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lie alone

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Writing is a struggle with these cold, cold hands, fingers and letters are stiff, but the words will bring warmth to another man and the thought keeps George going. He misses his desk and sitting by the window, reading or writing or neither, oftentimes simply watching the raindrops’ race down the dirty glass panels. O how he longs for a bleak English summer! Now the so-called desk in his crammed cabin has to make do, and sometimes he finds it hard not to complain, although he knows of his privilege of course, and the men in the fo’c’sle, all lined up like tinned fish.

… It may be that I think too much, or feel too much, but I do have to admit, my dear Thomas, that at night I often envy you and your fellows. While I am freezing in my cabin, all alone, you are granted the pleasure of spending the evenings in company and the nights in relative warmth …

He tries to sound encouraging and knows he fails. Lately, he seems to be doing that quite frequently — failing, that is — and and because the feeling is so strange and also inconvenient,  his teeth grinding has begun again, a battle he had thought long won, and now he wakes every morning with a painfully clenched jaw. Granted, this is probably the least of his problems, but nonetheless it slowly starts to get to him.

This damned half-life between the worlds, not yet dead, but it’s just a matter of time. He has been feeling more and more like a ghost lately, pale and fading away. In a sense, writing makes him feel present again, to see how he can affect a blank page, another man. He wants to stay in this world, the right one — no, he needs to, the men need him, Edward, John, the Captain. He would never admit it to any of them, but a sense of hopelessness had crept over George during the never-ending nights, sneaked up from behind and had left him wondering what there was to get up for in the mornings. 

He turns the page. And maybe this is it. Maybe writing a letter to young Tom Hartnell is reason enough to leave the berth. The words have bled through the thin paper, but he has to use the back side as well, writing materials are rare goods, and in the not too-distant future, they will have to start misusing books. 

The idea of a letter exchange between the sailors had come to George during one of those pain-ridden mornings when all he longed for was some distraction, a few cheery words would have been enough. He had to make do without them, but the idea hadn’t left his mind ever since, until he finally confronted John with it, who was quickly convinced. A few days later, Mr Honey had built two large letterboxes and painted them bright red. George himself had dragged one over to Erebus. The system worked easily enough for every simple seaman to understand. Each man on each ship could post a letter into the box and also check for a reply, which usually came no more than a fortnight later. George collected the letters for Erebus every night and handed the stack over to someone who went there anyway, either for errands or to exchange messages between the captains, and who then simply placed the letters into the box there. On Erebus, Mr Bridgens had explained himself responsible for the job and seemingly found great pleasure in both receiving and writing letters, as well as in advertising the service to the other men.

George sighs and watches the tiny cloud disappear into thin air. There has been talk of leaving the ships behind, and although he knows it’s for their best, the vessels are the only protection they have left against that thing , and as cold and hostile they might appear, they are home, womb, civilisation, civility.

… I should not tell you just yet (and if Le Vesconte finds out, he will have my head), but we are currently planning a special celebration which will take place very soon, and between the two of us, maybe you should begin to think about a costume. I am aware that you may not feel in the spirit to celebrate, and you can trust me when I tell you that none of us officers does either, but we all agree that a little amusement is bitterly needed. It truly is a shame that the Captain will not be able to attend, but I am convinced this will only lead to a more unrestrained merrymaking, which, given our circumstances, can only be a good thing …

Tom is not a man of fancy or many words, George has learned; his letters are always short and precise, and when they meet on deck a nod of the head is all that is exchanged. And yet, Tom always replies within a day or two, he has not left a single one of George’s letters unanswered, and the sorrow that speaks from the few crooked lines is immense. He usually likes to write about his brothers and his childhood in Kent, about careless summers, and George enjoys reading the stumbling descriptions, because they remind him of home, his desk and clavier, and the wife, her face a distant memory, they didn’t manage to get their photographs taken in time for departure. He doesn’t like to read how strangely intrigued Tom sometimes still appears to be by the little caulker’s mate, or how he can’t help but feel like an omen of death, because these things make George feel most uneasy, and he tries to avoid mentioning them in his replies.

… as per my reading, I have recently finished The Vicar of Wakefield for the first time (to my shame circa 80 years after everybody else), and despite all the praise the book receives, I must admit I found it rather long-winded and tiring, although Goldsmith does an excellent job at conveying the overall feeling of life in England. But as unbelievable as it is, I find myself unable to relate to any of the conflicts and obstacles appearing in the story, they are all so far away from me. Still, the book certainly has its amusing parts, and the writing is quite good, so if you are interested, I could borrow you the copy directly instead of returning it to the library …

His pen begins to scratch, he is low on ink and decides to sign the letter and send it off straight away, there is nothing of great importance to be told anyway. Tom must surely be waiting for it, something to hold on to and to take his mind away from other things here, trapped on their wooden islands within a sea of ice, never knowing when the next good man will be torn from their midst. 

Yes, a boost of morale had been bitterly needed, and, as it seems to George now, many men had only been waiting for the chance to put a pen to paper. More than a few had been writing letter after letter to family, friend and sweetheart, but being constantly confronted with a stack of unsent — no, unsendable letters, not to mention the obvious absence of word from home, had proved to be quite daunting. Now everyone who writes receives a guaranteed reply, either by the addressed man, or, in case the letter isn’t intended for someone in particular, by a volunteer. True, at the moment there are not an awful lot of volunteers — Bridgens and Morfin on Erebus , George himself and Harry Peglar (although he usually takes a while to reply) on Terror , as well as Jopson, when he finds the time — but George is optimistic about a further expansion in the near future, Collins and Goodsir have already expressed interest. And besides, most letters are addressed to a specific man anyway, and quite a few pairs have already established, Peglar and Bridgens and, to George’s surprise, Edward  and Jopson being by far the most enthusiastic ones.

With lame fingers he seals the letter and completes it with a simple Mr Thomas Hartnell. It has become late and he is tired, but the way to the letterbox leads past Mr Diggle’s ever-burning stove and if George is lucky, a cup of tea might be in store for him. He pulls on his comforter and slides open the once-white curtain, his cabin’s poor substitute for a proper door like they have on Erebus , though he knows that neither can hold the cold at bay . The corridor is only dimly-lit and empty and George wonders how John and Edward are passing the evening. He makes his way, it is not far, and the box stands as red and beautiful as ever. Curious, he opens the wooden lid. Altogether there are five letters already inside, one of them without a recipient and two for Erebus ; he will have to find someone to carry them there as soon as possible.

There is a shuffling of feet behind him, and when he turns around, he is surprised to see Tom Hartnell lingering awkwardly in the doorway.

“Thomas! What a pleasant surprise to see you,” he exclaims in lack of better words.

“Sir,” Thomas nods and George has to resist the urge to tell the young man to call him by his first name please, for God’s sake, they’ve known each other for long enough, shared too many secrets, and of what meaning are ranks and titles anyway. Instead, he bites his tongue and the pain makes his eyes water.

“Sir?”

“I am … good, I’m fine!” he presses through gritted teeth. 

“That’s good to hear, sir.”

George nods quickly and smoothes his hair with his free hand. “So, what are you doing here, Thomas?”

Tom avoids meeting his eyes, instead he is gazing at the yellowed envelope George is still clinging to. “I wanted to check for a letter.”

“Well, consider yourself lucky, I have it right here. But before I hand it to you, do you know someone who is going to Erebus tomorrow, by any chance?”

“I am going myself, sir,” Tom says and straightens his back, “the Captain has chosen me personally to deliver a message to Commander Fitzjames.”

Captain Fitzjames,” George corrects him and instantly feels the ping of guilt that comes with diminishing Tom’s obvious pride.

“Aye,” Tom says hesitantly.

“I am happy to hear our Captain trusts you with such matters. Listen, Thomas, you would do me a great service as well if you could carry these two letters with you.”

“Of course, sir.”

George is glad he doesn’t salute. “Thank you, that is quite a relief. Here are the letters. And here is the one for you I have only just finished.”

Tom takes the envelopes and hesitates for a moment. “Your letters—,” he begins, but seems unsure where he is going with the sentence.

“What about them?”

“They mean a great deal to me, sir. They feel so … ordinary.”

George grins. “I take that as a compliment. And I can only return it. The writing and reading really is a far more pleasant pastime than just filling diary after diary with my own melancholic ramblings.”

Tom looks like he wants to object, but George cuts him short. “This room is terribly dull, don’t you think? And I know for a fact that the stove is still on. Can I tempt you to a cup of tea?”

“Sir, I—”

Heaven knows George is no stranger to rejection, but he won’t let Tom go so easily, because it is cold and he longs for company. “And maybe a game of Backgammon? The illusion of domesticity?”

Tom puts the letters into his coat pocket and manages a half-smile. “Sounds well enough to me, sir. But I have to warn you, I’m a horrible player.”

George has already turned to lead the way to the kitchen. “We’ll see to that,” he says over his shoulder, “one should really think we have enough boardgame-practise by now.”

“I agree, sir, but I have been told on several occasions I am easier to beat than Neptune.”

“What, the dog? Well, if nothing else, that should make winning fairly easy for me,” George muses. As they turn around a corner and step into the open space of the forward crew deck, some sleepless sailors still seated at the mass tables, chatting away and bathed in the oil lamps’ warm light, there is a strange sense of serenity. “And please,” he adds after a short pause, “do call me George.”