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Authors: Hammond; Innes


BOOK: Isvik
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Hammond Innes

To the memory of


who was only able to travel

the first half of this book with me




























January, and East Anglia under a mantle of snow. It was still falling, tiny flakes driving across the flatness of the airfield, hangars edged with icicles and only the cleared runway cutting a black swathe through the bitter cold. I had left the guardroom till last, knowing they would have kept it warm. There was damp rot in the floorboards under the reception window, worm in door lintels that were beginning to rot at the base. I completed the entries on my clipboard and stood there for a moment checking back through my notes.

The Admin Sergeant, who had been escorting me round the various messes and quarters, returned from answering the phone. ‘Station Commander would like you to join him for a drink before you leave.'

I didn't say anything, my mind concentrated on the job in hand, wondering whether I had missed anything. Twenty-three pages of notes and tomorrow I would have to cost it all out, produce a report, and an estimate, of course. It was an old station, mostly built in the war years, the quarters patched again and again, windows and doors largely of untreated wood protected only by paint. There were huts, too, that were beginning to crumble. It would be quite a big job, and whether Pett, Poldice got it would depend on my figures, as would the profit they made, and this was my first big survey since the company had been taken over.

I closed my clipboard. The Sergeant repeated the invitation and I asked him, why the Station Commander? I had done RAF stations before and it was the Wing Commander Admin who had always looked after me, never the Station Commander.

‘Couldn't say, sir.' He glanced at the clock over the desk. ‘He's waiting for you in the officers' mess, so if you've finished I'll take you across.'

It was past one and no sign of a rise in temperature as we walked along the frozen roadway past the main gate where the security men huddled for warmth in their glassed-in box. The sound of engines warming up was loud on the freezing wind and our breath smoked. The Great Ouse would be edged with ice today right down to King's Lynn, and my little yawl, lying in its gut on the Blakeney salt marshes, would be frozen in.

The Group Captain was waiting for me in the main bar, a tall, dark man with an aquiline nose and a craggy face. There was a wing commander and a squadron leader with him, but he didn't introduce me and they drifted away as he asked me what I would have to drink. When I said a whisky mac, he nodded – ‘Good choice, but I'm flying this afternoon.' He was drinking orange juice.

The bar was dark, the lights on, and as soon as I had been handed my drink he took me over to a table in the far corner. ‘You know a good deal about ships, I believe. Wooden ships.' He waved me to a chair.

‘Do you mean sailing ships?'

He nodded.

I told him I had been on a few. ‘Sail training ships.' The grateful warmth of the drink seeped down into my stomach. ‘And I've a boat of my own,' I added. ‘Wood, not fibreglass. Why?'

‘Old ships,' he said, not answering my question. ‘Square-riggers.' He reached into the buttoned pocket of his uniform and pulled out several folded sheets of paper. ‘This time last year I was in the Falklands.' He was silent a moment, looking down at the sheets. His mind seemed to have drifted back to his period on the islands. ‘Strange place,' he murmured. ‘The most extraordinary command I ever had.' He lifted his head, his eyes focussing on me again. ‘How long do you reckon a wooden ship would last in the Antarctic, in the sort of icy conditions you get down there?'

‘I don't know,' I said. ‘Depends on a lot of things – the type of timber used in the construction of the hull, its condition, the latitude you're talking about and the range of temperature.' And I added, ‘It's also a question of how many months of the year it's' subjected to freezing, and particularly whether the timbers are immersed all the time. If the air has been allowed to get at them …' I hesitated, staring at him and wondering what was in his mind. ‘So many variables, it's impossible to say without knowing all the circumstances.'

He nodded, opening out the folded sheets and smoothing them against his knee.

They were photocopies of what looked like pages from a notebook, very creased and the scribble illegible from where I was sitting. ‘You're thinking of the hulks still lying around the Falklands, are you?' I asked him. One of our directors had gone out there at the time they were preparing the SS
Great Britain
for the long haul back to the original graving dock in Bristol where she had been built. He gave slide shows locally of the pictures he had taken, and since wood preservation was still the company's main business, many of the pictures were close-ups of the wrecked and abandoned ships he had seen around the islands. ‘If you want information about the Falkland hulks, you'd better ask Ted Elton,' I told him.

‘No, not around the Falklands. I don't know where, that's the trouble.' He tapped the sheets he was holding. ‘These are pages from a glaciologist's notebook. They were found on his body and I had them copied before sending his things back to London.' He passed them across to me. ‘He was probably on the flight deck waiting for his first sight of the Ice Shelf, otherwise he wouldn't have seen it.' And he added slowly, ‘Or did he imagine it?'

‘What?' I asked.

‘A ship. A big sailing ship. Locked in the ice.'

‘An old ship? You said something about an old ship, a square-rigger.'

He nodded. ‘Read what he says.' He passed me the sheets and I held them up to the light.

There were three of them stapled together and the first words that caught my eye were:
Masts gone, of course. Just the stumps, all coated in ice. The deck, too. All I could see was the outline. An old wooden ship. I'm certain. Unfortunately my camera was back aft with my gear. Three masts and what looked like gun ports, the deck a clear stretch of ice bounded by battered bulwarks, and aft of the wheel …

I turned to the second page, the writing suddenly very shaky, almost illegible, as though the aircraft had hit turbulence.…
a figure. The helmsman, frozen to the wheel. That's what it looked like. The ghost of a man, and the ghost of a ship, all draped in white, snow or ice, only the outline showing. And then it was gone, my eyes blinking in the ice glare. I almost didn't believe what I had seen, but this is what it looked like …
And on the third page he had drawn a rough sketch of the vessel.

‘Have you shown this to anyone with a knowledge of old ships?' I asked the Group Captain.

‘I haven't personally,' he said, ‘but the National Maritime have reported on it. They say it looks like an early nineteenth-century frigate. But of course that's largely guesswork. The sketch is too rough for anybody to be certain, and the question they raise is the same that everybody has raised who has read those pages – did Sunderby really see it or did he hallucinate? His name was Charles Sunderby.' He paused, tugging at the lobe of his left ear. ‘He had been home on sick leave, his trouble apparently requiring psychiatric treatment.' He said it hesitantly. ‘The effect of a winter at McMurdo. He had done several Sno-Cat journeys to icebergs out in the pack, examining the heavy layering that apparently takes place when new ice is forced up over older ice.' He turned his head, looking suddenly straight at me. ‘So, back to my original question: could a wooden vessel of the late 1700s, or early 1800s, survive almost two centuries in that part of the world? I know in Alaska and the north of Canada, where there are no termites, wood can last almost indefinitely. The gun carriages at Fort Churchill, they go back to the formative years of the Hudson Bay Company.'

‘It depends very much on the degree of humidity in the summer months,' I said. ‘But even if the timber could last, would the ship?'

He nodded. ‘Knowing what the winds are like down there you're probably right. But I met the man. We had a drink together the night before he left.' He sat there for a moment, staring down at his glass, lost in thought. The odd thing was he was scared. That's why it sticks in my mind so.' He spoke slowly, reminiscing. ‘A glaciologist and scared of the ice. That's why he'd been home on leave, to sort his problem out. Or did he have some sort of premonition? Do you believe in that sort of thing?'

He looked up at me, his grey eyes wide. Not the sort of man who'd know about fear, I thought. And then he said, ‘Poor bugger. I nearly lent him my amulet – the one given me by an Ethiopian just before he died. We were on the grain run from Djibouti. Grain and rice, and I had pulled him aboard at the last minute, thinking to hell with regulations, I'd save one of the poor bastards. But I didn't succeed and he gave me this …'

BOOK: Isvik
7.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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