Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
Edith was dreaming about flying. In the dream she was at the controls of an unfamiliar aeroplane that was taxiing along a runway of compacted snow. The plane went faster and faster but when she tried to ease back the stick to lift it into the air, the shift was stuck. Helplessly (for in the dream it didn’t occur to her to try and slow the plane) she hurtled over the frozen ground, which grew increasingly bumpy, with dips and ridges that made her teeth rattle. Then the dream must have jumped tracks because suddenly she was airborne. Flakes of snow were flowing past the cabin window, and the view outside the window showed a fissured landscape of rocky peaks and valleys, streaked with ice and snow. Ahead of her was an area of cloud, shaped roughly like an enormous funnel. It was opaquely white, and she knew that if she flew into it the visibility would be nil. But a strange paralysis had taken control of her limbs, and she was unable to turn the plane. She became aware that her cousin Reggie was sitting behind her in the navigator’s seat. He wrote something on a piece of paper and passed it to her. She took the paper in her gloved hand and when she unfolded it, she saw that Reggie had written in sprawling letters: You are lost.
Edith woke with a jolt. Reggie Anstruthers – what in earth was her cousin doing in her dream? She hadn’t thought of him for ages! Yet since leaving Punta Arenas, her dreams – vivid, disordered fragments that filled the brief snatches of sleep stolen from heavy seas and seasickness – often involved people and places dredged from the past. The night before she dreamed she was flying up and down Colombo Street looking for a cake shop she remembered from her childhood. It sold the most wonderful things – her favourite had been the marzipan mice with licorice tails and whiskers. In the dream she could almost taste the almond in the marzipan. But the shop had vanished without trace, and she woke with an obscure feeling of disappointment.
Edith sat up carefully in her bunk, anticipating the return of a familiar queasiness. For the last week and a half her stomach had risen and fallen with the motion of the Kristina, as the whale catcher fought its way through heaving, metallic waters, buffeted by gales that overturned plates in the galley and swept unfastened cargo overboard. But to her surprise the ship was still, and her stomach was too.
The expedition had been delayed at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego for a fortnight while work was done to repair the plates of ice-strengthening steel on the Kristina’s hull. Nord had maintained an outward appearance of calm, but Edith sensed her frustration at the delay. They received occasional news of the American and British expeditions and knew that Carlssen had left New Zealand more than a month earlier, while Howells and Shackworthy were already in Antarctica. Every day of the brief Antarctic summer counted, and while they kicked their heels in Punta Arenas waiting for the repairs to be completed, their rivals were drawing closer to their goal.
At least the delay had provided the opportunity for the citizens of Punta Arenas to arrange a farewell dinner in honour of the mad señoritas who were determined to fly to the South Pole. The dinner was attended by local dignitaries and presided over by the Mayor of Magallanes. There was plenty of red Chilean wine, steak, and speeches. At the end of his speech the Mayor had presented them with a gift as a token of the town’s good wishes. It was a grey and white puppy with thick fur and a curling tail – a husky. The Mayor’s speech was in a mixture of Spanish and English and Edith didn’t understand all of it, but she thought he was explaining that the puppy came from a litter directly descended from Freyja, one of Ulvisson’s dogs on his journey to the South Pole.
‘I thought Ulvisson ate his dogs on the way back from the Pole,’ Edith said in an undertone to Ann Dexter, who was seated on her left. ‘Can’t have eaten all of them,’ Ann whispered back. To general laughter and applause the Mayor explained that the puppy was una hembra canina, and therefore possessed the right qualifications for the expedition.
Edith turned to the Chilean businessman on her right and asked, ‘What is “una hembra canina”?’
‘In English you would say “bitch”,’ he explained. Edith trusted that no insult was intended.
Judging by Nord’s expression as she took the wriggling puppy and stammered her thanks, she was more put out than pleased by the gift. Edith guessed she was already wondering how she could dispose of the dog before they left port.
Edith had grown up on a farm, and she wasn’t sentimental about animals. Her tolerance for the puppy reached a new low after it got into her cabin and chewed a pair of her flying overalls. After that, Edith referred to the puppy as ‘Trouser’. The name was not just a tribute to the destroyed item of clothing, she argued, but to the dog’s lack of usefulness, for a single sled dog, regardless of its pedigree, was about as much use as a singular ‘trouser’. The crew had other names for the puppy. Den sleipe ett – ‘the sneaky one’ was one of them. But mostly they referred to her as Jente – Norwegian for ‘girl’, and Jente was the name that stuck.
Edith lifted the curtain that covered the porthole. She saw blue sky, with light scudding clouds, and no signs of a storm. In the neighbouring bunk Miku was still asleep, her face obscured by a wing of dark hair that had fallen over one cheek. One of her hands was lightly clenched. Edith was tempted to wake her, but refrained. There had been a coolness between them since Miku discovered how Edith had acquired the money for their passage south.
Instead, Edith got up quietly and pulled on her outdoor clothes. Outside the cabin she thrust her feet into a pair of boots and loosely tied the laces. Closing the door behind her, she climbed the gangway to the deck.
When Edith emerged into the open air, she saw that Nord was already there. Standing next to her at the deck rail were Ann Dexter and Constance Mertz. Like Edith, they wore their outdoor clothing, and their breath steamed in the frigid air. Ann had mounted her camera on a tripod and was gazing through the viewfinder. Constance had a sketchbook and a pencil, and was drawing the view from the deck.
Edith lifted her face to the light. The sun had burnt away the earlier fog, and chunks of brash ice floated on the surface of the ocean, rippling with the movement of the water. The ice was bisected by a tracery of dark leads. Steam rose from the surface of the ice and lay there like an exhalation. In the silence were small sounds that Edith hadn’t heard for days. The creaking of the rigging, the man on watch clearing his throat, the footsteps of the cook as he climbed the steps from the galley to the lower deck with a bucket of vegetable peelings, could be distinctly heard.
It was as if while they slept the ship had slipped through a portal into another world. This new world was one of frozen grandeur; an eerily silent realm of water, sky, and ice. Edith took a deep breath, conscious of a rising sense of excitement. For the first time since leaving Punta Arenas, the expedition didn’t feel like a mistake.
As the morning drew on, the remaining members of the expedition joined them on deck. Even the crew seemed caught in the spell of the ice. Those who didn’t have urgent tasks to do lingered on deck to watch the unfolding scenery. Crewmen who had barely acknowledged the presence of their passengers since leaving Punta Arenas, paused to reminisce or point out features of the ice. The youngest member of the crew, a boy who couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen, was trying to teach Miku some words of his native language. Istfjell, Edith heard her repeat after him, isbre, fjell, skygge. Iceberg, glacier, mountain, cloud. They were laughing at Miku’s inability to pronounce the words the way he did, with soft gutturals and hard edges.
There was something dreamlike about the landscape, as if it were more a vision than a reality. Sure enough, next morning they woke to find themselves in open water again. The ice had vanished.
The whalers’ map showed them to be approximately 60 degrees south and 90 east. The crew were of the opinion that the open water was a polynia – a lake set within the icefield. But to Nord, the open water presented an irresistible invitation to explore by air. She gave orders to uncrate the scout plane and assemble it for an exploratory flight.
It took the entire day to uncrate the plane, de-grease and clean all its parts, and slowly reassemble it. The crew watched their preparations with skepticism at first, but caught the mood of excitement as the aircraft took shape. The first mate, a giant of a man named Stensrud, carried a portable generator on deck to power Theo Fogge’s soldering iron, while the cook let Edith use the galley stove to warm the oil for the engine.
It was evening by the time the aircraft was ready. But at this latitude there was no true night, only a lingering twilight. Reluctant to wait and risk a change in the weather, Nord decided to go ahead with the flight. Edith and Miku tossed a coin to decide who would pilot the plane and Edith won. Nord had already elected to navigate. The Kristina was equipped with a slipway; a moveable ramp that could be lowered to haul whales on board for processing. While the crew lowered the slipway, Nord and Edith prepared for the flight by dressing in shaggy, fur-lined anoraks, and fur hats with ear flaps. Feeling as cumbersome as a bear in her bulky anorak, Edith clambered onto the wing of the plane, then folded herself into the tiny cabin. Nord joined her in the navigator’s seat, which was located behind the pilot. Perched at the top of the slipway, Edith took a deep breath. She waved to the others and strapped herself in. Then she turned the switch to start the ignition, and the deafening roar of the engine sliced the frozen silence.
From her training flights Edith knew that taking off from water was more difficult than from land. The best approach was a short, fast run. First of all though, she taxied down the slipway, dropping the plane into the sea before continuing along the route of the improvised runway. The pontoons churned the water into steep white plumes as she checked for hidden obstacles. When she was satisfied the water was clear of ice, she turned the plane. Opening the throttle, she sped back the way she’d come. As she pulled the stick back, she felt the water’s drag, the plane’s reluctance to rise, and the sensation of her dream flashed into her mind. But the drag dropped away the moment she was airborne. Exhilarated by the familiar sensation of weightlessness, Edith climbed steeply, banking the plane to the left before leveling it out. From the ship the manoeuvre would look like a salute. It was only when the plane was level again that she risked a proper look at the terrain unfolding beneath her.
To the west, the sun was sinking in a blaze of colour that bathed the horizon in swathes of gold and orange. As Edith climbed, the ‘lake’ of clear water where the Kristina lay grew smaller and more distant, while the surrounding ice grew correspondingly more vast. At the southern edge of the polynia an immense field of loose, pancake ice came into view, running east to west in a long curve. To the south, the ice extended to the limit of vision.
Edith flew into a patch of turbulence. A knotted gust of wind seized the plane and shook it, and flakes of snow obscured her view. A moment later they were in clear sky again, but Edith had felt the veiled ferocity of the wind, its unmistakable power.
The plan was to fly south in a broad rectangle, searching for places where the pack was weakest. At eighteen hundred feet Edith scanned the horizon to the south for the tell-tale line of blue that signalled open water. She estimated that at that height they could see fifty miles ahead.
What she saw through the cockpit window was a great, tessellated plain of ice. In the distance she glimpsed white peaks with sheer sides, and her heart leapt. Could it be the ice barrier at last, gleaming on the horizon? But no, there was sky beyond and more ice – the peaks were just a line of distant icebergs.
The scout-plane’s range was limited by the size of its tanks. But when Nord tapped Edith’s shoulder and gestured that it was time to return to the ship, Edith felt a strange reluctance. The distant continent was like a lure, and she felt an urge to fly on and on. Instead, she turned the plane in a wide loop and headed back towards the ship.
She dropped the plane back onto the water, churning up more plumes of spray. A crewman leaned over the side of the ship with a boat hook and a rope, and as Edith brought the plane alongside the slipway, he threw one end of the rope to her. She caught it and looped it through the wing struts, and the crew began to winch the plane onto the ship. At the top of the slipway, hands reached out to help haul them onto the deck. They were being greeted with cheers and excited faces, passed from hand to hand, escorted towards the messroom where Jente dashed from one to the other while emitting short, excited barks. Theo Fogge had found a bottle of champagne and even some glasses. As Edith pulled off her helmet and shook out her hair, Theo popped the cork and caught the liquid that gushed smokily in the glasses. Edith didn’t need champagne – she felt drunk from the excitement of the flight. Images of ice and ocean rose up and dissolved in her head like the bubbles in the champagne. But when Miku put a glass into her hand, Edith didn’t refuse it.
Theo tapped a fork against her glass to get their attention. Lifting her glass, proposed a toast to the South Pole. Edith raised her glass with the rest of them, and a chorus of ‘The South Pole!’ filled the room.
Edith’s glass was almost empty when one of the crew arrived with a message for Nord. As Nord read the note her expression changed. She held up her hand for silence, and read the message aloud. The Captain had been in wireless contact with the whaling base at Deception Island. Among the news they’d given him was the information that Howells and Sir Frank Shackworthy had established a base near Graham Land. Yesterday, with Howells at the controls, they’d taken off from their runway in the caldera of an extinct volcano, and flown westwards along the coast. The flight, which lasted fifteen hours, had taken them over previously unexplored territory.
There were faint cheers, and also some boos. Someone blew a raspberry.
Nord held up her hand again. ‘There is more.’ She read them the rest of the note. ‘Carlssen has landed near Ross Island. Two days ago he and three of his men took their aircraft up for a short flight.’ Nord crumpled the note in her hand. ‘Carlssen says that if the weather holds, he hopes to fly to the Pole within the fortnight.’