She's heavy today. So much petrol to carry. One hundred yards, one hundred and twenty, one hundred and seventy. They are moving too slowly. As if through aspic. The tightness of the cockpit. Sweat accumulating behind their knees. The motors strike hard. The wingtips flex. The grass beneath them bends and tears. Bumping along on the ground. Two hundred and fifty. The plane rises a little and then sighs again, jarring the soil. Good God, Jackie, lift her. The line of dark pine trees stands at the end of the airfield, looming closer, closer, closer still. How many men have died this way? Pull her back, Jackie boy. Skid her sideways. Abort. Now. Three hundred yards. Good Jesus above. A gust of wind lifts the left wing and they tilt slightly right. And then they feel it. A cold swell of air in their stomachs. We are rising, Teddy, we are rising, look! A slow grade of upwards, an ever so faint lift of the soul, and the plane is a few feet in the air, nosing up, the wind whistling through the struts. How tall are those trees? How many men died? How many of us fell? Brown converts the pines to possible noise in his mind. The slap of bark. The tangle of stems. The ack-ack of twigs. The smashup. Hang on, hang on. The throat still tight with terror. They rise a little in their seats. As if that might unloosen the weight of the plane beneath them. Higher now, go. The sky beyond the trees is an oceanic thing. Lift it, Jackie, lift it for godsake, lift her. Here, the trees. Here they come. Their scarves take first flight and then they hear the applause of branches below.
THAT WAS A little ticklish! roars Alcock across the noise.
THEY HEAD STRAIGHT into the wind. The nose goes up. The plane slows. An agonizing climb over treetops and low roofs. Careful now not to stall. Keep her rising. Higher up, they begin a slight bank. Take her easy, old chum. Bring her around. A stately turn, all beauty, all balance, its own sort of confidence. They hold the altitude. Banking tighter now. Until the wind is behind them and the nose dips and they are truly leaving.
They wave down to the starter, the mechanics, the meteorological officers, the other few stragglers below. No Emily Ehrlich from the Evening Telegram, no Lottie: mother and daughter have already gone home, early, for the day. They have missed takeoff. Pity that, thinks Brown. He taps the inside of his jacket where the letter still sits. Alcock wipes the sweat off his brow, then waves to the shadow of themselves on the last of the ground and steers the plane at halfthrottle out to sea. A line of golden strand. Boats bobbing in St. John's Harbour. Toys in a boy's bath.
Alcock picks up the rudimentary telephone, half-shouts into it: Hey, old man.
Sorry about this.
Never told you.
Never told me what?
Alcock grins and glances down at the water. They are eight minutes out, at one thousand feet, with a wind strength behind of thirtyfi ve knots. They lurch over Conception Bay. The water, a moving mat of gray. Patches of sunlight and glare.
Never learned to swim, me.
Brown is momentarily taken abackthe thought of ditching at sea, of flailing at the water, floating for a moment on a wooden strut, or clinging to the rolling tanks. But surely Alcock swam to safety after he was shot down over Suvla Bay? All those years ago. No, not years. Just months. It is odd to Brown, very odd, that not so long ago a bullet pierced his thigh and now, today, he is carrying that fragment over the Atlantic towards a marriage, a second chance. Odd that he should be here at all, this height, this endless gray, the Rolls-Royce engines roaring in his ears, holding him aloft. Alcock can't swim? Surely that's not true. Perhaps, thinks Brown, I should tell him the truth. Never too late.
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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