Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
At Abbots Wood, Nord was woken by an impression of raised voices. They seemed to come from the direction of the driveway, somewhere beneath her window in the guest bedroom. It was her first indication that the usually calm routine of the Favanger household had been disturbed.
She got out of bed and pulled back the curtains. The light of a magnificent spring morning flooded the room. Silence enveloped her as she pulled on her robe and padded down the corridor to the magnificent and draughty bathroom, with its acres of white tiles, and ancient commode. When she pulled the heavy chain – reminiscent of the bellpull used to summon servants – the sound of groaning pipes came from deep inside the walls, followed by a gushing waterfall that drowned out any other potential noises. (It was a Favanger family joke to refer to the guest bathroom as ‘Fingal’s Cave’). The sound died away and silence claimed the house once more. Yet as she made her way back to her room, she thought she heard a car door slam, followed by the sound of an engine spluttering into life. Putting her eye to one of the panes of the leadlight windows that overlooked the driveway, she was sure that she could see the back of Cynthia Favanger’s Delage Tourer rounding the curve that led from the manor to the village. Puzzled, she wondered what errand her hostess – a reliably late riser – could be attending to at such an early hour.
A knock on the door announced the maid, who was carrying breakfast on a tray. Even this didn’t seem quite the same as usual. The tray seemed slightly less precisely arranged, the folds in the napkin less crisp, and the familiar vase of flowers, plucked from the Abbots Wood greenhouses that morning, was missing. It was an indication of how accustomed Nord had grown to these luxuries that their absence inspired her with a faint regret. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask if something was the matter, but the maid put the tray down hastily and left without a glance. Nord was puzzled, but not alarmed. She poured a cup of tea and reached for the butter dish. The toast, she noted with disappointment, was no longer hot, while the tea had been sitting slightly too long in the pot.
At least the morning newspaper, rolled and secured with a silver napkin ring, was in its customary position to the right of the teapot. As Nord sipped her cup of slightly bitter Darjeeling, she shook it open and scanned the headlines idly. It was only on the third page, which was devoted to news of what the English called ‘society’, that a headline made her sit up suddenly, while her grip on the teacup became almost rigid. Halfway down the page, the headline read ‘War Hero and Wife to Divorce’. Underneath was a photograph of Peter Favanger, in profile and wearing uniform complete with medals, and next to it another of his wife, Cynthia, in evening dress. The article itself gave the barest details – she learned only that Cynthia Favanger, wife of the distinguished aviator and aircraft designer, Captain Peter Favanger of Suffolk, had announced her intention to seek a divorce.
Nord sat back and allowed the paper to fall from her hands, but not before her gaze had alighted on her own name ‘…last year’s record-breaking flight over Greenland with Margrethe Nord, the Norwegian aviatrix and former actress…’
Suddenly, it all made sense. The raised voices, the sound of the car driving away. The maid’s hurried, almost embarrassed manner, her averted gaze. Great God, Nord thought to herself and then, more painfully, What a fool I’ve been!
She scrutinised the rest of the article. With a growing sense of inevitability she saw that her own photograph also made an appearance, opposite the Favangers’, and slightly lower down the page. ‘Miss Nord is staying with Captain and Lady Favanger at their residence at Abbots Wood, in Suffolk. It is rumoured that the purpose of her visit is to discuss with Captain Favanger the possible use of his new aircraft, the Favanger Farlight, for an Antarctic flight…’
Her photograph had been placed in such a way that her gaze, carried over the intervening columns of type, was directed towards Peter Favanger’s face. She saw that by this simple means the newspaper had implicated her in the Favangers’ divorce as surely as if it had named her as co-respondent.
The newspaper, and all it contained and implied, seemed to dim even the glorious light of the English spring morning. To Nord it felt as if the purity and wholesomeness had leached from the day. She scanned her conscience, but it was strangely opaque. The thought that she was technically innocent of what was implied was surprisingly small comfort against the sudden glimpse of the power of representations – even shadowy, half-formed ones, to efface reality or, at least, make it seem weak and unconvincing.
Nord had a vague idea of how English divorces worked. There was an ‘injured’ and a ‘guilty’ party. To protect the identities of any actual or potential lovers, a stranger – usually an actress or model – was hired to impersonate the ‘guilty’ party’s lover.
Peter Favanger had never talked much to her about his personal life. They had an unspoken agreement to leave all that behind them on the ground. Yet she had gleaned enough from comments dropped both by Peter and his friends at Handley Aerodrome and the Propeller Club to know that Cynthia Favanger was unlikely to be the ‘injured’ party in the way the term was conventionally understood. Nord also knew that Peter Favanger had affairs with other women; that his life on the ground was, in this respect, as undisciplined as his actions in the air were precise, controlled, and economical. Despite his thinning hair and the slight limp he’d acquired bailing out over German lines, Peter Favanger was attractive to women. She’d assumed that the Favangers had one of those unhappy marriages, which the English of a certain social class sometimes appeared to regard as a norm, that were made tolerable by a shared understanding of mutual incompatibility and a tacit agreement to seek happiness elsewhere. Yet there were their two children, a boy and a girl, both at boarding school, and there was Abbots Wood.
It was mid-morning before Peter came to her room. His sandy hair was rumpled, as if he’d been running his hands through it, and he’d forgotten to shave. He looked as if he hadn’t slept, and he smelled of old whiskey. He called her ‘old girl’.
His actual words were, ‘You realise, old girl, that this puts rather a different spin on things.’
She waited for him to elaborate, but he was silent, fiddling distractedly with objects on the table. He picked up her flying goggles and helmet but barely seemed to recognise them, before putting them down again.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I see.’
What she saw became gradually clearer the longer she looked at it. She saw that Peter Favanger, faced with the impending wreck of his marriage, had been deciding what to hold onto, and what to jettison. She saw, with regret, that the Antarctic flight was one of the things that he had decided to jettison. She also saw that she could no longer stay at Abbots Wood. By leaving her home Cynthia Favanger was, ironically, forcing her guest to leave as well.
‘I’ll go today,’ she said, and was rewarded by his look of gratitude. She hesitated. ‘If it isn’t too much trouble, I’ll need someone to drive me to the airfield.’
He looked relieved. Had he been expecting her to ask him something more difficult?
‘Of course – one of the men will be able to do it. Cynthia took her own car, thank God.’
For the first time since entering the room he looked at her directly. ‘I’m awfully sorry, Nord,’ he said.
‘So am I. Will you be all right?’
He nodded automatically. His face was clenched and miserable. Even through her own disappointment, which was starting to spread like a bruise, she felt pity for him.
It didn’t take her long to pack. She hadn’t flown down in the Vespertine, which belonged to Peter, but her own Fokker Swallow, which had a tiny cockpit. After a quick lunch, which she ate alone in the morning room overlooking the garden, the butler drove her to the airfield in the Favanger’s Deusenberg.
Inside the dimly lit hangar she stowed the bag behind her seat in the cabin of the Swallow. The aircraft’s familiar blunt nose and sturdy, tapered wings inspired her with a wave of affection. Such emotions, she knew, were more properly reserved for living things, but she refused to feel embarrassed. When the wind sang in its wires and the engine hummed, the Swallow did feel like a living thing.
Her Swallow was parked between Peter’s Vespertine and the new aircraft he’d been constructing with an eye towards their Antarctic flight, the Farlight. Even in the gloom of the hangar, the Farlight seemed to gleam. Peter had designed it as a high-winged monoplane, for unimpeded visibility. The monocoque fuselage, without external frames or trusses, was built from laminated wood to minimise interference with magnetic readings on polar flights. It could be fitted with either wheels or floats, depending on the terrain.
The Farlight’s sleek contours, uninterrupted by wires or struts, and its three powerful Wright Whirlwind engines, inspired her with a fierce mixture of admiration and regret. As she turned away, she could almost have wept.
The mechanics helped her to push the Swallow out of the hanger. As soon as she climbed into the cockpit she felt her spirits lighten. The wind was mild and from the south-east; ideal flying conditions. She pulled on her gloves and goggles and gave the engine full throttle. As soon as she felt the tail of the Swallow rise, she eased the control column gently back and was airborne after a short run. Easily clearing the notorious row of elms at the northern end of the airfield, she watched the ground beneath her dwindle and grow distant: the rapidly diminishing airfield dotted with tiny figures, the nearby village of Framlingham with its ruined Norman castle and quaintly steepled church, and the gabled roofs and chimney tops of Abbots Wood.
Navigating her way to London was a simple enough matter – she had only to follow the main road. But a sudden, stabbing vision of the reporters and cameras that might be waiting for her at Handley airfield when she arrived, almost made her hand falter on the controls.
The thought of ocean and sky was like a cool breeze on her overheated thoughts. Obeying an impulse, Nord banked the Swallow to the right. The horizon tilted beneath her and, as it levelled, she opened the throttle and headed towards the coast.