"Hello. I've come to say goodbye." Hamish was standing on the doorstep.
Emma stared at him and stepped back with a sigh of irritation.
"You'd better come in."
He stood nervously on the tiled floor of the big hall. Sunshine picked out the patterns in the tiles and emphasised the colours of the flowers on the table. He looked at the girl.
"I'm going away tomorrow."
"I thought I'd better say goodbye." It was the first time he'd seen her since the evening, half a year ago, when he'd asked her to marry him.
"Arthur's not here."
"It was you I wanted to say goodbye to, not - your husband." He still had difficulty accepting that she was a married woman, settled in this big house.
She was watching him. He was embarrassed and had to drop his gaze. That was more embarrassing because her body was as fascinating as ever. Her perfect breasts were lightly supported so their shape was evident beneath the heavy silk blouse. The gold stripes framed the imprint of her nipples. He was thankful that the long skirt concealed her legs.
He swallowed and said, "You've got your hair pinned up." The fatuousness of this remark made him blush.
She smiled and touched the plaited crown of silver-gold hair. "Arthur likes me to be tidy."
The last time Hamish had seen it, her hair had been free, tangled by the wind. It had framed her face as she raged at him. Now she was tamed, her lips and eyelids touched with make-up.
The light in the hallway changed as a cloud passed over the sun. Shadow washed the colour from her face and from the blouse, and then she blazed in splendour as the sun came out again. He saw her blink and screw her eyes against the light. She turned as though to lead him from the hall into some room more suited to a social visit. Then she turned back, as fierce as she had been six months before.
"Why couldn't you keep away? There's nothing more to say. It's finished. Can't you understand?"
"I felt I ought to say goodbye."
She was so close to him that he could smell her perfume, light and fragrant. Her face was ugly with anger. "You're always so bloody correct! Doing what you ought to do! Your whole family's the same. Duty! I didn't want to fall in love with some kind of machine that simply did its duty."
He felt the blood drain from his face and the pain of her condemnation gouge at his stomach. He should never have come, like a moth to a candle, to have his wings scorched once again. He stepped back, turning, seeking the door and escape.
"I did love you. I still do," he said.
She cut him off before he could move more than a couple of steps.
"You didn't love me enough to stay," she said, bitterly. "Your bloody duty - your career came first. That's not enough for me. I want a man who'll live with me and love me - not some untouchable hero, off exploring the Empire. I can't make do with loving a photograph on a piano."
The injustice triggered his anger. "It's nothing to do with heroism or Empire. You knew I was going on this expedition. Geology's not something you do in an office - not the sort of geology I want to do. I thought you knew how I felt and were prepared to share it with me?"
"How can I share? You're going off for three years in the Antarctic - men only. No! Boys only, playing boy's games. And you expected me to wait for you. Doing what? Living in a nunnery? I'm twenty-one and I need love - the love a man can give me."
Now, the justice of her attack made him feel guilty and he tried to hit back. "I thought you felt the same about wild places - loved the open air." He gestured round the grand house. "Emma - this isn't you."
She was contemptuous of his pathetic retort. "You forfeited any right to criticise me. I'm married now. We've both made our choices."
Then he saw her anger crumple and she looked down at the patterns of sunlight on the tiles. "It's all too late. You should never have come here."
He saw a tear slide down the flat curve of her cheek.
"Why didn't you just fuck me?" Her voice was bleak. "I wasn't a virgin. It would have solved everything if you had. I'd have had to wait then - or you'd have had to stay. But your bloody sense of honour got in the way." She turned away and he saw more tears follow the first.
Her sudden coarseness and the tears shocked him. He realised that her pain matched his own and he wanted to comfort her. Instinct made him reach out as she turned away in despair. Her breasts suddenly filled his hands. They stood, frozen, shocked at the intimate contact. He felt her nipples stiffen against his palms. Horrified, he felt his penis stiffen against her thigh.
"Hamish!" It was a groan of despair mingled with desire as she turned against him, grinding her belly against his arousal. Her cheeks were blushing and, glancing at the open neck of her blouse, he saw the spread of colour darkening her chest. Fascinated, he reached to touch her throat and see if the heat of her skin matched the rising flush. Her fingers brushed his as she released the top button. The white edge of her bra was thrilling in contrast to flushed skin and the sumptuous colour of the blouse. Her fingers undid a second button and his control broke. He forced fingers beneath white lace, desperate to feel the solid curve of naked flesh and the thrusting nipple. The blouse yielded and a button rattled across the tiles, emphasising their silence. Her fingers finished undoing the buttons and she wriggled blouse and straps from her shoulders. As she bared herself, he bent her back so his lips could join his excited fingers to learn the shape and texture of those exquisite breasts.
Her ragged breathing revealed her abandonment to his will. It was as if the last six months had never been. As his fingers sought for more, she whispered, "Upstairs!"
She nestled against him as he carried her. Only the hollow clack of one of her shoes and then the other falling onto the tiles marked their progress.
He laid her on her married bed, still unmade and marked with the imprint of two bodies. Intimate possessions were everywhere, intimidating him. She raised her hips and pushed skirt and underclothes into an untidy heap on the floor. Glancing round the room as she wriggled out of blouse and bra, she said, "Get undressed. Don't worry about anything else. There are only the two of us here now."
The unguarded declaration and her dazzling nakedness sparked him to action. She laughed as he struggled out of his clothes.
"I won't run away," she giggled and his heart lifted at her gaiety. Her beauty made him forget guilt and honour and duty. His irresistible desire drove him into her body without preliminaries.
"Wait! You're so big." She moved beneath him and he felt her moisten and then liquefy.
"Now!" She placed his hands on her breasts. "Fuck me!"
Her body was an enchantment for his hands and eyes and penis. He'd had no woman since he met her and wanted her a year ago. Enchantment became concern and then alarm, as he doubted his ability to keep control. Emma seemed unmoved, her eyes closed, not responding to his urgent thrusts. At last, she seemed to sense his crisis and her hands tensed on his back. She opened her eyes, smiled and then breathed, "Don't stop. Oh, please don't stop. Oh, Hamish!"
She arched to meet him, holding herself rigid while her hands urged him into her. He almost forgot himself as she cried out and writhed against him, using legs and arms and fingers to urge and control, to hurt and to soothe. His own climax was the most intense he'd ever known. As he spent and spent again, groaning with effort, she met him with her own small cries, encouraging him to one more effort and then more. At last, they finished and lay, shaking and exhausted among the tangled sheets.
It was half an hour before he felt her move, rousing them from a blissful drowse. Propped on her elbow, she looked down at him, her breasts hanging in perfect tantalizing curves. Strands of hair had come loose and he reached up to unpin the rest. Together, they spread it over her shoulders and breasts. As he looked at her, he realised at last, all that he was giving up.
"I love you," he told her.
"Enough?" She was very solemn, looking down into his eyes.
"Enough?" he echoed, puzzled.
"Enough to take me away from here. Will you do that? We can go away and be together all the time."
He didn't believe her at first. He thought of his family and hers. Her husband and his family. And friends and...
"No! Emma! How could we?"
"Easily. I've got a car. We could simply go. Why not?"
He looked at her in horror. She had pitched him from the comfortable aftermath of his most profound sexual experience into some bizarre gypsy escapade. It would have been terrifying if it hadn't been so ludicrous - a musical comedy pursuit by her outraged husband.
He got up and searched vaguely for his clothes. "I'd better go."
She slipped the blouse on and pulled it round her. Her hand cupped her chin and she shook her head slowly. "Hamish, if you weren't such a simple idiot, I wouldn't love you so much." She stood close to him, her eyes bright with tears. "Would you really run away with me?"
He hesitated a little and then said, "If you really wanted. Yes!" He dropped his shirt and pulled her against him. The hard points of her breasts stabbed him and her round thighs pressed against his. "Oh yes!" he breathed and kissed her for the first time that day.
"And how long would you love me - your runaway? A month? A year? Your sense of duty would tear you apart - me with it." She pushed him away and stared through the window. "Why is it so impossible? If only things were different. I wish I'd never met you!"
"Emma, I'm sorry."
She came back to him, smiling a little. "Are you? I'm not really sorry. And I don't really wish I'd never met you, but I think you'd better go."
She stood by the door watching him dress. He came to her, carrying his jacket, his face pale. He was very close to tears. She reached out to tidy his hair and his resolution fled. He took her in his arms and they struggled to disentangle the blouse. At last she was naked again, his hands moving urgently on her waist while she fumbled with his belt.
"Again!" she demanded, finding him hard and ready.
"Yes!" He lifted her on tiptoes so he could enter her. They stood locked together, grinning.
"How?" she wanted to know.
He pushed her shoulders back against the door, placed his hands beneath the firm mounds of her bottom and lifted. Her legs stretched round him and she locked her ankles.
"Like that?" He looked down at her swollen lips, parted to enfold his penis.
She followed his stare and giggled. "That's good. I feel wanton and very sexy. Can you push?"
"Gently," she begged. "This door's hard."
He padded her shoulders with his arm and began to thrust. She pushed her hands beneath his shirt to hold herself against him. Her arousal mounted quickly and she encouraged his efforts with moans and kisses and sharp fingers until she writhed against him, begging, "Let me down. Please, I can't stand any more."
She slid through his arms until her tiptoes reached the floor. Reaching down, she slid his penis from her. He felt bereft until she turned and put her hands against the door. Her bottom wriggled as she spread her legs and the pink opening among pale hairs invited him to enter.
The heat and slippery tightness of her vagina and the feel of her firm buttocks beneath his hands excited him to a groaning climax.
"Come back to bed," he urged, as they stood, panting.
"No!" Her eyes were wide with panic. "The vicar was supposed to be coming ... what time is it?"
The distant crunch of tires on gravel confirmed her alarm.
He watched in astonishment as she whirled round the room. Her fingers fastened the blouse, hesitating at the place where he had torn a button loose. She shrugged and went on to the next button. Her underclothes flew in all directions as she shook her skirt free and stepped into it. Her glorious hair resisted the hasty strokes of the brush and she straightened it with her fingers. Breathless, she stood before him for approval.
"Will I do?"
"Just about." He pulled her blouse closed.
They stared at each other for a moment, hesitating on the shore of separation.
"Remember me," he told her.
"Remember me to Santa Claus! Go down the back way."
He stood at the top of the stairs and watched her run down. She paused twice in the hall to step into her shoes and then she clacked across the tiles and vanished from his sight. Voices echoed up to him, but she was gone.
"Bye you two. I'll see you again in six weeks." The pilot slammed the door of the bright orange ski plane.
They had to turn away and shield their faces from the snow blown up by the propellers as the aircraft gathered speed down the glacier and soared into the pale blue sky.
"Alpha-Papa is airborne," Ian reported to base. "He should be with you in two hours."
Hamish waited until Ian packed the radio set away. "Let's sort out these supplies before we settle down to read our mail."
Ian looked regretfully at the packet of letters, weighted down with a large rock. "I suppose I can wait another couple of hours, since I've been waiting for nine months already. You haven't got a fiancee waiting."
Hamish was already moving the first box from the untidy heap in the snow onto the edge of the rocky nunatak that stuck out from the glacier. Ian reluctantly picked up the next box and followed, his boots sinking deep into the soft snow.
The worked in silence for an hour until at last, Ian piled the last couple of rocks onto the heap of boxes. He wiped sweat off his face and said, "There you are. Six weeks rations for men and dogs in the depot."
"We'll finish loading the sledges, then you can read your mail," Hamish said. "We can have tomorrow off, though it doesn't feel like Christmas Day."
"It'll seem strange to be idle when the weather's good. The dogs'll be pleased though. They haven't had much rest these last six weeks." Eighteen Husky dogs lay tethered in two long lines, content to be idle.
An hour later, it was still light enough to read, but the cold had driven them into the faded yellow pyramid of the tent.
"Fancy a concert?" Hamish passed an advertising flyer across the tent to Ian.
The mail was spread around the cluttered space, competing with sleeping bags and food, clothes and geological specimens, notebooks and a plane table, cameras and the radio.
"Mozart's not my cup of tea - and this was six months ago. Haven't you got anything more exciting?"
"My mother's keen to keep me informed of all the family doings." Hamish sighed. "Seven letters, averaging about twenty pages each. They'll keep me going for a bit. Father sent me a couple of notes to tell me that mother's writing. My sister's been to Venice - if her postcard is to be believed. How about you?"
"About the same, though Mum and Dad have been taking it in turns. Marion's written a couple of letters..."
"Oh. Is she coping?"
"I suppose so. I wonder if we should have got engaged. It seemed rather important at the time. But now..."
"I know how you feel. I asked someone to marry me. But she wouldn't wait. She's not even written."
"You never told me." Ian was startled. They'd told each other most of their life histories in six months of sledging together. In this harsh Antarctic world, their lives depended on mutual trust.
Hamish shrugged and opened one last letter without much interest. It was in a large brown envelope with a typed address and contained two sheets of plain card and between them, a photograph.
"What's up?" Ian was concerned at the startled cry from across the tent. Hamish was sitting up, straining towards the light to see a photograph more clearly.
Hamish passed the black-and-white studio photograph across. "Don't get dirty marks on it."
Ian whistled in awe. The girl had been photographed seated, her hair loose down her back and shoulders, a striped blouse subtly revealing a delightful figure. "Bee-you-ti-ful. That hair! Those ... Ahem. Is she - a friend? Oh! The one who wouldn't wait?"
Hamish took the picture back and turned it over. "Emma," he said. "She's called Emma. Yes."
Ian was concerned at Hamish's distraction. "The baby's pretty too." He wasn't good at sexing babies, but the one in the girl's lap looked no more ugly than any other. He guessed that made it female. Personally he preferred Husky puppies.
"It's a boy, called Michael." Hamish was looking at the back of the photograph where the name was written with a date. He was counting. It was hard for anyone as sunburned as Hamish to go pale, but he did.
"I think so."
"I'll make some cocoa." Ian was out of his depth. A hot sweet drink was the best that he could think of in the circumstances.
Early July was the worst part of the year. There was no sun even at midday. Cold and wind made any outside job a hazardous chore. Hamish and Doc were feeding dogs. With nearly eighty to look after, it took a long time, even if they only paused to throw a block of dried meat to each howling animal. And Hamish often stopped to fuss his favourites. At last they were done and paused for a moment before retreating to the comfort of the little hut and their ten human companions. Doc flung back the hood of his parka. His huge black beard was matted with frost where his breath had frozen. He looked across the frozen expanse of Marguerite Bay to the jagged mountains of Graham Land. A faint waving curtain of green light dimmed the stars.
"Aurora," Doc pointed.
"Aye." It was a commonplace here, but still difficult to comprehend.
The dogs had settled to gnaw the blocks of meat, which were as cold as if they'd come from a freezer. On a clear day like this, temperatures rarely got above zero Fahrenheit, even near the sea.
The hut door opened and a beam of yellow light from one of the paraffin lamps lit the snow. A third man joined them.
"Hello, Chey. Any news?" The regular radio schedule with the Falkland Islands was due.
"That you, Doc?" Chey peered in the gloom. The big black beard was unmistakable.
"What's up?" It must be something serious to bring the radio operator out of his warm shack to find them.
"I wanted to catch you two alone. There's a message you ought to see."
"What, an official message?" As base leader, Hamish was as close to authority as anyone for a thousand miles.
"No - its personal. A 'Dear John' letter."
"Oh shit! Who for?"
"Come on!" Hamish led the way back to the hut. "Let's have a look before I break the bad news." He turned to the radio operator. "Chey, go and dig up a couple of bottles of whisky - we're all going to need cheering up and Ian might want to get drunk."
The three of them packed into the little room that served as base office and radio shack. Even without their outdoor clothes they were bulky in heavy sweaters and thick trousers stuffed into boots. The bottles of whisky stood on the table, white with frost.
Hamish read the pencilled telegram that Chey had written down from Morse code, crackling over a thousand miles from the Falkland Islands - the final leg in the relay from England.
"Dear Ian," he read. "You will be surprised to hear that I am to be married. I have known Dave for several months and we have fallen in love. I am sure that you will release me from our engagement when you know how happy Dave and I are. I hope you are well and enjoying your time down South. Kind regards, Marion."
They sat in silence for a while. Doc got up and beckoned to Chey. They picked up the frozen whisky bottles with care. There was no point in getting frostbitten fingers. "Come on. We'll send the victim in to read his fate. At least she didn't maunder on."
"The cost of telegrams puts them off," Chey was cynical. "You'd think women would use a bit of imagination. These telegrams are always the same. I don't suppose they realise how many people read them on the way."
"They probably imagine they're the only ones it happens to," Hamish mused. "Don't be too hard on Marion. I met her once. She was only nineteen. I don't expect she'd any idea what it meant to wait for three years."
Hamish sat waiting for his friend, thinking about Emma. She'd been wise enough to know her limitations.
Ian took it well. Three tots of whisky stiffened him and ribald comments from the other two men who had suffered the same fate consoled him. He even volunteered for the final, purging ritual.
All twelve men were out on the shore, muffled in windproof clothes, breath steaming in the torchlight. Marion had been led out and propped against a boulder. Hamish warily slid three cartridges into the old revolver and gave it to the jilted lover. Alcohol, darkness and live ammunition were a lethal mixture, but the ritual was hallowed. The first bullet vanished without trace. The second ricocheted alarmingly off the rock a foot from Marion's head. Ian took a few paces forward and winged the girl with his final shot.
Hamish took the revolver. "Honour's satisfied," he said. "We can't spare any more ammunition." The gun provided a merciful end for suffering dogs.
Ian retrieved the shattered photograph and examined his handiwork. Marion still smiled despite the hole in the frame.
"Sod it!" Ian observed, but Hamish didn't know whether he meant his marksmanship or Marion's faithlessness.
"He took it well." Hamish poured them each another tot of brandy from the medical stores. The office and radio shack was also the surgery - the one private place where he could talk to the Doc.
"They usually do. Not much choice is there?" Doc was pensive.
"Do you worry about Annie?"
"What?" Doc grinned. "Her dumping me for someone else? No. We've been married six years and the two girls keep her settled. But its times like this I miss her - and them! At least I'm only here for a year, not like you daft buggers, down for three."
They sat quietly for a while; content that Ian's crisis had been resolved, like a hundred others. When there was trouble they had no resources but their own.
"How long's gestation?"
"Nine weeks," Doc's answer was pat.
Hamish smiled. Most of the patients here were dogs.
"You don't need to know. There isn't a woman for a thousand miles and you've been away from any for so long that it can't matter now."
"Forty weeks. But two weeks either way is normal term." Doc was suddenly alert. "Why do you want to know?"
Hamish unlocked the filing cabinet and took out the photograph. Doc looked at it with appreciation for a while, then turned it over.
"Ah! I see." He turned it back and studied the girl and baby again. "Forty plus or minus two doesn't help much, does it? I see from the ring that she's a married woman. But if you're counting weeks then there must be a possibility?"
"I've misjudged you, Hamish," Doc grinned. "You're a better bloke than I thought."
"What? Because I once took advantage of Emma?"
"No, because you never boasted about it. I used to think you were a cold fish, entirely dedicated to your career. But maybe there's hope for you after all."
The church had been so full that Hamish had not tried to get inside. The first time he caught a glimpse of Emma was when she followed the coffin to the grave. A small veil concealed her face and her hair was shorter, but the body looked disturbingly unchanged by thirty years. He stayed half-hidden against the church wall while the obsequies were carried out at the graveside.
Arthur's obituary in the Times had been the spur for his presence, but he had no idea how he was to get a moment with Emma. He only knew that he had to see her.
His hip was painful with standing and he found a seat on the lid of a lichen-covered monument. From there he could see in the distance the back of Emma's house, and the gate through which he'd escaped after their last fleeting farewell. The sun was warm and he felt content to wait upon events.
"Are you Hamish?" The child's silvery hair reminded him of Emma's, long ago. She was a beautiful thing, about six or seven years old, half buried in a coat for mourning.
"That's me." He clambered down and bowed.
She curtsied back and grinned. "I'm Jennifer," she disclosed. "Grandma sent me to make sure you came back to the house. There's lot's to eat."
"Thank you." A possibility stunned him. "Who's your daddy?"
She stood on tiptoe to find him among the crowd. A crowd besieged the tall figure that she pointed out.
"What's your daddy's name?"
She was puzzled for a moment, but then she understood and offered, "He's called Michael Frith."
He wanted to take her in his arms - but then, she might not be his granddaughter.
"I've seen your picture in the papers. Grandma has a book with cuttings in it."
"Are there many pictures?" It was flattering to think that Emma had followed his career. But he felt guilty too. Although he'd often thought of her, he'd never tried to find out what she was doing.
"Lots. She says you've been everywhere in the world."
He smiled at her. "Quite a few places."
"Will you tell me about them?"
He was touched. "If you want."
"They're going now. If you come with me we can cut through the fields to the house."
He hesitated, gauging the distance.
"You had an accident." She was sympathetic as he limped alongside her. "It was on television."
It had been a dramatic three-day wonder when he had smashed his thigh and been rescued from the mountain in the full glare of television. The news had gone by satellite link, but his broken body had taken two weeks to get to hospital and they had taken three months to bolt him back together. Now his adventuring days were over and he could barely keep up with a little girl in a walk across a meadow
The house was crowded and he tried to make himself invisible, nursing a drink and hoping for a glimpse of Emma. It was difficult not to overhear conversations.
"Arthur died of a heart attack in bed with one of his mistresses."
"Emma's taking it very well."
"Glad to be shut of the old goat, I expect. He led her a merry dance. I don't know why she stayed."
"All the money was his."
"He used to spend a fortune on his other women. She deserves all she can get."
"Grandma's in the study. She'd like to talk to you." Jennifer startled him with a small hot hand in his. She led him through the multitudes of relatives and friends, across the tiles of the hall and into a quiet panelled room.
Emma was alone. "Thank you, Jenny. Will you go and find your daddy? Tell him where we are."
The torrent of emotion left Hamish weak. It was impossible that he could feel like this after thirty years, but in this light she seemed unchanged.
"You've cut your hair."
She smiled and touched the grey curls that fell against her shoulders. "Arthur liked me to be tidy. It was easier this way."
Sunlight flooded through the window as a cloud passed. He saw her blink, and screw her eyes against the light.
"I'm glad you didn't keep away. We've got a lot to catch up on, haven't we?"
"I felt I ought to come." He grinned at her.
"Your bloody duty, I suppose," she teased him, smiling. He was delighted that she remembered their last conversation as well as he did.
"I still love you."
"And now you can't go away," she indicated his leg. "Sit down."
He sat in the settee opposite her chair.