The Final Flight

A British officer’s death in the fiery collapse of the R-101 airship finds a new beginning with the help of a fatal sleeping pill and the eagerness of a child passenger.

A 129-pound carpet and two cases of champagne killed those men. I informed Thomson on numerous occasions that his indulgences would be best acquired in Karachi and returned to London, as half of our passengers would remain in India. Thomson was keen on his jewels, reporting that the carpet was not Karachi-bound but was to be laid out in the dinning room of the airship. White panels lined the walls with a gold inlay, music drifting out to the 50-seated guests awaiting hot meals from a dumbwaiter below. Our last meal was a Sunday roast, the bread pudding cloaking the bitter aftermath of the Veronal. I took one tablet before supper so I could sleep just after the coffee.

What ensued escapes any fragment of my memory. I wake each night to the same postprandial and a cigarette, half-extinguished.

Sidney runs towards me, his fatty fingers just centimetres from the Veronal. “Darling, take care to keep away,” I say as the boy halts and drops his arms. He is wearing a light blue uniform again, his yellow hair parted neatly to one side as he stares at me with glistening blue eyes.

“Are you in pain,” he says, keeping a metre distance from me as if his presence would only bring more misfortune upon my health. I shake my head. “I feel quite refreshed this afternoon, perhaps I will take a stroll onto the Promenade if you would be so inclined to join me.” I stand, pushing away the green rattan chair from underneath. The walls are unusual in that they are lined with frames of prototypes of the R-101. Upon closer examination, they appear to be another ship. The room is remarkably empty.

Sidney coughs. “I can’t breathe,” he croaks as he leans forward with his tongue hanging out of his mouth. He runs out. I pocket the remaining tablets. My leg stiffens in pain as I prepare to exit. I wait a few moments for the episode to subside before stepping into the dark corridor. The clinking above from the main lounge reminds me of the champagne, at Thomson’s insistence served hours before our fateful landing.

Thomson was a fine fellow, at times a couple of chips short of an order. As his adviser, I was convinced only one year into my service that I need not advise him at all but merely listen to the man’s never-ending grievances of Raj affairs. At Thomson’s insistence, the ship was filled slightly over capacity to avoid refuelling in Isamaila.

I tussle a tablet out of the waxy roll in my pocket. Guests file into the dinning room, seating themselves in banter and excitement as their feet tremble overhead. The tablet is bitter, a slight improvement over the years of bromide. The stairs are unnerving. I redirect my anxieties towards Sidney, who has all but disappeared again without informing me of his intended whereabouts.

The feet of the dinner guests surface on the landing of the deck. Sidney emerges, making his rounds and courting adults until he settles upon the feet of his mother. Thomson is standing to a far corner with a scotch in hand, conversing with his valet James Buck. Neither of the men notice me. Sidney points at me, inviting his mother to look. She smiles uncertainly, glancing to each side of me but seemingly unaware of my presence. A church bell, she returns to conversation with dinner guests. I motion the boy. He unlatches himself from his mother’s embrace and runs towards me.

Thomson was until the final minutes unaware that the weight of the cargo ultimately led to our demise. I had mentioned these preoccupations to him hours before service of the evening supper began, Buck in toe but of little persuasive nature to our brigadier general. Had Thomson been placated, even momentarily, in the spirit of purest service to our Crown, I believe it possible many deaths would have been avoided. I pull out the waxy tube and extend it out to Sidney eagerly with a smile.

“Uncle Thomson would like two in his scotch,” I say as I drop tablets into the boy’s hands, which he has cupped with curiosity and attendance. “Hurry.” Sidney turns and runs under the table, climbing over unsuspecting feet and his mother’s empty lap towards Buck and Thomson. I watch as the scotch glass wavers about, eventually finding a temporary home on the edge of the dinner table. Sidney emerges, unnoticed by preoccupied adults, and drops the tablets into the whiskey. Veronal is a marvellous drug, bitter but odorless, a slight improvement over years of bromide. It is unlikely that Thomson will notice the chemical reactions of the child’s cocktail. Thomson reaches for the glass, bringing it to his lips and sipping as Buck informs him of night shift duties and the status of the airship’s pressure.

A tablet of Veronal ushers sleep in an hour’s time, effects of which I am certain from years of use and admitted addiction. Two tablets of Veronal, I am certain, would usher death. Buck, as seemingly inexperienced as he may seem, I wager will make simple and sacred decisions that will finally end the curse of this ill-fated airship.

Sidney climbs into his mother’s lap, arms pulling him in as he disappears from my line of sight.

Thomson stumbles, collapsing metres from the dinning table onto the 129-pound carpet. The airship shudders as plates crash and bread pudding stains guests in horror and disbelief.

I watch myself emerge from the crew’s corner, below deck, shouting, “We’re down, lads!” Buck disappears, shouting orders to release all non-essential baggage and to maintain speed to avoid a collapse in pressure. Buck’s commands were markedly absent under Thomson. The ship’s passengers ultimately met their fiery fate over the fields of Beauvais.

But Veronal, however bitter, is a marvellous drug of its time. Under the direction of myself and Buck, I am sure this night of all nights will finally undo Thomson’s unwitting curse of the Crown. 

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