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A Kingdom for a Kalashnikov
By Andrea Heiberg
Story excerpted from the collection, Next Stop: Sejer Island, © 2011 by Salt Publishing

Book Cover

My house in Denmark was secured with solid wooden rods and looked like something from the Second World War. A contractor had managed to get as far as to shoring up the cellar, the entire house, with wooden rods, and he had left me with a deep hole where a toilet once was before he'd vanished with his first payment. For days I failed to reach him on multiple cell phones. I knew that he considered the work ahead of him back-breaking, but to make room for a modern bathroom the concrete floor in the cellar needed there'd be some serious digging to follow to lower the floor level.

'Andrea, I can do it,' Idris said the day I invited him to have a look at my cellar.

Idris is my Afghan friend from Denmark. Time and time again he had asked me for work.

'You only need to provide me with a proper drill and I'll be here Saturday,' he said.

'Saturday noon,' I said.

Saturday morning at nine sharp Idris appeared on my doorstep and just behind him someone else. I'd just stumbled out of bed.

It was early spring with rime frost outside. His friend, a thin, small man, wore no socks and just flimsy sandals. I felt as if I said good morning to Mahatma Gandhi.

'We are here for your cellar. Remember?' Idris said.

Of course I remembered. I had a heavy pneumatic drill in my car.

'We agreed “late in the morning”. Late!' I emphasised.

'It is Saturday,' Idris said.

Looking at him and his friend, I didn't think this arrangement would work at all, but I felt the pressure. The new bathroom components were due in a fortnight.

Now, in the cold light of this Saturday morning, I realised I was unlikely to meet the deadline. How could I rely on these two men to break up my cellar floor? Silently, I led them both to the cellar.

'You make some coffee,' Idris said.

And I did.

A hammering began and in my dressing gown I went down to the two men, but when I opened my mouth to speak Idris said, 'Shh.'

The sandal man was now bare-footed and was on all fours, hammering here and there on the concrete floor, listening. In a few places he banged the hammer down onto the floor and then continued with a light tapping. Suddenly he rose and looked at me, almost smiling, but clearly nodding in my direction.

'This is Sedig,' Idris said. 'He is an expert.'

Sedig continued his light tapping with his tiny silver-headed hammer and I went back up to my kitchen. Half an hour later the pneumatic drill was running. The noise was infernal. Only to me it was the noise of two men working, and I liked that since I was paying them to work.

'We need more buckets,' Idris shouted.

Buckets? My neighbour had two more buckets. Idris ran in and out of the cellar door carrying buckets filled with a few pieces of concrete from the floor. This job would surely take forever. They had only removed tiny sections here and there, and Sedig alone was digging. They seemed poorly organised.

Helga, my bucket neighbour, arrived. I had already prepared an explanation about the noise, but she stopped me. 'I am here because I want to use your computer.'

The noise didn't bother her at all, she explained.'I'm from Iceland, you know that,' she said, as if that explained anything.

The drilling continued, Helga got on-line, and I went to prepare a salad with cod and prawns when a strange deep sound, similar to the cracking of a dangerous, ice-covered sea, broke through. The noise increased and was topped with a deafening bang. I was shocked but Helga wasn't; she wasn't disturbed at all.

Down in the cellar, both Idris and Sedig were covered in dust. The entire concrete fl oor had turned into pebbles and was now considerably lower.

Sedig was proud, even joyful. 'Floor fixed,' he said. 'Ready for lunch now.'

Idris was merely staring, and I was too. How could he think of lunch amidst all this rubble and dust?

Back in the kitchen, I arranged my prawn salad on my grandmother's best glass crystal dishes. I was so totally distracted, and mechanically I arranged lunch to be served on antique crystal dishes for the two workmen in the cellar. So comforting it was to see the impressive tray that I added a nice cool flute of white wine.

In a few minutes Sedig gobbled up the salad. He raised the crystal dish up to the light with three fingers, and with his right hand he gave it a fl ick. Pling!

'Crystal,' he said to Idris.

'Beautiful crystal,' he said to me. 'Before I go to your kingdom, I go to Czechoslovakia and I make crystal glass. Good quality crystal glass and this is very good quality.'

Of course it was. It was my grandmother's.

'You went to Czechoslovakia,' I said.

'From Kabul,' he said.

'And you are a glass blower?' I said.

'Glass worker,' he corrected me and abruptly turned to Idris as if to suggest they had spent long enough time on lunch, and Idris immediately fi nished his food.

They returned to digging. I left. Throughout the following hour, I heard the steady sound of their digging, a continuous rhythm. Then it stopped.

'There is something down here. It might be copper,' Idris yelled.

Helga raised her head from the computer screen. 'Copper?'

Helga and I hurried to the cellar and whatever it was, it was beautiful. A deposit of black stone ore was visible on the excavated floor of the cellar, with something in it that caught the light. Sedig was preparing to hit the stone ore in just the right place to make it crack. He tapped lightly, as if testing for the optimum place to strike.

'Wait,' Helga yelled and rushed over.

Sedig jumped up and they stood close together. She was a head taller than him. Helga is a tall, blossoming, fair-haired woman from Iceland, a Miss World-type, and she just made Sedig a Mister Old—so small and wrinkled he seemed.

He looked up at her and froze, in position.

'How extraordinary! Can I borrow your rock hammer?' Helga said.

Idris and I were reduced to being mere spectators. It was Helga's turn now to bend down and tap lightly whilst Sedig watched, and she found the exact spot she was looking for. Now she banged the hammer sharply down on the ore, and it cracked, revealing a small perfect piece of ore. She picked it up, rose and walked towards the light to inspect it more closely. Sedig followed close behind.

'It's lava stone with copper,' Helga concluded and looked down at Sedig.

'Copper stone or stone copper?' he asked.

'Lava stone with copper,' she repeated. She paused and looked down at Sedig again.

'You need some boots, otherwise your feet will get cold,' she said.

'Yes?' he said.

'You can borrow my husband's. I'll go and fetch them, but don't do anything until I get back.'

My cellar had now turned into a scientific lab with Helga in charge. Since I knew of no volcanic activity ever taking place in Denmark, I questioned this scientific line of enquiry as it might slow the work down; only there was no need to worry. The work in the cellar was nearly complete, in fact it far exceeded my expectations. So we sat waiting for Helga, drinking some more wine.

The boots were huge. Without socks, Sedig slipped into them. From looking like the Mahatma, he now looked like a clown, and Idris and I smiled. Helga had brought a tape measure as well, which she handed to Sedig, and immediately he started to uncover the ridge of the entire ore deposit. They measured together. Helga noted the results.

Helga also brought a basket with small glass jars containing lava samples and a heavy reference book for identifying varieties of lava, rocks and stones. Sedig and Helga proceeded with their investigation. They took samples and marked them. No precise match was found when compared with the lava samples in the small jars. It was not Icelandic rock. Idris and I enjoyed another bottle of wine.

Helga and Sedig carried the samples to the kitchen to have a closer look. Both Idris and I followed.

'These specimens look almost newly formed. It must have been pushed really gently along on top of the ice cap.'

'During the Ice Age?'

'Yes, it's from somewhere up north in Norway.'

'Norway?' Sedig said.

Helga looked in her stone book and pointed out pictures for Sedig who nodded.

He placed the stones in a long row and pointed at them. Idris and I had coffee.

'This is head, this is tail, this is up, and this is down,' Sedig said.

'Have you walked on a volcano?' Helga asked.

Sedig hadn't. 'I have been in Kabul, and I have seen many ores when making places to hide under Kabul.'

'You have?'

'Yes, and sometimes we must get in and out quickly, maybe in just twelve hours, and I look at the ores to find the right place to break it.'

'It's the same in Iceland,' Helga said and described the construction of a road. Her father, a building contractor, also looked for the right place when blasting through rock to make a road through the mountainous landscape.

'Of course,' Sedig laughed, 'otherwise the stones will be all over you.'

'Yes,' Helga said.

Sedig coughed. 'One day they came, all the stones, and we were caught up in a small hole. Soon no air. Soon no light. But I did like this.'

Sedig took his rock hammer and lightly tapped my kitchen wall.

'Listen,' he said, and I could hear a small difference in the sound.

'I got out,' he continued, 'but the other ones not. They were my brothers. Stones came down on them.'

'Did they suffocate or did the stones crush them?' Helga said.

'I don't know, but they were all gone. Maybe first suffocate, then squashed. The stones were just behind my back and my brothers gone. I buried my Kalashnikov and went up to the street and was free.'

We were all silent for a little while.

'Kalashnikov is not good. Everybody wants one to be a man, but it is not good. It took away our kingdom. I walk in the streets and walk on the roads, and I come to Russia. I walk again and I come to Czechoslovakia. One day I took the train to Denmark.'

'Accidents happen in Iceland, too,' Helga whispered. 'My father did not escape the last time he was blasting. He suffocated under a rock fall.'

'They fall asleep first. Deep sleep and then they sleep into death,' Sedig stressed. He explained that there was no pain. No screams.

Helga nodded again and again.

Idris and I returned to the cellar and assessed how much more work needed to be done. Idris estimated another couple of hours, and I told him it would be fine if they stopped now.

'Idris, this is just so overwhelming,' I said.

Back in the kitchen, Sedig and Helga had gone. So had all the samples. I arranged to pay for the work just in time for Sedig who came back, still wearing Helga's husband's boots. He smiled.

'No, no, no, not yet,' he said. 'There is still work to be done.'

'It's okay,' I said.

'Yes, it is. It is, today, a beautiful day!' he said, smiling cheerfully, before he disappeared back downstairs.

These two men had, in six hours, dug out and removed eight square metres of concrete and rock over two metres thick with a garden spade, a shovel and four buckets.

"Next Stop: Sejer Island is a collection of short stories, pieces of lives and incidents assembled from a small Danish island community. Every inhabitant plays a role, and bonding is significant. And it is within these bonds the stories develop. What do citizens of Sejer Island do when there is no drinking water? What do they do when there are no fish? How do they survive the cold, cold winters?

No matter what the obstacle, there is always an answer. The everyday hero, the one who makes the wheels turn, comes through again and again. The school teacher who teaches a music lesson under a shade tree near the rubble of a burned-down schoolhouse or the fisherman who knows that the last fish isn't caught yet.

This collection offers stories in which hope and humour generally triumph, along with a stubborn, determined people. Characters are more often moved to action by good intentions, and change comes as a slow, steady progression. Yet what remains is a blessed contentment with familiar island ways.

Next Stop: Sejer Island is published by Salt Publishing in paperback, 9781844718702, and is available through your local UK bookstore, or through online resources, such as The Book Depository.

Andrea Heiberg was accidentally born a few yards from Karen Blixen's home in Denmark on Hemmingway's birthday in 1955, a fortuitous beginning. Award-winning playwright and writer, her plays have been performed on Danish television and for local amateur theatre. In 2006, after walking the Camino in Spain, she had a compulsion to write her story—but in English. After almost thirty years of teaching, Heiberg moved to Sejer Island, a place that continues to inspire her love of writing.

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