The Habits of Ice
by Mary Morrissy
Fred Fleet unfurls the rope skywards. It stalls in a question mark, then snags on the fork of the post that stands like a mast in the night. He tugs – once, twice. Yes, that will hold. He looks up. The sky is muddy, moon bullied by cloud. With difficulty, he clambers up on to the raked lid of the coalbunker built on to the gable of the dunny. The yard is puddled from earlier rain. He feels the cold in his veins, the ice in his joints. Soon he will be aloft, legs wheeling and juddering in the dance of death. He will be past tense, an old man who did himself in. That’s what they’ll say. Couldn’t live without the wife, unbalanced the set of his mind, they’ll say. And then, with her hardly cold in her grave, didn’t the brother-in-law give him his marching papers? Threw him out on the street. Never got on, those two, and without Eva between them, poor Fred was lost. That’s what they’ll say, but they’ll be wrong. Eva was his bulwark against the yawning chasm of another night, cold as this, that has come back to claim him.
Cold as a witch’s tit it was, no moon and dead calm. Kept your eyes peeled all the same. Down below you could hear them revelling, hallooing. Boots hoofing on boards, someone’s birthday.
“Wouldn’t half mind. . .” Lee said.
You knew what he meant. Wouldn’t half mind being down there with them. Instead of here, he meant, perched half-way to the heavens, blowing on your perished hands, cold to the touch as the bars of the cage that hold you. You and Reggie Lee on lookout, like a man and wife in a honeymoon bed. Second night out and you’ve been paired, for life as it turns out. He don’t talk much. Suits you. Last thing you want is chitter-chatter when you’re scouting for growlers. They give out a glow, Lee said. First you see the froth, the waves licking at the base, that’s how you recognise them from afar. Like the hem of a petticoat, he said. You remember that.
The hem of a petticoat. He knots the noose, remembering the way Eva’s lace trim rippled beneath her skirts when they were courting. A proper lady, her. Towards the end, she wore the same ruffle, except this time at her ragged neck, as if it were a tide that might choke her. But Fred saw nothing that night long ago that could, even to a poet’s eye, equate with a petticoat.
“They say they can be blue,” Lee said by ways of conversation but you didn’t answer. You was the senior man. Four years on the Oceanic, you. You stared straight ahead, damned near blinded with concentration. And saw nothing at first. Just a haze. A haze is all. Happens when a berg rolls and the wet ice from down below comes up. Gives off less light. You knows that now; everyone a Solomon after the event. The habits of ice, how it sucks in light during the day, then throws it off in the night. Fooling you, fooling everyone. Iceblink, they calls it.
Blink of an eye, that’s all it took. Just after seven bells. Fifty feet of glass reared up. High as the fo’castle head, enormous, opening its jaws on the prow. You watched and were dumbstruck. Before, there had been nothing. There’s never nothing on the sea, Fred lad, but you’d have sworn to it – you did swear to it, on the bible at that bloody tribunal – there being nothing one minute and then the next. . . you struck the bell three times.
“Hey,” Lee protested. He’d seen nothing neither but always wanted to be in on the action. If you’d a known what was to come you’d a said to him – here, you ring the bridge, you say the words. But Lee was slow, not the sharpest knife in the box, so you fished the key from the hook and opened the box where the telephone was stowed.
“Fleet,” you said, “crow’s nest.”
No response. You ploughed right on, speaking into the seething silence, while in your ears a strange rumbling grew, like thunder doused in pain.
Lights out, a dog barking somewhere in Morse. Phil snug inside the house, the cosy-hole, while Fred’s out here, disowned and shivering. Well, damn him to hell! He might be able to dictate where Fred Fleet can live, but no one can tell Fred Fleet where he may die! He and Eva had been forced to throw themselves on Phil’s mercy early on. No home of their own with Fred away at sea so much. But it was never home, though Eva cooked and cleaned and did for all of them. It was a billet, is all – his nibs counting the tea grains and smelling Fred’s breath for liquor. A teetotaller, Phil, the worst kind, and a bible thumper with it. Little Dottie was brought up in this house, her home too, though she’s long gone, settled down with a family of her own. So with Eva in the ground, it was just the pair of ’em, him and Phil. Warring bachelors, as if Eva and Dottie and forty years of marriage had never happened. A week after the funeral Phil says quite casual – “Sling your hook, Fred, for there’s no welcome for you here anymore.” He thought it was some kind of jest. Then he saw the flinty look on Phil’s face and realised how long he’d been waiting to say those very words.
“Iceberg. Right ahead.”
The words out, you felt the world lurch, the telephone still in your hand.
“Bow’s coming round,” Lee shouted at you.
A hard-a-starboard as if your words were a command. But that couldn’t be, for the ship moved before you’d finished speaking. Next thing you felt it. The groaning judder. You heard the crackle on the deck as if God were emptying a champagne bucket. Like you’d seen the liveries do in First Class.
“Thank you,” a voice came back from the bridge. An officer; they all sounded the same to you.
Thank you, as if you was delivering a bouquet of flowers. Not reporting the gape of blue death. Not like anything you’d ever seen. An iceberg solid as a cliff but filmy, too, so you could see right through it. A thing all at odds with nature. In your bowels you felt its grinding jaws.
When Phil showed him the door, Fred had bunked in at the mariner’s hostel, his duffel with all he owned, stowed under the bed. The place groaned as if in a gale. The other inmates, big blokes, young, spoke in tongues. Polish, was it? Or Latvian. Sounded like stones in their mouths, their arms murky with tattoos. Fred kept hearing bells in the night, waking up in a sweat and howling. . .
“Shut up, old man,” the fella on the upper bunk roared.
Startled out of sleep, heart thumping, he couldn’t go back. Upstairs, his companion snored raucously, while he reached for Eva in the night. She had been a balm to him, a lovely Guernsey girl, sweet-natured, whereas he felt gnarled as a salted rope. Only a few years between them, but an ocean of difference. She was more well-to-do than him; not hard since he was a Barnardo’s boy. His Ma run off with a sailor to Springfield, Massachusetts; his Da, who knew? No name on his birth papers. The only name that had ever stuck to him was the damned ship’s, like an anchor around his neck. For months into their courtship, he didn’t tell Eva, couldn’t bring himself to taint her with the association.
“What of it, lovey?” was what she’d said when he finally told her. Vehement for him. “Didn’t you warn them? Didn’t you do your duty?”
He did, he saw for them. Saw for everyone the ruin ahead.
And then what did you do?
That’s what those Admiralty boys wanted to know.
You stayed at your post, it’s what an able seaman does, you told ’em. Everything you said sounded stroppy when you was only stating the case. You could tell they thought you was shifty, hiding something. You thought it was a near miss, a close shave is all. You kept staring ahead, that was what you was paid for, £5 a month and five shillings for the crow’s nest. You stayed at your post until Hogg and Evans came on at midnight to relieve you. But the truth is, you was never relieved.
Afterwards, he would never speak the name. Wouldn’t bring it down upon himself. Bad enough it was on his record. Discharged at sea – original destination New York. There’s actors, Eva told him once, that won’t mention Macbeth for fear of bad luck. They call it the Scottish play. Eva’d been a seamstress, sewed costumes and the like, worked for theatre folks, knew all their lore. What could he call it instead? The Irish ship?
And then what did you do?
Out on the port deck, Lightoller ordered you to launch the Number 6 boat. You and the Quartermaster filled her, there were maybe 30 of ’em, ladies mostly, and Hichens put you on oars with some Major fellow who said he had a yacht and knew about the water. Some ladies in the boat wanted to go towards the ship but you were aiming away. For the light.
There was a light on the port bow. Another ship, you thought, come to help. But it seemed to move as you pulled for it. Like the light in a nightmare. Or maybe it was a ghost ship. . .
And you never reached this light?
You shake your head.
Didn’t you hear the people crying?
You was howling yourself if truth be told but it couldn’t be heard above the din.
The people in the water. . .
But there was no people in the water then. And when they were, you was too far away to hear them.
And did you not go back?
Back? To that? The ship cracking in two, the water swelling around her carcass, devouring her. Go back?
You’d had your fill of their questions. Didn’t I see it for you, you wanted to shout at them. Isn’t that enough for you?
You looked at them, all ranged against you, the sharp fellas in the suits, the chaps with the epaulettes.
Is there any more likes to have a go at me?
He saw it, saw it first, and then went on seeing it. Or braced himself constantly to see it. Two months after, he was back on duty, lookout on the Olympic. But the White Star Line didn’t have much time for the likes of him. He was a reminder of someone who’d seen too much. He handed in his papers and switched to the Union Castle Steamship. Served till ’36, then came ashore. But still there was no rest. Even on dry land, he was always on vigil, always on the lookout. For obstacles, for shadows on the horizon. He didn’t fret about people on the street behind him, no, it was what was ahead that troubled him, what might loom up. He wanted the narrow, hemmed-in comfort of Norman Road, the safety of houses. Didn’t see Phil’s ambush coming, though. Didn’t see that, no.
They took your picture on the Carpathia. Some factotum shoved you up against a wall and chalked a number over your head. As if you was a criminal. As if you’d done something wrong. You can’t look at that picture – your cheeks stoved in, something dead in your eyes. Maybe they was always dead and you only noticed when the bulb went, all seethe and sizzle, the diamondy chill of the sulphur flash. Dead with the toll of all the things that might have been.
If there’d been a moon.
If they’d given you binoculars.
If you’d shouted louder.
If there hadn’t been ice in your lungs.
He unlaces his boots, holes in his socks. Somewhere he hears Eva tutt-tutting. He peels them off and throws them and the boots to the ground. His bare feet numb on the corrugated roof. Discomfort can drive a man to courage. The moon comes out from behind its cover, a porthole in the inky sky. He feels like he’s at the bottom of a well but this time there’s an escape hatch; the rope his way to gain the light. He dons his necklace of hemp.
Frederick Fleet was a crewman on the Titanic and was on lookout duty the night the ship struck the iceberg. He committed suicide in January 1965, aged 77.