It was her children’s’ mouths that calmed Freya. When they spoke it was like music welling up, clearing her mind. As they raced around the house England disappeared and Finland invaded every pore of her. Yet, they were the reason she was anchored here. If she closed her eyes to their bird-like chatter she saw white-tailed sea eagles soar over Boda then perch on lichen-covered rocks ruffling their snowy feathers as orcas breached, arched and dived through glacial waters above the Arctic Circle.
Slowly, here, her confidence had seeped away, juggling language, work and children. Now she trudged through the last day of January to pick them up, skirting mud as thick as putty, over murky puddles with discarded plastic wrappers. Misty damp clung to every nook and cranny. Not like the deep ice and snow that cleansed and killed off colds. She sniffed as the metal grey day bled seamlessly into an early dusk with mackerel clouds as she crossed the school road’s stream of steamed-up four by fours with cosy English mothers tucked warmly inside, talking on mobiles.
Waiting, she plucked little furry tails of catkins from the barbed-wire edge of a grassless field where dirt-splattered sheep chomped hay as their matted bellies swelled for spring births.
Freya was impatient; suspended for five months until she would fly home, where she wouldn’t have to translate, where words would be as crystal clear as the air. She would breathe a sigh of relief and unfurl like a fern in summer. Here she was diminished, muffled, mute. By June, light would fill Finland’s wide sea-scaped skies, turquoise and pink.
She would get the children to walk barefoot along chalk-white beaches, dip into the blue green sea, sit on warm rocks as the midnight sun beat like a polished gold pendulum across the cloudless horizon. She conjured the tranquil Mjelle inlet on the island of Landegode where only Finnish voices rang out. For now she put her quietest foot forward through the mire of English accents, giving up on fitting in. It was as if the women’s courteous bland potato faces and soft slow voices charmed even as they froze her out.
She yearned for the shimmering northern lights of clear evenings against purple-black mountains trimmed with stars. Beneath the Auroral Oval the belt of light would spread faintly at first, sparkling as it moved higher, then settle in a swirl of sweeping blue, green and red. The nearest neighbours were an hour’s drive. Not hemmed in like here with house after landlocked house on a suburban sprawl with summer drunken barbeques and autumn bonfires. Freya was drawn by neighbours’ windows as they lit up in evening. Curtained pearly showcases where people ate or undressed unselfconsciously as if invisible on that side of dark glass.
This morning her mother had called. She’d let it go. It echoed on until Freya heard her clipped voice on the answer phone. In stilted English at first, asking for her, then flipping into Finnish as if she’d stepped up ten gears. She would be by the crackling log burner, bread in the oven, sitting on their old wooden bench with the orange floral cushions, glancing into the dark forest as it creaked and groaned under its winter weight of snow. Now was the time for grey herons slow flapping among thousands of thrushes feasting on the last Rowan berries.
‘Pick up Freya. I know you are there. I can feel it. I don’t want to talk to thin air. Old Joseph has died. You know, he used to take you into the forest when you were little.’ She prattled on.
Freya remembered him. The jaunty angle of his crushed black hat over his creased spiky face with fallen apple-soft cheeks; his smell of tobacco and woodsmoke as he held her hand, leading her through soft undergrowth, pulling up branches for her to pass safely, blowing whistles to scare away bears. They came to secret glades which he whispered were filled with fairies. He’d sworn his limp was from surprising them at a party. When the little people in green and red had seen Joe spying, they’d turned invisible; then pinched and kicked him until he’d fled. Later, her mother, wiping floury hands on her blue apron, dismissed that and told Freya he’d been shot in the war when he’d fought for England.
Once Freya and Joe surprised five reindeers which bobbed away like enormous rabbits, crashing into depths of trees as if they’d dived in deep water. She remembered the acrid, musky smell of them on the velvet long grass amongst crushed pine needles. She’d picked lapfuls of silken orange and yellow meadow blossoms then whirled under a cloud of confetti while crimson butterflies fluttered near her head like a crown. Old Joe had sung Finnish songs as he watched how brightly she danced away from the clean dusted home her mother marshalled.
Her mother had called Freya’s name again and again, like a mantra, as if to reel her to the phone until her worried goodbye saying she’d pray for her in Bodo Cathedral.
Freya had been many times arranging huge bouquets of flowers with her mother’s order to sit quietly before the 12 metre stained glass window where shifting summer sky poured in next to ten gleaming tapestries that reflected the lustrous light of rose-coloured glass. People scraped chairs, sat and kneeled, prayed, murmured. The last time she’d visited was after she married Peter. She’d felt pleased she did not belong to Finland anymore, that England would be her new home. Peter had fallen in love with the colour of her skin; he said it was like milk, that Freya was an ice goddess with sea-blue eyes. Now he barely looked up from the Ipad and their children sat in a quiet circle nearby, tap, tapping, their perfect pale faces flickering, immersed in the web she called Pandora’s Box.
It started to rain. Freya pulled up her fleece, avoiding the women getting out of the cars who greeted each other, not her, as they flung open umbrellas. She stayed under what little shelter a bare oak tree offered watching a black cat scrabble after a squirrel which darted higher along mossy branches to the silvery bark of a crab apple tree in the playground. The school bell rang; mothers lined up, waiving, ready to race back to their cars.
This summer she would show them the empty majesty of Skjerstad where they would sit wrapped to the gills in borrowed old furs on the still half-frozen lake as her brother fished for amber-spotted brown trout. Then they’d dog-sledge across the wilderness, home to a scrubbed oak table for smoked salmon soaked in vodka followed by roasted spare rib chops with pears and melting Gorgonzola. They’d visit Misvaer’s herb garden for lemon and lavender tea with shredded peppermint served with toasted ginger cake.
Last year she’d taken the children to Vaeran, to the magical isles and skerries reached by slow passenger boats. She’d pointed out the fishing villages of Sørlandego, Bliksvær and Helligvær, where people lived on their wits and luck at sea. But cold and missing technology, they’d switched off, shivering and complaining of rain and bird shit on the deck as they ducked back inside to warmth, hot chocolate and wi-fi.
At Saltstraumen they’d watched 400 million gallons of sea water rush through the 150-metre wide and 3-kilometre long sound connecting Saltfjord and Skjerstadfjord. Huge whirlpools swirled up to 10 metres wide and spooled away, taking everything that floated or swam. The pull of the moon swallowed cod, saithe and wolf fish.
On their last day they edged around the sixty-fingered Svartisen glacier to the islands of Lofoten where fisherman hauled in boatload after boatload of slippery silver cod still gasping in the dark nets floating in inky waters. The two youngest cried and said they’d never eat fish again.
This summer would be different. They were older; linguistically able. She’d entrance them at Kjerringøy to catch northern lights on a ribbon of coastal-alpine with shiny, white beaches sheltered by a garland of small islands and sheer mountains.
And if, she thought later, as she crossed the concrete playground where her dripping children were bundled into coats, scarves and waterproofs, after all that; if they don’t like where her heart still lived, at least they had mother tongue. They would treasure that when the time came.