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Some scraps of conversation from my notebook

It had been a long day, with four kilometres or so trudging across the valley floor to get back to our camp from the bottom of the mountain.
‘I’m not such a fan of just walking a long way for no reason’, observed C, a climber by preference, as he lit the stove for a cup of tea, first hovering a match over the red spirit to warm it so that it would catch in the cold.
‘I’m not sure’, I said. ‘It gives you a lot of time to think, and I think better when I’m walking. I sort of feel like when your feet are moving your mind does too.’
K nodded.
‘I know what you mean. I was doing a lot of thinking along the way back there.’
D was a few years younger, and seemed to have a little more disposable energy than the rest of us. He looked across from where he was sitting on an insulation mat loosening his boots. I have a feeling that even at that stage he had a little frostbite.
‘I think that is why I like long-distance running. There is a lot of time for thinking. Sometimes though you manage to think of nothing. You are just running and your mind is completely empty.’ He smiled. ‘It’s… wonderful.’

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‘Norwegian girls are the only ones I have ever found who are better than Swedish ones’, announced Markus. ‘A Norwegian girl can say “fuck you, I hate you, you piece of shit”, but it sounds like…’ and he launched into a stream of language that could quite possibly have sounded cute if it had come from a slim, blue-eyed brunette rather then a shorter-than-average bloke with a shaved head and a shiny suit.

He and his friend Jonas had seen me reading quietly at the table next to them in a pub near Stockholm Central station as I waited for my night train, and had invited me to join them. ‘Of course, if you’re happier reading then please do carry on – we won’t be offended’, he had added politely.

Jonas was the quieter of the two, much taller, with longish hair and a stubbly beard to contrast his mate’s carefully-maintained hairlessness, but at one point while Markus was getting a round of drinks in, he suddenly became more talkative.
‘This book you’re reading is Swedish’, he observed.
‘Yeah, there’s a bookshop on Gamla Stan that sells Swedish literature translated into all sorts of languages. I found it last time I was on my way through Stockholm and the book I bought was really good, so I went back to get another one this afternoon.’
‘What was the other one?’
‘The Dwarf, by Par Lagerkvist.’

He seemed pleased by this choice (made, as it happened, almost entirely at random), and oddly amused that I should have read it.
‘You’re right, it’s a very good book. I read it years ago. That’s the one where Machiavelli’s prince, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Mona Lisa come into the story, isn’t it?’
‘That’s it. I loved the total evil of the dwarf. Somehow it’s quite funny, even though it’s horrible. Also, when I got to the end I half-wondered whether he existed at all, or whether he was just the evil of everyone else in the story sort of distilled down into a nasty little monster.’ Again, Jonas seemed to approve of this interpretation.
‘Do you like Swedish culture then?’
I admitted that I didn’t really know anything about it.
‘You should read Barabbas, by Par Lagerkvist. It’s not a very cheerful book, but it’s really good. I’ve read most of his work at some point and I think that was the best one of his novels.’

A few minutes later he got up suddenly, made some excuse about buying nappies, and left in a hurry.
‘Don’t worry about him’, said Markus, who had returned bearing beer. ‘He’s like the nutty professor. Actually he’s a manic depressive – bi-polar, you know?’ I said I knew some manic depressives.
‘I haven’t seen him in four months. Maybe I won’t see him for four more months. Sometimes you’ll meet him and he’ll be the centre of the party, then he’ll just disappear for a while.’

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It was only a kilometre or so up the road to the Longyearbyne art gallery, but the wind was up and it was snowing. I hadn’t been walking long, head down, arms folded and hood pulled low, before a smart 4×4 stopped and offered me a lift.
‘I always pick people up when it’s cold outside. I’m going that way anyway’, said the driver. There was only the one road.
He asked where I lived, and I told him London. He had never been, but wanted to go. Everyone does, it seems.
‘I always think that in London there are many… different types of people. From different countries.’ There was something about the way he paused which made me think he was going to say something racist, but he didn’t.
‘Yeah, there are all sorts in London.’ I said, lamely, then seeing that he expected a bit more, ‘Thing is it’s so big, and not much like the rest of the country. Sort of like a country in its own right. It’s always interesting anyway. You never get bored there.’ This was a lie, but one that I always feel the desire to propagate.
‘And do people get along there?’
‘Mostly. Not always. Same as anywhere I suppose. There are, you know, good bits and bad bits. Guess Londoners don’t do too badly.’ I changed tack.
‘Do you live out here, or back on the mainland.’
‘I’m from the mainland, but I have been here working here for years. I keep the roads clear of snow. I try to get back home when I can, but the pay is really good up here. That’s why I’ve been here so long.’
‘Suppose you must be here all through the winter then?’
‘Yes. Though the winters aren’t so bad. People always ask me if I’m afraid of the dark up here, but it is the opposite. I am afraid of the light. It’s difficult in the light. You can’t hide.’

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A was a long-distance truck driver working out of Lillehammer. I was sitting in the empty living room of a Tromso hostel, drinking a cup of watery coffee and pleased by the thought of a bed after too many night trains, when he came striding in and contrived, by some obvious question about the coffee machine, to make his introduction.

He was about my age, with slicked back ginger hair and snus under his lip. He was Norwegian, so of course his English was perfect, aside from a peculiar habit of saying ‘ain’t’ instead of ‘isn’t’, like he might have watched a few too many Westerns in his time. Somehow we ended up talking for a while about 1980s Nintendo games.

A’s usual run was Lillehammer to Manchester, which suited him fine, being as he was a massive Man City fan. He loved the north but hated London, where he had once spent an entire afternoon lost in the traffic system, until he’d eventually had to pull a U-turn and ask a copper how to get out of town. He was more comfortable cruising the vast tracts of dark, empty highway in Norway, snow tires and a massive light array across the front of his truck.

‘I have trouble in England though. They make me take off most of my lights, and my studded tires. It ain’t so safe in the winter. Last year I had a bad accident. A truck in front jacknifed on the ice on a busy motorway. Completely destroyed the car in front of it. I was behind and there was a car between us. I couldn’t stop, and the car was crushed. The driver was thrown out of the car and not even hurt. It was amazing. I couldn’t think about what would have happened if I had killed him.’ The front driver had died, and there was something very sad about the thought of this cheery soul standing at the edge of a pile of wrecked vehicles on a frozen motorway in the middle of the night with that cavernous, slowed-down feeling you get when you know someone’s gone out.

An odd existence. He said the money was pretty good, and provided he had an adequate supply of cigs and coffee he reckoned it wasn’t a bad way to spend your working life.

‘My problem is that when I have holiday, all my friends want to go away. That ain’t my idea of a holiday. I spend my life on the road – when I have some time off I want to stay at home.’

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