We had dinner in the canteen, at a wooden table and the chairs didn’t move. They were stuck to the floor somehow.
Mum was quiet, and my brother was quiet, and when we finished eating a man in a white uniform came over and said that the ship was going through the heads soon and that the forecast was for very rough seas. He was only looking at Mum when he spoke. He told her that it was advisable to get the children to bed as soon as possible.
My brother fell asleep quickly, his small body tucked in tight on the top bunk. But I lay awake, waiting for the rough seas. Waiting to see what they would feel like so far down. Flights and flights of stairs down from the canteen and from the windows that looked out to the sky. Down where we were, there were no windows. Down where we were, there were only fluoro lights and bunk beds. The bathroom was down the passage and Mum had left us. She was upstairs somewhere, upstairs above us where there was air and I wished that she would come back.
I must have fallen asleep because when I woke the whole world was rocking and shaking and I was rolling in my bed. Not just from side to side, but up and down as well. Mum’s bed was still made. She wasn’t there.
When I tried to get out of bed, I fell over and was sick on the floor. My brother was looking at me, his hands stuck fast around the railings of the bunk bed, his face white like death.
‘Where’s Mum?’ he asked, but I didn’t know.
He got down somehow, down from the bunk, and he didn’t fall. He stood holding on to the bed as the room turned over and over and he got a towel off Mum’s bed and put it over the vomit on the floor. He helped me up and in our pyjamas we made it out the door and into the hall. Together we fell against the walls as the ship lunged, and we slowly moved towards the stairs. Up and up, gripping the rail. Up to the deck where the canteen was.
There was hardly anyone around, only a few people sitting in the carpeted lounge, sitting with their heads in their hands. The canteen was empty and I couldn’t tell what time it was. Outside the windows it was dark.
Outside it was black.
Mum was sitting by herself on a bench attached to the wall of the ship under a perspex roof. We sat next to her, holding on to the bottom of the bench tightly.
Mum said that she would just have one more cigarette and then we could go inside. I looked at her white face and her white hands. She was always sitting places by herself in the night – always sitting by herself having one more cigarette.
I told her that I had been sick and she wiped my forehead and cheek and said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ It looked like she was crying. She said it was just the sea spray and the cold. And it was cold. It was freezing and windy, and the wind cut into your back like you had no skin at all. I could hear the water crack against the ship, feel it hit then hear the spray shoot up. Only I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see anything past the light cast out on the deck.
Out there the world was raging in the blackness. We were going to a new place.
We were sailing towards it in the night. An island in the middle of the sea.
An island that was made of stone.
It was only the ship that was keeping us safe. Only thin layers of steel and an engine pumping away in the dark were keeping us above the water, which would gladly swallow us all up like we had never ever been.
MRS WILSON’S B & B
We stayed in a B & B.
It was where we lived when we first arrived, after we got off the ferry and off the bus that drove through flat farming land and towns made of stones and old red bricks. Mum used the payphone at the bus terminal in Hobart. She rang a place that was advertised on the information board and made a reservation. Abbey House Bed and Breakfast.
I don’t think it was very far away but we had two big suitcases and my brother was tired, so we all got into a taxi that was waiting out the front of the bus station.
The taxi driver was a very big man. He was wearing a clean blue shirt and his buttons looked like they might pop open around his belly. He asked if it was our first time to ‘The Island’ and my brother said yes, but my mum said no. I sat in the back seat and tried to imagine Mum being here before, maybe with Dad or maybe when she was young with her parents, but I couldn’t see it. I didn’t know this place.
We weren’t in the taxi for long. We went up a steep hill and then around some curved streets and we were there. Battery Point. There were old houses, wooden houses, bare stone houses on the narrow streets, but they all seemed empty, deserted and nothing moved. The sky was grey.
We stopped on a corner by a sign that said Mona Street. ‘You will be able to walk to the market from here come Saturday,’ the taxi driver said. He got out of the car and helped Mum with our suitcases.
Mrs Wilson owned the B & B. She made my brother and me a cooked breakfast every morning and we ate it at the breakfast bar that looked out to the rose garden – a cottage garden. It was a cottage, the B & B, an old wooden cottage with a white picket fence and everything. It was just about the nicest place I had ever lived, except that we didn’t really live there. We were just staying there.
I liked staying there.
We stayed in a guestroom for a week and then we moved to a room at the back of the house that Mrs Wilson let us have for free. She told my mum that it was just until we got on our feet, until we got settled. I didn’t know what that really meant. Mrs Wilson still wanted to make my brother and me a cooked breakfast every morning, but Mum said we should just have cereal and be polite.
Mum found a house to rent three doors down on the same street about two weeks later. It was maybe the worst house in Battery Point. There were no other houses like it – dark and faded, set back in the shadows of the tall grand houses around it. Mum had to let out a room to afford the rent. The front room. The only nice room. My brother and I shared the attic, which had a slanting roof. It was okay except the wallpaper was peeling in parts near the ceiling and the only toilet was in the back garden. I didn’t like going down there in the dark, or even in the day much. But the garden had a huge walnut tree that our attic window looked out on, and when the walnuts were ripe my brother and I would stuff ourselves, eat them until our mouths were itchy and we could eat no more. Then we would smash fallen walnuts open and scatter them around the garden for the birds, for the forest ravens that were waiting in the tree.
But I missed the B & B, how warm it was there, how bright. And sometimes after school, when my brother and I walked home from the ferry, Mrs Wilson would be at her gate, and she’d call us in, tea and cakes waiting.
RUN, RUN – KELLY’S STEPS
The cold made it hard to breathe, burnt my chest – the stone and the concrete hard under my frozen feet.
I’d take my brother’s sleeve and pull him along the empty streets of Battery Point. Early, we’d walk quickly. Everything still like always – only us. Frost on the windows of parked cars, thick and opaque and stuck fast.
Mona Street, Francis Street, Hampden Road. At the end of Kelly Street there were steps down into darkness, the back of Salamanca all crumbled and decayed. Cuts in the quarry stone rounded, worn. A stone fortress, a gateway we had to pass.
Run, run – Kelly’s steps.
Some of the steps were bowed and stained, and the stains looked like old blood rusted orange with time. Blood soaked into the stone. We’d go down one step at a time as quickly as we could. Down, down, and we’d try not to look ahead into the dark lane. But at the bottom, in the cold cobbled shadows, ghosts would claw at our clothes, try to grab hold of our hair, whisper in the echo of the stone.
Can you help me? Can you see me? Don’t leave me here.
I’d pull my brother’s hand hard, and we’d run and run, not even breathe, until we were through. Until we were on the other side.
The open sky.
An avenue of elm trees, the wharf beyond.
We’d slow down, catch our breath, walk out across Salamanca Place. Out along the grass and under the trees, across the road to the long wooden jetty where we’d stand and wait for the ferry to come. We’d hardly talk. We’d just wait.
We’d try not to think about Kelly’s steps, about how the dead pressed up against our skin in that dark place.
THERE WAS A MAN
The rain came down.
I had my japara on, the hood covering my head and my hands tucked up inside. It was too big for me, the japara, but still the heavy black material kept most of the rain out. My brother was sick, at home. He’d been coughing in the night and was probably on the couch under his doona watching TV, waiting for Mum to get up. It was really cold in that old house in Battery Point and there was no heater.
I didn’t want to go to school. I thought about going home to look after my brother, but I didn’t. I just kept standing there in the rain, waiting for the ferry.
It must have been really early – there was no one else at the jetty. I could see the air when I breathed and everything was water. I looked down, watched the rain fall on the slick, black surface of the river. The drops formed perfect circles that got bigger and bigger until I could no longer follow the whole circle at once. Time and space, the raindrops were separate. They fell in a kind of silence, but then the rain got harder, suddenly bursting, and there were too many drops to follow. The whole surface of the water prickled up and became rough and jumbled. The stillness gone.
The rain smacked my japara hard and it sounded like being inside a tent. I turned so that the rain couldn’t hit my face. I looked down at my feet, at my wet sneakers. I closed my eyes and listened to the rain, listened to it fall on my hood. I imagined that the ferry was coming, that it was heading this way, pushing the water forward, pushing in against the wooden jetty. When I opened my eyes the ferry would be here and the captain, Peter, would run down from the wheelhouse to throw the thick rope around the wooden pylon and then he would help us on, one by one.
I would go inside and get dry. I could get warm.
I counted twenty drops of rain on my hood, then another twenty, and another. I kept my eyes closed. I counted forty more for good luck, then I opened my eyes.
RED. Nothing but red. A bright red wall of steel.
A ship, as tall as a building, as big as the sky, and when I looked up there was a man standing against the rail.
He was tall, dressed in white, and he was waving. I turned around, but there was no one there behind me. There was only me. Me, standing on the little jetty opposite this giant ship, the hood of my japara covering half my face and I knew the man couldn’t see my eyes, my hair. He waved again like he knew me. He waved.
Someone could see me.
I waved back, my hand still tucked up in my japara sleeve. We were both standing in the rain, the black water between us, and I don’t know why he was waving, but I waved back. I took notice.
A red ship. A red flag flying in the breeze. A man dressed in white.
Then a horn blew and I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was the ferry. People came from out of the grey nothing behind me, men in suits, other kids who caught the ferry to school, but everything was dull compared to the red. They were like fog, these people, blended into the grey rain and the concrete.
When I looked back up at the ship, the man was gone. A patch of sunlight broke through the clouds, hit the red bow, just a tiny beam. For a second there was nothing else but the words written clear, white against red: Nella Dan.
I said the words over and over in my head.
They made my heart beat out faster.
MS Nella Dan
Voyage 1, 1986/1987 Season
15th September 1986
Position: 46° 45.000' S, 147° 27.000' E
Captain’s note: Objectives of this voyage are to complete the survey of Heard Island, and undertake the Antarctic Division BIOMASS Experiment – ADBEX III (survey krill and other zooplankton).
We have made good progress, however we have remained in a southerly direction all night in order to minimise the effect of the severe weather system.
I wake – my eyes wide.
Water smashes in against the port side and we swing wild. I cling to my bunk, my fingers grip the sheets, but my body rolls so far over that I end up against the bulkhead.
I rest there. I lie right up on that thin wall, my duvet entwined around my feet.
Come up, Nella. Right up.
I lie still. I wait.
I fall back onto my bunk, take a deep breath. I keep breathing, strain to listen.
The water hits hard again and we pitch over. I tense my core but I’m back against the bulkhead, sliding up towards the ceiling. I feel Nella shudder, grind her metal teeth. My bones vibrate against her. I try to relax, keep calm – it’sfine – but there’s this creaking, this screeching, like every bolt that holds her together is coming loose. Coming apart.
Come up, Nella. Right up.
I feel her strain.
We snap back with a jolt and my duvet flings across the cabin. I think about getting off my bunk to get it, but it is not cold. I’m not cold. I don’t know how long we have been in this storm. I was somewhere else, dead, not even dreaming.
Now I am here, in a cabin on a ship. Now I am here, the Southern Ocean.
I reach for my clock, but it’s not under my pillow. I feel Nella try to pull in, face the swell. Her energy races through me.
Come on, Nella – ride straight!
My cabin door flies open and light pours through. A silhouette staggers in, arms outstretched.
‘Hey, Bo,’ it says. It’s Soren.
‘What time is it?’ I yell.
He doesn’t answer, but I can see him now – his face, his hair all messed up. I touch my own hair, feel how it’s standing up at the back from sliding around my bunk.
We go over again, pitch sharp. The fastenings on the curtains bust loose and let in this strange light. I’m looking down from my bunk into green and blue. Looking down into water right there through my porthole. My cabin underwater – cold and deep.
‘Christ,’ Soren says as he slides down to the floor. He’s wearing his big jacket like he’s thinking of going outside, like he’s thinking about going out for a walk or something. He has a bottle in his hand.
‘Cheers!’ he says loudly, and he leans up, swigs from the bottle. Nella comes back hard and everything’s the right way for a moment. I take advantage of the gravity, roll off the bunk. I find my trousers, my jumper, put them on quickly.
A boot flings across the room, hits my leg. Something rolls around the floor – something hard. My travel clock. I grab it, shove it under my mattress. Coathangers bang around inside the cupboard and we go over again. I brace against the bunk.
Soren starts to laugh like a maniac. I think maybe he’s drunk. I try to help him to his feet but it’s hard to stand, hard to do anything. I let go of him. I drop to my knees, put my hands on the floor and I start to laugh too. I give in.
We make it out to the hall. We slide down the bulkhead and sit on the floor under the bright fluoro light. Soren winks at me, hands me the bottle. Whisky. Canadian Club.
‘It’s my birthday,’ he says.
I look at him, at his face. I can’t tell if he’s joking. ‘Happy birthday,’ I say.
I wait for Nella to steady, put the bottle to my lips. I take a big gulp. It burns like crazy but soon I get the warmth, the glow. It creeps up my neck and face.
‘It’s really my birthday tomorrow,’ he says, ‘but no sleep, so I say it’s my birthday now!’ He puts his hand up in the air, pumps his fist. Victory.
We pitch down.
I slide backwards up the bulkhead, spin away from him along the passage. I nearly spill the whisky. I hear glass smash upstairs, furniture scrape and move. The cargo – God, the cargo stretching the chains, trying to break free one millimetre at a time. Did I secure everything right in the galley last night? I can’t remember. The fridges, the freezers, all the things that could become mush. Tomatoes, melons, all those eggs.
I look down at my feet. I’m just wearing socks. One is blue and one is black. Close enough, I guess. I think about going up to check the galley, but there is nothing I can do really. Not now.
None of it matters.
We come back to the floor. Soren takes the bottle from my hands.
‘Let’s just sit here,’ he says, like we were on the way somewhere else.
I look at him, his face all shiny with alcohol. I don’t know why he didn’t tell me it was his birthday. I don’t know why he didn’t say. I wonder if I have anything that I can give him.
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Let’s just sit here.’
Away from portholes underwater, away from flying objects not secured. Let’s just sit here down low, in the middle of our ship. Let’s stay here.
Soren passes me the bottle again. I take a deep drink. I have catching up to do.
The chain for the fire hose swings out, reaches for the opposite bulkhead. I watch it swing, watch it touch the bulk-head and scrape up against it. Sometimes the chain coils down when we go over for a long time, sometimes it snakes right down – a foot or more of chain resting there on the wall. I can’t take my eyes from it, the movement. This strange sideways gravity.
From the rub marks on the bulkhead, I know that Nella has pitched much further than this. Much further. We are safe. The chain becomes our barometer, our comfort. The chain becomes our drinking game. When the chain rests on the bulkhead for more than five seconds we drink.
We watch it swing. We count.
The warmth is all through me now. I’m in this bubble of warmth, of light. I’m in this bubble.
Soren points at me, at my face. ‘You have to come in with me,’ he says. He pokes my shoulder hard. ‘We’ll do food, bar food. Our music on the stereo. Our place!’
He’s talking about his bar again. The one he always talks about. The one he is going to start in the meat-packing district of Copenhagen.
People will come, you wait! Someone will turn all those warehouses into apartments. Students, couples, young people. They will all need a place to drink – I tell you!
He’s pointing at me again. I can’t help but smile. I think about people living in the old slaughterhouses, cold and open and draughty, all bent with time and age. I can’t see it, but his enthusiasm is infectious.
‘Deal?’ he says. ‘Okay,’ I say, ‘deal.’
We shake hands. His eyes only half-open now, not really focusing on anything. He’s twenty-one.
I think how young that is. I think of all that is to come for him. I feel so happy for him, so excited for his time ahead. Time belongs to him.
‘Happy birthday,’ I say again. I take the bottle and look at him, look in his eyes. ‘Skål,’ I say. We are together. Comrades. Brothers-in-arms.
The chain swings.
The air conditioning is churning round the smell of aftershave. Someone’s bottle must have smashed, one of the expeditioners, and the smell fills the lower decks, fills our passageway. It fills my lungs.
Soren takes a mouthful of whisky, but it comes spitting out, with laughter. With disgust.
‘God, aftershave really stinks,’ he says. He wipes his mouth. ‘You have to make me a cake,’ he hiccups.
One of my eyes is twitching now. I hold my eyelid down with my fingers. He pokes my shoulder.
‘A cake,’ he says again. ‘What kind?’ I ask.
‘Ice-cream,’ he says after forever. After thinking hard. Out of all the cakes, he chooses something impossible.
I think about the ingredients. I think about all the cakes I have made in my life. I can make any kind of cake but I’ve never made an ice-cream cake.
My father used to send me a birthday cake every year. Every year, even though he was so far away, always at sea. Once it was an ice-cream cake with a penguin on it.
A radioman. He could organise these things.
‘I only ever spent five birthdays with my father,’ I say, suddenly, out loud. I hold out my hand. Four fingers and a thumb. I look at them. They tingle, my fingers. The edges are blurry.
Soren looks at me.
‘My father wasn’t a sailor,’ he says and he takes a gulp. ‘Pigs,’ he says, and he bursts out laughing.
I can hardly breathe I’m laughing so hard. I hear him say ‘pigs’ again in a high-pitched voice, almost a squeal that can’t quite get out. We laugh together until there is nothing left.
Nella pitches, we go up the bulkhead. Soren slides on his side and I lie on my back. The chain rests down, but neither of us can drink anymore.
And maybe it’s the talk of pigs, or the whisky, but I’m suddenly hungry. Starving. I look at Soren. I can’t imagine him as a farmer. I can’t imagine him surrounded by pigs, and grass and wide-open land. But I can see him in his bar with all that industrial mess and chaos and music. I can see that. His dream is good.
We make it up the steep stairs, pass Jens the chief engineer on the way. He nods at us, grease on his hands, on his jumpsuit. He looks done in. I go to ask him if he needs anything, but he waves me off, keeps on walking. I had almost forgotten that there were people up and working – up on the bridge and down in the engine room, the night crew keeping the rest of us safe. Keeping us going in the night, keeping watch in the storm. Heading south.
The galley is in okay shape, knives and pans secure. A few plates smashed, a few cups. A thermos on the floor, rolling around. I pick it up, secure it in its spot.
Klaus locks up the store cupboards to keep out the hungry customers, but we know where the spare key is. I get it out, find the fresh black bread and butter.
On the way down from home, when the mess boys went to fill up the big boiler, they found three frankfurters floating inside, boiled to bursting. A forgotten midnight snack. Klaus went crazy trying to find out who had done it. He said he could taste frankfurters in the coffee and in everything for weeks. Just the slight taste of them, no matter how much we scrubbed out the boiler. It drove him mad.
I find the slow-cooked pork neck, the pickled cabbage. With mayonnaise and caperberries and pickled cucumber and cabbage, our pork sandwiches are good. We sit at the red booth and eat. We hold our plates, we hold the table. We brace when we pitch and rest when we don’t. We are on automatic, not even thinking about the storm, about the sounds of the water and wind and metal. And we don’t talk now. We eat until it’s all gone, until we are heavy and tired and satisfied.
Soren looks at me, mayonnaise on his cheek. He puts his head down on the table, closes his eyes.
‘Should we go to bed?’ he asks, his voice slurred.
I look at the watch on his wrist. Almost three a.m. I guess Leo will be up soon, but probably no one will make it to breakfast. It will be just sandwiches tomorrow. Sandwiches and coffee sent round. Light breakfast for crew. Bread and cheese.
I feel relief wash over me. It will be an easy day for us, too rough to cook. An easy day.
Down in our passage, the fire chain still swings, but it’s not touching the bulkhead for very long now. Maybe sleep will be possible.
‘Goodnight, old man,’ I say to Soren.
He salutes, his eyes closed against the bright light. I watch him fall into his cabin. Happy birthday, I think.
Tomorrow, I will tell everyone. Tomorrow, we will do something to celebrate.
It’s only been a few months, but I feel like I have known him all my life. I can’t remember anything before this.
Aalborg Harbour, Denmark
3rd July 1986
‘Our home for the next nine months,’ a voice says.
I turn. Standing there next to me is a young man. A stranger. He is wearing the same uniform as me – a chief steward apprentice.
‘Soren,’ he says. ‘My name is Soren,’ and he shakes my hand. A strong shake, familiar somehow.
‘I’ve seen you around,’ he says.
I look at his face, at his blue, clear eyes. He is younger than me, maybe early twenties. I nod although I doubt he would ever have seen me. I don’t remember him.
‘How lucky,’ he says. ‘I heard a lot about her and I knew instantly that I would very much like to be going.’
He is looking up at the ship now, and so am I. She looks so big against the wharf, but she will feel small once we are out there on the ocean with all of us crammed inside.
‘Lucky. We are lucky,’ he says. ‘Can you believe it?’ And he slaps my arm, like a brother would, maybe, like an old friend, and I nod. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘it’s great.’
He keeps on talking. He doesn’t seem to mind or even notice that I am silent. He just keeps on talking, blue eyes burning.
‘I have had three contracts with J. Lauritzen before this one. Two reefer ships and an oil rig in the North Sea. I came to some Mediterranean ports, Israel, lots of European ports, Central America and Chile. The oil rig was boring. Three weeks on, three weeks off. Twelve hours, day in day out, all the while going nowhere, so you can imagine how exciting that was!’
I nod again and he goes on. He talks flat out. He tells me that there have only ever been two chief stewards on this ship, a father and his son. He tells me he has a camera, a good one, and he is going to take photos of everything. Everything. Black and white, arty, classic.
‘Christ!’ he says. ‘Antarctica.’
Maybe I am glad of the company. Maybe it is just nice to have someone talk the way he does, on and on, so that I don’t have to think, or worry, or wonder what I should be doing with myself. I can just listen – I can just get carried away with the stories.
I will be second cook and there will be nine long months working with this man, young and happy as he is. Against all my best intentions, I’m smiling now.
I have this feeling everything in my life is about to change forever, that things will never be the same. I know it’s not too late to pull out, to go back to my island and get a job on a small fishing vessel, like I have done many times before. I can stay where I am, stay still. I don’t need to be sailing all the way to Antarctica. Maybe I don’t need to go.
But when I look up, all I can see is the bright red of her hull, and there high on her bow is her name, painted in white. Words I have known all my life: Nella Dan.
‘Christ!’ Soren says again, and he nudges me with his elbow. ‘We are lucky.’
When the Night Comes
Isla is a lonely girl who moves to Hobart with her mother and brother to try to better their lives. It’s not really working until they meet Bo, a crewman on an Antarctic supply ship, the Nella Dan, who shares stories about his adventures with them—his travels, bird watching, his home in Denmark, and life on board the ship. Isla is struggling to learn what truly matters and who to trust, while this modern Viking is searching to understand his past and to find a place in this world for himself. Though their time together is short, it is enough to change the course of both their lives.
Praised for writing that is “vivid and distinct” (Library Journal, starred review) and “exquisite in its simplicity and eloquence” (Kirkus Reviews), Favel Parrett delivers a stunningly beautiful novel—“spare but memorable” (Booklist)—about the remarkable and unexpected bond forged between strangers.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for When the Night Comes includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Isla is a lonely girl who moves to Hobart with her mother and brother to try to better their lives. Their efforts are not really working until they meet Bo, a crewman on an Antarctic supply ship, the Nella Dan, who shares stories about his adventures with them—his travels, bird watching, his home in Denmark, and life on board the ship. Isla is struggling to learn what truly matters and who to trust, and this modern Viking is searching to understand his past and find a place in this world for himself. Though their time together is short, it’s enough to change the course of both their lives. And what they give each other might mean they can both eventually find their way home.
Praised for writing that is “vivid and distinct” (Library Journal, starred review) and “exquisite in its simplicity and eloquence” (Kirkus Reviews), Favel Parrett delivers a stunningly beautiful novel about the bond forged between two unlikely and unforgettable strangers.
< see more