‘I had an argument with a man in here not so long ago’, the lady in the tourist office in Kirkenes told me. ‘He said, “There is something beyond here, you know.” And I said “I know, I have seen it. I was living in America, in Amsterdam, but I came back here to live.” This place is the best place. Here, the air is clean, people are kind, and I tell you this is one place the terrorists will never attack.’
I had a couple of hours to kill before I caught the school bus down the Pasvik Valley, to a cabin that she’d sorted out for me near some husky kennels at Melkefosse. I was coming to realise pretty quickly that, overwhelmingly kind as the bus drivers were (the one later in the day actually took a detour to drive me down the road to my cabin), this was the sort of place where a car would come in handy. The Mindatsol had arrived into Kirkenes about an hour or so before. There was ice in the harbour, and on the way into town some of the buildings had signs in Russian. We were only a few kilometres from the border.
‘Oh yes’, said the tourist information lady. ‘About ten per cent of the town are Russian. The children learn Russian in school too. The Russians call this place “Little Murmansk”.’ The evening before, out on deck, we’d met another border-hopper. Apparently, back in the 60s, Russian biologists decided to introduce giant king crabs to the bay at Murmansk, and the crabs had walked a bit. These days the whole North Cape is infested with them, and some fishermen bemoan what such vast numbers of them must be doing to the sea bed and the delicate balance of the Barents Sea, while others have discovered that the king crab itself is an easy source of income, and are now exporting tonnes of its meat to Japan and the US.
As I bided my time in the tourist office, talking to the lady and stuffing my rucksack pouches with pamphlets, I could see the beginnings of a snowstorm outside the window.
‘Don’t worry, people will look after you here, because everybody knows what’s going on. I had some girls last year who wanted to sleep outside in the winter. So I told them a place to do it, but really it was so I could call the people from the ice hotel and they could go and check on them. I used to sometimes work late nights at the convenience store, and I would know who were the children whose parents had alcohol problems. They would always be the ones hanging round the store until closing time because they didn’t want to go home. I used to give them hot dogs to take home so they could eat.’
This was the third time someone had referred to the drinking in the North, and I had yet to see a drunk. Apart from an wizened old soak in the pub in Tromso, that is, but then I think almost every town, village or hamlet I’ve ever visited has one of those. It’s also odd to think of there being any kind of alcohol problem in a country where a pint is well over a fiver, but I suppose you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. Maybe it’s something that happens most in the dark months.
‘Not everyone stays here. My daughter is living in Ireland now. It’s good that she is around old houses.’
‘Are there none at all round here?’
‘No. The war.’ She didn’t elaborate, but I had read my history. For some reason this little port in the North East was deemed of tremendous strategic importance, and after Malta it was apparently the most bombed town in the Second World War.
‘There are ghosts here. When we rebuilt the city, they built on top of the old houses, and the shelters underneath where they used to hide from the bombs. New houses on old foundations. I was round at a friend’s house for some drinks and I kept hearing footsteps, and the door opening and closing. “Can you hear people coming?” she asked me, and I said yes, and they said they heard it too all the time. They had malamutes – you know, big sledge dogs – and they couldn’t leave them in the hall because at night they became really aggressive. They were gentle during the day, but at night in the hall they barked and attacked. They locked them in a separate room after, and they were fine. Just that hall. I want to see a ghost properly. There are places in England where if you stay you will definitely see them.’
I saw no need to shatter any illusions.
‘I saw one once. I don’t remember – I was too young – but I live in an old house, and my mum told me I came into her room one night and said that there was a lady sitting on the end of my bed, stroking my hair. She asked me if it was a nice lady, and I said it was, and I went back to bed again. Then the next year I went into her room again, and said the nice lady was there again, and she realised it was the same date. So this time she went in to check, and of course there was no-one there. Apparently I wasn’t at all scared, but I don’t remember it.’ She nodded thoughtfully, accepting my story just as if it had been about someone I met in a bar, rather than a tall tale of the supernatural.
‘There are lots of superstitions round here’, she said. ‘Everyone thinks this place is called Finnmark because it’s close to Finland, but it’s not. It’s because in the old days they said people living up here had fins and horns. And tails, and only one leg.’ She stood on one leg to demonstrate, her fingers pointed in the air on either side of her head. ‘There are lots of stories about the Northern Lights too. People always ask me if I saw beautiful Northern Lights when I was little, and I say I never did. My grandmother was very superstitious and she always told me to keep my eyes down and not to look at them. She said witches made them.’