The Pilgrimage Series: Antarctica

Words by Jack Vening

Published on May 8, 2012

He made good on his promise, but it only took me a day after leaving Argentina to realise that I didn’t want to go to Antarctica with him anymore. I was sitting there in the breakfast hall with his kids as we drank coffee with milk and ate muesli and talked about marriage, which was impossible, probably.

‘Who knows,’ he said, shrugging. ‘We’ll make it work. You know, shit, look at these guys. Anything’s possible.’

He was gesturing with his butter knife across the table, where there were two South Americans, two South Americans from Peru, one of them light-skinned and one very, very dark, who’d just been married, and were talking slowly under their breaths and blowing on mugs of black coffee. Over their shoulders, outside, a man in a red jacket cleared ice and frost from the dining room’s windows, and we could see around him the mist that had been hiding the ocean that whole week. The children sat close by us along the table, eating cereal. He leaned over to them.

‘How would you like a new mother?’ he said

‘That’s a shitty thing to ask,’ I said.

He chuckled and licked butter from his finger.

‘Well how would you ask something like that?’

‘I wouldn’t ask something that shitty.’

‘They love you.’

‘Well they love your wife, too.’

‘We don’t know that. We can’t prove that.’

I leaned over to the children and said, ‘Do you guys love your mum?’

They didn’t answer.

‘See?’ he said. ‘We’ll find someone who can marry us when we get there. There’s no police. Nobody owns it.’

‘A few people do.’

‘Scientists,’ he said, swallowing. ‘And birds.’

We had met the Peruvian married couple on the first day of the trip. We didn’t meet or talk to anyone else the entire time, apart from Stanislaus, who he worked with, and Stanislaus’s sixteen year old wife, whose name I forget.

There were one hundred twenty other passengers along with us. We ate lunch on deck with Stanislaus, read to the children, drank mulled wine and toddies together in the dining room in the evenings, fucked noiselessly in the cabin shower while the kids played with other kids on the frosty deck under the high green signal lights, in the sound of the slow-moving sea, underneath the fog.

I had known him for exactly a year, he had promised me anything, but his kids would have to come along. We liked each other very much, I could sense, but I still felt like I could probably escape with my life if I needed to. It could have been anyone in that shower, either of us could have been missing and gone. It could have been two completely different people. It could have been the Peruvians.

At breakfast on the third day the captain announced that the fog had lifted enough for us to see, passing close by, the South Georgia Islands, and that we should all take photographs because they were important. The children went out with their father to look. I stayed with Stanislaus’s young wife, who was sixteen and whose name I forget. She was listening to her headphones and looked up when she noticed they’d all left and said something to me in French and then again in English and then once more in French.

‘There’s an island passing by,’ I said.

‘Which island?’

I shrugged. ‘Does it matter?’

Stanislaus came back inside, cheeks red from the wind, and kissed his wife on the neck.

‘Nothing much to look at,’ he said. ‘Who wants a coffee? Cafe, madam?’

His wife nodded and he stood up again.

‘And maybe something stronger for a toast,’ he said, smiling at me. He was a lawyer, and Austrian. A wide, yawning alcoholic. Before moving off he spoke to his wife in French again and they both laughed very suddenly in perfect unison. It was loud and unashamed, like it was the most natural thing in the world to them.

‘What’s funny?’

He said something else to his wife as he moved off and they laughed longer, and louder, and Stanislaus gripped the front of his coat as he walked and put his hand over his eyes and began to laugh silently, shaking, as he made his way to the coffee bar.

I imagined, looking at them, that they were hysterical with grief. They had just learned impossible news and it had driven them mad.  Your children are dead, sir. Your children fell from the water tower, Mam, your parents were shot by the police. Your children were eaten- the wolves tore the roof from the car and ate them in their seats. Your children were beautiful and light. We won’t find the wolves; they’ve gone to the forest.

‘What’s funny?’ I said as Stanislaus sat back down.

‘Oh, it’s a friend of ours, a long time ago. We laugh when we remember.’

He set down three mugs and pulled from his pocket a little bottle of liquor.

‘I propose a toast,’ he said. ‘I hear you’re to be married.’

‘Am I?’

He raised his glass and spoke some words in German and that was it.

The kids and their father came back inside.

‘What are we drinking to?’ he said.

‘The future, of course,’ said Stanislaus.

He took the mug out of my hand and drank deeply. Stanislaus and his wife were laughing again. I stood up.

‘I’m going to take a shower,’ I said.

‘Wait,’ he said. ‘I’ll take one too.’

I didn’t wait. I headed outside to where Japanese women were photographed themselves along the railing. I didn’t have a coat. In the wind my skin shrunk against my skeleton, but I moved far enough through the crowd of the passengers to be blocked from the dining room door and stood, braced against them, gripping my hands in my sleeves and listening to them talk at each other in breaths, and wondered if the captain had been right, and waited to see.

This short excerpt is taken from a longer piece.