Authors: Matt Haig
‘I’m Hugo,’ he said, to her relief. ‘Hugo Lefèvre. You are Nora, yes?’
‘I saw you around, in Svalbard, at the research centre, but we never said hello. Anyway, I just wanted to say I read your paper on pulsating glaciers and it blew my mind.’
‘Yes. I mean, it’s always fascinated me, why they do that here and nowhere else. It’s such a strange phenomenon.’
‘Life is full of strange phenomena.’
Conversation was tempting, but dangerous. Nora smiled a small, polite smile and then looked out of the window. The islands of ice turned into actual islands. Little snow-streaked pointed hills, like the tips of mountains, or flatter, craggy plates of land. And beyond them, the glacier Nora had seen from the cabin porthole. She could get a better measure of it now, although its top portion was concealed under a visor of cloud. Other parts of it were entirely free from fog. It was incredible.
You see a picture of a glacier on TV or in a magazine and you see a smooth lump of white. But this was as textured as a mountain. Black-brown and white. And there were infinite varieties of that white, a whole visual smorgasbord of variation – white-white, blue-white, turquoise-white, gold-white, silver-white, translucent-white – rendered glaringly alive and impressive. Certainly more impressive than the breakfast.
‘Depressing, isn’t it?’ Hugo said.
‘The fact that the day never ends.’
Nora felt uneasy with this observation. ‘In what sense?’
He waited a second before responding.
‘The never-ending light,’ he said, before taking a bite of a dry cracker. ‘From April on. It’s like living one interminable day . . . I hate that feeling.’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘You’d think they’d give the portholes curtains. Hardly slept since I’ve been on this boat.’
Nora nodded. ‘How long is that again?’
He laughed. It was a nice laugh. Close-mouthed. Civilised. Hardly a laugh at all.
‘I drank a lot with Ingrid last night. Vodka has stolen my memory.’
‘Are you sure it’s the vodka?’
‘What else would it be?’
His eyes were inquisitive, and made Nora feel automatically guilty.
She looked over at Ingrid, who was drinking her coffee and typing on her laptop. She wished she had sat with her now.
‘Well, that was our third night,’ Hugo said. ‘We have been meandering around the archipelago since Sunday. Yeah, Sunday. That’s when we left Longyearbyen.’
Nora made a face as if to say she knew all this. ‘Sunday seems for ever away.’
The boat felt like it was turning. Nora was forced to lean a little in her seat.
‘Twenty years ago there was hardly any open water in Svalbard in April. Look at it now. It’s like cruising the Mediterranean.’
Nora tried to make her smile seem relaxed. ‘Not quite.’
‘Anyway, I heard you got the short straw today?’
Nora tried to look blank, which wasn’t hard. ‘Really?’
‘You’re the spotter, aren’t you?’
She had no idea what he was talking about, but feared the twinkle in his eye.
‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘Yes, I am. I am the spotter.’
Hugo’s eyes widened with shock. Or mock-shock. It was hard to tell the difference with him.
Nora desperately wanted to know what the spotter actually did, but couldn’t ask.
‘Well, bonne chance,’ said Hugo, with a testing gaze.
‘Merci,’ said Nora, staring out at the crisp Arctic light and a landscape she had only ever seen in magazines. ‘I’m ready for a challenge.’
Walking in Circles
An hour later and Nora was on an expanse of snow-covered rock. More of a skerry than an island. A place so small and uninhabitable it had no name, though a larger island – ominously titled Bear Island
was visible across the ice-cold water. She stood next to a boat. Not the
, the large boat she’d had breakfast on – that was moored safely out at sea – but the small motor-dinghy that had been dragged up out of the water almost single-handedly by a big boulder of a man called Rune, who, despite his Scandinavian name, spoke in languid west-coast American.
At her feet was a fluorescent yellow rucksack. And lying on the ground was the Winchester rifle that had been leaning against the wall in the cabin. This was
gun. In this life, she owned a firearm. Next to the gun was a saucepan with a ladle inside it. In her hands was another, less deadly, gun – a signal pistol ready to fire a flare.
She had discovered what kind of ‘spotting’ she was doing. While nine of the scientists conducted a climate-tracking fieldwork on this tiny island, she was the lookout for polar bears. Apparently this was a very real prospect. And if she saw one, the very first thing she had to do was fire the flare. This would serve the dual purpose of a) frightening the bear away and b) warning the others.
It was not foolproof. Humans were tasty protein sources and the bears were not known for their fear, especially in recent years as the loss of habitat and food sources had made them ever more vulnerable and forced them to be more reckless.
‘Soon as you’ve fired the flare,’ said the eldest of the group, a beardless, sharp-featured man called Peter who was the field leader, and who spoke in a state of permanent fortissimo, ‘bang the pan with the ladle. Bang it like mad and scream. They have sensitive hearing. They’re like cats. Nine times out of ten, the noise scares them off.’
‘And the other time out of ten?’
He nodded down at the rifle. ‘You kill it. Before it kills you.’
Nora wasn’t the only one with a gun. They all had guns. They were armed scientists. Anyway, Peter laughed and Ingrid patted her back.
‘I truly hope,’ said Ingrid, laughing raspily, ‘you don’t get eaten. I would miss you. So long as you aren’t menstruating, you should be okay.’
‘They can smell the blood from a mile away.’
Another person – someone who was so thoroughly wrapped up it was impossible to tell who they were even if she had known them – wished her ‘good luck’ in a muffled far-away voice.
‘We’ll be back in five hours . . .’ Peter told her. He laughed again, and Nora hoped that meant it was a joke. ‘Walk in circles to keep warm.’
And then they left her, walking off over the rocky ground and disappearing into the fog.
For an hour, nothing happened. Nora walked in circles. She hopped from left foot to right foot. The fog thinned a little and she stared out at the landscape. She wondered why she was not back in the library. After all, this was definitely a bit
. There were surely lives where she was sitting beside a swimming pool in the sunshine right now. Lives where she was playing music, or lying in a warm lavender-scented bath, or having incredible third-date sex, or reading on a beach in Mexico, or eating in a Michelin-starred restaurant, or strolling the streets of Paris, or getting lost in Rome,
or tranquilly gazing at a temple near Kyoto, or feeling the warm cocoon of a happy relationship.
In most lives, she would have at least been physically
. And yet, she was feeling something new here. Or something old that she had long buried. The glacial landscape reminded her that she was, first and foremost, a human living on a planet. Almost everything she had done in her life, she realised – almost everything she had bought and worked for and consumed – had taken her further away from understanding that she and all humans were really just one of nine million species.
‘If one advances confidently,’ Thoreau had written in
‘in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.’ He’d also observed that part of this success was the product of being alone. ‘I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.’
And Nora felt similarly, in that moment. Although she had only been left alone for an hour at this point, she had never experienced this level of solitude before, amid such unpopulated nature.
She had thought, in her nocturnal and suicidal hours, that solitude was the problem. But that was because it hadn’t been true solitude. The lonely mind in the busy city yearns for connection because it thinks human-to-human connection is the point of everything. But amid pure nature (or the ‘tonic of wildness’ as Thoreau called it) solitude took on a different character. It became in itself a kind of connection. A connection between herself and the world. And between her and herself.
She remembered a conversation she’d had with Ash. Tall and slightly awkward and cute and forever in need of a new songbook for his guitar.
The chat hadn’t been in the shop but in the hospital, when her mother was ill. Shortly after discovering she had ovarian cancer, she had needed surgery. Nora had taken her mum to see all the
consultants at Bedford General Hospital, and she had held her mum’s hand more in those few weeks than in all the rest of their relationship put together.
While her mum was undergoing surgery, Nora had waited in the hospital canteen. And Ash – in his scrubs, and recognising her as the person he’d chatted to on many occasions in String Theory – saw she looked worried and popped in to say hi.
He worked at the hospital as a general surgeon, and she’d ended up asking him lots of questions about the sort of stuff he did (on that particular day he’d removed an appendix and a bile duct). She also asked about normal post-surgery recovery time and procedure times, and he had been very reassuring. They’d ended up talking for a very long time about all sorts of things, which he seemed to sense she’d been in need of. He’d said something about not over-googling health symptoms. And that had led to them talking about social media – he believed that the more people were connected on social media, the lonelier society became.
‘That’s why everyone hates each other nowadays,’ he reckoned. ‘Because they are overloaded with non-friend friends. Ever heard about Dunbar’s number?’
And then he had told her about a man called Roger Dunbar at Oxford University, who had discovered that human beings were wired to know only a hundred and fifty people, as that was the average size of hunter-gatherer communities.
‘And the Domesday Book,’ Ash had told her, under the stark lighting of the hospital canteen, ‘if you look at the Domesday Book, the average size of an English community at that time was a hundred and fifty people. Except in Kent. Where it was a hundred people. I’m from Kent. We have anti-social DNA.’
‘I’ve been to Kent,’ Nora had countered. ‘I noticed that. But I like that theory. I can meet that many people on Instagram in an hour.’
‘Exactly. Not healthy! Our brains can’t handle it. Which is why
we crave face-to-face communication more than ever. And . . . which is why I would never buy my Simon & Garfunkel guitar chord songbooks online!’
She smiled at the memory, then was brought back to the reality of the Arctic landscape by the sound of a loud splash.
A few metres away from her, between the rocky skerry she was standing on and Bear Island, there was another little rock, or collection of rocks, sticking out of the water. Something was emerging from the sea froth. Something heavy, slapping against the stone with a great wet weight. Her whole body shaking, she got ready to fire the flare, but it wasn’t a polar bear. It was a walrus. The fat, brown wrinkled beast shuffled over the ice, then stopped to stare at her. She (or he) looked old, even for a walrus. The walrus knew no shame, and could hold a stare for an indefinite amount of time. Nora felt scared. She only knew two things about walruses: that they could be vicious, and that they were never alone for very long.
There were probably other walruses about to haul out of the water.
She wondered if she should fire the flare.
The walrus stayed where it was, like a ghost of itself in the grainy light, but slowly disappeared behind a veil of fog. Minutes went by. Nora had seven layers of clothing on, but her eyelids felt like they were stiffening and could freeze shut if she closed them for too long. She heard the voices of the others occasionally drift over to her and, for a while, her colleagues returned close enough for her to see some of them. Silhouettes in the fog, hunched over the ground, reading ice samples with equipment she wouldn’t have understood. But then they disappeared again. She ate one of the protein bars in her rucksack. It was cold and hard as toffee. She checked her phone but there was no signal.
It was very quiet.
The quiet made her realise how much noise there was elsewhere
in the world. Here, noise had meaning. You heard something and you had to pay attention.
As she was chewing there came another splashing sound, but this time from a different direction. The combination of fog and weak light made it hard to see. But it wasn’t a walrus. That became clear when she realised the silhouette moving towards her was big. Bigger than a walrus, and much bigger than any human.
A Moment of Extreme Crisis in the Middle of Nowhere
,’ whispered Nora, into the cold.
The Frustration of Not Finding a Library When You Really Need One
The fog cleared to reveal a huge white bear, standing upright. It dropped down to all fours and continued moving toward her with surprising velocity and a heavy and terrifying grace. Nora did nothing. Her mind was jammed with panic. She was as still as the permafrost she stood on.
Fuck fuck fucking fuck
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck
Eventually a survival impulse kicked in and Nora raised the signal pistol and fired it, and the flare shot out like a tiny comet and disappeared into the water, the glow fading along with her hope. The creature was still coming towards her. She fell to her knees and started clanging the ladle against the saucepan and shouted at the top of her lungs.
‘BEAR! BEAR! BEAR!’
The bear stopped, momentarily.
‘BEAR! BEAR! BEAR!’
It was now walking forward again.