In the second of our series looking at the art of transnational literature in partnership with Bath Spa University and their Centre for Transnational Creativity, Friðrik Sólnes Jonsson presents a cameo of life growing up in Iceland in ‘The King of the Ball’.
In the small town of Akureyri in Iceland, the sixties didn’t arrive until we were already halfway into the seventies. What’s more, not much of the revolutionary spirit of the sixties made it through intact. Only some music and hairstyles. My generation’s parents belonged to the old system of farmers and fishermen who moved to the town from the rural areas and still remembered having to use an outhouse or a bedpan and not having electricity. Or so were we told, over and over, through our childhoods. We were therefore genuinely grateful for all the modern comforts and wouldn’t even think of making a fuss over things like social stratification or the Viet Nam war. People who are grateful like that tend to be quite conservative.
As the truism would have it, people grew up faster back then. Looking at my old class photo from when we graduated from tenth grade, everyone seemed really grown-up. The men looked like proper adults, most in dark brown or black suits, some with sideburns, some even with full beards, even if they were only 16 or 17. The teacher was sitting a little to the left of the group. He had large black-rimmed glasses and looked a lot like Carlos the Jackal.
At school, agents, spokespersons or delegates from different organizations or companies had full access to students during school hours. These visits were heartily welcomed by teachers and students alike since the normal curriculum was often repetitive and dull. In the space of a single school year our class would be given over to all sorts of delegates and officials on a regular basis. Someone from the Gideons International would hand out copies of the New Testament and say a few words about the benefits of letting Jesus Christ into our lives. A man from the Independence Party warned against the devastating effect on our frail economy if taxes or wages would be raised. Númi Þorkell from the YMCA hunted for volunteers both for the nearby lakeside boys’ summer camp as well as the mission in Kenya.
The most memorable visit was an emissary from the Good Templars, which was quite a formidable organization in our town. This small and jittery man was around 60 and had a frown on his face like a mouse looking upwards to sniff at something. He played us a short silent movie using the school’s huge projector and every now and then described to us what was happening on the screen in short agitated bursts of speech. The film was Scandinavian, titled “Balkongen,” or, as the man translated it, “The King of the Ball.” In our dialect, the word “ball” wasn’t just used for formal dances but for any type of get-togethers with music and drinks. The film showed a house party in an apartment block with people drinking, playing records and a few dancing in a clunky way. The film seemed to have a lot of dialogue but our narrator waited patiently through those with his hands crossed over his groin. He sprang into motion when a dark haired man entered the frame. “There he is! The King of the Ball!” He tapped the textile projector screen hard with his finger, denting the picture. “Look at him! He’s totally deranged from drink. You’ll see where that gets you.”
The King of the Ball was a normal-looking fellow in a light-coloured suit. He had a drink in his hand and smiled a lot but he didn’t participate in any of the dialogues and was mostly seen in the background or in panoramic shots of the party. The short film reached its tragic crescendo during a scene where two women had a heated argument which lead to one of them falling off the balcony. The old Templar guy tapped on the poor woman who was lying on the pavement below. She raised her head slightly to look up towards the balcony and some terrified guests before falling back down lifeless, dramatically succumbing to her injuries. “This is what you get when you consort with the King of the Ball!”
But the King of the Ball hadn’t been on screen in a while and he wasn’t seen again until the guests were all filing out of the building, looking sombre and miserable. The Templar gave the screen a slightly softer tap this time.
“He must be really happy with himself now, the king.”
After a dramatic pause the old man waxed poetic and asked us to think about the hundreds of seeds that would never become flowers because of the King of the Ball and others of his ilk. Then he thanked the teacher, said his goodbyes and disappeared with his two huge reels of film in their metal casings. His message was mostly lost on us. The film was more confusing than inspiring but I think most of the boys in class that day where left harbouring a secret wish to some day become the King of the Ball.
The years after I finished the tenth grade went by quickly. I started going out to sea with my father who was the captain on a fishing trawler. I had been going every now and then during summers since I was ten, more to spend time with my father than to do work, but the crew were quick to find uses for me so I mostly ran around with the ship’s dog, Lárpera, sharpened knives, helped mend the nets, or delivered messages. Spending time with my father was also nice. He was almost always out at sea and when he came home the atmosphere was tense and he mostly wanted to be left alone in his study. The first time he was home at Christmas I was already thirteen and it felt strange to see someone else sitting in my mother’s chair.
After the tenth grade I was out at sea so much I missed out on countless parties, camping trips and friends’ weddings. I also missed out on the not-yet-so-famous Kinks playing in our local movie theatre, and Led Zeppelin, playing in our giant handball arena at the peak of their career. It was perhaps no big surprise then that the King of the Ball loomed large in my thoughts during this time.
A chance presented itself when the crew was in the small harbour city of Hull with a few days shore leave. The plan was to leave the old trawler to be scrapped and then sail home on a brand new one. My father was busy with moving equipment between the two trawlers and the rest of the crew would visit prostitutes and get anchors tattooed on their forearms marking the occasion, with “Hull 1974” inscribed beneath. The first thing I did was to get on the next train to London. At Piccadilly Circus I walked straight into Aquascutum, which sold high quality clothes for gentlemen, and proceeded to dress myself up like a king. I bought a suit and an overcoat and some dress shirts, shoes, leather gloves, a belt and a scarf. It cost around two months’ wages but I didn’t care. I was always working and I never had a chance to spend anything. A week later we were docking again back home. Akureyri had never seemed smaller and the mountains around it had never seemed bigger and more imposing. Seeing the dockworkers and the old cars parked nearby made me feel like I had just travelled back in time.
As I walked back home over the gravel lot with the taxis I could see posters advertising a ball that very evening, with a band playing and everything. This was my chance. I got dressed in my new clothes and drove to the ball. I sat in my car for a while close to the venue, our handball arena, and listened to the national radio. Sailors’ Requests was on, mostly playing upbeat accordion music. I took swigs from a small vodka bottle and smoked Royale cigarettes. I had grown quite tall and the roof of my Volkswagen beetle flattened the top of my Afro hairdo. When I’d polished off the vodka I got out and walked towards the arena.
It was the time of year which our poet Halldór Laxness had described as the time between hay and grass, when winter was supposed to be over but spring was not in sight, and men and animals used to drop like flies. This was in the olden days, which in Iceland lasted until WWII, when the blessed war made everyone rich and modern.
The air was cold and crisp and after six weeks of diesel fumes I felt I could smell the oxygen in the air. The cold didn’t come with the wind but rather seemed to radiate from the ground and the yellow grass was frozen so it made a soft creaking sound when you walked on it. There was already a line outside the venue. Most of the people were dressed up but a few of the men seemed to have just headed there straight after work. They looked like the dockworkers I’d seen earlier—in dirty and worn woollen sweaters with sixpence caps and specks of coarse snuff tobacco around their noses and mouths—and they made me feel the sort of confidence that’s born out of sheer contempt for one’s fellow man. I was also drunk and looking like a goddamned prince. I walked past the line and went straight inside. I didn’t even stop to pay for a ticket. I was the King of the Ball.
Inside I didn’t even take off my coat or my gloves. I’d felt certain haughtiness that one is bound to feel when one has taken in the streets and carpeted pub floors of London as well as this spectacle in the same week. The Rooftops were playing Beatles covers mixed with their own Beatles knock-offs and the guys would push each other onto groups of girls. Courting at its finest. It worked every time. I was amused like a parent is amused, like royalty are amused.
The after party was at Gomba’s house, a huge three-story funkis house with an observatory on top. Gomba was very beautiful, plump with short blond hair in the style of Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. All the girls had that hairstyle in Akureyri in ’74. I still had my coat on but now at least my gloves were in my pocket. We were talking and smoking. Mostly smoking. I had a burning sensation in my eyes and a shitty taste in my mouth so I tried to drink red wine in big swigs to rinse it out. We talked for a long time and sometimes I would go refill my glass in the kitchen and sometimes she’d have to go to the bathroom or somewhere but we would always come back to the same spot on top of the stairs overlooking the living room.
Her father was a senator and a banker and the house was filled with all sorts of tokens of wealth. Persian rugs and oil paintings. The keen eye could also have detected some indications of the unhealthy relationship between the public and private sectors in our town. Gomba’s father was regularly given all sorts of trophies or ornaments from the town’s biggest businesses, for his birthday or wedding. Their house had a sauna in the basement, which was quite unheard of. Then there were the souvenirs. Nobody travelled abroad during these years and if you did you went no further than Copenhagen or the harbour cities in Britain and Germany, like Hull, Grimsby, Hamburg, or Cuxhaven. These people had holy water in a bottle from a trip to Jerusalem, and a small roulette trinket from Monaco. Apparently the casinos sent a limo after the old man whenever he was in town on account of his gambling enthusiasm.
Gomba and I were running out of things to say and I kept thinking about the right moment to kiss her. Time wasn’t on my side. I was sobering up and pale blue daylight was already streaming through the window. There was a real-life hippie sitting on the sofa with long hair, an open shirt exposing chest hair and lots of jewellery made from wooden beads and turquoise. He was trying to smoke hashish from a pipe while five or six people looked on in amazement. I had never seen anyone smoke hashish before and I had serious doubts regarding whether it had ever reached our town to begin with. There were news stories about the police busting some minor attempt at smuggling or some teenagers carrying small amounts. It was always revealed that the substance was liquorice, incense, and dirt. Depressing. But here was the opportunity to make a move on Gomba as the hippie was smoking his hashish and describing the effects to the onlookers with slow wavy hand gestures. We were turned in the same direction and I put my arm around her waist. She looked at me and smiled and then turned her head back towards the living room.
We stood like that for a while. Then she turned around and faced me and put a hand on my shoulder. Our faces were almost together, her eyes turned down towards my lips. Then we heard a chant. First one or two voices and then everyone in the sofa calling loudly towards us “Fuck her! Fuck her! Fuck her!” Even her friends were in on it, making their hands into bugles so they would be louder. Gomba disentangled herself, laughed and made some dismissive gesture. I tried to laugh too. Gomba went down the stairs and joined her friends and everyone, including her, thought this little prank had been absolutely hilarious.
I stayed on for a while but Gomba didn’t come back to talk to me. I was developing a headache. I looked at myself in a mirror in a corridor. I looked like shit, with a flushed puffy face and bloodshot eyes. I felt silly in the nice clothes now. I waved goodbye to the small crowd in the living room and hurried out.
A year later I started college in Reykjavík and I heard Gomba had moved to New York. Three years later I met my wife, finished my degree and we moved to Lund in Sweden. I would often think about Gomba in the years after and what could have been. Even that felt like profound betrayal, deeper than fantasizing about another woman, although that was an important component. It was fantasizing about another family, other children and other in-laws, a whole different set of experiences.
I often wondered who had started that chant. It didn’t really matter but I always suspected that hippie. It therefore gave me great pleasure some thirty years after the incident when I saw his face on the front of a newspaper. He was the owner and manager of a Bed and Breakfast in an even smaller town than Akureyri and was arrested for having installed small cameras in the showers and bathrooms of his establishment. Apparently some tourist women noticed a small lens somewhere between the panels in the ceiling. His utter disgrace gave me satisfaction, as well as the fact that the years hadn’t treated him very well: he’d turned into a fat bastard.
Shortly after we settled in Lund I was at a café. With an outside terrace. A sign on the door read “Balkongen.”
Then it hit me. Balkongen meant balcony, not the King of the Ball.
I thought of Gomba and felt cheated, then guilty, then sad.
Friðrik Sólnes Jónsson is an Icelandic electrician, father and husband, who holds an MA degree in Literature in English. Friðrik has mostly written prologues for comic books and literary segments for the Icelandic national radio.