At least he got to be an actual pilot is what he told himself every day. At least he got to fly a plane. He saw polar bears and Spain. He donned his cap and played word games above 10,000 feet in the air. He surpassed everything his father ever thought he could do. Sure he had lived on potatoes and pasta for years. He drove a shitty van and wasn’t taken seriously but at least he got to be an actual pilot. Maybe if he was more well rested or ate better he would have realized what the headaches were sooner. Maybe if he had more money he would have gone to the doctor and seen it in time to stop it. But he was too late. Five months is what they had said. They looked so serious. He kept expecting Douglas to pop out and make some witty remark about how easily Martin fell for things. For Arthur to tell him that fake sad news made real sad news sound better and that really all it was was tension headaches. But in reality is was five months to make arrangements. Five months of not living in an attic, moving furniture. Five months left of being an actual pilot. He didn’t tell Carolyn or Arthur for a while. He didn’t want to see Arthur’s face crumple. Carolyn wouldn’t know how to handle the news. Douglas guessed but didn’t know the specifics. Today was his last flight, his last time to be an actual pilot before he wouldn’t be fit to fly anymore. No more GERTI, no more lemons, no more cabin addresses or games of Simon Says. He didn’t tell them, he wanted the last flight to be as normal as possible. As he took off for the very last time he whispered to himself, “At least I got to be an actual pilot.”
After they land back in Fitton he tells them. Douglas looks like he has been shot in the gut, Carolyn’s face goes blank in a scary way, and Arthur, well Arthur starts crying. He looks so totally broken, almost as broken as Martin feels. Arthur is the first to hug him, the first to make his confession real. He clings to his captain, sobbing into the uniform Martin has always been so proud of whispering, “Don’t go, Skip. Please. We need you. Don’t go.”
Martin clings to the steward, the only man who has ever been impressed by his stripes and respected him as captain. He can feel his own hands shake as he feels the truth finally sink all the way into his bones. He will never fly again. He will never feel the rush of being in the air. He will never be a paid airline captain or be the pilot that inspires little children to take flight classes. He will never be an aeroplane and as silly as that wish was it is the catalyst for the tears he tried not to have. He begins to sob, only making Arthur cry harder. He feels arms come around behind him and to his left side, being circled in a warmth he didn’t know he could have. This isn’t just saying goodbye to his dream or his life, this is saying goodbye to the only family he really has.
No one is saying anything but Arthur, who is still begging him to stay. He can hear the sniffling gasps from Carolyn and feel Douglas’s tears as they drop on his neck but right now they are just locked together, trying to find some form of comfort in the only place that has ever felt so much like home to Martin. It was never the attic or even his childhood bedroom. It had always been GERTI.
Douglas refuses to let Martin live out his last days as the friendly ghost in the attic. He moves into one of the rooms in his house. No one talks about how he is going there to die. MJN is temporarily grounded and he has visitors every day. Arthur brings him model aeroplane after model aeroplane. He talks about how if Martin was an aeroplane he would be the best aeroplane ever. He asks Martin if he thinks once he dies he’ll come back as aeroplane. Arthur says he hopes MJN will buy that plane because it won’t be a family without him. Carolyn brings flowers and tries to pretend it is as it always is but he can see it when she has to stop to keep the tears back or when she trails off when talking about MJN. Douglas hides the lemon in his room and continues to play their silly little games. Martin convinces himself that he can breathe around the lump in his throat.
Arthur brings him an otter with a captain’s hat one day and a book about otters. He hands the otter to Martin and begins to read from the book, quizzing Martin on facts about the otters. When Martin asks why Arthur answers that he should know the most he possibly can about otters before he goes to heaven to meet them. He wonders if otters are allowed on the flight deck there.
Martin dies in the afternoon on a quiet Sunday. They all have dinner out that night. Everyone orders a baked potato and cheap glass of whiskey.
Douglas takes over as captain. When Carolyn tries to talk about his salary he refuses to listen. If Martin could do the job for free so can he.
Arthur carries the otter around with him for a while before leaving it at Martin’s grave. “He should have at least one friend in heaven.”
Carolyn keeps Martin’s ashes in an aeroplane shaped vase on her mantle. Every year on his birthday she holds a small dinner where they eat pasta and tell their favorite Martin anecdotes, getting drunk off of cheap whiskey and sadness.
GERTI has issues for the first month after his death. Even the aeroplane appears to be in mourning.
But as the days go by, there is one consolation. Martin Crieff did what he was always told he could not. He became an actual pilot.