At first, Arthur was jubilant. He hadn’t locked the keys in the van after all! Skip was happy because the piano was delivered on time and he got paid, Douglas was happy that they didn’t have to push the piano anymore, and Arthur was happy that for once, he wasn’t the one who had made the stupid mistake.
As they made their way back to the airfield, though, the mood dimmed. Douglas got tired of being teased about the keys and started to get that look. Arthur knew that look; he’d learned about it at his course in Ipswich. It was the same look Mum sometimes got before she told him ‘Code Red’ and he went away. It meant that it was time to be quiet and not tease him anymore.
Skip lurched along on his crutches and didn’t seem to notice the look. Maybe because he’d never been to the course in Ipswich. He kept talking about Douglas leaving the keys on the piano, and Douglas kept looking more and more like a thundercloud. After a while, Skip needed all his breath to make it up a hill on the crutches and stopped talking. Arthur was glad; teasing wasn’t funny anymore when it went on too long.
It was good to get back to the plane. Skip could sit down and get off his ankle (he had an unhappy line between his eyebrows and he kept making little hissing, hurt noises through his teeth) and Douglas could relax and have some tea and maybe stop looking so thundery. Arthur trailed along behind them, keeping quiet. There was an unpleasant current of tension that reminded him of the fights his Mum and Dad used to have when he was a boy. Just like then, he tried to stay out of the way.
The pilots went up to the flight deck and Arthur buckled himself into one of the seats, way in the back. He listened to the hum of the engines as they cycled up, and watched the ground fall away. Take off was brilliant, of course. They were always brilliant. The rush of force that pressed him back against his seat; the way the world grew small beneath them. It made him happy every time. Still, this time he rather wished he had an apple to toss for a while. That would have helped.
Arthur made his mouth smile and stood up. He often found that if he smiled and kept busy, pretty soon the smile became real and he didn’t have to pretend. He heated water in the galley, put some coffee and tea things on a tray, and brought them in to the flight deck.
“Hello, chaps!” he said. “Coffee? Tea?”
Skip gave him a brief, distracted glance and shook his head. Douglas didn’t even look around; he was busy talking. “She’s hardly going to fail to notice the extra fuel costs and landing fees,” he said.
“It was your idea to fly instead of driving!”
“Yes, because at the time you begged me to think of something,” Douglas replied. “I didn’t see you coming up with any alternatives.”
“We wouldn’t have had to fly if you hadn’t left the keys on the piano.”
Douglas got a flat, ominous note in his voice. “True. Then again, we wouldn’t have been back at the airfield in the first place if Arthur hadn’t forgotten the address. Or, for that matter, if you had been capable of surviving a day off without ending up in hospital. Do recall that this entire thing was done as a favour to you.”
“I was only going to ask Arthur,” Skip said. “You offered to come.”
“Oh yes,” Douglas replied. “Certainly, if it had been just you and Arthur, it would have worked out much better.”
At this, Arthur opened his mouth, about to protest, but thought better of it and stayed quiet.
“Yes, all right, I know, but what else was I supposed to do? And what am I going to tell Carolyn?”
“Sounds like a command decision, Captain,” Douglas said.
“Douglas.” Skip sighed. “Look, it’s possible that she won’t notice; it’s not that much. Fitton to Devon is a short trip for an aeroplane.”
“Indeed it is, and of course, you’ve got such tremendous good luck. I’m sure it’ll work out.”
Skip scrubbed a hand through his hair and made a frustrated noise. “No, of course it won’t. Arthur, why did you have to forget the address? We would have been fine if we had that.”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said. He gripped the edges of the drinks tray and blinked down at the steaming cups.
“Martin, really, such a fuss,” Douglas said. “It’s not as if she’s going to take the cost out of your salary. You’d have to have one first. And she’s certainly not going to fire a pilot who provides free labour.”
“She might fire one who costs her money and steals her aeroplane, though,” Martin replied. “Can’t we just not tell her?”
“A bold plan,” Douglas said. “But, I fear, one with an inevitable flaw.”
“It requires Arthur to keep a secret.”
“Oh.” Skip’s shoulders curved in a glum line. “Forget it, then.”
“I could keep a secret,” Arthur said.
Douglas made a scoffing sound. “Arthur, if we have learned anything today, it is that you can’t be trusted with anything more complicated than making tea.”
Arthur paused, and took a careful breath. “I did help, though. With the piano and everything.”
“You forgot the address, making the trip twice as long since we had to double back to the airfield,” Douglas said. “Because we had to double back, we had the chance to get the piano out, and misplaced the keys. Because of that, we had to fly the piano to Ottery St. Mary. So now Carolyn is going to tear strips out of us for wasting money, I’ve spent my entire afternoon off trapped in close quarters with the two of you, and I’ve got ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ stuck in my head.”
“You said you didn’t know how it goes.”
“I also said St. Mary was martyred by otters,” Douglas retorted. Skip gave a wry chuckle.
Arthur frowned, glancing between the two of them. “I don’t understand.”
Douglas heaved a pained sigh and squeezed the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “I know.”
“Ottery kisses,” Skip said, and laughed.
“Heaven is full of otters,” Douglas added. “Really, Arthur, you will believe anything, won’t you?”
Skip said something else, but Arthur didn’t hear. That was enough. He backed out of the flight deck, careful to close the door in silence. The cups on his tray clattered, slopping coffee over the rims, and he set the tray down before he could spill. He put everything away, making sure it was clean. If he didn’t, there would be a mess when they landed and that would just be one more thing.
He went down the aisle, letting his fingertips trail over the seat backs. At the last row of seats, he slid into the one by the window. He rested his forehead against the cool interior side and stared out. The ground was already looking closer; they’d started their approach. Skip and Douglas would be on the flight deck until they landed. He had at least fifteen minutes before they might see him.
Right, then. Arthur could do this. He knew exactly how to do this. First, he tilted his head back, blinking until the damp prickle behind his eyes retreated. There was a thick ache in his throat but if he swallowed enough times and breathed slow, it would sink down into his chest. Then, if he kept smiling and thought really hard about something else, the hot, trembling pressure in his chest would sink even further until it was a tight ball in his stomach. Usually that part would stay for the rest of the day, but that was all right. He’d made it through a lot of days at school with that low ache.
You know the way that you are, and the things that you do? Those are the ways of a clot.
Arthur bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut tight. The very first rule was to not think about it. He thought about his Mum and Herc instead. She had scowled and stalked away when Douglas played the piano for her, but Arthur had seen the way the corners of her eyes crinkled up. He always knew how to recognize when his Mum was happy. It was special because it was so rare. Usually Arthur could make her get that quick, hidden smile but this time it was Herc. Well, good, he told himself. Good that Mum was happy.
Douglas, why did you send Arthur to do it? You know he’s a clot!
I didn’t know he was that much of a clot! I mean, he more or less manages to feed and dress himself; I thought he could retrieve an address ten seconds after being told.
He shifted in the seat and swallowed harder. The ground was much closer. He didn’t have a lot of time left. He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes and took a measured breath. In through his nose, count to five, out through his mouth. Now do it again. When he got home, he decided, he would have a hot bath. His shoulders and back hurt from pushing the piano and a nice hot bath always made him feel better. Then he would curl up and watch one of his favourite movies. Maybe Mum would come sit by him, and he would fall asleep against her shoulder and wake up with his head in her lap and her hand idly stroking his hair. Maybe she would smile at him.
One of us has just made an incredibly stupid mistake. Which one of us does that sound more like?
…that sounds more like me.
Arthur curled, putting his arms around his knees. It usually helped, being tucked into a small space. He blinked faster; the stinging behind his eyes wouldn’t go away.
To wait on the otters? I think that would be an indulgence. We’d be better off replacing them with more otters.
We’d be better off replacing Arthur with an otter anyway.
There was a thump as the wheels touched down. He lifted his head, startled. It was dusk but he recognized Fitton airfield well enough. They were home. He scrubbed a hasty swipe across his eyes and sniffed. There were still the post-landing checks to go through. He had a few minutes. He could still be okay.
He turned his face toward the window and watched the runway lights flash by hypnotically as they taxied to a stop. The hum of the engines slowed, then cut out entirely, leaving a ringing silence in their wake. His breathing suddenly seemed very loud.
He hunched his shoulders a little, then took a deep breath and looked up. Skip and Douglas were standing in the aisle beside him. He made his face smile. “Hello, chaps,” he said. “Have we landed then? I mean, yes, of course we’ve landed, that’s… I didn’t mean…”
That was no good. His voice didn’t sound right at all. He swallowed and tried again, but when he opened his mouth no words came out.
Skip reached out and tugged on his arm, pulling him out of his seat and into the aisle. They were crowded close, Skip on one side of him and Douglas on the other. “Are you all right?” Skip asked.
Arthur nodded. He tried to make his smile bigger, but he wasn’t sure it worked. He couldn’t feel it.
Douglas put a hand on his shoulder. Arthur blinked at him; he’d never seen that particular look on Douglas’ face before. Sort of sad, sort of guilty. “We may have been a bit harsh with you,” Douglas said. “It’s been a long day.”
“Oh,” Arthur said. “It’s all right. I’m fine.”
Skip squeezed his arm. “I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to…”
“It’s okay,” Arthur said. “Everything is okay.”
“Arthur, that statement is far less convincing when you’re crying,” Douglas pointed out.
“I’m going to stop though,” Arthur said. “I’m really, really good at stopping. I promise; I just need a little bit longer.”
Something went wavery in Skip’s expression and he pulled Arthur roughly into his arms. Arthur caught his breath and then he wasn’t stopping after all. He pressed his face against Skip’s shoulder and his chest hitched into ragged gasps no matter how hard he tried to swallow them back. Skip squeezed the back of his neck and made a soft shushing sound.
Then there was warmth behind him as Douglas stepped close too. Broad hands rubbed over his shoulders. Douglas murmured something quiet and soothing. He rocked them side to side; he felt strong and solid when Arthur leaned against him. Arthur's breathing evened out and his chest loosened. He’d never been hugged by two people at the same time. It was, he thought, a bit like stepping into a bath when it was just at the perfect temperature.
Like that, except far, far more brilliant.