by Craig Owen Jones
Gwen strode along the beach towards the cove, her hair streaming eastward in the breeze. She would not have been out in such weather, but it had been days since she had left the house, and she had succumbed to a bout of cabin fever. Earlier that afternoon, and in spite of the wind, she had been gripped by an urge to escape the walls, even if only to the coast that lay a mile or so west of the Welsh cottage where she and her husband lived. It was November, and cold. Moreover, the nights were quickly drawing in now, and she ought to have been at home. There was ironing, cleaning, and cooking to be done – the work of a housewife, which was what she was now, rather than a librarian, which was what she had been before Mark insisted she give up her career.
The waves thrashed her bare legs. She revelled in the stinging water, and hoisted her bag a little higher over her shoulder, scanning the sand in front of her for things of interest. This time she found a scallop shell and a piece of jet, and put them in the bag, intending to take them home where she would add them to her jar. Larger finds, however, were rare, which was why she at first ignored the object rolling gently in the surf a few tens of yards in front of her. It was only as she moved closer that it caught the light of the setting sun, and she realised it was a bottle. Her heart rose at the sight of it. On many occasions as a youth, she recalled throwing plastic pop bottles off the local pier, containing a piece of paper bearing her name and address, and some childish salutation. She had done so idly, and had never received a reply from any of them. Doubtless they had all sunk within weeks of being cast into the sea.
The bottle in front of her, however, was different. It was made of a pitted, translucent glass, and the black cork in its long thin neck had been made fast with wax. She reached down and picked it up. Inside was a scrap of paper – yellowed and blotched here and there where the ink had bled through from the writing side, but apparently intact.
Retreating from the shoreline, she found a stone to sit on in a secluded spot above the high water mark. She clawed at the cork, and finally pulled it out with a pop, before drawing out the paper with a curled forefinger.
Off Graham Land
To the lady with the black hair, in whose image I revel in my dreams. Cariad, I wish I knew where you come from, where you are, what your voice sounds like. Have we met? Will we ever? Surely we have – though I can’t imagine where – or we must. I can’t think that my dull mind conjured you out of nothing. The ship is stuck fast and there seems no hope of freeing it before the thaw. Our bunks are tolerably warm as we have excess coal to burn, all that which we would have used for the three years of our voyage but which will go to waste for we will turn about immediately we are released, but my bunk would be so much warmer for having you in it.
Your ever loving admirer,
Gwen stood up. Hadn’t she had perplexing dreams of late, dreams of walking down Bute Street in her native Cardiff – but a Cardiff she barely recognised, not one of shopping centres, mobile phone masts, and nightclubs, but one of beery smells, cobbled streets on which she swayed and stumbled, and horse-drawn wagons – arm in arm with a stocky young man, a sailor? She could not quite remember his face, and yet every time she had woken from such a dream, her left hand involuntarily bunching into a fist, searching for a piece of paper that was no longer there, the sensations of intense love and belonging had overwhelmed her. How could this be? Explaining the letter away by a mere coincidence did not account for its tone – speculative and yet knowing, as if the writer, in spite of his uncertain impressions of her, anticipated their relationship. She would read it, and read it again, until it made sense to her.
Putting the piece of paper in her bag, Gwen turned to walk back the way she had come. She would have taken the bottle home too, but it was too dangerous – Mark would only discover it, and then he would throw it out, and she would have to answer questions as to why she had it and what it was for.
She grabbed the bottle, and was just about to throw it into the long grass when she had an idea. On a whim, she sat down again, and fished around in her bag for a pen and a piece of paper. She found an old shopping list, turned it over, and knelt down to write.
By now, night and day were of around equal length, but even so, Caradog’s sleep had been fitful. Around midnight, the ice had shifted, and he had been woken from his bunk by the creaking of the sides of the ship as they bore unfamiliar loads. A leak had put the bilges under several feet of water in a matter of hours, and the pumps had to be continuously manned. Shin-deep in freezing water as the men had to be to operate them, the captain had decided that each shift ought to last no more than half an hour. Caradog had felt spent after his stint, which came to an end a little after five. While the carpenter and his mate rushed to repair the damage wrought by the ice, Caradog returned to his bunk and tried to sleep, but an hour or so of tossing and turning left him merely exhausted and tense. Rubbing his eyes, he got up and made his way onto the deck.
The captain stood inside the wheelhouse. His expression was grim as he scanned the icebound horizon as though free on an open sea. The morning was dawning overcast but clear. There were deep black rings under his eyes, but his bearing was what it had been on the day they left port, resolute and determined.
“Morning, skipper,”said Caradog. The captain nodded.
“Taffy. Thank you for your sterling work in the night. You look tired.”
“I couldn’t get back to sleep,” Caradog said. ‘Anything much happened?’
“Tolley and Mason are off hunting seal, and the leak’s plugged. Looks like there are a few leads in the ice up ahead, too. Have you had something to eat yet?’
“Not yet. I thought I might take a stroll first.”
“All right,” said the captain. “But Piccadilly rules apply.”5 That meant he was to stay within shouting distance of the ship at all times.
Caradog walked towards the bow, where a rope ladder had been let down the side of the ship. He climbed down, and stepped onto the ice with a crunch. Trudging away from the ship, he kept an eye on the ice in front of him. Here and there, water-filled depressions – footprints, vestiges of the hours they had spent exercising, playing football, and letting out the dogs in recent days – were apparent. A protrusion of ice that had been thrown up perhaps two weeks before still bore a Union Jack, flapping forlornly in the breeze. Tomlinson had sketched Caradog and Tolley standing on ‘the summit’, as they had jokingly called it, arms raised in mock victory, the previous Saturday. In the distance, he heard a gunshot as Tolley hunted.
He was perhaps two hundred yards away from the ship now, and the ice was a little softer here; his feet sank down an inch or two with every step. This, he remembered, was near the spot where he had thrown his silly bottle into a lead perhaps a week before. In the meantime, the lead had shrivelled to almost nothing, a mere crack eight inches wide, but the surface was more brittle. It seemed a pity: if only the lead had appeared in mid-summer, they might have gained a passage out of the ice. In March, however, with the days shortening and the temperature dropping, it could only be a matter of time before every lead closed, and the long Antarctic winter set in.
A few yards ahead, a black spot in the ice caught his attention. Surprised, and faintly irritated, he advanced towards it, for it could not be anything but the cork stopper of the bottle he had thrown previously. He silently chastised himself for expecting some other outcome. It was not as though the ice pack, solid as it was, would have permitted the bottle to reach the open sea, perhaps eighty miles away or more; and in any case, it had been puerile to write the note in the first place.
He decided to extricate the note, with its ridiculous paean to his dream woman, from the bottle before Tolley or one of the others found it and chided him over it. He shook his head at his own sentimental conceit.
Fishing the bottle out of the shallow pool of meltwater, he examined it more closely, and was puzzled to find the wax he had used to seal it had been broken. Moreover, his note was missing: in its place was a scrap of thin, crumpled paper with handwriting, not his own, on one side. Bewildered, he unstoppered the bottle and took out the note. It had been written with a pen whose dark blue strokes were so violent, they had scored the paper.
4 November 201-
I found your note on the beach. Let’s assume for one moment that you are not a figment of my imagination. I had dreams of you too, but where were we in those dreams?
We were in Bute Street, Caradog had written back, but I can’t recall if it has happened, or if it will. The physical impossibility of it all notwithstanding, I shouldn’t be so surprised to have received a reply! Clairvoyance runs in my family.
Cariad, my heart leapt when I saw you had written. I find myself wondering what it is that you do, but whatever it is, you must be well off. I saw that on the back of the piece of paper you used, which was what I take to be a list of items to be bought on a shopping excursion. And what items! – printer ink, guava juice (how exotic!), a new ‘non-stick’ saucepan (the mind boggles!), Edam cheese, a sewing kit, Australian burgundy. I struggle to imagine the shop that would stock all these things. Do you work in a publisher’s house? As a cook? A seamstress? I cannot remember how you sounded, I’m afraid, or even if we talked.
Gwen was sitting very still at the back of the beach. Her face had lost its colour, she had broken out in a cold sweat, and she was shivering. Somehow, she had always thought the bottle had been some sort of practical joke – a strange one, to be sure – or perhaps an attempt at art, or the writings of a lovelorn inhabitant of the village. The appearance of a sailor in her dreams could quite easily be explained away by chance, after all: in a world of billions of people dreaming billions of dreams every night, it was only natural for some pretty hefty coincidences to fetch up against the shore every now and then. A single dream foretelling some dreadful or joyous event that subsequently happened to come to pass, and the senseless, countless others that knit together in the brain were forgotten. But this was too uncanny to be anything other than a fantastic experience.
She read on, and her shock began to subside. That this man who had surely been dead for at least fifty years existed; that he was obviously of another time, and yet seemed to know who she was; that the bottle she had thrown back into the beach only four days before had washed up again in precisely the same place, sealed with the same blackened cork and wax – these questions failed to coalesce in her mind. All that mattered were the words on the piece of paper in front of her.
It’s midwinter – or midsummer, depending on how you look at it – and the weather’s simply dreadful, forty-knot winds, snow flurries &c. Even the dogs have been brought below deck. The captain has thrown us a marvellous party. Tolley’s been raiding the stores for rum and brandy, and Mac is keeping us all entertained with his apparently inexhaustible supply of tunes on his mandolin, which is now down to just five strings. Hinkie, it transpires, likes his tipple. Losing all of his Yorkshire bluffness, he became quite the raconteur, regaling us all with impeccably delivered tongue-twisters and nonsense rhymes.
In the meantime, we wait. The ice is pretty stable, so we shan’t look to do anything until things begin to change when the thaw comes.
At this moment, I wish I were back in Cardiff. My watch tells me it is shortly before eleven. Bells will be ringing in pubs all along Bute Street about now, chiming last orders. Well, the old boys can have them. I don’t drink, and even if I did, it’s you, and only you, who would slake my thirst.
Dazed, Gwen walked off along the beach. She mused, though not too hard, on what it was that was happening to her.
Mark was lying on the sofa watching television as Gwen came in. His motionless body gave no sign of life, and she quietly shut the door, putting on the latch. She shook the sand from her feet, cursing herself for not getting rid of it before coming in. Now, it would have to be vacuumed up before he noticed. In the meantime, she put her bag down on the patch to cover it up for the moment, and tiptoed towards the kitchen.
She was almost there before she heard:
‘”Where have you been?”
“Just out. I fancied a walk. Heard from my mother?”
There was no answer. That was not good. She tried again.
“Cup of tea, dear?”
Suddenly he was up and advancing towards her. The room swayed as he pressed up against her body.
“If you go out again without my say-so, there’ll be ructions,” he said, standing so close to her that she could smell the whisky on his breath. She waited, but there was nothing else; the grimace on his face told her that he was merely morose tonight, and not violent, thank goodness. She watched as he thudded up the stairs to the bedroom.
Gwen waited until she heard firstly the bathroom door and then the bedroom door slam, and remained, statuesque, in the kitchen until the sounds of snoring emanated from above. Then she went to get the vacuum cleaner, but thought better of it, before opening the front door and shaking the mat in the night breeze. Locking the door, she went to the kitchen table, retrieved her bag, and searched inside it for the two notes. She laid them down side by side. Both had been written in the same painstaking hand, their f’s dropped below the line, their s’s distinguished by a louche flourish.
This time, she would compose a proper reply. Her old fountain pen, the one she had used for signing official letters when she had worked in the library, was in the bottom drawer in the kitchen, along with a writing pad. She sat, and composed her thoughts.
Winter had been a long time leaving, but as soon as the temperature began to rise, Caradog found himself pining for the endless nights and the unmerciful winds. This was the truly terrible time. Bad weather could at least be planned for, but the capricious movements of the thawing ice could not. The Fortitude seemed to sit very low in it, as though nestling there. The ship’s gait gave off a misleading illusion of security.
In the recent foggy weeks, as the leaks increased, the captain had declared the ice out of bounds to all except those off hunting, and so it was only now that the weather had cleared that Caradog found himself able to take his customary walk ahead of the ship to see if his bottle could be found. He had sent his reply some time ago to this woman of the future – for he was now convinced that that was what she was. What other explanation was there for the lurid lights at Bute Street’s every junction and corner in his dreams; the frameless glass windows of the massive, warehouse-like shops set far back from the road; the sleek, almost noiseless motorcars that trundled everywhere along it without so much as a backfire or a puncture; the staggering building in the distance, its roof upturned like that of a Chinese pagoda? He was unable to acknowledge that such outlandish images derived from his own mind; they surely existed, or rather, would come to exist. They seared themselves into his brain every time he dreamed, and not a night had gone by when he had not experienced time with her: a wordless exchange, contact by the fingers rather than by the bodies. He wondered if the bottle would be there again. After a little searching – the old lead had completely closed by now, but another had opened nearby – he found it just under the soft ice. Cold hands dredged it up.
His cracked lips smiled as he saw the piece of paper in it. This time, she had written on what looked like cream-wove paper with a fountain pen, and her writing was less hurried.
I’m sorry I ever doubted you. What it is that links us together I don’t know, but I do know I’m glad to have known you.
Every time I dream about you, it follows the same pattern. We walk, we say nothing. I lose my footing on the cobbles, but you catch me. We pass by an ale house, and you wave it away, as though it’s a nuisance to you. And I want to pass something from my hand to yours. What is it? I never find out – I always wake up. Do let me know if you ever receive it.
There was also another dream which came a few days ago. We were walking again, but this time through the sand dunes, where I live. It’s today, too – you can hear the cars on the M4 nearby. I don’t know what to make of it. What are you, Caradog? A time traveller? A spirit? Are you as real as I am? How can you be? Were you alive, you’d be older than Moses. From what I understand of you, you’re an explorer, or at least, your captain is. But whatever you find, don’t forget about Bute Street. Don’t forget.
Bundling the bottle into a pocket, he went back to the ship. From the bow, he could see that it had settled a few degrees to starboard since last night. He had noticed a slant in the deck on getting up, but had assumed it to be light-headedness brought about by his hunger – the crew’s rations had been cut again to eke out their supplies. Now he saw he had been mistaken. A little way off, Hinkes and A’Court stood around and chatted. Tolley was squatting on the ice nearby, clapping his hands disconsolately. Caradog ambled over to him.
“Damned strange thing to see a ship hundreds of miles from the nearest shore, yet doesn’t move with the swell,” Tolley said shortly.
“What swell?” said Caradog. “There hasn’t been any swell in weeks.”
“You realise that we’re probably done for,” said Tolley quietly, so the others would not hear. “We must be two hundred miles away from land – and the truth is, Hinkie’s not got us to within twenty miles. His dead reckoning’s all wrong.”
“Land’s due east of here,” countered Caradog. “If we do lose the ship, that’s all we’ll need to know – ”
“It may have escaped your attention,” Tolley said coldly, “but the western coast of Graham Land is hardly flowing with milk and honey.” He shook his head. “Maybe the ice will open up in the summer, and we’ll have a chance. If not, we’ll starve. Or freeze. Either way, it won’t be pretty.”
“We could use the cutter.”
Tolley pulled a face.
“A twenty-foot cutter? For twenty-five men? And on the open sea for days on end? Mad as a March hare, aren’t you?”
Tolley’s eye fell upon Caradog’s jacket.
“What’s that?” he said, pointing to the neck of the bottle, sticking up in Caradog’s pocket.
“Nothing,” Caradog said. He hastily buttoned it down, but in a flash Tolley reached out and grabbed his arm. Holding it firmly, and with his back to the others, he used his free hand to undo the button on the pocket.
“Personal provisions are forbidden,” he said in a low, menacing tone. “I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. ‘Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief’… by God, if you’ve been hoarding food, or drink, you’ll get what’s coming – ”
Tolley broke off in mid-sentence. His hand around the bottle now, he felt the wax around the opening, realised it was holding nothing, that it had been a long time empty of liquid. He pulled it out, an expression of mute apology on his face.
“Taffy, I’m sorry,” he said finally. “I thought –”
“I don’t steal,” said Caradog with a trace of affront.
“No, of course not. Of course not, old man. Do forgive me. I think I must be a little light-headed.” Tolley stared at the note in the bottle for a moment. “And it looks like I’m not the only one. What on earth is this?”
Caradog thought. Divulging the truth, improbable as it was, seemed a bad idea. Yet as he ran through a series of excuses in his head – he was amusing himself; he had tried to write a distress message; he had found the bottle on the ice and kept it – each sounded more implausible than the last, and just as likely to make Tolley think he was going mad with hunger were he to voice it. He decided that honesty was the best policy.
“Can you keep a secret?”
“I should say so.” Caradog moved nearer.
“Each of the Matthews men are clairvoyant,” he said. “My grandfather was, my father was, and I am. You do follow?”
“You mean… a sort of second sight? You can tell the future?”
“Not precisely. But I often have dreams, and what happens in the dreams comes to pass, one way or another.” Caradog took the bottle. “Now something strange is happening to me. I keep dreaming I’m walking down in Cardiff with a woman, except that it’s not my Cardiff. It’s a Cardiff out of time, Chinese, or something. This bottle is somehow… making those dreams manifest.” He took the note out and showed it to Tolley.
“A woman’s handwriting. Would you agree?” Tolley nodded. “I didn’t write this. I found it, in this bottle. Each time I throw it away, it comes back with a new message. Look at this one.” He undid his overcoat, and reached for Gwen’s original note in his breast pocket. “Look at the ink. Have you ever seen ink like that? Have you any idea what kind of pen might write like that? And look on the other side – look at the things she was buying. Printer’s ink, exotic fruit, wine. She’s not of this time. She’s of some future time.”
Tolley was silent for a full minute, reading one note, and then the other. Finally he handed them back.
“Mad as a March hare,” he said, before turning away.
Weeks went by before Gwen received a reply. She began to plan her excursions to the beach meticulously, looking in the newspaper for the high tide times, and going whenever it was possible to do so without Mark finding out. When a week passed without an answer, she began to panic. What if she had not pushed the cork in far enough? Perhaps the bottle had sunk, or someone else had found it. Yet after a month of worry, one afternoon she arrived at her spot to find the bottle lolling about in the water. She ran over to it and removed the note. It was on thick white paper torn from a ledger, and had been hastily written in pencil.
The situation has become grave. The Fortitude is badly holed now, and the pumps can no longer keep pace, so we are living in tents on the ice. Our carpenter reckons the whole ship is being kept from falling into the ocean by the ice itself – it’s keeping it firmly clamped, so he says, but I don’t know the truth of this. Tolley is running a sweep on when it will finally sink, and I got the nineteenth of this month, with which I was well pleased, until Captain A’Court put a stop to it. But we’ll all pay up anyway when the time comes – one cigarette each.
Of course I remember wandering through the sand dunes with you! Were those where you live? Why, what a wonderful place. It’s been so long since I felt sand under my feet. Did I not stroke your cheek? So soft, so rosy. I should like to kiss it, but somehow, I never can. When we meet, Cariad, when we meet. For we shall meet.
Captain A’Court has talked a great deal of what we shall do when the ship sinks. Hinkie says we’re being drawn away from Graham Land, which means that when the ice melts, we’ll suddenly find ourselves in the middle of the ocean with no ship. So the plan is to take five men in the cutter, and for the rest to march east for one of the whaling stations on the western side of the peninsula, which must be all of two hundred miles away. On thawing ice, and with nothing to eat but seal blubber and dog pemmican. It seems a fraught business whichever way you look at it – but there it is. I’ll be pushing to take my chances in the cutter.
She hastened home, troubled by Caradog’s news. It was late, and the smell of beer and urine slapped her in the face as she opened the front door. Mark had been drinking when she had left, and she half expected to find him passed out on the floor, but from the sound of his snoring, he was upstairs sleeping it off. She sank into the sofa, and rummaged in her bag for the note. Her fingertips brushed against glass. She extricated the bottle with a look of surprise, and scolded herself for her foolishness – she had been so preoccupied with the contents of the note that she forgot to hide the bottle in the sand dunes, as she had grown accustomed to doing. The note was wedged inside the neck, and she took it out, and read it again.
Suddenly, something struck her. When all this began, she had managed to convince herself that it was not real – that it was all in her head, just as Mark often told her when she questioned his prolonged absences. It had never struck her that the events that Caradog described in his letters would have consequences. Now, a chill ran through her as she realised that, for all the time they had spent together in her dreams, he was as imperilled as any mariner. If this was real, Caradog’s expedition would surely have left records.
Gwen went into the dining room, cleared Mark’s dirty plate from the kitchen table where he had left it, and booted up the laptop. She searched online for the name Caradog had mentioned in his last letter. A Wikipedia page was the first hit.
British Imperial Marie Byrd Land Expedition
(Redirected from Captain A’Court)
The British Imperial Marie Byrd Land Expedition (1911-13) was one of the most important Antarctic expeditions of the Heroic Age. Commanded by Captain Terence A’Court (1870-1912), the enterprise was destined to end in failure; the entire crew of the ship chartered by A’Court for the expedition, the Fortitude, died after it was crushed in pack ice. An attempt to summon help made by five of the crew in the ship’s cutter was unsuccessful, and a march across the ice to Adelaide Island resulted in a further thirteen deaths through exhaustion and exposure…
Gwen exhaled in disbelief. Dead? All of them? She tried to turn the thought away, painfully aware that the contradictions of the correspondence she had kept up for months now were suddenly unavoidable. She had wilfully ignored the mysteries surrounding Caradog’s sudden appearance in her dreams, in her life; now, she had no choice but to confront them, and found that she was unable to. What was this man – a figment of her imagination, a time traveller, a ghost? How could she tell him that she knew he was going to die – or was he? Numbed, she read on, scanning the article’s contents.
It was a pitiful story. A’Court was the stereotypical Edwardian man born to middling prospects, who made his money in trade, and who, through overweening confidence in his abilities, fancied himself a polar explorer. She read it all: the underfunded preparations for the expedition and the inadequate ship; the failed landings in the fastnesses of Marie Byrd Land; the directionless meanderings through a poorly-charted area of the Bellingshausen Sea. The ship got stuck in pack ice during the southern autumn of 1911, and remained that way for over a year. Food began to run low, and the chances of escaping the ice began to recede.
At last, she found the passage she wanted.
As the damage caused to the Fortitude by the ice worsened, it became clear that it would become necessary to abandon ship. Preparations were made for a forced march over the pack to Graham Land, but were abandoned when it was realised that the prevailing current was taking the expedition away from Antarctica and toward open sea. The Fortitude, now irreparably damaged, sank on 17 November 1912. With the pack ice breaking up, but no ship in which to navigate the openings, it was resolved that a crew containing the five strongest men would be picked to man the Fortitude’s cutter, which had been salvaged before the ship sank. Every man responded to A’Court’s request for volunteers, but in the end four were picked: Ralph Tolley, geologist; Wilson Hinkes, navigator; Seaman John Clitherow; and Seaman Caradog Matthews.
After the cutter’s hull had been strengthened using wood salvaged from the Fortitude, A’Court set sail on 1 December with the intention of heading for Punta Arenas. Discussion of the cutter’s destination was long and heated, and led to an impasse, with A’Court and Tolley insisting on Punta Arenas, and others, including several of the seamen, averring that the cutter would be unable to keep such a northerly course, and suggesting destinations further east; A’Court and Tolley’s opinion prevailed. Journals recovered later from the camp on Adelaide Island where the seven remaining crew members to survive the pack ice march met their deaths refer to ‘a terrible wrenching storm’ on 4-5 December, with strong winds and heavy snow. As the cutter never reached Punta Arenas, A’Court’s biographer, Stephanie Dwight, has speculated that the boat was lost during this period, and that if the cutter had set off a few days later, and headed for the destination favoured by the seamen – Stanley in the Falkland Islands – the crew might have survived.
This is important! You must persuade A’Court NOT to set sail for Punta Arenas in the cutter on the morning of 1 December. On 4 December there will be a LOW-PRESSURE SYSTEM just north of your location, which will cause a LARGE STORM that will sink the cutter. It will blow itself out by the morning of 6 December, and then you’ll have two weeks of good weather in which to get help. Do not ask me why or how I know this, just trust me. Begin your voyage on 6 December, please!
PS. Come back to me. I live in Kenfig – my name’s Gwen Harris.
PPS. Head for Stanley, not Punta Arenas. That’s A’Court’s self-confidence – don’t trust in it. The cutter won’t be able to tack against the wind or hold its line. The keel’s probably not strong enough.
Gwen stopped writing. It had taken her a couple of hours to garner information on what had happened to the cutter. No trace of it had ever been found, and it could only have been sunk in the storm. She hoped that her message would get through to Caradog before he set sail. She signed the note and placed it in the bottle before getting up and going to the sink. She poured herself a glass of water and drank, staring out over the back garden and, beyond it, the sea.
From the staircase came the sounds of tramping feet. She looked to the doorway in trepidation to watch Mark swaying back and forth near the foot of the stairs. He lurched into the kitchen.
“I feel like crap,” he said quietly. He collapsed into a chair and rubbed his eyes. For a while, she stared at him staring at nothing. For a man in his late twenties, he looked in bad shape. It was not that his hair had thinned on his crown – it was his skin that made him look old and spent. It was pitted and mottled, and crows’ feet had settled at the corners of his perennially bloodshot eyes, several years earlier than they ought to have appeared. Furrows showed on his brow. They looked grimy, and were dead straight, like city streets. For a moment, she wondered what it was that had attracted her to him, and still had not encountered an answer when she saw Mark’s gaze fall on the bottle. She had not had the presence of mind to move it when she first heard him. He picked it up.
“What the hell is this?” he said, his voice wet with vitriol.
“It’s a hobby,” she lied. “An arts and crafts project, you know. I read it in a magazine. Your own personal message in a bottle. I bought it when I was shopping earlier today.”
“Meant for throwing, is it?” he said. A hellish vision of him smashing the bottle against a brick wall raced through Gwen’s head.
“No. You keep it.”
“And what’s that in the middle?” he asked. “Your message? Mind if I take it out and look?”
She meant to say something to continue the pretence, but a silence settled on the room.
“You know, I’m not sure I like this,” he said after a while.
“Just give me back my bottle,” she said.
“You want this?”
‘You want this.’
“That’s what I said.”
Seconds passed. Mark placed the bottle on the table on its side, and spun it a couple of times.
“Old bottle,” he said after a while. “Never seen one like it. Where’d you get it?”
“The charity shop in town.”
“Really.” Mark got up, and walked through to the living room.
“Hey,” called Gwen, “what about my bottle –”
Suddenly, Mark drew back a podgy arm, and threw the bottle with all his might. Gwen’s scream drowned out the sound of smashing glass, and by the time she ran through to stare at the shards in the black fireplace, Mark’s footfalls had already sunk into the carpet, and the bedroom door had slammed shut for the night.
The dream came a few more times, both in Cardiff, and in the dunes; sometimes the note was in her hand, sometimes not. His hand seemed far away; often she would pick it up and try to thrust the note into it, but somehow, she would miss, or a gust of wind would blow it out of his hand before he had a chance to read it. Once, and with a monumental effort of will, she pressed it into his hand, and forced his fist shut. But as she looked into his face, she saw that it was already sallow, and his cheeks were puffy, as of a drowning man.
After that, the dream went away.
The beach remained unvisited. At first it was out of grief. Without the bottle, there could be no way of contacting Caradog. If she divulged what had happened to Mark, he would have her believe that she had imagined the whole thing; but as weeks slid by and spring neared, she realised her reluctance to go back was because she needed time to think. She had loved Mark once; now, Gwen belatedly realised, she had come to hate him. As she began to entertain the idea of leaving him, her feelings began to rise at the prospect of starting again. To begin with, she felt stupid, mad with herself, even: she should have left him a long time ago. Then, after thinking about it a little more, she reconciled herself to the notion that there was no way she could have left even a day earlier than she was planning to. Had the idea been put to her five years ago – or five months ago, for that matter – she would not have countenanced it. She had long feared his anger when he found out – not the words so much as the possibility that he might go further. Twice in their relationship he had hit her, and though each time he had apologised in that persistent, convincing way of his, the incidents had instilled in her a slow-burning, quiet terror that mollified any thoughts of departure. She regretted the way in which she had pushed away those among her friends who had counselled her to leave him, defending what happened – defending him: rationalising this, explaining away that. Now, she would put that right. She would remove herself from a man with whom she had suffered for long enough.
The mood in the camp had become subdued since the captain had announced the plan to launch the cutter. They were sailors; each knew that to sail an open boat for hundreds of miles across the stormiest seas on the planet was a forlorn hope. It was the last week of November, and the meagre provisions had already been stored beneath the gunwales of the tiny boat. Tolley inspected its hull. Even now, he wasn’t sure whether to be delighted or dismayed that A’Court had chosen him to go with the rescue party. It struck him that death from starvation was preferable to death by drowning – or was it? He had heard it said that men starving to death experienced terrible pains as their bodies fed on their own organs in a futile attempt to remain alive. That did not sound an enviable way to die either. In the distance, he saw Mason examining the barrel of his rifle. He wondered how many cartridges were left.
“Tolley!” At the sound of his name, he turned to see Caradog hastening over to him.
“Taffy. Are you all right? You look a little pale.”
“We need to talk.”
“Well, what’s on your mind?”
“We can’t leave on the first.”
“It’s a long story.” Tolley looked askance at Caradog.
“Taffy, does this have anything to do with the business about the bottle, those dreams, and so forth?”
“Supposing that I knew from one of the notes that the weather would sink the cutter if we leave on the first?”
“Inadmissible. For all I know, you might have brought those notes with you from Cardiff to amuse yourself on the voyage. They’d constitute rather unusual entertainment, I admit – hiding them in bottles, only to go looking for them. But I’ve heard stranger tales from sailors, and anyway, you strike me as a bit of a dark horse, Taffy. All that clairvoyance nonsense. I’ve never been one to make light of such things.”
“And if it came to me in a dream?”
“Same thing. Inadmissible.”
“This isn’t a court of law, Toll,” insisted Caradog. “If I’m right, then what I say is important and you must take heed of it.”
“But what proof do you offer? What do I have to go on?”
“Nothing. All you have to go on is your trust in me.”
“Not enough, Taffy,” Tolley said, shrugging. “Sorry –”
“It’ll have to be,” interrupted Caradog. “Remember, you had me down as a thief and a hoarder less than a month ago. You owe me, Tolley.”
Tolley stared at Caradog. He prided himself on being a self-possessed sort of man, always sure of his ground – and, since their conversation about the bottle, he had been sure that the seaman did not know his own mind. Yet lately, there was a conviction in Caradog’s eyes that he had rarely seen; and now, as the Welshman stared him down, and in spite of his better judgement, he found himself searching for reasons to postpone the sailing. Still, for form’s sake, he protested:
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, Taffy. Do you think the skipper’s going to listen to a half-starved able seaman? Do you think Hinkie will?”
“No, but they’ll listen to you. If they don’t, you’ll have to force them to postpone it. Hole the boat, tear the sail – anything, as long as it delays us for just a few days. And there’s another thing. We need to sail for the Falklands, not for South America.”
“Oh, Taffy –”
Caradog grabbed him by the arm.
“It’s like I said, Tolley. You owe me. We lose nothing by postponing for a day or two. I don’t care how you do it. Just make it stick. And if you need to justify it to yourself, just remember that you’ll be saving all our lives.”
Stunned at the younger man’s presumption, Tolley had barely a chance to respond before Caradog walked away. He watched him go, and blinked the tears from his eyes as the sun shone powerfully on the ice. He was a man of no means; his father had been a shopkeeper, and had made it clear to his son from an early age that he would have to make his own way in the world. He liked to think he had done so with some success, but the result was that he found it difficult to rely on anyone, and still more difficult to accept the opinion of another over his own: after all, being headstrong was what had brought him the success in his work that he had so craved. That there was something to the Welshman’s visions was not an option he had ever seriously considered, and yet the sailor’s countenance, the easy authority which Tolley had just met with, was hard to deny. He wandered off, wondering what he might tell the captain when the time came.
Returning was easier than Gwen had thought it would be. All was much as it had been when she had left it: the driftwood and rubbish still collected in the holes and depressions above the high water line, the surf still broke on the rocks in the cove in the familiar way. It felt good to be free.
With the help of a friend, she moved out soundlessly in an afternoon while Mark was at work, leaving him no forwarding address – they had, thank goodness, kept separate bank accounts and credit cards. Her new flat, sufficiently far away from the area to be safe from Mark, was small but adequate, the divorce proceedings were in hand, and the deadline for contesting the grounds had passed without a murmur from him.
She had not experienced the dream again. The passing of the note had truly been their final farewell, and she had long ago reconciled herself to that fact before receiving Caradog’s final surprise. Earlier that afternoon, she had been surfing aimlessly, and it was on a whim that she had typed Caradog’s name into the search engine. The results astounded her – not only had Caradog survived the expedition, but the rescue voyage he had embarked on with A’Court, Tolley, and the others had reached Stanley, and a ship had been sent out to retrieve the remainder of the party. A website she found dedicated to the expedition showed that Caradog was buried in Port Stanley graveyard, within a stone’s throw of the house he had built on settling there, and next to the local woman he had married.
So her message had got through after all; she felt glad at that. Yet it was not so easy to dismiss her feelings. She had, after all, been as in love with him as he had been with her. Perhaps he had realised that whatever it was that had linked them was sundered – that there was no way for him to negotiate the years that separated them.
If that were so, she felt cheated. What was her recompense? The knowledge of having done good? And why Caradog and his shipmates? If this link had been established between her and the past, why had not some other crew, any one of countless collections of lost souls, been presented to her so that she could intervene?
Gwen was still struggling with the quandary when she noticed something in the surf up ahead. She hastened over to it. In front of her, leaning against a rock half buried in the sand, was a thin whisky bottle, its metal top made fast with tape, now all but unravelled by the waves. She picked it up, and a disbelieving smile spread across her face as she looked at the piece of paper neatly inserted in it.
She would not open it now; it could wait until she got back to the flat. She would eat, and then read the note, and then she would turn in for the night. There was no knowing what dreams might follow.
Craig Owen Jones is a writer based in Gwynedd, North Wales, with particular interests in history and science fiction. He has written three books on aspects of medieval Welsh history; his first novel is currently in writing.