Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
The grey Avro Avian took off easily, despite its extra passenger. In the grey light, Edith watched the airfield dwindle and become absorbed into the larger pattern of fields, forests, and roads. Dawn was a spreading strip of pinkish light laid across the horizon. The knowledge that beneath them most of the population of London still slept, filled her an inexplicably heightened feeling of pleasure.
Within an hour Reggie brought them down at Lympne. While Edith waited in the customs office, he arranged for extra fuel to be pumped into the tanks.
This time a longer run was required to get them airborne. Edith thought she could feel the frail craft straining to lift its heavy load of fuel. Then they were over the Channel, passing a lighthouse and a ferry that would have seemed almost motionless if not for its spreading wake, a toy boat in an enormous grey pond.
Half an hour later the coast of Belgium drifted into view. From above it seemed flat and hazy, a patchwork of narrow fields bisected by roads and the occasional silvery canal. Taking off all but the silk gloves, Edith managed to unpack the picnic hamper and extract the sandwiches from their muslin wrapping. She tapped Reggie on the shoulder and when he turned round offered him a sandwich. He took it with one hand, cramming it into his mouth, and she followed it with a note on which she’d scrawled the single word Coffee? He read the note and shook his head, so she had some of the coffee herself – drinking it directly from the flask, as the constant shuddering of the aircraft made it almost impossible to pour into a cup.
Edith guessed when they had crossed into Germany. The forests were larger, the towns further apart. Rivers snaked through valleys or lay at the bottom of gorges, glinting when they caught the light. She glimpsed fairytale castles – spires and steep-pitched roofs – hidden among trees. At one point they followed the line of the railway, and for a few minutes a train chugged along beneath them, its long plume of steam attached until, with a hoarse scream, the train vanished into a tunnel, emerging a few minutes later on the other side.
When Reggie brought them down at the airfield at Cologne, she was so cramped and exhausted that she could barely walk. By the time she had stamped the circulation back into her legs, a car had arrived to take them to their hotel. Reggie paid the driver, and they ate a hearty dinner of schnitzel and potatoes, which Reggie washed down with beer. Edith luxuriated in a bath and went to bed, where she quickly fell into a deep and almost dreamless sleep.
Next morning, as she pulled on the heavy woollen trousers and laced her boots, Edith congratulated herself on being almost a seasoned flyer. When they got to the airfield, Reggie didn’t have to help her adjust her seat straps or replace the cotton in her ears.
They took off in clear sunshine and Reggie coaxed the heavily laden aircraft into a sky of dazzling blue.
Switzerland was red-roofed cottages and pine forests, Lake Geneva a great blue eye. Over breakfast Reggie had described their route. He’d explained that they could reach Italy either by crossing the Alps or taking a longer route around them. He’d make a decision once they were in the air. As the terrain grew steadily steeper, and Reggie took the Avro higher, Edith realised, with a growing sense of excitement not unmixed with fear, that he had decided to take them over the Alps.
They flew over a succession of bright green slopes, each one higher than the last. Then, almost without warning, they were among the mountains, flying past a peak that reared up in front of them like a shining wall of ice.
Edith drew a sharp breath. For a moment she was back at the farm in South Canterbury: gazing out of the kitchen window at the green fields that terminated in the line of gleaming white peaks – the Southern Alps slumbering beneath their covering of snow that grew in winter and shrank in summer, but never entirely vanished.
She wondered whether Reggie had remembered that sight as well. Was his decision to take them over the Alps influenced partly by a desire to impress her? Edith frowned.
They flew past the shoulders of the great peaks. The air that whipped past her face was icy cold. Edith felt as if she’d entered the home of giants, an impersonal, austere realm, fraught with peril, in which nothing was to human scale.
She knew that Reggie would be looking for the pass, and she prayed that he knew what he was doing. She felt confused when, without warning, Reggie banked the plane sharply and began to fly back the way they’d come.
Hampered by the gloves, she wrote laboriously, Why are we turning back? on her piece of paper and passed it to him.
After a minute he returned the paper with a terse scrawl, Wrong valley.
Edith tried to relax. They soared over a cleft in the mountain range ahead, found themselves in a different valley. The engine noise was a high-pitched whine. Reggie jabbed his gauntleted hand downwards, and Edith saw a railway crawling along the valley. Did this mean that he had found the pass?
They flew through patches of cloud, tiny squalls that left droplets of moisture suspended from their clothing and the Avro’s struts. Gusts of turbulence rocked the aircraft. Then, without warning, they flew into thick, grey cloud. Edith fought down a sense of panic. She could no longer see the peaks, but their invisibility made them loom even larger in her imagination. What if the engine cuts out? She pictured them falling – spiralling uncontrollably downward to crash against the jagged mountainside.
As if the same image had occurred to him, Reggie coaxed the Avro even higher, and the drone of the engine climbed to an almost unbearable pitch.
Edith experienced a curious sense of unreality. Inside the cloud, time seemed to become incalculable or cease to exist. Unable to see anything more than a hand’s distance in front of her, she became acutely aware of Reggie’s leather-jacketed back, the droplets of moisture that glistened on the Avro’s struts and wings. She shook uncontrollably with the cold and her hands were clenched inside the fur mitts. She thought she sensed tumbled shapes to her left, but couldn’t tell whether they were mountains or more clouds.
Another change in the pitch of the engine announced that Reggie had decided to take them down. Edith’s initial sense of relief was quickly replaced by a new source of anxiety. What if the cloud descended all the way to the ground? Reggie had throttled back the engine, and the sudden silence seemed to make their bottomless descent even more eerie. With the cloud wrapped around her senses, she could have been anywhere, or nowhere.
Just when she thought her nerves must snap, the texture of the mist changed. It thinned, became vaporous. They were out! Beneath them, so richly detailed and panoramic after their long sojourn in the cloud that her eyes could barely take it in, were green valleys, farms, fields and lakes. They had crossed the Alps. The air was soft and breathable again.
When they landed at Turin, Reggie’s face, beneath its spattering of engine oil, was grey with strain and fatigue.
‘Still keen to fly?’ he asked her grimly.
Edith didn’t understand his mood. They were alive, weren’t they? Despite the pain of the blood returning to limbs that had been cramped too long in the tiny cockpit, she felt she would have liked to go out dancing.
‘It was marvellous!’ she replied. ‘How soon can we do it again?’