- Published: 21 May 2019
- ISBN: 9781784742836
- Imprint: Chatto & Windus
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 336
- RRP: $32.99
Maja is thirty-seven weeks pregnant. She would not be allowed on a commercial flight but they have been staying with friends who own a vineyard in Bellevue Champillon and one of the other guests, Viktor, has a Piper PA-28 Warrior which he intends to fly back to Popham the following morning. His Land Rover is waiting at the airfield and it will be the simplest thing in the world to drop her at the Winchester house en route to the south coast. Her husband, Philippe, does not like placing Maja in the care of another man, let alone one he has met only two days previously, but the jigsaw falls so serendipitously into place that refusal is almost impossible. He will drive to Paris, leave the car at the apartment, take the Eurostar to London and be back in Winchester a day later.
Besides, Maja enjoys small planes. Travel has become too easy. You fall asleep in Istanbul and wake up in Beijing. She likes to watch the miles tick by – river deltas, irrigation circles, clouds spooling into existence downwind of peaks. She retains a vivid memory of flying over Oslofjord as a girl, island after island, summerhouses, quays, boats, the sun’s reflection skimming the water, some revelation which lay just beyond words about the relation between scale and escape and the surface of the earth. In addition, the morning sickness which persisted unnaturally late into her pregnancy has finally faded; she is experiencing the fabled glow and eager to indulge the freedom that comes with it before she devotes her life to a very small and very demanding human being.
Philippe’s anxiety is justified. Viktor has a Private Pilot’s Licence but no Instrument Rating. This wouldn’t matter were he travelling with only his nine-year-old son, Rudy. They would head off early and if the weather or other circumstances were to change he could either postpone the flight till the following day or divert to one of his alternates if they were already airborne. But Maja wakes late and takes a long breakfast and packs slowly and has mislaid a coral necklace which, she insists, can be couriered to the UK if and when it is found, but which becomes the object of a painstaking and fruitless search of what is a very large house. Lunch has come and gone by the time she is ready to leave. Were Maja less attractive Viktor would feel no compunction about inconveniencing her but, having been underwhelmed by her performances on screen, he is surprised to find himself in the company of a woman who makes him fifteen again – thick blonde hair, blue, blue eyes, cartoon-pretty, engagingly shambolic, just this side of plump. There is a scar on her cheek, courtesy of a rook which flew in through her bedroom window when she was ten years old. Viktor’s infatuation is enjoyable but mildly alarming for a man who is used to having a courtroom, indeed any room, in the palm of his hand.
The necklace will be found six months later by the gardener, Bruno, tarnished and grubby in a stand of poplars at the very edge of the property where the Beaufours rarely venture, let alone their guests. The only explanation they will be able to find is that some animal, drawn to the bright colour, has dragged it from the poolside, across the grass and into the trees before realising the pointlessness of the effort. They consider sending it to Winchester but cannot find the appropriate words for the accompanying letter, so it is laid quietly at the back of a drawer where it remains for many years.
Viktor rings the airfield to check the weather one final time before they leave the house. The report is not reassuring but he accepts it as a given that they are going to fly. Far from irritating him, he finds to his surprise that the delay has made Maja more endearing. He will not allow himself to appear anxious or ill-prepared in her eyes, so he dons those metaphorical robes which bestow a radiant confidence in the rightness of his own pronouncements, and the clear sky suggests that the weather is as susceptible as any jury to the force of his personality.
They walk out onto the tarmac and Rudy climbs into the plane straight away. Maja watches while Viktor performs the external checks, her visible enjoyment of the process reigniting some of the excitement he once felt himself before every flight. He climbs into the cabin through the single door, sits himself in the pilot’s seat then helps her in. He leans across her lap to pull the door shut, shows her how the seat belt works and gives her a headset. They refuel then park up into the wind. He puts the brakes on, checks the fuel is drawing from the emptier tank, switches to the fuller and runs through the power checks. Magnetos, carburettor, trim, full and free movement, hatch and harness. They taxi to the runway and wait for a Hawker 600 to take off, bank right and dissolve into the blue.
They have not left the ground but Rudy is already asleep in the back seat, lullabied by the rumble and bounce. He is ill at ease in the company of most other children but he is utterly self-sufficient, so this holiday has been, for him, a little heaven during which he has had unrestricted access to a pool, a well-stocked refrigerator with double doors and a set of thirty-two Caran d’Ache coloured pencils with which to continue writing and drawing his cartoon epic The Knights of Kandor.
His fondest memory is that of swimming in the rain, having the vacated pool area entirely to himself, the pebbled fizz of the surface and the blue silence under. He goes to a boarding school where he is bullied by the other boys in a way that is too unspecific and too nebulous to complain about but which eats away at him, and there are only three more days of holiday left, so he has made the most of his limited time in Bellevue, going to bed late and rising early. Consequently he is exhausted. But he will not be returning to school. In two hours he will be dead.
‘Prunay tower. Golf Alpha Sierra at the hold and ready for departure.’
‘Golf Alpha Sierra. Clear to take-off, runway zero one. Wind zero two zero degrees. Five knots.’
Viktor has become lax recently but because Maja is sitting next to him he goes through the emergency protocols, reciting the mantra in his head as they accelerate along the runway. ‘If I have an engine failure on the ground, I close the throttle and come to a halt. If I get an engine failure when I’m just airborne but have sufficient room I close the throttle and land back on the runway. If I can’t land on the runway I pick the safest area within thirty degrees left and right of the centre line and land in it.’
Thirty miles per hour, forty, fifty . . . They take off and Viktor turns on track as they climb. He’ll head north-west to Le Touquet then north along the coast to Cap Gris-Nez before crossing the Channel to the Dover beacon. They level out at six thousand feet and Maja starts talking about riding a horse called Bombardier on the South Downs – the Clarendon Way, Ashley Down, Beacon Hill . . . It’s superficial chatter but she seems satisfied with a few well-placed noises of agreement and he likes the sound of her voice. Finally she stops fighting the roar of the engine and gives herself over to looking down at the landscape so that he is free to turn every now and then and imagine what she looks like naked.
Five thousand feet below it’s a jumbled parquet of fields, half ploughed, half green, patches of forest over Saint-Gobain and Noyon, the fat snake of the Somme looping down towards Amiens. The sky is cloudier now, the blue fading, the air a little bumpier. He radios Lille Information for a heads-up. A few clouds at a thousand feet, broken cloud at fifteen hundred, overcast at five. Not perfect but they’re heading towards Le Touquet anyway so there are no significant decisions to be made and Maja is talking again, about her husband’s shortcomings this time, in a way which is sad and funny and surprisingly kind, so that Viktor feels drawn into a circle of confidence from which he has been excluded all week, a sensation so intensely pleasurable when combined with their physical closeness that he pays too little attention to the slowly deteriorating weather. Over Abbeville the cloud thickens unexpectedly. He loses visual contact with the ground and finds that his forward visibility has been reduced to the point where he can no longer distinguish the horizon. He knows precisely what he should do at this point – carefully execute a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn and get out of what is a potentially disastrous situation as swiftly as he can. If Maja were noticeably concerned then this is precisely what he would do, but far from understanding the danger they are now in, she seems entranced.
‘You can imagine it’s Turkey down there. Or Finland. Very Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.’
It is the most foolish thing he has ever done. Their safety – her safety, Rudy’s safety – is more important than any other consideration, but there is some caveman part of his brain which is profoundly averse to being seen as less than competent, by anyone, let alone by a woman, and least of all by a woman he finds this attractive. The very act of turning over these thoughts in his mind has postponed the evasive action he should have taken by five, then ten, then fifteen seconds and convinced him that since he’s on track he will hold his course and, fingers crossed, soon emerge from the other side of the cloud.
There is an American study everyone quotes during PPL training which says that the average life expectancy of a pilot who flies into cloud with no instrument training is ninety seconds. It had always seemed to him like a tactical exaggeration. Keep out. Here be monsters. Or a measure perhaps of the number of idiot farmers in rural Kansas who used cropdusters like quad bikes. It is the speed with which he must read and react to the instruments which shocks him, and the difficulty of ignoring the messages coming from his inner ear.
Maja gazes out of the window, unperturbed.
It is less than three minutes since they entered the cloud. He is shockingly tired and starting to feel dizzy, his brain so desperate for some fixed point to contradict all these deceptive signals of lift and twist and fall and yaw that he is starting to hallucinate dark shapes ahead. The aircraft pitches and banks. He over-corrects. He needs to lose height. Maybe he can get out from under the cloud cover. A glimpse of the ground is all he needs. He loosens the throttle a little and gently pushes the yoke forwards. Two thousand feet, a thousand feet, eight hundred.
Were he not concentrating so hard on keeping the plane level and straight he might realise the elementary mistake he is making. The altimeter is set to sea level. He is not over the sea. He is over the land. Four minutes. Five. The cloud is not clearing. There is a very real possibility that they are going to crash. He is unconcerned about his own death, but he cannot bear the thought that he will kill his own son, he cannot bear the thought that he will kill a beautiful woman and her unborn child.
In his dream Rudy is playing with his imaginary friend, Babu. They are back at Bellevue. It is night-time and they have taken triangles of La Vache Qui Rit from the fridge and made themselves big tumblers of grenadine and turned on the pool lights so that the water is a turquoise slab of liquid light swaying in the dark.
Maja looks across and sees tears rolling down Viktor’s face. He says, in an oddly formal voice, ‘I really am so very, very sorry about this.’ She is sick with fear for perhaps ten seconds then the fog in front of the plane darkens for the merest moment before they strike the side of a grain silo. They are travelling at seventy miles per hour. The silo is empty so they rip through the corrugated iron. The Perspex windscreen splits and pops out of its frame, the snapped edge taking Viktor’s head clean off. They hit the far wall of the silo, rip through that in turn then plough, nose first, into the hard earth. The wheels collapse, the plane pitches forward and the engine block is punched backwards, crushing Maja’s legs.
By chance a German doctor, Raphael Bhatt, is driving slowly along a small country road between Gapennes and Yvrench when he sees a green starboard wing light descending to the left of the car. The fog is so thick that he has no idea whether the plane is a Cessna or an Airbus. He hits the brakes for fear that the plane is going to veer across the road, but the light shoots ahead, lower than tree height now, and vanishes. He does not know the area well but he is fairly sure that there are no airfields nearby. He thinks he hears an explosion of some kind but it is possible that he has imagined it. He slows to a crawl and waits for the glow of flames, but there is only the road dissolving into the whiteness ahead. He wonders whether he really saw it, the way one does after extraordinary events which leave no mark on one’s surroundings.
He picks up speed. After a few hundred metres he takes a left-hand turning onto a dirt track which leads to a dilapidated farmhouse. A rusted tractor. A stack of old tyres. He suspects that he has come to the wrong place, that the plane landed somewhere else or gained altitude and is now five miles away. Nevertheless he gets out of the car. The only thing he can hear is the fog-muffled grunting of many pigs, the smell of whose shit is almost overpowering. The door of the farmhouse opens, a triangle of light cuts across the muddy yard and a portly woman trots towards him – bun, floral apron, slippers – shouting, ‘Venez! Venez! ’ as if she were relieved to find that he has finally arrived. She beckons him round the side of the farmhouse whose entire gable wall consists of black plastic sheeting held in place by a grid of wooden battens. An intruder floodlight comes on as they jog beneath it. The woman’s husband stands facing them, immobile, pointing a beam of torchlight to his left like a bored usherette at the cinema. They turn the corner of a barn.
It is, by some margin, the most extraordinary thing Raphael has seen in his life. The nose of the plane is buried in the earth, the wings have snapped and slumped forward and the tail is bent over like the tail of a scorpion. Directly behind the plane is a large metal building through which it seems to have flown, though it is difficult to make out details in this Gothic light. He runs over. Through the shattered glass he can see a small, blonde woman wearing a cream rollneck jumper. Beyond that it is impossible to work out what she looks like because her face is crazed with lacerations. She is heavily pregnant. He forgets what country he is in. He says, ‘Keine Panik, ich bin Arzt.’ He grabs the handle of the door and twists it. He puts his foot against the body of the plane and heaves. The door opens at the third attempt with a grinding squeal as it scrapes across the buckled wing. He can see now that the woman’s legs are clamped between the seat and the instrument panel. She sounds as if she is very, very drunk and is trying to get across some important message but cannot form the words. She needs to be cut out. She needs pain relief. He needs to examine her lower legs to discover how badly she might be bleeding. None of these things are possible. And only then does he see that she is not the pilot. The pilot is sitting beyond her in the far seat. His head is missing. This detail will be kept out of the press but the gossip at l’Arbre de Mai in town will be that old man Moreau found the head in the middle of a nearby field the following day.
The ripped metal of the plane squeals and shifts. Raphael jumps backwards and waits for the structure to find a new equilibrium. Broken glass has sliced a deep channel in the flesh of his arm of which he is completely unaware. He is unaware of many things. Only afterwards, in the flashbacks which will haunt him for the best part of two years, will he worry about the possibility of the plane catching fire. He grabs the farmer’s torch and returns to the woman and it is only when he points the beam into the dark interior of the cabin that he sees a boy lying behind her in the rear footwell. He smashes the small triangular window at the back with the butt of the torch so that he can reach inside. He squeezes the boy’s shoulder but gets no response. He presses two fingers to the boy’s neck. Nothing. He twists the boy’s head and pulls his upper eyelids back, left then right. No dilation. Traumatic head injury, probably. Behind him the farmer’s wife is praying quietly to herself. ‘Pardonne-nous nos offenses, comme nous aussi nous pardonnons ŕ ceux qui nous ont offensés.’
The injured woman is holding her swollen belly. Is it possible that she is in labour? ‘Hang on,’ he says. ‘Help will be here very soon.’ The woman’s head is rolling from side to side. He cannot even tell what language she is speaking, but with the aid of the torch he can make out the exposed bone of a broken femur. He takes off his tie and makes a rudimentary tourniquet. She seems unaware of what he’s doing. Her wordless drunken moan is growing steadily quieter. The roll of her head is a metronome winding down. ‘Be strong. We will get through this together, the two of us.’
He pulls the tourniquet as tight as he can then secures it with a double reef knot. There is nothing more he can do now except wait. He feels her belly. The baby is moving. The following minutes are the most upsetting part of what will be the most upsetting night of his life, waiting for the emergency services to arrive, offering reassurance which feels increasingly meaningless, desperately willing the woman and the child to remain alive. ‘You can do it. Help is on its way.’
After a period of time which could be ten minutes or an hour the woman’s head sags forwards and she stops moving. She has gone, he is certain of it. He knows now what he has to do. If nothing else he may be able to keep the baby alive.
He unclips the woman’s seat belt and steps over her so that he is straddling her belly. There is blood everywhere. The pilot’s hand is frozen mid-air, finger pointing upwards, as if he were interrupted in the middle of a speech.
Raphael grips the woman’s nose and tilts her head back. He puts his lips to her mouth and blows hard to inflate her lungs. Her chest rises. He pauses and does it again. If he can get enough oxygen into her lungs and keep her heart pumping then he may be able to get enough oxygen to the baby. He leans backwards, places the heels of his doubled hands against her sternum and presses hard. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . Back to the mouth. Grip, tilt, blow. There is an eerie stillness in the midst of all this. The twisted metal, the fog, the sound of the pigs, the rhythm of his hands. Occasionally the plane creaks. Or perhaps it is the broken metal of the building which stands over them. He pictures himself on an iron ship in the middle of a dark ocean. He and the unborn child could be the only living beings in the world.
He doesn’t wear a watch on holiday so he counts, because the paramedics will need to know. Fifty cycles of CPR. Twenty-five minutes or thereabouts. He hears sirens and gunned engines and men’s voices and he is suddenly in the middle of a science-fiction film, all thunder and arc-light, helmets and jumpsuits. There is a large vehicle of a kind he has never seen before which might be a fire tender from a military airfield. A pair of gloved hands grip his shoulders and guide him out of the cockpit. He walks away then turns to take it all in – the silhouetted figures, the buckled crucifix of the plane, ‘CA-956’ in yellow on racing green, pulsing blue lights, the sparkler-fizz of oxy-acetylene torches. It is like a vast Renaissance canvas depicting some new myth. Then he thinks, for the first time, that this is probably a family. The mother is dead, the father is dead, the son is dead. And if the child survives . . .? Something happens which has never happened in seventeen years of practising medicine. A flurry of violet hail blows across his field of vision and he sees the mud of the farmyard swing gracefully up to meet his unprotected face. He returns to his body to find himself sitting on a plastic barrel holding a small chipped mug of brandy and the farmer’s wife offering him an opened packet of chocolate LU Pépitos. Somewhere a baby is crying.