They arrive on the snow during the last endless day of summer. Forty-eight hours of light and then, they gather outside to watch their first sunset of the South. The ice shelf they’re standing on is floating, slowly, towards the coast—will one day melt into the sea. There is nothing permanent about this never-ending white.
Róisín stamps her feet, watches the sky for the full twenty minutes of night, not that it ever gets dark. Dusk is the most she can hope for, this week at least; everything turning a golden red, the sun’s rays like torchlight through the curved walls of a child’s tent, the full moon opposite. It shines like a second sun but fainter, its reflected light a ghost of the star below the horizon.
During the day, some people run a marathon around the base—eight laps of the research station at minus ten degrees. Róisín joins them on their final lap. Her legs feel heavy; gulps of air chill her lungs. The winner is lying flat on the snow at the finish line. When he sees her looking he smiles up at her, says: You should try it.
Maybe next time, she says.
His name is François.
He holds his hand over his eyes, trying to shield the glare.
He looks so young.
* * * *
One hour, forty minutes of darkness, and someone is behind her. Five days she has been here, five days she has searched the sky alone. Róisín turns around.
What are you looking for?
François is here, wanting to see what she’s doing, to join in. She’s not sure how she feels about that; she did not come here to make friends. Róisín thinks about telling him so, asking him to leave, but for some reason she decides to let him stay. Beside her, François looks at the sky and exhales.
There’s a comet predicted, she says. It’s going to be very bright. But it’s too early. I mean, we’re too soon.
Because it’s not dark enough yet?
Yes. Well, that and other things.
It’s beautiful, isn’t it?
Above them, colours swirl like sea mist.
François stays where he is, doesn’t ask any more questions. He doesn’t take his eyes from the sky.
* * * *
Róisín finds she has walked into the kitchen. She says she wants to help—it doesn’t feel right with François in there on his own, cooking for sixteen, even though he’s the chef. She offers to slice onions and retrieve diced meat from the freezer, watches his hands as he works. The smell is of roasting tomatoes and rosemary.
This was one of my favourites, he says, when I was a child.
Abbey Road is playing on the tape deck.
Róisín thinks of soft-boiled eggs and soldiers. The sun is setting again.
* * * *
Three hours, twenty minutes of darkness. The night is increasing by twenty minutes each day. It is building up to 21 March, when things will be perfectly balanced and there will be twelve hours of light and twelve hours of dark.
Every day, Róisín marks the calendar with a cross. Turning over the page—a photo of lights, traffic, people, noise, the cityscape a world away. She checks the footnote. It is Cape Town, and underneath Cape Town a day, three weeks away, is circled in blue.
She stands outside and listens through the muffled layer of her hood to the absolute silence of snow and ice dust and rock. Sometimes François comes outside to stand with her, but she never asks what they will be cooking the next day for dinner.
* * * *
They hear on the radio that a group of sea lions have been spotted off the coast. The research team goes to investigate, Róisín and some of the others, taking cameras with long lenses, notebooks and food enough for two days. They’re not far from the coast but it still feels like a hike from the base; four hours’ walk in snow boots, pulling the sleigh, is not easy. There was training for this job, a series of tests you had to pass: physical, survival, psychological.
As they approach the coast they can see kelp gulls circling; something must have died. On arrival they see that something has. One of the sea lions has been killed in a fight, over territory or perhaps a female. They take photographs, look for any tags from other research teams, keep their distance. The red of its blood seems like the most vivid, most deeply coloured thing Róisín has seen for years.
There is a building by the coast, a square, basic sort of place, where they can sleep, or at least rest, before making the hike home tomorrow. Lying down, Róisín turns to face the wall and cannot see the concrete two inches from her eyes in the dark.
* * * *
She’s alone. She’s walking towards the dead sea lion even though she knows it’s wrong; they are not allowed to get too close, not allowed to touch or interfere, but she sees the blood and has no choice—how did this happen? she asks the sea lion corpse, how did this happen? She tries to pick him up, but his skin is like whale blubber and she is repulsed.
She wakes, sick and longing, and full of guilt.
When they get back to the base she sees François in the kitchen. He turns, sees her; there is a look of wonder in his eyes that she wishes she understood, that she wants to share.
* * * *
The door is only half closed and Róisín’s eyes only half shut when she hears a quiet tap tap at the window before sunrise. A rope has come loose from the sleigh they were using, snaking in the wind.
I heard it too, François whispers from the doorway, hardly making a sound. He is wearing thermal underwear and indoor boots, bobble hat and knitted gloves. She would have laughed, if her throat hadn’t been so dry.
He lies next to her on the bed and together they listen to the whip of the rope on glass, through snow. As the light dawns, she pulls off his hat.
* * * *
Sometimes, late at night, François writes to Severine, notepaper balanced on bent knees, head propped up on pillows. He describes the white, the snow, the sky so open he can see it curve around the Brunt ice shelf and meet the horizon in a swirl of frozen blue. He describes the Halley VI research station, each module standing self-sufficient on legs that keep it elevated above the floating ice, a strange caterpillar of research labs and sleeping quarters with a central red hub where they all meet to talk and wait for snowstorms to pass. As the days edge closer to winter the pages of his letter take on a chill. He asks her how she is, if the sun is warm in Bayeux.
He pulls the cover over his legs, rubs the scar on his thumb and looks down at red fading to silver; the two colours of this world.
I hope it’s peaceful there, Mama, he writes.
It is peaceful here, but I think a storm might be brewing.
* * * *
What am I supposed to see? he asks, taking the binoculars from his eyes.
Well, at this magnification, all you can make out is the comet’s nucleus, which is the bright bit at the front . . .
He puts the binoculars back to his eyes, thinks about telling her he is not so young as she imagines.
. . . and the tail, which is the stream of dust and ice that gets blown out behind as it accelerates towards the sun.
So, it’s ice?
Ice and rock and maybe some bits of molecules, you know, the interplanetary junk that gets picked up along the way.
It’s not junk, he says, it’s extraordinary.
You remind me of someone from a long time ago.
He turns to look at her; she hasn’t mentioned her past before, and he doesn’t know if he should ask her questions about it now.
I used to watch the comets when I was a child, he says, with my mother.
She was a scientist?
No, he laughs, no. She just loved them. Do you think it’s strange to love something you don’t understand?
Róisín shakes her head. Just human, she says.
Why is next Monday circled on the calendar?
The comet will be at its brightest.
Is that all?
He puts the binoculars down. His tone changes.
* * * *
François leaves his room and goes in search of something to dull his restlessness. They are playing cards in the central hub; he lingers by the door then retreats back the way he came. He doesn’t know why he’s behaving like this. He has been knocked off balance; and worse, he didn’t notice it happening.
When he looks back at his letter to Severine, the smudges of the words make it look as if he’s been crying on the page. It doesn’t matter. Of course it will not be sent, not any time soon—there is no airlifted postal service here. The next delivery is six months away. But even so, he describes the comet he has been watching, with Róisín, in the sky. I have seen its nucleus, he writes; I could make out its tail. It is a different colour to the stars, isn’t that miraculous? I feel so close to home today, and so far away.
* * * *
He folds his letter, written over weeks, and seals the envelope. Presses a first-class stamp to his tongue. The taste lingers long after the letter has been safely stowed at the bottom of his case. He heads outside; he needs to sleep under the stars tonight.
* * * *
Róisín opens the zip to François’s tent slowly, not wanting to wake him if he is asleep. She’s not sure what he’s doing out here, but she saw the red tent in the starlight and knew that she had to join him.
Are you sleeping? she whispers.
Yes, he replies.
That’s good, she smiles, though it’s so dark she knows he won’t be able to see that. I’ll just talk, and you can sleep, she says, and we’ll both feel better for it.
She talks about Liam, because she feels now that she has to speak about it, if she has any chance of letting it go.
And she suspects that François might have lost somebody too.
There is a gust of wind that makes the taut fabric of the tent resonate like a string; ripple with harmonics.
He closes his fingers around hers, but there is only a second of this closeness before she pulls away again.
I think I need to say goodbye, she says. I’m sorry.
He follows her outside as she leaves, but not back to the base—he has his own past to remember, or to forget. Instead he turns away and starts packing up the tent by the light of the morning stars, under the glow of the comet.
* * * *
The next night François dreams there is a strange woman sitting on his bed, with a voice he knows but has never heard before.
So you found me, then, he says. I knew you were coming.
It’s cold, she replies. You’re on the wrong continent.
Could you take it easy on me, please? he says. I know why you’re here.
He opens his eyes to an empty, watery room. He blinks; the water in his eyes clears for a second, and then returns.
He is surprised by the conviction of it – it is not logical, but undeniable nonetheless. He’s been waiting for news even though the news couldn’t reach him. He doesn’t know what else he can do so he drinks, and cries, and lets his heart break because he knows – somehow he knows – that tonight, a world away, his mother has died.
* * * *
Róisín hikes through the night, now and then stopping to take out her notebook from the side pocket of her jacket, mark with pencil where the comet is relative to the stars. She keeps walking until the base is no longer visible—she doesn’t want any signs of humanity on the horizon. There is only one person she wants to see tonight. The wind is starting to get strong, biting at her skin even through her layers of protection—it is incredible, the way wind can do that. Soon it will be too dangerous to continue; she can see the swirls of ice ahead, where the wind is so strong it can lift the top layer of the ground.
Róisín chooses her spot carefully: a cave of sorts, an overhang of rock and ice that will provide some shelter from the wind. She looks up at the comet—still visible, still daring her on—then looks more precisely through her binoculars and marks it again on her map before starting to unpack the shelter.
Her highest marks in the Antarctic Survey were in the survival test. She has seen worse than this.
* * * *
The shelter is red, bright red, the colour of something that can’t be missed, should anyone look for it. Inside, by the light of the torch, everything is rosy and golden; tent torchlight is beautiful. The storm is getting louder though. She steps outside and is almost knocked off her feet, but she struggles to stand upright, facing the wind, and watches the comet on this, its brightest night. No storm will stop her.
Some say that comets seed life on lifeless planets. She finds that hard to believe. The comet is ice, it is burning with wind; wild, inhospitable, stunning. It is not unlike where she is standing. This is, perhaps, the closest a human being can get to travelling on a comet as it approaches perihelion. Clinging on for life.
* * * *
The first time she wakes, she thinks something is trying to get inside; a big shape—a bear?—is pressing against her tent. It takes her a moment to realise it is the snow piling up outside, and that there are no bears here. Perhaps there is nothing here.
* * * *
The next time she is back on soft, dandelioned grass; she is wearing pyjamas and lying in the open air. Liam is beside her. No, this can’t be right. There is no grass on the comet. Wait.
She finds the torch, turns on the light. It helps. She wonders if the sun will rise soon. Perhaps François will come in the morning and unbury her from all this snow. Perhaps the snow itself will melt as they hurtle through space, towards the heat of the sun. Perhaps Liam will come home from wherever he wanted to go; he will have seen enough light, and she enough snow, and together they will lie on the farm grass and look up to the comets overhead and pretend like they don’t need to breathe; and in secret, they will breathe.
From THE COMET SEEKERS. Used with permission of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2016 by Helen Sedgwick.