There are monsters under the bed, under the bed and in the drawers and hanging off the side of the window sill outside. Simon had said so, he’d even shown Martin pictures from a book and made scary biting noises and said how they would wait until the right time to get him, just before you’ve gone to sleep they’ll pounce and get you and eat you horribly with lots of blood and insides everywhere.
Martin hadn’t been so sure at the time but dad had been watching the telly and had told him to go to bed, just shut up Martin I’ve had a long day and I’m trying to watch this, so please just go away Martin. He wouldn’t say anything about monsters, in the drawers or not, and Martin didn’t want him to get angry. Mum hadn’t been at home, she was out with the girls, whatever that meant, and Caitlin had been in her and Simon’s room and she didn’t like him going in there at all, not for anything: you have your own room Martin, get lost.
Martin hadn’t been so sure then when it had been still bright outside an the shadows hadn’t been so big, but Simon had insisted and made more scary noises while Martin was dutifully brushing his teeth, standing on tip-toe in front of the bathroom sink, wearing one of Simon’s baggy old t-shirts as pyjamas. But there wasn’t such a thing as monsters, just like there wasn’t such a thing as Santa or the Tooth Fairy, and Simon always lied anyway. Like he’d said there was always cake at birthdays and how reception at school was fun. Martin had ignored him (mostly anyway), scrubbed his face half-heartedly with the flannel and went to his room.
Now Martin was in bed and it was dark with the curtains closed, shadows cast from the car headlights outside and the light shining in from the cracks around his bedroom door. It was dark and there was something making scary noises just like Simon had said and maybe there were monsters in his room, sitting there and waiting to eat him horribly. Martin pulled the covers up over his head and curled cold knees up to his stomach, which was feeling queasy and shaky and that was worse than its previous hungry feeling, worse by far. He didn’t want to be eaten. The pictures Simon had shown him were scary, all red eyes and teeth and long black legs. But he couldn’t get up to turn the light on because then the monsters under the bed could get him, or even the monsters in the drawers or the ones hanging off the window sill outside, peering in between the curtains.
His palms were sticky with sweat where he was gripping the duvet. He was too hot, he couldn’t breath under the covers very well but if he peeked out of the hole he’d made over his head to let air in, he could see something on the wall opposite him. It didn’t look familiar and it was moving, he was sure of it, but he couldn’t tell if it was coming closer and he really didn’t want to be eaten. He really really didn’t want to be eaten but dad was still watching telly and if he shouted dad wouldn’t come upstairs before the monsters got him for sure. Mum was still out. Simon and Caitlin would only laugh.
His eyes were prickling and he shut them tight. Simon had said the monsters would wait until he was almost asleep so he only needed to stay wide awake and that way they wouldn’t get him. He could stay awake all night and then maybe he could get mum to look for the monsters in the morning and chase them away if she found them. But he was so tired and the air under the cover was only getting hotter and more stuffy and he really was tired, he didn’t want to stay awake all night. He wanted to go to sleep. He wanted his mum. It was too hot and he couldn’t move or make a sound because then the monsters would get him and eat him horribly and he was so, so frightened.
There was something hot and itchy on his face and Martin realised he was crying. Boys didn’t cry, that was for little girls and he wasn’t pathetic, he really wasn’t. He wasn’t pathetic but the tears weren’t stopping and it was too hot and close under the duvet but he couldn’t come up from under it, and he couldn’t make a sound but his breathing had turned all jumpy and wet.
Martin bit down on his lip but that hurt. He curled into a tighter ball because maybe if he was small enough the monsters wouldn’t see him, but that was too uncomfortable to stay like that all night.
“Mum!” Martin said, a strained whisper, because he didn’t want to be eaten but he was so so scared and tired and he didn’t want to have to lie in bed like this ‘til morning. But mum was still out, she must be, because she wasn’t coming. “Dad!” The silence stretched out after the word. The monsters didn’t come but neither did dad. “Dad!” Nothing, again. Dad was still watching the telly, he couldn’t hear him, and maybe the monsters really would wait until Martin was just about to fall asleep before they got him.
Mum and dad weren’t coming and Simon and Caitlin would laugh if they saw him but he didn’t care, he just wanted the monsters to go away. He just wanted them to go away and never come back.
His pillow was getting damp and hot under his face but he couldn’t stop crying, even if crying was a pathetic thing to do. Don’t go to sleep or the monsters will get you. Martin told himself to stop crying, under his breath and between hitching sobs, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t stop himself from falling asleep either, in the end.
Martin sat in the kitchen, picking at the splinters around the screws underneath the table top, and couldn’t do his homework.
Normally he would have asked for help at this point, pencil having drawn only aeroplane doodles on his scrap of spare paper for the past ten minutes. Dad was in a bad mood though and so was Simon and Caitlin. Martin stared at his sheet of sums and then at his shaky drawings.
He wished he could draw better. There was this boy in his class at school who could draw really cool things, really well. He was called Tom and he was one of the popular kids. Martin hadn’t talked to him much. Not at all, really. Martin also wished he could do sums better, because his teacher had told him that pilots were all good at maths. He couldn’t really see why pilots needed maths to fly, but the teacher was probably right. She usually was.
Normally it was all right when he couldn’t do his homework, because he would ask for help and mum would come along after a while and explain everything, and he wasn’t that stupid so he’d get it eventually. Then mum would smile and ruffle his curly hair and potter off to finish whatever she’d been doing. Martin wished he could ask for help now and mum would come along with her own special pencil, writing down the sums again on the scrap paper to show him how it was done, even if according to Tom getting help from your parents was uncool.
He would have asked for help anyway but everyone was in a bad mood and the last time he’d been shouted at (only yesterday) was still smarting and tender and all too recent. Mum wasn’t in a bad mood (she never was) but then mum wasn’t here. If she was then no one else would be mad anyway.
Mum wasn’t home and dad, Simon and Caitlin were angry. Martin didn’t want to think about what would happen if mum didn’t come home soon. He didn’t want to live here if dad, Simon and Caitlin got any angrier.
Maybe he could live with mum, only - only he didn’t like it where she was, not in the hospital. There were too many strange people and it smelt funny, and the first time he’d went he’d got lost and an old man had shouted and screamed at him. The old man had been lying on a bed, like mum’s, but he’d had tubes sticking out of him and he’d smelt terrible, like really stinky public loos.
Mum had tubes sticking out of her now (she hadn’t then) but she didn’t smell and she didn’t shout at him. She was pale though, thinner then he remembered her being. She’d been breathing funny. Martin didn’t want her to stay at the hospital forever, it was a terrible place and she must hate it there. Mum had said it was okay and she’d be home soon but that had been ages ago and she hadn’t replied when he’d asked her how long soon was, just the other day. He told her he didn’t want her to live at the hospital forever. Then he’d got home with dad, Simon and Caitlin but not mum and Simon had been so angry with him and he didn’t know why, which had made dad and Caitlin angry at Simon and then at him. They’d shouted. Even the thought of it was making his eyes prickle uncomfortably.
Martin put down his pencil. He couldn’t do these sums, he really couldn’t, he’d just have to hand back the sheet empty. The teacher would have to give him extra lessons in morning break time and everyone would know he couldn’t do the work and they’d laugh at him. He didn’t want that but he didn’t want everyone to be angry anymore and he didn’t want everyone to start shouting again.
For god’s sake Martin, get it right! She’s not coming home ‘cause she’d going to die! She’s going to die and you’ll never see her again so just get it right for once!
Shut up Simon, don’t say that! Mum’s going to be fine, you’ll see!
Shut up! Shut up all of you! This is the last thing anyone needs, so you can all just shut the fuck up right now! I’m serious! All right just - Martin go to your room. Caitlin you too, Simon you can sit there and shut up. Just, don’t say a word. Not a word. I’m going out.
Martin folded up his homework sheet and slid it into his folder, tucking that away in his school bag. He couldn’t do it anyway. Dad was watching the telly again, Simon was watching it with him and Caitlin was having a sleepover at one of her friend’s houses. It wasn’t his bedtime but Martin went to his room and pulled on his pyjamas anyway, then went and brushed his teeth and had a wash. The bathroom mirror was covered in speckles of toothpaste and water. Mum was the only one who ever cleaned the mirror. What if she never came home and the mirror got dirtier and dirtier until you couldn’t see yourself in it? What if dad and Simon and Caitlin got angrier and angrier the longer mum wasn’t home?
Martin reached up and tried to wipe the mirror with his finger tips but that only smudged it and made the marks worse. What if mum never came home, staying in the hospital forever?
The mirror was blurring. Martin swiped at his eyes furiously. He wouldn’t cry. He wouldn’t. He was too old to cry now. Mum would come home and dad and Simon and Caitlin would all be happy again, he told himself as he clambered into bed, pulling the covers around himself. Mum would be home soon, she said she would be, and he wasn’t crying, he really wasn’t.
Martin came home from school, let himself in to the house and went straight upstairs to the bathroom, locking the door behind him with unsteady fingers. He kicked off his ratty shoes and socks, didn’t look in the mirror. Stripping off his shirt gingerly he dropped it into the bathtub. The shirt was followed by his trousers and then, after carefully extracting his school books to place on a dry patch by the door, his rucksack. Underwear in a pile on the shoes. His hands were shaking, he noticed distantly, as he braced himself on the wall while clambering under the shower as well.
The water was too hot, burning on his face and scalp. Water got into his eyes - water and worse things, mud and gravel and dog shit and Martin scrubbed at his skin, blunt nails scratching red lines over his brow and thin cheeks. The bar of soap eventually replaced nails - a cheap, nasty smelling thing that made his eyes smart, even when they were shut as tight as possible. Shampoo, way too much of it for his short mop of hair but it was dirty and he felt sick, deep down in his gut. There was grit in his teeth and his mouth tasted like he’d swallowed the dog shit but he hadn’t, even as they’d knelt on his back and shoved his face down into it he’d kept his mouth and eyes tight closed, he was sure of it.
Martin retched dryly, spat into the plug. The shampoo was stinging in his eyes, bubbles clinging to pale ginger lashes. The room was starting to steam up and Martin leant over to crack open the window. It didn’t really help. It was dark outside, he’d hung about in the library trying to finish his homework and avoid everyone as they went home but he’d failed, like always. He sat back down on his heels and retched again uncontrollably, holding on to the edge of the tub. It wasn’t like this was the first time something like this had happened, far from it, but this time - this time - dog shit, actual dog shit, right in front of the group like they’d planned it all along. What if he got some disease? What if he got ill and had to miss weeks and weeks of school, like David who’d had to drop down a year and no one knew where he was now? He’d have to stay home with dad and Simon. He might have to go to the hospital. He was already behind in school, he couldn’t afford to miss any more lessons. He needed good grades to be a pilot. Better grades than what he was getting.
He couldn’t be ill. He didn’t want to be ill. He couldn’t not be a pilot. He’d rather spend the rest of his life trying than not be a pilot.
What if got some horrible disease and died?
His stomach heaved, ending on a wretched sob.
Martin picked up his shirt, wavering. It was sopping wet, stained all across the front, ugly brown and off white. Two of the buttons were missing, the second and third from top. There were soap subs all over it and Martin crumpled the thing into a ball and scrubbed at it. He couldn’t lose this shirt, this was his last spare shirt and he needed it. Dad had thrown a fit the last time he’d asked for a new one, even though they were only a couple of quid from Tesco.
He didn’t want to go back to school. Martin dropped the shirt back down (the worst had come off but it wasn’t like he could wear it anyway). His trousers he could save. They were black and they hadn’t got very dirty anyway. And it was lucky that he hadn’t been wearing his blazer, those cost loads more than the shirt or trousers. His books were okay, too.
He didn’t want to go back to school. What if he got sick and died? He needed to brush his teeth but would that infect his toothbrush? He didn’t want to be shouted and laughed at, or have his books taken and homework torn up. He didn’t want his lunch tipped on the ground and be made to eat the dirty food, or be tripped and pushed around and kicked, face down in dog shit. He didn’t want to have to see anyone there again, ever. He was shaking and Martin crouched down in the tub, hot water pounding on his back, hiding his face over bony, bruised, scraped up knees.
When he was a pilot he’d be better than them. He’d be a proper pilot and they’d all be stuck working in Woolworths or Tesco or as cleaners. And he’d show his dad too, and Simon and Caitlin. He could be a pilot if he wanted, even if he was short and stupid and had a stutter when talking. Even if the training cost loads of money, even if they said it was more money then he could ever afford. He’d read up everything, he knew exactly what qualifications he needed. He’d even started to revise the manuals because they genuinely were interesting, more than school lessons were anyway, no matter how important physics and maths were. He knew loads of procedures and acronyms already. He’d get a job next year, soon as he was old enough, start saving up as early as possible. He’d do his A levels and when he was eighteen he could start training. Then he’d be a pilot.
Dad wasn’t at home, his van was out and Martin would have heard it if he’d got back, even over the noisy piping and shower. Simon might be home but he was probably out with his friends and Caitlin was definitely out, staying with her boyfriend at his flat. Good, that was good, the last thing he needed now was more ammunition for the gay jokes - using all the shampoo, how he was taking so long in the shower (ages but he wasn’t clean yet, he wasn’t nearly clean yet), or comments on the smell, or how he’d stayed out for so long after school (they didn’t believe he was at the library. Martin didn’t know what they thought he was doing but no one ever bothered to check).
So maybe he was pathetic. Maybe what everyone told him was true and he was stupid and never going to be as good as Simon or Caitlin or anyone, not really. He’d be a pilot anyway.
Martin turned off the water and grabbed a towel, wrapping it around himself quickly as the cold air blowing in through the window started to bite. He still felt sick (he was going to catch a really bad disease, he knew it, with his luck. He’d have to go to the hospital and stay there for weeks and weeks and no one would visit and he’d fall behind on his work and no one would care). His throat bobbed and he crouched next to the toilet but nothing came up. After a few minutes he pressed one long fingered hand to his lips and stood.
The mirror was on the wall right in front of him, speckled and smudged and looming over the sink, the condensation still clinging around the edges. Martin glanced into it, a morbid fascination, and couldn’t quite look away.
His face was bright red from the heat of the shower, clashing with ginger hair. His pale eyes were bloodshot. There was a messy scrape across one angular cheekbone: skin deep, the length of his forefinger. It was clean now but damp, raw and pink, white where the skin had peeled back into flaps. Everything about him was flushed, ugly and ungainly. Martin touched the scrape tentatively, winced as it smarted. There were tiny pearls of blood welling up from the centre, swelling as he watched. They merged and began to dribble down, filling up the spaces behind the flaps of skin.
It hurt. There was another scrape over one of his eyebrows, though this one wasn’t bleeding. Martin looked away from the mirror. He wrung out his clothes as best he could with hands that were shaking and feeling too weak to even hold the water-logged material. Still clinging on to the towel he grabbed the rest of his things and padded as quietly as he could along the hall to his own room.
Simon’s bedroom door was open. Martin glanced in as he passed.
His brother looked up from the magazine he was reading. “God, finally out,” he said, disinterested. “What happened?”
“I was - some guys from school, when I was walking home -” Martin didn’t even know why he was talking. He was dripping in the middle of the hallway, he felt ready to throw up and Simon was already turning back to his porno. Martin ended up saying everything anyway.
He trailed off and Simon sneered as he tossed his magazine to the floor. “Grow a fucking backbone,” he said. “With that face and the time you took in the shower, would’ve thought you’d had it up the arse or something.”
Martin didn’t have an answer to that. He’d never been good at thinking up comebacks. He swallowed, turned, and in his own room closed the door shut and locked it behind him.
He probably ought to put something on the scrapes. Antiseptic cream or iodine spray or even a plaster. He didn’t have anything like that, not in his room certainly and he couldn’t bring himself to leave that. Martin sat on his bed, pulling out an old t-shirt and jeans to wear. They needed a wash - they smelt faintly of sweat and deodorant. The t-shirt got a smear of blood on the inside where it brushed past his cheek.
He didn’t want to go to school. His face hurt, more than before, and his stomach was still writhing. Martin grabbed the duvet, cocooning himself into it. His eyes were still stinging from all that soap, they must be, because he could barely see out of them. Maybe he was crying so maybe he was pathetic. He couldn’t wait until he became a pilot.
Martin wasn’t quite sure as to why his father had evidently hated him. Sure, they’d had their share of arguments and he’d never actually liked his dad, at least not in the sense that he’d ever spent much if any time in voluntarily close proximity to the man. The feeling, Martin was sure, had been mutual. That much was obvious. And yet - and yet - he’d never hated his dad. Disliked for the most part, yes, of course. The old man had been grouchy, bigoted and had made no secret as to which of his three children he liked the least. But Martin had never hated him.
Over the years he’d somehow grown to assume that this was mutual as well. That no matter how many times he’d been ignored or scoffed at or outright insulted, his dad hadn’t hate him. That somewhere there had been acceptance and, if love was too strong a word, a distant fondness.
Martin couldn’t stop himself looking out of his stained window at the van parked on the road below, lit up in garish orange from the street lights. It looked ugly, hulking - an aeroplane without wings or tail (useless). Stark evidence that he was wrong as usual and that his dad had actually hated him quite a lot.
Even if he hadn’t thought it, it hadn’t really been a surprise when he’d found out - more like a heavy stone to the gut that had hit somewhere in the upper chest region and then sunk, refusing to budge even now, just under week after everything was over. A cold, uncomfortable stone, pressing on all his internal organs and squashing them out of place. An occasionally sharp stone.
Simon had laughed when they’d found out the contents of their father’s will - a short, incredulous bark. He’d looked hard at Martin, up and down, from un-brushed hair to ugly trainers with holes in, evaluating. Then he’d laughed again, harder and for longer this time. Caitlin hadn’t laughed. She’d frowned, read the whole thing through again, but hadn’t said a word.
And now Martin was stuck with a van and a heavy, cold, uncomfortably sharp stone in the stomach that was making it hard to concentrate, which was really exactly the last thing that he needed if he wanted to pass his CPL oral in a week’s time.
A car drove past, highlighting the scratches in the paintwork of his van. It was ugly and unwanted and he couldn’t even sell it, not because of its stupidly high mileage or how it stank of cigarettes, or how the clutch was temperamental and there was a good chance it would fail its next MOT. He couldn’t sell it, and god he could do with the money, because then all he would have left of his dad’s things would be a toolkit and multimeter. And that was even worse than a tool kit, multimeter and battered old van.
Martin looked down at his notes. He knew everything. He would do, he ought to, considering that this was the seventh time he’d taken the god forsaken exam. It was an oral - even worse than the practical, because here he had to acknowledge the fact that someone was listening and marking him. In the aeroplane he could ignore them. In the aeroplane he could be alone with the controls and everything he knew, controls which wouldn’t change their mind and betray him or chose to do something else. Controls that were impartial to how he looked or sounded, whether or not he was young or had a face like an ugly horse or was gay or whatever bias anyone else had against him. Controls that would do exactly what they were meant to, so long as he used them right.
The words barely registered, despite the colours and capitals and all of the unnecessary underlining he’d spent hours on. He knew it, he could recite it in his head word for word. He hadn’t spent almost a decade of his life learning this not to know it.
He just couldn’t say it. He couldn’t look the examiner in the eye and say anything except panicked, jumbled nonsense.
More cars outside, more headlights shining in his dingy attic room. The students were out but it was getting on in the morning and they’d be back soon. This lot weren’t so bad. They didn’t trash the kitchen on a weekly basis like last year’s group. Martin put his head down on the desk. God, he hated this. Living in an attic in student housing. Humiliating. He had two jobs and he hated them both - nights spent at the local shopping centre picking up rubbish and moping the floor, cleaning the toilets, wiping down tables. Days spent stacking boxes in the delivery bay at Sainsbury’s.
His dad had died knowing that he worked in cleaning and deliveries. He’d never got to show him that he could and would become a pilot. There was a hollow feeling inside of him, aching and persistent. Somehow he doubted it was caused by surviving the last two days on microwaved Christmas pudding on sale after the end of the holidays. He hated Christmas pudding. He was absolutely sick of it. Just the thought made him want to throw up violently.
He didn’t have the money for food, not with the rent overdue and having to once again buy clothes smart enough for a job interview. He couldn’t buy food because he needed new clothes because he’d dropped down yet another size. He’d had to make new holes in his belt with a kitchen knife the other day.
He couldn’t do it. His dad was dead and gone and buried and that was just wrong. Why had he died? Why now? He should have lived forever, getting older and fatter and more and more crotchety. Martin would never see his expression, never get to hear what dad had to say when he could finally state: I’m a pilot now.
Only his dad wouldn’t have cared, would he have? He’d hated Martin. He’d died knowing that his son was a failure.
Martin pulled his head up and found that his notes, carefully written, were all creased. He fished out another sheet of paper mechanically and started to copy out the crumpled page. Pads of paper and good pens were just another expense but he couldn’t write on scrap. It had to be perfect. He couldn’t learn from second rate notes. His eyes were drooping, each lid a stone in weight. He could barely write. His words was scrawled and messy and pathetic. Why on earth had he ever thought that dad hadn’t hated him? What was there that wasn’t to hate? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever.
He was out of caffeine pills. Not that they’d really worked anymore, not with the tolerance level he’d manage to build up over the years. Maybe nicotine patches would do the job, or whatever that pharmacy drug the students bought for stimulation, late nights cramming. If only it weren’t so damn expensive. If only he wasn’t so damn hungry.
He couldn’t write. He couldn’t even think. Exhausted, deep down to the bones. What was he going to do with a beaten up old van, a toolkit and a multimeter? The hollow feeling wasn’t going away. Why had dad hated him? Why had he only found out when it was too late to do anything about it?
Martin’s head thumped back down onto the desk and he closed his eyes. What was the point. He was crying, smudging his notes, but it didn’t matter anyway. What was the point?
He’d never be able to say to dad: I’m a pilot now.
The resignation letter left his hand and slid into the pigeonhole with nothing more than the quiet sigh of paper on paper. Martin let out a shaky breath, fingers still lingering as if he could still take the letter back. It would be so easy. He couldn’t. With a tight swallow, difficult against the painful lump in his throat, he turned away.
The next morning he stood in his manager’s office. “I understand you’re not happy here,” she was saying. Then she said a lot more but Martin could only focus on the paper in her hand - the letter he’d wrote, the words he’d had to pull up with what felt like half his heart to get down. “I think it’d be better if you were to take your leave by the end of this week.”
It felt worse than he’d thought it would do. Then he remembered throwing up from nothing more than stress every morning before work. He remembered being summoned late to meetings he’d never been told that he had to attend. He remembered being shouted at for his lack of preparation and of leaving in shameful tears. Having to do everyone else’s work for them, not being allowed a lunch break, not even allowed to go to the loo. Of constant belittling. Of incorrect (insufficient) pay.
It didn’t help. He remembered the feel of the control column in his hands, of moving a giant machine through the air, effortlessly, beautiful. He still couldn’t name the knot in his guts as anything other than misery.
His manager was still talking. His hands were shaking. He remembered, months ago, finally gathering the courage to speak to her about those harassing him (everyone). She’d told him that they needed to work it out between themselves, that there wasn’t anything she could do, that she wasn’t their babysitter for goodness’ sake.
His hands were shaking and she’d noticed, she’d definitely noticed. She was looking at him in something like disgust or pity or second-hand embarrassment. Martin’s face flushed and he clutched the bottom hem of his uniform jacket. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t even move when it was clear that he’d been dismissed. In the end she sighed, put his letter away in her desk and walked out of the room.
So this was the end? It hurt more than he thought it would do.
He hadn’t been able to bear driving his ugly old van in to the airfield, not since the first time. Martin walked the four miles home. In the cold he had time to think.
What was the point of him if he couldn’t pilot even when qualified? After nine heart breaking years of failing exam after exam, of spending thousands of pounds he didn’t have. After telling anyone who would listen that he could be nothing else, nothing else in the world but a pilot, since six years of age. After twenty five years and seven exams and thousands of pounds, after school and family and endless shitty day jobs, after everything he’d fought past tooth and nail, he still couldn’t pilot after all?
So what was the point of him? Was there one?
He didn’t think so.
Was it too late to make something of himself? Would it be too difficult? He couldn’t succeed at anything difficult. He knew that now. Would be easier to just give up? Give up everything through the antidepressants he’d been prescribed, pill after pill after pill?
That night, standing alone in his attic room and listening to the students’ music vibrate up through the floorboards, Martin pressed one hand to his mouth and started to cry.
It was nine thirty when the pen slipped from his fingers, hitting the floor with a clatter of cheap plastic. Martin swore, apologised to the empty room for swearing, then swore a little more as he bent and picked up the ratty old biro. He put the pen down on the desk, then pressed on his closed eyes, dry and itchy, with calloused fingertips.
It wasn’t late, nine thirty. The students at home wouldn’t even be getting ready to go out yet. Why was he so tired then?
With a sigh Martin scrubbed at his hair, knotting up the already messy curls. Right. He picked up the pen, straightened the calculator to lie parallel with the edge of the desk. Back to work.
He just needed to get this paperwork done and then he could go - this paperwork that of course Douglas hadn’t done, Douglas who’d known that he could always rely on his pathetic captain to do it for him, even if it did take all night.
Martin bit back on that thought. Just concentrate, just do the work. His stomach hurt, clenched and aching. He hadn’t eaten a solid meal in two days, nothing more than coffee, cheese and packets of MJN’s complimentary salted nuts. He had some food in his room back at home but he couldn’t pack up ‘til this was done. Not if he wanted to fly tomorrow. Not that his food was either appealing or adequate.
The pages stretched out across the desk. Surely it wasn’t legal to not have submitted half of this before now.
He carefully printed out some numbers onto the sheet. It wasn’t as if he was good for anything else. MJN’s latest clients had seemed to want to make a point of that, loudly and at length (it had just been some turbulence, this time. He hadn’t (couldn’t have) avoided it, of course). It wasn’t as if Douglas had been any help either - which was exactly as expected, really, but that wasn’t the point. He knew how bad Martin was at dealing with people, let alone angry people. He’d said not one word in his useless captain’s defence.
God, it wasn’t as if it was anything he didn’t know already. So he didn’t look like a pilot, let alone the captain, or act like a pilot, and he wasn’t able to fly a bloody temperamental plane without the slightest of hitches. So what it took more than one (or two or five) goes to get his licence. He still had it. He still was, officially, a pilot and a captain.
But it still hurt.
His eyes were stinging, the stupid things. It was the damn heating, blowing hot, dry air into his face. He was just so damn tired. And his stupid throat was constricting, his stomach aching, his stupid eyes blurring and it still hurt. He didn’t want to go home. He was about to start crying, he could tell, because he was just so pathetic.
He was the captain of an aircraft. Why couldn’t he appreciate it? Why couldn’t he ever be proud, why could he never look anyone in the eye?
The door of the portacabin opened with a blast of cold air and an unhealthy squeak of reluctant hinges. Martin sat up abruptly, head whipping up from where it had been face down on the table.
“Martin?” Carolyn closed the door behind herself. “Good God, I don’t know if I’d have preferred the armed robbers.”
“Carolyn,” Martin croaked, unintelligible. He could feel his nose running and he sniffed, attempting subtle but failing.
How embarrassing. Carolyn was just standing there, watching him, and really he shouldn’t be surprised at all. Why on earth should he assume that he’d ever have the luck to break down in private when his boss could possibly be summoned from nowhere just so she could watch? God, how embarrassing. He didn’t want to know what Carolyn was thinking. He didn’t want to know how her already low opinion of him was steadily dropping.
“I’m sorry,” he found himself saying, swiping across his face with the back of one hand. His voice was wobbling and high, and the realisation only pitched it higher, more unsteady. “I was just finishing this - Douglas left me all his paperwork. Again. I wasn’t - I wasn’t - I don’t know what I wasn’t doing, but it needs to be done to fly tomorrow, so I’m sorry, I’ll try to work faster, I will, but I’m - I - I just can’t -”
He stood, he didn’t quite know why, the feet of the chair sticking to the lino. The back of his hand was still trying to wipe away a runny nose but he was crying now, properly with closed eyes and distorted lips, shoulders tensed and trembling, and could this get any worse?
He opened his eyes quickly as he heard footsteps and couldn’t help but flinch away at the sight of Carolyn marching up towards him. He wasn’t nearly fast enough to avoid the arms that curled around his chest, pulling him in. Martin froze, hands gripping the loose fabric on Carolyn’s jacket sleeves.
“God, I can feel all your ribs,” she said, strangely quiet, then added, louder: “quite disgusting, I’ll have you know.” Her arms didn’t loosen. There wasn’t any conviction in her words.
His back was ramrod straight, straight enough for it to actually ache from the tension, but Carolyn didn’t let go. She was - she was warm and soft, but strong, and oh God let her never know he’d thought that. His nose was still running and eyes watering and his shoulders were starting to tremble again, wither under the strain. She was warm and soft and strong, even if it was uncomfortable where one of her jacket buttons was digging into his stomach. Martin crumbled, tucking his face down onto Carolyn’s shoulder, not knowing where to put his hands and ending up clinging like an insecure child.
He hadn’t hugged anyone since - since he couldn’t even remember when, Martin realised with something bordering on quiet panic. He didn’t know how to do this. His arms were all the wrong length, he didn’t know where to put his feet. Absurdly, and with embarrassment in a distant part of his mind, he felt the racking sobs grow.
“I can’t,” he said thickly, but didn’t know how to finish. “I can’t - I -”
He trailed off and Carolyn didn’t reply, only holding on to their awkward hug. He hiccupped loudly, once, and she gave him a squeeze. It felt odd. Martin couldn’t help but let out a shaky giggle, humourless. He pulled away and Carolyn handed him a tissue from her pocket, new and folded, which he promptly screwed up in wiping his face.
“I’m sorry,” he said, hoarse. He could feel his face burn with embarrassment. The air felt too thin, the flight that morning too far past to be real. His front felt cold where they’d separated. And he had not only broken down in tears in front of his boss - in front of Carolyn - but had got tears and snot on her shoulder as well. “I’ll leave. I’ve leave now. I’ll come in early tomorrow, finish this.” He waved a shaky hand at the paperwork, then clutched at the lapels of his uniform jacket desperately.
“Martin,” Carolyn said. “You’re not going anywhere before I have a word with you. Leave now and you’re fired. I’m serious, don’t think that I’m not. Now sit down and shut up.”
Martin sat down.
Carolyn continued ruthlessly. The few times Martin risked a glance at her, she was watching the desk with what looked like grim determination. “The last thing I need is for you to moping all over the place. Firstly because that paperwork needs to be done by morning, so snap to it. Secondly - and I believe most importantly - because Arthur’s going to be here soon and god knows why he’s taken you on as a role model but he has, and I hope you understand me when I say that as Arthur’s role model, I categorically forbid you from sulking anywhere near the stupid boy.”
Martin opened his mouth to speak but Carolyn ploughed over him. “Do you have any idea what Arthur would be like if he got it into his tiny head that sulking might be a possible method of communication? Do you? Do you really?”
“Role model?” Martin only croaked, attempting a joking smile and failing. “Me? You haven’t managed to dissuade him of that yet?”
Carolyn looked at him for a long moment. “Martin,” she said, at last, when he was starting to fidget in his seat. “Martin, listen up. I’m only going to say this once. I haven’t dissuaded him of it yet and I don’t ever plan to. I won’t even joke and say it was either you, Gordon or the CBBC, though so help me that isn’t far from the truth. No. I haven’t because, truth be told, when you’re not descending into fits of angst worthy of the most pitiful TV charity adverts, you make an almost good role model for the idiot boy.”
“I - Carolyn, that’s -” Martin managed before he was interrupted.
“Who knows, between you and Douglas, he may be more balanced then I can hope.”
“He is twenty-nine, you know,” Martin couldn’t help but point out. “Not a six year old.”
“He may have exited the womb kicking and screaming twenty-nine years ago,” Carolyn said, drawing herself up. “But as his mother I know how old he is and six is infinitely closer.”
There was the briefest of pauses. Carolyn dabbed at her shoulder with another tissue as Martin systematically destroyed his, tearing it up into tiny pieces between finger and thumb.
“I came here for some quiet, in case you were wondering,” Carolyn said, quietly. “Get out of the house, just for a bit. Arthur will realise - probably has already - and come here to nag me until I return.” She smiled at the desk vaguely, as if seeing something through the wood. “Idiot boy.”
Martin didn’t know what to say, discarding instantly the few things that came to mind, and settling on staying quiet. His tissue was well and truly destroyed, and he bundled up the remains into a damp wad.
“Now listen up.” Carolyn had wiped the smile from her face like a person might wipe toothpaste or messy food away, business-like. “If I’m not mistaken - and I’m not - that’s Arthur arriving in his car, so you better hurry and pack up. We’re having cottage pie.” She deliberately mistook Martin’s expression. “Don’t worry, I made it. Now chop chop!” She clapped her hands.
“But -” Martin said, feebly, before withering and starting to put away his few things into a threadbare, second hand backpack. “But -”
“Don’t be stupid, it’s not charity,” Carolyn overrode him, briskly. “I expect some decent praise for my cooking, something my ever lovably dense son has yet to get right. Now, are you ready or not?”
He was ready. As they left the portacabin Martin swiped at his eyes, smiled weakly and chucked his tissue in the bin.
Outside, on the wet tarmac, Arthur bound up to greet them.