The iron ship slid across the sound, its sharp hull slitting the ice-flats. Smoke rose from its towers, up over the glowing mountains of Antarctica. Cries of men and gulls crackled over the grumbling engine, while Jamie McCallum stood on the pier. He was clutching an envelope lettered in ink by his lover.
Jamie spat into the black water of Leith Harbour by way of farewell to his friend aboard the steamer. Carlson, the Norwegian, was homeward bound. They had found his little distillery. Alcohol was illegal in Leith Harbour. His terms of employment had been rendered null and, in return, he had a one-way ticket home. He was still indebted to the Company for the costs of his original voyage out and so Carlson had left with less than he had set out with, and had worked hard to lose it. For Jamie, the loss of his friend was a blow, but the loss of the homebrew was a bigger problem. The Norwegian was a good guy. But he was gone now and Jamie and his roommates needed booze; they needed a new conspiracy. As the Shetlanders had predicted, the ship which discharged Carlson had brought with it smuggled yeast. The yeast came hidden in the mail alongside long-awaited word from Scotland. Jamie McCallum pocketed the yeast packet and struggled to rip the envelope with his frigid fingers. His fiancée had at last sent him a letter. The paper shook in his shivering hands as the wind from the ocean bit his ears and he read:
My dear Jamie McCallum,
How it pains me to write this. I don’t know how to say.
I am pregnant. And as you know, it can’t be yours. I am marrying the man next month. Maybe when this reaches you, we will be wed already.
I am sorry. So sorry. It is impossible to express in a letter. Forgive me. The distance has been so hard and the time so long. And no money until you returned. We grow old, Jamie. Time changes all things and I had to take action to save myself. I know you will return home a well-paid man and will soon find someone else whom you can wed and build a home together. I hope the work is not too dangerous.
Forgive me. I did love you.
Jamie looked at the handwriting. It was Mary’s handwriting. He looked at the now disappearing ship smoking its way out of the bay. The cliffs bordered the glowing waters, cold and deep. Misanthropic crags pierced the island’s edges and cormorants flapped uncaring across the hungry current. Behind the pier, the Harbour creaked and yawned and guzzled in its processes. Cranes and chimneys cluttered the rooftops and tractors dragged heavy loads across the shore, dodging the blubberous blobs of dozing elephant seals. A whale carcass lay flensed and exposed, red and ribbed to the circling seagulls, eyeball staring. Workers with blades and chains approached the stranded corpus and began work on the muddy, bloodied sands. The whaling ships squatted in the harbour, wailing alarms and clunking on the tide. The cold wind blew through it all as the autumn sun set early beyond the glacier. Jamie stood on the shadow pier alone a while. Then he returned to his barracks.
The next morning Jamie found himself in the Medical Office. He had punched the metal wall next to his bunk several times that night. He had punched hard enough to break his wrist and now, after a searing night, it was in a stookie. He wouldn’t be able to work for weeks now. And he wouldn’t get paid if he did not work. The Company doctor made sure he understood this before he was allowed to return to his dormitory. Jamie said nothing. Night still held the new day outside. It was snowing, gently, outside on the track to his bunkhouse and the snowdrops were melting in the puddles. With mechanical readiness, chains and sirens hooked in the working day and cries came from the processing plant. The shift was about to start. Jamie hurried to get to bed before the men left for the factory. The slush on the road was blue in the morning, turning black.
He remained indoors for two days. He was here because of her. He was here to offer a better life for her and him and their future family. He murdered monsters for her. He cut bone and bathed in slithering fat. He suffered the winds and the darkness; the fire and the freeze. He nursed his wrist in his good hand, then screamed and smashed his plaster-cast down onto the bedroom table and whimpered in agony for some time thereafter.
That evening the Shetlanders came into the dormitory they shared with Jamie. They had been leaving him to his grief when they heard the news and were ignoring him now as they trudged in, bootless, stripped to their underclothes, exhausted from their work.
“Got any booze?” Jamie asked.
“Naw,” Magnus replied, the bigger of the two.
“Not since the Norwegian packed his bags,” said George.
Jamie rolled away from them on his bottom bunk. George sat down on Carlson’s vacant bed and looked at Jamie’s turned back.
“No yeast on the last ship then?” he probed, picking his nose and rolling it between his fingers as he spoke.
Jamie did not move. “Aye,” he said. “In my jacket.”
The two standing men looked at him.
Jamie continued, “But we’ve no distillery. The Norwegian had his tricks. And he still got caught.”
The Shetlanders did not reply, but took to preparing their beds for the night. Through the tiny black window, lights flashed from the harbour. The cramped four-man dorm was almost entirely wallpapered with pornographic pictures of women, naked and legs-spread, coyly beckoning. Some were amateur photographs picked up in pubs back home and others were caricatures drawn by some sly artist with a talent for sailing. Jamie turned in his bed and sat up. The girls were staring at him, teasing. He fixed on their cunts and tits. It was a rough world.
Shetlander George watched him with a grin while changing his underpants for pyjama pants, legs firmly white beneath black hairs. The heating pipes coughed and gurgled behind the metal walls. Suddenly George smacked the side of his palm against the flat iron of the wall with a melodic thud. A nudey picture came unstuck and fluttered to the ground. Magnus and Jamie frowned at him.
“The walls!” he exclaimed. “The walls!”
He smiled at the others beneath his beard, but they did not respond.
“Don’t you see? The heating is in the walls! And the walls are hollow,” he continued.
“That’s the answer to it.”
His hands were open in front of him as though it were obvious.
Marcus eventually responded, “What are you on about?”
Jamie had already guessed it.
“If we put a hole in the walls, we can put in a peerie distillery. The heat from the pipes will speed it up. They’ll never find it. We’ll be drinking again in no time. Have ourselves a party!” George was clearly very excited now.
Marcus cottoned on. He stopped scratching his balls and started nodding.
George concluded further, “The whole place has been dry for days now. The boys’ll pay through the teeth for a swally!”
Marcus nodded. “And you ken who we’ve got to look after our little enterprise? The big man, Jamie McCallum. The invalid.”
He grasped Jamie by the shoulder and Jamie smiled at him a bit.
“We’ll go in it three ways, McCallum. Fifty-fifty-fifty. We’ll make the distiller, you keep an eye on it. We’ll put it in the wall under your bed. We’ll give you first dibs on selling and that. And that can cover you the loss of wages you’re dealing with,” George encouraged.
“Sounds like a plan,” said Jamie, amused by the speed of their machinations. “But how can we make a hole? The wall’s metal.”
“We’ll sort it,” said George smiling.
By the next day, the plan was in action. The floor of the small bunkroom was cluttered by the three men crouching round their assorted equipment: three buckets, rubber tubing, lids, masking tape, and a shoe box. The Shetlanders had pinched most of it from the factory floor and the canteen, and had had the rubber tubing from the Norwegian before he was discharged. The first bucket was filled with yellow porridge that had been heated into a glutinous slodge; it steamed sickly. The second was filled with snow. The third was empty.
The three men manoeuvred themselves and screeched Jamie’s bunk away from the wall and against the adjacent door. With the thick metal sheers used to snap whale bone and munch blubber, Marcus made an underarm swing, like a golf swing, to stab a blunt hole in the lower part of the wall. It made a loud bang, but there were always loud bangs happening around the whaling base and so it faded unsuspicious. Marcus wriggled the sheers to widen the hole a little, and then started to snip stiffly the thin metal upwards, along and down, soon creating a hole big enough for a man to squeeze his head and shoulders through. Marcus looked into the hole.
“Aye, the pipes are right here. It’s warm too.”
“Is there enough space?” asked George.
“Definitely,” replied his friend.
Jamie watched on, stirring the bucket of glooped oats.
“You got the yeast?” George asked him.
Jamie reached into his back pocket and pulled out the envelope in which his Mary’s letter had arrived. It was folded over several times to hold the powder safe.
“Right, tip it in then,” said George.
Carefully Jamie unfolded the envelope over the slop bucket and let the brown-white granules drop into the mixture. He repocketed the paper and began to stir in the magic ingredient. The powder soon became enveloped by the sludge and the sludge began to thin into soup.
George and Marcus smiled at each other.
“Right, you squeeze in there and we’ll pass the bucket to you. See if you can wedge it up high somewhere against the pipes,” George ordered him.
Jamie did as he was told. Watching he did not get stuck by the sides of the cut hole, he shimmied into the wall, pulled himself up on the hot pipes with his hands wrapped in his shirt-sleeves, and stood tall and tight. He took care to hold his skin away from the metal pipes to avoid sharp burns. It was dark and not comfortable. He heard the others working at something. Then the bucket was pushed through and appeared at his feet, lid now firmly attached with tubing winding out from the top.
Jamie sidled his good arm down to grip the handle. He managed to scrape it up the inside of the wall with great stress. It was very heavy. Then using his knee, then chin, he worked it into a spot between the pipes in front of him and pulled the tubing down.
“Is it in tight?”
“Right, on you come out. Careful not to knock it.”
Jamie squeezed himself down, and with great awkwardness and discomfort he angled himself back out through the hole feet first. The Shetlanders grabbed him by his protruding ankles and he slid out, the side of is face taking a burn and the back of his head taking a knock on the way down.
He looked breathless and shocked as he lay there between the two men. Marcus started to laugh and then all three of them were laughing.
They took the snow bucket and placed it outside the hole. Then they dug the snow away from the edges of the bucket and took the rubber tubing that led from the mash bucket stuck up inside the wall. George took the tubing and wrapped it round the inside of the container and stuck it through a hole they had punctured at the bottom. They repacked the snow around the tube and made the tube’s exit hole air-tight by applying masking tape all around it. They placed the bucket-tube contraption on a small box used for storing boots. Marcus then took the remaining end of the tube and placed it into the remaining empty bucket, which sat on the floor lower down from all the rest, such that the tube flowed generally downwards from its starting place at the top, where the soup was fermenting among the pipes.
Jamie watched on, not knowing how to help.
Finally the Shetlanders went to grab the bed, so Jamie stood up and held it with them, and they, with one final heave, replaced the bed in its original position and hid the hole and buckets from sight. As a final measure, George grabbed Jamie’s pillow and stuffed it under the bed to hide the bucket and hole from anyone who might look under.
“Done,” said George, picking up the bone sheers.
“A factory,” said Marcus.
Jamie sat on his bed.
“It will need at least a week,” said George. “And while we’re at work you’ll need to replace the snow in that bucket every day as it melts.”
Marcus commented, “We’ll be rich men when it’s done.”
Jamie nodded again. “And we can get drunk.”
The Shetlanders smiled and nodded appreciatively.
Noises from generators could be heard outside between the gusts of wind, and the whale ships clinked and clunked loudly in the harbour.
Jamie woke the next morning to find the opposing beds empty. The Shetlanders were out to work early. He checked down the side of his bed to see if the tube had started dripping: there was a yellowish dribble at the bottom of the receiving bucket. The tube must have started to produce droplets in the night. He smelt the alcohol and smiled. But then he noticed the snow bucket was now filled with meltwater, just as the Shetlanders had said, and he knew it needed refilling before too much alcoholic gas began to escape uncondensed into the atmosphere.
Fuck giving the angels a share, thought Jamie.
Slipping out of bed, he reached under to pull out the bucket. He carefully removed the tube with his able hand, slipped it into the hole in the wall, hid the hole behind the pillow, picked the bucket up, and emptied it outside on a snowheap by the door. The Antarctic cold pierced him through his pyjamas as he stood in the clarity of Southern light. He trotted quickly back inside and changed into his sailing clothes and re-exited to find some fresh snow for his bucket. All the snow round the camp was either black sludge or compacted into rock-ice so Jamie decided to ascend the hill to the back of the living quarters to where the snow might be uncorrupted by human activity.
No one was around. Most were at the docks as they were to be bringing in cargo today and it was heavy work, and so Jamie made his way away from the camp unmolested.
As he trudged the slidy slope he took the envelope again from his pocket and breathed in its past through his nostrils. It only stunk of yeast. All imaginary taste of Mary had left it. Jamie thought of the yeast and wondered what made its magic work.
After passing a rocky area on the path to the recently constructed radio mast, Jamie at last came across a patch of unstained, malleable snow. He bundled it into the bucket with his gloved hands, but was stopped in his labour by the donging belch of modern industry - a ship’s horn. Curious, he stepped up from his crouched position and looked down onto Leith bay below him.
An ironclad whaling ship was churning up to the dock, a ferment of activity fizzing around its oncoming presence: sailors on deck rushing with ropes, dockmen positioning, cranes turning to greet, and butchers on carcass beach making a clearing on the black sand. Gulls puppeteered the air round the ship and the wind made white brew on the waters. Black mountains incarcerated the shining bay, the sun low as ever, and clouds hunkered on the horizon. All around rising into the sky to where he stood, Jamie heard shouting, crying, machines calling. The boat was docked. Its lids were being lifted.
Great hatch doors were heaved open from the wide ship’s deck revealing a dark rectangular hole in the heart of the boat. Chains were slithered in and hooked. Cranes and chains swooped round and tangled their tentacles in search of their feast. And then there was a great hiss. Everything loose suddenly tightened. All the shouting stopped except the seagulls’ cries. The cranes began to lift.
One whale’s body suspended hung, and swung from ship to shore. The cranes strained and the chains tightened to the protruding flesh. The mouth of the hanging animal dangled slack and gaping. The tail dragged down. Then the weight lumped onto the black beach and already the men and gulls were swarming with beaks and knives and hooks. The chains relaxed. The carving began.
Firstly, with spades, they sliced the enveloping blubber into a checkered pattern of scars until the whale looked as if it had been made mathematical by a searing net. Some men were perched on the beast’s back and others hooked the diced squares of fat to heaving chains and flensed the fucking thing. Blubberous chunks gloobed onto the slush and men kicked or dragged them across the ice towards the boiling rooms. The slime-jelly blubber wobbled in rolling carts, and was dropped into cauldrons on the production line, to be boiled into oil, then barrelled and bartered across the industrial metropole. Thick, choking smoke swelled the clouds and grease covered everything.
The meat and ivory, too, were sometimes utilised. Meat augmenting the rations in the canteen, and the ivory for scrimshanding into model ships and phalluses, as trinkets for sale abroad. Usually the exposed carcass, red and guts and staring eye, was simply dragged back into the sea to rot at depth, picked apart by the ocean’s maggots - crabs, eels, and sucking tubefish. The money was in the oil. The oil lubricated the machines of modernity and burned the sleepless cities.
If it was a sperm whale which they had harvested, the head would be cracked open with pickaxes and the skull-wax would be spaded out and stored safely. It was very valuable. But this one was not a sperm whale, Jamie thought. It was a blue whale; though not as big as he had seen them.
The factories were processing happily now. All was sliding and pumping purposefully. The chimneys smoked. They were raising another whale from the cargo ship. Jamie took his bucket and headed back on down the hill.
The bucket of yellow alcohol was starting to fill. The smell was hard to hide, so Jamie tried to keep the door open when nobody was around, and lay in his bed wrapped in heavy clothing. He had found a few pamphlets about the founders of the whaling station and was trying to concentrate in order to read them. The first read:
Name: William Storm HARRISON
Birth: 1 APR 1883 in Robin Hood's Bay
Occupation: Master Mariner
Captain William Storm Harrison has spent twenty-seven years aboard ships sailing the sizzling sea. He has carried leaves of tea from peasant China and Ceylon; rice in sack bags and tropical teak wood from Burma; gingelly seed, rape seed, linseed and manganese ore from the shores of British India; raw cotton from British Egypt and plantations in Alabama; grain from grand serfheld Russia, the American and Canadian prairies, and Argentina; iron pyrites and wool from wide, dry Australia; black wool and sailorly provisions from untamed New Zealand; live roaring cattle from cowboy Canada; nitrates from the Chilean mountainside; valuable softwood from Appalachian New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the White Sea; Oregon pine from the Cascade mountain chain; lignum vitae from lost Argentinian forests; iron ore from the frozen hills of Sweden and the dry, scorched hills of Spain and Mediterranean Africa; hot wine and pressed olive oil from coastal Portugal; esparto grass from Oran; raw peanuts, coffee beans, palm oil and uncracked kernels from the Gold Coast, the Ivory Coast, and negro Nigeria; ground coffee in crates from jungle-clad Brazil; fresh fish from Norwegian seas; and marble from sunny Italy.
As an apprentice under his father, Chief Officer Storm Harrison, their vessel, the SS Roma, was swept ashore at Galveston. Half the crew were lost and the teenage William received his first employment burning the bodies of the washed-up drowned for five dollars a day.
William Storm also spent some time catching and killing whales in the South Seas and he established the first whaling station on the lonely island of South Georgia, Antarctica. It was named Leith Harbour after the port from which the workers set sail in Edinburgh.
Jamie remembered seeing the man when he visited the station with lead capitalist, Christian Salvesen. They had remarked to the workers how they had seen a one hundred percent return on their shareholders’ investment. Jamie remembered thinking that they were a couple of cunts.
He turned his head to the wall. He thought about the living yeast in the hidden bucket above. He thought about it harvesting the sugar from the soup of oats. Impregnating it. The sugar was processed into alcohol by some chemistry within the mixture, some biology, and the alcohol poisoned the yeast. Consumed by what it creates.
Some days passed and the bucket was full. The Shetlanders said they would taste it after their shift. It was important to test it before selling it to the others.
They walked in, covered in snow and blood, and shook the sleeping Jamie to wake him.
“Alright, Jamie boy!” Marcus called. “Rise and shine.”
“It’s been a hard day, poor thing. Worked hard all day. But time to get up. Time to have a peerie party!” George smirked.
Jamie sat up and blinked at the bearded men.
“It’s under Carlson’s bed,” he said, nodding to the opposite bunk.
Marcus and George smiled at each other and Marcus dropped to his knees and slid the bucket out. He lifted the lid and a noxious smell of booze wafted heavily around them. He sniffed in deeply and coughed.
“Wooft!” he laughed and George laughed too.
“Let’s decant this fucking thing, shall we, old boys?” said Marcus smiling as George closed the door carefully and took off his jacket.
“Whose first?” said George, flinging the jacket into the corner.
They all looked at each other.
“All have a dram together then. One for all and all that?” George decided.
The stuff was dished out into their tins, a shallow dribble each. They sat on the bunks, Jamie at his, with George next to him and Marcus on the opposing bed, dungarees undone and hanging by their sides, their sweat-haired chests exposed. Each clasped two hands round their tins (Jamie’s left wrist still in its splint), and smelled its poison. They looked at the liquid’s impotable nature.
“For England!” declared Marcus with a grin and tilted the brew down his throat. The others followed suit.
It was scouring and breath-taking. They all squinted their eyes and smiled with pained faces.
Marcus was about to dip his tin into the bucket again for another go when George stopped him.
“Wait,” he said. “We wait ten minutes to make sure it isn’t going to kill us.”
“Right,” said Marcus and he sat up and laid back, propping his head against the wall, his hands clasped on his thick chest.
While the ten minutes passed they felt the warmth of the stuff inside their hearts. It certainly had a loosening effect even at such a small dose. They talked about their wages and what they would do when they got off the island. They had all been there for over a year so had paid off the debt of the voyage out and their living arrangements. They were all now in profit, although Jamie was less so due to his infirmity and the fact he had been there six months shorter than the other two men. The Shetlanders planned to spend a few more months in order to complete their three years, before heading back to their homeland to buy a farm, which they would work together and find wives for. Jamie remained silent about his plans. Glasgow no longer seemed existent to him. It never really was. And Mary.
Before time, they decided their brew was safe to drink and they decided that since it was theirs, they would have first dibs before it went to market. Soon they were unco fou; sottish pished and talking seriously.
They spoke of their hates and they sung sailors’ songs. Soon others came knocking at the dorm door but they told them to bugger off. It was late and they weren’t going to get caught, probably. And they sung:
It’ll be bright baith day and night when the Greenland lads come hame,
Wi a ship that’s full of oil, ma boys, and money tae oor name.
Here’s a health unto the Diamond bright, the skipper and the crew,
Here’s a health tae every bonnie lass that has a heart so true.
And it’s cheer up, ma lads, let yer hearts never fail,
For the bonnie ship, The Diamond, goes a-fishing for the whale.
Time passed and Jamie grew weary and bleary. He went to take off his layers of clothes but got caught somewhere in midact. And now he was tied up, belly to the bed, with his trousers cuffing his ankles, completely unconscious. The Shetlanders watched this and laughed and stood up and sung more, slapping Jamie’s bare legs to the beat.
Whey, hey, and up she rises! Whey, hey, and up she rises!
Some time later again, Magnus had went out to the privy to piss and George sat opposite exposed Jamie. George was peering with difficulty at the porn on the plastered walls. He had a jar full of whale oil next to him and scooped his fingers in a bit and smeared some over his crotch, manipulating with his head back. He did it faster, then opened his eyes and saw Jamie. He heaved himself up with his one free hand and took a dod more of whale wax. He took a staggering step to the prostrate body and rubbed his waxed hand under Jamie’s underpants, over and into Jamie’s arsecheeks. He then leaned over, legs spread awkwardly, and started to try and fit himself in. At this moment, Magnus returned, near blind, and saw. He closed the door. He lurched over and held Jamie down. George continued to stick it.
Jamie began to awaken. He felt it and smelt them. He was still numb and as he was held down his cock became hard and they harnessed him and beat in. He slid his pinned hand to his cock and grabbed it and thought of himself as being his young lover Mary, all white and soft and yielding, and she was being held down, open, and penetrated for the first time by her new man, and she relinquished to it, and she felt him fuck her, and he came into his hand and sheets with a pained moan while the heavy men continued to rape him and passed away unconscious again.
He woke up, stale. It was still dark. He needed to piss and drink water. He was still intoxicated. He pulled some clothes on him and staggered out of the dark reek of the room. Outside the cold shocked him. He could not breathe right. He tried to piss on the wall but he could not piss right. It hurt. He stumbled, slipping often, to the harbour.
In the pale glow of dawn, everything seemed abandoned. It was as though there were no whales left any longer; they had fished them all, and the factories and docks had been left to decay in the frost. All had been sucked out. But there was still a smell of blood in the air, and a burnt whiff. A sense of pain and nausea; of monsters and ice.
Wind was slicing through the storm and gripping and hurling the waves of the storm, and Jamie had to help, he had to help, and he opened his eyes to the breath of wind and a bright day on the iceberg sea. He squinted and turned. He was on the watch tower of the whale ship, tied loosely to the pole. Panicked, he undid the rope one-handed and stood up ungainly under the rocking swell, holding tight to the railings. He was out at sea again. A clear day, ocean wide. They must have brought him here. They must have found him drunk somewhere. They tied drunkards to the masts when they found them. He gasped sickly. He started to remember.
He wasn’t sure whether to go down or to call someone or just to remain where he was. Somehow he felt safer high above the bouncing ship below, so he stayed and watched the water. There was an ice sheet up ahead and some white tips to the waves. And, there it was too! A spout! There was a whale ahead, swimming right for them. His instinct almost made him cry out, but he checked himself. The whale disappeared for a while and then there it was again, its black back sleekening through the waves and spraying up for air.
Jamie forgot himself. He climbed down the metal rungs to the empty deck, unaware of pain, and ran to the bow of the boat. He saw it again! Just in front, diving to swim under the hull. And no-one else aboard knew! Jamie ran to the back of the boat, trying to outrun the swimming animal beneath him. He reached the stern and saw the shadow glide below and he looked down into the searing waters, and he climbed the back railings with his awkward arms, and leapt overboard. Down he dropped. He dropped clumsily down, down, wind rushing past, and was sucked up by the sea. The water stuck him and speared him with its icy darts and pressed him down and held him under. Jamie saw, in silence, the whale soar past, and saw its elegance and its eye, and it looked at him as he drowned, ecstatic.