Sometimes Graham forgets where he is.
It should be impossible – not with the comforting heat that surrounds him, not with the seemingly endless patches of joyful grass, fields so green they almost look painted on the horizon, and with the delicious smell of stew floating in the house. But yet, sometimes Graham stays still a second too long, stops listening to Harry’s lovely chatter for a fleeting instant, and suddenly he’s on the ice.
It shouldn’t be easy to forget he’s alive, not with the caress of the sun on every inch of his bare skin, or the tightening of his scars around his mouth and neck when he smiles or talks – and yet.
Yet when it happens, he’s certain he’s dead, the blood pooling around him like a setting sun, and his last breath vanished in million ice crystals.
There’s no medicine for it, he knows, not even Harry’s intense researches and fussing could find a cure for that strange alternate state of being – this stop in time.
Every time it happens, Graham feels like he’s stepping into another dimension, one where things went differently and his blood did seep in the shattered ice. A world where the beast’s aim was just a little better, where the Tuunbaq’s claws encircled his heart and pressed it until it burst.
Every time it happens, he stares in front of him and only sees white on black, and hears a scream so familiar it hurts more than the monster’s claws.
At first Graham has no idea how to get out; it’s hard to convince himself that he’s alive, and in England, and loved by the kindest and most brilliant man in the world. Lying dead in the unforgiving Arctic sounds much more real, much more logical.
He tries to shake himself out of it, to dismiss the feeling, to crush it to ashes – to no end: it always comes back stronger and chokes the air out of his lungs. And when he lets it flood him, he doesn’t know for certain that he won’t drown totally, and never reach the surface again.
It makes him feel nervous, agitated and quite desperate -to have escaped all the horrors of this cursed expedition, and yet be plagued by this phantom illness.
Most of the time, Graham tries to hide it: he feels it coming like a tide, ready to engulf him, and so he runs. He repeats himself as he makes his way to the heart of the garden in long strides, or when he locks himself in the cottage’s spare room that he does so to spare Harry. The doctor does not need to witness yet another person suffering from an incurable evil, does not need to see Graham suffer again.
He should have known better really, Harry is as much hurt by his crisis as he is, but in another way.
Where he saw himself offering peace of mind to the dear doctor, Harry saw his lover running away from him, startling at his touch and putting walls between them.
It takes Harry actually kicking a door open for them to put words on the problem, in between tears, and Graham never loved Harry with such force, sobbing in his shoulder while sitting on the tiles of the bathroom floor.
Now when it happens, Harry notices. He doesn’t think that Graham stops listening because he’s bored with him, or that his unfocused stare is a sign of barely disguised contempt.
Instead Harry takes Graham’s wrist between two fingers, with his scientific precision, and presses Graham’s other hand on his own chest – pushing it with the hidden strength behind his delicate fingers. The contact with Harry’s beating heart, strong, and very much alive gives his frantic heart a metronome, a rhythm to follow. And Harry counts each pulse to Graham, until the memory of the ice accepts to free him.
Sometimes he does so in a whisper, his lips close to his ear, when they are sitting in the train to London, the two of them getting just an inch closer than is appropriate.
Sometimes in a stronger voice, pushing hard, his nails digging in Graham’s soft skin – because they are in bed on a lazy morning and Graham won’t wake up, and his blurry eyes scared Harry; he looked too much like Heather, the marine who stayed comatose during their long wintering, his blank stare seeing nothing of their ever worsening fates.
It takes a minute, five minutes, sometimes more, counted on the steady clock of Harry’s heart for Graham to catch up, to find his grip on reality again and find himself shuddering in Harry’s hands.
Those hands, those ever so soft hands that stitched his wounds and nursed him during their hellish travel back to the ships, refusing categorically to let him die.
Those hands animated with the same resolution when scurvy tore his scars anew and covered his face with a half mask of fetid pain.
This man who never gave up, disregarded Death biting at their heels, and the cold, and the hunger, who kept him on the edge of sanity during the infernal boat-hauling -What was that Eskimo’s name, Lieutenant? Do you remember those fascinating jellyfish we found on the way to Baffin Bay? Graham, tell me again, which one of these boats is a pinnace? Graham - talk to me, good lord, don’t sleep.
Harry, dear Harry, for whom he killed a man, that rat of a caulker’s mate, when he tried to drag him out of the makeshift sickbay to bring the doctor with the mutineers. Despite his morals, despite his sickness, despite his bones that felt like broken glass, Graham pulled the trigger without hesitation. - Don’t take Harry from me, was all he thought. Graham was certain, he still is, that he would have died, and so many after him, if the doctor had disappeared.
This man, Harry, his Harry somehow.
He wakes up in his arms, for even when he gets lost in that strange state, he knows what reality he prefers now, which one makes his soul sing and soar: it is the one where Harry smiles, his eyes full of light when Graham kisses his chest, his neck, and then the incomparable warmth of his lips.
Sometimes Graham forgets where he is, but nothing could make him forget where he comes from, into whose hands he let the charge of his heart. And now he knows his way back.