The sun is a baleful red eye that has been setting for the past 19 days. Only another 346 to go - 346 days of flying West as fast and hard as I can, merely to stand still. If the last two weeks is anything to go by, it’s not going to be easy, and it certainly isn’t going to be cheap. If he hadn’t been so generous, I wouldn’t be able to do this, but then, if I hadn’t been so generous, I wouldn’t need to.
As the jet banks I pull down the blind and settle back into my chair. The wind direction is in our favour, so we’ll make good time over the Pacific and slowly haul the reluctant sun back up into the sky, making time for the next changeover. As soon as we’ve finished our ascent, I’ll call for a brandy, and try to sleep.
My name is Leon Graves. It wasn’t the name I was born with, but that’s by the by. A lot of things have changed since then.
It’s day 32, and there’s a Doctor sitting across from me, tutting as I write. It’s not what I’m writing that gets his goat, it’s the tumbler of exceptionally fine cask strength 20 year old single malt that I’m holding in my free hand. Not for me the complimentary bag of peanuts and a miniature plastic bottle of Bells! I’d offer him one, but I’d rather not waste good whisky on a dour killjoy like him.
I’ve already had to listen to his litany on the dangers of deep vein thrombosis, cosmic radiation, lack of exercise and an excess of rich food and drink. All to find out that the pain in my chest was merely heartburn.
The Doctor – understandably, perhaps – has things the wrong way round. He thinks it’s suicidal to continue flying without a full medical, and even then, it’s a crazy, dangerous, vainglorious stunt. Whereas I know that it would be suicidal to stop, and fervently believe that flying on, regardless of symptoms, is the only rational course of action open to me.
But then, he doesn’t know what I know.
Day 51. Somewhere over the Urals. Local time, 5.30pm.
That was not the sleepy private airfield I have come to expect! There were reporters everywhere, flashing their damned cameras as I rushed between the planes. Isn’t there a war on somewhere they should be covering? Why the heck am I news? They don’t even know who I am!
Fuming, I call up Max on the satellite phone. He helped me out with that problem with the chemical plant in India, so this should be a breeze for him. He listens as I sketch out the situation, and is savvy enough not to ask too many dumb questions.
He throws out a few ideas, and tells me he’ll send some notes for the Press Conference. As usual, it’s sage advice and I sometimes wonder if there is a piece of parchment somewhere with his name signed in blood – but I bristle anyway. I tell him I don’t have either the time or the patience for the gutter press, but he just shrugs, says they’ll hound me until I do.
“But don’t entertain them,” he cautions. “Speak your piece, and then excuse yourself and go about your usual business. On an eight hour flight with no booze, they’ll be bored to tears, and that’ll be that for the Press involvement. At least until August, anyway.”
I can hardly believe that buying a forest and not chopping it down counts as carbon offsetting! A years’ worth of private jet flying makes for an impressively large forest, but an impressively large forest costs bupkis.
With the press assembled on board, I explain the mechanics of chasing the sun – the three roughly equal legs, two pilots per leg, and four planes leapfrogging each other around the world. I talk about the need for quick turnarounds, as any time lost on the ground is only made up very slowly in the air. And I mention that if I was attempting my onerous feat at the equator, I’d need to average Mach 1.5, which would mean bringing Concorde out of retirement - something even I could not afford. So I travel at higher latitudes, where subsonic flight just about suffices to stay the Sun in its tracks.
I invite the dozen reporters to ask their questions, which are as predictable and banal as Max said they’d be. They ask me what I do while onboard - I explain that I have good communication links with the ground, through which I run my business.
And they ask me why I am doing this.
I don’t tell them the truth, they’d think me insane. Sometimes even I have my doubts. Did it really happen as I remember it? And yet, the past 40 years have been unbelievably good to me. Supernaturally good.
Instead, I suggest that they might have heard that I was doing it as a bizarre eco-protest – highlighting the profligate waste inherent in the airline industry, while of course offsetting the effects of the protest itself. They murmur discontent, but I swiftly head them off by telling them that the rumour is rubbish – except for the offsetting part. I’m doing it because I can, and for no other reason. The privilege of the rich. This they get, though it explains nothing.
One of them, a strikingly tall, dark-haired lass, has done her homework, though she’s more than a little out of date. She asks me about my investment in Aerion, and their Supersonic private passenger jet. I say, yes, I was invested, but that was almost five years ago, and I sold out within the space of a year when it became obvious that their initial delivery estimates were hopelessly optimistic.
I think I manage to deliver this in a neutral voice, but it takes some doing. Despite my considerable financial backing, the failure of Aerion to get their planes off the ground – if you’ll pardon the pun – is a clear sign that he is trying to thwart my attempts to cheat him of what I owe. But if he did it then, why isn’t he stopping me now?
A couple of them ask for private interviews. I make a show of looking at my watch, and shake my head. “The markets in Asia are about to open, so I have to go to work now. But I might be able to fit you in for an hour in a week or so’s time? If you can board in China?”
They don’t take me up on the offer.
Day 139 - Christmas Day.
I have an unexpected guest for my Christmas meal! Penny Newsom – the reporter who does her homework - wants to write a fuller length article, to spend a whole day with me to see how the changeovers are managed. To Max’s surprise, I agreed.
“What kind of an intelligent, attractive girl gives up her Christmas to spend it with an ageing, eccentric, billionaire?” he asks, but I see something of myself in her steely will and determination. I know gold-diggers, and she isn’t one – if anything, I’m a means to an end, not the end itself. Besides, I’ve just passed the shortest, most dangerous day of the year, and why should I celebrate alone?
Day 200 – Ashclouds over Iceland.
More obstacles. Even though this is a private jet, the pilots won’t fly anywhere near the cloud. Pushed South, we change over in San-Fran instead of Vancouver, and I have an anxious wait as I peer through the Perspex window with its frame of frosted ice, watching as the clouds drop below me and the setting sun magically rises once again.
But it does mean that I miss my weekly flight with Penny, who is stranded in Munich. I’m feeling sorry for myself, and I have too much time to reflect. It didn’t seem such a bad bargain, 40 years ago - riches beyond my wildest dreams, in return for my soul. But as the due date rolled round, and I realised I’d spent so much of my time making my fortune, and so little spending it, I couldn’t face going quietly to my fate. If I survive, things will change, I’ll change, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have Penny by my side to help me enjoy it all.
It’s beautiful up here. I don’t think anyone has ever spent quite so long watching the Earth pass below. Not even astronauts – they have jobs to do after all. Mine seems to be taking care of itself.
You get to see the land changing beneath you. Very slowly, but still, it changes. The big cities spread like a cancer through the otherwise tranquil landscape.
I’ve sold my holdings in mining and oil, and invested the proceeds heavily in local, eco-initiatives. The board didn’t like it – they tried to muster a vote of no-confidence – yet another obstacle to overcome. But as I had the good fortune to sell out a week before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and I currently own 51% of Graves Industries, their rebellion was quickly forgotten. Anyone would think that he’s still on my side.
I make my long farewells to Penny. Too long really – dangerously long. I’ve become complacent, this close to the end, I should be more careful.
We’ve been discussing the plans for the party - she wants to have it on my birthday – my 66th birthday, when I will have been in the air for a year, but I tell her I won’t land until the day after. She pouts most delightfully at this. But I must be careful. When exactly am I 66? Not, surely, at an arbitrary midnight, in an arbitrary timezone. I must play it safe, and wait until the day of my birth is over throughout the world.
I wonder how long it’ll be before she notices the little box in her handbag. I hope she likes it. I’m not big on jewellery. It's a beautiful thing though – a diamond and emerald broach in the shape of a pair of wings.
It’ll go well with the other one, the one I can’t give her until I can get down on one knee on the solid ground. These things have to be done right. Though I do worry I’ll look like an old fool.
Day 365. My birthday.
The fuel gauge is faulty. I don’t know if I’ve turned 66 yet, I’m midway over the Atlantic, and the fuel gauge is faulty.
The pilot is devastated. He can hardly control his voice as he offers me the stark choice. Continue flying as we are, and there’s a strong possibility we might not make it to dry land. Turn round, and catch the gulfstream, and all being well, we’ll make it safely back at least to Ireland, but by then, the sun will have set. But hey, you made it, didn’t you sir? A whole year? No need for the extra day?
I nod, but I know he’s wrong. The very fact that I’m being forced to make this choice means that I did not make it. And what choice is it, really? If I forge on, I’ll doom us all.
I can’t help thinking that a year ago, I would not have been missed. A year ago, I did not have a future to look forward to. And I wonder if this extra year I’ve been granted, is reward, or punishment?
As the plane banks I hear the hammering in my skull, and gasp for breath. Dumbly, I raise the blind on the window, hoping for some fresh air. Instead, the setting sun bathes the inside of the plane in blood-red light, and I feel his ice-cold fingers wrapping themselves around my heart, just waiting to squeeze.
Sunset by Liam Hogan was read by Saul Reichlin at the Liars' League Here & Now event on Tuesday 10 August 2010 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Sq., London
Liam Hogan writes for a living and programs computers for fun. Everything is better in that universe. Except Liars' League.
Winner of the 2010 & 2008 Audible Unabridged AudioBook of the Year Award, Saul Reichlin has narrated over 50 TV documentaries for Sky History Channel. Nominated Best Actor in 2001, Saul’s one-man storytelling programme has toured 36 cities in 7 countries, including Off Broadway and off West End, London.