When Papa stole the Arctic Circle, he brought shame on us. That’s what Mama said. I huddled a blanket round me, stiff and itching. Thick enough to scratch. And I pushed my feet into the firelight to wriggle my toes in the warmth. Mama’s fingers were on the ribbons in my hair. They felt mothish and shaky. I sucked my breath. She untied my hair. It fell on my shoulders, white and matted, and smelling of huskies and sledges. It prickled icy through the blanket and my dress. And it prickled the air, turning it cold and shining. The fire wobbled and went small as if the cold were sitting on it. My breath became white puffs. I watched them float. Mama pulled a comb in my tangles. She had gloves on her hands.
“Are you listening to me, Eliza?” she said. “Do you know what’s at stake for your father? If he loses, he isn’t coming home. So, you mustn’t draw any attention to yourself. If they noticed this…” There was a shiver in her voice and her fingers. Frost was uncurling up the walls, spreading ferny. There was a shimmer on it. I looked up and saw the Northern Lights moving on the ceiling. Colours dropped over us. I breathed them. And I felt Papa was breathing them with me. And I felt a sledge starting into icy speed and Papa pointing at the horizon. It pinched my heart. Mama pushed my head straight.
“Just a bit longer, Mama, please,” I said, tilting into the green glimmer, feeling shivery and falling all at once.
“Eliza.” I knew not to ask again. And as she set my hair with pins and tightened it with green ribbons, the room warmed. The fire brightened and stretched as if woken, the frost turned to melt and dripped down the walls, and the Northern Lights shrank until they were gone. She tied a scarf round my hair. “There. That’s hidden it.” I reached up to touch my hair. “Leave it.” She pushed my fingers away. With a brisk hand, she brushed ice from my skirts. It faded into the rug. I buttoned my coat, felt it squeeze me. Then she was marching me out into the smog that stuck in my throat like cold porridge. Our carriage bumped along the streets.
“Your Honour, I’m innocent. The police turned every pocket of every jacket I own inside out and shook it five times, and the Arctic Circle didn’t tumble out,” Papa said. There was laughter in the jury. The Judge banged his hammer. “They investigated each of my boots, the left ones as well as the right. And, believe me, those are places no man wishes to venture. And still–empty, except for socks worn to nothing.” More laughter. Mama’s hand was tight on mine. I tried to wriggle out of my glove. I wanted to make a sound, wanted Papa to look at me.
“Behave,” Mama whispered. The courtroom smelled of laws and polish. My nose tickled.
“Your Honour, why would I steal the Arctic Circle? Apart from the polar bears, I’m the biggest victim of its disappearance. I’ve been robbed of glory, of my name going down in history, of immortality. I should have been the first man to reach the North Pole. I would have been the first man,” Papa said. There was a golden plaque in his voice. “I ought never to have been charged. I ought to have been commiserated.”
“Mr. Kracledam, isn’t it the case you weren’t going to be the first man at the North Pole?” said the man in the cloud wig with eyes like bitter stones. “Were you not, in fact, lagging behind?” There were murmurs. “For days, your progress had been beset by one minor mishap after the other. A minor error in mapping your route, one day. A dog with an upset stomach, another day.”
“Stuff and nonsense. I single-handedly mapped my way through the Amazon Jungle. By comparison, the North Pole is a doddle. As for my dogs, every one of them is sound. Even as pups, they never sickened. That’s why I chose them. But by all means, have your veterinarian assess them.”
“Mr. Kracledam, do you recognise this book I’m holding up?” Papa’s battered diary. I felt I’d been bitten. Its pages smelled of oil light, of winds whipping the ice outside our tent. The man showed it to the jury. Their faces were full of thinking. “I repeat, do you recognise this book?” Papa nodded. “Mr. Kracledam has affirmed he does.” Mama squeezed my hand tighter. “And what is this book?”
“Your diary. And do you still maintain that none of your dogs were ill?” He paused. His face was full of ahas and catchings out. My feet itched to kick him. “I now turn to your entry dated March 23rd.” He straightened his spectacles and paused again like teasing. “Florrie’s still crying, poor wench. She’s tucked herself close in with Eliza, but she keeps taking herself off to the corner and retching. Looks like she’s only bringing up bile now. Stinks something awful in here, but I couldn’t have her spend the night in a snow hole.” He closed the diary and let the words hover. “Mr. Kracledam, were you delayed by Florrie’s illness?”
“Barely. But you can’t have a poorly dog running. And we could afford it. We were ahead. He couldn’t catch us.”
“Who couldn’t catch you?”
“Mennor.” Papa’s eyes flashed and I felt mine flash, too, so I lowered them. The courtroom went heavy with all the listening. And I thought Papa was going to get all red faced about ‘that upstart Mennor’, but he just kept shut up like he’d fallen into quiet and couldn’t get out.
“Your rival, Mr. Mennor, was on the verge of claiming the Pole.” The room wheeled. I felt a shout about to jump in me like a toad. I stood. Mama yanked me to her, hurt my arm.
“Hush,” she said. My scarf slid backwards. Quick as a squirrel on a cobnut, she righted it.
“Mr. Kracledam, you stole the Arctic Circle because you couldn’t let your rival win.” There was a murmur in the jury.
“Poppycock. I’m innocent.” But suddenly, the judge was talking like the boom of wind on the ice. And the jury were leaving.
“Is Papa coming home?” I said.
“We have to wait,” Mama said.
Florrie’s panting smells sour. It stings my throat when I breathe, so I push my nose in her fur and her doggy smell. And I call her a good girl. When I look up, Papa’s face is all light and dark like a cliff with tumble rocks. Sleep aches in me. I close my eyes. The wind beats on the tent. It sounds like prowling.
“How’s she bearing up?” Papa says. His eyes are droopy when he looks at her.
“Will she…” I start.
“Of course, she’ll recover. Florrie’s sound. The second finest huskie I have. You know who’s the finest?” He opens his diary, lifts his pencil. There’s a scratch.
“Beadle?” I say. My heart tugs for Florrie.
“You, of course. The Little Husky.” He smiles and I smile with him. “Now go to sleep. You have a long day ahead of you tomorrow. We all do. Don’t fear, I won’t let the wind in.” And he talks more but words go soft and my sleep bag is warm and I float.
I wake like a fall. Papa is all frowns.
“She’s on my sleeping bag. She just couldn’t get comfortable with you man handling her.” He winks, but his face is still droops. The lamplight smells thick. I wriggle out of my bag. Florrie sleeps. I put my hand gentle on her side and feel her breath rise and fall. “The poor girl needs to rest. So, we’ll be taking the morning off.” There’s the scrape of the tin opener. He hands me a can, bends the lid down, sticks a fork in it. I wrinkle my nose. “Get that down you, wrap up, and then come out and help me with the dogs.” It tastes of stink, so I eat in gulps, not chewing. I pile on more layers and I go out. The air is bite. The stars are stinging. I tip dog cakes on the snow. Jags pushes me out the way. “Over there, Eliza.” Papa points far as we can see. “Immortality is waiting for us past the horizon.” The night is turning pink at the edge. I feel the far away–it shivers in me. I am small here. Even Papa is small here. I reach for his hand and we grip. We are still. Slow light comes to us–pink and pale. I turn my head and see morning touch his face, go into the folds round his nose. We breathe. Then Spindle pushes us apart. I topple. The snow is soft crunch. Spindle’s big face is in mine–her wet nose and steaming jaw. Colonel goes up on his hind legs and they battle. I laugh. But when I look at Papa, I see his worry. He turns and goes back in the tent. The lamp goes out.
I sit with Florrie. The morning shines through the tent. I hear the ice out there–its creak and bellow. Papa calls it song, but it sounds a monster turning in its sleep. Papa writes. His pencil scratches. I put my hand soft on Florrie, too soft to wake her. He puts his pencil down.
“Well, best just chalk today up to one of those things that can’t be helped.” His eyes go to Florrie. “The poor girl needs a full day’s rest, and I say she’s earned it.”
“Will we still make it?” I say. “Will Mennor beat us?”
“And this is the only way he ever could beat us.” He closes his diary. “Chin up. Can’t be helped.”
“Can’t it?” Something stings in me and my eyes go. I turn, so he can’t see. His thinking is loud.
“I say, maybe it can be helped. I learned things out there. Never thought I’d have a go at them of course. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.” He taps his pencil. I wipe my nose on my sleeve. He pulls out his map. It crackles. Then he’s drawing on it.
Papa draws and thinks. I stroke Florrie. She nudges me. Her nose is dry. I pull off my glove to touch it with my finger to see how dry it is. I open the pot of smear grease and put a dab on her nose, and she licks my cheek to say thank you. I drift a bit thinking of past the horizon. Papa puts a tin of stink meat by me. I swallow-eat it. Then I layer up to feed the dogs. The air smacks. Night is coming. Beadle whines. I tell him Florrie will be okay. I tip dog cakes on the snow. I don’t need to make new snow holes, so I just watch Mole and Bundle eat. When I go back in the tent, Florrie is up. I break dog cakes into bits. I hide them under my sleep bag. She nudges it out the way. Crunch, crunch. I hug her.
“Come here, girl,” Papa pats his leg. She wags over to him. He ruffles her ears. “First thing tomorrow, we’re off.”
“Past the horizon?” I ask, but he doesn’t say.
A shake on my shoulder.
“It’s tomorrow, we’d better be on our way.” But it’s still too early to be tomorrow. A tin of stink meat. But I don’t taste it now. We pack and roll things. Then we layer up. And we go out. Dog cakes. Tent. Sledge. Night is all over us. There’s green in it. Up in the stars. Twisting and falling. I want to touch it. Papa nudges me to help harness the dogs. Wagging tails brush me. My hands are fast. I don’t need to see. Dog count: Spindle, Smith, Jags, Colonel, Bundle, Mole, Beadle, and Florrie. Papa loads the sledge. The runners dent the ice. “We’re having a change of direction,” he says. I climb on. Sit tight.
“Aren’t we going to the horizon?” I ask.
“Every way is the horizon, Eliza.”
We run. We fly over the ice. We are metal and claws. Wind and howling and stars and night. Northern Lights chase us. We carve lines behind us. I look back at them. They get long and long and long. I don’t want to sit. I wake and wake. My goggles steam. The far-off blurs. It roars.
The day hurts my eyes. It slaps off the ice and goes right at us, making Papa’s eyes scrunch. When he shouts to Florrie and Beadle, his words gobble up in the wind. Our wind. We make it. It tastes sharp and flying. The sun is low, so we stop, and I’m heavy as ground. My hands are slow, but I’m in charge of the dogs. They are good and wait for the harness off and the dog cakes. I make snow holes. The tent is up. Papa is a shape in lamplight. He lets Florrie in. I follow. I suck dog cakes, so Papa doesn’t give me stink meat, but they are too hard. Florrie steals them. We sleep.
Up in dark. We have a head start on the sun, but it catches up. Then morning all over us and then noon and then night. I make snow holes, and the dogs tuck into them. Sleep wobbles in me.
“Tired?” Papa’s hand is on my back like I might fall.
“No,” I say. I push it off.
“Good, good. We have work to do.” He puts his head right back. He reads the sky. Then he counts his steps. Florrie whines at the tent flap. I let her in. Papa crouches. “Give me a hand, Eliza.”
“What are you doing?”
“Well, if I’m successful–correction–if we are successful, our dreams of immortality aren’t over.”
“What about Mennor?”
“Mennor will be fine. He’s still over land, so he won’t come to any harm. We’ll just hold out for a few days until he’ll have left, and we can put things back to how they were and then.” His eyes meet mine with a shine in them. “Then we claim the North Pole.” There is too much sleep in me, and I think it’s why I don’t understand. His hands are grappling the snow. He says words that sound upside down. When he nods at me, I put my hands in the snow. Cold goes in me and out the other side of me, and he still talks. A glow. He’s pulling at it. I grip it, too. We heave and then we roll it with our fingers. Roll it up and roll it up and roll it up. The far-off flickers. Glow is all through it. Papa says mirror words. Wind licks the sky. We roll it up and roll it up and roll it up. And then the glow is a circle in Papa’s hands. The cold is gone, and the wind is soft, and I pull my hood down. My fingers graze my greasy hair. Mama put it in a French plait and I’m not meant to touch it.
“What is that?” I stare at the glowing ring.
“Believe it or not, Eliza, this is the Arctic Circle. Take it. It won’t break if you drop it. Everything’s mild out there now. No ice. No glaciers. Mennor, the poor sod, will wake up tomorrow and won’t believe his eyes. And he’ll go back to Belgium and nurse his wounds, and he won’t tell anyone for fear of looking like a nincompoop. Meanwhile, we’ll restore the Arctic Circle and hey presto–immortality.” I hold the Arctic Circle in my hands. I weighs like feathers and sneezes. I move it from my right hand to my left and back again. I sniff it and gulp in its smell: far and high and sharp.
“Where are we going to put it?”
“In with the tins, I expect. It’ll keep them cool. We’ve just got to keep it away from Bundle. He’ll eat anything. Can you imagine if he ate the Arctic Circle? There’d be a lot of bother at the other end.” He laughs and I laugh, too.
“Look Papa, it’s my hair band.” I fit it around my head. It feels sparkling and zinging. Then more sparkling and zinging. My fingers can’t grab it. “Get it out. Get it out.” Papa pulls off his gloves. His fingers scrape at my scalp. I snatch my hair pins out, pull my dark plait apart. There’s a shiver all over me.
“Keep still,” Papa says. My hair shines white and white and white. It hangs freezing down my back. Creaking under my feet. Then frost. Then ice. Northern Lights curl over me. “Hold still, dammit.” Papa’s hands grip my hair, tug it. He ties it with string. Ties it up tight. The ice and frost and lights vanish.
“Can’t you get it out?” But he just puts his arms round me.
“Chin up. Just one of those things,” he says.
Florrie’s silver muzzle rested on my lap. I stroked her head. And I felt us tucked together in Papa’s tent, with the night outside, all wind and ice and far away.
“Do you remember running the frozen North, Florrie? How fast we went.” She gave me her paw. I held it gently and gave it a slow shake. “I don’t see why I can’t take you to Papa.”
“Because they don’t allow mutts, Eliza. Just because I have to endure a house crammed to the rafters with dogs, doesn’t mean they do,” Mama said. I looked up. She stood in the doorway. Her silhouette was all flowing fashion. “And please don’t mention the frozen North when we have company. We’re better off now no one misses it. Now they’re all taken with–what do they call it – the New Green. What use was all that ice? Ice is only for bears and dreamers.” Florrie gave a grumble and slumped down. “And mutts, of course.” I leaned over and put my arms around her. “Oh really, Eliza. You act as if someone else were to blame. You did this, darling. You and that father of yours.” I didn’t let Mama see my face. “Now, make yourself presentable. The Spivot-Joneses will be here at four. What is it Margaret Spivot-Jones always says about you? Oh yes, you’d be a beauty if you weren’t covered in dog hairs.” She gestured at my dress. “You’ll be an old maid soon, Eliza.”
“If I’m lucky,” I said.
“You can’t live the rest of your life on your memories of glory. Not when you never achieved glory.” Her eyebrow was raised. I smelled her scorn. But she had never tasted the air far up at the top of the world where there’s no one else to breathe it. I corrected my thoughts–when. It was when. I touched my white hair. All that was left of the Arctic Circle was me.
The hospital smelled white. Paint white. Clean white. Not ‘true white’. Not the ice shine that blasts right through you making you feel as wide as winds. And I pictured Papa, his eyes bright under his goggles, his face hidden by fur. When there was nothing between us and forever. I knocked on his door.
“Come in,” came his voice. So, I did. “Eliza, you’re late. What did I tell you about punctuality?” He peered at me from between tottering piles of books, books shedding pages that scattered under his desk. “The North Pole waits for no one. You won’t be able to dawdle up there, you’ll have to be prompt. It’s no minor task, being in charge of the dogs. But you’re practically one of them, aren’t you? The little husky.” He laughed. Spring shine fell through his window. A blackbird sang, his orange beak open. “Well, sit down, will you? Standing there as if you’re going to take my drinks order. Or make it a malt.” Papa started coughing into a handkerchief. His hair was too long. I took his comb from his bedside table and reached to straighten his hair out of his eyes. He pushed my hands away. “For heaven’s sake, I’m not one of the dogs, Eliza.” He frowned past me to the doorway. The sounds of soft steps and mutterings mingled in the disinfected light. “Where are the dogs? Don’t tell me your mother’s banished them to the garden again. She’d have me in a kennel, too, given half a chance.”
“The dogs are on a run. Beadle and Florrie leading, as they always do. Jags just wanted to sleep, so I had to push him out the door. Mole is messing about as usual,” I said, sitting down.
“That’s your job, keeping them fighting fit.” He frowned at me, his face folding and leathery. And I saw how thin he was under his cardigan and how his shirt had become baggy. I took the box of marzipan fruit out of my bag, shook the lid off and passed them to him. They smelled of stale Christmas.
“Your favourites, Papa,” I said.
“Florrie with you?” he asked, between fruit.
I took the empty box with me when I left. When I got home, Bundle was first to greet me, sniffing me all over, whining softly.
“Papa misses you, too, old boy,” I said, holding out the box. He took it like a church wafer. Jags and Spindle lolloped over, and Bundle carried the box off to a corner of the house where he could keep it safe. “He stills talks about you all.” I followed Jags and Spindle into the living room. The other dogs were asleep deep and snoring. I rested my hand on Florrie’s side and felt her breath rise and fall, and I closed my eyes. And I could almost hear Papa writing in his diary.
Dusk was moving across the city. Mama would be at the theatre until late. I collected an armful of fur coats, I lit a lamp, and I went to the garden room to look at the sledge. I would never let Mama get rid of it. I would never let rust touch it. The runners were cold. The harnesses were buckled. I threw open the doors. I called the dogs: Spindle, Smith, Jags, Colonel, Bundle, Mole, Beadle, and Florrie. I called them until they came down the garden path, the night billowing in their fur. Their muzzles were in my hands. They rushed about the sledge, sniffing and barking. And then my fingers were in my hair. I pulled out the pins and dropped them on the floor. My white hair fell loose down my back. Cold whooshed through the garden room, blasting the dogs, sending them louder. Frost patterned up the walls. Icicles grew down from the ceiling. And clouds thickened outside. My hands still remembered how to buckle the dogs into their harnesses. They licked my palms and they howled, and their eyes were full of running. And Florrie–she was smiling. Snow was falling through the doorway. And I saw a shine of green moving over the rooftops.
The garden was ice, thick and slippery. It shone up the apple trees, and made their branches heavy, and the winds sang in the icicles. And the huskies sang back. I drove them out–through the garden. Then we were running along the streets. It was only us. The city was cowering inside ice-crusted houses. Faces peered out at us. We were wind and fur and snow and flight. We ran and ran. And I heard the creak and boom of the ice, its song.
We stopped at the hospital. I knocked. I had to knock over and over. A flour-faced woman opened the door. She was so caught up in gawping at the ice, she didn’t press me or spout rules. Then I was at Papa’s door. He was sitting in his pyjamas at his desk, books open, pages falling. I bundled him in two layers of fur, helped him into thick socks and boots and gloves and a hat and scarf. I linked his arm in mine and walked him down the corridors and stairs.
“It’s cold out tonight, Papa,” I said. I opened the front door. His eyes shone back at the ice and the Northern Lights were over us, in the folds of his face. And then he saw the dogs. And they saw him. There was barking and laughing, and they licked his face, and he kissed their foreheads. I got him comfy on the sledge, on the fur coat I’d spread on the seat, and I sat beside him.
“Where are we going, Eliza?”
“To the horizon, Papa.”