Martin steps into the portacabin at exactly 9.03, which is exactly three minutes late. But it must be his lucky day, because Carolyn doesn’t comment, Arthur just greets him enthusiastically, and Douglas is on the phone, apparently with one of his daughters.
“No I don’t know them either, sorry darling, are they noisy and do they wear eyeliner? Please try to remember that I’m a good dad, not a cool dad.”
There’s a rare soft smile on Douglas’s face, and Martin can’t resist a bit of eavesdropping.
“See you next weekend then, funny face. And you can bring your CDs and DVDs, just don’t forget to bring your homework. Say hello to your mum from me. Or better not, tell her goodbye from me. Goodbyes seem to work better with your mum than hellos.” After a pause Douglas grins broadly. “Yes, you may be quite right. Bye, darling.”
Douglas chuckles as he switches off his phone and looks up. “Good morning Martin.” His eyes widen in feigned shock. “Oh! By the looks of those bags under your eyes I can guess you didn’t sleep well.”
Martin sighs. “Hello Douglas, and yes, I did sleep well, I just didn’t sleep much.”
“I hope Sir had some fun during those hours of non-sleeping?”
“Not really,” Martin admits reluctantly.
“Care to tell me what happened?”
“Nothing important, Douglas, I just stayed on the internet for far too long last night.”
“The internet, ah yes, and what exactly had enthralled you so immensely that it had you up all night?”
“Not all night! I did get five hours of sleep.”
“I stand corrected, Captain. And you didn’t answer my question. Could it be… aeroplanes, or maybe porn?”
Douglas positively smirks. “Oh, but now I am intrigued. Would you do me the favour of twenty questions after we get the old girl up in the air and are on our way to… ah, what was it… Rangoon, Baboon?”
“I know, Martin. Just checking if you happened to remember that it’s fortunately only an eleven-hour flight we’re doing today. Piece of Mexican tres leches cake after five hours of sleep, I’d say.”
“I am fine, Douglas! And I am sure you will manage to keep me awake. And what the hell, you can have your twenty questions, but I’ll only answer with yes or no. I bet you the entire cheese tray, for a week.”
“First pick of the tray, for three days.”
“Entire tray, three days, and that’s my final offer.”
“I will accept your offer, oh Captain, my Captain, if only because there was quite an impressive hint of genuine captainy authority in your voice right there.”
“There was? Really? Honestly?”
“Honestly, there was. And now it is gone again.”
After the post take-off checks Douglas leans back in his chair and turns to Martin.
“So, Captain, we have a clear sky, eleven hours to kill, and here’s question one. The thing that kept you from a good night’s rest, was it a video?”
“No.” Martin smiles. There is absolutely no way Douglas will guess right, even if he were allowed a hundred questions.
“Was it something like Wikipedia, maybe an interesting text file, with pictures?”
“That’s at least two questions, no and no.”
“Alright… You already said no aeroplanes, but had it anything to do with your career?”
“And are you absolutely sure it had nothing to do with sex, perhaps indirectly, like a dating site?”
Martin feels a slight blush warm his cheeks. “No, Douglas, it had nothing to do with sex and I was not on a dating site.”
“Another uneventful night for all of Britain’s dating sites then. Was it about a way to make more money?”
“Did you have an argument with someone?”
“Ah. With family or friends?”
“Two questions, again Douglas. No and no.”
“So you had a heated discussion with strangers?”
“Debatable. And I think you have ten questions left. You are usually better at these, Douglas.”
“Hm, yes. I should be worried. Funny, I don’t feel worried though.”
“Oh come on, Douglas! You are going to lose this one.”
“Hello chaps! Here’s the coffee! What’s the game?” Arthur seems even more cheery than usual.
“We’re not really playing a-“
“Oh!” Douglas interrupts. “Were you perhaps playing a game?”
“Oh. Well, never mind. Arthur, I am trying to… deduce what it was that kept Martin online for far too long last night.”
“Oh! Can I have one go? Was it on Facebook? Because I tend to stay up late on Facebook, because there are so many brilliant people and you have this wall and…”
“No, Arthur, I was not on Facebook.”
“Was it on another social networking site?” Douglas asks.
“Debatable, and I am also counting Arthur’s. So, seven questions left. Thank you Arthur, you can go now. Please.”
After Arthur has left Martin takes a sip from his coffee. “Go on then, Douglas.”
“As Sir wishes. Was it on, no wait, was it an argument about something you love?
“Hm. Like, not love.”
“Something you also like outside cyberspace?”
Martin has to think for a while. “It does exist in real life, so I guess I like it in real life too.”
Douglas frowns. “In real life? You do sound like there’s some digital version of you leading a double life on the internet. And that wasn’t a question, more of a… concern.”
“In real life is just an expression, Douglas. And I do have a real life, I hardly have time to go online, let alone role playing. Maybe you should try it once you’ve figured out how a computer works.” Martin sighs. “With your amount of luck, you’re probably amazingly good at it. God, what a depressing thought!”
Douglas chuckles. “Apologies for frustrating you with my likely success at something I have never done, Martin. But I can assure you I will not go and try to live up to your high expectations of me regarding the art of role playing.”
Martin grins against his coffee cup. “Not sure if that really helps, but thanks anyway.”
“You’re welcome. So, back to the questions? You got angry because people on the internet, people that you don’t actually know but have previously interacted with, disagreed with you about something you like?”
“Yes. Four questions left. And I am already looking forward to the feta and the brie.”
“Is that something a person?”
“Hm. It’s part of a person.”
“Oh. But since it wasn’t about sex, was it…the voice of that person?”
“Yes! Never thought you would guess that, but yes. And I will still win, because you will have no idea whose voice.”
“Sir, I fear the cheese tray is all yours, but I will have a go at my last, undoubtedly stupid and digitally ignorant questions. So expect a desperate wild guess.”
Martin grins. “Guess along then, number one.”
“Did you cause a flame war on Tumblr last night, by stating that Roger Allam has a sexier voice than Benedict Cumberbatch?”
Six minutes and a thorough system check later Arthur runs into the flight deck.
“Wow, that was some unexpected turbulence! I loved it, but Mum got all white in the face and kept saying that she loved me. She never does that. Well, she does tell me she loves me, sometimes, but never over and over and over again.”
“I… I am so sorry,” Martin says, “I just…”
At that moment Carolyn appears, still all white in the face. “What the hell was that? I saw my whole life fast forwarded before my eyes! “
“Just…just some unexpected turbulence,” Martin replies, blushing furiously.
Carolyn looks at Douglas, who give her a reassuring nod. “Small but very fierce downwind, took us completely by surprise, but all is fine now.”
With Arthur and Carolyn once again back in the cabin, Martin buries his face in his hands.
“I am so sorry, Douglas, it’s just that I had not expected that at all and I sort of tightened my hands without thinking and I guess I pulled the yoke…”
“It’s alright, Martin, in its own quite unexpected turbulence way, you forced Gerti into a mere perfect loop, probably her first ever, but she did a fine job, and there were no lives lost, just our coffee. And I say lost coffee, but it seems to be dripping from the ceiling right now. So, not really lost either.”
“Sorry. Sorry, Douglas. Thank you. I am so sorry. But how could you know? I figured you’d never heard of Roger Allam or Benedict Cumberbatch!”
“Martin, I haven’t the faintest idea who they are. Are they even real people?”
“Yes they are, but if you don’t even know them, then, how, how, how?”
Douglas wipes a drip of coffee from his forehead and offers Martin a broad smile. “Three excellent questions, Sir. So let me explain to you that I talked to my eldest daughter on the phone this morning. She was still half asleep, after staying up far too late because, some, as she called it, moron troll on Tumblr had said Roger Allam’s voice was sexier, and let me emphasize sexier, than Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice. And how dare they!”
“Oh,” Martin says. “Oh.”
Hours later, in his hotel room in Cancun, Douglas connects his hardly-used laptop to the hotel’s internet, feeling mildly curious about what his daughter sees (or rather hears) in this Cumberbatch.
Youtube tells him Cumberbatch is an actor. Not spectacularly handsome, a bit Martin-ish in fact, but his reading of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is really rather nice, And it is immensely reassuring that the object of his wild 16-year old’s adoration looks quite decent and reads Keats and isn’t some drug addicted rock star with tattoos and piercings. And his voice sounds pleasantly familiar, very, very familiar indeed.
Douglas tells himself he is also mildly interested in the voice Martin obviously found sexier. Youtube offers a lot of musical evidence on the Allam chap, and then there is an interview. And then scenes from Henry IV, and bits of films and plays and more interviews. And more than once, Douglas mutters under his breath. “Martin, really? Really?”
The next morning, he admits he had exactly six hours of sleep, and before Martin can even ask, Douglas suggests twenty questions to determine what kept him up.
It takes Martin three questions to win the cheese tray back. Douglas doesn’t mind. There’s plenty of time to win another bet that will have Martin owe him a very specific favour.
(Four months later )
“Hello darling, happy birthday!”
“Hi Dad. Where are you?”
“Los Angeles, finding you a perfect present.”
“Please keep in mind I am seventeen, and not seven, when you buy me something.”
“I did not say ‘buy’, funny face, I said ‘find’. And I have found it already. And here it comes.”
Martin takes a deep breath as Douglas hands him the phone, and says in his lowest voice: “Hello Emily, I happen to owe your Dad a favour and he asked me to wish you a happy birthday.”
There’s a sort of squeak and then: “Ohmygod. Oh. My. God. Sorry, I mean, thank you so much.”
Martin blushes and smiles. “A very happy birthday, Emily. I hope you get lots of lovely presents, and let me tell you, your Dad is-“
“Hello darling, me again. Sorry but he had to run. No time for pictures either, sorry. But I did record the call. Will send it to you right away so you can impress your friends.”
He pauses, and then stares at Martin for a bit.
“A white T-shirt and jeans, and his hair… ginger. Ginger curls, yes.” Douglas grins. “No I would not say gorgeous. But not bad, quite nice. And a lovely voice, yes.”