BY RICHARD DE NOOY
“Have you thought about the sign, Karl?”
“The sign for the Group. They’re arriving tomorrow.”
He knew exactly what she meant. It had been on his mind for days. He had hoped Othilde would ask. Her questions and the brief exchanges that ensued often shoved unwilling ideas into the spotlight. But nothing came, so he turned on his side and wished his wife goodnight.
The problem was bigger than the sign. Much bigger. The sign was little more than a greeting card; easy enough if you were celebrating a birthday, a wedding or a birth, but a lot more complicated when death came calling.
“Heartfelt condolences, dear Vigrun, upon the loss of your beloved husband.” But had Silvast really been a beloved husband? And if not, could one just leave out the “beloved”? Or should one opt for a less effusive synonym? “Dear”, for instance, or “proud”? “Caring” maybe? “Annoying” was actually closest to the truth. But that wasn’t an option, because the dead deserve the thin veneer of fiction.
Women were usually more skilled in such matters. But not his Othilde, she was all business, and that was a good thing because he would quite easily have let the Group occupy all the rooms, and possibly even the chalets, for free. He would have charged them for food and drink, of course, but not for the roof over their heads. The property had been paid off by his parents long ago, and recouped a hundredfold. The fjord and the sharp peak reflected in its waters remained popular tourist attractions, particularly among Norwegians, who wanted to visit their national mountain at least once in their lifetime.
“Do you know the real reason why it’s so popular?” Karl’s father would ask every new guest checking in. And when they shook their heads, he would lean forward with a twinkle in his eye and whisper: “Because it looks like a giant erection in a pair of grey trousers!”
Oh, how they laughed. And when they did, Karl’s father would hit them with the coup de grace: “Stetinden isn’t even Norway’s highest mountain! In fact, it’s only our one-hundred-and-sixty-fourth-biggest erection!”
This had annoyed and embarrassed Karl when he had helped his father at the desk as a teenager. But forty years on, he was telling the same joke and, heaven help him, even elaborating on it. “Do you know how Stetinden became our national mountain?” Karl would ask.
No, they didn’t. And they didn’t really give a damn. They just wanted him to hand over the key. But they shook their heads obligingly and waited for his answer.
“People voted for it!”
And, when the guests courteously faked surprise and interest, Karl would add: “On the radio!”
Stetinden’s victory had held up a mirror to the people of Kjøpsvik, revealing some rather unsavoury features. There were those who wanted to exploit the village’s newfound fame without giving a thought to tradition or the local scenery; big shots who suddenly stepped forward to adorn themselves with chains of office that should have gone to more deserving citizens; vultures from nearby towns who slapped down wads of cash for a bakery, butchery or filling station in the village.
Kjøpsvik had become the centre of a gold rush.
In the year of Stetinden’s election, the hotel attracted twice as many guests as usual and that figure doubled again the year thereafter. The madness gradually subsided, but the village had no cause for complaint. The tourists, often children on school excursions, descended upon Kjøpsvik in busloads. In the summer, the hairpin roads along the fjord were often perilously congested.
Karl flipped his pillow and laid his head on the cooler side. This would be the third year that they had hosted the memorial gathering. When the bookings had come pouring in that first year, Karl had suggested easing the Group’s pain by offering a generous discount. But Othilde had been adamant: “We didn’t cause that accident, did we?”
Her words still rung clear in Karl’s mind. Her tone neither angry nor indignant, but appeasing, almost comforting. And she was right, of course, but not in Karl’s heart.
He turned over on his other side. The morning would bring the words he needed for the sign.
This short story is the first in a series of vignettes inspired by de Nooy’s novel-in-progress, Xenophilia. Each month, AERODROME will be publishing a vignette from the project on our Tumblr. Find out more about this project here.