A Winter Beneath the Stars

At six o’clock on the dot, I am waiting with the brides by the front entrance of the hotel. Large candles line the path, and I’m hoping they keep their dresses well tucked in when they walk down it arm in arm to meet Björn.

‘You both look beautiful,’ I tell them. Tall, blonde Mika is all in white, with white fur trim, while curvaceous, red-headed Pru is in sumptuous deep red velvet to match her hair, nails and lipstick.

‘This wouldn’t be happening without you. Thank you,’ she says.

Then I hear it, the sound of bells. We all stop talking and look in the direction from which it’s coming.

‘I’ve got ringing in my ears!’ I hear Pru’s nan say from behind us. ‘Wonder if it was the sauna!’

The bells keep ringing, getting slowly louder, and now we can see the soft orange glow of lanterns coming closer. There, walking across the field from the direction of the farm, holding a lantern high, is Björn in full Sami outfit: blue poncho with bold trim, hat to match and reindeer boots. He’s leading Rocky by the halter, pulling a sled with lanterns hanging off the sides and lined with reindeer skins. Behind him is Elsá, his sister, leading another reindeer and sled – a line of them, in fact, attached with lead reins, to take the guests to the farm – and bringing up the rear is their dad, sitting in a sleigh covered in a reindeer rug, and also in Sami traditional costume and a beautiful Four Winds hat. It is bright blue to match his tunic, with red braiding and red and yellow trim. He looks so resplendent and proud, it brings tears to my eyes. The lanterns are swinging gently with the rhythmic swaying of the sleds, casting an orange glow on the ground around them.

Björn is walking towards me, his smiling face lit up. My whole body feels like it’s suddenly been set alight as he approaches me, his eyes on mine, and then he stops in front of us and smiles even wider. More than anything I want to kiss this man, just like we kissed out on the tundra. But I can’t. Everything has changed now that Camilla, his ex, has asked him back, and I’m leaving tomorrow. He needs to find his way back to the kitchen, and by the looks of that letter, he’s found it. I have to stop thinking about the fact that I can’t have him. He needs to cook again. Just like he helped me find the light in my life, I have to help him find his, not complicate things for him.

‘This is amazing,’ says Pru. They stand and stare open-mouthed at the sled lined with reindeer skins to sit on, and the soft light from the lanterns. Snow begins to fall, tiny flakes dancing like fairies all around us in the lamplight.

‘Ladies.’ Björn holds out a hand and pulls back a reindeer skin for them to take a seat. They beam at each other, and with his help, guide each other into the fur-covered seats. Björn places a blanket over their legs, and then a fur, and tucks it in around them. ‘And as it is your wedding day . . .’ He produces a flask and two mugs and pours out hot glögg, rich and spicy. ‘Something to toast true love and to keep you warm on the way to your wedding feast.’

They raise a toast to each other and kiss lightly as the snowflakes fall around them, then they throw their heads back and laugh, happy, carefree laughs, because no matter what life throws at them, they have each other, they have found love and they are grabbing hold of it.

Björn pours out more wine, and his sister starts handing the cups to the other guests. I step forward and help too.

‘Thank you,’ mouth the happy couple, as the rest of the guests are seated in the sleds.

I choose to walk, and we set off back over the hill towards the farm, with me one side of Rocky and Björn on the other, where the brightest star in the sky is shining overhead. We see the farmhouse before we get to it, and I hear the brides catch their breath, as I do mine. There are lanterns all around the fire pit, and the pit itself glows orange. Little battery-operated fairy lights festoon the snow-covered roof of the outdoor gazebo, and lanterns hang from the corners of the roof too, throwing light onto the corral, where some of the frailer reindeer have been put to rest after their journey, including little Robbie. Behind the corral on the hillside, the rest of the herd look up, doe eyes gazing at us in greeting as we pull up by the fire pit.

Elsá, also wearing her bright blue traditional Sami dress, with a hat that covers her ears, and a red tartan shawl, serves up more drinks while Björn secures the reindeer then goes straight to the fire and starts cooking. The smells fill the lightly snowy night air. All the guests are wrapped up against the cold and are loving looking up at the big star-filled sky and over towards the lights of the town. Björn’s dad and I unharness the reindeer and put down more feed for them in the corral, to thank them for their extra work today. I pat Rocky fondly on the behind.

‘Can I feed one?’ says Nan. I look at Björn’s dad. He understands, and nods and beams and shows her how to hold her hand flat to let the reindeer eat the dried lichen from her palm.

I invite some more of the guests into the corral, and soon practically all the wedding party are there, stroking and feeding the little team of transport. We hang the lanterns from the sleighs around the corral and put the reindeer skins from the sleds onto the benches around the fire pit.

‘You okay?’ Björn takes hold of my wrist. ‘You seem . . .’ He doesn’t finish his sentence. The fire pit is hot and I step away; he follows.

The fire spits and flares.

‘Hold on, wait there.’ He steps forward, a big leather glove on one hand, and with a pair of long-handled tongs turns the meat cooking there. He looks over at the herd and his dad with the guests, and then back at me.

I want to tell him exactly how I’m feeling, that everything has changed and I don’t want to leave. But I can’t. I can’t tell him that. He has a chance to go back to Stockholm and put his life back together, and I can’t ruin that for him just because I think I’ve fallen in love with him. I can’t. I have to leave tomorrow, and he has a life to go back to. This is just a fantasy. I have to enjoy tonight. Tomorrow I’ll be back at the airport, back in the city, where I’m at home. And this will be just another journey written down in my travel log. Except my travel log is full. Finished. That journey has ended. So now what?

I stand and watch as Björn serves up food hot off the fire, amid a blaze of flames and heavenly scented smoke. The hot, earthy mushroom soup that I have come to love, and creamy truffle and mushroom risotto to start. Then the best roast dinner ever, served with lingonberry sauce, jacket potatoes baked in foil in the embers, and deep red cabbage with lingonberries. There’s also Arctic char, cooked over juniper leaves and served with mustard sauce and roasted onions; soft sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, seasoned with truffle, and deep-fried lichen served with Sami flatbreads and cloudberry jam and washed down with lingonberry vodka.

The guests sit around the fire pit, eating, drinking and chatting, talking about the week and the activities, the Lapp dogs and the huskies. Björn serves a wonderful apple and blueberry crumble, and a stack of toasted waffles with berries and ice cream and cups of creamy hot chocolate that we dip the waffles into. Then, as they finish their food to the sound of contented sighs and finger-licking, Elsá sits by the fire and begins to sing and play the drum, once again like the sound of the wind in the trees as the stars come out; and finally the Northern Lights slip and slide and dance across the sky to a chorus of oohs and ahs. And as the evening draws to a close, the big fire pit no longer keeping the cold night at bay, Lars takes the happy wedding party home in the minibus.

There is a final toast, from Pru’s mother, who raises her glass slightly unsteadily as she stands by the fireside. ‘Someone wiser than me told me that when you find true love, you should grab hold of it and cling onto it for dear life, because we never know what’s round the corner. She was right. Here’s to finding love and holding onto it with both hands,’ she says, looking at Pru and Mika and smiling widely, her eyes sparkling as the soft white flakes of snow fall all around.

Skål!’ we all say, and raise our glasses. Over the rim of mine, I see Lars taking a final look at me and then dipping his head and walking away. I look at Björn, who looks back at me, and I walk over to wave the party off. As the minibus departs slowly, the tyres crunching over the snow, I turn back to see Elsá and Björn’s Pappa wrapped up on the back of the snowmobile.

‘Nice to meet you again, Halley,’ Elsá says, and hugs me, as does her dad. ‘I’m going to get Pappa back to the apartment and his central heating.’ But Pappa doesn’t look happy about leaving at all. In fact, he takes a sad look around.

‘This place,’ he says to Björn, ‘is perfect. I wish I could stay here and look after the herd. But time just ran out on me. Let’s speak tomorrow. Tell me what you’ve decided.’ He’s speaking in English, clearly for my benefit, and I didn’t even know he could.

‘Okay, Pappa,’ and Björn wraps his father up in a great big bear hug, holding him so tightly I worry he’ll suffocate him.

‘I didn’t realise your dad spoke English,’ I say walking back to the fire pit once we’ve waved them off.

‘My parents, and my grandparents before that, were guides, showing tourists our ways and how we lived. These lavvus,’ he nods to the tents among the trees, ‘were full of guests when my mother was alive. But since she died, Pappa stopped having guests here and so hasn’t spoken English since. It was lovely to see him enjoying having people here again this evening.’

The snow is falling more heavily. Björn checks the dogs in their pens and the reindeer in the corral and out in the field. Then we head indoors, where the fire is still glowing in the woodburner and the heat welcomes us in like long-lost family. Björn is carrying the lanterns from the corral and puts them around the room. I step out of my boots and pull off my hat, scarf and gloves, my heart pounding like a drum against the wall of my chest. Finally it is just the two of us, and although it has been just the two of us all week, it now feels like a very different landscape.

Björn pours two vodkas and hands me one. His fingers touch mine as he does, sending an electric shock around my body.

‘To us, and true love,’ he smiles, his eyes crinkling at the corners where the sun from the trip has tanned his face. And I wish it could be, but I know it can’t.