'Ah, hush yourself!' I beseeched the voice on the telephone. 'Were I a man with blood of the thinner mix, I would say “allay yourself” and that this assignment is not for me. But, as you know, Richard, I am a man with blood the consistency of Yak's milk. I am perfectly suited to any mission that calls for a fleecy thermal cape. Tell me the details of my task and I'll commit them to memory before eating my own cerebral cortex to destroy the evidence. Direct me hither and hither will I fly. '
'Well,' said the source of this very special journalistic assignment, 'we need information on the current state of mind of Finland's reindeer herders, ASAP. Column inches need swelling with firm reindeer facts, Stephen, and you are the man to swell them. I want 1000 words by tomorrow midnight.'
'Then I need to rush,' replied I and saved myself a second or two by hanging up the phone without further fuss.
The call had come from London and the offices of Richard Madeley, talk show host, friend, and sometimes muse to the humble 'I' of this piece, known as Fry. From what I had picked up from Richard's often incoherent instructions, it was felt by those 'in the know' that my psychological qualifications and tolerance for cooler climes made me the perfect celebrity for a mission deep into that land of the Finns which has so quietly been living under the assumed name Finland for these few years past. Fortunately, your exquisitely attired Uncle Stephen was also the man in the right spot. I was in something of a pickle. An American pickle to be precise. My broken arm had been causing me anguishes of a most unwelcome right-handed kind during my taxi tour up to the Great Lakes. The thought of a trip to a country more hospitable to my leftward leaning frame was so appealing as to make a man end a paragraph with a colon and a cry: lawks!
Eight hours later, a small plane brushed the frigid thigh of a runway in the small town of Sneiggur, fifty miles north of the Arctic circle. It was around midnight by the time I emerged at the rank of taxis and identified my guide and helper waiting for me there. He introduced himself as Olaf Ffnneer. In my mind he was a man so small as to render him a midget by the American scale, though in a Europe, with our lax height restrictions, he was merely a small man. However, for the sake of simplicity, I would think of him as 'Olaf the Small' since small he was. And bless him for being so.
'Welcome to Finland,' he said, his accent all ankles on a slippery run of iced vowels. 'Do you have any luggage?'
I parted my cape and handed him the large trunk that was concealed there next to my iPhone and the Browning revolver I was packing in case of Polar Bear or marauding Moomin.
'Then this is good,' replied he of the scant elevation as he slung the chest over his shoulder and sank in extra inch or two into the snow. 'We get a taxi to the hotel?'
I waved him on with my good arm and he trundled off towards the lead taxi whose twelve carnivorous engines were already howling with excitement at the through of a quick mush across the Finnish tundra.
Mush! Mush! Mush! How exhilarating it was to have the wind whip my cape about me at we raced through the Arctic night. Half an hour later, I climbed from our sled and walked into the cool reception of the hotel.
'This is the world's only permanent ice hotel,' said Mr. Ffnneer as he walked beneath my trunk.
'Were I a man give to exclamations of astonishment, Mr. Ffnneer, I would say “cripes” at sight of such cleverly sculpted ice.'
'You get some sleep,' said Mr. Ffnneer, as he dumped my case at the flurry of a front desk. 'Tomorrow morning I will take you to see reindeer!'
What man can sleep well with such a promise? I woke around nine o'clock eager to start the day. I opened my curtains to a fine morning in Finland: the moon high and the streets in semi darkness. I decided to forgo my sun block and wrapped an extra scarf around my damaged arm before venturing out onto the frozen corridor. A maid on skies smiled as she passed me, yodelling a promise to turn down my bed once she'd finished the laundry slopes.
After a quick breakfast of fried herring and herring tea, I accompanied Olaf the Small to his sled, which I was relieved to see had well blubbered runners. It was a point I make to my guide who blushed with Nordic pride.
'Our seals have the finest blubber,' he told me as he cracked his whip and two small Finnish ponies began to trot before us. As you know, your Uncle Stephen is not one to doubt another man about blubber. Nay it is and thus it always was. Blubber.
The rural community of Gnnrr Fritter lies about five miles outside the town of Sneiggur, which has the unique distinction of owning the most northern reindeer herds in the world. Mr. Grindle Gfffffffr, the chief of the herders, welcomed me with civility and presented me with the traditional gift of a polished reindeer hoof with the blond braids of his virginal daughters wrapped around it.
'Your reindeer are blessed with fine hooves,' I told him in my fluent Finnish. 'And only a cynical man with inside information could question the virginity of your daughters.' I sipped the hot herring oil from the hoof before I handed it to Olaf the Small. The formalities out of the way, I turned to speak with the leader. 'I'm here to understand why you're all feeling glum,' I told him as he began to serve me a bowl of freshly made herring soup, with some pieces of sautéed herring topping herring bread.
The lead herder listened to me as he scooped his herrings. When I was finished, he smiled and placed his hand on my knee. Soon I would learn exactly what it was that made Mr. Grindle Gfffffffr feel so down.
'Have you ever tried to milk a reindeer's teat in sub zero weather with gloves on, Mr. Stephen?' he asked me. The Finish language, so heavily reliant upon the pluperfect tense and ninety seven conjunctions of the word 'chilly' cannot be translated so easily into English and carry the real despair of the question.
'I say I haven't,' I replied, 'but I'm eager to have a go.'
And have a go soon I did. And I can report that the experience did not live up to its billing.
At the insistence of Mr. Grindle Gfffffffr I hurried up eating my herring dessert before I followed him out of his tent and across the snow to his stock of three thousand reindeer. A stool was produced from I know not where, on which I was instructed to sit while a female creature was roughly herded before me.
Mr. Grindle Gfffffffr pointed me to the creature's hind belly. 'Fondle' he said in Finnish, 'fondle' being the closest translation I can get to the words 'fnooorrffr'.
'I'm beginning to feel mildly disappointed with the world,' I admitted later on. After half an hour spent fumbling with a cold shriveled gland, I had liberated half a thimble full of reindeer milk.
'And that is why we are a sad nation,' said Mr. Grindle Gfffffffr. 'I ask you, Mr. Stephen, how we can be happy when out animals teats are left so shriveled by the ice and the snow?'
And there, Richard and my dear readers, you indeed have the answer you so desperately crave. You who are, even now, warmly wrapped in the embrace of your familiar fold; you whose teats are as big and as bountiful as ever: know the truth. Call it a plump or slightly overweight truth, or a slightly obese truth wheezing with glory, but Finland is a fine nation with men and women who suffer much in the cause of the reindeer. Mark my words: frozen teats and thick gloves do not an agreeable partnership make. Shiver!