Another handful of sleet rattled against the windows, and the dying fire hissed as spots came down the chimney. The wind was rising, setting up a steady draught under the door and causing unknown parts of the dark old house to creak. Grace was awake; glancing at the bed across the room, she could see the dim outline of her brother beneath piles of blankets, and knew that he was asleep. She flicked on her torch and looked at the alarm clock. Half past twelve. Time to wake him up. They were going exploring.
In the light of the torch, Bill was mutinous.
‘What, now? But it’s freezing! And dark! We’ll go tomorrow!’
‘No,’ said Grace firmly, pulling the blankets from under his chin. ‘We’re going now.’ Her tone was hushed but urgent. ‘I know it’s stormy, but if the floorboards creak we’re less likely to be heard. Come on!’
Grumbling quietly, Bill slid out of bed and threw a dressing gown over his pyjamas with unnecessary force. He stuffed his feet into his slippers and glared up at his twelve-year-old sister. ‘All right! But if we meet someone you’ll have to do the talking!’ He shivered, partly from cold and partly from sudden excitement. ‘Did you find the key?’
Triumphantly, Grace held up a bunch of keys. ‘In the hall table, like I thought. And I’ve got a spare torch. It’s a lot safer than a candle.’ She buttoned up her coat and found Bill’s hand in the darkness. ‘Let’s go.’
Out onto the landing, with its frayed carpet and uncomfortable oak benches; down the first flight of stairs, glancing warily at the suit of armour in the corner, and then down again on tiptoes to the hall, where the wind was whistling like a trapped banshee under the door. Grace shone her torch around the walls; oil paintings of nameless ancestors stared down at her disapprovingly. She swallowed hard. Now was not the time to be spooked.
With Bill breathing quickly beside her, she angled the torch at the doors leading from the hall, and stepped purposefully towards the one at the back: the library. The keys were ready in her hand, and with trembling fingers she began to try each one in turn. One, then two failed, but the third slid in and turned the lock with a sudden snap that sounded like a gunshot to their overstrained ears. Both instinctively flattened themselves against the wall. After ten seconds, the house still slept. Grace let out a steady breath.
‘Are you ready?’
‘Yes. Let me open it!’
Eagerly, Bill turned the brass handle. It was freezing to his touch, and the door would not yield until he put his weight against it. A strong aroma of damp assaulted their noses from the escaping air.
Carefully, trying to curb his impatience, he put his head around the door and shone the torch into the room. Grace waited, biting her lip. Two seconds later, Bill was flat against the wall again, his eyes wide with horror in his own torchlight.
‘Well, what is it? What did you see?’
He goggled at her, speechless. Forgetting their clandestine plan for a second, she grabbed his shoulders and shook him. ‘Bill! What?’
In one of the bedrooms upstairs, a dog began to bark.
Yesterday, when they had been talking to their great-uncle George, only the most innocent thoughts were being entertained in their heads. Or, as Bill had put it, they were deeply bored.
It was December, 1964. The whole family had been invited to spend Christmas with Sarah and George Mackenzie, their mother’s aunt and uncle who lived in the Scottish Highlands. Grace and Bill had been tucked enthusiastically into the car and regaled with promises of snow and sledging; they had endured a five-hour drive, at the end of which the road petered out into little more than a bone-jolting track; and in the gloaming they had arrived on the doorstep of a grey-turreted castle that looked, thought Grace, like the fairytale home of Rapunzel. It was just a pity that it had no electricity. Or a telephone, for that matter. No one had told them about that.
Their great-aunt Sarah fussed over them and plied them with hot mince pies, exclaiming at how they’d grown – which was hardly remarkable, as they hadn’t seen her since they were babies – and reassured them that fires would be lit in their bedrooms every night. Their uncle, perhaps alarmed at the potential damage two children could do to his peaceful state of mind, excused himself and retired to the library. He had once been, Aunt Sarah explained to them apologetically, a famous explorer. He liked his own company.
So elusive was great-uncle George that on the third day, Grace and Bill questioned their mother about him. What sort of an explorer was he? Where had he been? She smiled and warned them them not to pester him. Why did he spend so long in the library? Ah, that might be because he kept his snow globe in there.
A snow globe?
Did Uncle George really have a snow globe? Could they see it? Aware she might have said too much, their mother deftly changed the subject and pointed them towards the collection of jigsaws in the bottom of the oak dresser. But they weren’t going to be put off that easily.
Cornered one morning in the breakfast-room, after everyone else had gone out for a walk, Uncle George found himself the unwilling object of two inquisitive pairs of eyes.
‘Uncle, were you an explorer?’ ventured Bill. ‘Did you discover anything?’
‘We’d love to hear your stories,’ said Grace. ‘If you don’t mind,’ she added thoughtfully.
Uncle George reluctantly lowered his newspaper and gazed at them from clear blue eyes, still startlingly bright despite his 95 years.
‘Well, yes. I was what you might call an explorer.’
‘Where did you go?’ Bill was nearly hopping with excitement.
‘To the Antarctic, young man. A place fit for no human being. A place that has claimed too many lives. Too many good men. The best men. Hrrrmph.’
With this doom-laden utterance, he made as if to raise his paper again, but Bill daringly caught his arm.
‘Mama says you have a snow globe. Please will you show us? We’d love to see!’
‘The globe? Oh dear, well… it’s valuable, you know… maybe when you’re older.’
‘We’d be very careful!’ said Grace reassuringly, quelling her impatient brother with a steely eye.‘We’d love to see it!’
‘May we go now?’ asked Bill, shooting a defiant look at his sister.
‘No, young man, you may not,’ said his uncle repressively.
‘Please tell us about it, anyway,’ entreated Grace.
Uncle George gave a reluctant sigh. ‘Ah, well… it’s very old, you see. At least a hundred years old. Some of the men who went with me… they used to come to my house and talk. One of them… he’d had the globe in his family for years. We used to meet during the winter. It seemed more fitting. We’d talk all night, about old times. Those men, they had seen some things. As I had. People who’ve never been there, they don’t understand. But we did. Aye, we did.’
‘Do they still come and see you?’
‘Not many of them are alive now. But yes, a few. Some of them still come. I’m one of the last ones. More’s the pity.’
‘I found a book in the drawing room,’ persisted Grace. ‘A really old book about the Antarctic. There was a name in it. “River Mackenzie”. Who’s that?’
Uncle George was surprised into a laugh, which he turned into a cough.
‘That’s me, lass. That’s me. River, they used to call me. It was when I was stationed out in Africa, in the Boer War. I could always find water. And, by God, we needed it. There’s another reason, too. One of my ancestors – my grandfather, that is – went and traced the course of a river in Canada. The Mackenzie River. I never knew him. Died before I was born. Must have inherited his restless feet, though.’ He sighed and closed his eyes, as if exhausted by the memory.
‘Can we go and see the globe later today?’ asked Bill hopefully. But Uncle George was asleep.
Next morning, according to Aunt Sarah, Uncle George was feeling under the weather and would remain in bed all day. He would rather not be disturbed, she said cheerfully, but with a meaningful glance at her great-niece and nephew. Since it was Sunday, they would attend a carol service in the church, and afterwards they would all go for a long walk.
Frustrated beyond endurance, Bill confronted Grace after breakfast.
‘It’s too bad! I want to see the globe! I’m sure Uncle George was going to show us!’
‘I know,’ she answered thoughtfully. ‘But I’ve got a plan. I think I know where he keeps the key to the library.’
In the darkness of the hall, time seemed to stand still. Somewhere on an upper floor, a man’s voice ordered the dog to shut up. The wind was dropping and the moon was coming out, throwing a lattice of silvery shapes from the small-paned windows. Seeing his sister’s urgently questioning face in the moonlight, the panic-stricken Bill found his tongue.
‘There’s a woman! In the far corner!’
‘Bill, if you’re…!’
‘I swear it’s true!’
‘Who is it?’
‘I don’t know!’ Grace made a move as if to enter, but he clutched at her coat. ‘Don’t go in there!’ he implored desperately. ‘She’s… she’s… got no head!’
Grace stared at him for a second and then pushed the door wide open. The beam of her torch, guided by shaking hands, alighted upon row upon row of dusty books, their gold-embossed spines gleaming; a desk with a leather-padded chair, and several armchairs placed around a table strewn with magazines and papers. Deer antlers on the walls, a bearskin rug, and a grandfather clock ticking. And in the corner by the window… a female figure, pale and motionless. Grace’s heart leapt with fear, and then she let out a stifled laugh of recognition.
‘Aunt Sarah? With no head?’
‘No, silly! Aunt Sarah’s dressmaking dummy! A mannequin! She was telling us about it yesterday, remember!’
‘Why does she keep it here?’
‘I don’t know! But it’s nothing to be scared of!’ Grace gave him a reassuring hug. ‘Come on!’
Together, they pushed the door wide open, stepped inside, and closed it carefully behind them.
Moonlight flooded the room from unshuttered windows. Grace walked over to the fireplace. ‘It’s here.’ Her torchlight fell on a large antique globe, mounted on a wooden pedestal. Bill was by her side in a second. He gazed in disbelief.
‘It’s just a normal globe! There’s no snowflakes! Nothing at all!’ He was disgusted. ‘Why does Uncle George think it’s so special?’
‘I don’t know. But there’s something…’ Grace peered a little closer, inspecting the surface. ‘Look! The Antarctic is at the top. It’s upside down! The Earth is upside down!’
Grudgingly, Bill cast a cursory glance at it. ‘Well, that’s rubbish! Didn’t they know which way up to put it? Come on, let’s go back to bed!’
‘Wait a minute.’
‘Why? Come on, Gracie, it’s useless!’
‘There are names on it. Look.’ She pointed to the area at the top. ‘Inside the Antarctic Circle. People have signed their names, by the look of it… B-R-O – no, U… Bruce! It’s quite faint, though. Was he an explorer? And here’s another… looks like S-C-O-T-T… yes! R F Scott! Robert Falcon Scott!’
‘Well, I’ve heard of him,’ admitted Bill. Do you think he signed it?’
‘Looks like it! And there are some lines… perhaps they mark a route… I can’t quite see. And round the other side… A-M-U… Amundsen!’ She took a breath and straightened up, staring at the shape of the Antarctic, its once pure-white colour now yellowed with years of age and tobacco smoke.
‘That’s why Uncle George loves it so much.’
‘Urgh! It’s just a normal globe. I thought there’d be real snow. Or fake snow. You can’t even shake it.’ Bill put out a hand as if to demonstrate, and Grace reached hastily to stop him. Somehow, their hands landed on the globe at the same time. It wobbled a little on its axis and gave an ominous creak. Grace dropped the torch, which rolled under the desk.
‘Bill! You made me do that!’
‘No, I didn’t! You… Look!’
The last word was of surprise, not annoyance. Still turning slowly, the Antarctic and the sea around it started to sparkle slightly, as if caught in the moonlight. Instinctively, Grace glanced at the windows. Was it really the moon? She put out her hand again, more gently this time, and touched the globe. Instead of resting on the surface, her fingers seemed to sink into it, leaving a silvery wake in the polar sea. Waves seemed to rise and fall… and was that a tiny ship, with its sails billowing? She closed her eyes involuntarily, and could hear the shouts of men. Pellets of snow seemed to sting her cheeks, as if driven by a gale.
She opened her eyes. Well, that was weird. Her heart was racing, and her fingers burned with cold. She snatched them away.
‘Did you feel anything, Bill?’
‘No! What do you…?’
He stopped abruptly. Grace stared at him. They had both heard it at the same time. Footsteps. A man’s footsteps, measured and precise, on the wooden floor of the hall. Grace caught Bill’s hand in the dark and squeezed it. The footsteps stopped. A moment’s pause, and then the distinct sound of a handle being turned. Under their horrified gaze, the door began to open.
Almost without knowing, both had stepped backwards, to take cover in the shadows. Into the shaft of bright moonlight appeared a man in immaculate tailoring: he wore a white tie and tailcoat, and carried a cane. Grace could see that he had a beard, and was balding slightly; his nose had an aquiline profile. His expression, just discernible in the moonlight, was serious but not ill-natured. He appeared to be looking for something.
His glance alighted first on the armchairs, then the desk, and finally the fireplace. At once, he strode over to where Grace and Bill were standing, rigid and wide-eyed. He made an old-fashioned bow; when he straightened up, Grace caught a flash of humour in his eyes.
‘Pardon me for intruding. I haven’t the pleasure of your acquaintance. Ah… you must be….’
He looked friendly enough, if over-dressed. An aroma of expensive cigars wafted in their direction. She took a breath and found her voice. ‘Grace’, she said firmly. ‘And this,’ indicating her quaking companion, ‘is my brother, Bill. We’re…’
‘You must be old River’s children!’
‘No, sir. Not his children. His great-niece and nephew. We’re here on a visit, with our parents. For Christmas.’
‘Indeed! But it has been a while since I saw him. I was hoping to find him here tonight.’
Grace felt a huge surge of relief. ‘You’re one of his friends? One of the explorers?’
‘That is so. Forgive me. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Burn Murdoch. William Gordon Burn Murdoch, although my friends call me ‘WG’. He smiled more broadly. Were you admiring my globe?’
‘Yes, we were! It’s… very interesting.’
‘So it is, my dear. It holds many memories. The hopes and dreams of the men who travelled to the region of ice. We called it the Snow Globe. Did you know that?’
He had a distinct Scottish burr. Grace nodded. ‘Yes. Uncle George was telling us. But… he’s poorly just now. That’s why he’s not here. He’s in bed.’
‘So you came in his place! How charming.’
‘No.’ Bill’s teeth were chattering, but his honesty wouldn’t let that pass. ‘We came in secret. Because we wanted to see the globe.’
‘Two young adventurers! Well, allow me to show you. See, here…’ he turned the globe slightly, and pointed, ‘…that’s where Bruce sailed. I know, because I was with him. We came on a whaling ship. The nights, and the stars… we barely slept. Antarctica is cruel, but she is also beautiful. After that, most of the men who came were seeking the Pole. Here is where Scott landed in 1902, and made his base; and here, Shackleton’s route in ’07, when he came with the Nimrod; so close, and yet so far. Scott signed his name here… he couldn’t rest. We knew he had to go back. And he did, in 1911… but Amundsen had already gained the Pole. They all died, Scott and his men. I remember when the news came. Dreadful. The whole country in mourning.’
‘How did anyone survive?’ asked Grace. ‘How did you survive?’
‘Ah, my dear, I never ventured into the interior. I stayed on board the ship, for most of the time. But the others… your uncle, for one… they weren’t content with that. It was their will that kept them going. That and their guardian angels. Ask your uncle. He knows about that, too.’
He went over to one of the armchairs and sank into it. ‘If old George isn’t feeling quite the thing, pray give him my regards and tell him I’ll see him again soon. Do please excuse me. I’ve had a rather fatiguing journey.’ He fumbled in an inside pocket, and drew out a cigar case.
‘We’d best be going now,’ said Grace. ‘We’ll tell him. Goodnight… sir.’
Without waiting for a reply, she propelled Bill towards the door.
Christmas Day came and went in a flurry of excitement. Somehow, amid all the present-giving and laughter, neither Grace nor Bill had found quite the right opportunity to tell their parents about their midnight encounter. Besides, it was all very puzzling. They had looked for the dapper Mr Burn Murdoch the next morning, sure that he would emerge for breakfast, but he must have departed again in the night.
Meanwhile Uncle George kept to his bed until Boxing Day, and emerged an hour or so before his guests were due to depart. Bill and Grace were told that they could see him briefly to say goodbye, if they were quiet.
‘Shall we tell him?’ whispered Bill.
‘We’ve got to!’
‘But he’ll know we were in his library!’
‘No… we don’t have to tell him that. We could say we were sleepwalking.’
‘Both of us?’
‘I could say you were. And I followed you. To see where you went.’
‘But I don’t…’
‘Just imagine that you do!’
‘Well, all right…’
And so, half an hour later, with her hands meekly folded in her lap:
‘Uncle George, we’ve got something to tell you,’ ventured Grace.
The old man regarded her beneath whiskered brows.
‘We were… we had to get up in the night, the other night. Bill, here, he sometimes goes exploring… in his sleep. We met someone…’
‘In this house?’
‘It was a gentleman. A Mr Burn Murdoch. He said to give you his regards. He’ll see you soon, he said.’
‘WG? What’s that old rapscallion doing in my house?’
‘He wasn’t doing a great deal, really,’ admitted Grace.
‘He was smoking a cigar, though,’ added Bill helpfully.
The old man looked thoughtful. ‘Well, well. Old WG. I thought the devil had taken him years ago.’
‘So…’ breathed Grace, thankful that the confession was over. ‘Thank you, Uncle, and we hope you’re feeling better soon. We’ll come back and see you soon, we promise.’
‘Just a minute, young lady. And young man.’ George Mackenzie sat up with an effort. His tone was softer, almost affectionate.
‘Go over to that bureau there. The top drawer – yes, that one – pull it. Pull it hard! There’s something right at the back. Can you find it, boy?’
Bill rummaged and came back with a cardboard box. ‘Is this what you mean?’
‘Yes. I want you to have it. It’s for you both. I only ever had the one, although we all… but the others are gone now.’
‘Thank you… may we open it now?’
‘No. Keep it for the journey home. It will keep you amused, perhaps.’
In the back of the car, their legs cocooned in a travel rug as the heater whirred helplessly against the ice-cold blast from outside, they opened the box. Nestling inside a velvet-lined case, resting on four tiny golden feet fashioned like bears’ paws, was a snow globe. A heavy glass sphere, in which a tiny ship, perfectly masted and rigged, lay at anchor in a bay full of towering icebergs. On a white plateau, shaped to look like an ice shelf, was a wooden hut. If you peered carefully through the windows, three men could be seen sitting by an open fire, while a fourth was unpacking a sledge outside.
Spellbound, Bill cradled it in his hands and just gazed.
‘Shake it,’ urged Grace.
He tilted it gently from side to side. A cloud of glittering crystals stirred and fluttered, floating and swirling, dancing and drifting in a miniature hurricane across the polar landscape. Enchanted, they watched for several minutes until the last flakes had landed like feathers on ship and ice and sea.
‘It’s perfect! Do you think he knew all along?’
‘That we found the other globe, you mean? I don’t know…’
Grace glanced again at the miniature scene and wondered whether to tell her brother. Two days ago, when she had replaced the keys in the hall table, a booklet had caught her eye. It was a saleroom catalogue, printed in 1939. ‘Maps, Atlases and other Geographical Ephemera’ was the title, and on the cover, a drawing of a globe identical to the one in the library. She’d flipped through it and found the relevant entry: “Antique terrestrial globe; unusual design, with poles reversed. Brass-mounted, on a walnut pedestal with mother-of-pearl inlay. Bearing the signatures of eminent explorers including Scott, Amundsen et al. Known as ‘The Snow Globe’. Unique collector’s item, in need of restoration. From the estate of the late Mr W G Burn Murdoch.” In pencil, someone had written next to it, ‘£40’.
The late Mr Burn Murdoch? Grace’s mind was still boggling. If he had died in 1939, then… who did they meet in the library? And why had this catalogue, of all items, been at the top of a pile of papers in the drawer? Had her uncle bought the globe? Or – an even stranger thought – had he sold it? She remembered its compelling strangeness, the names it bore, the voices that it seemed to hold. The coldness of her fingers on touching it, and the ghostly shimmer of the sea. But the visitor… he had seemed real enough. It was a complete mystery.
Bill’s head was nodding with tiredness. Grace gently prised the globe from his hands and placed it back in the box. Their parents were chatting happily in the front. As darkness fell and snow started to swirl in the headlights, she rested her head on his shoulder and went to sleep.
17th December 2018