It’s summer again. Martin keeps the upstairs window open at night, sitting by it and breathing in the fresh, mild air. Sometimes he can hear an aeroplane passing far above him.
Then he thinks about what it must be like, sitting behind the control panel in the cockpit, velvety night ahead of you. When you’re a proper pilot who doesn’t have to worry that he might crash the plane. He wonders what his life would have been like, if it hadn’t been for the accident.
Probably almost the same, he concludes inevitably. He wouldn’t be able to fly anyway – he could never be good enough. He wouldn’t be dependent on Caitlin, and he could go outside without people running away from him screaming, but that would be the only difference, really. He was alone before the accident, he would be just as alone if it hadn’t happened. The thought consoles a little, at the times when everything hurts too much, not just the scars.
Caitlin comes once a week, bringing supplies. She deposits them in the kitchen and leaves, hardly ever speaking to Martin. Martin doesn’t blame her. He understands that she doesn’t want to look at him, and he stays in his bedroom when she comes, trying not to be more of a burden than he already is. It’s difficult for her, he knows. She has her own family, and he’s just a nuisance. Still, sometimes he wishes she would just smile at him, or touch him, or…something. Anything, anything that would make him feel a little less empty.
He dreams up stories about people whose faces looks like faces and not like something out of a horror film, who don’t feel lonely and unwanted and broken, and then he writes them up and sends them to his publisher. The royalties don’t amount to much, but at least Caitlin doesn’t have to spend her own money on him. It becomes more and more difficult with every passing month, however, to write, to find inspiration in his monotonous, solitary… existence. He doesn’t think it can be called a life.
He doesn’t know why he doesn’t just give up. It would be for the best, really. Caitlin could have the cottage refurbished and rent it out, finally free of the unwanted responsibility for her disfigured little brother. He doesn’t know why, but he keeps on going, day after day, featureless and empty. As if he is waiting for something.
The tree house Douglas helped Arthur build is brilliant. It’s like his own private house! Not that he doesn’t like living with Mum and Snoopadoop, of course, he loves that! And he has his own room and everything, but there’s something about having a tree house that’s just… well, brilliant. He just has to convince Mum or Douglas or Minty to come and visit. They’re being dreadfully stubborn about it, really. He also has to find a way to bring Snoopadoop up.
Since one of their passengers forgot a pair of binoculars, Arthur has started calling his tree house an Observatory. Because talking about an observatory makes him look more Sophie-stick-ated (= clever) than talking about a tree house, which is really silly, but people are so silly at times, aren’t they? He also calls it an Observatory because he observes the world with the binoculars when he’s up there. Not that there’s much to see, just trees and houses and their neighbours. But! Arthur has also discovered a Mystery.
There is this old little cottage at the edge of the woods. Arthur has always thought it was empty and abandoned, but now that he has his tree house and his binoculars (they are his, aren’t they, when their former owner never looked for them?) he notices that sometimes there is a dark shadow in the window, and when it’s dark he can sometimes see a thin strip of light where the curtains haven’t been drawn properly. He also finds out that every Friday after nightfall, someone (a woman, he thinks) arrives in a car and carries something inside, stays for a few minutes and leaves again.
Obviously someone secretly lives in that old, run-down house. Why do they never come out? Perhaps they’re ill? And if the only company they ever have is Friday (Arthur has decided to call that woman Friday, since she always comes on a Friday. Like Robinson Crusoe’s friend, you know?), then they must feel so lonely! That’s really not good.
Feeling a bit like Miss Marple, Arthur decides to investigate.
Up close, the cottage looks even worse than Arthur expected. Can someone really live there? Arthur would almost believe that he’d imagined it all, but as a proper detective he knows that the first thing to do when you want to solve a mystery is to look for footprints, and he finds some on the narrow dirt path leading to the door, so that’s proof. He puts his foot next to one of the footprints. The footprint is smaller, so it is likely that the suspect is indeed a woman. Or it could be a man with small feet! A good detective must never lose track of all the possibilities.
There is no bell, so Arthur just knocks on the wooden door. He waits for a moment, but nobody opens. Maybe they haven’t heard? He doesn’t want to thump on the door, because that’s really impolite, and he doesn’t want to make a bad first impression (Mum says that a good first impression is essential).
“Hello?” he calls and knocks again, trying the handle. That’s probably impolite too, but since he knocked it’s hopefully all right? But the door is locked, so it doesn’t matter.
What now? A detective mustn’t be discouraged if things don’t go exactly according to plan. And anyway, it would be no mystery if the door just opened, would it? Of course the door had to be locked, otherwise…
Suddenly, it occurs to Arthur: what if someone is being held prisoner inside? That would make sense! And if Arthur saves them, then he’s really going to be like Miss Marple! Except that he doesn’t knit, and a lot of people die around Miss Marple, and he doesn’t like it when people die, so maybe it would be best not be like her. He could be like someone else instead. Perhaps Indiana Jones?
But how can he get inside? Should he force the door? He doesn’t think he’s strong enough for that. And what if the person inside isn’t a prisoner, after all? They wouldn’t like having their door forced in that case. He should try the windows first.
Please leave please leave please leave, Martin thinks desperately, sitting on his chair motionless with panic. Someone’s at the door! What is he supposed to do? He can’t talk to anyone! Maybe if he stays quiet, they will think the house is empty and leave. Please leave.
He lets out a relieved breath when he hears footsteps, but he sucks it back in when he realises that they’re not retreating. No, the stranger is moving towards the window!
He jumps up, knocking the chair over, and he flattens himself against the wall next to the window, so that the stranger can’t see him if he looks inside.
“Hello?” the man calls again, and taps his fingers on the glass, and oh god, the window’s not fastened, it’s not even properly closed, why is this happening, why why why why. “Do you need help?”
What does that mean? Why would anyone knock on doors of dilapidated old buildings and offer help to strangers? Martin must have finally gone mad. It was to be expected, really. He’d started talking to furniture ages ago; hallucinations are the natural next step.
“You can say so if you need help, you know. I love helping!”
Martin takes several deep, shaky breaths and stammers, “P-please, go away.”
“Oh! There is someone in there, then. Hello! I’m Arthur! Are you a prisoner?”
A prisoner? “N-no, but I…”
“Oh good,” Arthur says, sounding relieved. “That would be awful!”
Martin thinks he might be hyperventilating. Nobody has talked to him for so long, since years ago, and it feels so good to hear a human voice, but he doesn’t know what to do, he can’t talk to anyone, he just can’t…
“What’s your name?” Arthur asks, inexplicably cheerful. “I thought you must be so lonely here. Maybe we could be friends!”
Friends. Martin barely knows what that word means. He never had friends, and no one could be friends with him now, when apart from pathetic and incompetent and stupid he’s also utterly hideous.
“Please go away,” Martin says again. “I can’t have friends.”
“Why not? Everyone can have friends!” Arthur says determinedly, and then, to Martin’s abject horror, he pushes the window open. “Would you like a Toblerone?”
Arthur leaves the Toblerone on the window sill, and when Martin doesn’t move or speak, he adds, “You can take it! It’s not poisoned or anything!”
But Martin can’t take it. He can’t do anything but stand there pressed against the wall. He was never good at interacting with people and more than two years of almost complete isolation certainly haven’t helped, nor has the fact that he can’t let Arthur see him, and he really just wants to panic.
“Are you afraid of me?” Arthur asks after a moment of silence. “I won’t hurt you!”
“I – Please, I can’t talk to you,” Martin says. It would be best if Arthur left before it ends badly.
“But you are talking to me,” Arthur points out. He hesitates, and then adds, “I can’t see you, though. Could you go to the window?”
“No!” Martin says, shaking his head vehemently, which is really stupid, since nobody can see the gesture.
“Oh. Okay! But we can talk like this, can’t we? It will be fun!”
If Arthur stays out and Martin stays inside, Martin thinks desperately, then there would be no harm done, surely? Just a bit of a chat, nothing more. Arthur sounds like he could manage most of the conversation by himself, which is fine by Martin. And it would be nice to have…someone to listen to, for a while. Just not to be so alone all the time. Arthur has come to him and clearly he won’t be shaken off easily; it would be foolish for Martin to reject his only chance for human contact. He doesn’t want to.
“I’m Martin,” he says hesitantly.
“Hi Martin!” Arthur says, sounding delighted, as if Martin introducing himself was the best thing that happened to him in years. “I’m Arthur, but I think I already said that. I live in the white house! The one down the road, not the one in America, of course. I’m not a president! That must be so boring, always having to give long speeches about wars and laws and taxis…”
“Taxis?” Martin frowns.
“Yeah, you know, how there should be more of them or less of them, but it doesn’t make any sense…”
“You mean taxes.”
“…because surely a president doesn’t take taxis. I mean, he has a limousine! And Air Force One! That’s a brilliant plane! It looks like a hotel inside, I saw it on the telly.”
“Technically,” Martin says before he can stop himself, “any United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States is Air Force One, not just the Boeings VC-25.”
“Really? Like, even a small plane?”
“So Gerti could be Air Force One?”
“Our plane! She’s brilliant! Do you think Mr Obama would like flying in a plane that has just sixteen seats?”
After ages of being alone, someone just comes to his cottage, offering friendship and chocolate and he has a plane? Clearly something must have gone very wrong with the world. Good things don’t happen to Martin.
“I don’t think so,” he says, trying to sound calm and not like an overly excited five-year-old, “but it doesn’t matter anyway. I doubt that your plane belongs to the US Air Force.”
“Oh,” Arthur lets out a disappointed sigh, but instantly brightens again. “But Gerti’s still brilliant, even if she can’t be Air Force One! Have you heard of MJN Air? That’s our airline! Or airdot, as Mum says, since we only have one jet.”
“What kind of – what kind of plane is she? Gerti, I mean. N-not your mum. Obviously.”
“I don’t know, Lockheed McDonald? Something like that.”
“Lockheed McDonnell?” Martin squeals, and he has to use all his willpower to restrain himself from jumping towards the window. “You – you have a Lockheed McDonnell? Seriously? And it flies?”
“Yes! A lot of people are surprised about that, I don’t know why. You like planes?”
“I love planes!”
“Brilliant! We both like planes! That means we can be really good friends! So maybe you can take the Toblerone now?”
Feeling a little dizzy, Martin pulls down his sleeve to cover his ruined hand, and reaches for the chocolate bar.
Talking to Martin is brilliant, but also a bit weird. It’s strange to talk to someone without looking at them to see if they’re smiling. Kind of like talking on the phone, but not really, because on the phone it makes sense not to see the other person.
“Why are you hiding, Martin?” he asks. “Don’t you like people?” Some people don’t like other people, Arthur knows. Like Noel, their captain. Arthur doesn’t understand why. Other people are brilliant!
Martin is silent for a moment. He likes talking about planes, but not about himself. When Arthur asked who Friday was, Martin said “My sister”, and it was clear from his tone that he didn’t want to say anything more about it. Mum once took Arthur to a course about understanding people in Ipswich, and since then Arthur can tell a lot from a person’s tone of voice!
“People don’t like me,” Martin says slowly.
“But you’re brilliant!” Arthur exclaims. He hasn’t known Martin for long, but he’s told him about MJN and Martin asked plenty of questions (some of them Arthur didn’t know the answer to, but he’s going to ask Mum or Douglas) and how could anyone who’s interested in planes in general and Gerti specifically not be brilliant? It’s just impossible! “Why would anyone not like you?”
“Don’t – please don’t ask,” Martin says, and he sounds so sad. Arthur hates it when people are sad. No one should ever be sad. He won’t ask. Maybe Martin will tell him another time, and if not… well, Arthur would rather not be able to solve the mystery than make Martin sad.
“Okay, I won’t. Have you ever tried tossing apples?”
“Yeah, it just feels really nice and it makes you feel better! You should try it!”
“I don’t have any apples.”
“I’ll bring you some tomorrow, then! You’ll see, it’s really brilliant!”
He hears Martin’s sharp intake of breath. “You’re going to come tomorrow?”
“Yes! I mean…” Arthur checks himself, remembering what Noel told him – that sometimes he can be annoying. He doesn’t want to annoy Martin. “I mean, if you don’t mind.”
“No! That is, I don’t mind. At all. I-In fact,” Martin clears his throat, “it would be very kind of you, and, and, and… thank you.”
“No problem! It will be fun! We could play charades! Or, well, not charades, but other games are fun too. Although not as fun as charades.”
“We could play, umm… Guess the Word, perhaps?” Martin suggests hesitantly.
“Great! How do you play that?”
Martin goes to sleep feeling… rather good. It takes him a while to realise it – he’s not used to feeling anything but different levels of numb and miserable. Now he actually looks forward to tomorrow.
Arthur may not be very bright, but he’s kind and genuine and he doesn’t mind that Martin won’t invite him inside and won’t tell him the reason for it. Maybe Martin could have this, after all. A friend. He doesn’t know how long it can last, how long he can keep Arthur from finding out and leaving, or from leaving because Martin won’t let him find out. But he’ll take what he can get, and enjoy it as much as possible.
He can’t wait to see Arthur again. Well, not to see him, but to be with him and laugh with him, and to feel, finally, like a human being.
Arthur visits him two more times. He sits under the window and they talk and play word games and juggle apples and it feels amazing. But, of course, in Martin’s life nothing good can last for very long. The fourth time Arthur comes, it’s pouring buckets, and there’s no way Martin can leave him outside, not even in his bright yellow raincoat and wellingtons.
He has a minor panic attack after Arthur knocks on the door, trying to decide what to do. Arthur has come all the way from his house just because he’d promised to come today, and if Martin sends him away it’s likely that he will never come again. But if he lets him in, Arthur will see what used to be Martin’s face, and he will never come again either.
“It’s okay, Martin!” Arthur calls. “I don’t mind the rain. Rain is brilliant!”
“No, Arthur, listen,” Martin says, because Arthur has been so kind to him, and he doesn’t deserve to be left in the rain. And Martin refuses to lose the only friend he’s ever had just because of the weather. “I’m going to unlock the door, and you – you’re going to count to ten, all right? And then come in.”
“All right!” Arthur agrees excitedly. Martin takes a deep breath. There is absolutely no need to panic, he tells himself. Arthur will do just as Martin told him, he wouldn’t dream of opening the door too soon.
Martin unlocks the door and runs to the bathroom, banging the door shut behind him. There. He’s safe, he thinks with relief, and at the same time it occurs to him how ridiculous it is, that he has to hide like this. Arthur is so good-hearted, maybe he could accept Martin, maybe he could… No. Not even the best, kindest person on earth can love something that disgusts them. There is an empty space above the wash-basin where a mirror used to be before Martin smashed it, and every night he makes sure to close the curtains well before it gets dark, so that he can’t see his reflection in the windows. He can’t expect anyone to willingly look at what he himself can’t bear to see.
“Hi Martin!” Arthur calls cheerfully and Martin hears him bounce in, probably trailing mud everywhere. “I brought you something from Vienna! It’s – Wow! You have a cuckoo clock!”
“It’s broken,” Martin says. It isn’t the only thing in the house that’s broken.
“Oh. Poor Cuckoo. Maybe we could fix it?”
Some things can’t be fixed, Martin thinks bitterly.
“I had an accident,” Martin blurts, surprising himself. He didn’t mean to say it at all, but he realises suddenly that he wants Arthur to know, to understand why Martin can’t be the friend Arthur deserves.
“What? When? Are you hurt? Can I do something? Should I call someone? I could…”
“No, no, calm down! It was more than two years ago.”
“Oh, good,” Arthur says, relief evident in his voice. “I mean, not good, of course. But I’m glad you’re all right now.”
“Th-the thing is,” Martin says shakily, “I’m not.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Is that – is that why you’re hiding?”
Martin nods, and then, realising that it’s useless, he says numbly, “Yes. It… was a plane crash. I suffered severe burns on my face and hands, and now I have… scars.”
“Do they still hurt?” Arthur asks softly.
“Sometimes, but that’s not… That doesn’t matter. It’s just… The scars aren’t very… nice to look at.” The understatement of the year.
Arthur is silent for a moment. “I wouldn’t mind, you know,” he says then. “Looking at them. At you. It wouldn’t matter to me.”
“It would.” It matters to everyone. “That’s why I… why it has to be like this. I’m sorry.”
He hears Arthur move towards the bathroom door.
“It’s all right, Martin,” he says. “I don’t mind either way, really! I just want to be friends!”
“Yeah,” Martin says, even though there is something in his throat that makes it hard to speak. “Me too.”
“Brilliant!” Arthur says, and Martin can hear his wide grin. “Anyway, I brought you these chocolate balls. They’re made by a chap called Mozart, he’s really famous in Vienna! My grandparents made sweets too, but they were never famous for it…”
Martin wishes he could hug him.
“Arthur, do you have a logical explanation for this horrendous mess?” Mum asks as she enters the kitchen.
“I’m making paper masks!” Arthur informs her.
“What on earth do you need paper masks for?”
“They’re for Martin!”
Mum frowns. “Who’s Martin?” she asks, sounding rather suspicious.
“Mum! I told you about him! Weren’t you listening?” Arthur says. Mum never listens, always busy with her papers and calculator. “He’s my new friend! He lives in the old cottage by the woods. He’s brilliant!”
“Oh, him? He’s real, then? I thought you’d imagined him. You did say you couldn’t see him.”
“That’s right, I can’t!” Arthur says, glad that Mum had been listening at least a little. “That’s why I’m making these masks, you see? So that Martin doesn’t have to hide in the bathroom anymore!”
Mum frowns again. Maybe she doesn’t like the masks? Arthur looks at them critically. They are probably not as nice as those in that shop on High Street. But Mum always says not to waste money on unnecessary things, so Arthur decided to make them himself. He also likes doing things for Martin, and he thought Martin might like the masks better if he knew they were made especially for him.
“Does Martin have five faces?” Mum asks.
“Of course not!” Really, Mum will believe anything sometimes. “I’m just making more of them so that Martin can choose the one he likes best! Look, this one is a pirate… this is Harry Potter…”
“Harry Potter? I thought it was a panda with a severe head trauma.”
“But it looks nothing like a panda!” For a moment Arthur worries that his masks really aren’t very good and Martin won’t like them, but then he gets a brilliant idea: “I could make a panda though! Oh, and a polar bear!”
“Fine, fine,” Mum says wearily. “Make half a zoo for all I care, just do it in your room. I really need some peace and quiet right now.”
Arthur starts gathering his paintbrushes and watercolours, but he hesitates when he notices that Mum’s frown is not actually directed at him, or the masks, or the mess. She’s just… frowning in general. She looks… worried. Mum often looks worried, but now more than usual.
“Mum?” Arthur asks carefully. “Is there something wrong?”
Mum sighs and sits down at the table, pushing the scraps of paper away. “Yes, I’m afraid there is,” she says, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Noel got an offer from Orion Airways, and he says he’s going to leave unless I double his salary.”
“Oh,” Arthur says. “Can’t we find a new pilot then?” Not that he doesn’t like Noel, of course. Noel’s brilliant. Just… a bit less brilliant than other people. He’s always angry and complaining, and he doesn’t let Arthur call him Skip.
“I suppose we’ll have to,” Mum says. “I just really don’t know where.”
Martin looks at the smudged, strangely shaped paper masks that Arthur has handed him through the window, and he feels oddly touched. This is different than bringing him chocolate (though Martin loves chocolate and Caitlin never buys any) – this means Arthur spent a lot of time thinking about him, creating something for him. Just because he wants to be in the same room as Martin.
“Thank you,” he says quietly.
“You like them?” Arthur asks.
“Of course! They’re really… brilliant.”
“Great! Can I come in, then?”
Martin chooses the mask that has the least wild colours on it and puts it on. The holes for eyes are a bit too narrow, but they will do. It occurs to Martin that he must look absolutely ridiculous. He spent his life before the accident trying (and failing) not to look ridiculous, but now it’s a welcome change.
“All right,” he says, wrapping a dishtowel around his neck to cover the burns there and pulling his sleeves down. “You can come in.”
He feels unaccountably nervous during the few seconds before Arthur opens the door, and then Arthur is standing in front of him, and Martin had forgotten how good it feels to have someone smile at you, or perhaps no one has ever smiled at him quite the way Arthur does now. Martin returns the smile, but of course Arthur can’t see it.
“You chose the polar bear!” Arthur exclaims. “That’s my favourite too! It looks great on you! And we can watch films now! I brought the one I told you about. The one about the dragon and the Vikings!”
“But I don’t have a DVD player.”
“That’s all right, I have my laptop!”
They settle on the overstuffed sofa, close together to see the small screen comfortably. Martin doesn’t really follow the storyline – rather, he notices Arthur’s excited remarks on the different brilliant aspects of the film, the way he glances down at Martin every now and then and smiles, the warmth of his body, the closeness.
About halfway through the film, with his usual complete lack of self-consciousness, Arthur wraps an arm around Martin’s shoulders. Martin tenses for a moment, unused to the sensation, but he relaxes quickly. It just feels so wonderful, to be close, to be touched. He snuggles closer to Arthur, not caring how unconventional it may be for two grown men to cuddle on the sofa.
The cuddling becomes a regular thing, and Martin basks in it – he’d be a fool not to take what Arthur offers so freely. He quickly becomes comfortable with the physical proximity. Too comfortable.
They are curled up on the sofa, talking about nothing in particular, when Martin feels the soft touch of Arthur’s fingers on his hand.
He jerks his hand away abruptly, pulling himself as far from Arthur as the small sofa will allow. He knew he should have worn gloves, he knew it, but he only has woollen ones and it’s too hot for them and he thought it would be all right if he just kept his hands in his sleeves, but he became too relaxed and he stopped paying attention to it and now Arthur has seen…
“I’m sorry!” Arthur blurts, eyes wide with sudden panic. “Did I hurt you?”
“N-no,” Martin stutters, trying to pull his sleeves down but his hands are shaking. Arthur has seen, and now he’s no doubt imagining what Martin’s face must look like and his ideas are probably not far from the truth.
Arthur hesitates for a second, and then reaches for Martin’s left hand, taking it in both of his. His touch is careful and gentle, fingertips exploring the coarse, marred skin. Martin’s heart is hammering against his ribcage, his brain at a standstill.
“How can you still like planes when this happened to you in one of them?” Arthur asks softly.
“I – I wouldn’t know how to stop,” Martin whispers. “I never liked anything else half as much. I wanted – I wanted to be a pilot since I was six.”
Arthur lifts his head. “Pilot? You were a pilot?”
“Yes,” Martin breathes, his throat completely dry. “I wasn’t a passenger when… it happened. It was an engine m-m-malfunction and I tried to do what I could but it… wasn’t enough.”
“Martin!” Arthur exclaims in excitement. “Why haven’t you said that before? Noel has resigned and we need a new pilot! It could be you! It would be so brilliant!”
Martin blinks at him. “I just told you I crashed a plane. I don’t think that’s the best recommendation.”
“You didn’t crash it, it was an engine malfunction! Martin, just imagine, we could fly everywhere with Mum and Douglas, and I’d bring you coffee to the flight deck and would you let me call you Skip?”
“That’s impossible,” Martin says, hating to disappoint Arthur.
“Why? It would be brilliant!”
“You know why. Have you ever seen a pilot with a polar bear mask on his face?”
“You’d be the first! Maybe you’d be famous for it!”
Martin sighs, very conscious of Arthur’s thumb stroking gently along his knuckles.
“Take it off, then,” Arthur says quietly, uncharacteristically serious. “Let me see.”
“No, Arthur, it’s – it’s – it’s worse than the hands, really, I can’t…”
“I won’t stop thinking you’re brilliant, you know. I never had a friend like you.”
There’s something about the way Arthur says it, and Martin suddenly thinks that Arthur probably hasn’t had many friends either, that he’s likely to be a bit of an outcast, too. And it occurs to him that if there’s anyone, anyone at all, who could like him the way he is, it’s Arthur. And he wants that, he wants it so much it hurts.
Feeling a mixture of dread and anticipation, he lifts the hand that Arthur isn’t holding, and he takes the paper mask off.
It feels like a stab in his chest, and he turns away quickly, pulling his hand out of Arthur’s grasp and covering his face. What was he thinking? Why did he do that? He ruined the only good thing he ever had! Why did he ever think it could last?
“It’s all right,” Martin says thickly, helplessly trying to get enough air into his lungs. “I understand. I’m sorry. Thank – thank you for everything. I’m sorry.”
“But you haven’t done anything! Why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying,” Martin says, but he is, he is, because he’s pathetic and he doesn’t even have enough dignity to face the fact that no one can ever look at him without feeling nauseous.
Arthur gets up from the sofa, but he doesn’t walk straight out of the door like Martin expects him to. Instead, he moves to crouch in front of him.
“It looks like you are, though. Here, take my hanky! It’s clean, I promise!”
Martin peers between his fingers as Arthur pulls out a bright red cloth handkerchief with yellow polka dots on it. He avoids looking at Arthur when he reaches for it. Maybe Arthur is going to be one of those people who smile at you and look you, but you can see the badly hidden disgust lurking behind the mask of politeness, their desperate desire to get away from you as soon as possible. He couldn’t bear to see that on Arthur’s face.
“I’m sorry if I made you cry,” Arthur says. “Or, you know, not cry, since you’re not crying, but something like that. “
“It’s okay,” Martin mumbles, and he forces himself to look at Arthur, bracing himself Arthur’s face is open and honest like it always is, and Martin remembers that Arthur is utterly incapable of deceit, that he couldn’t pretend anything even if he tried, and he would never try. The emotions showing on his face will always be sincere, and right now Martin can see nothing but concern, compassion and affection.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Arthur says, “I mean, I’m sorry you were hurt and that you have to hide, of course! But it makes no difference me and you’re still my best friend, because you play charades with me and you never tell me to shut up and you even tried Surprising Rice! And I’m glad that now I’ll be able to see you smile! I mean, you can sort of hear it in the tone of voice when someone’s smiling, but sometimes you smile when you’re not speaking, and anyway it’s always better when you can see people smile because it just feels really nice, you know?”
Arthur beams at him, and somehow it doesn’t help Martin’s effort to stop crying.
“You’re brilliant,” he quavers, before wrapping his arms around Arthur’s neck.
“Have you changed your mind?” Arthur asks excitedly for the third time that week.
“No,” Martin sighs. He wishes Arthur would finally understand that Martin’s fate is to stay in this old cottage writing mediocre short stories until the end of his life. He hates having to disappoint him. He hates the way Arthur’s smile fades every time he refuses. He hates the part of himself that doesn’t want to refuse.
“But you hate not being able to fly! And you could be captain!”
“Captain? Why – why won’t Douglas be captain?”
Arthur shrugs. “Mum says he’s irresponsible and already too smug as it is. I think you’d be a brilliant captain!”
“You think?” He’d always wanted to be an airline captain, always, ever since he found out he couldn’t actually be a plane… But that’s irrelevant now. He shakes his head. “It’s still impossible.”
“It isn’t, though!” Arthur insists. “No one cares what you look like! You thought I would care, and I didn’t!”
“But other people aren’t like you,” Martin says. He had enough of the stares and embarrassed looks on the floor and cruel mockery after was released from the hospital. He tried talking to Caitlin last Friday, because if Arthur could bear to look at him, then surely she could too, but she kept her gaze fixed on his shoulder. He knows very well what awaits him in the world outside.
“Yeah, I know,” Arthur says. “Sometimes they laugh at me too. But most people are not like that, really! And Mum and Douglas are brilliant! They would like you! And... You’re our only chance. No one wants to work for us. Mum says if we don’t find anyone by the end of the month then…” He trails off, looking away.
Arthur loves his job. If MJN stopped exiting, no other airline would probably employ him, and even if they did, who knows how they would treat him? Martin dislikes the thought of Arthur being unhappy, especially when there’s a possibility he could prevent it. Arthur has done so much for Martin. Maybe it’s time for Martin to do something for him in return.
Perhaps he could do it this time – go back to normal life. It wasn’t possible straight after the accident, when he had no one, but now he had Arthur. Maybe he’d be able to deal with the rest of the world now that he had someone to lean on. He wouldn’t have to rely on Caitlin’s reluctant help. He could fly again.
“Are you…” he begins haltingly, “are you sure that your mother wouldn’t mind…”
“’Course not!” Arthur interrupts him before Martin has a chance to finish, a wide grin appearing on his face. “She’s been wanting to meet you ever since I told her you’re my best friend!”
“You told her about me?”
Arthur nods enthusiastically. “Not about the pilot thing, since you told me not to, but everything else! She thinks you’re brilliant!” Somehow Martin has trouble believing that. Nobody seems to hold negative opinions in Arthur’s world. “And she would think you’re even more brilliant if you started working for us! Martin, please! It will be so brilliant!”
Arthur looks at him imploringly, not unlike an excited puppy. And Martin apparently has quite a weakness for excited puppies. He can’t possibly say no now that he’s got Arthur’s hopes up.
“But you – you’ll go on all flights and, and… and stay with me?” he asks, and the words are barely out of his mouth before he’s wrapped in a giant bear hug.
“Of course! That’s the entire point!” Arthur says, crushing Martin against his chest. “Where else would I be?” He pulls away, smiling brightly. “Come on, let’s go tell Mum!”
“What, now?” Martin yelps, sudden fear pooling in his gut. What is he doing? This is clearly a terrible, terrible idea but he’s as good as promised Arthur to do it and if he backs out now Arthur will be disappointed, but if he goes along with it, it will be awful and embarrassing and Arthur will be disappointed too. There is no way that this isn’t going to end in Arthur’s disappointment.
“Mum doesn’t like to waste time,” Arthur explains. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine!”
Martin takes a deep breath, trying to calm down. He must try. He must at least try. The worst that can happen is that he’ll walk back home humiliated, and that won’t be anything new. Arthur won’t abandon him. It’s all right.
“A-a-at least let me get changed,” he stammers. He wouldn’t make a good impression on his potential new boss in his frayed jeans and worn jumper. Not that it will matter much, his face will distract from whatever he’s wearing.
Deep breaths. Take deep breaths.
He hesitates when he pulls a neatly folded shirt out of a drawer. There is something hidden under the pile of shirts he hasn’t worn for almost three years: his grandmother’s hand mirror that he didn’t have the heart to break or throw away.
His heart is beating fast. Today is the end of hiding. He should probably start by stopping hiding from himself.
He pushes the clothes aside and reaches for the mirror, the silver handle cool in his grip.
It’s… better than he remembers, actually. It’s ugly, of course. He’ll never be anything but ugly. People who knew him before the accident wouldn’t recognise him. But it’s not as… monstrous as it was. As he’d thought it was. Maybe the ointment has helped.
Maybe Arthur's presence has helped.
Arthur beams at him when Martin emerges from the bedroom, and warmth blooms inside Martin’s chest. He can do this. He can be a pilot again. He can face whatever is going to happen, because for the first time in his life, he won’t have to do it alone.