Ron McLelland drives for IGA's food fleet. Mostly meat and dairy. Sometimes fresh produce. Once, in a crazy kamikaze mission, oranges from Florida and back again to Halifax in three days. He'd called his wife Linda from a payphone beside a takeout place shaped like a giant burger and he'd tried to describe to her twilight in the Everglades. He said it made him think about what it must be like to die alone, and she said, what's with men always brooding on their mortality; hadn't she told him all those caffeine pills would give him the jitters?
Ron is one of six IGA drivers who have volunteered. He's been allocated a 28-foot refrigeration trailer, made for long haul. He sits in his cab reading Friday's Daily News, waiting for the programming instructions. On page three, a waitress at the Sou'Wester Restaurant is predicting doom for the local lobster catch. "People just won't feel right," she says. "Well, they're scavengers, lobsters, aren't they?"
He throws the paper to the floor of the cab. For a moment, unaccountably, he feels something choking the back of his throat, like the time his brother Neil made him pay ten cents to see a picture of Marilyn Monroe almost naked, and there it was, in grisly black and white, her bloated body on an autopsy table.
The call comes through from the depot. Minus twenty, they say. "Ron? That's minus twenty." Deep freeze.
Long-haulage was Ron's solution to death, the family business. For him, it had been an unfortunate point of familial pride that, in April 1912, his grandfather, James McLelland—then a twenty year old completing an apprenticeship at John Snow & Co Undertakers—had been one of the team aboard the MacKay-Bennett the morning she left port with the tons of ice, the lengths of canvas, the embalmers' tools and the hundred coffins.
They'd spotted the berg itself—you couldn't miss it—a 200-foot mountain of ice. "Imagine it," James McLelland would say to Ron and Neil over saucers of tea. "It was like God Himself coming at you. Not angry, just indifferent, which, I promise you, is worse."
In the span of just three days, the bodies had drifted almost fifty miles from the co-ordinates the captain had been given. That much they could tell the papers. "Of course, what none of us could say is that we hit some of the bodies, there were that many. We knocked 'em clean out of the water five, six feet into the air. It was like something out of a crazy cartoon. You couldn't believe it was happening.
"When we dropped anchor at last, the weird thing was, most of them looked like they'd only nodded off. They were frozen upright in the jackets—lot of good those things were. Just made for a slower death. Lord, what a mess. A terrible wreath it was around the hull. Bodies, limbs, wreckage, pack ice… I can still see this woman in her nightdress clasping a baby to her breast, and three men beside her, all of them clinging to the same chair.
"We buried 116 at sea in burlap bags weighted with iron: they were the bodies damaged during the sinking, or smashed in the ice flow, or eaten by sea creatures. Of course, the first-class passengers we embalmed and put in coffins, no matter how bad they looked. Problem was, after only four days, we run out of the embalming fluid. The captain, he contacts the White Star Line's New York office; says they have to send more supplies and a second ship. As it was, the best we could do for the steerage folk was to wrap them up in canvas; and for the crew, to lay them out on the deck, covered with tarps. With the wind at night and the ship wallowing on the rollers, you could have sworn they were breathing still.
"306 bodies, boys. That was the cargo."
The day after Ron's thirteenth birthday, James McLelland would be waked, open casket, in the Serenity Room of McLelland & Sons Family Funeral Home. He would wear on his face the taut cosmetic expression of unwrinkled peace that had been his own point of professional pride. He would never know that only five years on, his eldest grandson, Ron, would fail his exams. All of them. Pathology. Restorative art. Funeral rites. Mortuary law. Embalming theory and practice. Merchandising and management. At the age of eighteen, Ron boasted nothing more than a high school diploma and a heavy-goods driving licence. "And how far do you think that's going to get you, Ron?" Ron's father, James's son, shouted over the smashed body of a thirty-year-old father of three. "You tell me that."
"Far," said Ron. "Far from here."
When kurt zucker arrives at JFK airport, his flight number is already flashing on the monitors. The baggage belts have broken down. The line at the check-in doubles and redoubles on itself. Children sleep on soft-sided matching luggage. Middle-aged men rest their paunches on abandoned ticket counters. He feels he's walked into a B-movie where the population is in the grip of the dreaded E-Force. "E," a dome-headed scientist will explain to his frightened but winsome technician, "is for Entropy," and she will duly scream.
"Excuse me, bitte," Kurt says faltering loudly. "Excuse me. My wife is, right now, yes, a baby having in Geneva. The plane leaves. Excuse me––" He moves slowly up the line, blushing at the success of the lie.
"Hey, bud." Something thumps his arm. He turns around. A stocky man hidden behind mafia sunglasses and sideburns from 1976 reaches into his breastpocket. Kurt steps back. Air rage. This is where it all begins. "See this?" Kurt looks down. A fat Cuban cigar. "No, don't thank me, just name the kid after me—Max, since you're not asking." Someone slaps him on the back as he clambers over a barrier. An elderly woman thrusts a box of brandy-filled chocolates under his arm. "For your wife," she says. Suddenly he is at the check-in desk. He loves Americans.
A blonde at the desk in a crisp blue blazer reaches for his documents. "Thank you, Dr Zucker. You want Gate 21. The last one." She smiles. "So leg it."
He sprints, laptop and portable CD player banging at his hip. He clears the gate, nods sheepishly to the stewardess, and falls into his seat aboard the Boeing MD-11 at 8.06pm, ten minutes before take-off.
"I see you've noticed my socks." It's his neighbour in 18A. His feet are bright purple. "Before you ask, I'm not Donny Osmond, okay?"
Kurt nods, fumbles for his CD player, loads it with Bowie's Young Americans as the plane begins to taxi down the runway.
"So what takes you to Geneva? Sorry. Didn't get your name."
"Kurt. A conference. At Cern." A steward stops and reminds him to turn off the CD player for take-off. There is no escape.
"Kurt? Hal. I've heard of that. Quantum foam, right?"
"You giving a paper, Kurt?"
"Got a title?"
"'Thermalisation in Ultrarelativistic Heavy Ion Collisions: energy densities and entropy production.'"
"It's got a ring to it."
Kurt smiles wanly. The conversation dies.
His passion is particle accelerators—the generation of high-energy systems. In the lab at Brookhaven, he bears witness to explosions of heat and light that have not been possible since the early days of the universe. And privately, deeply, irrationally, Kurt Zucker struggles against the second law of thermodynamics. Against the tyranny of entropy.
On the armrest, Hal's arm is warm against his.
A young fisherman called Ian shares hot tea from his thermos. He's telling Ron that the exclusion zone goes on forever. His father, he says, went out on Wednesday night, 'bout three am. "The whole bay is glowing yellow from the flares, right? And the phone starts ringing and my old man says he's going. Won't let me go. But in less than an hour, he's back, you know, peeling off the oilskins. 'Can't do it,' he's saying. 'It's wreckage out there. Just wreckage,' and I know he means he's found no one alive. He looks at me and his eyes are filling up. 'I don't know what to do,' he says. 'Don't go back, Dad,' I says. 'The military, they're here.' 'You don't understand,' he says. 'I got a piece of a woman in the boat.'"
Ian and Ron are standing on the bright sweep of ancient granite that disappears in a reef under the rim of St Margaret's bay. They can smell jet fuel on the wind. Past the lighthouse, breakers crash.
"Can't be easy for them divers," says Ian. Ron shakes his head, zips up his jacket all the way to his Adam's apple. There's been rain. High winds. Two-metre swells. The divers are down there, he thinks, at sixty metres, on tethers, the water close to freezing.
At Friday noon, the head of the salvage operation will stand in the parking lot of the Sou'Wester Restaurant and confirm for the world media that the plane hit the water so violently it shattered into more than a million pieces.
John Campbell stares into a rock pool while a reporter from Toronto questions him. She thinks him shy, an old bachelor who can't look a woman in the eye. "That's all," he says patiently: he was at home when he heard a boom of thunder. "A double thump," he says, "like the sound the Concorde makes when it breaks the sound barrier over the bay every morning. Except this time, the beams in my house shook."
"A double thump?" she says.
"Like a heartbeat." She makes a note.
He wants her to go away. "They're doing coffee and tea in the vestry, you know." He doesn't want her to see the baby's shoe floating in the rock pool.
Brenda Murphy is about to be interviewed in St John's church by a middle-aged man in an armed forces uniform. They loiter by the church portals, looking out toward the brooding bay. Then he motions her into the crying room and invites her to be seated. He looks not at her, but at a humming laptop screen as she gives her name, address and place of work, his fingers flying over the keys. She feels the words-to-be jangling within her.
On Wednesday night, she was in her mobile home at New Harbour Point. She opened the door at 10.30 to let out Lucky, her dog, when she saw something, about 300 yards across the bay. "At first it was a light like I'd never seen," she says. "I thought, isn't that beautiful. You see, there was a lot of mist out here, so the whole sky was glowing with it. I wondered if maybe it wasn't a meteor. Everything was luminous, and, it's funny, but I felt almost luminous myself with it. By the time I spotted the flames, it was falling into the bay."
Ginny told Kurt she wasn't going to wait for their marriage to burn out when he did. He said, "We'll have a baby. Soon." She said, what did he expect her to conceive with—a turkey-baster? He had energy, brio, charm—for his colleagues, for his students. Then he returned to her, spent, cold.
And she felt isolated in Hamburg. Hamburg made her ridiculous. Irrational. It made her cry after lunch at his mother's. It made her sicken for no reason at the sight of the small scar on his mother's face, visible through the orange matte of her foundation. It made her start wondering what Kurt's family had been—had really been—during the war. His father had been a leading chemist. Could one suddenly turn up as a leading chemist in 1949? And hadn't Kurt's grandfather been a phrenologist? Wasn't that just steps away from eugenics? Could she propagate such a line?
Kurt does not take a complimentary newspaper or the duty-free magazine. He does not watch the security video on the overhead monitor. He strips the small white pillow of its plastic case, leans his head back, and remembers, despite himself, the first time Ginny flew back to the States for Christmas, leaving him in Hamburg. He slept every night with his face buried in her nightdress. Four years later, who were they? She returned each day from the circulation desk smelling of yellowing books—a vomit-like smell he remembered from school textbooks. He'd never wanted sex less. She had never been so broody. She moved sluggishly. She was putting on weight. When the offer came for the residency in New York, he thought it was the answer. She said, what was the point? He'd never come home there either.
So he started life anew in her home town—DESY, his employer, agreed the release to Brookhaven. She remained in his. They agreed separation. They confirmed they'd see other people. That was what separation meant.
Kurt opens one eye. The beverage cart is trundling its way down the aisle. He thinks about phoning Ginny on the in-flight phone. He imagines waking her from sleep; telling her he is speaking to her from 10,000 feet and rising. He imagines her voice warm, drowsy, unguarded: "Head in the clouds? Not you," she says, smiling through a yawn. He wonders whether he can say, casually enough, "Maybe I'll hop on a flight from Geneva to Hamburg. Can you get a day off?" He is digging for a credit card when Hal looks up from the pocket security card and smiles broadly. It can wait, Kurt tells himself.
Across the aisle, the stewardess is speaking to John and Joan from Oregon. She's in her mid-sixties. He's maybe ten years older. She orders a vodka with cranberry juice and thanks the stewardess for the extra blanket. "Do you know," she says, "we last travelled to Europe together for our honeymoon twenty-five years ago? We'd each been widowed the year before. I worked for the Democrats then. John was in ladies' hosiery––sorry, honey. He owned a ladies' hosiery wholesalers. We met on a plane travelling out of Minneapolis. I'm sentimental about it," she says, "but John still hates flying, don't you, honey?"
"A scotch, please," he barks at the stewardess.
Kurt has been trying not to stare at the stewardess's brochure-face as she guides the stubborn drinks cart down the aisle. He tries to stop looking through the fresh white cotton of her blouse at the outline of her bra. He does not want to succumb to cliché. He is bored. That's the problem.
"After you, Kurt," says Hal, lowering his meal tray. The stewardess is standing, attentive, above them. She has a small mole on her right cheek.
"Thanks. A white wine, please."
"French or German, sir?"
She selects a wine glass from a compartment in her cart. He lowers his tray.
"Kurt, don't take this the wrong way," says Hal suddenly, "but you've got one bad case of hair static. It's airline pillows, right? Synthetic fibres. Just be grateful you've still got hair to stand on end."
The stewardess is waiting, glass poised. She smiles politely at him. He raises a hand and tries to flatten his hair without obvious self-consciousness. "Here, Kurt," says Hal, "allow me." Hal turns, raising his left arm to Kurt's head even as Kurt reaches for the glass. There is a collision of limbs. The glass falls, shattering on Kurt's tray.
"Whoa!" says Hal. Kurt spreads his legs quickly, to avoid the cascade of wine. The stewardess is there with towels and apologies. "I'm fine," he says, helping her to collect the glass shards. Hal orders a Coke and shuts up. Kurt does not return to his CD player. His hand clenches their shared armrest. Hal cedes it to him.
Kurt has in fact forgotten Hal. He has forgotten the wet patch on his groin. He is years away, at the wooden table in the big kitchen of his parents' house. It is Saturday. They have finished lunch: cold ham, broad beans from the garden, and Marthe's homemade bread. He and his father have embarked on Kurt's weekly science lesson. They are reviewing Newton's laws of motion when something crashes on the wall behind. They turn simultaneously, father and son, an echo of profiles. At the back of the kitchen, Kurt's mother is smashing her Hungarian wedding crystal. Particles of crystal fly, glittering and white, like handfuls of powdery snow. Kurt sees a single fragment fall in the dog's water bowl. Marthe, their housekeeper, runs in and out.
Kurt's father sighs, turning back to his son's diagrams. "Your mother gives us a useful case in point. Kurt? Are you listening? No, look at me. Newton's laws do not rule out the possibility of each glass your mother now throws at the wall reassembling itself and leaping back into her hand for her to return it to the shelf. 'For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction.' Yes? Ah, I see the frown. My only son thinks I take liberties. But wait. We'll return to it. For now, tell me this. What does this seeming reversibility of action also suggest? What is the other implication, Kurt? No? I will tell you then. It suggests that time too, in principle, is reversible.
"Consider this, my boy. We know time only as the unfolding of events. We have no other means of understanding it in practical terms. So if an event were to fold back on itself, so too would time insofar as we understand it. But either way, backward or forward, time—or the metaphorical flow of it we read for time—is illusory. That means, invented, Kurt. Yes? If there is only space-time, and the best minds of this century tell us there is, why might effect not precede cause?"
Kurt is embarrassed that his father talks while his mother cries. She is behind them still, her hand round the stem of a glass, her face like a piece of crumpled fruit. "Perhaps," Dr Zucker continues, "perhaps if we could see beyond the convention of chronology, Kurt, perhaps if you and I and Mamma could believe, could know, that this Christmas we will again toast the season with the clinking of the Hungarian crystal, the necessity of that future event, the certainty of it, would operate as cause and bring both pressure and precision to bear on the atoms that constitute the shards of crystal that are now scattered on our floor. The inevitability of that event would effect a transformation we, in our ignorance, could only think magic."
As always, Kurt falls in love with the sound of his father's voice. It is assured. It continues on like a drum roll, promising something. He ceases to care about his mother's crying.
"And this is the thing, Kurt. The first law of thermodynamics does not constrain the glasses in any way which rules out them assembling themselves and jumping back miraculously into your mother's hand. Are we agreed? Good. So where would that energy come from, you ask? Where? Well you tell me, Kurt."
Another glass shatters against the wall.
"From the energy the glass has gained in flight?"
"Exactly. So what then is the difficulty for our Christmas toast? Why will we be drinking from paper cups this year? What stands between us, Kurt, and the reversibility of time?"
"I don't know."
His father frowns. "Last week. Remember Maxwell and Boltzmann? Remember thermal equilibrium?" He looks up, sees a cut on his wife's face. "Never mind. Let's return to the facts of your mother's wedding crystal. The energy each glass gains from falling must go somewhere, yes? There must be an equal but opposite reaction of some kind. So where does it go? It goes into heat, Kurt, does it not? The atoms in the glass fragments are moving around just a little faster now. The glass and the wall and the floorboards will be warmer than they were a few minutes ago. And this heat energy is, in theory, just enough to raise all your mother's glasses and return them to the shelf, one by one. So what is the problem, Kurt?"
"The motions of the atoms are too messy to co-ordinate themselves?"
"Precisely. Heat is simply uncontrolled particle motions—and, as far as we know, uncontrollable particle motions. So it is heat which makes the motions, the events, of this life irreversible. It is heat, ultimately, which creates the illusion of the flow of time. Why? Because where there is heat there is entropy, and entropy knows only one direction. It is the world running down. It is disorder. It is your mother's wedding crystal in pieces on the floor."
Dr Zucker puts down his pencil and closes Kurt's notebook. He brushes the lunch crumbs very carefully from the table into his hand. He pushes back his chair. "Next Saturday, son. Yes?" And Kurt watches him recede down the corridor, crumbs still in the fist of his hand. When he looks back to his mother, curled in a chair by the window, he says nothing. He stares.
That first day, Ron expected body bags. Black spunbond shells laminated with polyethylene film. Or maybe the heat-sealed PVC type, better if there's body fluids. He'd seen them often enough in his father's embalming room. He did not expect crates. He did not expect heavy-duty, zip-lock freezer bags. He's standing by his truck with the guy from health and safety. "Body bags, mostly, just weren't feasible," he's saying to Ron.
"Sure, no, I understand." Ron hoists the crates slowly, loading the rear compartment first, bag by bag: segments of limbs; a finger with a ring on it; an ear; a toe; handfuls of soft tissue; three testicles; a foot in a shoe. He signs the health and safety dispatch form. He nods when the guy mentions the counselling services available on and off site. Then he slams the DuraSeal doors against death and climbs into his cab.
"And I thought the hearse was heavy to steer." James McLelland is sitting in the passenger seat. "How many miles you do to the gallon?"
Ron rolls his eyes.
He reaches for his belt, shifts into gear and waits for someone to move the security barriers.
"So what they doing for a morgue, Ron?"
"Hangar B. At Shearwater." Ron negotiates a tight turn, glad to be moving at last.
"In 1912, it was the curling rink on Agricola Street."
"Thought you'd have your own fleet by now. Somewhere hot. Somewhere far from here."
"Neil's done well for himself, hasn't he? Those pre-planned funerals seem to be taking off."
"And the girls?"
"I'm not gloating, Ron."
"We are what we are, Ron. And we McLellands, we're ushers. Like midwives are ushers. They often came in families too. It's a privilege, Ron."
"I'm volunteering for a week. That's it."
"Time's a switchback sometimes. You have to go backward to go forward again."
"If you say so."
"Time doesn't need my permission, Ron."
"Mind if I turn on the radio?"
"How many lost out there?"
"Won't be easy."
"You don't say."
"They'll start with distinctive marks: a tattoo, an old fracture that might have been screwed together. Jewellery helps—rings, watches and so on. Dental records will narrow it down. Footwear too, where they can make a match. Do you know what the airlines can't afford to tell you? Keep your passport in your shoe—that's your best chance of an early identification. Next, it's legs and arms. After that, well, it's down to the large intact remains of what we call 'no visible anatomical character.' That's legs which could be arms; arms which could be legs."
"They've got DNA testing these days, Grandad. So let's change the subject, okay?"
"I'm not being morbid, Ron."
"You do a good impression."
"I had a life looking death in the face, and I'll tell you this. A bit of the living always goes with the dead. It's two-way traffic, Ron. And I was proud to know that. It's you, you and your supposed sensitivities, that's what makes a morbid thing of it. You're so afraid of the stink, you know nothing else."
"Not just the stink, Grandad. The wreckage. The debris. Do you know I've just put a bag in the back labeled "incomplete infant." Ever seen one of those?"
"You and your dirty mind again, Ron McLelland. A right fetishist, you are. Body parts? You into that? Well hear this, my boy. There's no such thing as parts. Or wreckage. Or debris. No one and no thing is ever separate. There's a wholeness, Ron. That's right. A wholeness. Smile if you want. But only the stupid and the young know no better, and you're not young any more. Now"—James McLelland suddenly claps his hands on his thighs—"all that said, tell me this. Where can a dead man get a cup of tea round here?"
In the sea of her bed, Ginny wakes with a jolt. She runs naked and half asleep out of her dreams, out of her room, down the corridor, then stops short. She can hear only the gurgling of water in the radiators. It was a siren somewhere that entered her head and metamorphosed into the ringing of the phone. There was no call. She goes back to bed, cold.
Kurt looks at his watch. 9.16pm New York time, an hour since take-off. Hal's meal tray is already empty. He seems to doze. Kurt eyes the phone once more. He is reaching for his wallet when a flight attendant's voice interrupts the programme. She announces that the captain has switched on the seatbelt sign. The flight, she explains, is to be diverted to Halifax, forty-eight kilometres away. A small electrical fault is suspected. It is not a cause for concern. However, the captain has decided it would be prudent to correct it before beginning the long haul over the Atlantic. In the meantime, the cabin lighting will be switched off, purely as a safety precaution. Attendants will collect meal trays with the aid of flashlights.
Sometimes, in the shower, on the subway, or in the line-up at his local deli, Kurt dreams of the entropic disclaimer, of the loophole that will allow him to undo the wild kinetics of heat and roll time back. He would like to be able to say to Ginny, "I am not going to New York without you." He would like to say to his mother long ago, "You cut your face. Does it hurt?"
Hal taps Kurt's elbow. "What do you make of that, Kurt? Halifax. Where is Halifax, for Pete's sake?"
The pretty stewardess with the mole on her cheek collects their trays. The cabin is dark, except for the bobbing beams of light. She says, "We'll be landing soon. Could you straighten your seatback, sir?"
Somewhere, a baby cries. Just ahead of him, Kurt can see a white flutter of hands: Joan's patting John's. To his right, a heavy-set man in his sixties holds a small dark bag embroidered with gold thread.
In the darkness of the cabin, people speak in low tones, as if in a foreign church, while far below them, Brenda Murphy tries to finish today's crossword at the kitchen table in her mobile home. Now and again, she reaches down without looking and gives Lucky a scratch. She glances at the clock. 10.20. And still one clue she cannot get. "A ten-letter word for 'fate,' Lucky. Then I'll let you out. It's not 'destiny.' Too short. The first letter is 'p' and the sixth is 'd'—at least it's a 'd' if 12-down is 'Di Caprio.'"
In the days to come, Ron McLelland will read and re-read the timetable of disaster in his morning paper. He will plot in his mind the routine of his own movements that night, implausible now in their banality. He will mark time against the movement of a clock that moved 229 people out of time.
10.00 Co-pilot smells smoke in cockpit. Checks.
10.10 Smoke confirmed as the MD-11 widebody plane crosses the coast of Nova Scotia.
10.14 Captain radios Moncton Area Control Centre. "Swissair 111 heavy is declaring Pan, Pan, Pan." Situation serious, not desperate. "We'll divert to Boston."
"Swissair 111, we'd suggest Halifax. Boston is 300 nautical miles away. Halifax is 70."
10.16 "Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has switched on the seatbelt sign. We regret to inform you that this flight will be diverted to Halifax, 48km away. An electrical fault is suspected. It is not a cause for concern. However, the captain has decided it would be prudent to correct it before continuing our journey over the Atlantic. In the meantime, the cabin lighting will be switched off, purely as a precaution. Attendants will collect meal trays with the aid of flashlights."
10.18 "What do you make of that, Kurt? Halifax. Where is Halifax, for Pete's sake?"
"Swissair 111, you've got 30 miles to fly to the runway."
"We need more than 30 miles."
"Turn left to lose some altitude."
"Roger, we are turning left to heading, uh, north."
"Thank you, sir. We'll be landing soon. Could you straighten your seatback?"
"Swissair 111, when you have time could I have the number of souls on board?"
"Halifax, we must, uh, dump fuel. May we do that in this area during the descent?"
"Linda, is it the recycling tomorrow?"
"Recycling's on Wednesday, Ron."
"Uh, okay, I'm going to take you—are you able to turn back to the south or do you want to stay closer to the airport?"
"We can turn towards the south to dump."
"John, it doesn't matter. Just try to close your eyes until we land."
"If necessary, sir, we'll put you up in a hotel."
"See, honey. I said that, didn't I?"
"Hal. Hal Huskins. Nice to meet you."
"An electrician would come in handy about now, eh Bernie? How are you on wiring?"
"I never was the handyman type, Hal. I'm a retired Hebrew teacher."
"Turn to the left heading of two-zero-zero degrees and advise me when you are ready to dump. It will be about 10 miles before you're off the coast. You're still within 35, 40 miles of the airport if you have to get here in a hurry. I'll advise you when you are over the water. It will be very shortly."
10.20 "A ten-letter word for 'fate,' Lucky. Then I'll let you out."
10.23 "Halifax, our autopilot is gone. Going over to manual."
"Roger. You're almost there."
"Kurt, you awake? This is Bernie. Bernie's an expert Hebrew teacher."
"A retired Hebrew teacher."
"Kurt's a physicist. Particular to particles."
"What about you, Hal? What is it you do when you're not thousands of feet in the air?"
"Well, Bernie, I could lie but what the hell? I'm told by people who assure me they know that I'm what's called a 'fantasist'—no, really, no kidding. A few years back, I took a stab at white-collar crime, and failed—failed so badly I wasn't even arrested—then went crazy the next day in Central park with a butterfly net. Landed myself on a doctor's couch. No, don't be embarrassed. Like I say, God knows, I could have lied."
10.24 "Swissair 111 is declaring emergency. I repeat, Swissair 111 is declaring emergency."
"God, you're freezing, Ron. You didn't go outside in just your robe again, did you?"
"Who's looking, Linda? Jesus, it's cold out there tonight. Neil call today?"
"My biggest problem, Bernie, has always been believing everything's possible. And that's actually more limiting than it sounds."
"Roger, Swissair 111. You're off coast."
"We—dump. We have to land immediate––"
"No. But he's your brother. You could call him for a change."
"Swissair 111, you are cleared to commence your fuel dump on that track. Advise me when the dump is complete."
"Swissair 111 check. You're cleared to dump."
"He said he'd phone me. Anyway, there's no point––"
"I repeat: you are cleared to dump."
At 10.25, Swissair 111 disappears from radio contact. In the tower at Halifax, 229 lives condense to a single pulse on the radar screen. In the starless night over St Margaret's bay, the plane has begun its descent, spiralling like ticker-tape in the air. It will be five minutes more before Brenda Murphy opens her door at New Harbour Point and marvels at the luminous mist of the September sky.
"My God. We're going down."
"Always good to have a physicist on board, Kurt. Now listen to me. Here's your lifejacket. Remember the security position? Bernie, you okay? Grab your lifejacket. Don't blow it up till you leave the plane. It's under your seat. Go on, Bernie."
"Thank you, my friend. But I suspect this will suffice." Bernie shakes out a piece of cloth. "My prayer shawl. I stuck it in my carry-on at the last minute."
"There'll be an inflatable chute, Bernie, lifeboats, high-intensity flares till the coast guard arrives. Are we over water? We could be over water. Trust me. I used to work as a security adviser for United. In no time, you'll have the Gideon Bible in one hand and a stiff drink from your minibar in the other. Me, I'll be stealing souvenir towels. Kurt, you okay? Kurt?"
Overhead, compartment doors spring open; bags, boxes and coats fly into the darkness of the cabin. Flight 111 is in the jaws of sudden gravity.
John's head is on Joan's lap. "I'm right here, right here," she murmurs. "We're okay, you and me. Always have been, always will be."
"For Christ's sake, Joan, I can't hear you," he cries. "My ears. I can't hear you."
Bernie wraps himself tightly in his shawl and bows his head. He moves his lips in fast, hot prayer as smoke billows in from first class.
Oxygen masks do not drop.
"Kurt? Talk to me. You okay?"
Kurt feels a surge of hot urine between his legs. He is alone. Ginny is far away, asleep, and he is alone. He is rigid in his seat, strapped into circumstances, into an unbearable privacy. He feels he will burst with the sudden pressure of loneliness; that he will collapse under its immitigable force; that the crush of it, and not sudden impact, will, any moment, take his life.
In their bed, Ginny turns, caught in a falling dream she will not remember.
Ron switches off the bedside light and gathers Linda to him, letting her warmth become his while in the near night, a wing bursts into flame.
"Go on, Lucky. Go on."
Heat rises, unknowable, infra-red. It is the heat of crackling circuitry and burning steel. It is, too, the ineffable heat of life in extremis: of Hal's desperate butterfly-net faith in a tomorrow that will not come; of Joan's twenty-five year love for a man who could not love. It is the heat of Bernie's prayers for his wife's milky white breast, shadowed with tumour—only now does he understand what she would not tell him over the phone at the gate. It is the heat of Kurt's sudden longing to press himself to his wife, to slip inside her, to make of their bodies a new third. It is radiant heat that rises high into the atmosphere.
Brenda Murphy looks into the night sky above St Margaret's bay, wonders at something bright, alive, on the dim horizon between sea and sky, and, in that still moment between moments, in a moment that will be lost in the next, feels as porous as the mist is to the light; feels herself dissolve into something bigger.
"Here, Lucky. Here, boy. Come on. It's late now."