Seen from a boat, approaching the island through cold, choppy, white-flecked seas, the island of Staffa looks like a dense grey forest of rock off the western coast of Scotland. Columns of basalt push up and then flower out into a puffy, cloud-like summit on top of which the plantlife of the island grows, a rolling plain of grass and heather and machair whipped by the sea-wind. The island is made of very ancient rock, but is so strange-looking and so dynamic that you have to tell yourself, repeatedly, that it has been here for a long, long time, such a long time that the best guesses of humankind as to its age can only approximate a range of years that could encompass, with ease, every meaningful incident of human civilisation.
The columns of rock were created by cooling lava. The island has many folds and inlets, with spectacular caves that were favourites of the gentlemen and -women visitors of the nineteenth century, who’d come in their frock coats and dresses to nod approvingly at the pretty show nature had put on for them.
Staffa is interesting not just from a geological perspective, but also for the various birds that nest and feed on top of it. It’s the latter that makes Staffa significant to me, because puffins nest on the island in summer, and my dad loved puffins.
I visited Staffa with dad once, when I was quite young. I remember that he wore a bright yellow anorak with the hood pulled up, against both the drizzling rain (so typical of a Scottish summer) and the sea spray as our guide took us out to the island in a small motorboat. I, in a dark mood, hunkered down while dad perched on the rubber side of the boat, peering out from under his hood at the tottering columns of rock overhead, and questioning the guide. Dad was happy that morning. I understand that now. As a kid I only knew that he was often quite different on holiday from how he was at home. Sillier, softer-voiced, more prone to laughter. He had an affection for wild birds, and kept a heavy old pair of binoculars (once owned by his grandad) on the windowsill of the back bedroom, which faced out onto our garden. Next to the binoculars was a small Book of British Birds, with several of the page corners folded down neatly. There was a time, especially for the few years when that room was my bedroom, when I tried to be interested in bird watching too, would pick up the binoculars and thumb through the book when each fluttering thing landed on a branch of fencepost in the garden, but I could never be sure if the bird I was seeing was really the one I had found in the book. I wanted certainty, and categories, and when I couldn’t have it my interest waned. Plus the birds never really seemed to do anything, They just flew about, or pecked at things. Dad was different. Sometimes I would come crashing up the stairs, scrambling up them with hands and feet in a mad rush of my own making, and I would reach the landing and some subconscious awareness of the absence of noise would alert me. Through the half-open door of the bedroom I would see dad, completely still and hump-backed at the window, binoculars raised, watching the birds in the garden. For him they were enough in themselves. He would stay like that, hardly moving, for a long time.
Our Staffa guide told us that the puffins had arrived back to the island to nest and mate for the summer, as they did every year. This was when they would be at their most active and social and colourful, their beaks taking on their distinctive hues of red and gold. They’d mate, form little family units, have their young, and then they’d be gone. Gone where? dad wanted to know. I’m not sure, said the guide. Somewhere out at sea.
The boat docked at a little wooden jetty around the far side of the island. The guide helped me and the other visitors from the mainland off the unstable boat, but dad jumped ahead and hopped off the boat first without assistance. He was like that on holiday. Spry, active, quite different from the slumped figure who fell asleep on the sofa in front of the TV every evening. He climbed the steep natural steps to the meadowland on top of the island. Still in a foul mood I chased after him, my breath ragged. He had on a pair of old hiking boots he only wore on holidays, and as I climbed the rock-steps after him I saw that the backs of his soles were worn away at an angle, and the leather was cracked.
Atlantic puffins are comical-looking creatures. They seem to smile, and their eyes are an attractive triangular shape on the sides of their heads, a shape that lends the bird’s faces a kindly expression. On land they waddle on their big, flat, bright orange feet, clumsy, awkward, like toddlers who’ve just learned to walk without falling over. Their distinctive black and white heads are offset by their beaks, which in summer are banded with red and golden-yellow.
We reached the top of the steps, me following behind dad, and found the meadow filled with dozens of puffins. There was a loud and constant squawking noise from the seagulls and other birds wheeling overhead, and the crashing of waves against basalt from down below, but the puffins made no noise that I could hear. They were dotted amongst the tufts of rough grass, mostly standing still with their heads swivelling to and fro, one or two waddling about as if on errands. Sometimes one would stretch out its wings and shake its body, a miniature winged Christ, before folding its wings away again and gazing mildly around at its kin and the crowd of human onlookers. We weren’t the first or only people there, on top of the island. A dozen or more people stood and sat around near the puffins, watching.
Dad got as close as he could to the puffin colony and then stood, hands in the zip pockets of his yellow anorak. Already bored, or telling myself I was, I dawdled, kicking at thistles. Birds shrieked. It smelled bad. Looking down at the rough grass, I saw that every square foot of it was covered with bird shit in hues of white, brown and green, of varying consistencies between liquid and dried paint. But Dad wasn’t noticing me being bored, so I trudged over to stand next to him. As I got near I could hear him talking, his voice filled with chuckles.
‘…how are you Mr Puffin?’ he was saying. ‘Eaten any good fish recently?’
Embarrassed, I looked around to make sure nobody else could hear.
He smiled at me.
‘Aren’t they beautiful?’ he said.
‘They only lay one egg, you know,’ he continued, nodding at the puffins. ‘One precious egg.’
‘Fascinating,’ I said, in a tone that was a lot more sarcastic-sounding out loud than I’d meant it to be.
Dad’s jowly, whiskery face seemed to harden.
‘Don’t be cheeky,’ he said.
Something changed between us then, and we were on bad terms for the rest of the day. It would happen like that. It wasn’t in words, it was in us and in what connected us. An energy, call it. I think it was about beauty. I couldn’t see beauty, not in those days; not like he could. I didn’t care about the puffins. When I looked at them all I saw were funny-looking birds. I didn’t see what he saw, and I didn’t want to.
I borrowed the car from a guy I worked with, a stoner-type programmer who hardly ever left Reykjavik and so could do without it for a weekend. He lent me some camping gear, too, a tent and a sleeping bag and a stove. He also tried to give me a hot water bottle, to have with me in the sleeping bag at night, but I gave it back. I wasn’t a wuss, was I? It was still summer, after all – Iceland might be a cold country but we were in the months of near-perpetual daylight, so how cold could it really get? I had developed an obsession with packing light, with living with as few possessions as possible. I think it started when I moved to Iceland, a work-placement that turned into a full-time permanent writing job in a games company in Reykjavik. I’d arrived with nothing but a small rucksack. You don’t need much to live, I found out.
I was grateful for the car and the camping gear, though, for what I had planned. He was a good guy, the stoner programmer. When I told him I needed to get out of the city for a few days, see a bit of the countryside, he didn’t ask any more questions even though I knew for a fact he himself rarely left his apartment other than to go to work. I knew the trip wouldn’t interest him. Like many Icelandic people I’d met, he held the natural wonders of his country if not quite in contempt, then at least at arm’s length.
I’d been in his car before, to go with him to pick up hydroponically grown (and horrifyingly potent) weed from his regular dealer, and the programmer had driven so slowly that I was surprised to find, when I set off, that the accelerator pedal was near-lethally sensitive. As I drove the battered old automatic away from his apartment block, camping gear and bottles of Einstock beer stowed in the boot, I took the corner so fast that the tyres squealed and I crossed into the opposite lane briefly. It was as if the car was even more eager than I was to get out of Reykjavik.
My destination for that day was a small, isolated campsite by a beach in the far northwest of Iceland, the region known as the Westfjords. Six hours of driving, according to my phone, but I was convinced I could make it in five. I took the big 49 road through the middle of the city, and before I’d even reached the natural dead-end of the torturous line of thinking I was on I was out of the city and driving towards distant purple mountains. I followed the coast for about an hour, passing isolated white-flecked farmsteads and fields dotted with shiny plastic-wrapped hay bales, then entered the poorly-lit Hvalfjörður Tunnel. As the road rose up again on the far side of the bay a traffic camera on the roof of the tunnel flashed at me. Maybe my friend would get a speeding fine in the post. I found I didn’t care.
The road turned inland for a while, across plains of a sort of scrubland that obviously had little value for farming. Iceland is a country that alternates between plain and mountain, with little in between. There aren’t many trees, valleys, or anything like that. It’s wild and stark and inhospitable and I’d ended up living there almost by accident. I was determined to fall in love with it. ‘Why Iceland?’ dad had asked when I’d taken the job. ‘It’s so far away.’ I told him about the country’s stark beauty, the natural hot springs, the black volcanic beaches, the active volcanos, the endless daylight of the summer months, and he’d gone quiet. Because it’s far away, I thought. That’s the real reason.
The road climbed as I got nearer to the Westfjords, and by the sides of the road was rocky scree and gravel. Up here the road signs were bright yellow and there were man-high banded poles at regular intervals along the edge of the road. In the old times the Norse clans who settled Iceland used to navigate across the country using the mountain ridges. They’d meet somewhere in the middle of the island once every few years to settle feuds, make new laws, drown those who needed to be drowned and so on. The first Norseman who came to settle the country was an exile, naturally. Nobody would have come here by choice. In the winter the snow and ice lie thick (hence the yellow banded poles along the mountain roads), and you don’t see the sun for weeks at a time. In one place, crossing a bay, the road was built on a manmade strip of land that rose just a couple of feet above the sea. To my right, across the water as I sped over the bay, was a ridge of rippled cliffs, brown and pink in the evening light.
The first fjord I came down into was long, flattish and hump-sided with patchy islands in the water and telephone pylons at intervals along the bay like petrified steel giants, facing out towards the sea. I saw very few other cars now, and those I did see came from miles away along the road, their tyres spewing out dust behind them as they came silently around the curves of the bay towards me. Fjords are made from gouged out channels where glaciers once were – they are wounds cut into the coast, scars that never healed. I was driving quickly but well, I thought. I put some music on in an attempt to stop myself thinking so much.
The further west I drove, the deeper and higher the fjords got. Between fjords the road would often climb the side of a mountain, up into cloud that was gathering over the cliffs. It was almost nine o’clock but the sun was still clear of the hillsides. I turned off the main road and descended through a series of hairpin bends to a flat area of farmland by the coast. On my left were the crop fields, ranks of swaying yellow and green, and on my right was a vast beach that stretched away half a mile towards the dark sea. The tide was way, way out.
The campsite was a fenced-in meadow between farmland and beach. Two wooden huts – one a small office, one a toilet block – were the only solid buildings. The office was closed, but a sign in the window told me I could pay by phone. I drove through the open gate into the camping field. There were no tents, only two camper vans, one in each corner of the field. I drove across the middle of the field, bumping over unseen humps and burrows in the ground, and parked by the fence. I set up the tent as close to the fence and the beach beyond as I could, facing the sea. As I struggled with the tent an old man in shorts and a wide-brimmed straw hat watched me from the folding chair he’d set up outside his camper van. I nodded at him and he raised a plastic cup at me in response.
When I think of my dad, I usually think of him sitting down. Coming home from work, he’d sit in the same chair, one that was his alone by unspoken agreement. It wasn’t the spot I would have chosen, being too far away from the TV, but something about that corner of the room suited him. He could see out of the front window at all times without turning his head – see the front garden and the gently sloping hills across the road, the birds landing on the bird feeder, see people coming to the front door – and he had his books and his music right beside him. I think of him, too, asleep, an hour or so after coming home from work and eating dinner, or in the middle of the afternoons at the weekend. His body clock was fixed from years of early rising, so even on Saturdays and Sundays he’d be up before seven o’clock, and such an early start after a week at work would have to be paid for with an afternoon nap. I don’t know what he did mid-afternoons at work during the week. I suppose he just felt very tired, and had to put up with it.
I didn’t have a chair with me, or anything I could sit on. I inflated the foldable sleeping mat and laid it out in the tent with the sleeping bag, then scanned the field and the beach for something I could use as a chair. There was nothing in sight. It felt as if I were somewhere near the end of the world. Not a trace of litter, no fishing crates or any other driftwood, just the field and the vast beach and the distant sea crashing on the sand in long foaming bands of white. Across that western sea there was nothing for hundreds upon hundreds of miles, just deep-swelling ocean all the way to Greenland. I took the shopping bags out of the car and opened an Einstock. The beer was warmish, but the bitterness and the bite of carbonation scoured out my throat. I ducked under the loose wire of the fence separating the camping field from the beach and staggered through the long grass to the sand.
The sand was firm and red-brown, the colour of house bricks. I walked towards the cliffs to my left, which were low and rounded and welcoming. The beach narrowed there and passed around the cliffs, and I wanted to see what was on the other side. I also wanted to get out of sight of the two camper vans. To my right, far away across the wide expanse of open beach, a long row of cliffs reached out into the sea. They rose and fell in a wave of rock, the flat land on top green in the summer sun. The wind was cold. I could hear the crashing of the waves. There were no seabirds.
On the other side of the low cliffs the beach simply tapered away to nothing. A rock stood in the sea when the beach ended, and the waves curled against it. I finished the beer and put the empty bottle in my back pocket, then stood for a while, staring westwards. Most of the sky was feathered with cloud, and on the horizon the sea, which was dark and blueish closer to land, seemed to fade to an insubstantial grey.
I walked back to my tent and put the readymade burgers I’d brought with me on the disposable barbecue. I drank another two beers while the meat cooked. I swore out loud when I realised I’d forgotten to buy ketchup. I ate the blackened burgers in two dry buns and then drank more beer staring at the distant green-capped wave of cliffs. It was about half eleven at night, and the sun was now behind those cliffs, though it was still light. It wasn’t very warm, but I felt warm enough from the beer. There was a pink hue to the cloud, and the strangeness of the light made everything seem unreal, painted. I climbed into the tent and got into my sleeping bag.
My dad was a teacher for nearly forty years. He hated it. It never occurred to me to ask him why, if he hated it so much, he carried on doing it. I suppose even as a child I knew why. After a while there is no why. I don’t even know if he was a good teacher, or if he’d enjoyed it once and only started to hate it later. But something made me run as far as I could from everything he was. I ran to advertising, which he thought was a horrible industry. He was right about that. But what was I going to do, become a teacher? ‘I get to write all sorts of things,’ I told him once when he was trying to argue me out of advertising. ‘I write scripts for clients. I get to work with photographers, with directors, with all sorts of people. I help create all sorts of things for all sorts of briefs.’
‘I always thought you’d create things for yourself,’ he said. ‘Beautiful things.’
I don’t remember what I said. What I should have said was: ‘We have a different understanding of beauty, dad.’
I woke up cold to my core. I had to put on my jeans, jumper, coat, and even then I was still shivering. I couldn’t get back to sleep. The inside of the tent was glowing blue from the artificial fabric and the sunlight outside. It was something like 5am. I unzipped the front of the tent and looked out. Iceland is so far north that in summer, when the earth has bowed its head towards the sun, the sun pretty much just rolls around the Icelandic sky without ever dropping below the horizon. It was blocked now, just about, by the mountain range back east, but there was a cold bright glow just beyond those mountains, threatening to take over the sky.
To the west, across the beach, I saw that the tide had come in, advancing a little way across the vast expanse of sand in silvery fingers, channels of water that had crept inland. The sea was still crashing onto the sand far away from me, but the beach was now cut apart by those probing silver-grey channels. On a strip of sand, about halfway between me and the distant sea, were what I first took to be giant birds, roosting on the beach. No, not birds. White and black seals, lying on the beach, fat and still and indifferent to my presence. I remembered how on the boat back from Staffa that day, we had passed close by a small rocky island or spit of coastal rock and come upon a family of seals lying on the rocks just like that, fat and pale. The boat had spooked them, and as we passed they flopped and flailed in a frenzy to get away, whiskery faces showing cartoonish alarm as they shuffled themselves to where they could slip into the water and escape. So clumsy on land, but as soon as they found water they flashed away underneath us. I’d looked at dad, expecting to see him smile or laugh at the panicking seals, but he didn’t. He was still thinking about the puffins, and my indifference to them.
I got up, stretched and cursed and rubbed some warmth into my arms and legs, then took down the tent and packed my things away. The sun had just broken the eastward mountaintops as I drove away from the campsite.
The Westfjords are like fingers clawing at the far north Atlantic. To get to where I was going I would have to first go inland, up and over mountains, and then westwards again along the fjord roads. I dropped into small valleys where villages of no more than a dozen houses clung to the coast between grey scree-slope and darker grey fjord. I passed a small airstrip with two tiny Cessna prop planes parked next to the corrugated shed that passed for air traffic control. Even allowing for the tiny roads with their loose, gravel surface I would get to Látrabjarg cliffs just before 7am. The perfect time to visit, according to the blog I’d read. It would be just me and the puffins, I thought.
I asked him many times to come to Iceland, to visit me. He always said he’d think about it, but he never came. ‘You’d love the scenery,’ I used to tell him. ‘It’s just like Scotland, but better.’ I thought that the comparison with his favourite holiday destination from when I was a kid would do the trick. ‘Oh, right,’ was all he said.
There was a mist over the cliffs as I drove along the gravel road. I hadn’t passed any other cars. I came to a place where the road ended. There was a small, abandoned radio tower, an odd-looking square building with a yellow sign staked into the ground nearby. There weren’t any other cars. I parked up near the small radio tower and looked at the sign. Westernmost Point in Iceland, it said.
I couldn’t hear any noise of birds as I climbed the path up to the cliffs. The wind was strong up here, up in the grassland on top of the cliffs, whipping around my ears, I could hear my own breath as I climbed the path, but no birds. Puffins were quiet creatures, of course. Over each rise I expected to see the line of the clifftops jutting away in front of me, and the huge colony of puffins squatting and waddling among the tufts of grass. I imagined dad, in his yellow anorak, climbing ahead of me in his knackered old hiking boots, the excitement and the effort of it all wobbling that weak heart of his.
I climbed over another rise. All was still on the grassland on top of Látrabjarg cliffs. Empty, and quiet but for the sea wind in my ears.
I kept walking, along the cliffs, getting as close to the edge as I could. Maybe the puffins were hiding? Maybe they somehow roosted in the sides of the cliffs? I peered down the sickening drops at the grey-brown faces of the rocks. Nothing but the grey shapes of a few gulls. The dark water way down below licking white where it touched the cliff wall. The white mouths licked and bit at the rock and then vanished away.
I’d thought if I could find puffins again and look at them this time, I could maybe understand what I’d missed all those years ago. That their beauty would fill me now like it hadn’t before. That I would see past their comical looks, their clumsiness, and instead see what my dad had seen in them. But there, standing alone on top of the cliffs, I realised that it wasn’t really the puffins he had cared about. It was that he had wanted to show them to me, that was all. It was the showing that had been important.
I wasn’t looking for the puffins anymore. They were gone. They had been here once, breeding, laying their precious eggs. But now they were somewhere out at sea. There, towards the horizon, out west across an empty sea, the sky was darkly clear. The water went to it and all became a mass of grey in the far distance, soft, quiet, and heavy like the hush of coming rain.
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