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Short Story

This is a 1,000 word short story based on a fictional photographer's encounter with Harriet Quimby when she landed at Equihen-Plage. Written by our Secretary, Andy Cooper, it's just been judged in a UK national short story writing competition where it didn't win but was awarded 'Highly Commended' status. See what you think of it......

Harriet, the photograph and Me

16th April 1912

I’m sitting on an open terrasse of Mme Dufour’s café by the dunes of Equihen-Plage; it’s a pleasantly warm morning in early spring and a few hardy souls brave the cold waters of the English Channel, as Les Rosbifs insist on calling it.  A few mademoiselles play in the water, their skirts and petticoats soaked by the salty surf; to the right, under the cliffs, some young men swim in calmer seas wearing the latest Parisian swimwear couture, navy jersey suits which go to the knees, with contrasting shoulder straps to preserve their dignity.  Along the shoreline couples perambulate arm in arm, without shoes, dressed in their Sunday finery.  Some of the madames wear flimsy hats, some have parasols and the messieurs sport bowlers or boaters that make me think of the summer months ahead.

In the far distance, coming slowly round the headland, a crowd of farm workers shout for our attention.  They carry someone on their shoulders, their cheers indistinct on the onshore breeze.  I can’t see who it is they carry, but he is wearing a bright coloured suit, a flying suit with helmet and goggles waving over his head.  The mob heads towards me, children running ahead of it; a shoeless, breathless boy is the first to reach me.

“Monsieur, s’il vous plait, ton camera – vite!!”

Curious, I ask the waiter to fetch my equipment, which is in a room upstairs.  I can’t risk having it the open, with the wind carrying so much sand.  Sand and glass do not make for easy bedfellows, you see, and M. Eastman’s newest camera has just cost me a small fortune.  With luck, it will be a while before my wife discovers how large a small fortune really is!

Presently, Jean-Yves returns with my tripod; it is made of wood, too heavy for such a small man.  He rushes to fetch the rest of the equipment as I finish my café and light a Disque Bleu.  I’m keen to know what causes such commotion, and ask another child who has now joined his companion on the terrasse.

“Une Americaine, Monsieur!  Elle vient de voler ici de l'Angleterre…incroyable!”

Une Americaine?  A woman?  But, this is not possible – it has never been done before, never.  Nobody has ever flown from England to France! Only a few have ever travelled such a distance by flying machine since M. Blériot did it almost three years ago, never has a woman even tried to do it.  As the child says, this is incredible!

The mob is almost here now, just a few yards away.  I give Jean-Yves an impatient sigh, “Vite, vite, we must hurry!”.  He struggles with the camera while I screw it into place on the tripod which I have set on the sand.  I insert the plate, check exposure and hold the flash to one side.  I study the woman: she is beautiful, in her mid-thirties with long black hair and she wears a one-piece purple leather flying suit which clings to her body, made especially for her.  She wears knee length black leather boots, a black leather belt and fur-lined flying jacket and holds her helmet and goggles in her right hand as she waves to the ever-growing crowd that gathers around her.  Her smile is warm and wide, her demeanour triumphant, her eyes sparkle with enraptured joy.  Never have I seen such joy! She punches the air as though her whole life has been leading to this moment.

I capture her gaze.  “Madame, s’il vous plait, un photo! Pour les journaux!”

She fixes her smile for the camera as the flash explodes with a puff of smoke.  “Monsieur,” she says, “you are wrong.  I am not ‘Madame’, I am ‘Mademoiselle’.”  A playful grin has replaced the broad smile.  She flirts with me!

“Votre nom, Mademoiselle?” I reply, with just the smallest pause before ‘Mademoiselle’ to show my correction, “Your name?”

“Je suis Harriet, monsieur.  Harriet Quimby,” she replies in laboured French.  She spells her name for me, in English, and is gone, carried towards la gare and a train that will take her to Paris.  I have my photo, I will sell it to the papers and earn enough to justify the expensive camera.  It is not yet half past ten o’clock, but it has already been a very good day for me.  And for Harriet, too.

8th July 1912

It’s not even three months since Harriet flew in to our village by the sea, some kilometres south of Boulogne-Sur-Mer.  I sold my photo to Le Figaro and the English Daily Mirror, which had some photographers of their own waiting for her in Calais.  The wind blew her off course, and it was I who was the fortunate beneficiary.

Harriet’s story never made the front pages.  Sadly for her, the Titanic sank the day before she flew.  The story broke at the time news of her success hit the newsrooms, and the tragedy in the Atlantic consigned her to the back pages.  Her name was lost in history.

I’m on the terrasse again on a hot, sunny morning.  My coffee cup is full and the aroma of the Disque Bleu fills the nostrils.  I’m reading the newspaper – La Croix, I never did like Le Figaro – and my eyes fall on the story in the bottom corner of the front page.  Harriet was killed in a flying accident in Massachusetts the previous week.  Tribute was paid to her, the first woman to gain a pilot’s licence in America and the first woman to fly across the English Channel.

My mind flashes back instantly to the sunny day just three months before and the smiling, beautiful woman who entered my life so briefly.  So full of life, so full of joie de vivre, and now gone.  On the wall behind me is my photo of Harriet.  A small souvenir of her, and all the world now has to remember her by.




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