He nods and tips at an imaginary brim, moves to step past her.
She never sleeps.
Her cheeks are flushed red, a little embarrassed to be caught out in the corridor in her dressing gown, he thinks. He tips the nonexistent hat again and pushes the pain through his bad leg, climbs three more steps, the brandies jagging his mind. She pauses two steps below him and says with more formality than it requires: Mr. Brown?
Yes, young lady?
Are you ready for the unification of the continents?
Quite honestly, says Brown, I could do with a good telephone line first.
She takes one step farther down the stairs, puts her hand to her mouth as if about to cough. One eye higher than the other, as if a very stubborn question got lodged in her mind a long time ago.
Do you think it would be a terrible imposition?
A quick eye-flick to the floor. She pauses as if she has just propped a number of stray words on the tip of her tongue, odd little things with no flow to them at all, no way to get them out. She stands, balancing them, wondering if they will topple. Brown imagines that she, like everyone in St. John's, would like a chance to sit in the cockpit if there is another practice run. An impossibility of course, they cannot bring anybody up in the air, least of all a young woman. They have not even allowed the reporters to sit in the plane while it waits in the field. It is a ritual, a superstition, it is not something that he will be able to do, he wonders how he will tell her, he feels trapped now, a victim of his own late-night strolls.
Would it impose greatly, she says, if I gave you something?
Of course not.
She negotiates the stairs and runs down the corridor towards her room. The youth of her body moving in the white of the dressing gown.
He tightens his eyes, rubs his forehead, waits. Some good-luck charm perhaps? A memento? A keepsake? Silly that, to have allowed her a chance to speak at all. Should have just said no. Let it be. Gone to his room. Disappeared.
She appears at the end of the corridor, moving sharply and quickly. Her dressing gown exposes a triangle of white skin at her neck. He feels an acute and sudden pang of desire to see Kathleen and he is glad for the desire, the errancy of the moment, this odd curving staircase, this far-flung hotel, the too-much brandy. He misses his fiancée, pure and simple. He would like to be home. To nudge up against her slim body, watch the fall of hair along her clavicle.
He holds the banisters a little too tight as Lottie approaches. A piece of paper in her left hand. He reaches out. A letter. That is all. A letter. He scans it. Addressed to a family in Cork. To Brown Street of all places.
My mother wrote it.
Is that so?
Can you put it in the mail bag?
No imposition at all, he says, turning on the stairs once more, slipping the envelope inside his tunic pocket.
IN THE MORNING they watch as Lottie emerges from the hotel kitchen, her red hair askew, her dressing gown fixed to the neck, tightened high. She carries a tray of sandwiches wrapped in waxed butcher paper.
Ham sandwiches, she says triumphantly, placing them down in front of Brown. I made them especially for you.
Thank you, young lady.
She crosses the restaurant floor, waving over her shoulder as she goes.
That's the reporter's daughter?
They're a little cuckoo, eh? says Alcock, pulling on his flight jacket, looking out the window at the fog.
A STRONG WIND arrives from the west in uneven gusts. They are twelve hours late already, but now is the timethe fog has lifted and the long-range weather reports are good. No clouds. The sky above seems painted in. The initial wind velocity is strong, but will probably calm to about twenty knots. There will, later, be a good moon. They climb aboard to scattered cheers, secure their safety belts, check the instruments yet again. A quick salute from the starter. Contact! Alcock opens the throttle and brings both engines to full power. He signals for the wooden chocks to be pulled clear from the wheels. The mechanic leans down, ducks under the wings, armpits the chocks, steps back, throws them away. He raises both arms in the air. A cough of smoke from the engines. The propellers whirl. The Vimy is pointed into the gale. A slight angle to the wind. Uphill. Go now, go. The waft of warming oil. Speed and lift. The incredible roar. The trees loom in the distance. A drainage ditch challenges on the far side. They say nothing. No Great Scott. No Chin up, old sport. They inch forward, lumbering into the wind. Go, go. The weight of the plane rolls underneath them. Worrisome, that. Slower now than ever. Up the incline.
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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