Our car slides, again. The snow has become ice. I turn to Chris, and his hands clenched on the wheel for hours now. Lisa’s shrunk down low in the back seat, her scarf wound around her eyes. Icelandic ponies frolic along the woollen fringe. Our eagerness to see them in the flesh on our six hour drive north began to be replaced with anxiety when gale force winds howled out of a darkening sky just outside Reykjavik.
When Iceland turns on you, it happens fast.
We held onto the door handles, aghast, as our car shook from side to side. Police waved us past paramedics on the Ring Road, where the wind had overturned a boat on a trailer and sent it smashing into an oncoming car. All conversation in our car stopped. Lisa had reached for her scarf when the road began to trace the high edge of a fjord, tumbling down to the Greenland Sea.
Five hours later we’re still driving, and still tense. When we slide on the ice, Chris quickly corrects it. Lisa gasps. The snow gathers force and envelopes our car. The view instantly disappears and we are back in a cloud, nothing but white outside our windows.
It’s not a good day for a drive.
From my first visit ten years ago, Iceland has spellbound me. I love the cold, the mellifluous language, and the wild, white and wonderful landscape. On another visit I lived for a month in a tiny fishing village up near the Arctic Circle. We’re headed there now; partly pilgrimage, partly for research for my novel set there, but also to show my beloveds that my words do not, for once, hold the tinge of hyperbole and exaggeration.
You don’t need to exaggerate in Iceland, believe me.
But this land is treacherous beyond belief. The GPS has led us away from my planned route, up into the mountains where the roads have not been ploughed and where, as my demons whisper, no-one will find us. I keep reaching for the bottle of vodka we bought duty free and filling the cap with liquid courage, passing it back and forth to Lisa.
Chris speaks, low and curt.
I look at his profile and see the clenched jaw, the narrowed gaze always on the white ahead of us. The hard liquor unavailable to him, he turns instead to his own source of comfort: music.
I scroll down his phone. And I choose unwisely. As soon as I hear Morrissey croon ‘Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head’, I realise my mistake. This is not the time for maudlin pessimism. With superlative lack of accuracy, I then opt for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. When we hear him growl ‘I am not afraid to die’ as the wind rattles our car, I can almost feel us all wince. I have very little knowledge of bubble gum pop or soothing classical, anything to ease us out of this. My musical loves seem more at home in the darkness and depth: and that is not what this car needs. Maybe one should always have a backup copy of Karma Chameleon on hand, just for situations like this.
The snow is coming horizontally at the windscreen now. I can’t even look at Lisa as I pass her another capful. And then my fingers stop scrolling, and hit play.
The drum starts; slow, solitary beats. Thump, thump, thump. It reminds me of a heartbeat, and I feel mine immediately slow in unison. The flutters of fear, like wings within my ribcage, begin to calm. When I hear the murmur of ‘Well, well, well’ it’s a comfort stronger than liquor and warmer than blood. Chris nods. I settle back into my seat, and listen.
Crawling King Snake, a blues classic, has countless versions. A tale of inappropriate men and absolving women, the snake crawls in and out of his lovers’ lives with each verse.
You know you caught him crawlin’, baby, when the grass was very high
He’s just gonna keep on crawlin’ now, until the day he dies
This Etta James version is my favourite. She turns the song on its head; it becomes an all-knowing, all woman warning, hypnotic, serpentine and damn near the most seductive song I know.
It fills the car as we drive, snow framing the windscreen. I look at Chris, with his full focus on getting his ‘precious cargo’, us, to Siglufjörður. I think of my past snakes, all those blue eyes and banjos over the years, the late night knocks and needs that kept my heart shielded and my eyes always on the door.
He’s gonna crawl up to your window, crawl up to your door
If you got anything he wants – and I know you do – he’s gonna crawl up on your floor
I listen to the drum beat as the white swirls past our windows. I trust Chris to keep us safe. Lisa slinks low and the vodka hits my heart and still, he drives. And I realise, suddenly and simply, that I trust him.
My foot eases off my imaginary brake. We spot a swathe of blue amongst the white sky and lean forward. Have we reached the peak? None of us knows, but we’re holding onto the arm rests and letting hope and vodka ease us on. I lean against the seat and close my eyes. I listen to Etta, soothing, sensual and so sure of the path ahead of her.
And with the song beckoning us forward, we drive on into the clouds.