Magazine article The Spectator

Somewhat Humiliated

Magazine article The Spectator

Somewhat Humiliated

Article excerpt

On top of the mountain the snow was too deep for hiking, so I had three glasses of hot punch in the cafe and came back down. At the bottom, as I stepped off the still-swinging cable-car, I was accosted by a hard-faced old crone in wellington boots.

'You want room?' she said.

As it happened, I did want a room. My hotel, the Palace, reputedly the best in all Romania was truly palatial, but boring as hell.

'Lead on, Macduff,' I told her.

The old crone led me out of the cable-car station, along the waterlogged main street of the out-of-season ski resort, and up a steep unmade side-road. She walked quickly and surefootedly and I struggled to keep up. After about a quarter of an hour's steady climb the road petered out altogether, and we continued along a muddy footpath that took us on up through a forest of massive conifers. By this time I was knackered. I had accepted the old crone's offer of accommodation on the assumption that she lived just around the corner, not a day's march away in some remote mountain fastness.

Doubt was turning to general anxiety when a homely shack came into view beneath the trees. The crone paused and wagged a limp finger at it. Evidently this was it - my accommodation for the night. Bearing in mind what had happened to Hansel and Gretel in not dissimilar circumstances, I resolved that if the shack turned out to be made of gingerbread, I would fabricate an excuse and go back down to the village.

Once we were inside, however, the shack turned out to be warm, clean, and made chiefly of wood. In the tiny kitchen, a man whom I took to be her husband was kneeling on the floor repairing a car radiator with a soldering iron. Also kneeling, and watching attentively as their father applied the solder, were two small boys. Because the crone and I had entered the room at an intricate stage of the repair work, greetings were postponed. The boys merely shot us a glance each - their father kept on soldering.

The warmth inside the shack came from a central, ceramic-tiled, wood-burning stove. Beside the wood-burner was a cardboard box containing some maize-cob husks that they were using for fuel. The old crone took off her coat and headscarf and shook out her hair and I saw that she wasn't as old as I thought she was. It had been her missing and rotten front teeth, mostly, that had made me think she was fundamentally decrepit. …

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