Saturday, September 10, 2005

Another September

It is almost that time of year again: when summer becomes autumn, when things change, and I think of that time when I thought the world had changed forever.

I was in a heliport when it happened - the Greenlandic language sputtering from a loudspeaker, my last day in Uummannaq, an island off the west Greenland coast and I was watching an iceberg. At that time I was writing, obsessively, pretty much like now, reams and reams of words, trying to capture the place: the ice lurking at the top of cliffs, the exhilarating chill in the air, and the light - low, odd, difficult to get used to - early morning turning immediately into late evening at noon - making me edgy, anxious that the day was ending, even though sunset was still eight hours away.

As soon as I had landed in Greenland I had started walking, out through the settlement onto the tundra, edging around small bogs and onto the high outcrops of rock. Old rock. Ancient rock - the remains of another land mass even older than Pangaea. I was after something more recent. At Illulisat there is the most productive glacier in the world and I was determined to see it. At last I did - a vast lake of ice with a dirty blocky surface and in front of it the great calved icebergs in a calm sea. Nothing appeared to move. It was magnificently quiet. I looked around and something grabbed at my insides then and told me how foolish I'd been. I was alone on the top of a high plateau of rock and I didn’t know quite how I’d got there or how much daylight was left. I wanted to go on, I’d read there were the remains of a prehistoric settlement further down the fjord but I had brought nothing with me, just the clothes I was standing in, so I turned back and began my descent.

The ice fascinated me. That September I spent so long looking at the shapes that floated imperceptibly by. It was like looking at the coal fires in my grandmother’s house. We used to watch them together - coal houses and mansions tumbling down - villages, towns, empires. The ice crumbled more slowly. Each day when I woke I would look into the bay and there would be a different block floating in the sea.

I was watching one of these shapes from the window of the heliport, imagining it to be something different, when I heard it 'WORLD TRADE TOWER' in amongst the ‘a’s and ‘i’s of the Greenlandic commentary. Then the only other person that spoke English in the place, a travelling salesman from Denmark, rushed over to me and told me world war three had started.

‘Come,’ he said, and we forced our way to the office behind the counter where the man in charge of the airport was staring at the small screen. ‘New York’ he said, but I couldn’t believe it - too much like a film, too many people screaming, covered in dust. I am not sure when I believed: maybe during a steep ascent from Qarsut in a small plane when the Danish journalist that was sitting next to me clutched the arms of his seat muttering that this was a bad day to fly, or when I saw my Inuit companions staring silently at the TV screen at the airport at Upernavik, or, and I think this was the time - when I curled up into the seat of my third aeroplane that day, 73 degrees north, at last heading south - my husband's voice still in my head after I'd managed to reach him on the phone saying: ‘Just come home.’


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