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A Little Help From My Friends

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“Luxembourg.”

“Anna.”

Martin sighed.  “San Francisco.”

“Melanie.”  A fond smile spread over Douglas’ face.  “That was in the eighties: big hair, tiny bikini.”

“Rio.”

Douglas chuckled.  “You want the whole list?  Carmela, Maria, Rita… and that’s only the first visit.”

“Oh, enough,” Martin muttered.  “You’re just making them up now.”

“I’m doing no such thing,” Douglas said.  “I told you I’ve got someone in any major city you can think of, and I do.  You just don’t want to admit you’ve lost the bet.”

“You could be lying about all of them.”

“Yes, I could,” Douglas agreed.  “But I’m not. I don’t have to.”

Martin rolled his eyes.  “And how many of them would have you now?  Douglas the young, dashing Air England captain is not quite the same as Douglas the middle aged first officer of MJN.”

There was a pause.  Martin hunched his shoulders, sensing the change in the air.  “Douglas, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Let’s hear yours, then,” Douglas said, cutting him off.  “How about it, Captain?  Boy in every port?”

“That’s not… I never said…”

“I mean, surely in San Francisco, at least.”

“I’ve never been, actually.”

“Then name me a city where you’ve had someone,” Douglas replied.  “And we’ll see if you can name one that I don’t have.”

Martin shook his head.  “Look, I’m sorry, this was a stupid bet.  Let’s just forget it.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Douglas said.  “I think this old dog still knows more tricks than you do.  And really, you ought to have the advantage.”

“Because I’m the captain?”

“Because you’re gay,” Douglas replied.  “Haven’t you ever heard the saying?  ‘A woman needs a reason to have sex.  A man just needs a place.’”

Douglas!”  Martin scowled.  “Don’t stereotype.  That’s not true at all.”

“Come on.  I’ll give you an easy one—Amsterdam.”

Martin directed a fixed stare through the windscreen and said nothing.

“No?  How about Paris?  New York?  Tokyo?”

A flush crept up Martin’s face.  He bit his lip.

“Really?”  Douglas paused and cocked his head to one side.  “Fitton?”

“Stop it.”

“Wokingham?”

“That’s enough, Douglas.  You’ve made your point.”

“Martin.”

“Yes, you win again, I get it.”  Martin scrubbed a hand through his hair.  “You take the next three landings of your choice.  Congratulations.”

Douglas gave him a long, considering stare.  “Did you just admit to being a virgin?”

“No.”

“No, you’re not?”

“No, I… didn’t admit to it.” 

There was another charged pause.  Martin could feel his face heat all the way up until his ears burned, but his gaze remained stubbornly straight ahead. 

“I apologize,” Douglas said.  “It appears I misjudged the social life of gay men.”

“Told you not to stereotype.”

“To be fair, I hardly think your… situation… is common.”

“Yes, I know that, thank you,” Martin snapped.  “Just… please don’t tell anyone.”

“Not sure I can help you there,” Douglas replied.  “Such a fascinating little tidbit may escape me.  Terrible memory for secrets, you know.  Must be my age.”

“I said I was sorry!  You’re not middle-aged, all right?”

“I could, perhaps, offer you a deal.”

Martin regarded him with deep suspicion.  “What kind of deal?”

“You agree to give up all rights to ever mention, discuss, or allude to Helena thinking I’m a captain, and I agree to keep your secret.”

“And you also won’t bring it up?”

Douglas gave an amused huff.  “You mean, I won’t use it just between us to tease, vex, badger, or otherwise take you down a peg whenever I so desire?”

“Right.”

“No.”

Martin frowned.  “That’s not fair.”

“Life isn’t fair,” Douglas replied.  “Fortunately, it is frequently unfair in my favour.”

Martin chewed on his bottom lip.  “I won’t bring up Helena, and… five landings?  If you agree to not talk about… that.”

“Are you negotiating with me?”

“Yes.”

“Martin, I want you to think about your history with negotiation.  Are you certain this is a road you want to go down?”

“I shouldn’t have to negotiate anything!” Martin protested.  “You should just agree, as a friend, not to bring it up because I’ve asked you not to.”

“And you should likewise agree to not bring up Helena, for the same reason.”

“Fine!  I agree.  I’ll never bring it up again.  Just because you asked.  Okay?”

Douglas’ expression softened.  “If it truly bothers you, I’ll leave it alone.”

“Thank you.”

“As soon as I’ve asked you a question.”

Martin thumped his head back against the chair.  He sighed and gestured for Douglas to go on.

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why?” Martin asked.

“Exactly that.  Why, at thirty-two, are you still…”

Martin shrugged wearily.  “I don’t know.  I mean, at first, I was so busy studying for the CPL and taking lessons to build up the flight hours.  I was working two, sometimes three jobs to pay for it, and then working and saving and paying for the re-takes; I just didn’t have time.  When I finally got the license and my first job as a pilot I did try, but my schedule was always a wreck and, well, you’ve seen my flat, I couldn’t bring anyone there and nothing seemed to work out.  And now I’m a man with a van who flies for a tiny airdot as an unpaid hobby.”  He spread his hands and let out a long breath.

“Hmm.  So you’ve given up?”

“No, I wouldn’t say… I mean, I do have other responsibilities, I can’t spend all my time... it’s not fair to say that I’ve just given up.  It sounds pathetic when you say it that way.”

“Yes, it does, doesn’t it?”

Martin glared at him.  “You’re really not helping.”

“Oh, but I am,” Douglas countered.  “You’ve stopped trying.  You’ve got discouraged and convinced yourself it’s not worth the effort.  Think of my inevitable and creative mockery as a motivational seminar, courtesy of an expert in the field.”

“You said you’d leave it alone!”

“And so I shall.  For precisely six weeks, I will leave it alone.  You won’t hear a peep out of me.”

“What happens when the six weeks are up?”

“Well, that depends,” Douglas replied.  “If, at any point during the allotted time, you arrive at the airfield with the rosy glow of a job well done, I will offer you my heartfelt congratulations and we will never speak of it again.  However, if at the end of that time you are still, shall we say, virgo intacta, then I will consider it fair play to say whatever I choose—just between us, of course.”

“What’s to stop me from just making someone up?”

“Two things,” Douglas said.  “One, when it comes to lying, you are nearly as bad as Arthur.  And two, you don’t actually want to cheat.  You want to win.”

“So, you threatening to embarrass me about this is, what, doing me a favour?  Giving me a little nudge so I’ll try harder?”

“Precisely.”

Martin thought about his attic flat.  He thought about sitting on his thin futon and listening to the students below talk and laugh.  He thought about the flight they’d taken to Cancun the month before, with the honeymoon couple who were so obviously, thoroughly in love.  Every time he’d walked through the cabin they hadn’t even seen him, too wrapped up in each other to notice anyone else existed.  He thought about walking through a crowded airport bumping into people and realising it was the most human contact he’d had in weeks. 

“Okay,” he said.  “You’re on.”