From The Ice
Photograph by Davide Monteleone, Story by Kieran Toms
Now she was here, in more temperate climes. Pushing the pram, a sky crowded with clouds, a park framed by close little houses. A plane overhead glinting down a ray of hidden sun, like there was a little kid on there playing with his watch, the way little kids play with their watches, getting the glint of the sun to catch on someone's eye.
That night she put the boy to bed, read him the picture book about a polar bear.
Sometimes she made up new versions, but he'd started to know it by heart, each word, each intonation, and to complain when she deviated. Sometimes that played on her mind. Was she not showing him enough of the possibility of the world? Was she raising a boy who wanted nothing to change? And then she thought, well he isn’t even three yet.
Checked her email. Nothing.
She ran a bath. Lay back in the bubbles. Darkness behind the window, so the dripping steam on it stood out like trickling sweat, like something important was leaking in or out. The boy was quiet tonight.
A while since she’d had a slow bath. Since she had a moment to think. She gazed down at her body. Sometimes it felt like the body of someone else - someone older. But no - it was how old she was.
She thought: they’d have told me by now if it was a yes wouldn’t they. A couple of years off from academia and the funding dries up.
The book about polar bears made her think about polar bears. About the way the white bubbles in this bath were popping. About the way the bed had creaked when the boy was being made. The way the ice around them then had creaked and cracked. Because it was melting, they said. Everyone said. Everyone knew.
One night, out there, a polar bear happened upon their little base camp set up by the side of the big old half-sunken boat. It was hungry, ragged, desperate. Got too close, set off the alarm. The first shot missed, the second didn't. By morning the red blood was dirty brown on its body and diluted pink on the ice.
It was that night, in the excitement of it all.
She knew that these things happened there, in close proximity. Not enough context for decision making. Dark nights and dazzling days. You could either choose the darkness, go a little mad, lose yourself out there – she’d seen it happen - or you chose the light, saw the good in people. That's what she always did. And he wasn’t an awful man, she supposed. But still.
There were different kinds of ice within and around the boat. The ice that first encased it. The water on board, since frozen. And the ice that came later. Comparing the composition of the three made a modest but meaningful contribution to climate science.
Her last expedition, her last adventure. For now, she always had to add to herself. For now. Not that the boy wasn't an adventure of his own.
And the father, well they'd made a little token go of it, the two of them, back on solid earth. The supermarkets, the takeaways, the boxsets. But he was always drawn away, not so attached somehow. Like it was her baby, not their baby. Like she wasn’t drawn too.
The boat had been breaking up as the ice got unreliable. They’d had to go before it all got mixed up.
The father still saw her and the boy, sometimes. When he was around. Had got himself on another ice core trip now apparently. Looking for more proof of how we have messed it all up.
That trip was a great success, otherwise. Significant findings. Or so she’d thought. It wasn’t just ice. But maybe she was biased. Maybe this application shouldn’t have focused so much on those results.
Difficult now, sometimes. The boy was not a burden, no - she'd said to the man, after he’d been deliberately misunderstanding her, misrepresenting her - the boy is not a burden. But difficult now sometimes.
People would ask, what was it like there, out on the ice?
She said it was never clear if we were stuck or if we were safe, if it was madness or if it was perfect tranquillity. Everything stripped back to its essentials. She thought that nobody would know what she meant. That kind of experience. Everyone asked about it but they never would know what it meant.
Out the bath, towelled, dripping. Looking in on him. Eyes closed, but head lifted up a little, like he was looking forward, like in his dream he was gazing out over some great vista - the park maybe, or a great white polar expanse.
The next morning – an email.
The funding had been granted. Some international travel. Not as remote as the ship, but exciting. Maybe she could bring the boy. She could leave him with his grandparents. She’d work it out.
The next afternoon – the park again. The boy clambering, running, laughing - always laughing. The sky overhead a little bigger for him. Bigger for her today.
That night – the story again. She said, “Do you know what polar bears like to eat?”
He said, “No.”
And she said “. . . little boys!” And tickled him and he squealed and giggled and wriggled.
She calmed him down, a little kiss.
She said, “Mummy has seen a polar bear.”
His eyes widened, as they always did.
“Out on the ice. I lived on the ice. It was very cold. But it was very beautiful.”
His eyes widened further somehow.
And she didn't tell him about the body of the polar bear, or the way the ice creaked as it melted.
She said “Shall we go one day, to see the polar bears? Go to the Arctic?”
And he said “yes,” and she said “that's great, then we will. That's a promise.” And it was, she thought.
Kieran Toms lives, works, and writes in London. He came second in the Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story prize in 2020, and his short story, "To Those Born later" is published in their anthology. You can find him here.
Davide Monteleone is a photographer, researcher, and National Geographic Fellow whose work spans image-making, visual journalism, writing, and other disciplines. Reoccurring themes include geopolitics, geography, identity, data, and technology. A regular contributor to magazines such as Time, National Geographic, and The New Yorker, Davide Monteleone's work has been presented in the form of exhibitions and installations in galleries and museums, including at the Saatchi Gallery in London the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo the MEP in Paris, Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome and other venues. You can find out more about David and see more of his work here.