"And the ports have names for the sea."
"It's practically polar exploration," said Ralph. "All the chaps who went with Scott to Antarctica didn't fuss about whether or not they could tell their tale at tea parties, did they?"
"Not all of them were gentlemen," said Hugh Treviss.
"Not all of them lived," replied Ralph sharply.
There was a silence. Outside the study boys were saying their end-of-term goodbyes.
"To think," said Treviss, "that while we're wandering the sylvan groves of Olympia and lying half-naked on some Greek island, you'll be heroically fighting your way to Iceland through twenty-foot swells. I dare say you won't even want to look at us when we return."
Ralph could not imagine that would be the case, but he said nothing, merely frowned at the tidy pile of books that sat on his desk waiting to be packed away.
"Are you taking the Phaedrus?" Treviss asked.
"I don't think there'll be much call for it on ship," said Ralph in clipped tones.
After speaking he regretted having been short with his friend. But it was not only Treviss by whom he was called to justify his plans. All the school seemed to have heard. During those last few idyllic days of summer term Ralph was trailed constantly by questioning boys, whether in the tuck shop or on the cricket pitch. Was it true? Was it possible? Was he mad? Crewing on a trawler in the summer hols was one of those things that was simply not done--not by middle-class public schoolboys at any rate.
On the whole the younger boys, filled with the ethos of hero-worship and adventure, took an uncritical attitude towards the whole thing. Thompson wondered whether he would see whales, or maybe sharks? Perceval-Hamilton was more interested in the prospect of glaciers and icebergs. Odell--God, Odell!--made reference to The Coral Island.
It was the other sixth formers who were more skeptical. Some thought that it was a rather swank thing to do, while others thought it the exact opposite of swank.
"You're just the sort who would have driven a lorry during the General Strike," said one arch and superior member of the First Eleven. "While wishing he were one of the strikers."
Another, the sixth's own Communist, approved of the general notion of solidarity with the working classes but was himself spending the summer with his family in the South of France.
Even Ralph's housemaster, though a sympathetic man, had been faintly perplexed by the idea.
"Hadn't you rather go to Italy for the holidays?" he had asked with the casual incomprehension of the wealthy. "Or Greece? Several of the sixth are going together. Treviss was just telling me...."
"I know, sir," Ralph had said stoutly. "They did invite me. But I have to work my passage, you see."
"Ah. Yes. Of course," said the housemaster and desisted.
After that there had been no more mention of the question, through official channels at least.
If intimating the pressure of finances was a faux pas at his school, it was one which Ralph had committed deliberately. For one thing it was true. Though he was an only child, Ralph's school fees were nearly ruinous for his parents, small rentiers in an East Anglian market town. In the preceding autumn his father had sat him down and told him that he would have to win a scholarship if he intended to study at Cambridge. Even then, if he intended to eat as well as study, he would have to consider the necessity of setting himself to work in the holidays. The latter might have been bluff, for Ralph's father was fond of such poses and largely unreliable in his bluffing. Ralph had chosen to take the little talk in earnest and hoped to demonstrate something thereby. Working on a trawler was his own choice and he could not see that it was anything to be ashamed of.
"What about David Blaize?" Treviss was saying, working his way through Ralph's small collection of novels. "Dracula? The Riddle of the Sands?"
Ralph felt a pang at that last but he suppressed it. He shook his head. "It isn't a holiday cruise."
"There's no need to be like that," said Treviss. He opened David Blaize and settled down to read. "I'm only looking out for your intellectual development."
Ralph, as the end of term neared, had found himself increasingly glad that he would not be on that Greek island with Treviss. His fellow prefect was a classicist, fond of quoting Swinburne's "fervid languid glories" and mooning after much younger boys from a purely theoretical distance. Though they were good friends and shared a study, their temperaments were almost climactically distinct. In short, Treviss was not a man of action.
Books were all very well, but one could not live in them; Ralph had the distinct suspicion that Greece, Greece as it was now, would be a disappointment to him. Therefore he had resolved to drown his passions in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. He would return a changed man or, if not that, a man whose knowledge of the world had deepened into something more real and more valuable than the theoretical understandings of the scholar.
To put it more vulgarly, he knew what they said about sailors. He was keen to find out whether it might be true.
In order to embark for Iceland, Ralph had to pass through Kingston-upon-Hull. When he emerged from the railway station a sea fret was blowing in, shrouding the flat and oddly quiet city in implacable whiteness. On the way to the docks he found himself turned around and utterly bewildered, walking down a narrow lane whose street sign proclaimed it to be the Land of Green Ginger.
On that sort of morning one could have ended up anywhere. It was almost a surprise when he finally came upon the docks and heard the soft slap of water against pilings and the creaking of boats at their moorings. Looming out of the fog, the trawler on which he was to sail was indistinguishable from any other, but the first mate was expecting him and he was brought aboard with little ceremony. They slipped their anchor that afternoon and passed down the Humber like ghosts. Ralph never saw the shore to bid it farewell.
His berth on the trawler had been negotiated by his mother's cousin's brother-in-law, who was a timber factor in the city. That tenuous connection, which had been made in any case with the owner of the ship and not her captain, counted for nothing once they were steaming towards the Dogger Bank. From the very start Ralph could hear the grumbling behind his back. It was the midst of the Depression and every man knew someone on the dole with a family to feed. Being relatively wealthy, southern and still a schoolboy, he could hope for precious little sympathy from these professional sailors.
If he was not given the hardest jobs on the ship, it was only because the crew thought him so unable that to give them to him seemed as if it would be worse than leaving the jobs undone. It was hard labour for everyone, whether seasoned sailor or no, and even for a fit, determined boy of eighteen. Ralph scrubbed the decks, hauled on ropes, shoveled coal, and generally did as he was told. He had not expected going to sea to be so much like starting at a new school. Everyone was stronger, faster and more confident than him, knowing all the ropes and speaking in an impenetrable jargon that they expected him to understand without asking. Everyone ragged the new boy. Deep down everyone seemed to hope that they might have the chance to see him blub.
In any other latitude one would have called it work from dawn till dusk, but this was June in the north. As they passed by the Faroes, dawn and dusk spread until night was no more. Whenever he was given a brief respite Ralph would fall into his narrow berth, aching in every muscle and too exhausted to care the hour. Cold showers and games at school were meant to weary boys and subdue the flesh, but they were nothing compared with this unrelenting toil.
A week after they left Hull there came a day of blessed respite when the captain was steaming steadily north in search of bigger shoals. Circling gulls followed the ship, crying their disappointment to the wind. With nothing to do, the men sated themselves with sleep and then set themselves to mending nets.
Ralph had other interests to pursue. Grateful to have escaped the confines of both school and shore, he was not choosy, and he took the opportunity when it came. Being asked to lend a hand in the gear locker was the oldest trick in the book. Ralph followed the other sailor, knowing the score. Amidst the oilskin slickers and coils of rope, with the roar of waves for backdrop, there was not much danger of their being overheard, and once he had mastered the art of allowing for the roll of the ship the experience was not much different at sea than on land. It was quick and unromantic, efficiently satisfying. Ralph returned to his nets with a feeling of achievement that not all the herring in the world could match.
That feeling was quenched very promptly. Both sailors and schoolboys like nothing better than gossip; Ralph soon became aware that all the ship knew, and considered him no better than he ought to be. It was no false sense of prudery on their part. No one, after all, was ragging the other chap, who came from Bridlington and had been in trawlers since he was sixteen. Rather it was Ralph's youth, his class, his damnable public school accent, everything about him that made him fair game.
He was ragged mercilessly. Even in the galley there was no relief from it. One evening, doing nothing more provocative than making himself a cup of tea, Ralph sensed someone coming up behind him. Stinking of oil and rum, his voice rasping in Ralph's ear, the ship's engineer suggested buggery in the filthiest of terms.
"Rather not," said Ralph steadily, forcing himself not to shrink from it. "If it's all the same to you."
"What if it isn't? Boy like you has to do some good on t'ship, hasn't 'e?"
"I'd still rather not, and I'll thank you not to ask me again."
That time he had used, without thinking, the same tone of command that he would have used to an impertinent member of the lower fifth. The chap looked aback at that, sloped away again without asking further. But the thing had been said, and not for the last time.
It was almost, if not quite, enough to put him off all of it for good. He supposed it was his own fault. He ought to have stopped and thought before trying it on like that: he had come aboard the ship with one strike against him already. Giving the men another reason to look badly on him was like agreeing to be thrown into a swimming bath with two hands tied behind your back instead of only one. There was nothing to do for it now but kick like hell and hope he didn't sink.
Hard work, and good work, seemed to be the cure for almost everything at sea. So Ralph kept his head down and his hands occupied with other business. At the back of his mind, he realized, there had always been the fantasy that he would distinguish himself in some way: rescuing a man from drowning or holding to his post in the face of a storm so violent that others had drawn back in fear. Now he had learned that "best," for a common deckhand, meant "least noticed," and that tedium was ninety-five percent of any sailor's existence.
One day at the rail, squinting into the far distance as he kept watch for a buoy that had gone astray, Ralph was musing on Scott's expedition and how it had been in Antarctica. He found himself breaking into low and exhausted laughter at the thought of Cherry and Birdie in a tent together somewhere on Cape Crozier. Might there have been talk, in that little hut over that long winter? Might there have been suspicions and ragging and schoolboy gossip, there just as much as here? He found it strangely cheering, the idea that there might be adversity in exploration beyond that of wind and weather. It gave him a new determination to stick it.
This was a sort of heroism, thought Ralph, that one didn't read about in the Boy's Own Paper. And a passage to Iceland was hardly the worst journey in the world.
His first glimpse of Iceland was not of the shore but of mountains, cloud-surmounting glaciers so pale and insubstantial that they seemed no more than clouds themselves, floating like mirages above the endless sea. They followed the south coast, passing the Westman Islands and the barren lava of the Keflavik peninsula before turning towards Reykjavik.
Three weeks after leaving England they steamed heavily laden into Reykjavik harbor. Ralph was to have three days leave. Having stuck it onboard for that long, though, he suddenly found that he had no desire to stick it for any longer than necessary. He took his pay from the indifferent captain and went ashore for good.
Reykjavik smelt of salt and fish and the faint drift of sulphur. Wind whipped off the sea, constant and rising to a gale, freshening with spray. Ralph breathed deeply. He stumbled, now, because the land was too still. Curious children followed him from the pier, clamoring in an unfamiliar accent where one word seemed to bleed seamlessly into the next.
A passerby gave him directions to the post office, a few streets inland. In the small office he scribbled a terse message on a sheet of letter paper, wanting to catch the boat for Hull.
Arrived in Reykjavik. Very well. Weather fine. Will write again from the next port. Ralph.
With address scrawled and stamp added, it was ready for posting back to his parents, dutiful in promptness if not in length. He felt a twinge of guilt as he handed the letter to the clerk, wondering whether his omissions, strictly speaking, could be considered a form of untruthfulness. As the reason for his premature departure from his ship could never be explained to his parents, it was a fact that he thought better not to mention.
Once he left the post office his mood cleared. There was a square with a church and a parliament building in grey stone, both so small that they would not have been out of place on Marlborough's high street. There was a pond filled with waterfowl. There were houses made from tin, scattered about the landscape like brightly painted toys. And always the fresh breeze and the scent of sulphur and the sense of the nearness of the sea, so that one could imagine the whole of the island of Iceland sailing gaily over the North Atlantic. He regretted nothing. He anticipated everything.
Ralph soon found a room. At the university there was a student hostel that rented out beds to tourists during the summer season. Part of him instinctively disliked the notion of kinship with the trippers who arrived on the pier by passenger vessel, but there was no escaping the fact. He dutifully made the round of the few attractions in Reykjavik, peering at the paintings in the National Museum and gazing at age-worn manuscripts in the hopes of capturing some of the romance of the sagas. It was no use. He had never been much of a museum-goer and in any case he soon exhausted the city's few offerings. For all its northern setting, Reykjavik proved to be about as gripping as being left in Marlborough out of term time.
On board his ship there had been no shortage of rum, and Ralph had quickly learnt the lesson that one's daily ration--or sometimes a bit more--went a long way towards dulling the pains and indignities of shipboard life. Which was to say that Reykjavik, where beer was scarce and spirits almost unobtainable, came as a shock to him. The only place serving drinks was the bar at the Hotel Borg, a starkly modern place which seemed out of keeping with its modest surroundings in central Reykjavik. The bar had an appalling jazz band, gay and gaudy coloured lights, and curtains pulled shut against the midnight sun. He spent his evenings there gazing into his whisky and feeling, all of a sudden, rather more adult than he wanted to be. A bona fide traveller, he thought to himself with a thin smile.
One morning, in the blinding light of a hangover and the sun, which had been up since 3am, he counted his unfamiliar money and realized that he hadn't enough to make the expedition on horseback that he had planned. Not to Vatnajökull; probably not even to Thingvellir and Gullfoss. That was what he got for jumping ship early. In fact he hadn't enough money for more than a few days of cream cakes on Austurstræti and shoddy, regrettable whisky at the Hotel Borg.
Apart from a certain chagrin at his own lack of forethought, Ralph felt strangely calm. There was never any question of what he would do. Indeed, part of him leapt at the thought: he would have to go back to sea.
For the next few days he haunted the harbor, watching the ships come and go. It was an Icelandic herring trawler, the Viðey, that took him on in the end. Three crewmen had fallen ill with measles in the past week, said the captain, who spoke a bit of English. Ralph had endured that rite of passage already, a few years earlier: two weeks in the sicker spent missing lessons and reading old issues of the Boy's Own Paper. It was his reading which had helped to fuel his enthusiasm for the Arctic in the first place; he was hardly likely to turn down the chance to experience it in the flesh.
"Are you working hard?" asked the captain.
"Já," said Ralph, who had picked up a little Icelandic here and there. He held out hands already crossed with calluses from the bite of the ropes on his former ship.
With an almost imperceptible nod of approval the captain motioned him aboard. Hoisting his duffel, Ralph embarked upon his second voyage.
It took him into regions where only fishermen and explorers would venture. Straightaway they steamed north for the Denmark Strait and thence towards the Greenland Sea, that outpost of the great Arctic Ocean. In stolen moments Ralph thought of Nansen and his men in the Fram, frozen fast in the ice off Russia, hoping to drift towards the North Pole and the blue water beyond. Standing at the rail he would gaze fixedly north, imagining all the mysteries beyond the grey line of the horizon.
Mostly there was time for nothing but work, dulling mind and numbing hands as he bent to his labour. Hours and days flowed together without respite under the veiled and endless polar light. They had entered a region where the sun never set but where it seemed that it also never shone. It was as if the sea frets of Hull had risen up, foggy and entire, to swallow the world.
On one of those endless, indistinguishable days they crossed the Arctic Circle. Ralph would never have known if the captain had not beckoned him up to the wheelhouse, where he merited a curt nod and a grubby finger pressed to a line on a chart that meant nothing and everything at once. That was all. It was enough. Ralph, his heart warmed by the recognition, knew better than to presume by outstaying his welcome.
He had read about the ceremony of Crossing the Line, equatorial revels under a burning sun. There was nothing like that on board the Viðey, just the steel grey sea and the encircling sky beckoning Ralph into their impersonal kingdom. Around midday--or was it midnight?--a few solitary flakes of snow drifted down on the wind, a silent welcome. Ralph caught one on his heavy glove and watched it melt away before turning back to his work.
He learned more about cold on that voyage than he had ever known before: the cold wind gusting so suddenly that it made him gasp for breath and then fall into fits of coughing; the creeping, relentless, paralytic chill that seeped into his bones without ever announcing its presence; a numbing cold that fell onto the limbs almost as a blessing. Without that he never would have been able to endure the long hours on deck. One night the temperature dipped so low that freezing spray began to work its inexorable transformation, glazing every surface until the ship was just as grey as the sky. Every wave brought its own freight of spray and they spent hours with all hands on deck, chipping rime ice from deck and rigging,
No one on the ship was bothered about Ralph at all, which was exactly as he liked it. As long as he did his duties, hauled on the right rope and then let it go again without the need for too much shouting, then he was treated as matter-of-factly as if he'd been a pulley or a diesel engine. The life of the ship went on around him and he remained unmoved at the eye of the storm. After the inward-looking, histrionic, hothouse world of school, it was a relief to be let alone with his thoughts and the empty sea.
It was only the end of June, early in the season for these icy waters, but the herring were shoaling already. The Viðey filled her nets quickly and turned again for land.
The shore was at first only a suggestion, a distant, circling knot of seabirds on the horizon. As they drew nearer Ralph could see the cliffs of the Hornbjarg, towering, impossibly angled and still dotted with snow. Down the coast there was a lighthouse, though even this small sign of human habitation seemed alien in such a wild land. Waterfalls poured down into the sea. All the strand was lined with massive logs of driftwood, tossed up like so many matchsticks.
It was hours yet before they would come into harbour at Djúpavík. Most of the men were sleeping wrapped up in their blankets but Ralph stayed on deck and watched, for who could tell when he might pass this way again? Abruptly he wished that he could draw, sketch, record the scene in some way, do anything other than uselessly admire.
Finally the Viðey nosed her way into the fjord. Deep water but there was still a man at the bow sounding lead. Fimmtíu og fimm, fjörutíu, tuttugu og níu. For a moment Ralph missed the herring factory, a low concrete construction with scattered outbuildings, all huddled together under the massive buttressed cliffs of the coast. Yet another waterfall tumbled down beside the factory, its roar replacing the sound of the waves as they came in out of the open sea. Behind the cliffs there loomed a great conical peak.
There were other ships lying at anchor around the wharf, colliers and small coasters. With the wave of a hand the captain sent Ralph to the stern, ready to fend off or to make fast. It was not until they were safely moored to the wharf that he could look around again. The near shore was full of barrels and lined with girls who stood along the conveyor in their oilskin aprons, waiting to gut and clean the herring as it came off the ship. They smiled and waved at the men on the Viðey just as happily as if she had been the Queen Mary.
Ralph felt it would be wrong to hold himself too aloof, so when a flaxen-haired girl caught his eye he nodded and tipped his cap. She smiled and turned to whisper to a friend.
Offloading the herring could not ordinarily have taken more than a few hours. It was pure luck that the crane on the wharf packed it in after the first two slippery, stinking baskets of the stuff. Mechanics emerged from the factory and began to take the inner workings of the crane to bits. Ralph leaned on the rail, watching closely and interested in both language and mechanism, trying to match the men's words to their actions. An ooze of oil dripped down into the lapping water.
"Farðu í göngutúr," said the first mate to Ralph, motioning broadly towards the surrounding hills. His meaning was clear enough even if the syntax was obscure. He took out his pocket watch and tapped it. "Til klukkan níu."
It was then klukkan fimm, which gave Ralph four hours for the strangest shore leave he could have imagined.
Hands in the pockets of his oilskin, he strolled ashore. The factory girls were already beginning to leave the wharf, a few in company with his fellow fishermen. Others eyed him curiously.
"Ertu…?" asked the flaxen-haired girl, slipping off her apron and smoothing down the fabric of her dress.
Are you…? The rest of the question was gone beyond comprehension.
"Ég er ensku," said Ralph matter-of-factly.
Having established his nationality, virtually the only thing which he was capable of establishing other than his inability to speak Icelandic, there was no more that he could say. It was a relief to have his inability to communicate with girls wrapped up so neatly. With another nod he took his leave.
Apart from the factory buildings there was nothing whatsoever to see of Djúpavík. There was no road leading along the shore, only a narrow path suitable for ponies or men on foot. Ralph was not in a mood for following it. His eye was too much drawn by the waterfall looming above the small settlement.
To his surprise there was a path up here too, rough but distinct amidst the brown grasses and the vivid emerald mosses. Whether sheep track or not, it led the way that he wanted to go. Ralph toiled uphill steadily. It was hot work. Though the weather had been overcast since the Viðey had left Reykjavik, the cloud bank seemed finally to be breaking up. It showed a few scattered glimpses of impossibly distant blue sky, then broke completely, lifting to reveal hills and vistas that had not even been suggested when the Viðey first steamed into harbour. Ralph first stripped off his oilskin; later he found himself rolling up the sleeves of his jumper as well. He drank a little from one of the multitude of rivulets that tumbled down the hill, wincing a little at the cold of the water on his teeth, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
By the summit he was glad for the chance to rest. He sat down on a rock and consumed most of a bar of chocolate that he had saved for just such an occasion.
Smiling a little at his own sentimentality, Ralph then dug in his pockets for a scrap of paper and his stub of a pencil. On the paper he scribbled a short note, then folded it carefully around a shilling coin.
I climbed Kanchenjunga. R.R. Lanyon, 193-.
It was a reference to a beloved Arthur Ransome novel, the message left by the children on their ascent of Coniston Old Man--although in the novel they had had a biscuit tin in which to preserve their note to the world. Ralph tucked his own note under a rock and then pulled his hand away again, abruptly self-conscious. He was glad that there was no one to see him.
His eyes were stung by the wind, by the sudden, brilliant, sun. Shading them with his hand he stood for a moment, gazing out at the wide world. All hills and sea under that startlingly intense northern sky.
A waft of coal smoke from down below in Djúpavík set his heart in his mouth. The curve of the highland blocked the village and wharf from direct view, so that he was left guessing about its source. Perhaps it was the desolation of the scene that left him imagining the Viðey steaming gaily out of the harbour, having left him stranded for good. Ralph made most of the descent at a jog, sliding on the loose stones.
When he came back to the harbour he found the Viðey moored just where she had been. It was one of the colliers that had generated the smoke, picking up anchor and coming up to the wharf where she was being unloaded by hand. The crane seemed still determinedly inert.
The captain was standing on the quay with his hands in his pockets, inspecting the machinery. Standing alongside him was a middle-aged man with a prosperous look about him; his wool coat was simply but irreproachably cut, and would not have been out of place in the nicer quarters of London. Both of them looked up as Ralph approached.
"Ah," said the well-dressed man in accented but fluent English. "And you must be Ralph Lanyon."
"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me, sir."
The man chuckled. "Don't be. My name is Jon Jonsson; I am factory manager here at Djúpavík. Captain Gislason has been telling me your story."
"Has he?" asked Ralph faintly, feeling himself a marked man.
"You must come to dinner and stay the night with us. We get visitors so seldom here. My wife and daughter will be very pleased to meet you."
Looking at that still fjord with its colliers and coasters and fishing trawlers all lying together at anchor, anyone could have seen that Djúpavík, though remote, was not short of visitors. What it lacked was a certain class of visitors and this was clearly what Ralph was expected to provide. Unshaven and in his stinking oilskins, he felt that he was making a poor show as an English public schoolboy, but he was all that was on offer.
Luckily he was allowed time for a change of clothes and a wash before dinner. In a tiny bedroom with brightly painted wooden walls, he washed himself as best he could in a hipbath filled with steaming water. Though he dug his fingernails into the rough--perhaps homemade?--bar of soap, they remained stubbornly imbued with the oil and grime of weeks at sea. Having shaved, and put on a shirt and pair of trousers that he hadn't worn since Reykjavik, he looked quizzically at himself in the small mirror on the wall. His reflection smiled quizzically back. Hair growing out of its tidy boarding school cut, almost touching his collar in back. Face tanned and windburned, so that his eyes seemed to stand out very blue. There was a slowly healing wound above his left eyebrow where he'd been caught by a swinging block and tackle. How the blood had poured down and yet how small, in the end, was the mark that was left.
It was odd to be brought so suddenly back to civilization. Was he a schoolboy pretending to be a seaman? Or had it come, so soon, to be the other way round? Over his shoulder he could see the waterfall through the window, still relentlessly pouring down, white foam amidst green-grey rocks.
Ralph tied his school tie. Heavy wool jumpers had long ago stopped itching against his neck but the tie felt like unaccustomed restraint. There was no helping it. He straightened the tie and then went down stairs to dinner.
It was laughable, almost, how like England that dinner was: the blond, pretty, hopeful daughter; the father talking seriously of business; the mother insisting that he take another helping. Never mind that the helping was of heavy, fermented-tasting rye bread, or that outside the cheerily curtained windows stood mountains patched with stubbornly enduring snow, or that the dinner table was illuminated by the eerie sunshine of an Arctic summer night. In some ways the beastliness of it all was clearer up here.
"What do you think of Iceland?" asked Jonsson's wife, lifting another piece of mutton onto his plate.
"It's a beautiful country," said Ralph, not having to exaggerate for the sake of politeness. "Not that I've seen as much of it as I would have liked; I've been at sea."
"But why would you want to be a fisherman?" asked Eva Jonsdottir, her smooth forehead wrinkling with a frown.
"What other way is there to see the world? For a chap in my line, I mean. No expedition will give me a second look if I haven't any practical experience, and that isn't the sort of thing that one gets on the ferry to France."
Jonsson chuckled. "And so you've come on an expedition to Árneshreppur."
"I'd rather be in Reykjavik," said Eva with a little shudder.
Their difference of opinion didn't seem to have soured her on Ralph. From under blonde lashes she watched his every move. Ralph's experience of girls was minimal, not much more than meeting his schoolfellows' sisters at speech day. This encounter was rather more personal and he would have appreciated some sort of guide to the landscape.
Jonsson's interests were more predictable and easily navigated. He had visited England more than once, sounded as if he knew London better than Ralph himself. He was not interested in the feel of a net in one's hand or the colour that the Greenland Sea turned before a storm. Most likely he knew those things for himself. He wanted to hear about school, about Cambridge and Ralph's plans for a career.
"No, sir," said Ralph. "I don't go to university until the year after. I have to stay on to study for the entrance examination. It's a bl--terrible nuisance but there's no helping it."
There was also the small matter that staying another year would mean the chance to become Head of School. Impatient though Ralph was to put away childish things, he found it a considerable inducement, while at the same time feeling that it would be somehow ignoble to mention this. It had been drummed into him that exercising power over others, whether in this sphere or onboard a trawler, was a matter of responsibility as much as privilege.
"Do you study Latin? I myself learnt it at grammar school, and at the University of Copenhagen."
"Latin and Greek," said Ralph. "But I won't be reading Classics at Cambridge. I want to do Geography."
Jonsson looked askance at that, as if Ralph were letting the side down. "Is that so?"
"I want to do survey work. Fill in the blank places on the maps. Measure the elevation of mountains. That sort of thing."
"What is there to study?" said Eva dismissively. "The land goes up and then it goes down again. There is a mountain."
"It's nothing like as simple as that."
"The world is full of mountains," she persisted.
From the whole of that awkward dinner, that was the phrase that he remembered. The world is full of mountains. That night he lay awake in his narrow bed, straw mattress and an eiderdown pillow, watching the sun track the shadows of Icelandic mountains across the ruby red curtains. He had been at sea so long that he could feel the rocking of ghostly waves.
It seemed as he lay there that he could feel the whole of the globe spread out around him, from Háafell looming overhead, to Scafell Pike in the Lakes, to the downs of Wiltshire, to other hills further off and stranger. And all of them endlessly circled by ships borne by tides and winds.
He fell asleep with the roar of the waterfall in his ears.
When the sun began to set Ralph knew that it was time to pull for home. It was getting on for the end of August and the nights were closing in: true nights, grave and blessed darkness that, though not enduring for long, left the crew gathering belowdecks in the evening by oil lamp. He learned the art of woodcarving with a pocketknife; he learned to darn socks; he even tried his hand at knitting, which seemed a different thing when practiced solemnly by Icelandic sailors. They were a taciturn lot and approved more of busy hands than a stumbling tongue.
Herring season was not quite over. The Viðey had only put into Ísafjörður for supplies but it was time for Ralph to go his own way. He left for Reykjavik by passenger steamship, feeling strange not to be at the stern casting off the line. The ship was overheated and close, full of chatter. At dinner he was seated with two maiden schoolteachers from Germany who seemed torn between desire to hear his stories of the seagoing life and distaste at the scent of herring that still clung about his person. Ralph did not blame them. Every meal on the ship featured pickled herring and he felt that if he never tasted it again, it would be too soon.
Coming into Reykjavik harbour for the second time was like coming home. He had forgot about that peculiar smell of sulphur in the air, and the silhouette of Mount Esja against the sunset. The small port seemed absurdly busy compared to Djúpavík or even Ísafjörður. One never would have guessed that the streets of Reykjavik--and even the regrettable Hotel Borg, which he meant to visit again for old time's sake--would feel to him like civilisation regained.
Back in the Studentagardur he had a little room on the top floor with a view of the city pond and its constantly wheeling waterfowl. It was strange to be alone again after so many days in the close quarters of a trawler. After unpacking his things he found himself pacing, measuring the room's compass in his stocking feet, newly knitted socks warm even on the bare lino. To think that soon he would be back at school, in the Head of House's study at that. A window seat and a fag at one's beck and call and one's own gas fire seemed like unimaginable luxury, even if he would rather gaze out on a rolling sea than at the placid downs of Wiltshire.
For long days on the Viðey Ralph had dreamt of nothing but sleep. Having slept his fill on the passage to Reykjavik, all he now wanted to do was to scrub himself from head to toe in an effort to rid himself finally of the lingering and unromantic smell of fish. There was one bathroom on his floor of the dormitory and he went down the hall with every hope, but on turning both faucets to their fullest extent he found that they could muster no more than a rusty dribble of blisteringly hot water. Ralph was sitting on the side of the tub examining the plumbing when another man put his head around the door.
In later years, telling the story, Ralph would alter the place of their meeting to the comparatively respectable Hotel Borg.
"Were you wanting the bath?" asked Ralph, getting to his feet.
"It doesn't work," said the man. "It never does."
It begged the question of why he was looking in but Ralph did not ask. It already seemed irrelevant. Their eyes had met, with the sort of gaze that leaves little doubt.
The subsequent encounter was a mix of fate and convenience, not so much one thing leading to another as one thing suggesting itself outright. The man was straight ahead about it, just as matter-of-fact as if they'd been shaking hands. He had an assured competence that Ralph admired. No words were necessary.
"Saw you in the canteen yesterday," said the fellow afterwards without a trace of embarrassment. "Your room is down the hall?"
"Yes," said Ralph.
"Since we're neighbors of a sort, I suppose we'd better make introductions. Call me Wystan. Wystan Auden."
Now he did proffer a hand, white and ink-stained and with nails bitten down to the quick. His shirt was rolled up above the elbow. His face was blunt and homely, rough shaped as if from clay, and his ash-brown hair was swept back from high brow and protruding ears.
"Lanyon," said Ralph. They shook heartily. "Ralph Lanyon."
"How do you do. Very pleased to make your acquaintance. Don't take this amiss, but out of interest, had you done that before?"
"Yes," Ralph replied, and then: "Not exactly that."
There was a bit of an awkward moment as both of them discovered trousers to be buttoned and braces to be done up.
"You'll find it's a bit of a mainstay. Freudian in impulse, Oedipal really, but dependable... depending on tastes, of course."
"Oh, it was jolly good," said Ralph. Immediately he was embarrassed at his own schoolboy politeness and the unfashionable edge of fervency behind it. He looked away, not speaking again until he could be sure to have settled his voice where it belonged. "Just the thing."
Wystan laughed and opened the bathroom door, letting Ralph precede him out into the hallway. At that hour of the afternoon it was blessedly deserted: no one but the two of them, with the white walls and the garish new synthetic carpet. Wystan leaned easily against the wall, extracting a packet of cigarettes from his pocket. He offered one to Ralph then lit one himself.
"What brings you to Iceland then? Tourism? Adventure?" He blew a perfect smoke ring. "Sex?"
"A little of each, come to that," Ralph admitted.
Though he was standing perfectly straight already, something within him unbowed upon saying the words. He felt as if he'd caught a fresh breeze in the face after days in close confinement belowdecks.
Ralph shook his head.
"No, that'll be me," said Wystan. "Isn't this terribly like being a fresher at a drinks party? I feel as if I should ask you next what you're reading."
"Geography," said Ralph. Then he felt this was too much like pretense. "Or I will do, if all goes well."
Wystan looked him up and down. "Upper sixth? And I suppose you're Head of House?"
"I shall be Head of School come September," said Ralph without false modesty.
"How perfect. It was either that or the Admiralty... No, don't look so surprised; I overheard you telling that ghastly Dutch woman all about your voyages at dinner last night. Would you like to repeat it all for me without the benefit of mutton? Louis is asleep for the moment and we've blessedly just packed off the Bryanston boys, so I suggest that we go for a stroll."
Ralph was not ordinarily one to be led, but he had taken a liking to this bluff and bossy stranger. He stopped in his room to exchange his towel for his peacoat and then went with Wystan out into the Reykjavik afternoon.
They fetched up eventually down by the fjord, sitting on rocks by the shore. After his voyages inside the Arctic Circle, the Reykjavik weather seemed to Ralph very warm indeed. He took off his coat and leaned back in his shirtsleeves. Across the bay clear light was painting the sides of Mount Esja.
"I loathe the sea," Wystan declared. "The sea is formless."
"Ships aren't," replied Ralph instantly. "Neither are the men in them."
"Man, outside of the Icelandic sagas, is the most formless creature of all. A cursory reading of almost any piece of literature would tell you that much. Not one man in a hundred has the slightest notion of the origins of his own drives and psychological makeup. For instance, had you given any thought to what it is that makes you queer?"
Ralph, whose desires had been nurtured in the almost brutally un-introspective world of the English public school, found that he had not. And yet, at that moment, Wystan made it seem the most apposite question of all.
They examined the question at some length while the seabirds cried overhead.
"But the details aren't important," Wystan said finally. "No need in this day and age to be so Victorian about it as to be racked by guilt."
"Guilt is Victorian?" said Ralph. "Tell it to my mater."
"Quite," said Wystan. "But really there isn't the slightest need for it. Wanting to go to bed with men is a natural impulse, the satisfaction of which is no more worthy of specific comment than picking one's nose or... or..."
"Biting one's nails?" Ralph suggested.
Wystan's blunt hand was resting on the worn knee of his corduroys. He tapped his close-bitten fingers with an expression of insouciance. Towards the centre of the fjord, a small fishing smack was sailing into harbour.
"I suppose," said Wystan, "that you're the sort who doesn't believe in bad habits either."
"Not if I can help it."
Wystan gave him a hard look. "And can you? Help it, I mean?"
"Judging by the evidence this morning," said Ralph, "you wouldn't think so, would you? But there's a time to resist temptation and that wasn't it. Things are different in the summer hols. I meant for this trip to broaden my horizons and it has."
"Iceland has less queerness per capita than just about anywhere you could choose, incidentally. Try Berlin. Or the Jermyn Street baths."
"You must think that's all I care about."
"Not all, but it's a good bit, isn't it?"
Ralph laughed. "And to think you're a schoolmaster. I dare say I should have learned a great deal more if you were at my school."
"No doubt," said Wystan. "No doubt."
They talked the afternoon away; the sun slowly circled the spot where they sat.
And on the next day Ralph sailed for home.
Barely three days after stepping ashore in Hull, Ralph found himself back at school.
As Head of House he had his own study now, to decorate as he saw fit. On the wall he had hung a framed Admiralty chart of the waters between Scotland and Iceland. The study was a sunny corner room, second floor and high above the fray, looking down towards the river and the fields beyond. Gazing out of his window Ralph felt like a captain on his bridge. He could hear the distant shouts from a football game.
Treviss strolled in with an armful of books and took his sear in Ralph's best armchair. He put his feet up on the footstool and the books down on the rag rug.
"Cup of tea?" said Ralph without turning from the window.
"Please," said Treviss. This was their usual routine and even the lapse of the summer holidays could not alter it.
In the hall there was some sort of commotion, bumps and scufflings and stifled laughter. Ralph quelled it all by the simple expedient of going to the door and looking out. A huddle of little boys turned fearful eyes in his direction.
"Fag please," said Ralph, who did not believe in raising his voice unless strictly necessary. A very small boy detached himself from the herd and trotted over, looking as though he expected to be caned on the spot. "A pot of tea and two mugs... Jowson minor, isn't it?"
"Yes," squeaked the boy finally, flushing pink with the effort of both remembering his name and speaking. "Yes, Lanyon."
"If you can find anything worth eating you might bring that too. And don't let that lot hold you up."
Jowson scurried off without further comment. Ralph gave the remaining boys another warning look before shutting the study door again.
With the world of school so close around them, it was easy to fall back into those old familiar patterns of conversation. They had gossip to bring back to light after the lapse of the summer holidays, new masters and prefects on whom to pass judgment. It was not until Jowson had been and gone with tea and biscuits that they turned to discussing their own summer travels.
"I half feel as if I never left England," Ralph concluded finally. "The other half is expecting to be woken any moment, with some great bearded chap shaking me and telling me that I should have been on deck ten minutes ago."
Treviss shuddered. "It's not my idea of a holiday."
"I won't say there weren't times when I wished all trawlers sunk to the bottom of the sea. Preferably when I wasn't in one. But..."
His voice trailed off as he spied the book sitting at the top of Treviss's pile of school texts. It had an orange paper jacket and the title was printed in bold yellow type: Look, Stranger! Poems by W. H. Auden.
"...I say, Hugh, could you hand me that book of yours? The one on top?"
Treviss did as he was asked. "Didn't know you read poetry," he said.
Ralph ignored the implied question. The slim volume had already been well-thumbed; he began reading where it fell open.
Behind me roars that other world it matches,
Love's daytime kingdom which I say you rule,
His total state where all must wear your badges,
Keep order perfect as a naval school.
Noble emotions, organised and massed,
Line the straight flood-lit tracks of memory
To cheer your image as it flashes by,
All lust at once informed on and suppressed.
Ralph blinked and clapped the book closed, feeling as though he had been stung.
"D'you know the Christian name of the chap who wrote these?" he asked.
"Wyvern?" said Treviss vaguely, more interested in the chocolate biscuit he was dunking into his mug of tea. "Wystan? Something queer."
"Right," said Ralph. He was still holding the book, weighing it in his hands as if he could feel through its heft and balance what he could not discern through its pages. "I hadn't the faintest idea that he was a poet; thought he was a schoolmaster. I met him in Reykjavik."
"Tell me all, Lanyon. I suppose you didn't even get his autograph."
But Ralph found that he could no longer tell Treviss everything. He could not even tell him how they had met.
"Oh, it wasn't anything," he said finally, looking out the window. "We hardly talked at all."
Beyond the Wiltshire downs, the world was full of mountains.