There are several things you don’t know about my novel The Scoundrel Days of Hobo Highbrow. One of them I will tell you about now: The model for the character Mrs.Høilund was an old woman I used to help out with some practical things in her apartment when I was a student in Oslo in the early 1980-ties. It was a little bit of cleaning, a little bit of conversation on a very high and cultivated level, and first and foremost I had to remember to open her bottles of redwine before I left, because she wasn’t strong enough to open them herself.
“Mrs Høilund had been an attractive woman in her younger days. She was pretty attractive now taking into consideration the fact she was in her nineties. She was wearing a silk dressinggown with embroidered hearts, butterflies and flowers. On her feet were a pair of thick socks. She quickly looked me up and down before disappearing into the house with small,shuffling steps.
“Put the box on the table,” she called from the livingroom.
The kitchen was light and very pleasant but the only food or drink I could see on show were three bottles of red wine standing on the kitchen bench. Next to them was an ivory corkscrew decorated with tiny prints of London Bridge. It was an impressive piece of handiwork.
“I just have to listen to a bit of the French news,” said Mrs Høilund.
“Do that,” I called back.
She was lying on the sofa with her ear pressed against a small transistor radio when I entered the living room. The room was furnished with antiques and the walls were decked with various kinds of art. Along the walls were empty wine bottles in long, neat rows. I detected at once that here indeed was a woman who had a taste for beauty and spiritual values. Or perhaps it was Mr Høilund who had brought all these objects into the house? There was no trace of him, though, so I decided to give his wife the benefit of the doubt.
On a small table there was a pile of books. I lifted them carefully, looking at each in turn. It came as no surprise to find a copy of Hubert Humpelfinger’s wretched Erogenous Zones in the Middle Ages amongst the books. I dropped it as if I’d accidently picked up a dead rat.
“Shhh!” snapped Mrs Høilund. “I’m listening.”
“I’m very sorry, madam,” I said.
“They’ve got Victor Hugo in the studio,” said Mrs Høilund.
“He’s just published a new novel.”
“He’s dead!” I said.
“Really?” said Mrs Høilund, looking at me rather sceptically.
“Are we going to be difficult today?”
“No, no, not at all,” I said.
“Could you be so kind as to go into the kitchen and open my bottles of red wine for me?” Mrs Høilund said.
I walked back to the kitchen and willingly got on with the task in hand. I liked the feeling of doing something useful, of being a miniscule cog in the wheel that went by the name of CARING FOR THE ELDERLY. A mechanism that admittedly struggled from time to time, but was driven by a gang of diligent and engaging people like myself.
The corks in the bottles were impossible to budge for some reason and it didn’t help matters that Mrs Høilund was shouting incomprehensible instructions from the living-room. Each bottle was to be marked when it was half-empty because she consumed exactly half a bottle of wine every day. Also, each day had to be marked in such a way that the upper part of the bottle was labelled Wednesday and the bottom part Thursday. Otherwise mix-ups would easily occur, which was quite understandable. Each cork was to be unscrewed from the corkscrew and pushed one centimetre down into the top of the bottle after it had been opened.”
(The Scoundrel Days of Hobo Highbrow page 85-86)
The woman I used as inspiration for Mrs Høilund had been living in Paris until recently, and now she had returned to her native country for good, living in two identical one-room apartments made into one; two small kitchens, two small bathrooms and two livingsrooms, one of them with a bed where she used to lay in her silk robe and listen to french radio while I was removing dust with some silly old fashioned feather things.
This woman had been the mistress of Ari Onassis for 12 years.
“What did happen with Onassis in 1934 was his meeting Ingeborg Dedichen, the Norwegian daughter of the esteemed Brydes of Sandefjord, a beautiful and wealthy woman going through her second divorce. He met her on the cruiser Augustus and her first impression of him was that he “was a gangster” with his pomaded hair and dark, penetrating eyes. Onassis had a knack for singling out older, wealthy women, and he had spotted this one before the ship ever took off. Onassis the predator paid a steward to move him to the room next to hers and made his move, showering her with attention and sweet talk until he got her into bed. On the last night of the cruise, as they danced together, with Onassis in his best dress, Ingse asked him, “Why is it that even when you’re wearing a tuxedo, you still look like a gangster?”
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