Chapter no 25 – Hugo Lefèvre

The Midnight Library

Nora walked with her headache and obvious hangover through an undecorated wooden passageway to a small dining hall that smelled of pickled herring, and where a few research scientists were having breakfast.

She got herself a black coee and some stale, dry rye bread and sat down.

Around her, outside the window, was the most eerily beautiful sight she had ever seen. Islands of ice, like rocks rendered clean and pure white, were visible amid the fog. ere were seventeen other people in the dining hall, Nora counted. Eleven men, six women. Nora sat by herself but within five minutes a man with short hair and stubble two days away from a full beard sat down at her table. He was wearing a parka, like most of the room, but he seemed ill-suited to it, as if he would be more at home on the Riviera wearing designer shorts and a pink polo shirt. He smiled at Nora. She tried to translate the smile, to understand the kind of relationship they had. He watched her for a little while, then shued his chair along to sit opposite her. She looked for a lanyard, but he wasn’t wearing one. She wondered if she should know his name.

‘I’m Hugo,’ he said, to her relief. ‘Hugo Lefèvre. You are Nora, yes?’ ‘Yes.’

‘I saw you around, in Svalbard, at the research centre, but we never said hello. Anyway, I just wanted to say I read your paper on pulsating glaciers and it blew my mind.’


‘Yes. I mean, it’s always fascinated me, why they do that here and nowhere else. It’s such a strange phenomenon.’

‘Life is full of strange phenomena.’

Conversation was tempting, but dangerous. Nora smiled a small, polite smile and then looked out of the window. e islands of ice turned into actual islands. Little snow-streaked pointed hills, like the tips of mountains, or flatter, craggy plates of land. And beyond them, the glacier Nora had seen from the cabin porthole. She could get a better measure of it now, although its top portion was concealed under a visor of cloud. Other parts of it were entirely free from fog. It was incredible.

You see a picture of a glacier on TV or in a magazine and you see a smooth lump of white. But this was as textured as a mountain. Black-brown and white. And there were infinite varieties of that white, a whole visual smorgasbord of variation – white-white, blue-white, turquoise-white, gold-white, silver-white, translucent-white – rendered glaringly alive and impressive. Certainly more impressive than the breakfast.

‘Depressing, isn’t it?’ Hugo said. ‘What?’

e fact that the day never ends.’

Nora felt uneasy with this observation. ‘In what sense?’ He waited a second before responding.

e never-ending light,’ he said, before taking a bite of a dry cracker. ‘From April on. It’s like living one interminable day . . . I hate that feeling.’

‘Tell me about it.’

‘You’d think they’d give the portholes curtains. Hardly slept since I’ve been on this boat.’

Nora nodded. ‘How long is that again?’

He laughed. It was a nice laugh. Close-mouthed. Civilised. Hardly a laugh at all.

‘I drank a lot with Ingrid last night. Vodka has stolen my memory.’ ‘Are you sure it’s the vodka?’

‘What else would it be?’

His eyes were inquisitive, and made Nora feel automatically guilty.

She looked over at Ingrid, who was drinking her coee and typing on her laptop. She wished she had sat with her now.

‘Well, that was our third night,’ Hugo said. ‘We have been meandering around the archipelago since Sunday. Yeah, Sunday. at’s when we le Longyearbyen.’

Nora made a face as if to say she knew all this. ‘Sunday seems for ever away.’

e boat felt like it was turning. Nora was forced to lean a little in her seat. ‘Twenty years ago there was hardly any open water in Svalbard in April.

Look at it now. It’s like cruising the Mediterranean.’

Nora tried to make her smile seem relaxed. ‘Not quite.’ ‘Anyway, I heard you got the short straw today?’

Nora tried to look blank, which wasn’t hard. ‘Really?’ ‘You’re the spotter, aren’t you?’

She had no idea what he was talking about, but feared the twinkle in his eye.

‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘Yes, I am. I am the spotter.’

Hugo’s eyes widened with shock. Or mock-shock. It was hard to tell the dierence with him.

spotter?’ ‘Yes?’

Nora desperately wanted to know what the spotter actually did, but couldn’t ask.

‘Well, bonne chance,’ said Hugo, with a testing gaze.

‘Merci,’ said Nora, staring out at the crisp Arctic light and a landscape she had only ever seen in magazines. ‘I’m ready for a challenge.’

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