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“Remarkable for its technical expertise . . . Impressive work from a virtuoso.”—Kirkus Reviews
On board the Caledonia Star, sailing through the Beagle Channel and past the city of Ushuaia on their way to Antarctica, Maud’s husband says, “Those lights will probably be the last we’ll see for a while.”
Mountains rise stark and desolate on both sides of the shore; already there does not look to be room for people. Above, the evening sky, a sleety gray, shifts to show a little patch of the lightest blue. Standing on deck next to her husband, Maud takes it for a good omenthe ship will not founder, they will not get seasick, they will survive the journey, their marriage more or less still intact.
Also, Maud spots her first whale, another omen; she spots two.
In the morning, early, the ship’s siren sounds, a fire drill. Maud and Peter quickly put on waterproof pants, boots, sweaters, parkas, hats, glovesin the event of an emergency, they have been told to wear their warmest clothes. They strap on the life jackets that are hanging from a hook on the back of their cabin door and follow their fellow passengers up the stairs. The first officer directs them to the ship’s saloon; they are at Station 2, he tells them. On deck, Maud can see the life boats being lowered smoothly and efficiently and not, Maud can’t help but think, how it must have been on board the Andrea Doriaa woman, who survived the ship’s collision, once told Maud, how undisciplined and negligent the Italian crew were. The first officer is Frenchthe captain and most of the other officers are Norwegianand he is darkly handsome. As he explains the drill, he looks steadily and impassively above the passengers’ heads as if, Maud thinks, the passengers are cattle; in vain, she tries to catch his eye. When one of the passengers tries to interrupt with a joke, the first officer rebukes him with a sharp shake of the head and continues speaking.
When the drill is over and still wearing his life jacket, Peter leaves the saloon, saying he is going up on deck to breathe some fresh air and Maud goes back down to the cabin.
Of the eighty-or-so passengers on board the Caledonia Star, the majority are couples, a few single women travel together; one woman is in a wheelchair. The average age, Maud guesses, is mid to late sixties and, like themPeter was a lawyer and Maud a speech therapist (she still works three days a week at a private school)most are retired professionals. And although Maud and Peter learned about the cruise from their college alumni magazine, none of the passengerssome of whom they assume must have attended the same collegelook familiar to them. “Maybe they all took correspondence courses,” Peter says. Since his retirement, Peter has been restless and morose. “No one,” he complains to Maud, “answers my phone calls.” The trip to Antarctica was Maud’s idea. When Maud steps out on deck to look for Peter, she does not right away see him. The ship rolls from side to sidethey have started to cross the Drake Passageand already they have lost sight of land. When Maud finally finds Peter, her relief is so intense she nearly shouts as she hurries over to him. Standing at the ship’s rail, looking down at the water, Peter does not appear to notice Maud. Finally, without moving his head, he says in a British-inflected, slightly nasal voice, “Did you know that the Drake Passage is a major component of the coupled ocean-atmosphere climate system and that it connects all the other major oceans and that it influences the water-mass characteristics of the deep water over a large portion of the world?”
“Of course, darling,” Maud answers in the same sort of voice and takes Peter’s arm. “Everyone knows that.”
Peter has an almost photographic memory and is, Maud likes to say, the smartest man she has ever met. Instead of being a lawyer, Peter claims that he would have preferred to have been a mathematician. He is an attractive man; tall and athletic-looking, although he walks with a slight limphe broke his leg as a child and the leg did not set properlywhich gives him a certain vulnerability and adds to his appeal (secretly, Maud accuses him of exaggerating the limp to elicit sympathy) and he still has a full head of hair, notwithstanding that it has turned gray, which he wears surprisingly long. Maud, too, is good looking; slim, tall and blonde (the blonde is no longer natural but such a constant Maud would be hard put to say what her natural color was) and her blue eyes, she claims, are still her best feature. Together, they make a handsome couple; they have been married for over forty years.
Maud knows Peter so well that she also knows that when he adopts this bantering tone with her he is either hiding something or he is feeling depressed. Or both. Instinctively, she tightens her grip on his arm.
“Let’s go in,” she says to him in her normal voice, “I’m cold.”
In their cabin, the books, the clock, the bottle of sleeping pills, everything that had been neatly stacked on the night stand is, on account of the ship’s motion, lying pell-mell on the floor.
Instead of a double bed, their cabin has two narrow bunks. The bunks are made up in an unusual way, a Norwegian way, Maud guessesthe sheet wrapped around the blanket as if it were a parcel and tucked in. In her bed, Maud feels as if she were lying inside a cocoon, also, she does not dislike sleeping alone for a change. As if Peter could read her mindhe has an uncanny ability to do this sometimeshe pats the side of his bunk and says, “Come here for a minute, Maud.” Maud hesitates, then decides not to answer. She does not feel like making lovetoo much trouble and often, recently, sex does not work out which makes her anxious and Peter anxious and angry both. Over their heads, on the wall, the public address speaker crackles and a voice says: “ Long before the poet, Samuel Coleridge, penned his Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the albatross was a creature of reverence and superstition. The sailors believed that when their captain died the captain’s soul took the form of an albatross. Of course I cannot speak for our excellent Captain Halvorsen but I, for one, would not mind being reincarnated as an albatross.” In the bed next to Maud, Peter snorts and says again, “Maudie, come over here.” Maud pretends not to hear him. “By the way, my name is Michael,” the voice continues, “and in case you have not yet met me I am your naturalist on board.” Peter says something that Maud does not quite catch although she can guess at the meaning. “ The albatross has the largest wingspanthe record, I believe is thirteen feet, three inches and the oldest known albatross is seventy years old . When he is ten, the albatross goes back to where he was born to mate” Maud tenses for a comment from Peter but this time he makes none. The public address speaker crackles with static, “...feeds at night ... eats luminous squid, fish and krill.” Maud looks over at Peter’s bunk and sees that Peter’s eyes are closed. Relieved, she reaches up to turn down the volume on the speaker as Michael says, “The albatross will fly for miles without moving its wing, or setting foot on land. Soaring and gliding over the water, the albatross’s zigzag flight is determined by the wind.”
The captain’s cocktail party is held in the saloonor, as Maud refers to it, Emergency Station 2. She is dressed in her best slacks and a red cashmere sweater and Peter wears his blue blazer and a tie. The saloon is packed tight with passengers who are all talking at once. Right away, Maud orders a vodka martini at the bar while Peter has a beer.
“Take it easy,” Peter says, handing her the martini.
The ship’s motion is more pronounced and Maud hangs on to the edge of the bar with one hand, she holds her martini glass in the other. Sometimes Maud drinks too much. She blames her age and the fact that she is thin and cannot hold her liquor the way she used to and not the actual amount she drinks. Standing in the center of the room, Captain Halvorsen is a tall man with thinning red hair, he smiles politely as he talks to the passengers. Maud guesses that he must dread this evening and the enforced sociability. Looking around the room, she does not see the darkly handsome first officer. A woman holding a golf clubat first, Maud thought she was holding a canewalks over to them and, standing next to Peter at the bar, orders a glass of white wine.
“If I am not mistaken, that’s a five iron you have in your hand,” Peter says to her in his nasal voice.
“Yes, it is,” the woman answers. She is dark and trim and does not smile.
“Do you always travel with a golf club?” Peter, when he wants, can be charming and he can act as if he is completely entranced by what the person he is speaking to is saying and, if that person happens to be a woman, Maud tends to resent it even though she knows that Peter’s attention may not be entirely genuine. Peter continues, “By the way, my name is Peter and this is my wife, Maud.”
“I’m Barbara,” the woman says. “And, yes, I always travel with my golf club.”
“As protection?” Maud manages to ask.
“No,” Barbara frowns. “My goal is to drive a golf ball in every country of the world.”
“And have you?” Peter asks. He does a little imitation golf swing, holding his bottle of beer in both hands. When, in the past, Maud has accused Peter of toying with people, Peter has accused Maud of misreading him.
“As a matter of fact, I have. Or nearly. Except for Antarctica, which of course is not a country but a continent, and a few African nations which are too dangerous. I began twenty years ago”
Why? Maud is tempted to ask.
“After my husband died,” Barbara says as if to answer Maud.
“Can you get me another martini?” Maud says to Peter.
That night, Maud cannot sleep. Every time she closes her eyes, she feels dizzy and nauseated and she has to open her eyes again, she tries sitting up in bed. To make matters worse, the Caledonia Star creaks and shudders as all night the ship pitches and lurches through a heavy sea. Once, after a particularly violent lurch, Maud calls out to Peter but either he is asleep and does not hear her or, perverse, he does not answer her. To herself, Maud vows that she will never have another drink.
In the morning, at seven according to the clock that is on the floorMaud has finally managed to sleep for a few hoursMaud and Peter are awoken by the now familiar voice on the public address speaker.
“Good morning, folks! It’s Michael! I hope you folks were not still sleeping! For those of you who are on the starboard side of the shipthat means the right side for the landlubbersif you look out your porthole real quick, you’ll see a couple of Minke whales.”
When Maud looks outside, the sea is calm and it is raining.
“Do you see them?” Peter asks from his bed.
“No,” Maud says. “I don’t see any Minke whales.”
“Michael is lying to us,” Peter says rolling over on to his other side. “Be a good girl,” he also says, “and give me a back rub. This mattress is for the birds.”
In the rubber zodiac, Maud starts to feel better. The cold air clears her head and she is looking forward to walking on land. Behind her, the Caledonia Star rests solidly at anchor as they make their way across to Livingston Island. The passengers in the boat are all wearing orange life jackets as well as identical red parkaswhen Maud enquired about the parkas, she was told that red was easy to see and made it easier for the crew to tell whether any passenger was left behind on shore . And had a passenger ever been left behind? Maud continued to ask. Yes, once. A woman had tried to hide. Hide? Why? Maud had asked again but she got no reply.
Holding her golf club between her legs, Barbara sits across from them in the zodiac. Instead of a cap she wears a visor that has Golfers make better Lovers printed on it. Michael, the naturalist, is young, blond and bearded and he drives the zodiac with smooth expertise. Once he lands the boat, he gives each passenger a hand, cautioning them: “Careful where you walk, the ground may be slippery. And, steer clear of those seals,” he also says, pointing. “Especially the big fur seal, he’s not friendly.”
Looking like giant rubber erasers, about a dozen seals are lying close together along the shore; their beige and gray hides are mottled and scarred, and except for one seal who raises his head to look at themthe fur seal no doubtas they walk past, none of the seals move. Maud gives them a wide berth and makes no eye contact; Peter, on the other hand, deliberately walks up closer to them and takes several photos of the seals.
A few yards inland, Maud sees Barbara lean over to tee-up a golf ball. She watches as Barbara takes up her stance in front of it then takes a few practice swings. Several of the other passengers are watching her as well. One man calls out, “Make it a hole-in-one, Barbara!”
The golf ball sails straight toward the brown cliffs that rise from the shore; a few people applaud. Barbara tees up and hits another golf ball, then another. Each time, the sound is a sharp crack, like ice breaking.
Michael is right, it is slippery, wet shale and bits of snow litter the ground; also there are hundredsno, perhaps, thousandsof penguins on Livingston Island. Maud has to watch where she steps. It would not do, she thinks, to break a leg in Antarctica or to crush a penguin. Like the seals, the penguins appear to be oblivious to people. They are small and everywhere underfoot and Maud feels as if she is walking among dwarves.
When Peter catches up to her, he says, “You think one of these penguins is going to try to brood on a golf ball.”
“Incubate, you mean,” Maud says. “You brood on a chick.”
“Whatever,” Peter answers, turning away from her. He does not like being corrected and although Maud should know better by now, old habits die hard.