The Hanged Woman

“Espresso House,” I said, “is that Norwegian or Swedish?”

The barista looked up from her mobile phone. “Coffee okay?”

“I saw this coffee chain in Stockholm and now here in Oslo,” I tried again. “I was wondering where it came from.”

“Oh. Sweden.”

“And how do the Norwegians feel about that?”

She laughed and put down her phone. It was Sunday morning in Oslo, and I had gone in to caffeinate my soul after a long night and an early rise. I had been in town to perform a theatre show, but the afterparty had lasted longer than expected, and the friend that I was staying with had young children that observed a different schedule. I had said my goodbyes early, although my flight wouldn’t be until the late afternoon, so I sipped my cappuccino in preparation for a day of solitary exploration. The Espresso House that I was visiting was completely empty save for a young, immaculately dressed barista. She sized me up for a moment and glanced at the entrance. Content that no one else would be joining us any time soon, she walked towards my table.

She had blonde hair and strikingly blue eyes, a Scandinavian sort of beauty that wasn’t any less impressive just because it was common here.

“They make jokes,” she said. “They still drink the coffee. You know,” and she leaned forward conspiratorially, “the story goes that the founders of Espresso House were visiting Thailand and while on vacation decided to create a fast food place.”

“Fast food?”

“That’s right. But when they had made plans for a restaurant, on their way back they smelled freshly brewed coffee and decided to make a coffee place instead.”

“Huh.” I touched the edge of my cup in a moment of contemplation. “Imagine if they had smelled something else.”

“Right?” She smiled enthusiastically. “Espresso House is pretty big now. If they had maybe walked a different street…”

“Norwegians wouldn’t be making these jokes.” I nodded. “Coffee’s pretty good.”

My friend had said that the best thing about Oslo was how easy it was to get out of Oslo. You could see it if you looked for it: the low-rises of the city that provided a clear view of the countryside beyond, the broad roads, the frequent busses and trains heading out of town, the number of people dressed for a stroll in the woods. Norwegians loved nature, even if nature didn’t always love them.

I wasn’t alone after all. Hoping to see some sights that I had missed the first time around, I had messaged another friend from the theatre for tips. She had decided to join me and had escorted me to Akker Brygge, a local neighbourhood that was popular for shopping and entertainment. It had been a crucial area for the engineering industry in the last century, but all its old industrial buildings had been demolished to make way for high-end residential areas. It was pristine, calming and slightly boring. She seemed to have picked up on my thoughts.

“It’s not the most exciting place,” she said. “Not like Stockholm.”

“But it’s very liveable,” I replied. “It’s true. If I wanted to go for an adventure, I wouldn’t go here. But if I had to settle.”

“Stockholm is going through all these things right now. Terrorism. Violence.”

“That’s right.”

A mother passed by with a baby carriage and smiled at us. She headed towards the harbour in the distance.

“You know what I noticed here? Babies. Babies on every street corner. More than any other place I’ve been to.”

She laughed. “Yes? I never noticed.” She turned slightly more serious. “We have a lot of old people. Maybe it’s a good thing.”

“And you get six months of maternity leave, and six months of paternity leave. You guys do a good job of making parenthood attractive. It’s not like that everywhere.”

I reflected for a moment on my own country. The Netherlands was certainly a liveable place in its own right, but it couldn’t match these kinds of circumstances, and for the first time in a while I found myself thinking that the country I was visiting was in some ways more developed than my own (a development that was reflected in the steep prices of food and drinks). I also realised that visitors from less privileged countries must have this feeling all the time when they go abroad, and felt humbled by the experience. It was by now mid-afternoon, but the streets kept quiet even in the city centre. I looked up to try and spot a cloud, but couldn’t find any.

“I guess I got lucky with the weather.”

“Yes. This is our one summer weekend of the year.”

“I guess your worst problem is the nature.”

“It is. And we go out to meet it often.”

Idyllic and boring. I wasn’t sure if those two terms could ever exist without one another. But it wasn’t a stifling kind of boring. There was no existential dread in Oslo, just the vague feeling of an empty afternoon. Another baby carriage passed us around the corner. How bad could a country be, I thought, if the solution to its problems was to have more babies?

My flight had been delayed yet again, but there were worse places to ruminate. Oslo Airport was a comfortable twenty minutes outside of the city centre, and it was spacious, bright and tax-free. The flight back to Amsterdam was crowded, so most seats in the waiting area were taken. I had therefore settled on a chair on the opposite side of the gate sign, and glanced over my shoulder every now and then to see if any further delays had presented themselves. The flight time remained at a steady 16:55. The old lady that had sat behind me previously had excused herself to go to the bathroom, and her chair was now taken by a man that immediately stood out to me.

For all its international visitors, Oslo Airport was still a homogeneous place compared to other airports I had visited. Many gates were connected to domestic flights, and most passengers were caucasian and often blonde. The man behind me had dark skin, tightly cropped hair that was greying at the temples, and a curiously thick leather jacket. It must have been more than twenty-five degrees outside, but the man was seemingly unperturbed. I couldn’t help but notice him flipping through his Facebook feed, glancing at Arabic writing as he saw photos of friends and family from a world away.

Suddenly, a video filled his screen. In it, a dead woman was hanging from a lone tree out in a desert. There was no movement aside from the gentle swaying of her body as the branch buckled in the wind. There were no subtitles to the video, no framing of a news channel to suggest that this was a story caught on to by the media. The man rotated his phone to get a better look at the video and pressed a button to replay it. I noticed two men with rifles standing in the corner, watching the woman sway in that breeze. Their guns looked old and used, their clothing faded and torn. Even at this distance, I could see sand dancing in the air.

The man paused the video and stared at it for a moment. He looked up. Afraid that I might have given myself away, I turned back towards my own side of the chair and kept my eyes fixed on the young couple in front of me instead. They were playing with their child. After a few moments, I dared to glance back, but the man had resumed his normal browsing.

Who was that woman? What had she done to deserve such a fate? And what was going through the mind of this man as he watched this video thousands of kilometers away at Oslo Airport? I wouldn’t get any answers, so I kept my eyes pointed away for the rest of the wait. When it was finally time to leave, I walked through the jetway with the other passengers and tried to spot him, but he was gone. I looked outside and saw Norway stretch out into the distance. I closed my eyes and saw the woman. I boarded the plane and thought of both.

StoryThomas Mook