Scott's Porridge Oates
Interesting man, Captain Oates; nicer than Scott, saner than Wilson, less toadying than Bowers, and a positive fount of civility compared to Evans. The wonder is that he waited as long as he did before walking out of that tent. That he did so is beyond dispute; why is another matter. It was the food, of course.
More than half the storage space aboard the ship had been devoted to it. There were hampers from Fortnum’s, chickens, sheep for the slaughter, crystallized chocolates, and other “toothsome kickshaws” and, yes, crates of bubbly. There was even a Pianola. One might have thought it a jolly trip down the Serpentine as opposed to a grim voyage to the hell-hole of the earth. The English, it would seem, were incapable of leaving the old country behind when they went a-traveling. Instead they took it along. But down the coast, grubbing on seal blubber spread savagely on toast, Amundsen was acclimatizing fast. I wonder who will reach the pole first, Oates had thought grimly.
After three months, he’d had enough. Three months of slogging through the vilest conditions nature had yet devised; three months with nary a break from Scott’s control-freakery, Wilson’s invocations of the deity, or Evan’s tedious bellicose opining. As for Bowers…! When Scott, bizarrely, demanded he abandon his skis, the wee man complied without a murmur, thus condemning himself to a purgatory of stumping knee-deep through the drift.
Then they had crested the rise to find the ultimate … the pole had gone. After all that – failure!
Retracing their steps, they felt the bitterness boiling beneath the surface, but they were at least intelligent enough to channel their failing energies into the horrific homeward trek and keep the squabbling to a minimum. Still, Scott was spoiling for a fight. Then Evans had died on the glacier and they had eaten him and pressed on. Now, tent-bound, pinned down by the raging storm, they faced the delights of a long, agonizing starvation. Oates was at the end of his tether with Scott’s prating – huge tirades in which he castigated everyone for letting him down … him mark you … and for not trying hard enough, if you please. In his corner, Oates waited for some sort of acknowledgment that Scott himself might have been a teeny bit to blame, that he may have blundered now and then, that he’d mounted the entire fiasco for ego reasons – chiefly, with the aim of beating Shackleton’s times. But he had waited in vain. Abruptly, he lurched to his feet, the unmistakable menace in his aspect silencing Scott at once.
“I am just going outside,” he seethed, “and I may be some time.” Nobody had cared to stop him, least of all Scott who, with a most condescending look, watched him limp out into the maelstrom. When the flap had swung shut he said, “Oh dear, was it something I said?”
“I say, sir,” Bowers piped up. “There’s a funny thing! Minus 60 and the bally fellow’s gone out without his hat!”
“Go to sleep, Birdie,” sighed Scott. All but saluting, the wee maniac dropped back onto his pillow and, within seconds, was dead to the world.
“That’s a curious look on your face, Con,” observed Wilson, the doctor, the trained observer, “sort of … thoughtful, wistful-like, somehow. Almost … ”
“Well … hungry.”
“There is that,” mused the man, staring lustfully towards the tent flap through which Oates had exited. Wilson surged up with his bag. “For God’s sake, man, you’ve just had half a petty officer!”
“And very nice he was, too,” replied Scott. He was licking his lips, Wilson thought, like a damned vampire! “However, we were starving, weren’t we? And we are still.”
“Look, Con, there’s nothing to fret about. Cherry-Garrard will be here in the morning with the supplies. Have faith in that!”
“Cherry-Garrard!” snickered Scott. “He’s half blind and can’t navigate to save his life. He’ll probably end up in Sidcup. And I appointed him our savior.”
Wilson leapt to the defense of his protégé. “He’s the best man we’ve got! He’s been on every major sledging-journey and come through trumps every time! Have faith in him, man, or if not that, then in God!”
Scott regarded his closest friend with a hint of pity. “Yes, Bill, faith, as you say.” And then: “Don’t worry about old Titus: he’ll be all right.”
There came a pause during which Wilson gazed at his leader uncertainly. “You’ve changed, Con,” he muttered at length. “This voyage has done something to you.”
“I think we’ve all changed,” replied Scott moodily. “It could hardly be otherwise, coming through that!” With exquisite timing, Scott indicated the tent wall just as a terrifying crack! of wind set it billowing frantically above Wilson’s head. “And now I’m going to sleep,” Scott asserted. “If you’re wise, you’ll do the same. After all, busy day ahead of us tomorrow; all that cooking…”
“Ah, yes … the cooking.” Exhausted, Wilson allowed himself to drop back. At once, he came upright. “‘Promise me, Con, promise me you’ll not…” But he could not finish, instead, nodding meaningfully at the flap.
“Don’t be silly,” Scott scoffed. “And now – goodnight, Bill!” Closing his eyes, Scott laid his head on the rough old army-coat that did double-duty as a pillow.
“Good night, Con,” muttered the other. But it was only when he was sure Scott was truly asleep that Wilson allowed himself to fall into the arms of Morpheus.
There came a sound like distant thunder, but it was only Scott’s stomach rumbling.
The wind screamed, the drift whirled in ghostly, snake-like tendrils the length of the tundra. In the midst of this natural anarchy – beautiful for all that – Captain Oates stumbled at last upon a suitable snowy hummock and plonked his backside down upon it. Automatically, he pulled out a gasper, though God knew how he’d light it with this fiendish wind howling about. Anyway, that was the plan: a quick smoke and then back inside. Presumably, by then, the awful asses would have quit their prattling and would be dead to the world. He glanced back at the tent, barely visible through the near whiteout conditions.
“Thank God for that,” he muttered. “Silly bunch of ninnies!” Abruptly, the long-delayed exhaustion declared itself. His head lolled forward in a sort of dead faint. At once, he recovered, but it was no use pretending. It wasn’t really fatigue or even boredom that had caused his stupor: the debilitation came from guilt and the desire to exclude it from consciousness. Guilt because of …! But they had been starving and it was Scott who’d suggested it – not him! Still…the awful rapacity of it; the abominable eagerness with which they’d all descended on the corpse. Dammit, it had been all but twitching! Vultures would have conducted themselves with better grace. Of course, he himself had not exactly stinted, had he? Of what had he partaken? He considered, the self-reproach as bitter as bile in his throat. Oh yes: a leg, a hand, the parathyroid, and … he clenched his teeth … both ears and an eye. How could he have done it! But they were starving. Weren’t they? He pleaded with his conscience to please double-check, to please make sure it was starvation and not mere hoggishness which had prompted this beastliness. But that entity refused to either confirm or deny a word of it. Evans. Poor, bloody bull-necked Evans who’d only wanted his own pub and who had instead ended up slipping down their throats a treat. Where was he now? Walking through the valley of death? Or … Oates shuddered in a sort of existential dread … hopping through it?
And now he knew precisely the nature of the force that had driven him from the tent. He must atone for his part in the eating of Evans … or the part of Evans that he had eaten. He would not go back. He would walk onwards, into the storm. He would keep on walking until he dropped. That alone would suffice. Only then would he be free. He felt better. He threw away the useless, unlit cigarillo. He heaved himself upright, the wind blasting his unprotected head. The tent …. He gazed tearfully in its direction. “Goodbye,” he whispered, fiercely. “May God be with you!”
“Hello, boyo.” He looked up, startled. Not ten yards distant, its raised hood obscuring all trace of features save for the thin lips which even now slithered one across the other like slices of cold veal, the speaker declared himself.
“How are you, old boy? Long time no see, and all that.” It was odd that, in this screech, the figure’s voice came keening across so clearly. Oates gawped. The figure’s bulk seemed impressive, suggestive of a man wearing three of four oilskins at once. He shuddered. Evans had been built along those lines.
Even in that hellish cold, his spine chilled with something still clammier. No doubt, in more regular circumstances, he would not have been so susceptible and the cowled figure would not have excited his suspicions. But there was something about its familiar stance; and the mellifluent voice with that beat of speech he remembered of old, its lilting – as he thought – Welsh accent, completed the turning of that already frost-addled brain.
“Taff!” he burst out. “I didn’t … I swear … they … Scott made me … on my mother’s life!” With appalling menace, the other began to approach. Oates gurgled in horror. The thing was hopping. A sudden white gust swirled thickly and the newcomer winked out of existence like a disappearing neutrino. When the gust cleared, there it stood, not merely closer but face to face.
“For God’s sake, Taff!” pleaded Oates, sinking to his knees. “Help me, mother!”
“Goodbye, Titus,” snarled the figure grimly.
Something sleek and coppery swung up.
Should these notes be found, I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his mother…
Scott stopped writing; Wilson was rousing. “Aha, Bill!” cried Scott. “Good morning. Breakfast’s on!” He turned to the huge, coppery, near smoke-blackened pan simmering on the stove, jiggled it. A savory aroma suffused the tent.
Disorientated, Wilson blinked. Then he came to himself. “B-breakfast? But surely we’d run out of everything …” He gawped stupidly about. Scott by the door. Bowers snoring his head off nearby. Oates’s bag. Oates’s bag was empty.
“He didn’t return,” intoned Scott gravely, giving the pot a stir. “Probably a crevice. He wouldn’t have felt much. Not really. Poor devil. I suppose he did it for us; sacrificing himself for the betterment of ourselves. That’s what I intend to record at any rate. Bravest thing I ever struck.”
Wilson licked his cracked lips, his eyes on the pot. “Con!” He began. “You –”
“Cherry came,’” said Scott, with a curious intonation.
“I – what?’”
“Oh yes, against all the odds. Left all this.” Wilson gawped. It was like Christmas inside the tent! Fuel canisters stacked up by the flap; boxes of provisions; even a new burner. And a heap of curiously fleshy chunks, bloody, raw, all but pulsing, to Scott’s left.
Wilson stared at these for a moment, then: “Cherry … came?”
“Came. And went. About three hours ago. Plucky little beggar.”
Wilson wrenched himself painfully onto one elbow. “Why the hell didn’t you wake me?!”
“You were dog-tired and asleep. I thought it best to leave you.”
“But surely common courtesy -”
“Takes a backseat in places like this. Really, Bill, where do you think we are, Chislehurst?”
Wilson’s mouth clacked shut. He could see the logic of course. Still ….
“What did he say?”
“Oh, this and that. All the gossip from base. Atkinson’s hand is quite healed; Debenham has admitted he fancied Oates – you know how he was always gazing at him – and Meres has gone mad. That sort of crack.”
“Good. Now, I believe this is ready.” Wilson would have spoken further but Scott had seized a pannikin and was spooning into it a goodly lashing of thick brown, steaming stew. Wilson’s salivary glands exploded. He received the dish in shaking hands and began forking the contents into his quivering mouth. It was appallingly delicious.
“Stupendous!” gabbled the other, scoffing uncontrollably. He was conscious of decorum of course, but it seemed Scott had been right about courtesy.
“I’m glad you approve,” said Scott, watching Wilson carefully.
“Absolutely! But, I say!” Wilson looked up, the very gravy dripping off his chin. “Aren’t you -”
“Oh, I’ve already eaten,” said Scott with a funny little smile.
Wilson reapplied himself to the pan like a starving wolf. “What’s in it?” he snuffled, mouth churning.
“Oats,” said Scott, frankly.
Wilson gawped, mouth open, but Scott had closed his eyes in concentration and was enumerating on one hand.
“Oats, wheat, barley, rice; but the main ingredient is …”
“The ULTIMATE ingredient, without which the whole dish would collapse is …”
“What sort of … meat?”
Scott looked at him then away. Pony meat, of course. What other sort is there? You see, Cherry thought of everything. A perfect blend and balance of protein and good carbohydrates, even something for vitamin C. You see: maximum energy, minimum wastage. The perfect nutritional package on which to coast home.’”
“Fruit?” croaked Wilson, smacking his lips experimentally. “What sort of fruit?”
Scott glanced at the pot and smiled strangely. “Cherries,” he said, and then: “Ah, here’s Bowers waking up! Morning, Birdie! Breakfast? There’s plenty!”
About the Author
Paul Gray is 58 years old, lives in Leics, UK, and is (he sincerely hopes) at least semi-retired from all the awful, tedious jobs he was forced to perform in the world of work. Hobbies: many and varied—outdoor pursuits, sports, Buddhism. High point in writing: getting a movie script accepted though not, in the end, produced. He regards money as a terrible mistake and would be prepared to write short-stories for food, if anyone's interested.