The White Darkness Chapter One "Titus" I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now--which is ridiculous, since he's been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way. In ninety years I'll be dead, too, and then the age difference won't matter. Besides, he isn't dead inside my head. We talk about all kinds of things. From whether hair color can change spontaneously to whether friends are better than family, and the best age for marrying: 14 or 125. Generally speaking, he knows more than I do, but on that particular subject we are even. He wasn't married--at least, he wasn't when he died, which must have substantially cut down his chances. Uncle Victor says I shouldn't marry at all. Uncle Victor knows about these things and he says that "marriage is a bourgeois relic of Victorian sentimentality." That suits me. No one would match up to Titus. And we have a kind of understanding, Titus and I. Uncle Victor is marvelous. He's done so much for us--for Mum and me, I mean. And anyway, he's just so clever. Uncle Victor knows a fantastic amount. He knows at what temperature glass turns to liquid, and where Communism went wrong and how the Clifton Suspension Bridge was built and just what the Government ought to be doing; you can't fault him. He's read books about everything: history, geography, politics, astrology, animals . . . the Fount of All Knowledge, Dad used to call him. I would get stuck doing my homework, and Dad would say, "Ask the Fount of All Knowledge." And I'd telephone Victor and he would tell me. Quite often he knew more than the teachers, so they'd think I'd got my homework wrong, but as Victor says, "What teachers don't understand is that the body of learning is still growing. They reckon it stopped the day they came out of college. That, or they're plain ignorant. Lot of ignorance in yon schools." It's true that none of my teachers knows much about Antarctica. When Dad and Victor and I went to Iceland, one of the teachers had been, too, and knew all about Dettifoss and the hot springs and people having stinking saunas in their backyards. But none of the teachers at school has been to Antarctica. Some of them know about Scott of the Antarctic going to the South Pole and not coming back. But they mostly mean John Mills in the movie. I don't. In the general way of things, I don't know much about anything. Uncle Victor says I'm "the victim of a shoddy education system." But I do know about the Polar Regions. The bookshelves over my bed are full of books about the North and South Poles. Icebound almost. A glacial cliff face teetering over my bed. I remember, the night after Dad had been rushed into the hospital, one of the shelves sheared off and crashed down on me. I woke up thinking the house was collapsing--books gouging at my head, bouncing off the bed frame, slapping flat on the floor. I looked at the hole in the wall and the brackets on the pillow and I didn't know what to do. About the shelf. About anything. So I went back to sleep, and dreamed that I was sailing toward the Ross Ice Shelf, and that crags were splitting off its face, plunging down, massive as seagoing liners foundering. Come to think of it, Uncle Victor gave me most of my ice books. Every birthday and Christmas. Books about The Ice and the North Pole; about Shackleton and Scott, Laurence Gould and Vivian Fuchs, Nansen and Barents, Franklin and Peary; about penguins and polar bears, whales and seals and boreales . . . About Captain Lawrence Oates--the one they called "Titus." Uncle Victor understands how the whole idea creeps up on you like pack ice--pressing in and pressing against your head, then crushing the hull and tumbling inside. . . . If we ever did a project at school on Antarctica, I could shine. Like Mount Erebus in mid-summer, I could, I could shine! Except that I don't think I would choose to. It's all bound up with Titus, and I know better than to mention Titus at school. I do now, anyway. I made that mistake once. I won't do it again. "Symone has a pretend friend! Symone has a pretend friend!" It was the conversation about kissing--or snogging, as they invariably call it. Like the ant nest in the larder: You think you've done everything to be rid of it--that it can't possibly come back again--but there it is: "How many boys have you snogged?" There is no right answer. You say "none" and you're sad and frigid or they know someone whose brother would be willing to snog you for cash. You refuse to answer and you are sadder still--or hiding something, or prefer girls, or . . . It's not that they care; they only want to tell you how many they've snogged--chiefly because they like saying the word. It makes them feel as if they are wearing red underwear. But on and on they go: "How many boys, Sym? How many boys have you snogged?" Why is it that all the words to do with sex are ugly? Words to do with love aren't. No wonder Titus thought women were a nuisance. No wonder he died without ever . . . getting mixed up with all that. Anyway, I said that I could do without it. (At least that's what I tried to say. I don't explain things very well out loud.) I tried to say that I was happy to stick with imagining for the time being, thanks all the same. Later, maybe. If I ever met anyone who could compare with Titus . . . And after that I was the mad girl--sad, frigid, and mad, all three--the retard who had an imaginary friend: "Like little kids do, oo-hoo. Like little kids do!" The White Darkness . Copyright © by Geraldine McCaughrean. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. 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