Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood
“Listen close, Dougie,” his father says as he opens the boot and throws his bags in. He turns to his son, grabbing the boy’s wrist and turning it palm-side up. From his pocket, he pulls a biro and scratches out an address on Douglas’s hand, angular scrawl taking up nearly the entirety of his small palm. “This is the address where I’ll be staying. Write as often as you like, and I’ll make sure I write back. Now stop your crying, I’ll only be gone for a little bit.”
With a final sniffle, Douglas wipes the back of his other hand against his eyes and nods, squaring his shoulders and lifting his chin. His father smiles fondly at him and cups the back of his head to pull him into a hug. “That’s my brave boy. Keep your chin up, Dougie. I’m counting on you while I’m gone.”
Douglas nods against his father’s chest and they separate. He stands in the driveway, watching until he can’t hear the car engine anymore and then heads into the house. He’s careful not to use the hand with the address on it, lest it become smudged. In his room, he carefully copies the numbers and letters in his best handwriting in the cover of his schoolbook, where he knows it won’t get lost and then heads downstairs with the rest of the family. He’s the man of the house now, and there’s lots to do.
Three weeks later, and Douglas thinks he must’ve written about a hundred letters to his father. Every time he puts one in the post, he remembers something he wanted to say and has to write another letter. He’s got the address memorized now, but he still copies it from his book, just to be safe. He hasn’t gotten any back yet, but it’s a long way to Bristol and the post is slow.
It’s a gorgeous spring day as he runs home from his cricket match. He knows his mother won’t be best pleased with the grass stain up the side of his trousers, but they’ve won the match and he’s broken his personal record for runs. He slams through the front door, drops his kit in the entry way and clatters through the sitting room to the kitchen, bursting with excitement.
“Mum, mum,” he shouts. “Guess what? We had the most brilliant match, and Mr. Darrowby says…” His voice trails off as he skids to a stop, nearly crashing into his mother who is standing beside the phone.
There’s a look he’s never seen on her face before, and he’s instantly terrified. “Yes,” she says “I understand.” A pause. “No, that’s…I mean, I’ve got five children and I can’t just…” Another pause, and a sharp inhalation. “Well, if I must. I’ll do my best….Yes, just one minute.” She flutters around the desk where the phone is and finds a pen but there’s not a single scrap of paper to be found. Squeezing the phone between her ear and her shoulder, she poises to write on her hand. “Go ahead,” she says.
She has what Douglas knows is her serious “I’m listening very carefully” face on, and presses the pen so hard into her hand the flesh turns white. Douglas can see that it isn’t working. Her hands are wet from doing the washing up and she’s starting to get frustrated.
“Just a min—“ she says to the person on the other end, but Douglas doesn’t let her get any further. He just stands in front of her and gives her his hand, palm up. His mother gives him a grateful smile that’s a bit wan around the edges but sincere. It’s another address, and a phone number. Douglas stands as still as he’s able and when she releases his hand he runs to his room to grab his notebook. He copies the address as best he can into the cover of his book, just under the other one, but he can’t make out one of the words.
Douglas finds his mother sitting in the kitchen, a blank look on her face. “Here, Mum,” he says. “I copied the address for you. But I couldn’t read one of the words. I think it starts with an M?”
“Mortuary,” his mother replies absently. “It says mortuary.”
“Mortuary,” Douglas repeats. “What’s a mord--, mortuary?”
His mother’s face turns as white as their dishes and Douglas is sure for a second that she’s going to fall out of her chair. But the moment passes, and she takes a deep breath. “A place that takes care of people who’ve died.”
Douglas’s eyebrows furrow in confusion. “Dead people? But why are they calling here?”
He’s pulled into his mother’s arms. “Don’t ask any questions right now, Dougie. Please just don’t. I’m going to need you to be brave, but you can’t ask any questions, all right? Can you be brave for me?”
Douglas nods, and tucks his face into his mother’s shoulder, wrapping his arms around her neck.
“Thank you, my boy,” she says. They stay like that for a moment, and then she tells him to go gather his brother and sisters for a family meeting.
“We can’t have a family meeting,” he protests. “Da isn’t here!”
His mother makes a funny face, like Douglas just punched her in the stomach, and he’s instantly apologetic. “I’m sorry, Mum. I’ll go get them,” and he marries action to word.
Looking back, he doesn’t remember much of the days that follow. He knows his mother sits them down around the kitchen table. That she tells them their father’s passed away and won’t be coming home. He remembers her being gone for several days, taking the youngest two with her and leaving him and his sister with Aunt Ruth. Then, a blur of faces, mostly in dark colors, calling him “Dougie” and telling him to be brave and giving him hugs when all he wants is to be left alone to climb his thinking tree. A vision of his father, looking nothing like the man he knows. And the whole time, the only thing he can think is “I’m counting on you, Dougie” in his father’s voice.
Douglas watches as his mother slowly slips away from them, spending long hours locked in her room. She won’t answer any of the questions Douglas asks her, barely acknowledges him when he comes to bring her trays and then take them away again, eating barely enough to sustain a mouse. He learns that the only way things get done is if he makes sure they’re done.
He starts to take a certain satisfaction when things go well in the house: youngest children fed, on time to school, doing their homework. He becomes the de facto parent, forging his mother’s signature on slips to school, keeping his siblings in line, protecting them from schoolyard bullies who taunt the “No-one’s-sons.”
And through it all, he never complains, never talks to anyone. He is Douglas Richardson, son of George Richardson, and he promised he’d be brave. He looks himself in the mirror every day, squares his shoulders, raises his chin and hears “I’m counting on you” in his father’s voice. When it all gets too much, he climbs his thinking tree, as high as he can go and watches the clouds go by. And in those rare moments of peace, he imagines the silent world of the sky, where no one asks anything of you and you aren’t tethered to anything and he dreams.
People make mistakes/Thinking they're alone
Douglas is in the prime of his life. He has a beautiful wife, a darling little girl, and has just been hired at Air England. All in all, things couldn’t be better. He quickly proves his mettle as a pilot,
and it’s soon time for his first overnight trip. As he’s putting his bags in the car, his daughter stands there, sniffling mightily and trying not to cry.
He looks down at her and is struck with such a wave of love that he misses her tentative question. But he recognizes that look on her face, the same one she gave him when she first discovered a dislike for mushy peas. The one that pleads with him to make something better, the one that he could no more ignore than stop breathing.
“Aww, what’s this, my pet,” he coos as he wraps his broad hand behind her head and gently tugs her forward. There’s a huge wet sniffle and then a muffled question rises from his blazer.
“Will you call?” she asks.
Douglas bends down on one knee and pulls her into a proper hug. Her arms go around his neck and he stands up. She puts her legs around his waist as he leans against the car and asks again. “Please, promise that you will, Daddy.”
He gives her a quick peck on the cheek and then a gentle raspberry. “Emily Marie,” he replies. “I promise that I will call you as soon as I can. As very soon. The very soonerist of ables. If there is a phone, I will call. And if there’s not a phone, I will find a cup and a piece of string or two coconuts or a seashell and I will still call. All right?”
She sniffles again, with her head burrowed into the junction between his neck and shoulder and he freezes. He remembers doing the same thing, at very nearly this same age, with his mother in the kitchen of their house. It’s the last time they hugged properly, and he’s suddenly struck with so much sadness he has to kneel quickly lest he drop his little girl.
She takes it as a game, and he obliges, dipping her quickly so she’s upside down. She giggles and he pecks a kiss on her nose, her cheeks, her forehead and then kneels to set her upright on the ground. “Now, my brave girl,” he says, and prides himself on only choking a little. “You promise me something. Promise you’ll be good for Mummy?”
She grins at him and places her hands on his cheeks before looking solemnly into his eyes. “Daddy Richardson, I promise to be very good for Mummy. Please come home soon.” She says it so seriously he has to smile at her.
“That’s my lovely girl. I have to be going, but let’s go find Mummy so I can say goodbye, eh?” He takes her hand and they re-enter the house. Ten minutes and a thousand kisses for Emily later, he’s driving towards the airport, mentally reviewing the flight plan and not at all thinking about another Daddy in another time. No. Not at all.
The flight goes off without a hitch despite his distraction and he joins the rest of the crew in the bar afterwards. They have more than the required hours before they have to fly, so they’re safe for a drink or two. Not that the captain seems at all concerned with those regulations at the moment, with the amount of vodka he’s putting down. Douglas excuses himself, claiming a need to call his daughter before she goes to bed.
Emily picks up the phone on the first ring like she’s been waiting for his call. They talk for a little bit about her day at school and about his flight before he says goodnight and asks to speak to her Mummy. He gives his wife a rundown of the schedule and then they talk about plans for the weekend until she excuses herself to put Emily to bed.
“Come home safe, Darling.”
“As always. Give Emily another kiss for me. Have a good night.”
Douglas hangs up the phone and gets ready for bed. He’s in the middle of a new Raymond Chandler book and he thinks he’s figured it out, but he wants confirmation. It’s late before he’s finished the book, more than a bit pleased with himself for having figured it out so easily and burrows under the covers contentedly.
He awakes little more than an hour later, heart hammering in his throat and drenched in sweat. He thinks it must have been a nightmare, but he can’t recall anything other than dark impressions and rain. Buckets and buckets of rain. Foolish man, he thinks as he takes a few minutes just to breathe. What is there to be scared of? You’re certainly not made of sugar. Thus self-admonished, he resettles himself into bed and drifts off.
The rest of the night doesn’t fare much better. He lasts anywhere between 20 to 45 minutes at a time before he’s startled awake by vague forms and voices and fears. Finally, at 3 am, he gives it up for a lost cause and spends the rest of the morning wandering the town aimlessly in the hopes of exhausting himself towards sleep. It doesn’t work.
The flight the next morning is absolutely horrendous. The captain relieves his hangover in the form of mercilessly quizzing Douglas on minutiae, and while Douglas does well enough, it’s not up to his usual standards. The captain becomes increasingly snide and rude, criticizing every mistake the FO makes, finally banning him from actually touching anything in the cockpit and taking what should have been Douglas’s landing himself. Predictably, it’s of a rougher sort than some passengers are used to. Since the captain practically catapults himself out of the flight deck, Douglas is left to bear the brunt of their wrath alone. The flight crew doesn’t know him to speak of, so they assume he’d done the landing and abandon him to what is presumed to be his just desserts.
Thus, he arrives home exhausted and out of sorts, hours later than he said he’d be. Miriam is cold and distant, and he can feel the accusation on the back of his neck as he turns to greet his daughter, who by all rights should be in bed. Emily gives him a quick peck on the cheek and then pulls him over to the couch, climbing up on his lap and talking a mile a minute about everything he missed while he was gone.
Douglas is only half paying attention, nodding in the appropriate places and trying not to fall asleep where he sits. Eventually, Emily talks herself to sleep and Douglas takes her up to bed. He goes to his bedroom to find Miriam already there, fast asleep. Douglas joins her as quietly as he can, and eventually falls into an exhausted slumber.
He’s not any luckier in his dreams than he was the night before, though he remembers them this time. He’s a young boy, just after his father’s funeral, and he’s dressed in black, with his family all around him. Scenes flash by: uncontrollable rage from his mother, then incredible despondency. What he thinks is her funeral, with people whispering about his family in scandalized tones. His siblings, spread to the four corners in foster homes. James living in squalor on the streets, Maureen-the-baby with bruises on her arms and legs. And Douglas, standing there helpless as his family slips between his fingers, listening to his father’s voice, colder than he ever was in real life. “I counted on you,” he says. “All I ever wanted was a son I could rely on and be proud of, and instead I got you.”
Douglas’s sobs, less dream-contained than he thought, wake him up. He bolts upright in the pitch-dark room, “I’m sorry” dying on his lips. Miriam turns towards him sleepily. “Dougie, honey? What’s wrong.”
Douglas flinches in the dark at the nickname and swallows hard before he answers. He can taste failure in the back of his throat. “Nothing. Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep.” They’ve never discussed his childhood, and he doesn’t think he could find the words to start now.
She sits up and rubs her hand across his shoulders. To his great shame, he barely controls another flinch. “Come on, honey. I know there’s something.”
Douglas practically leaps off the bed. “I told you, there’s nothing! Just leave it, would you?” He shouts as he stalks from the room. In the sitting room, he pours himself something more than three fingers of whiskey, he lies down on the leather sofa. Alcohol is a familiar succor; there’s something soothing in the hypnotic swirl of the amber liquid ‘round the glass.
Hours later, he’s still there, watching the light from the streetlamp play off the cut glass in his hands. He’s on his third drink of the night (possibly his fourth, definitely no more than fifth), pouring and drinking mechanically, hoping for the maelstrom of thoughts to cease. Eventually, he dozes off (passes out, his subconscious helpfully corrects), his mind blessedly blank.
Hard to see the light now/Just don't let it go
After that first, most awful night, the dreams start to ebb away in small pieces. It’s nearly a week before they disappear completely, and the night Douglas dreams he’s acting in the West End he sleeps better than he has in a fortnight.
His drinking drops off considerably as well. It was only really in response to the terrors of the night, and now that the threat is gone, Douglas needs the blankness less. It’s not that he even particularly likes the emptiness of drunken stupor; he just finds it preferable to having so much of his psyche laid bare before him.
One day, Douglas comes home from a particularly trying flight, where between mechanical failures and grumpy passengers he hasn’t heard a kind word in days. When he arrives home, Emily is in the back garden, playing what he presumes is tea party with her soft toys. Douglas gives Miriam a quick kiss and goes out to see his daughter, sneaking up on her as quietly as he can. What he hears nearly makes him laugh out loud, but he’s able to hold it in, hiding behind a convenient bush to listen a bit more.
“No, France,” Emily says, poking a bear with a beret on the nose. “You can’t do it that way! Norway won’t like it, and it’s mean anyhow!”
“But Madam Chairman,” she answers herself in what Douglas privately considers to be the worst French accent he’s ever heard, “we haff no ozer course of ac-shion. We must haff all the cheeses!”
Emily grabs a unicorn with a piece of chocolate taped to its horn and her voice deepens. “No! We must all share the cheeses. It’s the nice thing to do. And we’re a union!”
Her tone slips back to its normal register. “Switzerland is right. We will all share the cheeses. Italy, you have the best ones, it’s your job to cut them up evenly to share.”
Douglas steps from behind the bush and adopts his best Italian accent. “Right away, Madam Chairman.”
The look of joy on his daughter’s face as she sees him is more than enough to make up for the terrible week he’s had. He catches her as she runs towards him and tosses her in the air, grinning at her delighted giggles. He spends the rest of the day with his family, Emily chattering at him at lightspeed as he cooks in the kitchen.
It’s a glorious three days. The next flight goes swimmingly, and Douglas is as happy as he’s ever been.
And then, one day, everything nearly goes terribly wrong. He’s got the landing at Heathrow, in thick fog with a nasty crosswind. Just as he flares for the landing, a strong gust slams into the side of the plane, pushing him nearly off the runway. The plane skids and slides a bit, both pilots wrestling with the controls to keep it on the tarmac. They’re barely successful, ending with one of the wheels firmly stuck in the mud and the other two on solid ground.
The ensuing whirlwind of emergency procedures, passenger evacuation, explanations, paperwork, shouting, more paperwork, debriefing, and even more bloody paperwork leaves Douglas exhausted and short-tempered. He knows he can’t go home in this state, so he stops off at the airport bar for a glass of whiskey to calm his nerves. The glass turns into several, which ends with Douglas being poured into a cab and sent home. Once he’s there, he stumbles into bed after perfunctory greetings to his family, and sleeps for nearly 18 hours.
The next few weeks that follow are, job-wise, the worst he’s ever had. Nearly every flight is delayed or has some form of malfunction, headquarters sends out a new asinine policy almost every day, he’s assigned with flight crews that do nothing but snipe at one another behind the curtain, and the captains he flies with are invariably ill-tempered and distant.
What started as a whiskey after rough flights turns into a whiskey after every flight, which makes some sort of twisted sense, since they’re all rough. Then, it turns into a whiskey in anticipation of a rough flight (but never outside the regulations—he’s anxious not suicidal). Before he knows it, Douglas is drinking after every flight and most days he’s off duty. He’s still a very good pilot, and his natural charm (which is amplified while he’s drinking) means he’s promoted to Captain relatively quickly.
The turning point comes when he’s nursing a particularly terrible hangover. His First Officer can’t seem to find his head with two hands, a map, and a flashlight, answering Douglas’s increasingly terse questions with a tone of growing anger in his voice. Finally, Douglas snaps.
“That’s it! Keep your hands to yourself for the rest of the flight. Just sit there and look pretty, and maybe you’ll learn something in spite of yourself.”
“But,” his FO protests, “I was meant to do the landing!”
“That was before I knew how incompetent you are,” Douglas growls. “I have control.”
The FO sighs sullenly. “You have control.”
The landing is slightly bumpier than his normal, but Douglas gives himself some leeway after the flight they’ve had. As soon as the plane is parked, he starts for the door.
“So that’s it, then?” his FO asks. “You’re just going to leave me here to deal with the passengers?”
And Douglas freezes, his mind flashing back to himself, years ago. With a captain he hated on a horrendous flight. But he can’t face it, so he just grunts and leaves.
The drive home is merciless, as he replays the last few years of his life. The fog of the alcohol, the loss of his temper, his lack of joy in his job. It all points to a man with a problem. At least his home life’s good.
Douglas slides his key into the door, and calls out to his family. Emily peers ‘round the corner, looking at him anxiously. Douglas grins at her and bends down for a hug.
“Hello, my darling,” he says.
“Hi, Daddy.” Emily gives a small smile and shuffles forward, wrapping her arms around his neck and squeezing tightly. She still looks at him warily, like he might turn into a monster any minute. Douglas can’t for the life of him figure out where that look comes from.
Until later that night, after a perfectly nice dinner, when Emily and Miriam are in bed and he’s pondering the drinks cabinet. Unbidden, his mind shows him images of himself, coming home after a long flight. While he’s interested in what Emily has to say, his body language is tense, his questions curt. Eventually, she stops seeking him out when he comes home.
Douglas looks into the mirror hanging over the mantle. There are new lines on his face, ones he hasn’t noticed before: deep furrows around his mouth, two scowl lines between his eyebrows. Where did those come from? he wonders. Distantly, he registers the aching need for a drink and reaches for a glass absentmindedly.
He stops himself short. When did drinking become a habit and not a decision? He cannot pinpoint that time with any sense of accuracy, and that frightens him a little. He’s always been a man of control, of conscious effort. The thought that he might be controlled by something else is daunting and he purposefully moves to the kitchen and pours himself an orange juice.
He spends the rest of the night in quiet contemplation, reviewing his life in flashes of memory and feeling. There are small gaps on some days, but mostly what he sees shames him. He’s become cold and distant to his family, especially to his daughter. He’s snappish with flight crew, sullen with his first officers, haphazard with paperwork. The only thing he excels at is flying, and he sees now that’s only a result of his unnatural luck, not any particular effort on his part.
As he changes out of his uniform that night to head to bed, he catches his own eye in the mirror. He has a sinking suspicion his father would be ashamed of him if he saw him now, and he resolves to change that. He’ll become a father anyone would be proud to have, a captain anyone would be proud to fly with, a good man. Squaring his shoulders and lifting his chin, he makes a resolution to himself.
No more drinking. Ever. He’ll do it quietly, without any help. He’ll just stop. No 12 steps, no group meetings, no promises or pledges, no prayers, no support groups. Just stopping. It will be hard, he knows. Possibly the hardest thing he’s ever done. But he’s Douglas Richardson, father of Emily Richardson, and he’s promised to be brave. When he goes to bed that night, he cuddles close to his wife, who makes a small surprised noise in her sleep but shuffles into his embrace. He wraps his arms around her and dreams of the future.
Someone is on your side/Someone else is not
Hindsight being what it is, Douglas thinks, he should have seen it coming. He is right about quitting drinking. The sheer number of times a day he finds himself wanting that familiar burn in the back of his throat moves swiftly beyond alarming and falls solidly in the land of shaming.
As a consequence, he catches himself in moments of snappish and impatient behavior more times than he’d care to admit. Miriam clearly suspects something is wrong, something more than run-of-the-mill bad temper. She sees his hand shake, hears his voice dry out and crack, watches the carefully pointed way Douglas avoids looking in a mirror. She must do; she’s never been a slouch in the observation department. But their relationship’s never been one of confidence, in any sense of the word, and she never presses for explanations, choosing instead to leave him to his own devices.
The only sunny spot in the whole sordid affair is Douglas’s relationship with Emily. Though still strained at the beginning, the time and attention he showers on her results in more smiles and cuddles, and far fewer fearful glances. He hadn’t realized how silent the house has been without her giggles mixing with the contralto of Miriam’s shattered-glass laugh and Douglas’s own deeper tones. Quietly, slowly the empty places in Douglas’s heart that were filled by the whiskey and silence begin to heal. The miraculous power of a child’s forgiveness, he supposes.
He spends the time he would have been at airport bars or the pubs at home, getting reacquainted with his family. Emily is old enough to be learning languages properly, so he begins with French, which she picks up with a faculty he secretly attributes to his half of her DNA. They spend hours on his days off chattering away about anything that takes her fancy. Douglas even ends up participating in Emily’s mock EU. She always insists on being the chairman, (“To practice, Daddy”) which fills him with pride at her goals. Sometimes, Emily makes him play France, or Germany, or Russia, but usually she’ll make up countries, giggling with delight over the details Douglas adds to his characters.
As much as his relationship with Emily flourishes, he and Miriam drift apart. Or, rather, they have drifted apart and Douglas never noticed. She’s begun to spend more and more time outside the house, attending various charity events, taking tennis lessons, going to her book club. At first, it’s a relief to Douglas; he’s happy to have more one-on-one time with Emily, not matter how it’s obtained. But as weeks pass by and he sees more of the shoeshine man in the airport terminal (and has better conversations with him, too) than he does of Miriam, he begins to grow concerned that he’s losing her. So, he does what he does best—makes a plan.
He’s a suave man; he managed to win Miriam’s heart once, he can do it again. Granted, that had been at university, while he was still hanging around the medical students, contemplating nothing more weighty than the source of the beer for the next party and she was still wide-eyed and optimistic, taking the world by storm.
Looking across the room at her now, Douglas can’t remember the last time they’ve had a conversation that didn’t involve shopping lists or events at Emily’s school. He resolves to pay more attention to his wife than he has been.
This plan backfires horribly on him, with its key element of learning what his wife is doing. She’s not spending time with various charities, as he learns to his humiliation when he shows up at an event unannounced to find his wife hasn’t been involved with them for years. Nor is she meeting with her book club, which disbanded months ago. She is, however, still taking tennis lessons. More than he’d imagined. Every day, even.
Douglas isn’t a stupid man. He knows what it means when your wife is meeting every day with a tennis coach who only has sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So, he starts to ask questions. Just little things, details about the events she goes to, opinions on the books she’s reading. It’s enough to tell her Douglas knows. Dinners at the Richardson residence grow colder and colder, until the icy fragility snaps. The row they have is conducted in civil tones, words cold enough to leave frostbite burns. Douglas accuses Miriam of having an affair, what with the lying and the constant visits to the tennis coach. She accuses him of turning Emily against her, what with the chattering all day in a language she doesn’t speak. It ends with Miriam leaving the house to stay at her sister’s and Douglas sitting morosely on the couch, head in his hands.
Lost in his thoughts, he doesn’t hear the shuffling Emily makes as he approaches his side, and he startles when she puts her hand on his shoulder.
“Daddy,” she asks. “What’s wrong?”
Douglas holds back a sigh. “Nothing, my dear. I thought you were asleep.”
“I was asleep, but then I heard you and Mummy having a fight.”
Douglas knows better than to lie to his daughter. Instead, he pulls her into his lap, giving her a strong cuddle. “Mummy and I are upset at each other. But it’s nothing to worry about. People get upset with each other all the time.”
Emily’s face scrunches into a frown. “Is this like when Jenny took my markers at school and I didn’t talk to her for a week?”
Douglas huffs a bit. “A little like that, darling, yes. But Mummy and I will work it out.”
“I hope so,” she says as she burrows further into his arms.
He kisses the top of her head and then settles himself back on the couch. “Me too, darling,” he replies, settling in to watch the sun rise while she drifts off to sleep.
Miriam comes home three days later, coolly civil and Douglas tries to be on his best behavior. But he’s an old hand at poker, and he knows when to fold. He’s scheduled for a flight later that evening, and he doesn’t want to leave angry.
Before he can attempt a reconciliation, however, Miriam has an announcement to make.
“I don’t think this will work anymore,” she tells him. “We’re just two different people now, and we don’t fit.”
Douglas scoffs at this. “You mean you don’t want to try to fit.”
Miriam bristles. “You’re not exactly making great strides in that department yourself,” she accuses.
The hit wounds, as Douglas has been thinking similar things himself. But he doesn’t give ground, trying every weapon in his vast arsenal to convince her to give it another go. Miriam won’t be budged. She agrees to stay in the house while Douglas is gone, and he leaves for the airport, already 30 minutes late.
To Douglas’s surprise, she keeps her word, in letter if not spirit. After one of the most distracted flights he’s had since he stopped drinking, he comes home to find her belongings neatly packed into moving boxes. He barely has time to greet Emily and drop his bag by the washer before Miriam assails him with details. She’s already contacted her brother, who’s agreed to act as her lawyer, and she’ll be staying with her sister in the interim. Emily will be coming with her.
Douglas is stunned. The thought that he’d lose Emily as well had never occurred to him. Or rather, he’d never allowed himself to think about it. But now the stark reality of the situation hits him full bore, and he’s forced to sit down on the stairs, head reeling. Miriam looks at him with a touch of pity and concern, and he almost loathes her in that moment. How dare she act like she cares about him, when she’s taking everything away?
And then he comes to the realization that that look she’s giving him is the same one she gives to panhandlers on the street and wounded animals. Concerned, but not invested. Douglas takes a few moments to remember how to breathe and then numbly helps her move her boxes to the car. Miriam’s told him David-the-tennis-coach has volunteered to come along to help, but Douglas can’t stand the thought of seeing the man.
Miriam heads up the stairs to collect Emily, who already has her bag packed. Douglas musters up what must be the weakest smile any father’s ever given his daughter, trying to force cheerfulness into his voice. As if they’re just going on holiday and will be home soon. He’s not sure Emily’s fooled, but the effort makes him feel better, or at least less horrible.
He stands in the street, watching Miriam’s BMW drive away until he can’t even hear it anymore, and then heads into the house. His first stop is the drinks cupboard, but when he opens it, he finds it empty. Miriam is clearly even more perceptive than he’d given her credit for. He settles for orange juice instead, and sinks into the recliner in the sitting room. He sits there for what feels like hours, sipping his juice and listening to the silence of the house. Finally, he stands to look at himself in the mirror.
This is it, he thinks. This is the end of the Richardson family. Throwing back the rest of the orange juice, he sets the glass on the mantle, and looks himself in the eye. The face looking back is haunted, etched lines of grief and sorrow around his mouth matching the furrows in his brow. Some long-held part of him urges him to be brave, but he can’t seem to find it within him. His shoulders stay slumped, his head bowed. He is Douglas Richardson, and he has no one left to be brave for.
The next several months are spent on court dates, appointments with his solicitors, and flying. He signs up for the most punishing schedule he can, constantly acting as a relief pilot in addition to his normal routes in an attempt to keep himself out of the empty house. After weeks of hectic flying schedules, he gains a reputation for a fierce temper and cutting remarks. Douglas fields several half-hearted questions at work about his wellbeing from supervisors who recite the “Is your employee in danger” manual by rote, deflecting them with his natural charm and superior acting ability. Air England is a big company, and none of the people are particular friends of his, so the truth of the matter goes unattended.
The actual court hearings go disastrously. Douglas has lost what little will to fight Miriam he ever had, and he acquiesces to nearly all of her demands. He knows he won’t get custody of Emily, with his current career and the court’s clear views on the better suitability of the mother to care for children, but it hurts when he can negotiate no more than one visit every month and two weeks either in summer or over Christmas. He leaves the room despondently, and spends the next week wallowing in grief at home, calling in sick for his flights.
Eventually, his natural fortitude kicks back in and he returns to work. If he’s a little quieter or more acerbic when he does speak than normal, no one makes comment on it. Douglas is careful to excel at flying. He completes his paperwork perfectly, executes textbook radio calls, and is precise in his airmanship. After everything that’s happened, he’s desperate to prove his usefulness. He is a good pilot. In the absence of the wife he loved, the daughter he adored, and a home to return to, it’s all he has left. And so he flies.
Everybody makes/One another's terrible mistakes
Life continues on in some sort of normalcy for Douglas. Miriam has moved in with David-the-tennis-coach and, to his silent dismay, looks happy and content. He sees Emily once a month without fail, and they spend the day doing whatever she wants to do. She chatters on like she always has, flitting between subjects like a bee in a field. Douglas’s heart spasms a little every time she talks about David, but he’s pretty sure he gives no outward sign of distress.
Douglas spends little time with his Air England colleagues. He doesn’t feel that he has anything in common with them, and they are too put off by his cutting wit and languid sarcasm to try to forge any kind of friendship with him. His interactions with his first officers are professional and polite and he talks to the cabin crews as little as possible. Everything runs like clockwork, predictable and routine and unbearably dull.
Between having no one at home to engage his interest and flying the same routes over and over, Douglas begins to feel his mind stagnate. He takes no joy in flying anymore, not even the rush from full-speed takeoffs. He begins to try to find ways to add a little excitement to the trips, setting little challenges for himself to keep his mind occupied.
It starts with landing times. Can he beat the scheduled landing time by three minutes? Then five, then ten. He feels he’s exhausted that particular game when he catches an unusually strong tailwind and the cleanest air he’s ever seen and ends up 36 minutes early on a Boston-to-London flight. Then the challenges become more complex. Finish a complete walk ‘round in 5 minutes. Fit three movie references into the cabin addresses without the first officer noticing. Take the approach into CDG with only 1 degree of bank.
There’s a limit to what he can do whilst flying, though, so he starts to run bets in the flight deck. If he gets a first officer who seems a little friendlier than usual, he’ll make a bet for whatever happens to be handy. He bets on what color hair the passenger in 34K has, how long drinks service will take, how tall the marshaller at Beijing will be. Douglas gains a reputation for being incredibly smart and devious, and he gets a rash of first officers who want to be the first to triumph over the legendary Captain Richardson.
Ironically, the first game he loses is to a skinny, waif-like boy who doesn’t even want to play in the first place. The bet is on whether the shortest passenger in the exit row is still taller than 5’7”. Through Douglas’s verbal legerdemain, the first officer ends up with shorter, and looks resigned to losing. At the end of the flight, the pilots stand at the door, waiting for the prearranged signal from the head stewardess to indicate their mark, a “hope you had a nice flight” rather than the standard “goodbye” and “thanks for flying with us.” When it comes, Douglas’s mouth drops of its own accord and his first officer adopts a pleased glow. The passenger in question might hit five foot even on a tall day, but it would involve some rather high platform shoes. As she crutches past, her knee in a locked brace, the first officer and head stewardess turn to Douglas with twin gleams in their eyes.
Douglas is nothing if not a man of his word, and he hands over his chocolate cake with only a rueful shake of the head. The first officer looks smug for a moment, then follows Douglas back into the flight deck to collect his bags. The stewardess bids them a good night and the two pilots are left alone on the plane.
"You know," the First Officer says as they walk down the jetway. "I didn't think you guys would take losing so well."
Douglas is nonplussed. "'You guys'?" he asks.
"Yeah, you know. You and your friends. Like Captain Shipwright."
"Who's Captain Shipwright?"
His co-pilot glances sidelong at him. "You mean you're not in Captain Shipwright's group? Well....never mind then."
But Douglas is curious now. He tries to pry out more information, but doesn’t get very far. He has a name, Hercules Shipwright, but that’s it.
Over the next couple of weeks, he makes some discrete inquiries, but doesn’t glean much more information than he currently has. Until the day he winds up flying with Captain Shipwright himself in the right seat.
It’s a relatively long flight, so they have more than enough time to become acquainted. Douglas has the distinct impression that “call me Herc” is sizing him up for something, but for what he cannot say. Part of him resents the implication that he needs sizing up, but another, larger part is hoping for something interesting to happen.
By the end of the flight, Douglas has been invited to “a little get together” Herc hosts at his house, with the strong implication that it’s invite-only.
That Friday finds Douglas participating in the most unique poker game he’s ever played. Through trial and error (mostly error), he learns that losing a hand earns you a dare. Some of them are quite innocuous, flirt with the most matronly stewardess or show up five minutes late for a briefing. Others are quite a bit more daring. Douglas loses two hands and earns himself “Call the airport Charlie Dagle the next time you’re in Paris” and “three rounds of Traveling Lemon the next time one of us flies with you.”
“Traveling Lemon?” Douglas asks.
Herc simply smiles at him. “You’ll like it. Just wait and see.”
Like it, he does. Herc and his friends quickly enfold Douglas in their group, not least because he has a devious mind and comes up with some of the most original and interesting dares. He doesn’t lose many hands, but when he does the others make sure to get back at him. It’s all very friendly, and Douglas takes it with good humor.
One day, he loses a hand terribly. He already knows what his dare will be, since he’s the one who came up with it for that round. He must successfully smuggle five kimonos through Narita customs, exchange them for three jugs of moose milk in Toronto and return to London without getting caught.
Douglas, being Douglas, is pretty sure he can succeed at this task. He’s so sure, in fact, that he goes for seven kimonos, thinking he can make it through customs no problem. And so he would have done, had he not chosen kimonos from a shop above a drugs lab. As he’s exiting through the aircrew lane, a customs dog alerts on him, and his heart sinks. There is no way for this to end well for him.
He’s right. While he’s able to tell the police officers where he got the items, allowing them to bust a drug manufacturer, he’s still in a massive amount of trouble for the smuggling. He’s allowed to return to England, where he undergoes a bollocking from at least fifteen links in the chain of command above him. Because they know nothing about him, his superiors are practically convinced that he managed to con his way out of the drugs charge, and treat him like he’s been flying while high. Douglas’s attempts to defend his character fall on deaf ears, and he eventually stops making them.
The final result is one Douglas Richardson, former captain at Air England. It fits in well with his other formers, Douglas thinks. Former husband, former father, and now former pilot.
He spends nearly two weeks rattling around in his house, trying to find a place that will employ a washed-up pilot. He has no other marketable skills, given that he never finished university. Once he got his license, he’d been so sure that he’d found his place, he hadn’t bothered to construct alternate plans.
Things seem quite bleak indeed, and Douglas almost gives in to calling on Miriam for help. Herc and his friends have been no where to be found, and he and his siblings have long since parted ways.
And then he sees an ad for a small charter firm in a town called Fitton. When he calls, he’s struck by the CEO, a woman named Carolyn Knapp-Shappey. She’s cunning and shrewd, but seems just as desperate for a pilot as he is for a job. Unfortunately, Douglas’s circumstances mean she can’t list him as the captain right away for fear of bringing the professional ethics boards down on their heads. Instead, they strike a tenuous agreement. Douglas will be the First Officer on paper only. Whomever she hires will be listed as the Captain but will be subordinate to Douglas on the flight deck.
Their plans all go swimmingly, until Carolyn hires the prissiest, most rule-bound pilot Douglas has ever met in his entire career. Martin Crieff.
In the first six months of working for MJN Air, Douglas’s life starts to look up. He meets a charming woman named Rachel, who eventually moves in with him. He’s flying again, on more interesting flights than he ever had at Air England, and James, the man who acts as his first officer, is easy-going and witty. Around the airfield, Douglas starts to make something of a name for himself. He’s the one they come to when they want to start a bar, when they have problems that need sorting. Douglas Richardson becomes a Sky God again, and it’s glorious.
And then one day, his joy increases ten-fold when Rachel tells him she’s become pregnant. Thrilled at the chance to be a father again, he proposes marriage. They have a small wedding at the courthouse and throw a reception at a nearby pub. Most of the people there are Rachel’s family, who quickly turn out to be exceedingly dull, when they’re not busy blaming Douglas for “besmirching their sweet girl’s honor.” Those are the exact words her grandmother uses during the half an hour she spends on the subject, until it’s more than even Douglas’s patience can take and he’s forced to invent a relative who’s dying to talk to him.
He escapes to the far side of the bar, hidden in the corner safe from disappointed grannies and threatening fathers. The bartender sees his distress and approaches with a quick smile as she flicks her towel over her shoulder.
“You look like a man in need of a drink,” she grins at him.
Douglas raises an eyebrow at her. “Do I?” he asks. “And me seated at the bar. Of all the luck!”
She is clearly unimpressed. “What’re you having?”
He doesn’t sigh, but it’s a near thing. “Closest thing you have to alcohol without actually being alcohol.”
“Depends on what you want to pretend to be drinking, I suppose. You seem like a vodka man to me.”
Douglas shudders. “Whiskey, I rather think.”
“Apple juice it is, then,” she replies. “15 years old if it’s a day.”
He takes the glass from her, swallowing half of it in one go. “Smooth as ever,” he smiles. “Tell me, what’s--”
“…a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?” she interrupts. “Really? I would have expected better from you.”
Douglas cocks his head faintly to one side. “Oh, really? Have we met before? I’m sure I would have remembered such a lovely creature as yourself.”
The bartender shakes her head. “No, but that man over there has been telling stories about a pilot he knows all night, and the only person here smug enough to be that gold-braided sun god is you.”
She points to Dave the engineer, sitting in the middle of the pub with a beer in one hand and someone that looks suspiciously like Rachel’s cousin in the other.
“Well, be that as it may, I like to think I’m more original than that. I was going to ask ‘What’s the over-under for first drunken attempt at karaoke? But if you’d rather have the cheap chat up line…” He grins his most rakish grin at her.
“Starting from now?” she asks.
He nods. “Pick a time, as measured by that clock you have on the wall. Nearest to actual time wins…” and he looks around for something to bet.
“Nearest to the time chooses the next bet,” she supplies.
“Perfect. Ladies first.”
“Hmmm.” She ponders for a moment. “10:35.”
Douglas pauses in thought. “9:47.”
The bartender checks her watch. “It’s already 9:15 now!”
“Ah,” Douglas rejoins. “But I have what might be regarded as insider information. I’ve been drinking with Dave before.”
She laughs. “Well played, sir.”
Douglas smiles again, and sticks out his hand. “Douglas Richardson, Gold-braided Sun God at your service.”
“Helena Mincham, Purveyor of Fine Juices.”
“Charmed, I’m sure, Mrs. Mincham” Douglas drawls. Rachel catches his eye from across the bar. “I’m afraid I must away, however. My lovely bride awaits.”
Helena smiles at him. “It was a pleasure, Mr. Richardson. And please, call me Helena. Mrs. Mincham is my mother.”
“Helena it is. Parting is such sweet sorrow, et cetera, et cetera.” With that, Douglas sweeps around the bar back to Rachel. He wins the bet, of course, being only two minutes off. When he returns to Helena, he sets the wager for number glasses of wine ordered in 15 minutes, which Helena wins. They spend the rest of the night in this fashion, Douglas retreating to his corner when he’s had enough of defending himself against relatives and Helena waiting with a glass of apple juice ready.
Rachel has the child four months later—a perfect little girl they name Marissa. Douglas is smitten and spends all the time he’s not with his family thinking about his family. He’s exhausted, as all parents of newborns are, but content for the first time in a long time. The Richardson family bumps along together, Rachel and Douglas discovering rough edges they’d never had time to smooth out during the whirlwind plans for the wedding.
They start to fight. At first, it’s little things like Douglas coming home late (even though there was wicked turbulence that made even an experienced pilot like him a bit queasy) or Rachel forgetting to do the washing up (even though Marissa had been fussing all day for no apparent reason). Then it turns into bigger things--Rachel feeling unloved because she barely sees Douglas, Douglas feeling unappreciated by Rachel, neither of them really knowing how to speak the other’s love language. They’re not the coldly civil arguments he’d had with Miranda; Rachel doesn’t fight that way. She throws daggers and spears wildly, hoping something will land and strike a blow, and Douglas, to his great shame, responds in kind.
The marriage is a disaster, and the final straw comes before their first anniversary when Rachel announces she’s leaving to stay with Bruce before Douglas has even put his bag down in their room.
“Bruce,” Douglas sneers. “Who the hell is Bruce?”
“You know! Bruce from the bookstore.” At Douglas’s blank look, Rachel sighs. “The writer? The one who has been helping with Marissa.”
And just like that, Douglas draws a terrible, inevitable conclusion. A conclusion that’s only confirmed when he walks into the bedroom and sees her suitcases lined up by the door and Bruce-the-writer sitting there, looking uncomfortable. There’s nothing he can say in his defense. Rachel has clearly made her decision, and Douglas’s mind is awhirl. Images of holding Marissa intertwine with Emily’s EU summits. Thoughts of what Marissa might look like growing up, of the personality he swears he can see before she can even walk, of teaching her how to cook and play the piano mingle with Emily’s French lessons and her lopsided smile. He’s losing another family and he suddenly feels old. Old and tired and helpless.
Numbly, Douglas sits on the edge of the bed, barely registering their departure or the silence after. If there’s guilt or pity in Bruce’s eyes, he doesn’t notice.
Douglas eventually flops down fully on the mattress, still in his uniform, covers his eyes with his forearm and falls into exhausted sleep.
The flight the next day is nearly torture. Douglas is desperate not to show anything wrong, so he’s merciless in their word games and forces cheer out from between his clenched teeth. He’s pretty sure he’s done a fair job of it. Neither James nor Carolyn says anything and Arthur seems as blissfully ignorant as usual.
After a couple of weeks, things return mostly to normal for Douglas. He gets the divorce papers in the mail and fills them out woodenly. There’s a waiting period (as there seems to be for everything), but as far as either of them are concerned the marriage is over.
Two months later, Rachel sends him a note, asking for the rest of her belongings to be sent along to her. The address she gives is Barrow-in-Furness, nearly 300 miles from Fitton, and Douglas feels his heart close off just that little bit more. Feeling more than a bit petty, he sends Marissa’s things first class but makes sure Rachel’s things take much longer to get there. He makes sure to put back every penny of change from the 500 quid she sends him for shipping costs.
In contrast to his personal life, things at MJN go smoothly. He and James make a great partnership, and the younger man doesn’t even mind ceding to Douglas’s greater experience in the flying. Douglas tries to teach him everything he can about being a pilot, both in the air and on the ground, and James is a keen student. Too keen by half, it turns out, when he accepts an offer from another airline and leaves MJN.
Douglas is back to flying shorter solo flights, which are nice at first, but a bit lonely. Arthur starts coming along on all the flights, just to provide a bit a company. He finds himself liking the younger man in spite of himself, finding an outlet for his paternal side.
The solo flights are also, of a necessity, shorter, which means Douglas finds himself alone in his house more and more often. One night, after an exhausting day of trying to teach Arthur how to whistle through his fingers, Douglas finds he can’t handle the silence and heads out for the pub, taking his customary corner.
Helena smiles when she notices him and cocks her head in query.
“Just the usual,” Douglas says. He’s not sure why he expects her to remember; it’s been a year since he’s been there. But remember she does, and he finds himself with three fingers of apple juice in a whiskey glass.
Douglas smiles gratefully at her as she discretely moves away to deal with other customers. He sits there, sipping his juice and contemplating the ruins of his life when she returns, standing there silently. Douglas can feel her assessing gaze and looks up to return it coolly.
She just smiles at him again, with a glint of mischief in her eye. “What’s the over-under on Freddy there falling out of his chair?”
Douglas looks ‘round discretely. “I assume Freddy is the gentleman with the tartan cap currently leading a rousing rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ with his glasses?”
Helena nods, and he ponders for a second. “Seventeen minutes.”
“Optimistic,” she returns. “Six and a half.”
Douglas raises his eyebrows a bit at her, and her grin turns more devious. “It’s a bit of what may be regarded as insider information.” Unfortunately, the reference zips right past Douglas without him knowing it. Helena wins the bet and they spend the rest of the night making up even more ridiculous wagers. Douglas can’t remember the last time he had such an engaging conversation. Eventually, he departs the pub, giving Helena a friendly smile as he leaves.
Douglas finds himself at the pub more and more frequently. Helena always brings him the same: three fingers of apple juice in a whiskey glass. She’s never asked about his habit, but he has a feeling she knows all the same. Eventually, their conversations move beyond the bets. He finds in Helena a woman who shares a lot of his interests and sense of humor. She has a plethora of highly-amusing anecdotes about her customers and seems enthralled by tales of his flying exploits.
Whatever his fondness for Helena, his heart is still burdened by the failure of two marriages and his slide from grace at Air England. She makes the first move, asking Douglas out to dinner and a play. They have an enjoyable evening, and soon their off times are spent with each other. After a several more months, Helena moves in with him. They don't do anything formally; no marriage ceremony or certificate, she doesn't change her name, they don't exchange rings. But she's there when he comes home from a flight, he makes lunch for her when she goes into work, and life settles into a comfortable pattern.
Things at MJN are going exceedingly well. Douglas and Carolyn are an effective partnership, and the airline slowly starts to be less in the red. Arthur Shappey, who Douglas met at the tail end of his parents' nasty divorce proceedings, flourishes under the older man's attention. The first time Douglas laughs at a joke he tells, Arthur's face lights up and he spends the rest of the day with the biggest grin on his face. Douglas makes it his mission to make Arthur lose the fearful look his gets when he makes a mistake. He accomplishes this at first with words of praise, which it quickly becomes apparent have not been a frequent occurrence in the boy's life, and then with friendly teasing.
Then, one day, Carolyn introduces a new pilot. He's a skinny, ginger drip of a man named Martin Crieff. Douglas is initially friendly, but then Carolyn says something that catches his attention. "Captain Crieff here will start on the Venice flight."
"Captain?!" Douglas exclaims.
"Yes, Douglas. The captain."
"But nothing. Martin here will be the captain, and you'll be his first officer. Unless you've somehow managed to expunge your record?"
Douglas glares mightily at Carolyn, who is unfazed.
“Perhaps,” he says frostily “we should discuss this in private?”
Carolyn agrees, and they excuse themselves into her office, leaving Martin and Arthur to wait. The ensuing row is blistering, as Douglas always secretly knew she was going to, holding his career in her hands as she does. The result is as predictable as is it inevitable. Martin will be the captain, Douglas the first officer.
The two pilots spend the next few weeks building their working relationship. Douglas is cutting and dry, taking out his frustrations on the new captain, while Martin is pedantic and precise in everything, even the way he addresses his first officer. After the terrible, nearly felicidal flight to Abu Dhabi, the flight deck becomes a colder, harsher place to be. Douglas is merciless, winning every word game, picking at Martin’s every flaw, taking every shortcut he knows in an attempt to fluster the young captain. He’s even less kind to Arthur than usual, a fact that becomes abundantly clear when he snipes at the steward without thinking one day.
After the scolding, Arthur makes a small noise in the back of his throat, like a kicked puppy and retreats to the galley. Martin looks at Douglas, his brows furrowed, and opens his mouth, rebuke clearly on the tip of his tongue. But Douglas doesn’t need Martin’s prodding. He’s seen the look in Arthur’s eyes, the same one that was there when he first met the young man.
Douglas stands up without a word. Pushing aside the curtain to the galley, he finds Arthur sitting in the jumpseat with his head in his hands. Douglas clears his throat, unaccountably nervous.
“Arthur?” he says cautiously. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I just—“he stops himself before he can go any further.
Arthur raises his head, gaze focused somewhere on Douglas’s left collarbone. “It’s alright Douglas. You were right; the coffee was horrible. I forgot to change the grounds before I made it this morning.”
Douglas is shaking his head before Arthur even finishes speaking. “No, Arthur. I mean, granted, the coffee was terrible, but so was I. I really am sorry for snapping at you. It was uncalled for, and I apologize.”
A soft hum comes from the steward, as he finally looks Douglas in the eye. “I know you’re upset with Mum,” he says. “It’s okay if you need someone to be angry at who isn’t as…Mum-ish.”
“No, Arthur,” Douglas nearly shouts. “It’s not okay! You haven’t done anything wrong, and you don’t deserve to be yelled at.” But nothing he says can convince Arthur, and he finally gives up and returns to the flight deck. Martin is watching with accusing eyes, but says nothing.
The rest of the flight passes in uncomfortable silence, which continues on for the next several flights. Until they land on a little strip in Tunisia, with the most vindictive airfield manager Douglas has ever met. As they return to Fitton flushed with success, Douglas realizes it’s the first time he’s worked with the crew. He unexpectedly finds he likes it.
When he returns home, he regales Helena with the story, sending her into peals of laughter. Seeing her laughing reminds him of their first meeting, and he remembers it’s nearly what would be their anniversary if they were actually married. He begins to make plans. There’s a trip to Thessaloniki coming up that should help.
He’s so happy with his current life, the burgeoning friendship at the airfield, that he’s completely shocked by Helena’s revelation. The conversation he plans in his head centering around his minor deceit about being the captain never emerges, with its shouting and recriminations and groveling and eventual forgiveness. Instead, Helena cries nearly silently as she tells him about George-the-tai-chi-instructor. She apologizes and says she hopes he can forgive her and they can move on. Douglas agrees.
As the weeks go by, he tries to forgive her, he really does. But he can’t help but wonder if she’s really going to Tesco as she says or if she’s going to see him. Is that waft of cologne on her shirt really from an unruly customer, or from a discrete cuddle? Did she really buy that book from Oxfam, or is he loaning it to her? Eventually, they mutually decide that the strain is too much and agree to go their separate ways.
Douglas can’t quite decide if this amicable separation is better or worse than being left behind. Thankfully, there are no children involved in this breakup. He’s positive his heart couldn’t handle that again.
He says nothing to the rest of MJN. It’s really none of their business, and it’s not like any of them are his particular friends anyway. Instead, he sits at night in the big house, sipping the orange juice he buys because he can’t even bear to walk down the apple juice aisle, and longing for something stronger.
And silent he remains, until that pesky idiot child of a captain starts prying into his private life, catching Douglas in a rare honest moment and worming his way past years of defenses. But he’s careful to play it off, accepting only the minutest amount of sympathy from Martin in lieu of exuberant sorrow from Arthur. He knows the younger pilot will deflect concern from the Shappeys, and he’s not a curmudgeon enough to not be grateful for that. So he sits in the cockpit, and he lets Martin have his illusion of giving comfort. He goes home to his empty house, and his empty life and finds himself, inexplicably, inextricably bound to the fools at MJN. To a job that’s quickly becoming a home.
Truly, no one is alone
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
In the years that follow, Douglas finds himself growing fonder of the rag-tag team that makes up MJN Air. He comes to realize the arrogance and inflexibility he first saw in Martin Crieff masks the same deep-seeded desire to please, to get it right that he saw in Emily so long ago. Sparring with Carolyn provides mental stimulation he hadn’t realized had been missing, and Arthur’s unshakeable faith in him fills the part of Douglas that yearns to be needed. He doesn’t admit it to himself often (and never without some sort of impetus, such as the nearly-deadly result of the introduction of a goose into Gerti’s starboard engine), but he finds in his co-workers an unusual sort of comfort.
Despite his overall fondness for the team, Douglas is fairly aloof, partly by choice but mostly by nature. Each of them shares confidences with him—Martin’s perceived lack of ability in anything not related to flying, Arthur’s hurtful relationship with his father, Carolyn’s fear of “old lady obscurity”—but he can’t find it in him to give many back. When he does divulge pieces of his life, it’s reluctantly, as part of a “lesser of two annoyances” option. Douglas is a man who’s survived a life of great sorrow, but he doesn’t like to dwell on it. He lives in the present, in the immediate here-and-now of wins and losses. It’s safer that way, takes the sting out of life. Every day is a new day, and he lives them to the fullest.
Unfortunately, this philosophy only works so long as the past stays in the past. So when Douglas’s youngest sister calls him one day, sobbing so hard into the phone that he can barely understand her, he realizes he might be in trouble. It’s just common sense. The first time you hear from your estranged siblings in two decades is practically guaranteed not to be a happy occurrence.
He’s not wrong. Maureen is calling to tell him their mother’s in hospital, that the doctors are making “if there’s anyone to call…” noises. Douglas is stunned into silence for the first time in years. He can’t decide what’s most disconcerting about this situation: his mother’s illness or the fact that this is his first contact with his family since he left the house. He’s not sure what exactly he says to Maureen, but when he hangs up his broad palm is covered in Doctors’ names, phone numbers, and addresses.
Douglas is left in a quandary. There’s a reason he hasn’t seen his family in so long; their last meeting didn’t quite end on an amicable note. None of them had had what would be called an ideal childhood, but Douglas had borne the brunt of the responsibility for the family. Their mother had eventually got a job out of necessity, but it was almost more than she could take to work the long hours at her minimum-wage job and then come home to raise five children. She’d relied heavily on Douglas, and so had the younger siblings, a responsibility he took seriously.
Douglas leaving for university had been a turning point. He’d had some ambitions of becoming a doctor, hoping that his wages would help the family. His mother took it as abandonment, and since Douglas was only at the house on school holidays, his siblings began to take on the same opinion. There was nothing he could do to fight it. One by one, they stopped calling him, and when he came home for the summer holidays, it’d been to a blistering row. Eventually, he just stopped trying. His inattention during the school year led to him failing out, and he was forced to pursue other methods of employment, eventually alighting on flying.
Douglas isn’t sure what he wants to do. A large part of him is still deeply wounded by the fracture of the family. Another, if somewhat smaller, part of him remembers a promise he made a long time ago. In the end, his sense of duty wins out and he makes the 90-minute drive to the hospital, spending the next three days sitting in awkward tenseness watching his mother get frailer and frailer.
On the fourth day, there’s a flight to Manila, and Douglas has to go. He stays at the hospital as long as he can, leaving barely enough time for a quick stop at his house for a shower and his uniform. His siblings don’t take kindly to his departure, erupting in a fiercely whispered row over their mother’s bed.
“Should have known we couldn’t count on you,” is Danny’s parting shot, hurled at Douglas’s back as he walks out the door.
He feels irrationally exhausted for someone who’s spent the last three days literally sitting around doing nothing. Everything seems to be off kilter—colors too bright, sounds too loud. It all grates on his nerves, although he does his best not to show it.
The word game he chooses is one of his oldest, so he’s got enough answers stored up to stump Martin without really thinking about it. Fortunately, Arthur has discovered the joys of making cakes in a mug, so he regales them with stories of his various alterations to recipes, which takes the conversational pressure off of the pilots. Douglas keeps his mobile close to hand during their layover, checking surreptitiously for messages every five minutes. Despite the row, he’s relatively certain his siblings wouldn’t be so churlish as to not inform him if his mother actually died.
Unfortunately, the lack of sleep and emotional strain mean Douglas isn’t as sly as he usually would be, and Martin inevitably notices.
“Expecting a call?” he asks as they’re eating dinner that night.
“Your phone,” Martin says. “You keep looking at it like someone’s supposed to call you.”
Douglas forces a chuckle, pleased when it sounds normal to his ears. “No, no. Just thought I heard it ring, is all.”
Martin doesn’t look convinced. “You’ve looked at your phone at least nine times since we sat down. You thought it rang nine times?”
Douglas bristles, his voice chilling a few degrees. “I wasn’t aware that the number of times I look at my phone was so interesting to you, Martin.”
“It’s not!” Martin huffs. “I was just trying to make conversation.”
“Oh, well done, then. Scintillating topic. What’s next? How many times I scratch my nose?”
Martin grumbles a bit. “Never mind.”
The rest of the dinner is spent in silence, and Douglas doesn’t check his phone again. Afterwards, they split ways for their hotel rooms, preparing for their flight out early the next morning. Though it’s the first time Douglas has slept on a horizontal surface in days, he gets no more sleep than at the hospital.
The natural consequence of this is that he’s exhausted and ill-tempered the next morning. Unfortunately, spending the vast majority of a day in tight quarters with another human being is not conducive to maintaining a façade of equanimity under such strain, even for a seasoned actor of Douglas’s ability. He spends most of the flight gritting his teeth, trying to ignore Martin’s less-than-subtle attempts to draw him into conversation and Arthur’s well-intentioned enthusiasm.
As soon as they’re on the ground, Douglas stalks into the portacabin to sign the required paperwork and jets off, speaking not a word to anyone else. Carolyn raises her eyebrows at Martin and gets only a shrug in response. Martin signs his portion of the forms with a flourish, and follows Carolyn into her office.
“There’s something wrong with Douglas,” he announces, once he’s shut the door.
“Of course there is,” Carolyn replies. “He’s frustratingly smug, astoundingly arrogant, and perpetually conniving. Usually, all three at once.”
“No,” Martin protests. “That’s normal Douglas behavior. This, this, whatever we just saw was not.”
Carolyn shrugs. “So what? Douglas is a big boy, he can take care of himself. If he has a problem, I’m sure he can handle it.”
Martin disagrees, but he can’t seem to get Carolyn to understand why. As he leaves for the night, he briefly considers following Douglas to his house, but discards that plan nearly immediately. It would only serve to make the older man angry, and definitely wouldn’t solve any problems. Besides, he’ll see Douglas again tomorrow for their next flight. Maybe some sleep will have helped him.
Despite the disagreement with his siblings before he left, Douglas heads back to the hospital. He’s not going to get any sleep wherever he stays, so he might as well be close, in case--. He stops that thought short. Just in case. He pops home for a quick dinner, and then heads to the hospital.
He lasts about seven minutes in the room before the conversation dissolves into an argument. Outnumbered and exhausted, Douglas removes himself to the waiting room, where he spends his fifth restless night.
The next three weeks are spent in much the same fashion. Douglas divides his time between Gertie, his car, and the waiting room. At some point, he passes exhausted and moves straight on to what he’s sure Arthur would call “zombification,” relying on his innate luck and Martin’s exacting standards to get them through the flights safely.
It all goes swimmingly until Gerti throws a major fit and they’re stuck somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Canada. The mechanic tells them it’ll be “parts plus six hours” until she’ll be worthy to fly again, so they settle down to wait.
Late in the evening of the second day, Douglas gets the text he’s been dreading for nearly a month now. It’s terse and to the point, just date, time, and location of the funeral. He nearly throws the phone at the wall when he sees it’s at the end of the week. With Gerti sitting in the hangar part-less, there’s no way he’ll be able to make it back in time.
A wave of anguish hits him, and it’s suddenly more than he can take to be sitting there, thousands of miles away at the one time he’s needed more than any other. Douglas slams his chair back from the table and stalks out of the room without a word to Martin or Arthur. The town is not one he’s familiar with, but it has enough wide open spaces for him to get lost in. He makes sure he stays lost until the morning, when he returns to his room and locks himself in.
He stays there for a day and a night before Martin knocks tentatively at his door.
“Douglas? Are you in there?” Another timid knock. “We haven’t heard from you all day. Did something happen?”
Only silence. The captain’s voice rises half an octave. “Douglas? Are you all right in there? I mean if you want to be alone that’s okay, just we were worried about you and could you just, maybe, give a sign that you’re okay?”
There’s a thud on the door that sounds suspiciously like a shoe. Martin takes it as his asked-for sign.
“Okay,” he says. “I just wanted to tell you that the mechanic got the part. I’ve filed the flight plan back, takeoff’s in 12 hours.”
Silence. Martin turns from the door, heading to his room down the hall to start his crew rest. To his surprise, Douglas’s door opens. The first officer pokes his head out. He looks absolutely terrible. He also looks as if he’ll bite Martin’s head off if he makes comment, so he doesn’t.
“Twelve hours?” Douglas asks. “We’re leaving in twelve hours?”
Martin nearly rolls his eyes. Until he remembers that he’ll still have a ten-hour flight back to Fitton to survive. He chooses to do so with a non-homicidal first officer and simply nods. Douglas’s door slams closed and it’s the last he hears from that quarter until they meet again on the flight deck.
The pre-takeoff checklist is conducted briskly and efficiently. Douglas reads the items in his usual tones, but there’s a tenseness to his eyes and a pallor to his face that wouldn’t be obvious to the casual Richardson-watcher. Martin, however, having years of experience sitting next to the man, picks them out easily. He opens his mouth to enquire, but Douglas shoots him a look at that exact moment that removes any thought of asking from Martin’s mind. It’s not the furrowed brow or the deep frown that stops him. It’s the spark of pleading mixed with warning in the dark eyes. Martin’s never seen anything like it, but he knows better than to take the risk.
The flight follows their usual routine, albeit with a slightly subdued first officer. Douglas keeps getting that tenseness in his jaw that means he’s stifling a yawn, and his answers to the word game are slower than usual. He still wins, though, to Martin’s mortification.
When they land at Fitton, Douglas does the same routine he has for the last dozen or so flights—leaving immediately after he’s signed the paperwork. Martin is glad of it this time, however, as it gives him a chance to see Carolyn without arousing Douglas’s suspicion.
Martin closes the door behind him as he enters. “There’s something wrong with Douglas,” he announces.
Carolyn looks up from her ledger at him. “Are you stuck on auto-repeat? We’ve had this conversation already.”
Martin’s jaw takes that mulish tilt that means he’ll say what he has to say, even though he expects no result. “Well…yes,” he says. “But it’s still true. He’s…just different. Very un-Douglassy.”
“He’s…upset about something,” Martin replies. “I don’t know what, but I think he got bad news while we were gone. We have to do something, Carolyn. What if he’s in trouble and he needs our help?”
Carolyn looks at Martin with a strange cross between pity and exasperation on her face. "Think about the Douglas Richardson you know," she says. "The stubborn sod of a man who sits next to you day after day. Do you think he's the kind of man who can’t get himself out of trouble?"
Martin considers this. His reply is cautious, like he's still piecing it together as he talks. "Usually, yes. But what if he’s in too much trouble to handle alone, but still thinks he can? I don’t think he knows how to ask for help."
"Well,” Carolyn says. "He’s not going to fess up all his troubles to you just because you ask him to."
"I would!" Martin huffs.
"Would you though? Would you really?" Carolyn has her eyebrows raised in what Martin and Arthur have secretly dubbed her "schoolmarm face."
More considering. "No, I suppose not."
"And Douglas is, by virtue of being Douglas, infinitely more stubborn and proud than even you."
"So, what do we do, then?"
Carolyn sighs and sets down her pen. "We don't make him ask for it. Now that you’re back and there aren’t any flights coming up, give him a couple of days to work it out on his own. If he isn’t more Douglass-y by the end of the week, then we’ll do something."
“Okay,” Martin nods and then gives a jaw-cracking yawn.
“Go home,” Carolyn scolds. “I’m not paying you overtime just because you want to stick your nose in your first officer’s business.”
“You’re not paying me anyway,” Martin grumbles, but leaves anyway. For the next three days, Martin finds himself pondering his first officer nearly constantly—while humping boxes, ironing his uniform, or cooking dinner. He doesn’t run into Douglas, which is a bit unusual in a town of Fitton’s size, and there’s nothing to calm the tickle of worry at the back of his mind.
Finally, Friday arrives and Martin decides to check on Douglas. He knocks on the flat door hesitantly, shifting the bag of Chinese he picked up from the corner between one hand and the other. It feels like he waits an eternity before the door swings open, Douglas standing in the doorway. Surprisingly, he seems to be wearing part of his uniform, albeit with the tie loosened and sleeves pushed up his forearms. He doesn’t say a word, just turns back to the kitchen, leaving Martin to follow.
The older man sits heavily at the wooden table, next to a large bottle. Martin is afraid for a moment that he’s taking up drinking again, which he’s not sure he’s prepared to handle. Setting the food on the work tops lets him surreptitiously examine the label, and he breathes a sigh of relief when he sees it's apple juice and not whiskey.
Douglas has removed his tie and is cradling the glass between his large hands, hunched over like a man used to weathering constant blows. He’s clearly run out of whatever glamour he possesses to look calm and smug all the time. Now, he just looks frightfully exhausted.
Martin abandons the food for a moment and crouches down beside Douglas’s chair. He’s not sure he knows how to fix what is clearly a terrible problem, but he’ll give it his best shot. The worsening knot in his stomach will let him do no less. Martin reaches a tentative hand out towards Douglas’s shoulder, surprised when the older man gives the tiniest of flinches. But he stays the course, giving Douglas a gentle squeeze.
“Douglas,” he starts, and then doesn’t know where to go from there. He clears his throat and tries again. “There’s something wrong, Douglas. What is it?”
Douglas opens his mouth as if to answer, but apparently can’t get the words out. He settles for a shake of the head. All right, then. Martin’s pretty good at twenty questions, so he starts with the most obvious.
“Is it something to do with your daughter?”
Another head shake.
“One of your wives?” No.
“Your family?” Martin’s not sure Douglas even has any family outside his wives and daughters. He’s certainly never talked about them. The shoulder underneath his hand tenses and he gets the minutest of nods.
“Is someone hurt?” A flinch, and then a resigned no.
Martin ponders for a moment. “Has someone…passed away?”
Douglas’s eyes widen a fraction, then he suddenly leans over, dropping his forehead to the table with a dull thump. Martin’s hand slides up to settle just under the back of the dark locks at Douglas’s nape. “Oh, Douglas,” he says. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
Douglas gives a sad shrug, and Martin is overcome by a wave of realization. Douglas isn't wearing his uniform, he's wearing a black suit, which means
the funeral must have been today. Martin slides his hand to the other shoulder and gives him an awkward half-hug. The first friendly human contact he’s had in days is enough to undo Douglas. The shoulders under Martin’s arm start to shake, and he feels the older man curl even further into himself, as if ashamed.
Martin doesn’t let him get away with that, plucking at the sleeve nearest him until Douglas all but collapses into his arms. Grasping around the side of the table, he pulls up another chair as close to the other man as he can get. It’s an awkward cuddle, both in position and in feeling. Douglas is clearly beside himself and Martin doesn’t have a lot of experience in the comforting department. He tries his best to muddle through, squeezing Douglas’s shoulder and resting his chin on the top of his head.
Douglas sobs silently, shudders wracking his large frame, until his strength peters out. Just before he’s done, Martin senses embarrassment on the horizon and tugs at Douglas’s hand, leading the older man to the sofa. Douglas doesn’t protest when Martin presses him down, just stretches the full length and turns his face to the back cushions. His shoulders are still hitching, but at slower and slower intervals. Martin sits on the coffee table, hands fluttering without something to ground him. Finally, he settles for sitting at Douglas's back, rubbing his shoulder gently.
Eventually, Douglas drifts off to sleep, which Martin only notices because he starts to snore. He wanders around the house until he finds the bedroom, which he strips of the duvet to cover his friend. Once he’s sure Douglas is settled for the time being, he returns to the kitchen to call Carolyn and put away the food.
Carolyn makes sympathetic noises, and instructs Martin to stay at Douglas’s, which is wholly unnecessary as he wasn’t planning on leaving anyway. He spends the night in restless worry, curled up in the leather armchair with a mug of tea, watching as Douglas tosses and turns but doesn't wake. Carolyn and Arthur arrive the next morning, the former with a grim look for Martin and the latter with an unnaturally dampened enthusiasm.
"How is he?" Carolyn asks.
"He hasn't woken up yet. Didn't sleep well last night." The lines between Martin's eyebrows deepen as he talks, even as he smothers a yawn.
Carolyn looks over his shoulder at the duvet-covered lump on the couch as they remove themselves to the kitchen. Not a speck of Douglas is visible, and the gentle snoring is the only sign something living is under the blankets.
"You must be shattered," she says to Martin. "Why don't you go home?"
Martin's shaking his head before she even finishes speaking. "No. There's no way I'm leaving now."
Carolyn doesn't argue, just instructs Arthur to make tea while she and Martin return to the sitting room to keep watch. The three of them spend a few hours in wait, until Douglas starts to make noises like he’s waking up. Carolyn and Arthur retreat to the kitchen. When Douglas awakes, it’s with a look Martin recognizes, having felt it himself on more than one occasion. It’s the Oh, God, it was all real and I’m still here look. Douglas looks so resigned and worn down in that moment, it’s almost more than Martin can bear.
“Good morning,” he says, and refrains from asking how Douglas is feeling. “Carolyn and Arthur just popped by; they’re in the kitchen, but I figured you’d want a chance to freshen up a bit before you saw them.”
Douglas blinks at him owlishly before he gives a mute nod and shuffles off towards the bedroom. He emerges nearly an hour later, in which time his co-workers have started lunch without him. Carolyn looks at him from across the room, shrewdly assessing, before returning to the leftover Chinese on her plate. Douglas’s eyes are red-rimmed, as if he spent the time in the shower crying, and his hair is just beginning to dry in soft peaks nothing like the carefully-maintained fringe he usually sports. Blessedly, no one makes comment. Martin just passes him a plate of warm rice with a nod to the open cartons and Arthur jumps up to make another mug of tea.
Douglas busies himself assembling his plate and then joins them at the table. He’s too exhausted for conversation, or to even explain what’s happened, but they seem to recognize this. Arthur and Martin keep up a steady chatter, Carolyn chipping in every once in a while. As Douglas eats, he feels the warmth of familiarity wash over him.
His reprieve is over when the food is gone. Arthur and Martin claim the washing up for themselves, leaving the sitting room free. Douglas flops bonelessly in the armchair, still inexplicably tired. He can’t even seem to muster up the energy to thank Carolyn when she brings him what must be his seventh cup of tea in three hours. She sits on the sofa across from him, idly folding the duvet he’d left behind. She hums a soft tune as she folds, and Douglas feels himself slipping into sleep again.
“How much time will you need?” she asks suddenly.
Douglas looks blankly at her, startled out of his half-doze.
His CEO looks blithely back. “Bereavement time. How much will you need?”
He hadn’t considered that. Part of him wants nothing more than to sit on the couch for an undetermined amount of time until this blankness dissipates. The other part, the part that includes a large helping of ego, thinks he should stop feeling sorry for himself, is ashamed of the display he’s putting on. Neither of them let him make a decision fast enough for Carolyn.
“There’s a flight to Paris on Monday,” she says. “Do you think you can make it?”
It’s a flight that really only requires one pilot, if he spends the night in France. Douglas knows she’s giving him an out, if he wants to take it. But deep down, the smallest part of him, the part he never acknowledges, wants not to be alone. So he nods in what he hopes is a decisive way at her.
It’s less decisive than he thinks. Carolyn can see a bit of the fear of loneliness in his eyes, his walls weakened as they are by grief. His eyes have always been the most expressive part of him, and she’s learned to read the nuances in the difference between black and dark brown. Right now, he’s nothing of the Douglas Richardson he pretends to be, and everything of the real Douglas Richardson. He’ll put on a brave face, she knows. He’ll compete with Martin and he’ll tease Arthur and spar with her, and the whole time he’ll be wounded and vulnerable.
The shame of Douglas, she knows, is that he thinks MJN keeps him because of the Sky God he plays, when the reality is they love him for the man he is. Stubborn, arrogant, loyal, overbearing, kind-hearted, and secretly optimistic. She’s not one to demonstrate her love and affection in grand gestures or flowery words. But, like Douglas, it’s there for anyone to see. In the off-hand compliments and backhanded endearments, the fond exasperation and the relentless teasing. She’s not sure if Douglas’s reticence to trust them, when he’s proven himself so reliable when it counts, is a result of his inability to see his own true worth or a disbelief in their affection. Either case is untenable in her estimation, and she resolves to change that.
Right after Douglas wakes up from his latest nap. The two younger men enter the room, giggling at some joke Arthur’s just finished. They sober up when they see Douglas, mug of tea grasped precariously in his hand as he snores away. Carolyn watches as Arthur rescues the mug and Martin gently drapes the duvet she’s just folded over the sleeping man. They settle in to watch a bit of telly, each of them sneaking surreptitious looks at Douglas, just to reassure themselves. He’s clearly exhausted himself in an effort to maintain his privacy, and while they respect that there’s something to be said for families and common burdens. So they sit and wait, until Douglas wakes up and the load can be shared. Whether he likes it or not. And, eventually, secretly, he does.
A million billion thanks to Sproid for all the support, and another anonymous artist who provided the impetus for the end. Title from Sondheim's Into the Woods, specifically "No One is Alone."