Hue & Cry


By Alison Glenny

Monsieur Charcot's Lecture

At her parents’ house in Farsund, Nord found herself taking long walks in the surrounding fields and forest. Even these had a slightly haunted feel. Every object, it seemed, was a trap in which some memory had been caught. She passed the dilapidated remains of the tree hut where she and the neighbour’s son had hidden after deciding to run away from home. When several hours passed and no one had noticed their absence, they had found a farmhand to carry a note back to the housekeeper, requesting extra provisions. It was evening when her father came looking for them, standing on an apple box so that he could reach up high enough to lift them down.
     Here she no longer felt like Margrethe Nord, aviator, but Grethe Nordahl again, only child of the local doctor and his attractive but reserved wife. That other life she’d had since leaving home – being ‘discovered’ by Anders, accepting the name he’d chosen with an eye towards the American market, learning to fly – were like incidents in a novel you’d take idly from the shelf and browse through, before replacing it and returning once more to reality.
     Inside the narrow house with its steep-pitched roof, time seemed to have accumulated like dust in the quiet rooms and corners. The objects her father had collected on his travels – a misshapen lump of Baltic amber, the piece of reindeer antler carved by Sami herders, a pair of Inuit snowshoes – still occupied their familiar places, but without his presence they felt like items in a museum. His consulting room stood empty and silent. Nord realised that the reason she had been reluctant to come home was because it made the fact of her father’s absence inescapable.
     Since her father’s death her mother’s tendency to withdraw into a private world had become more pronounced. Klara Nordahl spent the best part of each day in her studio, working on the aqueous landscapes that absorbed her attention. Once it had been possible to recognise local scenes and landmarks in these paintings. Now Nord saw that they had become, over time, gradually less pictorial: virtually abstract compositions of colour and form that portrayed no recognisable scene or object.
     She and her mother came together mainly at mealtimes, sharing food in a silence that was occasionally companionable but more often seemed to take on an almost physical dimension, as of a distance so vast as to be virtually uncrossable; a chasm or abyss. When one of them broke the silence with a remark or comment, it almost felt as if they were inventing language. If her mother was aware of the scandal that Nord had left behind her in England, she gave no sign of it. Nord told her that she had been asked to speak about the Greenland flight to the Budapest Explorer’s Club, and that she needed a quiet place to collect her thoughts. Her mother was happy to oblige.
     The night before Nord was due to leave Farsund, her mother made a visible effort. Klara Nordahl prepared the meal herself, and even opened a bottle of wine that she brought up from the cellar. Nord saw that the bottle had been there long enough for the spiders to spin their webs over it.
     As she poured the wine into two glasses Klara Nordahl said, ‘As a child you used to spend hours lying in the meadow, gazing at the sky, watching the clouds and the gulls fly overhead.
     ‘Geir thought you were destined to be a painter when you grew up, like me. But I always felt you would do something different. When you learned to fly, I told Geir that it would be your life.’
     Nord understood at that moment that her mother’s silence and increasing withdrawal from family life, however painful, had bequeathed her a sense of her right to seek freedom in whatever form she chose.
     After dinner her mother returned to her studio. Nord stayed in the dining room. She lit a fire, and took down the heavy atlas that had belonged to her father. The maps that showed the polar regions occupied the final pages of the volume, followed only by the indexes. Somehow, this reinforced the impression they gave of lying at the ends of the earth, beyond the zones of habitation or even accurate knowledge. Instead of cities and towns, the white spaces were marked with dotted lines showing the routes taken by explorers, together the name of their vessels and the dates of the expeditions. With a pang, Nord saw that her father had drawn the Vespertine’s route onto the map of Greenland in red ink, adding her and Peter Favanger’s names and the date of the flight in his meticulous handwriting. Tears pricked her eyes, and she turned the page quickly to the map of Antarctica. She studied the continent’s distinctive shape, the indentations of the great seas, the Antarctic Peninsula, and the coastal islands. Her eye was caught by the curving spike of West Georgia in the lee of the Antarctic Peninsula, from where it pointed like a finger towards the Antarctic continent. She searched the bookcase for her father’s edition of Charcot’s journal of his Antarctic voyage, published twenty years earlier. She matched the coastline to Charcot’s account of it. The explorer had described finding a flat beach, sheltered from the south and relatively free of ice. His men had camped there while exploring the mountains that lay inland. She wondered if the beach was still there and whether it could be used as a runway. Of course, it would only happen if she could persuade Peter Favanger to sell her the Farlight – and find herself a new co-pilot and crew.
     She realised that the idea of Antarctica had her in its grip, and was slowly tightening its hold. For a moment she was reminded of those stories of hapless explorers who became frozen into the polar seas when the pack ice clenched around them like a great fist.
     Charcot’s journal prompted another memory. She’d been eleven or twelve, and her father had taken her to hear the distinguished polaire give a public lecture at the Christiana Town Hall.
     They’d traveled by ferry from Farsund. Dr Nordahl, who had made the journey many times before, was content to sit in the salon and read his book. In contrast, his young daughter was almost breathless with excitement. She explored every inch of the vessel, drawn back at last to the open deck where she leaned against the rail, feeling the cold breath of the wind on the back of her neck as she watched the horizon slip and slide.
     At that time Norwegians took an almost proprietorial interest in Antarctic exploration, and the assembly room of the Town Hall was filled to capacity. Awed by the unaccustomed crowds and noise, the heat from the gaslights, and the heavy perfume of the flowers that lined the stage, Grethe stayed close to her father’s side as he greeted old friends and colleagues. It seemed to her that her father was the most distinguished looking man in the room as well as the most handsome, and this made her proud.
     Charcot was the son of the famous mesmerist whose work as director of the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris had brought the study of hysteria to public attention. Dr Charcot expected his son to follow in his footsteps, and Jean-Baptiste Charcot had obeyed his father’s wishes and trained as a doctor, but the call of exploration had been too strong. Grethe Nordahl, of course, knew nothing of this. But her sense of the importance of the occasion and the company was reinforced when her father, with an almost imperceptible nod, drew her attention to a man who was standing near the far wall of the auditorium. ‘Do you see that gentleman, kjaere,’ Dr Nordahl said softly. ‘He is Ulf Ulvisson, the famous polar explorer’.
     Grethe gazed in undisguised fascination. For her, as for many Norwegians, Ulvisson needed no introduction. He was a household name, virtually a legend. Grethe recognised him at once from his distinctive profile – the narrow face, hawk nose, and swarthy complexion that prompted rumours he was descended from Greenlanders and was part Inuit. Grethe thought that the explorer looked ill at ease in a formal suit, and that he should have been wearing his famous parka made of reindeer skin. Ulvisson was accompanied by a woman who was luminous in a white ermine stole, her blonde hair fastened in an elegant chignon. Later, Nord learned that the woman was Madame Oblanskaya, Ulvisson’s mistress. It was an open secret in Christiana that she had left her husband and child to live with the explorer.
     Bored and fidgety during the long introduction by the President of the Geographical Society, Grethe came to attention when Monsieur Charcot took the podium to describe his adventures. The Frenchman was dapper and dignified, with a high, beaked nose, deep-set grey eyes, white moustache, and a neatly trimmed white beard. He spoke with both passion and clarity, describing the route taken by his expedition and its scientific achievements in hydrography, meterology, and terrestial gravitation. He did not neglect the hardships of the voyage, or the perils to his vessel, the Pourquois-Pas? from floating ice-bergs. Yet he also spoke of the camaraderie of the crew, the flaring of the Aurora, and the magnificent bleakness of Terre Adélie behind its icy fastnesses. He described hauling a boat over a glacier, and eating an omelette made from penguin eggs.
     ‘And now,’ he concluded, ‘because words alone cannot do justice to the beauty and terror of my subject, the empire of words must bow to the superiority of the image. I propose to show a ciné-film taken during my expedition: you will please reserve your questions for the end.’
     The lights were extinguished and Monsieur Charcot took his place beside the President while an assistant operated the projector. In the darkness of the improvised theatre the projector whirred and the screen leapt into life, as a flickering succession of black and white images passed over it.
     It was the first time that Grethe had seen moving photographs.
     She saw a ship, its masts and rigging furred with ice, making its way silently through the pack.
     Abruptly, the scene changed. Now the camera was tracking the outline of a towering cliff of ice. The ice shelf had a flattened top and stretched both left and right as far as the eye could see. A title appeared with the words, The Great Ice Barrier.
     The camera panned slowly past an island on which penguins stood in the hundreds, like quaint and silent opera goers awaiting the bell that would recall them for the second act. Grethe almost laughed aloud. In the darkness she squeezed her father’s hand. These neatly attired citizens of the frozen south were interspersed with the darker, lolling shapes of seals and sea lions. Another title bore the words, Inexpressible Island.
     Then the camera was on the ice shelf itself. In the background, the ship steamed silently, a plume of smoke rising from its chimney like a miniature volcano. In the foreground a line of dogs, sledges and men fanned out across the ice. As they ran towards the camera, the mouths of the huskies opened and closed in a succession of fierce but silent yelps.
     Dr Nordahl and his daughter did not stay for supper. On the way out of the assembly rooms, however, they were stopped by a man who shook Dr Nordahl’s hand warmly and seemed reluctant to let him go. Grethe’s father introduced him to her as a former shipmate from the time before she was born. The man’s name was Thorvaldsen.
     Grethe knew that before he married, her father had worked for a year on a Danish sealing vessel. He could sometimes be coaxed to tell stories about it. She stared at Thorvaldsen who seemed uncomfortable beneath her gaze. Thorvaldsen was urging Dr Nordahl to come back with him to his lodgings for a ‘nightcap’. Grethe sensed her father’s hesitation, the conflict between inclination and loyalty. Loyalty must have won, for they began walking through the narrow streets that lay behind the Christiana wharfs, while Thorvaldsen talked excitedly to her father.
     They stopped outside an old warehouse, and Thorvaldsen led them to the room he occupied on the upper floor. The lodging, at the top of a creaking staircase, was sparsely furnished and had an empty, desolate air.
     Thorvaldsen went to a cupboard and took out a bottle. He poured the contents into glasses for her father and himself. He stroked Grethe’s cheek briefly. ‘Not for the little one, I think,’ he said with a smile that showed his missing teeth.
     Grethe fell asleep, her head resting against her father’s chest.
     When she woke, she saw that they were leaving. Dr Nordahl was offering money to Thorvaldsen, who at first rejected and then accepted it, with a gratitude that seemed both effusive and angry.
     When the door shut behind them, releasing them into the chill night air, she felt relieved.
     Her father was silent during the walk back to their hotel.
     ‘Who was that man, Papa?’ she asked him eventually.
     ‘He is an explorer,’ her father said. ‘He went to Antarctica with Ulvisson. But now he drinks too much.’
     ‘Is he sick?’
     Her father swung her up onto his shoulders, as he had used to do when she was very small.
     ‘The ice got inside his soul,’ he said, ‘and he brought it home with him. It happens to some men.’
     Grethe was silent, pondering his words. It was truly a day of discoveries.

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