Monday, 15 December 2008
A Broken Rib
A silence as deep and thick and dense as the blanketing snow settled on the tent. The storm was gone now and with it, most of their hope. They had struggled on for a mile or two in the wind, unable to see as the snow wrapped round them, like kelp around stricken divers, until, with no chance of making the supply depot, they had pitched the tent in the white darkness and struggled inside it. The wind had picked up the sled and slammed it into Myers as he crawled through the tiny door, knocking him sideways and breaking a rib with a snap, which sounded above the howl of the storm. All through the night the wind beat and shook the straining canvas, surrounding them in noise that subsided gradually until the indigo stillness told them that they, their tent, sled and all the supplies were feet deep in the silent snow. In their condition, the chances of finding anything under such a layer were negligible unless they could regain some measure of strength.
“Did you manage to save any food?” asked Myers. His cracked lips could scarcely form the words but his hoarse whisper filled the tent. He sat slumped by the door, wrapped in his sleeping bag. His red rimmed eyes blazed above the dark stubbled cheeks. He was ill, and he knew it. It was hope and hope alone, which would keep him alive now. Hope of Scott base with kerosene and bunks and tinned food. Hope of a ship in the summer. Secret hope of Miriam, fresh and clean and strong and laughing and twelve thousand miles away.
“I don’t know. I managed one of the sacks. And you?” said Anderson as his swollen fingers fumbled at the drawstring of an orange supply pouch. He sat, without a sleeping bag, opposite Myers and almost touching him in the shroud like tent. The energy of his movements told that he was the stronger of the two, but he looked at Myers with shuttered eyes. He was here because the raw cold terrors of Antarctica were easier for him to face than the driven, flesh hot terrors of home. He thought of the green ribbon tying back his wife’s thick and raven black hair. and her flashing eyes the exact colour of the ribbon. Pain. Silence as deep as snow between them.
“I only managed to bring my sleeping bag. Oh. And this. Now isn’t this just what we need?” Myers laughed raspingly, the air wheezing out of him as he held up a small cake of violet soap.
“Don’t knock soap”, replied Anderson. “Don’t mice eat it? But look here. Sweet merciful Mary and all the saints be praised.” He drew a small butane stove from the bag, a saucepan and a package of freeze dried soup.
“What have the saints got to do with it? They should have kept the stove and given us fine weather until Scott Base.”
Anderson’s numb fingers clumsily assembled the stove. He pushed the pot through the tent door and bought it back half filled with snow. He pressed the small ignition button and a blue flame hissed to life in the still tent. He tore open the packet, sprinkling its contents over the powdery dampness and both men watched as the snow slipped down into the pot, turned yellow and, at last, began to bubble. They ate by turns, passing the pot silently to one another until the contents were gone and the pot was licked clean, then sat uneasily savouring the warmth in their bellies.
“Do you think there’s any of the gear left?” rasped Myers
“I’m not sure. Are you up to digging?”
“How deep is the snow, do you think?”
“I’d say six, seven feet maybe. We have the saucepan, but otherwise we’ll have to use our hands. There is no chance of us finding that gear unless we both dig. And we’ll have to start soon. There’s not a hell of a lot of energy in one pot of freeze-dried soup, and every minute we sit here that energy is sapping away. How are your ribs?”
“I think they’re OK. Ribs mend easily don’t they?”
“Yes, they do, but I think I’d better take a look. It was a nasty blow you had. Where exactly is it hurting?”
“It’s here. But there’s no need to look, really. I’m as strong as you are. See?”
Myers drew himself up into a crouch but slumped back. He coughed and a fleck of blood floated with the sputum down his beard.
Anderson sighed. “Just look at you. I can’t go back alone. We’ll both have to dig and we’ll have to get moving. If we stay here we’re doomed. Even if we find it, we have enough food for how long?”
“Three days. But why do you need to look?”
“You may have punctured a lung. Undo your jacket. I’ll only take a second or two. Myers, I am a medic. Why are you so coy? ”
“And why are you so insistent on looking? What on earth do you think you are going to do if you find anything?”
Anderson snorted. He drew himself onto his knees and moved towards Myers. He began to fumble with the buttons on Myer’s outer parka, while Myers with clumsily marshaled strength and purpose tried to fend him off.
“For crying out loud, Anderson, back off. What are you trying to prove?”
“Will you shut up?”
Again Myers raised his hand in feeble defense before he turned his head and dropped his arm limply as Anderson undid the parka and lifted the layered clothing. The rib was broken all right. It showed jagged under the skin, but Anderson didn’t look at it. He stared instead at the satin ribbon tied round Myer’s neck. Grimed with the dirt of Myer’s skin, it was still creased where it had tied back Miriam’s wild hair, and showed still the colour of her eyes.