At The End Of The World – Snippet 16
We had a light day yesterday; we didn’t have to do anything other than move more wood to dry out for cooking and washing clothes. We don’t have enough soap, but boiling water does a fair (if brutal) job on its own. Problem is, none of us have that many sets of clothes, so we’ve got to wear each one about four days running — because in this cold, that’s about how long it takes to dry after they get ladled out of the wash pot. So in the course of twelve days, each of us go through the three sets of clothes we were each told to pack by the Sail to Discovery folks. At this rate, I suspect we’ll be wearing rags by March. Or sooner.
But today was a real change of pace. Might even call it a day of revelations. Because two things happened that put a new spin on things. Again.
Firstly, most of us who had been on scrounge-and-carry duty for two days in a row got a change of scenery. Captain wanted to sail up to Leith, the whaling station closest to the mouth of Stromness Bay. Everyone else got left behind to lug pieces of tin roofing back into the plant. Once the corrugated metal sheets were there, Johnnie swung the back-spike on the biggest boning axe to put a hole in them. Captain didn’t take the time to tell us why that was important, but he was deadly serious about it being done. Then the captain, Steve, Blake, Chloe, and I set sail, as the rest started in on that job. Which made life on a chain-gang look both easier and more meaningful.
Arriving at Leith, I realized how much more welcoming Husvik already was, even though we’d been there less than a week. There was usually a fire going now, and you could smell the wood and the meat and the seal blubber being rendered, as well as seal dung being dried for fuel. But, even if you didn’t have a sense of smell, you’d know someone lived there. Pathways in the snow led to and from the buildings we used; piles of wood or gathered tools were near all of them; and as long as there was light in the sky, there were the sounds of people at work: hammering, bashing, shouting, even laughing.
But Leith was deader than dead. Blanketed under snow, it was utterly noiseless, and the only smell was the faint tang of the salt water. We pulled up to the best pier — the one that led to the old guano processing plant — and got out in silence, surrounded by hollow, windowless buildings and rusting scrap. The captain had a backpack and was carrying a folding shovel — he called it an “entrenching tool” — that I’d never seen before; must have kept it in his cabin. He handed the rest of us empty back packs, as well.
But when Chloe, who was the last to get to the side, made to hop up to the pier, the captain shook his head. “Stay with the boat.”
“What?” she said.
“Get the FAL. Watch the mouth of the bay. Use the ship’s radio if you see anything coming in.” He pulled a small walkie-talkie out of his parka, turned it on. “I’ll be listening.”
Her almond-shaped eyes got very wide, then she looked over at me. I raised my eyebrows and shrugged. I mean, what else could I do?
We walked through Leith, not even stopping to look for salvage until we came to a shed. There was nothing special about it, except that its door was intact and the captain had headed towards it like it had a homing beacon. He opened the door, pulled out two long handled tools that were kind of like really sharp and really heavy garden hoes. “Originally for pulling off strips of blubber or meat that got stuck to the bone itself or burned on to the side of the ovens. You’ll use them to dig.”
He nodded and started walking again, up toward the slowly rising field of snow that reached up into the mountains hemming in Leith Bay.
We found ourselves moving westward, staying between a stream that ran down to the harbor on the extreme south side of the whaling station, and a hundred-foot ridge to our north. After a few hundred yards, the captain veered toward a spot where the side of the ridge flattened out a bit and became less steep. After five minutes of stomping our way upward through the snow, we got to level ground again. Less than a minute later, we made a quick button hook into a tight little gap in a rocky outcropping that rose ten feet above the mini-plateau.
What we found in the back of that notch wasn’t exactly a cave, but it sure made for a nice little shelter: unless the wind could somehow blow uphill, and then downhill, and change direction by about one-hundred and ten degrees while it did so, you were in a totally calm cubby-hole.
“Cool,” muttered Blake, huddling into the space. “Good to get out of that wind and get warm.”
“You’ll be warmer, still, when you start using that tool I gave you,” the captain observed, setting down his backpack.
“What?” Blake said after a speechless moment.
The captain pointed at the ground underfoot — which was actually packed dirt, almost totally free of snow. “We have about four inches of digging to do. Although it won’t be digging so much as hacking; the ground is frozen solid. Once you get an inch or so broken up, I’ll shovel it out. Then you go back at it.”
Blake looked irritated. Steve looked at him. I looked at the ground, and then at the captain. “Here in the center?”
He nodded. “Yes. We’ll need to clear about a yard in diameter.”
I kept looking at him.
“Well?” he asked.
“A cache? From the war?”
One of his eyebrows may have risen slightly. “Why do you think that?”
I shrugged. “Because it’s obvious you were here back then. It’s obvious something went wrong. And I remember something about the British having to abandon or destroy things on South Georgia.” Which was pretty much all I remembered.
The captain leaned against the wall. “Did you ever read about something called Operation Paraquet?”
I shook my head. Steve and Blake squatted down, eyes on the captain.
He sighed. “Before the invasion of the Falklands, the Argies — Argentinians — first came here. Right here. About fifty ‘salvage workers’ brought by the Bahía Buen Suceso to collect scrap metal from Leith. But there were marines in among them and they raised the Argentine flag. People forget it, but that was the opening gambit of the Falklands War.”
“And you were here when they did?”
“Me? No, but I already had orders to come to South Georgia. My cover was to provide additional security for two nature photographers who were shooting a wildlife documentary on the island, Annie Price and her boss, Lucinda Buxton. Who just happened to be the third child of Lord Buxton, so that assignment was pretty convincing cover for my actual mission.”
“Your actual mission?” I asked. For once, I was talking less than he was. I hadn’t thought that was possible.
“Advance recon and operational support for what became Operation Paraquet. I was dropped off separately from the Royal Marines that were shipped into KEP. They didn’t even know I was aboard the inbound supply ship; I had signed on at Port Stanley as a new crewman.”
“So what happened?”
“I was put ashore a few miles away from the documentary team and linked up with the security operative that was already on overwatch. I informed the operative I was in place and then moved on to my actual objective.”
“Right. Had to look in on what the Argies were doing. Of course, the aggro between London and Buenos Aires was rising by the hour, so I finished my recon and checked back on the actual safety of the birdwatchers. I was there less than a day before their security operative and I were both assigned to help set up for the first attempt to insert troops here: Operation Paraquet. By that time, the Argies had grabbed the Falklands, and had set up housekeeping in KEP.”
“And where did your troops insert?”
The captain hooked a thumb behind him, to the west. “Fortuna Glacier. It was madness. It was April 21 and the weather was awful. The task force leader was dead set on sending 19 Troop in, despite the shite visibility and winds coming from three points of the compass. I told him what the conditions were like, but he kept pressing. So I gave the go-ahead, made the call they wanted to hear.