OFF KING WILLIAM ISLAND, SUMMER, 1846
ir John Franklin is in a marrying mood that second summer. By the middle of June, he’s made matches for most of the Royal Marines; come July, he turns his attention to the men of Terror’s foretop. Rumours flurry: there’s to be a mass wedding on St. Swithin’s Day, followed by honeymoons for all—staggered through the fall, of course, in order to keep the ships manned. Franklin is said to be taking care of the floral arrangements himself, not to mention working on personalized vows for each couple. If his object is to distract the men from the Arctic’s white monotony, well then, yes, good job. And this, too, is true, the men agree: it’s been months since they’ve seen Sir John so cheery.
But while, to a man, the Marines are flattered by their commander’s attentions, even those who are long since well and fully married, the foretopmen take a pricklier view. The last thing they want after a long day high up in the shrouds is to be worrying about wooing wives.
Henry Sait: “It’s very approoshiated but I’m wedded to my career.”
Samuel Crispe: “Tell you some truth, I have an idea of waiting ’til I have some savings put away. Plus mother would have to meet her.” George Kinnaird: “Grrrr.” Harry Peglar: “Someone should say something.” When the Marines hear the grumbling, they take it personally, as Marines so often do. Sergeant Solomon Tozer, bristling: “You lot don’t know how to take a compliment. Think of the trouble he’s taking, finding us all fiancées. You think he does it for another hobby?”
The wind blows. The sun dwindles. The ice waits. Winter has already begun to close the lit summer days in the lee of King William’s accursed island. Soon Terror and Erebus will be locked again in winter’s long blindness. After summer
weeks free of worry the men, whose big concern is the blood slowly freezing in their veins, ask again, how likely is that? “Not very, I don’t think,” Mr. Goodsir, the Assistant Surgeon, tells them, “but let me get back to you.”
“What about a guitar?” says Captain Fitzjames, when the talk turns again to what to get Sir John for his birthday. Captain Crozier nods. “We’ll put it on the list.” Although, of course, they’ve already discussed guitars, and banjoes, guitar lessons, Van Morrison tickets, ruling them all out for one good reason and another. Guitar, Crozier writes anyway. “More ideas. What else?”
You never see the headhunters. You hear them, sometimes, a bump, snow crunch, sneezes. Rarely. They lurk in the gloom. Orders are shoot them if you have to, catch one if you can. Sir John promises a sovereign to any man who can hold one, bind him, keep him.
Sir John still worries. The seals may be beaten, cowed even, but the headhunters—he has a feeling the headhunters are coming back. It’s more than a feeling: he knows they will be.
“Cowing the seals,” he tells himself, “is twice the work of sealing the cows.”
He lights a new cigarette from old, lapses into gangster dreams starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre. Pretending a Tommy gun with cradling hands, he massacres the cabin with a raw laugh from a sore throat.
The ache of loneliness. The asthma of responsibility. The arthritis of command. The whooping cough of… actual whooping cough. Dr. Stanley suggests a cigarette cure. “Let’s try that,” he says. “Can’t hurt.”
“Righty-o,” says Sir John. “Can I put on my shirt?”
The Men Who Stop Looking at the Sky don’t tell anybody they’ve stopped looking at the sky: that’s important to say.
Michaelmas. The summer light dissolves. Snow starts, blackeyed flakes that fall like the shreds of somebody’s newspaper. The sea fastens. When the ships are bound, beset, all of a piece with the north, white of the whiteness in the dark of the nightness, working parties raise the decktents, rope lines across from Terror to Erebus.
There’s supposed to be a process in place governing the selection of the expedition play but nobody seems to know what it is. A lot of them in the Godspell camp swear that they voted at the same time, on the same ballot, when they elected not to send out a rescue party. Not so, says William Wentzall, acting spokesman for the successful Three Sisters bid: “If you didn’t tick the box to opt out of Chekhov’s beloved classic when you signed your muster papers, then too bad for you.”
So there’s resentment. The blacksmiths feel especially aggrieved due to the lack of metallurgical roles in Chekhov’s oeuvre generally, and there’s talk among them of how they want to go about making their point. A go-slow, work-torule, wildcat strike? No. It’s the same old story; they end up having to feed their frustrations into smashing a hammer on an anvil.
Able Seaman John Morfin, tabbed to direct, has to put this behind him. He can’t have it in front of him. He’s a controversial choice for some because, well, what are his theatrical bona fides? Nobody knows. The fact that he’s the one with the clipboard and the fierce opinions on how to stage an intimate production without losing sight of the universality of the provincial Prozorovs, is that not enough? For him, he feels this is the work that his career as a naval rating has been leading up to. He’s easily miffed by questions, questioning looks, unfriendly blinking. It does seem like he’s already cast the production
LUKE SMITH IS THE ONLY ONE WHO ACTUALLY BOTHERS
ahead of the auditions and if so, that’s not fair. At the first readthrough, another surprise: he’s renovated the script, rearranged and, to a certain extent, rewritten the play, including shifting many of the lines originally allocated to the Andrey Sergeyevich Prozorov (Boatswain Thomas Terry) to a new character, the Stage Manager (Caulker’s Mate Francis Dunn), borrowed more or less wholesale from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. “Yes, yes, I know,” John Morfin says, addressing cast and crew in the actor’s lounge, “everybody’s got an opinion. Let’s just give me a chance. Why not?”
Petty Officer Luke Smith is the only one who actually bothers to look for passages, Northwest or otherwise. “I’ll take the first one I can find,” he tells Edwin Work, who’s as much of a friend as he has on the expedition. “Any one will do.” Smith dons oilskins, hobnailed boots, astrakhan hat, monster mittens. Checks his satchel: candles, cord, whistle. Okay. Good. Scoops from a pocketed bag of trail mix, offers a laden hand to Edwin Work. “Do you eat Brazil nuts?”
No, thanks. Edwin Work watches as his forlorn friend trudges out into the Arctic gloaming. He doesn’t have the heart to stop waving until Smith’s lantern finds the horizon, blinks out, gone.
As Election Day approaches, Sir John faces hard questions on the campaign trail, including Am I really better off today than I was five years ago? and What ever happened to us all getting married? He’s the listener, the look-you-in-the-eye candidate, champion of I-know-the-middle-class-is-struggling, let’s-you-and-me-do-something-about-that. “No new taxes,” he says. At his rallies he boasts: when no one else was willing to deal with the threat posed by the Men Who’ve Stopped Looking at the Sky, he didn’t hesitate.
When Thomas Jopson recalls the day in Portsmouth when the installers came, he thinks of Mrs. Franklin, such a lovely woman, asking after his family, joking that he was her only rival in Sir John’s affections, which could have been awkward, and maybe should have been, but wasn’t—at all.
She wouldn’t come aboard. Wouldn’t take Sir John’s kiss or the card he’d made, slapped his reaching hand away—playfully? When she’d gone, Sir John supervised the work of the telephone men, hovering, a question at each new tool they produced. What’s this red wire for, the blue? When he said, “Let’s just keep this between us, yes?” Thomas Jopson wasn’t a hundred per cent sure whether that included him, too.
Nobody knows what Sir John is working on in his little lab—some kind of formula that smells of licorice. There are rumours, of course—of a time machine; of laser-spectacles; some kind of amphibious robot, now in his last wiring, named Barrow. The smart money is on Purser Orme’s notion that Sir John is brewing a cure for curiosity: only when they lose all interest in what he’s up to will they know that he’s succeeded.
Gouts and gobbets of snow fall. Snow clumps and clots. It heaps as only snow can: high. It plays tricks, shows off, provides its own ice. Sifts, salts. It foothills and mountains. It builds its own snowmen, mobs of snowmen between the two ships, masses them there, before vanishing them with a few blasts of winds. Snow flours and baking sodas.
Oftentimes, while the men are busy with play practice, art class, Mathletics, Sir John continues his hasty searches through their personal effects. Back in his cabin, he forces himself to read every line of every confiscated resumé and cover letter as though he’s the one who’s hiring. There’s no denying it: this really is a fantastic crew he’s got here.
At Executive Council, Monday morning, first o’clock, Sir John calls on Fitzjames to walk them through the fall calendar. Fashion Week, Gold
TO LOOK FOR PASSAGES, NORTHWEST OR OTHERWISE.
Rush Days, Día de los Muertos, Spa Monday. He works quickly through the list while Sir John takes notes. He writes hastily, dashing his pen across the page, but it’s not enough to keep him from drowsing. Captain Crozier, for his part, lets his attention drift. He wishes he could stop looking at the sky. What I wouldn’t give, he thinks.
Looking for a bit of peace between watches, a quiet corner, the comfort of poems, sanctuary in a story, the men slip down to the library whenever the opportunity arises—only to find Lemuel Blanky scowling at them by the door. In his regular work as Master’s Mate he’s friendly as a cat, quick with a joke, eager to lend his hand. At the business centre, too—just very professional. It’s a whole other story at the library, a nasty one that makes the men wonder whether it’s better just to steer clear.
He sits there at the little desk with the tiny globe and the mini date stamper, the diminutive In and Out boxes, the wee gavel. Why, he’d like to know, is everything so fecking small? Not to mention new. As Master’s Mate he’s used to worn down old tools, ancient stinking ropes, decrepitude and brown rot—the newness of the library is what offends his own denuded, calloused, limping self. The books, all those gleaming newborns clad in morocco and gold. When no one’s there he prowls the cabin, cracking spines for spite before he turns to the reshelving.
“I’m as surprised as anyone,” Sir John is heard to say not long after declaring that he’s lost interest in the laboratory. “I don’t have anything to hide,” he says in his press release, “and no regrets. I’ll look back on this as a special time in my life.”
Thomas Jopson cleans up. Test tubes strewn amid dirty beakers, crumpled periodic tables, the dry, white stains on tabletops, the chemical crystals, unstopped tinctures, like the tomb of a lost civilization of sloppy alchemists.
Sir John, with helpful intent and even kindness: “Why must you say I’ve been to shopping?”
Captain Crozier: “I’m sorry?” Sir John: “You always say I’ve been to shopping.”
Captain Crozier: “Well, I don’t—i’ve been to the shopping?”
Sir John: “No, no: I’ve been shopping. That’s what you say. There’s no to. No need for it.”
Captain Crozier: “I’ve been to—i’ve been shopping. I see.”
The Men Who Hear Churchbells hear them clearly, as though they were themselves standing in the churchyard, strolling up for evensong. They don’t hear them every hour or even every day; they do always end up weeping.
The Birthday Board comes to a decision: this year, they’re taking Sir John out for supper to celebrate. “What’s his favourite restaurant?” says Crozier, who never knows these things. “Beg a pardon?” says Fitzjames, who generally does. What they both understand is that their commander’s troubled restaurant history can’t be ignored. Something about Sir John in a restaurant—as every King William bistro and brasserie has learned, all the steakhouses and bodegas, the little sushi huts with the icicle lights adorning their awnings—he can’t just sit there and enjoy his supper like a normal person. The boisterous ordering, crying out commands to the kitchen, inspecting the cutlery, blizzarding his food with salt. The captains are divided on what it reflects; delight or boorishness, maybe a brew of the both?
What about Giancarlo’s? He’s opening up a new location in the new hotel—may be already open. Everybody loves the old chef, not to mention his wife/sommelier Magda, a famous beauty who may also be the nicest person in the whole of the eastern Arctic. Plus, it’s been a while since Crozier had a good scallopini. “And you know,”
SIR JOHN WAS IN FULL REAR-ADMIRAL KIT NOW,
he tells Fitzjames, “how I do enjoy a scallopini.”
Nobody speaks of the Seal War, but seal dread still wakes the men up and their screams split the night. Oh, yes. Even though the seals have not returned since the day of their defeat. That’s the deal for the seals— you lose the war, you get the hell out of these parts, fairness and squareness.
John Morfin’s actors are a muttering bunch, a clutch of whisperers, a band of trying-to-remember tappers of fingers to lips. Out beyond the bounds of rehearsal, they work on their lines, on tone, rhythm, intensity, as they go about their duties. What begins as a wrestle with an angry stranger becomes a conversation with your soul. That’s John Morfin talking; that’s what he tells them. As the actors grow more confident with their parts some of them seem to be diving so deep into their characters that they don’t have any room to be themselves. “I don’t mind,” John Morfin tells John Cowie (Anfisa). “I’m not saying it’s the healthiest, but it’s not going to kill you, either.”
The men who take it upon themselves to get at chopping the ships out of the ice enjoy Sir John’s wholehearted support. They tell him they’re making progress. They show him the ice they’ve got piled up astern Erebus. “Poor idiots,” Sir John tells Fitzjames. “But hey—whatever floats your boat, right?”
The Men Who Hear the Thwock of Tennis Balls take no pleasure in… well, any of it. The idea that somewhere nearby there may be a tennis game underway that they can hear but not see is, to them, not as charming as it might be to someone who’s not condemned to what feels like a life sentence in a frozen prison hulk. They never wonder what the score is. Memories of Wimbledon heroes do not leap to mind. They spend no time trying to chase the source of the thwocking. Doesn’t interest them.
The Men Who Hear Churchbells honestly believe that their moral superiority is beyond dispute. They think churchbells reflect on the lives they’ve lived and are living and show God’s good opinion of them. Not saying it’s wrong to hear the thwock of tennis balls but it’s not exactly dignified. Not saying it’s evil but come on, be honest: doesn’t it kind of seem a bit like a report card on your character?
The wind is a big election issue, as is the grub. A lot of the electorate who show up to take a ride on Sir John’s horse want to talk about tax cuts. What’s he offering there? “Careful, now,” Sir John tells them. “Rangoon tends to be a bit of a biter.”
Mutiny looks like one of the big ballot box questions. Asked about his stance, Sir John crowds his eyebrows together. The key here is not to give away too much before you know exactly where the voter stands. “It’s a scourge,” he says, “a scurvy. Have you heard, by the way, about our tough-onscurvy agenda?”
At Steering Committee, they speak of victualling and cordage, coopering, of leakages, oakum, fresh water, morale. There’s almost no discussion at all of actual steering—stuck fast, they hold off on navigation talk. They do focus on fleet security: any sightings by sentries of seals or headhunters? No and no. Fitzjames allows himself a grin. “By the Lord Harry,” he says. “Who would have thunk it?”
“To go back to Moscow,” says Giles Mcbean, Second Master (Irina). “To sell the house, to make an end to everything here, and off to Moscow…”
It’s accepted as a matter of faith among the men that they will live forever. Forevermore is what some of them say to themselves. Also: foreveryever. There are different conventions regarding the rules by which this promise of eternity is governed. Some talk of a deal having been struck with an agent of the Devil, often identified as Roger Verrecky, Ice Master. Most believe that if you talk about everybody’s immortality you’ll annul the whole deal. For everybody or just yourself? Nobody’s too clear
SWORD AND SPYGLASS, SEXTANT IN ITS HOLSTER.
on this, so nobody dares to take a chance by asking the question, or any question.
To a man, the Terror crew believes that the big walrus that likes to sun itself on the ice off the port bow is if not God himself at least on God’s payroll, keeping an eye. On Erebus they think the same of the cheeky fulmar who perches each morning on the ship’s bell to squawk for mutton. Terry, they call him, and let him feed straight from the tin. He rewards them with skies a blue mile high and everlasting ice.
Sir John hears the thwock of tennis balls. To him, they sound like first serves. It never occurs to him that they might not be in.
P.O. Smith drags himself over one more hummock. His heart is full. His head is heavy. It’s been an hour already since he caught sight of the ships but all the trudging he’s doing doesn’t seem to be bring him any closer to home. He’s not himself. He knows that. It doesn’t matter: so long as he can deliver his message to Sir John Whathishooley, that’s what matters. It’s another hour before he finally reaches Terror’s side. It’s not easy, with a frozen head, to get himself aboard. It gets worse when it starts to thaw. It’s hard to speak and to think what he might have to say. He waits for words, then for his voice, which sounds bottled. “Found it,” Smith finally says, pointing, “over there, that way.”
The first time Thomas Jopson answers the telephone, he keeps his eyes closed. A woman’s voice says, “Not now doesn’t mean not never.”
Without a war, the War Council struggles to find energy and focus. Smoking their cigarillos in Crozier’s cabin, drinking their claret, playing another hand of Whist, they eventually have to concede that none of them actually knows the rules of Whist. “Not even a single rule,” says Fitzjames, who’s as amazed as the rest of them. “Not a man jack of us.” But even as they’re all sharing a good laugh, no one wants to be the first to throw down his cards. Sundays there’s divine service, followed by Sir John opening up the floor to discussion. “FAQ,” he’ll often say, even when the Q in question isn’t FA, or even (for that matter) a Q at all. The Men Who’ve Stopped Looking at the Sky aren’t invited: once they’ve said their prayers Marines march them away.
Sir John smiles. “FAQ: how we all doing today?”
“Pass the word,” says one of the mates, Hornby, and the word passes: “Anyone know how to play Whist?”
When the Marines bring up the Men Who’ve Stopped Looking at the Sky, the rest of the men make a close study of how it might be possible to avoid the looking. With the sky right there and all it just seems like you’d have to be working very hard to keep from making eye contact. Captain Fitzjames is about to crack his knuckles when he remembers that he hurts himself whenever he cracks his knuckles. He must be doing it wrong. “You can’t force a man to look at the sky,” he tells Lieutenant Fairholme, “but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”
A seaman presents himself. They bring him in to see Captain Crozier. What about Cutthroat Whist? Will Cutthroat Whist do?
The second time the telephone rings, Thomas Jopson stands at attention. The ringing is more of a rattling. He waits until it stops before he sits back down.
Parents’ Night is a bust.
Sunday afternoon, while the men are enjoying the big Grey Cup party, the Marines form up on deck under Sir John’s watchful eye before marching to Terror’s business centre amidships. A corporal secures the photocopier. One of the privates puts his bayonet through a ream of paper and has
MAGDA STOOD BY THE DOOR IN A LONG, MAGNIFICENT
to be spoken to about exuberance.
The first Lemuel Blanky learns of it is when he finds a sentry on the door. Why should H.M.’S Navy be helping men who are trying to leave her? That’s what Sir John wants to know. It’s been a long time since his ire was stirred like this, the thought of all this Navy paper, the printer cartridges, used up for resumés, the damned gall of the thing. He makes a fist. It’s not the first time he’s chewed all the way through a cigarette, probably not the last.
Out on the stump, Sir John says, “I’d appreciate your vote” and “Vote!” People are telling him they’re tired of the old politics, the old way of doing politics. They want a new way, a new do. “Me too,” Sir John says. “Why the hell not?”
In his cabin, in front of the not-big-enough mirror Sir John tries on costume after costume: the Robin Hood, the Horatio Nelson, the Jane Austen. He smokes his cigarillo, sips his double espresso. In wistful moments he thinks of what it would mean to have been born a hundred years earlier, or two. Would he have been a good knight? A king? What about a bowman in green fringes, champion of the people, hero of the leafy woods? Maidenly Marian waiting for him in the secret place by the secret river, lying with long legs and sleepy smile on the forest floor with her plentiful picnic. Though if the river itself were secret, would it really be necessary to keep the place by it—the rendezvous—so very hush-hush, too? The words her plentiful picnic make him laugh. His imagination drifts henceforward to the decks of searching ships, with helicopters and speedy Zodiacs, side-scanning sonar; he really would have been a great searcher in the northy north, wearing his big red Canada Goose and polarized sunglasses, scouring the shores of Erebus Bay, and heading for Victory Point on a snow machine, think of that, a machine made of snow! And introducing Marian to Peter Mansbridge, who’s clearly wowed, and telling him I think we’re close and then waiting for the Prime Minister to come and to be shaking everybody’s hand and saying, yes, it was a great moment when we realized we had the bastard beneath us, gave us the shivers, Your Grace, hard to sit still, and giving the PM a look at the beautiful brassy sonar images saying—lying—oh, no, your eminence, we don’t yet know which ship of them she is.
John Morfin knows exactly, down to the minute, when his cast is ready to go: when they actually go. “No, I’m not really surprised,” he tells Crozier when it’s discovered that all of them—olga, Masha, Irina, all the Army officers—have departed. For Moscow? John Morfin nods. “I assume. I hope so.” His smile is rueful. “I think I always knew this is how it was going to end. A part of me knew.”
Crozier: “In some ways, it’s a great triumph. I bet Chekhov would have said so.”
At the secret trial of the Men Who’ve Stopped Looking at the Sky, Sir John argues both for and against the accused and why, if it please the court, the sky must always be looked at as well as, if a man chooses to cease regarding it, what does that matter to sky or man? “Are we not free to decide,” he thunders, “as well as duty bound never to stray from the path we’re walking down?”
Thomas Jopson pleads innocence to the last. “This is a mistake,” he says. He doesn’t hear bells or balls, shirks from nothing. “I look. Please. Ask anyone. That’s pretty much all I do.”
Sir John leaves the court exhausted. His calves ache and while he can see his hands he can’t feel them. In his cabin he banks the ashes in the stove. He thinks of suppering but falls asleep instead, without undressing, drooling like an infant, never once shifting his weight the whole night through. In the morning he wakes up sore, knowing what he has to do. He takes his boots off and puts them back on, touches the tassel on his sabre and stokes the stove before going out to the fo’c’sle to gulp
TURTLENECK DRESS ADORNED WITH TINY MIRRORS.
the caustic air. In the moment that the execution party takes aim and fires, Sir John condemns and pardons the doomed exonerated dead men. Some of them use their last words to appeal to Terry, others to curse his feathers.
Exit polls point to a slender win for Sir John but when all the votes are counted, a surprise: he’s running second behind the Netsilik moderate In-nook-poo-zhejook. “It’s disappointing,” he tells his campaign workers, “but those fellers ran one hell of a campaign. Thank you all for your hard work.” In private to Crozier, he can only shake his head. “No use raking the ashes,” he says. “I hope they know what they’ve voted for. I hope they realize what’s at stake here.”
WKING WILLIAM ISLAND, SPRING, 1847
e don’t know how they lured Sir John to the Oceanview: the history of the ruse is simply permanently lost. Whatever Sir John did or didn’t suspect, we know that it was the clerk at reception who ruined the surprise as he checked Sir John in, and that the clerk’s name was Carl, and that he was the one to frown over a problem with Sir John’s credit card. We know that Sir John was disappointed to discover that the Oceanview wasn’t a hotel made entirely of ice, as he’d read somewhere. We know, too, that when he laid his palms on the front desk, he felt the names of previous guests and their spilled impatience soaking up from the cool creamy marble into his hands.
We have it on good authority that Sir John was pleased with his room, a Strait-view junior suite on the fifth floor—thrilled. We know that he went around opening closets and drawers and that his enthusiasm was such that it infected the bellman, Emilio, and possibly even made his day. It was from Emilio that Sir John learned that the seventh floor was indeed made entirely of ice, but that you had to book it months in advance. “That makes sense,” he said. We know that Sir John’s first act once Emilio had closed the door was to check out the expensive snacks in the mini-bar. Without ruling out helping himself later, he turned to what seemed like more of a priority: transferring all gratis soaps, shampoos, sewing kits, and stationery to his suitcase.
It’s not out of the question that clerk Carl, seeing Sir John leaving the elevator on his return to the lobby, felt the need to bustle over to explain that the trouble wasn’t so much to do with Sir John’s credit card as it was that sometimes, if somebody was sending a fax at the same time as someone else was trying to process a payment, the machine crapped out. Sir John was in full rearadmiral kit now, sword and spyglass, sextant in its holster. The headhunters he saw chatting on the big lobby couches were, he assumed, off the clock. Finding his way to the conference level by way of the mezzanine, he paid cash for an early-bird pass to the job fair and took a turn through the aisles of booths carrying his hat. He saw that while there were good jobs to be had—guides, waiters, tree-planters, animateurs, English-as-a-secondlanguage teachers—they were largely seasonal jobs. We know that he signed up for a Friday Interviewing Skills Session and that in every case in which brochures, flyers, coupons or catalogues were made available by exhibitors, he took them and clutched them to his medals.
It’s possible that as the sailors from Terror and Erebus filed into the back room at Pepaiola, the sense was strong in the air that this was a night to which historians would return in years to study, recreating it in colourful detail as the standard opening scene in their books about the Franklin Expedition, without mentioning that the
THE MEN WHO HEAR THE THWOCK OF TENNIS
prevailing smell was that of bruschetta. We can say with the confidence of eyewitnesses that the room itself was done up as a convincing jungle. Palm trees curved up from swales of exotic fern. A monkey screeched as the steamy mist parted to reveal a thick stand of bamboo, over by the rough village in the corner. Magda stood by the door in a long, magnificent turtleneck dress adorned with what seemed to be tiny mirrors, so that the men, even as they ogled her, found their own nasty faces leering back at them, thousandified—very off-putting. Because there wasn’t enough room in the back for all the sailors, Magda acted as gatekeeper/bouncer. You, you and you, she said, not you, you. No one disputed her, argued. They waited on her word, staring at themselves in her shoulder while she decided their fates.
We do have several accounts of the surprise that Sir John feigned even as he felt none. We know that when Magda stopped by to say hello and happy birthday, she held Sir John’s elbow lightly in her hand as they talked. He thanked her and said that as an explorer, he was obliged to ask her where she’d found all this jungle stuff here in the Arctic, the succulents and Mayan ruins, the plaster ocelots.
At nine, just before the presents, Sir John slipped away. Nobody saw. The light in the lobby was bright underwater light, everything a little larger than life-size and trembling. It’s possible that as he passed by the elevators he assumed the slightest of limps but if so, who’s to say why? He took a picture with a handsome family of French tourists and the mother said what about one with your sword drawn and Sir John said he wasn’t really allowed to do that but what the hey, and then after that he took another one with a little boy who made a truly terrible face at his father’s camera that kind of set the tone for the rest of his life, though no one could have known that at the time.
We can’t guess what was on Sir John’s mind as he took a stool in the hotel bar. There was a ball game on the radio and he asked what the score was and the bartender opened his mouth to say but paused, smiled, as though catching himself about to lie. He said he’d find out but then never did or forgot. Sir John ordered a half-litre of Australian shiraz. For the bartender’s benefit he pretended, as you do, to consider its qualities. He was still looking through the bar menu when the bartender came back and said Sir John had a phone call. The bartender produced a ready phone from under the bar different from the one he must have first answered and with one hand deftly guided the cord and the bell vibrated in the phone when he put it down. When he lifted the receiver for Sir John, Sir John made a face, mostly with his eyebrows, to confirm For me? and the bartender responded with his eyebrows, uh-huh, yep, encouraging, even hope-filled, and Sir John stretched his mouth wide as if it had been a long time since he’d talked to anyone and he needed to limber up to make sure he could speak and then he was leaning forward, elbows on the bar and his eyes went up to where the recommended wines were written on the chalkboard amid drawings of corkscrews and he waited while whoever was on the other end waited, too, and then Sir John Franklin said, “Yes, hello. Hello there. Go ahead.” Stephen Smith has written for the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, Canadian Geographic, Outside, Quill & Quire and the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Toronto and at puckstruck.com.
BALLS TAKE NO PLEASURE IN… WELL, ANY OF IT.