|Beyond The Ice
Author: ThreeOranges PM
After the events of TWD, Sym still needs lessons in navigating the ice-fields. Titus, as always, is happy to oblige. COMPLETE.Rated: Fiction T - English - Friendship - Sym & Titus Oates - Words: 16,301 - Reviews: 6 - Favs: 6 - Follows: 1 - Published: 04-06-10 - Status: Complete - id: 5875653
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Author's note: This story is an unofficial fanfiction sequel to Geraldine McCaughrean's THE WHITE DARKNESS, which means that it contains spoilers for the novel itself. (If you haven't read TWD yet, I would urge you to go and read it now. Go on; I'll wait.) All characters from the novel are the property of the author; no infringement of her rights is intended.
Above all, I'd like to express my thanks to my beta-readers Carlough and Sheila B (both authors on this site). Without their kind feedback and encouragement, this fic would not exist.
BEYOND THE ICE
A White Darkness fanfic by ThreeOranges
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together;
But when I look ahead up the white road,
There is always another one walking beside you... (T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land)
There was a blizzard raging when I got back.
Not actual snow, of course – it was early February and, this being Britain, the clouds bulged with rain instead - but the moment I stepped off the ship I was enveloped by a storm of press attention. From the docks they came at me, in a surge like a wave, a melee of running footsteps, heavy dragging cables, raucous noise and blinding lights, yelling voices that needed to know what had happened out there in the last place on Earth.
Tell us, Symone! Tell us! Tell us!
I rushed straight past them – even now, I don't quite know how I managed to negotiate that many-headed monster – and ran straight for Mum's arms, tangling myself into them and clinging to her like koala to eucalyptus as she bundled me into a waiting taxi. But it turned out that even that taxi had been paid for by some glossy posh ladies' mag; she had to waste ten minutes of our precious longed-for reunion explaining that she'd secured an exclusive deal with them, and I had to tell them everything about what had happened out on The Ice.
Tell us, Symone. You've got no choice. Tell us. Tell us.
So I did; well, more or less. I told Mum most of it, and gave the media quite a bit less. Just a broad skeleton of events - how Uncle Victor had stage-managed it all, how he'd blown up the aeroplane, killed the American reporter, drugged the other tourists, and dragged us off into the howling void. How he'd abandoned Manfred Bruch when he'd shown signs of dissent, and how only a combination of the wildest flukes imaginable had managed to save me and Sigurd from being slowly and mercilessly pulverized by the cold.
But I kept the worst from Mum as well as from the reporters. They didn't need to know everything Uncle Victor had done to me before that. Or to Dad. They had the proof of his financial swindles; let them think that was all he did to the Wates family. Letting Mum know would be handing her the means to torture herself every day for the rest of her life – and telling anyone else would be like branding the word "VICTIM" on my forehead. And when I came to that realization, I started to believe that I really was growing up at last.
Even so, it was hard having to be a media sensation back home, keeping my mouth shut on some topics and opening myself up on others. It was a chore, having to show them my ice books to prove exactly how I'd known to tape up my sunglasses and navigate in the blizzard. Whilst I'd been recovering on the ship, the newspapers had managed to ferret out lots of unpalatable stuff about Uncle Victor's past, as well as that of the man who called himself "Manfred Bruch" (but who was revealed as a serial con-artist by the name of Freddie Bunt) and Sigurd (whose real name was so British and so unmemorable that it seeped through the sieve of my brain like sand and whirled away on the breeze). Sigurd even gave a couple of interviews himself, in which he painted a picture of a poor little used and abused drama-school prodigy – strange, how his memory gave out when it came to the exact details of what he'd suffered.
For my part, I didn't grass on him. Not because I felt sorry for him, but because if I exposed him he'd do the same to me. He'd tell the world that I was ill or crazy, that I made things up, that he was the one they should believe. And of course they'd take his word over mine. Who was he but Sigurd, the Golden One? The best kind of actor, the sort whose self-assurance stemmed from total inner conviction. It was safest not to tangle with someone like that.
Was it possible that I really was growing up?
Sometimes, it didn't feel like it. Sometimes I felt like a five-year-old trapped in a boring lesson. By the third interview with Posh Ladies' Glossy I was so fed-up that I unplugged my hearing aid; unknown to me, it whistled and shushed and screeched from where I sat by the window, pretending to pay attention. At the very end of her article, the journalist wrote that as she "heard the piercing sound that issued from her hearing device, dragging the chill Antarctic winds into a hitherto peaceful corner of Hertfordshire, I was overcome by an almost unbearable sadness. For all her courage and resilience, it is hard to believe that these recent traumatic events will not leave a permanent trace on young, haunted Symone Wates."
Haunted? Good word.
"Well, only if you say I'm a ghost," came that familiar voice from the corner. "Somehow, I'd hoped I was rather more than that."
"Of course you are!"
Now we were safely back in Britain he'd changed from his Polar gear into mufti; crumpled khaki trousers and rolled-up white shirt-sleeves, exposing tanned forearms. Off-duty he'd chosen my Dad's chair to lounge in and read "The History of the Peninsular Wars" for the umpteenth time. But he didn't need his baggy canvas explorer's suit, his snow-goggles or a backdrop of swirling white blizzard to define him. Wherever he was, he would forever be the great Polar hero, the one whose last words people would always remember. Captain Lawrence 'Titus' Oates. Titus Antarcticus.
Somewhat mollified, he returned his attention to the book in his hands. "Glad to hear it! Just because you have a boyfriend now –"
"He's not a boyfriend! He's a friend!"
"A lovesick swain... An ardent admirer..."
"Mike's just a friend! Like you are! And anyway, there's no comparison between him and you. You know that."
His lips twitched a little. "Well, it's good that you finally have someone else to get soppy over. Never entirely suited me, the Romeo stuff. Lifelong bachelor, remember! But I'd rather you didn't forget me altogether."
"No danger of that, Titus. No danger at all."
I'd had a letter from Mike three days after I got back. It contained no "soppy" language whatsoever (marshal your facts, Sym, don't get despondent: it'd be more than his life was worth to be accused of 'coming on' to a fourteen-year-old). All the same, I loved reading what he had to say. He had a gift for making even a stopover in Folkestone sound worthwhile - like any experience could have a reward lying hidden deep within, if you searched hard enough.
I'd told him back on the ship that he didn't have to "wait for me", because I could wait quite patiently for him; he shrugged, and said that if he met anyone he really cared about, he'd let me know.
"And you won't keep me on a string either, will you?" he'd added, with an anxious look in his eyes.
I could have choked. Me? Keep a guy dangling? That was the sort of calculating behaviour Maxine indulged in, not me. No, I much preferred the Edwardian way of conducting a relationship. One boyfriend at a time, solemn promises, silver-framed photos, written correspondence, decorum. Mike and I fell into a routine of emailing each other every two or three days, depending on whenever he could get a moment from his experiments and observations, and I pinned a photo of him over my computer – him grinning in an orange waterproof, hanging over the guardrail at the prow of the ship. On dark days it was better than a storage heater for making me feel cosy and warm.
The strangest thing was that the media didn't seem to get tired of my little trip to the underside of the Earth. Once Posh Ladies' Glossy had finished with me, a further throng of media professionals stepped into the breach with offers. Someone pestered Mum about a documentary, someone else mentioned possible movie rights. At one point I even got asked to appear on Blue Peter.
("Blue Peter? What's that?"
"It's a children's TV show, Titus. As you very well know."
"Not in my day. Back at Cape Evans, that was what happened to a chap when he answered the call of Nature at minus forty!"
"Shhh, Titus! Quiet!")
In the end, I said thanks all the same, but I'd rather not appear on Blue Peter, or any other TV show that wanted to interview me. If I'd been back at school the girls would have thought me mad – well, even madder than usual – for turning down a chance to become a celebrity, but I really didn't care. I didn't want millions of people staring at me. What was so mad about that?
Two days after I'd said no to the BBC, Mum made me a really tasty cooked breakfast before handing over the first page of a letter that had come for me.
Dear Miss Wates,
We are writing to inform you that you have been selected as one of the recipients of this year's Invictus Awards (category: under 18) in recognition of your remarkable courage and resourcefulness in a situation of extreme peril. The award will consist of a specially-struck hallmarked silver plaque and an endowment of £2,500.
Acceptance of the award is strictly contingent upon attendance at the forthcoming London awards ceremony on March 16...
Disbelieving, I scanned the whole page to the very last line, where it broke off in the middle of a sentence. "Mum, where's the second page?"
"Oh, I've got that. I need it to make all the arrangements; it's got all the technical stuff about claiming for travel expenses and that." Mum looked directly into my eyes. "It's a real honour, this. Please tell me you're not going to refuse it?"
"I'd like to think about it."
Before she could tell me how much we needed the money I rushed up to my bedroom, logged onto the computer and found their website. On the first page, just beneath a silver compass-rose, their title page proclaimed that they were an offshoot of a British exploration society, and that these awards existed "to reward tales of inspirational courage in the midst of adversity". Clicking straight back to Google, I typed in "Invictus Awards", and on the first page of results was a link to an old poem by W.E. Henley:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul...
I swear my mouth went dry. I couldn't believe what I was reading – how perfectly it described him. On reaching the end I had to look over it one more time, just to make absolutely sure of the words, and when I did I could hear Titus's voice in my ear, reciting the lines softly for me: "...I am the master of my Fate; I am the Captain of my soul."
Stunned, I turned to him. "It's you, isn't it? The Pole, being a "Captain" – Henley wrote it about you!"
He snorted. "Just look at the date, Sym! 1875. Henley wrote it before Lawrence Oates was even born. Those are the words which moulded a generation of impressionable Edwardians, nourished those young minds like prime roast beef and made them fizz over like ginger-beer. Made them dream of proving themselves. Gave them all impossible ideals to live up to."
"But they weren't impossible, were they? You managed it!"
He sighed slightly, then went back to sucking on the end of his pitted white clay-pipe, the same lucky relic he lost on the way to the Pole and rediscovered on his return journey. His warm brown eyes watched me as I left-clicked on the mouse and summoned up a new window on the monitor. Google, again. I had to hunt out everything I could find about the "Invictus Awards". I was searching for anything even slightly dodgy, any hint of religious fanaticism or strange political belief, any sign that this association of strangers might be searching for a hole at the World's End and a young girl they could stuff down inside it.
Paranoid? Perhaps, but an Uncle Victor can do that to you.
"Given them the all-clear?" Titus asked, after I'd spent an hour ransacking the lists of search results.
"I think so," I said cautiously. "They look harmless enough... and the money would be nice. But I still don't know. I've never had an award before..."
"They're awarding you the Captaincy of your Soul. I'd stand up and accept it if I were you."
"How can you say that, Titus? You hated public speaking, hated it!"
"True. Very true." He stretched lazily, spreading his arms wide. "But just because I loathed getting up in public doesn't mean I didn't do it when I had to. Same goes for you, Sym dear."
"But the looks they give me sear me, Titus." Like the polar winds scraping their sandpaper fingertips across my cheeks, stripping away the layers of skin, leaving a puckered charcoal rash in their wake. Something that stings even when I don't cry. "Please don't make me go through that. Please don't make me!"
"Oh, my Sym..." He's the bravest man who ever lived, but he didn't tell me how stupid I was being, or how if I could survive in the most hellish place on Earth I could surely cope with a little awards ceremony. "Then tell them you don't want to make a speech. Tell them you'd find it too draining, they won't mind. But just this once go down to London, meet some new people, have a nice dinner and take the award. Don't you know I'll be right there beside you?"
Like always, pulling forward the bulk of my burden when I couldn't manage it alone. For a moment I could see him as he was on that wild Antarctic night, his cheekbones scoured by the white curls of the wind, eyes squeezed tight, teeth clenched, throwing the weight of his shoulders steeply forward like a horse in harness. Reliving every moment of his final agony all over again for me, just so I might have all the opportunities and experiences he never had.
He gave me back my life. The least I could do was live it.
As usual, words failed me. All I could manage by way of response was, "Thank you, Titus."
He took another puff on his clay-pipe, and this time he actually smiled. "Don't mention it."
A brilliant Sym beamed back at me from the corner of the changing room, her body swathed in a net of sparkles. The dress hung from my shoulders by spaghetti straps; it held up a fitted bodice of bright silver mesh iced over with crystalline sequins, followed by two layers of floaty shimmering material that swept down to just below my knees. As the Sym in the mirror spun on the spot, admiring the way the light lovingly smoothed its way down the curves of the gown, Mum cleared her throat in loud disapproval.
"Maybe you should choose something else, dear. That doesn't look quite right on you."
She meant that it made me look too grown-up – which was exactly why I wanted it. It made feel light-headed, almost dizzy, like Cinderella on her way to her first ever Ball. So Mum didn't put up much of a protest, once I made it clear that it was the only dress I would even consider wearing.
She didn't protest, either, when I finally got the dye-job I'd wanted since forever. A properly light shade of blonde, too; when my head was freed from its cocoon of fluffy towel, my hair tumbled out in spoonfuls of pale clover honey.
("Hmm. If I tell you blonde hair suits you, will I be responsible for giving you a swollen head?"
"Oh Titus, don't be like that! Apart from anything else, going blonde makes the bald patches on my scalp a bit less obvious. It was either that or wear a wig for the awards."
"And your nascent teenage vanity had absolutely nothing to do with it, hmmm?" At least his smile took most of the sting from his words.)
On the day itself we came down to London Marylebone by train; I was carrying Dad's old sports bag which contained our evening dresses. The hotel wasn't far from King's Cross, so we took the Circle Line and emerged into a milky frigid morning, the only kind London ever has to offer in mid-March.
"Sym, honestly - are you OK with this?" Mum said suddenly as we left the station, pulling back to stop dead on the pavement. There was a troubled look on her face. "Look, if you don't want to go, that's fine. We don't have to, if you don't want to."
I couldn't believe what she was saying – after all the chivvying she'd done earlier, how could she possibly want to go back now? – and marched on ahead, so that I was the first to spot the hotel, just a little way away from the British Library. There was a big laminated sign outside, with the familiar compass-rose logo – WELCOME TO THE INVICTUS AWARDS – and a security team in bright-yellow reflector jackets demanding identification. We spent ages queuing through the metal detector, but after that we made our way to the changing-rooms, where Mum and I hung our coats in separate lockers and, alongside about twenty other women, changed into our evening finery.
The others in that changing-room were police officers, fire personnel, paramedics - all women who couldn't have known each other from Eve, but they had the knack I could never have, that of sparking an instant connection with each other. I'd never had that with anyone – well, except for Titus, of course – and it made me feel lonelier than ever. Iced-over. Like I was watching them through a slice of glacier as they smiled and laughed and enjoyed each others' company. I knew I had to get away.
After twenty minutes spent saying "no thank you" to a make-up woman who waved a dirty little sponge-stick at me and tried to tell me I'd look great with blue eyelids, I finally managed to get free. I slipped into the corridor and found a disused storeroom a few doors up. When I clicked on the light I saw that half of the room was crammed with stacks of chairs and upended tables, but it didn't matter. Shutting the door behind me, I closed my eyes.
"Can I come out now?"
When I opened them again, Titus stood in front of me. He was kitted out in his full dress uniform from the 6th Enniskilling Dragoons - a tight-fitting dark blue jacket, elaborate gold-thread epaulettes on each shoulder, white gloves and gold buttons. Two gold lines ran the length of his trouser-legs from hip to knee before disappearing into the side-Vs of a pair of high black cavalryman's boots.
When he saw my face he smiled, a little ruefully. "Overdressed?"
"You look... really good!"
I'd have used the word "beautiful", but it would probably just have embarrassed him. Frankly, I felt a little shy and shaky at the sight of something so magnificent.
He cast a look down at my silver-weave dress and raised his eyebrows. "Well, you're not so bad yourself. Wouldn't frighten the horses."
Now I really was blushing, but I held out a steady arm for him to take. "Come on, Titus. Let's go somewhere better than Glasstown."
We made our way to a huge ballroom which had been set with a wide horseshoe of tables. My shoes squeaked on the waxed floor; a great glass chandelier high above, tricked out with a hundred points of light, ignited further sparks off the cutlery and glassware. Mum and I found our seats, and I buried my head in the drinks-list to avoid looking at the central podium. The raised wooden podium where I was supposed to be accepting the award, in front of two hundred important people and probably cameras too, video cameras... The realization of what I'd got myself into suddenly overwhelmed me, and it was all I could do not to rise from the chair and bolt for the doorway.
"Steady, the Buffs!" murmured a voice in my ear.
He was sitting in the chair to my left, his arms folded. "Titus, I still don't know what I - what should I do when it's my turn up there?"
"Drop a curtsey, I suppose. That's a dress that'll suit a curtsey."
"Stop it! You know perfectly well girls don't do that nowadays."
He grinned; of course he was just winding me up. "Well, you don't have to talk, so just smile and make them think you're thrilled to bits to be there. That's all they want to see, someone who's most awfully grateful for the silver medal and the free food. Go on, picture yourself walking up there and you'll see it's really not so bad."
"I'll try." When I next attempted a glance at the podium, I tried to picture myself going up those steps, accepting the award and wearing my happiness like a yellow oversized birthday badge. These people wouldn't be out to attack me, would they? Of course not. It wouldn't be so bad. It would only be five minutes of my life, after all. Nothing to worry about. Like the jab of a vaccination - a momentary gasp of pain and then the realization that your worries had all been ridiculous. It was going to be all right.
"Courage, my Sym," Titus whispered in my ear. "Courage."
I heard the scraping of the chair next to me being pulled back. Of course; the place had been set for someone else, and I looked up to see who I'd be sitting next to for the ceremony.
And instantly I understood Titus's words.
It was Sigurd.
The last time I saw him he was pudgily sealed inside a snowsuit, a sulky Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Now he sported a smart black tuxedo and white bowtie, looking every inch the professional actor he always was. His hair was still the same angelic aureole of long blond curls, but his pale skin was a little pocked and peeling about the mouth from the chill Antarctic blistering. Like a cherub who'd just got over a bad bout of acne.
"Hello again, Sym," he said sweetly. "I do hope you're getting better now? On the road to recovery?"
If he had any tinge of regret or remorse for what he'd done on the other side of the world, he wasn't going to let me see it. Anyone who saw him would imagine he liked me, that we were even friends.
Well, they might until they saw the look on my face. "What're you doing...?"
"I got a letter, same as you. Resourcefulness and courage in the face of disaster."
As he smirked at me, I turned to Mum – and recoiled in horror. Her guilt-ridden expression said it all. This hadn't been an accident; she'd known perfectly well that Sigurd was going to be here. That was why she'd kept the second page of the letter back from me. She thought she'd trap me here, so that public embarrassment would force me to behave myself and not lunge at him.
The treachery of it almost choked me, and when I turned back to him I whispered, "Stealing the Hagglund? You call that resourceful and courageous?"
"Just get over it, will you?" he murmured. "And don't take it so personally. You wouldn't have done any different if you'd have been in my shoes. You'd have done whatever it took to survive, even if it meant cutting me loose. Don't pretend you wouldn't."
Credit where it's due, he did give those lines a perfect delivery.
He'd prepared this encounter in advance, like a script. Today, he was playing the role of a born survivor. Strong, young, rock-hard; Darwinism made flesh. Someone who rejected any hint of moral obligation or duty to others – someone who could always defend himself with the idea that, out there on The Ice, there could never be any law beyond that of personal survival. (Captain Oates? Captain Who?)
And as for me, I shouldn't take things so personally. I should just "get over" the fact that Sigurd tried to abandon me in a barren freezing wilderness – and that, if I hadn't had Titus with me, guiding me through the blizzards back to safety, there'd be nothing left of Sym Wates but a bit of stringy grey debris half-embedded in an iceberg. Honestly, was it really too much for him to feel just the tiniest pang of shame?
"Sorry I can't slaughter him for you, old girl. Really should have brought my sabre."
I didn't particularly want to smile at this point, but Titus left me no choice. "Well, you could always garrotte him, you know - I'd have no objection..."
"You should act like he's not there. Most galling thing you could do to the self-important little swine."
"I'd still prefer a garrotting..." But Titus always recommended "evasive action" so I did that instead, shifting my chair away so that all Sigurd had of me was a view of my shoulder. He'd have got more warmth out of a glacier.
And so would Mum. She was uncomfortably aware that I knew what she'd done, and that I wasn't impressed. She probably thought I'd thank her later – thought I'd be happy to trade my pride for the chance to get a medal and a round of applause. Some hope: I had no wish to share a continent with Sigurd, let alone a dining-room.
Throughout the meal I must have looked exactly like an automaton, facing forwards and looking neither right nor left, whilst under my shell of hostility I was talking to the only person who understood. "You understand why, don't you Titus? You understand why I'm so angry? I didn't hate him, you know I didn't, but that was only because I was never supposed to see him again! And now Mum's forcing me to sit next to him..."
"Well, he is a bit of a blackguard, no question. But remember, he did let you into the Hagglund at last. Could have easily pushed you off the deck when you fainted, but he didn't."
"Ha! He only wanted me for body-warmth!"
"Steady on, old girl. I seem to recall you didn't object too much to that yourself."
"You honestly think I should forgive him?"
"I think there's no call to get so worked-up about things. You came out of it, he came out of it, and just because he's failed to show any hint of a conscience doesn't mean you have to fret about teaching him a lesson. Life'll teach him for you."
"I doubt it." When I sneaked a glance to my side, I saw Sigurd talking to the man on his left – and, from the man's face, it looked like he was thoroughly enchanted by his young neighbour's tales of Antarctic heroism. "He'll always be able to con people into thinking he's wonderful."
"You saw through him; others will too. Doesn't always take an atmosphere of minus forty to show what a man's really made of – though it helps, I can't deny that it helps."
"It's starting," I murmured as the lights started to dim. A single spotlight made the podium almost glow in the surrounding gloom, and the room broke out into applause as a well-built woman in a navy-blue suit ascended the steps. Something glittered across the left side of her chest, like a dazzling scar across her heart; it resolved into a line of silver and bronze medals, polished to a high shine and winking in the light. As she started to give us the story of why she'd been chosen to host this afternoon's ceremony, my imagination went into overdrive. Maybe I could collapse with a stomach complaint for the duration of the Awards? Maybe I should "accidentally" spill the ice-water jug into my left-hand neighbour's lap?
"No, you're not going to do anything so childish!" Titus's voice resounded harshly in my ears. "You can forget that right now, Sym!"
"He deserves it!"
"You're not going to spoil it for everyone else; that's just not on! Yes, you detest being here and I understand why, but it'll be over soon. Concentrate on that."
So I did – and the moment I dreaded came a lot sooner than I'd expected. When the woman started to talk about the "unfairly-maligned younger generation" and how we were every bit as capable of heroism as adults, the walls of my lungs started to freeze and constrict – and when the limelight swung to fasten on me, and Sigurd rose as easily as a freed balloon to the call of the music, I simply couldn't move. I felt like I was festooned with lead weights roped across my shoulders and neck, pinning me to the floor.
"Sym!" Mum nudged me, as gently as she could, but there was panic in her eyes. "Sym, get up! Please get up!"
"Up and at 'em, Sym. Remember, I had to walk out into something a lot worse than applause."
I squeezed my eyes shut, silently begging him to understand. Begging him to help me wish the whole mess away. I didn't want to be there, not next to that liar Sigurd, and it wasn't fair to make me to go through with it. "I can't go up there, Titus, not next to him - I can't!"
"You came here to fight, not to surrender!"
"Please, Titus – please understand..."
"Good God, girl. You haven't lost your guts, have you?"
My eyes sprang open, shocked - it's the worst thing Titus ever said, or ever could say – but when I turned to him the look on his face was uncompromising. He'd done his duty; now it was my turn. If I didn't keep my promise to these people, if I didn't do what I'd said I'd do, then he'd leave - and I could forget about him ever coming back.
It was harsh of him, but it was the only thing that could have made me quit the refuge of my seat, wipe my face dry and follow Sigurd up to the podium.
Standing there, exposed, the crackling applause sounded like a roasting fire. Waves of heat washed over me from every direction, scorching my cheeks, all of it emanating from the thickly-peopled darkness. As I scanned the crowds, I caught a tall dark silhouette standing at the very back. Well, he always was a wallflower, but at least he was still there for me.
The hostess was just finishing up her speech, explaining that I had asked not to speak, but that Sigurd had agreed to give the address. "...And in conclusion, it only remains for us to allow this young man a chance to tell us what he learnt from his time in Antarctica, in his own words."
She stood back, and Sigurd stepped eagerly into the limelight and the torrent of applause. When it subsided, he began. "First of all, I'd like to express on behalf of both Symone and myself –" Here he sent one of his bright beaming smiles in my direction, and I tried not to wince – "just how honoured we are to accept the Invictus Award, and how very much it means to both of us. To know that other people understand the struggle necessary for survival in desperate circumstances – the resourcefulness it demands of us, and the enormous costs of rising to the challenge..."
Shut up, Sigurd, you idiot! I longed to scream. But I didn't. Instead, I kept my face in a tight smile as he droned on and on about how special he was for having lived through such an ordeal. As if he'd somehow been given Divine Approval for having survived conditions that had killed far better men than him. Shut up, Sigurd! Shut up and just think about what you did out near the mountain, before you stand there and preen yourself! You shouldn't be proud of yourself - you should be ashamed!
But I didn't say it. I couldn't spoil it for everyone else there, could I? There was nothing I could do to stop his oversized ego running amok in that ballroom.
When he finished there was a pause, followed by another warm round of applause, and he turned to leave, his hand cradling the crook of my elbow as if to usher me gently off the platform. But I didn't move. I didn't know exactly what to do or to say, but I didn't want to leave without saying something. Maybe I just couldn't stand the thought of all the people there believing that he spoke for me.
"Excuse me." I winced as the sounds from my throat jarred the microphone, sending shock-waves through the ballroom. "Please excuse me, but... I'm not actually any good at speaking in public, but...um... I'd like to say thank you very much to everyone here for this beautiful award. And I'd also like to say thank you to all the people who rescued us, back in Antarctica. I'd especially like to thank Miss Mimi Dormiere-St-Pierre for raising the alarm back in the States, and Sergeant Jonathan McConnell of the Antarctic Air-Sea Rescue for spotting the smoke and saving our lives."
There was a brief ripple of applause from the audience at this point, but I hadn't got to what I really wanted to say. "And this lovely award... Well, I'd like to dedicate it to... to five men who weren't as lucky as we were. Who did everything they could to get back home, but didn't have anyone to come and save them."
The silence out there was so grim that I almost buckled at the knees, but I grabbed the stand for support and forced myself to keep talking.
"So I'd like to dedicate this Invictus Award to the men of the Terra Nova Expedition of 1912: Captain Robert Falcon Scott... "
An indignant noise came from Sigurd's direction, as if he simply couldn't believe just how nerdy I was. Clearing my throat, I did my best to ignore the way his face creased into a mocking, theatrical yawn.
"Erm - like I said - I'd like to dedicate this award to Captain Scott, and the men who went with him. To Doctor "Bill" Wilson, and Lieutenant "Birdie" Bowers, and Petty Officer Evans, and most of all – most of all, I'd like to dedicate it to Captain Lawrence Oates. "Titus" Oates. For being so brave. Thank you, Titus."
For three whole seconds there was a thick, disbelieving silence. Then the applause started.
It rose so quickly and in such an overwhelming roar that at first I thought my hearing-aid had suffered a spontaneous malfunction, but from the look on Sigurd's face it was clear that my volume levels weren't lying. The Golden One was scowling - scowling because the audience would rather applaud the bravery of the Scott Expedition than his own vainglory. He'd just been upstaged by five men who'd been dead for ninety years. It must have really stung.
"Nicely done, Sym."
I couldn't see Titus anywhere, but I felt his presence at my shoulder as I turned and made my way down to the main area, walking stiffly and automatically back to the tables where Mum was waiting. Mum and Sigurd, holding me in unwanted parentheses. Bracketing me. Confining me.
The applause still hadn't completely died away as I walked past my velvet chair, grabbed my beaded clutch-purse from it and made my way, as steadily as I could, right out of the ballroom.
Once I was back in the dazzling deserted changing-room, I slumped down onto a padded chair, rested my elbows on the make-up counter, plundered a nearby box of tissues and gave vent to what I truly felt.
"What's the matter?"
"Titus, please go away," I said, between sniffles. "This is the ladies' changing-room, you shouldn't be in here!"
"Don't be pedantic. What sort of imaginary friend would I be if I took heed of a little thing like that?" He sat himself down on the opposite chair and grinned at me. "Besides, I need to thank you for the name-check back there. Should help me no end, when I go up for promotion to major."
"Don't, Titus. I don't need that right now."
"But why are you so cut-up about all this? I thought you acquitted yourself rather well, considering!" From where he sat Titus looked me up and down in bemusement, as if women and their strange behaviour would always be beyond his comprehension. "Why on earth do you feel the need to cry about it?"
Because I hated it. I hated that I'd come all the way to London, and all I'd got out of the journey was that my Mum was willing to lie to me, and Sigurd had no shame at all, and Mike was a million miles away, and at that moment Titus was the only true, good, loyal friend I had in my life. Well, I already knew that. What good did knowing that do me?
All of a sudden I was back in that freezing crystal wilderness: I was stumbling forwards, unprotected, and the winds were clawing at my face, hooking sharp fingernails into my skin, trying to peel it away.
"I don't want to go outside again, Titus. I just don't. I want to go straight home and stay in bed for the rest of the day. Or longer."
"Really?" Titus looked surprised. "Well, that is a shame. Since you're so upset, I rather thought you could salvage the day with a little trip around London. Do a little exploring of your own. Why don't you?"
"What, with Mum?"
"No, with me." Jerking his head to the side, he added, "But you'd better make up your mind soon, I think I can hear your mother heading this way..."
I spun on my heel and waited for her with my arms folded. She burst through the door and then stopped, a little wary. "Sym, are you OK?"
"Not particularly." There was no way I could have felt comfortable getting changed out of my dress in front of her, so I made do with stuffing my jeans and jumper into the gym-bag and zipping my hoodie over my dress before I properly faced her. Those crystalline high-heels were safely stowed away, and in their place I'd donned a chunky pair of Reeboks. They went so well with the spangly silver tights, and the silky shimmering skirt that billowed from beneath my hoodie. I must have looked like Cinderella halfway through her transformation back into a lowly peasant.
"What –?" Mum said, confused. "You're not leaving?"
"I'm not going back in there." I'd fulfilled the terms of the obligation; my duty was done. "I'm going back to King's Cross, and from there I'm heading into the city centre. Trafalgar Square, maybe. I'll see you back at Marylebone at five-thirty."
"You're not going out there!" Mum ran forward and seized my wrist. "Out there, on your own? You're only fourteen!"
I struggled and squirmed, doing everything I could to wrench my arm free from that pinching grip of hers. "Mum, if I can manage Antarctica I can manage London, can't I? Now please let go - you're hurting me!"
"No I won't!" Mum's face looked distraught. "Sym – please..."
To be fair, the last time I said goodbye to her I'd been returned to her two weeks later with snowburn across my face and frostnipped fingers. No wonder she wasn't particularly thrilled with the idea of being parted from me again, but this time I had to go. I simply had to get out of there, and if I didn't say 'no' to her now...
"Mum," I said slowly, "you could have told me it was a joint award with him. Why didn't you?"
"Honestly, Sym - why do you think?"
Yes, I knew why. Because we needed the money. Because I'd already turned down Blue Peter, and all the financial possibilities that might have offered us.
"All right," I told her. "Maybe I wouldn't have come if you'd told me. But maybe I would, if I'd been able to prepare myself – and at least it would have been my choice. Mine. But hiding the truth from me, tricking me, trapping me in a place I don't want to be...?"
"I'm sorry." She understood exactly who I was comparing her to; her lips actually trembled, and slowly she unlocked the shackle of her grip. "I'm sorry, Sym."
"I need to get out of here, Mum. Just a bit of fresh air and a walk, and I'm not going to be long, Mum. Three hours, tops." As she fumbled in her handbag for a tissue, I hoisted Dad's gym-bag higher on my shoulder. "Marylebone, under the departures board at five-thirty. Can you please just trust me?"
She was still for a long time before she spoke again. "You've got your mobile, haven't you?"
"Yes." I knew it was somewhere in the gym-bag, but I wasn't going to check right that minute. "I've got my mobile. I'll be fine."
She stood back. "You don't have to go out there. It's... "
I leant forward to kiss her, silencing her. "I'll be fine, Mum. See you."
Then I turned and left, before she could tell me how cold it was outside.
My first stop was the bathrooms at King's Cross Station. In the end cubicle of the Ladies' toilets Cinderella pulled off her flimsy sparkling-silver party dress and replaced it with a heavy cable-knit jumper and pair of jeans. Feeling warmer already, I bundled the dress into Dad's gym-bag along with the glass slippers, then re-zipped my hoodie and went in search of the ticket desk. An "access-all-areas" Travelcard duly bought, I headed for the first Tube line I could think of.
The Circle Line.
"Interesting choice of line," Titus commented as I seated myself and he stood in the aisle, keeping his balance with the hand-strap. "Did you know this one goes round and round in circles? Rather like the second time we attempted the Beardmore Glacier."
"You had the Underground in your day, didn't you?"
"Not nearly so many lines in 1910, but yes, the Metropolitan, the Central and the Baker Street & Waterloo, we had those. Worked out where you want to go yet?"
"Give me a little time to make up my mind, Titus. It's not like I've ever done this before."
Well, I hadn't. Not that I was really 'on my own', since I had Titus with me, but it was the first time I'd ever sat in a Tube carriage by myself, surrounded by strangers and with not the faintest idea of where I was headed.
It wasn't the centre of London, that was certain. The Circle Line wouldn't take me anywhere near Trafalgar Square. I'd need to change for the Piccadilly or Northern if I wanted to get there, and something within me rejected the idea of too much scurrying around underground. When I left this line, I wanted to walk into the daylight right away. So what should I do with my spare two hours and forty minutes? Should I go and walk by the Thames? Or visit one of the parks?
"Titus? What do you think I should do?"
"Let's see what's on this line. Hmmm... You could always try South Kensington, that's not far," he suggested, his tone thoughtful. "Museum quarter. You know what's there, don't you?"
"Science Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Royal Albert Hall..."
"National History Museum. It's just two more stops. You remember the Emperor Penguin eggs, the ones that Cherry, Birdie and Bill sledged off to Cape Crozier for? They've got the eggshells on display there."
An image snapped into my mind, the hollowed eggshell I'd seen in my book - a fragile white skull with a star-shaped hole at the temple, resting on a bed of velvet, a little typed card propped right beside it. Just the thought of that ugly dead thing made me shudder. "Ugh! No thanks!"
"Minus seventy-seven, Sym! That's how cold it was, out on Cape Crozier. Now that's manliness, to endanger yourself for something as useless as penguin eggs!"
"It's more than that, Titus..." From what I'd read about the Winter Journey, those men almost died getting those eggs. When the three of them finally staggered back to base they resembled escapees from a Siberian prison camp, all the spare flesh on their faces melted away to leave the planes of pure suffering. Haunted houses. The look in their eyes gave their friends nightmares. "They didn't properly recover from that trip, did they? Bill and Birdie? They weren't as strong as they should have been when they started out to the Pole a few weeks later. If they hadn't done that..."
"If, if, if! You can't live in the world of Could-Have-Been, Sym dear. It happened, and it can't be changed."
"I know! I know, I know..." But just thinking about it sent a surge of depression washing over me, as cold and foul-tasting as an ocean-wave. To get rid of it, I folded my arms and stared, through my own fractured reflection, at the passing blackness outside the carriage window.
I felt his eyes on me, could almost sense him thinking, and when he resumed his voice was noticeably softer. "Look, don't you worry about Birdie Bowers. If there's a Heaven he's in it right now, checking the provisions, building Christmas-trees out of balsa-wood, looking after all the poor orphaned kiddies who don't have anyone else to turn to. Yes, Heaven would've become a far better place the day stout little Birdie marched in and took charge!"
I couldn't help but giggle at the idea of the expedition's storemaster taking stock of the supplies in Heaven's storehouse, his tongue between his teeth as he ticked off items on his clipboard, doing his best to shake off the persistent kids as they tried to drag him outside for a quick game of footie. "And Bill Wilson? What's 'Uncle Bill' doing in Heaven right now?"
Titus looked a little wistful. "First of all, he'd be with his wife Oriana. Fine woman. Then I imagine both of them would be strolling around every corner of Heaven's Kingdom, arm-in-arm, and he'd stop every so often to paint anything that took his fancy. And they'd be masterpieces, those paintings, every one of them."
"And Taff Evans? What about him?"
"Well, I can picture a little pub – tucked away in the less reputable part of Heaven, probably – that goes by the name of "The South Pole". And behind the shiny brass bar there'd be an enormous bear of a Welshman and his dark-haired wife, both of them grinning from ear to ear and promising you a fine night if you'd only care to partake of their hospitality..."
"And what about Captain Scott? What kind of Heaven would he have?"
That stumped him; it was at least two minutes before he spoke again. "I think The Owner wouldn't be happy until he was sure we'd forgiven him," he finally said. "He was that kind of man, took everything too much to heart. And even then, he wouldn't be in Heaven until he'd forgiven himself too. So... I don't know. But I suppose Heaven must have its seas as well as its land-tracts, vast rolling oceans where a ship can plough a path through the flint-glass waves. That's where he'd be - on the prow of a magnificent three-master, if anywhere."
"Are they there, Titus?
"Do you want me to tell you they aren't? That all that goodness, all that potential, got wiped away for good in 1912? That Bill's extraordinary talent, Birdie's huge selfless heart, they don't exist anymore – they just evaporated into the air like kerosene?"
I could have begged him to tell me the truth, but I wasn't sure I wanted to hear it. I needed to believe in some new beginning beyond this, something that redeemed the mistakes made here and now. Otherwise... "But you exist, Titus. Don't you?"
He laughed, a little hollowly. "You already know the problems with using me for proof, dear. Now, I hope you weren't intending to get off at South Kensington, because we've gone past it already."
With a shock I saw that he was right. Before I could even lift myself from my seat the doors had swept closed, and beyond the plastic windows I just made out the sign "High Street Kensington". Then the sealed train pulled away into the dark tunnel; to get my bearings I had to stand up, balance on the shaking floor of the mid-aisle and examine the map above the seats. The next station on the Circle Line was "Notting Hill Gate", but that was just a name to me. I didn't know anything about Notting Hill. I hadn't even seen the film.
"So get out. Explore," Titus murmured in my ear.
Fine. Notting Hill Gate it was. And as I stepped off the Tube train onto the platform and joined the crowds on the interminably long journey to the surface, I felt almost happy again. This place, at least, had no associations with anything else in my life. It was unmarked snow, just waiting for me to plant the flag.
But what I saw when I walked out into the daylight was a drab wide street, two double lanes of traffic and no interesting buildings at all. It wasn't that it was ugly – no uglier than anywhere else in London – but it was undistinguished. No special buildings. Nothing to fasten my eye on, just a backdrop of grimy redbrick frontages and an endless procession of grey crowds huddled in winter coats, sweeping in diagonals across my sight-line like snow-laden winds.
Titus positioned himself by a bus stop, dashingly handsome if impossibly dated in his long dark cavalryman's coat, and gave me a wide smile. "Now, explorer, where do you want to go? As the poet said, 'The world was all before them; where to choose'?"
"I don't know. Where do you think I should -?"
"Wherever the fancy takes you."
He stood back, the better to let me choose my route. I didn't fancy going either way up the dull anonymous-looking shopping street, so I elected to cross the four lanes of traffic and plunge into the high-walled crevasse of a residential street instead.
But it was cold and miserable and the pavements were greasy with the wet of a previous rain-storm, and within minutes I was regretting my impulse to stray away from the shop-fronts. I hankered after their comforting brightness like signs of civilization, but once I'd started I could hardly stop so soon. Too humiliating. If I'd said I'd explore, then that was what I would do. I had to keep going, to try to get something worthwhile out of this.
"Now that was the difference between Scott and Shackleton. Shackleton knew when to turn back."
No, never mind Titus and his taunts, I wasn't going to give up just yet. I forced myself to concentrate on my surroundings, how the buildings turned from redbrick to a genteel plastered-white, how a succession of huge pilastered white townhouses towered on either side like icebergs.
Like icebergs. And as I realized just what I saw when I looked at these London streets, I felt a sharp piercing pain in my stomach, because I knew exactly what was wrong with me.
My brain. My eyes. The things that Uncle Victor gave me, and that I could never get free of now. Hadn't he drummed the ice into me from the very first? Hadn't he jabbed an inoculation of blue ice-crystals into my bloodstream that would wipe away my hearing and leave me stranded in a muffled silence, unable to see the world in any terms other than his?
I could never be a proper explorer, not really, because I could never be free of what Uncle Victor had made of me. The fault-line ran through me, a jagged silver line, bright and unmendable like a flaw in glass.
I could never travel, for what would be the use?
No matter how far I travelled, I'd always bring Antarctica with me wherever I went.
"Oh dear, are we getting defeatist again?" the familiar voice whispered in my ear. "That man's gone now. He's gone, you're free, and I think you should at least test out that miserable theory properly before you decide it's the right one. So chin up, girl. Keep going."
"All right, Titus. Chin's firmly up. But we're on a hiding to nothing, that's all I'm saying..."
We made it to the end of the street, and out onto a junction. As the street ended one side of the terraced dwellings lowered and flattened out into a line of modest, genteel little two-story shops. Trinkets and furniture for posh people: I moved a little closer.
As my eye travelled over the frontages, I spotted something unusual – something, in fact, that made me laugh out loud. It was a polite white wooden sign, with a name in smart classical font:
CARPETS AND SOFT FURNISHINGS
Talk about a coincidence – the owner of this shop had the same name as the actor who played Titus in "The Last Place on Earth", back in 1985! Though other actors had taken the role of "Captain Oates" on film, tall and handsome Martin Orchard was always the one I saw when I pictured my Titus. So aristocratic, with his dark hair, his dark soulful gaze, and a voice as complex and thrilling as the very first taste of red wine.
I looked around for my Titus then, to share the joke, but I couldn't see him anywhere. Where had he gone? He of all people would appreciate what a strange coincidence it was, that we should stumble upon a shop run by someone called 'Martin Orchard'... and selling carpets! Carpets, honestly!
I could see the carpets laying in the front window, languid and elegantly patterned, so I leant in a little closer, to see what else this shop had in stock. It was an old-fashioned building, with a window-pane as thick as an ice panel, so thick the things behind it had blurred slightly. Those distant objects seemed to swim out of the darkness like Adelie penguins.
Like the view of the dark-suited old man standing behind the counter.
At first I didn't recognize him, but his dark-brown eyes and the shape of his lips left no room for doubt. Something like understanding dawned upon me, the recognition of a magnetized needle within me that had spun and stopped and pointed me to this place. For behind the slice of glacier stood Titus, my mini-series Titus... but old. Old. His hair was grizzled over with a white rime of frost, his skin taut and shiny, and the bloom on his cheek had long since been wiped away by age.
An old Titus. A Titus who stared at me as if he didn't know me.
Why couldn't I back away?
It wasn't Titus. Of course it wasn't. It was only Martin Orchard the actor, the man who'd put him up there on the screen - and he was old now, he was somebody else now. There was a pain starting to blossom just behind my breastbone. It would be better to leave.
Behind the glass the old man moved away from the counter, walked towards the door, and for a few seconds I was convinced he was about to tell me to be off, like some stray animal. He swung open his door and peered out; I froze, and the gentle jingle of the entrance bell rang on. From where I stood, it sounded as far away as a lifebuoy in a distant bay.
His eyes flickered over my face, beyond me, then back to me once more.
"Excuse me, but... Are you waiting for someone?"
What stopped me from bolting was his voice. It sounded almost like a whisper from so far away, but it was still him – deep, and gentlemanly, and indisputably real.
"If you don't mind my saying so, you look a little... chilled out here. It isn't the warmest of days." His dark eyes scanned the street behind me – then, shifting slightly on the threshold, he gestured to the warm glow of his shop. "Did you want to come in? Just to get out of the cold?"
His face might have aged, but not his vocal cords – his voice was still the one Titus spoke to me in, deep and golden-handsome and warming. And though this man was a stranger, though he'd never seen me before in his life, he was still felt concerned about a strange little girl standing on a dank pavement in the raw chill of a winter's afternoon.
"Just to get out of the cold"? Like Titus. Just like Titus would say it.
I looked around for my own Titus, but he still wasn't there. How strategic of him; he'd chosen that moment to withdraw into invisibility, inaudibility. To let me make up my mind on my own.
As I crossed the threshold into Mr Orchard's shop, the entrance bell jingled distantly over my head.
It felt so strange inside that shop. Strange, to step from the noisy wet street into a bubble of warmth and light, a hermetically-sealed atmosphere – a place that was quiet, and civilized, and overwhelmingly grown-up.
For one thing, I'd passed from drabness into colour. The walls were hung with richly-hued carpets - burgundy, chocolate, forest-green, cobalt-blue - all covered with mazes and scrollwork of dizzying intricacy. At either end of the room stood modern leather sofas in pale leather, with low glass tables piled high with ladies' magazines and brochures on interior furnishings. No prices visible either, but that was hardly surprising - this was clearly the kind of shop where, if you had to ask the price of something, you wouldn't ever be able to afford it.
After his invitation inside Mr Orchard had left me to "have a look around", as he put it. He'd retreated behind the main desk and was busying himself with paperwork, though from time to time he still cast me an occasional glance, as if trying to figure out what could have possibly prompted him to come to the door and ask me inside.
As for why he'd invited me in... Well, his guess was as good as mine. I belonged here about as much as a penguin belongs in the Kalahari Desert.
I edged slowly back towards the door, but couldn't quite summon up the courage to open it and leave. After such a kind invitation inside, it would have been rude to go so soon. If I waited five minutes and pretended to look at some stuff, maybe I could leave after that.
"Leave? But you've only just arrived!" I turned, to see Titus – eternally dark-haired, eternally young – standing against a wall, a roguish smile on his face. "In any case, I thought you'd be overjoyed to be here. You're in the presence of the great Martin Orchard! Martin Orchard! The star of stage and screen! Be still, my beating heart!"
"Shut up, Titus."
"I see. Hmmm, that's an interesting reaction. You don't seem exactly thrilled to be here. Is it that it's all a bit posh for you?... Well, I didn't see the dinner-jackets and chandeliers being a problem back at the awards, so it must be something else. Is it because the man's older now? Not as good-looking as he used to be?" He let out a heavy sigh as he stood in judgement on my shallowness. "Well, getting old isn't so bad. Not when you consider the alternative."
"No, it's not that." At least that was the truth; it wasn't Mr Orchard's white hair which made me long to be somewhere else.
"Then what's the matter? Is it what he does for a living?"
He was so accurate that my cheeks started to flame. "It's just... Well... A carpet salesman! It's so – so..."
It wasn't what I'd expected. A bit of a come-down, if I had to be absolutely honest about it. It was disappointing. Embarrassing. Unromantic. Silly.
At the last of these adjectives he pounced on me with all the ferocity of a half-starved husky. "Silly, eh? A professional businessman making an honest living, and you call that silly?"
"But – carpets!"
"Oh really, and is it any nobler in the mind to be an actor? A man pretending to be someone else, putting on someone else's clothes and speaking someone else's words – how is that sensible?"
"Titus, please!" For I knew exactly what was coming next.
"And how about an explorer? How about five masochistic daredevils venturing forth to freeze their hands and feet off in an icy Godforsaken hell - and one of them even paying a thousand pounds for the privilege! Now, isn't that silly? Isn't that the silliest thing you ever heard?"
"Please, Titus. Don't."
"Well, don't be stuck-up then," he resumed, a little more gently. "You've got no cause for it, and it doesn't suit you. I'll be off now, leave you to get on..."
Get on with what? "Titus! Wait!" I almost said out loud. But he didn't reply, and he wouldn't come back. I was all by myself in a stranger's shop, a stranger with a face that was almost disturbing in its shape-shifting familiarity. The hair was sparse and silver, the skin hardened, but the warm brown eyes were exactly the same as Titus's. The voice, too. It was beyond discomfiting.
He looked up from his work and gave me an encouraging smile; I responded with a nervous imitation, because I knew I shouldn't disturb him. The man had a business to run, didn't he? Of course he wouldn't want to waste his time talking to me. He had responsibilities, duties, important things to do; the last thing he needed right now was a Close Encounter of the Nerd Kind.
In the end, I was so busy pretending to look at an ancient Moroccan carpet in a display case that I didn't hear his approach.
"Excuse me, but did you want a better look at the designer carpets?"
Startled, I spun round. "I'm sorry, I...?"
He smiled briefly, then gestured towards the series of boldly-patterned carpets that adorned the far wall. "You needn't worry that we'll throw you out if you don't want to buy – at this time of year we always get quite a few art students in, looking for a bit of inspiration for their end-of-year portfolios. So which were you on the lookout for, colour or pattern? That blue carpet at the top right has a particularly vibrant pattern, I think, and the weaver told me he'd been particularly inspired by the web of sunlight on water – "
"Erm - no, well, I..." I interrupted. Portfolios? End-of-year? He had to be talking about A-level students at least. "I'm... erm... I'm actually fourteen."
He was clearly startled. "Fourteen?" No, make that staggered. More staggered than even Mike had been at that revelation. He gave an incredulous cough, which he managed to convert into a clearing of the throat. "My word! Well, I beg your pardon – I could have sworn..."
Awkwardly, he retreated into the shade of his desk, leaving me to feel as if I'd embarrassed him. Which I had, I supposed - though I hadn't meant to, I really hadn't. And I didn't want to leave things on that note, especially not after he'd been so kind as to invite me inside. Gritting my teeth, I approached him at the desk.
"Erm, Mr Orchard..."
He looked up from a brochure. "Yes?"
"Are you..." Oh this was ridiculous; of course it was a leading question, of course he knew I knew. "Would you be the actor from 'The Last Place On Earth'?"
"Well!" His face broke into a real smile for the first time – an unguarded smile, a smile that pulsed with surprise and delight and just a little bit of embarrassment. The Southern Lights, rippling orange-yellow-green across a grey-glass sky, couldn't have wrought more of a transformation. "So you've seen that, have you? I'd have thought that series would have been a bit before your time, if you're only fourteen!"
"I saw it on DVD. I thought you were..."
I was too shy to say any more. Besides, what vocabulary did I have to complete that sentence?
Too late, I saw he'd completely misunderstood what I wanted to say. He thought I didn't like his performance, and didn't want to lie. The aurora flickered out, replaced by the dimmer light of a resigned smile. "Oh well!" he said, evenly, determined to maintain his good humour. "Best we don't go there, then!"
"Oh no!" I said out loud, desperate to reassure him, "No, I loved it! I loved all of it! Well, not so much the Norwegians, they were a bit boring, but I loved all the other bits! Especially your scenes - I thought you were the best thing in it!"
Great going, Sym. Frighten the man, why don't you?
He did look a little startled at my impassioned declaration, but he recovered quickly and didn't make any move to press the big red panic button under his desk – you know the one, it's marked Loony Alert: Fetch A Nice Padded Van For This One, She Might Be Dangerous.
"Well... thank you very much! How flattering!" His smile had returned to its brilliant wattage, even if his eyes were still a little bit wary. "Glad you enjoyed it! As for the Norwegians, I'll have to take your word on that; I didn't actually see those scenes. Met the Norwegian actors for drinks in the evening, of course, but during the day we were filming miles apart with two different units, to keep the costs down."
"Oh right! So you've never actually seen the whole series, then?"
Bemused, he shook his head. "Never seen any of it."
For a moment I thought I'd misheard him. "But – I don't -"
"Oh, I didn't bother with it when it was on. I never like watching myself on the screen. And, as I recall, I had better things to do of a Monday evening."
It was like being crushed. I'd arrived here by pure chance, I'd been given a chance to talk to the man who made Titus, my Titus, come alive – and now he was telling me that he never saw the series himself? I couldn't believe he could be so indifferent. How could he just stand there and have no feelings about something so beautiful, something he helped create?
"Better things?" I blurted out, not bothering to keep the hurt from my voice. "How could you have anything better...?"
He winced slightly at that, then sighed, and I felt absolutely ashamed of myself.
"I'm sorry I said that – it's just I really enjoyed it. You didn't need to see it, of course you didn't! Please forget I said that?"
That at least made him smile. "Look, erm – "
"Sym. I'm Sym."
"Well, Sym, I'm very glad you enjoyed the series, but... Things are sometimes a bit different for the actors themselves. Of course we love what we do, but once it's over we want to move on to new projects... and the trouble is that a particular performance - this "one splendid shining moment" , if you will - has been captured and sent out into the world, and taken on a life of its own. Rather like Frankenstein's Creature – you've heard of 'Frankenstein', of course?"
I longed to tell him, Of course I've heard of 'Frankenstein' – it has Polar explorers in it! But I didn't want him to slam that big red panic button after all, so I just nodded as he continued.
"Well, once that moment's over, I'm not really a part of it any more – but people seem to think I am. They experienced that moment in their own lives, they think I did too, so sometimes I get visitors to my shop who – who presume a connection, if you will. And it's all desperately embarrassing and sad... and it's all down to a few moments of my past that have gone on living in other people's minds."
He wasn't looking at me when he said that - a good job too, as my face must have turned a nice shade of beetroot by that point.
"So - when I found people behaving like that at the very start of my career - I made a rule to myself that I wouldn't ever watch my performances on film. That way, I can divorce myself just a little from the acting itself. Because acting's marvellous to do, you know, but I don't want people to think that I'm Titus Oates, or whoever, for the rest of my days."
I stood there, feeling the colour and heat ebb from my cheeks. When I judged I could control my voice I said, as casually as I could, "Oh right! Yeah, that makes sense..." Move swiftly on, Sym. Somewhere else, and quickly, before you put your great clumsy foot in it again. "So, um, are you retired from acting now?"
"Well, I do take some jobs from time to time - but not nearly so many, or I wouldn't be able to run a business, would I?" Mr Orchard stood for a moment scrutinizing me, as if he were thinking of telling me something in confidence. "In fact, I have had an offer from a theatre company quite recently. They're thinking of staging a new adaptation of Peter Pan. Guess which part they want me for – go on, guess!"
"Not – not Captain Hook?" When he confirmed it with a smile, I gasped in excitement. "Oh yes, you must! You have to do it! You'd be perfect!"
"Thank you... I think!"
"No, you don't understand – do you know where Captain Hook went to school?" Mr Orchard shook his head. "Eton! Just like Titus Oates! Captain Hook was a student at Eton, too - I remember it said so in 'Peter Pan' - and so was Titus Oates... So if you did it, you'd be going from Captain Oates to Captain Hook! Oh, please say you'll do it! I think you have to!"
The look he gave me was decidedly bemused. "Are you absolutely sure you're only fourteen?"
I had to giggle. "Well, I do a lot of reading."
"So do I!" he grinned, enthusiastic again. "I always need to do my research when I get a role, especially in a period drama. That said, sometimes the whole issue of historical truth is taken out of one's hands anyway - for instance, when we were filming 'The Last Place On Earth' we ended up in the wrong hemisphere; Arctic, not Antarctic! I think the principle was that one snow-covered landscape looks much like another, and North was cheaper than South. We did our best, of course, but I always wondered if the experts were able to look at those landscapes and know that it wasn't the real thing."
"Really?" This was news to me. "Well, it looked just like Antarctica to me – exactly like!"
"Have you been there?" When I nodded, he threw me a look that was more than a little sceptical. "How on earth did you manage that? I've heard it's awfully expensive to get down there."
How did I manage to get onto that particular subject? I couldn't possibly tell him what my trip to the last place on Earth had cost me – just thinking about it had the power to plunge me back into the freezing winds again - so instead I cast a look around my surroundings, seeking something else to talk about.
My unwilling silence must have given me away. He visibly froze. Then his eyes widened as they looked me over, as if seeing me properly for the first time, then finally he muttered, "Please... Just wait there a moment," and vanished into the back room.
When he came back, he was carrying last month's copy of Posh Ladies' Glossy. My face hadn't made the front cover, of course, but my story had earned a yellow by-line just above the one about the ten tastiest lip-glosses for Valentine's Day. EXCLUSIVE! Survival In Antarctica: My Story, by Symone Wates. He opened it, flipped through the pages until he came to the four-page spread about me, then looked up at me with almost comical disbelief.
"It's your hair," he said finally. "I think I'd have recognized you earlier, if..."
"I promised myself a dye-job," I said in a weak voice, but his eyes had already returned to the article, scanning its contents. His gaze lingered on the picture of Uncle Victor, then fixed on the box of text which explained his 'hollow earth' theories. He read it over and over, and when he finally raised his face to mine he looked absolutely ghastly.
"Please tell me the truth. Did this... this... this person get the idea to go to Antarctica from watching my series?"
"No!" I said, horrified that he might think himself in any way responsible for what had happened. "Oh no, Mr Orchard, it wasn't you!"
It wasn't you at all, Mr Orchard. That man had been grotesquely, cruelly mad since before I was born. He'd puffed himself up with the belief that he was right and the rest of the world was wrong, and somehow he'd managed to convince Dad that his insane theories were true - and then when Dad woke up and tried to get me away from him, he'd...
But I couldn't tell Mr Orchard that. I couldn't say a word, in fact, for the tears which were choking me. I let him sit me down on the closest leather sofa, where I sat staring down at Dad's old gym-bag, at the initials – L.W. for Larry Wates – which he'd marked onto the lining years ago.
Meanwhile, Mr Orchard disappeared into the back office, to return with a shining glass of water in his hand.
"Shh," he murmured, as I took it in both hands and gulped down its welcome coolness. "You don't have to talk about it."
"It wasn't your fault, it wasn't," I heard myself saying, though it wasn't Mr Orchard that I wanted to say it to.
When I opened my mouth to speak, it felt as if I'd just swallowed a handful of dried insects - and some of them were still lodged in my throat. Try as I might to force them down, they refused to go the whole way: I could practically feel the scraping of their little stick-legs, the razor-sharpness of their desiccated wings.
"Ladies and gentlemen", I rasped in what remained of my voice, "I feel truly honoured to stand here today..."
"Stop!" Mr Orchard called out from his seat in the corner, his hand slicing through the air to cut me off. "First of all, you need another drink of water. Now. Secondly – as I have to keep telling you - your posture's wrong. You'll never project your voice if your shoulders are... Yes, that's better. Much better. Spine straight, shoulders back, and let's give it another try."
I nodded, put down my glass, smoothed out the damp and crumpled printout and started reading the acceptance speech yet again.
At first I'd only told Mr Orchard about the Awards as something to explain away my tears, since I couldn't possibly have told him the deeper cause. But he turned out to be such a good listener that I found myself telling him almost everything about the ceremony; he'd sympathized when I explained the nature of Sigurd's treachery, and he'd smiled broadly when I'd told him how I'd ended up babbling out a tribute to the Scott Expedition.
I'd been a bit nervous at that smile. "You don't think that's too... weird?"
"Not in the least! But it does give me a bit of an idea. This won't be the only award you'll be getting for your Antarctic exploits, and you'll want to thank Captain Oates properly next time, won't you?"
It seemed that, in addition to running a carpet business and being a brilliant actor, Mr Orchard was a professional voice coach too. He'd trained countless nervous businesspeople in delivering lectures and presentations – and, when he suggested that he had a bit of spare time and that he wouldn't mind putting his assistant in charge of the shop whilst he gave me a brief lesson in the basics, I'd gladly taken him up on the offer.
"Right! Now, read it again, and this time, slower. At present it's sounding very artificial, but you'll find it'll sound a lot more natural if you take your time. Pause after every sentence. Live in it. Enjoy it. Now go again."
Granted, I hadn't known he was going to be such a drill sergeant. Absolutely no deviation from the goal at all. For the next hour and a half in his office we went through "correct stance", "voice projection", "stresses and pauses", "establishing eye-contact" and "building self-confidence", over and over, until I knew that acceptance speech practically by heart.
It worked, though. By the time he was finished with me, I could read out the speech in a tone that wasn't too fast, too monotonous or too strangulated. Even the acoustic distortion of my hearing-aid was something I could work around, "given practice"; all I needed, he said, was to read out my speech in a room of a similar size, and I'd be well aware of what I needed to aim for.
"And if they have a sound system, so much the better; again, just get used to the sound of your voice in a standard mike and you'll be fine."
After I'd finished thanking him, I reached into my clutch-purse and pulled out my debit card. "How much do I owe you?"
"Oh no! Payment, for doing someone a favour? Please!"
He kept refusing to quote me a price, even when I pressed him. "Look, if you insist, you can buy something from the shop - but not today, and there's absolutely no obligation..."
He might have thought I wouldn't bother, but he was wrong. I had my eye on one of his designer carpets already, something I might treat myself to just as soon as Mum and I had our finances sorted out. It was quite a small carpet, about two feet by four - but a beautiful thing, pure white and embroidered with feathery silver curlicues. Like an ice-floe starting to crack under the first rays of sunlight.
Now I allowed myself to look at them properly, some of the carpets he had on his display stands were so intricate and gorgeous there was no way they belonged under other people's feet. How on earth could I have looked down on these things? They were lovelier than paintings.
Mr Orchard certainly seemed to think so; when I asked about them, he got out a leather photo-album from beneath the counter. His journeys in sourcing the most talented and original weavers from around the world. And as he flipped through the pages, telling me about his suppliers in Turkey, Morocco, Iran and India, I understood what else he was trying to tell me.
That the world had better places than Antarctica.
Yes, Antarctica existed, but it stood alone. The whole world wasn't like that. It wasn't carved out of ice. It wasn't as white as salt and twice as bitter; it didn't distort space and distance and sound; it wasn't covered with mountain-ranges formed from the accretion of the world's dried tears.
There were places on this Earth which carried no trace of Antarctica at all - places I might like to see one day. They might hold their own kind of danger, their own kind of terror, but theirs was at least a different kind of beauty, too. Beauty of colour, and warmth, and soft, transparent light.
Beauty with a human element.
And that meant people. People like Sigurd, people like Uncle Victor – but to balance them there'd be people like Mike, too, and Mr Orchard. And Titus, of course. From the very first time I heard his voice, I knew he was the kind of person who made the world worth bothering with.
I didn't want to leave, but when the clock said twenty minutes to five I reluctantly told Mr Orchard that I had to be off.
"Well, I do hope I'll be seeing you again. Now, are you sure you don't want to wait in here until your lift arrives?"
"I don't have a lift; I need to be getting back to Notting Hill Tube, then from there to Marylebone. And you don't have to walk me there, Mr Orchard, it's not far - I'll be just fine."
His eyes flickered to the street outside with something like confusion. "But won't anyone be coming to get you? I thought I saw someone with you, out on the pavement?"
I felt myself slowly freezing over. "No... I was by myself. I came here by myself."
"Well, that's odd." He shot another confused glance towards his front window. "It seemed as if – no, it was probably the glass playing tricks on me. Never mind."
"What did you see, Mr Orchard? Please, tell me - what did you see?"
He shook his head, puzzled at my intensity. "It looked as if there was someone outside with you. A man, quite tall... but it was the strangest thing. I couldn't make out his face at all."
He seemed quite concerned, searching my face as if to compare it to what he remembered. I looked at Mr Orchard, remembering the old legends about what happened to a man who encountered his own doppelganger, and decided it was probably kindest not to say anything more.
I couldn't see Mum anywhere when I got back to Marylebone Station and, as I was ten minutes early, I had a bit of time to kill. On an impulse I ducked into a souvenir shop in the terminus and bought a couple of postcards with stamps, then scribbled quick messages on them, propping each card against a nearby wall and writing whilst standing up. One postcard had a bright-scarlet double-decker bus on it, and that was for Nikki from my class, just a note to say hi and I'd be in touch soon. The other had a photo of a soldier in an equally red tunic and black fur buzby, and that was for Mike. No soppy language whatsoever – well, unless signing off with "Missing you" counted as soppy.
"So, how did it go?" murmured the longed-for voice.
"Brilliant!" Titus was standing right next to me, wrapped up in his long-coat; I loved seeing the way his face creased into a grin at my happiness. "Mr Orchard was ever so kind - gave me lessons in public speaking, said I could go see him again whenever I liked... Oh, he was lovely!"
"Well, good! I'm so glad it wasn't too far beneath you, to associate with some lowly carpet salesman."
My cheeks were flaming. "Please, Titus, don't gloat. Haven't you ever made mistakes about people in your life?"
"Too many to count, my girl!" He said it with a laugh as wide and open as a sunlit sky; if those mistakes and bad decisions from his old life gave him any pain, you'd never know it. "I'd be a complete and utter hypocrite if I claimed I'd always possessed perfect judgement! So, point taken; no more gloating, I promise."
"Besides, you have to take into account that I'm quite jealous of your Mr Orchard simply for being alive. A mere figment of your imagination can't possibly hope to compete..."
That was what I'd been meaning to tell him. "But you're not just a figment of my imagination, Titus – I know you're not!"
"You do? How so?"
"Because other people can see you. It's not just me. Mr Orchard said he saw you out on the street, standing next to me!"
That got me a smug look. "How strange. Maybe your Mr Orchard needs an eye-test?"
"Oh, don't! Don't play games with me! Other people can see you, and it's about time you admitted you're not just in my head. That you really do exist. Why won't you admit it?"
"Admit what? That I'm a really famous ghost from 1912 who's chosen to haunt one particular human being? Come on, Sym. Even you know that's too ridiculous for words."
"But you saved me, Titus. Why won't you stand up and accept a round of applause for it?"
"Because you saved yourself, my girl." He smiled; I was getting a lot of that wonderful smile today. "If you hadn't wanted to live, you wouldn't have got to your feet and hurled yourself into the teeth of those bitter winds. Never told you, did I, that I'm proud of you for going on, step after step, even when you thought it was hopeless."
I bit my lip. "I couldn't have done it if you hadn't been there."
"Kind of you to say so... But in the end, you were the one who kept putting one foot in front of the other. Don't underestimate that."
That was Titus to a "T"; he would always slip out from underneath any compliment you tried to load onto his shoulders. It was frustrating, sometimes, how he refused to be pinned down.
But, this time, I could pin him down - and I would.
"Titus... Remember you told me about Birdie Bowers, and Taff and the rest, what they were doing in Heaven..."
"Well, what's my Dad doing right now?"
It was the first time I'd ever asked and it really startled him, I could tell. "Your father?... Don't ask me, old girl. I don't know."
"Yes, you do know, Titus."
"Me?" He was shaken, it was obvious, but he did his best to shrug it off casually. "Look, Sym, I hate to disappoint you, but I really don't know what your father's up to. Remember back when that rich old woman found out I'd been to Eton, and she asked if I'd known her son, and I told her I was terribly sorry, but I really couldn't be expected to know everyone? Well, Heaven's a bit like Eton. Simply heaving with people. Far too many to get to know everyone by name."
He was trying to distract me with a jokey story, and that could only be confirmation that I was right. I knew I was. It had taken me a long time to figure it out, but on the journey back from Mr Orchard's shop I'd put all the pieces together. I knew exactly what had happened.
"Titus..." I said carefully – so very carefully, for I didn't want to startle him. "Lately I've started to wonder why you came along when you did. You came right after Dad died. Just when I needed someone strong to stand by me. The timing was so perfect I accepted it as one of those things, but now I know it had to be more than just a coincidence. And it was more than that – wasn't it?"
He was suddenly so tense he didn't move, and he couldn't bring his eyes to meet mine.
"Please. Tell me the truth. Why won't you admit it?"
He let out a deep, deep sigh. A guilty sigh. The sigh of someone who'd been carrying a secret for so long that it had started to eat away at him from the inside out.
"Sym..." His voice grated so deeply, like the cry of a creature in pain. "Sym, I..."
I didn't let him finish. I couldn't bear to hear him sound so – so tortured! Why should I force him to admit the truth? Why, when it was so pointless to make him say it anyway - when I'd worked it all out on my own! I would say it for him. I would release him from having to pretend. He wouldn't have to hide anything from me anymore.
"It was Dad who sent you to me, wasn't it?" I said, immeasurably proud of myself for figuring it out. "It was - I know it was! He got better when he got to Heaven, and he found you, and he told you what had happened. He told you that he had a fourteen-year-old daughter who really needed someone – and you liked the idea of being a guardian angel - so you turned up, and made yourself look like Martin Orchard, and you pretended to be a voice in my head! Except you weren't just something I made up. You were always too solid for that. Too grown-up. And when you told me about the Ice Barrier shifting into the sea, something I couldn't possibly have known, I knew you had to be real – the real Titus Oates!"
He looked at me with such a shocked, odd, unfathomable expression then. As if he couldn't believe that I'd managed to work it out all by myself. Silly Titus.
"Well?" I persisted. "Isn't that the truth? You might as well admit it. I won't tell anyone else, but I would like you to be honest with me."
He looked away again. "Well... If you want, old girl. If you say so."
Good. He'd finally admitted it, and it warmed me to the core to know I'd been right. "Titus – when you see him next, please tell Dad I think about him? Because I do. I'm proud that he saved me from... from that man. Please tell him?"
He gave a small, almost imperceptible nod, but he didn't say a word.
"Please, Titus? For me? And tell him I'm glad he's happy in Heaven. Tell him I'm so glad he got to meet you."
Titus lifted his dark gaze back to mine, and this time he was smiling. "Well, likewise, Sym. I'm thankful I had this chance... to get to know you properly. And – oh dear, did that sound revoltingly soppy?"
"Oh, Titus - of course it didn't!"
"Thank goodness for that! " Brisker now, he added, "Now, I think your mother's hereabouts. Ah - there she is, sitting in that cafe over there. You'd best not keep her waiting."
He was right: Mum had taken up a table in a distant corner of Costa Coffee and was giving a tall cappuccino her full attention. I started walking towards her, Dad's gym-bag hoisted back on my shoulder, and as I did I was filled with a pride that pulled my spine straight, that sent my gaze up to the vaulted iron rafters of Marylebone Station. Finally, I had a voice of my own, and it was steady and sure. I didn't have to live in my own head any more. I didn't have to be scared of what other people might do or what they might say. Now I could take a deep breath and treat the rest of the world as an equal.
I spun around, briefly dizzy with the most amazing fact of all. Dearest Titus. He wasn't just a wishful thought lodged at the back of my mind - he was real, he was real!
Scanning through the crowds that poured into the central concourse, I couldn't see any sign of him anymore. I didn't mind too much. If he was real, then he had an existence of his own, didn't he? Maybe he was busy right now, but I'd see him again. He was truer than the North Star, and like the stars I just knew he would return to me.
As my mother saw me through the plate-glass window and rose to her feet, I strode into the cafe and threw my arms around her. My resulting bear-hug nearly knocked her off balance.
"Honestly, Sym – !" She started to protest.
"Really good day, Mum," I whispered into her ear. "Really, really good day. Can we go home now?"