Then the siren sounded out in long blasts, the propellor churned the water and she was away. A nearby harbour tug blew her a rousing farewell and more and more sirens sounded their good wishes. Black smoke belched from her funnel and as she moved out into the stream we could see clearly all the things lashed to her decks. Boats. Canoes. Drums of gasoline. All sorts of queer-shaped things covered with tarpaulins.
Ian and I watched her manoeuvre into midstream and then head out of the harbour, the white pennant of the Royal Mail slapping in the wind at the top of her mast. Down river, the Canadian navy, in the form of two destroyers, dipped flags in salute as she steamed by. Just beside me somebody's friend had forgotten a last message, bawling out 'Happy Christmas' in the forlorn hope of being heard on the ship. We began to understand why they had told us that to think about the Arctic without thinking about the Hudson's Bay Company was like writing a book about sea without mentioning ships.
A few days after the departure of the Nascopie, the remaining five of us set off quietly for the docks, taking with us all our worldly possessions. By ten o'clock that morning we were assembled in a rather gloomy shed at the city end of the wharf, where the van had unloaded us. The ship on which we were to take passage, the Ungava, was alongside the far end of the wharf, so we had a fair way to go with all our baggage.
One of our party could hardly move, so heavily laden was he with cases and packages, and his crab-like motion attracted the attention of a passing wharfie.
'Why didn't you bring your bed, boy?' the man guffawed. 'Where the devil are you off to with all that load?'
'I'm going north for five years,' came a voice from behind the parcels and cases.
'Well in five years' time you'll either be dead or carrying twice that much on one shoulder,' shouted the man amid his laughter as he went on his way to the dock gates.
There was no glamour attached to the departure of the Ungava.
She was just a rather rusty old freighter, and an ugly one at that, setting off on a more or less routine passage along the Labrador coast. She was heavily laden. Her well decks were completely filled in with drums of oil, so that care had to be taken when passing across them to avoid falling overboard.
There was no one to see us off, apart from a couple of officials from the office, so without any fuss or palaver, about an hour after we had come aboard, the crew cast off the lines and, belching black smoke, like the Nascopie we set off down the river.
The old ship had no licence to carry passengers. We had had to sign on as crew, deckhands, stewards, stokers and the like at a token wage of one dollar per week. I was allocated to a job as 'assistant purser', which did not please some of the others, for they considered it to be a cushy task compared to theirs. As it turned out that I had laboriously to type out page after page of bills of lading while they had little to do after a slight scurry of activity in the mornings, they were quite pleased.
Ian and I went out on deck that first evening, making our way perilously over the oil barrels to a space on the stern, from where we could watch the muddy waters stirred up by the propellor and the coastline dropping behind us. We were somewhere between the two cities of Montreal and Quebec, the former just a distant glow on the horizon, the latter not yet visible. Above the hills, the summer lightning forked and flashed and the thunder rumbled distantly. A few lights twinkled on both shores. A small township, stretched along the bank of the great river, drifted by and dwindled into the distance.
We did not speak much. I think we both realized at last that before long the lights of our accustomed world would have faded behind us. Ahead would stretch the vast empty wilderness of the Arctic to which we had so lightheartedly committed ourselves.
Copyright © 1995-2004 by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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