The Writers Voice
Favourite Literary Website
The Promise E*S*E
As he drifted off to sleep, nerves in his head seemed to crack like the
petrified timbers of some ancient vessel. Then he recalled his own ship, her
death, the brittle planking snapping as they say Hunt's arm snapped when it was
first moved. Like the shots that finished the ponies, he wondered if his nerves
would sort of 'go off' or if the relentless slow pressure would relax and he
could sleep comfortably. Carpenter felt a little cold, one of the few times
since he had resumed the civilized lifestyle that his renewed prominence
demanded. Of course it wouldn't last much longer. He would awake one day to
infamy, or irrelevancy instead of the kind of fame adventuring had awarded. Then
all the warping boards would deform from seaworthy to worthless, to
embarrassment to decay. The fate of all old wood was to rot. But still the
London cold was of a particular nature. Cruel not clean. It roughed him up a
He couldn't see Clara because she was away on tour for three months. And he
couldn't see Emmy because she saw into him and her sympathetic, searching gaze
seemed to burn. And he couldn’t even see Browning because the words were very
tiny and the hotel bulbs were timid.
So he could only smoke away this absurd and undeserved agony of brain. In the
past he would have thrashed it to pieces with a flail of new plans. He would
have rushed to fruition before the smaller men could catch his tail. God, this
was a death he didn't wish to meet.
* * *
‘My darling little Gwen (the only girl living who grows an extra inch taller
each time she sneezes),
What do you think your old Dad has been dreaming about? If you can guess, ask
Mama to buy you a special prize. I can already hear your brains churning and
grinding towards an answer which if creaky will assuredly be correct. We really
thought our little ship let out groans the day she settled down on her ice
pillows to sleep forever. And when the wind howls it reminds me of our ships
sighs. Would you believe that a senseless product of mans toil could experience
such severe distress at the moment of its end, that it should cry out...'
* * *
Soon he was down at Bournemouth, not tired or achy but crackling with a future.
Only at nights did he fear the penetrating eyes of his wife.
"Emmy, I need a ship,” declared Hector, with a fervour that threatened to swamp
her resurgent wifeliness. He loomed avast on the hall mat. Emily's wary look
measured a suffering so extensive it reached to the silvering roots of her hair.
"Where would you head - Alaska?" she said, forcing interest, then, mechanically:
"The North Pole has been claimed, there is nothing new to discover South, and I
don’t believe you could find a Government in Europe willing to back proposals
smacking, to any extent, of risk. Every country's budget's been stretched to its
limit by the demands of war. What few resources there are get funnelled into
And reparations. Versailles had become again a venue for frivolous parties of
ghosts and gawkers. Dealing over. Unless he proposed to colonize the ice-sheets?
But land-grabbing had died with the wild-west. Emily drew breath. She had ticked
off salient negatives.
Over the hallway floorboards their shoes heels mimicked the rhythm of this
regular, eyes-downcast deflation of his intent. Then the warmth of the
drawing-room fire seemed to stall it. He shunted Emily to a sofa powdered by
muslin light, where he dusted a few toys to the floor indifferently, until she
bent to clear them.
"Do our children still play with blocks?" he asked, reclining.
"No, they have advanced beyond the block stage. This is a 'brain-teaser'," she
said, presenting her husband an hexagonal segment. He examined it with an
exaggerated interest then several more shapes as his wife arranged them in a
"You've solved this before?"
"Why do you think that?"
"Because every piece fits where you place it," he observed. "Not much of a
mental struggle, apparently."
"Oh I've not tried it before," said Emily, smugly shuffling triangles into
formation. "But I can see," she added, "this one is for you. It's a humdinger."
Carpenter eyed his wife, amused. He hunched forward, legs together, board on
knees. She held out the central starry polygon for him to fit then winced with
glee at each wrong twist. Its many little sharp points fought off other nestled
shapes flecked with drifting cigarette ash. Even as Carpenter coolly determined
its angle of fit, the prickly star wouldn't click. No matter his accuracy of
calculation, it stuck and stuck. His effervescence began welling into annoyance
when Emily, at last, slipped the board from sight before it could be thrown.
"I'm not interested in tricks." He thought: She will dance on my grave.
Her faint gleeful stutters had scratched at their festering disaffections.
"It's a child’s game," she affirmed.
"Emily, which is the game? This or this?" His arms shaved a wide arc in the air.
In years past she would briskly have said "Don't be silly....", squeezed his
over- animated hand, rung for coffee, rattled on about the children or praised
his pals until he grew bored and hastened away to something important which she
understood wasn't very, but lives had changed so she decided to stare him down -
administer that guiding slap she fancied to lay on the peach-hewn cheek of his
mistress if ever it showed. But a spiritual hurt, visible in his eyes even at
life’s peaks, stopped her, saddened her, made her yearn for a younger love
within those deep, deep eyes. He let the wordless attempt at self-assertion wilt
but felt no complacence. She had sailed with him before on few previous schemes,
on voyages soulwise or seawards. Still he thought it better not to stint with
"Some have made money", he said with confidence. "The arms merchants. Government
coffers may echo stonily whilst bald men soak in tubs of gold." Emily blanched.
That wealth was tainted and it would taint him.
"Why not organize another speaking-tour abroad? I'm sure the continental public
is not quite sick of the Pole. They love to skate. We both know it is any easy
way to earn some money."
"Easy for who? I have to rant and rave about this hellish thing that happened to
us and feed the publics vicarious appetite for disasters. I'm positive they're
sick of me. It’s a frisson, a seasonable thing. I'm a falling apple."
He stared reflectively into the afternoon room haze of languid smoke and weak
sun. He started to kick one foot, wondering at the certainty of Emmy's
opposition to his schemes. Her solemn yearning for a happy home which was beyond
his ability to provide all but quenched his spark.
"Well then", he said. "Try looking at it from a different angle. I could clean
their muddied money for them and make it pay back a thousandfold the nations
from which it was wrenched - in blood," he added, to sound biblical. Emmy leaned
a bit that way Hector had learned this from his friend Mackintosh the last time
the two conferred. Mackintosh acted as carrier pigeon between an oft-times
estranged husband and wife. Then, characteristically, Hector clapped her fist
between his fine hands, adapted his gaze to her as if she was a blank cheque and
sonorously intoned, "I've always wished for nothing else but to benefit humanity
through an addition to Knowledge".
She knew he wanted this to be true. Sincerity even flashed over his face,
briefly, but an unfocussed enthusiasm pervaded as always, along with
disappointment, doubt, fumbling at their grips. She nodded, a nod he divined as
"Well,” he said, smiling, " it's not necessary to confabulate together over
details. I have several plans for the money-side. I just thought you'd like to
know that there's a voyage in the offing. North maybe.... I.."
It would never be north. North was the cradle of havoc.
It belied his candid self to stop short from explosive disclosure yet the
sentence tailed. He stood up, paced about, mentioned their dining together,
unless... He had also heard she was seeing an old flame some nights.
"I have a meeting. Percy wakes soon. Would you like to take him for a walk?" she
said, suddenly charming.
Hector said he hoped the older children might be home as well. He needed
reminding about their respective ages, schools and holidays. He wanted
especially to see their daughter, Gwen.
"Gwennie, said Emily, "greatly enjoys those letters you've been sending. Is that
what you wished to ask her about?" He rarely visited for other than purposes of
divulgence or discernment. "Did you bring gifts? They expect it. If you really
want to do good by the children, send funds as well as fatherly advice. Their
school fees are ballooning. I've read those letters and they remind me of
Polonious who, remember, falls to the blade and is really a butt of jokes."
"I mean my letters to entertain that’s all," he said defensively. "I don't think
I will stay. The car can take me to the station or all the way. The children
won't mind. I can think of lots more exciting, enticing, joyous jumbles for
their occupation. See to it they have enough tantalizing books."
"They prefer to play at the seaside, although the weather has been less than
kind to us."
"Beaches can be windswept places".
After a discussion of practical household and financial arrangements, which
Carpenter dubbed 'ephemera', he motored away, extracting from the gloom a
somewhat distasteful glimpse of a loose-ish, he supposed discontented, woman
framed by porch columns, waving vaguely like a penny-model Venus.
* * *
By the time Sir Hector Aeneas Carpenter arrived in London it had darkened
considerably, street lamps worked magic, pulsing mists hung about. 'Tomorrow,'
he had decided on the car journey, 'telephone Emmy, implore her to come back and
steady my city life.' He urgently needed a round of respectability to re-assure
potential backers and cosy down the rumours; re-create that easy-chair, fireside
domesticity that his people deserved. With destiny rising in the east he could
readily endure occasional probing glances. Married people barely monitored their
others physiognomy, anyway. They just floated past and flagged signals. He and
Emmy that afternoon had not soul-peered. Lost the need. Her eyes glittered in
that doorway like a glass shard in the sun.
'Why am I not flooded with telegrams from the team. I call but the war has
quelled their roving spirits'. He had been trying to round up the old hands from
previous journeys South, hoping their tonic company might reinvigorate his
spluttering engine of achievement. A vision of writhing arms buoying him up, the
arms of all the devoted pillars of his past intensified a desire for succour
from what remained of the night.
He asked the driver to set him down in a street halfway between his own house
and Clara's flat, to keep the fellow guessing. He snuck furtively along close to
spear-point ironwork and cavernous porticoes. Not a twinge of headache. She had
given him her key before leaving. The other piece of her divided affections,
Hickox, had yet to win that privilege. He clothed her but didn't own her. Hector
had quarried a little promontory of her heart. When the front door shut behind
him, he felt hot from walking. He hungered but went directly to her bedroom -
she called it her 'boudoir', where, thoughtfully, an assortment of biscuit tins,
his stash, filled one compartment of her dressing-table. Everyone presumed the
mind-blinding obsession with food nursed by all starving, marching Antarctic
explorers continued forever after rescue. Compensation paid in the form of
rather unusual and extravagant delicacies, as if fattening up the wretches
served as well as medals and buckets of glory. All his comrades had reported
this phenomenon and by now were heartily primed for future bouts of
under-nourishment. Food companies lurked with cameras hoping to snap away at
them munching a wrappered morsel. It was all tending towards the commercial
After a fire had been ushered into life, Clara’s room felt happier so Hector
lowered the light to an after-glow. He crouched before the fire, reddening,
dreamily visualizing her firm figure pounding the stage with anguished hands
wringing. Clara called herself 'Claire De Lune', but with Lady Macbeth entering
the repertoire the stage-name would have to raise a tone. What about 'madame
something-or -other'- for an actress 'mrs' sounded solid - she could invent a
husband. He wondered if Clara had packed her blue satin dress - no it still
clung to the wardrobe hook, like ice, glacial blue. He ran his fingertips down
the rippling smoothness that glinted violet in the flame tinted light before,
withdrawing, laying the gown over the white bed-cover - the plateau and the
river of ice. He had told her the dress imitated nature, stole nature's jewels,
the piercing blue blink of an ice-cave, the turgid hummocks of glacier, the
blinding, swiping sharp-soft canyon of blue, the crevasse. I've fallen into you,
Moony, he said, and you are closing, crushing, swallowing me, shielding me from
the blizzard, squeezing and sliding me towards the fathomless black
who-knows-where and who-knows-how many have plunged to its core. The crisp satin
thawed beneath his breath. Wherever he ran his finger, the dimple filled with
liquid shadows, ice-coloured, cleaving. He lay his cheek upon the sweet-scented
flank, the eternal stream and this time, as a bubble in the grate popped he
could feel it in his chest, the harness knifing his ribs, formless snow
billowing over in wave-clouds and the wind strangling voices and the void and
then her......... the shapeless one beside him, the single multifarious
substance, the water turned woman, the atmosphere coalescing and puffing lung
bursts into one ear, into his nose, all the hollows of his body expanding with
wind rush, lifting him as a gust towards base rock.
Carpenter jerked into consciousness. Tufts of grey morning sprouted from about
the curtains edge. Morning. So much living took place in his restless slumbers,
lately. His scarred hands were buried in the blueness somewhere. It was running
over the carpet now, metamorphosed, from old ice to spring thaw. The heat from
his face and chest, his moist breath had played the gown to dishevelment.
Hector's neck and knees were stiff. He had rolled to the floor unwittingly. Dust
from under the bed teased his throat. Hungover yet he seldom drank rashly. A
nightmare - yet it was not bad tasting like the storm ones. Instead it was
delicious, this residue in his memory, a feminine flavour. Of course it had been
all right, that incident, that pain transformed to gold, because he had
survived. So why could he think it with horror yet dream it with delight? The
ruched sleeve was a guiding hand, the flimsy satin truly flesh. Still it could
accommodate her figure. I must be off my rocker, he thought, crouching on a
chair, feeling for cigarettes, massaging a leg, at a loss.
* * *
During the day, he and Mackintosh applied themselves to secretarial duties, that
is, answering correspondence. Priority of reply went to 'sweet possibilities',
which included any dealings with those in high places, foreign countries,
dubious types [diamond-lipped ones], the super wealthy, tycoons, billionaires,
royalty, bald men and show biz. Press came next, the anonymous public then the
relations. Patiently, Mackintosh dumped paper cairns across a chipped and bowing
table retrieved for the old office, where as Mac had been forewarned, Carpenter
intended to 'kind of camp’ until Lady Carpenter moved back into their London
address. Men that meant something in the world ran things from offices in the
city, he thought. Just setting up a sign had activated previous expeditions, his
old gang of merry men had suddenly manifested, such had been the mystical power
of a sign.
Hector fiddled about with the private-personal stuff.
"This," he said "should be burned. More accusations of my past duplicity...
nonetheless it must be preserved for the sake of history. Do you think I sound
like Hunt, this having to do things for some lofty purpose such as Science. Now
there’s a man who cared for his reputation, a true child of the RGS. A
Darwinian, a poet, a navy man, brave and....unoriginal." Mac normally spent much
of his dictation time bucking up the boss so he said:
"You have an equal if not finer record and reputation."
"Well in certain circles they consider me as an 'example' of some endangered
type. Early twentieth-century man." If only fate would grant him one last chance
to change the pattern. This was the hope.
Carpenter lurched to the window and gazed at various hat-crowns, umbrellas,
packages and scowls which obscured human identities. He would like to have spied
the cheery face of someone known to him, to bolt downstairs and waylay them. He
could sense the paper cairn behind his back, known as 'Bill', towering like a
major depot. Bet they've forgotten the dreamed-of case marked 'treat'. How they
had looked forward to the sweetmeats so thoughtfully deposited at the Bluff.
His imagination ran on a thick mix of Southern allusions and ‘nobilmente'. A
drab herd crowding the pavements he could divvy up into penguins and seals,
traffic became sledges blundering by. He chuckled at a perky, muff-like dog
tottering along as if to remind the Swedes a British dog is what a dog is -
unexpendable, functionless, highly ridiculous.
Could another push to the south fix things? How could he possibly promise to
organize again men and things when he made his wife beg friends for support,
made her ‘manage’?
"Lady Carpenter's coming up to town next week. She may stay. Did I tell you,
Mac?" He spoke boldly, brightly against the street noise without facing the room
but when no reply ensued, he turned, said, less ebulliently: "I'll do some
"Canadian government's turned you down", announced Mackintosh, intaking breath
"Is that definite?' Hector grabbed a stiff beige letter addressed to his
erstwhile canned-food concern and could hardly credit its formality. Reynolds,
the big man, had turned him down. The holiday at his beach house.... quickly he
scanned his memory for a cause - they'd seemed happy together, they’d battled at
bridge, quaffed cocktails, enjoyed poetry, tracked sea-birds. Emmy had even
braved the Atlantic in pursuit of social success. He recalled Reynold's wife,
Arlene acting chummy with Em. Reynolds had virtually applauded Hectors every
utterance, now, he presumed, because the rejection message skirted around
reasons, a turned stone must have uncovered a viper.
"Here's a second letter. It confirms the appointment of a Canadian party to
survey the same area of coastline."
Hector recalled Arlene again, the beautiful Arlene, sun-brown Arlene and her
Early boastful remarks from Sir Hector about this collaboration between nations
breaking new ground etc., rang again tunelessly in Mac's memory, how he 'had the
governor of Canada in his pocket', but as a confidante of the great man, such
uncertainty, let downs and vain hyperbole inevitably ending in uproar, failed to
Perched on the desk, smoking, Hector merely said,
"It's personal, I think." Foolish, he thought, those intimate conversations
about manliness. Lucky survivors, playthings of fate, he'd said humbly, and
she'd asked about seal blood and blubber and how she was sure it made ordinary
men hard like savages and the deprivation, the paring away of sensation
stimulated instinct and how she liked to live instinctively herself and how her
husband reminded her of a sponge. Hector felt he would have liked to have tossed
her to the men after they had regained strength. He explained about the effects
of freezing temperatures and she had said, its warm, its summer, and they had
gone swimming. But what had she told Reynolds? There was more than talk? Hector
looked at his calloused hands, softening up, healing, shaking even. Was she
right? Visions of abandonment on a tropical atoll - brown up his hands,
construct a sinuous, light-weight craft from fronds then navigate to South
America using native dead reckoning. Observe what physical impact heat, fruit
and abundance of unconstrained indigenous island flesh worked on seaman
suspicious of humidity. Then all the world's Arlene’s, basking beneath the tent
of blue, savouring their last passionate coupling with a hard man, might sleep
satisfied. Limply Arlene's instincts had responded to the grimy town flaneur
burgeoning within him while her own man, Reynolds, loomed like a fit Goliath. A
Then he had said: Your beauty overwhelms me. Tenderness in her voice...
* * *
‘Irksome, loopily affectionate, on tenterhooks, fidgety’… ran Emily's immediate
assessment of her Husband's ‘welcome-back-to-the-big-city’ mood. Percy had once
mistaken his Daddy for a postman because he sometimes wore hats that sat
awkwardly like postman’s' caps also Daddy delivered him like a package to other
rooms if the situation demanded absolute peace. Well he had promised to abandon
his stretcher at the office and promised to devote himself to the brood. He
would teach Charles, the eldest of the three, to master chess, a nonsensical
game his prating pater really could not stand.
Straight away, a lack of newsprint around the house convinced Hector of Emmy's
total collapse from an Edifice worth praising, to a shepherds hut, quaint and
rural and redolent of livestock.
"But Hector, I've only been here five-minutes.''
"Time enough to lay siege of a newsstand.”
"I feel you are too much with the boy," he admonished, over breakfast, the
solitary meal they used to habitually chew together. "So I think he should be
left more often with whoever's available, whether your sister or Mrs Lloyd or
"Or the postman. Percy thinks you are a postman. He only has uncles for
comparison and the various shopkeepers and our friends and very occasionally
your friends. In Percy's view they don't seem to have jobs but mostly lounge."
Emily insinuated for the duration of her tea-cup, "And they all sport elegant
suits. They must be the senior postman who don't pay Daddy very well, that is
why he looks untidy sometimes."
His interjection startled her. "I'm surprised you listen to my babbles. I say:
Change clothes! You say your whole life is a ruin, shocking talk from the
world’s hugest optimist, but your children suffer enough growing-pains without
their father creaking around like an old tattered scarecrow since he's not even
old. Gwen will be with us next week. Her school is closing for repair. She only
has one photograph of her father very upright in his uniform. It perfectly
illustrates the sermonizing in his letters."
Did he have her creeping religion to thank for this outburst?
"Why not reinforce my values, Mother, the impregnability of ones inner being,
Teach her the superior value of moral truth above meagre trappings...Mother." He
thrust the word into her harpoon-like. She continually would exclude herself
from social engagements pleading some problem with the children. Their
appearances together had dwindled to greetings quayside or quayside send-offs.
"I've been without fresh clothing for months on end but that didn’t split one
fibre of my soul. Do children care, dirt-scrunching children? In fact I could
run out to the street in rags, even unclothed and still feel capable."
Of what, Emily feared, drawing a crowd? Her horror-struck look coaxed an
infectious smirk to his lips. If he dashed round the table he could spread it to
her, lip to lip, the woman who subsided into motherhood somewhat as his own
mother, emptied out by many births, paralysed within the drear recesses of a dim
chamber and, even duller, her cavity of mind. Emily, on the contrary, blossomed
freshly that morning, seaside sunbursts fading gradually from her hair soon to
be replaced by city soot. But she turned her mouth aside. He humphed...
Their house stood in a prestigious green suburb, sometimes noisy.
"How to you like that clatter of machinery, m’dear?", he inquired, closely.
For the first time in years she felt nervous of her husband's proximity, of the
hands kneading her chair-back, the marmalade breath tickling the tip of her
right ear, the weight of invisible body hemming her in. Then she thought
"How are all your pains, Dearest?"
And automatically she broke the strain. This one entanglement, their marriage,
thoroughly drained Emily's reserves.
"They come and go," he said, desultory. "Like yours and everybody's." What did
it matter if the cramps were sometimes severe and all- consuming? But still he
kissed her hair in a mischievous fashion. "No need to sweat, Sweet-o-mine," he
said, softly. "Your boy's grown up. He's outgrown love and games," and besides
Emily's staid reserve made him feel old. They had crawled through muck together;
a congealing rime of ash and disappointment defined the creases of their face.
He knew from experience that snow would prove an ineffectual soap.
* * *
Clara's manager, Pat Hickox, tolerated Hector, lovable rogue, and looked forward
to their jocular debates on cultural affairs and to after theatre drinks in Miss
De Lune's dressing-room where sparkling glasses, earrings, repartee seasoned a
very gentlemanly jealousy. And though by flashing talent and title the chap had
clinched a lower rung and key, his claim drew scant reflection from the splendid
star aglow atop the tree.
Hallucination, or was the Hickox glow on the wane, wondered Hector as the said
triumvirate, missing one, stumbled up to Clara's door? This hopeful suspicion
followed on the heels of a social success at Claire De Lune's home-coming soiree
at which he had carpeted the entire throng with his speech in homage to the
Ellen Terry acting tradition, the Bernhardt ennui and the Siddons commingling
with eminent persons. None of his hastily whipped up blancmange made any sense
at all and delighted his enemies almost more than the tipsy well-wishers.
Marvellous that this man of action dared to explore well-trod regions of the
liberal arts and make pronouncements as if his trail was the first. Many, in
assorted fields, had questioned his calculations and their methods of
production. Could he expect the fog to sweep away future footprints as
completely as the driven snows? Not unless etched with deep conviction,
impressed. He did utter impressively.
"You seem almost your old self," Clara smiled, radiant and rosy-cheeked,
inflamed by champagne and promotional success, for her alliance with the famous
explorer undeniably drew notice. "Pat and I were talking while we were away
about, you know, your half-heartedness. It's gone. Has something happened?"
"Nothing in particular. Emily has moved back to Ermine Street. She can manage a
household wonderfully well so it’s one less bother for me, for us." He thought:
For my creditors. She thought: Marital bliss.
"I'm rarely at home, of course."
By now they had brightened up the boudoir with a young fire and boiled some
water in Clara's new electric kettle.
"You wouldn't believe the gadgets they have there now," she meant America, "but
I don't think I could live in New York. It's almost too brash after the war.
It's like polishing up one corner of the globe to blacken the others. All talk
of 'old worlds' crumbling. And empires in decline." Clara bubbled with an urge
to declaim, towards what end Hector couldn't see, unless she was trying to 'put
him off'. He yawned uncontrollably. He had been most talkative earlier. She
said, "Well then, dearie, have you been keeping my little nest warm?" She could
trace a smell of his tobacco which bundles of fresh flowers struggled to
overpower. "Remember I said you could stay here when... I don't know, when you
felt restless or seedy, because it all seems easier when we are together, don’t
you think? I leave my worries elsewhere and expect you to follow suit."
She sat at her mirror. Pins and paste and show fell away. Hector's age
diminished. Forty-five to twenty-eight. The flame light swashed Clara all over
like an aurora. It was so much fun. He could play with this woman, he could
whisper tasteless jokes he'd overheard. She'd giggle, they could be boys
together, naughty and uproarious but still she was graceful and round as a queen
in progress. She would lead and he would attend upon her, then like the court
favourite, part the magnificent hangings, disarray pomp and powder, and crush
the virgin in her.
Intrigue. A complicated play of emotion. Hickox was 'helping out'. Hector felt
like a kept man. These people live a cardboard carousel ride of a life. The
swirling plucked at his cuffs, the mechanism sucked him in, the wily high-class,
lover-swapping farce that the east-coasters affected in their mink-white
palaces. Clara seemed less set. She seemed European. She hove to through the
merciless gales of fashion. She was steady. She knew the game. Emily would
console his failures, Clara dispel them.
While Clara snored, he marvelled that such a heavenly creature could, Hector lay
awake ruminating about the varieties of women attached to the varieties of men.
Before his eyes the filthy, weather beaten faces of certain of the men murkily
arose, like ghosts through blubber-smoke then the nondescript plumped-up faces
of their female halves, a number of whom he had met, floated between, like moths
looking to mate. The quieter ones on the ice it turned out generally had loud
wives and the loutish ones had mice. As it should be. Yet one disruptive
crew-member was met at the dock by a wife of leonine stature and all his bravado
shrank. Hector wondered if, conversely, his men surmised things about their
leader and his private relationships. Like Cook's wife or any adventurer's
sweetheart, they wait and they manage. But then how does it run when they are
reunited? How did his men slot in after the ordeal, to their family roles? How
did they satisfy their women or were they not touched by it. A matter of
practicality, he supposed, the women need children but they must want
companionship as well, but then they have their female friends, family
alliances, a sisterhood. Does that sort of bond exist as with men or maybe only
men united in hardship?
He fell asleep.
* * *
The next few weeks dragged over Carpenter an obscuring thick mist. A sunny and
beautiful happiness with Clara swiftly mired in one theatrical sludge after
another. Mackintosh a spy! He couldn't type fast enough anyway. Hector's
dictation careened like an untethered pup, jumping then rolling before crashing
and heavily sighing. At which point Mac cranked over his memory for the proper
phrase. Occasionally a most inapt term crept in, evaded Hector's cursory read
through then embarked on an ethereal concourse bailing insult and regret upon
all it passed. Still Carpenter liked to have him at beck and call because of his
unquestioned loyalty South. It was not surprising, then, Emily's distrust of his
reportage which she partly relied upon for information as to her husband's
whereabouts. As for Hectors ‘activities,’ the mystery remained.
Mac stood a little in awe of Lady Carpenter who represented a filtered version
of Sir Hector, with gusto, charm, determination, humour gone. A tincture of
resignation drip, drip, dripped. Why she couldn't afford to be more generous,
however, Mac was unable to fathom. He was hardly paid for his pains. He was
stretched both ways like rubber but, for self-preservation, always exerted a
backwards pull. He wouldn't give that extra inch even if Emily insisted upon
They strolled along the Embankment, Nanny trundling Percy behind in his pram.
Emily carried a packet of letters and newspaper cuttings that Mackintosh thought
might arrest her suspicious nature. Acclaim for the film of Sir Hector's last
expedition was gradually wheedling stray young men like sated woodworms, into
the light of potential dangers.
"Perhaps this public attention might compel elites to fund another push on the
penguins realm." Money had dried up but had the public's enthusiasm entirely
withered? Woo them with aeroplanes and wireless.
"Yes," she dripped. "Sir Hector can 'gauge a mood', as the expression goes, and
I've been hearing of nought but the wonderful lure of 'whizz-bangery'. Mac,
you've been there. What possible gains can the aeroplane hope to win? Much of
the area has been explored. He tells me its not ambition for himself, but to
serve the ambitions of younger men fielding their own destinies. He may as well
operate a cruise-line. I know... that’s another option of his on the plate."
Even a hint of Lady Carpenter's having borrowed Sir Hector's style of slangy
expression flummoxed Mackintosh, but he likened the long-term effects of Sir
Hec's boomy oratory to shell-shock. A wife would suffer most.
"Anything else?" She sat down dead on a bench and arched her eyebrows at Mac. He
sat down next to her, conspiratorially. A breeze wafted diesel smells from a
bridge. Nanny had lifted Percy up to the railings and was pointing out barges,
dredges and pleasure craft that spangled the river.
"I know for certain," Mac began to whisper up-breeze, "he remains on friendly
terms with both Hickox and Miss De Lune. They dine at the Connaught and dance."
A ridiculous picture of wasp-waisted, swan-necked Claire DeLune and bullish,
eager Hector swirling around the dance floor of The Connaught Hotel momentarily
gagged Emily, then she said:
"It's getting worse. How can he expect support from high places when he's
cavorting like a...goose. What about this Mr Hickox. What does he do while they
Mackintosh hadn't the heart to dispute Emily's genteel idea of dancing. A waltz
it certainly was not, the two-step.
"He just sits, watches, catches up with acquaintances. Rarely are the three
alone. Once...," Mac hesitated, "An associate of Sir Hector's brother joined
them. A face I had seen in the papers, I mean the court papers whilst the
proceedings were underway [the criminal proceedings] maybe a witness, maybe a
co-accused, a name I don’t quite remember...” In fact he did. It was Smith.
Mackintosh wriggled uncomfortably, his sentence drowned out by a bridge hooter.
He overheard Nanny squeal excitedly: "Look Percy, it’s opening for that boat to
pass through!" as a clunky but sleek vessel puttered beneath the pitched span.
Emily shuddered. It was a dark boat, like the arctic ones.
Jack Carpenter, the less bankable of the two brothers, plucked shady associates
as if they were uncultivated, rambling strawberries. As if he could judge their
tartness by their sheen, he gathered freely. If he was the power behind the
‘face’... Emily stopped herself from mumbling, "Poor Hector," in that futile
tone that run-ragged mothers used. He wasn't her Boy any longer, as he kept
reminding. What was kinder for the children - the scandal of divorce or a taint
of criminality? Even after a divorce, everyone would still acknowledge them as
the 'explorer's' children. Just being fathered by a man who 'almost made it to
the pole' handicapped them enough, she supposed. She said:
“Maybe it was by chance, this encounter?"
For reply he merely cocked his head and raised his eyebrows.
"They have had a prior acquaintance then...” A weary dread began to shrivel her
investigations. Mac recalled the nameless one passing around slips of paper, one
which wound its way to the office. He groped in his pocket.
"I have something here that may help you identify Sir Hector's dinner partner,"
he said, whipping forth a frail leaf torn from a cash-book. One side had an
address pencilled on it. Emily took the note and flattened it on her knee.
‘106 Leathwaite Road’ she read and thought, is it London, is it Leeds,
Edinburgh, Basle? The corners of her lips turned down with frustration, sorrow,
incomprehension. Percy tottered to his Mother, she said, abstracted: "Hello
Nanny called, "I'm blowing my nose, Madam," and fussed with her supply of sundry
white cloths. Not a handkerchief among them. Then suddenly the child lunged at
the railings and had it not been for an athletic amanuensis he might have
cleared them like a rebel chimpanzee. Mac passed him back to his 'very, very
sorry Sir’ Nurse.
Flicked by the breeze from Percy's curious fingers, a paper snowflake curtsied
over and over then corkscrewed towards the tons of water surging below
scattered, indistinct groups of pedestrians. But one, bemusedly, noted its
descent and probable dissolution. Emily imagined her 'clue' disintegrating like
sugar somewhere astern the snaking black boat.
Critique this work
Click on the book to leave a comment about this work