In the end, Martin really has no business complaining.
Douglas has no reason not to, he of the three ex-wives and daughter in danger of estrangement. Sitting in front of the fire and smirking as everyone else makes awkward conversation—it’s as though the day were made for him. Of course he wouldn’t want to spend it in a tin can thousands of feet in the air drinking mulled wine à la orange tic tac for the second time in as many years.
But Martin? It wasn’t as though he’d be missing anything, even if he had accepted Simon’s dinner invitation. Today would have be nothing more a resigned trip to the launderette, where the spin cycle contains more dramatic potential than the crap telly he’d watch in the living room of the silent house. There might even have been dim sum, if he could find that extra twenty pence that had fallen behind the dresser.
Even with the prospect of escaping such a day before him, Martin is reluctant to put on his captain’s uniform. It might not be his day, but he has become accustomed to the emptiness, to the odd quiet that is England celebrating without him. After taking a quick look in the refrigerator—containing no more and no less than a single saltine cracker—he drives to Fitton airport.
Douglas is already there, lounging against the passenger door. “You’re here early,” says Martin.
His first officer raises an eyebrow. “As ever, your observational skills are unparalleled.”
Martin doesn’t take the bait. “You’re never here early.”
“It may have escaped your notice, Martin, but today just happens to be what we in the late modern era call Christmas.”
“And being on time is your present to me?”
Douglas smiles as they enter the flight deck. “If you like. But I must admit that my thought process was more along the lines of early takeoff, early landing, and most importantly, early access to the first Mrs. Richardson’s wine cellar. She’s got an excellent Chablis I can take off her hands.”
“Out of them, more likely,” Martin murmurs. “Now, where exactly is—”
A hearty crash from the galley shoves its way through Martin’s words. “Arthur!”
Within moments the steward pokes his head around the door. “Sorry about that, Skip! It’s just that I’ve learned about something really brilliant.”
He takes a step onto the flight deck and holds his breath, rocking back onto his heels in excitement. Carolyn has recently told him that it is polite to refrain from illuminating one’s conversational partner as to the exact nature of a topic’s brilliance—and yes, Arthur, that includes fingerless gloves—until said conversational partner invites him to continue. Unfortunately, going through with this advice has done nothing to reduce Arthur’s need for instant gratification; he’s developed a habit of simply vibrating around whomever occupies the receiving end of the conversation until he or she directly asks him to share. He isn’t easy to ignore, though on one occasion Martin had been so focused on the controls that he hadn’t replied and the steward had fainted from lack of oxygen.
Unwilling to be the cause of a repeat performance, Martin turns to Arthur, who is now hopping up and down. “What’s that?”
The steward takes in a fresh breath. “Two holidays! It’s not just Christmas, chaps, it’s Chanukah!”
Martin’s stomach sways at the word—pronounced by Arthur as though it shares the hard ‘k’ sound at the beginning of ‘Christmas’—and for a moment, his eyelids flicker closed. “Oh! I was so excited, I forgot to say hello,” Arthur chirps, “hello, Douglas! Hello, Skip!”
“Hello, Arthur,” Douglas drawls from the First Officer’s seat, “I’m afraid that I have to inform you that it’s pronounced HAH-nu-kah.”
He grates the first syllable against the back of his throat and Martin rolls his eyes. Arthur looks aghast. “Really? But they start the same! And they’re on the same day! It’s like they’re friends!”
“Yes, Arthur,” Douglas smirks, “very good friends indeed.”
At that moment Carolyn’s voice sounds over the intercom. “Alright, my pretty pilots. He’s walking across the tarmac as I speak. I want you all on your best behavior. You know what that means, Arthur.”
“The locker, mum,” says Arthur, cheerily enough.
Arthur jumps, suddenly excited. “Mum! I hope you have a nice HAH-nu-kah!”
Silence, then “Arthur, what have I told you about swallowing gum?”
“No, but mum, it’s friends with Christmas!”
Martin can practically hear Carolyn shaking her head in exasperation. “I don’t want to know. Now, my darlings, shut up. He’s here.”
Another crackle from the intercom punctuates the end of the conversation, and Martin starts the pre-takeoff checks, his hands trembling a bit. He notices the strange looks Douglas is sending in his direction, the question under every “check” he utters, and shakes his head. Douglas raises his eyebrows but seems content to let it go, at least for the moment.
They have only been airborne for several minutes when Arthur says, “Are there presents?”
“Are where presents?” says Douglas.
Martin watches the horizon line and breathes slowly, wishing he’d eaten that last cold saltine.
“So you get Christmas presents and Chanukah presents?”
“Not generally,” Douglas explains. “Most people celebrate one or the other.”
Arthur’s face droops. “Why?”
“Chanukah is a Jewish holiday. Christmas is a Christian holiday.”
“Oh,” says Arthur, now a bit lost, “right.”
And Martin thinks that it’s over, that he won’t have to think about it any more, but then, “How do people wish each other a good Chanukah? Is it happy? Is it merry, like in America? Is it brilliant? Or maybe—”
Martin almost doesn’t realise that he’s shouted until they’ve both turned to stare at him.
Sorry for posting this later than I expected! This was supposed to be the last part, but I'm too tired to finish it tonight, so there will be a short update after this.
The sudden rift in the conversation bubbles up through the engines, the silence overtaking even the groans of the old plane. “Chag sameach,” Martin repeats, red face downturned, “it’s…it’s how you say it, how you wish people a good Chanukah.
He frowns, and shifts into pedant mode. “Well, not literally, it means ‘joyous festival’ so you can really say it on any holiday, there’s no actual phrase meaning ‘Happy Chanukah’. Well, there’s ‘Happy Chanukah’, but that’s English, but no one’s even mentioned Hebrew so of course you were expecting it in English and I really need to stop talking now.”
Martin keeps one eye on the controls and squeezes the other shut in mortification, hoping to fall into the nearest amenable black hole. Three years he’d avoided this conversation. Three years, and he couldn’t have held out just a year longer? Martin Crieff simply wasn’t too keen on Christmas—family tension and all that, which was never a complete lie—and they’d let him more or less alone about it. Now? He’d have a better chance of winning first crack at the cheese tray.
He hears the sharp intake of air beside him. “Martin…”
This is it. The first in a line of endless cracks about G-d knows what. His hair. His freckles. How well his religion—and, by association, his ethnicity—explained his general state of neuroticism. Nothing he hadn’t heard before.
And then Douglas says, “Chag sameach.”
Martin stares. “Really? That’s it?”
“Really,” Douglas says, “that’s it. Though if I’d known, I would have said it five days ago.”
Arthur looks puzzled, but, as ever, not unhappy about it. “Why five days ago, Douglas?”
“Because that’s when Chanukah started.”
The steward practically rockets up into the air. “It’s a holiweek!”
“And a day,” says Martin, “a week and a day.”
“Wow,” Arthur murmurs, and his jaw slackens slightly in wonderment.
It would be like this, then. No jokes, but hardly solemn. Not tiptoeing. He looks briefly to Douglas, who nods as though in confirmation. He can work with this.
“Tell me about the food,” Arthur urges.
Martin sighs, but it contains the depths of remembrance rather than frustration. “Latkes,” he says.
It’s odd, perhaps—letting the language out into the confines of a metal box some thirty four thousand feet up in the air—but he hasn’t used it in Fitton, won’t use it in Fitton. Fits here better, the little he remembers. It’s a flying language, Yiddish. It can shift into small spaces.
“Potato pancakes,” Douglas is telling Arthur, who stands rather abruptly at attention before whizzing back towards the galley with what appears, frighteningly enough, to be drive and purpose.
“Made by your grandmother, no doubt,” Douglas says.
“And they were the most deliciously oiled effusions of gently-browned spuds in all of the Diaspora.”
“They were horrible,” Martin says, wistfully.
“Surely you mean quaint.”
“No, really. Absolutely terrible. Like fried mud.”
“Oh, yes. No idea what she put in them, though Caitlin and I were sure at one point that it involved cornflakes. And possibly nothing else.”
Douglas grins then, bright and a little honest and maybe even kind. Might even—definitely—knows what last year had been about for Martin, how it’s poking through the fabric of today and its twin celebrations.
Arthur comes back with a plate covered in what appears to be puddles of brown, spongy mush. “I found a packet of crisps!”
Douglas looked upon it with pity. “And presumably you saw it through a full-scale nautical disaster.”
“Would have been my next guess.”
Martin doesn’t wait for Arthur’s encouragement to start eating. “Horrible,” he says, “though a completely different sort of horrible than Bubbe’s. I’d even go so far as to say the opposite end of the horrible spectrum, so, well done, Arthur.”
Martin continues chewing, almost questioningly. “Though tonight’s not really complete without Bubbe claiming that my Uncle Daniel tried to burn the house down for the insurance money.”
“To be fair,” says Douglas, “anyone who tried the same on GERTI would be looking at the infinitesimal profit of, say, fifty pence. I’m afraid replicating your scenario just wouldn’t be believable.”
“That’s alright. I can manage without.”