By Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir
Translated from Icelandic by Sarah Bowen
Sveinn hung the last ones out to dry: the hooks pierced the back of the necks. Fortunately the holes 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 and put his watch back on. When he saw that it was well after eight he realized 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 his concentration relaxed his body began to protest.
Leaning heavily against the door frame, he tried to recall what was in the fridge. 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.
There were a couple of restaurants nearby, but he wasn’t ready to face people after working so many days on end. He could get himself flatbread and coffee, but it went against the grain to let three hundred grams of minced beef go to waste.
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 being broke and needing 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 giving 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 with his body. And 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 really 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 jolted his stomach 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 her hair was perhaps the only doll-like thing about her.
What was she doing there?
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 wanted to sell him something. Or talk to him about Jesus. He would soon shut the door in her face.
A jack. A wheel brace. Only then 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 hubcap 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 that 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 hadn’t wounded 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, then 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 lopsided 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 as if she was permanently worried, 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 almost weed-free lawn, with its newly sprouting grass which looked 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 passed across her face. ‘He was a taxi driver and the European Seniors 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 again to contemplate 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 have been very 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 those strong wrists?
She stuck her hands into her coat pockets and watched him, her face displaying expressions he could in no way decipher.
‘What?’ she asked.
She raised her eyebrows and glanced around as though searching for some alternative. At that, his head cleared and, with all the warmth he could muster, although he feared it sounded more like sarcasm or outright impatience, he added, ‘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 protestations. It was best that 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 and was so unlike him or, at least, so unlike 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 up there. He turned the heat back on under the pan, tossed some spices in and set the table for two, without bothering to say 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 to 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 meal.’
She shook her head and her eyes lit up a little. It was obviously all right for him to unwind: she was clearly not the type to read something into every single action. She didn’t even seem to properly take in what was going on around her.
What was she thinking anyway? He was well aware that fatigue made him appear drunk. Didn’t she hesitate before following a drinker into his house?
She poured out two glasses of wine, and helped herself from the pan. That was the last thing he noticed for a while. 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 surfaces. 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 refilling 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, even if they were both rather uncommunicative.
‘I knew I wouldn’t be able to undo the bolts,’ she said, and glanced quickly at him before turning 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 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.’
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 had been soft in the head and muddled fantasy with reality that wasn’t Sveinn’s fault, and it certainly wasn’t the fault of the doll who, the tabloid said, had accompanied him in his death. Although, yes, the man had torn off her head, sliced off her breasts and ripped her skin to shreds before he shot himself with an old farm 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 if he had chosen to destroy some of his possessions before he looked down the barrel. But she’d refused to listen, keen to prove herself in her new job and as fascinated by his girls as everyone else was. And just as most people felt obliged to veil their interest with moralizing, she justified her inquisitiveness by making out that this was 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, shapely 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 wouldn’t really be 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, there she was sitting in his home, and he was wanting to top her up with wine, even though she was driving and had almost been shedding tears onto 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, to be degraded by sentimentality. There was something inside him which he couldn’t understand, and this was the only way he could give vent to it.
This is an excerpt from Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir’s novel ‘Skaparinn’ , translated from Icelandic by Sarah Bowen as ‘The Creator’ (Portobello Books, 2012). Reprinted with permission from the author and translator.
Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir studied philosophy at the University of Iceland, and has published both fiction and poetry. In 2012, she was awarded the Icelandic Literary Prize for ‘Allt með kossi vekur’ (‘Everything is Woken With a Kiss’). She lives in Reykjavik with her husband, film maker Marteinn Thorsson.
About the translator: Sarah Bowen graduated from University College London with first class honours in Icelandic Studies. Her translations include ‘My Kingdom and its Horses’, a short story by Auður Jónsdóttir; ‘The Creator’, a novel by Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir and ‘The Perfect Landscape’, a novel by Ragna Sigurðardóttir (recently longlisted for the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award). She and her husband are based in Surrey, England. They have three grown-up daughters.