Anatomy of a Whale – Gini Mathis-Pearson
Survival – Rebecca Priestley
McMurdo – Toni Wi
Management – David McGurk
Bedtime – Kerry Kidd
Wrack and Wail – Maz Rogers
Kissing Billy Walker – Rosalie Kempthorne
Big Gym – McMurdo Station, Antarctica – Justin Hermann
Snow – Annette Edwards-Hill
Interview: Bill Manhire
Interview: Claire Beynon, Artist
Poetry: Bernadette Hall
Prose: Laurence Fearnley
Interview: Alison Glenny, Poet
Interview: Philippa Werry, Writer
Interview: Rebecca Priestley, Science Writer
Book: Nod Ghosh – The Crazed Wind
Book: Iona Winter – then the wind came
All that is left
Antarctica starts and ends in a warehouse in Christchurch. It starts with long rows and tall shelves filled with gear. It starts with seven pairs of gloves and two pairs of thick woollen socks and two pairs of clumpy boots and numerous layers of clothes and instructions as to what order to put them on.
Antarctica continues with a brown paper lunch bag, handed to you by a uniformed American at the foot of the steps onto the plane.
Antarctica ends at the same warehouse as each item of clothing is handed back over the counter and ticked off on a long list. Even the headband which you have forgotten to take off is requested back.
You are allowed to keep the socks.
The horizon goes on and on and on, and the light goes on and on and so does the white of the ice. Ten o’clock, eleven o’clock, midnight and it’s still light and bright.
The corridors are lined with windows, in-between the scientific posters and the fire hoses, and there is the outside world. Nothing between you and it but a pane of glass and the rules.
One a.m. Should be in bed. Out on the ice, the seals sprawl and someone is coming back from a late-night, early-morning walk and the sails of the kite surfers are surprising squares of colour against the sky.
You will never forget your first sight of Antarctica they tell you, but this is what you remember: the empty quiet corridor, the people breathing quietly behind shuttered windows in the dorm rooms, the glass, the ice, the inside and the outside, the seals and the billowing squares of colour.
Anatomy of a Whale
They bow to each other, twist their necks together intimately, place rocks in a perfect circle. This is love.
A chick hatches.
A mother leaves a nest to plunge icy depths for fish.
Water rushes over slick feathers. Hundreds of fellow fishers follow. They swim quickly. Through the sheets of fragmented ice a blast of water breaks the surface. A glimpse of black and white. The wrong black and white. A pale oval flashes. A black fin cuts through the water like a knife. Then another. And another. A team.
The dark presses closer, hissing.
Hundreds fling themselves onto the ice, one after the other. Hearts pound. The anticipation of death clasping tighter around their bellies. Already they feel the jaws of orcas clamping down. Already they see the bones of their chicks intermingled with a broken ring of stones. Starved.
The land is far away.
A mother is too slow.
She runs back and forth on a sheet of melting ice, desperate. Vast bodies surge from the water, slam down, circle, surge again. The shard is smashed by a flipper. Comrades squawk in fear, helpless, but nothing can be done.
A mother plummets into water towards death. She jets herself forward, leaving a fizzing trail like a shooting star. Orcas buoy themselves heavenwards. Searching. A mother makes a leap for freedom. Black eyes swivel rapidly, tracking cracks that lead to the coast.
They did not even notice the adélies.
They hunt only for open water and fish.
The helicopter drops down into the Pearse Valley, an alpine basin encircled by mountains and glaciers. Cliff and I jump out, unload daypacks and a survival bag from the storage units above the skids, crouch low, and run to a spot well clear of the rotor wash. All around us are the dark brown slopes typical of the Antarctic Dry Valleys, but beside us – 100 metres away – is a 30-metre-high glacial cliff, an exposed edge of the massive glacier flowing down the Taylor Valley and towards the coast. Down the slope from our landing spot a frozen circle of ice – Lake Joyce – extends from the bottom edge of the cliff.
The chopper leaves to refuel at nearby Marble Point. After the ticka-ticka fades we’re alone in the Antarctic silence. As we start walking, the only sounds are the crunch of our boots on the rocky ground and the huff of our breaths.
As we get close to the glacier Cliff scrambles away over fallen ice boulders. He’s in shadow, the sun behind the ice cliff. It’s 10°C colder than it is here in the sun. He’s bends down, searching. He stands again, then climbs over more ice, deeper into the shadows. He bends again, and lets out a whoop. He returns toward me. When he gets closer I can see he has a giant grin on his face and a briefcase-sized lump of ice under one arm.
“For with the whisky,” he says.
You want to know about Antarctica.
How can I tell you about space? About standing at a crossroads on a literal ice shelf, and looking down a long, straight road, disappearing into the horizon. How far does it go? And where does it end?
What would you think of the caravan in the distance, coming back from the great traverse to the South Pole. The actual South Pole. Is it a real place, or a state of mind? The South Pole, or Antarctica.
Do you want to know about the seals? The penguins? Or the skua. No one ever wants to know about the skua. Or the seal skins, the mummified seals. You don’t expect it to be so dry, but your skin cracks, your cuticles peel away, start to bleed.
You itch, all the time. Everywhere.
Do you want to know about woollen underwear? How things start to smell a bit like wee after a while. How you’re never really warm. How it would be so nice, just once, to be warm.
Or do you want to know about life on Base? The Americans. Those damn Americans.
He’ll smile at you, flirt a little. Ask after home in that accent of his. And then you are touching his beard. And then you are laughing, outside in the ear-splitting cold.
Nights aren’t night in Antarctica. Or don’t you want to know?
Hey, I need you to attend a meeting about the balloon. Meeting’s next Wednesday, which should give you enough time to get your bloodwork done and sort out the chest x-ray and the dentist. Oh, and there’s that other thing too, remember, the workshop about those huge food cubes? That’s Tuesday.
So, essentially, we’ve had an unexpected software change – we’ll be shooting in HD for the trip. And the Canadian dudes – you’ve met them? – great, so, they’ve got a grasp on the hardware, but they’ll be using it with RDAT and there’s this snag, apparently, where there’s an extra turbine thing – look, I don’t really know the jargon – but it’s to stop the lens on the balloon fogging. You’ll need to get brainstorming and figure out how the RDAT and the turbine can communicate without spazzing out the HD. Honestly, I’m mostly in the dark here, because they said some techy stuff and I got sort of mixed up. That dude, Geoff, he’s a lovely guy – very smart – but he keeps leaving piles of containers everywhere. He’s a real slob.
Oh, and Louis was also wondering what pills you normally take since I said you rarely get sick. I said don’t worry – it’ll be calm down there in February. Probably not even any ice sheets at our stations. Could be any patch of ocean. But he reckons he gets real sick and kind of insisted. Wednesday, okay? Cheers.
Blitzed by blizzards, showered by snow, washed white by the wind. Struggling up to the Waikato Club ski hut. The highest on Ruapehu. My legs ache, and I lean on my ski poles for support.
“I wanna lie down.” He is six, small though, legs of a three year old. “Mum I wanna sleep.”
The slope rises up steeply like a cliff. Even to me, it looks difficult to climb. We can hardly see. Blizzard blindness.
“Not long now. Round the corner, then we’ll see the little light.”
I am lying. I have never been this way before.
He crumples. A tearstained red blob of skisuit flattened on the snow. He is so light he doesn’t break the crust, lies on top of the snow. A winter leaf.
“I can’t carry you. It’s too steep.”
He doesn’t move. I try some reassuring lines. Exhaustion has frozen him solid. Leaves that fall in winter grow stiff, once they are on the ground.
Maternal love in a blizzard grows fiery. I burn him with my words.
“If you stay here you’ll die. You know I always tell you the truth. It’s too dangerous to lie down outside.”
His face wobbles, tearfully. Eyes blank. He doesn’t move.
“Like Scott of the Antarctic,” I add. “You remember what happened to him.”
A flash of remembered bedtime.
He looks at me. I nod. I mean it. Stay awake.
He jerks upright, and staggers on.
Wrack and Wail
The microphones were buried in the ice in 2014 and immediately started recording the weeping of ghosts of raindrops in their billions.
Desiccated over millions of years. Suspended in time.
Now wailing as they awaken frozen in their skeletons, and start to liquefy and leak from their icy tomb.
When enough reunite with their ocean siblings, they will rise and wrack the land and its inhabitants.
Kissing Billy Walker
I decided that I wanted to kiss Billy Walker.
I don’t know why. I don’t know what got into my head. We were walking home from school, over First Bridge, across the ice-floes. And Billy’s cute and all, and he does have the smile – when he uses it: infrequently and at odd, inappropriate times.
Billy always tells me that he wants to go live in the tropics. One day. Somewhere where there’s such a thing as sand, where the sand’s golden, and there’s green trees all over the show, and where the sea is like bathwater, sea you swim in. Waves you can surf on. And what made his dad even want to move to this ice-encrusted hell-hole…?
Something to do with his mum, I think.
Almost exactly half way. The rest of the town stacked up against the horizon. Past sunset. Marigold streetlights and backlit curtains. Fire on black on white. And this is what Billy tells me: no, I wouldn’t miss it, and I don’t think it’s all that pretty. His mum lives in Sydney, he told me once.
So anyway, I did it, when we stepped off the bridge. I got up on my tip-toes and kissed Billy Walker.
He tasted like salt and silicone.
I set up cots on the freshly-waxed wood where my department lost the dodgeball championship last night. Weather diverted a flight in route to Casey. I pull army-green sleeping bags from stuff sacks, breathe heavy odors that’ll embrace tonight’s guests. Chills enter from spaces around double doors where I watch through small windows for headlights in windblown waves of snow. Once upon a time I envisioned this job a stepping stone. Understand though that I am now truly happy here, doing this. Sheet metal rattles. Wind screams.
I caress the slender curve of her hip inside the upstairs equipment closet. As a janitor, my keys unlock almost everything, another blessing. Below us, the squeak of sneakers stopping, turning, the hollow thump of fists against volley balls. She mentions the plane that crashed against the volcano Erebus four decades ago. She heard bodies were stored in this building. I tell her that before the remains were brought, there were tables full of water and food and hope. I’ve heard bodies needed to be reburied in snow during recovery to stop skuas from tearing away flesh, but I don’t mention it now. My fingers test the firm elastic of her thermal underwear. “Net!” someone shouts from below.
I clean the gym twice each week, thirty times since the last sunset, though often nothing shines from above. When I finish, I pick a ball from the rack, take a few shots, make a few layups, just enough to feel my heartbeats.
It’s not so different, she comforts herself. It’s still the transfer of liquid from one vessel to another. Glug versus drip. That’s all.
Anyway, it’s the only way to get on the Ice this year. Outside, frost nipping your skin any chance it gets. Hauling hose with heavy brass fittings. The nauseating stench of fuel. Clothing so thick makes it hard to remember your warm body inside. Treacherous body. And the stupid fucking gloves.
Anyway, what else would she do? It’s always this: September – pack up, fly to Christchurch, yes Mom, New Zealand, then onwards. Big-breasted grey plane as far south as possible.
July, August this year a blur of tests, late night Skypes, creeping realisation that it was too late for the good jobs. Didn’t go through with the surgery. Too close to the start of the season. But told them she had. Give it a break this year they said. Rest; take time to recover. Stay home for the fall, it’s beautiful. Orange. Red. Pink.
They hadn’t seen the blue. The rarest gemstone. Impossible, mesmerising, trapped inside the ice, not even existing actually. Always just out of grasp. Siren colour.
Just a small lump. What difference would a few months make?
He now lives forty houses from the top of Signal Hill. I count eighty houses from the bottom. It is sleeting when I arrive.
It is an old house, the once airy spaces now narrow corridors, tiny rooms. I hear my shoes slap at the linoleum as I walk.
His name is on the door. I take a step inside and there’s a man in a bed who doesn’t look like Mr Bourke. He is clean shaven, his hair is short, his clothes are not covered in paint.
‘Mr Bourke?’ I ask.
The man nods, so I move closer to the bed, like a flight in a holding pattern waiting to land.
‘Remember me?’ I say. ‘Art class.’
He nods again. Gives a half-faced, half smile.
I look around the room, there are paintings. The shadow of a pīwakawaka, Kaikorai Estuary overlaid with words.
‘Have you been to the top of this hill?’ I ask.
I search for a story, something to break the quiet in two.
‘You know when Scott left for Antarctica, his wife stood at the top of Signal Hill and watched his ship sail away.’
I hold my hand up and wave.
His eyes follow my hand and then move to the window. Outside it has started to snow.
He moves his mouth again.
‘I went to Antarctica once’ he whispers.
Later, I realise, I was nothing more than a waving hand, a flurry of snow.