Douglas Richardson flattered himself—well, hardly flattery, really—that the significance of precious little of what he saw in his world escaped him. Especially on days like today; from portacabin to pointy end, with the same cast of characters cluttering up the same tiny, soon-to-be airborne stage, and the same (excellent odds for himself, as usual) chance of claiming each and every delectable on the cheese tray.
As Martin Crieff took the captain’s seat, prissily straightening his ridiculous hat, tugging the lines of his jacket smooth, and buckling his skinny frame in after the final walk around, only one question presented itself to Douglas: Game or wager?
Just as Douglas was settling on the amusing question of best kisses in American films, guaranteed to leave Martin flushed and gaping at his first officer in supremely entertaining fashion, a brisk knock preceded the entry of MJN’s steward. Douglas braced himself for the inevitable onslaught of cheer and bonhomie.
“Morning, chaps!” Arthur Shappey beamed, balancing the tray with the coffee service on one hand as he nudged the door open with the other.
Martin, muttering to himself as he rechecked one of the gauges, giving the glass a firm, precise tap with his right forefinger for good measure, missed the glance Arthur, cheeks curiously pink, sent his way—right before Arthur stumbled, loosing a clattering array of spoons and white crockery onto the worn, grey carpeting of the flight deck. Miraculously enough, the thermos flask of hot coffee ended up braced securely in the angle of Arthur’s arm as he clutched the empty tray. Not a drop of brown, semi‑caffeinated swill spilled. Interesting.
“What on earth—Arthur!” Martin cried, twisting round, pale eyes wide in an even paler countenance. “Are you all right?”
Arthur hesitated, glancing briefly in Douglas’ direction before returning his gaze to Martin.
“Um—that is, I—sorry, Skip! Sorry, Douglas! I guess I must be really clumsy this morning.” He hesitated, allowing a few seconds to tick by. “Um—I’ll clear everything away,” he continued, awkwardly presenting the tray and thermos to Douglas as he knelt on the floor next to Martin. Arthur glanced at Martin a third time—cheeks definitely pink, and wasn’t that terribly interesting?—scooping up the debris. “Skipper, I—I’ll bring you me—I mean, I’ll bring you clean, everything clean from the galley.” The steward fled, face even rosier, not pausing to close the door behind him.
“Well,” Douglas commented, looking for a relatively level and Arthur-proof surface for the tray and settling for his lap.
“Well, good for us!” said Martin.
“What do you mean?”
“Why, Douglas, we kept our promise. No name-calling.”
“Ah. Sir has a point.”
“Martin, with all due respect: You really do have a point. We would have been completely justified in showering our worthy steward in a series of spontaneous, yet sincerely selected epithets.”
“Epi—um, yes, well, but we didn’t. Good on us.”
“Yes, good on us indeed,” Douglas murmured, contemplating the tray.
The day had gone well, and according to plan, with the cargo of electronic devices and perambulators (theirs was not to reason why) unloaded intact and on time at Southampton, and Douglas’ personal cargo received with a monetary enthusiasm that surpassed even his expectations of the exchange.
While no other Arthur-related incidents had occurred—a cargo flight sans passengers was a manifold blessing indeed—Douglas noted that the courtesies extended to the two officers exceeded the norm, or whatever passed for normal on G-ERTI. Three beverage services and two full meals with pudding (the former, unexceptional; the latter, from catering, rather than from the fertile, Surprising Rice‑ifying imagination of Arthur) seemed a bit much for a routine hop to Southampton and back. His customary vanquishing of Martin for the best of the cheese tray was somewhat less than satisfying in the face of such a bounty of comestibles.
Martin, perennially hungry, accepted each new offering with little more than a pleased, “Oh! Thank you, Arthur,” later commenting to Douglas as they approached Fitton, “Carolyn’s in an awfully good mood, isn’t she? Our airdot must be thriving under my system for managing the flight budget.” Flush with generosity, a curious feeling of goodwill, and a full belly, he offered Douglas the landing.
Douglas nodded, feeling exceptionally replete in body, mind, and wallet as they touched down and his suspicions were confirmed. The only question, really, was what, if anything, to do next.
He studied Martin casually as the younger man examined the post-flight checklist. Once you got past the captain’s sheer priggishness (which did take more than a little effort to overlook), not to mention his decided flair for the awkward in any social situation that did not involve flying (every social situation, that is), Martin’s physicality could have been, well, worse. Reasonably young; freckled and on the short side, true, but lean, with an unexpected wiry grace; long, elegant fingers; absurd hair that looked as though it might be quite soft to the touch; compelling, pale almond eyes, whichever color they were; a deep voice that resonated with surprising strength in that modest frame; and his mouth. Oh, but Martin’s mouth (when not pursed tightly in annoyance) was lovely indeed, with full, sensual pink lips that seemed such an extravagance on his narrow face. Douglas recalled seeing Martin, checking the static wire during a stop for refueling whilst eating a ripe banana out of hand…he shook himself abruptly.
“Douglas? Everything all right?” came the voice at his side.
“Yes, Martin, quite.” That was it. His mind was made up. “Would you mind doing me a favour?”
The Captain’s face narrowed even further in suspicion, brow dropping, mouth settling into an unforgiving line.
Douglas spoke up again. “I’m about to summon Arthur to the flight deck. Most unforgivably, he neglected to bring us the milk for our tea.”
“But, Douglas, we both had some before he removed the tray. And even if he did forget—how could it possibly matter now?”
“Martin, I must disagree with you. It certainly does matter.”
“Douglas, have you completely lost your mind?”
“In fact, when Arthur appears for his chastisement, I would like for you to call him…oh, how about an idiot? Or a clot—that would do rather well.”
“Douglas!” Martin’s complexion was mottled red with growing anger.
“As long as you don’t use the word, ‘clown,’ you should be perfectly fine. Can you remember that?”
“As you will doubtless recall, First Officer Richardson,” Martin said, each syllable precisely enunciated, green eyes gone ice cold, “we have agreed, as a team, that verbal abuse and name-calling is unacceptable, especially when directed at Arthur.”
“Yes, Captain Crieff. But, Martin, as your friend, may I ask you a question?”
“What? Douglas, what are you up to?”
“Do you happen to remember the specific physical gesture that, by law, must accompany an apology?”
Martin blinked, then blinked again. Douglas waited, holding back a smile.
“Douglas, do you mean…why…”
Douglas sighed, allowing the merest hint of a smile to tweak his lips. “Martin, we’re on the ground, where you will, doubtless, eagerly update the flight log and checklists as the final highlight of your day. Each one of us will then go our separate ways, in fact, our lonely ways for our separate, lonely weekends. Has it occurred to you that said loneliness might, in fact, be optional, especially for an eminently desirable and youngish sky god such as yourself?”
Martin’s face was a sight: Embarrassment, horror, and shock clashed, not sitting at all comfortably on his features. Douglas hastened to cut him off before anything regrettable might pass those damnably lovely lips.
“Martin. Martin. Do look at me, please. Yes. Thank you. Would you mind revisiting the consequences of your most recent apology to the only other person on board at the moment?”
Martin, silent, blushed deeply, averting his gaze from the first officer to the fascinating cumulus clouds above the tower. “Douglas…I…”
“Yes, Martin; you. Surely it cannot have escaped even your notice that a certain steward has been lavishing the captain of this so-called airworthy craft with a certain remarkable level of, shall we say, personal attention? Need I spell it out for you? I would really, really rather not.”
Martin, blushing to the tips of his ears and down to his starched collar (interesting), stammered, “Douglas, if this is some game of yours to humiliate me…”
“Martin, listen closely, because I expect never again to be speaking these six words in this sequence to you: I am telling you the truth.”
Silence stretched between the two men.
A long finger pressed the call button, firmly and precisely. Arthur’s voice came tinnily over G-ERTI’s intercom: “Skip? Douglas? Do you need something? Anything? Because I have anything—that is, I can probably—”
“Arthur. Come to the flight deck immediately, if you please.”
A knock at the door. “Yes, Skipper?”
“Arthur, I…I am an idiot, a dolt, a complete and utter clot.”
“Skip! You mustn’t call yourself such things! It’s mean. Please make him stop, Douglas.”
“Oh, Arthur, I think that, as steward of MJN, it is your sacred duty to intervene.”
“Skip! Please…please...oh, gosh, please apologize. To yourself. I think.”
“Arthur, you are absolutely right. This sort of language is completely uncalled for amongst a team of, of flight professionals and friends—yes, friends. Would you mind; I do feel a bit silly apologizing to myself. Shall I apologize to you instead?”
“All right, Skip. You remember the law about apologies, don’t you?”
“Indeed I do, Arthur. I…I apologize. Please…um, please come here. Here,” as Martin stood as if at attention, gesturing to the approximate space before him with a hand that trembled oh so slightly.
Arthur stepped close, pausing a shaking hand’s breadth in turn, gazing intently down into Martin’s eyes before wrapping his arms around the other man and drawing him close, so very close.
As Martin tucked his face into Arthur’s shoulder, lifting his hands to stroke the taller man’s back, Arthur tightened his embrace and brushed his lips once, twice over Martin’s beautiful curly hair. It was even softer than it looked.
As Arthur shifted one warm hand to Martin’s jaw, gently tilting his captain’s face up, Douglas stepped through the door and, whistling, shut it firmly behind him.