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37

Hello?

Jelena Walgens's hearing was not what it had once been. She found it especially difficult to understand what people said on the telephone-and needless to say, she would have preferred to discuss whatever the topic was over a cup of coffee. With something freshly baked on the side. A little chat about this and that. But the young man was persistent, sounded pleasant, and of course it would be possible to settle matters over the phone even so.

How long did you say? A month only? I would prefer to have a tenant for a bit longer than that

I could pay you a bit extra, argued the young man. I'm a writer. Alois M"uhren, I don't know if you've heard of me?

I don't think so.

What I'm looking for is a nice, quiet hideaway where I can write the final chapter of my new book. I certainly don't need more than a month. All the people and the hustle and bustle of a city make things so difficult for a writer, if you see what I mean.

I certainly do, said Jelena Walgens as she searched through her memory.

But she couldn't think of anybody by that name. She read quite a lot, and had always done so; but he was a young man, and maybe she hadn't quite heard the name right. Alois M"uhren? Was that what he'd said?

One month, she said. Until the first of April, that is. Is that what you want?

If possible. But perhaps you have other prospective tenants?

A few, she lied. But nobody who's committed themselves yet.

In fact this was the third week in succession that she'd placed the ad in the newspaper, and apart from an off-putting German who seemed to have misunderstood everything it was possible to misunderstand, and no doubt stank of sauerkraut and sausages, he was the only one who'd called. What was the point of hesitating? A month was a month, after all.

Would you be happy with five hundred guilders? she asked. It's a bit of a nuisance having to advertise again when you move out.

Five hundred guilders would be fine, he said without hesitation, and the deal was done.

After lunch she drew a map and wrote instructions. One kilometer after the church in Wahrhejm, take a left when you come to the hand-painted sign. Two hundred meters through the trees toward the lake, no more. Three cottages. The one nearest the lake on the right was hers.

Keys and an explanation of how to make the awkward water pump work. The stove and the electric mains. The boat and the oars.

She had only just finished when he arrived. Rather a pale young man. Not very tall, and with polished manners, she thought. She offered him coffee, of course-it was already brewed. But he declined. He couldn't wait to get out there and start writing. She understood perfectly.

He wasn't the least bit impolite or cocky. On the contrary. He was courteous, as she would explain later to Beatrix Hoelder and Marcela Augenbach. Courteous and polite.

And a writer. When he'd left, she tasted the word several times. Writer. There was something sweet about it, that had to be admitted. She liked the idea of having somebody sitting and writing in her little cottage by the lake, and perhaps she even entertained the hope that at some point in the future he would remember her and send her a copy of the book. When it was finished, of course. That would take time, she imagined. What with publishers and all the rest of it. Perhaps he would dedicate the book to her, even? She made up her mind to go to the library before long and see if he was represented on the shelves.

M"uhlen, was that his name? Yes, that's what it said on the contract they had both signed. Alfons M"uhlen, if she had read it correctly. He seemed a bit effeminate, she had to say, and she wondered if he might be homosexual. A lot of writers were, even if they pretended not to be, according to what Beatrix had maintained once. But then again, she maintained all kinds of things.

She'd never heard of him, that was for sure. Neither had Beatrix nor Marcela, but he was a young man, after all.

Still, he'd paid in cash, without quibbling. Five hundred guilders. She would have been satisfied with three.

So, it was an excellent deal, all things considered.

Alfons M"uller?

Ah, maybe she had heard the name after all.


| Woman with Birthmark | c



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