Sunday, 4 October 2009

Letters From Home - - Andrew Nicoll

It was snowing in one of the fifteen ways that Eskimos have a name for. Pirrelvag. "To snow in an extreme blizzard". Not that any Eskimo would ever have given a name to this snow. No Eskimo had seen this snow. The Eskimos were at the top of the world, with the polar bears. This snow was at the bottom, with the penguins and the scientists.

In the old days somebody would have given their station a name - something suitably heroic, possibly with a link to Scandinavian royalty, “King Haakon Base” or something like that. We called it Station 12. It was a hut in a valley with a lot of plastic insulation around it and two bunks inside. Sometimes the valley gave the place a bit of shelter from the winds that shrieked down off the glaciers. Sometimes every last, gasping, frozen breeze came funneling down between the mountains and clawed at the windows and ripped at the roof and whistled through every tiny space in the joints. This was one of those times.

It started right after the helicopter left. Fraser the pilot flew in with two weeks’ worth of supplies, had a cup of coffee with the guys, joked about how there was just another month to go and flew out again. Just another month. As soon as he took off, the first flakes started to fall, as if the beat of the helicopter rotors had stirred them up out of the rocks like fallen feathers. All snow smells different. This snow came on a wind that smelled as gray and dry as cement powder. They watched the helicopter until it got right down to the end of the valley and then they watched a little more, looking down to the place in the sky where it used to be and listening to the sound of the rotors thumping off the sides of the mountains until imagination ran out. Then they looked at the snow and smelled the dry, cement smell. Andresen said: “We’d better get inside.’’

By the time they hung up their anoraks the blizzard was clawing at the hut, trying to get inside too. The wind sucked at the double doors but it couldn’t open one without forcing the other one shut so it howled round the windows in disappointment and blotted out the sun with a screaming blanket of snowflakes out of spite. They unpacked the supplies. None of it was really essential. There was enough frozen stuff in the store shed to let them sit out a blizzard for a month and fuel for the generator was too heavy to bring by helicopter. All the basics came in on a cat-trailer once a year but this was the kind of thing that made a hut under a glacier tolerable; coffee, canned fruit, chocolate, soft toilet paper and cheese footballs. Williams had a weakness for cheese footballs.

They emptied the boxes and filled the cupboards. At the bottom of the last box there was an outsize envelope. It said: “Williams”. The envelope was stuffed full with smaller envelopes, so many that they poked out at the top in a jagged spray of multicolored stationery, some white, some blue, some manilla brown, one pink one that looked like a birthday card.

“Is it your birthday?’’ Andresen asked.

“Soon, yeah.’’

“Happy birthday. Looks like you got a card.’’

“Yeah. Probably.’’

“You going to open it?’’

“I’ll get round to it.’’

“Who’s it from?’’

“I don’t know.’’

“You must have some idea who sent it.’’

“I have a wide circle of correspondents.’’

“Yes, so I see.’’

“Nothing for you?”

“No, nothing for me,’’ said Andresen. “Again.’’ He made coffee, took out his pen and sat down with a long list of temperature observations.

For the rest of the day, every time he looked up from his desk, Andresen’s eye fell on the packet of letters. It gaped like a python choked to death on mail bag. It was bloated. It was so overstuffed that it was almost round. It lay on the kitchen counter and rocked from side to side with every blast of wind that shook the hut and, when it rocked, it made a crinkling, cardboard, drumming sound.

Those are the things that drive people crazy after a while. Like a dripping tap, like the way that the other man insists on unrolling the toilet roll from the side nearest the wall, when it should unroll from the side away from the wall, like the way his desk drawer squeaks, like the way a little puff of air farts out from the stuffing of his chair every time he shifts in it and the way it whistles back in with an asthmatic wheeze every time he shifts again. It can drive you nuts. About eight o’clock, when the needle on the anemometer whirled round and nudged a hundred and seventy, the package of letters rocked again. It made the crinkling, cardboard drumming sound again. Andresen got up from his seat and turned it round. That was all he did. When it used to lie on the counter facing east-west, he turned it so it faced north-south. That was all.

Williams said: “Don’t touch those!’’ and then, because he knew how unreasonable and shrill he sounded, he said: “Please’’ and “If you don’t mind.’’ Which only made it worse.

Andresen just looked at him. He could have said something childish like: “I won’t hurt your precious letters,’’ but he had been down south for a while and he knew that wouldn’t help. Andresen believed in the soft answer that turneth away wrath. So he said “Sorry” as if he meant it. “The wind was making them rock about. They were getting on my nerves. Sorry.’’

“I’ll put them away,’’ said Williams.

“You could read them first. Aren’t you going to read them?’’

“When I get round to it. My turn to make the coffee.’’

“Yes, ‘’ said Andresen. He put the lid on his pen and rubbed his eyes. “I’ve done enough for now, anyway.’’

And that was it. No row. There could easily have been a row, a stupid: “I know what you said but it’s what you meant by it,’’ kind of a row like married couples have but Andresen had stopped it. He closed up his desk for the day and went and sat down in his chair at the other end of the hut.

It’s important to have separate places for working and sitting. Otherwise, if you’re stuck inside for a long time, it feels like you are always working or always sitting round relaxing. You need to be able to pack up at the office for the day and go home. So Station 12 had office chairs and desks at one end of the hut and a couple of broken down easy chairs at the other end and a kind of a kitchen area in the middle with a table for eating at and the bunks off to one side. All the stations are like that. It’s important, for the same reasons that it’s important to put a little china castle in a goldfish bowl. It’s an enriched environment.

Andresen sat down. There was a pile of magazines on the coffee table, National Geographics, mostly . He more or less knew them by heart. Williams brought the coffee. He passed the hot mug with his fingers on the rim - never even bothered with the handle - and he’d forgotten the sugar. Williams didn’t take sugar so it never occurred to him that anybody else might - exactly the sort of thing which could have started another argument but Andresen was an easy-going sort and he didn’t make anything out of it. They sat at the table. Neither of them mentioned the letters although Wlliams had not put them away as he said he would. They were still sitting there on the kitchen counter in their brown envelope. Andresen did not look at them. He stared into his coffee cup. He flicked through a National Geographic.

“That’s turned into a helluva blizzard’’ Williams said.

Andresen looked at the window. “Yes, it’s pretty bad.’’

“Hope Fraser made it.’’

“He was miles away before it reached here.’’ Andresen looked at a mark on the floor beside the door. He stood up. “You know what would go well with this coffee? Cheese footballs. I fancy a cheese football.’’

He walked across to the kitchen and started opening cupboard doors. “Here they are.’’ He poured some into a bowl, rolled the top on the bag and put it away carefully and came back to his chair. He never so much as glanced at the bundle of letters. Williams was watching him. He looked wounded.

“Want some?’’ Andresen held out the bowl.

“No. I’m fine. Not just now, thanks.’’

Andresen picked up a handful and wolfed them.

Williams looked at him as if he’d been slapped.

“What?’’

“Nothing.’’

“You don’t mind, do you?’’

“Why should I mind? They’re not my cheese footballs.’’

“No. They are very good too. The real thing. Proper sort of fondant filling. You could serve these at an embassy cocktail party - before the Ferrero Rocher, naturally.’’

“It’s just.’’

“What?’’ Andresen crunched his way through another mouthful.

“Well, it’s just you’ve never eaten them before.’’

“No.’’

“I didn’t know you liked them, actually.’’

“You know what? Neither did I. But it turns out that I do so I will probably be eating a lot more of them.’’

“Tonight?’’ Williams’ voice went high and squeaky.

“Possibly tonight. Certainly tomorrow night and the night after that and the night after that.’’ Andresen dropped the empty bowl on the coffee table with a clatter. “Those were really very good. I must learn to spin them out. Not snaffle the whole lot in a single sitting.’’

They didn’t say anything else until it was time for bed. Bedtime is important too; just as important as having a place to sit and a place to work. Without a set time for going to bed,the men in those stations might sit up all night. Without a set time for getting up, they might lie in bed all day. When it’s dark the clock round or always light, when there’s nothing to see outside the window but a blizzard tearing at the glass and nothing to hear but the deep, muffled silence that comes after snow, these things are important.

That’s why Williams was so upset when Andresen started banging about in the kitchen at 3am. He had never perfected that sailors’ trick of letting the storm rock you to sleep, letting the wind be a lullaby and it seemed that he had only just managed to drop off when Andresen was up and about, opening cupboard doors. He sat up with an angry snort.

“Sorry,” Andresen said. “Did I wake you? Sorry.’’

“What’s wrong?’’

“Nothing. Nothing. Sorry. Just go back to sleep. Sorry.’’

In the morning there was an empty cheese football packet left carelessly lying on the counter alongside the bundle of letters. It yawned. It gaped. It turned like a weather cock in every tiny draft but the bundle of letters lay there solid and matronly with only the occasional, disapproving wobble when the strongest blasts shook the hut. It was the first thing Williams saw when he woke. When he swung his feet to the floor the second thing he saw was a plastic bowl upside down at the side of the bed. He picked it up and a few tiny, orange-yellow crumbs fell out on to the linoleum.

“Yours, I think.’’ He handed it to Andresen in the upper bunk.

“Yes. Sorry. I must have let the fall in the night.’’

“You finished the cheese footballs.’’ Williams gave the bag a flick with his finger, caught it in mid-spin and scrunched it angrily into the bin.

“Not all of them. Just that bag. There’s a whole box . Have some for breakfast if you like.’’ Andresen climbed out of his bunk and shambled off towards the shower. “They really are very good.’’

When he came back, drying his hair on a long, narrow towel, Williams was lifting the case of cheese footballs out of the cupboard.

Andresen said nothing.

Williams opened the flap of the box and shook it. “There are ten packets in a box,’’ he said. “Nine now. You’ve had one so that leaves four for you and five for me.’’

“Well I don’t think that’s very fair.’’

“It’s perfectly fair. It’s an exactly even split.’’

“And is that what we’re going to do with everything now, is it? Should we weigh out the coffee and the sugar? Should we write our initials on the toilet roll? Do we have to ration the soap?’’

“That’s not the same thing at all.’’

“No, because you don’t give a damn about soap, Williams. You only care about your bloody cheese footballs.’’

“We’re not going to run out of soap before the next helicopter gets in. There’s plenty of soap and plenty of coffee.’’

“And there’s plenty of cheese footballs too.’’

“Not at the rate you eat them. We’ll run out. If this blizzard keeps up there’s no saying how long it might be before the next chopper. We need to ration them. I’m not claiming them all for myself. This is a perfectly fair way.’’

“Why is it fair? I’ve never had any of them before. Weeks go by and you’re the only one who’s ever tasted a cheese football and now, all of a sudden, we have to share them out exactly evenly and ration the supply just in case the storm keeps up. Oh that’s very fair! So you ate the whole of the last box and now you’re going to be generous enough to split this box with me. I don’t think so. I’ll be eating cheese bloody footballs three times a day if I feel like it and there’s bugger all you can do about it.’’

“No!’’ Williams sounded more panicked than angry.

“No?”

“No. No, don’t. Please.’’

“What?”

“Please don’t eat the cheese footballs. I’m really asking nicely.’’

“What?”

“Please don’t.’’

Andresen said: “You’re off your head,’’ and got dressed.

They didn’t say another word to each other all day. The blizzard raged and shook the station, they took measurements, they made calculations, they checked in with base at the usual times for two minutes of forced banter on the radio while snowflakes screamed outside, they made a mess, they tidied up. From time to time during the day they went to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. They always made their own coffee. Neither of them ever offered to make a cup for the other guy. At lunchtime they took turns to make a sandwich and reheat some packet soup, stepping carefully past one another, careful not to touch, careful not to block the way to the sink, careful not to make eye contact. It went on like that until seven o’clock.

They were sitting around the little coffee table, at right angles so there was no chance of accidentally looking up and catching each others eye. Then Williams stood, went over to the kitchen area and he came back with his swollen bundle of mail. “I’m very sorry,’’ he said. “I was wrong. I totally over reacted about nothing.’’

“That’s all right. I shouldn’t have said you were off your head.’’

“I am.’’ Williams said. “A bit. I got upset about cheese footballs.’’

“You like cheese footballs.’’

“I do. I know. Sorry. I know it’s mental but I’ve kind of fixated on cheese footballs. I’ve thought about it since yesterday and I can’t make any sense of it. I worry that we’re going to run out of cheese footballs and,’’

“Aww don’t start this again. Look, have your cheese footballs. I won’t eat another cheese football as long as I live. I’d rather be dead. If I had to put one in my mouth, I’d throw up. I’d rather eat your socks.’’

“No, listen. I’ll buy them off you. You’re right. They are as much yours as mine. I will buy four bags of cheese footballs - your four bags of cheese footballs. They are yours and I want them so I will buy them. I’ll sell you a letter.’’

Andresen just looked at him.

“I mean it. I’ve got lots of letters, you’ve got none. You can have any letter you want. There’s all sorts in here. There’s something about peer review of a paper I put forward for publication, my sister’s usually pretty good about writing so there’s bound to be one in here from her and that might very well have some pictures in it - her and her college mates - always lots of good gossip. I’ve got a postal chess game going with a professor at Yale and his wife writes too - he doesn’t know that and I’m sure you’d find her letters very, very entertaining. You can take your pick. I’ll spread them out and you can choose.’’

“Don’t bother,’’ Andresen said.

“I mean it.’’

“Don’t bother.’’

“Honestly. I mean it.”

Andresen shot out a hand. It dived into the bag of mail like a seagull hitting the water and came out with an envelope. Quickly, he folded it to his chest and crushed it into his pocket.

“Come on,’’ said Williams,’’ what did you get?’’ He was happy. He wanted to share in the fun, like opening presents on Christmas morning.

“I have no idea.’’

“Look, then.’’

“I’ll look later.’’

“Look now. It’s not a secret.’’

“Actually, it is. It is a secret. This is my letter now, not yours. My mail is a private matter. I will read it when I feel like it and I do not intend to discuss it with you. Enjoy your cheese footballs.’’

Andresen left the coffee table and went to his bunk. Williams heard the envelope tearing. He turned round to look and looked away quickly again. He heard Andresen laughing.

In the morning Williams was up first. He made a great show of setting up his chess board and trying out some moves. It was an elaborate pantomime but it made his point – the letter from Yale had made it through. Whatever it was that Andresen had snatched, it wasn’t chess moves. He was making a statement. He was telling Andresen that the secret letter he had bought for cheese footballs was no secret at all. He would work it out. He would go through his letters and track down the missing one.

Andresen swung his legs to the floor. He stood by the bunk, reading something, shielding it from Williams with his back and he sniggered.

Just before lunch a bulb burst. The hut was not dark. There were plenty of other lamps still burning but there was a sudden dimness. The light grew less and they each, at opposite sides of the hut, realised at exactly the same moment how horrible it would be if the darkness of the blizzard overtook them. The double doors rattled again, as if the storm wanted to come in and make an inspection, size the place up for occupation.

“I’ll get that,’’ Williams said. He went into the cupboard and came back with a new bulb, stood on a stool and screwed it in place.

Andresen hunched by the window, looking at the storm. “It’s bound to blow out soon,’’ he said. But he didn’t believe it.

That night in bed, Williams lay with a bowl of cheese footballs. He ate each one individually, not wolfing them in handfuls like Andresen had done. He held each one on his tongue, letting the cheesiness of it flood his mouth, then flicked it to the side to crunch it between his teeth, slowly, slowly, waiting for it to give and crack and release its fondant filling. He ate them apologetically and in secret, careful not to let them crunch and rustle in the bowl, taking each one out carefully in tweezer fingers. He didn’t want a fuss. Williams knew he had got the best of the bargain. There was no point rubbing anybody’s nose in it. He took the last cheese football between his fingers, placed the bowl silently on the linoleum and pushed it out of sight under the bed. The crunch echoed through the bones of his head like gravel. In the upper bunk Andresen read his letter again. The bed springs shook with his suppressed laughter.

They began to keep secrets from one another. They became private. Williams ate his cheese footballs alone and in the dark, hiding them the way a junkie hides his stash, relishing them jealously. Andresen read his letter and laughed. He never spoke about it, never gave a hint about what was in it. When Williams asked, he refused angrily. “I don’t ask about your mail,’’ he said.

Williams hit back the only way he could, making grand announcements about the contents of his letters as he answered them each evening. “My paper on glaciation has been accepted for publication,’’ he said. Or: “The Professor’s wife has an absolutely filthy mind.’’ And: “My sister has been at a party and it seems to have got a bit out of hand.’’ In the middle of the week, he said: “That birthday card was from my aunt.’’

Andresen said: “Many happy returns,’’ turned his back, read the letter and giggled.

The storm did not blow out. It’s like that sometimes. Fraser the pilot did not come back with a new batch of supplies. Williams tried to make things last but, towards the end of the third week, he went to bed with his final half-bowl of cheese footballs. Lying there in the darkness, his mattress trembling in every blast of the storm, each mouthful became a metaphor for life. Every bite took him closer to the grave, every crunch carried away a year of his life. There was just one left. It rolled round the bowl, dodging his grip with a lonely, papery whisper. He caught it. He lifted it to his lips. He held it on his tongue. He did not chew. He did not crunch. He lay back on the pillow and blotted out the endless scream of the blizzard. He imagined himself in a distant opium den, drifting, dreaming, as the cheese football melted away, softened, dissolved, until it was gone, until there was nothing left of it but an imagined recollection. “That’s what will happen to me,’’ he thought. “One day I will simply dissolve away. There will be nothing left.’’ There was a salt taste in his mouth that might have been the last trace of a cheese football, or it might have been his own tears.

“All done?’’ said Andresen. His face loomed down from the top bunk. “All gone? None left?’’ He disappeared again and said: “But I’ve still got my letter,’’ and the bed shook with his laughing.

In every remembered childhood, there’s a moment when we wake and believe that it was all a dream. The vase did not shatter, the puppy did not die. That was how Williams woke. It was as sweet for him as for any child and the moment after was just as bitter. The storm still blew, the cheese footballs were all gone, there would be no helicopter and Andresen had the letter. He thought of calling some sort of a truce. After all, in an emergency it was always understood that they would pull together. If Andresen had been starving, he wouldn’t have stood by, hoarding all the cheese footballs. He could just make some light-hearted comment: “Okay, you win, what’s in the letter?’’ and they would laugh and talk about it.

No they wouldn’t. He knew that.

Andresen hung his legs over the side of the bunk, jumped to the floor and walked off to the shower. His shirt was hanging over the end of the bunk where he’d left it the night before, his trousers were on the chair. Williams got out of bed and rifled the pockets. Nothing. He pushed his hands under the pillow of Andresen’s bed. Not there either. It could be anywhere. It could be in his locker. It could be hidden among his socks. It could be with him now in the bathroom, tucked in the pocket of his dressing gown. It could be in the roof space, behind the tiles above the bunk. It could be anywhere.

They ate cornflakes with made-up condensed milk. Williams said: “So what did the letter say?’’ He tried to make it sound as casual as he could.

“What letter?’’

“The letter you took from me.’’

“I didn’t take your letter.’’

“You did. I saw you. I was there.’’

“I didn’t take it. You sold it to me. I bought it.’’

“Yes. Yes, I did.’’

They crunched through some more cornflakes. Williams was trying to do that trick they do on TV, where an interviewer says nothing for a few seconds, says nothing and just looks, hoping that his victim will be forced to fill the silence. Nothing happened.

“So what did the letter say?’’ He almost screamed it.

“You are very rude,’’ Andresen said.

“What did it say?’’

“I don’t ask you about your mail.’’

“For God’s sake!” Williams banged his bowl down on the table. “This is stupid. I’m not even going to argue about it. It’s my bloody letter what did it say?’’

Andresen got up and went to the sink.

“What did it say? What’s the big laugh? Always reading it and tittering, that’s you. Hee-hee-hee. Ha-ha-ha. Come on then, share the joke!’’

Andresen said: “I’m going out. I want to check the weather station and it will give you time to cool down.’’

Williams said: “Fine.’’

Andresen got dressed. It took quite a time. Layers are important. By the time he was done he was so thickly cocooned that he walked awkwardly, like a knight ready to be winched on to a charger. His legs were too thick to use and he waddled towards the door.

“Lock up after me,’’ he said. “And listen out for the postman.’’

Williams followed him out. As soon as the door opened there was a screaming blast of cold, like looking into an ice-furnace. They had to struggle, Andresen pushing from outside, Williams pulling from inside, before the door would close again. The wind dropped for a second and the door banged shut. Williams hooked the inner door to the outer door, just as it should be. It was perfectly safe. And Andresen was perfectly safe. He walked along a tethered rope, the hut at one end and the weather station at the other. It was hard going.

Weeks of blizzard had left snow in deep, carved heaps over the gravel and he couldn’t see a thing. It didn’t matter. He could walk safely along the rope, do his work and come back, like an astronaut in airless space or a diver down under tons of crushing, freezing water. He was safe. Andresen went and came back. He crawled over the pile of snow humped up in the mouth of the tunnel that sheltered the door and he found the door shut. It would not open. He banged on it. He kicked it. He tried to out-yell the blizzard. He crawled back out into the snow and stumbled round the hut, tripping on the safety ropes as he went, one hand always on the hut wall, until he saw the dim yellow of the window glowing in the storm. He banged on the window with the flat of his gloved hand. It made a faint thud against the triple glazing - no more of a sound than a moth beating against a light bulb - and the blizzard snatched even that away. But Williams heard. He looked up from where he was on the other side of the hut. They looked at each other through the window, Andresen outside in the blizzard, Williams inside with clothes scattered across the room, books torn open, cupboards empty . They looked at each other and Andresen knew he would die in the snow. He stood there for a while, his hand on the window making kitten-pawing movements at the glass, so faint he could barely notice them through his gloves. He stood there until Williams broke off from ransacking the hut to make a cup of coffee.

All the time that it took for the kettle to boil, Williams stood there at the window looking right at Andresen. He measured out the coffee. He poured the boiling water. He stirred in the milk and he went back to the search. When he looked at the window again, there was nobody there. Andresen went and lay down in the tunnel. He made himself comfortable on a pillow of snow and froze to death. In the morning, when the snow had stopped, Williams found him and dragged him inside. He used kettles of hot water to unbend his limbs and peel the frozen clothes off his body to search them.

That was how things were when Fraser the pilot arrived. Williams was sitting at his desk, getting on with his work with Andresen, half frozen, half scalded on the floor in a heap of wet clothes Fraser gave him a bag of cheese footballs and he ate them quietly in the helicopter all the way back to the base. There was no sign of the letter anywhere. When they got the place tidied up and the relief crew flew in, they found it in the sugar jar a day or so later.

It was a bank statement.





Photo Credit: D Sharon Pruitt

About the Author: Andrew Nicoll is a newspaper reporter living in Scotland. His award-winning debut novel 'The Good Mayor' has sold to 17 countries and was published by Bantam Dell in New York in August.