Tag Archives: Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates

Book Review Saturday – ‘The White Darkness’

This week’s book is a relative ‘oldie’; the edition I have was published in 2005. However, I’ve chosen to review it because I am currently completely obsessed with the Polar regions, and also because Geraldine McCaughrean’s ‘The White Darkness’ was one of those books which made me really, truly want to be a writer.

I mean, I’d always wanted to be a writer. But this book, along with several others, opened my eyes to how imaginative a novel can be, and how emotionally affecting. Geraldine McCaughrean is a legend, of course, who has written more books than most people have read, and I’ll never be on a par with her, but still. Her way with words, and her ability to tell a story, are a huge inspiration.

Image: bonniesbooks.blogspot.com

Image: bonniesbooks.blogspot.com

The first cool thing about ‘The White Darkness’ is this: the main character, Symone, is hearing impaired, but it doesn’t hold her back from having the adventure of a lifetime. The second cool thing is this: she gets to travel to the South Pole as part of the story. But the third, and coolest, thing about this story is: it features Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates. In case you don’t know who that is, I’ll tell you – Captain Oates was the famous explorer who is credited with saying ‘I am just going outside. I may be some time,’ on the ill-fated Polar expedition led by Captain Scott. The men were lost, starving, and dying of exposure, and Captain Oates felt he was holding them back, so he walked out into a blizzard in order to try to save their lives by forcing them to go on without him.

Tragically, of course, his sacrifice was in vain, because all the explorers perished anyway. His famous last words live on only in Scott’s journal. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it was an extremely brave thing to do, though, and it has gone down in history as an act of heroism.

In case you haven’t guessed already, I have a ‘thing’ for Polar exploration, and the story of Captain Oates has always interested me. Geraldine McCaughrean takes the character of Captain Oates – because the way he appears in this book, he is a ‘character’; it’s not the ‘real’ Captain Oates – and weaves him into the life of a modern teenager. Symone, you see, is in love with Captain Oates, and has been for years.

I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now – which is ridiculous, since he’s been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way – in ninety years I’ll be dead, too, and then the age difference won’t matter. (Page 1)

Captain Oates – or, at the very least, an imagining of him – lives in Sym’s head. They talk to one another, and he keeps her company through some very challenging life events. He is her source of comfort and support, her advisor and her guide. She has lost her father and is under the influence of the decidedly weird ‘Uncle’ Victor, who is a family friend and not a blood relative. The story begins when Victor decides that Sym and her mother are coming with him on a trip to Paris. However, as they prepare to leave, Sym’s mother realises her passport is missing. That leaves Sym, and Uncle Victor, alone. And it isn’t Paris he wants to bring her to, either – it’s the South Pole.

So why does it emerge that Uncle Victor has hidden Sym’s mother’s passport? Why does he want Sym – and Sym alone – to join him in what turns out to be less of an exploration than a quest? Uncle Victor is looking for something, something he truly believes exists at the South Pole, and he’s willing to sacrifice anyone and anything, including Sym, to get to it.

In Antarctica, Sym’s relationship with her uncle begins to unravel, but – worse still – her connection to Oates begins to disappear, too. He doesn’t want to return to Antarctica, the place where he ‘died’; the trip causes him huge grief. It places a massive strain on their connection, the most treasured thing that Sym possesses. I love the way McCaughrean handles this plot device, because it’s clear that Sym knows Titus isn’t real – she knows he’s dead, and that the voice she hears in her mind isn’t really his. And yet she loves him, and she needs him, and there are hints dropped all over the place that there’s more to Titus’ voice than just Sym’s imagination. All in all, it’s a heartrending and emotional relationship and (speaking as a person who was slightly obsessed with W.B. Yeats as a teenager, despite the fact that he was quite dead at the time), one I could entirely understand and get on board with. Not only did it highlight Sym’s isolation and loneliness, but it also spoke of her loss – the loss of her father, the lack of a significant male presence in her life, and her desire for a love relationship which goes hand-in-hand with her fear of it – and, besides all that, the voice of Captain Oates is marvellous. Full of plummy English public-schoolboyness, it’s a voice I loved reading.

At the book’s conclusion, Captain Oates’ voice is the most real thing about the situation Sym finds herself in. When at her weakest, and near death, Oates is all she has. It’s truly a remarkable thing to read. It made me weep the first time I read this book, and the second, and the third…

I have never read anything quite like ‘The White Darkness.’ Sym’s voice is a strange one for a fourteen-year-old, admittedly: it’s a little too adult, in places, and perhaps a little too knowing. But perhaps that’s to be expected when the character is bookish, shy, socially isolated, lacking in friends, and obsessed with a long-dead man. She’s apart from her peers, and it shows in everything she says and does. I loved her, and I loved the way McCaughrean writes about her, and I loved her version of Oates.

‘The White Darkness’ is an odd and different little book, but it’s one I love. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you think of it. If you haven’t, maybe you’ll check it out and let me know whether you liked it.

Happy reading!

Captain Lawrence 'Titus' Oates.  Image: artblart.com

Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates.
Image: artblart.com

Flash Fiction Friday

Image: wodumedia.com

Image: wodumedia.com

The Captain’s Return

Just as the movie got to the good bit, the first dull boom rang out. Barron stiffened in his chair. The hairs on his arms lifted right up, like they were listening; every muscle was taut.

‘What the…’ Barron put his steaming bowl of noodles down and hit the Pause button, trying to breathe quietly. Just as he swung his legs off the desk, the second boom shattered the stillness of the sleeping station.

‘Hell. Just my luck,’ he muttered, heaving himself to his feet. He’d been looking forward to the solo graveyard shift all week. Just him, the silent monitoring station, and the howling Antarctic outside, it had sounded like heaven on earth.

Boom.

He shrugged into his jacket and fumbled through the piles of documents and readouts for his flashlight. He dallied – just for a second – in front of the gun locker before swinging it open.

Boom.

The door was a long dark corridor away. He clicked the flashlight on. Its beam shook a little, but he stilled it.

Boom.

Something – something heavy – was pounding on the door.

He unsealed it with numb fingers, his weapon a reassuring weight at his side. It hissed open to reveal a fur-clad figure, his eyes like lost stars in the bitter darkness.

The stranger lowered his seal-skin glove, swaying on his feet. ‘I told my men I would be some time,’ he said, in a voice like the Aurora’s hiss. ‘But I’ve finally found my way back.’

Barron dropped his flashlight as the long-lost explorer stumbled into his arms.

(The above story is my Flash! Friday entry for this week)

 

Tamara de Lempicka's painting, 'Jeune Fille Verte' Image: internaute.com

Tamara de Lempicka’s painting, ‘Jeune Fille Vert’
Image: internaute.com

Jeune Fille Vert

So I saved for a green silk dress, second-hand, and stole Mama’s white gloves. She hadn’t worn them in years, and I doubted she’d miss them any more than she’d miss me. The dress was nice, but it wasn’t exactly like the one in the picture. It didn’t have a ruffled neck, or a bow at the shoulder. Come to that, it wasn’t quite the right shade, either – it sort of made my skin look mouldy. In a certain light, though, I looked all right. I’d pass as a fine lady on her way somewhere grand.

I found a hat at the back of my closet, more cream than white; it had a brim, at least, perfect for spying on the world without it hitting your eyes. The girl in the picture didn’t show her feet, so I just put on my black patent shoes, the ones I normally kept for church. Today, though, I left my socks off. It looked better. My feet would get sweaty, I knew, but I figured it couldn’t be helped.

I’d even found a small valise, an old-fashioned one. It wasn’t in the picture, but I thought it looked pretty. My things didn’t all fit inside it, but it hardly mattered. ‘They’ll give you everything you need in the hospital, girl. You’ll have more’n enough,’ Mama’d said. Mama never lied. Well – she always spoke the truth, but she didn’t always speak it with a good heart.

I checked my wristwatch. They’d be here to get me soon. I took a final look in my dusty old mirror; the glass was browned and blooming, but I could see enough to know the dress clung tightly in places that were new, and hung baggy in places that were old. I took a breath and watched myself, wondering. My hair, completely the wrong colour but at least it curled like the picture-girl’s, jiggled when I moved my head. My heart was as quiet as a sleeping baby.

Sort of what got me into this mess in the first place, I guess. My heart, and a sleeping baby.

Then, a flicker in the mirror told me they were coming. Angled right, my warped looking-glass was kind enough to show the road.

My valise was light. I threw it, and it landed in the bush, just fine.

I slipped my hot feet out of my shoes; they followed the valise out the window. My soles gave better grip on the downpipe. I had to grab my hat with one hand as I neared the ground, but I managed pretty well.

I didn’t wait to hear them ring the bell, or to hear Mama’s holler. She’d be mad to lose the money they’d have paid her for me.

Then I ran, just like the girl in the picture’d said. Run! she’d whispered, with her scarlet mouth. Run fast!

I didn’t slow until I’d reached the cover of the trees, as green as my green dress.

 

Image: indulgy.com

Image: indulgy.com

 

Unforgettable Things

These are the things I can’t forget: I was hurt, I am getting better, and I have to take my medicine.

They bring my medicine twice a day, and the glass – they call it that, even though it’s made of plastic – is pink. I think I like that colour. The glass holds the water (not too much!) that I need to make the medicine go down.

Sometimes the nurse sings a song as she hands me my medicine, and my pink glass, but I can’t remember what the words mean any more. I like her voice, though, so I don’t mind.

They are nice, the nurses.

At least, I think they are.

I can’t forget these things: I was hurt, I am getting better, and I have to take my medicine.

I remember other things, sometimes. I remember eggs, and how fragile they are, and how you have to be so, so careful when you carry them. My unforgettable things are like eggs, the doctor says. I stroke them gently and keep them safe, and carry them around inside myself so carefully, in case I drop them.

I was hurt, I am getting better, and I have to take my medicine. The doctor says if I repeat it to myself, it’ll stick to my brain like glue.

I don’t know what’s happening when the nurse wheels me into another room. This room is small and has a broken TV, and its window looks out over the carpark. The nurse says I need a bit of privacy, but I prefer the big room, where everyone else is. It’s warm, and it has a window with a view of the garden. But I have to go into the small room. I don’t know why. ‘Just for a while,’ they say. ‘Not for long.’

I’ve been in here before. I think it means I’ve done something wrong, but I never remember what.

So here I am, in the small room. It’s cold. It’s raining. There are a lot of cars in the carpark. I try to count them all, but I lose my place when someone comes in.  A Visitor. A gust of air follows them through the door. Inside it words are carried, carefully and gently, just like me and my eggs.

The words are another song. ‘Happy Birthday to you,’ they say. They sound happy. It seems wrong. I don’t know why.

‘Sorry!’ says the Visitor. ‘I’m just looking for the loo?’

‘Happy birthday to you!’ say the words again, and the world cracks.

‘Happy birthday,’ roared the fist. ‘Happy birthday!’ whined the belt as it flew through the air. I remember the buckle opening my face, digging into my head. I hear crunching, and snapping, and breaking, and I remember screaming I remember…

‘Come on, darling,’ says a nurse. I see my pink glass and my pills. My throat hurts.

I must remember: I was hurt, I am getting better, and I have to take my medicine.