Chapter Fifty-nine

The small Naval Air Station infirmary at Lakehurst was crowded with the injured and the dead. They lay on tables and stretchers in the corridors and in every room. Everything-air, clothing, hair, surfaces-was infused with the reek of charred flesh.

Eleanor refused morphine. When she did so, she was asked to sit and help swab a man’s burns with picric acid. He leaned forwards, his hands in his lap, his blackened head bowed. His back was a morass of burns from his head to his lower spine. When he said, ‘Thank you,’ she got up and knelt in front of him to look in his eyes. It was Captain Lehmann. Apart from his voice he was unrecognisable.

‘I’m not myself, am I?’ he said to her.

‘Nothing they can’t fix,’ she said, fighting the lump in her throat. ‘Was Richard with you?’

‘Yes,’ he said, nodding, as if remembering someone he hadn’t seen for years. ‘I lost him in the smoke.’ Eventually Lehmann was taken away, facedown on a stretcher, and Eleanor leaned her head back against the wall. A medic tended to her arm with a cool ointment and bandage. She was exhausted; her body was closing down.

When she awoke the infirmary was quiet. She stopped an orderly.

‘How many dead?’

‘Twenty-one so far,’ he said. ‘But several won’t make the night.’

She wondered whether she should ask for morphine after all before entering the morgue, but dismissed the idea.

It was dark outside and raining. A man’s voice was saying that the wreck was still burning on the landing field, lighting up the sky for miles around, a sight he’d never forget for as long as he lived. Slowly she walked to the morgue. The thought of being the one to find his body was too much to bear, and she began crying quietly. She realised then that she believed in her heart that he was dead. She felt no nerves, no yearning for certainty.

A marine guarded the door to the hangar.

‘I’d like to identify my fiance,’ she said.

Inside, the bodies were under blankets in a row on the floor. The space was huge and dim. Other people were there, too, looking for lost ones, holding their breath with horror and expectation as they raised each cover.

She heard Hannah before she saw her. The girl’s cry went up in the vast space and echoed around the walls like a spirit begging for oblivion. She and Jakob were crouching over a corpse with their arms around each other. Eleanor approached and saw Ilse’s face looking up at them from the floor, pale as moonlight. She learned later that Ilse had suffered a heart attack at Jakob’s side after jumping from the starboard windows.

One by one she began looking under the covers over the corpses. She found Haberstock, his head damaged horribly, revealing the bridgework on his teeth. She found an elderly man white and waxen from the heat. She found one corpse burned beyond all recognition, but it was too tall to be Richard. She found a man in a sailor’s uniform, a member of the ground crew killed by the falling wreckage. She looked under every cover.

Finally, she found Friedl. His mouth was open slightly, as if there was something important he hadn’t quite said; his eyes were glassy and clear; his skin shockingly pale. The fist of his right hand was clenched tight, and sticking between the fingers were torn pieces of yellowed paper. She pulled them out. Charcoal smudges on them. Maybe he’d found the dossier, but not soon enough to save himself. She checked in the pockets of his burned jacket, but nothing was there. Gently she brushed aside some of his lovely dark hair, kissed his cold forehead, and covered his face again.

But of Richard there was no sign.

Early the next morning a shouting pack of reporters with flashbulb cameras and microphones crowded around a blackboard in the infirmary where the station commander, Captain Rosendahl, had chalked in thick letters the names of the dead, the survivors, and twelve missing. Lehmann’s name, she noticed, had been added to the dead. Richard’s name was among those missing. She left the building before Rosendahl gave his press conference.

Outside, dozens of radio cars and Movietone news vans, along with thousands of cars from New York, were clogging the road.

‘How can he be missing?’ she asked one of the sailors. She was in a daze and panicking. It was as if another universe, in which Richard had survived, was offering to let her through, but only if she could find the door.

‘Maybe he hasn’t given us his name yet, ma’am. There’s a bunch of injured at the hospital in Lakewood. You should try there… Hey, lady, get one of these guys to drive you…’

I t was about midday when she found him. A young nurse was winding a fresh bandage around his head. Eleanor gave a shriek when she saw him, startling the nurse, and began trembling uncontrollably.

‘I hope you’re Eleanor,’ said the nurse. ‘He came around again about an hour ago and kept asking me over and over if I’ve seen Eleanor…’

Eleanor leaned down and kissed his drowsy lid, dropping her own tears onto his lashes.

He opened his eyes, blinked slowly, and a smile spread over his face. She squeezed his hand.

‘He’s suffered a bad concussion,’ said the nurse. ‘And has some second-degree burns…’

Eleanor looked into his eyes. She mouthed, ‘I love you,’ and he tried to speak. She put another pillow behind him. When he’d mustered enough breath, he said, ‘Let’s get married before anything else happens…’

‘As soon as you like,’ she said, crying.

‘… and our honeymoon in the Pacific?’

‘Yes?’

‘We’re taking a boat.’

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