A provocative, urgent and elegant novel about time, family, and how a changing planet might transform our lives.
Adam is a scientist based in Antarctica, marking the passage of the solstice. Across the globe, his wife Ellie is waiting for the results of her IVF treatment…
as Adam steps outside the cold strikes him like a physical thing, the shock still startling after all these weeks. For a moment he pauses, looking out across the bay, the crowding floes of ice. Then, adjusting his goggles, he descends the short ramp to the scoured stone upon which the building stands and strikes out towards the headland.
It is quiet out here today, the only sounds that disturb the silence those of the wind, the occasional squalling cry of the birds. Down by the water an elephant seal lies on the rocks, its vast bulk mottled and sluglike; around it tracks of human activity scar the snow like rust, turning it grey and red and dirty.
In the building behind him the other personnel are celebrating the solstice, an occurrence those stationed here have long observed with an extended meal and drinking and dancing. The event is a way of marking not just the date but the peculiar rhythms of life at the base, the annual cycle which means that from here on the arrivals will slow and departures increase, until only the skeleton crew who maintain the facility through the months of cold and darkness remain. Passing the Klein-blue boxes of the power distribution units he finds himself wondering again about this tradition. Humans have observed the solstice for tens of thousands of years, but are those festivities truly celebrations, or something more ambivalent? Symbols of loss, of the running down of things? After all, the solstice also marks the beginning of summer’s end, the first intimation of the year’s long retreat back into the dark.
Beyond the last building the land opens out, the dirty grey of rock and mud and melting snow giving way to the white glare of ice. The wind is stronger here, and even colder, but he does not slow or turn aside; instead, closing his hand around the phone in his pocket, he shrugs his neck deeper into his collar and quickens his step.
Back in Sydney it is just after one, and Ellie will be in the waiting room of the clinic. He can picture her seated in the corner, on the couch she always chooses, trying to concentrate on her tablet or flicking through a magazine. Normally she would not be there alone, but before he left they agreed she would continue the treatment while he was away, a decision he tried not to take as a sign his presence was no longer really needed.
Today’s appointment is the last for this cycle and in many ways the only one that matters. For while over the past fortnight Ellie has been to the clinic almost daily, initially for hormone injections, then later for the extraction of the ova and the implantation of the fertilised embryos, it is today that they will take her blood one last time and tell her whether the process has succeeded. They have been here before, of course. Once a month for the best part of two years the two of them have sat in that office and watched the gynaecologist purse her lips and assume the mask of bland concern she uses to deliver the bad news; once a month for the best part of two years he has reached out to take Ellie’s hand as she nods and thanks the gynaecologist, the only sign of her distress the stiffness with which she holds herself, the care with which she finds her way to her feet and back to the waiting room.
It often seems strange to him that they have ended up here. Six years ago, when he and Ellie met, the idea of children seemed impossibly remote, the question of whether he might one day want them so removed from his life as to be irrelevant.
Even after all that has happened, the fact of their meeting still seems miraculous to him, a gift. Ellie was at art school, preparing an installation about botanical biodiversity. Looking for images, she contacted the university and was referred to Adam’s supervisor, who in turn passed her request to Adam’s officemate. Finally, fortuitously, it was passed to Adam himself.
Deep in the final months of his doctorate, he really only scanned the request, then, after making a note about meeting her a few days later, forgot about it so completely that when he arrived at his office to find her seated on the chair under the window he didn’t realise she
Her skin was battered, scattered here and there with freckles
was there for him.
She was dressed in a short skirt, leggings and boots, her dark hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, although it wasn’t her outfit that caught his attention at first, but the clarity and directness of her gaze, the ease with which she seemed to inhabit the space around her. Aware she seemed to be expecting him, he stopped and half turned towards her. ‘Adam?’ she said. ‘I’m Ellie.’ He smiled back, aware she could see he didn’t know who she was.
‘From the College of Fine Art? You told me to come by?’
‘Yes,’ he said as it came back to him in a rush. ‘I’m sorry, I’d forgotten.’
‘If now’s not a good time . . .’ But he waved her down.
‘No, now is fine. Just let me get the door open.’
Inside, while he started up his computer, she leaned towards the card pinned to the wall above it, a nineteenthcentury drawing of a radiolarian. Rendered in careful pen and ink, its sea-urchin-like form had the delicate perfection of a jewel.
‘It’s Haeckel, isn’t it?’ she said, as much to herself as to him.
He glanced up. ‘It is. How did you know?’
She smiled. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the period.’
Leaning over he reached for the card, traced the outline of the image with his finger. ‘Is this the sort of thing you’re after?’
‘Perhaps. I’m interested in the different ways we perceive and represent plants and animals, the way encountering those representations can sometimes be like glimpsing a lost world, all of its own.’
Intrigued, he studied her for a moment. Then he stood up. ‘Let me see what I can help you find.’
Over the next two hours he showed her through the various collections held by the department, increasingly delighted not just by her interest but by the quality of her attention, the care with which she considered each new document or specimen. And so it was unexpected when, as they neared the end of the tour, she turned to him and asked, ‘Doesn’t it frighten you?’ ‘Doesn’t what frighten me?’ ‘That these sorts of collections might be all we have left?’
The truth was it terrified him, but he knew no way of giving that fear expression without it overwhelming him. So he just nodded. ‘Better we have a record of what’s lost.’ In the days that followed they began to correspond by email, her requests for further information and his ideas about other specimens and images that might interest her quickly taking on a playful intimacy, until late one evening, a fortnight after that first meeting, she suggested he meet her at an exhibition the next day. He was surprised when he first saw her walking towards him. After two weeks chatting online she seemed different: smaller, less perfectly composed. Although she moved with the same confidence, in the light outside the gallery her pale skin was more battered than he remembered, scattered here and there with freckles. Later he learned that she had the same reaction, that like him she had found speaking in person awkward at first, the immediacy of their online friendship replaced by an uneasy combination of familiarity and unfamiliarity. The exhibition was by a Japanese artist – delicate forms carved from wood and shell and metal poised midway between the biological and the mechanical, that seemed simultaneously ancient and exquisitely modern. Some resembled the skeletons of mammals or birds or fish, others less easily categorised creatures with sleek carapaces of burnished timber, or shimmering skeins of mother-of-pearl, like refugees from the ancient oceans of the Cambrian, or perhaps some strange future in which matter itself had taken on life and inscrutable purpose. Astonished by their beauty, confused by their alienness, Adam wandered from one to the next, barely speaking. At one point he glanced at Ellie and, catching her watching him, smiled, the fact of her presence suddenly marvellous to him, his delight amplified when she smiled back.
To find out what happens next, pick up Clade, out now from Titan Books (RRP £7.99). E-book also available. www.titanbooks.com