Christmas Past

I can’t find a suitable winter picture of my grandparent’s house so high summer will have to do.

There we are, the lot of us. I can’t find the photo but I don’t need it. I can see us quite clearly. We’re at my grandparent’s house in Winnipeg. It is a small, tidy blue house with a kitchen, a living room that was turned into a dining room on special occasions, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a basement. It is in a working class neighbourhood. The Italians have started to move in, buying up two story frame houses on twenty-five foot lots and fixing them up.

We weren’t a large family. My mother’s parents, my parents, my brother and his girlfriend, me and my new wife.  Grinning like all get out. We’re in our best bib and tucker. The women in their best dresses. Us guys in good dress shirts and slacks. Only my dapper father is wearing a suit.

We’ve gathered to celebrate.  But what, precisely, is it that each of us is celebrating?

My Irish grandfather came to Canada before 1914. He had three sisters already in Winnipeg so he settled in the city. He got a job as a glazier, then as a drayman. I asked him once why he left Ireland and he said, without hesitation, “I got tired of having to carry a pistol in my pocket.” He was young, he was Protestant, he was living in Northern Ireland. The Troubles were constant.  I expect he was celebrating the fact that since he’d arrived in Canada that he didn’t need to carry a pistol in his pocket, that when he returned to Europe in 1915 to fight for King and country, he’d survived his wounds in the Great War, that as hard as things were in the Great Depression, he managed to hang onto his job.

My Irish grandmother was, I expect, celebrating that she’d met my grandfather when he was on leave and had gone home from the Front to see his family in Ireland, had met her and had saved her from spinsterhood by writing from Canada after the war, asking her to marry him. She’d booked her fair on the Empress of France and, a woman by herself, she crossed the ocean, crossed the continent and now had a home of her own, a daughter and two grandsons. Until my grandfather wrote she had seen her future as a babysitter, housekeeper for her brother’s wife because, even though her brother was the youngest in the family, he would inherit everything. Her own house. Her own husband. Her own child. Grandchildren.

My father was celebrating that he’d married my mother, that he’d survived numerous disasters, both physical and financial, that he was loved and liked by my mother and her parents, that somewhere north, through the falling snow, there was, in his home town, a large Icelandic-English family that supported  him through a number of tragedies. Times were difficult and he had to have two jobs to feed us, clothe us, put a roof over our heads, but he was doing it. He was proud of that. I expect he was celebrating that he had finally been able to buy a car. He’d wanted a car for a long time.

In the picture, my brother, four years younger than me, is tall, taller than everyone else. Good looking, very blond and, as an older brother, I’m not sure what, as a teenager, he was celebrating except being with his family, with his girlfriend. His smile says he’s very happy. In the not too distant future, he would die in an accident at work but in this moment, there is no warning, no presentment, only happiness with the place, the people, the food, the holiday.

The girlfriend? Although they didn’t marry, I expect she was celebrating in that moment because she knew that everyone in the room, not just my brother, loved her. She was the daughter my parents never had, my sister I never had, my grandparents’ granddaughter they never had. The happiness of that moment was so great she and I became like brother and sister and her family and her husband’s family, sort of related by marriage to us, have become a big part of my life. Happiness endures.

My wife? Celebrating her beautiful green Christmas dress she was so proud of, a dress that set off her copper colored hair, celebrating being recently married, celebrating being there in that room, safe, loved, secure, happy that there was a place for her, happy to be with people who wanted her, celebrating our having a place of our own, an apartment in the top floor of a house even though if you went barefoot, we were in danger of getting splinters. Celebrating that she had found a job and could support us as I finished my degree. Celebrating that my parents cared enough about her to buy her a muskrat coat (bought through a Winnipeg wholesale) so she’d been warm while waiting for a bus at five o’clock in the morning as she went to work.

And me? If someone had said to me, that evening, what are you celebrating, Bill? I’d have said, I’m celebrating that I’m in the last year of university, that I’m married, that we’ve found an apartment, that I’m writing, that I feel, in this moment, we’re together, talking, visiting, sharing a meal. I know that I wasn’t celebrating gifts. I have no memory of gifts. I know there must have been some, but whatever the gifts were, they are long gone, long worn out, long forgotten. What I remember is being together, the table set, the supper cooking, the conversation, us sitting on the wine colored, overstuffed couch and on chairs that had been added to the living room for extra seating, happy at being in the light and warmth instead of alone in the dark and cold outside where the wind whipped the snow over the drifts.

That was my celebration. The conversation, the voices, the food being placed on the table, the anticipation of eating, the place at the table, the knowledge that in this moment, we were one. In a day or two, we’d go back to our individual lives, the distance among us would need walking, driving, telephone calls, letters, to overcome the silences of the miles,  but for now we had us. That was something to celebrate.


Black Skies Review

In Black Skies, Arnaldur Indridason’s latest mystery novel set in Iceland, the main character of the series, Erlendur, is still missing. He has gone away for a holiday but has stayed longer than expected. The problem of solving a murder falls on one of his subordinates, Sigurdur Oli, whom readers have got to know in previous novels. In the early novels, there was Erlendur, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg. However, we only catch a glimpse of Elinborg for she is in charge of another investigation.

There are reminders of Erlendur and his absence. His daughter calls, looking for him. A strange derelict haunts the novel with a paper bag he wants to give to Erlendur. This derelict, Andres, has appeared in previous novels. Erlendur has been obsessed through previous novels with the death of his younger brother when they were children. They were lost in a snow storm. Erlendur let go of his brother’s hand and when rescuers came and found Erlendur, they never found his younger brother. Since then Erlendur has been obsessed with his brother’s death and has searched the heath for his remains at every opportunity. Erlendur is inclined to be morose and brooding. There is a line in the novel where a character mentions that Erlendur was interested in an area where there were some lakes. The possibility of his suicide lies behind all the activity in the novel.

Black Skies stands up well as a novel in its own right. The main character, Sigurdur Oli, is an interesting character, one deeply flawed with serious limitations that cause him to make decisions that someone less flawed would avoid. In previous novels where he has been a secondary character, the reader has not seen much of his background. He’s married, he and his wife can’t have children, he likes to BBQ, he prefers American popular culture, he’s a snob, particularly about clothes (it’s a common Icelandic quality).  In this novel, we get to see further into his life and character as we meet his domineering mother and his wimpy father.

We also get a closer look at his values. He resents the Icelanders in Reykjavik who are living a high life, owning extravagant houses and expensive cars, all on credit as the economic boom accelerates. The crash has not yet happened. Greed and ambition abound and Sigurdur Oli wonders if he’s made the wrong decision in becoming a policeman. The people he’s investigating are hiring musical groups to play at parties in their homes. They have the best of everything.

Once again, Indridason has fashioned a tightly structured novel with an intricate plot. The unravelling of the plot is interesting, the connections sometimes surprising, but equally interesting is the way in which the underbelly of Icelandic society is revealed.

Everyone reading this novel, does so with at least some awareness of the boom and bust in Iceland, the Kreppa. The novel takes us into the seamy but common side of the financial fraud and manipulation that went on. Icelanders, in reality, place great emphasis on appearance and material success. They want nothing but the best. The best clothes, the best furniture, the best appliances, the best houses, the best cars, the best holidays. At the same time, there are those who do not get to participate in this rush to grab as much of the best as possible. There are the drunks, the street people, the drug dealers, the drug addicts, the senselessly violent, the sexually risky.

In this novel Indridason manages to pull all these people together into an intricate plot that leads this reader of mystery novels to say buy this book, put it under the Christmas tree.