Read Out of the Ice Online

Authors: Ann Turner

Out of the Ice

Praise for
The Lost Swimmer

‘A vivid, suspenseful thriller.’
Sydney Morning Herald

‘Reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s
The Talented Mr Ripley
 . . . In the best thriller traditions, this exciting novel’s end-game contains an unexpected twist.’
The Age

‘An expertly scripted psychological thriller . . . A tense, evocative and absorbing tale of trust and betrayal.’
Australian Book Review

‘The definition of a page-turner.’
Marie Claire

‘A smartly constructed, tense thriller that will leave you guessing until the very end. It’s a remarkable debut from former filmmaker Ann Turner, who’s destined to become a prominent name in Australian writing.’
Better Reading

‘I knew
The Lost Swimmer
had won me over when I was standing in line at the supermarket and all I could think about was what was going to happen next in Ann Turner’s impressive debut novel. A suspenseful and dramatic thriller.’
Readings

‘We had pins and needles trying to unravel the truth throughout Turner’s crisply written, cleverly plotted tale of deceit.’
iBooks Editor

For Joy and the boy,

with love

‘Every heart sings a song, incomplete,

until another heart whispers back.’

Unknown

1

P
enguins the size of small children, plump black and white bodies, robust little wings, propelled out of the sea and flew high onto the pack ice, chattering wildly beneath an Antarctic sky so vast and pale and clear it looked like it might shatter at any moment. The air was freezing but there was no wind, so I hauled off my polar-fleece jacket and shivered in my T-shirt, relishing the freedom after being indoors at base. Through the long winter months when the sun was just a lonely glow beneath the horizon I’d taken a stint as Station Leader, making sure the machinery and skeleton staff of plumbers, engineers, carpenters, doctor and cook kept whirring along. It was exhilarating to be back in the field, drinking in the sparkling light.

The Adélie penguins waddled across a bare outcrop and through a gap in a temporary fence housing a small metal weighbridge, where each bird was automatically weighed. They crossed to the rookery on the stony hill behind, each calling for their partner in a piercing shrill, creating an impenetrable wall of noise. I watched in awe as mate recognised mate, rubbing soft white chests together, tipping back their smooth black heads and stretching beaks to the sun, crying notes of pure joy. Mutualling – a heartfelt greeting after months at sea. They had reached the end of their long, annual migration. Spring was finally here.

Migratory. We were all migratory. I felt a deep melancholy as I witnessed the mass display of affection. Adélie penguins mate for life, something I’d yet to achieve. I was thirty-nine and single again. I had no one to come home to; unless you counted my mother, which I did not. And unlike me, Adélies are house proud, building nests of stones. There was much pecking as birds tried to steal each other’s pebbles, rushing in and plucking them up, dashing away, getting chased.

Kate McMillan, an ornithologist and close friend, had just arrived for the season. A lanky 185 centimetres tall, thirty-three years old, she was pale-skinned and freckled, with a shock of unruly red hair that shimmered in the sun. She was doing a fine imitation of Charlie Chaplin as she fell into rhythm with the waddling penguins, causing no disruption as she placed coloured rocks on the ground for them. Red, blue, orange, yellow.

I looked down at my tablet and watched the images being streamed by the huge fixed camera that we’d set up yesterday with the help of our base engineers. Built like a tank in hard grey steel, the camera was programmed to swivel randomly to record the breeding cycle. It zoomed in to an enormous close-up of a penguin eye, beady black encased in a white ring, as the bird snapped up Kate’s red stone. Then it zoomed back out to the chaos of the rookery where fights were erupting over the new pebbles. The penguins were completely trusting of our presence. Their predators were in the sky and sea, so they held no fear of us. Like all wildlife in this pristine wilderness the Adélies hadn’t seen the awful destruction humans were capable of inflicting. It was a land of innocence.

Suddenly I saw a huge close-up of my own face. Behind sunglasses, my expression was ambiguous. My dark hair was looped up messily, my olive skin pale from not having seen sun since April. The camera zoomed out – I was tall and though not overweight the digital images fattened me up. I must do more exercise now the warmer weather was here.

The camera swivelled back to the penguins, and I took notes. Today I was carrying out an Environmental Impact Assessment on how the camera might affect the Adélies. Trained as a marine biologist, I had made my name studying the relationship between penguins and their tiny crustacean food, krill, in the Southern Ocean before spending a decade with my true loves, cetaceans, researching families of whales and dolphins. A second doctorate in environmental science ensured I stayed competitive. Through it all, Antarctica was the one underpinning strength of my life, the place that pulled me back from the darkness, and I would do anything to be here.

I was down this time on an eighteen-month contract with the Australian Antarctic Division, the longest I’d had – normally it was a twelve-month gig, but I’d taken the Station Leader position in the middle – and it would be my final summer before I had to go back to Victoria. Having been in the ice for a year already, there were a few quirks setting in. Kate said I had the
look
– like I was gazing through to a far horizon. I knew it in other winterers but I hadn’t realised I had it myself. Even when you’re surrounded by a small group of people in Antarctica, you’re still more on your own than anywhere else. The landscape is broad and wide and your vision runs to it. You live in your head, the present can flow to the past – you spend hours reflecting. The other day I’d gone outside missing my left boot, and it was only when Kate laughed that I was
toasty
I realised I was standing in my sock. Toast is what the Americans call ice fever – when you start to burn out and the mind plays tricks. Everyone gets a bit toasty over winter, but I was generally fine.

Although I’d almost forgotten what the other world looked like. I was on leave from my university in Melbourne, where I’d torched a few bridges and I knew it meant I’d be stuck at Associate Professor level for some time. I adored my team of fellow scientists but I’d had a blow-up with a group of the most senior professors in my department. I shuddered at the thought. I was in no hurry to get back, even though I was passionate about my Antarctic Studies program that was growing more popular every year. I loved this generation of students. They looked at you directly, judged you for who you were in that moment, so different to the baby-boomers, who were always nosy.
What do you do? Are you married? Do you have children?
The students didn’t take jobs as a birthright, unlike the old worn academics, too scared or greedy to leave, huddled over their posts like fat spiders. Of which my mother was one. Cristina Ana Alvarado, Professor of Spanish Linguistics and Culture, stalwart of her School; a proud migrant success story.

We were Spanish, and
sacrifices
had been made. In Extremadura in western Spain, cherries grow in abundance in Valle del Jerte. That’s where my Granny Maria and Papa Luis were born and raised, a place so beautiful they never wanted to leave. But they were both ten years old at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and were sent on a boat to England in 1936 in a desperate attempt to keep them safe. Their parents perished in the war, killed by Franco’s brutal Nationalists. Maria and Luis, heartbroken, yearned to go home to the shreds of family that were left, but it was too dangerous. As young, exiled adults they married, and when my mother Cristina came along, they vowed to stay in London to make a better life for her, a decision that sat heavily. Cristina felt responsible, and always tried to outperform. But she shattered their dreams when she met my dad, Mike Green, a young medical intern from Adelaide, who swept her off to Australia.

Dad was from establishment stock, and going through a belated hippy phase. I arrived two weeks after their marriage on a wild stretch of South Australian beach, much to the shame of Granny Maria and Papa Luis.

My childhood in Adelaide was perfect. We lived in a small house on the waterfront at Grange, a windswept seaside suburb. I learned to swim by the old wooden jetty and each summer pods of dolphins would arrive, ducking and weaving through the pale green waves. I’d run with the local kids along the beach, keeping up with the sleek grey fins as they rose and dipped. And sometimes there’d be another fin, one that stayed on the surface, cutting through the waves in a thick black silhouette. A shark; a white pointer. At weekends a tiny plane would circle the sharks and crowds of swimmers would flee, screaming, onto the baking sand. And when the tide was low I’d lie in warm pools, telling stories of dolphins and whales in faraway oceans to my friends.

All that changed when Dad, who’d excelled as a researcher in biological medicine at Adelaide University, found a promotion in Melbourne and we had to leave. I was devastated. I was nine years old.

We moved into a big creaking house in a dark leafy street in suburban Kew, far away from the beach. A green desert. And then, one year later, Dad moved out.

Mum ached to go back to London but she had a job as a lecturer, teaching Spanish, and as with all Alvarados she stayed to make a better life for her daughter. She insisted that I take my first surname – in Spanish tradition that meant her maiden name. I would be Laura Alvarado. I longed to be Laura Green. I worshipped my father and loved that he – and therefore I – was Australian. While Mum grew increasingly vexatious, difficult and angry, I blamed her and wondered what awful things she’d done to make Dad go. I’d grill her; she’d never answer unless it was to argue. I saw Dad at weekends for a couple of years, and then he moved to Sydney and was, more often than not, too busy to come down, or have me up to visit.

That left Mum and me in the too-big house in a cold, foreign place.

A penguin started to peck curiously at my leg, pulling the trouser fabric, letting it go, pulling again.

‘No rock here, my love.’

He looked up and then pecked again. Another penguin dropped a stone between the tripod legs of the camera. The pecking penguin waddled off and returned with a blue stone of Kate’s and dropped it on the leg of the tripod, where it rolled off. I photographed them and made notes. Had we erected the camera on their annual nesting spot? They were tagged with tiny radio antennae that stuck out through the oily feathers on the back of their necks. I looked them up on my satellite-tracking app – Isabel and Charles. I would follow them; make sure the camera didn’t disturb them.

Elsewhere, young penguins arriving for their first breeding season were trying to coerce their way into established partnerships, to no avail. They’d rush in when one penguin was away, only to be pecked out, like a game of musical chairs in which they never won the chair. I sympathised. The camera swivelled and took arbitrary shots.

My nose grew numb from cold and a familiar sensation rushed through me. A storm was brewing. Down here, anything could change at any second. I looked across to Kate and knew she’d felt it too. I threw on my jacket and signalled for home; Kate gave me the thumbs up. We put on our skis.

The wind was fierce as we tilted against it, slowly making our way cross-country through icefields stretching wide to three horizons. Gales had whipped the surface into sastrugi, small ridges like frozen waves, with little peaks and troughs shadowed blue beneath sky that was turning a dark, foreboding grey. We took care to keep to the flagged area our safety engineer had set out, away from deep ice crevasses that could be fatal. In Antarctica, people normally moved around on motorised equipment but we preferred to ski and it was much less disruptive to the Adélie colony. Our tiny Apple hut, a round red dome of warmth and shelter – looking just like its namesake, a cheery red apple – was a welcome sight in the vast white. I tried to pull open the door, but the wind kept blowing it closed. Kate helped, and together we managed to force it ajar long enough to slip inside. Shutting it, there was a beautiful muffled quiet. A blizzard was forming, and the katabatic winds, roaring downhill from the inland ice, grew so strong that everything started to rock.

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