Anne Morrow Lindbergh, on a wind-blown rock out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere off Africa, looks back at Tingmissartoq and at Charles
The book came together rapidly now. And, day by day, as it grew in size, it grew, more importantly, in mastery too. Its engine no longer sputtered, it generated real thrust and an ever-more-evident potential to roar.
She’d acquired, from who knew where, almost out of the ether, a startling array of writerly tricks. Games with time, with visual perspective, with psychological perspective. Tricks of the light, tricks of the mind.
And she’d made the inspired decision not to begin, after a suitable explanatory preamble, right at Bathurst. Instead, she began her narrative on Santiago, one of the islands in the Cape Verde archipelago. Santiago had been their real-world stepping stone before Bathurst; but she now saw its potential as a psychological prelude too. They’d found Santiago a disturbing, unsettling place. Now she latched onto the eldritch nature of their brief time there, using this as a harbinger of things to come. And rendering the experience of Santiago into words on a page taught Anne the deftest of tricks when it came to collapsing the very-very large into the very-very small. Entire worlds in a grain of sand.
It allowed her to strike up a metaphysical relationship with the elements too. The sea, the sky, a gale-force wind, hot and dry.
Because they’d been misled about Santiago. They’d been told it was a French seaplane station: and indeed, there was every evidence that, once upon a time, it had been earmarked as an important base for French transatlantic aviation. But at some point in the 1930s it had been semi-abandoned. Buildings crumbled, equipment rusted. Three of the base’s crew remained, perhaps forgotten by Paris, forsaken, human accounting errors still drawing meagre pay and rations.
It was a fly-blown, diseased outpost, a plague ship. They’d all had fever. Or would contract it soon. But it seemed a dysfunctional community in other ways too, a darkness simmering below the surface. Each minute she was there, Anne was glad she would not have the time to discover more. Perhaps if they’d stumbled upon some monstrous secret they’d never have been allowed to leave.
The station boss, his wife and the radio operator lived in a bungalow near the top of a steep hill overlooking the bay. A dusty, crumbly hill like a cinder spoil-heap. As Anne took off up the hill she looked back to see Charles in a row boat, pulling hard into the gale, heading out into the bay where Tingmissartoq was at anchor.
Closes her eyes, climbs further up the hill. She looks back… and Charles is still rowing hard into the wind and it is as if he has made no progress at all. She climbs some more, looks back, and he is still pulling hard, but still nowhere near reaching the plane.
Time does that sometimes. You walk forwards but sometimes you cannot help but look back. Or sometimes you walk forwards but everything around you stands still. And sometimes the effects are magnified, intensified, on a wind-blown rock out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere off Africa.
And another odd thing about Santiago was that, when she began reliving it, writing it, her general mood, already darkening, became darker still. She was conscious now of a festering anger. An anger and a pessimism. Even odder was the fact that she was almost certain that some of this anger was directed not towards Charles but towards Harold. It was almost as if she now openly resented him. For befriending her, for helping her, for giving her the use of Long Barn, for encouraging her, for being, when all was said and done, right about Bathurst.
So it had come to pass. Exit, stage right, a weeping King, led by his belt buckle. Exit, stage left, a bruised bruiser of a Prime Minister, supernumerary, a worked-out Warwick, a provincial kingmaker needed no longer now the King was unmade. And in his place, stepping into the Premier spotlight, a man of quiet confidence, a man who had always known this moment would come and who was utterly assured as to its rightness: a conceited man, a man, in other words, well-practised in mastering conceit. Scrubbed, pressed, immaculate in a wing collar. A stickler, a grey man with a salt and pepper moustache: and yet, for all that, a man who’d almost succeed in convincing you there was a twinkle, a mischievousness behind the bombastic façade. Chamberlain, in short; Chamberlain plain.
It was like the denouement to a History Play. Or, who knew, the opening scene of its First Act.
He stepped right over to the lip of the stage and stood there, scanning to left and to right, as if to take the measure of every single member of his audience. And then it seemed as if he were about to strike a dramatic pose. Looking up now, uppish, his eyes fixed on the back row of the gods, it seemed possible that at any moment he might shape a definitive gesture; his hand might shoot up and he’d clutch at an essence in the empty air, destiny perhaps, and pull it passionately to his breastbone in his fist.
But of course this gesture, the gesture of all great dictators, did not come. He merely stood there, the faintest suggestion of a smile playing on his lips. There were a few scattered coughs from the darkest depths of the auditorium; but not a pin dropped. And the more he stood there in the spotlight, inviting you to take him in, Chamberlain plain, the more you were aware of motes of dust dancing in the column of lit air that isolated him from the darkness.
Motes, like microbes, like a swarm of tiny insects. They somehow made him seem moth-eaten.
And behind him, lit only by their leader’s reflected glory, his cabinet. The sort of supporting cast of which only a Caesar might dream: Hailsham, Halifax, Simon, Hoare, Eden, MacDonald, Hore-Belisha, Inskip. Even Harold was there, to the very back of this tableau.
Opening section of Book 8 of Flying Over Ruins, a project currently hurtling towards its ultimate destiny at a glacial pace
That night, drifting, Anne allowed herself to dream. And she saw how it would be. First she’d sleep, sleep at long last, such a deep, nourishing sleep; then she’d awaken, refreshed. She’d wake Jon and Charles; and gradually, as they stirred, they’d realise that the boat was no longer rolling.
They’d already docked. Already alongside, tied up.
Why had no-one come for them?
Wonder upon wonders. But of course it was not yet dawn. Not a soul stirred below decks or on the quay.
A clear night. Dead still. Cold. Moonlit.
So they decided they’d make a break for it. They told Jon it was all a great game. They disembarked like fugitives, hunched, their coat collars turned up around their ears, stealing onto the quayside, fearful that each footstep might echo. They set off, hand in hand, across cobbles slick from a shower of earlier rain: they walked, the three of them, Anne, Jon and Charles, into a sleeping city.
She stirred eventually, reluctantly. It felt like she’d only just drifted off.
“What time is it?” she asked.
Not yet dawn. That bit of her dream, at least, had come true. But the boat was still rolling.
The captain put his head around the cabin door when they were eating breakfast. He’d been in communication with the port authorities and the police. A crowd had already gathered. It was probably in everybody’s best interests if they agreed to remain below decks for an hour or two, maybe more, after they’d docked. Let the excitement die down. Maybe people would begin drifting away.
Fat chance. Just after dawn, in the offing, as they began negotiating the channel approaches, they were buzzed by an aeroplane. More were to follow.
They did as they were told. They remained below.
They read, played cards with Jon, stared at the cabin walls. The hours turned into what felt like days.
So, no, in the end, it wasn’t a bit like Anne’s fugitive dream. Stepping out into a new life… the reality was a little less than magical: they came ashore in broad daylight, Anne leading, Charles ten feet behind, cradling Jon in the crook of his right arm, feeding the gangway rail deftly through his left hand for support. It was blustery yet mild: Charles wasn’t even wearing an overcoat.
This was New Year’s Eve. They’d cross the Atlantic on the American Importer (the irony of the name was not lost on them, nor on the legions of newspaper reporters covering the story around the world), a modest-sized cargo ship carrying no other passengers. They made some friends though. Two, precisely: the ship’s kitten and a nice white-haired steward who served them their meals in their cramped (sometimes they felt like stowaways) little cabin. An Englishman, he’d served in two wars.
“And now we’re getting trimmed for another one,” he told Charles.
“Think so?” replied Charles, more amused than surprised.
“Oh yes, sir. To settle the question…” The steward paused here, glanced from Charles to Jon to Anne and then back again to Charles. “A chop for the baby?”
Jon was distinctly unimpressed with this. “I’m not a baby am I?” he protested, wriggling irritably in the nest of cushions they’d made for him so he could sit up at the table.
Jon had a point. He was not a baby. He was almost three-and-a-half.
Charles nodded. The steward withdrew.
War. Now we’re getting trimmed for another one. To settle the question. To settle it once and for all.
Two days out from Liverpool, it felt as if it had already begun. They’d sailed into a storm; and one particularly monstrous wave had almost done for them all, overwhelming the ship, crashing broadside, threatening, for an instant, to capsize it. The Lindberghs’ cabin flooded and their clothes (the clothes they were standing in and the clothes in their luggage) were ruined.
But they’d sailed through; and as they’d passed the coast of Ireland, though the seas were rough, the skies were blue. The breeze carried with it the distinctive smell of land, powerfully evocative after more than a week at sea, and their hearts lifted.
The decision to leave America had been made in secret. Charles hadn’t even told Anne until a couple of days before. Then he’d talked to Deak Lyman on The New York Times, on the strict understanding that the interview was to be embargoed until after the American Importer had sailed.
The article, 1750 words that would win Lyman the Pulitzer Prize, ran on Monday 21 December 1935. The front page headline of the Times that day, set in huge type across four columns, was:
LINDBERGH FAMILY SAILS FOR ENGLAND
TO SEEK A SAFE SECLUDED RESIDENCE:
THREATS ON SON’S LIFE FORCE DECISION
The headlines ten days later in Liverpool were rather simpler but no less dramatic:
LINDBERGHS IN LIVERPOOL
It was all a blur on the quayside. Police, some on horseback, a milling mob of reporters and photographers. Yet they made it to their waiting car.
Jon was brave. Anne and Charles, sitting back, looked at each other, smiled, squeezed hands.
Then, as if by divine intervention, the crowds parted and they were off.
Anne stared out of the car window as images of an unfamiliar city flitted by. Trams, omnibuses, chimney pots, red-cheeked children, women with shawls, nursemaids wheeling prams, dirty brick terraces, raincoats, drably dressed girls.
And on every street corner, newspaper sellers crying their wares. Extra! Extra!
LINDBERGH IN LIVERPOOL
Anne felt a frisson. Butterflies in her stomach. That intoxicating mix of fear and anticipation.
On every street corner as their car sped through the city streets:
LINDBERGH IN LIVERPOOL!