Martin nearly didn’t pick up his mobile when it rang. He’d just finished his final delivery of the day, and all he wanted to do was go home and fall into bed for eleven or twelve hours. Then he saw that it was Arthur calling. The last time he’d let Arthur go to voicemail, the message had gone on for twenty-two minutes.
“Hello, Martin Crieff speaking."
"Skip! Oh, good, I was afraid you weren’t going to answer, and then I’d have to call Mum, and that would be...probably less good. This is Arthur, sorry, I should have said that at the beginning, shouldn't I?"
“Arthur, I know it’s you, it is obviously you, and anyway I could see it on the--oh, never mind. What is it?”
“Right. Well. Do you have a minute?”
“One minute, yes,” Martin said guardedly. It was beginning to appear that voicemail would have been the quicker option after all. “One. Go.”
“One minute. I’ll speak quickly. So you know that time after the stag do to Monte Carlo--the one where they came back with their heads all shaved, and one of them was left behind in the aisle by accident, and he got locked into the plane overnight and was sick all over the--”
“Yes,” Martin said. “I remember perfectly. Please don’t say another word.”
There was silence for a while.
“I meant another word about that incident,” Martin snapped. “Arthur, why have you called me?”
“Oh! Right-o, Skip, I only meant to say that ever since that incident, about which I won’t be saying another word, I’ve been very careful to go back at the end of every flight and check that there aren’t any bodies of any kind left behind anywhere on the plane, and I almost forgot to do it tonight on the return trip from Glasgow, but then I remembered when I was nearly to the car park and went back, and it was a good thing, too, as it turns out. Although he’s terribly cross and won’t listen to anything I have to say.”
Martin hit his head against the steering wheel of the van three times in quick succession. The third time he didn’t bother picking it up again, just let his forehead rest there against the cool molded plastic. “Arthur, what are you trying to tell me? Is there a drunken passenger, right now, in our aeroplane?”
“No! Not drunken,” Arthur said quickly. “He’s just slightly under the weather, I believe. Perhaps more than slightly. Also, not a passenger. It’s Douglas.”
“I’m confused,” Martin said.
“So is he. A bit. I think. Could you speak to him, possibly, or if you can come down here that would be even better, because I really don’t think he should sleep here all night no matter what he says.”
“Arthur, are you telling me that Douglas is there, with you, at this moment? If he is, please give him the phone. Right now.”
There was a muffled squabbling at the other end of the line that went on for over a minute. Martin, still resting his head against the steering wheel, began to doze off. He woke with a jerk as a gravelly voice barely recognisable as Douglas’s said harshly in his ear, “Martin, ignore this call and don’t pick up your phone again. Everything is fine. Good night,” and hung up.
Well then. Everything fine. Excellent. He could just...go home, then. Good.
He started the van, fully intending to drive straight to his house, but then hesitated and was lost. “Oh, balls,” Martin said finally. He pulled out his phone again, sent a quick text to Arthur (on my way don’t repeat DO NOT call Carolyn), then drove toward the blasted airport.
Arthur met him at the boarding door, looking guilty and relieved and worried all at once.
“Where is he?” Martin demanded.
“Four-D. I think he’s just gone to sleep, in fact, Skip, maybe don’t--no, right, yes, go ahead then,” Arthur said as Martin shoved past him and strode to the back of the plane.
“Douglas, what the hell are you playing at?”
“Oh, do sod off,” snarled the heap of airline blankets in seat 4D. “Sir,” it added as a sarcastic afterthought, and broke into a round of harsh, painful-sounding coughs.
“He’s ill,” Arthur explained helpfully.
“Yes, thank you, I did gather as much,” Martin said. “Why is he here?”
Arthur shrugged. “He wouldn’t exactly say. Only that he was perfectly comfortable where he was. Plus a lot of Douglassy things that basically boil down to ‘go away and leave me alone.’ He said he’d only have to come back for the flight to Madrid and he’d just as soon sleep here on the plane.”
“Madrid isn’t for another two days!”
“I know! I explained that to him. A lot. Then I phoned you. Sorry.”
Martin turned back to the pile of blankets and prodded it with two fingers in what he estimated to be the shoulder region. “Douglas, this is ridiculous. If you’re too ill to drive, let one of us take you home. Or do you want us to phone Helena and have her pick you up?”
Douglas twisted round, shedding enough of the blankets to be able to fix Martin with a malevolent glare.
“Oh,” Martin said, taking a step back. “Er...trouble at home, is it?”
“That,” Douglas rasped, “is none of your business.”
“Oh,” Martin said again. “Well. But you can’t possibly expect us to just go away and let you sleep on the plane for two nights! Are you delusional?” He frowned and looked more closely at Douglas. “Wait, are you delusional?” He reached out and pressed the back of his hand hesitantly against Douglas’s forehead, half expecting to be snarled at again, but Douglas merely shut his eyes and gave an impatient sigh.
“No more than usual,” he said. “Not that I wouldn’t mind a nice break from reality.”
“You’re awfully warm, anyway,” Martin said doubtfully. “And you’re certainly not acting very rational.” He looked back at Arthur. “How was he during the flight?”
“Right,” Douglas said. “If you won’t leave me in peace, I’m not going to stick around to be discussed and fussed over by the pair of you. I’m leaving.” He pushed himself up out of the seat, only to double over almost immediately with another coughing fit.
“I’m nearly certain I can almost remember the correct way to do CPR,” Arthur offered. “In case he falls over.”
Douglas straightened up at once, scarlet-faced and clutching at his diaphragm. “Martin,” he managed to gasp out. “I’ll go with Martin.”
“You can drop me at the Fitton Inn,” Douglas said, when they were in Martin’s van and Arthur had waved them a cheerily relieved farewell.
“The Fitton-- Douglas, really? Look, whatever’s going on with you and Helena, it’s your house, she’s your wife, I’m sure she wouldn’t want you to--”
“Trust me, she would. Helena had her marriage vows rewritten to take out the clause in sickness and in health.”
Martin just looked at him, unable to tell if he were joking or not.
“She’s a bit of a germophobe,” Douglas explained. “It’s complicated. In any case, I never get ill, so it’s not usually a problem.”
“Well, you’re ill now,” Martin pointed out. “Did she actually tell you not to come home?”
Douglas pulled his coat closer around himself and looked out the passenger-side window. “I told her we’d had a last-minute booking for Hong Kong. I’m not particularly keen for her to see me in this state.”
“Ah,” said Martin.
Douglas shot him a watery-eyed glare. “How many times is it you’ve been married, again?”
“None,” Martin sighed. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t--”
“And how many long-term relationships, exactly?”
Martin set his jaw and started the van.
He couldn’t seem to make himself drive to the hotel, though, as tired as he was and as much as he longed for this day to be over. He’d suffered through the flu on his own once, two winters ago on a holiday weekend when all his flatmates were away, and it wasn’t an experience he’d wish on his worst enemy. He could still vividly remember the despair of making the long, shaky journey down three flights of stairs to heat up a tin of soup, then discovering he hadn’t the strength to climb back up to his room again. He hadn’t even been able to make it to the living-room sofa, in fact, but got so dizzy he’d passed out on the kitchen floor, where he’d lain for next few hours shivering and hallucinating and wondering, in his brief periods of lucidity, whether anyone would come home in time to save his body from being partially eaten by the economics student’s horrible cats.
Of course, there wouldn’t be cats at the Fitton Inn. Nor stairs. There might even be room service. But even so.
“Oh god,” Douglas groaned, when the van came to a stop and he saw where they’d pulled up. “Martin, no. I’m not stopping at your quaint bohemian hovel. I’ll catch something worse than this. Tuberculosis, no doubt.”
“It’s perfectly clean, thanks,” Martin said frostily. “I don’t think you should be on your own in this state, that’s all. And may I remind you, you were initially planning to spend the night in an unheated aeroplane.”
Douglas drew in breath, probably to launch more protests, but went into another coughing fit instead. It lasted for some time.
“Or I could run you over to A&E?” Martin suggested, as he was finally winding down. Douglas shook his head, eyes closed. After a long minute, he unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the van.