The Locksmith of Reykjavik

It happened on our second day in Iceland. Late in the evening, when the bedside timepiece tried – without success – to convince me that it was close to midnight, I discovered that I was locked inside my hotel room. Wife was outside, in the corridor, with the hotel manager. After several attempts to open the electronically operated lock with a key that resembled a discarded ATM card, the manager gave up. “I’ll call the locksmith,” he said, in a muffled voice across three inches of wood. Then, following a few token words of apology, he added: “This has never happened here before. Never.”

We had arrived in Reykjavik the previous afternoon, for a ten-day visit that was both a reunion of college friends (Wife’s, not mine) and a much-needed vacation away from the European mainland. This was the middle of June; the temperature – around 12 degrees Celsius – and the wind got into our bones, through three layers of clothing (but the locals, to our surprise and envy, walked about in T-shirts); the sun set for only a couple of hours each day: it never grew dark.

Earlier that evening, after a noisy welcome cocktail that ‘kicked-off’ the reunion event, I had decided not to accompany Wife and her party-going friends on a late-night pub excursion. Back in the blissful solitude of my room I was only a few pages into a book when I heard someone at the door, trying to open it: Wife had come back to pick up the jacket she had forgotten. Eager to let her in, I tried opening the door, at the same instant, from the inside. Now it wouldn’t open from either side.

The manager called on the phone. “Is this the room whose door isn’t opening?” His English was good, but he had the mannerism of an apprentice who always went by the book. I imagined him in his cabin, manual in hand, reading the chapter on how to rescue locked guests. It wasn’t a reassuring image.

“Yes, it is.” I replied.

“What happens when you try opening the door from the inside?”

“It doesn’t open.”

“Did you try pushing the handle up?”

“Yes.”

“And down, of course?”

“Of course.”

“Ok, I’ve called the locksmith. I’m also trying to organize an empty room so that the locksmith can have a look at a lock that functions – you know, to understand the mechanism.”

“Thank you. How long do you think all this will take?”

“Well, the locksmith should be here in about fifteen minutes. Then it depends on him.”

“As long as he fixes it, it doesn’t matter. I hope we don’t have to shift to another room because of this.” We had settled into the room, intent on staying three more days; packing everything back and shifting in the middle of the night did not seem like an inviting prospect.

“You’ll have to shift to another hotel then,” he said. “We don’t have any more double rooms here. But don’t worry, that is unlikely. As I said, this has never happened before.”

“Uh?”

“And yes, the locksmith will have to enter the room through the window – I’m arranging a ladder as well.”

Our first floor room window was twenty feet above the level of the street it faced. Across the street there was a small square with a few benches. In a corner stood a tree surrounded by a raised platform that bore, on a plate typically seen in scenic lookout spots, a description with some figures. A man was standing there, facing the tree, reading the description. After a minute or so he looked up, contemplating the tree as if it was a sculpture in an art museum; he reached out and touched some leaves from a low branch. The branch, bent by the force of wind, swung away from him and came back. I heard a distant clock strike one. In the stillness that followed its echoes, I realized that the birds had gone quiet; the silence was total, but there was light everywhere, dull yet unending.

The locksmith’s van broke the silence. He was a young man, tall, well-built, dressed in black. He wore his cap backwards and carried a satchel on his waist. His movements, brisk and confident, showed a keenness to get the job done. A ladder was setup on the street. The manager, assuming an air of someone in charge, said something to the locksmith. Some passersby stopped to take in the action. The locksmith began to climb and soon was at the level of the window. I then realized that the window was secured by a latch: it opened just enough to let some air in. “Don’t worry,” said the locksmith, and passed me a screwdriver through the gap. To an uninformed observer on the outside the absurdity of the situation was complete: here was a burglar (in black clothes) trying to break into a room in the middle of a night that was clear as day, with the aid of the inmate in his pajamas. I couldn’t resist taking a picture when the locksmith finally climbed in.

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Within minutes he dismantled the handle-and-lock apparatus that had stubbornly refused to yield the normal way. The door was open, but this was the easy part. He now had to figure out the problem that caused the lock to be jammed, and fix it.

The insides looked complicated: beyond the levers, nuts and bolts there was a network of wires that connected an ominous-looking box to the card-reader slot. Watching him use his long fingers to carefully take apart pieces of the mechanism, I had the momentary impression he was dismantling a bomb. There was sweat on his forehead; he took off his fleece jacket saying it was too hot. When I offered him mineral water from the mini-bar, he refused: “Just take a glass and pour me some water from the tap,” he said. “Iceland has the world’s purest water.”

His name was Hemir. Originally from the north, he had come to Reykjavik, like many youngsters, in search of better prospects. He was a law student, three years into his five year course; being a locksmith was a part-time job. Was he the only locksmith in town? No, there was another one, someone who originally worked for the same firm but left to setup his own after learning the secrets of his trade; but that person didn’t know all the tricks, and he would refuse such late assignments. What were the typical lock cases he handled – were hotels common? The most common ones came from cars, homes and offices. Just the other day he rescued a three-year old girl who had locked herself in a room. Hotels were not usual. Calls late in the night, like this one, were typical, but he did not always work on night shifts. Was winter in Iceland difficult? His girlfriend fell into a depression each winter, but he liked the cold and the darkness. And what about the current economic crisis? The initial months had been bad, but he was confident of Iceland’s recovery; the country had been through many difficult periods in the past.

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It was half past two when he finished. It had been an “internal misalignment” problem, mechanical in nature, apparently a design issue with these Swedish-make locks.  The door was fixed now; we could stay in our room.

But the episode was not over. The manager appeared at the door, holding a gadget with a number pad on top and a wire dangling by the side. In his other hand was a booklet, a manual of sorts.

“When the battery is removed from the door handle, its memory is erased,” he said, in the tone of an actor who has rehearsed the sentence a few times. “I now have to re-program the door’s security code, and to be honest, I’ve never done this before.”

“Oh.”

“But I have the instruction manual. Please give me some minutes.”

I wished him luck with the manual. This could last forever, I thought, but I was wrong: he was back a few minutes later, this time with two brand-new cards. He tested them on the door; they worked. He apologized again, “for all the inconveniences caused,” and promised to think of something the next day to “make it up” to us. I told him I was simply glad to be in the same room, nothing else mattered.

Back at the window I could see Hemir standing at the edge of the square, smoking. He was looking at the tree in the corner, where the man who stood earlier was now sitting, cross-legged, in a meditative posture, on the platform. I could hear some birds singing. The light, ebbing just an hour ago, now had a touch of vitality, a hint of a new day.

15 Replies to “The Locksmith of Reykjavik”

  1. Great story. I was in Iceland in August a couple of years ago and had my winter jacket on the whole time. What a beautiful country. Would go back in a heartbeat.

    1. Thank you, Shripriya. About going another time – some locals told us it was more beautiful during winter, so most probably our next trip will be in near-total darkness.

      I found only one picture of Iceland on your blog – have you written more about your trip?

  2. I enjoyed so much to read this story. Photos are very nice to see it smile comes on face. Thank you for entertainment.
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    Jamesforest21
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    Jamesforest21

    1. Kahini, here I am sitting under the happy illusion that I’m writing literature, and there you go labeling me a journalist. I just decided to cancel my Mumbai visit on my next trip to India later this year…

      On a more serious note: if there was one journalist whose work I’d love to do, it would be Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes on climate change related matters for the New Yorker.

  3. A little gem of a tale. I’ve never been to Iceland, but I was up in the Orkneys around the summer solstice once, and found the late-night persistence of daylight astonishing.

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