Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
The Propeller Club
Edith Hazzard glanced at her watch. She was standing outside the Propeller Club in Half Moon Lane, and she had an appointment to meet her cousin, Reggie Anstruthers.
Edith wasn’t sure she’d recognise Reggie. The last time she’d seen her cousin (in Canterbury, New Zealand), he’d been no more than nine or ten. It was the summer after the end of the War, and Reggie had been a pale, rather delicate boy, with freckles and a bad habit of teasing.
The Propeller Club was located above a shop that sold furnishings. As she waited for Reggie to arrive, Edith amused herself by admiring a pair of table lamps that were prominently displayed in the bay window. The lamps, which were in the modern style, were in the shape of nymphs, standing on tiptoe with raised arms and holding aloft incandescent globes. To Edith, the slender, golden nymphs resembled athletes in some Olympic sport not yet invented. She thought about coming back when the shop was open and buying the lamps. She reminded herself that it was too soon to begin to acquire furniture. Perhaps after she moved out of the hotel and into a flat of her own.
Edith glanced again at her wristwatch. It was a leaving present from her mother, and bore Edith’s initials engraved on the reverse of the elegant, cartouche-shaped face. Perhaps she had missed Reggie, and he was already inside?
As Edith paused, momentarily irresolute, a man with a long leather coat pushed open the door and began to climb the flight of stairs that lay behind it. Edith hesitated for only a moment before following him up the stairs and into the club.
Edith had never been in a gentlemen’s club before, and she gazed at her surroundings with frank curiosity.
The Propeller Club resembled a slightly shabbier version of one of the lounges on board the S.S. Surrey. It was furnished with low tables and a scattering of comfortable chairs, and there was a bar at one end. When Reggie had arranged to meet her, he’d explained that the club was frequented mainly by instructors at Handley Aerodrome, with a few flying students, and some pilots like himself who were employed by the new aircraft companies that had sprung up to cater for the public’s new fascination with what the newspapers called ‘airmindedness’.
Edith observed about half a dozen men seated around the tables or standing at the bar. They were all in their thirties or forties, and none of them appeared to be Reggie.
Edith removed her new gloves (they were made of cream-coloured kid and fit her perfectly – firm without being tight) as a man came from behind the bar to greet her.
‘I’ve an appointment to meet Reggie Anstruthers,’ she told him.
‘Mr Anstruthers has not arrived yet,’ the waiter said. ‘May I bring you a drink? Tea perhaps?’
‘Do you serve cocktails? If so, I’ll have a martini.’
Edith had been introduced to the martini about the S.S. Surrey as it steamed out of Auckland Harbour. During the long voyage from New Zealand she’d had ample opportunity to deepen her acquaintance with this elegant and formidable drink.
She seated herself in one of the rather battered club chairs, and the waiter brought over her drink on a silver tray. Edith thought it all terribly British – refined in an old-fashioned way but a little bit worn, as if the contents of one’s great-aunt’s attic had been dug out and put back into use. It was one of the things she loved about England – how old everything was. But Edith wasn’t simple. She saw that beneath the tradition that clung to everything like old varnish, Britain was an industrial nation, intent on being new and up-to-date. A discreetly modern spirit was busily at work, transforming everything from automobiles to clothing. Edith smoothed the soft jersey of the skirt she’d purchased that week at Harrods. It came with a long, belted cardigan that was both elegant and practical. Edith crossed her legs, admiring the gleam of her pearl grey stockings.
London was as rich in things as it was crowded with people – hundreds of thousands of people, all going about their own business. For the first time in her life, surrounded by people whom she didn’t know and who didn’t know her, Edith was experiencing the heady freedom of anonymity. She had begun to glimpse the endless possibilities it offered for transformation and discovery.
Edith had thought she was the only woman in the club, but as she sipped her drink she realised that she was mistaken. At one of the tables on the opposite side of the room from Edith a tall, rather casually dressed woman was talking to a man with thinning hair. The woman’s own hair was blonde, and cropped so that when she bent forward it barely grazed the back of her neck. Edith, had who had always been slightly vain about her long, auburn hair, felt a sudden urge to have it cut off. She almost shivered. It was if this unknown woman, with her vaguely masculine clothing and unselfconscious assurance, had brought a current of sharper air into the room: the pure, cold air of the upper regions of the atmosphere, ruled by winds and cloud. How marvellous, Edith thought, to be able to enter that region at will, like a horseman galloping through the sky!
With that thought, Edith’s own vague sense of restlessness and desire suddenly became focused and resolute. She felt a sense of purpose unfurl inside her, as if it too were struggling to ascend into that higher, purer realm.
‘Edith? Good heavens, is it really you?’
Edith looked up and saw a man who must be her cousin Reggie. She searched for signs of the thin boy with freckles, but grown-up Reggie bore few traces of his younger self. Her cousin was tall, well built, and handsome in a rugged kind of way. He seemed to be taking in the changes in her own appearance with equal astonishment.
Reggie saw the martini she was sipping and raised his eyebrow. ‘I see you’ve made yourself at home,’ he observed. He settled himself in the chair opposite hers. ‘How are Uncle Frank and Aunt Dora?’
‘Pretty well, actually,’ Edith replied. ‘Dad says that wool is holding its own.’
‘Aunt Dora wrote to tell us about Madeleine’s wedding.’
‘Oh – yes! She and George are awfully happy.’
Madaleine was Edith’s older sister. Edith recalled that at the time of that early visit Reggie had seemed rather keen on Maddy.
Reggie said, ‘When my mother heard that you were coming over, she thought you might like me to show you around a bit.’
Edith gave her cousin a considering look. She took a deep breath and said, ‘What I really want is to learn to fly.’
‘Gosh, do you really – ’
‘I know it’s dangerous, but I don’t care. Actually, I thrive on risk.’
‘Oh golly, do you now?’ Her cousin seemed bemused.
‘Will you take me up with you?’
Reggie stroked his chin, as if testing it for stubble. ‘As it happens, you’re in luck. I’m delivering a plane to a client in Rome later in the week. If you like, you can come along for the ride.’
‘Fly to Rome?’
‘Yes, if you don’t have any objections.’
And that, Edith thought, was how three days later she came to be shivering at Handley Aerodrome in the pre-dawn chill. She was grateful for Reggie’s instructions on what clothing to wear. She’d spent an entire day shopping for the woollen trousers and men’s lace-up boots, the turtleneck jumper, scarf, two pairs of gloves, and bulky fur-lined gauntlets. Reggie was loaning her the leather flying jacket, helmet, and goggles. On her own initiative she’d also brought along a picnic hamper containing a flask of coffee and some sandwiches.
Edith had known that clothes could alter the way you felt about yourself. But it wasn’t until she was standing in front of the mirror in the gentleman’s outfitter in the Strand, and the shop assistant was bringing over men’s boots for her to try, that she appreciated how they could make you feel almost like a different person. Gazing into the mirror, it felt as if a long lost twin brother – Eddie rather than Edith perhaps – were gazing back at her, with a slightly mocking expression.
Her confidence sagged a notch or two when she saw the aircraft that would take them to Rome. The plane, a grey, low-winged Avro Avian, was already on the runway and Reggie and the mechanic were giving it a final once-over.
‘Is that our plane?’ Edith said doubtfully. ‘It looks awfully small.’
Reggie looked at her with a slightly taunting expression. ‘Having second thoughts?’ he asked, and for a moment she was reminded of the teasing she’d once endured from him.
‘Not in the slightest!’ she retorted, and began to fasten the buckle of the borrowed flying helmet.
Reggie helped her to climb into the passenger seat, which was immediately behind his own. There was very little room for her legs, and she realised that she would be severely uncomfortable by the time they arrived in Rome. He showed her how to adjust the webbing straps, and to inset cotton wads in her ears. ‘For the engine noise,’ he explained.
‘But how will I talk to you?’ she asked him.
‘If you have to,’ he said, ‘write on a piece of paper. If you need to get my attention, tap my shoulder.’
He’d already gone over the route. Their first stop would be at Lympne airfield in Kent to clear customs and take on extra fuel before crossing the channel to Belgium. From Belgium they’d fly to Cologne, where they would refuel and stay the night. The next day they would fly to Italy via Germany and Switzerland.
Reggie climbed into the seat in front of Edith and strapped himself into the open cockpit. The mechanic swung the propeller repeatedly until the engine roared into life, and the little plane shuddered like a horse at a starting gate. Even through the wadded cotton the engine noise was deafening. The smell of oil made the inside of Edith’s nostrils flare.
Then Reggie pushed the throttle forward and the plane hurtled along the runway. At the last minute, just as they became airborne, Edith experienced a curious sensation. It was almost as if at that moment she’d become two people: the Edith Hazzard who was ascending into the sky, armoured in wool and leather, embarking on the unknown, her face pointed firmly towards the future, and another Edith who was left behind on the runway with her old life, gazing up at the new Edith and raising her arm in a gesture that could have been either farewell or greeting.