When Hlynur Ísaksson arrived at the Siglufjörður police station for his shift, he saw Ari Thór and Tómas there, chatting amiably. He had an instant hunch that there was some secret to which he wasn’t supposed to be party and, to an extent, he was right.
‘Ari Thór and I need today for interviews,’ Tómas said in an off-hand way. ‘A body has turned up not far from Sauðárkrókur, and it seems the deceased had some connection with Siglufjörður.’
Hlynur nodded, doing his best to pretend that he didn’t mind not being involved.
‘Can you take charge of the shift here today?’ Tómas asked, probably not expecting a reply. ‘Later on you’ll need to go over to the primary school for me. It’s the last day of term and we’ve been asked to present some awards. I was going to do it, but it’s unlikely I’ll be able to fit it in.’
Hlynur felt his heart begin to pound. Cold sweat appeared on his forehead. This was something he wouldn’t be able to do.
‘Couldn’t Ari Thór sort that out?’ he mumbled.
‘What? What d’you mean? I need Ari Thór with me today, as I just told you,’ Tómas said, with a sharper-than-usual edge to his voice.
Hlynur was about to answer back, but found his tongue tripping over the words.Hlynur, however, had been a shadow of himself since those damned emails had started arriving.
‘Well,’ he said at last. ‘I won’t make much of a job of it. We’d better not bother with it.’
‘We will bother with it, damn it. You’re going. No arguments,’ Tómas said, and was gone.
Hlynur nodded and looked down at his hands. He longed to go home, retreat under the bedclothes and rest. There was an uncomfortable unease in the pit of his stomach. He had worked with Tómas at the Siglufjörður station for six years and had considerably more experience of police work than Ari Thór, but he felt as if the balance of power had shifted over the last few months. For whatever reason, Tómas seemed to have more trust in Ari Thór these days, Hlynur brooded, less than pleased by his instructions for the day. It was certainly true that Ari Thór had made a great effort recently and seemed to be highly capable, even if there was little variety in the unchallenging cases they dealt with.
Hlynur, however, had been a shadow of himself since those damned emails had started arriving.
‘You’re losing your edge,’ Tómas had told Hlynur, just after New Year.
The two of them had been on duty, taking a break in the station’s coffee corner. Hlynur knew from experience that Tómas would occasionally come out with something unexpected, and without any kind of preamble. But Hlynur had been taken completely by surprise, aware of his jaw dropping. Moments before they had been discussing mundane matters. It had been a bleak day in Siglufjörður, with low clouds and a cold wind off the mountains. The corner of the station where they habitually took coffee breaks was equally cheerless. There were a few mugs in the sink that nobody had found time to wash up and two opened packets of chocolate biscuits by the thermos. An old calendar from a bank down south, and dating back to the boom years, lay on the worktop. No one had the heart to throw away this memento of a past time when Iceland’s economy had been buzzing. Hlynur had stared at Tómas. ‘Losing my edge? What d’you mean?’ he had asked finally, all too aware that Tómas was right, and equally aware of the reasons for his poor concentration.
‘Are you losing interest in the job? Sometimes you seem to be miles away, preoccupied. And you’re not as conscientious as you used to be,’ Tómas said, devastatingly straightforward; as always, the shrewd observer.‘Are you losing interest in the job? Sometimes you seem to be miles away, preoccupied.’
‘I’ll get my act together,’ Hlynur muttered. ‘Is anything wrong?’
‘No,’ he replied tersely, hoping that Tómas wouldn’t see through the lie. To his relief, Tómas didn’t pursue it.
The first email had arrived a year ago. Hlynur had been sitting in bed with his laptop when it dropped into his inbox like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky. He found himself shivering uncontrollably as he realised that his past was about to catch up with him and there was nothing he could do to avoid it.
He lived in a newish apartment. It was a bare place, with blank walls and no more furniture than was necessary. But that suited him. Never keen on cluttered old houses with creaking floorboards, he was pleased with the place he had found. It was bigger than he needed and one room had become a storeroom for the things he had brought with him from down south when he had decided to take the job in Siglufjörður. There were boxes of books that he never opened, DVDs he never watched and clothes he never wore.
The youngest of three brothers, he had been brought up in Kópavogur, a town in the Reykjavík area, by his mother, who worked from morning to night with a day job at the council offices, and then took whatever cleaning or other work came her way outside office hours. He had never seen much of her and, when he did, she was usually grey with exhaustion, seated with her three boys at the dinner table in their apartment. Hlynur clearly remembered eating haddock every Monday, their meals always home-cooked in a household that had no spare cash for junk food. The family was rarely able to allow itself even a little luxury.
Hlynur later discovered that his father had been a man with a weakness for the bottle. He had often disappeared for short and then longer periods, eventually disappearing for good when the third boy, Hlynur, had been born. By then he had taken up with a woman somewhere in the Westfjords and, when he could stay sober, found what work he could at sea or on shore, seldom paying a visit to Reykjavík. As such, the boys grew up without a father. A few years after his departure to the Westfjords, he lapsed into a drunken stupor and didn’t wake up, worn out after a short, harsh life. Hlynur’s mother waited for almost a year before she told the three boys about their father’s death; none of them had been present at his funeral.
Hlynur had hazy memories of the day she told them. His older brothers took the news badly, having a clearer understanding of the seriousness of it all and memories of their father before he had left them. And, although Hlynur was the only one who had no recollection of their father, little by little, the blame for his death was laid at his door., ‘Dad left when you were born,’ was something he had heard more often than he liked.
Perhaps it was for this reason he had never formed a relationship with his brothers; the older two formed an alliance against him, and their mother was too busy to see what was happening. He never dared to fight back against his brothers, and instead he vented his anger and hatred at school—on children who were easy targets. He became an expert in bullying and violence, taking all his frustrations out on those weaker than himself.But now these emails had started to arrive. It was clear that this dark past had come back to haunt him.
But now these emails had started to arrive. It was clear that this dark past had come back to haunt him.
Once his college years started, his behaviour had changed for the better, as he shook off his anger and began to sympathise with those he had hounded, realising that he had been responsible for inflicting misery on innocent people. But at first, he made no attempt to atone for his misdeeds. That was to come later as the guilt began to gnaw at his conscience.
He left home right after leaving college and enrolled in the police college, serving in various places around the country, including in Reykjavík. That job went with cuts to the police force, however, and he ended up in Siglufjörður, where he was offered a permanent post. He had little contact with his family anymore. His mother still worked for the council in Kópavogur, albeit part-time now, another victim of public-sector cuts. He encountered his brothers only when their mother invited them all for dinner on the rare occasions that he was in the Reykjavík area—a couple of times a year at most. He was happy to keep it that way; he had little in common with his family. Hlynur had made a few good friends in Siglufjörður, but he preferred to spend his evenings in front of the television, saving his spare cash to travel. The last trip had been to a gig in Britain with his friends from Siglufjörður; before that, a football match. There had been a few turbulent relationships with women over the years, most of them when he had been younger and still living in Reykjavík. Now there was someone special in Sauðárkrókur, and, while he wasn’t quite ready to think of her as a permanent girlfriend, there was time for that to change. Although her family was from the south, she taught at the primary school in Sauðárkrókur. Every now and then they’d meet and spend a night together—usually at her place, as she rarely came to Siglufjörður. When he had an evening off duty, he’d sometimes drive over to Sauðárkrókur—around the magnificent mountains that guarded the winding road to Skagafjörður, sometimes in the cold winter darkness and always too fast for safety. Now that summer was here he made the trip in the magical evening light, which gave him the opportunity to admire the fjord’s islands and the lonely rock of the Old Woman next to the island of Drangey, still standing long after the Old Man had toppled beneath the waves. He wondered whose fate was worse: that of the Old Man claimed by the sea or the Old Woman left standing there alone.
But these days he had little time to think about a future with his girlfriend. These relentless emails were eating him up inside. They glued his uncomfortable past to his present. Consumed by guilt, he slept badly, and sometimes not at all.
He had deleted the first of the emails long ago, without replying, trying without success to ignore it. The return address gave no indication who the sender might be, its provenance a free email account set up overseas—purely to plague him no doubt.
He was aware that he should have made an effort to trace the sender, perhaps to report the content of the email, but at the same time he was reluctant to pursue the issue. He knew well enough, or thought he did, why the message had been sent, and he had no desire to share those reasons with his colleagues. He had hoped that the matter would end there, with just a single message designed to disturb his peace of mind.
But that hadn’t happened. The first message landed in his inbox on the tenth of May the previous year, one Sunday lunchtime, as he enjoyed a lazy day off. The next arrived two months later, from the same sender. There was no signature, but the wording was the same. This time he didn’t delete it. With a certain perversity, he would open it when the mood took him, both at home and when he was on duty, reminding himself of the vile things he had done in the past.
Hlynur never ceased to hate his old self for those ancient sins. He had done his best to atone, to the point of leaking information about a police investigation to one of his former victims. But he knew that sooner or later there would come a day of reckoning, and it nagged at him constantly.
The emails continued to arrive, and now he kept them all, consumed by self-loathing. He read them over and over, fixated by their contents, but aware of the toll they were taking on his health, his fragile state of mind.
He had still not replied though. He had nothing to say; no defence to offer. He felt like a criminal on trial, one who had declined a defence and decided not to comment, simply waiting for a verdict to be handed down.
Hlynur was in no doubt about the context of the emails, and he remembered the boy clearly. They had been in the same class from the age of six onwards. He had been a tubby boy called Gauti, who wore thick glasses. Shy, he said little, but that was enough to make him the target of all of Hlynur’s pent-up anger and frustration. Hlynur’s assault on him had begun on the very first day and after that Hlynur had ensured the boy did not experience even one good day at school. Ignored at home by the elder brothers who clearly resented him, Hlynur victimised other children at school as well, but Gauti was easily his favourite. He never answered back and appeared to shrink further into his shell as the attacks on him intensified. For the first few years the bullying was only verbal: jokes at Gauti’s expense during and outside class, teasing that seemed so innocent on the surface that the teachers paid no attention. In fact, it was systematic psychological torture, and Hlynur had relished it, becoming addicted to the feeling of power that came with it—so different from the weakness he felt when he was at home with his brothers. And he discovered that he found it easy to beat people down, in the same way that he later, in his role as a police officer, developed a particular aptitude for persuading suspects to confess their misdeeds.
As his school years progressed, Hlynur’s intensified his bullying of Gauti and his other unfortunate classmates, becoming coarser and more blatant, even escalating into physical abuse on occasions. The youngest of the family at home, Hlynur was nevertheless strong for his age and he took advantage of this. Gauti bore the brunt of physi- cal rage, particularly during swimming lessons, when Hlynur began to hold his victim under the water while the teacher was looking the other way. He held him captive in the water for longer and longer periods as the year advanced, the boy’s eyes bulging with fear. Letting him up for air, he’d whisper into Gauti’s ear, Next time I’ll teach you how to die.
He couldn’t understand why Gauti didn’t just give up, why he didn’t stop coming to school. It was as if he had been brought up not to cheat or play truant, and this frustrated Hlynur, somehow diminishing his sense of power. Gauti was absent occasionally, maybe more often than was normal; but then he was a sickly child.
Hlynur could hardly bring himself to think back to those days. His conscience had become an increasingly heavy burden as he grew up. He did what he could to make up for the misery he had caused, and bitterly regretted what he had done; but sometimes the memory of those school years would overwhelm him, stinging like a thousand needles. He had been the strong one, and he was now being tortured by his own past. He couldn’t help but wonder what memories the others had, those he had hounded, teased and punched, day after day.
There was no doubt about the reason behind these painful emails. He knew exactly what sins he was being called on to account for: the bullying to which he had subjected Gauti. There was no shred of doubt about that. The wording of every email had been precisely the same; just a single sentence.
Next time I’ll teach you how to die.
From BLACKOUT, by Ragnar Jonasson. Used with the permission of the publisher, Minotaur Press. Copyright © 2011 by Ragnar Jonasson, translation copyright © 2016 by Quentin Bates.