It was not night. It was never night, at this time of year. People acted, had to act, as though it were night, even if an essential component had been wrenched from it. In the station of course, people closed themselves into windowless rooms; they had timed lighting and a routine that mirrored the rhythm of Rome in summer. They found that despite the many preferences of the worldly team, Rome suited them all best.
They were not surprised when the first plane of the season did not come, for they had heard the news first on television, then, after the satellite links had been severed, in scattered pulses from the radio before suddenly, one afternoon, there was silence. They thought it at least prudent to prepare the airstrip, if only for form’s sake. But as the landing lights feebly flickered and they gawped up into the great bright emptiness of the earth, they did finally feel alone. They looked back to the white research station, with that squalling feeling of weird love, like the adult that considers the drowsing form of an aged parent.
A meeting was called in the mess and the cliques wandered in their respective nationalities. Individuality had been boiled off, leaving national characteristics as bold as tabloid headlines. What to do? The Russians demanded any system that worked, though feared no system would. The Italians, in chiliastic mode, suggested months of gluttony and orgy and the destruction of all research. The British did not know what they wanted, and they felt guilty about this. The Americans did not know what they wanted, and they considered this their birthright.
We could mention the Irish, the Polish and the single New Zealander, but our story is a short one. As speeches were made, chairs squeaked and eyes perspired. In the end, the only thing they agreed on was that they were both figuratively and literally in a mess. The result was that they would carry on as normal. Each found the notion laughable, appalling even. But at least it had been decided, and there was a comfort in that.
The intervening weeks intervened. Research was done, reports written concerning ice and air and Monday night bingo went ahead as planned. There were though subtle differences. Smiles felt perfunctory, little chores went undone and a book about the mutiny on the Bounty had a high turnover among the team. At meals, there were loud debates about the bravery of Captain Bligh, the tyranny of Captain Bligh; the bravery of Christian, the tyranny of Christian.
So often it is that a decision to carry on as before is no decision whatever. Frightened at the breaking dawn, the troglodyte flees back from the light. This though is not always the case, for sometimes doing nothing is all one should do, for the end has been decided. In such cases, the author feels this represents the utmost bravery.
But it had been decided such bravery should not hold. The Italians and Brits planned to make a go of it across the ice. They would attempt to reach the sea and sail back to wherever. Naturally, they wanted their share of supplies and they would not be placated. As they wrenched cold equipment out of storage, they were assailed by the rest of the crew, aside from a Pole who was suffering from a bout of diarrhea. In the tumult, one of the Brits gashed an iceboot over the neck of the New Zealander and an artery was severed. As she bled in the medical area, it was mooted that while she might survive, but it would require a lot of effort to bring her through, a lot of time and trouble, with nothing certain at the end. And so with quiet but incessant nods, the medic filled her heart with morphine. Someone even joked about whether they aorta to have done that. After, the expedition to the sea was called off.
Like a rushing cripple, days limped toward the shade of the year, towards the sleeping hours. Overhead the team saw the spears and mists of the aurora borealis, or was it the aurora australis, the author cannot remember. During this time work slackened and enmity froze. The peanut butter ran out. The last A-string for the guitar snapped during a rendition of Scarborough Fair. Under the drench of red emergency lighting, the crew told stories. There was a double suicide; two Americans. Some said they could have predicted it.
Time after this, spring came up, rosy-fingered. On the first day that there was day, they all wandered a few hundred meters from the station to see the new sun. It was very cold and someone screamed that there was no hope and that it was a hell here and that he would not return, he would stay upon the ice. When they arrived back at the station it was night again and they were one less, but they all agreed it had been a beautiful sight nonetheless.
Supplies dwindled and fuel became scarce, though this was accepted like the falling of autumn leaves. Rations were lessened without complaint or even notice. It seemed natural to close part of the station, to concentrate life into a smaller space. And so, cots were dragged into rooms and new bunkmates welcomed with handshakes and with kisses. In the mess, they opened their last bottle of wine, and glugged out a mouthful to each.
The weight of days had began to push against the dark as summer came. They were all thinner now. For no particular reason, one of the Italians died in the night, and this, out of everything, caused consternation, wailing, grief. The unexpected still lingered among them.
At last again, once more it was never night. They still tried to hold the routine of Rome in summer, though it was accepted by all that a revolution of the earth had taken place.
Craig Jordan-Baker is a writer and academic who lives in Brighton, UK. He is primarily a dramatist whose most recent works include an adaption of Beowulf (Barely Human Puppets) and the development of a promenade tour Stage Secrets for a major venue (Theatre Royal Brighton). He has also published journalism, criticism and fiction. He is currently subject leader in Creative Writing at the University for the Creative Arts.