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Black Ice: Chapter 17

Reluctant spy Sam Craven has a frustrating coversation with Hulda, his landlady.

To read earlier chapters of Colin Dunne's brilliant novel please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

The next morning at breakfast Hulda got me with some liquidised walrus. By the look of it, I could have used it to repoint the chimney but it didn't taste too bad, so I ate it.

'Hulda,' I said, 'I think you've been leading me up the garden path, you rascal.'

'Garden path?' she repeated, as if she didn't know what it meant.

'Yes. I asked you if Solrun had got married and you said she hadn't.'

Straight-backed, hands folded in her lap, she put her head on one side and asked sweetly: 'And has she?'

'Yes, she has, and you know it very well like you know everything that happens in this town.'

'I know nothing of this.'

'Hulda,' I began again, in tones of strained patience, 'I have seen the certificate. She married a man called Pall Olafsson from Breidholt.'

She almost bridled at the name. 'I do not think so.'

'I've seen the certificate,' I said. 'With these. Eyes, you know, the things you see with.'

'Ah. You want some more coffee. I go now for more coffee.'

I tried to restrain her, but all I got was, 'It is my pleasure and my duty.'

When she came back with the coffee, she'd worked out a policy line on the marriage. She poured out my cup, moved it nearer so I wouldn't have to exhaust myself stretching, and then adopted her familiarly regal pose in the half-lit room. Her thin, still-supple fingers found one stray hair and slipped it back into place.

'We do not speak of it,' she said.

'Why not?'

She made a fussy gesture with her hand. 'This famous beauty contest ... is it true she cannot enter if she is married or has a child?'

'I'm not sure.'

'I think that it is so.'

So that was it. They'd all ganged up to keep it quiet so they wouldn't spoil her chances. Off-hand, I wasn't sure about the Miss World restrictions, but I had a feeling she might be right.

'So who's the lucky Palli?' It's one of those names where the affectionate diminutive comes out one syllable longer than the formal name, like John and Johnny.

Her mouth pursed in disapproval. 'He is nothing. He is nobody.'

'Well, he's her husband, Hulda, let's face it.'

She turned towards me, her brows creased as she tried to make me see sense. 'You know Solrun, you know that she has men . . .'

'Endless many men . . .'

'Endless many,' she repeated. 'She would not want this man. It is not a proper marriage. It is not a serious marriage. You must understand that.'

'I did get the impression the vows were a bit elastic'

'You will not put it in your newspaper? We must not spoil things for her.'

'Don't worry, we won't,' I said. And that reminded me. Sooner or later I had to face up to another conversation with my employer. I had to let him know I was still alive.

'Now then,' he said, going straight into it, 'I'm glad you've rung. We'll want pix of this Sexy Eskie lass. Topless. And is there any chance of getting her next to an igloo?'

'An igloo?' His conception of life outside Britain seemed to be based on the early editions of'Children of Other Lands'. 'They don't have igloos here.'

'Oh, bloody hell,' he said, in some irritation. 'Not even for show like?'

'No. They never did have igloos.'

'Oh, well, let's have her in the snow then. Topless, making a snowman. That sort of thing.'

Out of the window I could see cool bright sunshine lighting up the coloured houses.

'The only snow here is up the mountains.'

'Thanks for the geography lesson. If our readers wanted educating they wouldn't buy this bloody rubbish would they? So hire a studio, drag the snow down the mountain and let Little Miss Bloody Icicle build an igloo like her granddad used to do. Right? Ciao.'

Compared with that briefing, espionage seemed relatively straightforward and certainly a lot more honest.

I only had one more job. I stopped off in the town and picked up a postcard of a glacier standing still for the camera. I sat for a while, wondering how best to explain that in Iceland boys take their father's Christian name plus the word 'son' for the surname, and girls do the same with the word 'dottir'. In the end, I simply wrote: 'Do you realise, if you lived here you'd be called Sally Samsdottir? Ask your teacher to explain.'

That was one way of getting my value out of school fees.

Then I called at the Saga and picked up Christopher to do a bit of interpreting. Musical loo gadgets, he'd confided to me on the phone, were proving surprisingly difficult to sell.


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