Excerpt of TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
(Page 5 of 14)
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Emily's name banners the Thursday edition of the Evening Telegram, nearly always accompanied by one of her daughter's photos. Once a week she has a mandate to cover whatever she wants: fishing disasters, local disputes, political commentary, the lumber industry, the suffragettes, the horrors of the war. She is famous for her odd tangents. Once, in the middle of an article on a local trade union, she darted off on a two-hundred-word recipe for pound cake. Another time, in an analysis of a speech by the governor of Newfoundland, she strayed into the subtle art of preserving ice.
Alcock and Brown have been warned to be on their guard, since the mother and daughter have, by all accounts, a tendency towards nostalgia and fiery Irish tempers. But they like them both, Emily and Lottie, the odd edge they give to the crowd, the mother's strange hats, her long dresses, her curious bouts of silence, her daughter's tall quick stride through the town, the tennis racquet banging against her calf. Besides, Brown has seen Emily's reports in the Evening Telegram and they are amongst the best he has read: Today the sky was truant over Signal Hill. Hammer blows ring across the airfield like so many bells. Each night the sun goes down looking more and more like the moon.
THEY ARE DUE to leave on Friday the 13th. It's an airman's way of cheating death: pick a day of doom, then defy it.
The compasses are swung, the transverse tables calculated, the wireless primed, the shock absorbers wrapped around the axles, the ribs shellacked, the fabric dope dried, the radiator water purified. All the rivets, the split pins, the stitches are checked and rechecked. The pump control handles. The magnetos. The batteries to warm their flight suits. Their shoes are polished. The Ferrostat flasks of hot tea and Oxo are prepared. The carefully cut sandwiches are packed away.
Lists are carefully ticked off. Horlicks Malted Milk. Bars of Fry's Chocolate. Four sticks of licorice each. One pint-sized bottle of brandy for emergencies. They run sprigs of white heather on the inside of their fur-lined helmets for luck, and place two stuffed animals black cats, bothone in the well beneath the windscreen, the other tied to a strut behind the cockpit.
Then the clouds curtsy in, the rain kneels upon the land, and the weather knocks them back a whole day and a half.
AT THE POST office in St. John's, Lottie Ehrlich skips across a cage of shadow on the floor, steps to the three-barred window where the clerk tips up his black visor to look at her. She slips the sealed envelope across the counter.
She buys the fifteen-cent Cabot stamp and tells the clerk that she wants to get a one-dollar overprint for the transatlantic post.
Oh, he says, there aren't no more of them, young lady, no. They sold out a long time ago.
AT NIGHT BROWN spends a lot of his time downstairs in the lobby of the hotel, sending messages to Kathleen. He is timid with the telegraph, aware that others may read his words. There 's a formality to him. A tightness.
He is slow on the stairs for a man in his thirties, the walking stick striking hard against the wood floor. Three brandies rolling through him.
An odd disturbance of light falls across the banister and he catches sight of Lottie Ehrlich in the ornate wooden mirror at the top of the stairs. The young girl is, for a moment, ghostly, her figure emerging into the mirror, then growing clearer, taller, redheaded. She wears a dressing gown and nightdress and slippers. They are both a little startled by the other.
Good evening, says Brown, slurring a little.
Hot milk, says the young girl.
I'm bringing my mother hot milk. She can't sleep.
Excerpted from TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. Copyright © 2013 by Colum McCann. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.