‘So who is this client anyway?’ Martin asks, ‘why are we all having to greet him personally? I haven’t seen Carolyn this worked up since last Birling Day.’
‘Ooh, do you think he’ll tip us like Mr Birling does?’ Arthur wonders excitedly, craning to see around the corner in search of Carolyn’s car approaching with their mysterious passenger. He has even dispensed with his hat, as per Carolyn’s orders, and Martin can’t help but self consciously straighten his tie. Only Douglas looks, as usual, supremely unconcerned.
‘I doubt it,’ he replies coolly, ‘it’s probably just another insufferable tycoon trying to cut corners on cost, they’re all very much the same after a while, don’t you think? And incidentally, Arthur, you’re looking the wrong way.’
‘Oh, right,’ Arthur grins and turns to face the opposite direction; Martin can’t resist following suit and sure enough, just coming into view some way along the road is Carolyn’s car.
Martin’s heart thunders momentarily to a stop. When it starts again, it seems to have jumped to his throat and be doing double time to make up for it. His eyes widen with horror.
No, it can’t be...it just looks like him from this distance, that’s all...
No, he’s still too far away to really tell – he just fits the general profile, loads of people must...
It’s the light, he decides, reflecting off the windscreen as the car pulls to a stop just a few metres away. It’s definitely a trick of the light. Any second now Carolyn’s passenger will step out and be completely unfamiliar to Martin, who will be able to breathe again very soon.
The engine cuts off. Carolyn’s door opens and Martin sees the passenger reaching for the handle of his own.
A foot, in a highly polished black shoe, takes about a day to touch the ground, and another week later the other follows it. Fingers curls around the doorframe and pull.
A tall, dark haired man steps out and pushes the door shut before turning to flash a self-satisfied smile at MJN’s crew.
Martin’s legs promptly turn to jelly and it takes enormous effort to keep his mouth from falling open.
‘What on Earth are you gaping at Martin? Put your eyes back in you skull and stop staring,’ Carolyn’s brisk voice goes only some way to snapping Martin out of his reverie; Arthur is now looking from the client to the Captain with an innocently confused expression on his face and Douglas has a curious gleam in his eyes.
The client steps forwards, still grinning widely, and proffers a hand for Martin to shake.
‘Martin?’ He exclaims incredulously, ‘Martin Crieff? Good Lord, who’d have thought it? So you actually did it then? You actually went and became a proper pilot after all?’
‘Well –’ Douglas begins, but Martin regains his senses just in time to stand, not altogether inconspicuously, on the First Officer’s foot, and interrupt.
‘Yes – I, err – yes, I did,’ he clarifies, ‘I’m – I’m the Captain, actually.’
Douglas, on the verge of putting in a few choice words himself, stops at the look on Carolyn’s face, noting with interest that Martin’s announcement sounds rather less proud than normal, and possibly even slightly desperate.
‘Really?’ The client’s eyes slide automatically to Douglas, then down to both men’s epaulettes, and his eyebrows shoot up. ‘Well, well,’ he says slowly, ‘fancy that.’
Carolyn, keen to bring a halt to whatever is currently brewing between this very important client and her somewhat inept crew, checks her watch.
‘Well, Mr Finnegan –’
‘Clarence, please,’ he corrects smoothly, flashing another toothy smile,
‘Sorry,’ says Carolyn automatically, though not sounding it in the least. ‘You seem to already know Captain Martin Crieff –’ she gestures to him and Martin cringes but before anyone can notice she has moved on ‘– this is First Officer Douglas Richardson –’ both men survey each other appraisingly, looking, Martin thinks, rather like a pair of lions sizing each other up before a fight, and Douglas’s grip when they shake hands is unnecessarily tight ‘– and Arthur Shappey, the steward.’
‘Pleased to meet you all,’ Clarence assures them insincerely.
Arthur, feeling the need to make some sort of contribution, cheerfully adds ‘I have a hat too, but Mum made me take it off.’
‘Really?’ Clarence says again, eyebrows disappearing entirely under the thick sweep of hair across his forehead. Martin doesn’t like that look. He has seen it far too many times before.
‘Yes, well,’ Carolyn interrupts, ‘shall we get going?’
Not long into the flight, Arthur bounces up to the cockpit and brings up the one topic Martins has been desperately praying to avoid for the duration of the journey – and is already surprised Douglas has not yet touched on.
‘So do you know him then – Mr Finnegan? Is he an old friend of yours Skip?’
Douglas speaks before Martin has a chance to.
‘I have the distinct feeling that those questions have entirely different answers,’ he says. Arthur frowns.
‘How do you mean?’
‘I mean; yes, Martin is acquainted with our passenger, but no; they are not old friends.’
‘Oh,’ Arthur pauses, ‘why not?’ Douglas again opens his mouth to reply, but this time Martin beats him to it.
‘Never mind,’ he says tightly, ‘it doesn’t matter. It – we were – never mind.’
‘Oh, dear,’ Douglas intones dryly.
‘What? What is it – what’s happened?’ Martin asks, instantly panicking and checking every instrument reading he can think of far too quickly for it to be any actual use.
‘You’re repeating yourself. Again,’ Douglas explains, ‘that only ever indicates bad things.’
‘I’m not – you’re just – I – but I’m not –’
‘My point exactly.’
Martin opens his mouth, closes it again, and huffs petulantly.
‘So,’ Arthur tries again hesitantly, ‘so how do you know him then?’
‘We were – he went to my school. I went to his school,’ yes, that one sounds more fitting, ‘whatever – we were at school together. We just...didn’t get on very well, that’s all. It’s – everything’s fine now.’
‘Nobody said it wasn’t,’ Douglas points out quietly. A heavy silence settles over the three of them, and Martin blushes. Once it has stretched to the point of being actually quite uncomfortable even for Douglas, he speaks again, in a deliberately careless voice, ‘Arthur?’ he says, ‘I spy.’
The rest of the flight passes in fairly regular fashion, with Douglas taking a maximum of two attempts for each of his guess (in his defence, as it turns out, Arthur is not the world’s greatest speller, adding something of a challenge to the task) and Arthur’s most sensible suggestions including “a hat”, “a cloud” and “air”, for Martin’s intended “altimeter”.
Martin himself is initially jumpy and nervous, but soon begins to relax again and Douglas congratulates himself on yet another well executed and thoroughly successful plan.
It’s when they land that things start to get interesting all over again.
‘Oh, you must,’ Clarence insists of Carolyn, who looks thoughtful,
‘Must what?’ Asks Arthur cheerily, handing Clarence his luggage.
‘Let me take you all out for dinner,’ the older man elaborates, unleashing yet another sparkling smile. Martin’s insides freeze.
‘No,’ he says automatically, ‘I mean err – no, no thanks, I’ll just – I’ll get my own, I – thank you, but I’d rather –’
‘Nonsense!’ Carolyn interrupts, ‘don’t be so ridiculous Martin, how could we refuse such a generous offer?’ Her voice is warm, but her gaze is steely and fixed on Martin, who swallows audibly.
‘Well I for one would really –’ Douglas begins,
‘Happy customer plus free food equals happy alpha dog,’ Carolyn warns him quietly enough that Clarence cannot hear, ‘unhappy customer equals you paying for your own hotel rooms for the rest of the year. We. Need. This. Money. You will do as you are told, we will all smile and be polite little boys and girls, and then we can be rid of the simpering idiot, got it?’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Douglas replies flatly. Martin pales beside him.
Martin has never dreaded a meal more in his entire life. He toys with the idea of pretending to be ill (it’s a strategy he has in fact used before in order to avoid Clarence – the guilt of that one missed day of school still haunts him) but the memory of the dangerous look on Carolyn’s face, and the thought of what Clarence might say to them if he doesn’t show up, stills his tongue.
Things have changed, he assures himself; that was almost twenty years ago, they are both adults now – he’s a pilot, after all, he’s the Captain. He isn’t even completely sure what a business analyst is – if Clarence is anything to go by they make an awful lot of money (far more than he does – but then that isn’t difficult) – but still. He’s doing what he’s always wanted to – that has to count for something, doesn’t it?
It will be different.
He swallows, concentrating hard on not throwing up as he flattens his hair nervously in the mirror.
The wait will be worse than the ordeal. Nothing could be worse than this, could it? He’ll get there and realise that he’s just being stupid...a complete idiot, they aren’t teenagers anymore, Clarence has no reason to torment him, nothing to gain...
He had nothing to gain then either.
He’s a grown man, he won’t be as childishly cruel as he was...
Really? ...those raised eyebrows, that look, frighteningly familiar...
So what if he does revert to how he was? So what if Clarence hasn’t changed? Martin has – he’s not scared of Clarence anymore.
Who is he kidding? Of course he is – he’s terrified of him.
He shouldn’t be. He’s old enough to look after himself now.
Does he feel able to stand up for himself?
Clarence wouldn’t dare – not in front of the others.
Oh yes, Carolyn is going to risk a lucrative client’s displeasure just to defend Martin, and Douglas would never join in...
There’s Arthur – Arthur won’t hear a bad word about anyone...
Because of course, Arthur, well meaning as he is, would be so much help.
Who is he to expect them to say anything anyway? That’s not their job. They have no obligation to do it. He’s more than capable of fighting his own battles.
No! No, he’s not, he can’t do this, he can’t face Clarence alone, he can’t –
‘Martin?’ He jumps, letting out an involuntary yelp at the sound of a knock at the door, accompanied by Douglas’s voice, ‘are you ready yet?’
Even though no one says anything other than to make polite small talk, Martin is intensely uncomfortable as they wait in the restaurant for their orders to be filled. He isn’t sure anyone else notices, though – or at least, no one from MJN. He’s sure Clarence notices, and is probably taking great pleasure in his undiminished ability to make Martin squirm.
While Carolyn flatters Clarence with questions about his work that none of them really care that much about, Martin is twisting his napkin in his fingers, picking at it absentmindedly and doing everything he can to avoid an invitation to join the conversation. Arthur has folded his own napkin into a clumsy paper aeroplane, and is gesturing frantically to Martin to look at it.
Martin glances up and a small smile flutters to his lips, but it quickly vanishes, and he hopes desperately that this movement wasn’t enough to attract Clarence’s attention.
His hopes are dashed, however, a moment later.
‘You know,’ Clarence announces loudly, interrupting a rather affronted looking Carolyn, ‘I still can’t get over the fact that Martin Crieff actually went and did it after all.’
He’s not speaking to Martin, but the Captain feels his old classmate’s eyes burning into the top of his head as he stares resolutely at the tablecloth. Let it pass, let it pass, let it pass...
‘And why would that be?’ Asks Carolyn coolly, probably irked at being spoken over, Martin thinks. Oh please let it drop, please just be quiet...
‘Well, we never thought he’d make it,’ Clarence’s smile is more of a smirk. He takes a deep sip of his wine; Martin assumes that the way Douglas has tensed beside him is due to jealousy at not being able to drink any more himself. ‘Oh he never stopped going on about how it was what he wanted to do – God he could talk for hours, non-stop, about nothing but bloody planes – but none of us ever considered he’d have the brains to really become a pilot. We assumed he’d end up in his Dad’s business.’
Arthur has that nervous, doubtful expression on his face that he gets when he’s not sure what to say and is afraid of offending someone. Martin daren’t look to either side to see Carolyn or Douglas’s expression, sure that at any moment Douglas at least is going to tell some horrifically embarrassing story, or laugh, and it will all be just the same as it was in school, all the cool people with their secret clubs that he was never invited to giggling to themselves at his expense and him powerless to stop it. Carolyn says something, but he misses it, concentrating too hard on reciting the procedure for a water landing in his head.
‘Oh, does he still have that ear thing?’ Clarence continues to talk, growing louder and louder – or is it just growing more difficult to block him out? ‘You know, how he passes out when he gets dizzy? We always used to tease him about that – tell him that he’d never make pilot if he could barely stand upright...’
Martin squeezes his eyes shut and waits for a humiliating regaling of the smoke filled fuselage incident.
He dares to glance upwards.
Across the table, Arthur’s eyes are wide and hurt-looking. Something in Martin’s chest swells at the sight, and he has to blink rapidly to stop his eyes watering – it’s the damn candles irritating them, he thinks, definitely the candles...
Carolyn has fixed Clarence with her most icy gaze. Her eyes are narrowed, and hard as diamonds.
Douglas has a look of dawning realisation on his face. It’s perfectly air-worthy...something slips with an almost audible thunk into place, and he’s surprised by the strength of the rush of anger he feels. Martin’s repeated insistence that his inner ear problem does not affect his flying capabilities...the altogether too gleefully triumphant expression on Clarence’s face...
‘Did you, now?’ he manages eventually. Martin looks at him sharply, startled by the menace in Douglas’s voice.
‘Oh, come off it, it was just a bit of fun,’ Clarence laughs, ‘we got him to play Blind Man’s Bluff once – span him round and –’
‘But that’s horrible!’ Arthur exclaims, staring at Clarence as though he has grown an extra head, ‘wouldn’t he collapse if you did that?’ Martin hates the childhood tyrant even more, his anger warring with stunned disbelief as he tries to comprehend the – the defensive expressions that the rest of the MJN crew are wearing. This shock is almost completely swallowed, however, by indignant fury at Clarence for shaking Arthur’s usually rock-solid faith in the sheer goodness of everyone and everything, for breaking his endearing naivety. It barely registers that they are discussing him as though he is not here, desperate as he is for that to be the case – what wouldn’t he give to be anywhere, anywhere, but here?
‘Well, yes, that was rather the point,’ Clarence replies, an equally bemused expression on his face, as though unable to understand why anyone would fail to be amused by his story.
‘So, just to be sure I have this straight,’ says Carolyn, ‘knowing what would happen, you and a group of other witless thugs took it upon yourselves to gang up against a defenceless boy and spin him around until he fell unconscious – because you thought it was funny?’
‘If you’re going to put it like that, anything sounds bad,’ Clarence splutters, now looking thoroughly confused at the loss of his audience. Martin hardly dares breathe, lest moving too much shake off this impossible daydream. His heart is thundering wildly in his chest, as if trying to break free of his ribcage.
‘Feel free to put us right; I’d be fascinated to hear how that could be made to sound good.’
Martin chances another look towards Douglas, and literally jumps in surprise. His expression is...it’s...he’s never seen Douglas look like that before. It’s pure, undiluted, unfettered fury. If Martin were on the receiving end of such a look, he would be petrified. As it is, his insides seem to warm slowly, not daring to think that this can really be happening...
‘But – come on, really? I mean I –’
‘Well, quite,’ Douglas interrupts calmly, but with an unmistakably threatening undertone, ‘I fully understand after that. Tell me; did you always want to be what you are now?’
‘What on Earth are you –?’
‘As far as I see it, everyone here is perfectly happy with their lot in life. Martin – did you always want to be an airline Captain?’
‘I – what – Douglas what are you –?’ Martin breaks off, eyes darting about in a frenzied panic, struggling to take in what’s happening and caught between wanting to see it through to its end and wanting to disappear altogether, anything but offer an opinion in front of Clarence Finnegan.
‘Answer the question, Martin.’
‘I – yes, I did – you know I did.’
‘And Arthur; happy as the steward?’
She looks at Martin pointedly when she answers, ‘perfectly.’
‘And I know I’m quite satisfied the way I am. So, Mr Finnegan, does being a heartless bastard –’ Arthur gasps, Martin’s mouth falls open and Carolyn doesn’t react in the slightest ‘– fulfil everything you wanted to be? Because if so, my hearty congratulations on your unquestionable success.’
‘You – you’re –’
Douglas stands up; Martin, brick red, and Carolyn, with military calm, follow suit. Arthur is a second behind them, pushing his chair in with an exaggerated sweep of his arm as the waiter approaches their table.
The spaghetti bolognaise splashes messily down Clarence’s front – he jumps back with a cry of disgust and Arthur claps his hand to his mouth and apologies in a sarcastic tone Martin didn’t even think him capable of producing.
‘Oh, I’m sorry – now you’ll have to go to the dry cleaners and everything...’
‘And another airline,’ Carolyn adds, grabbing Martin’s arm and steering him away before he can protest.
By the time they have crossed the room and exited into the street, ignoring Clarence’s petulant shouts, the blinking technique is no longer working and Martin has to wipe his eyes in order to see properly, feeling utterly overwhelmed. They...for him, they – but – and Clarence – Arthur – and Douglas –
‘Why?’ He croaks out eventually, too relieved to care how stupid he must look, crying like this in front of them.
‘Aww, don’t listen to him Skip, you’re brilliant!’ Arthur exclaims, patting Martin on the back. The tears only get harder to stop.
‘Nobody badmouths my crew but me,’ Carolyn intones briskly. ‘It’s my special privilege as CEO.’
Douglas puts an arm around Martin’s shaking shoulders and starts to lead him away.
‘You’re our Captain,’ he says firmly, ‘don’t forget that.’