Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
Yoshikuni Miku was returning to her compartment with a flask of hot water when the train reached a curve in the track. For a moment she stood, steadying herself with one hand against the wall of the corridor as the carriages swayed. Two fellow passengers – a man and a woman – approached from the other end of the corridor, and Miku stood back against the wall to let them pass. The woman was carrying an unusually shaped case, and as she disappeared into a compartment and shut the door, Miku speculated about what it contained – a camera, perhaps, or a typewriter?
Back in her own compartment, Miku put the flask carefully on the floor. From the luggage rack above the seat she withdrew a cloth-wrapped chodugo. Sitting on her knees on the floor, she unwrapped it carefully, arranging the contents – porcelain tea bowl, lidded natsume, bamboo scoop, and whisk – next to the flask. She used a rectangle of hemp cloth to wipe the inside of the tea bowl, then measured out a portion of powdered matcha.
The compartment was small, but cleverly designed to convert for sleeping. The seat folded at night to become two bunk beds, and a sliding panel in the wall concealed a small washstand. As she knelt on the floor Miku had a brief vision of the tea house in her father’s house in Morioka. She pictured the fall of light from the garden, filtered through shoji screens, across the spotless tatami and hanging scrolls. It was spring, so the fire would be unlit. There would be the distant sound of cicadas, and the rustling of birds in the Paulownia trees.
Miku poured hot water onto the matcha. Taking up the whisk, she beat the tea into a bright, green froth. She took a deep breath, enjoying the fragrance of the steam that rose from the tea bowl. This was the part of the ceremony that felt most awkward when performed solo. Usually at this point, the tea maker offered the bowl to the guest. As she was both host and guest, she had to pick it up herself. Leaning forward from the waist she lifted the bowl in both hands and turned it, admiring the beauty of the glaze. The chawan was one of a set that had belonged to her maternal grandmother. Finally, she brought the bowl to her lips.
After she had drunk, Miku spent a few minutes more in silent meditation. Then she cleaned the tea equipment and re-wrapped it in the cloth. She replaced the chodugo in her luggage, and returned to her seat. She leaned back and gazed through the window at the moving landscape. A brass plate on the window frame warned her in several languages not to lean out: Ne passe se pencher au dehors! E pericoloso sporgesi! Nicht aus dem Fensten lehnen!
As she had known that it would, the familiar ritual of tea had both calmed and invigorated her. She felt her mind become clearer, her senses more focused.
In the seat opposite, Edith Hazzard glanced up briefly from her book. It was a biography in English of the Norwegian explorer, Ulf Ulvisson. Edith looked sleepy and relaxed. The light from the window illuminated her pale skin and the soft, pink curve of her underlip.
Edith smiled at her. ‘Feeling better?’ she asked.
‘Good.’ Edith’s eyes returned to her book.
Miku had invited Edith to take tea with her a month or so after they met, but it hadn’t been a great success. Edith was unaccustomed to sitting on her knees and found the experience uncomfortable. She also disliked the taste of matcha, which she found unpleasantly bitter.
Miku recalled her first meeting with Edith. They’d been introduced by an instructor on Miku’s second day at Handley aerodrome. When Edith leaned forward to shake her hand, Miku had been so astonished by the New Zealander’s appearance that she almost stared outright. Edith was tall and angular. Her skin was pale even by English standards, and she had thick, wavy hair of an unusual reddish-gold colour. She reminded Miku of a flowering bush.
To Edith, Miku had seemed doll-like, with soft features, plump apple cheeks, and straight black hair. Like others at the aerodrome she’d been inclined to view Miku as an oddity. That was until she saw her fly one of the club’s de Havilland Moths. Miku took off into a slight cross-wind, climbed to about 500 feet and looped the Moth in a series of lazy barrel rolls and half eights, before bringing it down in a landing so soft that only the almost imperceptible puffs of dirt as the wheels touched the runway revealed the moment of impact. It was what some pilots referred to as a ‘kiss landing’, and others – less poetically – as a ‘greaser’. It was apparent that Yoshikuni Miku hadn’t come to Handley to learn to fly. Like Edith, she was taking the extra classes in mechanics and navigation that would enable her to obtain the ‘B’ licence that permitted a pilot to carry passengers and cargo. They attended navigation classes together where, despite her lack of English, Miku’s quick calculations and almost intuitive grasp of the principles impressed Edith almost as much as her ability to handle a ‘plane.
They’d become firm friends and then – discreetly but significantly – something more. Two months after their first meeting, they had moved into the same hotel, ostensibly to save money and so Edith could help Miku improve her English.
As a companion, Edith was not without faults. She was untidy – even here, in the small compartment, scraps of silk under-things spilled out of the luggage rack, evidence of her hasty packing. She drank too much. When she slept, she had a tendency to fling her long arms or legs across the bed, and she snored.
Yet they were, in Edith’s word, ‘chums’ – an English word that for Miku seemed uniquely invested with both passion and tenderness. The pleasure they took in each other’s company filled her with a mixture of happiness and disquiet. She never forgot that they were both thousands of miles from their respective countries and that they relied on allowances from their families. Miku’s mother had died almost before she could remember and her father seldom found time to write, but her father’s sister had taken up this duty on behalf of the family. Her letters arrived each month, recounting in flowing script the small happenings of the Yoshikuni family in detail, while probing discreetly for news of Miku-chan’s planned return.
For Miku, life without Edith was difficult to conceive. Yet she and Edith lived in a world that felt temporary. It was a world of airfields, hotels, air shows and, most of all, the sky itself: that miraculous region without borders or observers, where the only laws that applied were natural ones.
Shortly after moving in together Edith and Miku had pooled their allowances to purchase their own aircraft, a second-hand Gipsy Moth. Now they could fly wherever and whenever they wanted. They took the biplane with them to airshows, where they took part in demonstrations of stunt flying, and offered joy rides to paying passengers who were curious to experience the novel sensation of flight.
They’d been in the last day of an airshow outside Paris, when a broken con-rod caused the engine of the Moth to cut out. The airfield was crowded with aircraft and people and Edith, who was at the controls, had difficulty finding a place to put it down safely. She’d pancaked the Moth awkwardly, crumpling a wing and damaging the undercarriage. The plane could be repaired, but a new wing would have to be sent from England. In the meantime the Moth was, in Edith’s words, ‘seriously indisposed’. It sat in a hangar on the outskirts of Paris, while Edith and Miku fidgeted at their hotel.
Edith tried to make the time pass more quickly by working her way through a pile of magazines. Halfway through a recent issue of Flight, she came across an article announcing that Magrethe Nord, the Norwegian-born aviatrix, had been invited to speak at the Budapest Explorer’s Club. The title of her lecture was ‘The Future of Polar Flight’. The article was accompanied by a photograph of the aviatrix climbing out of the cockpit of the Favanger Vespertine at the end of her Greenland flight.
Edith was buttering her toast in the breakfast room of the hotel when the photograph caught her eye. She paused, knife in hand, and read the article aloud to Miku.
Edith and Miku had been impressed by Nord’s Greenland flight, and they believed that she would attempt to win the Northcliffe prize. They were also aware that Peter Favanger, Nord’s co-pilot on the Greenland flight, had announced that he would not be taking part in any Antarctic air race. Would Nord use the lecture at the Budapest Explorers Club to announce that she intended to seek the last great prize in aviation?
Miku said slowly, ‘Would you go the Antarctic, Edith, if you had the chance?’
Edith nodded. ‘Like a shot. And you?’
For a moment they were silent, lost in their own thoughts. Thoughts that were coloured by visions of remoteness, the cold breath of icebergs, and vast tundras of ice and snow.
Edith was thinking about the Budapest Explorers Club. The club attracted eccentrics and misfits; exotic stories were told about it. It was said that visitors to the Club were greeted in the foyer by an enormous stuffed polar bear, and that a Russian explorer used to drink at the bar with his pet cheetah on a leash beside him.
Miku found herself recalling a memory from childhood. She’d been about nine years old when Lieutenant Nobu Shirase had returned home from an expedition to reach the South Pole. The expedition had fallen far short of its goals, but was, nonetheless, an achievement of great note: the first time the Japanese flag had been raised in Antarctica. As one of the schoolchildren who lined the route of his triumphal procession, she’d held her handkerchief in the air and waved it like a banner. When she was older, Miku read Shirase’s account of the expedition in his book Nankyokuku. It inspired her with mixed emotions. The first act of Shirase and his men on disembarking on the Barrier Ice had been to try and kill a seal by clubbing it to death. They were bitterly disappointed when the seal unexpectedly revived and escaped into the ocean. Miku, on the other hand, had felt sorry for the seal and relieved when it escaped. She found herself imagining what it would be like to live in a world that had never known any human presence, only to have a ghostly ship appear on the horizon, and men jump out of it shouting Banzai! and waving sticks. Yet Shirase’s descriptions of the beauty and wildness of the landscape also revealed a great sensitivity towards nature – almost the soul of a poet. She recalled his description of the Great Ice Barrier – ‘150 shaku long – like a series of pure white folding screens’, or of the caves and fissures that appeared at closer gaze to be ‘black as a scattering of brush strokes on that endless white surface’. Shirase, she decided, was a man of contradictions.
The address by Margrethe Nord was another historic occasion, the first time the Club had opened its doors to women. Edith said to Miku, ‘Why don’t we go?’
‘Why not? We’re not doing anything here.’
Miku agreed. The same day, Edith went out and arranged their tickets.
Miku focused on the view out the window. The train had crossed the border into Switzerland and was beginning its ascent into the Alps. She thought of her childhood home in Iwate Prefecture, where every view terminated in the bulky profile of Mt Iwate. She knew this was something she and Edith shared – that they had both grown up within sight of mountains. Both experienced a faint but unmistakable exhilaration, a rising sense of anticipation, in the presence of mountains.
Miku imagined writing to her aunt to announce that she was going to Antarctica, and that the expedition would bring great honour to the family.
Edith had fallen asleep, her book falling sideways to rest against her silk blouse. Now, as the train began almost imperceptibility to climb, she woke up again.
Edith said reflectively, ‘I flew over these mountains once, you know.’
Miku raised an eyebrow to show that she was listening.
‘It was my first time in a ‘plane. My cousin Reggie was flying – delivering an Avro Avian to a client in Rome.’
‘How was it?’
‘My heart was in my mouth.’
Miku looked puzzled, and Edith rephrased this. ‘I thought we were going to crash.’
Briefly, she described the bank of cloud over the Alps that had wrapped itself around the ‘plane like a grey shroud, the cold, thin air of the upper regions, their eerie descent.
‘Do you know,’ Edith mused, ‘the mad thing is that I think Reggie chose that route partly to impress me.’ ‘Were you impressed?’
‘Very. But not with Reggie.’
They both laughed.
Edith said, ‘To this day I don’t know whether it was skill or luck that got us through.’
Miku wrinkled her nose. The first time she’d met Reggie Anstruthers, she’d been awed by his height and loudness, his bone-crunching handshake. Subsequently, she’d noticed him staring at her. She was aware that in conversation with Edith, Reggie referred to Miku as your Chink friend. She suspected that jealousy was as much at stake as ignorance or chauvinism. Reggie had a curiously possessive attitude towards his cousin. Edith called it ‘protective’.
Edith was becoming restless again. She looked at her wristwatch. ‘I’m starting to feel hungry,’ she said. ‘Do you think they’re ready to open the restaurant car? And surely it’s time for a drink?’