Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
The Noiseless Traveller
Ann arrived back in New York in time to watch her mother die. She had been in Paris preparing to photograph the winter collections when a hotel clerk brought her a telegram from her father. She tore it open. Pearson’s cable told her that her mother’s health was deteriorating. If Ann wanted to see her, she should arrange to come home as quickly as she could.
Ann had known for several months that her mother was unwell, so she wasn’t exactly surprised by the news. But she was still shocked. She cancelled her appointments, left her cameras in the care of her assistant, booked trains and boats. But it was still over a week before she was sitting at her mother’s bedside, and by that time Diana Dexter was confined to her too-large bed, attended day and night by a succession of white-uniformed nurses. By a cruel irony, after struggling for the last decade to end her dependency on morphine, in the last months of Diana’s life it was the only palliative her doctors could offer her. In the final days she barely recognised anyone.
It rained on the day of the funeral. At the graveyard the mourners clustered under umbrellas, the canopies forming an artificial sky made of black silk. To her sudden shame, Ann found herself imagining how it would look in a photograph.
Among the bouquets Ann noticed a wreath of carnations and a card from Nash, her editor at American View. A week later, she visited Nash in his downtown office to discuss the possibility of work. She was going crazy: she hadn’t spent so much time at home since moving to London to work for Sketch, and it was taking its toll.
When the secretary showed Ann into the office, Nash came around from behind his desk and shook her hand; an unprecedented courtesy. He offered his condolences, gruffly, and then got down to business. He asked her if she was going back to London and she shrugged and said ‘I guess.’ She heard the lack of enthusiasm in her voice, and wondered about it. There was a silence, filled only by the curling tendrils of smoke from Nash’s cigar. Then the editor said, ‘Nord, the Norwegian aviatrix, contacted me recently. She’s looking for a female photographer, and she asked if you were available.’
Ann had heard about the Zeppelin flight before leaving London, and she knew that Nord had been one of the passengers. A few days after arriving in New York she’d read in the New York Times that the aviatrix intended to contest the Northcliffe Prize (the article had been headlined ‘Nord to fly South’).
‘Nord asked for me? Why?’ she said.
‘I see you haven’t been following the newspapers,’ Nash said. ‘Nord’s talking about taking an all-girl expedition to Antarctica.’
‘A female expedition?’ Ann was too surprised to know what to say. She was conscious of a strange sensation in the pit of her stomach – part excitement, and partly a kind of premonition. She realised that it was the first time since opening her father’s telegram that she’d felt anything other than a kind of heavy numbness.
‘Is the expedition being sponsored by American View?’ she asked. She couldn’t think of any other reason why Nash would know about Nord’s plans.
‘No,’ Nash said curtly. ‘Nord’s got a deal with Hearst’s International News Service.’
He saw that Ann was puzzled. ‘Hearst’s keeping his involvement very quiet. It might not be good for business if the public knew he was encouraging such a crazy scheme.’
Ann’s expression must have told him what he needed to know, because he sighed in a resigned kind of way.
‘Just remember,’ he told her, ‘that I’m doing this as a personal favour. There’s nothing in it for me.’
Opening a drawer, he took out a card and threw it on the table between them. ‘Hearst has loaned Nord a suite of rooms at the Warwick to use as an expedition headquarters,’ he said. ‘If you’re interested, you should call her there, arrange a meeting.’
As Ann put the card in her bag and got up to leave, he added, ‘Good luck. Let me know how you get on.’
How much time had passed since the day of the interview at Abbot’s Wood? Ann couldn’t remember, but to her eyes Nord looked much as she had then. The same blonde hair, cut short to fit under a flying helmet. The precise English, with its faint Nordic accent. Nord wore linen slacks and a blouse in a pale shade of eau de nil. Her only concession to adornment was a polka dot scarf, tied in a loose knot. The plainness of her costume emphasized her height and the impression of athleticism Ann recalled from that spring day over a year before.
Nord met Ann in the lobby of the Warwick, and took her up to the twenty-seventh floor. As they stepped out of the elevator, Ann noticed how eyes swivelled towards her companion. Nord, however, seemed oblivious to the attention.
Ann had experienced an uncharacteristic crisis of indecision when putting together her portfolio. She had to assemble it from the photographs stored in her studio, and she was keenly aware that she didn’t have her most recent work, most of which was in London. As she made her selection she almost felt as if it were another person’s life that was preserved in the monochrome images. Some – a set of portraits of Ari, for instance, backlit and moody – she passed over quickly. Others she studied more carefully, propping them on a chair and viewing them from a variety of angles to judge their effect.
Ann tried to read Nord’s expression as she went through the photographs. Occasionally Nord gave a soft exclamation of approval, or asked a question about the location shown in the photograph. Mostly, she was silently observant. Ann saw that she was drawn back to two of the images. One was a view taken from the top of one of the masonry towers on Brooklyn Bridge. Ann had climbed the tower by the internal staircase, then balanced on a ledge near the summit while she composed the shot. It was a dizzying vista of river, city and sky, intercepted by the bold sweep of iron cables that held the bridge in place.
‘You took this yourself?’ Nord said. ‘You weren’t afraid to be up so high?’
‘Heights don’t bother me too much,’ Ann said. She thought Nord gave the ghost of a smile.
The other photograph that Nord returned to was one of the Aspen series that Ann had taken on that first holiday with Ari. Of all the photographs in that set, it was Anne’s favourite. Nash, however, had not included it in the photo-essay in American View because he thought it was too abstract. The photograph was of a tree that had been smothered by an avalanche of snow. Where the sun had partly melted the snow, the branches were visible beneath a frozen filigree of ice, like a crystal cage. The scale was uncertain, which contributed to the photograph’s mysterious quality, and the light threw shadows on the ice. ‘I don’t usually name photographs,’ Ann said, ‘but that one has a title. It’s called The frolic architecture of snow.’
Nord repeated the words slowly, as if uncertain of their meaning.
‘The words are from a poem by Emerson,’ Ann said. She added, ‘An American poet from last century.’
Nord brushed the margin of the photograph with her hand.
‘My mother would like this photograph,’ she said.
Ann thought about the comment on her way back to the Upper East Side. What was Nord’s mother’s interest in snow, she wondered. Was she a mountaineer? A ski enthusiast? A photographer?
At the end of their meeting Nord had offered her the position of expedition photographer and correspondent. She told Ann to think about the offer and discuss it with her family. She’d also made it clear that if Ann accepted the position, she could be looking at a possible two years away.
Ann’s thoughts churned inside her head – a snowstorm inside her skull. She’d have been lying if she’d pretended that she knew what her answer was – or that the offer wasn’t as terrifying as it was exciting.
She didn’t feel ready to go home. On an impulse, she got off the streetcar at 79th Street, near the Natural History Museum. She had some vague idea of visiting the room that housed the specimens from the Southern Ocean. Once inside the museum, however, her sense of purpose deserted her, and she wandered aimlessly, stopping to gaze at whatever caught her eye.
Near the entrance there was a room devoted to an exhibition of antiquities from a museum in Cairo. Ann gazed at an open sarcophagus that still held its mummified occupant. The painted decorations on the lid of the sarcophagus remained vivid. It made Ann think of a tiny ship, preparing to launch into eternity, but when she peered inside she saw that the mummy was ancient and shrunken. She turned away with a sense of revulsion. The air inside the museum suddenly felt stale and oppressive. It smelled of dust and the chemicals used for preserving specimens. Stuffed birds in glass cases lined the passageways. The chemical odour reminded her of her own darkroom, and she thought about the way the mechanism of the camera froze the passing moment, preserving it in silver nitrate and collodion. Is that all photography is, she asked herself, an attempt at immortality, a kind of chemical embalming? The thought was repellent. Was death in everything? Like the anamorphic paintings that had been popular in the Renaissance, which revealed a skull when you viewed the image from a particular angle?
No. Ann thought about the moment in the creation of each photograph – a moment that possessed an almost physical thrill - when the image appeared, as if by magic, on the surface of the plate, or the paper in its tray of chemical developer. That moment of emergence, or becoming – wasn’t it the opposite of time and decay, the source of a more tangible immortality than the mummy in its sarcophagus, or the stuffed, silent birds?
She thought about her attraction to landscapes that were wild and grand. Nature was alive, wild, unbothered by museums or books. It was sensation, not emotion. Instinct rather than thought.
Ann recalled what she knew of Antarctica. Whiteness and silence, vastness and cold. Glaciers and icebergs – a chaos of tumbled ice and snow. The Southern Lights; the polar night. For a brief moment she seemed to see beyond the walls of the museum to a world that was new, wild, and bracing – a world that was waiting to be made visible.
There was a serious obstacle, though. Nord had explained, apologetically, that the expedition didn’t have enough money to pay its members. In fact, they’d need to contribute a portion of their costs.
Since leaving home Ann had lived on her payments from Sketch and American View, supplemented by a small allowance from her father. If she wanted to go to Antarctica, she’d need more.
Pearson Dexter was the logical person to ask for an advance. At dinner that night Ann told her father and brother about her meeting with Nord. Hubert was impressed by her meeting, and envious of the offer she’d received. ‘Did Margrethe Nord really ask you to go to the South Pole with her?’ he exclaimed. ‘By golly – you are the lucky one!’
‘Lucky? Have you both lost your senses?’ Pearson put his knife and fork down heavily. ‘I can’t believe that both of you would be so eager to put your lives at risk.’
‘The pilots would be taking the risks,’ Ann said. ‘I’d just be taking the photographs. And writing about the expedition.’ Nord had been vague about what exactly the ‘exclusive coverage’ she had promised Hearst’s International News Service would involve. Certainly, it would require Ann to both to take photographs and write – Nord had made it clear that the expedition would be small, and that every member would be required to possess more than one skill.
Pearson was unimpressed. ‘I absolutely forbid it,’ he said.
Ann made another appointment to visit Nash, at which she explained her dilemma. But Nash was unable or unwilling to give her an advance. The terms of any contract would give Hearst the first right to any photographs or writing Anne produced in Antarctica: there was no profit in the venture for American View.
By that time Ann and her father were barely speaking to each other. At mealtimes the gaps in the conversation had a brittle quality. Increasingly, Ann excused herself early to go to her studio or visit friends.
During that time they visited the solicitor’s offices for the reading of Diana Dexter’s will. There were few surprises. Diana’s share of the van der Camp fortune had mostly passed to her husband when she married. But she’d retained an allowance for her own use, which she’d bequeathed to Ann and Hubert. Unfortunately, they couldn’t access it until they turned twenty-five or, in Ann’s case, married.
The terms of the legacy added to Ann’s frustration. In two years time she’d be able to do as she pleased. In the meantime, however, she couldn’t touch her inheritance. She approached her father again, asked him to consider giving her an advance with the legacy as surety. Pearson was unmoved. ‘What kind of father would I be,’ he told her, ‘if I let my daughter go on a suicide mission?’
‘Do you know what makes me most angry?’ Ann said to Hubert when they were alone one afternoon. ‘The fact that he talks about risk and danger, when our mother injected poison into her veins for most of her life.’ &nbs
p; Hubert looked unhappy. ‘He doesn’t want to lose you. It’s too soon.’
‘What does he expect? I’d have been going back to London, anyway.’
Hubert laughed humourlessly. ‘Even you, dear sister, can hardly pretend that London is the same thing as Antarctica!’
For as long as Ann could remember there’d been a bottle of Canadian rye whiskey on the sideboard. Ann never knew whether it was the same bottle, or where her father had been drinking it regularly and then replacing the bottle with one that looked exactly like it. Hubert poured some into a tumbler and drank it down. He offered to pour a glass for Ann as well, but she shook her head. Drinking and taking drugs were what her mother had done. When Ann needed to escape she packed her bag, bought a ticket, and went somewhere new.
Hubert said, ’You know, it should really have been me that Nord asked to go with her – I’m the one with a pilot’s license!’
‘Yes, but I’m the oldest!’
It was a variation on a game they’d been playing as long as either of them could remember – ‘It should be mine’ - ‘no, it belongs be me.’ For some reason this made them both burst out laughing. They held their hands over their mouths to stifle the noise.
Hubert took out a cigarette and lit it.
‘What will you do if he doesn’t come round?’
Ann said slowly, ‘I might ask Ariel Kolonz to marry me.’
‘What! You hate him! You broke up over a year ago!’
‘It wouldn’t be a real marriage. Just a ceremony so I could claim my inheritance. I’d pay him, of course.’
Hubert shook his head with a mixture of admiration and disbelief. ‘You really are crazy.’
Perhaps Hubert mentioned Ann’s scheme to her father. Or perhaps Pearson’s attitude softened after reading the interview with Nord where she corrected the reporter who referred to her ‘adventure’ by quoting Ulvisson: ‘Adventure is another word for lack of preparation’. Whatever the reason, Pearson eventually agreed to advance his daughter the money she asked for.
Ann was in her room changing for dinner when Pearson knocked on the door. When he entered she saw that he was carrying a slim, dark case with a handle. There was a briskness in his step she hadn’t seen for a while. He laid the case on the dressing table.
Ann made no move to open it. For as long as she could remember, she’d been able to recognize a typewriter case.
‘I figured you’d need a new typewriter,’ Pearson said. ‘So I had the factory make one up for you specially. It’s the first of a new line. Go on, open it. Tell me what you think.’
Ann lifted the catch and removed the cover. She inhaled the familiar, childhood smells of metal and machine oil.
Pearson had abandoned the cream colouring for luxury portables that had been in vogue when he named the ‘Diana’ after his wife. Lately, he’d been experimenting with coloured lacquers: rich shades with names like Mandarin Red, Jade Green, and Midnight Blue. This typewriter was a deep ultramarine. The lid of the case was lined with silk and held a pocket for maps and other documents. There were other, hidden compartments for pens and other writing equipment. A metal plate fixed to the left hand side of the case was engraved with the company logo and the words Noiseless Traveller.
‘This one’s for you,’ Pearson said. ‘But I’ve also arranged for you to receive 10 percent of the cost of every model sold. You can use the money to pay for your passage to Antarctica, and buy the equipment you need.’ He added, ‘I thought of calling it something like “Arctos”, or “Polaris”. Even “Aurora.” But in the end I decided just to call it “The Traveller”.’
Ann ran her fingers over the name plate. ‘Is it really noiseless?’ she asked.
‘As noiseless as a typewriter can be,’ Pearson replied. ‘Who wants to be kept awake by someone in the next room typing?’ He showed her how the type bar stopped precisely at the platen, eliminating clatter. When he pushed the carriage return, the bell emitted a muted chime.
Pearson said, ‘I don’t know if I ever told you this, but your mother loved to travel. The times we traveled together – before her accident – were probably the happiest of her life.’
Ann studied the typewriter. The midnight blue, she saw, was the colour of mystery and melancholy, as well as adventure. Together with the silk lining and hidden compartments, it spoke not only of the romance of travel but of longing: a desire destined to be forever unfulfilled. She realized that the machine was as much inspired by her mother’s memory as it was a tribute to her own future plans. That thought didn’t destroy her pleasure in the gift, but it made it more complicated.
She hugged her father. ‘It’s a beautiful machine,’ she told him. ‘I can’t wait to use it.’