Monday, 19 July 2010

The lost flight of Pantaleon Quiroga

The other week I decided to take a break from reading Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy and reread William Boyd's The Blue Afternoon. I was enjoying McCarthy, but at over 1000 pages, the three novels were a bit too much for me to get through in one go. And while the first book, All the Pretty Horses, is supposed to be McCarthy's least dark novel, it's far from uplifting, and after finishing the second, The Crossing, which starts off well with its description of the growing relationship between a young cowboy and a wolf he's supposed to kill but ends up escorting over the border to Mexico but drags a bit in the final hundred pages or so, I was definitely in the mood for something lighter.

I bought my copy of The Blue Afternoon last year in Wellington and finished reading it the day I had my nose job. It's a love story/murder mystery set mostly in the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century. This was during the U.S. occupation, which, as I've mentioned previously, sparked quite a bit of bloodshed. The male protagonist, Salvador Carriscant, is a progressive surgeon in Manila, who's disliked by his conservative peers but has the support of a young anesthetist named Pantaleon Quiroga. One of the subplots involves Quiroga's construction of a flying machine he calls the Aero-mobile, part of an effort to win the international Amberway-Richault Prize for the first powered flight of over 100 meters. Carrriscant reluctantly agrees to act as Quiroga's copilot on the Aero-mobile's maiden flight, but as the following passage indicates, thing don't exactly go to plan.
The time had come. As if in a dream Carriscant found himself climbing into the rear saddle in the nose of the Aero-mobile. The two warping handles jutted up in front of him and without thinking he grasped them firmly, pulling them this way and that and causing the tail to turn in response. A soft salvo of flash powder greeted this impulsive gesture. Behind him Pantaleon began to swing the propeller. Carriscant prayed earnestly for a fuel leak, a faulty connection, a blown gasket, anything, but on the third attempt the pistons fired and the shrill irate roar of the Flanquin filled his ears. He felt the vibrations travel up his spine and suddenly he wished he was wearing different clothes: he felt a complete fool in his white linen suit and his glossy English brogues. Pantaleon flapped round the wing in his leather coat as the second propeller began to turn. He climbed into the forward saddle and inserted his feet into the stirrup controls. He twisted round to face Carriscant, his eyes bright, two darker spots on his brown face where his blush glowed.
'Thank you, my friend,' he said emotionally. 'All that bad feeling is behind us now. Please tell me it's so.'
'Completely forgotten, Panta.' He paused. 'Now, you're quite sure this is safe.'
'You're more at risk in a carromato,' he said, with serene confidence. 'Now remember, only when I reach up for the air-catcher do you take over the warp controls. Otherwise, do nothing.'
Pantaleon reached up to the twin handles above his shoulder and pushed them, raising the long flap on the leading edge to its full extent. Then he turned up the throttle control to full and the Aero-mobile began to thrum and judder violently. He gave the signal to the boy to pull away the wooden chocks and released the brake on the bicycle wheels.
With a brutal jerk the Aero-mobile lurched forward. Carriscant was flung backwards and as the whip crack effect hurled him forward again his nose smashed heavily into Pantaleon's back between his shoulder blades. His vision dimmed as his eyes flooded with salty tears and he sensed, rather than saw, the hot plumes of blood jet from his nostrils.
He was aware of the tremendous noise of the engine and the hollow drumming sound of the wheels on the roadway planks as the machine began to pick up speed. As he blinked his eyes clear he saw the dark dripping splash of his blood on Pantaleon's coat back and, to his horror, he realised that his entire front was a sopping swathe of red, that pools had gathered in the creases in his lap and that more was still snorting from his nose.
'Stop!' he screamed. 'You've got to stop it!'
Pantaleon was sitting hunched forward over his controls, oblivious, like a racing cyclist in a sprint. Carriscant now felt the speed of their passage whip the ribbons of blood and snot away from his nose to sprinkle the rear section behind him, the heavy drops pattering on the stretched fabric. Then there was a sudden decrease in noise and he realised the drumming of the wheels had ceased. Beyond his left thigh he saw the cruciform shadow of the Aero-mobile begin to shrink slowly. To his absolute horror he realised that they had taken to the air.
Distance walked since last post: 3km
Total distance walked since Koshu Kaido training began: 107.9km
Days left until departure: 58

No comments: