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Ian R Macleod

Tirkiluk

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Radio Transmission From Queen Of Erin via Lerwick To Meterological Intelligence, Godalming.     

Confirm Science Officer Seymour disembarked Logos II Weatherbase Tuiak Bay July 28. Science Officer Cayman boarded in adequate health. No enemy activity sighted. Visibility good. Wind force 4 east veering north. Clear sea. Returning.

Noon, July 29th, 1942

Stood watching on the shingle as the Queen of Erin lifted anchor and steamed south. I really don't feel alone. The gulls were screaming and wheeling, the seabirds were crowding the rocks and just as the Queen finally vanished around the headland, the huge grey gleaming back of whale broke from the water barely two hundred yards from the shore, crashing in billows of spray and steam. I take it as a sign of welcome.

Evening, August 2nd

Have been giving the main and backup generators a through overhaul. Warm enough to work outside the hut in shirtsleeves -- but you only have to look around to see what winter will bring. The mountains north of this valley look as though they've been here forever, and the glacier nosing between down from the icefields is just too big to believe. It's twenty miles off, and I can barely span it with my outstretched hand. Feel very small.

Noon, August 3rd

Spent a dreadful night on the bunk as the blackfly and mosquito insect bites as began to swell and itch. The itching has gone now, but I'm covered in scabs and weeping sores. Hope that nothing gets infected.

Evening, August 6th

Wish I'd had more of a chance to talk with Frank Cayman before we exchanged, but there were all the technical details to go over, and the supplies to unload. He did tell me he was part of a Cambridge expedition to Patagonia in 1935, which, like my own brief pre-war experience with the solar eclipse over South Orkneys, was seen as proof of aptitude for maintaining an Arctic weather station. He's a geologist -- but then the pre-war specialisations of the Science Officers I met at Godalming made no sense, either. Odd to think of that many of us are scattered across the Arctic in solitary huts now, or freezing and rocking through the storms on some tiny converted trawler. Of the two -- and after my experience of the Queen Of Erin, and the all-pervading reek of rancid herring -- I think I'm glad I was posted on dry ground.

Frank Cayman looked healthy enough, anyway, apart from that frostbitten nose. But he was so very quiet. Not subdued, but just drawn in on himself. Was impressed at the start with how neat he's left everything here, but now I can see that there is no other option. You have to be organised.

Evening August 9th

My call-sign response from Godalming is Capella, that bright G-type sister of the sun. It means, as I expected, that Kay Alexander is my Monitoring Officer. Funny to think of her, sitting there with her headphones in that draughty hut by the disused tennis courts, noting down these bleeps I send out on the cypher grid. An odd kind of intimacy: without speech transmissions, and with usually just a curt coded reply of Message Received (no point in crowding the airwaves). Find that I'm re-reading the two requests I've received for more specific cloud data, as though Kay would do anything more than encode and relay them, chewing her pencil and pushing back strands of red hair.

Too late for regrets now. And at the moment I miss the stars more than the people, to be honest. Even at midnight, the sky is still so pearly bright that I can barely make out the major constellations. But that will change.

Evening, August 12th

A great bull seal came up onto the beach this morning as I was lying out my washing on the rocks to dry. Whiskered, with huge battle-scarred tusks, he really did look like something out of Lewis Carroll. Think we both saw each other at the about same time. He looked at me, and I looked at him. I stumbled back towards the hut, and he turned at speed and lumbered back into the waves. I'm not sure which of was more frightened.

Evening, August 30th

Really must record what I get up to each day.

I'm usually awake at 7:30, and prime the stove and breakfast at eight. Slop out afterwards, then read from my already dwindling supply of unread books until nine. After that, I have to go out and read the instruments. 12-hour wind speed, direction, min and max temperature, air pressure, precipitation, cloud height and formation, visibility, sea conditions, frequency and size and of any sighted icebergs -- have to do this here at the hut, and then halfway up the valley at the poetically named Point B.

Every other day, if conditions permit, I also have to send up the balloon. On those days -- lugging the gas canisters and getting the lines straight, then hauling it all in again -- there's time for little else before evening, when I have to read off all the measurements here and then trudge up to Point B again. On the alternate days, there's all the domestic trivia of living. Cooking, cleaning, washing, collecting water from the river, scraping off the grey mould that keeps growing on the walls of this hut. Then I have to encode the information and prime up the generator so that valves are warmed and ready to transmit at nineteen hundred hours local time. Then dinner, and try as I might the tins and the dry reheated blocks all taste the same.

Then listen to the BBC, if the atmosphere is reflecting the signals my way. Thought the radio would be more of a comfort than it actually is. Those fading voices talking about cafes and trains and air-raids make me feel more alone than gazing out of the window ever does.

September 10th

Saw another human being today. I knew that there are eskimos in this region, but when you get here everything seems so vast and -- empty isn't the word, because the sea and the valley are teeming with birds and I've glimpsed caribou, foxes, what might have been musk oxen, and hare -- unhuman, I suppose. But there it is. I'm not alone.

Was up at Point B, taking the morning measurements. Point B is a kind of rocky platform, with a drop on one side down to the valley floor and the river from which I gather my water plunging over the rocks, and ragged cliffs rising in a series of grass-tufted platforms on the other. I heard a kind of grunting sound. I looked up, expecting an animal, fearing, in fact, my first encounter with a polar bear. But instead, a squat human figure was outlined on the clifftop, looking down at me, plaits of hair blowing in the wind, a rifle strapped to his back. In a moment, he stepped out of sight.

Frank Cayman told me that he hadn't seen any eskimos, but he showed me on the map where there were signs of a camp-ground. The tribes here are nomadic, and my feeling is that they must be returning to this area after some time away, probably stocking up with meat on the high plains below of the glacier before moving south as the winter darkness rolls in.

They're likely to be used to seeing white men -- the Arctic Ocean was a thriving whaling and fishing-ground before the war -- but I was warned at Godalming to be very wary of them. Was told that eskimos are thieving, diseased, immoral, not averse to selling information to the skipper of any stray German sub, etc, etc.

I suppose I should keep my head down, and padlock my hut and supply shed every time I go out. But now that I know I'm not alone, I think I might try to meet them.   

September 14th 

A long, long day, and the preternatural darkness that fills the air now that the clouds are moving in and the sun is sliced for so long by the horizon gives the whole exploit a weird sense of dream.

I found the eskimo encampment. It lies a little west of the place Frank Cayman showed me on the map, and was easily visible once I'd climbed north beyond Point B out of the valley from the rising smoke at the edge of the boggy land before the mountains. It's only about ten miles off, but it took me most of six hours to get there, and my boots and leggings were sodden.

No igloos, of course, but it was still odd to see eskimos living in what looks remarkably like a red indian encampment from an American western movie, and even more so because peatsmoke and the dimming light gave the whole place a sort of cinematic grainy black-and-whiteness.

Was unprepared for the smell, especially inside the tent of caribou skin and hollowed earth that I was taken into. Seem to regard urine as a precious commodity. They use it for tanning -- which is understandable -- but also to wash their hair. But for all that, I was made welcome enough when I squelched towards the camp yelling "Teyma!" (Peace -- one of the few eskimo words I can remember) although the children prodded me and the dogs growled and barked. A man called Unluku, one of the elders, could speak good English -- with a colourful use of language he'd learned from the whalers. He told me that they knew about my hut, and that they didn't mind my being there because I wasn't eating their caribou or their seals. Also asked him what they knew about the war. Stroking the head of the baby who sat suckling on his mother's lap beside him, he said they knew that kaboola -- whiteman -- was killing himself. They strike me as a decent people; strange and smelly and mercurial, but content with their lives.

September 15th

Re-reading my encounter with the eskimos, I don't think I've really conveyed their sense of otherness, strangeness.

The liquifying, maggoty carcasses of several caribou had been left at the edge of the camp-ground, seemingly to rot, although I gathered that this was their store of food. And, although the people looked generally plump and cheerful, there was one figure squatting in the middle of the rough ring of tents, roped to a whalebone stake. The children would occasionally scoop up a pile of dog excrement and throw it at him, and Unluku took the trouble to walk over an aim a loose kick. He said the figure was Inua, which I assumed to some kind of criminal or scapegoat, although tried to look it up, and the closest I can come is a kind of shaman. Perhaps it was just his name. I don't know, and the sense that I got from those eskimos was that I never could.

September 20th

Supply ship came this morning -- the Tynwald. Was expecting her sometime today or tomorrow. I was given a few much-read and out-of-date copies of the Daily Mirror, obviously in the expectation that I would want to know how the world and the war and Jane are getting on. And more food, and spare lanterns, and a full winter's supply of oil. And fresh circulars from Godalming, including one about the pilfering of blotting paper.

Stood and watched the ship turn around the headland. Say they'll probably manage to get back one more time before the route between the islands becomes impassable. Already, I'm loosing the names and the faces.

October 1st

Looking out through the hut window now, Venus is shining through the teeth of white mountains in the halo of the sun where the wind shrieks and growls, and the Milky Way twines like a great river across the deep blue sky, striated by bands of interstellar dust, clearer than I've even seen before.

I seem to have come a long way, just to make some sense of my life.

October 12th

The eskimo encampment has gone. Climbed up from Point B to the edge of the valley this morning when the full moon was shining, and my old pre-war Zeiss binoculars could make everything out through the clear sharp air.

No moon now. The edge of the sky is a milky shade in the corner that hides the sun, and the wind is up to force 6. There were snow flurries yesterday, but somehow their absence today makes everything all the more ominous.

October 16th

Three days of dreadful weather -- only managed one trip up to Point B, and the balloon was out of the question.

Then this. Been out for hours, slowly freezing, totally entranced by Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. Like curtains of silk drawn across the sky. A faintly hissing waterfall of light. Shifting endlessly. Yet vast. There are no words.

I think of charged particles streaming from the sun, swirling around the earth's magnetic field. Even the science sounds half-magical. I must

An interruption. A clatter outside by the storage shed that sounded too purposeful to be just the wind. And the door was open -- forced -- flapping to and fro. Must say I felt afraid, standing there with the wind screaming around me in the flickering auroral half light. I've re-fixed it now (cut my thumb, but not badly) and I've got the little .22 rifle beside me as I sit at this desk, as though that would be any use. But must say I feel lonely and afraid, as these great hissing curtains of light sway across the sky beyond my window.

But -- being practical -- it simply means that some of the eskimos haven't gone south, and that they have light fingers (although I can't find anything missing) just as I was warned by the trainers at Godalming. Suppose this is my first real test.

October 20th

Out today in better weather taking readings in the pallid light before my fingers froze, I saw a ragged human figure about quarter of a mile down the freezing beach. I assume that this must be my eskimo-thief. Once I'd seen him, somehow didn't feel afraid.

Went down along the beach afterwards. I made out a grey lump in the darkness that the waves were pushing up the shore. It was the body of a long-dead seal -- not something that I would ever like to consider eating, although from the fresh rents an the stinking spillage over the rocks this was obviously exactly what the figure had been doing.

Was he that desperate, or, in view of the rotting caribou I saw at the camp-ground, am I still stuck in the irrelevant values of a distant civilisation? Was always impressed by the story of those Victorian polar explorers like Franklin, who ended up eating each other and dying in a landscape that the eskimos lived off and regarded as home.

But still, I feel sorry for my eskimo-thief, and am even tempted to put something outside the hut and see what happens, although I'm probably just going to attract the white wolves or foxes, or the bears. It might seem like an act of foolishness, but more likely it stems from gratitude towards my eskimo-thief, and for the fact that I don't feel quite as afraid or alone any longer.

October 22

My eskimo-thief is squatting in the hut with me now. Eating, I have to say, like a dog. There's a gale howling, and alarming drifts of snow. Easily the worst weather so far. He was hauling himself across the beach on hands and knees, crusted in ice, trying to grab a broken-winged tern. He still hasn't spoken. His clothes are filthy, moulting caribou hair all over the hut, and he looks almost a child. Very young.

I think he was probably the figure I saw roped to the whalebone stake, which I suppose means that he must be some kind of criminal or scapegoat. The tribe has obviously moved south and left him behind. I recall the stories of how the eskimo are supposed to leave their ill, elderly and unwanted outside in winter for the cold and the wolves to finish off.

He wants more. If he can devour unheated pemmican like this, he must be very hungry.

But he can't be too ill.

Evening

I've made a stupid assumption. My eskimo-thief is a woman.

October 24

The storm has died down. The twilight is deepening but I still get the sun for a few hours around noon and the bay as yet hasn't iced over.

My eskimo-thief is called Tirkiluk. I discovered her sex when, after she'd finally finished eating, she pulled down the saucepan from over the stove with some effort, unwound her furs and squatted over it to urinate. She's terribly mal-nourished. Painfully bare ribs, a swollen belly.

October 27

Hard to tell under all those layers of fur, but Tirkiluk seems to be improving. She still mostly wanders up and down the ashen shore muttering to herself, or sits rocking on her haunches under a sort of awning that she's rigged up in front of the hut out of canvas from the supply shed and driftwood from the shore. Did I really save her life? Was she abandoned by the tribe. Was I just interfering?

October 29

The supply ship came today. The Silverdale Glen. Tirkiluk started shrieking Kaboola!, and I ran out from the hut and saw the red and green lights bobbing out in the of the bay. Thought for one odd moment that the stars were moving.

I got many knowing looks from the sailors when they saw Tirkiluk sitting on a rock down the beach. Many of them fished these waters before the war, and of course there are the stories about eskimo wives being offered as a gesture of hospitality. So, and despite her appearance, the crew of the Silverdale Glen assume that I've taken Tirkiluk to comfort me through the months of Arctic night, and I know that any attempts at denial would have been counter-productive.

They've gone now, and I'm alone for the winter. It's likely as not, I suppose, that word of Tirkiluk will get back to Godalming.



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