Chapter 8: Domestic life
Chapter 8: Domestic life
Our hearth and home was the living Hut and its focus was the stove. Kitchen and stove were indissolubly linked, and beyond their pale was a wilderness of hanging clothes, boots, finnesko, mitts and what not, bounded by tiers of bunks and blankets, more hanging clothes and dim photographs between the frost–rimed cracks of the wooden walls.
One might see as much in the first flicker of the acetylene through a maze of hurrying figures, but as his eyes grew accustomed to the light, the plot would thicken: books orderly and disorderly, on bracketed shelves, cameras great and small in motley confusion, guns and a gramophone–horn, serpentine yards of gas–tubing, sewing machines, a microscope, rows of pint–mugs, until – thud! He has obstructed a wild–eyed messman staggering into the kitchen with a box of ice.
The wilderness was always inhabited, so much so that it often became a bear–garden in which raucous good humour prevailed over everything.
Noise was a necessary evil, and it commenced at 7.30 am, with the subdued melodies of the gramophone, mingled with the stirring of the porridge–pot and the clang of plates deposited none too gently on the table. At 7.50 am came the stentorian: ‘Rise and shine!’ of the night–watchman, and a curious assortment of cat–calls, beating on pots and pans and fragmentary chaff. At the background, so to speak, of all these sounds was the swishing rush of the wind and the creaking strain of the roof, but these had become neglected. In fact, if there were a calm, every one was restless and uneasy.
The seasoned sleeper who survived the ten minutes’ bombardment before 8 o’clock was an unusual person, and he was often the Astronomer Royal. Besides his dignified name he possessed a wrist–watch, and there was never a movement in his mountain of blankets until 7.59 am, unless the jocular night–watchman chose to make a heap of them on the floor. To calls like ‘Breakfast all ready! Porridge on the table getting cold!’ seventeen persons in varying stages of wakefulness responded. No one was guilty of an elaborate toilet, water being a scarce commodity. There were adherents of the snow–wash theory, but these belonged to an earlier and warmer epoch of our history.
For downright, tantalizing cheerfulness there was no one to equal the night–watchman. While others strove to collect their befuddled senses, this individual prated of ‘wind eighty miles per hour with moderate drift and brilliant St Elmo’s fire’. He boasted of the number of garments he had washed, expanded vigorously on bread making – his brown, appetizing specimens in full public view – told of the latest escapade among the dogs, spoke of the fitful gleams of the aurora between 1.30 and 2 am, of his many adventures on the way to the meteorological screen and so forth; until from being a mere night–watchman he had raised himself to the status of a public hero. For a time he was most objectionable, but under the solid influence of porridge, tinned fruit, fresh bread, butter and tea and the soothing aroma of innumerable pipes, other public heroes arose and ousted this upstart of the night. Meanwhile, the latter began to show signs of abating energy after twelve hours’ work. Soon some wag had caught him having a private nap, a whispered signal was passed round and the unfortunate hero was startled into life with a rousing ‘Rise and shine!’ in which all past scores were paid off.
Every one was at last awake and the day began in earnest. The first hint of this came from the messman and cook who commenced to make a Herculean sweep of the pint–mugs and tin plates. The former deferentially proceeded to scrape the plates, the master–cook presiding over a tub of boiling water in which he vigorously scoured knives, forks and spoons, transferring them in dripping handfuls to the cleanest part of the kitchen–table. Cooks of lyric inclination would enliven the company with the score of the latest gramophone opera, and the messman and company would often feel impelled to join in the choruses.
The night–watchman had sunk into log–like slumber, and the meteorologist and his merry men were making preparations to go abroad. The merry men included the ice–carrier, the magnetician, the two wardens of the dogs, the snow–shoveller and coal–carrier and the storeman. The rest subdivided themselves between the living Hut at 45°F and the outer Hut below freezing–point, taking up their endless series of jobs.
The merry men began to make an organized raid on the kitchen. Around and above the stove hung oddments like wolf–skin mitts, finnesko, socks, stockings and helmets, which had passed from icy rigidity through sodden limpness to a state of parchment dryness. The problem was to recover one’s own property and at the same time to avoid the cook scraping the porridge saucepan and the messman scrubbing the table.
The urbane storeman saved the situation by inquiring of the cook: ‘What will you have for lunch?’. Then followed a heated colloquy, the former, like a vendor, having previously made up his mind. The argument finally crystallised down to lambs’ tongues and beetroot, through herrings and tomato sauce, fresh herrings, kippered herrings, sardines and corn beef.
The second question was a preliminary to more serious business; ‘What would you like for dinner?’.
Although much trouble might have been saved by reference to the regulation programme, which was composed to provide variety in diet and to eliminate any remote chance of scurvy, most cooks adopted an attitude of surly independence, counting it no mean thing to have wheedled from the storeman a few more ounces of ‘glaxo’, another tin of peas or an extra ration of penguin meat. All this chaffering took place in the open market–place, so to speak, and there was no lack of frank criticism from bystanders, onlookers and distant eavesdroppers. In case the cook was worsted, the messman sturdily upheld his opinions, and in case the weight of public opinion was too much for the storeman, he slipped on his felt mitts, shouldered a Venesta box and made for the tunnel which led to the store.
He reaches an overhead vent admitting a cool torrent of snow, and with the inseparable box plunges ahead into darkness. An hour later his ruddy face reappears in the Hut, and a load of frosted tins is soon unceremoniously dumped on to the kitchen table. The cook in a swift survey notes the absence of penguin meat. ‘That’ll take two hours to dig out!’ is the storeman’s rejoinder, and to make good his word, proceeds to pull off blouse and helmet. By careful inquiry in the outer Hut he finds an ice–axe, crowbar and hurricane lantern. The next move is to the outer veranda, where a few loose boards are soon removed, and the storeman, with a lithe twist, is out of sight.
We have pushed the tools down and, following the storeman, painfully squeezed into an Arcadia of starry mounds of snow and glistening plaques of ice, through which project a few boulders and several carcases of mutton. The storeman rummages in the snow and discloses a pile of penguins, crusted hard together in a homogeneous lump. Dislodging a couple of penguins appears an easy proposition, but we are soon disillusioned. The storeman seizes the head of one bird, wrenches hard, and off it breaks as brittle as a stalactite. The same distracting thing happens to both legs, and the only remedy is to chip laboriously an icy channel around it.
In a crouching or lying posture, within a confined space, this means the expenditure of much patience, not to mention the exhaustion of all invective. A crowbar decides the question. One part of the channel is undermined, into this the end of the crowbar is thrust and the penguin shoots up and hits the floor of the Hut.
The storeman, plastered with snow, reappears hot and triumphant before the cook, but this dignitary is awkwardly kneading the dough of wholemeal scones, and the messman is feeding the fire with seal–blubber to ensure a ‘quick’ oven. Every one is too busy to notice the storeman, for, like the night–watchman, his day is over and he must find another job.
Jobs in the Hut were the elixir of life, and a day’s cooking was no exception to the rule. It began at 7 am, and, with a brief intermission between lunch and afternoon tea, continued strenuously till 8.30 pm Cooks were broadly classified as ‘Crook Cooks’ and ‘Unconventional Cooks’ by the eating public. Such flattering titles as ‘Assistant Grand Past Master of the Crook Cooks’ Association’ or ‘Associate of the Society of Muddling Messmen’ were not empty inanities; they were founded on solid fact – on actual achievement. If there were no constitutional affiliation, strong sympathy undoubtedly existed between the ‘Crook Cooks’ Association’ and ‘The Society of Muddling Messmen’. Both contained members who had committed ‘championships’.
‘Championship’ was a term evolved from the local dialect, applying to a slight mishap, careless accident or unintentional disaster in any department of Hut life. The fall of a dozen plates from the shelf to the floor, the fracture of a table–knife in frozen honey, the burning of the porridge or the explosion of a tin thawing in the oven brought down on the unfortunate cook a storm of derisive applause and shouts of ‘Championship! Championship!’
Thawing–out tinned foods by the heroic aid of a red–hot stove was a common practice. One day a tin of baked beans was shattered in the ‘port’ oven, and fragments of dried beans were visible on the walls and door for weeks. Our military cook would often facetiously refer to ‘platoon–firing in the starboard oven’.
One junior member of the ‘Crook Cooks’ Association’ had the hardihood to omit baking powder in a loaf of soda–bread, trusting that prolonged baking would repair the omission. The result was a ‘championship’ of a very superior order. Being somewhat modest, he committed it through the trap–door to the mercy of the wind, and for a time it was lost in the straggling rubbish which tailed away to the north. Even the prowling dogs in their wolfish hunger could not overcome a certain prejudice. Of course some one found it, and the public hailed it with delight. A searching inquiry was made, but the perpetrator was never discovered. That loaf, however, like the proverbial bad penny, turned up for months. When the intricate system of snow–tunnels was being perfected, it was excavated. In the early summer, when the aeroplane was dug out of the Hangar, that loaf appeared once more, and almost the last thing we saw when leaving the Hut, nearly two years after, was this petrifaction on an icy pedestal near the Boat Harbour.
No one ever forgot the roly–poly pudding made without suet; synthetic rubber was its scientific name. And the muddling messman could never be surpassed who lost the cutter of the sausage machine and put salt–water ice in the melting–pots.
There appeared in the columns of The Adélie Blizzard an article by the meteorologist descriptive of an occasion when two members of the ‘Crook Cooks’ Association’ officiated in the kitchen:
Terebus and Error in Eruption
An ‘Orrible Affair in One Act
by A Survivor
Terebus and Error – Crook Cooks
Other expedition members
Scene: Kitchen, Winter Quarters. Time: 5.30 pm
Error: Now, Terebus, just bring me a nice clean pot, will you?
Terebus: [from his bunk] Go on, do something yourself!
Error: Do something? I’ve done everything that has been done this afternoon.
Terebus: Well, you ought to feel pretty fresh.
Error: And all the melting–pots are empty and I’m not going to fill them. Besides, it’s not in the regulations.
Voices: Who’s going crook? Error!
[Terebus climbs from his bunk and exit for ice. Error attempts to extricate a pot from the nails in the shelves. Loud alarums.]
[Alarums without. Loud cries of ‘Door!’ Enter Terebus with box of ice; fills all the pots on the stove.]
Error: Good heavens, man, you’ve filled up the tea water with ice.
Terebus: [with hoarse laugh] Never mind, they won’t want so much glaxo to cool it.
Error: [who has meanwhile been mixing bread] What shall we bake the bread in? I believe it is considered that a square tin is more suitable for ordinary ovens, but, on the other hand, Nansen in his Farthest North used flat dishes.
Terebus: Use a tin. There’ll be less surface exposed to the cold oven.
Error: What’s all this water on the floor? I thought my feet seemed cold. Some one must have upset a bucket.
Terebus: Oh, it’s one of the taps turned on. Never mind, there’s plenty more ice where that came from. Get your sea–boots.
[Enter Meteorological Staff and others with snow–covered burberrys, mitts, etc, crowd kitchen and hang impedimenta round the stove. Great tumult.]
Terebus: Here, out of the kitchen. This isn’t the time to worry the cooks.
Error: Take those burberrys away, please, old man. They’re dripping into the soup.
Terebus: Give it some flavour at least.
[Great activity in the crater of Error while Terebus clears the kitchen. Error continues stirring soup and tapioca custard on the stove. Strong smell of burning.]
Voices: [in peculiarly joyful chorus] Something burning!
Error: [aside to Terebus] It’s all right. It will taste all right. Say it’s cloth on the stove.
Terebus: Somebody’s burberrys burning against the stove!!
[General rush to the stove.]
Terebus: It’s all right, I’ve taken them away.
[Interval, during which much sotto voce discussion is heard in the kitchen.]
Error: We haven’t put the spinach on to thaw and it’s after six o’clock.
Terebus: Warm it up and put it on the table with the tin–openers.
Error: I’m afraid that’s against the regulations. Put it in the oven and shut the door.
[Terebus does so. Later, terrific explosion, followed by strong smell of spinach.]
Voices: What’s the matter? Terebus in eruption!
Terebus: [wiping spinach off his face] Nothing wrong. Only a tin of spinach opened automatically.
Error: It’s plastered all over the oven and on everything.
Terebus: Don’t worry, it will be served up with the baked penguin.
[Period of partial quiescence of Terebus and Error, which is regarded as an evil omen.]
Error: [in persuasive tone] Have you made the tea, old boy? It’s nearly half–past six.
[Terebus takes off the lid of the tea–boiler, peers inside, making a scoop with his hand.]
Error: Here, don’t do that. Mind your hands.
Terebus: It’s all right, it’s not hot.
Error: What shall we do, then? We’ll never keep them quiet if we are late with the tea.
Terebus: Put the tea in now. It will be warmed up by the second course.
[Terebus puts the infusers in the pot and stirs them round.]
Error: Taste it.
[Both taste with a dirty spoon.]
Terebus: Tastes like your soup – ‘orrible!
Error: There’s nothing wrong with the soup. You attend to the tea.
Terebus: I think we’ll have coffee. Pass the coffee and I’ll put that in and bring it to the boil. The coffee will kill the taste of the tea.
Error: Hope you make it stronger than that.
[During quiescent stage while each is thinking of a retort, 6.30 pm arrives, and the soup is put on the table. Interval elapses during which the victims are expected to eat the soup.]
Voices: [in loud chant from the table] How did you do it, Error?
Terebus: [after a suitable period] Any one like any more soup?
A voice: Couldn’t risk it, Governor.
Terebus: Bowls up! Lick spoons!
[Bowls are cleared away and baked penguin is put on the table.]
Error: Cooks have got their penguin, gentlemen.
[Suspicious glances exchanged at table. Later, monotonous chant goes up, preceded by a soft ‘One, two, three’. ‘Didn’t scrape the blubber off, Error.’]
[Plates cleared away and scraped into dogs’ bucket. Error takes tapioca custard from oven in two dishes.]
Error: [aside to Terebus] Take some out of this one for us and don’t forget to put that dish in front of the Doctor, because I spilled soda in the other.
[Terebus takes two large helpings out and puts rest on table as directed.]
Terebus: You need not remember the cooks, gentlemen.
A voice: Don’t want to, if I can manage it.
Error: [aside to Terebus] Put on the Algerian sweets, and then we can have ours.
Terebus: [taking several handfuls] We’ll put these aside for perks.
[The sweets on the table, Terebus and Error retire to kitchen to have their dinner.]
Error: Is this my pudding? It’s only an ordinary share.
[Terebus is too busy to reply, and further eruption is prevented by the temporary plugging of Error.]
Cooking, under the inspiration of Mrs Beeton, became a fine art:
On bones we leave no meat on,
For we study Mrs Beeton.
So said the song. On birthdays and other auspicious occasions dishes appeared which would tempt a gourmet. Puff–pastry, steam–puddings, jellies and blancmanges, original potages and consommés, seal curried and spiced, penguin delicately fried, vegetables reflavoured, trimmed and adorned were received without comment as the culinary standard rose.
Birthdays were always greeted with special enthusiasm. Speeches were made, toasts were drunk, the supple boards of the table creaked with good things, cook and messman vied with each other in lavish hospitality, the Hut was ornate with flags, every man was spruce in his snowiest cardigan and neck–cloth, the gramophone sang of music–hall days, the wind roared its appreciation through the stove–pipe, and rollicking merriment was supreme. On such occasions the photographer and the biologist made a genial combination.
The dark–room was the nursery of the topical song. There, by lantern or candle–stump, wit Rabelaisian, Aristophanic or Antarctic was cradled into rhyme. From there, behind the scenes, the comedian in full dress could step before the footlights into salvoes of savage applause. ‘A Pair of Unconventional Cooks are we, are we’, and the famous refrain, ‘There he is, that’s him’, were long unrivalled in our musical annals.
Celebrations were carried on into the night, but no one forgot the cook and the messman. The table was cleared by many willing hands, some brought in ice and coal or swept the floor, others scraped plates or rinsed out mugs and bowls. Soon, everything had passed through the cauldron of water, soap and soda to the drying–towels and on to the shelves. The main crowd then repaired with pipes and cigars to ‘Hyde Park Corner’, where the storeman, our raconteur par excellence, entertained the smokers’ club. A mixed concert brought the evening to the grand finale – ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
After events of this character, the higher shelves of the kitchen, in the interstices between thermographs, photographic plates ink bottles, and Russian stout, abounded with tidbits of pie crust, blancmange, jelly, Vienna rusks, preserved figs, and other ‘perks’. Such ‘perks’, or perquisites, were the property of the presiding cook or night–watchman and rarely survived for more than a day.
The mania for celebration became so great that reference was frequently made to the almanac. During one featureless interval, the anniversary of the First Lighting of London by Gas was observed with extraordinary éclat.
The great medium of monetary exchange in the Hut was chocolate. A ration of thirty squares was distributed by the storeman every Saturday night, and for purposes of betting, games of chance, ‘Calcutta sweeps’ on the monthly wind–velocity and general barter, chocolate held the premier place.
At the ‘sweeps’, the meteorologist stood with a wooden hammer behind the table, and the gaming public swarmed on the other side. Numbers ranging from ‘low field’ and forty–five to sixty–five and ‘high field’ were sold by auction to the highest bidder. Excitement was intense while the cartographer in clerical glasses worked out the unknown number.
As a consequence of wild speculation, there were several cases of bankruptcy, which was redeemed in the ordinary way by a sale of the debtor’s effects.
Two financiers, indifferent to the charms of chocolate, established a corner or ‘Bank’ in the commodity. ‘The Bank’, by barter and usurious methods, amassed a great heap of well–thumbed squares, and, when accused of rapacity, invented a scheme for the common good known as ‘Huntoylette’. This was a game of chance similar to roulette, and for a while it completely gulled the trusting public. In the reaction which followed, there was a rush on ‘The Bank’, and the concern was wound up, but the promoters escaped with a large profit in candles and chocolate.
Throughout the winter months, work went on steadily even after dinner, and hours of leisure were easy to fill. Some wrote up their diaries, played games, or smoked and yarned; others read, developed photos, or imitated the weary cook and went to bed. The MacKellar Library, so called after the donor, was a boon to all, and the literature of polar exploration was keenly followed and discussed. Taste in literature varied, but among a throng of eighteen, the majority of whom were given to expressing their opinions in no uncertain terms – there were no rigid conventions in Adélie Land – every book had a value in accordance with a common standard.
There was not a dissenting voice to the charm of Lady Betty across the Water, and the reason for this was a special one. The sudden breath of a world of warmth and colour, richness and vivacity and astute, American freshness amid the somewhat grim attractions of an Antarctic winter was too much for every one. Lady Betty, in the realm of bright images, had a host of devoted admirers. Her influence spread beyond the Hut to the plateau itself. Three men went sledging, and to shelter themselves from the rude wind fashioned an ice–cavern, which, on account of its magical hues and rare lustre, could be none other than ‘Aladdin’s Cave’. Lady Betty found her hero in a fairy grotto of the same name.
Lorna Doone, on the other hand, was liked by many. Still there were those who thought that John Ridd was a fool, a slow, obtuse rustic, and so on, while Lorna was too divine and angelic for this life.
The War of the Carolinas took the Hut by storm, but it was a ‘nine days’ wonder’ and left no permanent impression on the thinking community. Mostly, the story was voted delightfully funny, but very foolish and farcical after all. A few exclusive critics predicted for it a future.
Then there was The Trail of ‘98. For power and blunt realism there was nothing like it, but the character of the hero was torn in the shreds of debate. There was general agreement on two points: that the portrayal of the desolate Alaskan wild had a touch of ‘home’, and that the heroine was a ‘true sport’.
All those who had ever hauled on the main braces, sung the topsail–halliard chanty, learned the intricate Matty Walker, the bowline–and–a–bite and a crowd of kindred knots, had a warm spot for any yarn by Jacobs. Night after night, the storeman held the audience with the humorous escapades of Ginger Dick, Sam and Peter Russet.
And lastly, there was a more serious, if divided interest in Virginibus Puerisque, Marcus Aurelius, The Unveiling of Lhassa – but the list is rather interminable.
The whole world is asleep except the night–watchman, and he, having made the bread, washed a tubful of clothes, kept the fire going, observed and made notes on the aurora every fifteen minutes and the weather every half–hour, and, finally, having had a bath, indulges in buttered toast and a cup of coffee.
The Hut is dark, and a shaded burner hangs by a canvas chair in the kitchen. The wind is booming in gusts, the dogs howl occasionally in the veranda, but the night–watchman and his pipe are at peace with all men. He has discarded a heavy folio for a light romance, while the hours scud by, broken only by the observations. The romance is closed, and he steals to his bunk with a hurricane lamp and finds a bundle of letters. He knows them well, but he reads them – again!
Pearly light rises in the northeast through the lessening drift, and another day has come.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.