Fiction

Convergence

To be listening is always to be on the edge of meaning.
Jean-­Luc Nancy, Listening

 

EIGHT DAYS AGO, the sun broke through the white-­out. Word spread quickly. Half-­a-­dozen winterers huddled on the southern deck of the base, faces tilted up towards the cool, shimmering light. The ice sheet was so white it looked blue. A euphoric shiver passed between us. Soon the sun would be gone.

‘I don’t know if it helps to look at it,’ Benny said once we were all back inside and unshouldering our jackets. ‘I still know that I’m going to lose my mind here.’

His cheeks and nose were blood-­bright, eyelashes and goatee frosted. Before anyone could respond, he turned and slouched away. I didn’t see him again until dinner, his plate drowning with gravy. He would have spent the day crawling through the vents or balanced on a ladder working alongside the rest of the sparkies. It was Benny’s third or maybe fourth winter here. The ones with the longest ice time speak about ‘going mad’ freely and with great expectation. They wait for their minds to loosen, for the winter-­over to take hold.

‘People will become sad, bitchy, fatigued and forgetful,’ Raina warned me when she found out my application had been accepted. ‘Try to remember that nothing is personal out there. It can’t be. Everyone feels the weight of the darkness. There’s a reason why it’s called the basement at the bottom of the world.’

She emailed me a list of tips that had helped her through three winters of working in the kitchens at McMurdo: Sleep, eat veggies, exercise, wash your hair. It seemed like an impossibly simple list. But, by the end of my first week at Mawson base, I’d failed to do any of them. She emailed me during my second week. It was brief and knowing: Go for a run, now.

We had met running six years earlier, panting our way up Mount Wellington. We fell into a rhythm, maintaining it for the rest of the half-­marathon. We spoke in fragments, starting with the basics – names, where we lived, what we did for work. She’d just broken up with her girlfriend of four years and had moved to Hobart to start over. I’d just binned my admin job and enrolled in a master of linguistics.

As the road steepened and with our feet falling heavily on the asphalt, our conversation lost any sense of skittish privacy. Raina admitted that she had cheated on her girlfriend. I confessed that I had been fired for ‘attendance issues’.

At the top of the mountain, as the organisers passed out participation medals that doubled as bottle openers, we looked at one another for the first time. Flushed, we radiated heat. Our skin salted with sweat.

‘That felt good,’ said Raina. ‘Talking about things.’ I nodded. My muscles were seizing up. I could feel a line of chaffing blister under the band of my sports bra.

‘We should go for another run someday.’

We traded email addresses. Every three or four months, we’d sign up for a half-­marathon – Mount Baw Baw, Gosling Creek Reserve, Bendigo, Black Mountain Peninsula, Yandina, Tomaree Trail. We became confidants as we ran in lockstep. We managed to maintain this warmth and trust over almost weekly emails but turned shy and cool whenever we sat across from one another for a post-­race drink. For a while I thought that Raina had a crush on me. It was only when she met Hannah that I realised I was the one who harboured the lust, the heat, the infatuation.

As I lay in my bunk re-­reading Raina’s email, I knew that this was why I applied for the research grant at Mawson Base. I wanted an edge over Hannah. I wanted to have a shared experience with Raina. I wanted us to have a language, a shorthand, a cipher. I wanted her.

By noon the cafeteria was bustling. This morning, researchers from S17, Palmer, Bharati and Fossil Bluff had arrived for the winter. I hoped that some of them would agree to participate in my study but had yet to approach anyone.

A tall man with a mess of dark hair joined the line behind me. After a moment, I overheard him say, tu entends tout. En fait tu n’as aucune intimité. You hear everything. Actually, you have no privacy. I didn’t turn around. It would have become obvious that I spoke French. Instead, I kept listening. This, I justified to myself, was my job.

 

THE VAST AND continuous isolation of Antarctica is essential for my research, read the opening line of my grant application. My hypothesis is that speech production – how we shape our lips, teeth, tongue, mandibles as well as the timing and co-­ordination of our vocal organs – is incrementally updated throughout a person’s life and may be influenced by the intimacy of sustained and close contact.

When redrafting my application, I crossed out the word intimacy. I spent hours proofreading my research methodology, worried that any other charged words might have slipped through. On Raina’s insistence, I eventually sent her a draft.

‘No offence, Max, but how is this research even useful? It’s not like it’s going to stop the climate crisis,’ she asked as we ran along Sandy Bay Road.

‘There is emerging evidence that suggests a common accent facilitates co-operation.’

‘So, people need to sound alike to get along? That’s pretty fucking bleak,’ Raina said as she sidestepped a puddle.

‘Voices appear to be malleable, phonetic characteristics can shift. I’m interested in whether our voices converge when we co-­operate.’

‘Put that in your fucking application. They love shit about co-­operation.’

 

I RECORDED THE voices of eleven winterers before we arrived: a dish hand, an astronomer, a nurse, an electrician, an IT engineer, a plumber, a diesel mechanic, an atmospheric physicist, three support staff. Their accent backgrounds were mixed – French (one), English (three), Australian (five), Korean (one), Indian (one). And while none of them had ever spent any significant time together, I hoped that they would eat together, work together and socialise together during the seven months we would be physically cut off from the rest of the world. Talking, talking, talking.

 

THE HOLIDAY BROCHURES talk about ‘the sound of silence’ in Antarctica. That it is an experience, elliptical and expansive. This has become a long-­running joke at the base. Everyone knows that life here relies on making noise. Doors slamming as people step in from the wind. Generators juddering. Heaters cranked up and humming. Lockheed rockets roaring into flight. Tractors, ice compactors and Hägglunds motoring in convoys. The swish of Sno-­Cats and the raw grind of icebreakers bearing down. The HF radio check-­ins and the fight to have the next turn on the VoIP telephone. It takes effort and planning to be silent here.

‘Silence is golden because it’s so fucking expensive,’ Mike said as we lounged on couches in the rec room. He smelt faintly of diesel. He’d spent the past month servicing the generators and drop keels on RSV Nuyina, an icebreaker that could achieve silent R. A phrase he explained stands for ‘silent research’. ‘Can’t scare the fucking krill away, eh?’

He looked tired but continued to answer my questions. (Why did you become an engineer? Why Antarctica? Are you planning to stay another winter?) The recorder sat between us. I quietly analysed the cadence of his voice. His intonation and pronunciations. The liaisons and stress applied to each syllable.

‘For someone who studies voices, you don’t say much,’ Mike said after I turned off my recorder. ‘Makes me wonder what’s going on in that pretty little head.’

Mike repositioned himself on the couch, closing the space between us. My pulse quickened with fright. Before I could respond, Benny walked into the rec room, beer in hand. He looked at us. Mike gave him a wink. Instead of leaving, Benny rested his beer on a side table and slowly set up a game of billiards. Lining up his cue, he took a shot. As the balls cracked and scattered, I made my escape, not knowing which was better: a crowded room or a locked door.

 

MONTH TWO BEGAN. I walked around the base thinking about RSV Nuyina as she enters stealth mode: steely, actively silent, listening. It was not hard to find conversations. Here, everything is shared. Bathrooms, hallways, sleeping quarters, dining rooms. Transport, couches, chores, food, uniforms. Shovels, flares, wi-­fi, gossip. I listened to it all.

 

THE PARTICIPANTS AGREED to be interviewed every six weeks over the winter season. Originally, I planned to think of questions that would elicit specific words from the research participants – happy, goose, goat, few, kit, fleece. But this was both silly and impossible. Instead, to make the acoustical analysis easier, I asked each research participant to read out a list of words: flow, sew, code, hoed. I instructed them to read the lists as if they were speaking to a friend. The tape recorder would sit between us. I would smile, wanting to appear warm. I kept my face neutral whenever I recorded Mike’s voice. Though, since that night in the rec room, he hadn’t tried to make a move again. Whenever possible, I avoided him. The longer the winter went, the smaller the base felt. I remembered Raina’s advice about avoiding conflicts, so I didn’t attempt to say anything to Mike, I just iced him out.

As I smiled to everyone else, nodding with encouragement as they read aloud, my heart felt brittle. Raina hadn’t emailed for a week. I refreshed my screen every few minutes. It seemed pathetic to be the one who sent two emails in a row. I started to compose one anyway, ready to send it off as soon as it became ‘my go’. I added to the document each day. Mostly it was mundane observations about my research project or news from around the base, such as the Easter egg hunt we’d been planning or the fight Benny and Gilen had over toothpaste. I also suggested runs that we could sign up for next year – Big Sur, New York, Kauai, Polar Night in Norway, Sarajevo. In the meantime we could train together, I suggested, maybe updating each other on our weekly or even daily runs. This last suggestion was calculated, a veiled request that she write more regularly. I didn’t read over the draft, knowing it would contain slabs of uninspired dribble and moments of great need. I wrote about anything, everything, without ever saying how much I missed her.

I WATCHED THE winterers and began to see evidence emerge long before I extracted the first data set – Omar’s lips began to pucker, Josh’s eyebrows lifted, Gilen’s teeth flashed, Yasmin’s jaw swung lower, Benny’s Adam’s apple bounced – the changes to their voices were rippling across their faces. A shift was happening: a convergence. A common accent was forming. I kept this to myself, not wanting to introduce any complications or bias. It felt like a hot ember, needing protection and attention to stay lit.

 

AFTER SEVENTEEN DAYS of waiting an email appeared. By now, my Word doc had ballooned to just over three pages.

Incredible news, Maxine. Hannah said yes!

I deleted my draft.

 

‘ARE YOU OKAY, Max?’ Benny asked after I stepped off the treadmill. I was buckled in two, winded. He had been lifting weights in the corner of the gym, his technique slow and focused, gently returning each weight to the rack between sets.

‘Yeah, just puffed.’

‘It looked like you were crying.’

I had been. Loudly and at length. My nose felt snotty and face stained. There was no point in pretending, so I just nodded and shrugged.

‘Do you have somewhere to be?’ he asked. ‘Or could I show you something?’

‘Right now?’

‘It’ll only take five minutes.’ He said and sat down on the bench beside the door. He kicked off his runners and donned his boots.

‘What? Outside? I’m drenched in sweat. I need a shower.’

‘It’ll be five minutes, max.’

I continued to bitch as we layered up. Eventually with beanies pulled low and chins dipped into scarves, we stepped outside.

Benny lifted his gloved hands, palms opened to the dark sky. Within seconds they were littered in white. ‘It doesn’t snow much here. But when it does, it sticks around for centuries.’

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