March 2017 entry – Number 92

I don’t know quite what it was about the young lady on the fish counter that sucked me in. Glum shop assistants tend to frighten me, but then her surly pout had a definite allure. Perhaps it was also the way she used her knife. Firm, when she was swinging it down to the counter, albeit not with the brutish force the guys at the market used. Soft when she was filleting. Tender, when she was scraping out innards or hosing out all the muck that got stuck on.

There was the intriguing fact she didn’t wear gloves but also didn’t want to touch the fish with any more fingertips than were necessary. The discrete way she brought the back of her hand to cover her nose when she needed to. The casual way she was snacking on a bag of prawns, slipping rather than cracking their heads off, when I saw her leaning against the back wall of the supermarket on her break the previous day. The cold way she had ignored me when I tried to nod a hello to her then.

I suppose I could never quite describe exactly what it was. When you’re a young man, your brain is just putting together hundreds of cues and impressions before you form your opinion. Isn’t that how it works? Starting in one or two places, you say? Well, the slim outlines underneath the white coat that seemed a size or two too large for her appeared worth knowing. But what I really wanted to know was her mind. I had an urge to know how she lived, what she dreamed of, what she watched on TV, whether she ate grated tomato on a toasted baguette for breakfast like everyone did outside that little cafe.

She pulled a dripping hake out of an icy bucket to show me. It had the same sad expression in its eyes all dead fish seem to have.

She flashed a semi-smile upon seeing me licking my lips.

“That looks delicious!” I said. “Too many chips at my hotel. Not good,” I added, patting my stomach.

She brought her finger to her mouth in a mock vomiting motion and I smiled.

She turned, unusually, to chop the hake on the worktop opposite the counter that had the weighing scales on. That meant she had her back to me. I felt sure her face was smiling away out of sight. Her arms and elbows seemed to be lighter and looser as she went to work on providing me with 500 grams.

She ran the knife over the edge of the counter and cast it to one side, having decided it wasn’t sharp enough. She grabbed another.

There must be some adage said somewhere and sometime about never asking a young lady out with a knife in her hand. Clearly I was under the influence of the holiday spirit and the sun, but again, something about the moment I couldn’t possibly quantify seemed perfect.

I didn’t allow myself to back out on seeing that her glumness had returned when she span around to present the fish in a lazily tied plastic bag with the price sticker flapping off the side.

“Anything more?” she said in a muffled tone, clearly ashamed of either her English, her job or the world.

“Yes!” I said, clearing my throat, and calming myself, having been taken aback by the emphatic start to my answer. “I’m doing a Spanish course at home in England and I thought, well, it could be really nice to meet someone Spanish here to talk to. Provided you might be perhaps interested in meeting for a café con leche one afternoon?”

She looked at me blankly and tossed her knife down into a mackerel’s stomach, where it stood with its tip wedged into a hole it had pierced in the skin.

“Maybe if I could take your number?” I asked, reasoning that I could check a few words on the internet before composing a text message to better explain myself.

“I no understand,” she said.

She swapped an apologetic glance with an old woman who was standing impatiently at my side, admiring the salmon with her green paper ticket held in her fingers.

I could feel a bead of sweat at the back of my neck trickling down with the help of the powerful fan buzzing from the ceiling.

“Numero” I said, “de telefono,” moving my hand to my ears to gesture taking a call.

The same blank expression. Was my pronunciation really that terrible?

“Look” I said, holding out my paper ticket to her with the number 92 on.

“Noventa dos,” she said, reading the number out to me in Spanish.

She looked to her side as across waddled Carlos, the barrel-shaped man with a crooked nose and sweaty cheeks who worked on the cheese counter.

Why wasn’t she wearing a name tag too? If only I could put a name to the memory now, that might make it more wholesome. I suppose at the time it just added to her enigmatic charm.

Carlos grunted something inaudible that could have been “problema” then he stooped down to put his arm around the young lady on the fish counter.

Were they? Surely not? She was a beauty, and Carlos, as well as being three times the size, was at least 15 years older than her.

I heard the slow patter of flip slops interrupt the calm sound of a Spanish pop hit behind me.

“Taylor!” It was Duffers.

I turned around, alarmed.

He had a giant red bag of crisps in his left hand, while with his right hand he tried to adjust the laces on his brightly patterned swimming shorts.

“Did you find any beer yet? The United match is starting in ten minutes.”

“Oh,” I said, “no I was just – “

“Is that…fish you’ve got there?” he said, a grin spreading from cheek to cheek as he asked.

“Oh, well, it’s just a bit of hake, I thought that – “

“Put it back! We’ll get some burgers by the pool in a bit,” he said.

“Sorry about my friend, he’s a bit crazy,” he said, laughing, as I placed the white bag with six euro 70 worth of hake back on the counter.

Then I heard a buzz as the number on the electronic display above the scales turned to 93.

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The Snowglobe

When Laura and Pete were taken up to the room on the second floor of the hotel, they noticed how light and airy it was with a grand view over the village and the resort and the snow-covered mountains close behind with the ski runs leading down almost into the local streets. It felt lovely and warm.

“Here you can actually anticipate the ski-ing from your view when you wake up.” the manager announced before he left them, “The room faces east so you will get the morning light.”

They were putting clothes away in drawers when Laura discovered the snowglobe in a bottom draw within the wardrobe along with the spare pillows. She took it gleefully,

“Look at this….. I wonder why it was stuffed away in the drawer. It’s so pretty…….”

And, Pete had to agree, although it was larger than most examples they’d seen, and required two hands to shake it, which Laura did stirring up a whirl of snowflakes which settled to reveal a mountain, a tiny village at its foot and some miniature people bustling around. Laura blew the dust off it and set it on what was obviously a former mantelpiece opposite the foot of the bed.

“It’s lovely,” she commented. “I wonder why it was hidden away.”

She looked curiously at it and then they left to go for a walk and drinks and dinner downstairs.

They spent the next two days ski-ing and enjoying themselves and paid little attention to the new addition to the mantelpiece. Then, coming back on the second day, the snowglobe was missing only for Laura to re-discover it in its original hiding place and restore it to the mantelpiece. This rigmarole was repeated over the next two days after which Laura declared,

“The chambermaids must be moving it, but I don’t understand why they can’t leave it alone. It’s so lovely and it looks just like the village here. I think I’ll ask the manager.”

And so she did when they went down for dinner. Herr Altmeier looked at Laura with what Pete thought was an evasive look before he answered, rather abruptly, Pete thought,

“Do you mean one of those models of a winter scene in a plastic covering? The toys that you shake and they create fake snow that settles? Ja, we had one but I do not know where it went – perhaps it was put in the drawers in your room. We are a modern progressive hotel and we don’t want old-fashioned children’s toys on display. I will speak to the room staff about it.”

Later, over a drink in the bar, Pete commented to Laura,
“If Herr Altmeier is so dead against “children’s toys” as he puts it, why is the globe being put away so regularly in the same old place? Why not just sell it off or give it to a children’s home.…”

On the Friday, the weather turned grey and overcast with flurries of snow and the couple decided not to go ski-ing but to explore the village and its shops. Before they went out, Laura realised she’d forgotten her sunglasses and went back to fetch them from the room where she encountered the maid.

“Gruss Gott,” the maid nodded and Laura went to fetch her sunglasses then realised the snowdome had been moved again.

“Excuse me, but where is the snowglobe?” Laura enquired.

“Entschuldigung?” the maid enquired.

“The model of the village, with the artificial snow…. Sorry, I don’t speak German,” Laura replied rather embarrassed.

“Ah, the model….” the maid answered in passable English looking rather embarrassed. “We are ordered to remove it from sight as it does not fit with image of hotel. Herr Altmeier’s orders….. He would get rid of it but it has been here for many, many years so I and the other staff keep it hidden as we do not think it proper to remove it. It belonged to the family that owned the original inn here back in the olden times.”

And with that she scurried off into the bathroom and Laura retreated to the lobby to rejoin Pete from whence they essayed forth for a day’s shopping and a nice lunch. All the while the sky turned darker and the snow continued to fall, although mainly over the higher peaks of the mountain.

“The weather isn’t so good?” Pete had questioned the waiter at lunch.

“Nein….. Is abnormal….. very abnormal….. Snow on the mountain tops but not here in village.” He seemed to shiver and moved on.

Later that afternoon, when the couple came back to the hotel, Laura took the snowglobe out of the drawer in the wardrobe and noticed a change in the globe itself. It had become very dark and when Laura shook it, the snow hardly stirred settling to one side of the globe on what appeared to be the representation of the mountain overlooking the village. The whole scene had become foreboding as, indeed, had the weather in the locality which seemed eerily to be be following the changes in the globe. By the time the couple went down to dinner the night outside seemed inky black and less activity than usual to be seen through the windows.The main street, usually thronged with locals and holiday makers was virtually deserted

“It seems very quiet in the village out there tonight,” Pete observed to the maitre d’hote.

“Ja. Unfortunately, the weather is not so good tonight. I think we may have a very heavy snowfall and people are a bit nervous.”

“Nervous of what?” Pete replied. “You need snow, after all, for the ski-ing.”

“Ja, but could be a little bit too heavy, perhaps.” The maitre d’h looked nervous. “Would you like your table? We have fewer than expected guests tonight and it would be good to close the kitchen a bit early. A reward for our loyal staff…..”

Dinner was served much quicker than usual with the staff scurrying around seemingly anxious to finish the dinner service and to tidy up the restaurant and lay up for breakfast as quickly as possible. By ten o’clock everything was quiet. Laura and Pete looked out of the front of the hotel and everything seemed so deathly quiet in the village which was unusual, so they retired for an early night.

On getting back to their room, Laura looked at the snowdome and realised it had changed again with the whole village scene in darkness but with the “snow” roiling away up on the mountain.

“You know, I think the village is frightened of something,” Laura said nervously. “The scenes in the dome have been getting more and more unusual today, just as the village has gone unusually quiet.”

Pete peered at the dome curiously and, after thinking, he said quietly,

“Just a rather spooky thought….. Is the dome is predicting something and the villagers know it. I think this snowdome is more than just a toy….. And maybe Herr Altmeier knows that and that’s why he tries to hide it.”

“What do you mean, more than just a toy?” Laura looked concerned.

“Maybe, it’s predictive….. Magical somehow. Let’s face it, pretty though it is, it’s very old and it’s a bit bigger than most snowdomes. And it seems to represent the village pretty accurately in a funny sort of way.”

Pete strode to the back window and looked up towards the mountain top – but nothing. Just inky blackness. He went back to the snowglobe and picked it up, looking curiously at it. He turned it over revealing a brass plate with indecipherable writing on it which he showed to Laura. When he turned it back over, nothing had changed.

“You know, Pete,” I’m scared she said. “Something’s going to happen.”

“Let’s go to bed,” Pete said, “we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

About four o’clock in the morning, they were aroused from their fitful sleep by a huge roaring sound and the building shaking as if an earthquake were in progress. After a few minutes the roaring and shaking stopped, to be replaced by icy stillness punctuated by the sounds of odd crying or wailing outside. Pete leapt out of bed and peered into the darkness as there were no lights to be seen anywhere. He felt his way back to their bedside table and located his torch before going to look out of the window.

“OMG,” he exclaimed, ”I think there’s been an avalanche. Can’t see much except masses of snow up to the first floor, I think….. Some people emerging but really too dark…. But I think best to get dressed perhaps in ski gear as I think it could get cold. Let’s see if we can help……”

They quickly discovered there was no electricity so they dressed as best they could and then made their way gingerly down the stairs in – along with other guests – to the lower floors to find the hotel mostly safe – although the force of the avalanche had stoved in some windows and doors to let icy snow in. Herr Altmeier was surveying the scene using a lantern with some live-in staff, including the maid Laura had met.

“Can we helpl?” Pete asked.

“Nein…. Danke…. We have to wait to be dug out but it could be a while. The emergency services will be busy soon lower down the village. The smaller dwellings will suffer most. Let us have some coffee whilst we wait. I think the butane cookers still work. We cannot go out at this moment.”

After a while drinking coffee, making small talk and warming themselves round a fire they managed to light, Laura asked,

“Herr Altmeier….. Tell me honestly about the snowglobe.”

Altmeier regarded her with horror.

“Please, tell me…. Or you,” she glanced at the maid. “There’s something about it…..”

After a silence he looked at the maid and when she nodded, he began the story.

“Many years ago this hotel was an inn for the locals and the odd rare traveller. Up here I don’t suppose they got many of those before ski-ing took off. In the seventeenth century, the inn was owned by the Schwarzer family – yes the name has significance – as they all were reputed to be of the devil’s kind. They were known as sorcerers, as well as innkeepers, but one – Hugo Schwarzer – was reputed to make objects that could foretell the future, although they were almost all lost in the twentieth century.”

“Almost all…..?” Laura cut in, perhaps sensing where the conversation was going.

“Ja, there was a snowglobe that could predict the near future. It has predicted several disasters to befall the village – rock falls, harvest failures and avalanches….. But never ever good things. We have tried to put it away but somehow it could not leave the site of the inn. We have given it away several times but it has always managed to return.”

“So what is the strange writing on the brass plate on the back?” Pete asked.

“No-one knows,” Altmeier replied. “We believe it is probably some cursed magicians’ script.”

“Right, that’s it. Enough…..” Pete announced determinedly and marched upstairs taking an ice-pick from the hall with him.

Once in the room, he seized the globe, opened the window and attacked it with the pick. The glass covering was thick but as soon as he began his assault the globe started to whirl with a dark malignant presence, but Pete kept up the assault until the glass cracked and finally broke. With that a black apparition with evil yellow eyes mushroomed in front of Pete until Pete drove the icepick into the shadowy figure which gave out a bone-chilling, ear-piercing shriek then vanished into the cold crisp air of the valley.

“What was that terrible shriek? It frightened the life out of us,” Laura asked when Pete returned downstairs.

“The ghost of Hugo Schwarzer going to meet his doom,” Pete replied. “Herr Altmeier, a large brandy please.”