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