6 – Peter flies to Damsted

More than eleven centuries ago the first Viking settlers pulled their long-ships onto the southern shore of Damsted. Something of the grit and ingenuity of the vikings has made it possible for their descendants to forge a life in one of Northern hemispheres least hospitable corners. This mid-Atlantic island, storm-swept and torn by vigorous volcanic activity, has never offered its inhabitants an easy life.

The population of the island peaked in 1970 at 230,000, sustained by an economy founded almost exclusively on fishing. Recent decades of attempts to diversify into tourism, information technology and aluminium smelting have not significantly diminished the country’s reliance on fish stocks.

At this point of the article my editor had insisted in putting in two bar graphs hastily drawn up on his computer. On the x-axis of the first graph for 1975 he put the GDP percentages and along the y-axis the various island industries. The tall tower of fishing dwarfed the sad bungalow estate of tourism and aluminium. In the second graph the three bars had multiplied to four to accommodate I.T. and all the bars were more similar height. This owed more to fishing’s decline than anything else. The article continued…

In the late 1970′s Damsted’s parliament, through the new Ministry for Diversification and Development, doubled its efforts to achieve a greater degree of economic security. Few in those days, save for the more perceptive scientific journals, imagined the greatest threat to this fishing nation’s future might be the deforestation of lands beyond the equator, snorting exhausts in downtown Los Angeles or the “modernisation” of the Chinese economy.

It was in 1971’s February edition of this magazine that we first explained the vagaries of “El Niño” to a wider public. Not until 2013 did the people of Damsted learn the significance of those early reports. Johan Reidarsson, a local trawler man for more than 30 years…

The text of the article wrapped around an old black and white portrait of Johan Reidarsson. He was standing on the quay before his boat, scowling as though he had just tnoticed the lens aimed at him. Bearded, broad and maybe six feet tall, he was a man in his early sixties, scarred and worn by work.

alerted by a screeching cloud of hungry gulls he was the first to come upon a sea littered with the corpses of fish . Similar discoveries were made nearly every month through the next three years. Studies of the phenomenon concluded that a disruption of the gulf streams flow and eddies and resultant seams of freezing water had caused the massive fish kills. Many were sceptical of this explanation but no one could ignore the 40% drop in the nation’s fishing fleet’s catch. There was brief and partial recovery in stocks in 2014. It was hoped that this signalled a more general revival. The year 2015 was for many a final blow. The catch bottomed at levels not known since the great freeze of 79. A decommissioning committee removed 300 trawlers from the nation’s fleet at a stroke. Unemployment, hardly known before the turn of the century, rose to 40%.

The government could do little to stem the flow of emigrants when the economy went into decline. Voluntary emigration conveniently relieved the pressure on a country increasingly committed to “downsizing”. In 2015 the government took the extraordinary step of encouraging emigration with various incentive schemes. After a few years such schemes were deemed unnecessary. The fishing industry had completely collapsed and the nation’s decline was terminal.

Again my editor had insisted another graph this time depicting the population’s decline from 230,000 to a mere 5,000 in late 2017.

…This week Damsted faces its final sad chapter. The largely abandoned capital Erikstad is home to 300 journalists and visiting dignitaries here to witness the official end to the nation. At four o’clock one last plane will take the President and her cabinet of ministers east to Denmark.

My reading was interrupted by the bleep of my laptop. On the screen a dialogue box was telling me a new e-mail had arrived. Bo hadn’t bothered with a text. There was a small file attached. It was a simple list of names

Eva Rasmussen er@tb.dd – Librarian, Lotta Schneider – Assistant Librarian, Erik Rasmussen, Conrad Petersen, Reinhard Reinhardsson, Johan Reidarsson – fisherman, Sigurd Jonsson, Snolfjur Guttormsson -Acting Police Chief.

These were the remaining inhabitants on Damsted. I could only guess their reasons for staying back. The librarians to do some last minute archiving. Maybe a couple of the men were tradesmen keeping the power on, or at hand to lend muscle. Johan, the old fisherman mentioned in my article, was perhaps needed for his seafaring skills. But a policeman? What business would he have there?

Of the eight people still on Damsted I only had contact details for Eva. I quickly wrote her an e-mail …

Dear Eva

I am a journalist for the scientific magazine The Empiricist. We have documented the environmental catastrophe at Damsted at some length over the last decades. What I would like to do is a piece on island life as lived by the last seven people there. To this end could you call me or send me your phone number so we might talk?

I started sifting through the Damsted stuff. On the top of the bundle was the closure program – seven days of newly contrived ceremonies. It was titled “The end of a nation”. I had received it in 2018, a few days before flying out from Copenhagen. First on the program for visiting journalists was a day’s safari.

It rained continuously on safari. It was a day of hissing rain, crackling waterproofs, damp boots, the windows of a minibus opaque with condensation, and short trudges across clay car-parks. We visited the falls, the geysers and a derelict prison. At one point, Miles, a tabloid hack, had rubbed away condensation on the minibus window as we passed through a new and abandoned housing scheme installed at the foot of some hills and asked, “Why would anyone want to live in such a shit hole anyway?” The man sitting next to him, a pasty faced Londoner, had merely shrugged.

In the evening I bailed early on a reception and went for a wander round the empty streets of downtown Damsted. I reached the harbour and followed the promenade leading away around the bay. At the end of a kilometre of weed-lined slabs I came to the angular bronze sculpture depicting the prow of a Viking ship. It was tilted up at the hills across the bay. I sat down on the base of the plinth on the side sheltered from the icy wind. From the direction of the harbour a tiny figure on a bicycle was making slow progress towards me. There was a firm breeze and it seemed the boy was deliberately dramatising the battle against it. Following up behind was a woman huddled in a knee-length overcoat.

The boy only looked up when he was a few pedal strokes from the sculpture.  I lifted a hand in greeting and called out. He stopped, mouth agape. His left eye was green and the other was blue. Perhaps he had planned to stop at the sculpture but then, not liking the look of me, decided continued on. A few minutes later a woman, his mother I assumed, passed by. It was difficult to get a proper look at her face because she had fastened up the hood of her jacket against the wind. I gave her a friendly wave and without stopping she saluted me with a brief raise of one hand.

I had finished looking through the Damsted folder and the phone rang. I lit a cigarette and waited for it to ring for one minute. There was only one person that persistent. I lifted the receiver and asked, “Fred?”

“Peter. Thank God you’re in. Good trip? I was expecting to hear from you before now. Not a text, not an e-mail. How was it?”

“It was fine.”

“You’re at home?”

“You rang my home number.”

“So, how are things?”

“Okay. Okay.”

“Huh huh.”

“I don’t have anything for you.”

“What do you mean nothing? You’ve been away two weeks. You must have got something?”

“No. Nothing.”

I imagined him frowning at his desk, already scratching the eczema on the back of his left hand and thinking about what he might pull from the files to fill in the hole.

“What the fuck Pete?”

“I have a new idea. For the next issue.”

I could see him removing his glasses and rubbing his lazy left eye with the palm of his right hand, trying to massage away another of his headaches. “What? What you got?”

“Damsted.”

“Did you say Damsted?”

“Damsted.”

“We’ve done Damsted. We had an article on the closure last year. Didn’t you see it?”

“I wrote it.”

“Exactly?”

“I want to go back. There are still some people there.”

“Out of the question. The budget won’t cover it.”

“I’m going back.”

“You can’t.”

“Hello?”

“You can’t go back. We don’t have the money.”

“Hello? Fuck….Hello?

“Can you hear me Pete?”

“Hello? Are you still…”

“Pete. I know you can hear me.”

I depressed the buttons on the cradle.

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