Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
When Nord met Peter Favanger at the Propeller Club, her first thought was that he looked older. His hair was thinner, and the familiar gesture as he pushed it back with one hand seemed less dashing than weary. She asked after Cynthia and the children.
‘She’s well. We’re all well,’ he replied.
Nord was in England to finalise the purchase of the Farlight. Peter had flown the aircraft to Handley himself and seen that it was safely hangared. She’d met him there to sign the transfer papers, and they agreed to celebrate by having lunch.
Nord was slightly delayed, and Peter was already there when she arrived. There was a whisky in front of him, and she saw that he was already slightly drunk.
He noticed her eying his glass and said, ‘I suppose you’re going to tell me off for drinking at lunch.’
‘Should I?’ she replied with a smile that turned the question into a joke.
‘Oh well, you know. Prohibition and all that,’ Peter said. ‘Speaking of which, how was it? America?’ He added, ‘I gather you’ve become an ambassador for international co-operation. And women’s rights. But have you managed to get an expedition together?’
‘Not quite.’ Nord, who wanted to tell him about the offer from Hearst, felt a familiar twinge of frustration at the newspaperman’s insistence their agreement be kept secret. Instead she said, ‘Mrs Wilson, the wife of the former President, donated money to purchase a hut.’
Mrs Wilson had announced that the gift was an ‘American contribution to a league of nations of explorers’ – a reference to the President’s failed attempt to bring the United States into the League of Nations.
‘Yes, it breaks down into pieces for transport, and you assemble it at the other end. It is being made by a company in the mid-West, but many of the employees were originally Norwegian.’
‘And what about a crew to help you erect it? Or a co-pilot? You know that the newspapers here have described any woman who volunteers for the expedition as “an enthusiast for the new brand of polar religion preached by Miss Nord?”’
Nord shook her head. ‘I did read that such women are “proof of the strange mania for equality that leaves no sphere of endeavour untouched,”’ she quoted back at him.
They both laughed, in Nord’s case, somewhat ruefully. She said, ‘I met Malcolm Howells on the Graf Zeppelin.’
He tensed slightly but his voice remained casual. ‘You didn’t try to recruit him? Make an exception to the “all girls” rule?’
‘He was already committed to an expedition with Shackworthy.’
Peter snorted. ‘That old dinosaur!’
Nord saw that he was pleased, though. He might have accepted that they’d never make another polar flight together, but that didn’t mean he relished the idea of being replaced. Not by Malcolm Howells, anyway.
Peter dabbed his chin with his napkin to remove a spot of mustard. ‘So you’re really going to do it, then.’
She shrugged. ‘If I can.’
‘Where are you going next?’
‘To Italy. I’ve had an invitation from a Countess von Kasabier to spend the weekend at her villa near Florence.’
‘You’re going all the way to Italy for a weekend in the country! Who is this Countess?’
‘I don’t know, but the invitation came with a gift.’ She lifted the lapel of her coat to show him the brooch pinned to her blouse. It was in the shape of a stylised aeroplane made of silver, set against a silver sunburst. The centre of the sunburst contained a large topaz.
He whistled. ‘That must have cost a penny or two! Why on earth is this Countess von whatever so keen for you to visit?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Nord admitted. ‘She only said that she wished to meet me, and that she might be able to assist me.’
‘And showed you at the same time that she’s very rich.’
‘Something like that.’ The invitation had been handwritten on ivory paper that was subtly fragranced. The scent bothered Nord. It seemed familiar, although she could not connect it with any particular person or memory. As she inhaled it, Nord had speculated about the woman who’d written the letter. One who could afford to send a brooch containing a sizable topaz to a person she had never met.
She said, ‘I’ll go by way of Switzerland. There are a couple of sponsors I’ve arranged to meet. One who makes chocolate, and another who manufactures watches.’
‘Chocolate and watches! Remember how they wanted to put our faces on tins of malted milk?’
Until Cynthia announced that she wanted a divorce, and the offer was withdrawn, Nord thought.
Aloud, she said, ‘I’m hoping for something similar.’
He nodded. ‘You’ll fly to Italy?’
‘Yes.’ As she said this, she realised how much she was looking forward to it: the opportunity to be in the air, dealing with the immediate issues of cloud, wind, airspeed, navigation. The ground and all its complications distant and somehow manageable. Her eyes met Peter Favanger’s, and for the brief instant before he looked away again she saw that he felt the same way.
When Nord emerged from the custom’s office at the airfield in Florence, a woman dressed in Oxford bags, a white shirt, and a silk tie fastened with a diamond pin, advanced to shake her hand. ‘You must be Nord? Glad to meet you,’ she said. ‘I’m Theo Fogge. The car’s this way.’
Theo Fogge was short and stocky with powerful shoulders, cropped hair, and a British accent.
‘Are you the Countess’s chauffeur?’ Nord asked her, when she had settled into the passenger seat and Theo Fogge was driving them away from the city.
‘Chauffeur? Lord, no – I’m a guest like yourself. But whenever someone needs collecting, Lili likes me to do the driving. She’s never got accustomed to this winding road. Her bad leg, probably.’ ‘Lili?’
‘You are new, aren’t you? Countess von Kasabier’s first name is Sibylle, but her friends call her Lili.’
‘And the Count – he does not drive?’
Theo Fogge gave Nord a sideways look. ‘Count von Kasabier lives in Brussels, I believe. He has never visited the Villa Gambarelli.’
Theo Fogge did drive well, and the road was as steep and winding as she had promised. Confident in the driver’s ability, Nord allowed herself to relax in the passenger seat and enjoy the view, which grew more expansive as they wound their way into the foothills. She felt fatigued from the flight, and would have been happy to maintain a companionable silence. But no one she spoke with before leaving London had been able to tell her anything about the Countess von Kasabier. Nord was curious to learn as much as she could about her
mysterious hostess and she sensed that Theo Fogge could tell her a great deal. ‘Are there many people staying this weekend?’ she asked.
‘A few. Mostly regulars. A couple of new girls – including two flyers.’ Theo Fogge shot a glance at Nord. ‘One of them is Asian, can you believe it? She looks just like Anna May Wong – you know, the American actress.’
Perhaps Theo Fogge recalled that Nord had herself been an actress, because she almost blushed.
She quickly added, ‘There’s also Miss Bergstrom, the tennis champion. And Countess von Kasabier’s companion, Marlowe Scott, is here this weekend.’
Companion. Either Lili von Kasabier was a lesbian or, as the reference to an injury might suggest, she was an invalid, and probably elderly. Cautiously, Nord asked, ‘Is Miss Scott a nurse?’
‘Not to my knowledge,’ Theo Fogge replied. ‘Miss Scott owns a nightclub – not here: in Paris.’
They had reached the gates of the Villa Gambarelli. Theo left the big car idling while she jumped out to open them. They drove down an avenue lined with cypress trees that ended in a wide sweep of gravel. As Theo Fogge stopped the car in a cloud of dust, Nord peered through the window. She saw a low, terracotta-coloured building set among parterres bordered by low hedges.
‘Lili has arranged for you to have the first-floor bedroom on the south side,’ Theo Fogge said as she preceded Nord up the staircase. She added, ‘The bed in that room is very old – it’s rumoured to have belonged to a pope.’ She sucked her teeth doubtfully. ‘Or was it a cardinal? I can never remember.’
At the door of the room she stood aside to let Nord enter. ‘Drinks will be served on the terrace downstairs at five,’ she said. ‘I’ll leave you to change.’
Theo Fogge left, shutting the door firmly behind her, and Nord opened the satchel that held her luggage. What was appropriate dinner dress for a house party with a hostess who was an aristocrat, probably a lesbian, and appeared to have a diverse set of friends? Apart from her flying suit the choice was between slacks and a cotton blouse, or a white evening dress. She chose the evening dress. It was sleeveless with a low back, and when she smoothed it down over her hips she was pleased by how well it suited the climate, which was warm and slightly humid. It was one of the things about air travel, she reflected, that never lost its power to disorient and delight: the experience of descending after a day or even a few hours in the sky to find oneself in a completely different climate. Not just climate of course, but also milieu – people and customs. She wondered what Peter Favanger’s reaction would be to the milieu she was about to enter. Would he be horrified or amused? As she ran a comb through her hair she smiled, imagining him exclaiming in his educated English vowels, Good Lord, a bunch of Sapphists! As the final touch to her preparations for dinner, she fastened the topaz brooch onto the evening dress. The window was open, and she enjoyed the touch of the warm air on her bare shoulders. By the time the clock outside her room chimed five o’clock, she was ready.