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winter, passing

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Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
the speculating rooks at their nests cawed
and saw from elm-tops, delicate as flowers of grass,
what we below could not see, Winter pass.

—"Thaw" by Edward Thomas

 

 

I jump in after him. The cold is a hammer to my chest. The sea is dragging me down. In the darkness, my hand touches his. I grab it. My chest is bursting. I'm trying to haul him upwards, but my fingers are numb, he slips out of my grip. Flailing, I strike a body. It isn't Gus. My hand clutches something soft as mouldy leather.

And it clutches me. I don't know where Gus is, I can't see him. I'm running out of air.

That's when I remember the dream.

A silly dream, I thought at first. Me and Gus, rowing. The placid water. Something reaching out of it, that gristly sensation of cutting through joints.

I still have a knife. Don't I? I had the torches, a lantern, the skins. But the knife I used to cut the cheese - had I kept it within reach, or not?

I grapple for my waist, groping in the water. My shirt - Gus's shirt - is tugged open, pulled shut again, by the current, and I can't tell which way's up. I start to panic. I won't find it in time. I'll be pulled down and I won't come back up.

Maybe at least they'll find Gus.

But then my fingers hit something, stuck through my belt. They're so numb I can hardly tell except that some sense of the impact travels up my arm. I don't even know whether I've managed to close my hand around the hilt.

But I must have. I must have, because the grip on me is gone.

The trapper, or whatever it is that's left of him - it doesn't like knives.

 

 


 

 

29th March, 1938

I hardly know where to start.

At the beginning, I suppose. That's right, Jack, just lay it all out straight. Try to keep it in order, and see how you get on.

I don't remember being found. Or being pulled out of the sea. It happened - that is, it must have, given that I'm here to write this. And sometimes I think I can almost see it. All that cold dark water. The boat, the men. Isaak churning the sea white, barking, till they pulled him out too. And me, with Gus's arm clutched in one hand and that knife in the other.

It's a wonder I didn't cut myself or Gus on the way out.

But they got us out, and Isaak too. They hauled us safely to the Isbjørn, waiting further out, and I

I do remember that, a little. Just a flash, if that. The deck under me, not that my numb feet could feel it, and the lights. The lanterns hung up on the foredeck, shining down on me. If someone had told me they were the sun right then, I might have believed it. Hands on me, and

Just write it. Just write it. Do it.

The thing I don't want to say is that in the midst of that muddle, all I've got left of most of that night after being pulled out of the water, there's something else. A feeling of being watched, of something's eyes on me. I'm told they had trouble prying me off Gus, or him off me. And I think I had a sense that if I wasn't careful, if I let go of him for even a moment - the trapper was waiting and would see, and take him from me, and I wouldn't be able to stop it.

We were both hypothermic. They weren't sure how bad it was at first, the way we were shuddering. Because if you're cold enough, you can't shiver anymore. That's one of the symptoms they look for, and that's how they can tell when you've started to warm up.

But what we were shaking with wasn't the cold.

Not that we could tell them that. They were careful with us anyway, given how long we'd been in the water. They didn't have a medico aboard, but it wasn't the first time Mr Eriksson had fished some poor fool out of a December sea. They stripped us down and wrapped us up in every spare blanket and coat and bit of scrap the crew could turn up, and heated up water that they could seal up in compresses for our necks and chests and bellies.

I remember that a little better. I was still half out of my head, and even now, even though I know it really happened, it's like a dream. They'd hung more lanterns so they could see well enough to look after us. And we were probably both still just about frozen, but after the sea, it felt warm. They'd put us on a pair of cots shoved together, and I was warm and lit up and pressed against Gus from head to toe.

Of course I wasn't getting any ideas. Probably didn't have the blood circulation to get myself in trouble anyway. I just knew he was there. There, and safe, and alive - not on the other end of the wireless anymore. Right there, close enough that I could feel him breathe.

After so long alone in all that endless cold dark, I can hardly blame myself for thinking it wasn't real. It seemed so thoroughly impossible. To go from that ceaseless night, that unforgiving cold, and the only other presence so unbearable to me - to this. To light and heat and Gus, our ankles tangled, knees nudged together, chest-to-chest with our heads tucked so close our foreheads kept brushing as we shivered.

And like that, it wasn't so hard after all to thaw.

Everything fades out a bit after that. I remember clutching at Gus's hands. I couldn't talk myself into letting go, even though we were long out of the water by then. I remember Isaak, too. He jumped up on us at some point, I think. I remember the weight of him, and Gus letting out a startled little laugh. I remember him sticking his head in under the blankets to nose at our joined hands, before we pushed him away and tugged everything back into place again.

I closed my eyes, sooner or later. I didn't want it to end, but I was so tired. I remember thinking exactly that, and then wondering how I could be so tired in a dream.

And somewhere in the middle of all that, I remember Gus's voice. Quiet, hoarse, and the brush of his mouth as he murmured against my ear.

'I saw it.'

That's what he said. That it was in the water with us. That it touched him.

'I saw it, Jack,' he kept saying. And I held onto his hands tighter, tighter, as we lay there shaking and Isaak whined, and I didn't let go.

I'm glad I didn't let go.

At any rate, the long and short of it is that we were taken to Longyearbyen and checked over, and then rushed to Tromsø. By some miracle, Isaak didn't get left behind. I think I have Gus to thank for that. Though I could be mixing things up - but I do remember the sound of his voice, raised and insistent.

It was a long dreary stay in hospital, but they did well by us. As soon as Gus's parents could be contacted, they took over handling everything in London, getting specialists in to assess us. Both of us. Gus must have told them what happened, and I'm sure he made it sound very good, like I was some sort of hero and not the idiot who'd dragged him back to Gruhuken when he was almost free.

If he'd come all the way from Longyearbyen with the Isbjørn, just to fetch me because I couldn't call it quits when I had the chance, and gone in the water, and I hadn't been able to

God Almighty. I don't know what I would have done.

Anyway, we're all right now. Gus is perfect, whole and hale as ever - I'd never have expected any less.

I lost some toes off each foot. Only one on the right, but three on the left. It was a close thing, and they thought at first that they might need to amputate the whole foot, but they didn't. Lost a finger, too. My writing hand, but that's all right. As this entry demonstrates, I've worked out how to hold a pen well enough without it.

I don't mind. There's so much more I might have lost to that dark water. And I still remember that dream. In a rowboat with Gus, sawing disinterestedly through those fingers that clutched at me.

Turns out it was my finger that was going to get cut off. But in a way I was warned, I think. And as prices go, that's one I know I can bear to pay.

I called it a 'long dreary stay in hospital', and I meant it. And yet it felt like no time at all before Gus and I were standing in the street outside, free men.

His parents were there, and his sister. She's lovely, of course - just as blond and blue-eyed as Gus. Got the height, and a hint of the square jaw.

If only I looked at her and thought the things I think about Gus! Wouldn't that be convenient. I could just marry Catherine ('Kate', she said, when we shook hands), and then I'd never have to be without Gus, not ever.

But never mind. Of course there was no one waiting for me. None of the Balfours asked any awkward questions, thank God. I suppose Gus must have spoken to them.

He'd been more generous to me than I ever could have expected. He'd even handed off what funds there were left over from the preparation for the expedition, no matter how many times I'd tried to refuse - 'because it would have come apart twice as quick if it hadn't been for you, Jack'. (Of course my dingy little flat's long gone, but that's all right. I can certainly afford to stay in a hotel for a bit, thanks to Gus, until I find a new place to let.)

And all that time in hospital together, too. It was easy to imagine, standing there, that he had to be downright sick of the sight of me.

But he didn't go. He didn't leave with his perfect family and not a second glance. He hesitated, looking at me with those clear bright eyes. And then he took my hands and squeezed them tight and said, 'Jack, I'll - I'll see you soon. All right?'

Not goodbye. It couldn't have been anything but deliberate, the way he was watching me, hands firm and steady around mine.

I didn't even realize it at the time. But now that I think of it, when he touched my hands - he didn't flinch from the place where my finger used to be.

Anyway, I can't even guess what I might have said in reply. I can only hope it was words at all, and that put together they made a sentence of some sort. But whatever it was it can't have been too stupid, because he smiled at me.

And then he did go, of course. I stood there and looked in the direction he'd gone for much too long, though not as long as I wanted to. And then, gradually, as if the thought were coming to me from a great distance, I recalled that it was nearly past the time I'd arranged to pick Isaak up from the kennel, and made myself turn away.

I won't hold him to it. It wouldn't be fair. Even when everyone has the best of intentions, it can be all too easy to find that you've quietly slipped out of each other's lives, and not even realise until it's too late. Maybe we'll manage to keep in touch. Maybe we won't.

Maybe it would be better if we didn't.

But oh, God, I hope he meant it.

 

 

2nd April

He did.

I've just come back from the pub. The same one where we all met in the beginning to arrange everything. The same one where I first saw him - oh, Jack, you are pretty far gone, aren't you?

I told myself not to expect anything. That maybe after a week or two, if I hadn't heard from him, I could at least ring. Come up with something I could pretend to have lost, and ask if it hadn't ended up among Gus's things.

But he sent me a note. Just an ordinary note, but he wrote it out as if it had gone over the wireless.

WHY HELLO THERE JACK STOP
ALL BEST TO ISAAK STOP
EXPECTING YOU FOR LUNCH STOP
WON'T TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER STOP
ONLY ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE "OK" STOP

What a fool he makes me! Five lines on a single folded sheet and I was grinning so hard my cheeks ached.

Oh, Gus.

He did show, of course. I went down and met him and couldn't stop smiling for anything. Told him Isaak was back at the kennel - he's got to stay there except when I go to pick him up for a walk, the hotel won't take him - but I'd pass his good wishes along as soon as I could.

And then we went to lunch.

It sounds like nothing when I put it that way. It was wonderful. When I recognised the pub he wanted to eat at, I laughed. Of course it was still much too grand for me, but - I don't know, it bothered me less. Being there with Gus helped, of course, but even beyond that I think in a strange way Gruhuken made it easier. It's hard to feel embarrassed over scuffed shoes and a cheap suit, when you've nearly been swallowed by what waits in the dark. It just mattered so much less than that I was alive, and that Gus was, and that we were here together to have lunch. It was easy to laugh, and not get bothered about it.

We sat and talked. The food was good. Or at least what I remember tasting didn't put me off, though I can't claim I paid it much attention when I was across a table from Gus. He paid - he was too quick for me, and when I protested, he laughed and said, 'Oh, you'll have your chance to get it next time, all right?'

Next time.

He was so casual about it, saying we ought to meet here every week, if neither of us had anything else to do. And of course I haven't got a job yet. I've hardly even started looking. What else could I have to do? What else could possibly keep me busy enough that I wouldn't make time for Gus?

He looked so pleased when I agreed. Pleased, and almost shy about it - as if there had been any chance I'd turn him down. As if

Don't get carried away. Don't get carried away. I'll write that a thousand times if I have to, just like doing lines in school, if that's what it takes to get it into my thick head.

His eyes are so blue sometimes I can hardly stand to look at him.

But what matters is this: he doesn't mean to leave me behind at all. He wants to see me.

I was trying to be sensible about it, in my last entry. But I wasn't just worried that we'd become strangers to each other by mistake. I was afraid, too, I think. I was afraid Gus would find he preferred to just forget the whole thing, Gruhuken and the things he saw and felt there - and me with it.

But he doesn't.

I won't do anything rash. Of course I can't help but wonder. That's all right, as long as I keep it to myself.

But I can't do anything. I can't say anything. Not if it might make him change his mind.

He could leave me behind so easily. In a sense, he almost did. I almost lost him once already.

I'm not going to risk doing it again.

 

 

15th April

Still having the dreams.

I'd hoped they'd stop. I told myself maybe they would once we left Norway, once there wasn't so much snow and ice every time I looked outside. And then I told myself they would when we reached England. When we weren't on a boat - on the sea. And then when I left hospital.

Should have known better.

 

 

23rd April

I don't know what to think.

I don't know what to write, either. If I even can. Three sentences and I've dropped the pen twice already. My hands are shaking. Just excitement. Hope. Or my nerves getting the best of me. I don't know. I don't know.

I'll just put it down exactly as I remember it. The facts, and nothing else. Then maybe I'll be able to look at it with a clear mind. I'll get a bit of distance from it, and I won't do anything foolish.

Please, God, don't let me do anything foolish.

We got supper, this time. Gus's mother was hosting some sort of tea or something - he couldn't get away in the afternoon, but he didn't want to stand me up.

We've gone to the same pub every time, so far. But this time he said he figured we should have a real meal.

I was so skittish I almost turned tail when I saw where he meant to take me. It was Simpsons - one of those big old places that probably used to be a private club, and of course Augustus Balfour didn't think twice about it, at least not until he saw me quail.

But he wouldn't let me run for it. With those big blue eyes asking? Of course I went in. And it was just as bad as I thought, too many forks and chairs you're almost afraid to sit in. But Gus made it feel comfortable anyway, beaming at me gladly. If I embarrassed him, he didn't show it.

We got a few pints, too, to wash it down. Maybe more than a few. I hardly even remember eating. I was just looking at Gus. Watching him, listening to him, laughing with him. Soaking it up.

He was lovely, like that. I know I should say handsome, and of course he is that. But he was lovely, too - flushed a little, his cheeks and the tips of his ears, and the light falling all golden in his hair, and of course those eyes.

Why do I always end up talking about his eyes so much?

They kept it warm in there, and by the time we were done, we both wanted to be out in the evening air for a while. Usually I'm more careful. But it's nearly May, and this past March had been so mild. Taking a bit of a walk seemed like just the thing.

It was fine at first. But as we came up to Finsbury Circus, the breeze picked up, and all at once I was looking down at my hands, at the place where my finger used to be, and I could hardly breathe for the cold I felt.

'Jack?' Gus had stopped with his hand on my elbow.

I should have told him it was nothing. I should have told him not to worry. It would have passed in a minute. But instead I stood there, shivering in April, and heard myself say, 'Gus - it was so cold.'

I couldn't have blamed him if he hadn't understood what I meant by that. But he did. I could see it in his face - in the look that crossed it, and the way he swallowed. 'Oh, Jack,' he said. 'I know. I know it was.'

'I still dream about it,' I said. Or at least I think I did. I don't know. Half of me was frozen solid, and the other half was sitting there and quietly observing that if he hadn't known my nerves were shattered before, he certainly did now. Gus, who had come away unscathed, intact, as perfect as ever; and standing in front of him at that moment, shaking fit to snap, I felt thoroughly broken by comparison.

It was a miracle he wanted anything to do with me.

He wouldn't have left me there. Not kind upstanding Gus. But I was braced for half a dozen other things I dreaded - for pity, or perhaps wariness that my nervous condition would deteriorate. For a sort of attentive, responsible look. Maybe that was what all this had been about the whole time, the notes and the lunches and everything. Maybe he still considered himself the expedition leader, in some sense or another, and therefore duty-bound to keep an eye on me.

To make sure I wasn't going to end up getting fished out of the Thames.

That's what I thought, at least. But I know now that I was wrong.

Because all he did was take a step nearer. Suddenly I was in the circle of his arm, and his free hand was on mine - drawing them to him, tucking them in beneath the line of his jacket, so the warmth of his body, his chest, began to seep into my aching knuckles. 'It's all right, Jack,' he murmured. 'It's warm here. See? It's fine. You're all right.'

He kept on like that, all manner of soothing nonsense, until I settled. And then I finally had the sense to be ashamed. I'd taken such advantage, leaning in against him and tucking my face into his shoulder, clutching at his shirt. Good Lord. I had to move away, except I couldn't bear to - I had no idea how I'd ever look him in the face again, after that display.

'Sorry,' I muttered against his jacket, hoarse and awkward.

He was silent for a moment, and still; he didn't push me away. And then he moved his arm so it wasn't about me anymore but at my shoulders, and clasped the back of my neck. 'Oh, Jack,' he said again, very softly. 'Please don't. Please don't say that. You were so brave. You were - you jumped into the sea for me. I know you did. You saved me.'

'Gus,' I said, because I didn't know what else to say, and I had to look at him then.

Nearly two hours I've had to think about it, and I still can't hope to find the words to describe his face. It was dim, only the lights from the park and the street, but I felt I could pick out his every feature perfectly. And it was all so much, so close, I could hardly breathe. His hands on me, his eyes.

My heart was pounding so hard I thought for sure he'd hear it. He was looking at me so intently, and his breath caught just a little in his throat, and he swayed in

Wishful thinking. Surely it's only wishful thinking. I might have imagined it.

Except. Except.

He jerked away a bit right after.

I know that sounds foolish. But then I did want to be a physicist, didn't I? The motion of bodies in space. If he hadn't moved toward me, he couldn't have moved away again. I keep going over it in my head, again and again, and no matter what I tell myself, I can't shake the way he startled back like that. As if he'd surprised himself as much as me.

So that is the fact of the matter after all: he jerked away a bit. He cleared his throat and said my name, and then let go of me a little to rub at his face with his hand. 'I,' he said, and then, 'Sorry. Sorry, I'm knackered.'

Why would he have said that, if he didn't feel he'd almost done something a man might expect him to apologise for?

'And drunk,' I tacked on for him. Because it was true, and I didn't want him to think I was bothered at all by whatever it was he hadn't quite done.

He laughed and shook his head. 'That too, I suppose,' he agreed, and then he smiled at me.

He didn't seem to have realised his hand was still wrapped around mine.

'I should,' he said, and then, 'I had better,' and then he stopped again; I don't think I've ever heard Gus fumble like that before. 'I'll - do you need a cab?'

'I can get one myself,' I said. 'Don't worry.'

'All right.' He ground to a halt again and bit his lip.

'OK,' I said, exaggeratedly, as if to correct him.

And he grinned at me, sudden and bright, whatever awkwardness he'd felt seemingly overpowered for a moment. 'OK,' he agreed, and then he added, more softly, 'Goodnight, Jack,' except he didn't move. He kept on looking at me, lips parted, as if there was something else he meant to say but he hadn't quite worked out what it was.

I didn't expect him to lean in. I don't think he did either. He'd never kissed me on the cheek before, any of the other times we'd parted; I'm afraid I may have turned into it a little as I startled, because he nearly caught the corner of my mouth instead.

I froze like a rabbit, and he did too - and then he backed away and let go of my hands and said, 'Sorry, I'll - sorry,' again. He'd flushed, too. Or maybe I just want to think he had, and the light was dim enough to excuse my torrid imagination.

'I'll see you soon,' I said, before he could go more than a stride. Just the way he'd said it to me, outside the hospital - not a goodbye.

And he paused there and looked at me again, so maybe he understood what I meant by it. 'Yes,' he said. 'Yes, I hope so,' and then he bit his lip again and stepped off the curb to cross the street, waving a hand at me as he went.

Well, that was no help. Writing it out doesn't make me feel a fraction cooler, or calmer, or saner. It's as if it just happened, all over again. Oh, Gus. Were you thinking of kissing me, then? And the cheek was safer, you thought, except it wasn't at all - except it only made you more aware of what you hadn't done?

Surely it must be possible. I ought not to hope, I know that. I can't help it.

Oh, Gus. For once I'm looking forward to dreaming. I don't think there's any room for Gruhuken in my head tonight. There's no space in me for anything but you.

 

 

6th May

Perhaps I shouldn't have gone.

No, that's foolish. I saw the look on his face when he said it. He'd have asked sooner or later. There wasn't any avoiding it.

I only wish it hadn't been today.

It was going so well at first, that's all. I'd been looking forward to it all week. Funny - in a way it's been relaxing, not needing to worry about a job for a while, taking things slow. With all the rumors of war getting closer, it might not even matter much longer. But in another sense it only makes it easier for me to drive myself mad. At least at Marshall Gifford I could occupy myself. It was dull, tedious, but it was still something to think about.

But the expedition funds will last months, if I'm careful. I can spend all day mooning over Gus, without one single solitary invoice to distract me.

We met up just like usual. But - dare I say it was obvious? - Gus was odd. Nervous. As we said hello and went into the pub and sat down, he kept looking at me and then away. And it was afternoon, well-lit; surely I can't call it a trick my eyes were playing, that he looked flushed.

And then all the small talk was done, and he was still at it. Looking at me, and then down at his hands. And then at me, and then at the table. And then at me, and then at the bar.

'Gus,' I said carefully.

He looked at me again, and bit his lip, and said, 'Jack,' and then stopped. 'I - oh, I shouldn't,' he said more quietly, as if to himself, and then shook his head. 'I don't know where my head is. I'm sorry. I'm not fit for company today. I'm sorry,' he repeated, and then he flushed further still and began to stand.

'I don't mind,' I said, bewildered, but he didn't pause. I didn't know what else to do but reach for him. He'd set a hand on the table to push himself up with, and I put mine over it and said his name again.

He turned back toward me and went still. For an instant it was Finsbury Circus all over again: him looking at me like that, wide-eyed, mouth parted, cheeks pink, and my idiot heart galloping away in my chest like it had somewhere to be.

I think now he must have been going in circles all week, just like me. Maybe he'd already been thinking about it. Or perhaps my show of nerves decided him.

And even sitting here writing this, feeling heavy all over with dread, there's a part of me that can't help wondering whether he was so nervous because of Finsbury Circus. Because suddenly he felt as though asking meant something different than it would have before.

At any rate, the touch of my hand had stopped him. He wet his lips and swallowed uncertainly, still staring at me. And then he sank back into his seat and said, 'The thing is, Jack, I meant to say - the other night, I meant to tell you.'

And as high as my heart leapt hearing that, it sank like a stone when he finished:

'I still dream about it, too.'

I think I made a sound, though I don't know what. I couldn't meet his eyes, and I remember very distinctly looking down at our hands, which were still overlapped on the table between us, and seeing my knuckles had gone pale.

I'd reached for him with the hand with the missing finger. I hadn't even thought about it. Cruel happenstance, that we were arranged at the table so that it had been the closer.

'I shouldn't like you to think otherwise,' he added quietly. 'I couldn't bear for you to feel ashamed, Jack. It's only that it hasn't happened to me in front of you, that's all. What you felt, what you did - it isn't anything I haven't woken in the middle of myself, in the night.'

I wanted to stop him. To get up myself and order a round of drinks, to come back and pretend he'd never spoken of it at all. But I couldn't move, couldn't say a word, and then it was too late.

'I want to go back,' he said.

Laying it out here and thinking about it rationally, I suppose I should have expected it. Of course Gus - expedition leader Gus, golden-haired square-jawed hero-faced Gus - wouldn't like to turn his back on it. Of course he'd want to come at it head-on.

I still remember reading his journal. How conspicuously silent it seemed to me at times; the way he mentioned what he felt fit to mention and ruthlessly ignored the rest. But I think the corollary is that once something has come up, once that wall's been cracked, he doesn't leave it be, either. If it turns out there's a need to face a matter after all, then face it he will.

In that moment at the pub, though, I hadn't the head to keep calm. I was overcome with something that was almost resentment, in a blind, vicious, animal sort of way. How could he say that? How could he even think it? Didn't he know how the idea horrified me? Couldn't he see that I feared and loathed every word that had just come out of his mouth?

'What?' I said, much too sharply. 'Gus, no. You can't,' and I don't think I meant that he couldn't go back, but that he couldn't want to - that the inclination itself simply wasn't permitted, as far as I was concerned. 'Why on earth would you?'

He'd turned his hand over, beneath mine. He was holding it, fingers clasped around mine, as if to prevent my withdrawing it - which was the only reason I realised, dimly, that I had intended to. As if I struggled to even bring myself to keep touching him, after he said it.

'Haven't you ever thought about it?'

'No,' I said. 'If I never set foot there again, it'll be too soon.' I shook my head. Not even to express my refusal, but as if to shake the very thought out of myself.

I wanted him to laugh. To tell me it had been some sort of strange, off-color joke, and that he hadn't meant it, and I wasn't to worry.

But he didn't. He got very pale, and his face very grave. He was still holding my hand, but he gripped it briefly tighter - as if we'd switched places, and he was the one who felt a need to anchor me in place. As if he thought I might get up and leave, and couldn't bear it.

'I think I need to,' he said.

It came out low, almost too quiet to hear against the noise of the pub around us. There was something else about the way he said it that caught at me, too - a quality almost of reluctance, as if he didn't want to say it any more than I wanted to hear it, but it had been torn from him nevertheless.

'I think I need to. I think it's the only way I can ever get it to leave me be.'

I sat there and stared at him. I wanted desperately to argue. But how could I? And if he truly meant to go back, then of course my fate was sealed. I couldn't let him go alone.

It was obvious to me immediately. But he didn't seem to realise it. He was watching me uncertainly, wan and unhappy. 'I suppose I only wanted you to know before I went,' he said at last.

'Well, yes,' I made myself say. 'Yes, of course. How else could I possibly pack in time?'

I was so frightened I could hardly breathe. I still am. Part of the reason I'm writing this at all is to keep occupied, so I can't write to him begging him to change his mind. If he says he needs to go, then he must. And I can't let him go alone.

But I will say that the way he smiled at me then, startled and tentatively hopeful, almost makes all this feel worth it.

 

 

21st June

I didn't want to write again until we'd left.

Didn't want to think about it. Gus made all the arrangements, and I left him to it. I couldn't stand to do anything else. The only way I could bear this was to pretend it wasn't happening until it was too late to stop it.

I think Gus figured out why I wasn't asking him any questions. He didn't tell me anything, either, except when we were leaving and for how long. He was careful about it, too. Kind. Here we are, on the boat for Longyearbyen, right on the solstice - the day when everywhere on this side of the earth, there's the most light there will be all year. And we'll be leaving 9th August. A full week before the sun will even start to set again on Gruhuken. In case the weather should turn, he said. Wanting me to know he'd thought about it, that he wouldn't let pure chance trap us here for even a moment of real darkness.

It'll be simpler this time around, of course. We won't be overwintering, won't need supplies or dogs or any of that. Just ourselves and the essentials, that's all.

I've brought Isaak. I couldn't leave him behind. He doesn't know where we're going, but I think he's pleased in his own way to be so far north again. Even on the cloudy, misty days we've had, there's a crispness to the air. He must have missed that in London.

Perhaps I did, too.

I don't like to look back through this journal very often. But today we'll be arriving in Longyearbyen again, and I suppose it felt appropriate.

It wasn't the first time I'd revisited some of my earlier entries. I can still recall the disdain I felt for that other Jack, so blithe and eager, almost unbearably ignorant. Except this time, standing on deck in the wan sunlight - for the sky cleared up this morning, at last - I didn't feel that way any more.

Everything I wrote then, about the sky and the water, the ice, the endless light, was all true. It is beautiful here.

That Jack was a fool. But he wasn't wrong.

 

 

8th July

We went.

I knew we were going to. Gus went through it all with me, as carefully and as briefly as possible. We wouldn't be camping at all, but staying in Longyearbyen - the mining company runs a guest house along with the miners' barracks, so we'd be perfectly comfortable.

Two days up, two days back. A ridiculous amount of time to spend getting somewhere we weren't even planning to spend a whole twenty-four hours, but I don't think the ship's captain considered it a hardship to be paid to run such an easy little errand.

The ship is called the Hauk. I didn't ask the captain's name - the only person I've talked to this entire trip has been Gus. He seemed like a pleasant fellow, easy-going.

But if he had anything to say to us about Gruhuken, I didn't want to hear it.

I'm afraid I wasn't good company, that first fortnight. Nothing could hold my attention in the face of what awaited me, and I was sullen and snappish by turns. I don't know how Gus bore it.

And then we went.

I was in such a mood by the time we came in sight of the promontory that even the clearness of the day, the sunlit loveliness of the sea and the landscape and the mountains in the distance, managed to seem somehow oppressive. It was all so exactly as I remembered it, down to the bleached curve of those whale ribs. Isaak could tell I was bothered by it - he stuck close, leaning his bulk against my leg whenever I stood still long enough to let him.

I couldn't stop scouring the shoreline for any sign of a figure. A lopsided shadow; a dark round head. Anything.

That I saw nothing, no matter how long I looked, couldn't reassure me.

And of course the first thing Gus wanted to do was to head up the beach toward the burned-down remains of the cabin.

I might have turned tail and run screaming into the sea, if he hadn't kept hold of my arm, my hand. But as desperate as I was to leave the place behind me, I was more desperate still to ensure that Gus wasn't left alone for an instant.

I haven't been able to shake a sense that I got away with something, jumping into the water and coming out again with Gus. That there should have been a price much greater than a finger or a handful of toes, and that if I wasn't careful, if I took my eyes off Gus a moment too long, that lingering debt would be redressed permanently.

But I didn't take my eyes off Gus, and he didn't let go of me. And like that, together, we crossed the rocks and reached what was left of the cabin.

I looked for the bear post, reflexive, before I remembered I had cut it down. I couldn't see the pieces. I suppose they must have been washed out to sea.

'Jack,' Gus said. 'Jack, look.'

I didn't want to look. But I did anyway, and the strangest thing happened then.

All I saw was a burned-down cabin.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but for some reason that surprised me. I looked at it, and it was just blackened wood. There were cracked toppled pieces everywhere, and a few ends left that had barely burned at all. Ash was caked in the crevices between the rocks, and some of the rocks themselves were blackened, too, scorched in uneven swaths.

I had seen it burning. It stood to reason that this would be about all that remained of it. But somehow in the back of my mind it had still been there, whole. Being trapped within it in the dark, all that dread and fear and pain, had been so much more present to me - and still was - than whatever last brief glimpse I'd had of the flames on shore as I was hauled back into the boat.

I stood there in the sunlight, Gus's hand in mine. A bit of a breeze picked up. The mountains looked sharp against the sky. The water was bright.

It's not that the trapper is gone, or that that terrible pressing sense of a presence has faded. What lingers at Gruhuken will never rest, and I can't ever forget what happened. I won't.

But that doesn't mean it has to keep happening to me. Things change. Time passes. And, perhaps, we move on.

I think I was starting to get stuck. The way the trapper is stuck - caught there, on that cold shore, confined forever within the bounds of the worst thing that ever happened to him. I was terrified there. I was in agony. I felt wrecked by it, tormented, and I couldn't leave it behind.

I didn't want to come back here. But now I've begun to think the real problem wasn't coming back. It was that I hadn't left. I hadn't let go. I was still there, hanging on, echoing.

I still haven't let go yet. Someday, though, I think I will. I'll leave Gruhuken once and for all, and be free.

 

 

11th July

It's only barely the 11th - by half an hour, last I checked. But I'm awake, and I can't wait another moment.

I wasn't expecting it at all. I suppose in a way I'd settled into it. Feeling as I do about Gus, I mean. It's been months and months. Well over a year now that we've known each other, and even back at the beginning, before the thought had ever really occurred to me, I still looked at him too much. Just because I liked to, just because the look of him appealed to me so thoroughly.

I probably should have known right away.

Anyway, the point is that I've been in love with Gus when he was nothing but words coming in over the wireless, and I've been in love with Gus when he was right in front of me. I've been in love with Gus in Norway, and in England, and crossing every wave between the two. In its own way it's become ordinary to me, even unremarkable. I breathe all day long, my heart beats. My name is Jack Miller. I love Gus. None of that is anything I need to pay much mind to for it to stay true. And there was no reason to think that should change.

The two days back to Longyearbyen were rainy but mild, and the conditions weren't anything the Hauk couldn't handle. I think I spent most of it in a bit of a daze, to be honest. Turning everything over in my head, trying to decide how I felt about it. Reading through this journal, in the soft endless July light that even the clouds couldn't block.

The current was in our favor, and it was only midafternoon by the time we came into Longyearbyen.

Gus declared it teatime, and put on a kettle in the guest house. He had some biscuits and chocolate tucked away, too, and brought them out to show me with a tentative sort of smile - as if he hoped I'd be pleased. As if he wanted to make me happy.

We ate it all, laughing at our own shameless gluttony and licking chocolate off our fingers. I think we were both a little tired, but it is ever so hard to think of sleep with the sun still up, and in me, at least, that creeping fatigue transmuted itself into a strange persistent giddiness. Combined with the relief of having been to Gruhuken as Gus wanted, of knowing I would never have to go back again - and of having survived it, having dared to set foot there - I felt boyish and glad, triumphant. As if a long difficult term had ended, and at last I'd been set loose on holiday.

Gus couldn't settle either. It got to the point where we only had to catch each other's eyes to set us off, laughing till we could hardly breathe.

I think he was the one who suggested we might as well go for a walk - whoop ourselves hoarse into the wilderness, let it all out, and stretch our legs besides.

Isaak was thrilled, of course, and went romping off ahead of us over the hillsides, barking at every bird overhead or twitch of motion in the grass and then running back to me with his tail high, wanting to be told how clever and attentive he was. Naturally I didn't disappoint him.

I'm not even sure how far we went. We were rambling this way and that, and finally we stumbled on a broad green patch just as the sun managed to break through the fog a little.

Gus threw himself down with a satisfied sigh, closing his eyes and tilting his face up into the weak light. I dropped down beside him, mostly in the faint hope that giving myself something to do would keep me from staring at him too obviously. Even if there wasn't anyone to see but Isaak.

'Thank you, Jack,' he said.

I expressed my confusion.

'For coming with me, I mean.' He'd opened his eyes again, and was looking at me - not laughing any more, but sober and terribly sincere.

'Oh,' I said, because I'm nothing if not heartstoppingly eloquent. 'Of course. That is, I'm the one who'd better thank you, I think.'

He was quiet for a moment. 'I know you didn't want to come,' he said at last, sounding suddenly wretched. 'You felt like you had to, that's all. I should have told you that you didn't, that it was all right, but I couldn't make myself—'

'No,' I said, before he could carry on that way any longer. 'No. Gus, I'm glad you told me you meant to go. You're right, I didn't want to come, and I certainly never would have on my own.' I tried to suppress a shudder, and failed, twisting to press my cheek against the grass - a good reminder of where I was, that it was Longyearbyen hillside and not rocky shore beneath me. 'But you said you needed to. And I think you were right about that, too. I think we both needed to.'

'Oh, Jack,' he said, very softly, and he reached out and caught my hand.

I looked at him, and then away. I don't even know why, exactly, only that it felt unbearable - that he should be gazing at me with such shy pleasure, such gratitude, as if he had no idea I would have followed him anywhere; and that pale clear sunlight catching his eyes, those damned unbelievable eyes.

I wish I could say exactly how it happened. I wish I could put down every detail, every motion, precisely as it was, preserved here forever.

But I was looking away, and I don't know quite when he moved, or how. Only that he did, and suddenly he'd come up on one elbow and was reaching toward me - over me, I thought, except his hand settled against my chest instead.

I couldn't fathom what for, and I looked up at him blankly, as if I thought he was going to tell me I had a bit of lint. His breath was coming quick, and he bit his lip and said, 'Jack,' again, 'Jack - oh, belt me if you have to, I'm sorry,' and then he caught me by the chin and held me there and kissed me.

Kissed me, and not on the cheek this time.

I was so surprised I think he got the wrong idea at first, but I pulled myself together and caught him before he could go anywhere, and let him know what I really thought as thoroughly as I could manage.

Needless to say, we passed a very pleasant afternoon out there on the hillside. Isaak came back twice to check on us - of course he couldn't understand why we'd stopped walking and were just lying there, doing nothing he considered interesting in the least.

In so many ways, nothing's changed at all. I still don't know what I'm going to do when those expedition funds run out, or whether there's anything I'm fit for. Perhaps the dreams will never leave me; perhaps I'll always fall apart a little when my hands get too cold. There's still a war coming. When Gus and I get back to London - his parents must expect him to marry sooner or later, even if there's nobody with any expectations of me.

But it couldn't feel more different. Gus says he's already been talking with his parents about taking a flat in the city, and that they're always asking after me - that they'd be nothing but pleased if he found a mate to split the place with, and if that mate were me. We could get away with it that way, at least for a while. The war will take him away, even if I'm not fit for service, but he told me he's sure he could survive anything, anything at all, if he knew I was waiting for him.

It's foolish to believe that, I know. I should be rational about this. But I think I understand why he said it - because right now, it feels so real I can almost reach out and touch it. Our flat, but not just that. Surely they'll have some need for writers; analysts, or war correspondents, or something. That way I can keep track of Gus, his unit, till it's over, and know everything as soon as there's anything to know.

And then he'll come home to me, and we'll hold each other when the dreams are too much for us. Maybe we'll even build a cabin here in Longyearbyen, just for the two of us, and spend our summers here: in the quiet and the beauty and the fog - in all that soft and endless light.