Soon they will have to send Tite and Lawrence back. There is no longer enough food for four of them. The men will protest, but it will be no secret that they will be crying behind their sun goggles, tears of relief freezing into grains of ice in the corners of their eyes. Watts catches himself. Their bodies are too desiccated for tears. There is no weeping in this place so stripped of human life. There is only cold. Cold like a presence they breathe and like a force to hold them down, hold them in place even as they inch over endless swales of white and gray, gray-white, blue-white. He wants to curse now, again, at this cruel palette. His lenses struggle to find nuance in this stark world, the camera eye narrowed to a pinprick and even that almost too much for his glass plates. There is only contrast here: white and black and darker black and brighter, impossibly brighter, white. Cruelty reigns here. Is it not cruel to be forced to crawl like creatures of some frozen anthill or voles beneath the crust of this giant’s pasture, eyes screwed tight against this sun? Is it not cruel to continue forward when they have lost most sense of their progress, when to spin like the compass’s foolish needle and face in any direction, any!—he nearly sits up at the thought—and to set off would make no difference? Except to Heywoud. Heywoud who lies in his bag across the tent, who barely speaks all day lest human interaction distract him from his goal. It is a violence that they are here at all. Four men, and four others waiting at Hut Camp and six more at the edge of a sea from which no ship will depart, no hailing voices ring, for two more months. All of them carried away from gas fires, hearths, fenders, beds by the desire of this man Heywoud to plant the flag in the center of this vast expanse of nothing.
Watts can feel the panic rising in him, his heart fluttering and a small guttural sound rustling in his throat. Anywhere else, he would shout and thrash. He would seize Heywoud by the collar and pin him until he gave a schoolyard’s surrender. He cannot do that now. Not yet. They would know him to be mad, then, another casualty of the white cold, and they would leave him behind to die.
He fumbles in his clothing for his notebook, slipped inside the linen pouch he keeps around his neck. He pulls out the graphite stick but drops it, then scrabbles at the edges of his bag, fingertips already beginning to harden from mere proximity to the ice beneath, and retrieves the stick. Heywoud has not stirred. Watts rolls onto his stomach, the sour tang of the seal pelt thick in his lungs, and riffles the grubby pages. At the beginning of the little book is the list he began to keep when they made landfall. Curiosities sighted: penguin, seal, albatross, a band of vivid turquoise water at the base of a coastal berg. He was all eyes then, eager for the Pole’s new vastness. With time he added to his list. Spit, piss, shit, cum, blood. Things that froze, one by one, elements of his body that this place had overpowered. It is as good a chronicle of their time here as any other. But this is no language for the Geographical Society. If they live, they will have to find other words with which to tell their tale.
Watts finds the first blank page. He does not know how long it has
been since he has written. Heywoud keeps the calendar for them now. For Watts, it has been one long day, time marked only by the brief graying of the sky. His mind is in a state of agitation that he knows cannot be calmed, only diverted. He writes to Viola. Once he begins, he cannot stop until the verbs go and he is left with the language of a list, naming her body as if to conjure it beneath him. Neck, breast, legs, cunt. He moves against the bag but knows he mustn’t come for it will mean peeling frozen wool from the only patch of skin that is still tender. He forces his mind to step back from her. Now she is across the room from him. Viola, brown eyes smiling and a laugh suppressed beneath the upper lip that pouts forever out. Her dark hair pinned up in the manner of an Ingres, her shoulder turned to him so that her jaw can cast a shadow, so that the hollow at the base of her neck can darken within her collarbone’s frame. In his mind he squeezes the shutter bulb. Viola, after the bath.
Watts looks over at Heywoud. How can he stand it? Has the man no passions? Before the Pole, on Alpine climbs and in the Dolomites, Heywoud would laugh and jolly him up a rock face. Heywoud would reach a gallant hand down to Viola who would take it without need. He stood on summits and breathed deep the beauty of the view. He clapped arms around them both, Watts and Viola, and they three were the luckiest alive to be together. In all these months that they have journeyed, weeks they camp together in the low canvas tent, Watts has never caught Heywoud so much as sighing. He moves forward each day more like machine than man. Watts rolls onto his back and stares up at a sprinkling of pinholes through which the light pierces like swordpoints. Perhaps Heywoud goes out into the sun and fucks the cold. That is his lover: Antarctica, Terra Australis. And the rest of them have become nothing more than pimps and panderers to the great man’s amorous folly.
Watts hears the clink of chain outside and then the dogs begin to snuffle and cry. Tite murmurs to the dogs and their whimpers become yelps. They think he has food for them, bits of potted seal and meat from the dogs’ own comrades, dried in the sun and preserved with fat, a canine pemmican. Such cannibalism no longer offends. These are the exigencies of the Pole, demanding, in so many ways beyond just this, that those who venture there consume their own kind in order to succeed.
“Down,” shouts Tite, and the dogs fall to silence, expectant and quivering, Watts knows, trusting and loyal. They don’t know that Tite has marked Lulu, the oldest bitch, as the next to be slaughtered. If Heywoud sends Tite and Lawrence back to Hut Camp, perhaps the old dog’s life will be spared. There is a future in which Tite lives out his days beside a hearth in Cornwall’s tropic zone, wrapped in shawls and jumpers against even that temperate clime, the old dog at his feet.
“Edward,” Watts says, for Heywoud has not moved at the sounds of the day’s beginning. “Edward.”
The man jolts upright, looking about him, quickly assessing. Still here, his gaze seems to say. Still not finished. Still in sunlight. Still cold and snow and ice. And still Watts. His eyes glance off Watts and he stares at nothing. His mouth opens and shuts as if practicing speech, or learning it. The men’s lips go numb in the night despite the fur they pull up to their chins. There is always, but especially upon first waking, a limit on what they are capable of saying.
Without addressing Watts, Heywoud pushes his bag down around his waist and dons his outer parka. Over his head he lowers the long strap connecting his fur mittens. A band linking the ends of the strap rests across his chest. To lose a mitten here would be to lose a hand, a limb entire. With more smacking of his lips, Heywoud strikes a match and lights the Primus stove. Nearly instantly the tent fills with briny, dark-gray smoke. It is seal oil they are burning, made from fat boiled down at Shore Camp and carried from each depot to the next. This can is one of the last four they possess. They will need at least two to reach the Pole.
Watts sits up in his bag and watches the little pot on the stove where Heywoud has dumped a tin of hoosh, a thin gruel of oats and pemmican, a breakfast fishy and foul. There can be no nourishment in it but to keep them from maddening dreams of gristle, toffee, bone. He craves such things his teeth could wrestle with. He wants to chew.
Tite’s ginger head pokes through the tent flap.
“Oi,” he says. “I was just having my morning constitutional.”
This is the way with Tite. Never afforded the leisure of a constitutional in his life as a farrier, up at dawn with the horses, he affects for Heywoud’s and Watts’ amusement the manners of the upper class.
“It’s a fine morning, gents,” he says.
But Watts can see the skin peeling off his pale cheeks above the copper beard. He has seen Tite limping and seen—once only and sufficient viewing, that—the right foot blistered and raw, the edge of black where the little toe is dying. There is a value to Tite’s jollity, but they must send him back. If they do not, he will be the cause of all their deaths. They are as tied to one another as the dogs in their traces or the mittens strung around their necks.
“Where is Lawrence?” Heywoud asks, his voice cracked and hoarse. “He’s coming.” Tite assumes a cheery smile.
Watts holds back the tent flap and winces at the shock of the sun. He makes a lattice with his fingers and peers through it, searching the white until he spots a dark figure approaching from the other tent. Heywoud still maintains the rank and discipline of his Navy life and keeps the men’s tent at some remove from the one he shares with Watts. Unlike Heywoud, Watts is no officer, but he thinks he may still be a gentleman.
They take their bowls outside the tent and sit, two and two, on the sledges with their gloved hands cupping tin. For a brief instant the tin is hot and the steam rises up to moisten cheeks and beards and eyes. Watts dips his face so close that ice forms on his beard. There was no gray in it when they sailed from Cardiff.
The hoosh is quickly gone and the animals quickly fed with chunks of meat Tite throws for each dog separately so that they will not maim each other in the eating. Watts returns to the tent and emerges with his camera. He unfolds the tripod and stands the camera on the ice. The other three men glance up and look away. They do not like the camera. Lawrence complains about the weight of its glass plates—as much as seven stone—and even Heywoud has begun to worry that the record of their journey will never be seen if they cannot survive the hauling of it. Watts does not let the men see that he too has begun to find the burden heavy. He masks his grimace of effort as he heaves a box of plates and positions the camera on the hardpack surface. The men need no excuse from him to toss the plates into the snow like so many shards of ice.
He covers the camera with its thick, black drape and ducks beneath the
cloth. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply in the darkness, a scent of wool so dry it smells like fire. The men’s voices come to him as if along a corridor. The camera is what keeps him here, away from fires and corridors. But for his skill with it, would he not be the one to go, back to Shore Camp and then a homebound berth at sea? Heywoud will never let him leave, will never send him back, never forego the photographic proof that Watts creates for him. Nor will Watts volunteer to leave. It is his job to take the photographs that document the expedition. He serves his friend, now here his Captain, by capturing images of stunning beauty to bring back to London. For this he braves the dreadful ice. The faintest cloud of heat fills the air before his face, though to call it heat would be to name their exertions no more than a stroll.
He forces himself to reach into the cold outside the drape for the box of glass plate negatives, then once again inside the soothing blackness of this fabric room he selects a pane of glass and inserts it in the negative-holder and slides the wooden apparatus into place within the camera’s box. They would mock him at the Slade for clinging to such cumbersome equipment in so inhospitable a place. But Watts began with a determination he has not yet shed: to document the southern lands as purely as he can. No film for him, but instead the immediacy of light etched in emulsion. When he shows his photographs in London—he impresses himself with this confidence in his own future—his viewers will see through the glass just as his camera has done. Viola will stand among the rest, staring in wonderment at his art, his vision, and she will look at him across the room. And there will be Antarctica, the thief of so much, yielding up in black and white some tithe of what it has stolen.
This photograph he frames for its documentary qualities. January
1910, Captain Heywoud and two of his men at breakfast, one hundred miles from the Pole. When the newspapers publish this one, they will place the word breakfast in quotation marks, reassuring wives and husbands at their morning meals that Antarctic exploration preserves all the rituals of English life, that even here in this extremity of land, Englishmen are civilized. In a photograph taken in September at Shore Camp, they had toasted blood pudding on long forks over a fire, Heywoud brandishing the package for the public: Harrods. Sent to Lyttelton in New Zealand with the returning depot ship, that glass plate has by now found its way into newsprint, the jovial scene so many months gone now gracing households across the Empire.
Watts squeezes the shutter bulb. The men’s movements are so small—spoon to mouth, spoon to bowl—that they will never blur the image. The masses of their bodies and the sledges, and the smaller masses of the now-dozing dogs scattered around the men in a beautiful asymmetry, will be reproduced in sharp focus. At least there is that here, with the camera’s eye closed so tight against the sun: the focus is pin-sharp. In London’s gray, the shutter’s little curtain moved with deliberation, as if it had all the time in the world. Here it draws forward and back with the alacrity of a train porter closing a carriage door. In the Antarctic summer, time is frozen. Nothing seems to move—not sun, not ice—though at Shore Camp they woke nightly to loud cracks and groans as the ice shuddered and swelled against the shifting of the sea.
“And now one more, boys,” Watts says. “Give us a smile. Last leg and all that.”
The last leg, they call it, as if there will be no return journey, no slog backwards against the slow unspooling of their southward path. They say this as a hope, to think only of the goal, the success, but it is at once an utterance of resignation.
Lawrence rises from the sledge and pulls Tite up beside him. The larger man sways a little as he stands and, throwing an arm around Lawrence’s shoulders, conceals his unsteadiness with a swagger. Heywoud looks up and rests his bowl in his lap. In the camera’s eye, Watts sees Heywoud’s posture straighten. The man’s expression is serious, almost stern. Unlike Lawrence and Tite, he cannot hold a smile long enough.
“Just a little longer,” Watts says, and gives a quick squeeze to the shutter bulb. “All right.”