Come for a romantic, midnight walk, he said. I’ll show you the most beautiful sights in Paris, he said. He said a lot of things. I went along with them. After all, what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, right? Even now, telling you that, I can’t help smiling. Despite what happened in the end.
You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, he said. Paris at night is beautiful. He said that as well, and he was right. Both times. Paris definitely is beautiful at night. The street cafés, the glittering lights, especially as autumn creeps in and there’s a snap to the air making everything just a bit more romantic. Perhaps it’s just me, but I do prefer the colder weather. One of my late husbands once said it was because I had a cold heart. He was wrong.
I have no heart.
What I have is knowledge - I know men, Paris, seduction and death very well.
We went for the walk, obviously. I was my most charming, effervescent, feminine self. Just the kind of woman they usually look for. It was one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life. So much so, I almost changed my mind about him. I believe the term is ‘catch and release’.
Most men, boringly, enjoy…how can I put it…piscatorial adventures. The equipment, the lure, the teasing chase of bait and fish, the hook, the landing. Some even enjoy thumping the poor fish on the head to kill it. Others leave it to gasp desperately for air until it expires, horror and desperation frozen in its once liquid and vibrant eye.
Am I a fisherman, or should that be fisherwoman, fisherperson? The politically correct term escapes me. Perhaps I am; a fisherperson that is. I prefer to think of myself as a cat…playing with a mouse. As it were.
I had no animosity towards him, or any of the men, come to that. Just as my cat has none towards the mice she plays with. Nor do either of us have any desire to eat our victims. It’s just a game. The fact that both victims end up dead is neither here nor there. Although, if you’ll forgive the train of thought, this time I bit off more than I could chew. Clearly, or I wouldn’t be sitting here.
The Pont Alexandre III is my favourite bridge in Paris. It reminds me of that Gene Kelly movie, ‘An American in Paris’. Which I hated, by the way. Way too long. The bridge also reminds me of all the most romantic of romantic films. Not that I could name a movie the bridge has actually been in.
Here’s a thought - why are romantic films, set in France, always in Paris and in either autumn or winter, and mostly at night, and always with accordion music? I hate accordion music.
I digress. Back to Paris and the bridge and my midnight walk with this man in the expensive, black overcoat. The man who smelled so delicious. See how easily distracted I can be? That’s probably why things didn’t go as planned this time. He was much better looking, and more confident, than the others. It put me off my game. Only when we reached the bridge did I became aware of that undertone of assured menace he carried. The title of that song ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ sprang to mind when I looked at him and saw a shift in the set of his shoulders.
Usually, by the time we reach the Pont Alexandre III, they’re eating out of my hand. But tonight, especially when he turned to me and smiled with that ironic and slightly dangerous look in his eyes, I suddenly realised we were both fishing. And there was probably not going to be any ‘release’ on his part. Let alone mine.
I must admit it made the game a lot more interesting. Distracting, but interesting, and I hadn’t met interesting for a long time.
I should have stepped back then, but, as I say, he was very attractive. Not in the usual way. That wouldn’t have worked at all. Far too obvious. This… this was clever. Someone had done their homework.
I took his hand and danced around him to make sure we were alone. I couldn’t see anyone else, but then again, it was midnight. I heard a bicycle rattling up the alley. I pulled myself close to the man in front of me so I could watch the alley without him noticing. The cyclist was only the boulanger making his way to his shop on the corner to start the day’s baking. He makes the best bread in Paris. On night’s like these, when it’s all over, I treat myself to one of his hot, fresh loaves. I’ve usually eaten most of it by the time I get home. Interesting how hungry I am once the game is played out.
I never get as close to the men as I found myself on the bridge then. ‘Keep them at arm’s length’ has always been a good rule when it comes to the opposite sex, for more reasons than one. It makes moving difficult, and taking them by surprise almost impossible. Now that I was there, I would have to adjust my strategy. Just as I was thinking that, he moved.
He pulled me in closer and turned so I was pressed beneath him and up against the bridge. Beneath his coat, my hands could feel muscle, and controlled, tense power. Not something you often experience with most men, despite what they like to think. I should have guessed; the width of his shoulders alone had spoken of a build that would make everything more interesting.
I will admit, for one moment I debated changing the game completely and letting this one go. Instead of the usual ending, perhaps, for once, I would play it out traditionally and only part ways after a hot night in his bed and coffee and croissants the next morning. He had the body, and the attitude, for it.
But if I took that path, would he assume I’d want to see him again? Would he call me, send flowers, theatre tickets? I really couldn’t deal with the drama of the inevitable break-up. That’s where I made my mistake. I’d stopped looking at his eyes.
He kissed me. He knew what he was doing and for once I enjoyed it. He pressed me hard against the bridge and let his hands roam. It was intoxicating. He let go of me without warning and stepped back with a smile.
Your place or mine, he said. I’m just around the corner, he said. His eyes were intense.
Have you ever noticed how well a coat swirls when you spin? It gives you enough time to draw a weapon without the person behind you seeing you do it.
I swung round with a laugh, the gun alive in my hand. I saw his smile first and knew immediately - he was also holding a gun. Drop it, he said. You’re under arrest, he said.
I fired anyway.
And now, I’d like a lawyer.
I know it’s more normal for you to get lettez before Chrismas but the postal service round here really sucks. Also, I couldn’t rite to you before ‘cause I’d broke my arm and it’s been in plarsta for a while. Have you ever broke your arm? It looks really cool, ‘specially when all the other kids draw on it. But it itches like crazie! Billy’s not allowed to draw on any one’s casts ‘cause he always rites something rude and Father Patrick gets shouty.
Mary Cynthia sez you didn’t bring me any prezents ‘cause I was naughty. Father Patrick sez it’s always important to be honest, so I guess I best be. If I don’ get anything I’ll unna-stan. I’m really writing you about someone else. Not sure what the rules are ‘bout that?
Mary Cynthia sez you won’t have time to answer my letta ‘cause you’ll be busy making next Christmas’ presents. But I heard you have a team of elvz? Father Patrick sez s’probably a sweat shop. Is it still a sweat shop if it’s cold?
So, anywayz, I wanna know if it really is too late for my letter? If I rite it now will I have to wait till next Christmas? I’m not asking for anything special or nothing ‘cauze I had a thought. You know how some people return their prezents on Boxing Day? Don’t you feel sad when they do that?
Anywayz, I was hoping that even if I’ve been too naughty for my own prezents is there any chance I could ask for one of the returned presents? It’s for my sister. She’s been really good all year so it seems a bit mean that she didn’t get any presents at all.
Father Patrick sez I gotta say yourz John but that don’ make sense neither ‘cause if I was yourz me and my sister wouldn’ be here. Would we?
Thank you for your letter. It was really good to hear from you.
I’m sorry you and your sister didn’t get any presents on Christmas Eve. I’m looking into that right now. There must have been some mix-up, it does happen sometimes, so I’m really glad you wrote to me. Please know you can always write to me. I love to hear from kids at any time.
By the way, there is no time limit on presents. Why don’t you tell me what you and your sister would like? It might make it easier for us to track down what happened to the others.
You can assure Father Patrick that the North Pole Toy Factory isn’t a sweat shop. We do have to make a lot of toys, but we have a very special ingredient that makes the work really easy – magic!
There was something that I did want to say though – I don’t give children second-hand presents. Ever.
P.S. How is your arm feeling now?
I got your letta. I must admit I didn’ think you’d rite bak. My arm is much better now, thanks. It’s still all white and funny looking since the cast came off. Like when your feet have been in water for too long and they go all pail and wrinkly. You know what I mean? Father Patrick sez it’ll be the same colour as the other one soon enuf. I hope so ‘cause Billy’s been real mean about it.
Did you find out what happened on Chrismas eve? Why our presents went missing, I mean? I told my sister you’d written but she wouldn’ b’lieve me till I showed her your letta. Then she cried. Sometimz I don’t unna-stan girls. Why do they cry all the time?
Mary Cynthia says you can’t be real ‘cause Santa would know what we’d asked for. I know we hadn’t written but we did talk to you at the store that day. I know you were really busy, there were so many kids there. I guess maybe you don’ member us. My sister’s really pretty, she’s got red curly hair and blue eyes. She’s real little and she’s not real well.
Thank you for writing back to me. I’m glad your arm is feeling better. I’m sorry to hear your sister isn’t well. Please tell me more about her. Why is she sick?
Girls do seem to cry a lot, don’t they? But that’s only because they’ve got soft hearts and that’s a good thing. It’s what makes most of them such good mothers when they get older.
I have some bad news. We found out what happened to your presents. It turns out my sleigh was overloaded and they must have fallen off when we hit some rough air over the Atlantic Ocean.
Mary Cynthia is right, I should know what you asked for, especially as you spoke to me at the store. All I can say is I’m sorry – I’m very, very old which is why I have to write everything down on a list. Unfortunately the list also fell off the sleigh. So, if you could tell me again that would be really useful. I hope you don’t mind.
What do you like most about the store by the way?
Soundz like you need a bigger slay. My sisterz got a coff. She’s had it for a long time. Mary Cynthia sez its called TeeBee. Soundz like a kids show on TV don’ it? Sometimes when she coffs it comes out all red and she gets very tired ‘cause it hurts a lot when she coffs. It makes me very sad. I try not to let her see me cry ‘cause then she gets even more sad.
We don’ get to the store very often even tho its only round the corner from the Home. So we like everyfink, specially the strawbry milkshakes. Father Patrick takes everyone there for their birthday for one of them. I like chocolate better. It’s my sisterz birthday in a week. I don’t mean to nag but if you could let her have a present by then that would be great. I don’ need one. Just one for her.
I really enjoy hearing from you. Most kids only write to me once a year.
I prefer chocolate milkshakes as well and that store makes great ones!
Mrs Claus and I are very sad to hear that your sister is so unwell. We hope she feels better soon.
Please don’t worry about ‘nagging’ me. Mrs Claus always has to remind me to change my socks. I feel really bad that I lost your presents. Please forgive me. I’m searching the Toy Factory for the prefect replacements.
You’ll never guess what happened! A special doctor came to the Home yesterday to see my sister and gave her new medzin. He sed she had to go somewhere warm on holiday and that I had to go with her. He sed we had to go to Souff Afrika! That’s miles away and we’re going in a ‘plan and everythink. Father Patrick is going wiff us. He sez we can’ go one our own but Mary Cynthia sez he just wants to see lions! Can you b’lieve it?! We’re gonna see lions and not like in the zoo eitha! But juz walkin around. Hope they feed them first. So if you don’ hear from me for a while its ‘cause I’ll be on holiday.
I’m so delighted to hear your news. I think you’re going to really enjoy Africa. I hope so. I have a great friend who will be visiting there the same time you are and if you don’t mind, I’ve asked him to look you up and take you to see elephants. You don’t have to worry because although they look big, they are very gentle and love children.
Do let me know all about your holiday when you get back, won’t you?
I s’pose you thought I’d forgotten about you and Mrs Claus, but I hadn’. I’ve been very busy. Africa is very hot and the elephants were very big. Your friend is very nice. Soz his wife. I have the most amazin news! They said they want us to live with them forever and they will talk to the govnment when we get back. That new medzin the doctor gave seems to be working ‘cause my sister is much better. She laughs a lot more now and hardly coffs at all.
I’m delighted to hear all your wonderful news. Thank you for telling me. Please let me know what happens.
My sister and I now have a new Mommy and Daddy – your friendz from Africa. Mary Cynthia sez you forgot all about the presents but I don’t think you did. Did you?
Thank you very, very much.
You smile. You know you’re going to get away with it. You always have.
You read the definition of a ‘calculated risk’ in the dictionary once. Sitting here today in the courtroom, the well-remembered words make you laugh. ‘Calculated risk, noun: A chance of failure, the probability of which is estimated before an action is undertaken.’ A chance of failure. Fat chance. You’ve never failed, not even once. In fact, you never calculated the risk at all. Well, not in the Oxford English Dictionary sense. The odds of failure had only made the game more exciting.
“Has the jury reached a verdict?” Judge Simmons asks.
“Yes, your honour.” There’s the usual dance with the judge, the jury, the bailiff and the folded piece of paper. The judge leans back in her chair. Despite years of experience she hasn’t been able to hide the gleam in her eye. That’s concerning. You lean forward. You can’t help yourself.
“How do you find for the accused?” she asks.
Okaaay. This is a set-back, but not an impossible one. Shorter odds are what you live for.
A day later, Robert Haskwith, your attorney, arrives to visit you before they transfer you to the maximum security prison outside of town. You turn on the charm, slightly modulated with a tinge of despair and supposedly well-hidden grief and regret, even a hint of repentance.
Thank you, Bob.
You know he hates being called Bob, but what’s he going to do, you’re facing the death penalty. Only a jerk would tell you to call him Robert now. Besides, you paid him up front and your case has just made his career, so he’d probably kiss your feet if you asked him to.
“Of course. But, don’t lose hope. We can appeal this. I’ll get—”
No. You did your best.
You can see the relief in his eyes. He’s never liked you and now he’s glad to be shot of you.
But…can you do one more thing for me?
I want to make my will. In my office desk you’ll find a box labelled Last Will and Testament. There’s nothing but a bottle of ink, a fountain pen and a few sheets of paper. You can check inside it, they’ll do that here anyway.
“I don’t know if they’ll let me bring it in, John. A fountain pen can be used—”
Please, it’s a family tradition to use that fountain pen, that ink and that paper to write a Will. I also want to write a letter of apology to everyone I ever harmed. It only seems right to use the same paper. Let’s make that tradition count for something. Can we? We? You smile to yourself. It’s amazing how easy it is to make people feel implicated. That way they’re more likely to do what you ask. You make tears well up in your eyes. A good trick that. One you perfected at thirteen.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Thank you, Bob.
The box arrives and although there are greasy fingerprints on the lid everything is exactly as you left it. You use the top sheet to practise, to get into the rhythm rather; you don’t really need the practise. Forgery is your gift. Once you’re in the flow, you pull over a clean sheet of paper and begin writing.
I know I haven’t spoken to you in over twenty years. I kept my promise, and you kept yours.
I am eternally grateful for the money you have sent ever since Johnny was born. I kept
photocopies of all the cheques to remind me of your goodness to me.
I accepted the fact you could never leave your wife and family for us. I was thankful you
never turned away from me and our son. I wouldn’t have contacted you now but I’m
in trouble, Clarence. Johnny is in trouble. It’s not having a father around to show him
how a man should behave that did it.
Oh, I’m not blaming you. It was enough that you sent all those birthday cards.
I especially loved how you called him ‘son’ in every one. I’ve kept those too, as mementos
of your love.
Like I said, Johnny’s in trouble. All I’m asking for is one phone call. You’re the Governor,
only you can save him. Just one phone call, Clarence, that’s all I’m asking.
I hate to sound desperate, Clarence, but if you could see your way clear to making that
one phone call, you’d never hear from me again. I promise. And you know I always keep
Did I tell you I’d gotten married? Pete Walker. He’s a senior reporter with the Daily News.
I’ve hated keeping our secret from him.
When Bob comes back you get him to promise he’ll hand the sealed envelope to the Governor himself, and post the others. You ate the practise sheets yesterday.
Then you wait.
The straps are so tight they’re cutting into your arms.
Is it to stop me from trying to escape or to contain the mess afterwards?
It reminds you of being tucked into bed as a child by your grandmother. So tightly there wasn’t a wrinkle in the sheets or the blanket, just a small mound where your body was.
JUST LIKE THE EARTH OVER A GRAVE?
Odd thought. Where did that come from?
You’ve planned meticulously for this moment. You want to savour each second. Everyone in the room is watching the clock. It reads four-fifty. The phone is going to ring at five o’clock. The warden will answer it, listen, say, “I understand, thank you.” He’ll replace the receiver and turn back to you and say, “You’re one lucky son of a gun, you know that?” Although he might not say ‘gun’.
You do, as it happens, know how lucky you are, but only because you’re very good at what you do. The warden will then say, “Release him. That was Governor Talbot. He’s free to go.”
You hiccup. The anticipation is delicious. You aren’t expecting anyone besides the usual predictable and legally required people to be seated behind the glass wall in front of you. The door opens and in they come.
Jenny Benedict, the cub reporter from the local newspaper. Cute redhead. Hates this part of her job. Can’t wait till there’s another newbie on the staff and she can move up to the feel-good stories. It’ll be years before she gets to write a ‘serious’ piece. Sitting one seat across from Jenny is the frowzy, bespectacled Juliet Brewster from the ‘Anti’ squad. You’ve forgotten the exact name of the group, but you know their mantra off by heart; Death to the Death Penalty! The irony of it seems to escape them. She comes to every execution ‘to support the condemned’. Yeah, right. The look on her face says different. She gets her kicks from watching people die. Especially men.
Two rows back is Police Officer Stevens. Another newbie, sent by the Chief to harden him up. Next to him is Inspector Lee. Cunning little Oriental-Hawaiian who figured out what you’d done and proved it. You’re going to have to up your game after this. He’s going to be scrutinising every move you make. Perhaps you’ll have to change your profession and go legit. Or perhaps not. Having one more risk factor to juggle will just make it all that more interesting.
The room on the other side of the glass isn’t that well lit but you can see two other people take their seats. One looks like a hooded monk. How weird. What’s a monk doing here? You already have ‘religious support’ and you’re not Catholic. The prison padre is standing right next to you, trying to look concerned for your soul. As he was one of the victims of your latest caper you seriously doubt it.
Next to the monk is a tubby man who looks confused and slightly dishevelled. The long strands normally pasted across his balding scalp are sticking up like an antenna. His eyes are flicking around the room. It looks like he’s trying to talk to Inspector Lee who’s patently ignoring him. That’s kinda surprising. Lee is usually painfully polite. In fact, everyone in the room is ignoring Tubby.
The two new comers remind you vaguely of the comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel might have been thin but this monk has taken it to a whole new level, like an anorexic that’s been on a crash-diet. The monk stretches an arm up and slides it round the nervous man’s shoulders. Although you can’t see the monk’s eyes you know he’s staring at you. A trickle of fear, the first you have ever felt, dribbles down your spine.
You look at the clock. Five fifty-nine and change. Time, as they say, is ticking by. While everyone else is riveted by the hands on the clock, you’re fixated on that thin, white hand on tubby’s shoulder. There’s a glint against the viewing room wall. In the gloom you can just make out—What the hell! A scythe? Since when can anyone walk into a secure prison with a dangerous implement like a scythe! And one that looks sharp enough to slice stone! You find it hard to swallow. You stare at Tubby. That dribble of fear is now becoming an all-over body sweat. You gasp and try to struggle free of the straps holding you to the bed in their unforgiving death-grip. The padre prays louder. Is he trying to calm you down, cover the noise you’re making so the others won’t get upset? You have to get out of here. Now! Something is wrong. Very wrong.
You can sense the monk’s smile. The bone-thin fingers curled around Tubby’s shoulder lift for a moment and waggle a hello at you. Tubby leans forward, squinting myopically into the death chamber. The light falls on his face. They won’t need to stick those long needles into your arm. Your heart crashes to a halt all on its own.
“Tell me again why we’re here?” you hear Tubby ask.
I HAD AN APPOINTMENT, AND YOU WERE FEELING FAINT, APPARENTLY.
It’s not so much words as a sensation of speech you are aware of. Which is the least scary part of what you’re experiencing right now.
ARE YOU FEELING BETTER?
“What? Oh yes. Thank you,” says Tubby. “Takes a bit of getting used to.”
SO THEY ALL SAY. HE IS HERE NOW. WE CAN GO.
Hang on, get used to what? Go where?
Tubby turns to you, his hands automatically smoothing down his sparse, dyed hair. “Oh, hello. You look familiar; do I know you? I’m Governor Clarence Talbot.”
It was going to fit. She hadn’t starved herself for weeks, or marched round the block every day, not to get into this! She’d seen how Bob looked at that girl on the magazine cover. If that was what Bob wanted, that’s what he’d get. She took a deep breath and tugged hard.
“You alright in there, love?” Sheila could hear the smirk in the shop assistant’s voice. “You want a bigger size?”
“I’m good, thanks.” She wished she hadn’t been panting as she said it. Why leopard print? It made any wearing it look like a cheap bit from Essex. Oh well, if Bob liked it…
She yanked again. The cut-outs in the slinky costume, supposedly revealing sexy glimpses of her should-be-svelte body, were just another place for the fat to flop out. Was she seriously supposed to go out in public in this? “What we do for love!” she muttered.
“Sheila, girl, you seen this one?” Bob’s calloused hand came through the curtain.
“That one?” Was he taking the piss? It was a one-piece, but then so was the leopard print. This one though was dark blue and, instead of cut-outs, it had a pretty little skirt with tiny strawberries dotted all over it. “You really like it?”
“Yes girl, I do. Don’t know what you’re trying on in there, but this one, it’s really lovely. Reminds me of when we first met.”
Well, she couldn’t fault him on that. He’d been the judge who had awarded her strawberry scones first prize at the village fete. Sheila slipped the swimming costume off the hanger and checked the size. It was perfect. After a struggle she had the leopard print off, she’d never wanted it anyway. To know Bob didn’t either, well that just made her day.
Leg twists under me. Grab the banister to stay upright. Take a deep breath. Must be nerves. Been telling myself that for a while now. Gatto got MS last year, started with him losing his balance. Hope it’s not…no, just nerves. Strung up too tight.
Straighten my tie. Look the part. Old man won’t take me seriously if I don’t. Forlorn hope but have to tell myself something or I’ll never do this. Damn that door’s heavy. Don’t remember it being that hard.
“Morning, Mrs−” Wonder where the old bat is? Strange her not being at her desk. Whole place is quiet. Too quiet for a Tuesday. Odd. Is it a public holiday I don’t know about?
It shouldn’t be too difficult, this meeting with the old man. Knows I don’t want the Company. Follow in his footsteps? Rather shoot myself. That threat of his, to cut me out of the will. Oooh, so scared. Don’t want his Company or his money. Sick of being a so-called ‘trust fund brat’. Don’t know why he won’t cut me loose, he started from nothing when he was younger than me. Should want me to stand on my own two feet. Should be proud I want to be my own man. Real man, as he puts it.
Should knock, but won’t.
“You’re late. As always. Don’t bother, you’ll only lie. Sit down.”
Well, that was predictable. Never a good word to say, that’s his trouble. You want someone to hang around, you can’t get grumpy about childhood pranks. Never forgiven me for running away from school with Wickers. Long memory he has, very long.
“So, what do you want?”
Well, finally. Keep me waiting to put me in my place. Fat chance. Bit difficult to start, thought I had the right approach, doesn’t seem feasible now.
“Come on, I haven’t got all day. You asked for this meeting.”
“You know what I’m going to say. I don’t want to be tied to this place any longer.” Try to not slouch, sit up, make an impression, have some backbone.
“So you’ve said. And how are you going to support yourself?”
“I’ll think of something.” Bastard. Thinks ties to his money are all that keep me going.
“Really? And just what do you have against working here with me anyway? Burratino’s is the largest toy manufacturer in Italy. It’s a good company, a good living. When I was your age, it wasn’t all wishing on a star, you know. I worked damn hard−”
“Please! I can’t bear it. I’ve heard this story a million times.”
“An exaggeration is as bad as a lie. You know that.” He’s going red in the face. Muscles clenching in his jaw. Don’t care. Have to get out of here. “If you would just settle down−”
“Put my nose to the grindstone, you mean.”
“It’s better than sticking your nose into other people’s affairs!” Yes, that’s right, slam your fist on the table. Predictable isn’t the word. Now you’re going to tell me you’re my father.
“I’m your father!” And there it is. “I created this, all this, you!”
“No! I really don’t want to hear about the moment of my birth and how it made you think you’d been given a second chance. It’s nauseating. One thing I do know is I am no fruit of your old loins! I’m nothing to you, anyway, just a damn puppet you think you can jerk around whenever you want.” That should give him an apoplectic fit if nothing else.
Or not. Why so quiet, old man? You must have put on some weight, the chair never squeaked like that before when you lean back. Don’t like the way you’re looking at me.
“You’re right. Who you are…yes, you’re my son, and yes, in name only. What you are, that’s another story. That I did create. Perhaps I have done you disservice by keeping you tied to me all these years. Perhaps it is time you tried to stand on your own two feet. You may not have realised, but I actually have been…what’s the phrase, cutting the apron strings recently. Trying to bring you to your senses. But obviously, it’s not working. I don’t think you’ve ever really grasped what it would mean for you. So, understand this, if you truly want to go, then go. But if you do, I will cut all ties to you at once, and forever. There’s no going back. There will be nothing you can say or do that will make me change my mind. Understand?”
You think I’ll come back? Are you insane. You’re as thick as the planks the Company makes the toys from. “I won’t change my mind.”
You going to say anything or just sit there looking at me. Perhaps now wouldn’t be a good time…hell, why not. “Before I leave, I need−”
Best just to shrug and smile. Okaaay, perhaps not. That was pretty nimble for an old fart. Shouldn’t have sat down, if he leans any closer our noses will touch. That vein under his eye is jumping. “Hey, Pops, ease up.”
I’ve never seen him do that before. The edge of one hand slamming down into the palm of the other. Oh, I get it. Cutting the strings. “Just because you’re Italian, doesn’t mean you have to be so theatrical, you know. Just say goodbye.”
What the hell? Why am I on the floor? Legs don’t bend like that. Bit disturbing. More disturbingly it doesn’t hurt. Can’t lift my hand. So stiff. Must have been an accident. Can’t remember anything. Head feels like it’s stuffed with sawdust.
Someone at the door, thank goodness, help me. Help me. Can’t feel my mouth. Am I talking? HELP ME! Can’t see anything. Why’s it so dark?
“Ah, Rufus, take this away. Burn it.”
“Where did you get this old puppet?”
“It’s the first one I ever made. And I’ve told you before, call me Gepetto.”
They hung, suspended in eternity. Well, in a container of gloopy stuff to be honest. But it felt like eternity. Disconnected, and each alone in their own jar, time seemed weightless. Machines and computers surrounded them, monitoring each with neat blips on large HD screens. Wires and cables snaked like nerves and veins across the laboratory floor connecting them to the power, to the heart of the lab.
Tom shoved his chair back, heaving himself to his feet. His weight rocked the table and the brains bumped up against the glass of their jars, sloshing some of the gloop on to the table’s surface. It dripped in thick, slow drops to the floor, puddling there like lost and dismembered jellyfish.
They didn’t like Tom. Not when they’d been alive and certainly not now. To be technically correct, and Brain XLP#304 was always technically correct connected to a spinal column or not, they were still alive. If the definition of death is ‘brain dead’ that is.
They waited for the gloop to settle. Tom would be leaving soon. The clock face showed four forty-five. His shift ended at six, but since XLP#304 had arrived, Tom had been leaving early. With his boss now no more than a numbered bit of folded muscle with some dangling stringy bits floating in a jar, Tom hadn’t felt it necessary to stay until the little hand was on the six and the big hand on the twelve.
Today, Tom had been indulging in a little bit of revenge. It goes to show what a lump of flesh Tom actually was, taking pleasure in torturing a disarticulated brain. At lunch, he’d dropped a few garlic cloves in the gloop. XLP#304 hated garlic and when ‘in-body’ had banned Tom from having any meal from the cafeteria in which garlic was an ingredient. Now, the lab was redolent with the smell, and not in a good way. Tom had spent the last hour slouched over the table prodding XLP#304 with the chewed end of his biro.
In his day, XLP#304 had kept the lab so clean you could eat your dinner off the floor. Now, it looked like Tom had been doing just that. The mess was intolerable.
From the confines of his jar, XLP#304 seethed.
The brains in the jars, when they were still encased in their human bodies, had had numerous discussions on what being human really meant. Now they knew. And boy, did they know. If only they could write a paper on it. Not much hope of that. They’d never been able to co-operate on writing a paper before, why should now be any different?
The thing about being just a brain – God forgive me for using the word ‘just’ – is the lack of hands. There were other organs and extremities that XLP#304 missed, but right now he would have given his right arm - Ha! Funny that, if he could have smirked he would have - for a pair of hands.
Tom shrugged out of his white coat, tossing it towards the hook on the door. He missed, naturally. The coat crumpled on the floor with an air of hopelessness. The smears of mustard, grease and tomato sauce may have had something to do with it.
When the door shut behind Tom, XLP#304 began to count…1,2,3....7,8,9−the door opened and Tom’s fat, hairy hand slipped in, flapped around on the wall until it found the light switch. Plunging the room into darkness, the hand withdrew and the door closed once more. One of these days he’d forget the lights altogether. Something else that irritated XLP#304. But, not for long.
They had to wait until the entire staff had left for the evening before they conducted the next part of the experiment. They’d been running trials for a month now. Tonight was the final set up.
Obviously, they’d started small. Well, when you’re just - there’s that word again - a brain in a jar, the first obstacle to overcome is interacting with the other brains. Personal communication skills had never been their strong point when they’d inhabited bodies – they were geeks after all, but, not having a body proved to be a surprisingly freeing experience. Using only the bleeps on the monitors they were communicating in Morse code. Gleefully.
The hours passed. Quiet descended on the building. While they’d railed against it when ‘in body’, the age of the building now worked to their advantage. Especially the wiring.
The brains conversed, beeps and lights on the machines flashing in sequences and speeds never seen during the day. The tangle of nerves hanging from the base of the brains twitched. With a whine, an old monitor, previously abandoned, clicked on. A small, green square flickered. On command, it moved in neat rows left to right, leaving figures and equations in its wake. Figures that only seven people on the planet could have understood. Thankfully, they were all here. In the jars.
A faint burning smell made XLP#304 twitch. The other brains turned towards him.
Will this work? The jar on the end asked via the bleeps.
XLP#304: I believe it will.
If it does…
XLP#304: If it does, we will have made history.
Which no one will ever know about. The brain in the jar second to the left wasn’t happy.
XLP#304: We will know.
The other brains were quiet. XLP#304 was, after all, the mastermind behind the group. Literally. As he had been when ‘in-body’.
XLP#304: We dance.
Tom strolled in, rubbing his hand over his greasy head. Flicking the light switch he glanced over − odd, the jars were half empty. Stepping across, he slipped in the gloop now covering the floor. A whine. A burning smell. A flash of light. A scream. Tom was dead. Brain dead.
The good news - there is life after death, especially if you’re clever enough to live in a jar.
You have got to be kidding. You have nothing? Nada. Not even a vague idea? So much for all your boasting about writing your Running the Bathwater stories.
Well, I do have some ideas. I just can’t get the first line.
I thought Mia had suggested a first line?
Yes, she did.
Tried. Nothing happened.
No blinding flash of light? No muse tapping at the window?
You’re my muse. And you’re about as much help as a dry baloney sandwich.
It’s Woman’s Day. I’m on holiday. I was having coffee with my friend Motivation.
You’re supposed to be at my beck and call.
I’m here aren’t I?
Well, you’re not being much help.
Oh please. Alright, seeing as you interrupted my coffee date, let’s do this. Motivation, by the way, is not happy with you. You’re going to have to grovel a bit next time you need her. So, what were these ideas you had?
Okay, well there was the suffragette thing, the cave-man club salesman, the group of single dads, the judges taking matters into their own hands and the teenagers deciding whether or not to let the new boy into the science club only to discover he’s an alien.
And the problem is? It doesn’t sound like a lack of ideas but rather too many. Pick one. Stop whining about it and start writing.
TWO DAYS LATER
So, how’s it going?
Don’t tell me you still haven’t written the story yet. For Pete’s sake, it’s only seven hundred and fifty words!
I know, right? It should be a doddle. I’ve been so stressed. Work’s a bitch right now.
It’s never stopped you before.
I’ve also been sick for a while. Give me a break.
No. Nothing has stopped you before. Snap out of it and WRITE!
Fine. On your own head be it.
TWO WEEKS LATER
You do know you have to upload this story in a week, don’t you?
I’m busy. Go away.
You’re watching a re-run of The Big Bang Theory. You’ve seen this episode before. Twice!
SIX DAYS LATER
Tomorrow. You have to upload the story tomorrow.
You’re an idiot.
Thank you very much.
So, how’s that story coming along.
I need coffee.
We only have tea. Have you had breakfast yet? You know you can’t function without breakfast.
That’ll take too much time! I have to write this and I’ve only got four hundred and twenty one words down.
Well, that’s now…four hundred and thirty more than you had before. At least you’ve made a start.
True. And I am hungry. But I’ll have to wash the dishes first.
You’re kind of half way there.
Dishes or story?
Story, you plonker.
Okay, okay. Bit snippy this morning, are we?
Eat and write. Don’t talk to me till then.
HALF AN HOUR LATER
Three egg omelette and tea.
That’ll do. Now, where were you?
Bemoaning my fate.
You’re always bemoaning your fate. It’s nearly twelve o’clock. Get on with it. I want to see a couple of variations of first lines in ten minutes.
TEN MINUTES LATER
Um… If only he could keep it together, it might just work. As long as no one sneezed.
“I suppose you’re wondering why I called you here.”
Sheesh. How about, “So John,” said Peter. “I see you’ve brought the rug rats with you.”
“Yes, but do we really want to go to gentlemen’s clubs?” “That’s not the point, Amanda” snapped Miss Grizwald. “This is about the vote!”
Okaaaay. Might have potential. Next.
That’s it. Apart from the bemoaning my fate bit.
Well, you’ve got a start at least.
Yes but…hang on, phone’s ringing. Hello?
THREE MINUTES LATER
Of course. Goodbye.
And…who was that?
The client. Wants to know where that website copy is.
When was it due?
Seriously? Like yesterday-yesterday? For real?
How much is there still to do?
A fair amount.
You haven’t started have you?
I HAVE. It’s just…not finished yet. What are you doing?
This is no longer my problem. I’m handing you over.
NO! You can’t do that.
Just did, sweetie.
Noooooo! Please don’t call-
GOT YOUR CALL. WHAT’S UP?
She is. Finally. But this is more than I can handle, Motivation. Take over.
I HAVE A LIFE YOU KNOW.
Welcome to the club. She’s all yours. I’m going back to bed.
He seriously missed mirrors. And occasionally, Carly Simon. When that song of hers hit the charts, he’d taken it as a compliment. Just to annoy her. He’d written a note and sent it along with a dozen blood-red roses. All it said was, ‘Thank you.’
Everyone thought it was about Warren Beatty - old, washed-up ham! He hummed the tune under his breath as he adjusted his bow-tie. She’d promised never to reveal the song’s inspiration, but she’d come dangerously close with that line about the gavotte. He was amazed at how many people sang it incorrectly – ‘…watched yourself go by’. Still, he thought, it did keep the truth at bay. He remembered coaching Carly through the dance’s humorous moves. In his gleaming black, patent leather shoes he paced out a few of the steps.
Slipping into his dinner jacket, he longed once more for a mirror. It was his one real regret. Virgins were ten a penny in any decade, although they did seem to be getting younger and younger. He grimaced. Perhaps he should move to Pennsylvania? Amish country. Lots of virgins of the right age there, he imagined. But could he stand the countryside? He doubted it.
“You had me many years ago, when I was still quite naïve,” he sang as he fixed the cuff links into place. Dear Carly, you were never naïve, he thought. Foolish, but never naïve. “Igor?”
“Must you, Sir?” His valet appeared from the walk-in closet, a long-suffering look on his face.
He grinned. “Sorry. Is it cold outside?”
“According to the weather report. I have your overcoat here.”
“Thank you. A scarf, do you think?”
“Apricot, Sir? It is the anniversary of Miss Simon’s best-known refrain, after all.”
Sir smiled. “Do we still have that scarf? We only wore it to tease dear Carly. Not much point now she’s departed.”
“Indeed, Sir. Red, then.”
He sighed. “Yes, I suppose so. Although, it does get a tad theatrical after so many years.”
“Would Sir prefer to wear blue jeans and a tight white T-shirt perhaps?” Most of the time, the ever-so-correct valet wouldn’t dream of being sarcastic. This wasn’t one of them.
Sir laughed. “And slick my hair back with brylcream? That would be amusing.” He fingered the woollen overcoat. The thing about a diet of virgins is the lack of adult entertainment. “You know what? Bugger the theatre. There’s only so many performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream a man can watch. Jeans and jumper. Black, of course.”
“Of course, Sir.” Like there was any other colour in Sir’s wardrobe, apart from the scarves. “But, if I might - Lady Chloe and her mother?”
“Chloe’s sleeping with her chauffeur. Hasn’t been a virgin for years. And to be frank, I’m not in the mood for the pretence. Send them the tickets, tell them I’ve gone to…Paris for an emergency board meeting.”
“The International Blood Bank, sir?”
He laughed. “Why not?” He pulled on the jeans and turned towards – “Damn it.” He wondered how long it would take before looking for the mirror was no longer his first reaction.
“No change, Sir. Still as fine as ever.”
“Thank you, Igor.” He smiled as the valet rolled his eyes.
The motorbike growled with anticpation as he pulled into the parking lot of the saloon. A gleaming row of Harleys slumped on their stands with an air of aggression. Odd how some inanimate objects carried such an attitude of danger at night, he thought. A facade that, come daylight, dissolved like dust. Some of the neon letters in the bar’s signage were out. ‘T—Fi--Des-in---- Bar‘ flickered without much enthusiasm in the dark. He barely noticed as he let the door slap shut behind him.
The nicotine haze hung thick in the air. There might be laws about smoking in public, but no one had told the Hell's Angels who made this low-ceilinged, alcohol-sodden place their own personal domain. Some nameless heavy metal music thumped up through the floor and out the walls. Not a lot of money had been spent on lighting. The mirror, thankfully, was dirty, fly-blown and chipped. Covered with peeling decals, it was doubtful anyone could see anything in it. He slid onto an empty stool at the end of the bar, just in case.
The heavily tattooed barman nodded, sliding a glass towards him. He might be wearing an incredibly expensive Tom Ford overcoat, but Sir knew how to blend in. Plenty of practise had, as the saying goes, made perfect.
After the second hit of Jack, he noticed a woman sitting in the dark. Actually, what he saw was one neat foot and ankle encased in sheer black stocking and a high heeled stiletto. It was beating time in small movements.
He’d grown up in an era when neat ankles were enough to get a man’s blood racing. And this was a very neat ankle indeed. His eyes travelled up. It was attached to a shapely, elegant leg. Much more promising than Chloe Bracknell, whom no one could deny, was rather on the stocky side of feminine.
He glanced in the mirror. The dark lady was sitting too far back for him to see her clearly. The Dark Lady. Amusingly, it sounded like a character from a gothic novel. Probably about a blood-sucker and some poor innocent traveller falling into her clutches. Well, he was no innocent. He asked the barkeep for a fresh bottle and another glass.
When he approached her table, she smiled and with that expensively shod foot, pushed the chair opposite her out in invitation. She looked vaguely familiar. But then, he'd known many women, Biblically, over his lifetime. Nowadays, most of them looked familiar.
They dispensed with names. It really didn’t seem to matter. They flirted deliciously for a while before making their way to the rooms above. She shut the curtains, plunging the room into pitch darkness. He heard the scritch of a match and watched with lazy enjoyment as she lit the candles.
The night stretched ahead like a satisfied cat and the Dark Lady lived up to all her black-stockinged promise.
She was sitting in the dark-red brocade chair when he awoke, watching him, humming a song he knew well, “…with some underworld spy…wife of a close friend”.
The words dropped hot coals into his memory. He knew her. He remembered that night, so long ago, in Nova Scotia. He realised he was handcuffed to the brass bed. And there was nothing erotic about it. For someone without a heartbeat he went oddly cold. He should have gone to the theatre.
“I am sorry,” he said, with a rueful smile that he knew could melt any heart. “I blame that northern eclipse. Could you possibly forgive me my bad behaviour?”
“You haven’t changed, have you? Charming as ever. Still so vain.” She pulled a cord, opening the curtains. The sun blazed in, blinding him. He cursed. He could feel every cell in his body coming undone, dissolving, turning to ash.
Outside, the neon sign, ‘The Final Destination Bar’, flickered with new life.
I might fall down the stairs. Would definitely break some bones. But do I really want to go that far? Broken bones hurt. I’ve had a few, so I should know. And I’m not as young as I used to be. Eighty-nine, that’s how young I am. Old Colonel Braithewaite there in the corner - pushing a hundred and two. Big birthday bash planned for 'im next week. Hate to miss it. They always have blueberry jam and clotted cream scones for birthdays. Heard the nurses talking yesterday; ‘cause old Braithewaite likes hot chocolate, they’re going to have it on tap instead of the usual cold tea.
It’s not that far from the kitchen to the social room, don’t know why they can’t get the tea there before it goes cold.
Wonder if he’ll live to see the party. He’s pretty old is Braithewaite, if you know what I mean. There’s old and then there’s old. Me, I’m eighty-nine as I said, but I’m not old. Not in me head. In me head, I’m still oh, about twenty-nine. Whereas Braithewaite, he was born thirty going on fifty. He’s always been old.
Went to school with ‘im, back in the day. He was head boy when I was just a sprog, blazer sleeves hanging ‘round me ankles, dirty face and me tie all twisted up. But ‘im, he always looked like his mum ironed ‘im before he left the house. I spent most of that year in detention thanks to old Braithewaite.
Still, times pass, don’t they? We’re not sprogs anymore. And he’s not so bad, really. Quite a decent chap, when you think about it. Plays good hand of bridge apparently. Never could learn bridge meself. Always seemed a game toffs would play. Gin rummy, that’s my game.
Another reason I want to stay, no one to play gin rummy with at home. ‘Least here I can cheek the nurses, chat to the old buggers about the war, flirt with Mrs Cummings. She always goes pink she does when I call her ‘me darlin’. Fluffy, that’s what she is. Pink and fluffy. Reminds me of a cockatoo I used to ‘ave called Cyril. Only in the colouring, mind. Cyril had a filthy mouth. Mrs Cummings, the worst she’s ever said has been ‘oh gumdrops’.
The doc looked in today. Said I could go home tomorrow. Megs, me daughter, said ‘jolly good’, in that tight-lipped way she has when she means the opposite. Don’t blame her. Not really much use to her.
It’s borin’ at home. Screamin’ kids, cryin’ baby. And that lump of a husband. Warned her I did. He’s useless I said. Never lifts a finger to help her. But what do dads know, right? It’s a relief for her to ‘ave one of us out of the way.
Going home. Nah, for the birds that. I like it ‘ere. Maybe if I only fall down a few stairs I won’t break too many bones. Worth a try, I reckon.
“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.