The Northern Lights - shoals of herring, ghosts of slain enemies, fox tails, old maids dancing? Aurora Bollocks. Still, another great titfer.
Last February, the Colonel and I went to the Arctic Circle to look for the Northern Lights. We prepared for the trip with our usual heady mix of military precision and literary indulgence. He spent many hours and even more sterling on a scary website buying, yes this is where it came from, scads of petrochemical schmutter. I had no idea that, since Mallory hung up his soggy, frozen tweeds and fed the last of the meat lozenges to a passing dog, great strides have been made in cold-weather clothing.
We unpacked gossamer-thin leggings which, under the waterproof, snowproof, marauding-Viking-rape-and-pillage-proof matching trousers, could raise your core temperature to boiling point. There were boots that weighed a ton, in which you could stand up to your ankles in snow and feel you were in caressing cashmere socks in front of a roaring fire. The layers of gloves, neckwarmers, vests, fleece body things and hats made me rather grumbly at home - I was made to try them on and felt like a schoolboy in Peter Jones' Uniform Department. Hot, fussed over, incapable of bending a limb and dreading the thought of having to pee. The Colonel snorted at my hopeful, flimsy handful of La Perla and took immediate charge of the packing.
I escaped as fast as possible into every single Wallander book I could find, cooling down with gruesome Swedish murders, solved by the grey-faced, taciturn detective brought so crossly to tortured life in this series.
We went straight to Ystad on touchdown to walk Wallander's streets; tiny winding medieval cobbles and concrete sixties plazas, all soaked in an authentic depressive drizzle. We marked each lane and square with the memories of his cases - victims, interviews, criminal hideaways - and many cups of hot, sludgy chocolate in cafes lit purely with strings of twinkling fairy lights.
But it was the frozen north that called us; both enchanted by the chance of seeing the Northern Lights we had dreamed of since childhood. We took an overnight train as far North as possible, well into the Arctic Circle and jumped out on a wooden station platform in Bjorkliden, where a sign announced it was minus 30 degrees. British Officer sang-froid and stiff-upper-lip took on a literal dimension as the Colonel's moustache actually froze within seconds.
We went out one night onto the frozen lake, riding snowmobiles under the stars. We stopped in the middle and listened to the moaning of the ice, sitting huddled on reindeer skins, drinking hot berry juice and hoping to buggery that the damn lights would show. Did they hell. The Colonel took a spectacular tumble on the ice and snapped a thigh muscle, so we enjoyed a more earthly son et lumiere. There are now Samis in Bjorkliden who can swear like English squaddies.
Which meant that the next day's dog-sledding was not quite as we had imagined. Instead of bundling into furs and skins while he did Dr Zhivago and shouted 'mush,' it was the Colonel wrapped up warmly on the two-man sled, smirking as the Sami driver explained how priceless the champion dogs were that I was about to drive into a frozen tundra. My flimsy sled had some iron bits to stand on which looked like mantraps and were the braking and steering system. Chilling volpine howls drowned out all instruction, as I shook from fear as much as bone-chilling cold. The only thing I heard was 'do NOT let go'. As the brakes came off, the eight dogs shot left up a hill and I, sure as night follows day, let go, pitching headfirst to the right into a drift of snow. The volpine howls did not drown out the Colonel's shrieks of laughter as I spat out mouthfuls of ice and climbed back on.
I remember very little of the climb up the mountain tracks; the dogs' energy was electric, but balancing was surprisingly easy. The driver of the Colonel's sleigh stood backwards shouting instructions to me as we wove upwards through huge drifts under an azure sky. After a while, I opened both eyes, stood a little off the brake and gave them their heads. Amazing. At the top, we emerged onto another frozen lake and he motioned me to go ahead. There was nothing but snow, sky, the whistle of wood against ice and the singing of the dogs, my blood pounding in my ears and the water from my eyes freezing on my cheeks. I felt like a Prince from Narnia. I let go of the brakes and let the dogs carry me at full speed across the ice and snow, my lungs on fire and adrenalin crackling in me like fireworks.
I circled the lake like a frozen Ben Hur before the dogs took me back to where the driver and Colonel were resting their dogs and drinking the hottest, bitterest, strongest, most ambrosial coffee I have ever gulped down. I could hardly speak, other than to pant 'thank you' to the blue-eyed huskies.
We never did see the bloody lights, though Sami lore has it that you must return again and again until you do. In the meantime, I am slaking my Skandi-lust with the phenomenal trilogy by Stieg Larsson; the perfect sharp antidote to overindulgence, overheated houses and overencumbrance of relatives.
Happy New Year.