Text: Emanda Percival
A few years ago I started collecting peoples’ memories to tell the stories of Icelandic towns. While in Stöðvarfjörður interviewing and writing I was invited to go ‘somewhere fun’ by an Icelandic friend, Johanna. I was taken to a farm in a nearby fjord. Unlike a lot of farms around Iceland this one has remained single function, no tourism, just sheep.
The farm yard, with its usual collection of buildings: house, giant sheep barn and other sheds, is tucked behind a low foothill at the end of a road that flows from tarmac to compact dirt to rutted and potholed track. Long before arriving the marks of civilization disappear and if it weren’t for distant growls of an ATV it would be easy to think you were back in time.
A working farm has a constant undercurrent of activity and stepping from the car, even with only two people visible there was a sense of many others occupied just out of sight.
I followed Johanna into the house. The kitchen was from a different era, pale yellow timber cupboards with rounded edges lined two walls, even without touching them I knew the doors would stick in the corners where the wood had swelled and shrunk over the years. Cups and cake had been laid out on a small Formica table with silver edging. Johanna began shuffling things on the crowded kitchen bench preparing coffee, her movements made it clear she was comfortable here. When coffee was ready an old man entered, lifting his legs with studied effort. He sat opposite me. His face was lined by weather and I could see his body, though shrunken and slowed, had once been strong and filled with energy. My friend filled our cups and sitting between us began chatting with the old farmer.
I sat, letting the language bubble around me, surreptitiously looking for sugar. I’ve learnt to enjoy being an outsider and was happy enough, drinking coffee and wondering if this was the ‘something fun’ my friend had invited me to. Johanna switched to English, “What do you want him to tell you about?” The old farmer wanted me to interview him.
The memories I collect are specific. They are not the things of official records, but the small memories, which sit crystal clear in our minds. The one that stuck with this 90-year-old man was from 76 years earlier, when a bomb was dropped on his farm.
He and his mother had been in this same yellow kitchen when they heard the roar of a plane engine. WW2 was raging in Europe and at 14 that roar filled the young farmer with excitement; his wish for the war to be closer had come true. He wasn’t afraid as he ran outside; fear was for his mother who ran out behind him, planting her hands on his shoulders. He saw the markings on the first plane, German. It raced past low to the ground and as he watched opened its cargo doors, a black cylinder dropped. His mother’s hands got heavier.
A second roar distracted him from the falling bomb; a British Hurricane came into sight. A chase! Ten seconds later an eruption of earth and rocks blasted into the air the Hurricane caught in the middle. The boy cheered when it came back in sight undamaged, racing into the valley after the now lighter German bomber. His mother’s hands tightened knowing he would have run to see the bomb if she had taken them away.
Our interview ended with his words, “The craters are still there.”
Even with directions we had to hike half way up the mountain before finding them, yet looking down from above they were obvious. Two gently edged, cone-shaped holes, where the bomb had skipped once before exploding, sat partially lined with grass just where the mountain started to rise from the ground.
Johanna and I sat on the mountain looking down at proof of an old man’s memory. Rather than lingering in the timelessness of most memories I’d collected the evidence of the craters acted like a mirror reminding a person how much time had passed between then and now. The day had indeed, been ‘something fun.’