As they sometimes do, chance events conspired against me in Hammerfest. If I believed in karma, which I don’t, preferring to work on the principles of consequence and blind chance, I’d guess it was evening out the astonishing good fortune Christian and I had last September on Koufonisia, when we ended up in a four-star hotel with a swimming pool and three different nozzles in the power shower for the laughable room rate of 30 Euros.
In Hammerfest, the cheap hotels I could find were closed ‘out of season’, and the Tourist Information, open according to its website and the people in the shop next door that sold hot dogs and pornos, remained infuriatingly shut for two days, a cryptic handwritten note in Norwegian pinned up in the window. Buses ground to a halt for the weekend, and thus I ended up staying two nights in a hotel far beyond my budget. Mid-range for here, but still two days wages back home, once Mr Brown has taken his cut.
The habit, by the way, of referring to my personal financing of war, truancy and recycling, as ‘Mr Brown’s share’, comes from my father, who used to devote a large amount of his leisure time to finding loopholes through which to filter our inheritance, declaring that ‘Mr Brown can’t get his hands on it’, as if the then chancellor himself was personally stockpiling our family’s taxes in his garage. If a cartoonist were to sketch our mental perception of him, he would doubtless have the leering eyes, grasping hands and Bowie knife pointed curves of Kirkenes museum’s propaganda posters.
The issue was complicated by the fact that our factory’s financial director was also called Mr Brown. He resided at the opposite end of the financial scale – the great ally in the battle against the money-grabbing Mr Brown, and it sometimes took a moment or two to work out which Brown was being referred to. Of course, Gordon Brown is no longer chancellor, but my family still refer to him as our cartoon tax nemesis, in the same way that we open the microwave by twiddling a Perspex rod through a hole drilled in the side of the housing, and feel guilty about pulling up weeds if they’re in flower. If I were wiser, I might be able to find all kinds of metaphorical uses for my pa’s saying, ‘A weed is just a plant in the wrong place’.
The hotel room was lovely, with wood paneling, brass fittings and a generally nautical theme, and I decided that, since I found myself there, I would enjoy such unsought luxury to the full. I took a long, boiling hot shower, with the shower head set to ‘massage’, trimmed my beard short, pressed my trousers, brushed my hair back with my fingers and put on my one clean shirt. For at least one and a half seconds I considered the solarium, mainly because I have never set foot in one before. In the mirror I looked almost civilised. Now to find somewhere nice for supper.
I went down to the hotel restaurant, which was empty, both of patrons and indeed staff. Undeterred, I went back to my room, got my jacket, and went outside. It wasn’t too cold, and the snow formed little white points on the tips of my black indoor shoes. The first restaurant was a Chinese. Probably not worth risking anaphylaxis. I moved on. The next one was a fine-looking seafood restaurant, with an elaborate and extortionate menu. I stood outside for a minute, looking at my reflection in a shop window. ‘Oh who am I kidding?’ I thought, and went to get a pizza and a beer.
It was Saturday night, and Hammerfest was a ghost town. The bar I went to was pretty much the only one open, and it was a doornail until about 9.30, when it suddenly flooded with gregarious, wrecked-up Norwegians of all ages, fresh from the sheds, cellars and living rooms where they’d evidently been tipping back the home-brewed rotgut for several hours. Interestingly, if you sort of half tune out of background chatter in Norwegian, it sounds like everyone is from Newcastle. In fact, in Bergen I had encountered a large group of unusually rowdy local children who on closer listening turned out to be Geordies on a school trip. I had a wordless conversation with a friendly North African about the cold, and met two Estonians who invited me to stay with them in Tallinn some time.