An Extract from ‘The Sound of Snow’

My sensuality is not of this age

There’s snow in the air. The woman hunches over the steering wheel and peers upward. No sky to be seen. Heavy clouds hang low over the road, turned a sordid yellow by the motorway lighting.
‘Is a star too much to ask for on a night like this?’
She turns the heating up a little.
The road is quiet. Occasionally she is overtaken by a car. Children going to a party. A man taking his mother a few festive boughs. Most people are indoors or have gone to see their families for a few days. She feels fit. Actually she could easily do the whole drive in one go, but she’s not expected till tomorrow. Anyway, she would rather sleep in a hotel than at her brother’s. ‘I’m not ready for that yet,’ she had said on the telephone. They understood. She’s not used to all that fuss, however well meant.
A lorry carrying live poultry has passed her. There is a swirl of feathers. They stick to the windscreen. The woman sloshes them off with a couple of powerful bursts from her windscreen wiper.

The hotel is visible from a long way off. The road runs straight across country and the grey multi-storey block is right beside it. It is the only building for miles around. There is purple neon lettering on the roof. It is a branch of a large chain: you see them everywhere these days and they all look the same. That’s good, that way you know what you’re getting. All the hotels are built in the north, transported across the continent in sections and on reaching their destination are assembled by local labour. Hence all the rooms are identical, and consequently wherever you go, you always feel at home. Apart from that the rates are very cheap thanks to a formula that requires minimum staff levels. In fact, after ten there’s no one around at all; everything is fully automatic and operated by credit cards and room cards.
She cancels her indicator. It is ten-thirty. She pulls onto the concrete drive and parks outside the entrance. There are tubs of plants here and there. Apart from that there is no sign of greenery on this side of the road. That stops guests bringing mud in with them. Which makes a difference. The site is surrounded by a high wall to keep nature at bay, but all the rooms have a view of the woods and the small lake across the road.
The woman puts her credit card into the machine by the door. It has Christmas balls hanging from it. She keys in her PIN number and waits in the cold while an amount is transferred from her account. She receives a magnetic card giving access to the lobby, the lift and her room. Before going in she glances back.

There are no other cars parked. Only now does she spot the small posts sticking out of the ground everywhere. Of course, that’s where the loudspeakers are that are pumping out that children’s choir and the sleigh bells.
The lift doors close and she sees herself in the shiny metal. She is fifty and not the kind of woman to deny it. Once a year she draws up an inventory of wear and tear. ‘That’s how things are, I’m not going to lose any sleep over them.’ She makes such inspections from a sense of duty, just as in autumn she checks the gutters for blockages and in early spring notes where the window frames need touching up. ‘They’re not messing about with my body.’ She has freckles on a pale skin, and anyone who likes peaches and cream is in for a disappointment. She teaches singing at drama school twice a week. Everyone wears make-up there. Not her. Quite the contrary. On Wednesdays and Fridays, when she drives to the school in the capital, she looks if anything plainer than ever. To set an example. In the winter months she gives her lessons in tweeds, and the rest of the year in pure silk. Among these young people she wears her high-necked sweaters like a woman with a mission. All day long they roll across the floors in a ball discovering their bodies and uncovering their feelings. In their midst their singing teacher alone remains upright like a beacon reminding them of higher values. She always sits and walks upright, thanks to an iron will and sensible shoes. To protect her throat she always wears a scarf, whatever the season, and before going out she arranges her long hair closely over her ears to protect them from intrusive noises in the street.
So it is wrong to assume, as people mostly do in passing, that she pays no attention to her appearance. At first sight the only striking thing about her is her colourlessness, but anyone spending a short time in the same room with her cannot help noticing her proud posture. She carries her head tipped slightly backwards, as if looking down on life. As a result her eyelids are already half-closed, suggesting a mystery. When she talks to someone, she looks straight at them, and in response to words she considers important she always opens her eyes wide for a second, before narrowing them again with heightened effect. It gives her eyes an unmistakable seductiveness, which is not mischievous but on the contrary restrained, omniscient, as if she were personally intimately acquainted with the highest and the lowest the world has to offer. Probably she practised these looks in front of the mirror as a girl, and perfected them later when she sang in the chorus at the opera. It is an acquired charm. In consequence the passion in the eyes of this pallid creature generally provokes amusement. She is aware of this and people’s short-sightedness makes her gird her armour even more tightly around her. In such cases she raises one eyebrow and curls one corner of her mouth sarcastically. ‘My sensuality is of a superior kind,’ she says to herself. ‘These days it’s all about the body, not the mind, but I’m not going to change for anyone. My sensuality is not of this age, but is pure and intellectual, that’s why it’s not understood!’

From ‘Thaw’ (‘Dooi’) in The Sound of Snow (De klank van sneeuw, 2005)
By Arthur Japin
Translated by Paul Vincent

First published in The Low Countries, 2007