The Crime Readers' Association

The Last Page, by Paul A. Freeman

British Antarctic Territory, 1963.

 

Professors Ronaldson and Scoot stood on a barren, windswept outcrop where the Antarctic landmass met the South Atlantic Ocean. An albatross was making its lumbering way across the sky, and in the bay a killer whale surfaced, taking a breather from its hunt for seals and penguins. The two professors showed little interest in the wondrous wildlife of the southern seas, however. They were looking on with stiff upper lips as the ice breaker Amelia sailed away, carrying with it the departing members of the British Antarctic Survey Team.

“It’s going to get bloody lonely out here,” said Professor Ronaldson, stating the obvious. He stamped his feet, blew on his gloved hands and gave a final, carefree wave to his colleagues on the ship. “No turning back now, though.”

Professor Scoot shrugged. “It’ll only be for four months; and we’ve got plenty to entertain us through the winter.”

Yet as the scientists returned to the sprawl of wooden huts that comprised their Antarctic base camp, Scoot’s nonchalant words rang hollow. Months of unending night and isolation lay before them, with only each other for company. In addition to this, all they really had in common was that they had drawn the short straws to stay behind and keep the scientific station ticking over.

After just a single night the accommodation hut assigned to the two men was already succumbing to their incompatible personalities. For example, the spotlessly tidy Professor Ronaldson’s desk was as neat as a pin. The writing implements on his desktop were arranged regimentally inside his Cambridge University pencil box, and his papers were stacked in an orderly pile. His bed was shipshape, too, the sheets and blankets folded tightly under the mattress, the upper surface smoothed down.

The desk and bed on Scoot’s side of the cramped cabin, on the other hand, were in chaos. His desktop was strewn with stationery, pens and pencils, and his bed was unmade. The sheets and blankets had been pulled back and hung loosely over the sides of the bed.

“We’d better start boarding up the hut windows,” Ronaldson suggested, the morning after the Amelia weighed anchor. “The winter blizzards will be starting soon.”

Scoot was lounging on his bed, reading an adult magazine, turning the pages this way and that to get a better view. “That job can wait a week or two,” he protested. “Let’s enjoy what little natural light we’ve got left before the nights draw in?”

Frowning at his recalcitrant colleague, Ronaldson explained, as if talking to a child, “In a week or two it’ll be a lot colder, and we’ll need torches to see what we’re doing. I’m not going to freeze my bottom off nailing boards over windows when it’s forty degrees below outside and utterly dark.”

“Then board up the windows on your half of the hut and be done with it,” said Scoot with a dismissive wave of the hand.

Fuming, Ronaldson stuffed his coat pockets with nails, picked up a hammer and an armload of planks, and exchanged the wood-stove-warmth of the hut for the frosty Antarctic morning. Yet just to make sure Scoot knew how miffed he was, Ronaldson left the door wide open to the elements. Seconds later he heard the satisfying sound of the door slamming shut, followed by a string of curses.

Once Ronaldson had finished boarding up those windows on his side of the building, he trudged through falling snow to the front of the hut. There he discovered the front door had been bolted from the inside. He gave a polite knock, received no response and resorted to loud rapping.

Scoot’s smirking face appeared at one of the uncovered windows. He puffed out his cheeks and ran a hand across his forehead as if removing a film of sweat from his brow. “It’s damnably hot in here, old boy,” he gasped, pretending to be overwhelmed by heat.

“Stop messing around and open the bloody door.”

“Temper! Temper!” There was the sound of the bolt swivelling up and down, but the door remained closed. “Seems to be stuck,” Scoot said, apologetically.

“I told you to stop messing around,” Ronaldson yelled.

“Tut! Tut! Now you’ll have to say ‘pretty please’ before I let you in.”

“Pretty please,” he hissed through gritted teeth.

Eventually, apparently after much consideration, Scoot relented and drew back the bolt.

Without a word, Ronaldson marched into the hut. He strode over to the dartboard which the expedition members used for recreation and picked up a stick of chalk from beneath the scoreboard. Crouching down, he drew a line along the middle of the wooden floor. Then, indicating the area of the hut where his own bed lay, Ronaldson informed Scoot, “From now on that’s my half of the cabin. You don’t stray onto my side, and I won’t stray onto your side. That way we won’t have to exchange one word more than necessary over the winter.”

“Fine by me,” said Scoot, lying back on his bed and returning to his magazine.

The cocoon of splendid isolation that the two men had agreed on wasn’t to be so easily realised though, for there were still shared amenities to be taken into account, such as the latrine and the cooking area around the wood stove. Ronaldson solved this problem by chalking out narrow pathways through each man’s ‘territory’ – routes that were not to be strayed from.

Then there were duty rosters to be drawn up and pinned to the inside of the hut door. Again, Ronaldson took charge of this task and produced four months’ worth of work schedules, enough to last through the whole winter.

According to the rosters, on alternate days each man was to clear snow from the path leading to the weather station where he was to check wind speed and air temperature before logging the results. Separate schedules were also made for collecting firewood from the woodpile and for melting snow on the stove so they had enough water for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene. There were specific times designated for each man to cook his meals, too, and there was even a sleeping rota to help minimize the number of hours they were simultaneously awake and in conscious proximity of one another.

Gradually life settled down to a rhythm of unsociable monotony, with the professors living separate, yet parallel lives. In fact, in those early days the only occasion when the men nearly came to blows was when Professor Scoot nailed boards to the windows on the outside of his half of the hut while Professor Ronaldson was taking his assigned sleep period.

On Scoot’s return, Ronaldson looked down his nose at the other man. “You’re bloody childish,” he commented.

Scoot glared, balled his hands into fists, but controlled his temper. Instead of resorting to a shouting match or to violence, he retreated sulkily to his bed with a bottle of rum and his cache of adult literature.

As the days drew in and the nights grew longer, hours of daily sunlight turned to minutes. Around the remote Antarctic base the bay froze over and the penguins, seals and whales moved away to find shelter or warmer waters. Every time the men who had remained behind came out of their cramped hut to collect data from the weather station, the world was a colder, darker, more lifeless place. Eventually, even the briefest moments of twilight disappeared and the South Pole became wrapped in perpetual night.

Of the two professors, only Ronaldson managed to keep up any appearance of normalcy. Every day he washed himself from head to toe with just a bucketful of warm water, shaved, and combed his hair. Scoot, by contrast, became more dishevelled and more withdrawn as winter progressed. With civilization several thousand miles away he gave up any pretence at making himself presentable. His scraggy beard was never trimmed, his hair grew into tangled knots and an unpleasant odour emanated from his unwashed body.

Professor Scoot’s physical and mental decline boosted Ronaldson’s smug sense of his own superiority, and he caught himself more than once grinning satisfactorily at the other’s deterioration. Even so, Ronaldson realised that all that was keeping him from the abyss of mental instability was a trunk full of reading books that stood in the middle of the divided room.

Designated a communal area of the hut, the book box was the pooled literature of a decade of expedition members. Volume by volume Ronaldson was working his way through the contents of the book box. By the light of a kerosene lamp he had read scores of Agatha Christies, several Graeme Greenes, the complete Sherlock Holmes and numerous tomes by Dickens. However, he had soon finished the greater works of literature and was forced to move on to more pedestrian books by less accomplished authors.

Midway through the third month of their four-month ordeal, with a blizzard blowing outside and the frigid wind whistling round the hut, Ronaldson was nearing the end of a murder mystery titled The Devil’s Detective. The book had belonged to Professor McIlton, the expedition’s zoologist. The front cover showed a pistol-packing private investigator dressed in trench coat and trilby, yet sporting devil’s horns and a forked tail.

The tacky cover picture had discouraged everyone. None of the expedition members had bothered opening the cheap paperback. However, much to his surprise, Professor Ronaldson found himself quite enjoying The Devil’s Detective, and it was with bated breath that he turned to the final page, only to discover it was missing.

Disappointment quickly became anger as Ronaldson tried to figure out what could have happened to the page. He turned his furious gaze on his scruffy roommate, who, as usual, was drunk on rum.

“You removed the last page from my bloody book. How low can you get, you malicious swine?”

Scoot scrutinized his colleague through red-rimmed, unfocused eyes. “Firstly, old boy, that ain’t your book. It’s McIlton’s. And secondly, I didn’t remove any pages from it, you ignoramus.”

“How dare you call me an ignoramus? I have a PhD from Cambridge – not from some provincial college.”

“And how dare you call me a malicious swine, you jumped up, pompous ass?” Professor Scoot struggled from his bed and stumbled towards Ronaldson, his rum bottle raised threateningly.

Leaping to his feet, Ronaldson ran to the door and grabbed the snow shovel standing beside it. “Stay back!” he warned, making lunging motions with his impromptu weapon.

“You haven’t got the guts,” laughed Scoot, swinging the rum bottle about his head like a slingshot.

Fearing for his life, Ronaldson raised the snow shovel. Then, closing his eyes, he brought it down in one swift movement, caving in the skull of his inebriated colleague.

For a full twenty-four hours, Professor Ronaldson sat on his bed trying to come to terms with what he had done, trying to understand the circumstances under which a mild-mannered academic had become a murderer. Occasionally he glanced sideways at Scoot (who lay on the floor in a pool of congealed blood) and shivered.

What will happen when the Amelia returns at the beginning of spring? Ronaldson wondered. I’ll be taken home in shackles – in disgrace!

Finally he decided on his best course of action. Eschewing winter clothing, he opened the door to the hut and stepped out into the blizzard that was raging outside.

A fortnight later the icebreaker Amelia pushed her way through the pack ice and into the bay. The expedition’s climatologist leaned over the bow rail, searching the base camp for signs of their colleagues.

“I hope they haven’t been too bored over the winter.”

“I’m sure they haven’t,” said Professor McIlton. “They had a trunk-load of books to read. Mind you, I hope they didn’t try reading that awful book I left behind The Devil’s Detective.”

“Why not?”

“Well, while I was in England, the book club sent me a replacement copy. Apparently the original print run had the last page missing.”

 

ENDS

 



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