Published July 11, 2001
It was supposed to be just another hangover day at Vitabarinn. I was in the process of ordering up a blue cheese and garlic burger, and was considering the option of fries versus onion rings when Mensi arrived. I thought this would be the greatest challenge encountered that day, and happily anticipated stuffing ourselves and spending the rest of the afternoon recovering. But it was not to be.
As he entered he did not make straight for the bar, and I knew something was wrong. Worse still, it seemed from his expression that he’d just had an idea, for he was radiating like a child that had just discovered his willy could be used for more than peeing. I braced myself.
“What do you think about leaving the city for a change?” I had been prepared for worse, but the relief was to be brief. “To do what, precisely?” I inquired. I was hoping he’d suggest going for a drive back and forth, some food along the way, preferably something that did not entail too much walking.
“To jump of a cliff,” he said.
I prayed that the Cliff in question was some American acrobat type. But no, this was an actual cliff that some of his friends had spotted when out on a walk the day before, and lemming like, had not been able to resist the urge to jump off it. Unlike their rodent spiritual brethren, however, they were deterred by lack of swimwear. This was something that was to be remedied this very afternoon.
“So, do you want to come along,” said Mensi cheerfully, as if he’d just suggested something sensible such as going to the pub;, if, of course, we weren’t already in one. Any suggestion for the immediate future that did not involve a burger with garlic and blue cheese could not be a good one, but as I looked into that face bursting with infantile innocence, I just could not bring myself to tell him that this was the dumbest idea I’d ever heard. Instead, I followed him into a car where two of his friends and a girl were waiting. Somewhere in the back of my head, a line from Star Wars echoed. My subconscious often resorts to Star Wars metaphors when it has something important to tell me. “Who is more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him,” it said. I was still mulling over this as we left civilisation, or what passes for one in these parts, behind us and headed out into the barren wasteland that consumes most of the rest of the island. At least Mensi had not been the originator of the idea, so perhaps our friendship, if not our lives, would be preserved.
We drove past Hvalfjörður (meaning Whale Fjord), which housed a US Navy base in World War Two, and a whaling factory until the trade was banned in 1989 (see page 10). Finally, we reached the cliff where it had been decided we should throw ourselves off. We removed our civilian clothes and got ready for proceedings to begin. “We might be making a mistake,” said Steini, as he surveyed the cliff. “Do you think?” I retorted. But it was too late now. The escapade, having been embarked upon, had to be seen through. It used to be that mothers of illegitimate children were thrown off cliffs into the freezing water below, and a place in Þingvellir still bears the name Drekkingarhylur (Drowning Pool). This practice didn’t accomplish its aim though, as most Icelanders today are born out of wedlock; bastards, I believe, is the technical term. Perhaps there is something in the collective racial consciousness that has induced this lemming-like need to jump off cliffs to atone for the sins of our mothers. Or perhaps it is just sheer stupidity.
In any case, I found myself on top of the precipice looking straight down, knowing I was supposed to leave the comforts of solid ground for the altogether more uncertain ones of thin air. I looked at my compatriots, hoping the girl at least, out of either cowardice or at common sense would withdraw from the endeavour, and perhaps bring about a full-scale retreat. My hopes were quickly dashed as she, without waiting for anyone, flung herself off. She crashed into the water, and as she did not remerge again, I thought about suggesting calling it a day. While I debated with myself whether it was better to be dead and cool than alive and uncool, and veering towards the latter, her head shot out of the water. She immediately started making towards land, which seemed to indicate that she was still alive. Once the first one went off, there would be no stopping the lemmings giving in to their nature. In they went, one after the other. And one by one they swam to shore, leaving me alone on the cliff. It was a long way down, but the alternative, walking back down the rocky hillside without shoes on did not seem too appealing either, not withstanding the endless jibes that I would have to live with as a result. I looked down towards the cold, blue abyss. My survival instincts told me not to throw myself into it. I didn’t listen.
I seemed suspended in slow motion as I soared downwards. In the French film “La Haine,” a man falls off a building and convinces himself that everything is alright, for he has still not hit the ground. This is taken as a metaphor for society, closing its eyes to its problems as it heads towards inevitable collision. None of this entered my mind as I headed towards the surface. My thoughts at that moment, if recorded, would probably be phrased in a single word, which would either be “whoopee” or “oh shit.”
I plunged down into the freezing cold water. Down I went, ever downwards. The light on the surface seemed to grow farther and farther away. I was only just coming to terms with the inevitability of death when, as if tied to a bungee rope, I shot up again. Gasping for air as I penetrated the surface, it was only now that I noticed how cold the water was. Quickly as I could, I swam towards land. As I got a hold of some rocks and pulled myself out, I realised I didn’t feel cold at all any more, even though I was soaking wet and the sun was long gone. Apparently, the shock of the freezing water had inoculated me against feeling the cold of the atmosphere. I had been told this by Finns who jump through holes in ice for recreational purposes, but never quite believed it.
Mensi and his friends spotted an even higher cliff and made towards it. I decided to stay put, feeling that I had proven whatever it was I had come here to prove. Continuing this for enjoyments sake seemed like sheer folly.
They emerged on the top of the cliff. The slope didn’t go directly down but leaned into the water, so you had to jump off far enough not to let the rocks dissect you on the way down. Even Mensi seem to have second thoughts. “Go KR!” (Reykjavík football club) someone shouted to egg him on. I wondered how many people had died with those words on their lips in circumstances such as these. Still, Steini stayed put. Then the girl started goading him, and the result was a foregone conclusion. He backed away, but this was not a sudden moment of clarity. It was just so that he could get a good run at it.. He came down in a nice arc, barely missing the rocks, and landed safely, if not necessarily comfortably, in the water
Everyone now having attempted and failed to kill themselves, we could head back home. As we approached that den of corruption and vice that is Iceland’s capital again, it struck me that I had forgotten all about my hangover. Now, if only my testicles, still in shock from the cold water, would come back down. This was beginning to become an unnerving habit.