hence the smell. She had smelled this sharp vinegary smell of drying silicone before and now she wanted to examine the dolls more carefully, to see if the texture was as close to human skin as it appeared.
No, it was more urgent to find the bathroom and hurry back home before the girls woke. Besides, maybe this Sveinn had a screw loose and would go beserk if he found her here. That’s right, hadn’t he behaved rather oddly yesterday evening? The man was gruff one minute and gentle the next, attentive at times and totally blank at others.
She was just about to turn off the lights and leave when she noticed another door in the room. The thought that this could be the door she was looking for drew her towards it despite feeling uncomfortable being in there. Windowless rooms were unpleasant, headless torsos were unpleasant and the same was true of sleeping men one barely knew. The shame of having babbled on with grape-stained lips and then nodded off was also unpleasant, and too alien for Lóa to admit even to herself.
The box-room off the workshop turned out to be some sort of storeroom for bodies and heads wrapped in polythene, wigs, large canisters full of liquid, bags with silicon powder, boxes of all different sizes, waterproof paints and brushes, and there was also a sink. Spotlessly clean yet gave the impression that many hands had been washed there over the years – the white enamel was beginning to wear away revealing the shining steel underneath. She simply stared at the plug-hole and then it was as though all thoughts were suspended and something else took over and she pulled up a little stool covered in paint splashes, climbed up onto it, undid her trousers, felt carefully behind her to support her hands and let it flow. It took a moment or two because her muscles were so tensed from holding it all in, but finally she managed to aim a fountain of pee fit for a horse directly down the plug and let out an anguished sound of pained relief.
She felt almost weightless when she’d climbed down from the stool and zipped herself back up. Empty like those dolls out there, she thought and laughed out loud as she washed her hands and splashed water all around the sink to remove any evidence.
She hadn’t felt so light-hearted in a long while, not since long before her father died, perhaps not since before Margrét became ill. It was a physical joy which sprang from physical relief but the mind makes little distinction between physical and other more sublime joy. An exaggerated sense of courage and curiosity accompanied this particular feeling. Even though she was first and foremost an anxious mother and a grieving daughter, she was still a person in her own right.
It was the labels on the crates and sacks which aroused her curiosity. Plaster. Alginade. Skinflex. And the wigs: Candy- Pink Lisa. Hot-Red Daisy. Raven-Black Lola, Honey-Golden Susie.
As she came out of the storeroom the first thing that met her eye was a huge poster of da Vinci’s man, except it wasn’t a man but a woman whose outstretched limbs were marked by circles which focussed attention on the perfection of her proportions in golden ratio. There were also drawings of models, photographs of various parts of the body, sketches and models for the dolls’ skeletons. And in one corner stood a small battered desk with a computer and printer.
It felt like she was snooping round an elderly watchmaker’s workshop – everything in there seemed to point to an ongoing uplifting endeavour. The roof of the Nissen hut rose over her like the vaulted ceiling of a church and despite the brilliant fluorescent lighting she felt she was in the presence of an overwhelming holiness and that she was actually breaking an ancient covenant simply by being there.
She was hardly aware of her footsteps as she walked over to the corner where the dolls were hanging and with each step the floor seemed more distant and became insubstantial. There was something forbidden and voyeuristic about seeing them half-formed like that, irrespective of whether she had permission to be there or not. Yes, they were naked, but that was not the key issue, it was rather that they had no faces, no eyes and they gave Lóa the feeling that she was staring at someone who didn’t know they were being watched. It was as though their sanctity was being violated but not in the same way as with objects.
They were beautiful; without blemish, apart from barely noticeable joins on their sides and the outsides of their legs. They still had not been given nails, but from the shape of their fingertips and toes it was obvious they would have nails.
Cautiously Lóa touched the seam on one of the doll’s thighs. The fact that they were hanging there could mean that they were still hardening. But the silicone skin was stretched tight and firm to the touch and left no mark when she gently prodded it.
The ball of the foot felt as smooth as a pebble from the beach. She ran her finger under the arch of the foot and her own feet, which were still numbed from sitting all night in tight trousers, tingled in response. It was obvious what the dolls were intended for and Lóa felt compelled to slip two fingers into the doll’s private parts; it felt firm but soft and rather cold.
She wanted to see the dolls in their finished state, to touch their hair and see how realistic they could appear. She glanced around and noticed an oblong wooden box by the wall. From the position of the two metal strips, one on the lid and one on the chest itself, it was evident that a padlock was meant to secure them together. But there was no padlock.
She crept towards the chest and opened it slightly. Her heart was thumping again and her blood pulsated down to her fingers. She wasn’t sure how she would feel about meeting the eye of a finished doll and considered closing the box before she’d properly looked inside. Of course she shouldn’t delay any further but just get herself out to the car and drive home to Margrét. And to Ína who was not at all happy to be left alone with her sister. Lóa vowed this would not happen again. But she couldn’t resist opening it further. She might not get another chance and five minutes or so would hardly make any difference to the girls.
The chest could have held at least three such dolls but there was only one, floating in white styrofoam, a sea of little white balls which looked like freshly fallen hailstones settled around her dress and reached up to where her hands were resting. Her skin was almost as pale as the foam balls, her hair was smooth and jet-black, her pink lips slightly apart and the face was oddly familiar.
Even though her hand looked steady enough Lóa was sure she could feel it tremble as she reached forward to touch one eye. It was made of glass and cold to the touch but the expression was not at all cold or dead. She’d dreaded seeing a glassy broken stare and now couldn’t help shuddering at how life-like it was, how the eyes seemed to move and the eyelids flutter with their dark sweeping lashes. She also touched the doll’s mouth and saw that she didn’t have any teeth but the silicone on the inside was soft and yielding like the vaginas on the ones hanging from the ceiling, although vagina was perhaps not quite the right word. It was strange to think that she was toothless for the pubescent plumpness of her face certainly didn’t give that impression.
The dress, which was made from semi-transparent pink silk with narrow shoulder straps, fell in soft folds over her breasts which quivered at the touch of a hand and felt slightly firmer than their living counterpart. Under the silk was a hint of black pubic hair and pink nipples unlike the skin-coloured ones on her unfinished sisters.
Lóa was amazed at how buxom her backside was and how solid her thighs. The doll in the box was more curvaceous and feminine than most bodies of flesh and blood.
Her thoughts turned to Margrét and a lump rose in her throat. Tears distorted her vision and her eyes felt like the dolls’ – made of thick glass.
If Margrét had a doll for company, perhaps her loneliness wouldn‘t be so painful. A doll might help her break out of her isolation and find her way back into the world.
Indeed wasn‘t that how phobias were treated? People who were chronically afraid of spiders were introduced to plastic spiders before they came near living ones which run quickly in all manner of directions. What was troubling Margrét other than an irrational aversion to her own body or a dread of life? A deep-seated distrust of anything and everything. It wasn‘t exactly possible to put your trust in a doll, but equally it wasn‘t possible to distrust her either. She was always waiting there for you wherever you put her last and would never catch you unawares.
Margrét had turned her back on life because she didn‘t want to be taken off guard. No one had managed to make her see that her response was illogical and simply wrong. But you never know, the doll might just succeed where everyone else had failed. Even if it was only due to the doll‘s life-affirming sexual charisma. Look at me, I am the very embodiment of the ideal, healthy woman.
Something unravelled in Lóa as if a coil had snapped or a shoelace broken. She became oblivious to everything except the tender lives of Ína and Margrét and didn‘t even consider how much these things cost, brand new and all dolled up in pink silk lying in twenty litres of styrofoam which looked as though it had fallen from heaven in a cold snap in January. Sveinn could make a new doll. Lots of new ones, exactly like this one.
The rustling of the styrofoam balls was like whispering voices which gave no hint of warning or moralizing when Lóa eased one arm under the doll’s knees and the other behind her back. She was going to pick her up but couldn’t budge her because she was much heavier than Lóa had anticipated, as if she was filled with sand, and Lóa could feel the jerk in her back. She rubbed the small of her back where the pain seemed to originate and again moved towards the doll’s head, put her arm round her shoulders and drew her half up out of the chest. By curling her fingers under her breast she got a better grip and raised her up into a sitting position.
A shiver went down Lóa’s aching back because handling the doll reminded her so much of handling a real person and it would stay sitting up, like a sick girl who had been helped up in her bed.
Then she noticed the case on the far side of the chest; a black velvet-lined box, half hidden under the foam balls. It was unlocked and in it were a bottle of viscous fluid, some pink nail varnish and a folded sheet of paper. She smoothed out the paper and read:
Skapahár/Bush:Svört, óskorin/Black, whole
She folded it back up, left the box as she had found it and looked at the doll who was still sitting upright as though she were waiting for someone to pick her up and take her away. But of course she was incapable of waiting for anything or wanting anything and even from this distance her expression was eternally blank. It occurred to Lóa that what she was planning was not only wrong but also foolish. It wasn’t like slipping a cigarette lighter in your pocket or a ball-point pen, this was more along the lines of stealing a valuable painting or the family cat.
But paintings and cats do not stop the world from turning.
I’ll return her later, she thought. I’ll return her when Margrét is on the mend. And this Sveinn chap doesn’t know my name or where I live. He’ll fuss and fume, draw harsh conclusions about the boozy woman who was too wimpy to change her own tyre – and then he’ll forget all about it.
She looked around for something to protect the doll with and saw some clear plastic sheeting on the floor under the drying torsos, which was spattered with transparent, white and skin-coloured splashes. She spread it out behind the doll, wiped her finger over the splashes to make sure they were completely dry but didn’t bother about the cloud of white dust which billowed up each time she moved the plastic. She grasped the doll’s arm and lifted her in one swift movement over the side of the chest and laid her on her back on the plastic sheet. Her legs remained pointing up into the air. That was better than dragging her heels across the floor and getting wedged in the doorway. But her dress slithered up around her in an undignified fashion and she slipped onto one side because of the weight of her legs.
The doll slid like a sled over crisp snow across the concrete floor. Lóa strained her hearing and her tensed shoulders ached from the swishing and rustling that plucked at her taut nerves.
The hallway was dark and too narrow to accommodate the racket. If this didn’t wake the owner up then he was either ill or on medication. Still, there was nothing for it but to carry on.
I don’t give a damn, she thought out loud over and over, as though the words provided the impetus she needed to drag the doll that final stretch, through the kitchen, over the doorstep to the porch and across the paving stones to the covered driveway.
Next to her car was a dark red pickup truck which must belong to the doll-maker. A Dodge Ram. A make her father had either deeply admired or intensely disliked. She couldn’t remember which it was; just that such cars had aroused some kind of feeling in the old man.
Lóa straightened up, relieved to be in the daylight which was beautifully golden in comparison to the white-blue of the fluorescent lights, and leant against the car while the fatigue drained from her back. The damn keys were still on the kitchen table. And her mobile. Which at that moment she heard ringing. Ína must have woken up and now she was about to wake the doll-maker too.
She shoved the doll’s feet down onto the gravel, hastily covered her over and ran back towards the door, but had forgotten to check whether it was on the latch and held her breath as she tried the handle.
It didn’t open.
Her stomach sank and Lóa could feel hot tears burning her throat and the back of her eyes blurring her vision. She tried the handle again and gave the door a hard shove, it creaked open softly and she half stumbled into the kitchen, grabbed her keys and phone which was now as silent as a spring morning and hadn’t been ringing at all. The screen showed 7:09.
She ran back out and this time didn’t even shut the door, opened the boot and with hands shaking so much that her keys jangled, she wrapped the plastic more evenly round the doll, eased her with difficulty into the boot and spent a mentally gruelling eternity getting her into the right position; curled up and more or less covered with the plastic. Each time she looked up she thought she spotted a hint of a shadow emerge in the doorway and she kept looking up because her imagination had gone into overdrive and turned every beat in her ears into approaching footsteps.
When she had carefully closed the lid of the boot pushing it down with both hands till she heard it click shut, she got into the driver’s seat and tried to quieten her ragged breathing but then she remembered, and it was like a blow to her chest, that her coat was still indoors on the living room floor.
For a long while she stared at the open back door and made as if to get out of the car a few times but then stopped each time. She tried to recall whether there was anything in the pockets and convinced herself that there hadn’t been anything other than her phone and the bunch of house and car keys which now dangled gently in the ignition, gently but enough to intensify her nausea. All the strength had drained out of her fingers and she turned the ignition with difficulty, put the engine in reverse and pressed hard on the accelerator. Too hard. The car gave a lurch and stalled.
Tears streamed down her face and with a loud sobbing she turned the key again despite the fact she longed just to lean on the steering wheel and sob her heart out until someone found her and took her where she could rest, preferably somewhere protected by a tall hedge of thorns, or in a glass case with a heavy lock.
She backed out onto the road and was off, amazed that the car held steadily to the road, that it didn’t career into a ditch or explode into the air. She couldn’t remember ever having stolen anything in her life before, not since she was a youngster and stole cigarettes and small change from her parents’ pockets and wallets, and the terror of committing such an anti-social act was greater than she could ever have imagined. She glanced back quickly – the back door was still ajar and the owner was nowhere to be seen. She could hardly believe that she had done it, but instead of feeling relief she was overtaken by such anxiety that her surroundings seemed to glow white with danger. It was as if the aim had not been to steal and get away with it, but to be caught and taken out of action; the freedom and responsibility removed from her shoulders and given to a better and more competent person who could take Ína and Margrét into their arms and help them. As for herself, she was on the verge of collapse and in no position to help anyone, least of all herself.
The blue of the sky was so palpable that she could almost taste it and she took in the colours and shapes as she drove by – Akrafjall mountain, the fence-posts, the hayfield just recovering after the winter. When she handed her credit card shakily to some lad in the booth at the mouth of the Hvalfjördur tunnel she only needed to glance at his eyes to catch the distant cry of his hopes and desires.
She kept her eyes on the road and yet it was as if she was looking down on everything from above. Trawlers in the estuary of the fjord, rippling glittering waves, speckled hayfields and crooked fences, a sleepy young lad in the toll-booth. She saw down into the sea and through the carved out slab of rock under the sea. And the green Renault in the badly lit tunnel, herself at the wheel with the silky-clad crime in the boot. The phantasm was bathed in light, full of reflections dancing off the surface of the sea but still the light dazzled her eyes as she drove out of the tunnel and the soft smooth sky took over from the coarse hewn rock. Occasionally she looked in the rear view mirror half expecting to see a red Dodge Ram charging out of the tunnel or appearing up on the slopes ahead.
The front door opened seconds after she turned off the engine outside her home in Framnesvegur and Ína came running towards her in her short-sleeved pyjamas with the word Curious and a picture of Britney Spears across the front.
Lóa got out of the car, took Ína in her arms and laughed in relief as she felt four robust limbs wrap around her and sensed the familiar smell of peanut butter and jam on her little girl‘s breath. Faint reddish lights glinted here and there in her ashblonde hair which she liked to colour with felt-pens even though she had been strictly forbidden to do so.
You‘re like an octopus, laughed Lóa and disentangled a chubby arm so she could make Ína more comfortable on her hip. Silently she swore to herself that nothing like this would ever happen again.
Anyway it wasn‘t necessary to make such solemn oaths because it had been nothing more than a bizarre accident or some kind of strange breakdown. She didn‘t remember ever being knocked out like that from drinking before, let alone in a stranger‘s house.
Where were you? Ína cried. I was so scared. Why didn‘t you come home?
I did come home! Lóa said with such conviction that she almost believed herself. I came home when you and Margrét had both just fallen asleep and then I had to go out first thing this morning to buy a few things for Margrét. What are you doing up and about so early? I thought you liked having a lie-in on Saturdays.
I woke up because I heard you weren’t home, answered Ína and tensed up to slip off her mother‘s hip and wiped the tears from her face. What did you buy for me?
I didn‘t buy anything for you but tomorrow we‘ll go together and buy a bike for you as a present for the summer, said Lóa. But now you must help me with Margrét’s summer present. Run in and put on your shoes and anorak.
No, it’s summerrr, Ína said. And you‘re not wearing a coat.
It‘s not quite summer yet, replied Lóa, stroking Ína‘s arm with her finger as she blocked out the thought of her coat’s whereabouts. Just look at those goose-bumps on your arm, my love. Now go and put on your shoes and anorak.
When she opened the boot a ghastly sight met her eyes, nothing like the beauty she’d seen when she’d opened the chest at the doll-maker’s about an hour earlier. The doll lay there all curled up with a dirty bit of plastic half covering her and her dress crumpled up around her chest. Her hair was tangled and full of static and dotted with styrofoam balls. Her eyes, which before had appeared so warm and alive, now just looked open and staring.
For a few moments she bitterly regretted what she had done but it was too late now to do anything about it. She lacked the courage to face a man who has just woken up and return his lawful property, crumpled and grubby after a pointless journey.
She pulled herself together, for Ína‘s sake – Ína would be terrified if she realised the apprehensiveness and indecision which plagued her mother – and pushed the plastic sheet to one side, re-arranged the dress as best she could and attempted, with little success, to dust the foam balls off the silky black hair. She inched the doll up out of the boot, laid her on her back on the tarmac and was just straightening her up when Ína came running out in unlaced trainers and her quilted pink anorak flapping open. Wow, she exclaimed. Is it a mannequin? Why is she so dirty?
Because she should have been in a box, but there wasn’t enough room for the box in the car, my poppet; mind your fingers, said Lóa and banged the boot shut. We’ll just shower her down. Lift up her feet. No, don’t hold her knees, that’ll be too heavy for you. Hold her by the heels so that they don’t get dragged along the ground.
They made their way slowly up the steps with the doll and much to Lóa’s relief there was not a soul in sight.
When they got indoors the stairs were much steeper and Ína frequently lost her grip. Halfway up she plumped down and pretended to be much more out of breath than she was. Hold on, mum, it‘s so heavy, she puffed dramatically.
There are only ten steps to go, said Lóa. Let’s count them together: One… two…
The dress was a size too big and had a zip down the back so it was a simple enough task to undress the doll. Lóa propped her up in the shower and let Ína rinse out the dress in cold water in the washbasin. She took the showerhead from the holder and aimed the lukewarm jet at the doll‘s face and hair – the water merged with the dust which had spread all over her from the plastic and ran down her body in greyish rivulets. Lóa’s conscience seemed to clear as easily as the dirt lifted from the doll‘s skin. The cold shiver of trepidation at having stolen such a valuable item quickly melted away in the water and Ína‘s chattering.
Victoria‘s Secret! squealed Ína over the noise of water. It‘s a Victoria‘s Secret dress, mum, may I have it?
Lóa was about to say that it would be too big for her and not right for the doll to be naked. But she stopped herself because the dress wouldn’t look as good as new once it had been washed and so not worth returning with the doll if it came to that. There was also no point in having her dressed up like a tart until then. She turned the tap off, put her arm round Ína as she stood on a little pink step-up stool at the basin and kissed her silky-soft rounded cheek. If you promise to go in the shower yourself afterwards and rinse your hair thoroughly then you may have it, she said. Pass me a large towel and then fetch my checked pyjamas – they‘re in the cupboard behind the door in my room.
I can‘t find them, yelled Ína from Lóa’s bedroom.
Have another look, Lóa called back as she carefully dried the doll’s hair. And don’t shout like that. Margrét may still be asleep.
Shortly after Ína appeared in the doorway next to the shower clutching the pyjamas and said: Margrét isn’t sleeping. She’s always awake.
I know, my darling, said Lóa. But sometimes she likes to make out she’s asleep and you know she can’t stand noise. You’ll have to be the big sister until she gets better. Do you think you can do that?
Yes, replied Ína sulkily as she put the pyjamas on the edge of the washbasin then began picking the foam balls up from the floor.
Don‘t worry about that, said Lóa. I’ll do it with the hoover later.
No, don’t do that. I’ll pick them all up. Then can I have them? Let me, mum, I’m going to make a Christmas card, well no, not a Christmas card, I’m going to do a picture.
Of course you can have them, said Lóa and spread the towel out on the floor. It was enormous with pictures of parasols and beach-balls. She placed the pyjama top out in the middle of the towel, laid the doll on top of it with some difficulty and slipped her arms into the sleeves.
Why has the mannequin got hair down there? asked Ína and pointed to the doll‘s pubic hair.
Just because, answered Lóa and pulled the pyjama bottoms up her legs. You can button her top up.
Lóa swayed gently from side to side to ease her back, stroked Ína‘s hair – damp after her enthusiastic dress-washing – and said: Shall we go and say good morning to Margrét?
It was already late when Sveinn awoke in a room full of sunlight and warmth. Although his muscles were still aching with fatigue and his thighs damp with sweat around the crumpled duvet, he luxuriated in the feeling of rest like longed-for sunshine behind his eyes and forehead.
He sat up in bed and ran his fingers through his hair, greasy and spiky with dirt. Where did this unexpected sense of anticipation spring from? What did he have to do that was such fun? Stand under a long shower. Make himself coffee and toast, read the paper. Focus on completing the few remaining tasks to get the girls ready to go. Glue on their nails, attach their heads to their bodies, slip them into their dresses and secure the lids on the boxes.
Then he must deliver the dark-haired one. She had been ready for Kjartan for a while but he hadn’t made the time, or perhaps he had just been putting off the test of his patience which seeing Kjartan entailed.
Kjartan had already bought one doll and was now going to buy another. At the recycling plant he just about earned a living wage and it had taken him many months to save up for this second doll. He had used all his savings to buy the first one shortly after Sveinn had moved into Akranes and Sveinn had the feeling the purpose had been to buy companionship, Sveinn’s own company as much as the doll’s, and he felt Kjartan had succeeded. Not because Sveinn needed Kjartan‘s money, but because Kjartan‘s desperation cut him to the quick and sometimes he was relieved to have someone to talk to. And not least because Kjartan had taken to trawling the internet and gathering all the information that was to be found on doll-making. It was sometimes a relief for Sveinn to talk out loud about his work, which he thought about most days of the week, and Kjartan was undoubtedly the only one who was willing to listen.
Yet each time they met it was as though something of Kjartan‘s unhappiness seeped into Sveinn‘s being. The thought of spending yet another evening sitting on a high priced, urine yellow leather sofa, drinking beer from the bottle rather pricked the bubble of anticipation which had been growing in him as he slept.
He took off his underpants as he got out of bed, using them to wipe most of the sweat from his back before dropping them in the laundry basket. But then stopped dead in the middle of the hallway as he remembered the woman he‘d left sleeping in the armchair the evening before. He could not be sure that she had gone. Perhaps she was still sleeping. Or busy in the kitchen making fresh bread and coffee. There was no way of knowing what people might take upon themselves and he didn‘t want to meet her here in the hallway with his bits dangling.
Back in the bedroom, he fished out a pair of crumpled trousers from the laundry basket, put them on, sighed, chose a pair of clean underpants, trousers and a shirt from the cupboard and made his way out to the bathroom.
The water refreshed and awoke something in him which the daylight had only half-managed to and when he stepped out of the bathroom, barefoot, clean-shaven and in fresh clothes he realised he was hoping that this Lóa was still in the house. Mostly hoping that she would come on to him with her compassion and needs, like women sometimes do in films. Eventually she would succeed in moving his hardened and rusty heart and he would become a better person afterwards and all her life she would be singing with delight at her achievement. The End. He laughed, or rather snorted softly. But when he went into the living room no one was there. The blanket lay on the floor and when he picked it up to fold it he found her coat underneath; a white woollen coat with a pale green lining.
Hello! he called carrying the coat through into the kitchen where he absent-mindedly put it down over the back of a chair. He looked out of the window. Her car wasn’t out there. She’d gone and left the coat behind.
She would probably come back. Perhaps he would manage to ply her with drink again and maybe she wouldn’t nod off next time. Yesterday he’d had the feeling there was more to her than met the eye. They had both been utterly exhausted.
How long had it actually been since he had slept with a woman? Months and months. More than a year. Well, if they didn’t feel like taking their clothes off perhaps he could talk to her. He’d nothing in common with the few friends he had. Lóa was probably quite good company. At least she hadn’t filled in all the silences with endless chatter as women tend to do, in the belief that they are sharing something of themselves and lightening the atmosphere.
He put the coffee on and got out flatbread, cheese and slices of smoked lamb; cut thick slices off the cheese with the serrated bread knife and piled the meat slices between two halves of flatbread.
He ought to go to the shops later. Try to appear oblivious to the staring eyes of the locals. The article in the local rag must be adding fuel to the fire of any gossip. In small communities people might remain indifferent to world issues and the ultimate meaning of life, but they kept a close eye on what went on locally and if someone known to them ended up in the papers, they followed such news with interest.
There wasn’t any milk so he put four sugar cubes in his coffee instead. After taking several bites of the flatbread he happened to notice that one sleeve of Lóa’s coat, which he’d flung carelessly over the back of the chair, was brushing the floor. He reached over to set it straight and a lined green pocket stared back at him. Nothing for it but to slip his hand inside.
Both pockets were empty.
He left his half-finished coffee and carried the coat into the porch. The outside door was open. He closed it and hung the coat up on a hook. A faint trace of perfume floated up which reminded him more of incense than a fragrant meadow. He couldn‘t remember when he had made up his mind that all perfumes smelled unpleasant, but this one wasn‘t exactly unpleasant. It was different and added to the tension deep in his gut and gave him the feeling that Lóa was more beautiful than he remembered – that perhaps he had missed something which had taken place right before his very eyes.
If weariness and discontent wore away at their faces, women over thirty could become almost unrecognisable. He‘d not thought about that the previous evening. He had been too much in need of company to be able to accept anything other than the limited gratification which he‘d felt an unknown woman could offer him just then. He had expected her to be shallow, or at least sufficiently lacking in confidence to appear shallow – it amounted to the same thing – and when she met neither of those expectations he had all but forgotten that she was there. Two glasses of wine later and he had wanted her to satisfy some suppressed and boorish aspect of his nature by losing her self-control, but she hadn’t done that either, other than for a brief moment after he had subjected her to some rough questioning about her daughters, and then it had been done in an understated manner. A quivering chin could hardly be said to count as gross lack of control or dramatics.
He let go of the coat and it seemed to him that the scent clung to his hands. He looked down at them as if he thought they had suddenly changed shape when out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the morning paper lay on the floor by the porch door, thoroughly trampled, as though a whole army regiment had used it to wipe their boots. Next to it a pristine envelope, seemed to mock the wrecked newspaper. There was no window on the envelope and the sender’s handwriting was neat and feminine.
He dusted the worst of the dirt from the paper and flicked through it while finishing his coffee.
The envelope lay untouched next to the coffee mug, a white rectangle which someone had bothered to glue down and write on the outside. Yes, of course he was curious, but also slightly anxious. Was he in the right frame of mind for the unexpected or would the peace of mind he had known in recent months in some mysterious and fateful way be extinguished like some remote fort, hard-pressed by neglect and the ravages of time?
Finally he broke the seal with the tip of his knife, slit open the envelope and took out a card with a newspaper cutting glued to it. It was an obituary. A small black cross above a picture of a man aged between sixty and seventy. The words below read: Our beloved father and brother, Hans Sigurjónsson from Hlíð in Svarfaðardalur, died in his home on the first of May last month. The funeral will be held privately at the request of the deceased. No flowers please. Donations may be made to the Red Cross.
He put the card down. He had no doubt this was the chap who had ended his life with an old farm rifle. Probably a farmer, or had been a farmer. The newspaper article hadn‘t made that clear, nor did the obituary. Protect the deceased but disgrace the living, wasn‘t that the press‘ cobbled-together code of ethics?
But wait a moment. Wasn‘t it customary to sign obituaries? He looked at the card again. The names of the relatives had been cut out so the sender must be one of them. A sister? A daughter?
It would be best to do nothing –he mustn‘t let himself get obsessed with this. But there was that pile of old papers stacked up in one corner of the kitchen – he couldn‘t stop himself flicking through a few to find this same obituary.
It wasn‘t there. He tended to spread newspapers out around the tub when he stirred the silicone mixture and then throw them away once he‘d finished mixing. It would be out with the rubbish by now.
He examined the card. White, ordinary, the clipping glued to it with ungodly precision. He turned it over and saw that a computer-printed note had been fixed to the reverse. His own obituary with the same picture which had been published in the paper. In place of the cross was the devil‘s star.
Our creator and father in crime, Sveinn Guðmundsson, who died suddenly in his home on Friday, 13th June.
The Used Innocents/Innocents in service
Rising slowly to his feet, Sveinn stretched, breathed in deeply then tried to breathe out the cold shivers and weariness he felt. He tossed the card in the rubbish bin, and thinking the better of it, dug it out again then put it in a drawer where he kept his screwdriver, pliers and alun keys. He resolved to put this sick person‘s death-threat out of his mind and clear his head. He wandered down the hallway, his feet seeming to move of their own accord in the direction of the workshop.
He remembered receiving a few strange calls recently and sensed something in his gut as he listened to the angry silence on the line. Perhaps they too meant that someone was trying to get him.
It might do him good to have a few beers with Kjartan this evening after all. The alcohol would help him to relax. He seemed to be always a quiver with restlessness except when he was engrossed in his work. How much he relished the emptiness in his head when he was entirely focussed.
Ingunn, his ex, had left him a year and a half ago saying that there were many different kinds of affairs – and workaholism was one of them.
He had asked her whether it was because it was this particular job and not some other work; whether she would have been equally determined to end the relationship if he was always out teaching disabled children or trading on the stock market.
It didn‘t make a damned bit of difference, she‘d said. She simply didn‘t want to witness the torment in his eyes when he was forced to talk with or even be with her.
He had believed Ingunn. She had never shown any sign of jealousy even though he‘d been running his hands over these perfect, plastic, feminine forms all day long. Maybe she‘d thought herself above it and hid her hurt.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have taken her at her word. Perhaps she’d kept other things hidden from him?
Being with her hadn’t been pure torment – that wasn’t true. He didn’t know how to love anyone else and had been meaning to suggest that they start living together, to promise her for the umpteenth time that he wouldn’t let his work smother their relationship. But she had been more realistic and quicker to understand that he wasn’t able to keep such a promise.
Perhaps he needed a woman who could accept him with all his qualities and quirks – and who would even share his interest in making dolls. A partner in crime who would sit with him in the evenings in the pool of light from a powerful work-lamp sewing dresses, varnishing nails and attaching wigs. She would calm him with her gentle smile and well-chosen words when he was upset or his nerves were on edge. She would have no doubt that a woman and a doll are two entirely different entities and know that to draw any comparison between the two was ridiculous. Like a man who compares himself with the statue of an outlaw –staggering around with his family and all his worldly goods on his back – and then suffers from an inferiority complex.
When he was younger he had put considerable effort into convincing himself that he didn’t need a woman in his life. But he had long since accepted that he was no different from anyone else and that man is governed by his needs and longings rather than the other way round. Age has the effect of keel-hauling a man, flaying and humbling him – he thought and laughed at the idea; only just turned forty and already assigning himself to a bent back and arthritis.
The laughter was still on his lips, a half laugh which sometimes slipped out in the solitude, when he stopped in his tracks in the middle of the floor. The workshop wasn’t how he had left it. The lights were on and styrofoam balls were scattered everywhere as though they had been ripped up from the box where the dark-haired doll was kept. And the plastic sheet wasn’t on the floor under the dolls that were hanging up. A nasty suspicion began to form in his mind and he couldn’t help holding his breath as he rushed over to the box and snatched up the lid.
When he’d laid the doll in the box the styrofoam balls had formed a surface almost as smooth as Thingvallavatn Lake on a beautiful day: now they lay bulging in peaks and troughs – in one place the bottom of the box showed through. The velvet lining was still in place, but the dark-haired doll was gone. He glanced around sharply. Peered into every corner. He was sure she must be there somewhere and was filled with a sense of unease at the thought that someone had been rummaging round in his workshop while he slept like a babe, wrapped in false security.
When he had finished looking in every room of the house to allay his suspicions, he ran out into the yard. Stood on the spot where he had knelt down the evening before to change the tyre, shielded his eyes with his hand and stared down the road as though he imagined the thief might be disappearing over the horizon at this very moment with a dark-haired doll in tow.
Unidentifiable tyre tracks in the gravel by his feet showed she had been in some hurry, the little darling, when she left without saying goodbye, without saying thank you. What kind of behaviour was that, to repay a favour by stealing the most expensive item in the house?
There again how could he be sure it had been her? He often forgot to lock the outside door before he went to bed and everyone knew that he had saleable things in his workshop.
No, this was too much of a coincidence. A stranger falls asleep in his living room and the next day his doll is missing – the first and only doll to be stolen from him. She must have taken it. He would go after her and if he found her he wouldn’t hesitate to ring the police. There was nothing illegal about his girls even if some people might find them indecent and lacking in taste.
His thoughts drifted to the deranged contents of the white envelope and it all came to him in a flash. Hadn’t Lóa referred to her father’s death? We buried him last week, she said. She also said that it had been a heart attack, but she could have been lying. Lóa must be Hans’ daughter, the one who crafted his obituary. What other reason did she have to steal the dark-haired doll?
Without quite realising what he was doing, he rushed to the outside door on the west side of the Nissen hut and opened it. The layer of dust under his feet showed, beyond a shadow of doubt, that no one had gone that way, probably since he had moved into the house. Why hadn’t she gone out of this door? Clearly she hadn’t noticed it. It blended in with the cladding anyway, the door panels looked exactly like those on the walls.
He closed the door again, went into the storage room and ran his eyes over the shelves. He didn’t know the exact number of bags, cans and buckets he’d had of plaster, silicon powder, binding agent, colour and paint, but it certainly looked as though everything was in its place. Everything apart from the little wooden stool, which wasn’t up against the wall behind the door, but under the sink. What was that supposed to mean? Unless he had put the stool there himself and not remembered.
At a loss, he couldn’t decide what his next move should be. He sat down on the wooden stool, rested his arm on the edge of the sink and for the first time since he moved in he noticed that there wasn’t a window in sight, not in the storeroom or in the workshop. He looked at the watch which his father had given him for his fortieth birthday. It was a solid, old fashioned and reassuring object.
It was twenty past two. Kjartan often went to his mother’s for lunch on Saturdays, but he would surely be home by now and sitting in front of his computer. Sveinn had to admit to himself that Kjartan was the only person he could look to in a situation like this. He needed to have someone on his side. Someone he could think out loud to and assess the situation, laugh at the ridiculousness of it all and then take his mind off it by talking about something else entirely.
Why was he so glum? He wasn’t afraid. He had looked Lóa in the eyes and seen that she wasn‘t a threat to his life any more than was the dark-haired doll or he himself; he trusted his instincts in such matters. And God alone knew he had no emotional ties to the doll, whatever people might think about a loner like him. If the doll was anything other than a beautiful object to him he would never let her fall into Kjartan‘s hands.
This wasn‘t a financial loss he was talking about either. A few orders would be delayed but that was only to be expected. His customers would understand. Kjartan would take things in his stride. It was always important to Kjartan to come across as an easy-going country type who didn‘t let the world‘s hustle and bustle disturb him.
There must be a grain of truth in what many people believe: that threats are unnerving, even when one chooses to ignore them. And the loss aside, a theft is always an unpleasant assault on one‘s private life.
He put on his Barbour despite the mildness and the sunshine – as though he thought this would shield him from reality and further unjust attacks – and went over to Kjartan‘s on foot.
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