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Sport 20: Autumn 1998

Laurence Fearnley — The Piper and the Penguin

page 71

Laurence Fearnley

The Piper and the Penguin

The cassette tape silenced their relationship. And the relationship dissolved quietly, as if it was no more than a teaspoon of sugar stirred into a mug of warm tea. But the relationship was silent. That was the whole point. The tape was silent and with time, not long, the relationship, too, became silent.

The tape wasn't the beginning. First there had been the photographs. The photographs were also silent of course, but that didn't matter.

The photographs were interesting for other reasons. And by the time she opened the third letter, Kathleen had already made the connection. The photographs, or photocopied images of photographs, were linked by a reference to sound. They were images of sound. Only the tape had confused her, and she admitted she had been stupid not to make the association. She thought Max had made a mistake, that perhaps he had inserted the wrong cassette into the package, that somehow he had become confused. He was often confused or, at least, self-absorbed. But not when it came to sound. Then, as a composer, he was without fault. That was why he was down there, in the Antarctic, as New Zealand's first Antarctic Composer in Residence. And that was why Kathleen had been surprised to receive the blank tape.

Kathleen remembered the question Max had asked her when they first met:

—If a tree falls over in a Siberian forest and nobody is there to hear it, can it be said that the tree makes a sound?

Her answer was always the same. It came quickly:

—Of course. Sound doesn't need a human ear in order to exist.

But Max wasn't so sure. And late at night when Kathleen watched him standing alone on the verandah staring into space, she knew he was still trying to find an answer to the question. But now he might page 72 find that answer. Not in the forests of Siberia, but in the frozen interior of the Antarctic.

But first came the photographs. Five of them, and then, finally, the tape. What was the difference between a blank tape and a silent tape? The difference, Kathleen learned, was that Max could sit and listen to a silent tape for hours, then days on end, until at last that was all he did. He sat and listened to a tape of nothing. By contrast, the sound of the tape coming to an end, being taken from the tape machine, turned, reinserted and started came like an explosion in an otherwise silent world.

If the circumstances had been different Kathleen might have laughed. Indeed, she might have tried to snap Max out of his growing fixation. She might have swapped the silent tape for a blank tape. Could he tell the difference? But she respected him too much to play such a trick. She might have taped over the cassette, replacing the silence with any number of popular songs recorded from the radio, but, in the end, she couldn't.

Instead she listened to the room where Max sat hour after hour listening to silence. She thought her ears would break with the attempt to hear something. A breath, a footstep in the snow, the wind against the microphone, but there was nothing for Kathleen to hear. She had listened to the tape herself. Her fingers had automatically adjusted and then readjusted the volume as her ears strained to detect a sound where none was present. And then a taxi had pulled up outside her neighbour's house, a horn had sounded, two short quick bursts, and she suddenly became aware of her surroundings. Sitting in a hibiscus-warm street in Ponsonby, Kathleen was listening to nothing while the rest of the city was moving, regenerating, buzzing, alive. Someone must be playing a cruel joke on her.

That was what the photographs had started out as. Jokes. But the photographs were heavy with the intimacy of a private joke. Silent images of captured noise. Riddles which became increasingly obscure as Max's twelve-week absence collected red penned crosses on the calender.

The first photograph was easy. Sent before he left the country, the postmark clearly marked with the city, Christchurch, and the page 73 date, 24 November. It was already summer and there, in front of Kathleen, was an image of a man in a kilt standing against a white background of snow, bagpipes drawn to his lips, his audience a single, tuxedo-suited penguin. The penguin's head was tilted back, reminding Kathleen not of a penguin, not of a bird at all, but of a dog about to howl. Max must have found the photo during one of his trips to the public library. He must also have known that Kathleen would make her way to the library, find the Antarctic section and leaf through the pages of countless books until she uncovered this particular photo. What Kathleen hadn't known was that the book, a book with a return date of 12 November and before that, a date stamp of 6 September 1981, would also contain a small slip of paper on which was written: —I knew you'd come looking…I love you.

It was Max's writing and Kathleen's instant response was to leaf through the pages of the other books on the shelf in case they, too, carried messages of love. The other books were empty save for the remains of a tattered supermarket receipt which someone had used as a bookmark.

But there was the photograph and the caption beneath the image which read: OFF COATS LAND.
The piper and the penguin.
Kathleen had found the photograph before reading the title of the book. It was a dark book, thick, filled with yellowed newsprint pages. The book was called A Naturalist at the Poles and was written by R.N. Rudmose Brown. Rudmose. The name Rudmose. Kathleen's curiosity wasn't enough to make her read the book. Instead she scanned the words printed on the title page: Scottish National Antarctic Expedition…1902-04…Dr W.S. Bruce…Modern Whaling and Bear Hunting…Whaling and bear hunting, Scottish and Antarctic. Words and images gathered in her head, their grouping as eccentric as the photograph of the Piper and the Penguin itself.

The photograph belonged to the chapter headed ‘Plans for the Scotia Expedition’. Kathleen skimmed through the pages, her glance momentarily arrested by the words: ‘Among ice he used to tell the engineer: “When I ring dead slow, dinna gang dead slow but slower.”’ page 74 Dinna gang dead slow but slower. She loved the sound of the words and repeated them out loud before carrying on with her search for information relating to the photographs. On the next page, page 114, she saw the name Rudmose. Rudmose Brown: botanist and invertebrate zoologist. And then, at the bottom of the page, Kathleen found the information she needed:

‘The pipes of the Scotia had an honoured career. After their return from the Antarctic they sounded often in the fjords and glens of Spitsbergen. In the early months of the war, Bruce lent them to the 15th Battalion of the Royal Scots… The Battalion was in action in the big attack on the Somme on July 1, 1916. Pipe Major-Sargeant Anderson carried the pipes and was playing them when he was severely wounded. At the time he was reported killed, but fortunately this was not so. The pipes were lost on the field of action….’

Bruce's expedition left Scotland in 1902. The date for departure had been delayed and at a final dinner given to the officers and staff, someone called Murray had given a farewell speech, saying: ‘You are to do battle with the fiercest forces of nature in the most forbidding region that our planet affords. I hope you will emerge victoriously.’

Kathleen smiled as she read the words. A vision of Max dressed for an Antarctic battlefield flashed by as she returned the book to the shelf. And then, because she still wasn't sure where the expedition had gone, she lifted the book once more from its place and flicked through the pages until stopped by the words Weddell Sea and below them: ‘Too much imagination in such undertakings is a disqualifying trait.’

The words made Kathleen feel uneasy. The comical image of the piper and the penguin was replaced by a vision of Max standing in front of the house. His head was titled to face the night sky and he was listening, as if to a sound so distant it might well have been from the stars themselves.

Kathleen's sense of unease was increased later that evening. Picking up a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to the Antarctic, she searched for more information about the Bruce Expedition. On page thirty she read: ‘A remarkable series of photographs, documenting the first known use of bagpipes in the Far South, shows an emperor penguin, head thrown back and beak agape, being serenaded by a kilted piper. Although an observer noted “only sleepy indifference”, page 75 some of the photos show that the bird had to be tied by a line to prevent its escape.’

Kathleen looked at the photograph once more before fixing it to the fridge door by a plastic-coated magnet. She couldn't imagine the playing of the bagpipes in such a cold climate. She imagined that the notes from the pipes would freeze in the air and then fall shattered to the ground like small shards of broken glass. Kathleen believed that sound must be distorted, unreal, in such an empty and cold environment. There was no reason for her belief, it was merely a feeling she had, and yet, somewhere in Max's notebook she remembered a reference to sound. Was it during Scott's trip that someone had written it was possible to hear voices as far away as two miles? Or was it ten miles? Or thirty? She couldn't remember the details.

Max had begun his ‘Sound Notebook’ on the day he heard he was to go to the Ice. At first, mindful of Kathleen's own unsuccessful application, he had kept the notebook to himself. Their letters of notification had arrived in the same post: his bulky with information and details for the next stage in the process, hers limp with the single typed page informing her of her failed application. A postscript, handwritten at the bottom of the page, wished her luck with her forthcoming exhibition. Kathleen was pleased for Max. It seemed he hadn't had much luck recently and her own appointment to the Sculpture department at the University of Auckland had done nothing for his failing confidence.

Filled with cuttings and accounts gathered from sources as varied as National Geographic magazines, diaries and letters, the notebook had brought Max a sense of purpose during the months leading up to his departure. Kathleen could remember Max's smiling face as he told her of Joseph Banks' refusal to join Cook's Resolution expedition south. Banks felt there was insufficient accommodation for himself and his entourage of thirteen men, two of whom were French horn players employed by Banks to provide entertainment throughout the long months at sea.

Upon opening the pages of the book, Kathleen had half-expected to hear a faint noise, a musical line, or perhaps the penetrating animal-like call of the French horn, as if the book itself should offer page 76 up sounds, become a notebook rather than a recording only of words. However, the book had remained silent and for the first time since Max's departure, the house too seemed silent and remote as Kathleen turned out the light and lay on the bed.

The second, third and fourth letters arrived together, seven weeks after Max's departure. Kathleen took the letters from the postbox and looked carefully at each envelope, running the smooth paper in her fingers as if expecting the letters to be frozen, or cold, as if recently released from a supermarket coolstore. The letters did not melt in her hands but were laid out carefully on her studio workbench, where, sitting like a box of unopened chocolates, they waited while she continued to work on the carved sculpture she was to have completed in time for the opening of her exhibition. Kathleen made several trips to the desk, each time picking up one or more of the letters, noting again the circled number on the bottom left hand corner of each envelope, a number which indicated the order in which the letters should be read.

That evening, sitting alone on the verandah of her house, Kathleen opened the first of the three letters. The words were brief, note-like: Arrived Thursday. Ears still throbbing from the noise of the aeroplane's engines. An unpleasant reminder of the six-hour flight. Had to shout to make myself heard so I kept quiet and watched my fellow travellers. Apart from the noise I felt as if I had been sprung back in time to some nineteenth-century ocean crossing. Our bodies were rammed together-like those diagrams of the convict ships we saw in Sydney last year. You'll find out what it's like next year! I'm sharing a room in Q Hut with a couple of German scientists. They're here with a group from Waikato University. I tried to engage them in conversation but all they seem interested in is some bacteria found on the slopes of Mt Melbourne—wherever that is. I made some comment about Bach-teria but it went completely beyond them. Hopefully, I'll get out and make some recordings tomorrow though I'm not too sure how the equipment will stand the cold. I'll do my best. Miss you, Max. P.S. Thought you might like this.

page 77

Attached to the letter by a paper clip was a photograph of a group of men sitting in a crowded aeroplane cabin. Max sat closest to the camera, the back of his head and his ear the only features detailed in the slightly blurred image. It was typical of Max not to look at the camera. In fact Kathleen had often wondered if he saw anything at all. He seemed blind to his surroundings, as if he could only gather images through his ears.

Before opening the second of the three letters, Kathleen stepped inside the house to fetch a beer from the fridge. She held her hand within the fridge's cool mist, a faint chill seeping up her arm before the heavy fridge door swung shut.

She began to read the letter: Dear K, I lay in bed this morning and listened to the floorboards. This probably won't come as too great a surprise to you, you know me so well, but the floorboards here are unbelievably noisy. It's impossible to walk the length of the corridor without setting off a squeaking which rivals the bed in my parents' spare room. You must remember it! I think of that bed each time I hear the floor boards. I think I've managed to talk my way onto the Mt Melbourne trip. I can only go if there's room on the chopper so I won't know for sure until the last minute. It will be good to get out of Scott Base as I still haven't seen much of interest. My recording equipment seems to be holding up in these temperatures, though the batteries aren't all that good. Okay, that's all for now. I haven't taken any photos yet but I'll be sure to take my camera with me if I go on this trip. Love M.

Kathleen re-read the words ‘I still haven't seen much of interest’ and winced. It was now past nine and the street lights flickered on. At Scott Base it would still be daylight. And yet it would be cold. The cold and the light seemed strange companions, especially now as she sat in the warm, yellowed twilight, the heat from the wall of the house seeping through her shirt and touching her back.

Kathleen had intended to save the third letter for the following morning but, feeling irritated by Max's apparent lack of visual sensitivity, she picked up the envelope, ripping it open as if it was nothing more than a bill from Telecom. She skimmed the letter for page 78 information. Max had been included on the Waikato University trip to Mt Melbourne. The flight to the mountain had been extraordinary. The sound of the helicopter had done nothing to dampen the impression of the ice below, a shimmering marble-like surface which extended as far as the eye could see. And then the campsite on the slopes of the volcano, the view of the open sea gleaming in the distance, real water visible beyond the expanse of frozen desert.

Kathleen began to feel calmer as she read on. The scientists had worked late, taking samples from the volcanic soil while Max took sound recordings of the activity around him. He recorded the murmur of quite conversations, the wind as it moved through the tents and flags scattered around the campsite. The volcano, Max had discovered, was a site of Special Scientific Interest and to reduce the introduction of foreign micro-organisms to the area, boots and all equipment had had to be disinfected and special sterile suits worn. Max's letter continued to describe the day's activities which culminated with dinner, eaten at midnight, beneath a clear blue sky.

A photograph, ripped from a magazine, accompanied the letter. It contained an image of a campsite. Two tents were attached by long lengths of rope to a moving surface of spin drifted ice and snow.

On the second page, the letter continued: I was awakened after only a few hours sleep by the feeling of snow, hard, like sand, blowing against my face. Although our tent was closed, snow was getting in through the small gaps in the door's zip. Somehow I had managed to sleep despite the noise made by the wind as it ripped through our campsite. The wind made a sound unlike any I have heard before. It terrified me. I lay in my sleeping bag waiting for the tent to take off and fly through the air like something from the Wizard of Oz. It was as if the whole world was collapsing—anything that was not tied down was moving and yet the sky remained a clear, cloudless, blue. Although the sky seemed motionless, the ground shifted and disappeared beneath our feet in a wash of snow and ice. Our voices were instantly carried away by the wind and it was almost impossible to hear anyone speak. Fortunately there was someone with us who knew what to do as I was completely disorientated by the experience. The storm continued for the rest of the day and into the night, and finally, when it cleared sufficiently for the helicopter to fly, I almost lost my recordings in my haste to return to civilisation. As I write this, four days later, my knees page 79 are still tender and bruised from crawling repeatedly across the hard ground to rescue equipment which had blown away. At one point I narrowly missed being hit by a snow shovel as it flew past my head. Even Axel, who never shows any emotion, seemed somewhat shaken. He didn't respond when the chopper pilot made some joke about the gale force wind being worthy of a Wagnerian Opera. Being at Scott Base you tend not to notice how much space there is ‘out there’ and how small we are by comparison. It's difficult to describe to someone who hasn't been here to experience it, but it's as if there's some great distance separating me from the other people here—as if I'm suddenly alone. I don't know if that makes sense to you but I feel glad to be back in Q Hut listening to the floorboards again. Max. Kathleen spent the next week in the studio, only returning home late at night in order to wash and sleep before going back to the studio the following morning. In her pocket she carried Max's letter. The storm seemed to have shaken him and because of this she waited for his next letter with a growing sense of impatience.

A week passed, followed by a few more days, and eventually a letter arrived bearing a New Zealand stamp and posted from Wellington only the day before. The writing on the envelope had meant nothing to Kathleen and, as a consequence, she had not opened the letter immediately, but had waited until later that night when sitting at the kitchen table drinking a final cup of tea before going to bed. The writing, Kathleen was to discover, belonged to a Victoria University scientist. She had spent a few days with Max out in the field before returning to Wellington the previous weekend. The field referred to was not so much an undulating pasture of green grass as a vast expanse of broken ice and snow making up the Nimrod Glacier. This information was supplied by Max in a rather brief note which accompanied two photographs. The first photograph showed an iceberg, crudely carved and monolithic, floating in a millpond smooth sea. On the back of the photo Max had scrawled the words: It looks a bit like one of your sculptures. The second image contained Scott's last diary entry, a page from a yellowed notebook featuring the message ‘I do not think I can write more’, followed by the words ‘For God's sake look after our people’.

page 80

Max's letter made no mention of the photographs. Instead he wrote of the trip to the Nimrod glacier where, using radio-echo sounding equipment, the Victoria University team had been able to investigate the earth's crustal structure beneath the ice. How Max came to be with the group was not mentioned. The letter did, however, describe his day with the team: Imagine what it's like listening to the sound of the earth. That's what the equipment allowed me to do. It seemed as if I was able to listen to the core of the earth as it moved beneath the ice on which we stood. But even the sound of the earth was nothing compared to what I heard the following day. I was left completely alone for four hours. Four hours which will remain with me for the rest of my life. I heard a sound which has only ever existed in my deepest imagination…

And there, the letter trailed off. Kathleen turned the page, a page ripped from a music score, but there was nothing to indicate what had happened the next day. There were no more words. The two images came into focus. The iceberg and the page from the diary. Scott's last words.

The package containing the tape arrived two days before Max. Kathleen listened to the tape, but hearing nothing, assumed Max had made a mistake, had posted a blank cassette instead of the recording he had intended to send. She played both sides of the tape, adjusted the volume, and then went back to her work. She smiled as she worked, thinking ahead to Max's return and his embarrassed silence when he realised his mistake in sending the blank tape.

But Max listened to the tape. And as the days went by, and the night of Kathleen's exhibition opening drew nearer, it seemed as if the last-minute frenzy of her work had found its mirror opposite in the silent, brooding figure of Max. And days and weeks later, long after the exhibition had closed and curious friends had stopped dropping by for a cup of tea, Kathleen struggled to maintain some semblance of partnership with the withdrawn man who no longer spoke to her, or to any other visitor to the house. And finally, when there seemed no other option, Kathleen left the house and drove across the Harbour Bridge to the home of her parents. Then, silent before so many unspoken questions, she thought of Max, just fifty minutes away, preserved in his own frozen continent.