It’s said that death from exposure is like slipping into warm sleep. Briefly, Titus Oates wondered what totty-headed thick had first told that whisker. He no longer remembered what warmth was. He had endured too many futile hopes and broken dreams to look for an easy end now. Every step was like treading on razors, calling for a grim effort of will. Nevertheless without hesitating he hobbled on into the teeth of the Antarctic storm. He did not look back. He knew the Polar Expedition’s tent was already invisible behind him.
Finer than sand, the wind-driven snow scoured over his clenched eyelids, clogging nose and mouth. The cold drove ferocious spikes deep into his temples and gnawed at the raw frostbite wounds on brow and nose and lip. Surely it was folly to continue to huddle into his threadbare windproof. What if he flung all resistance aside, and surrendered himself to the wailing blizzard? Suddenly he yearned to dance, free of the weighty mitts and clothing. To embrace death and waltz away!
He had left his finnesko behind. Gangrene had swollen his frozen feet to the size of melons, the ominous black streaks stealing up past the ankles to his knees. Yesterday it had taken hours to coax the fur boots on. Today he had not bothered. Now his woolen sock caught on something. Excruciating pain jolted his frozen foot, suppurating from the stinking black wounds where the toes used to be. Too weak to help himself, he stumbled forward. His crippled hands, bundled in their dogskin mitts, groped to break his fall. They touched nothing. He seemed to fall and fall, a slow endless drop into blank whiteness.
And it was true! A delicious warmth lapped him round like a blanket. Tears of relief and joy crept down his starveling cheeks and burnt in the frost fissures. He was being carried, warm and safe. Rock of Ages, cleft for me!
For a very long time he lay resting, not moving a muscle. Stillness is the very stuff of Heaven, when a man has marched thirteen hundred miles, hauling a half-tonne load miles a day for months, across the Barrier ice, up the Beardmore Glacier, to the South Pole and back. He slept, and when he wasn’t asleep he was inert.
But after some unknowable span Titus slowly came to awareness again. He felt obscurely indignant, cheated of a just due. Wasn’t Heaven supposed to be a place of eternal rest? He’d write a letter to the Times about it…
“Maybe just a touch more?” one of the celestial host suggested, in distinctly American accents. Silly on the face of it, his unanalyzed assumption that all the denizens of Heaven must be British…
“No, let’s see how he does on four cc. How’s the urine output?”
Shocked, Titus opened his eyes and looked down at himself. He was lying down, clothed in a pure white robe, all correct and as advertised. But were those a pair of angels lifting the hem? He used the drill-sergeant rasp he had picked up in the Army. “What the hell are you at!”
Both angels startled horribly. Something metallic slipped from a heavenly hand and landed with a clatter on the shiny-clean floor. A beautiful angel with long black hair stared down at him, eyes blue as the Aegean and wide as saucers. “Oh my God. Oh my God, Shell! Look at this — he’s conscious! Piotr will be like a dog with two tails!”