“A cool-headed man of immense courage.” Yes, that’s what they’ll call him. Damn and blast their eyes.
I knew I’d made a mistake the minute I met him. This was supposed to be a team composed only of gentlemen. It was the one thing I insisted upon. Yes, yes, perhaps I should have listened to him but that’s not what a good leader does. He leads his men, he doesn't listen to them. And a good team – they follow, they don’t argue. They don’t give bloody opinions.
He was insubordinate from the first. The moment he discovered I had sent Cecil Meares to buy the horses he turned against me. They’re horses for God’s sake, how hard can it be?
His litany of complaints was endless; we didn’t have enough supplies, the horses of course, the motorised sleds, not using the dogs, not feeding the dogs better. I don’t care what Amundsen had decided to do. What does a damn Norwegian know about snow? From the moment he signed on, Oates wanted to train, to practise. Getting to the South Pole, it’s something only real gentlemen could achieve - and gentlemen don’t practise.
Why? You’re not serious?
Fine, if I have to explain I will. There’s something dirty about ‘practicing’. It smacks of, oh I don’t know, the theatre? Professionals? Americans? Need I say more? There’s no worse word than ‘professional’. It stinks of the shop. Of men who have to work for a living, not men of breeding, and as they say, breeding will always show. Gentlemen amateur adventurers, the most noble breed of men.
We were gentlemen. We would try and damn the consequences.
Every time he looked at me I could tell what he was thinking – that I was a fool and was going to get everyone killed. Well, then we die! At least we can say we tried, and we would die as gentlemen.
And it didn’t stop there. Oates railed against the fact that I refused to put the supplies where he wanted them. Thirty miles closer. What idiot can’t walk thirty miles? You’d think that someone who had served in the army would be used to walking. Yes, alright, he was a cavalry officer, so what? No! There was nothing wrong with my planning. I left written orders. The rest of the team should have met us yesterday. We wouldn’t be in this predicament if they'd obeyed me. No one has any record of my instructions? Utter rubbish.
Damn this cold, damn the snow, damn this eternal unrelenting white. We’ll have to stop for a moment, I’m afraid, the pain is rather severe. Just give me a moment. Just a moment, if you don’t mind.
He limped. Did you know that? It was embarrassing. It made the men feel uncomfortable. What? Yes, all of them. I should know, it made me squirm every time I saw him, the others must have felt the same. He was crawling by the end. The man had no dignity. An Englishman never crawls. Never.
No, I have no idea why he joined the expedition. He wasn’t a scientist, bought a ticket, like some tourist.
What? No, the expedition wasn’t, as you put it, a race to the Pole. We had important work to do on the ice. Yes, of course it delayed us, damn nearly lost half the crew one night when their tent blew away. They’d gone to collect eggs. Emperor penguin eggs. No, of course we weren’t going to eat them. They were for research purposes. Besides, they only brought three back. That wouldn’t have fed all of us. Poor show, I think, only bringing back three eggs after all that effort. And it gave Amundsen the break he needed.
What, speak up, this wind is loud, too loud, sir. Speak up. No. I’ve told you it wasn’t a race but damn it, we’re English. We couldn’t let some bloody Norwegians get to the Pole first. Bad show that was. Bad show.
Oates. I hate his very name. He made me cut up the horses. So much for being a cavalry officer. You’d think he would have been the first to have given them a decent burial when they died. What? Why did they die? Same reason we’re dying.
You won’t leave those bloody horses alone will you? They couldn’t cope with the cold. Very odd. Yes, he had told me that when they came on board. Said they weren’t right for the Antarctic. Said they would be more of a hindrance than anything else, that they would hold us back, that their feed would take up too much space in the ship.
We needed them. It makes sense we should have horses, we were English gentlemen, after all.
What? Yes, I bang on about gentlemen, so what? Are you implying that being a gentleman isn’t important? That it’s more important to me than the safety of my men? You sound like Shackleton, like Oates! What the bloody hell do you know about it? Nothing! Just like him! Telling me what to do all the time in front of the other men. Damn him, Damn you!
Offended you have I?
I’m sorry. Forgive me for shouting. Not very gentlemanly behaviour I’m afraid. Let’s not mention it again, shall we?
He insisted I butcher the dead horses, but I refused to kill the dogs. When they died, I demanded they be buried. I put it in my diary, I said something like, ‘Murdering animals who obviously have such intelligence and individuality, whom one regards as both friends and companions, is not something I can or will calmly contemplate.’ Something like that, anyway. Feeding their bodies to the other dogs would have an act of bloody barbarians and we are−
No, I promised not to mention it again, so I won’t. But let me just say this, I didn’t kill the horses either. Oates did. He was angry, always angry that there wasn’t enough food for the ponies. Well, so what? They were Siberian-bred, they were used to tough conditions. Besides, none of us had enough food. Damn dogs preyed on the poor beasts. The ice cracked under two of them. It cracks so easily here, for some reason. All of a sudden, they were floating away. They panicked and tried to swim back to us, but the orcas were right there. The sheer, primal fear in the ponies’ eyes. Haunts me. Oates got an axe, an ice-pick, I’m not sure. It was horrific – the screaming horses, the cracking ice, the desperate yelling of the men, the thud of the killer whales as they hit the horses, the thrashing in the water, the axe−
I don’t want to talk about it. I can still see the ice, red, so red. It bled for days.
When Oates stood up again, he turned to me, the axe dripping blood and gore gripped in his hand. The hatred in his eyes – I’ll never forget it. He tossed the axe towards me, turned and walked away. Every time he looked at me I could see, hear those screams. He never mentioned the horses again. He barely spoke to me.
Insubordinate. I told you that, didn’t I?
This cold. The pain is so great and yet I can’t seem to feel anything. I need to write these letters. I must tell the world what happened here or they’ll believe anything. Can’t have them blaming me, now can I? When they finally do find us, I want to make sure no one gets the wrong idea. If only I could move, I’d really like to read what the others - Wilson and Bowers - have written. One story, that’s what’s needed. I have a nagging feeling one of them has Oates’ diary. A little disturbing that. If he could be insubordinate to my face, and he was, why would he hold back in his diary?
Where’s Oates now? How should I know? Isn’t he here? I’m not laughing, it must be one of the others. They’re dead? I see. Well, if I can’t be first then at least I can be last. The last to die, like a captain going down with his ship, perfect ending really considering we’re all naval officers. Especially now that that damn cavalry officer has ‘stepped out’.
Damn you, I’ll laugh if I choose to. It was only a white lie. He should have known better than to believe me.
You’re right, he did know I was lying. The look on his face said it all. Everyone knew I was lying. You must understand, there wasn’t room in the tent. There were four of us and it’s only a three-person tent. Odd that you don’t seem to take up room. Why is that? Oh, never mind. I’m too tired.
I wonder if he’d have gone if I’d ordered him to?
No, damn and blast I didn’t order him, it was a joke, alright? A bloody joke. Are you calling me a liar?
Well, you’re right. I am lying. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately and you know who you can blame? Amundsen! The damn Norwegian, he started it all. I was supposed to get there first. The Pole was mine! Mine! And I would have if he had only told the truth. He told the whole world he was going to try for the North Pole. I have the telegram somewhere. You’ll find it when I’m gone I should think, but I can tell you what it says, it floats in front of me every day. You know how sometimes you see floaters in your eyes, black spots, that kind of thing? I see it like that, that telegram in front of me, I see it in dreams, every night. "Beg leave to inform. Fram heading south. Amundsen."
What a stupid name for a ship – Fram.
I knew straight away Amundsen was making for the Pole. We all did. I can’t remember who, and no one would own up when I demanded who had made the remark, but someone said, "We are up against a very big man."
A big man. Will England remember Amundsen? I doubt it. We English like the underdogs. In fact, thinking about it now, if I couldn’t be the first to the pole, this is the best thing I could have done. What do they call it, a pyrrhic victory? Winning at too great a cost? My prize? I will be remembered. Forever. Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition will never be forgotten.
It’s so cold. Doesn’t this despair ever end? I can’t tell if time is passing or not. Perhaps time is as frozen as we are here on this damn white wilderness of hell.
Amundsen. He cheated as far as I’m concerned.
Damn you, fine, I’ll tell you. He and his team were used to snow, cold temperatures, skis, dog sleds. They started sixty miles closer to the Pole than we did! Did you know he spent time with the Inuit? No? Well, I can tell you he would have sucked them dry of information about dogs, sleds and long-distance travel over the ice. He treated the damn dogs like kings. Fed them bloody seals, penguins, each other. They spent sixteen hours a day resting. Resting for God’s sake! He also had route markers and food depots painted black so they were easy to see in the snow. And he had more food depots than we did. Damn cheating. There’s no other word for it.
What do you mean they’ve never heard of me in Norway? I’m Scott! I led the expedition! Next you’ll be telling me they think Amundsen is the hero. He got there thirty-four days before us? Impossible. He can’t have. Only just beat us. And if it comes to that, how could you possibly know?
Bah! Sod you. You’re a liar, a liar, sir. Do you hear me? A liar!
Thought you’d left, you’ve been so quiet. Did I tell you about the motorised sleds? Good idea that, even if no one else agreed.
You sound just like them, like him. Who? Oates of course, damn your eyes. How was I to know they were too heavy for the ice? Yes, I was here before, with Shackleton, but I believed the ice would hold. No, I hadn’t tried the machines before we landed, there was no reason to. If they’d worked we would have been to the Pole and back in a matter of days and then we could have concentrated on the science we were supposed to be doing.
Those bloody scientists, they weren’t interested in reaching the Pole at all, let alone first. I’ll bet you Amundsen didn’t do any experiments. I know his kind.
Why do you keep harping on that? I know Amundsen used dogs. We’ve very different ideas of heroism, obviously. Of course I had a reason for not using the bloody dogs. Unaided effort by man and man alone, using nothing but his own strength and physical labour to conquer hardships, dangers and difficulties, that is what makes conquest…how did I put it in my diary, wait, let me think…oh yes, more nobly and splendidly won.
Shut up! You sound just like that bloody Oates. There is no contradiction. I brought motorised sleds, ponies, dogs, everything we needed to get to the Pole first. I know what I said before. I know what I said. Shut up. You want contradictions? I’ll give you contradictions. Oates blamed me for everything do with the ponies. But he left their snowshoes behind, did you know that? He wanted me to use them till they dropped so we could eat them! Bloody coward.
Yes, our end is desperate. Wait, I’ve just thought of something, I must get it down. The British public will lap it up. Heroism, especially when it fails, is something we hold dear. How does this sound?
“Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale …"
It was his eyes in the end. I couldn’t stand the look in them anymore. I told him I thought I could hear rescue coming - Ha! In a blizzard? - and would he mind checking. After a long silence, he sighed deeply and said, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He crawled to the entrance and looked back over his shoulder at me. ''If you do make it back, Scott, for God's sake, look after my girl.''
Girl? What girl? He’s never mentioned a female before. Wonder why he’s been so reticent about her? Still, good line that. Needs some tweaking though - For God’s sake, look after our people. I think I might just use it.
It’s hardly plagiarism dear boy, Oates is dead, who’s going to know?
It’s only a little white lie.
WRITER'S WRITE have issued a challenge: 12 Short Stories in 12 Months. Each story must conform to the prompt, word count and deadline given. It began in February 2017. I've accepted the challenge. Originally, once my story had been on the challenge's Facebook page for a day or so, I'd post them here. No though I am putting them into an anthology which I hope to self-publish early in 2019.