Academic journal article Hecate

Tot Siens, Suid Afrika, 1987

Academic journal article Hecate

Tot Siens, Suid Afrika, 1987

Article excerpt

Reykjavík, 1900 hours, two days after the anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre. Touching Down.

An owner of 155 hotels, from Scandinavia to Saudi Arabia, he entered the airport hotel pub after an exhausting, belated flight from Oslo. Almost immediately (for his business was catering for people, and he prided himself that he could read them off at a glance), a woman caught his eye. He began to decode: she was seated alone, a double Scotch (? he thought) before her, her hands, holding a book, trembling. "Drinks too much", he diagnosed, whilst ordering the only legally `alcoholic' beer in Iceland -- 2 1/2%. He had had enough to drink already, what with his customers and on the plane. Ordering his `beer', he watched her out of the corner of his eye, observing that she was not reading any of her several books, nor watching the TV, but staring into the middle-distance, tears shining on her face, shivering in the over-warm, natural-geysir heated room, oblivious to everyone staring at her. He counted as she smoked 18 cigarettes. An old memory, which he was to tell her later, stirred reluctantly in him, for anyone would stare at her, whether admiring or aghast. Her classic features (a model, perhaps?) and enormous, feral-coloured eyes were nearly hidden by a hair that was what he, as a Dutchman, would have called dark-brown and kroeskopje -- curly, long, and disordered as a kitchen mop. She was by far too thin.

Innate curiosity drove him towards her, but he no sooner advanced than she -- seemingly on another planet, but trusting (or stupid?) enough to leave hotel key, books, pens, money, MasterCard and passport behind her, (did they know her here? did she work here?) -- rose mechanically, without stumbling (somewhat to his surprise) and went out, to the toilets downstairs no doubt. Surely she wasn't a hotel prostitute, awaiting custom? For reasons of his own, he found her appealing, but doubted that many men would.

Swiftly he went to her table to page through her books. To his further bewilderment, they were translations of two Icelandic sagas (so the blurb, his quick eye, told him), neatly annotated and cross-referenced in English (but what nationality could she be, looking as she did?). He paged idly through Seven Viking Romances, forgetting she might be away only a minute or two. One passage was highlighted: "Plenty of things seem full of danger to start with, but bring you luck in the end."

"Excuse me", a polite voice said behind him, in English, but which he could have sworn had his native Dutch undertones in it. Embarrassed, he could only wonder, not ask why. "It's all right", she went on, talking slowly but almost compulsively, as if talking had just been invented and she had just learned to speak. Her English was as brittle and formal as his, yet he was sure -- why, he didn't know, which intrigued and baffled him -- that it was her first language. She sat down again, no longer crying but with dark shadows under her eyes, still shuddering in the warmth and drawing a strange orange and black shawl around her. (Why couldn't he, for once, decode the beads, pattern, symbolism? Where was she from?) Unsure which language to apologise in, he tried English, German, Swedish and his own Dutch. Again she startled him by answering in three of them, except that her `Dutch', although comprehensible, was not Dutch -- nor was it Flemish, nor from Luxembourg. Some things, only a few, began to fall into place as he realised she was answering in the only variant of Dutch she knew: Afrikaans. "No, it is all right. This table is free. You may sit here, if you like."

Has this woman no end to surprises? he wondered, lighting her 19th cigarette in her trembling hands, sitting down while she snapped her books into her handbag almost before he could see it happen. She queried him in a variety of languages till she pounced on what she could speak of his own, asking in a polite, well-bred, middle-class accent, the old travellers' questions: Where have you come from? …

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