By Simon Ings
Grove Atlantic Ltd Copyright © 2011 Simon Ings
All rights reserved.
Friday, 25 May 1928: half past ten in the morning
Returning from its successful transit over the North Pole, at a point about seventy-five miles north of Spitsbergen, the airship Italia falls out of the sky. The gondola strikes the pack and cracks, scattering crew and equipment over the ice.
Incredibly, all but a couple of the spilled men climb to their feet, uninjured, and go running across the ice after their ship. It's hopeless: the envelope, trailing the remains of the gondola's roof, ropes, and canvas shreds and spars, begins to rise. A massive tear has opened in the airship's outer skin, exposing twisted fabric guts. Faces lean out of the hole. Half the crew were sleeping in the envelope, in a crude bunk space next to the keel. Now the storm is bearing them away.
Arduino's up there. The chief engineer. He knows he's finished: marooned aboard an ungovernable balloon, plaything of a polar gale. He hurls supplies through the ragged gap where the companionway should be. Cargo rains down on to the ice: fuel, food, gear, whatever he can lay his hands on. Spanners. Pemmican. Oatmeal biscuits. Tobacco. Voltol oil. Arduino devotes his last moments to the welfare of those left on the ice.
The bag is carried up into the fog and disappears.
On the ice, the leader of the expedition, General Umberto Nobile, lies prone, his legs and right arm broken, drifting in and out of consciousness. The motor chief has a broken leg and a mechanic is dying amid the wreckage of the rear motor gondola. Lothar Eling, the ship's Swedish meteorologist, lies bruised and winded under a wooden box he embraced a split second before the impact. Some minutes pass before he realizes what he has done. He lets out a shout.
The Italia's field radio is intact.
A day later, the radio is operating. The aerial's made of scraps of steel tubing, braced with scavenged lengths of control wire. There's even a flag of sorts fluttering at its tip: scraps of cloth that add up to a crude Italian Tricolore.
Biagi, the radio operator, is not happy. The Italia's support ship, the Città di Milano, lies at anchor in King's Bay and the ship's crew are making the most of its radio: a popular novelty. The first message Biagi picked up read ' infine il mio pollo caro ha fatto il suo uovo'. Some sailor's chick has laid her egg at last. The ship spends so much time transmitting sweet nothings to the girls back home, it's impossible to get a message through. More infuriating still, the ship keeps sending out these meaningless reassurances: 'Trust in us. Trust in us.' 'They keep telling us we're near fucking Spitsbergen.'
Eling grunts acknowledgement; he's not really listening. He writes in his notebook: an ugly thing, red leather. He is calculating how long their supplies will last.
Bags of coal.
Assuming three hundred grams of solid nourishment per man, their supplies will last less than a month. They may be able to supplement their diet. There are clear channels where they can fish. There's also the chance that the airship came down within a few miles, along with the rest of their gear. Depending on how far and how fast it came down, there may even be other survivors. Every hour or so someone stumbles across another find.
A seal pick.
A small plankton net.
A barrel of kerosene crystals.
A Newman and Guardia quarter-plate hand-held camera.
(Eling itemizes everything.)
Spratt's dog biscuits.
A box of Brock's flares.
Now and again, he turns back the pages of his notebook, to read what's written at its start:
To Uncle Lothar
Wishing you a Merry Christmas
Sometimes, when he thinks no one is looking, Eling traces the words with gloved fingers. He closes his eyes. He remembers.
* * *
Five months earlier: Christmas Eve, 1927
'Merry Christmas, Uncle Lothar!'
Professor Jakob Dunfjeld's fifteen-year-old daughter, Vibeke, hands Lothar Eling a brown-paper package. Eling tugs the string and slips off the paper. The girl has got him a hideous red leather something. He turns it over and over. It is a pouch, cleverly stitched. Waterproof. Inside the pouch is a notebook covered in the same leather.
'I'm sorry about the colour. It's all they had.'
'For your expedition.'
'Yes.' Eling tries to swallow. 'It is just what I need.'
The next day, Christmas Day, while the professor attacks his evermounting pile of correspondence, Eling accompanies Vibeke to the funicular that runs up the side of Mount Fløyen, biggest of the seven mountains ringing the city of Bergen on Norway's south-west coast. Together they explore the peak, the parapet, the cafe and the heavy telescopes, trained on the city below. Ten years have passed since the great fire and the city still carries the scars.
'You have a look,' says Vibeke, stepping away from the telescope. Eling puts his eye to the heavy barrel. It's trained on the harbour, seed of the disaster that has shaped his career. In July 1916 three men were stocktaking in a wharfside warehouse and one of their candles brushed against a bundle of tarred oakum, setting it alight. Neighbouring bundles caught light immediately. The men threw the bundles into the sea, where they floated, burning, and the wind drove sparks of flaming hemp back on to the jetty, setting it alight, and a gale sprang up, driving fragments of burning wood deep among the crowded alleys of the town.
The fire bankrupted the city and left Professor Jakob Dunfjeld in sole charge of its brand-new Meterological Institute. Lothar Eling is a Swede: a young physics graduate fresh from the meteorological laboratory in Trappes. He has spent the last couple of winters helping the professor turn his modest town house into the hub of an empire of the winds.
Together the professor and his protégé have clad the eaves of the attic with pine, and little by little the grandly named West Norway Weather Bureau's scent of ink and industry has come to replace the old, sour smell of damp and gull droppings. Two rows of desks face each other along the length of the attic. New dormer windows add light for a staff of twelve to work by, and additional edges and corners on which to crack their heads. The headroom is so meagre, some promising students have been turned down for being too tall. It is Dunfjeld's bitter joke that, having lifted meteorology out of the mire of folklore, he is having to staff his bureau with elves.
Meanwhile, in his few free moments, Eling entertains Vibeke, Jakob Dunfjeld's daughter. At fifteen, she is hardly a child. Still, Eling feels sorry for the girl. It's a lonely life she leads, with her mother dead and her father engaged so fiercely upon his work.
Christmases are especially hard. The professor has let slip, in unguarded moments, how much he dreads the Christmas season. Christmas reminds him of all the ways in which he must be both father and mother to his child. He fears — he knows — that the tree will never be colourful enough, the salted lamb ribs never browned to the right sweetness, the carols never hearty, the dances never boisterous enough. How can a family of two expect to form a ring around the tree? So Eling takes it upon himself to prance about the Dunfjeld household like a helpful but cheeky imp — the fjosnisse, or barn-elf, of the fairy tales — a bottomless source of sweets and riddles, practical jokes ...
Eling looks up from the telescope. 'Vibeke?'
The girl has wandered away.
Eling catches up with her a minute later, not far along the path, behind a rocky spur.
But Vibeke is as still as a statue, her attention riveted by something out of Jakob's line of sight.
'Shh!' She waves him to silence.
The spell is broken. Her impatient gesture has disturbed the bird she has found. It rises like an angel in the air, terrible and huge and beautiful: a white eagle, breasting the wind that comes off the sea, funnelling between the spurs of Mount Fløyen: an inverted cascade, solid and unseen. The eagle does not move a muscle but simply rises on that escalator of air, cruciform, magnificent: 'Oh, Lothar,' Vibeke gasps.
'Oh, Uncle Lothar —
Monday, 28 May 1928: eleven in the morning
Three days have passed since the crash of the Italia. The fog has lifted a little and with equipment scavenged from the crash site — a Britannia pattern sextant, Bessel's refraction tables, a chronometer, a mercury artificial horizon — the survivors have established their position.
Now, against the white, hummocked horizon, a dot has risen. A pencil fleck. A rock. The men gather outside Nobile's tent, staring south, trying to decide whether this apparition is a good thing or not. They've been up for hours, those who can still stand, unnerved by last night's tremors and explosions. (Their floe has begun to fracture.) Their mittens, those who have them, drip red on to the snow as they stand and stare. They've been using dye from shattered altitude bombs to paint the walls of their tent, to make it more visible from the air. They look like hunters, caught cutting up a kill.
Inside the tent, crouched near the opening, Eling examines one of their two surviving charts. The rock is Foyn. The island of Foyn. Ninety-four miles from King Charles Land. North of Hope. He says: 'We can walk off the ice.'
Bonfanti, one of the engineers, turns and hunkers down beside him.
'Assume eight miles a day,' Eling says. 'Nearer land the ice will be more smooth, so reckon on twelve miles.'
Bonfanti shakes his head. Quietly: 'The general will never agree to splitting the party.'
But Nobile is halfway to delirium with pain. Listening to Eling's plan, he is halfway persuaded. In the gloom of the tent, its blue-tinted walls made muddy by the dye they've slathered over it, he strokes his little terrier, Titina, behind her ears and asks Biagi's opinion.
The radio operator is crouched in his corner, disconsolate, nursing the unit's dying batteries. He's still to get a message through. It is clear enough by now that the support ship's captain, Romagna, would sooner let them all perish on the ice, and no one else has managed to pick up Biagi's transmissions. No one knows where they are. The airwaves are full of rescue plans and not one mission is heading in the right direction. The floe is carrying them towards the barren wilderness of Franz Josef Land ...
'Look,' says Eling, pressing his advantage, and Nobile, his eyes swimming with pain, leans up on an elbow to peer at Eling's calculations. Rates of progress. Currents. Forecasts. Supplies. Two pounds of butter. Three pounds of malted milk. Half a box of Liebig's meat extract. A lump of Provolone cheese ...
* * *
Wednesday, 14 September 1927: eight months before the Italia comes to grief on Arctic ice
Sprawled under the funnel, out of the wind, his ears ringing with the rattle of the engine (as the Svolvaer–Narvik ferry labours in vain to tear a passage through Arctic waters) Lothar Eling writes his last letter of the season to Vibeke Dunfjeld:
Nobile intends that his new ship (the Italia, naturally) should be able to anchor at the pole, allowing us to explore the surface. It is a risky business, as a sudden change in the force or direction of the wind could see us cast adrift on the ice while the Italia scurries for safety. For every man on the ice, supplies and equipment sufficient for several weeks' survival must be lowered — an arduous carry-on.
You ask whether Amundsen's absence this time around concerns me. My answer is, with all respect to the old man, no. The people I have spoken to did not see him so much as lift a sextant or take a bearing aboard last year's flight on the Norge: he left all that to Riiser-Larsen. General Nobile himself I set no great store by as an explorer, but he is a peculiar and contradictory figure and I cannot help liking him. He is the future — much as it hurts my national pride to admit it. He would design away all the hardship and heroism of our voyage if he could, and if this delivers a blow to my idea of myself as an outdoorsman, the sting is much salved by the thought that, alone of all the machines of the earth, only his extraordinary ship can possibly bring us home alive from such an overweening enterprise.
Eling is returning to Bergen now. Soon he'll be on the mainland, and aboard the evening train. He'll be chasing his own letter home. He pauses to study the rock needles as they emerge from the sea, sharp as the hatchings of a mapping pen: island peaks of Landegode and Moskenes. The Blue Mountains are the colour, this evening, of the vivid purple saxifrage that splashes the rocks beneath the vast, canted bulk of Stetind.
All summer long, eager, puppyish and hopelessly unfit, he has been spluttering through the Arctic waters in woollen swimwear, trying to position Professor Dunfjeld's heavy, hydrological apparatus in the complex, treacherous currents of Norway's Lofoten archipelago. Nose held shut with a wooden peg, arms wrapped around whatever weight comes to hand — a stone, a link of chain, a brick — he has been jumping feet-first through the banded cold into a world of corals, sponges and scuttling things.
In Norwegian waters the difference between water layers is so marked, as regards their temperature, salinity, and density, that it is a simple matter to determine their boundaries, as well as their respective movements.
Each evening, wrapped in blankets before the hearth, and plied with egg-nog by their host, the region's nessekøng, Eric Moyse, Eling has taken it in turns with the professor to write to Vibeke. She has visited these Arctic islands before, and misses them. This year, school studies have stranded her in Bergen. Thinking of her, looked after by a nurse she has long since outgrown, Eling has tried to amuse her.
Everything here boils down to fish except the fish which boil down to glue. Roast cod, poached cod, cod in batter, milk, beer, batter, breadcrumbs, salt cod, minced cod, cod pie, cod's head, morning, noon and night, oh for a loaded gun.
More successful are the caricatures: Professor Dunfjeld sunbathing naked on the deck of Eric Moyse's yacht, swaddled and made decent in the wrapper of his own prodigious beard. Their host Eric Moyse (over the caption 'His mind turneth more slowly and more coldly than the gyre') wresting coins with menaces from the fishermen who rent his rorbu cabins. Eling himself, tangled up in climbing gear, suspended by one foot like the Hanged Man in Vibeke's tarot deck.
Now Eling and the professor are returning to the mainland. The professor's in his cabin; Eling's stayed on deck, despite the cold. He smokes, sprawled under the ferry's funnel, hidden as far as possible from the wind. Vibrations from the engine room have put the muscles of his back into spasm, so when the engine's labour turns, with a change of gear, from a felt thing to a heard thing, his relief is immediate. It feels as though constricting chains have snapped from around his chest. His backbone, no longer a conducting rod for the engine's vibrations, ripples and flexes: free at last. He writes some more:
Are there bears at the pole? A wizard? A Christmas elf? They tell me that last year, the Norge dropped its little flags — Italian, Norwegian — in an unutterably dull place. A flat waste of jumbled ice. Seriously, the discovery that there is no lost continent at the North Pole is bad news for your father and me. If everything we thought might flow from such a land mass flows instead from a dynamic system, then our whole model of the weather in these latitudes must acquire a whole other level of complexity.
This is too disappointing. They are hiding something. I believe in a lost continent peopled by malign and frigid elves and so should you.
Lothar Eling stretches. His summer in the Lofotens with Professor Jakob Dunfjeld, studying winds and currents, has rooted him strongly in his body. As each day has passed, and his fitness has improved, he has felt ever more the explorer, the sailor, the mountain man. That the balance can never be struck in him, that intellect and exertion must collide and roil around each other constantly, suggests, at least in his own case, a psychical application for Professor Dunfjeld's work about the weather. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Dead Water by Simon Ings. Copyright © 2011 Simon Ings. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
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