When Brown shines his flashlight at the control behind his head he sees that a layer of snow has started to obscure the face of the petrol overflow gauge. Not good. They need the gauge to guard against trouble with the carburetor. He has done this before, turned in the cockpit, reached dangerously high above his head, but never in weather like this. Still, it has to be done. Nine thousand feet above the ocean. What form of madness is this?
He glances at Alcock as they ride a small bump of turbulence. Just keep her level. No use telling him now. Can't swim, old boy. Would hardly bring a smile to his lips.
Brown adjusts his gloves, pulls his earflaps tight, hikes his scarf high around his mouth. He swivels in his seat. A throb in his bad leg when he moves. Right knee against the edge of the fuselage. Then the left knee, the bad one. He grabs hold of the wooden strut and pulls himself up into the blast of air. The chloroform of cold. The air pushing him back. The sting of snow on his cheeks. His soaking clothes stuck to his neck, his back, his shoulders. A chandelier of snot from his nose. The blood backing off his body, his fingers, his brain. Abandoning the five senses. Careful now. He extends himself into the thrashing wind, but can't quite reach. His flight jacket is too bulky. He loosens the zip, feels the whoosh of wind at his chest, stretches backwards, knocks the snow off the glass gauge with the tip of his knife.
Good God. This cold. Almost stops the heart.
He hunkers quickly back in the seat. A thumbs-up from Alcock. Brown reaches immediately for the battery wires to warm himself up. He doesn't even need to write the note to Alcock: Heating is entirely Dead. On the floor, at his feet, lie the maps. He stamps his feet, careful not to sully the charts. The tips of his fingers sting. His teeth chatter so much he thinks they might break.
Over his left shoulder, in the small wooden cupboard, is the flask of tea and the emergency brandy.
IT TAKES AN age to get the lid off the flask, but then the liquor stuns the wall of his chest.
THEY REMAIN IN the hotel room, the table still positioned at the window in case the plane returns. Mother and daughter together, watching, waiting. There has been no news. No radio contact. No stirrings at the makeshift aerodrome. The field has been silent for twelve hours.
Lottie finds herself gripping the window frame. What might have happened? It was, she thinks, a bad idea for her mother to have written to the family in Cork. To have distracted them, maybe. She feels complicit now. Brown didn't need another thing to worry about, no matter how small, why stop him on the stairs, why give him the letter? What was the point of it anyway? Perhaps they fell. They must have fallen. They have fallen. I gave him a letter. He was distracted. They fell. She can hear them falling. The whistle through the struts of the plane.
She puts her fingers against the cold of the windowpane. She doesn't like herself at moments like this, her strange bearing, her shrill self-consciousness, her youth. She wishes she could walk outside of herself, out the window, into the air, and down. Ah, then, but that's it, maybe? That, then, is the point of it all, surely? Yes. A salute to you Mr. Brown, Mr. Alcock, wherever you might be. She wishes she could take a photograph of the moment. Eureka. The point of flight. To get rid of oneself. That was reason enough to fly.
DOWN BELOW, IN the lobby, the other reporters crowd around the telegraph machine. One by one they link back to their editors. Nothing to report. Fifteen hours gone. Either Alcock and Brown are approaching Ireland now, or they are dead and gone, casualties of desire. The reporters begin the first paragraphs, writing in both styles, the elegiac, the celebratoryToday, a great joining of worldsToday, a great mourning of heroeskeen to be the first to finger the pulse, keener still to be the first to get a hold of the telegraph when any real news comes through.
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.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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