Mountains rise stark and desolate on both sides of the channel; already there does not look to be room for people. Above, the evening sky, a sleety gray, shifts to show a little patch of the lightest blue. Standing on deck next to her husband, Maud takes it for a good omen—the ship will not founder, they will not get seasick, they will survive the journey, their marriage more or less still intact.
Also, Maud spots her first whale, another omen; she spots two.
In the morning, early, the ship’s siren sounds a fire drill. Maud and Peter quickly put on waterproof pants, boots, sweaters, parkas, hats, gloves—in the event of an emergency, they have been told to wear their warmest clothes.
They strap on the life jackets that are hanging from a hook on the back of their cabin door and follow their fellow passengers up the stairs. The first officer directs them to the ship’s saloon; they are at Station 2, he tells them. On deck, Maud can see the lifeboats being lowered smoothly and efficiently and not, Maud can’t help but think, how it must have been on board the Andrea Doria—a woman who survived the ship’s collision once told Maud how undisciplined and negligent the Italian crew was. The first officer is French—the captain and most of the other officers are Norwegian—and he is darkly handsome. As he explains the drill, he looks steadily and impassively above the passengers’ heads as if, Maud thinks, the passengers are cattle; in vain, she tries to catch his eye. When one of the passengers tries to interrupt with a joke, the first officer rebukes him with a sharp shake of the head and continues speaking.
When the drill is over and still wearing his life jacket, Peter leaves the saloon, saying he is going up on deck to breathe some fresh air, and Maud goes back down to the cabin.
* * *
Of the eighty or so passengers on board the Caledonia Star, the majority are couples; a few single women travel together; one woman is in a wheelchair. The average age, Maud guesses, is mid- to late sixties and, like them—Peter was a lawyer and Maud a speech therapist (she still works three days a week at a private school)—most are retired professionals. And although Maud and Peter learned about the cruise from their college alumni magazine, none of the passengers—some of whom they assume must have attended the same college—look familiar to them. “Maybe they all took correspondence courses,” Peter says. Since his retirement, Peter has been restless and morose. “No one,” he complains to Maud, “answers my phone calls anymore.” The trip to Antarctica was Maud’s idea.
When Maud steps out on deck to look for Peter, she does not see him right away. The ship rolls from side to side—they have started to cross the Drake Passage—and already they have lost sight of land. When Maud finally finds Peter, her relief is so intense she nearly shouts as she hurries over to him. Standing at the ship’s rail, looking down at the water, Peter does not appear to notice Maud. Finally, without moving his head, he says in a British-inflected, slightly nasal voice, “Did you know that the Drake Passage is a major component of the coupled ocean-atmosphere climate system and that it connects all the other major oceans and that it influences the water-mass characteristics of the deep water over a large portion of the world?”
“Of course, darling,” Maud answers in the same sort of voice and takes Peter’s arm. “Everyone knows that.”
Peter has an almost photographic memory and is, Maud likes to say, the smartest man she has ever met. Instead of being a lawyer, Peter claims that he would have preferred being a mathematician. He is an attractive man; tall and athletic-looking, although he walks with a slight limp—he broke his leg as a child and the bones did not set properly—which gives him a certain vulnerability and adds to his appeal (privately, Maud accuses him of exaggerating the limp to elicit sympathy). And he still has a full head of hair, notwithstanding that it has turned gray, which he wears surprisingly long. Maud, too, is good-looking; slim, tall and blonde (the blonde is no longer natural but such a constant Maud would be hard put to say what her natural color is); her blue eyes, she claims, are still her best feature. Together, they make a handsome couple; they have been married for over forty years.
Maud knows Peter so well that she also knows that when he adopts this bantering tone with her either he is hiding something or he is feeling depressed. Or both. Instinctively, she tightens her grip on his arm.
“Let’s go in,” she says to him in her normal voice, “I’m cold.”