Chapter 1: Speed Dating
Martin is speed-dating.
Well, if he's entirely truthful, he's not actually speed-dating : he's spending the evening being speed-ignored, because every woman he tries to impress – and hell, there's not much time, even for the Captain of an airline (correction, Martin: airdot) who has to have lightning fast reflexes - clearly thinks that he's just not – not – not very interesting, and they just giggle (well, some do – others just laugh rudely and walk away, let's be honest here) and it's all the fault of that bloody Douglas.
And it's even worse than Douglas's last bloody idea, which was singles night in the supermarket, because at least then when women looked pityingly at Martin's shopping basket (contents: loaf of own brand tasteless bread, packet of own brand tasteless pasta, one potato ('Suitable For Baking!)) then at least he could pretend to himself that they might have thought that he just happened to pop into the supermarket to do his shopping and didn't realise it was singles night (oh come on, Martin, stop kidding yourself).
And it's just not bloody fair. Douglas has a beautiful, if unfaithful, wife (and really, deep down inside, Martin thinks it would be worth having a beautiful, if unfaithful, wife because she would be (a) beautiful and (b) married to Martin) and Carolyn has a relationship with Herc even though she spends all her time insulting him (and Martin wouldn't mind having a relationship with a woman who insulted him because at least he'd be in a relationship with a woman ) and Arthur has short-lived but plentiful romances with beautiful and interesting girls (and Martin sometimes wonders whether he ought to ask Arthur to set him up on a blind date with a friend of one of these beautiful and interesting girls and he wouldn't mind, not really, if the friend wasn't beautiful or interesting in the least) .
Oh bloody hell, the woman lumbering towards him now is (a) not beautiful and (b) covered in tattoos and (c) shouting 'It's a Tiny Ginger!' and suddenly Martin can't stand the humiliation any more and he stands up and he runs towards the door and into the street and he can hear them laughing at him and he really doesn't care because he's out of there and suddenly he realises that he's bumped into someone and knocked a bag out of their hands and there's books and papers and a notebook and pens all over the pavement and it's a girl and she's just standing there laughing but not at him and she says 'Easy, Tiger!' and they both laugh and he apologises and they both pick everything up and then – and then – he asks her if she'd like to go for a drink as an apology and she looks up at the hotel with the big banner that says 'Speed Dating Tonight!' and she says yes, but not here, it doesn't look our sort of thing and she doesn't notice he's blushing (well, she must notice, but she doesn't say anything) and they find a quiet pub.
And now she's asking him where he works. And Martin is just so pissed off with trying to impress women that he just says 'I'm a Man with a Van' and she doesn't laugh and she says she works in a shop and he realises that she sounds – just a bit – embarrassed. And then she asks him what his interests are and because he hasn't told her that he's a Captain of an airline he can be honest. Really, really honest. So he tells her that his hobby is flying planes and she says isn't that an expensive hobby and suddenly he's explaining about MJN and telling her all about Douglas and Carolyn and Arthur and she's laughing but she's not laughing at him, she's laughing like he's just told her a really funny joke and then she buys him a drink and she says that she thinks it's great that he has such an interesting life and nobody has ever, ever told Martin that before and she's really quite pretty and she seems to like him and then she tells him that she works in a shop part-time because she's studying at university as a mature student and that really that's a bit like him flying Gertie, isn't it, they both have to do jobs they hate so that they can afford to do the things they want to.
And then he walks her home and he kisses her very gently on the cheek and she pulls away (oh God no, please let her like me, just a bit) and then she blushes and says could we meet again, not if you don't want to, but I really like you and Martin kisses her properly this time and she's kissing him back and at the back of his mind he thinks 'Must remember to thank Douglas for his brilliant idea'.
And then he forgets all about Douglas.
Chapter 2: Scared
Martin, as is often the case, doesn't know what to do.
Except this time it's really, really important.
Martin's in bed, with his eyes tight shut and he really, really doesn't want to open them. Because he's actually very frightened of what may or may not happen (oh God, please don't let me have screwed this up) and perhaps if he lies there very still then he might look as if he's still asleep and if he lies there long enough then perhaps it will be all right or perhaps it was all a dream (though you know it wasn't, don't you?) and oh please God let it all be all right.
Because although Martin is in bed, he's not in his own bed. Because last night he and Rhiannon went to the pub again and Rhiannon - that wonderful crazy Welsh girl who said she really, really liked him - (and Martin's afraid that once she gets to know him better she won't really, really like him any more) asked him if when they'd walked back to her house if he'd like to have a coffee and then one thing led to another and it's all a bit confused in his mind but when he woke up he knew he wasn't in his own bed because, well, you know when you're in your own bed, and Rhiannon was lying next to him and for a moment he couldn't believe that this wonderful, crazy girl was there with him and then – and then – she very quietly got out of bed and got dressed and went out and Martin doesn't know what he should do. Because perhaps she expects him just to get up and go home and be out of her room before she gets back and perhaps she doesn't ever want to see him again and perhaps it just shouldn't have happened and perhaps it all happened a bit too quickly (too late to think about that now, isn't it?) and he has this dreadful feeling that perhaps it wasn't really very good. Because actually Martin isn't too used to this physical stuff and perhaps it wasn't very good at all and perhaps Rhiannon didn't enjoy it and oh God... oh God. And it's not really the sort of thing you can ask anyone about (and who the hell could you talk to anyway? Carolyn? Arthur? Douglas? Do you really think they'd tell you what to do?)
So there he is, lying rigid in the bed and too frightened to open his eyes and oh God he wants Rhiannon back in bed with him because – well, because. And he hears the door open and just like when he was a child he wants it to be yesterday and to get everything right this time (and stop pretending because you know it isn't yesterday and you've got to face this) and he pretends he's still asleep and Rhiannon says come on sleepyhead, I know you're not asleep, and he opens his eyes and she's smiling and says coffee's on and I've bought croissants and they're still warm and how about breakfast and he starts to apologise (oh, that's always you, isn't it) and he begins to stutter and oh God why can't I ever get anything right? and she bends down and kisses him and says hey, don't worry, and then she takes her clothes off and gets back into bed with him and then in a while the croissants go cold and the kettle boils dry and Martin isn't scared any more.
Because everything is all right.
Chapter 3: Douglas
In which Douglas is confused.
Douglas is confused. This is not a situation in which First Officer Douglas Richardson is used to finding himself.
Could it possibly be, he muses to himself, that this is a situation of which he is not totally in control? Could it be that he is losing the ability to manipulate people? There have been situations before in which he has not been the Alpha Dog (although he must admit that it is remarkably easy to become the Alpha Dog, whilst allowing some poor deluded soul to believe that they are in fact the Alpha Dog - take that, Ms Knapp-Shappey!); but even though there have been a few times when things have not gone exactly to plan (the two ex-Mrs Richardsons; the current-but-soon-to-be-ex-Mrs-Richardson; Air Bloody England's inability to understand the principles of free trade as applied to Douglas Richardson; First Bloody Officer answerable to MJN's excuse for a Captain - working for MJN itself, come to that - ) damn, he's lost his train of thought. That doesn't happen very often, either.
Ah yes, there have been a few times when life has not taken its intended path - forgotten being thrown out of medical school, have we? - he pushes that thought away - but never before has Douglas been confused.
Douglas does not like being confused. And of all the people that he would not wish to be confused by, top of the list (and the most unlikely candidate) is - here Douglas takes a deep breath, because this is not something that he wishes to admit, even to himself - is so-called Captain Martin Bloody Crieff.
Feeling better for admitting that, Douglas?
It's not that Douglas doesn't enjoy working with Martin: far from it, one of the greatest joys of Douglas's life is teasing Martin until Martin becomes tongue-tied and red in the face. On a good day, Douglas can wind Martin up so much that he begins to stutter - on one joyous occasion, so much so that Martin managed to stutter and lisp at the same time. When Martin is particularly annoying, Douglas now only has to whisper 'Th-th-thathkathuan' to reduce Our Noble Captain to a snivelling, pathetic little excuse of a man.
But Martin has changed. He's still an annoying little prick some - most - of the time - and there are still times when Douglas could cheerfully throttle him, but the annoying little prick seems to have developed some backbone. He's now got a woman in his life, (and that in itself amazes Douglas, who has seen Martin's attempts to pull on several hilarious occasions), and Douglas has been unable to worm out of Martin exactly how he met her. Martin cheerfully admits that he'd tried speed-dating ('God, Douglas, I thought I was desperate until I saw some of the women there! I was out of there pretty quick, I can tell you!'), but he won't say where - or indeed how - he met his girlfriend. And the one thing that Douglas is certain of is that, wherever and however it was, it wasn't speed-dating, because Martin is almost as bad at lying about his personal life as Arthur is at lying about anything.
Whoever this woman is, she's certainly had an effect on Martin. He's more ready to stand up for himself and less ready to apologise for things that aren't his fault. He doesn't colour up or stutter so easily, and the last time Douglas muttered 'Th-th-thathkathuan', Martin actually laughed and said that was pretty embarrassing, wasn't it, and started to tell Douglas about speech therapy. And he even managed to take the wind out of Douglas's sails by turning it into a joke and calling it 'Thpeech Thewapy' before Douglas could (and you didn't like that much, did you, Douglas?).
And something happened today which Douglas doesn't know the details of and he doesn't know how he is going to find out about it.All he knows is that Martin asked - no, actually, demanded - to see Carolyn in the Portacabin (which usually means that Martin is going to beg Carolyn to pay him, and Carolyn is going to refuse and Douglas would happily bet the entire cheese tray that Martin will burst into tears) but today it was Carolyn who left first, looking flustered and Martin - Martin - who looked as if he were in control of the situation. Martin? In control?
All very confusing.
For the first time in some years, First Office Douglas Richardson wishes that he could have a bloody drink.
Chapter 4: Arthur
In which Arthur is confused.
No change there, then.
Arthur is confused. For Arthur, this is a normal state of mind.
Arthur is confused about a lot of things - how aeroplanes fly, why metal boats don't sink, what happens to your lap when you stand up (Douglas has tried to explain all these things to him, but Arthur thinks that Douglas doesn't really understand either because sometimes the explanation doesn't seem to make sense, especially the one about the otters and the saint) but really, when Arthur stops to think about it (which isn't very often) then at least it makes a - what did Mum say it was? - an unusual topic of conversation, that was it!
What Arthur is not confused about is the fact that Arthur has some really, really good friends. And that's brilliant! And Arthur works with his really, really good friends, which is even more brilliant! And besides Douglas and Martin, there's Mum - it's brilliant being friends with your Mum, even if she does sigh a lot and call you names - and there's Snoopadoop who must be Arthur's friend because someone once said that a man's best friend is his dog and - well, Snoopadoop is a dog and Arthur's a man so there you go! And Snoopadoop never calls him a clot and that's brilliant! (though even Arthur can recognise that he might be on shaky ground here).
And then there's Herc, who is Mum's special friend, even though Mum keeps insulting him, but then Mum insults Arthur and Martin and Douglas as well, and Douglas insults Martin and Arthur, and that's okay, because they're all friends, and that's what friends do, isn't it? It's what Arthur's friends do, anyway!
And this is the bit where Arthur gets confused. Because although Douglas and Mum insult Martin, Martin doesn't always laugh. Sometimes he goes all pink and upset and sounds - well, a bit hurt, really.
Arthur knows what it's like to feel a bit hurt, because - well, because of Dad. Not that Dad's not - er - all right, but when Dad talks to Arthur, Dad says things that make Arthur feel hot and prickly and a bit hurt, and that is definitely Not Brilliant. So Arthur doesn't like his friends to feel hot and prickly and hurt, either. And he tries to say something that will make Martin feel a bit better, but that doesn't always seem to work, and sometimes it ends up with Douglas shouting at Arthur. Not brilliant, that.
And this is the really confusing bit. Because at the moment Douglas isn't friends with Martin at all and that appears to be because Martin doesn't seem to get quite so pink and prickly and upset, and today Arthur heard Douglas saying 'You know something, Sir? You're just a boring little prick!' and that's not the sort of thing friends should say to each other. And then Martin and Mum had a Long Talk in the Portacabin (and Mum's Long Talks are something that quite often make Arthur feel hot and prickly and a bit upset) but when Martin came out he didn't look hot and prickly and upset at all, but Mum did! And when Arthur asked Mum what was the matter she just told him to shut up (but she often says that, so that's okay). And then later when Herc came to see Mum at home, Herc asked Mum what was the matter and Mum told him to shut up and then she told Arthur to take Snoopadoop for a really long walk, and he did, and when he came back Herc and Mum were in the kitchen shouting at each other - well at least Mum was doing the shouting, Herc was talking quite normally and Arthur decided he'd better not go into the kitchen, but Snoopadoop pushed the kitchen door open, and Arthur wasn't trying to listen, because that would be rude, but he did hear Herc say 'Sometimes, Carolyn, you can be quite unreasonable, even by your own standards' and then it sounded very much as if Mum had thrown something at Herc. And then Herc left and Mum burst into tears.
And this is the really tricky bit. Because the one person Arthur knows who always has a brilliant idea and always knows how to put things right is Douglas, and Arthur thinks that perhaps Douglas isn't the person to put things right this time.
Arthur thinks that it's a shame that they never did anything like this when he went on that course about Understanding People In Ipswich. Or perhaps they did, and Arthur just didn't understand it.
Hey, perhaps they could all go on a course about Understanding People In Ipswich! And then they'd all understand each other and be friends again!
Chapter 5: Carolyn
In which Carolyn faces a few home truths.
Carolyn Knapp-Shappey is confused, upset and angry.
Despite the precarious financial situation that is the norm at MJN, and the fact her staff is comprised entirely of feckless imbeciles, Carolyn does not get confused or upset. Confused and upset happens to other people. Very often. Carolyn makes sure of that.
Carolyn is used to being angry: years of being the CEO of MJN have taught her that being angry is the best way of getting other people to back down and thereby getting your own way.
Anger, yes. Anger is good.
Except when your anger is partially directed at yourself.
Carolyn regards herself as a good - nay, exceptional - employer. She's kind and sympathetic towards her staff - sure about this one, are we? - even though they are, to a man, utter dolts. Who else but a saint would employ her brainless son, her conniving First Officer, and a Captain who took seven attempts to get his commercial pilot's licence?
Except that that's three employees, and Carolyn doesn't actually employ three people.
This has been brought home to her today.
Of course, Arthur isn't actually an employee: since that ghastly SEP refresher course in Ipswich, Arthur has been an unusually helpful passenger in a hat. And so, not being an employee, he doesn't get paid: what he does get is a rent-free home, his meals, all his washing done and a reasonable amount paid into his bank account every month, whether or not Carolyn can really afford to do so.
So she has a First Officer and a Captain. That's two employees.
And she needs a First Officer and a Captain so that MJN can undertake the long-haul flights, which are the ones which make the money that keeps Gertie - just about - in the skies.
Except that Carolyn doesn't actually employ a First Officer and a Captain.
This has been brought home to her today.
Over the last few weeks, life at MJN has been much as usual, except that Douglas seems to be losing in the 'needle the Captain' stakes, and Martin seems to be a little more self-assured, which can only be a good thing, providing that his new-found self-assurance does not mean that he challenges Carolyn's position as Alpha Dog in this mangy pack (but then we're talking Martin here, so the chances of that happening are somewhat more remote than the chances of Arthur winning 'Mastermind'.)
So when Martin said that he needed to see her in the Portacabin, Carolyn assumed that he was going to plead with her to pay him a wage, burst into tears when she refused, and that life at MJN would continue as normal.
Martin didn't plead: he told her, quite calmly, that it was about time that she paid him. And when she said that she couldn't, Martin told her, very calmly, that if that was the case, he was seriously considering leaving MJN.
She'd laughed - she didn't mean to - and said that for three years he had flown Gertie for no pay at all, and what had changed? And Martin - still very calmly - said that it was all very well flying as a hobby, but that she knew very well that the hours which he spent flying and sitting around on standby meant that he wasn't earning very much in his job as a Man With a Van, and he had had quite enough of having no money and living in an attic and not having enough to eat, and what did she intend to do about it?
And when she said that she just couldn't afford to pay him, Martin had said fair enough, in which case he would continue to fly Gertie until the end of the month and then he would leave.
That was when Carolyn made her first mistake.
She'd laughed again and asked 'Has your girlfriend put you up to this?'
She would have thought that Martin was angry, except that he didn't turn red and stutter. Instead, he told her that he was quite capable of making his own decisions, and that his personal life was none of her affair and he would prefer her not to bring it into the conversation. And then he said that if she made one more reference to his personal life, he would leave at the end of the day.
This was when Carolyn made her second mistake.
She'd apologised for mentioning Martin's girlfriend, and then pointed out - quite sharply - that Martin couldn't leave at the end of the day, as that would be in breach of his contract of employment.
That was when Martin laughed.
He'd pointed out that, as he wasn't paid, he wasn't employed, and therefore there was no contract for him to be in breach of. And that meant that he could walk away whenever he wanted.
He sounded almost like Douglas.
What Carolyn said next was quite probably her third mistake.
But Martin, she'd said, I can't afford to pay two pilots, and without two pilots MJN can only undertake shorthaul flights.
That was when Martin laughed again and said that he was sorry but that really wasn't his problem. And after all, he had an impressive record of flying hours and impressive and extensive experience of longhaul - which, even though these would be regarded as hours spent and experience gained during a hobby rather than in paid employment - would look very impressive on his CV. Sorry, Carolyn, did I use 'impressive' more than once? And he really ought to mention, just in case she didn't know, that there were vacancies for First Officers at Air England.
He sounded very much like Douglas.
And then Martin had pushed his chair back and said obviously she needed time to think it over, and that he would stress that despite her unfortunate comments and as a gesture of goodwill he was still prepared to fly Gertie until the end of the month.
It was the 'gesture of goodwill' that had really hurt. She had stormed out of the Portacabin. Douglas and Arthur had seen that she was upset.
And when she got home, Herc had called round, and she had started to tell him all about her troubles, and he had laughed and said that the only thing that surprised him was that it had taken Martin so long to stand up to her, and they started to shout at each other (well, she'd started to shout) and then Herc had said 'Sometimes, Carolyn, you can be quite unreasonable, even by your own standards.' And she was so angry that she'd picked up the first thing that came to hand and thrown it at him.
And Herc had said that if that was how she treated her staff, he wasn't surprised that Martin was leaving.
After Herc had gone, she'd looked at the floor and realised she'd thrown her favourite vase at Herc.
Carolyn is sitting on the floor crying, surrounded by the remains of her vase. She has a large glass of duty-free gin in one hand.
After a while, Snoopadoop comes up to her and licks her face.
'Oh hell, Snoopadoop.' says Carolyn. 'I don't know what's got into Martin, but I've got a month to come up with something.'
Chapter 6: Rhiannon
In which Rhiannon has things to consider.
Rhiannon Pryce is not overly confused, but she does have rather a lot on her mind at the moment.
Top of the list ought to be the Finals. And as Rhiannon is on course for a First, revision is vitally important and she should be in the library.
Top of the list is, in fact, her boyfriend.
Not that there's anything the matter with her boyfriend - other than the fact that he's frighteningly underweight, because he doesn't eat properly. And it's a bit tricky, trying to make sure that at least when he's with her he does eat properly, because Rhiannon has never lost her puppy fat, and she really ought to eat a bit less to try to get her weight down.
But once a week she makes a really nourishing meal, just like Mam used to - this week it was cawl - and makes sure there's always bara brith or picau ar y maen in the kitchen and then she knows that Martin's eaten properly.
Because Martin is lovely. He's loving and funny and shy and he makes her laugh. And she loves his sharp cheekbones and the way his auburn hair just starts to curl at the ends. And he doesn't mind that she doesn't see him every night because she's studying so hard, because quite a lot of the time he's away because of his job. Even though he always says it's not a real job because he doesn't get paid.
And that's another of the nice things about Martin. Most of the men Rhiannon knows would have tried to impress her by telling her that they were an airline Captain (which is what Martin really is, no matter what he says) as soon as they'd met, but Martin didn't; he told her about Icarus Removals and said that flying was his hobby.
Rhiannon's used to men who try to impress. Da does it all the time, telling people he runs a small hotel instead of telling the truth and admitting that he has a rundown pub in the back streets of a rundown town where nobody ever does anything with their lives and nobody could ever have understood why she wanted to leave and go to university instead of being Da's unpaid barmaid.
When Rhiannon told Martin about Da and Mam and the pub and her eventually walking out on Da and moving to England and getting a place at Fitton University (not all about it, though, he doesn't need to know everything about it) Martin said that was something to be proud of, turning your life around like that, and he didn't get on with his family either.
If there's anything that worries Rhiannon about Martin, it's that he's so lovely and caring and handsome that one of these days he might find someone else, someone who isn't who isn't small and plain and frankly fat. An air hostess, perhaps. Oh, it's 'flight attendants' they're called now, isn't it?
And there are one or two things that she really ought to tell Martin about, and hope that he'll understand. For a start, about the fact that although she was going to study for her PGCE so that she could become a teacher, she's not going to do that now. She's sure he'll understand about that.
She's not so sure that he'll understand about the other things, though.
She looks down at her notebook and realises that she's been writing Martin's name all over it. Dewi Sant, Rhiannon Pryce, anyone would think you were a schoolgirl with an adolescent crush, rather than a grown woman of 28. Time to go to the library and do some revision.
Rhiannon has rather a lot on her mind at the moment.
A/N: Just in case you were wondering:
Cawl is a Welsh stew (sometimes with lamb, but it can be made with just vegetables); bara brith is currant loaf; picau ar y maen are griddle cakes. Very tasty, too.
'Dewi Sant' is, literally, 'Saint David' - the Welsh equivalent of 'Good God'.
Chapter 7: Martin
In which Martin has a plan.
Martin is not confused. Not at all. He knows exactly where he wants his life to go, and he's determined to get there. It's just a question of how.
Martin is, of course, aware that in God's Great Scheme Of Things, God has a nasty tendency to stick his foot out and trip Martin up when Martin's least expecting it, but Martin has a plan. Not a very detailed plan, but at least an outline plan.
One: Eat properly.
Martin is aware of his weight problem. And he knows that Rhiannon is worried about it. Martin knows that at times he can be incredibly dense, but even he realises that it isn't just coincidence that when he goes round to Rhiannon's, she's happened to have cooked something warm and filling. Two evenings ago he'd gone round unexpectedly to explain that he couldn't see her the following night because Carolyn had accepted a last-minute booking to Barcelona, and Rhiannon's evening meal was on the table, and it was salad and crispbread.
Martin doesn't understand why on earth Rhiannon thinks she needs to diet, because she's lovely just as she is, all curves and cuddly.
Solution: need to earn more money.
Two: Find somewhere else to live.
Martin hates living in the attic at Parkside Terrace, but it's cheap. Cheap and horrible. And it's so really, really horrible that he's ashamed to invite Rhiannon there.
Rhiannon has been to Parkside Terrace - once. She'd asked him why they never went back there, and he'd told her that it was a horrible student house, and she'd said well, she was used to how dreadful student houses could be, after all she lived in one and anyway nothing could be as bad as the bedroom she'd had in her Dad's pub, with the mould and the damp and the mice. Then he'd thought that perhaps she might think that he was hiding something from her, perhaps she thought he might be married or something, so they'd gone back to Parkside Terrace after all, and the agricultural students were noisy and drunk and one of them had been sick on the stairs and Martin's attic was cold and horrible and Rhiannon said it is a bit grim, isn't it, so they'd gone back to her room in Nelson Street which was warm and comforting and Martin is never, ever going to let Rhiannon set foot inside Parkside Terrace again, because it was just so shameful.
Solution: need to earn more money.
Rhiannon's lovely. She really, really is. Of all the things that Martin needs to put right in his life, Rhiannon is not one of them. She's warm and loving and cuddly and funny and clever and she never makes Martin feel foolish.
Martin doesn't really understand what on earth someone as lovely as Rhiannon sees in him. He's short and scrawny and ginger and gets flustered easily. If there's anything that worries Martin about Rhiannon, it's that one of these days she might find someone else: someone who is witty and clever and handsome and confident - and tall - and everything that Martin isn't. Probably a lecturer at the University.
Martin wishes that he could afford to treat Rhiannon the way that other men treat their girlfriends: take her out somewhere nice, buy her presents. Not have to go Dutch on the few occasions they do go out.
Not that it isn't nice stopping in...
Solution: need more money.
God, it all comes down to money, doesn't it?
Four: Earn more money.
Catch 22. The only way Martin can earn more money is to get a better job, and the only things he can do are being a Man With A Van and flying a plane. And he can't earn more money with Icarus Removals because of the hours he spends flying, and he doesn't get paid for flying.
He's been flying for half his life - ever since he was 17. And flying is all he's ever wanted to do.
Until now. And he really doesn't want to stop flying, but he's painfully aware that he's probably not going to be able to fly for MJN - or anyone else - for much longer, because he's checked his height/weight ratio and he's pretty certain that unless he stops losing weight he's going to fail his next medical, and that'll be the end of his CPL anyway.
At least he's done something positive about this one. The ball is now firmly in Carolyn's court, and one of the few things that Martin is absolutely certain of is that Carolyn is not going to find another pilot who'll work for nothing.
Solution: in hand. In four weeks' time, Martin will in all probability be an Ex-Pilot With A Van. With a bit of luck, he might be an Ex-Pilot With A Van earning a bit more money.
It all sounds so mercenary, somehow.
Martin neatly folds the piece of paper he's written his plan on and stows away it in his wallet. He picks up the flight bag with the bottle of wine in it that he'd bought in the duty-free at Barcelona.
Time to go and see Rhiannon. Now. No time to go back to Parkside Terrace, no time to change. Tonight isn't a night that they said they'd see each other, but he needs to tell her what he's decided, what he's done.
No going back.
If Martin has his way, he's going to look after Rhiannon for as long as she wants him, and make sure that she never sets foot inside her appalling father's dreadful bloody pub again. He hasn't written that down on his plan.
He doesn't need to.
You may want to read this back-to-back with the preceding chapter 'Rhiannon' to compare the different points of view. If you really want to, that is.
Chapter 8: Conversation
In which Martin and Rhiannon have important things to say to each other.
Rhiannon is in the University library. She looks at her watch - half an hour before the library closes. And then home, supper, shower and bed.
Martin is at Rhiannon's. He's been there two hours. Oh, well done, Martin: why don't you ever think things through? Didn't you have the sense to realise she might be in the library? You could have phoned her or sent a text, if only you'd enough money to put some credit on your phone.
Martin could go back to his attic and see Rhiannon tomorrow, but the longer he waits, the more important it becomes that he talks to her tonight.
It's Emilia, one of Rhiannon's housemates, who opens the door. She looks at Martin and says that she's quite jealous of Rhiannon because she always fancies a man in uniform herself, she goes quite weak at the knees, it's all that gold braid and authority; and Martin (who's beginning to wish he'd gone back to Parkside Terrace and changed his clothes after all) much to his amazement doesn't blush, but carries on with the joke and says perhaps she should join the queue (he's a bit worried that sounds wrong, but Emilia laughs and said well, as far as she's concerned the queue would be right down the hall and perhaps they ought to sell tickets). And then Emilia says that actually Rhiannon's in the library, but it closes at half nine tonight and why doesn't Martin come in and have coffee, the rest of the girls are about to watch a film on the television and by the time it finishes Rhiannon should be back.
The film is 'The Other Boleyn Girl', which isn't really Martin's sort of film, but it passes the time and the girls say that it's just as well Rhiannon isn't there because she'd only point out all the historical and factual inaccuracies and Martin is secretly pleased that his girlfriend is so clever.
He's a bit worried about the bottle of wine - perhaps he should offer to open it? - but all that the girls say is 'Lucky old Rhiannon' and giggle, so that's okay.
The film finishes and they drink some more coffee and after a while Rhiannon walks in and sees him and says oh, she didn't expect to see him tonight, and is everything all right? And Martin says yes, but he needs to talk to her and he picks up his jacket and the girls giggle again (and this time Martin does blush) and he and Rhiannon go up to her room.
It's a pity that he has to go back for the wine.
Rhiannon throws her coat on the bed and turns to look at Martin.
'Is there something wrong? Has Carolyn cancelled your rest day? Do you have to fly out somewhere tomorrow?'
Martin unearths the corkscrew from its usual place. Martin is a great believer in 'a place for everything and everything in its place' (sometimes he worries that he's obsessive/compulsive) and Rhiannon is probably the untidiest person he's ever met, but at least the corkscrew has a usual place. He's never asked exactly why the usual place is Rhiannon's make-up bag, but there must be a reason. He finds the wine glasses - one's on the mantlepiece, he runs the other to earth in a shoebox marked 'photographs' (other contents: three highlighter pens, a silver brooch with the stone missing and a two-year-old copy of 'What's On In Fitton'; a distinct lack of photographs. Clearly Rhiannon's had a go at tidying up.)
'No, nothing wrong and no flight tomorrow, but I need to talk to you about something.'
They sit down - after Rhiannon has moved the textbooks and papers from the armchairs to the floor - and Martin tells her that it's odds on that he'll be leaving MJN in a month. Rhiannon says oh, she didn't realise that he'd sent in his CV to Air England and have they offered him a job already?
Martin says no, he hasn't sent his CV in yet, but he really can't work for MJN any more, and so it looks as though it's Icarus Removals from now on.
'But Martin, cariad, you love flying. What's changed? Why do you want to stop?'
Martin's got to be careful here. He can't mention not being able to afford proper food, because that might look as if he's dropping hints, and in any case Rhiannon shouldn't be spending what little money she earns on him; and he can't mention his weight problem for the same reason; and he daren't tell her that he's probably going to fail the medical and lose his CPL in six months, because he doesn't want her to worry. Should have thought this one through a bit more carefully. So he tells her that it's ridiculous that a man of his age should be working for nothing and that it's about time that he started earning a proper wage and that he's going to look for somewhere else to live because he really has got to get out of Parkside Terrace. Rhiannon makes sympathetic noises and says surely there are other alternatives because it does seem such a shame when he loves flying so much and it's all he's ever wanted to do and has he thought about someone like Cal Air? And Martin says they don't know yet what Carolyn will decide, and it might turn out that he won't be leaving MJN after all, or Air England might offer him a job (Snowball's chance in hell of that, Martin, but at least you managed to sound fairly convincing.)
Rhiannon sips her wine and says, a little uncertainly, that she's pleased that he's told her his news, because she's got something really important to tell him, something she needs to explain. And Martin goes cold and starts to shake, because suddenly he can hear Douglas's voice in his head.
'She said she was pleased I'd told her my secret, because it made it easier for her to tell me hers.'
There are many times when the panther-fast reflexes required of an airline Captain desert Martin, and this is one of them.
He does, however, manage to put his glass down rather than dropping it.
'R-Rhiannon? P-please don't - I can't - I don't - I - I - Oh Rhiannon, please don't leave me!'
Martin knows that he's very close to crying, and that he sounds as if he's about to cry, and that he's not dealing with this very well but none of this matters; all he can think is oh, Rhiannon; oh, my lovely Rhiannon.
Suddenly Rhiannon is sitting on the arm of his chair and she's holding him very tightly to all her lovely soft curves and kissing the top of his head and she says with a little shake in her voice 'Oh Martin, don't be twp! I'm not going to leave you - why would I want to leave you?'
Martin sniffs (probably not a very manly thing to do, especially when your nose is firmly pressed to your girlfriend's cleavage, but never mind that for the moment) and puts one arm round her.
If Rhiannon isn't going to leave him - oh thank you God, thank you so much - then what on earth is so important?
'Rhiannon? Is it - are - are you pregnant?'
(And if you are, then God help us because I don't know how I'll manage to keep us all, but I will, Rhiannon, I promise I'll do it somehow.)
'B-because if you are, then...'
Rhiannon's shaking now, but it's with laughter, not fear.
'No, Martin, I'm not pregnant. I need to talk to you about...'
Worst case scenarios are running wild through Martin's mind.
'Are you ill?'
'Martin, I'm fine!'
'Have I done something to upset you? I mean, I know I shouldn't have come round here tonight, but I really wanted - needed - to talk with you, and I know you're working so hard at the moment and I really didn't mean...'
'Martin, you haven't done anything to upset me!'
'Is it your Dad? Does he want you to go back to the pub? Because if he does, I'll bloody well...'
Rhiannon's really laughing now.
'Martin! Martin, just stop! Just calm down and stop playing Twenty Questions and listen to me!'
They're cuddled up in the armchair with another glass of wine each.
'Martin, you know I was going to stop on at University and do my PGCE? Well, I've changed my mind.'
Martin's astonished by this, but after all the things that he'd thought she might be going to tell him, it's not the worst news in the world.
'But why? I mean, why? You're going to get a First - no, I know you are, everyone knows you are, and you'd got it all planned out, and you're going to be a teacher, and you've worked so hard for this and you'd be really, really good and...'
Rhiannon knows there's one sure-fire way to shut Martin up. And after she's finished kissing him, she says ' No, just listen, my tutor said ages ago that I ought to do a research Masters, and I applied and they accepted me. And I didn't say anything before now because it's really, really expensive and I didn't know how I could pay the fees but there's a scholarship and I applied for it and I heard yesterday that they've awarded it to me and there's a living allowance included but it's not very much, and then today they told me..'
Martin knows there's only one certain way to shut Rhiannon up when she's in full spate, but that's not really possible when there's two of you in one armchair and you're still in your pilot's uniform and your girlfriend's wearing skin-tight jeans. At least, he doesn't think it's possible. So he kisses her instead.
After a while they stop kissing and pour out the last of the wine and Martin says 'So what was it they told you today?'
'That after a year I might be able to convert my Master's to a doctorate, and then there's another scholarship I might get but if I do the doctorate it'll be three years in total but I might be able to do some tutoring as well and then I might even end up lecturing there, and Martin Crieff, what are you doing?'
'Research: just finding out if something's actually possible.'
Some time later, when they've finished exploring the possibilities, they finish their wine and Rhiannon says she hopes that Martin has no intention of trying to drive back to Parkside Terrace after he's had half a bottle of wine and nothing to eat. And Martin says no, actually he wasn't thinking of doing that at all, and Rhiannon says oh good, because there's a bottle of wine that she bought so that they could celebrate her news, and would Martin mind getting it, it's in the bottom of the wardrobe inside one of her good winter boots, probably the left one, which sounds really silly but the only way of keeping things safe in this house is to hide them, everybody just helps themselves to everything and nothing's sacred, and Martin thinks well, that explains things and they open the second bottle of wine and take it to bed with them.
And then Martin realises that there is something very important that he ought to say.
'I'm really, really proud of you.'
'Really, really proud of you, too.'
'So what'll your dissertation - is that the word? - be about?'
Martin really shouldn't have taken a mouthful of wine at that moment. Because when Rhiannon tells him, he splutters wine all over the sheets.
'Oh, you know, strong women as major players in the political field: everyone knows about women like Elizabeth Woodville, and of course there's Margaret Beaufort, even though she didn't gain power for herself, but then it gets really interesting when you consider that there was...'
Martin knows there's only one certain way to shut Rhiannon up when she's in full spate.
In case you want to know:
Cariad: sweetheart, lover
Chapter 9: Negotiation
In which Martin and Carolyn have another long talk.
Martin's feeling flustered and nervous, and he's trying very hard not to let it show. It's a week since he delivered his ultimatum and last night he called Carolyn at home to suggest that they meet the following day in the Portacabin. That bit was quite easy: he'd written down what he wanted to say, and he'd rehearsed it over and over until he could say it without stammering. He wonders how actors ever manage to learn their lines: it's more difficult than you'd think.
But he was very pleased with the way he delivered his last line.
'By the way, Carolyn, I've not said anything to Douglas or Arthur about my leaving; nor, at the moment, do I intend to. I thought you might prefer it if I didn't.'
There had been a momentary pause.
'Thank you, Martin: I think that's best.'
They meet at 10.30. It's a rest day, and the airfield is quiet. He'd suggested today because he didn't want Douglas or Arthur around, asking questions and trying to find out what's going on.
He's feeling physically sick. He hopes it doesn't show.
In the last week, he's read 'Self Confidence For Dummies' and 'Control Meetings And Get What You Want' and Emilia lent him a book on Body Language and made helpful suggestions (although she has some very strange ideas - Martin's not certain that sleeping with a lump of quartz under his pillow is going to achieve anything other than a crick in his neck and a poor night's sleep). They didn't tell Emilia exactly why he needed to know about body language; Rhiannon just said that he needed to negotiate a pay rise with his difficult boss. Which is sort of true, he supposes.
In the last two days he and Rhiannon have talked what he should say and do; they've gone through Martin's response to every conceivable thing they can think of that Carolyn may suggest.
And in order to work out what Carolyn might say, Martin's had to tell Rhiannon about his past embarrassments and failures, He hasn't told Rhiannon everything - that would be too shameful and he's still frightened that if she finds out what a loser he really is, she might not want to know him any more, but he's told her an awful lot. And it isn't very nice, baring your soul to your lover and showing her just how useless you are, but Rhiannon's so lovely; she didn't pass any judgments, or laugh at him, or do anything to suggest that she thought he was hopeless: she just listened and said that she didn't suppose there was anyone who hadn't made mistakes in their life, or had something happen that they were ashamed of, she certainly had, and then made suggestions that if Carolyn says that, then you could do this... a bit like chess, he supposes, or it might be: he's never played chess.
Control the meeting from the start.
He pours two coffees, and places one in front of Carolyn. They ask after each others' health; Carolyn asks how Rhiannon is, hurriedly adding that she's being polite, not prying into his personal life.
Martin acknowledges Carolyn's remark with a nod of his head.
Say something she's not expecting.
'Before we begin, Carolyn, I think it's only fair to tell you that I've sent my CV to Air England.'
'And I wish you luck with it, Martin. I honestly do. If I'm asked for a reference, I shall be completely honest and forthright.'
Martin isn't exactly sure what Carolyn means by this, but he's not going to let her know that. He knows what to do in this particular situation.
Body Language again.
Maintaining eye-contact, he tilts his head very slightly to one side and strokes his chin with his thumb.
Carolyn has no real desire to fall out with Martin; she doesn't want to lose him. If she's honest, she's actually very fond of him, in a sort of exasperated-mother-with-an-irritating-but-much-loved-son fashion. In many ways she regards Martin as a second Arthur, terrifying though the concept of a plurality of Arthurs may be.
'I shall say - and this is quite true, Martin - that you are the safest, the most professional, pilot that it has ever been my privilege to employ. And I shall emphasise your extensive knowledge of procedures and regulations, and the pride and skill that you bring to your job; for example, your handling of the bird strike incident at St Petersburg.'
And I shan't say a word about the number of times when your damn pride got in the way, or when you panicked, or when what I needed was a good pilot, not a safe one.
Carolyn doesn't often praise Martin, (perhaps I should have praised him more often, she thinks guiltily) and she quite expects him to start blushing and stammering, but he doesn't. He nods his head as if he's agreeing with her and says in a matter-of-fact tone of voice 'Thank you, Carolyn.'
Carolyn has a feeling that things aren't quite going to plan. Not to her plan, anyway.
This body language stuff seems to be working - Carolyn's looking a bit uneasy. Time to cut to the chase.
'So, Carolyn, what are your thoughts on the matter? Shall we start to negotiate?'
This is most unlike Martin. The last time - the only time - that the two of them negotiated Martin's theoretical salary, she began by offering half of what she was prepared to pay, and Martin ended up agreeing to work for nothing. The last thing she expects Martin to do is to offer to negotiate. On the other hand, what has he to lose?
'Have you a figure in mind, Martin?'
Martin says, with an amused chuckle in his voice, 'I rather thought I'd let you make a suggestion, Carolyn.'
Carolyn's wrong-footed; Martin has the advantage. But she's ready.
'I could - and this is going to be very difficult for MJN, Martin - pay you for longhaul flights.'
'And how much would you consider paying?'
'I thought the National Minimum Wage.'
Martin does that tilting-the-head-keeping-eye-contact again. It's remarkably disconcerting.
After a moment, he says 'And for shorthaul? And standby?'
'No shorthaul. Douglas can do all the shorthaul. And no payment for standby.'
'I doubt Douglas is going to be delighted at the prospect.'
'It's got nothing to do with Douglas!'
Ah, she's on the defensive. Press on.
'May I point out, from my extensive knowledge of the regulations, that the maximum number of flying hours for commercial pilots appears to have slipped your mind for the moment? If Douglas undertakes all the shorthaul, that doesn't leave a great deal of time for him to fly longhaul; and you need two pilots for longhaul. I rather think you need to think this one through, Carolyn.'
'No, Carolyn. I am not going to work for you for - what? A desultory six thousand pounds a year? Nor am I going to sit around on standby - if you see what I mean - if I'm not going to be paid for it.'
Although he isn't showing it, Martin's starting to worry now. After all, six thousand pounds a year is hardly a living wage, but it's a vast improvement on earning nothing. Quite how far can he push Carolyn? But he doesn't want to admit to Rhiannon that he backed down and snatched at the first offer which Carolyn made. He's not going to let Rhiannon down.
'If I considered paying you for longhaul and standby time - '
'At the same rate? No. And in any case you'd either lose most of the longhaul because of Douglas's hours - which would lessen the money I'd earn, and indeed your profits - or you'd have to employ another pilot. And if you can afford to employ another pilot, you can afford to pay me. No dice, Carolyn.'
Damn the boy! Where on earth has he learned to be so decisive?
Martin's collar is starting to feel uncomfortable; he's starting to sweat. He hopes Carolyn doesn't notice. What next?
Stay in control. Force closure.
'Shall we continue next week, Carolyn? Give you time to think this over?'
Carolyn's annoyed that he's said this as though he's doing her a favour, but it gives her a breathing space.
'I think so, Martin. Er - Martin, before you go, I have a favour to ask you. Next week we have rather an interesting schedule; airport-hopping throughout Europe with stopovers. An interesting route: Fitton to Milan, back to Southend, then to Drammen and finally Moscice - wherever that is - Poland, I gather.'
She's changed the subject. Keep calm.
'Rather a scenic route, Carolyn. Are we undertaking a mystery tour, or there some particular reason behind this game of aerial hopscotch?'
'Of course there's a particular reason! We need to do it this way round because you will be delivering various cargos. Firstly from Fitton to Milan: then a cargo from Milan to Southend: from Southend you deliver to Drammen - you get the picture - it's the most cost-effective way of doing it.'
And no doubt each client's being charged the flight to and from Fitton: a nice little profit there, Carolyn.
'Or the most profitable? Rather reminiscent of Douglas trading tinned herrings for raw silk and then trading the silk for something else.'
'I've often wondered what the attraction of tinned herrings is for the good people of Malaysia. And before you even think of asking, Martin, I am not for one moment considering diversifying into some dubious import/export scheme with Douglas.'
'And the favour you need to ask me?'
'This trip requires - as you know full well - two pilots, and even Arthur cannot help but notice the sepulchral silence which has fallen over the flight deck of late. In the interests of safety - and indeed of my sanity - it would be most helpful if these two pilots actually spoke to each other. I don't know what you and Douglas have fallen out over, or who was at fault - though I suspect both of you - but will you please apologise to him with a view to the two you starting to speak to each other again?'
'Of course, Carolyn. I'll see you tomorrow, then.'
'Bright and early, Martin, bright and early.'
Carolyn leaves the Portacabin first. Well, who would have thought Martin could have handled that so well? She'd be quite proud to have Martin as a son of hers.
But if he was a son of yours, you wouldn't let him starve himself to death in an attic in the first place, would you?
Martin strolls - tries to stroll - back to his van, hoping he looks nonchalant. On the whole, he succeeds. That actually went quite well; he hadn't expected to reach an agreement today. And Carolyn hadn't managed to bully him, and he hadn't backed down. It felt like he was being another person: perhaps actors feel like this all the time. He's going to start shaking with nerves any minute now, but not until Carolyn's out of sight.
And then he's going to see Rhiannon and tell her all about it.
Chapter 10: Milan
In which Douglas is, momentarily, lost for words.
'And post-takeoff checks complete'
'Thank you, Douglas'.
'My pleasure - Captain.'
Douglas hadn't appreciated Carolyn voicing her opinion that he was being childish in not speaking to Martin except when strictly necessary. First Officer Richardson is never childish. He is aware, however, that, just because his marriage is past redemption, there's no need to take it out on Martin.
He hadn't appreciated Carolyn telling him that, either.
Time to bite the bullet.
It's not easy for a Mighty Sky God to admit he's been in the wrong.
'Before you say anything, Douglas -'
For the love of God, Martin, please don't still be sulking. It's going to be a long enough flight as it is.
' - I must apologise for snapping at you the other day. I had a lot on my mind, but that's no excuse.'
'The fault was mine, Martin. Treasure these words - it's not an admission I often make; in fact I don't think I've ever uttered that sentiment before.'
The two men glance sideways at each other and burst out laughing.
'Carolyn had a go at you too?'
'Phoned me at home and subjected me to an hour-long harangue. Not the most relaxing evening I've ever had.'
'Ah, she had words with me in the Portacabin.'
'So that was what it was about. I must admit I'd wondered if you'd tackled her again about paying you, but it seemed unlikely, judging by the look on her face when she came out. And the look on yours, for that matter.'
Douglas is clearly fishing for information, but Martin refuses to rise to the bait.
'We discussed - or rather she discussed - the stony silence between you and me, and one or two other matters, which I'm afraid are confidential. Sorry, Douglas, I know you're itching to find out, but I gave my word.'
Douglas hates not knowing what's going on, but it's clear Martin's not going to tell him. Never mind for the moment - if he buys Martin a glass or two of grappa in the bar this evening, he may well find out. Martin's always been a lightweight when it comes to spirits. Or beer. The only thing he seems to be able to drink in any quantity without making a fool of himself is wine.
'To be honest with you, Martin, I was having a bit of a bad time that day. The date for the decree absolute's fixed - thank God that's only a formality - and the house is as good as sold. Helena - and, by implication, her T'ai Chi instructor - gets half the proceeds of a property she never contributed a penny piece to and I've been forced to go house - or rather flat - hunting in what little spare time Our Glorious Leader allows us. It all got a bit much. I shouldn't have taken it out on you.'
'God, Douglas, I'm sorry. I should have thought. Have you found somewhere?'
'A flat in Ashton Road: fairly pleasant, but a bit of a comedown from a 'four-bed des. res. in Deanwood Road, an exclusive estate development on the outskirts of Fitton yet handy for the shops', as the estate agent chose to describe the former Richardson matrimonial home. Must admit, I hardly recognised the place from that.'
Martin snorts. 'Must start describing my hovel as a studio flat in an interesting property.'
'It's certainly interesting from what you've told me. Now, to come to the point: contracts are exchanged, and I have to move the week after next. And as you are the only Man With A Van I know, I wondered whether the unfortunately-named Icarus Removals would come to my rescue.'
'I'd be delighted to help, Douglas.'
'Never mind 'delighted to help.' Before you even think about starting on the oh-Douglas-I-couldn't-possibly-accept-any-payment routine, let me assure you that I will pay you. It's not a favour - I'd never sleep at nights if I thought I owed you a favour - it's a business deal. What do you charge?'
'Well, normally ten pounds an hour, but - '
'Ten pounds! Don't be ridiculous! Have you any idea what the going rate is?'
'Yes, but I have to fit Icarus Removals in with MJN, and often Carolyn takes a last minute booking and I have to cancel, so I can't charge any more than that.'
'And if Carolyn decides at the last minute to exploit us, it won't make any difference - I wouldn't be there either. I'm hardly going to take it out on you because She Who Must Be Obeyed cracks the whip. Well, no more than I'd normally take it out on you... Forty-five pounds an hour - and for that I expect you to arrange the furniture to my liking.'
'Douglas! That's far too much!'
'What, arranging my furniture?'
'The money, Douglas.'
'The Great Negotiator speaks. No wonder you ended up working for Carolyn for nothing. Okay: forty an hour, and that's my final offer. Otherwise I'll employ someone else and let them ruin the parquet floors.'
'If you're sure...'
'Say thank you to your Uncle Douglas.'
'Thank you, Uncle Douglas.'
'So, Martin, how is the love of your life?'
'Only fine? How sad. Where did you meet her? You never did tell me.'
Martin's told the older man that he'd tried speed dating, but he hasn't actually admitted that he'd run away because he was humiliated and embarrassed. He hasn't even told Rhiannon about that, so there's no need for Douglas to know. He says (trying to sounds nonchalant)
'I bumped into her. Literally. In Fitton.'
'In the van?'
'On foot. I was walking.'
'And during this brief encounter you asked her out? I wouldn't have thought that was much like you, Martin.'
'Well, it was. And I'm bloody glad I did.'
'Aha, so she's more than just 'fine' then? So, tell me about this mysterious maiden who's captured the heart of Our Noble Captain.'
'Well, her name's Rhiannon, and she's Welsh...'
'I'll not necessarily hold that against her.'
'And pretty and dark-haired and clever and...'
'And you are clearly besotted with her. A little besotting never goes amiss. What does she actually do for a living, this paragon of all the virtues?'
'She's a university student.'
'Martin! You sly dog! How old are you - thirty-three? And she's a student just under half your age? I'd never quite imagined you in a Lolita-esque relationship.'
'Douglas! It's not like that! She's a mature student! She's twenty-eight!'
'Anything else you'd like to confide?'
Martin smirks. 'Well,' he says slowly, 'she's got the most amazing figure. Curves in all the right places, and none in the wrong ones. I mean, she thinks she's overweight, but really she's not; she's sort of - she's really - well, I think she's -'
'Could 'voluptuous' be the word you're searching for, Martin?'
The flight deck door opens.
'Possibly, Arthur, though past experience suggests not.'
'Douglas, is 'voluptuous' something to do with voles?'
'It might give a whole new slant to 'Wind In The Willows' if it did, Arthur. Mole, Ratty and Vera the Voluptuous Vole. An everyday tale of a bestial ménage à trois.'
'Oh God, Douglas, you do know what he's going to ask next?'
Life on the flight deck is returning to normal.
'Lunch, chaps? Oh - what are you playing?'
'Is that what it is, Arthur? I'd never have guessed. Make haste, oh Lord, to deliver me, as the Psalmist sang. To answer your second question: books that would be improved by changing one letter of the title. Martin's idea, and, indeed, his turn.'
'Lady Chatterley's Liver?'
'Heavy drinker is she, Martin? How about The List of the Mohicans?'
'Electoral register, or a shopping list?'
'Good question, Captain. The latter, I think - just popping out to the shops, dear, for two pounds of minced wampum and a scalp knife. Your turn.'
'Erm - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Scone?'
'Doubtless a vast improvement on Arthur's cooking. Good game, this, Martin. Now, let me see - keeping to a food-related theme, how about The Sale of Peter Rabbit?'
'Not an inkling, Martin. Not a single inkle.'
'He says it's brilliant we all understand each other.'
'Martin, I wouldn't understand Arthur if I lived in bloody Ipswich.'
'So, what is your lady love studying at university?'
'Medieval and Early Modern History. She graduates this summer, but she's stopping on to do post-grad research.'
'Good God, an academic! Is there no end to this woman's talents? And what will she be researching? How to win the heart of an MJN Captain?'
Martin smiles to himself. For once in his life, Douglas is going to be lost for words.
'Before I tell you, Douglas, you really should put your coffee cup down. Seriously.'
Martin says, (quite matter of factly) 'Vaginal Politics.'
He's right: Douglas is silent for several minutes.
'Good God Almighty!'
'Apparently it's about women as the real power behind throne and state.'
After a few more moments, Douglas says quietly 'Thank you for warning me about the coffee.'
'I had a mouthful of wine when she told me. Sprayed it all over the sheets.'
Douglas says sarcastically 'I bet there's never a dull moment, is there? Pillow talk at Chez Crieff must be really interesting.'
'Want to bet the cheese tray on that?'
'To be quite honest with you, Martin, I don't think my nerves could stand it.'
Chapter 11: Impasse
In which Carolyn and Martin still can't come to an agreement.
Two days after Gertie returns from her leap-frog trip through Europe, Carolyn and the MJN crew are in the Portacabin.
Carolyn has just briefed Douglas and Martin about some new bookings, and is about to mark them on the wall-chart when Martin pulls out his diary and flicks through the pages.
'Carolyn, I can't do that shorthaul on the twenty-first.'
'Martin, you can and you will.'
'No, Carolyn, I have a removal job booked for that day. You'll have to swap that one with Douglas's next shorthaul.'
'Martin, you can't just pick and choose which flights you want to do! That's hardly professional behaviour!'
Arthur's sitting with his mouth open, looking from Carolyn to Martin and back again like a spectator at a tennis tournament. He has no idea what's happening, other than the fact that Martin's standing up to Mum. Arthur never tries to stand up to Mum: the last time he tried, she sent him to his room. But she can't send Martin to his room - wow, what's going to happen next?
Martin leans back in his chair and says 'But as our First Officer is fond of reminding me, Carolyn, professionals get paid. And I'm being paid for a removal job on the twenty-first, and to turn that down would be unprofessional.'
Douglas is enjoying himself. Although his plan to ply Martin with grappa until Martin told him what was going on came to nothing - sorry, Douglas, I know what you're up to - just a mineral water for me, thanks - the game is clearly still afoot. And if there's one thing Douglas enjoys more than Martin-baiting, it's watching two people trying to best each other. Especially when one is Carolyn and the other is Martin. Time for Douglas to stir things up a little.
He says unctuously 'I'd be delighted to swap a shorthaul with Martin. However, Captain, you may find that you end up owing me more than just a cargo flight.'
'Thank you, Douglas.'
Normally Martin would look like a startled rabbit at the thought of owing Douglas a favour. Not this time, though. What in earth is going on?
Carolyn decides to concede the point. If the shorthauls are covered, there's no need to worry. If she pushes Martin too far, he might just carry out his earlier threat and walk out at the end of the day. She turns back to the wall-chart and starts to pen the bookings in.
Martin coughs gently, and ruffles the pages of his diary. Carolyn looks at the list of dates in her hand.
There's a longhaul booking to Greece in three weeks' time. It requires two pilots. Martin's leaving, unless they can come to some agreement, in less than two weeks. She's backed herself into a corner.
She looks at Martin: he meets her gaze.
Time to talk.
'Martin, you and I need to talk. Douglas, Arthur - out. Out of sight and out of earshot. Go and hoover Gertie, or tease the ground crew. Now!'
'I thought I'd sit here quietly and do my logbook, Carolyn.'
'Come on, Arthur, let's go and plague Carl.'
They are two predators circling a carcase, each waiting for the other to make the first move.
An unfortunate analogy, Carolyn thinks; she has an uneasy feeling that the carcase in this instance could well be MJN, and unless she's careful MJN could be torn apart in their battle.
By unspoken agreement, neither of them mentions the Greece trip.
'So, Martin, what have you to suggest?'
She's not going to let him take control this time.
Martin doesn't answer: instead he takes a sheet of paper out of his briefcase and passes it to her. It's a list of pay scales for airline captains.
He's taken control.
'Dear God, Martin, there's no way I can afford to pay you this!'
'I know that, Carolyn, but it gives us a starting point. Better than your last suggestion of the National Minimum Wage.'
'Martin, please can we be reasonable about this? I don't want to fall out with you, but I can't afford anything remotely near this!'
'I don't particularly want to fall out with you, either, but I will if I have to.'
Keep calm, Crieff. She's going to make another offer - she has no choice. Just don't look too eager, don't grab at her first offer.
'When you first interviewed me, you made me an offer of a salary. So MJN clearly isn't that strapped for cash.'
Carolyn seizes this opportunity like a sub-Omega dog grabbing the last gobbet of meat.
'And I'm prepared to offer you the same now.' She's been through the accounts over and over again, that Russian plutocrat has renewed the contract to use MJN for his clients suffering from Freudian yacht-envy - she can afford this.
'It's a vast improvement on your present position.'
'Carolyn, anything would be a vast improvement on my present position. But that doesn't mean I have to accept it.'
'Martin, what do you want?'
Martin takes a deep breath.
'I want a salary; one that recognises the difficult and dangerous job that I do. I want you to stop treating me as unpaid labour.'
And I want to have some self-respect.
'What's wrong with the offer I've just made you?'
'It's half what you were paying your previous pilot. If you could afford to pay that salary then, you can easily afford it now.'
Are we there at last? Herc said even that much was too little - but if Martin agrees to it -
'You win, Martin. Much though it pains me, and hard though this will be - just remember, when you feel like complaining about the accommodation on stopovers, that economies will have to be made - I will pay you the salary that I paid your predecessor. Starting from today.'
And thank God for that. At least I'll be able to claw a little back. And it's not as much as he might have asked for.
Martin doesn't even pause to think about this.
'No? You've just said yes!'
Careful, Crieff. Don't blow it now.
'I said no such thing, Carolyn. I merely pointed out what you could easily afford to pay three years ago - since then I've gained three years more experience. And you said yourself, the last time we talked, I was - what was it now? - the safest, most professional pilot you'd ever employed? And I rather think that I remember you praising my knowledge of regulations and procedures.'
'Martin, in all fairness it did take you seven -'
'I know, Carolyn: no need to remind me. But doesn't that demonstrate my tenacity and determination?'
Thank you for suggesting that, Rhiannon. We knew she was going to bring up my CPL at some point.
'Martin, we're getting nowhere with this, are we?'
'Au contraire, as Douglas would no doubt say: I think we've made some progress.'
Well, we've come a long way from six grand a year. Thank God the Greek trip's come along: she needs to make me an acceptable offer, and she knows it.
'Martin, I need more time to think, to consider. You're not making this easy for me.'
And I'm not particularly enjoying it, either, Carolyn.
He looks through his diary again.
'Eleven days from today, Carolyn. If you don't make me an acceptable offer before then, that will be my last day.'
Carolyn suddenly grins.
'You're a hard man to negotiate with, Captain Crieff.'
'I've learned from observing a master, Ms Knapp-Shappey.'
'Thank you, Martin. I think that may have been a compliment. Don't spoil it for me by telling me otherwise.'
As Martin prepares to leave, Carolyn takes a good look at him.
Dear God, when did I last really notice him? His clothes are hanging off him. The boy's not thin - no-one's that thin - he's almost skeletal. He really is starving.
'Martin - when did you last eat? Properly, I mean.'
Martin colours up. He says, defiantly, 'I had breakfast.'
He'd had a slice of toast. He'd told Rhiannon that he wasn't hungry. He can't afford to buy food this week, and he can't expect Rhiannon to keep him. He wouldn't want her to. He's got to keep some shreds of self-respect. He's started lying to her about how much he eats, and how often: he'd said he'd eaten in the airfield canteen yesterday afternoon, and that the meals provided on board Gertie are plentiful - which they are, they're just inedible. Arthur's ability to use a microwave is almost non-existent. Sometimes, no matter how hungry he is, Martin can't bring himself to eat the in-flight meals. And he's had a run of bad luck - as usual - losing the cheese tray to Douglas. He hasn't eaten properly for days: he hasn't eaten anything at all - except that toast - for almost forty-eight hours. But he's damned if he's going to let Carolyn know that - he doesn't need her to start pitying him. Not now. Not ever.
'And before that? No, don't tell me if you don't want to. Go over to the staff canteen - now - get yourself bacon and eggs, put it on the company account and don't argue. I can't afford to have you making yourself ill.'
He's not going to take her up on this, he's not. He's not going to accept charity. But he's so bloody hungry.
'Martin, this has no bearing on our discussion. I'm not trying to bribe you - even I wouldn't try to buy you off with a canteen breakfast. For God's sake, go and eat something.'
Pride or food. No choice. God, how he hates himself.
'T-thank you, Carolyn.'
Martin blushes again, and smiles shyly. For all his awkwardness, he's actually an attractive man, she realises.
'Just don't tell Douglas: he'll bankrupt me if he thinks there's free food on offer.'
'Not a word, Carolyn.'
'Now, Martin, out. I have work to do, even if the rest of you don't.'
Eleven days to go. Ten days in which to reach a compromise.
Chapter 12: Daybreak
In which Martin is in a contemplative mood.
It's early morning, and Martin's awake, staring at the ceiling and listening to the soft patter of the rain.
Rhiannon's still asleep. He moves his hand and very gently strokes the back of her neck - not enough to wake her, she needs all the sleep she can get now she's in the middle of her Finals - but just because he wants - needs - to touch her.
Rhiannon makes a comfortable little 'uumph' sound and rolls over so that she's facing him. Still fast asleep.
He looks at the Hello Kitty alarm clock. Two hours before he needs to get up and make breakfast. Now that it's Finals, when Rhiannon's not in the examination hall she's spending most of her time revising, and Martin's spending as much time as he can with her, making sure that she remembers to do things like eat, and insisting that she takes a break from her books every so often. He hasn't been back to Parkside Terrace for a fortnight.
Two more examinations, and then Finals are over. Tomorrow is Tudor Fiscal Policy (Martin knows the examination timetable as well as Rhiannon does) and that means that today is going to be fairly noisy. Martin always needs absolute quiet when he's trying to learn something, but not Rhiannon. When Rhiannon's revising at home, she listens to music. Very loudly. Mainly classical music, but her tastes are - to Martin - surprisingly varied. A different piece for each and every part of the syllabus. She says that it works as a prompt: she's only got to think of the music and she can recall what she's revised, and whilst Martin doesn't quite understand this, it certainly works for Rhiannon.
Tudor Fiscal Policy. That means Carmina Burana. Martin can't quite see the connection between Carmina Burana and Tudor Fiscal Policy - unless it's something to do with monks - but then he's not too hot on Tudor Fiscal Policy anyway. He knows a whole lot more about Carmina Burana than he used to, though. Yesterday, while he was showering, he'd suddenly realised he was singing 'O Fortuna'.
Two more examinations and then there's the whole summer ahead of them. Martin and Carolyn still haven't come to any sort of agreement (and there's only a week to go before his self-imposed deadline), and Air England have thanked him kindly for his interest but unfortunately in this instance he has not been successful; they'll keep his application on file (and Martin may be prone to self-delusion, but he knows what that means - his application has made it as far as the shredder), but there's the whole summer before Rhiannon's back at university. They'll both be working, of course - with a bit of luck Icarus Removals will pick up, and Rhiannon's left the shop and is going to be working part-time behind the bar at the Fitton Arms Hotel (Martin wasn't very happy about that, not the bar work, but the fact that it was the Fitton Arms, and he and Rhiannon very nearly had their first argument over it but in the end he backed down) but still - a whole summer...
Martin glances at the clock again. An hour and a half before breakfast.
And yesterday - yesterday had been one of the best days of his life. The best. Better even than getting his CPL. He'd met Rhiannon at lunchtime after her exam was over (Church and State, which she'd revised to the accompaniment of Delius, Sondheim and, for some reason, Phil Collins singing 'Against All Odds') and they'd walked hand in hand through the town centre like two love-struck teenagers and he'd listened while she told him in great detail all about the questions and what she'd written. And yesterday morning he'd finished moving Douglas's furniture and belongings, and Douglas had paid him - in cash - far more than they'd agreed and Douglas told Martin not to argue about it or Douglas would stop speaking to him for good, and Martin had the money in his wallet. He'd spent some of it on paying bills and stocking up on food, and meant to spend the rest on treating Rhiannon to a night out in a really good restaurant to celebrate the end of Finals, but then they'd walked past The Frock Market and Rhiannon had seen the blue dress in the window, and although she didn't pause and she didn't say anything, he knew she loved it by the look on her face and the way that her mouth formed a little 'o' shape. So he'd kissed her - he doesn't need an excuse to do that, but that little 'o' shape was just irresistible - and taken both her hands and pulled her into the shop and insisted that she tried the dress on, and it fitted her and she looked just so beautiful in it.
Martin hadn't realised that you could spend that much on a dress from a second-hand dress shop, not even from a really classy second-hand dress shop that says that it sells 'pre-owned' dresses and calls itself 'The Frock Market', and unless Icarus Removals gets some more work there's not going to be a night out in a really good restaurant for some considerable time, but it was worth it just to see how happy he'd made her.
It was certainly worth it just to see how the dress clings to all those gorgeous curves.
To be quite honest, until quite recently - until he'd met Rhiannon - Martin had never thought of himself as a particularly passionate man (not that he'd ever had that much opportunity to find out), but sometimes he really surprises himself.
And last night he'd really surprised Rhiannon.
Because when Martin kisses the base of Rhiannon's throat, she goes all dreamy and murmurs soft words in Welsh that sound like she's chanting poetry, and Martin finds this incredibly exciting.
However, he'd had no idea what it is that Rhiannon murmurs, and when he'd asked her, she went all pink and coy, and wouldn't tell him.
Well, Miss Rhiannon Pryce, he'd thought, you're not the only one who can research. It hadn't been easy, finding out, because he didn't know how the words were spelled, but he'd done it.
And last night he'd kissed the base of her throat and pulled away from her very gently and whispered 'Rwy'n dy garu di, cariad.'
Rhiannon looked at him in amazement.
'Where did you learn that?'
'Isn't that what you always say to me?'
'Do you know what it means?'
'I love you, sweetheart. That's what it means. And I really do. I love you so very much.'
'I love you too, Martin. Rwy'n dy garu di.'
'But you need to work on your pronunciation.'
'Be quiet, woman of mine, I'm concentrating.'
Sometimes Martin can be quite masterful.
Yesterday had definitely been the best day of his life.
Rhiannon stirs slightly, and Martin checks the time. Forty-five minutes. Plenty of time.
He kisses the base of Rhiannon's throat.
'Rhiannon? Cariad? Rwy'n dy garu di.'
Chapter 13: Decision
In which Martin has lost his new-found confidence.
It's the twenty-seventh day of the month. Tomorrow Martin leaves MJN. Carolyn hasn't come back to him with an acceptable offer - she hasn't come back to him with any offer - she hasn't mentioned it at all. Tomorrow is his last day - his last day at MJN, probably his last ever day flying. All he's ever wanted to do, all his life, is fly: and now it's over. One last flight - Barcelona again - and then - what?
Rhiannon, that's what. Rhiannon is what - no, who - keeps him going, gives him something to look forward to. Lovely Rhiannon, who doesn't care what he does for a living so long as he's happy. And he is happy, having Rhiannon in his life. And if he's with Rhiannon, he could be happy just being a Man With A Van.
But, at the last minute, Martin's lost his nerve. He knows he's doing the right thing - the only thing he can do - but the old, unconfident Martin is back with a vengeance.
And he's starting to panic.
Because a dreadful thought has struck Martin. A really, really dreadful thought. Rhiannon's so lovely, and he loves her so much - but he's scared.
He's scared he's going to lose her.
Rhiannon's going to be awarded her doctorate and be offered tenure at the university, he knows she will, Rhiannon can do anything she sets her mind to, she's so clever. But how long is it going to be before the future Dr Rhiannon Pryce, lecturer in Medieval History, becomes embarrassed at having to explain to her colleagues that her wimp of a boyfriend is a no-hoper with no proper job who moves other people's furniture for a living? How long before she's so embarrassed that she just can't stand the sight of him any more? Until she's got her tenure? That's what - three, four years, if he's lucky? Probably less. A lot less. And then what?
Nothing. That's what. Zilch. A big, fat, zero.
He could cry. He really could. But he's not going to - he's not, he won't let himself.
Martin's only hope now is that Carolyn is still willing to pay him the salary that his predecessor earned. Hell, he'd accept half of it if he had to. He's accept anything. But she's said nothing, not a single word about it, and when he'd asked to see her - again - in the Portacabin, she was too busy to speak to him.
She must have decided to let him go.
He's blown it, pushed her too far.
The Greek trip's still on the wallchart: she must have found someone to stand in for him. Probably Herc - he'd help her out if she was desperate.
Arthur and Douglas don't know that after tomorrow they won't see him again. He's kept his word to Carolyn, and she obviously hasn't told them. They know something's in the air - even Arthur's noticed and keeps asking him what's going on, and Douglas won't stop his incessant bloody questioning - but they don't actually know. And how's he going to tell them? He can't just walk out and leave Carolyn to explain why he's not going to turn up to work ever again, can he? But what is he going to do? Just tell them that they won't see him again? Hardly appropriate to ask them all to go for a celebratory drink with him.
Certainly not appropriate to ask them to keep in touch.
Not that they'd want to. Why should they?
Sod it, he was going to lose his CPL anyway. And now - or at least in the very near future - he's going to lose Rhiannon. He's sure of it. His final - and worst - failure.
God alone knows what she saw in him in the first place.
They were all bloody well right about him, weren't they? Dad, Caitlin, Simon - they all saw he'd never make it, never be a success at anything. They knew he'd always be a failure.
And now Rhiannon's going to know. If she doesn't already.
She must know, she must have realised by now.
God, he really is going to cry, if he doesn't pull himself together. Not here, not in the office, not in front of Douglas. Concentrate on the flight plan: don't let Carolyn think you've been anything but efficient, right up to the last moment. You owe yourself that.
He never thought he was going to miss Douglas's sniping. Or Arthur's cooking. Or Carolyn's bullying. Or Gertie's little foibles. But he will.
Concentrate on the flight plan.
Douglas looks up from his logbook. Something must be wrong with Martin: he's never missed an opportunity yet to make snide remarks on the rare occasions Douglas does fill in the logbook. Even though Martin knows he'll never win. Martin never wins at anything.
'Martin, is something the matter?'
Oh God, Douglas, I don't need sympathy. Not now.
'No. Just concentrating.'
'For an hour and a half? On a flight plan to Barcelona? Even by your pedantic standards, I'd say that was a trifle excessive.'
Martin bites his lip. He can't help it - he's going to have to sniff the tears back, or he'll just break down.
'Just a cold, Douglas. Just starting a cold, and feeling a bit rotten.'
'Martin, you can't fool me. God knows, you've tried often enough. There's been something going on for the past month: something's the matter between you and Carolyn. Something's gone wrong. What is it? Just tell me, Martin, please? I might be able to help.'
'Just shut up, Douglas! For God's sake, just leave me alone and mind your own business!'
Douglas wants to shout back, to make Martin understand that he's worried about him: worried enough to want to help. For all Martin's faults - and Lord knows there's enough of them - you can't spend your working life cooped up on Gertie's flight deck without striking up some sort of friendship. But nothing's going to be achieved by shouting.
'Martin, I only want -'
'Just bugger off, Douglas! Now!'
Nothing to be achieved by staying, either. Martin's near to hysterics - he'll need time to calm down.
As Douglas leaves the Portacabin, fighting an urge to slam the door behind him, Martin gets up to look through the window at Gertie.
One last time, old girl. Just once more. Please behave tomorrow, please make our last flight together one to remember for all the right reasons.
The door opens, and Martin turns, ready to shout at Douglas again.
It's Carolyn. She's holding a bundle of papers.
And now he's got to plead with her.
'Carolyn, I - when I said - '
'Martin, I want you to read this.'
'I - about - er - Carolyn, I - '
'Read it, Martin: then I want you to phone Rhiannon and explain you'll be late back from the airfield tomorrow.'
She's decided. It's over. She's won: he's lost.
Of course there'll be a mass of paperwork to do at the end of his last day. He won't even have the chance of a short farewell followed rapidly by a dignified exit. Not that he's ever been dignified in the first place. The final humiliation of soon-to-be-ex-Captain Martin Crieff.
Shortly to be followed by the final humiliation of soon-to-be-Rhiannon's-ex-lover Martin Crieff.
Unable to look Carolyn in the face, he stares at the floor. He takes the proffered sheet and stuffs it, unread, into his pocket.
What's the bloody point?
'Read it, Martin, now please.'
It's got to be read sometime, he supposes.
He looks at Carolyn.
'I'm sorry it's the last minute, Martin, but I've had to do some pretty tricky wheeler-dealing with various companies to secure the contacts to support it. I'm sorry, Martin, but this really is my final offer. I honestly can't offer you a penny more.'
It's not a fortune - by anybody else's standards - but it's exactly what he'd earn as a Direct Entry First Officer with Air England. It's more than he'd dreamed she might offer him. It's a salary. She's offering him a salary, she wants him to stay, no-one's going to be able to laugh at him any more because he works for nothing, she's offering him a salary. And Rhiannon - Rhiannon's not going to be embarrassed by him, she's not going to leave him because he's useless and hasn't got a proper job, that's not going to happen, not now, he and Rhiannon are safe, that awful thing he's been dreading isn't going to happen. He can find somewhere decent to live. No-one, no-one is ever, ever again going to be able to say that he's not a Proper Captain because Proper Captains get paid for what they do. Not ever.
And he's not going to have to stop flying.
He's not going to lose Rhiannon.
He can't speak.
'Martin, it's all I can offer you. Please accept it: I need you to stay.'
He begins to laugh hysterically.
'Martin! Pull yourself together: don't let yourself down now.'
He can't think what she means, but her words cut through his nervous state, quieten him. She touches his arm.
'Martin, please believe me: I've been so impressed with the way you've handled yourself throughout all this. You've been so calm, so decisive. I've been so damn proud of you. I'm not the easiest of people to negotiate with - you could have contradicted me there, you know, that would have been nice - but you've stood up to me every step of the way. You've bested me.'
He still hasn't spoken. He can't trust himself to speak.
'Please accept, Martin. It's going to be tough - for all of us - to meet these new contracts; harder work than we've ever undertaken before - hours on standby, flights to your maximum hours at the last minute - but that's the deal.'
He takes a deep breath.
'Thank you, Carolyn. I'll - I'll be delighted to stay.'
She hands him an envelope.
'This is your formal contract: it sets out everything, including your salary. Read it when you get home: I'd like you to sign it tomorrow morning. It's already dated: you'll see that it actually starts today.'
'And - and what happens tomorrow evening?'
'Tomorrow evening we - you, Douglas, Arthur and I - are all going out for a drink or two. On me. To celebrate your promotion from Captain to salaried Captain.'
Martin smiles uncertainly.
'Douglas will be furious.'
'I shouldn't think so for a moment. He knows I'd never find anyone else who'd put up with him. Now,' - she passes him another envelope - 'because underneath this gruff exterior I am - just occasionally - a nice woman: this is a smallish - actually not so smallish, now I come to consider it - cash advance on your salary. Phone Rhiannon and tell her you're taking her out somewhere nice tonight. Have a good time, and in the name of all that's holy, don't turn up with a hangover tomorrow.'
'Thank you, Martin.'
She turns to go, then turns back to face him again.
She grins wolfishly - never a pretty sight. 'You've taken the money: you can't change your mind now, you know! I own you, Martin Crieff - body and soul. And finish that flight plan before you go.'
As she leaves, Martin picks up the phone. He calls Rhiannon.
'Rhi? Rhi? Put the posh frock on - we've got something to celebrate tonight.'
He can see Gertie through the window.
Not the last time, old girl. Not the last by a long chalk.
Chapter 14: Thessalonika
In which Douglas ponders whether Martin is a changed man.
Gertie is on her way to Greece with a cargo of telecommunications equipment and a full complement of passengers headed for a folk dance festival. Carolyn's managed to sell the same flight twice: there's every possibility of jam for tea.
Douglas finishes the post-takeoff checks, balances the fuel and settles back in his seat.
'So, Martin: don't waste time wondering whether I'm prying, because I will tell you right now that is exactly what I'm doing - how on earth did you persuade Carolyn to pay you?'
Martin pauses for a moment.
'I - er - well -'
'Oh come on, Martin, it's not exactly classified information - after all, Carolyn did pay for an evening out for us to celebrate. Which, I must admit, surprised me even more than the fact that she'd agreed to pay you in the first place. So how did you manage it?'
'I - asked her.'
'Martin, there must be more to it than that! You've asked her before, and she's always refused. What was different this time?'
'I - er - I threatened to walk out.'
'And that was all it took?'
'And then we negotiated, and - well, here I am.'
'And then you negotiated. And you won. Good God. Martin Crieff, you're a changed man.'
'Yes, well - perhaps about time.'
'Indeed it is, Captain. And what do you intend to spend your new-found wealth on?'
Martin's determined not to tell Douglas too much - after all, it's none of Douglas's business how much Martin earns - and he certainly hasn't told Douglas about his plan. Which he keeps adding to. Especially since he's taken a long, critical look at the contents of his wardrobe and decided that some new clothes are long overdue. Nothing expensive - just some new clothes. New as in not-from-Oxfam. And clothes that actually fit, not hang off his sparse frame. It's going to be quite some time before he reaches anything like an acceptable weight for his height, so he might as well try to look as if he's not some kid wearing an elder brother's castoffs.
Icarus Removals will just have to keep going a bit longer.
'Well, Rhiannon graduates in a fortnight, so I need a suit - don't want to show her up - and I want to buy her something as a graduation present, and take her out for a meal afterwards, make it a celebration, and then I thought we'd go away for a few days, a long weekend somewhere romantic – Paris perhaps – that's where you're supposed to go, isn't it?'
'Good grief, Martin, you're really smitten, aren't you?'
'Yes, I really am, Douglas. Anything wrong with that?'
'Oh, don't be so defensive all the time, Martin! Nothing wrong with that at all.'
'Anyway, First Officer Richardson, your turn for a flight deck announcement.'
'You know, Martin, you're getting much better at changing the subject.'
'Coffee, chaps. And biscuits. And I think these might be scones. Or possibly not.'
'Arthur, somehow I doubt this bodes well. How can you only think that those are scones - either they are or they aren't, surely?'
'Well, Mum found them in the galley cupboard, Douglas, and said - '
'Take the advice of your First Officer, Captain - don't try to eat one. Don't risk it. You can't fly a plane if you've just broken your jaw. Arthur: scones are, as I recall, supposed to be light and fluffy little edible tea-time treats. This one fails on all counts. I can't actually break it open. How long have they been in the galley cupboard?'
'I don't know, Douglas. But Mum said -'
Martin bangs a scone on the control panel. It makes a hard, heavy sound. Somewhat like a brick. A light flickers on: he hits the panel with the scone again and the light goes off. He inspects the scone. Other than the fact that something - possibly a sultana - has fallen out, there's no perceptible damage. On the plus side, there's no noticeable damage to the control panel, either.
'Let me guess - she said that anything would do for her pilots?'
'Something like that, Skip! But it did say 'fresh baked' on the wrapper!'
'Yes, Arthur, but when was it fresh baked? What was the sell-by date?'
'She - she wouldn't let me see that, Skip.'
'You know, Martin, I think I've seen this scone before. This scone and I are almost on first name terms. It qualified for Frequent Flyer privileges when I was with Air England. And after it retired from a life of international jet-setting, it supplemented its pension by working as a wheel chock.'
Martin opens the galley intercom.
'Carolyn, what the hell are you trying to do to us this time?'
'How's Rhiannon? Apart from about to graduate?'
'She's very well, thank you, Douglas. In a bit of a funny mood this morning, though. A bit sort of - clingy.'
He'd tried to slip out of bed without disturbing her - it was so early when he'd had to leave - but she'd woken. She hadn't slept very well - she never seems to sleep very well the night before he flies anywhere. She'd held him tight and told him to take care - she always does - and he could have sworn that she was tearful. He'll phone her as soon as he can after Gertie touches down - he always does - and tell her about the scones - make her laugh. Wonder why she was tearful though? Hormones, perhaps?
Sometimes he wishes he knew a bit more about women.
'Not a bad sign, Martin. Shows that she misses you. It's when they don't cling to you when you leave that you have to worry. Especially if they have a new-found interest in T'ai Chi. She'll be pleased to see you when you get back.'
'More than just pleased, Douglas. As soon as I walk in, she always suggests we - '
'Too much information, Martin! Far, far too much information. Now, what shall we bet the squidgy cheese on today?'
'So who's changing the subject now? I was about to say she always suggests we have a romantic night in with a takeaway, a bottle of wine and a DVD.'
'Football team names that appear in the title of films.'
'Oh Douglas, you know I don't know anything about football!'
'Ah, yes; Nottingham United's greatest supporter. If not their only supporter. I'd almost forgotten that. "Dances With Wolves." '
'Aargh - "Fame Is The Spur"?'
'Spurs, Martin, not Spur. No point there. "Murder On The Orient Express".'
'I think you must sit up all night dreaming up these games. And the answers.'
'Oh my Captain, however did you guess my guilty secret? Not all night, though.'
'"On The Town"? I mean, come on - there must be loads of football teams called Somewhere Town.'
'Er - Nottingham?'
'Oh Martin! It's Nottingham Forest! And I shall now claim "Forest Gump" - another point to me.'
'Er - Manchester - no, erm - Luton - no - '
'Can I presume the Emmanthal is also mine? Leaving only the Cheddar to play for?'
'Oh Martin, don't sulk!'
'Still living in your attic? Like some Victorian poet wasting away in a garret? Not thought of moving?'
'I've thought about it, Douglas. I've thought about very little else. But I don't have any savings, and I need money for a deposit before I can get a mortgage, and that's going to take a bit of time. And then there's furniture -'
'There's an obvious answer, you know.'
'Not yet, Douglas. No need to rush into – er – things. Not quite yet.'
'I meant you could find somewhere else to rent. Somewhere a bit less squalid.'
'Hard to find somewhere more squalid.'
'Unless, of course, you're biding your time until -'
'Call up the control tower, will you?'
'I take back what I said earlier. You're so much better at changing the subject. Thessalonika Tower, this is Golf Echo Romeo Tango India -'
Chapter 15: Aperitif
In which Carolyn holds a supper party.
Possibly not the best evening of anyone's life.
They're all spending an evening at Carolyn's, and it hasn't exactly got off to the best possible start.
In a moment of rare generosity she invited Herc, Douglas and Martin - and Rhiannon, of course - for a meal.
Rhiannon is the real reason Carolyn's asked them. Carolyn's curiosity is piqued; although Martin now at least has two topics of conversation - flying and his girlfriend - none of them have met Rhiannon yet. And Carolyn knows that Douglas is just as curious as she is. After all, none of them actually know whether Martin's ever had a girlfriend before - he certainly hasn't since he's been working for MJN - and Carolyn's concerned that perhaps it's not going to work out for him. Martin's clearly infatuated with this girl, and Carolyn is worried that he's going to end up hurt.
And, to be quite candid, she's just plain nosy.
Planning the meal was the first problem: Carolyn's a great believer in meat or fish, and Herc - to her great disgust - is vegetarian. She's tempted to cook sirloin - pink, of course, so that the blood runs with the knife - is there any other way to cook beef? - and let Herc just pick at the vegetables, but even she can recognise that this would be a tad too cruel.
Too cruel in front of Martin's girlfriend, anyway.
Too cruel the first time she meets Martin's girlfriend.
Besides, if she cooks at home, Arthur is bound to want to help.
And Arthur belongs to the experimental-and-ultimately-inedible school of cookery, believing that if you like all the ingredients separately, they'll taste even better when they're combined.
His 'Orange Platter' was bad enough before he realised that tinned peaches are orange in colour.
Not that there's anything wrong with peaches - tinned or otherwise - it's just that they don't go with curried baked beans and mashed potato.
Neither do the jelly beans.
So Carolyn's admitted defeat, and decided to order a banquet from the local Thai restaurant. Plenty of choice there to please all tastes. All she's got to do is to persuade Arthur that no-one wants Surprising Rice as a side dish.
The second problem was that half an hour ago the restaurant phoned to tell her that their delivery van had broken down and she'd have to collect the meal herself.
She'd had quite a nice little fight with them, negotiating a discount for lack of delivery. Then she'd dispatched Herc to go and collect it.
While he was gone, Douglas arrived; then Martin and Rhiannon.
They were all chatting quite happily, and Arthur hadn't made too many of his usual inane remarks, when she heard Herc returning.
He parked at the back of the house, of course, and so he went through the back door into the kitchen. And then he came through into the lounge.
And that's when the third problem arose.
Rhiannon's enjoying herself.
She was a bit apprehensive at first about meeting Martin's friends, but now she doesn't know why she was worried.
She'd been quite prepared to dislike Carolyn - that horrible woman who made poor Martin work for her for years and years for absolutely nothing (and Rhiannon knows exactly how demeaning that can be) - but Carolyn's really quite sweet. Very sweet. Really lovely. She's a bit older than Rhiannon had expected, but nothing like Rhiannon thought she might be. She's a bit like you'd imagine a proper Mam ought to be. She takes Rhiannon's coat and says how beautiful Rhiannon's dress is - it's her best dress, of course, the blue one that Martin bought for her - and how lovely it is to meet her, and then she introduces Douglas and Arthur and Rhiannon starts to relax.
Douglas is quite nice, in a father-figurely sort of way (although there's nothing remotely paternal about the way he looks at her, and she worries that perhaps the dress is a little bit too revealing) and he tells her how much they've all been looking forward to meeting Martin's mystery woman, and Martin grins and tells Rhiannon not to trust Douglas an inch, and they all laugh.
And Arthur's really lovely. She can see why they're all so fond of him. He gives her a big hug as soon as he meets her, and kisses her, and says (all in one breath) that it's brilliant to meet her, does she speak Welsh because he thinks that's brilliant, it's just like a foreign language, and he's always wondered why the words to the Welsh National Anthem are 'My Hen Laid A Haddock.' Carolyn calls him her idiot son, and Douglas and Martin guffaw, but no-one's being cruel to Arthur. He's not the sort of person you could be cruel to. It would be like slapping a child.
Then Arthur pours everyone a drink and Carolyn asks Rhiannon how the exams went, and Martin says that unless they're very lucky they'll end up knowing a lot more about Medieval History than they thought possible, and they all laugh again.
It's going to be a really enjoyable evening.
Douglas is amazed. Almost lost for words, which is in itself a rare occurrence.
He wasn't quite sure what to expect. Martin's so inept at talking to women - at talking to anyone, to be honest - that Douglas had no idea what on earth Rhiannon would be like. Certainly female. And Welsh. Those were the only two things he was certain about. After all, Martin's always been attracted to good-looking women, but good-looking women haven't been attracted to Martin in the slightest.
Douglas certainly wasn't expecting Rhiannon.
Where on earth did Martin meet this little stunner? She's not exactly beautiful, but she's very attractive in an oddly familiar way. Like something from a painting. In fact, with her masses of long dark curls and that pale skin, and Martin's flaming red hair, they could be an allegory for the moon and the sun.
And Martin's right about her figure: it's a real hour-glass shape.
That dress is perfect on her. It's not the latest fashion - Helena insisted that he bought her one in that style a few years ago. And Helena never looked as good in it: just hadn't got the figure to carry it off. And it's not an inexpensive dress - Douglas knows exactly how much he had to pay for a dress that was worn only once.
Rhiannon is exactly as Martin described her - she's fun and witty, and clearly just as much in love with Martin as he is with her. She's even the right height for him: two or three inches shorter without those low heels. Now she's patiently trying to teach Arthur how to pronounce "Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau" (hens and haddock indeed!) and they're both giggling.
Douglas is going to enjoy this evening.
And then the lounge door opens and Herc walks in.
As soon as he walks in, Rhiannon stops giggling with Arthur and for a moment her jaw drops.
Herc's eyes widen, and he strides across the room. He grabs Rhiannon, kisses her full on the mouth and says 'My favourite barmaid! What on earth are you doing here?'
Rhiannon wriggles free. She doesn't look very happy.
Martin, in contrast, isn't looking Not Very Happy. He's looking furious. He colours up and says in a tight voice 'I didn't realise you knew my girlfriend, Herc. Come to that, I didn't know that she knew you.'
Herc seems oblivious to the atmosphere. He tries to put his arm round Rhiannon's shoulder, but she side-steps.
'Oh, we're old friends, aren't we? I often pop into the Fitton Arms Hotel for a quick drink, and this luscious lady and I always find something to talk about. In fact we have no secrets from each other, do we, my dear?'
Herc's flirting outrageously with Rhiannon. And Martin looks as if he's going to hit Herc any moment now.
Douglas normally enjoys watching Martin lose his temper. But not tonight. Even Douglas wouldn't behave like that with Martin's girlfriend. Martin's embarrassed and upset. And Rhiannon's clearly uneasy. And Arthur's looking confused. And Carolyn's evening is going to be spoilt. And anyway, Douglas has never actually liked Herc that much.
He says, smoothly, 'How long did you say you'd been working at the Fitton Arms, Rhiannon? Two weeks? Hardly time to become old friends, Herc.'
Herc ignores this and says to Martin that he'd thought that Martin's girlfriend was a student; he hadn't realised that Martin had a new lady in his life. Or has Martin a string of girlfriends? And if so, does the student girlfriend know about the barmaid? Or has Herc put his foot in it - does the barmaid know about the student? And how many more are there - does Martin have a harem?
He really isn't making the situation any easier.
Douglas steps in again.
'You didn't know that Rhiannon was a student at the University? You really don't know this young lady at all well, do you?'
Rhiannon glances at Douglas gratefully and says that she didn't know that Herc knew Martin, it's all part of being a professional barmaid, you have to talk to all the customers, or at least listen to them, and she supposes that cabin crew are a bit like that, the regular passengers think that they know the crew, but you meet so many people that you only remember a little bit about them, just enough to make them feel special, and anyway it's always so busy at the Fitton Arms that she only has time to have a quick word with the customers. She doesn't say this nastily, but there's a firm note to her soft Welsh voice, and Herc looks a little bit disconcerted.
Carolyn is going to kill Herc when she gets him alone. Slowly and painfully. Possibly after she's force-fed him steak tartare. But in the meantime she needs to serve the meal, and there's no way she's going to leave Rhiannon and Martin with Herc. Or to ask Rhiannon to help her - she can't bear to think what Martin might do to Herc if the two men are together and Herc says one more word out of order.
Thank God for Douglas and Arthur.
Not a phrase she often utters.
'Herc, behave yourself and come and help me in the kitchen. Arthur - make sure everyone's got a fresh drink. Douglas, would you be useful for once in your life and show Martin and Rhiannon into the dining room?'
The first of four consecutive chapters, originally intended as one, but which proved far, far too long…
My apologies to Herc fans. But I needed a Villain Of The Piece.
Just to clarify:
Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau: Land of My Fathers - the first line of the Welsh National Anthem. I once heard this pronounced as 'My hen laid a haddock' – I've been waiting for an opportunity to use this ever since!
Chapter 16: Entrée
In which things get worse, but Arthur knows the right thing to say.
When Carolyn brings the platters into the dining room, followed by a somewhat chastened Herc, she's relieved to see that someone - either Douglas or Arthur, but she suspects Douglas - has tried to ease the situation by seating Rhiannon between Martin and Douglas, with Arthur on the other side of Martin. If she sits next to Douglas, that pins Herc down between her and Arthur and as far away from both Rhiannon and Martin as is possible when you've got a round dining table.
Arthur's talking to Rhiannon now - he's telling her how many otters can be theoretically be carried on board on Gertie, and Rhiannon's laughing and asking whether the otters in the cargo hold might be just a tiny bit jealous of the otters lounging in comfort in the seats. And Martin's a little less pink that he was.
The evening might not be a total disaster after all.
Arthur's in full flow; he often is with people he hasn't met before.
Carolyn approves of Rhiannon more and more. Arthur's determined to learn some more Welsh words, and Rhiannon's very patient with him. Not a lot of people actually appreciate Arthur for what he is - Carolyn often doesn't - and although Arthur rarely seems to get upset when people treat him as if there's something wrong with him - which there isn't, there's nothing wrong with Arthur at all, he just sees the world in a different way to almost everyone else - Carolyn knows that when people are impatient with him, he hurts inside.
He's not hurting inside tonight. He's looking at Rhiannon as if he's hero-worshipping her. And Carolyn would put good money on what he's going to ask her next.
'So - what's the word for brilliant?'
Bingo! How well I know you, son of mine.
Rhiannon says 'Llachar. No, not a 'cl' sound at the beginning - say it slowly - that's it - '
Martin joins in.
'When you get to know Arthur better, you'll realise that 'brilliant' - as in 'wonderful' - is his favourite word. That's bendigedig, Arthur,'
Arthur tries out the word a few times.
'Wow, Martin, do you speak Welsh as well? That's brilli - bendigedig!'
Martin says airily 'Oh, I've picked up a few words here and there.'
Douglas just can't resist this. He says (sotto voce) - 'H'mm, bet you have.' and Martin's ears go pink.
'Anyway, here's another one for you: microwave is popty ping. The oven that goes ping - though that's not formal Welsh, is it, Rhi?'
'Oh wow, Skip! That's bendy-gedick as well!'
And then bloody Herc has to go and spoil it again.
He probably doesn't mean to this time: it's an innocent little question that he asks. But there's no need for him to go on and on.
'So, Rhiannon, have you had the dubious pleasure of flying with this motley crew in their bucket of bolts?'
Rhiannon shakes her head and says no, she hasn't flown with MJN, in fact - and she knows this is going to sound really silly - she hasn't flown anywhere with anybody, she's never even been on a plane.
This sounds strange to everyone else - when you either work for an airline or run your own, you tend to assume that everyone in the world over the age of two has flown, even if only on a bucket-shop holiday to the Costa Appalling - and Douglas is just saying that there could be worse people to fly with than MJN; at least Gertie's small enough to ensure personal attention, which is more than you can say about the big companies like CalAir, when Herc butts in again.
'I wouldn't trust my life to this lot, Rhiannon. Hasn't Martin told you about the scrapes they keep getting themselves into? Hydraulic system failures and having to land with only one engine in a crosswind? Gertie's only held together with gaffer-tape and string: it amazes me that she can actually get off the ground, never mind stop up in the air. And her warning light system's just a joke'
Carolyn is seething. How dare Herc run MJN down like this? She's just about to berate him, when they all notice that Rhiannon's gone very quiet and is looking down at her plate.
Martin looks at her.
'What's the matter, Rhi?'
Rhiannon doesn't answer him.
Douglas has a good idea what the matter is. He puts his hand over Rhiannon's and asks gently 'Rhiannon - are you scared of flying?'
She nods. 'Petrified. It really terrifies me - just the thought of it. I'm sorry, Martin - I should have told you.'
'It's not important, Rhi. It doesn't matter at all.'
'Well, I'd be terrified if you lot were flying me - '
'Herc! Shut up!'
But it's Arthur who knows what to say.
'But there's nothing to be frightened of. Even though -'
Oh God, Carolyn thinks, not now, Arthur. Now is definitely not the time to voice your misbegotten theory that no-one knows how aircraft actually manage to stop up in the air.
' - Gertie's old, she has to pass an airworthiness test every year. Like a sort of plane MOT. And Martin wouldn't let anything happen, especially not to you, and Douglas wouldn't either, and they have to have licences, just like you do for driving a car, and Mum wouldn't let me fly with them if it was dangerous, would you, Mum?'
Thank you, son of mine. Sometimes you really do know the right things to say, don't you?
'And I'd be there and I'd look after you if you were scared.'
Rhiannon looks up from her plate.
'Thank you, Arthur. That's really sweet of you.'
The awkward moment has passed. But Carolyn thinks it's about time someone put Herc in his place.
'At least I can understand why someone might be nervous about flying. But Herc's terrified of sheep, for goodness sake.'
'I am not!'
'Oh, but you are, Herc. Of little fluffy sheep. And Douglas is scared of spiders.'
'That's not true!'
'Really, Douglas? What about that hotel in Puerto de la Cruz?'
'I was - unnerved, that was all! It was a very large spider.'
'It was tiny! A teeny-weeny little spider! You were scared of it! It was in the shower, and Martin had to come and rescue you!'
The MJN crew are back to their usual good-natured bickering. Surely nothing else can go wrong?
Of course it can.
Martin's been on edge ever since Herc first walked in - not surprisingly - and, with hindsight, it wasn't perhaps the most tactful question Douglas could have asked. But he hadn't meant it maliciously - he was only trying to find a safe topic of conversation.
'So, Rhiannon, how did you and Martin actually meet?'
Dear God, Martin's gone tense. What's the matter now?
Rhiannon smiles and says 'Well, it's a bit embarrassing, really. You know the Fitton Arms? Well, of course you do.'
Martin manages to spill his wine. That might explain why he's blushing. Or it might not. Douglas could kick himself. He tries to retrieve the situation.
'Ah yes, you bumped into each other outside there, did you?'
And of course it's sodding Herc who has to intervene.
'The Fitton? Not on one of their speed-dating nights? Really, Martin? You? Speed-dating?''
Martin is absolutely scarlet.
Rhiannon says hurriedly 'No, not speed-dating! There's some real saddos go speed-dating there - I have to serve them, so I know. No, this is really awful, but Martin bumped into me by accident - and - and I thought he looked nice, so I dropped my bag - I could have held onto it, but I made sure everything fell out of it so that I had an excuse to talk to him. And if he hadn't asked me to go for a drink, I'd have asked him. Wasn't that awful of me? But I'm really glad I did.'
Douglas hadn't realised he'd been holding his breath.
'So you would have asked him for a date? I don't know what you're looking shame-faced about, either of you; I'd be absolutely cock-a-hoop if I'd been asked out by a beautiful woman. Well done, Rhiannon - I don't think that's awful in the least.'
Neither does Carolyn - after all, she reflects, it was she who'd first asked Herc out. Although after this evening, she might well start to regret it. And how come Herc seems to know all about speed-dating at the Fitton Arms anyway?
'Everyone finished eating? Off you go, chaps, into the lounge - do try to play nicely. And Rhiannon and I are going to go into the kitchen and have a nice little girlie chat - it's been ages since I've had any intelligent conversation, Rhiannon. And eventually we might bring you men some coffee.'
Just to clarify:
Popty ping really is a Welsh coloquial term for microwave
Chapter 17: Coffee
In which Carolyn and Rhiannon have some important matters to discuss.
Companion chapter to 'Aperitif' and 'Entrée'
Rhiannon and Carolyn sit down at the kitchen table: Carolyn pours two glasses of wine. The coffee machine gurgles happily to itself in the background.
'Rhiannon? I think there's something you and I really need to talk about.'
Rhiannon looks at Carolyn, wide-eyed over the rim of her glass.
'Don't look so frightened: I'm not going to eat you! First of all, I want to apologise for Herc's behaviour tonight.'
Rhiannon blushes and tries to explain that she's so very sorry, she hadn't realised that Herc and Carolyn were a couple, she only knows Herc because he goes into the pub and really there isn't anything going on between her and Herc, honestly...
'Calm down, child, I never thought there was. Not for a moment. He's behaved appallingly, and I shall tell him so in no uncertain terms. But you know what men are like.'
Rhiannon's eyes flash.
'Martin isn't like that!'
She's spirited, this girl. And she stands up for Martin. No wonder she's good for him.
'No, he's certainly not. And neither's Arthur, I'm pleased to say.'
'You must be really proud of Arthur.'
'Thank you, Rhiannon - not many people realise there's much to be proud about. But you've bothered to spend time with him, and been patient with him, and you understand him. That means a lot to me.'
Rhiannon says that she thinks in some ways Martin and Arthur are quite alike, and Carolyn says yes, at times they're both frighteningly innocent, and heaven help her because she has to put up with both of them all day and at least Rhiannon only has to put up with Martin. Rhiannon smiles, and says that as far as she's concerned it's not just a matter of putting up with him, and Carolyn thinks to herself that Martin's a very lucky man indeed.
Carolyn's never been much good at small-talk: she's painfully aware that most of her conversations centre round either herself or MJN. Or both. But Rhiannon's a very pleasant girl. She asks Rhiannon a little about herself – where in Wales she comes from, why she decided to study in Fitton – but Rhiannon manages to change the conversation, and Carolyn thinks fair enough, I don't like talking about my sister, or the sweetshop, or either of my dreadful marriages.
So she tells Rhiannon about the dreadful Hester Macauley and Rhiannon laughs and says that she's only seen one of her films and she thought that was appalling, and they talk about films they've seen and actors that they like.
And then they talk about opera, which Rhiannon reveals a passion for, and Carolyn says that it's probably best if Herc doesn't know that. Rhiannon says no, sitting through fourteen and a half hours of the Ring Cycle is bad enough without having to fend off Herc at the same time, and then she blushes and apologises again. Carolyn laughs and says no offence taken, and thanks for the warning, she can think of a lot better things to do with her life than waste nearly fifteen hours of it listening to large women screeching away in German, although on a long haul flight that would be an excellent way to annoy the passengers, and they both start to giggle.
'Should - shall we have another glass of wine, Carolyn?'
'What an excellent idea: I knew you and I were going to be good friends.'
Carolyn's pleased that Rhiannon's relaxed, because there's something that needs to be said. Something that could be very important indeed.
'Rhiannon, forgive me for asking, but you're not just frightened of flying, are you? You really are petrified of the thought. No, don't start apologising again - when you've been flying as long as I have, you get used to big burly rugby players weeping on your shoulder in terror before they've even boarded the plane. It's a common enough phobia.'
'Carolyn, I - I feel physically sick at the very thought of it.'
'I know this isn't going to be much comfort, but it really is the safest form of transport, you know. Everything Arthur told you is quite true. And more people are kicked to death by donkeys on Blackpool sands than are killed in aircraft accidents.'
God knows if that's true, but I know I read it somewhere.
'And you must know that Martin would never, ever, try to persuade you to do anything you didn't want to do?'
'Y - yes, I know that.'
'Now, please don't think I'm intruding - why does that sound as if that's exactly what I'm trying to do? - but please tell me - are you frightened for Martin when he flies?'
Rhiannon looks as if she's going to burst into tears.
'Yes, all the time, I'm convinced there's going to be some – some terrible accident, and he's going to be dreadfully injured, or - or die, and I'll never see him again and-'
'Don't cry, Rhiannon. There's nothing at all to cry about. You do believe me when I say that I wouldn't let any of them fly if I thought it was dangerous?'
'Yes, but - '
'But you do know that you mustn't ever ...'
'Mustn't ever let Martin know how frightened I am for him? I know - if I told him, he'd say he'd give up flying , and I couldn't ask him to do that, I wouldn't, it's all he's ever wanted, he's worked so hard for it, and ...'
'I know, dear, I know. Now, blow your nose and try to look a bit more cheerful - don't let Martin think I've upset you, the poor lad's been through quite enough tonight - and I'm going to give you my contact numbers, so you can phone me at any time at all when Martin's away. Even if it's the middle of the night. And I'd like you to think about getting some help - some therapy. Believe me, we get asked about that all the time, and in a lot of cases it really does work.'
'T -thank you, Carolyn.'
'Not at all. Now, I suppose we'd better give those men their coffee - you must know as well as I do what Martin's like if he thinks he's getting caffeine withdrawal symptoms - oh, and Rhiannon? If you can think of a good putdown for Herc, you have my blessing to use it. He deserves it.'
'I think I know just the one. Just enough to make him squirm a bit. Just ask me if I've ever made an embarrassing mistake when I've been working behind a bar, will you?'
The men seem to be getting on well - no further unpleasant incidents, although Martin still looks uneasy. Douglas is regaling them with a long and involved joke about penguins, which seems to be one of the few safe subjects of conversation that anyone's raised tonight. Surely no-one can get upset about penguins?
Carolyn pours the coffee, and Rhiannon hands the cups round, and they settle down. And after Douglas finally gets to the punchline of his joke, and they've had to explain it to Arthur, Carolyn starts to talk about embarrassing mistakes she's made with passengers - or rather, that they've made with her - and how she gets her own back on them. And then she says that she supposes that sort of thing happens in any so-called customer service sector, and asks Rhiannon if it's ever happened to her.
Rhiannon smiles and says yes, there was one really embarrassing incident when she was working in a pub on the North Wales coast, and the local college ran summer school courses in Welsh For Beginners, and a lot of the students used to come to the pub in the evenings and practice their Welsh, and you had to be really patient with them.
'And there was one man - he was really horrible, one of the flashy sort, always showing off - you must know the type I mean?'
She looks Herc in the eye and says deliberately 'The sort who's out to impress by telling you how important his job is, when really he's a jumped-up little nothing and in any case you don't give a shit? Sorry about my language. The sort who thinks that just because a girl works behind a bar, she's easy?'
Herc looks shocked, as if someone's just slapped his face, and Carolyn starts to chortle.
'Well, anyway, he came in one evening, and he was being unbearable, showing off all the time, boring me to bloody death he was, and I poured him his usual drink and then he asked me' - she starts to giggle - 'he only bloody asked me - in Welsh, mark you - if there was any chance I could give him a bit of sex!'
Martin goes pink again. 'Rhi!'
'It's all right, Martin, it's quite funny really. Anyway, I never stopped to think - I just picked up his glass and threw his drink right in his face!'
Carolyn laughs. 'I'm not surprised!'
'Oh, but the best bit was that he looked really astonished and stormed out and it was only then I realised it was his pronunciation! He'd meant to ask me for ice - that's rhew - but instead he asked me for rhyw! And that means 'sex' - they do sound a bit similar.'
'And did you keep your job?'
'Well, I left shortly after, but it was nothing to do with him.'
Everyone starts to get ready to leave soon after that, and Herc offers to give Martin and Rhiannon a lift. Douglas quickly says that he doesn't think that's a good idea, he'll take them, and they say goodnight and thank Carolyn for the evening. Carolyn kisses Rhiannon on the cheek and tells her to stay in touch, they'll have to have a day out soon, be Ladies Who Lunch, and Rhiannon says she'd like that.
Douglas laughs all the way to Nelson Street about the look on Herc's face when Rhiannon told her story about the ice.
'A jumped up little nothing who bores you to death about his job! Oh Rhiannon, that was priceless! You really did put him in his place!'
Martin's silent on the way back. As he starts to get out of the Lexus, Douglas catches his sleeve and says quietly
'Martin? I wouldn't dwell on it if I were you. He's not worth it, and Rhiannon can obviously look after herself.'
I was there when the scene with the ice actually happened...
Chapter 18: Postprandial
Can the evening get any worse? Of course it can...
Rhiannon and Martin are standing outside the house in Nelson Street.
Rhiannon's worried: Martin's been quiet - almost withdrawn - for most of the evening. She tries to take his hand, but he pulls away.
'Martin - are you angry with me? What have I done?'
Martin says, bitterly, 'Angry? Not at all. Why should I be angry?'
'But what have I done?'
Martin turns away.
'I don't s-suppose you want to see me again? I'm not surprised - there's n-no reason why you should.'
'Martin! Whatever it is, whatever's happened, can we talk about it? Please?'
It's starting to rain.
'Martin, we can't stand here - will you come inside and we'll talk about it there? Please?'
She opens the door, and he follows her inside. The girls are in the lounge - she can hear them laughing about something.
'We can't talk down here. I'll make some coffee and bring it upstairs. You go on up.'
He climbs the stairs slowly, reluctantly. His shoulders are slumped. She's never seen him like this.
Whatever it is, whatever's gone wrong, it's important, and it's up to me to put it right.
He's not surprised. He's always wondered what she sees in him, why she bothers. But he really thought - hoped - his luck had changed this time.
Of course it hadn't.
Oh God, why can't you let me be happy?
Oh God, Rhiannon, why did you have to let me know like this?
When she brings the coffee upstairs, he's sitting on the little hard chair by the desk, staring at the floor. He doesn't even look up when she hands him his mug.
They sit in silence for a few minutes.
'Martin, whatever it is that I've done, I'm sorry. I really am. Please tell me what it is.'
Martin flushes red. Without looking up, he says angrily
'I -I think you could have had the decency to tell me before now. How do you think I felt tonight?'
Tell you? Tell you what?
She thinks back to her conversation with Carolyn. That must be it.
'I should have, cariad. I should have told you a long time ago, when we met. But I was embarrassed. It sounds so stupid, but I can't help it, I really can't. And I thought you wouldn't want to know me any more, that you'd be so embarrassed by me, but Carolyn talked to me about it, and she said that lots of people are the same and therapy really helps, and I don't want it to come between us and I'm so sorry all your friends were there when you found out but -'
'Rhiannon, what are you talking about?'
'About me being scared of flying, of course.'
Martin says dismissively that doesn't matter, that's not what it's about, and Rhiannon thinks thank you God , thank you for not letting me tell him about me being so scared that something will go wrong, that'll he'll die, that I'll never see him again.
They fall silent again. After a while, Martin says in a tight little voice
'So why didn't you tell me about Herc?'
'What about Herc? I told you, I hardly know him, he just comes into the pub: he's a dreadful flirt, but I've never done anything to encourage him. I wouldn't do that Martin, I really wouldn't, honestly. I don't even like him very much - he's just a customer.'
Martin looks at her.
'He seemed to think he knew you pretty well.'
'He's like that with all the barmaids. Thinks he's God's gift to women. I didn't know that you knew him, or I'd have told you about him.'
Martin looks at his feet again and says 'Oh' and Rhiannon thinks she knows what this is about.
'Martin, he's nearly old enough to be my father! He uses those spray tan booths and dyes his hair, you can tell! You - you don't think - oh Martin, you're not jealous of him, are you?'
She can't help it, she starts to laugh. It's so ridiculous. But Martin isn't laughing.
'Of course I'm bloody jealous! The way he kissed you, the way he tried to put his arm round you - what I am I supposed to think?'
'Oh Martin, there's no need - do you really think I'd look at anyone besides you?'
He doesn't answer. She holds out her hand to him, but he ignores it.
'Martin, don't you trust me?'
He looks at her and says quietly ' I did.'
She never thought he'd say anything that would hurt her that much, that anything could hurt her that much any more. Her face falls, and she says sadly 'But if you don't trust me, there's no point, is there? In you and me?'
Martin's angry: angry about this evening, angry about Herc, angry about the fact that Rhiannon looks so - alone, as if everything's been taken away from her. Most of all he's angry with himself with himself because he's made her look like that.
'I want to trust you, Rhi. But I didn't realise that you thought I was - what did you say? A jumped-up little nothing who tries to impress people with how important his job is?'
If that's how people see me, no wonder they laugh at me at all the time.
'Martin, I never said that! Not about you: I said it about that man in the pub, and about Herc. I'd never say it about you: you're not like that!'
'When - when we met, did - did you think I was trying to impress you then? Boasting about what I did, about being a Captain?'
'When we met, you told me you were a man with a van! You said that flying was your hobby. You didn't tell me you were really an airline Captain, I had to worm that out of you. And I'm the one who's been doing all the boasting- to the girls, to people at university, to the other barmaids - about how handsome my boyfriend the airline Captain is.'
'But Herc didn't know about us. You didn't tell him, obviously.'
'Oh, sod bloody Herc! The only things I ever say to him are 'Your usual drink, Sir?' and 'Really?' as he goes on and on about how successful he is. And anyway - '
'You don't know me very well if you think I could ever fancy anyone called Hercules, for goodness sake! I can't imagine shouting out 'Herc' in moments of wild passion!'
It wasn't the right thing to say. She'd hoped it might make him smile, might start to put things right, but he doesn't seem any happier.
'There's something else, isn't there, Martin? Please tell me what's upsetting you.'
He focuses on the wall behind her, not meeting her eyes.
'I didn't know you thought I was - what was your charming phase? A right saddo?'
'You knew, didn't you? When we met - you knew I'd been speed-dating, didn't you? And you - you knew I was humiliated and ran out of there, and you said yourself that only saddos go speed-dating.'
'Oh love, I said that some of the people who go speed-dating are saddos. But not you. And yes, I did know where you'd been: I saw you running out of the entrance. But I didn't say anything because you didn't, and I guessed that you didn't want me to know. So I pretended I didn't. And there's something that I haven't been honest with you about.'
There's real fear in his eyes.
'Martin, I know there's some strange and sad people go speed-dating at the Fitton because - well, because I've been there myself. Speed-dating. With Emilia - just for a giggle. And it was really horrible, and we walked out. But there were the two of us, so we could walk out together, laughing as if - as if we found it funny. But it wasn't funny at all. It was horrible. If I'd been by myself, I'd have run out of there like a scalded cat. I don't think I'd have even been brave enough to walk in there in the first place.'
'Were - were you really going to ask me out if I hadn't asked you first?'
'I really was. It was me who asked you if we could see each other again, remember?'
She reaches out her hand to him, and this time he takes it. She's starting to cry. It's relief, because everything seems to be coming all right again, but Martin doesn't know that.
No, no, don't cry! Martin, you stupid, selfish idiot! Look what you've done!
He reaches out his other hand and gently brushes the tears away.
'Hush, Rhi. Please don't cry. Please don't. I'm sorry I hurt you. I didn't mean to hurt you. Please don't cry, Rhi.'
'Are - are we all right now, cariad? Is there anything else that worries you?'
He shakes his head.
'And - and do you trust me? Really?'
'I do, Rhi, I really do. Honestly. I'm so sorry I said I didn't. I shouldn't have said that. I was frightened.'
He leans forward to kiss her.
'I don't ever want to make you cry, Rhi. I'm a stupid, thoughtless idiot, and I don't deserve you. Can you forgive me?'
She squeezes his hand.
'Forgiven. It was only a misunderstanding.'
Much, much later, Martin starts to laugh quietly.
'When you said, earlier, that you couldn't imagine ever shouting out Herc's name in moments of hot passion - '
'Oh God, Martin, I've never tried to imagine being passionate with him, honestly!'
'No, I didn't mean that - but do you know his brothers are called Wellington and Harrier?'
'Dewi Sant! Wellington Shipwright? Sounds as if he should win Best of Breed at Crufts!'
They start to giggle. Perhaps everything will be all right after all.
'No more secrets between us?'
'It wasn't a secret, Martin, only a misunderstanding.'
'But no more secrets? Promise?'
'Promise.' Only the big ones, my love. Only the ones I daren't tell you about, because then I really would lose you.
Chapter 19: Samarkand
Flight deck conversations, in which are revealed an unexpected love of poetry together with some musical otters.
'Arthur's unbearably excited about Samarkand. Even more unbearably excited than usual, if that's possible.'
'Nothing wrong with that, Douglas; I've always wanted to go there.'
'He thinks it's named after two friends called Sam and Mark.'
'Surely Sam, Mark and someone else?'
'Dear God, Martin, you're as bad as he is.'
' "And softly through the silence beat the bells, along the Golden Road to Samarkand." I learned that when I was a kid, but I can't remember who wrote it.'
'James Elroy Flecker. I've always liked "For lust of knowing what should not be known, we take the Golden Road to Samarkand." Wouldn't have thought they'd have taught you much poetry at Gasworks Street Juniors, though.'
'It was Wokingham Grammar School, Douglas!'
'My apologies, Martin - I wasn't aware that schools anywhere taught decent poetry any more.'
'It - it was in Speech Therapy, actually. I learned a lot of poetry then; the rhythm of the words helps. And I always liked the sound of that particular poem.'
'Not an easy piece, though, if you have a stammer. Or a lisp. I must congratulate you on getting to grips with it. But I hadn't realised you were the sort of chap who liked poetry.'
'Well, I am!'
'And nothing to be ashamed of. I should imagine that your lady love is overcome with lust at the sound of your melodious - nay, mellifluous - baritone when you read poetry to her.'
'I - I've never thought of doing that.'
'Oh Martin! Really? Try 'Kubla Khan' or 'Ode to a Nightingale' - I'll bet you the cheese tray she won't be able to keep her hands off you. Just remember to bar the door to unexpected visitors first.'
Martin goes pink, and Douglas just knows he's going to change the subject.
'Erm - anyway, that's why I've always wanted to see Samarkand.'
'And now your wish is granted. You'll enjoy it - it's a very beautiful city. And one which we've got enough time to see, for a change.'
'She's well, thanks, Douglas.'
'She did take Herc down to size, didn't she? I was most impressed.'
Martin's coloured up again. He still hasn't got over quite how close he came to losing Rhiannon, how easy it could have been. He hadn't realised how fragile love is, how easily it can be broken.
Oh, so you're still brooding on that, are you? Let it go, Martin, let it go.
'I meant what I said that night, Martin - don't let him bother you. He's not worth it. God alone knows what he thought he was up to.'
'He did phone me the next day to apologise - I could hear Carolyn shouting at him in the background.'
'Almost enough to make me feel sorry for him. But not quite. Unforgiveable of him to upset your Rhiannon.'
Or to upset you, come to that.
'Douglas, much though I appreciate your concern, I can't help thinking it's rather out of character. Are you up to something?'
Of course I am, dear boy. I'm trying to make sure that nothing goes wrong for you, but you won't thank me if I tell you that, will you?
'Perish the thought, Captain, perish the thought. Where the hell has Arthur got to with that coffee?'
'Stephen Sondheim? Quite a bit - why?'
'Well, you remember Arthur telling Rhiannon about the number of otters we could get on board Gertie?'
'Indeed I do - but I doubt even Sondheim could compose anything based on that.'
'Well, the next day Rhiannon started singing "Another hundred otters just got onto the plane".'
'That's really rather good, you know. Gives me an idea - flight related songs. How about the Stag Party Anthem - "Heaving on a jet plane"?'
'I don't know it's exactly a phobia. But if she doesn't want to fly, Douglas, she doesn't have to. I'd never force her to do anything she didn't want to.'
'Very commendable, Martin. But it does rather put a dampener on your plan for a romantic weekend in Paris. Unless you go on Eurostar.'
'I hadn't realised - she hasn't got a passport. I just presumed she would, but she's never needed one. I'll just have to find somewhere else we can go. I can always drive us somewhere - the West Country, perhaps.'
'Has she thought about some sort of therapy? Don't look at me like that, Martin - I mean for her phobia, not for your driving!'
'Apparently Carolyn's already suggested it. She's given me some leaflets to pass on to Rhi. Says she'll go with Rhiannon if she's nervous - if Rhi's nervous, I mean. Can't imagine Carolyn being nervous about anything.'
'So that's what they were chatting about in the kitchen the other night. I must admit, I did wonder. Beware the Monstrous Regiment of Women, Martin - when they start plotting against us, we poor chaps don't stand a chance. And heaven help you if Rhiannon and Carolyn team up. The thought of Carolyn as a surrogate mother-in-law...'
The song which Rhiannon sang was 'Another Hundred People' from Sondheim's musical 'Company'.
Chapter 20: Ennui
In which Douglas wonders why Martin is the way he is. Well, don't we all?
Douglas is having a quiet - and boring - night in. The latest young lady in his life (Douglas has wasted no time in seeking out female company) proved to be a disaster - interested in him when she was being wined and dined, not interested in him when he didn't actually have his wallet open - and, for the moment, First Officer Douglas Richardson, Mighty Sky God and Casanova of the Firmament, is bereft of female company.
First Officer Douglas Richardson is not feeling sorry for himself. Not in the slightest.
Admittedly, it had come as a bit of a shock when Helena left him for that bloody T'ai Chi instructor - Mighty Sky Gods are the ones who do the leaving, not the ones who are left - but he is not feeling sorry for himself.
He's just - bored.
Solved the Times Prize Crossword; nothing worth watching on television and no decent concert on the radio. Don't feel like playing the piano.
There's nothing to do.
He could, of course, go out - go to the pub, see who's around - but he's not in the mood for female company. Not that he's feeling sorry for himself, not at all - he's just Not In The Mood. Nothing to do with the young woman before the one who was only interested in the contents of his wallet - the one who looked at him in disgust when he tried to charm her, the one who shouted 'Piss off, Grandad!'
Not that he's losing his touch. Mighty Sky Gods never lose their touch.
So very bored. So bored that for a split second he's almost contemplating phoning Martin.
Except, of course, that Martin's away.
God, he must be bored if that's all he can think of to do.
Funny lad, Martin. Worked with him for three years now, and hardly know anything about him. Not that he's told Martin much about himself, but that's different.
What does he know about Martin? Took seven attempts to get his CPL, family come from Wokingham - someone has to, Douglas supposes - one brother, one sister, father dead, lives in attic, until recently working for nothing and starving himself.
Desperate to impress people, no social skills, often incapable of coherent speech, unbearably full of his own self-importance. Obsessed with flying. Usually has no sense of humour. Easily embarrassed, incredibly boring.
Total sum of knowledge about the man with whom he has worked for three years: that he's completely socially inept.
Never bothered to find out, did you, Douglas? How long was it before you discovered he had a second job, because Carolyn didn't pay him? How long before he told you about the dreadful conditions he lives in?
Strange chap. You've really got to admire him for the way he stuck at it - kept retaking his exams until he passed them. Douglas wouldn't have bothered - he'd have found something else to do. Mighty Sky Gods never admit failure. But Martin stuck at it for all those years, spent all that money, just to end up in a dead-end job (Douglas has no illusions about MJN) where for three years he worked - and worked hard - for nothing.
And so obsessed with being the Captain. Of an airdot. And not for the money, either. Why would it be so important to him?
Perhaps because it proves something to himself. Ever thought of that?
And he was so desperate to be one of the gang in the illicit (and therefore all the more enjoyable) airfield pubs. Even though he hated it.
Like the Windsock Arms? Tried to forget that, have we? Forgotten what he said? 'Another cooler gang that I'm not allowed in - the one you left me out of.' Never crossed your mind for one minute that he might be desperate for friendship, to be accepted, did it? Proud of yourself for being so damn cruel?
And why the hell would he keep on betting the cheese tray, when he knew he'd never win, when he was bloody starving?
Have you really no idea, Richardson? Even when he told you - 'Why can't I ever win at something, ever? To be someone who doesn't win often, I could take that.'
Mighty Sky God Richardson has never, in his entire life, suffered from a single moment of self-doubt. And so he is incapable of understanding why anyone else should.
And yet - and yet poor little inept Captain Crieff has finally succeeded in finding himself a girlfriend. A girlfriend who thinks he's wonderful. An intelligent - and attractive - woman who, by her own admittance, was about to make the first move and ask Martin out. And amazingly Martin didn't take to his heels and run.
And now there's a new side to Martin - less awkward, a little less bombastic, as if he doesn't need to prove anything any more. Not so often, anyway.
Wonder what made him that way in the first place?
Dear God, it's boring with nothing to do.
And to think that at this very moment Martin - whom Douglas has pitied for so many years - will be wining and dining his girlfriend in Devon. On a romantic weekend .
Not that Douglas is jealous. Good heavens, no! Best of luck to Martin. Hope everything goes well. Hope he's sensible enough to realise that even though it may well chuck it down with rain - just coincidence you happened to hear the weather forecast for the south-west, was it? Not really that interested ? - that doesn't matter when you've got a romantic weekend planned. After all, you can always draw the curtains and go back to bed.
At least he hasn't taken the poor girl to Duxford.
Dear God, he must be bored if all he can think about is Martin.
First Officer Douglas Richardson, Mighty Sky God and Casanova of the Firmament, pours himself a cup of tea and settles down in his lonely flat to watch yet another night of mind-numbingly dreadful television.
Odd sort of fellow, Martin. Wonder why he turned out the way he did?
Hope his weekend turns out okay.
I originally intended this to be an exploration of Martin's character, but it ended up being about Douglas instead.
Chapter 21: Devon
In which someone appears oddly familiar.
Rhiannon's having a lovely time. Even if she does feel a bit guilty.
She and Martin are stopping in a quaint old thatched pub on the edge of the moor. She's never stayed anywhere as nice as like this before. Martin was a bit annoyed with himself that he hadn't realised that the menu at the Cross Keys was strictly vegetarian, but that doesn't matter. Not at all. He's brought her away for a romantic weekend in the country, and that's what matters. And the weather forecast was wrong - they said it was going to rain, but it hasn't.
The only thing she's feeling guilty about is that Martin's spending so much money on her.
Comfy, sitting here by the fire.
There's something a bit familiar about the two men sitting close by. One of them, anyway. Not the shorter one, the one in the jumper - she's never seen him before. But the other one, the taller one: there's something about him that reminds her of someone. An actor, perhaps?
He looks a bit like her Martin, that's it. Not very much like him - but he's got the same sort of high cheekbones and pale eyes.
Not as good-looking though. Dark haired - not that lovely auburn colour that Martin has. And he's very tall. Glad Martin isn't that tall - she'd have to stand on tiptoe every time she wanted to kiss him. And the tall chap looks a bit intense. He'd be hard work.
Not like Martin: Martin's really easy to love.
She smiles to herself and twists the silver bracelet on her wrist so that it reflects the flickering light from the fire. Beautiful. So kind of Martin to buy her something because she'd graduated. He's really good to her.
And he'd had the inside of the bracelet engraved. 'R from M'. And the date.
'Watching pictures in the fire, Rhi?'
Martin's back from the bar, with two glasses of wine.
'No - just thinking.'
'Everything and nothing. Mainly how good you are to me. And that you shouldn't go on wasting your money on me.'
'Let me spoil you, Rhi, please. I enjoy it. I - I've never had anyone to spoil before.'
He sits next to her on the little settee.
'Then all those girls out there don't know what they've been missing out on, cariad.'
The two men - the short one and the tall one - are talking excitedly. The tall one has a glass of whisky - his hand's shaking so much she's surprised he doesn't spill it. Delirium tremens, perhaps. Such a shame. None of her business, though.
Martin puts his arm round her and pulls her a bit closer.
'There's never been that many girls, Rhi. Not before you. Two. Three if you count the one who slapped my face when I tried to kiss her. The others lasted about a month before they realised how boring I am.'
'Oh Martin, you're not boring. Not in the least!'
'But I am, Rhi. Incredibly so. And inept, and awkward. And one of these days you're going to realise that.'
She cuddles up to him.
'Never. Because you're not. You must just have met some bloody strange women, that's all. Not your fault they didn't realise how lovely you are. But I'm glad in a way they didn't, or I wouldn't have stood a chance.'
'Are you happy, Rhiannon? With me, I mean.'
She kisses him gently on the cheek.
'Never happier. Honestly. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me.'
They sit quietly for a while, cuddled up together, watching pictures in the fire, sipping their drinks.
The two men - the tall one and the short one - seem to be arguing. The tall one's talking really fast - almost gabbling the words out, and getting louder and louder. Suddenly he yells at the other man to leave him alone.
Rhiannon doesn't like arguments. She picks up her bag.
'Shall we go before this gets nasty? Such a shame the drink's got to him: he's quite a nice-looking chap.'
'But not as nice as you. Don't be getting jealous. Shall we go to bed? Have an early night?'
'Are you thinking of seducing me, Rhiannon Pryce?'
'Got it in one, Captain Crieff. Any objections?'
'Airline pilot. You can tell by his left thumb.'
'Did you think there was something a bit familiar about him?'
Chapter 22: Lothario
Just another day on standby...
'Good morning, Carolyn!'
'No need to be so disgustingly cheerful, Martin.'
Martin carefully hangs up his jacket and heads towards the coffee percolator. It's a week of standby - boring for pilots, normally good news for Carolyn - but the weather has broken, and there's no way that MJN are going to be flying anywhere in this. There's a thunderstorm overhead, and more storms predicted.
MJN's not likely to earn much money today. Which means, of course, that Carolyn is in a foul mood.
Martin's a quarter of an hour early. He always is - nothing unusual there. What is surprising is that Douglas is already in the Portacabin. Tie off, feet up on the desk. Martin would never, ever, be seen looking so - so unprofessional.
And yet Douglas looks - what? Certainly not unprofessional: he looks totally in control, as if he's the master of the situation. If Martin's honest with himself, Douglas looks exactly like Martin would like to look. Like one of the flyboys from the Dam Busters. Professional. Cool. In control.
Damn it, Douglas looks like he's the Captain.
Martin never does.
He's very aware of this.
'Morning, oh Supreme Commander. How was the weekend of unrequited passion?'
Martin just knew Douglas was going to ask him about Devon. But he'd hoped - oh, how he'd hoped - that Douglas could wait until there were just the two of them alone on the flight deck. Not that Martin would have told Douglas too much anyway.
But to be asked in front of Carolyn...
'It was f-f-f...'
Carolyn looks up from her papers.
'Is it possible that my two sex-crazed pilots might refrain from discussing the more - intimate - aspects of their relationships during their working hours? I'm fairly unshockable - no need to look like that, boys; I am, as you are only too aware, a twice-married woman not exactly inexperienced in the ways of the flesh - an admission which you will immediately forget if you wish to keep your jobs - but there must be some proprieties. And in any case, I would prefer my only child to retain some degree of innocence.'
'I was only going to say that it was fine!'
Arthur looks up from his book. To his mounting horror, Martin realises that Arthur's reading Delia Smith's 'One Is Fun' and making notes in the margin. By the time Arthur's finished adapting the recipes, you could probably retitle it 'Two Is Horrible.'
Or 'One Hundred Ways To Poison A Pilot.'
'Not that innocent, Mum!'
'Arthur, idiot child of my loins, I've told you before - this isn't the sort of a conversation a boy should have with his mother! Use your common sense - no, I should know better than to suggest that.'
There's a look in Douglas's eye that Martin knows only all too well.
'So, Arthur: having established that all's well with love's young dream - oh, do stop blushing, Martin! - and, adding the proviso that any discussion of my personal life is strictly off limits, how's your love life?'
'You know, I somehow suspected that it might be. All well with the fair Spooky, then?'
'Pookie, Douglas, not Spooky! And we're not seeing each other any more. But it's okay, because I've got a new girlfriend now, and she's brilliant!'
Carolyn sighs. 'As indeed are all Arthur's girlfriends. Bossy Pony-Club types with the intellectual capacity of an ameoba - and I mean one not overly bright ameoba between the whole bunch of them - but all apparently brilliant. And in surprisingly plentiful supply.'
'So after Spooky you met - ?'
'If memory serves me correct, Douglas that was Tollie. Although admittedly it's difficult to keep track. I tell you - Labrador puppies, the lot of them'
'Oh Mum! Do keep up - after Pookie I was going out with Weebs!'
Martin looks startled. 'But surely you were going out with Spooky - I mean Pookie - when we were in Greece? And that was - what? Six weeks ago?'
'That's right, Skip!'
'So - in six weeks you've had three different girlfriends?'
'Four, Skip! Because Tollie and I went out last night, but she decided she'd rather go out with Mark instead, so she dumped me, and I was a bit - well, a bit sort of depressed really - so I went up to the bar to buy myself another pineapple juice, and I started talking to this brilliant girl while I was being served, and now we're going out!'
'And her name is - ?'
Douglas and Carolyn are unable to speak for laughing.
'A - Arthur? Can - can I ask you something?'
'Ask away, Skip!'
'It's just - it's none of my business, but I just wondered - how do you do it? Four girlfriends in six weeks - and we were away in Samarkand for part of that time - and last night you went out with one girlfriend, got dumped and then found yourself a new girlfriend in the time it took you to buy a glass of fruit juice?'
'You know what they say, Skip - never let the grass grow under your feet!'
Martin's brushing Rhiannon's hair for her: it's a nightly ritual they've grown into. She sits on the floor, leaning comfortably against his knee: he sits in the armchair, gently easing the brush through the thick tangles of her long curls. As he does so, he tells her about Arthur's latest string of girlfriends.
'He doesn't waste much time, our Arthur, does he?'
'Apparently not, Rhi. Quite the young Lothario. But what amazes me is -'
'Well - Douglas always has some young woman gazingly adoringly at him – sometimes more than one - and Arthur practically has to fight them off: but you're only the third girlfriend I've ever had. And it was a long, long time by myself before I met you.'
Rhiannon doesn't answer. Martin suddenly realises what he's said.
'That - that really wasn't the right thing to say, was it, Rhi? I - I really didn't mean it like that.'
She reaches up and touches his hand.
'Just tell me one thing. Was I worth the long wait?'
'Rhi, sweetheart, you have no idea how much you're worth it.'
'In which case, my love, it was exactly the right thing to say.'
Chapter 23: Shropshire
Just a day in the country...
Rhiannon stretches and looks up at the sky. It's warm here, on the hillside. The sun's moving round. Have to wake Martin soon: his pale skin won't take too much sun before he starts to burn.
Leave him for a few minutes longer, though.
Martin seems to be able to sleep anywhere, at any time. Used to it with his job, she supposes: the ability to cat-nap must be useful - snatch a few minutes whenever you can, perhaps it helps ward off jetlag.
Nice here on the hillside, nice with Martin. Safe. Wonder what those birds are? Martin probably knows - he knows a lot of things. She doesn't really know much at all, about anything - a lot about history, a lot about working behind a bar. Nothing really useful.
Except how to make Martin happy. That's more than just useful - that's important.
Nice to have a day together, in the country. She's never been to Shropshire before, never been anywhere much. She's pleased in a way that he suggested keeping Icarus Removals going for a bit longer, just until the students returned to Fitton for the new term, so that he could take the jobs moving them at the end of the summer term and back again at the start of the autumn. Not that he's mean about money, neither of them have ever had very much money to be mean about, but if anyone's going to earn it, she doesn't see why it shouldn't be Martin. And he'll need a bit of money behind him for when he moves.
Just a few more minutes.
Sometimes, like today, if she's not working, she joins him on a removal job. Not to do any of the hard work - he won't let her do that, sometimes he has very old-fashioned views - but as company on the journey, a day spent together. And today they'd taken some furniture to the little village at the foot of the Shropshire hills, and there was plenty of time left in the day, and so they drove to the Long Mynd and climbed up it, and now here they are. Just comfortable in each other's company. Lying in the heather, listening to the bees.
Wonder how Martin knows about places like this? He travels a lot, of course, but he knows a lot of places at home - in England - as well as all those exotic (and not-so-exotic) ones he flies to.
Just look at him now, his shirt bundled up under his head, lying there asleep with one hand up to his mouth, lips stained purple with the juice from those wild winberries. So peaceful. Innocent. Must have looked like that when he was a child. He's so lovely - so beautiful. You could almost cut yourself on those cheekbones. Wonder what he sees in her? He must see something - her wonderful, loving, clever boyfriend.
Kind of him to come to her graduation. She hadn't really expected him to, but he insisted, and it was nice to have him there, someone to be proud of her. Wouldn't have been anyone there for her if he hadn't come. And fancy him buying her that bracelet as a graduation present. Because it was a special occasion, he'd said. Thoughtful.
And that weekend in Dartmoor, in that lovely pub. He really shouldn't waste his money on her. That was special too, though.
Time to wake him.
She reaches into the cool-bag for the suncream, nestled between the icepacks. In that nano-second of time, when it's too late, when the dollop of cream has left the bottle and is falling towards his hot skin, she wonders whether it's really the best way to wake him.
What the hell? He opens his eyes and sees Rhiannon, the suncream bottle still in one hand, her eyes wide. He starts to laugh.
'Don't look like that, Rhi, I'm not angry! But that is icy cold!'
He sits up, grabs the open bottle from her.
'Revenge, Rhiannon! Cold suncream and a sun-toasted girlfriend - what more could a man want?'
'Martin, put your shirt on - you'll burn!'
He tilts the bottle towards the neck of her low-cut T-shirt.
'Sweetheart, for what I've got in mind, I don't need my shirt on. Neither do you.'
'How do you know about places like this? Quiet places on the hills?'
'Came here on holiday when I was a kid. See over there, over the Stiperstones? Gliders. Dad paid for me to come here on an adventure holiday when I was about twelve. I went up in a glider. Think he hoped it'd put me off flying. Didn't work though - just made me even more determined. Where did you go on holiday, when you were a kid?''
'Nowhere - never had holidays.'
'Too busy in the pub?'
Rhiannon busies herself trying to tidy her hair.
'Something like that.'
Rhiannon shakes her head.
'Do you want to? To go into Wales - to go home? Not to your Dad's pub, I don't mean that - just back where you come from, back to Wales?'
She shakes her head again.
'I don't ever want to go back. Not to the pub, not back to Wales. It's not home. Home's Fitton - home's where you are.'
Home's where you are. Still sun-drowsy and love-drunk, before he thinks it through, before he has time to sort out the words in his mind, he just blurts what he's been wanting to say for months.
In that nano-second of time, when it's too late, when the words have left his mouth, he wonders whether it's really the best way to ask her.
'W-why aren't we m-m-married?'
She looks at him blankly. Surely she can't have misunderstood him? Perhaps it's not the most passionate proposal in the world, but even so -
'Oh Rhi, I know I should have made a speech, got down on one knee, been more romantic, but please, Rhi? I do love you, I really do. Please w-will you m-marry me?'
Oh God, Martin, why did you have to ask me that? Of all the things you could have asked, why that?
He's looking at her, all tousled auburn hair and huge eyes. Hopeful. It would be oh so very easy for her to say yes. So very easy to make him happy. For a while. So very, very easy to do the wrong thing and say yes.
She takes a deep breath and holds out her hand to him.
'Martin, listen to me.'
She's going to say no, he knows she is. It's the most important thing ever, and she's going to say no.
'Martin, I do love you - don't ever doubt that for a moment. But I don't want to marry you. I don't want to get married. Ever.'
He knows there's a lot of things she doesn't tell him, a lot she hides. Even though they promised each other no secrets. And she's in her late twenties. Most girls her age would be either in some sort of relationship or - oh God, no.
'You - you're not already married, are you?'
'Oh, Martin, I promise you I'm not! I'd have told you if I were. I just don't want to be married.'
'Is - is it me? Is it too soon?'
'Martin, sweetheart, it's nothing to do with you. It's not you - it's me. I don't want to be married.'
There are bees buzzing in the heather. He wraps his arms round his knees, bites his lip, stares out towards the distant mountains.
'It needn't be like your parents' marriage, you know. It wouldn't be all anger and shouting and tears, Rhi, I promise you.'
'Martin, it wouldn't work. It's not that I don't love you. If I wanted to be married, I'd marry you. But I don't want to get married. I've never wanted to be married. I respect you too much to marry you. Let's not spoil it. Let's stay as we are, happy. Please don't ask me again.'
It could be worse, he supposes. She might have laughed at him, might have said she wasn't that serious about him, might have said if that was how he felt they'd better not see each other again. She's said she's happy. If I wanted to be married, I'd marry you. It'll have to do.
He gets to his feet. The bees rise up dancing from their heathery paradise. He reaches out a hand to help her up.
'Fair enough, Rhiannon. Thank you for being honest with me. I'll never mention it again.'
'It's all right, Rhiannon. Forget it. Shall we go back to where we parked? There's a pub near there, by the river - we'll have a meal there.'
They make their way back down the slopes in silence. Halfway down, he realises there's a melody going through his mind and he's started to hum it, quietly.
Delius. The Walk to the Paradise Garden. That ended in disaster, didn't it? Rhiannon hasn't noticed, or if she has, she's pretending she hasn't recognised it. He stops humming the melody, takes her hand.
'Race you when we get to a flat bit? Loser buys the drinks?'
He'll make sure he loses. Pretend to fall over something or that he's got a stitch.
Good old Martin. Good at losing, even at the things that really matter.
'Martin? Please don't be angry with me.'
'I'm not angry.'
She squeezes his hand. 'I do love you, Martin.'
'Love you too.'
It could be much worse.
In case you're interested: inspired by two pieces of music: 'The Walk To The Paradise Garden' by Delius, and also an old Shropshire folk-song 'Bees, Oh Bees Of Paradise.'
Chapter 24: Slovenia
Some things are more important.
Martin and Rhiannon are on tenterhooks at the moment. Martin refuses to mention what happened in Shropshire, and Rhiannon wants so very desperately to explain why she said what she did - but Martin doesn't want to talk about it.
Perhaps she should have mentioned it before now.
But when? It's not the sort of thing you can drop casually into the conversation on a first date: 'I'd really like to see you again, but I don't want to marry you.'
Poor Martin – he'd have run a mile.
And anyway, explaining would mean that Rhiannon would have to tell Martin more than she wants to.
Tell him more than she wants him to know.
Because Martin might not understand.
Or he might be angry with her.
Rhiannon doesn't want Martin ever to be angry with her.
He wouldn't be, would he?
Please God, no.
She switches the radio on.
Just to hear the news.
Then she wishes she hadn't.
But he can't really ask Rhiannon. Because if he does, that would mean telling her something that she might not like.
Because she might not understand.
And she might finish with him. And he doesn't want that to happen.
Perhaps he ought to go back to Parkside Terrace, give her a bit of space to herself for a while.
But that might not be the right thing to do, either. She might think that he wants to call an end to their relationship.
It's all so bloody complicated. He wonders whether other people have these sort of problems.
And if they do, how do they manage, if they can't talk about their problems?
Martin gets out of the van and walks into the Portacabin.
Just another day on standby.
Except that it isn't.
Classical music. The last piece before the news is the overture to 'Ruslan and Ludmilla'. For some reason, it always makes Martin think of flying.
Nice, jolly, classical music.
Then the news.
Nothing particularly exciting.
Until the last item.
Reports are coming in of a plane crash in Slovenia. Both pilots and all passengers are believed dead. No further details at this moment.
You don't at moments like this. There's nothing you can say.
All you can do is pray.
Carolyn's hugging Arthur very tightly.
Martin can't move.
You might not know the pilots - dear God, you may have done, you don't actually know that you didn't - but it's something that affects all pilots at a moment like this.
Because - oh, sweet Jesus, no - next time it might be someone you know.
Next time it might be you.
'What the hell are you still doing here?'
Martin can't think what she means. At times like this, pilots need to be together.
'For God's sake, Martin, go home. Now. To Rhiannon. If you're lucky, she might not have heard. But you need to be with her, Martin.'
Martin doesn't need to be told twice.
Because Rhiannon is terrified of flying.
Because when he walks - runs - in, Rhiannon's standing stockstill in the kitchen.
Looking at the radio.
'Rhi? Rhi? It's all right, sweetheart, it's all right...'
He'd never really understood the phrase 'mask of terror' until he saw her face.
'M - Martin?'
'It's all right, Rhi, I'm safe. Don't cry, sweetheart - we're safe...'
'M - Martin?'
'Hush, love, all safe. Don't cry, love. I'm here.'
Sod bloody Shropshire - some things are more important. What had he thought when he wrote that damn plan? He was going to look after Rhi for as long as she wanted him? Hell's teeth, she needs him to look after her now.
Chapter 25: Verona
In which Douglas tries to sort out Martin's little problems. Once he can find out what they are...
It would be a mistake to assume that because Martin now has a girlfriend, a salary and a little self-confidence, he is no longer the awkward, gauche soul that right-minded friends and acquaintances have, for so long, known and (for much of the time) feared for.
On the one hand, he appears to have conquered his inability to speak in coherent sentences to any unattached woman under the age of about sixty.
He now treats them with complete indifference.
As a result, an amazing number of unattached women now appear almost desperate to attract his attention.
On the other hand, some things never change. Whenever it is even remotely possible for things to go wrong, they will go wrong for Martin.
Carolyn still shudders when she thinks back to the incident two weeks ago, when Martin managed to get himself arrested in Alicante on suspicion of involvement in a drug smuggling racket. Martin hadn't actually done anything in the least illegal - of course he hadn't - but he'd managed to pick up someone else's bag and then when questioned he turned red and started to fluster (which in itself looked suspicious) and then the idiot child had tried to throw his weight around by pointing out that actually he was a Captain ...
It was, of course, Carolyn who had to phone an increasingly panicking Rhiannon to explain that there was nothing to worry about, nothing had gone wrong, and Martin was quite all right; no, he hadn't been involved in an accident: it was just that Gertie wasn't going to be able to return to Fitton quite as soon as they'd all expected... no, of course Martin's all right... no, I'm afraid he can't come to the phone just at the moment...
Carolyn often wishes that Martin would just think before he acts.
Ah, Verona. City of star-crossed lovers. How deliciously appropriate.
Oh God. Nothing else for it, Douglas my lad.
'I can't help noticing, Martin, that you seem a little distracted this morning.'
'I could do with your advice, actually.'
Oh, imagine my surprise. 'You have my undivided attention, Captain.'
'Well - you have more experience with women than I do.'
'I note the subtle use of the plural, and do not argue with you. But, to be brutally honest - and please don't get offended - I didn't realise you'd had any experience with women in the plural, either one at a time or en masse.'
'I'm all ears. Just spare me the more intimate details.'
'God, no! Nothing like that! It's just - it's Rhiannon's birthday next week, and I want to get her a really special present and...'
'And you wish to seek the advice of the Casanova of the Firmament? A wise move, Martin. May I suggest perfume? It's not as though perfume is hard to track down, as there’s a duty-free at the airport.'
'No! Not perfume! I mean, it's a good idea, but I don't want it to look as if I've just been strolling past the duty-free and thought oh, that'll do. I don't want it to look as if I haven't put any thought into what to buy her.'
'Excellent reasoning, Martin. So - not perfume, then.'
'No. I mean yes, I'll buy her a bottle of perfume but as a sort of 'I've bought you some perfume as a present from my trip but not for your birthday.' Not that your birthday's not important - I mean Rhi's birthday - I mean yours is important, of course it is, but I mean I wouldn't buy you perfume - well I would - I mean I'd buy Rhi perfume, you wouldn't want -'
'But you'll buy her perfume as a sort of 'I was strolling past the duty-free and thought on impulse wouldn't it be nice if I bought my girlfriend a bottle of perfume' gift, you mean?'
'Jewellery, then. Always a good present for the love of your life. Earrings, I suggest. Not gold for your fair - or, rather, dark - maiden: silver would suit that Celtic colouring better. And match that very nice bracelet you bought her. I happen to know a very exclusive little jewellers' shop in the centre of Verona. And, in case you hadn't noticed, her ears are pierced.'
'Douglas, you're a genius!'
'I know, Martin, I know. And out of the goodness of my heart, I offer to come with you, both to the duty-free and to the jewellers, and give you the benefit of my expert opinion.'
'W- would you, Douglas? That's very kind of you.'
'My pleasure, Martin. Anything to stop you panicking all the way back to Fitton as to whether you've chosen the right thing or not. Happy now?'
'Well, there is one other thing. It's a bit sort of embarrassing, really, but Rhiannon and I have been going out for ages now, and I don’t quite know how to...'
'Good grief, Martin! You must have some idea! Surely you're not trying to tell me that after all these months you haven't ...'
'No! I - I mean yes! I mean ...'
'Do you need the full version, or will a brief description of what the birds and the bees get up to in their spare time suffice?'
'Douglas! It's not - not that! It's just that - well, I want to suggest something to Rhiannon, and I'm not certain how go about it because I don't want to say the wrong thing, she might get the wrong idea and she might not like the idea anyway and to be honest I've never...'
'Martin, I trust you're not mistaking me for Doctor Ruth? I understand that there are books available; some of them quite tastefully illustrated - oh, how I wish you could stop turning that unbecoming shade of red. It clashes with your hair in a most unflattering way. Sit back and relax, as the actress said to the bishop, and tell your Uncle Douglas all about it'.
With many thanks to the wonderful Launa Alvara for her beta-ing, advice and soothing words of comfort.
Chapter 26: Tapas
In which Rhiannon and Carolyn have a heart-to-heart.
Carolyn and Rhiannon are being Ladies Who Lunch.
Their day started – as Ladies Who Lunch days always do – with Rhiannon visiting her therapist in Grantley. Carolyn always goes with Rhiannon and flicks through the magazines in the waiting room while Rhiannon and her therapist talk; then Carolyn treats them to coffee and cake (today they went to the cafe in the Art Gallery, which Carolyn has decided is on their list of Places That They Will Go Again – a shorter list than Carolyn’s list of Places She Would Never Grace With Her Custom Again Even If Hell Froze Over); and sometimes they talk about Rhiannon’s therapy session.
If Rhiannon wants to, of course.
Carolyn always tries to encourage Rhiannon to talk about how her therapy’s progressing: but sometimes Rhiannon just wants to be quiet and thoughtful. And then Carolyn leaves the subject alone.
Today is a quiet and thoughtful day.
Rhiannon really appreciates Carolyn’s concern: and it’s comforting to have someone with you who cares. Just in case. It reminds of her of all those kids at school who always had their Mam waiting to take them to the dentist.
After coffee, they start on Retail Therapy. Not the sort shopping that Rhiannon is used to – nothing mundane like vegetables or shampoo or a new pair of tights – but visiting the really posh shops.
Sometimes they buy something – sometimes they don’t. Today’s been a mixture of the two. First of all Carolyn decided that she wanted a new pair of shoes – smart and sassy, but at the same time comfortable for feet that are – to be honest – not as young as they used to be; and then she decided that it was time they had some fun.
So they went to Wynyards – which is a very posh shop indeed – and tried all the expensive hats on.
Rhiannon was horrified at first at the thought of trying on hats that you didn’t have the faintest intention of buying, but Carolyn pointed out that Wynyards didn’t know that they hadn’t been invited to a really classy wedding.
So they did it, and howled with laughter – it’ll be a long time before Rhiannon forgets the sight of Carolyn with a sequinned and feathered fascinator perched too low over her forehead, singing ‘Hey, Big Spender’ – and although the assistant clearly knew what they were doing, Wynyards isn’t the sort of shop that asks a potential customer to leave.
Especially when the potential customer is Carolyn.
Eventually they’d had enough (and so had the assistant, who was looking by this time as if she was on the edge of a nervous breakdown) and it was time to be Ladies Who Lunch.
So here they are, in The Tapas Place (which is top of Carolyn’s list of Places That They Will Definitely Go To Again) with a dozen empty tapas plates and the remains of a bottle of wine in front of them.
And Rhiannon’s gone quiet again.
Rhiannon looks at Carolyn.
‘Sorry, I was miles away.’
‘The waiter’s asked you twice if you’d like coffee.’
‘Erm – yes please.’
Carolyn orders the coffee, and the waiter clears their plates away.
‘Rhiannon – are you all right? You seem – distracted today. In fact, you’ve been like this for a couple of weeks now. Is the therapy upsetting you?’
Rhiannon shakes her head.
‘No, the therapy’s fine – well, it’s not exactly a bundle of fun, but it’s okay.’
‘Is everything all right between you and Martin?’
Carolyn knows by the look on Rhiannon’s face that she’s hit the nail right on the head.
After a moment Rhiannon blurts out ‘Oh Carolyn, I’ve done something really horrible and I don’t know how to put it right.’
The waiter brings the coffee, and Carolyn mutters to him ‘Keep them coming, let us sit here as long as we need to, and there’ll be an astoundingly generous tip.’
‘So what have you done that’s so terrible?’
‘Oh Carolyn, I’ve hurt Martin! I’ve said something that really hurt him, and he’s been really upset about it, and I don’t know what to do!’
‘Have you thought of saying sorry?’
‘It’s not that simple!’
Carolyn stirs her coffee.
‘This could be a lot easier if you told me what you’d said, you know. I won’t say a word about it to Martin. But if you have hurt him – well, you know what he’s like. Just a bundle of nerves. Whatever it was, he’s bound to think it was his fault.’
‘But it wasn’t!’
‘Rhiannon, just tell me what happened. And then I can help you start to put things right.’
‘No-one can put this right.’
Dear Lord, Rhiannon, sometimes you’re as paranoid as he is.
‘Rhiannon – just tell me.’
Rhiannon says, very quietly ‘He asked me to marry him.’
‘Oh. I gather the answer was no.’
‘Carolyn, I can’t.’
‘Can’t, won’t, or don’t want to?’
‘All of them, really.’
‘Have you told him why?’
‘Rhiannon, listen to me for a moment. If Martin asked you to marry him, that would have taken a lot of courage on his part. And you rejected him. Of course he’s feeling hurt and upset, especially if you won’t tell him why.’
‘I tried to explain – a bit - but he said he’d never mention it again. And he told me to forget he’d ever asked me.’
‘Typical Martin. But what you’ve got to do is talk to him - explain why. Make sure that he knows that whatever your reason is, it’s not because you don’t love him enough to marry him. Because he loves you very much. And I’m sorry to say this, Rhiannon, but if you’re not serious about him, or if you’re just fooling about with his feelings, then you’ve got to call an end to it. Even though that will hurt him even more – for the moment. Because if you let things carry on like this, he’s going to end up really seriously damaged. And that isn’t fair to him. Or to me, because I’m going to be the one who has to put your boyfriend back together again after you’ve finished breaking him. If you’re just playing with him, Rhiannon, you’re playing a very cruel game, and I’m very disappointed in you.’
The waiter quietly brings more coffee.
Rhiannon wails ‘I didn’t enjoy hurting him. I didn’t want to hurt him. I do love him. It’s really horrible, knowing that I’ve hurt him, knowing that he cries at night, when he thinks I’m asleep, and when I ask him he says I’m imagining things. It’s as if he’s trying to persuade both of us that that day never happened – and it was such a lovely day to start with and I made it end so badly. I don’t enjoy making him unhappy. And – and it would have been so easy to make him happy.’
Carolyn reaches over and puts her hand lightly on Rhiannon’s.
‘Calm down. I didn’t intend to upset you, but it needed to be said. It’s a rocky road, isn’t it, for you and Martin? But you really have got to let him know why you said no.’
Rhiannon’s silent again.
‘Rhiannon, what is it that made you say no?’
Rhiannon says quietly ‘I’m frightened.’
‘Oh God, no! I couldn’t be frightened of Martin! I’m – I’m frightened of marriage. I – I always have been. And I can’t tell him why.’
‘Frightened of marriage, or frightened of commitment?’
‘Of marriage. I’ve seen what happens when marriages go wrong.’
Have you, now? And by the look on your face, my girl, you don’t want to talk about it.
‘You don’t have to be married, you know. It’s not compulsory. Martin’s very old-fashioned in a lot of ways – he’s likely to think that asking you to marry him is the proper thing to do. But if you’re really sure of your feelings for him, you could try telling him that you don’t want to be married but that you’d like a committed relationship – to live together, perhaps, if you feel ready for that. You needn’t tell him any details. And I don’t know how you’re going to raise the subject if he won’t talk about it, but the sooner you do – for both your sakes – the better.’
‘I – I could do that, couldn’t I?’
‘You could indeed. Now, finish your coffee, let me settle the bill and then we’ve just enough time to catch the start of that new film. The one with that actor that we both like – the one that’s a bit like your Martin to look at – all cheekbones and come-to-bed eyes. The one that makes me wish I was thirty years younger.’
With many thanks - as always - to the lovely Launa Alvara, without whose encouragement this chapter would have remained a mere paragraph.
Chapter 27: Viewpoint
In which we discover the different views of several of our old friends. Including Snoopadoop.
Carolyn is having a quiet night in.
Herc is away in the States with CalAir, Arthur is going out with one of his impossible-to-tell-the-difference-and-weirdly-named-girlfriends, and so Carolyn is having an evening at home relaxing with Snoopadoop, a CD (one that Herc hates) a large gin and tonic (or two - or three) and the latest chick-lit novel (a guilty pleasure that she hides even from Arthur).
A feet-up and no worries evening. The accounts have balanced, there’s plenty of work in the offing, and – thanks to the revolting but well-heeled Mr Alyakin – there’s even a chance that she might be able to pay off the third mortgage on the house in the not-too-distant future.
So it ought to be a relaxing evening.
Except that Carolyn can’t help worrying.
Because - even before that worrying conversation in the Tapas bar with Rhiannon – there is clearly something wrong between Rhiannon and Martin.
And that is very worrying indeed.
Because, apart from the fact that from a business point of view Carolyn can’t afford for there to be anything wrong with Martin, Carolyn often wishes that she wasn’t quite so soft hearted.
Not that she’d ever let anyone know she is.
But there’s no escaping the fact that Martin is – to be honest – as good as a second son to her. And it’s worrying to know that something’s upsetting him. Especially when you’re not supposed to know, so you can’t help him.
And when the hell is he going to move out of that damn attic?
There is, of course, also the fact that Rhiannon is – in all honesty – the daughter that Carolyn always wishes she’d had.
And there is something very wrong indeed with Rhiannon – or at least between Rhiannon and Martin.
Why can’t people just talk to each other?
Life would be just so simple if they did.
Carolyn has never opened up her heart and talked to anyone about her fears and worries in her life.
Other people ought to though.
It would make life just so simple.
Carolyn pours herself another G and T and rests her feet gently on Snoopadoop’s back.
Tonight is her night – a night to forget about everyone else and just enjoy herself.
It would be so much easier if people would just talk to each other, though.
When in heaven’s name is Rhiannon going to tell Martin what the problem is?
Rhiannon’s just finished an evening shift at the Fitton Arms and is on her way back to Nelson Street on the bus.
It’s been a long night: an engagement party, which was loud and boisterous and everyone wanted her to congratulate the happy couple.
Which was a bit unfortunate, as all she actually wanted to do was to shout ‘Don’t do it!’
And she’s not going to see Martin tonight. Icarus Removals is taking a young woman – and all her belongings – to Scotland, and (at Rhiannon’s insistence) Martin will be stopping overnight at a B&B (at the client’s expense) just off the M6, because Rhiannon doesn’t want him driving all that way and back in one day.
So that’s another night that they can’t have a talk about The Really Important Thing.
Rhiannon’s tried to talk to Martin – oh, how she’s tried – but Martin just won’t let her mention it.
She hadn’t realised quite how stubborn he could be.
He’d promised her that he’d never mention it again, and he won’t.
Not in the least.
Yesterday, when she’d tried to explain (well, not really explain, just to talk, as she and Carolyn had agreed she ought), he’d just said that as he’d promised never to mention it, then she ought to respect his promise.
Nothing else seems to have changed though. He’s just as kind and loving and – well, lovely – as ever.
Which has got to be good, hasn’t it?
Oh Martin, if only I could just tell you.
But then you wouldn’t love me any more.
Captain Hercules Shipwright, the most competent pilot that CalAir has ever had the privilege to employ (at least in his opinion – and, let’s face it, that what really matters) makes another perfect landing - at least in his opinion - and turns to his co-pilot.
‘So, George, as we have a new – and exceedingly nubile – hostie on board – shall we bet – say fifty quid? – on the outcome of this evening?’
Sometimes – but very rarely - Captain Hercules Shipwright feels a little guilty. After all, when he returns to England, there’s always Ms Carolyn Knapp-Shappy and her ridiculous air-dot.
But – if Captain Hercules Shipwright is really honest with himself – there’s something quite attractive about Carolyn.
Not just Carolyn and all her ample charms – now he comes to think about it, far more attractive than a hostie who he’s unlikely to ever see again – and her ridiculous business and her ludicrous dog and her two incompetent pilots - who actually aren’t that incompetent, when you come to think about it.
Whatever you care to say about MJN, you’ve got to admire the fact that they’re a close-knit team, even though that’s the last thing they’d admit. Lurching from disaster to disaster, and never quite going over the edge.
And they seem to have a lot of fun.
Then there was the way they handled that business at St Petersburg.
The word had gone round the industry pretty quickly about that.
Herc had been in the pilots’ lounge in Vancouver only last week when that chap from OzAir started talking about the St Petersburg incident. Herc had mentioned that he knew Gertie’s pilots, and there had been a momentary silence.
‘You know the chap who landed her? Landed a Lockheed McDonnell 312 with one engine gone in those conditions? He must be some pilot!’
Captain Hercules Shipwright had never before considered that he might be an object of admiration, not because he ranks among the upper pantheon of Mighty Sky Gods, but simply because he knows Martin Crieff.
It’s a sobering thought.
Wonder what Carolyn’s doing this evening? She seems a bit concerned about something at the moment.
She’ll be there ready to insult him when he gets back.
Oh, for heavens’ sake, who needs an evening spent with a brainless bint of a hostie when there’s an intelligent woman waiting at home? Even if she does have a shocking lack of knowledge of the finer points of life, like opera.
Captain Hercules Shipwright decides that perhaps he’ll have a headache tonight.
Easiest fifty quid he’s ever lost.
Arthur has a date tonight with Lollo, who’s best friends with Yodge, who’s now going out with Mark, after Mark dumped Tollie (who had been going out with Arthur after Weebs finished going out with Arthur after Arthur had stopped seeing Pookie, who’s Mark’s sister.)
It’s brilliant not to have complicated relationships!
Arthur changes into a button-down shirt and Chinos - just like Skip was wearing last week on their rest day in Córdoba when Mum had said 'Good grief, Martin, I must say you're looking well dressed these days' and so Arthur had gone shopping and bought the same sort of clothes because – well, because if Skip looks smart in them, then they’re the sort of clothes that Arthur ought to wear.
Because Skip’s brilliant!
Even if Douglas had said ‘Good God, Arthur, if Martin came to work in Thomas the Tank Engine pyjamas, you’d just have to do the same, wouldn’t you?’
Which is just silly.
Because Skip would never do that - he’s the Captain.
And anyway, they don’t make Thomas the Tank Engine pyjamas in Arthur’s size.
Arthur’s a bit worried about Skip, though. Skip’s a bit – what’s the word? Dissipated? Desiccated? Distracted – that’s the word! - at the moment. Last week he’d even eaten a forkful of Arthur’s Spicy Spaghetti Surprise before he realised what he was doing.
Skip says he’s quite all right, he’s just got a lot on his mind at the moment.
Douglas says that any man who can eat a forkful of Spicy Spaghetti Surprise without realising what he’s doing probably hasn’t got a mind to have a lot on.
Skip’s still brilliant though!
And so’s Rhiannon. She’s even more than brilliant – she’s – brilliantly brilliant!
And there can’t be anything wrong between Skip and Rhiannon, because they’re both just brilliant!
And not complicated at all.
Which is just – well – brilliant!
Douglas has just had another very loud (and shouty) telephone conversation with ex-Mrs-Richardson Number Two about access rights to his daughter.
Douglas Richardson never wishes to hear the words ‘ill considered’, ‘thoughtless’, ‘incompetent’, ‘unfit father’, ‘sugar bomb’ and ‘carp’ again.
Particularly not in the same sentence.
To be truthful, Douglas would rather just go to bed with a good book and forget about the world.
Except that he has something on his mind which does not – for once – directly affect First Officer Douglas Richardson.
When the hell is Martin going to tell Rhiannon what he’s got in mind?
The Westcroft Guest House is not exactly the most comfortable place that Martin’s ever spent the night – and when you’re used to the sort of accommodation that the CEO of MJN Air arranges for her pilots, that’s saying something – but at least it has a bed and a room door that locks.
And, apparently, hot and cold running.
He hadn’t dare ask the landlady hot and cold running what.
And he doesn’t have to share the room with anyone.
Except possibly the hot and cold running whatever-they-are.
Which gives him a bit of time to think and to plan.
He stretches out on the bed.
Oh, Rhiannon, if only you’d stop panicking, and just listen to me for once.
Oh God, I didn’t mean that!
But I do wish you’d let the subject drop.
Still, as soon as he can manage it, things are really going to change.
Please don’t say no this time, Rhiannon.
Still, Douglas thought it was a good idea.
And there’s only one way to find out.
Stop prevaricating, Crieff. Do something positive about this, and then just ask her.
Or tell her.
Just as soon as you get back to Fitton, start looking. Then tell her.
She can always say no.
He really wishes he hadn’t had that last thought.
Dear God, is that the time? She’ll start worrying in a minute.
He picks up his mobile.
‘Is that Miss Rhiannon Pryce? This is your red-hot lover calling to tell you that he misses you and loves you very much. And as soon as he gets home, he’s going to prove it to you.’
On the other end of the line, Rhiannon starts to giggle.
There’s not much to worry about when you’re a Cockapoo.
Food and walks and cuddles and Mum and Arthur. That’s what’s important to a Cockapoo.
Except that Mum’s a bit worried at the moment.
Why’s Mum worried when she’s got a Cockapoo to love her?
Snoopadoop wriggles from under Mum’s feet, jumps up on Mum’s lap and covers Mum’s face with doggie kisses.
Mum cuddles Snoopadoop and kisses the top of Snoopadoop’s head.
There’s not much to worry about when you’re a Cockapoo.
WIth thanks, as always. to my beta, the lovely Launa Alvara.
Chapter 28: Fitton Green
Not all the world loves a lover.
It has been said that all the world loves a lover, but all the world does not seem to include Rhiannon's landlord, who has recently served her with notice to quit.
Rhiannon's landlord has noticed how often Martin's van is parked outside the house in Nelson Street, and has come to the conclusion that Martin is living there. Which he is, more or less - the number of times he's been back to Parkside Terrace in the last three months is - well, to say 'negligible' would be an exaggeration.
And so, as Martin isn't paying him any rent, and in any case Rhiannon's tenancy is as a student let only and Martin isn't a student, Rhiannon's landlord has Had Enough. Martin's now back in his attic and Rhiannon has two weeks left to find somewhere else to live. And it's not long before the new term starts, and all the decent student accommodation has already been taken. There is a room at Parkside Terrace, but Martin doesn't want Rhiannon to have to live there. Not at Parkside Terrace.
Rhiannon's been offered a room-share with Hilary, a history student she knows slightly, but it's only a one room bedsit, and that wouldn't be too good for Rhiannon and Martin's love life. And Carolyn's said that Rhiannon is quite welcome to use her spare bedroom for as long as she needs to, but that's hardly ideal: Martin can't stomach the thought of facing Carolyn's knowing smile over the cornflakes in the mornings. Not to mention living for much of the time in the same house as Arthur. And Herc spends a lot of time at Carolyn's, and although Martin trusts Rhiannon, he still doesn't trust Herc as far as Rhiannon's concerned.
It's up to Martin to do something.
Moving out of Parkside Terrace has always been part of Martin's plan. But, despite his salary, he can't afford to buy anywhere - he just hasn't got enough money for the deposit for a mortgage. It'll be years before he's saved that much. And he doesn't want to live in a shared house any more. Especially not with students. And suddenly most available flats in Fitton are attic conversions, and Martin never wants to see another attic as long as he lives.
There's one very obvious answer.
Rhiannon's very worried, although she tries not to let Martin know this.
She knows that she can take the spare divan in Hilary's bedsit, even though she and Hilary barely know each other. But Martin can hardly spend the night there, and he won't have her spend the night in his attic. Not that she wants to - not in that attic. And although it's lovely of Carolyn to offer her a room, Rhiannon doesn't think Martin would be too comfortable with that idea.
And she doesn't really want to have to ask Carolyn if it's all right every time she wants Martin to stop for the night.
And she misses being with Martin.
Even though she's still not managed to have that conversation with him, not managed to explain why she doesn't want to get married. Because every time she tries to explain, Martin just says he doesn't want to talk about it.
He does seem to be a bit happier at the moment though. Perhaps he's come to terms with it.
Perhaps it's best to let sleeping dogs lie.
And at least she's got most of her belongings packed up and stored at Carolyn's - that was a really kind offer.
Not that she had much to pack - boxes of books and papers, of course, and just two cases of clothes. And her laptop and CD player and CDs. She keeps the minimum of necessary clothing at Nelson Street now.
Not much to show for twenty-nine years on God's good green earth.
There is, of course, one very obvious answer.
Rhiannon finishes work at the Fitton Arms after the lunchtime shift on Wednesdays. Today Martin said that he'll meet her outside as soon as her shift ends: the landlord of the Fitton doesn't really like the boyfriends/girlfriends of his staff going into the pub. A bit like Victorian servants, really: 'no callers'.
They're not having much luck with landlords at the moment.
She really thought that Martin was on standby today, but perhaps that's been cancelled.
Strange, that. MJN earns a lot of money from being on standby, ready to go at a moment's notice - you wouldn't think Carolyn would cancel that. Perhaps Rhiannon got it wrong - perhaps Douglas is on shorthaul, so Gertie wouldn't be available for standby anyway.
She was so sure it was a standby day, though.
Martin's waiting for her. He's looking really confident, as if he's planned something that's gone really well. If she didn't know him so well, she'd think he almost looks smug. That's most unlike Martin - he's convinced he never has any good luck,that something's always going to go wrong with whatever he's got in mind.
Much though Rhiannon loves Martin, she wishes he'd have a bit more confidence in himself.
He does look confident today, though.
Martin's parked the van round the corner. At least the van's running a bit better now, since Carl-the-ATC fitted a new-second-hand clutch and gearbox. It was Arthur who found out that Carl's a genius when it comes to keeping old vehicles on the road. Even if Martin has nicknamed the van 'Sisyphus' because he says he spends most of his time pushing it uphill.
They take the road north out of Fitton, through the posh suburbs, and Martin refuses to tell Rhiannon where they're going.
West at the crossroads, and up the road called 'The Rock'. Sisyphus must be in a good mood today. Never cuts out once, never hesitates, even though it's a steep hill. Headed towards Fitton Green. Rhiannon's been to Fitton Green once - her personal tutor lives there, he invited some of his students to a sherry party. Didn't realise Martin knew anyone here, though.
Martin parks Sisyphus at the Green, and grins at Rhiannon.
'Come on, then!'
They must be going to meet someone. If she'd realised, she'd have taken a change of clothes into work, not gone out in her uniform polo shirt advertising Fitton Ales.
They walk across the Green, past the duck-pond, towards the little terrace of Victorian cottages. Martin pauses outside a white-painted cottage with a blue front door.
'Pretty, isn't it, Rhi?'
He walks up the path, takes a key out of his pocket and unlocks the front door. Whoever lives here, Martin must know them really well.
'Come on, Rhi!'
He's as excited as a child.
Hand-in-hand, they explore the cottage. It's bigger than it seems from the outside - not that that would be difficult - the front room is small, but the kitchen is a big room and beyond that is the old scullery that's now a utility room, and finally the bathroom. Funny to have a downstairs bathroom, but it's clearly a later alteration. And there's a little flagged garden, warm with the afternoon sun, and a gate to a small vegetable patch, and beyond that a big old tree, the sort you see in churchyards.
There's a twisty flight of stairs behind a door in the kitchen, with a bedroom leading off either side, and another door from the rear bedroom into a small room that must be built over the bathroom.
It really is a charming little house.
They sit on a low wall in the little paved garden, sharing a coffee. She'd wondered why he'd brought a thermos with him, but sometimes with Martin it's wisest not to ask.
'What do you think, Rhi?'
'It's gorgeous, Martin. A really lovely tiny cottage. Like something out of a story.'
'Wouldn't need much furniture - not at first, anyway. A really decent b-bed, though.'
He blushes, as if 'bed' is a dirty word. Considering how frequently they make love, how enthusiastic he always is, he can be incredibly coy at times.
And this is the man who got remarkably creative with the contents of a bottle of suncream on a hilltop in Shropshire. Deeply embarrassed at mentioning the name of a piece of furniture. Sometimes you just wouldn't believe it was the same person. Safest to change the subject.
'And I love the old fireplaces, Martin. They're beautiful.'
Rhiannon's pretty sure she knows what Martin's got in mind. But with Martin, you're never quite sure. Sometimes it seems as if Martin doesn't know what he's got in mind.
She leans back and looks at the garden. This could be really pretty: some plants in pots, some vegetables, herbs for the kitchen. You could eat out here in the summer, perhaps in the shade under the tree if it was too hot.
'You'd be happy here, cariad. And it's a much nicer area than Parkside Terrace. Really posh.'
He's going pink again. She knows him so well - whatever he's going to say next is going to come out wrong. It always does.
'I - I thought you - you could use the little room upstairs as a study, if you w-wanted to that it is, you don't have to, and t-there's a bus that goes into Fitton, right by the University, and - and it would be much nicer for you than just having the one room, and -'
Not what she thought he had in mind at the least. Dear Lord, has he gone mad? What on earth is he thinking of?
'Martin, just listen to me. I couldn't afford to live here. This isn't the sort of place students live. And I don't have any furniture. And I guess it must be a rented property, and I don't think for a moment the landlord would want a student as a tenant.'
Much though Martin loves Rhiannon, sometimes he wishes she was a bit quicker on the uptake. And it was all very well Douglas saying that he ought to just tell her what he's got in mind and see whether she thinks it's a good idea, but then Douglas doesn't know what happened in Shropshire and how it very nearly went very wrong indeed because she didn't think it was a good idea at all. And Martin doesn't want it go wrong in the slightest this time. He takes a deep breath.
'I don't think for a moment the landlord would want a student as a tenant, Rhi. But he wants an airline captain. Very much indeed. I signed the lease this morning.'
There. That bit was easy. Now the tricky bit, Crieff, the part where you’ve got to be careful not to frighten her away. The bit where you’ve got to be careful not to say the wrong thing.
'I-I just thought you might like to use that little room as a study, somewhere quiet to work without anyone else moving around all the time, disturbing you. And you could stay over here any time you wanted, if you were fed up with that bedsit, not just when I'm here but when I'm away as well. Or - or you could have the spare bedroom if you wanted, and b-be here all the time all the time. I-I'd like that, Rhi - well, not that - but - but, well, I would really. And perhaps - I mean not straight away, later - only if you'd like to - I mean I'd like to - no, I don't mean that! Well I do, but later, then perhaps then we might - not now, later -'
His voice trails off.
Oh Martin my love, it always sounds right in your head, doesn't it? Just calm down for a moment - get your breath back.
'Rh - Rhi?'
He's got that hopeful look again. And she hurt him so much last time. And this is right. She knows it is.
The right time and the right place.
And the right thing to do.
Sometimes with Martin you have to tell him what he's thinking.
'Martin? Why don't I just move in? If you want me to. Not just into the spare bedroom - move in properly, with you. Why don't we live together? As a couple. As lovers. We've been practically living together as it is.'
'Rhi? Really? Really? Even though - ?'
'Even though I won't marry you? Oh Martin, I've been trying to tell you for weeks! I don't have a problem with commitment; it's only - only marriage I don't want, Martin.'
‘Is that all that it is, Rhi? Is it just a piece of paper and a ring that you don’t want? Because – because if you’re not ready for this, then please be honest with me. It’s a big step for both of us if you’re not sure.’
‘I’m ready, cariad. I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.’
She takes a deep breath.
‘It’s only the marriage bit that I don’t want. And it’s not because I don’t love you enough, because I do love you: I want us to be together and to have a home together and everything. But I don’t want to get married because – well, because I think that people stop bothering about each other when they get married, and start to take each other for granted and that’s when the love stops and the hurt begins. And I don’t ever want that to happen to us.’
‘Rhi, you silly, silly girl! Why on earth couldn’t you tell me that in the first place? And all these weeks I’ve been thinking that I wasn’t – wasn’t good enough for you.’
He leans over and kisses her.
'I – we - can move in anytime we want to. I've given notice on Parkside Terrace. A - as soon as you like, Rhi.'
'Let's go and get our things, Martin. Move in today. It'll be a bit like camping out until we've got some furniture, but we'll manage. It'll be fun. Let's do it now.'
'I do have a bit of money these days, Rhi - I can afford to buy some furniture. And it could be a bit uncomfortable on the floor. Let's go and buy that - that b-bed.'
The answer was really very obvious, after all.
Chapter 29: Home
Some snippets from Martin and Rhiannon’s first few weeks together.
Relationships are surprisingly different once you start to live together.
Martin hadn’t realised quite how much their relationship would change.
Not that it’s changed for the worse – not in the least – but there’s a lot more to living together than he’d thought.
There was the knotty problem of the rent for a start: although he’d explained to Rhiannon that he could easily afford the rent himself – after all, he wouldn’t have signed the lease in the first place if he couldn’t – Rhiannon said that as it was going to be her home as well then she wanted to contribute towards it.
He quite understood how she felt. Especially after she’d pointed out that if the situation was reversed, he wouldn’t like to feel as if she was keeping him. And in any case, if they weren’t living together, she’d be paying rent and bills for wherever she was living, so it was only fair that she should try to pay her way.
So he’d backed down, and they’d worked out how much Rhiannon was going to contribute out of her scholarship monies.
If only she’d agree to give up her job at that bloody pub. But Rhiannon had said that gave her a bit of money for the little extras in life, and she didn’t want have to ask him every time she needed a new pair of tights or wanted to have lunch with Carolyn, or to buy something for him.
Sometimes there’s no arguing with Rhiannon.
He thought that it was exactly the sort of wardrobe that ought to lead to Narnia, but when he told Rhiannon that, she didn’t seem to have the faintest idea what he was talking about.
And there’s a furniture auction at Fitton Sales Rooms next week, and according to the catalogue there’s an old chest of drawers and an Edwardian ladies’ dressing table that might be okay, and if he can get them at a decent price, that’ll finish furnishing the bedroom.
It was Arthur who’d said that it was worth visiting auctions rather buying new furniture – sometimes Arthur really amazes you with his ideas – and he was right. The big kitchen table was a bargain, and they’ve found six dining chairs, none of which match, but which look as if they belong.
So the cottage is – very slowly – being furnished in a sort of Victorian/Edwardian style, and it feels comfortable.
It feels like home.
That’s something else he hadn’t realised either. Quite how special it is to have a home together. Coming home and knowing that Rhiannon is there and that it’s their home is there is quite different to going back to her old room on Nelson Street.
Silly, really, but Rhiannon says she feels exactly the same way.
Rhiannon had laughed, and said she was an International Woman of Mystery (or at least a Welsh one) and believed in travelling light. But then he'd bought her that teddy bear wearing a mortar-board and gown, to mark the start of her postgraduate years - and, to be honest, because she didn't have a teddy bear and he was rather embarrassed that he still has Edward T Bear from when he was a kid, and Edward T Bear lives on the bedside table and gets talked to a lot (except when he gets turned round to face the wall because there are some things that a bear, no matter how old he is, shouldn't have to witness, especially when his owner's feeling passionate). And Rhiannon had hugged the damn academic-bear to her and cried and said it was one of the nicest things she'd ever been given.
Douglas had said that it was no use asking him, not even Mighty Sky Gods are privy to how a woman's mind works, but that sometimes it doesn't take much to make the love of your life happy.
That had all the potential to be a very unpleasant moment indeed, but he'd apologised, and after a few minutes silence Rhiannon had kissed him and said she hadn't meant to be nasty to him, but she didn't want to talk about it.
So he left the subject well alone.
But he suspects there’s more to Rhiannon’s antipathy to marriage than just a morbid fear that things might go wrong.
Because surely things might just as easily go wrong when you’re living together?
Not that they’re going to. He’ll make sure they don’t.
His family hadn't taken the news very well, come to that. You'd really think that they might have been pleased that he'd found someone, that he was happy, but Mum and Caitlin seemed to be worried that (in Caitlin's words) 'he'd fallen for someone who wouldn't be able to cope with him' and bloody Simon had been his usual obnoxious self and said that he didn't suppose it would last five minutes once Rhiannon found out what Martin was like, and in any case she must be desperate to take up with Martin.
Not that Martin's ever got on with his own family, but you'd think they might try to pretend they were happy for him.
And in any case, Rhiannon doesn't have to cope with him. He's not an invalid.
Not that that was easy. It was no good telling her that he loves all her glorious curves just as they are – he’d tried that before.
So he tried suggesting that she took off all her clothes and looked at herself in the mirror and see just how gorgeous she really was, but she still thought she was fat.
And the sight of Rhiannon with no clothes on is just too distracting.
Then he showed her some height/weight ratio charts – which showed that there was nothing wrong with her weight at all – but she said she felt fat.
So a few nights later – in desperation – he refused to eat. He said that he couldn’t possibly sit down to one of her wonderful meals if she was just having a few lettuce leaves and some tinned tuna, and that he knew that she wanted him to eat properly and put a bit of weight on, so how about it? Did she want him to diet as well, and lose even more weight, or was she going to be a sensible girl and let them both have a decent meal?
It’s a good job her aim is so rotten, otherwise she’d have hit him with that pepper grinder.
He divided his meal between two plates – God, her ham and leek bake is just amazing – and said – quite firmly – ‘Eat.’
There’s a stubborn streak to Rhiannon.
There’s a stubborn streak to Martin, too.
‘Or else there’s no more bedtime fun and frolics for you, my girl. Or at any other time of the day or night. So – the choice is yours.’
Rhiannon had muttered something about him thinking that she was a sex maniac and in any case clearly not knowing that Lysistrata was a woman, but she’d eaten every scrap. And shared his cheesecake and cream afterwards.
‘God, Martin, you have no idea how much I enjoyed that. Coffee?’
‘Let’s skip the coffee. A good girl deserves a reward for a clean plate.’
They hadn’t quite made it to the bedroom, but he’s had no problems with her eating properly since.
Someone to look after.
And to think if he hadn’t tried speed dating, he’d never have met her.
He still doesn’t know what it was about him that made Rhiannon decide to drop her bag when he bumped into her. When he asked her, she laughed, and ruffled his hair, and said (quite seriously) ‘Don’t you know? No, you really don’t, do you? That’s one of the nicest things about you.’
He’d looked long and hard in the bathroom mirror that night, but he was damned if he could see what it was.
And that’s certainly not something he intends to ask Douglas about.
Then Rhiannon said that if they were playing ‘Twenty Questions’, there was something she wanted to ask him: why he hadn’t run a mile when she’d asked him if they could see each other again – after all, she might have been some sort of mad stalker-woman, or something.
It was his turn to be serious. He’d looked at her and said simply ‘Because I’d already fallen in love with you.’
Then he’d kissed her.
And then they’d gone to bed.
The wild winberries will be out of season, but that doesn’t matter.
It’s Rhiannon’s idea. She says if they go back, it will put things right – make them forget how horribly that first visit ended.
It doesn’t matter about what happened at all: there’s nothing that Martin thinks needs to be put right. Not now. But if it’ll make Rhiannon feel better, if that’s what she wants, then that’s what they’re going to do.
Because that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? This whole love thing. Making sure that your partner is happy and safe and secure, knowing that they’re loved. Doing things together because Rhiannon wants to do them.
Rhiannon bursts through the doorway, a hammer in one hand.
‘I’m hanging some of your pictures. Where do you want that Battle of Britain print – in here or in the bedroom?’
‘But – but you don’t like planes!’
And that’s putting it mildly.
She looks at him quizzically.
‘Is that why you hadn’t unpacked them? Daft sod – I’m not going to get hysterical over a picture! It’s your picture, and it’s a very nice picture, and it deserves to have pride of place somewhere.’
‘In – in here then, please. Look, I’ll hang it. Where do you think?’
‘Over the fireplace. Make it a focal point. Providing that – ‘
‘Providing that I can have a photograph of you in your uniform, standing by Gertie. For the bedroom. To look after me when you’re away. And can we have a bottle of wine tonight?’
‘Two bottles and a takeaway, if you like. Any particular reason?’
‘There’s a good film on. I thought you’d like to watch it. 633 Squadron.’
He very nearly drops the hammer on his foot. Rhi, suggesting they watch a film about planes? In which most of the pilots die?
‘Rhi, we don’t have to watch it if you don’t want to, sweetheart.’
‘Well, I’m sure to cry – because I always do in films – and I’ll almost certainly have to hold your hand a lot, but that’ll be because I like holding your hand. But you’ll enjoy it, and that means I’ll enjoy it. That’s what’s love’s about, isn’t it? Doing things together and making each other happy?’
‘You know, Rhi, sometimes I’m sure you’re a mind reader.’
Chapter 30: Elm
In which we discover that Arthur has a surprising talent.
Rhiannon's not wearing her blue dress this evening, it's too hot. It's the dog days of an Indian summer. She's tied her hair back and she's wearing a long soft cotton dress to try to keep cool.
Martin doesn't really like that dress very much - not that he'd ever tell her that, but because it's loose, it doesn't show her figure off, it makes her look - not plump, exactly, perhaps a bit stocky. He'd never tell her that, though.
Everyone's in the little paved garden, soaking up the heat, sometimes moving back into the kitchen, where the quarry-tiled floor keeps everything deliciously cool.
There's not too many people there: Douglas and Carolyn and Arthur, of course, and the neighbours from either side. And Emilia, of course.
That degree in Criminology's really paid off for Emilia, she's on her way to becoming a high-flying Civil Servant now, but she's managed to take a weekend off, to come back from London for the housewarming party.
They hadn't intended to have a housewarming party, but Carolyn and Douglas and Arthur have shown so much interest in the cottage, and Douglas pointed out that they'd never really celebrated Rhiannon getting her First Class Honours, not to mention her post grad place, that in the end it seemed the right thing to do. And because they still haven't really got much furniture, at least if everyone's either outside or in the kitchen then it's not quite so obvious how bare the other rooms are.
Martin thought it was a bit embarrassing that Rhiannon had to ask Geoff-from-next-door and Josie-and-Mike-from-the-other-side if she could borrow some chairs, but they all just laughed and said yes, of course, they knew how difficult it was when you were trying to furnish your first home (and Martin was secretly very pleased that they'd referred to the cottage as his and Rhiannon's home, it means that he and Rhiannon are a Real Couple) and Josie said that she'd got a patio set that she was sick to death of the sight of, and if they'd like to have it they'd be doing her a favour because then Mike would have to buy her a new one.
And when Geoff came round with a few chairs, he'd looked at the little front room and asked if they'd like him to lift the carpet and sand and stain the floorboards, because these little Victorian cottages look really good with bare boards and a few rugs scattered round.
It's all so much nicer than living in Parkside Terrace.
Because they haven't got much furniture - much of anything at the moment, except books - they'd explained firmly that they didn't want anyone to think that they ought to bring a housewarming present. Otherwise it could have looked like they were hinting.
But of course people have brought gifts of one sort or another. Mainly they've brought wine, or flowers (Josie had to pop back next door to fetch a few vases, that's something else that Martin and Rhiannon need to buy) but Douglas bought them a really good coffee-maker. Fortunately he was the first person to arrive, so no-one else could see quite how pink and stuttery Martin became.
Douglas laughed and said that the only reason he bought it was to see how tongue-tied Martin got, but they know he didn't mean it. Despite all his teasing of Martin, he's a good friend.
Douglas is really impressed with Rhiannon. That dress she's wearing is a bloody disaster, looks like a chintz sack and does nothing for her at all, but she's a lovely girl, and as full of tricks as a barrow-load of monkeys. She pours him a drink and he starts to explain that he doesn't touch wine (doesn't touch anything alcoholic of course) but Martin laughs and says there's no need to worry. And even though Douglas could swear that she'd uncorked a new bottle of Sauvignon right in front of him and poured his drink out of that, it's apple juice. He's no idea how she's done it, but Rhiannon says it's an old barmaid's trick, she often uses it if people don't want their friends to know they're on the wagon, and she'll look after his drinks all evening.
So that's Douglas's reputation as a hard-drinking Sky God intact.
Carolyn arrives carrying a large cake-box that turns out to contain a very posh ice-cream gateaux and says she hopes to God they have a freezer, people would kill for ice-cream in this weather but right at this moment she'd kill for a very large gin and tonic and plenty of ice, and by the way their present from her is that she hasn't brought Herc with her.
Martin’s looking really confident tonight. Douglas had expected that, with a houseful of guests, Martin would be flustered and tongue-tied, but he’s relaxed and happy, and so far he hasn’t said the wrong thing at all.
Douglas mentions this – very quietly – to Carolyn, who gives him one of her Looks and says well, he would be, wouldn’t he?
Douglas doesn’t understand this at all, and Carolyn rolls her eyes and says exasperatedly ‘Oh, for goodness sake! Use your common sense! He’s on his home turf, and he knows exactly what’s going to happen.’
Douglas still doesn’t quite understand this, but he’s starting to appreciate how Arthur must feel a lot of the time.
By this time everyone's arrived, and Martin's a bit worried - a lot worried - to see that Arthur's carrying something. It's wrapped to Arthur's usual standards - badly - and it's such an odd shape that for a moment Martin wonders whether it might be a gift-wrapped tortoise.
Arthur gives the parcel to Rhiannon and says he hopes they like it, it's something he made for them.
Martin shudders to think what it might be - not one of Arthur's cakes, surely, even Arthur wouldn't wrap a cake (would he?) - and of course this could be really embarrassing for Arthur, because everybody's gathered round to see what it is.
Rhiannon opens the parcel, and for a moment no-one says anything.
Douglas puts his hand on Arthur's shoulder.
'Good God. You made this, Arthur? You did?'
Arthur looks worriedly at Rhiannon and Martin and says (all in one breath) that he hopes they like it, it's a hanging salt box for the kitchen because it's the sort of thing people used to have in old houses and Martin said they were living in an old cottage, and it's made of elm wood, the box, not the cottage, and the hinge is a strip of leather, that's how they used to be made, and he's carved an M and an R on the front because that's their initials.
Martin passes the little salt box round for everyone to see. It's exquisite.
'Arthur, I had no idea you could make things like this.'
'Do you like it, Skip? Really? I like working with wood, it's the only thing I was any good at when I was at school. And you don't have to have a conversation with wood - well you do, you have to talk to it all the time, tell it what it's going to be, so it knows, and then it's happy, but what I mean is wood's brilliant, it doesn't misunderstand you, you don't get things wrong when you talk to it. And I use old wood, I buy bits of old furniture from auctions, places like that, things nobody wants any more, so I have to tell the wood what I'm going to make it into next and that it'll be loved again.'
It's a very odd speech, even by Arthur's standards, but no-one looks in the least confused.
Emilia's holding the box now, she runs her fingertips across the grain and admires how smooth it is and how beautifully the little dove-tail joints are made. Then she and Arthur start talking about the magical powers of wood and how elm is associated with goddesses, and Arthur says yes, that's why he chose elm, because Douglas told him that Martin told Douglas that Rhiannon told Martin that Rhiannon was the name of a goddess.
And after everyone's sorted this out, Douglas says that traditionally a house without salt is supposed to be an unhappy house, so Arthur couldn't have made anything more appropriate, and then everyone's admiring the little box and Arthur's the centre of attention and he's really happy.
Arthur doesn't usually like being the centre of attention, but no-one's laughing at him, or calling him a clot. Mike asks Arthur if he works from his own designs, and Arthur says no, he just looks at something - provided it's made of wood - even just a picture of it, and he can see how it works, how it's made, and what wood to use, and then the wood he’s chosen sort of tells him about the shape it wants to be, you can see it if you just look and doesn't everyone do that?
And Josie asks him if he could make her a salt-box and Arthur says yes, but it won't be exactly the same, because he doesn't think wood likes being made into exactly the same thing twice, it's like mass production, it hasn't got any soul.
And no-one laughs at that either.
And Carolyn is looking really happy.
Emilia's set up a sort of cocktail-bar in the kitchen - she's handing round some very peculiar looking drinks (Rhiannon's done that sleight-of-hand thing again to get rid of Douglas's) and started flirting outrageously with Geoff (who's also looking very happy) and Martin thinks well, by the look of it, he and Rhiannon won't be sleeping on the floor after all while Emilia has their bed. Especially when Emilia finds out that Geoff's an instructor for the army cadets and Geoff finds out that Emilia has this thing about men in uniform.
How on earth Emilia managed to end up working for the British Government is beyond Martin. When her boss retires, she'll probably end up being the British Government. Or the CIA. Or both.
God help the country.
Arthur's noticed the big old tree at the end of the garden and he’s busy telling Martin that the tree’s really brilliant, because it’s a yew, and there’s a spirit that lives in yew trees and the spirit will protect their home providing that the tree's planted in the north-west corner, and he and Martin work out that the yew is in exactly in the right place (which is also brilliant) and suddenly everyone's asking Arthur about tree-lore and about trees in general, and he's really happy, you can see that.
Douglas takes Carolyn on one side and says 'Carolyn, Arthur's wasted as a steward. Why on earth isn't he making a fortune creating things like that box and selling them?'
Carolyn smiles - a little sadly perhaps - and says 'Because he takes so long to make them; he'd never make a living at it. And because he won't sell what he makes. He says that would betray the wood - that it needs a home that would love it. So he'll only give his work away, to people he really likes. You know how he is. But he's happy, and if he's happy, then - '
And then Rhiannon and Carolyn go back into the kitchen and Carolyn hugs Rhiannon and says how happy she is, because Arthur's really in his element tonight, and if Rhiannon and Martin ever want anything like shelves or bookcases, or planters for the garden, just ask Arthur - he'll be so pleased to make it for them.
Rhiannon hugs Carolyn back and says that it's Arthur who's making the evening a success. And then they take the ice-cream gateaux and some plates out into the little garden, where Emilia and Geoff are starting to dance, and everyone's having such a brilliant time.
With thanks to the lovely Launa Alvara for her patient work as my beta.
Purists may notice that Arthur's views on wood are inconsistent with the broadcast episode 'Fitton'. Call it poetic licence.
Chapter 31: Lunch
In which Carolyn and Rhainnon are Ladies Who Lunch - again - and Rhainnon needs a little advice...
'So,' Carolyn asks, pushing her dessert plate away, 'How's life in Fitton Green? '
It's another Ladies Who Lunch day.
Rhi blushes prettily.
'It's – fine, thanks. More than fine. We're really happy.'
'Well, I gathered from Martin's unremitting cheerfulness – which I most admit is almost as tooth-achingly sweet as Arthur's view on life in general – that as far as he's concerned everything is – to use my only off-spring's favourite adjective – brilliant; but are you happy? It's not easy, adjusting to having someone else permanently in your life, there all the time, and everyone has moments where they just want to scream and slam the door, but you get over those.'
Rhi's looking at Carolyn a little oddly, and the twice-divorced Ms Knapp-Shappey thinks for a moment that perhaps, given her track-record, she's not the best person in the world to offer advice on relationships.
Especially when her advice hasn't been asked for.
'What I mean, Rhiannon, is that sometimes Martin isn't the easiest man in the world to get along with. You know him better than I do, but I've known him longer. And we both know that he's just a bundle of nerves and insecurities. Are you managing to cope?'
'Why do people think I have to cope? Martin's sister told him that I might not be able to cope with him. He's not ill – why should I need to cope? He's a lovely man, and I love him very much, and everything's just fine. I know he's nervous, and shy, and sometimes he panics, but he's just been very lonely – on his own for too long. He's more confident than he used to be – you saw how he was at the house-warming party - and we're very happy. And having a lot of fun. And I wouldn't change anything about him. Not one thing. Because then he – well, he wouldn't be my Martin.'
Back down, Carolyn thinks, back down. Change the subject.
'And that's good to hear. Because I made the mistake of thinking that I could change Gordon into the sort of man I wanted him to be: and look where that got me.'
'It got you Arthur and Gertie.'
'Very true – even dreadful husbands have a silver lining – or at least silver-lined pockets. And I suppose Arthur wouldn't be Arthur if he'd had a different father, so that's something to be thankful for. Not, of course, that I'd ever let Gordon know that.'
'Martin told me that Gordon was a disgusting man who didn't deserve you or Arthur. Oh! I shouldn't have said that – I'm really sorry.'
'Why apologise for the truth? Gordon is an ill-mannered bully without one iota of charm, and the best day of my life – other than the day Arthur was born – was the day I finally decided that I'd had enough of his philanderings and threw him out. It took Martin moments to recognise what I'd closed my eyes to for years, because I didn't want to admit, not even to myself, that I'd made the biggest mistake of my life.'
'Life's too short to be miserable, Carolyn. Even if that is a bit of a cliché.'
'The thing about clichés is that they're often true. That's what makes them clichés. But when I asked how you were coping, I didn't mean to imply there was anything wrong with Martin – I meant coping with having your first home. Because life does change when you start living with someone, and I know that both of you are serious about this relationship.'
Rhiannon considers this for a moment and says 'Well, the worst bit about it is that he's away so much. I mean, it's not as if I didn't know how much time he spends on stopovers, we were virtually living together before we got the cottage, and I'd never complain about it, but it's very different to when I was in a shared house where there was always someone around if I wanted company. Now it's just me in an empty cottage when he's not there. So it's – odd, really. It feels odd, I mean. Still, term starts soon, so I'll have loads of studying – that might take my mind off it a bit. And there's the pub work – Martin would be happier if I gave that up, but the money's useful, and it's something to do. It's a bit unfair on him though, because of course there are evenings I have to work when he's home, and then he's the one who's by himself.'
'You'll work something out, child. And you're very welcome to come round for supper when he's away, you know. Or we could go and see a film, or a play. Martin wouldn't mind – he'd be happy that you'd got some company. Shall we do that the next time he's on a stopover?'
'I'd like that very much, Carolyn – thank you. But only if you come round to – to ours for supper the time after that.'
Rhiannon blushes again, and Carolyn's suddenly reminded of the early days of her first marriage, when the word 'ours' was so very special. Long may it last for them.
'Agreed, then. How about next Friday?'
'I'll be working that night, and it's a late shift – I won't finish until almost midnight.'
'You're on. Supper at yours and I'll bring the wine?'
'Bring your nightie as well, if you like – if we're having an evening of it, you may as well stop over if you want – I can drop you back home on my way to the airfield the next morning. Now, is there anything in particular you want to do this afternoon?'
'Well, I would like to go shopping – Martin's birthday's in the offing, and I've had a really silly idea – not for his main present, but for a bit a fun. But I don't know if it'd be a bit over the top. You see, what I thought was...'
Anyone who walks past the restaurant now and sees them sitting at the table in the window, heads together and giggling, would doubtless think how very pleasant to see that a mother and daughter clearly get on so well.
Except that it's hardly the sort of conversation that a mother and a daughter would be having.
'Oh, I've done that, Rhiannon – no need to look shocked, even if I am old enough to be your mother! There's life in the old girl yet, you know! And it goes down a treat, it really does. Start as you mean to go on, my dear. And I know just the shop...'
Thanks again to Launa Alvara who keeps me sane, listens to me ranting on and gives me sterling advice in her capacity as Beta...
Chapter 32: Giftwrapped
As far as Martin's concerned, it's the best birthday present ever ...
'Stop wriggling, Rhi, you're putting me off.'
'Lie still for a minute, I've nearly finished.'
'I swear I'll never ask you to do this again!'
'There, all done. Just stay like that for a bit until you're dry.'
Martin leans back and replaces the top on the nail-varnish bottle.
'Why any woman wants pale blue toenails is beyond me.'
Rhiannon's lying on the sofa, her feet on Martin's lap. Her dressing-gown's fallen slightly open: is that new underwear she's wearing? Lace. Satin. Not very much of it, either, from what he can see.
He runs one finger gently up the inside of her leg, just as far as her knee, intent on exploring a little further.
'Martin! You're tickling again!'
He tugs at the belt of her dressing-gown.
'Do we have to go out, Rhi?'
'Martin, we can't invite people to your birthday party and then not turn up ourselves!'
The dressing-gown's fallen open now. He was right - not very much underwear, but a lot of Rhiannon to feast his eyes on.
Dear Lord, it's a corset! Good God, what a temptation!
Rhiannon swings her legs to the floor and pulls the edges of her dressing-gown together.
'Time to get dressed, love.'
'You really are so very beautiful, Rhi. Especially when you're - not wearing very much.'
She grins at him.
'Wait till I've got the stockings on.'
Oh God, stockings? How the hell am I going to get through this evening?
'Then, when we get back from the restaurant, you can have the other half of your birthday present.'
'The other half?'
'Indeed. Me. Giftwrapped.'
She doesn't need to explain.
'Ah, so I'll have all the pleasure of unwrapping you? Do I really have to wait?'
'Patience, sweetheart, patience.'
'Have I told you recently just how much I love you?'
'Not for the last ten seconds. Happy birthday, Captain Crieff.'
As usual, thanks to Launa Alvara for her tireless work.
Chapter 33: Gertie
It’s an important day for Rhiannon, but she’s not looking forward to it. Not one little bit.
Not unhappy with Martin, she couldn't be unhappy with Martin, but unhappy with herself. And ashamed.
Today is a really important day, and she's not looking forward to it, not one little bit. Today's another big step forward in her therapy.
She's been going for therapy every week for months now, Carolyn always goes with her, and Rhiannon and her therapist have talked and talked about her fear of flying. The therapist wonders whether part of her fear is claustrophobia, whether there's an underlying fear of confined spaces, and Rhiannon thinks that perhaps he might be right. Being shut in somewhere. Unable to escape. She hadn't liked Martin's attic at all, and then there was her horrible bedroom when she lived in Da's pub. She doesn't want to talk about that though, doesn't want anyone to know.
She realises that she probably isn't helping herself one little bit.
Her therapist is a great believer in Exposure Therapy. In facing your fears head on.
Rhiannon doesn't think she wants to be a great believer in Exposure Therapy. Rhiannon really doesn't want to face her fears head on. Not any of them. Rhiannon wants to hide from her fears, to pretend that they don't exist, never have existed. And right at this moment she wants to persuade herself that she never, ever, even has to think about flying, never mind even looking at a plane.
And that might work, if it wasn't for Martin.
It's not Martin's fault - it's his job. Rhiannon's not certain how long she can go on hiding how frightened she is for him. She's terrified the whole of the time he's in the air, and even though he always lets her know as soon as he's arrived somewhere, that doesn't stop the aching fears, because he's got to get back safely. And then when he comes home she's on edge until the next time he flies, and then the whole vicious circle starts again.
But she hasn't told him this.
And today is the Big Step Forward. Today is the day she's got to get onto a plane. Onto Gertie. Not to fly anywhere, not to leave the ground - just get on board Gertie.
It sounds so simple, but she's terrified. She's frightened that she's going to burst into tears, or refuse to get on Gertie in the first place and that wouldn't be quite so bad if it was only her and Carolyn, because Carolyn wouldn't mind, she says she's seen it all before. But Martin's going to be there.
Martin's got to be there. Because not only has Rhiannon got to get onto Gertie - she's got to sit there while Gertie actually moves. And that means that someone's got to drive Gertie - or whatever you do with planes - and that someone's going to be Martin.
She doesn't want Martin to be there. Not at all. She doesn't want him to see how frightened she is, what a fool she's going to make of herself. And he's so sure that it's going to be a success, that she'll be fine.
Time to go.
She pulls her jumper on, and turns to Martin. He takes her hand.
She forces herself to smile.
'Ready as I'll ever be.'
She hadn't realised Gertie was so tiny. Not that that makes any difference: she's still going to have to get into an enclosed metal box, whatever size it is. And it's not just a metal box. It's a plane. And she feels sick. She wants to run away and hide and never, ever have to do this. And she didn't realise how many people were going to be there to witness her disgrace. What's Arthur doing here? And Douglas? It's going to be like a circus act. A freak show. What if they laugh at her?
What if Martin's ashamed of her?
What if Martin's angry with her?
Oh Martin, please, please don't be angry with me, I try to be good, I really do.
Martin puts his arm round her shoulders.
'Come on, Rhi, let's give you the guided tour first.'
Don't do this to me, please Martin, please, please take me away from here so I don't have to do this horrible thing.
They walk round the airfield - she's never been there before - and then they go into the control tower and she meets Carl the ATC, and he smiles at her and explains what his job is, and what all the instruments and things are, and all about flight plans and waypoints and this bit isn't so bad. But of course she's isn't in a plane.
The awful moment is here, and they walk across the concrete - the apron - to Gertie. She manages to get on board - God knows how, she's shaking so much - and they all sit down. Arthur asks her if she'd like a coffee and Carolyn says no, she'll make the coffee, let's not ruin the day. Then Martin tells her all about Gertie and what happens on a flight and Rhiannon thinks well, at least I've not shown myself up too much yet. Douglas tells her about the Travelling Lemon game, and that makes her laugh, and then Carolyn says why doesn't Douglas let Rhiannon hear one of his cargo flight announcements, and Martin gives Douglas rather an odd look, and Douglas tries to look innocent and says who, me? and both the pilots go up to the flight deck and Douglas's voice comes over the intercom with a really silly speech that starts off by welcoming her aboard the 4.15 from Paddington and then goes on to mention just about every Agatha Christie book she's ever heard of.
It's not too bad, really - well it is, but at least she's sitting in a plane. At least she's managed that. She's just sitting in a sort of room with fixed seats, even if it is a metal box. Even if it is a plane.
It's not too bad. Perhaps she can go home in a moment.
Please Martin, please take me home, and I promise I'll be good.
And then the really terrifying thing happens. Because suddenly the engines start and then Gertie begins to move, and she's so frightened she can't help it, she spills her coffee and she starts to scream.
'No! No! Don't make me, I can't, I can't, please don't - '
Arthur holds her hands and tells her that it's all right, he's there, there's nothing to be frightened of, and Carolyn’s standing behind her gently rubbing her shoulders, but Rhiannon can't help it, she's lost control, and she can’t think what’s happening, she knows that she ought to, but she’s so terrified that she just can’t think, and she starts to cry. And suddenly Douglas is there, and that means it must be Martin, Martin, who's doing this terrible thing to her - how can he do this to her? - and she starts to scream again.
Douglas hunkers down beside her and says gently 'It's all right, Rhiannon, just take a deep breath. You're quite safe.'
'No! I can't, I can't! Martin! Martin, please! Don't do this!'
'Hush, Rhiannon, we're not going to take off. Martin wouldn't do that, you know that, don't you? We're just taxi-ing along the runway a little bit. Just like going for a ride in a car. Did Martin ever tell you about the time we taxied along the highway in Tunisia? Just like going for a ride in a car. Take a deep breath and look out of the window - Arthur, you clot, you're in the wrong seat - breathe in, Rhiannon, there's a good girl - '
Gertie slows to a halt.
'That's it, Rhiannon, good girl. Here's a hanky. Well done, Rhiannon, well done.'
'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry - '
'Hush, hush, it's quite all right. Well done, brave girl.'
Carolyn says well, they've had a lot worse than that, at least Rhiannon wasn't clawing at the door to get out - but she doesn't say this nastily - and Rhiannon says very shakily that she always thought working for an airline was supposed to be glamorous, she didn't realise that it was so awful for them, spending all their time trying to calm down stupid hysterical women.
Douglas smiles and says it's a rotten job, comforting beautiful women, but someone has to do it, and somehow it always seem to fall to the First Officer, it's such a hard life, and Rhiannon starts to feel just a little bit better. Then Douglas stands up and says why doesn't she come and see where her Martin works, and he shows her onto the flight deck and closes the door and leaves her alone with Martin.
Martin smiles at her, but he looks worried. He hugs her and kisses her tears away.
'Was it too bad, sweetheart?'
'It was - the most horrible thing I've ever had to do.'
'But you've done it. You didn't want to do it, and it took a lot of courage, but you did it. And you don’t ever have to do it again unless you want to.'
'I - I suppose you could hear me screaming from in here?'
'Are - are you angry with me?'
He kisses her again.
'I couldn't be angry with you, sweetheart. No matter what you did.'
'B - but I've made a fool of you in front of your friends.'
'Never that, Rhi, you'd never do that. And you're not the worst. We've had a whole planeful before now, all the way to Dublin, every single one of them screaming 'We're going to die, we're all going to die.' I mean, Dublin's not that far, but it seemed like a lifetime. And it was a bit unnerving, I must admit, knowing that not one of them had an iota of confidence in me.'
'I was so - so frightened.'
'I know, sweetheart, I know. And you’ve been so brave. Now, come and sit here - in the co-pilot's seat - and I'll tell you what everything is.'
It's very complicated, and she has no idea how he remembers it all, but she has to admit it's quite interesting. And she's done it, she's done it, she sat in a plane while it moved even if she was terrified, and nobody minds that she was so silly. They're all so kind to her.
And Martin's not angry.
'Feeling better, Rhi?'
'Much better. But you're never going to get me to go up in one of these things.'
'I wouldn't ask you to. Not unless you wanted to. Now, fancy sitting here while I taxi her back on stand? Then you can see what happens?'
'Promise you won't do anything else?'
'Promise. For a start, you know I wouldn't do that to you, and anyway, we haven't got air clearance. Or a flight plan. The CAA would rescind our operator's licence.'
It's such a typical Martin-ish comment, it makes her smile. She takes a deep breath.
'Okay. If you promise just to taxi her back, I promise not to scream.'
'Rhiannon Pryce, I am so bloody proud of you.'
With love, as ever, to Launa Alvara
Chapter 34: New York, New York
It's a wonderful town.
Well, it is for Arthur...
'Good grief, Captain, what happened to the van?'
'Gone, Douglas. Time to move on.'
'So you decided to buy a convertible instead. Somewhat of a contrast, if I may say so.'
Martin looks momentarily worried.
'You - you don't think it's a bit - over the top, do you?'
'Well, it's exactly the sort of sporty-looking car I was driving at your age, Martin. Suits your new lifestyle rather well, I think. And at least Carolyn won't insist that you park it behind the canteen for fear that the passengers might see it. But I wouldn't imagine you'll be able to move much furniture in it - or have you bid a fond farewell to Icarus Removals as well?'
'Certainly have, Douglas. The final flight of Icarus took place on Friday, and on Saturday I sold the van - and not for scrap, believe it or not. So - no more Man With A Van for me.'
'Definitely a new image. Any chance of a cup of tea?'
'Only if you finish the flight plan.'
'It's you who's undergone a change of lifestyle, Captain, not me.'
'Arthur? Are you ready?'
'Just coming, Skip! Really looking forward to this trip!'
Douglas shudders. Three nights in New York is not his idea of fun. Three nights in a cheap hotel in New York in the company of Arthur might, however, fit his definition of hell.
Martin says quietly 'You do realise what they have in New York, don't you, Douglas?'
'Why do have I have the impression that you're not referring to Lady Liberty?'
'Arthur, what is this?'
'It's lunch, Skip!'
'And what's the rule about serving food to pilots? Two different meals so that we can't both get food poisoning.'
'It's a treat, Skip! Just to get us in the mood for the Big Orange!'
'The Big Apple, Arthur. Whatever this is, take it away and bring us lunch - the official lunch provided by the catering company, please.'
'But it's corn dog, Skip! Traditional New York food! I made it myself!'
'Arthur, a corn dog is a hot dog wrapped in cornflour pastry, not a cold sausage coated in crushed corn flakes!'
Douglas buries his head in his hands.
'Angels and ministers of grace, defend us …'
'Unlucky Sevens. Film titles containing the word 'seven' - but you can't say 'seven'. You have to describe it. And you can't repeat an earlier description.'
'Douglas! That's impossible!'
'Shall I start? Snow White and the entirely more than six but entirely less than eight dwarves?'
'Isn't it 'dwarfs', unless they're inhabitants of Middle Earth and hang around with hobbits?'
'Sir is in pedantic mode. However, I claim my point.'
'Erm - fourteen halved brides for the square root of 49 brothers?'
'Excellent mathematical ability, Captain, although I must admit to shuddering at the thought of one half bride, let alone fourteen of them. The 84 month itch?'
'Sounds like an embarrassing medical condition. The Magnificent Three and then four of their friends happen to turn up?'
'Would Charles Bronson just happen to turn up , do you think? Now, let me see –'
'I'm going to kill him, Martin. Please let me kill him.'
'Wow! Look, Skip! Yellow car, yellow car, yellow ... '
Martin claps his hand over Arthur's mouth.
'Arthur, for the love of God, how many times do we have to tell you? New York taxis don't count as yellow cars!'
'But they're car-shaped, Skip, and they're yellow, and every time you see a yellow car you have to say ... mmmf...'
'Please let me kill him, Martin.'
'Arthur, you can't say yellow car every time you see a taxi!'
'Why not, Skip?'
'Because - because they're not cars! They might look like cars but they're taxis! And you can't play yellow taxi!'
'Because - if you did then you couldn't say yellow car when you saw a yellow car! Because it would be a different game!'
'Somehow, Martin, I don't think that explanation's going to work.'
'That's okay then, Skip! I'll just play yellow taxi instead! Yellow taxi, yellow taxi, yellow mmmf…'
'What are you reading, Skip?'
Martin looks up from the letter he's about to unfold.
'J-just a letter, Arthur.'
Douglas puts his book down.
'From whom, Arthur, not who from. And it's a letter. Private correspondence. Martin's private correspondence.'
'I know it's a letter, Douglas - it's just that Skip was reading a letter just like that only yesterday, and he brought all his letters with him, and I wondered why he doesn't read them all at once.'
'Because they're love letters, Arthur. Our noble Captain, being deep in the throes of Love's Young Dream, phones his dearly beloved every evening - after which he returns to our room, slightly pink around the ears, removes another letter from his case, reads it and a revolting smirk adorns his face. There would appear to be a letter for each and every night that he and his true love are apart: and if your mother had not once more embarked on a cost-cutting exercise, resulting in the three of us having to share a room, you and I would still be blissfully unaware of this. Now, I strongly suggest that you continue playing Patience, I will concentrate on my book and Martin reads his letter - and thankfully he will not wish to share the contents with us.'
'Right-o! Sorry, Skip!'
Martin - who by this time is very pink round the ears indeed - unfolds the sheet of paper.
'Oh. Oh - my - God.'
Douglas looks up from his book again.
'Martin? Are you all right?'
'Ah - probably not, Douglas. Just - just read that, will you?'
Douglas takes the letter.
'Well, if you're sure you want me to read it - oh. Yes, I can empathise with your reaction: it's certainly - unusual for a love letter, concerning, as it appears to, two pints of semi-skimmed milk and half a dozen eggs. Unless this is some sort of code, or an unmentionable sexual fantasy, I can only think that -'
Martin starts to laugh.
'Exactly. How the hell am I ever going to be able to look the milkman in the face again?'
Thanks for Launa Alvara for the unstinting job she does as my Beta.
I so wanted to do something with the line from Arthur's YouTube video on how to play Yellow Car: 'The fellows from MJN Air explained to me - quite firmly - that yellow taxis don't count'...
Chapter 35: Breakfast
Early morning, and Rhiannon's just stirring.
Martin knows the signs well by now – in a few minutes she'll roll over towards him, and then she'll start to waken.
Just at the moment she's still at that edge-of-sleep stage, though.
He kisses her shoulder gently and – very, very carefully, so as not to disturb her too soon – eases himself into a sitting position.
It's one of the things he likes to do in the mornings. Just to sit and look at Rhiannon, this beautiful woman asleep in his bed.
This sort of thing doesn't happen to me. Not to bumbling, inept Martin Crieff. No-one's ever wanted me – loved me – like you do. What did I ever do to deserve you? What on earth do you see in me?
Whatever it is, please never stop seeing it.
Very carefully he gets out of bed: Rhiannon moves and murmurs something, but she's still not awake. He reaches for his dressing gown, and pauses to look at her again before he goes downstairs. Then he smiles softly, picks up Edward T Bear from the bedside table and puts his old childhood friend on the pillow next to her.
Someone to look after you, my Rhiannon.
Rhiannon rolls over and reaches out.
Not there. For a moment she starts to panic – where is he, where is he? – and then she's fully awake and telling herself that she's being silly. He'll be downstairs in the bathroom. No need to be silly, no need to be frightened. Martin's here – he's just not in the bedroom at this very minute.
Her face brushes against something - she starts to smile. Martin's old teddy bear. She knows exactly why it's there.
Rhiannon sits up and reaches for Theodore The Academic Bear from the chair at her side of the bed.
Then the three of them snuggle down in their warm comfortable nest and wait for Martin to come back.
Martin pauses in the doorway, and starts to laugh.
'It hasn't taken long for somebody to replace me in your affections, then!'
She sits up again, still cuddling an armful of teddy bears. Laughing back, sleep tousled, and so very beautiful.
Dear God, please let it always be like this. Please don't ever let her stop loving me. Please let me see her like this every single morning we're together.
'Two somebodies, actually. What's a girl supposed to do when her lover isn't there? Oh!'
She's noticed the tray he's carrying. Martin suddenly feels foolish – perhaps this wasn't the right thing to do. Too late now, though.
'B-breakfast in bed, Rhi. If – if you want it. I – I just thought –'
'Martin, how lovely! No-one's ever brought me breakfast in bed before.'
It was the right thing to do,then.
'I – I've never done this for anyone before. Never had cause to. Anyway, it's only croissants and coffee.'
'Just like our first ever breakfast together. Do you remember?'
Of course he remembers. But he hadn't actually thought of that when he set the tray out – he'd just thought that it would be easier than trying to eat bacon and eggs in bed. Perhaps it would be best not to say that though – it might spoil the moment.
'How could I forget, sweetheart? I was so – so terrified that you just wanted me to go home and you'd never want to see me again.'
Dear God, why don't I just go and spoil the moment anyway? Why didn't I just tell her how special that first morning was, and that every single morning I wake up with her is just as special? Why do I always ramble on and on about things that don't matter, instead of simply telling her how much I love her?
Quite a lot of the time Martin feels as if everyone else in the world is working from some sort of script, where all the words have been carefully considered and polished, and he's the only one who doesn't know his lines. Hasn't even got a copy of the script, and if he had, he'd only be on the wrong page anyway.
He can feel himself starting to blush. He turns away to put the tray down on the bedside table.
'Martin? I was pretty terrified myself, you know. I mean, I was sure that you weren't one of those 'Love them and leave them' sort of men, but even so...'
This time he can think of the right thing to say.
'Madam, I trust you're not confusing me with my First Officer? I realise that most people do, but surely you never thought of me as the Casanova of the Firmament?'
'You don't do so badly, you know. You're the only Sky God I want. Now come back to bed and let's eat this lovely romantic breakfast.'
'I do love you.'
Rhiannon stretches over Martin to put her mug and plate on the little table. He takes them from her, then grasps her shoulders and pulls her down to him. But instead of kissing her – which is what she thinks he's going to do – he nestles her head onto his shoulder and holds her close against him.
Very quietly he whispers 'Oh, Rhi.'
Rhiannon's used to Martinish moments. You get used to spotting them when you've known Martin for a while.
This could be a new Martinish moment, or it could be a carry-over from the first one. She kisses his shoulder and whispers back 'What is it, cariad?'
'I - I can't believe this is really happening. You and me, and our home, and everything.'
'I know, love, I know. I feel just the same. But it is – it is real.'
'This sort of thing doesn't happen to me. Sometimes I get frightened that – '
Time to stop the Martinishness, before he starts to panic.
'No need to be frightened, love. It's not going to end horribly, because we're not going to let it. Promise. Nothing horrible's going to happen to us.'
'But – '
'But nothing. You and me, Martin. We're in this for the longhaul. Nothing – nobody's going to spoil this for us.'
Martin holds her a little more tightly and starts to tell her just how much he loves her.
After a while, Rhiannon pulls gently away from him, and looks down at him dreamily.
Martin's used to Rhiannon having One Of Her Moments by now. You can usually tell by that dreamy look in her eyes – it means that either she's got something to tell him, or she's hell-bent on passion. And her body's a bit tense and she's been a bit on edge these last couple of days.
'Go on then, promise me it's not bad news and tell me.'
'It's not bad news.'
'Just tell me, sweetheart.'
'You're going to be disappointed in me.'
'No I'm not.'
'Don't be angry.'
'Why do you keep worrying that I'm going to be angry with you? What could you possibly do that would make me angry with you? Go on – out with it.'
'I – I don't want to go to therapy any more.'
'Sweetheart, if you don't want to go, then don't. It's as simple as that.'
'But it's so expensive and if I stop going it's all been a waste of money, and I know that I shouldn't just give up now and – '
'And I know it's been upsetting you. And I don't like seeing you upset. And I certainly don't ever want to see you in the state you were in when you were onboard Gertie. Not ever again. I don't think it's done any good at all. So tomorrow I'm going to phone your therapist and tell him that you're not back. Okay now?'
She smiles uncertainly, and Martin pulls her back down for a kiss.
'There's a bottle of champagne in the fridge.'
'Oh, very Sky God, Captain.'
'And we've got the whole day ahead of us.'
'So, my wild Welsh maiden, champagne before, during or after?'
She's got that dreamy look again.
'After, Captain. Or possibly during. But very definitely not before. For God's sake, Martin, don't you dare stop what you're doing right now.'
Love, as ever, to my poor Beta, the wonderful Launa Alvara
Chapter 36: Palermo
Martin lets slip something he never, ever wanted anyone to know.
Especially not Douglas.
Martin has a horrible feeling that he's just made a fool of himself.
He often makes a fool of himself, he can't help it - not that that means he doesn't mind - but this time he's made a big mistake. A really, really big mistake. He's let Douglas know something about himself that he never intended to. Something that he's quite sure that Douglas is never going to forget. Something that Douglas is never going to let Martin forget.
And now Douglas is just standing there, looking at him in astonishment. And any moment now he's going to start with the horrible barbed comments - Martin knows he is - and Martin's not going to be able to cope. He knows he isn't.
It hadn't been the best possible day: the flight out from Fitton had been delayed because of fog, the passengers had decided that this was all Martin's fault (once he had finally persuaded them, that is, that he really was the Captain) and Arthur's ability to reheat a meal in the microwave had been even more disastrous than usual.
And Martin would be the first to admit that he'd been in one of his pedantic moods, which Douglas hadn't appreciated in the least and perhaps, looking back, it might not have been the ideal time to have a go at Douglas about his smuggling tendencies.
All in all, it had been a dreadful flight – the two pilots had bickered all the way, and hadn't stopped by the time they'd reached the hotel.
So when Douglas said 'Don't suppose you fancy a drink?' in a tone of voice which meant that really the last thing on God's earth he wanted to do was to spend any more time in Martin's company, Martin really should have made some polite excuse as to why he didn't fancy the idea.
But he was tired, and lonely, and uncertain of himself, and the very last thing he wanted to do was to spend the evening alone, so he'd said yes, and they'd made their way – in an uncomfortable silence – down to the bar.
They were sitting in the bar when Peter Shoreditch, one of the pilots Martin used to work with at EconAir, walked in. They hadn't been friends - Martin hadn't made any friends while he was with EconAir - but this chap knew about Martin. Knew more about Martin than Martin wanted anyone to know. And he'd told everyone else at EconAir, and they'd made sure that Martin knew that they knew, and that was why Martin had left.
And now this man Shoreditch was in the bar, and saw Martin, and went across to him.
Martin couldn't speak, he was so frightened.
Shoreditch walked over to where Martin and Douglas were sitting, leaned across so that he was looking straight in Martin's face and said 'Why, if it isn't Little Captain Freak, the laughing stock of the airways. Does your new playmate know how weird you are?'
Martin could feel the awful shameful blush spreading over his face.
Douglas might not have liked Martin very much at the moment, but he liked Shoreditch even less. He pushed his chair back and stood up. 'Whatever your problem is, sonny, I suggest you sod off now, before I forget my manners and knock you out cold.'
Shoreditch had just smirked. 'Still can't stand up for yourself, Marty?' And then he'd gone.
Douglas sat down again. 'Peculiar little man. If they're all like that at EconAir, Martin, I quite understand why you decided to leave them.'
It was an overture of friendship, and for a few moments, Martin thought everything was going to be all right, that he'd be able to get away with it. But then a travel rep came over to them, a girl who knew Douglas slightly from previous trips, and Douglas asked her to join them. And normally Martin would have taken the hint and left, so that Douglas could do his usual Mighty Sky God routine (and probably charm his way into her bed), but oh God Shoreditch was standing by the door with some of his cronies, and they were looking at Martin and laughing, and Martin just couldn't get up and walk past them, he couldn't. So he just sat there, and Douglas looked at him furiously and signalled the waiter for some more drinks.
And Martin tried to behave normally, he really did, but he was just so nervous by this time that everything went wrong. He stammered and said the wrong things, and he knew he was talking too much and not making sense, and the girl looked at him pitingly.
And then he managed to knock her drink over her.
She was quite pleasant about it in a not-very-pleased sort of way, said it didn't matter and the stain would probably come out and in any case she really must be going. And when she got to the door, Shoreditch and his friends said something to her, and they all looked over to where Douglas and Martin were sitting and laughed, and then she left with them. Arm in arm with Shoreditch.
And Douglas was really angry, Martin could tell. He tried to apologise, but his stutter just got worse and worse, and he knew that he was getting flustered and the words were coming out wrong. And Douglas grabbed his arm and said that this had gone beyond a joke, and he and Martin were going to have to have a talk about this.
It might have been a bit better if Martin hadn't fallen over a stool on his way out of the bar.
It would have been a lot better if Carolyn hadn't been on one of her economy drives and hadn't booked Martin and Douglas into a shared room at the hotel.
Douglas pushed Martin into the bedroom and slammed the door behind him. Martin had never seen him so angry.
'Martin! I am sick and bloody tired of this! You don't have the social skills of a three year old! Why can't you behave normally? What the hell is the matter with you?'
Martin looked at his feet and muttered 'I can't help it.'
Perhaps if he'd tried to apologise, perhaps if Douglas hadn't shouted at him, he wouldn't have told him. But Douglas lost his temper and yelled at him 'For God's sake! What can't you help?'
And that was when Martin had burst into tears and shouted back
'I can't help being autistic!'
And now Douglas is just standing there, looking horrified and all Martin can do is wait for the sarcastic comments to start.
Of all the things that Martin could have said, Douglas certainly wasn't expecting this. Not that Douglas knows a great deal about autism - he's never needed to. What he does know, however, is that when it's a straight choice between some silly little tart who can't keep her knickers on and the man who you've worked with for three years and who has, when all's said and done, become a friend of yours, you know where your loyalties lie.
And Martin had looked so damn frightened. He still does.
And the thought strikes Douglas that it was probably a set-up anyway: it can't have been co-incidence that the girl happened to be in the bar and left with the EconAir crew.
Douglas may have set up a few nasty situations in his time - many of which have had Martin as the fall-guy - but none of them have been as downright cruel as this. And he's not very fond of being a victim of the set-up himself.
And Martin's so damn frightened.
Douglas turns away, and for a moment Martin thinks that he's going to walk away in disgust. Why shouldn't he - that's what people do when they find out, when they realise you're not normal. But instead Douglas opens the minibar, pours Martin a glass of wine and says gently 'I'm sorry I shouted at you, Martin: I had no idea.'
He reaches for a handkerchief and pushes it into Martin's hand.
'Sit down, lad, and have a drink. And tell me about it if you want to.'
Martin's shaking so much that Douglas has to guide him towards a chair.
'Is that what it was about? The idiot in the bar? Did he find out when you were at EconAir?'
Martin nods. 'A-and he told everybody, and that's why I left. They started - oh G-god, Douglas, they started d-dropping hints to the passengers. I had to l-leave, they just wouldn't shut up about it.'
Dear God Almighty. They ruined your career and you ended up working for the only airdot in the business. The safest pilot I've ever known, and they threw you on the scrap-heap at thirty one.
'And so you don't want people to know. I can understand why. But you're only slightly autistic, aren't you?'
Martin manages to take a sip of his drink.
'O-only mildly, but n-nobody understands that. It's - it's a label I can't shake off, and it - it's why I don't get on with people, because I don't know how to, and why you think I'm so prissy, because I know I'm obsessed with following rules and regulations, I can't help it and – and I - I do try to be normal, Douglas, I really do, but - but it always goes wrong, and I'm always frightened that people will find out and now - now I'm going to have to leave MJN.'
Douglas looks at him quizzically.
'Why? It doesn't affect your ability to do your job - you wouldn't have your CPL if it did. And I presume that Carolyn must know - and it clearly doesn't bother her. And I'm not going to tell anybody. So why do you think you've got to leave?'
'B-because you won't want to work with me any more.'
Douglas says gently
'What makes you think that?'
'Because I - I'm such a failure.'
'Martin, you're not a failure. You've got mild autism, that's all, and I'd guess that some ignorant people think because of that there's something wrong with you, and that's why you've got no self confidence. But you're not a failure. Far from it. You're a pilot and that's what you've always wanted to be. And it may have taken you a long time to get there, but you did it. I think that's something to be proud of. And look how far you've come in this last six months. You've got a salary, and a gorgeous girlfriend - more than just a girlfriend - and the two of you live together in a pretty little cottage; and this time last year you were a lonely removal man living by yourself in an attic. So how does that make you a failure? In my book, that makes you a success.'
Martin looks at Douglas. Hopefully. Douglas knows he has to be very careful what he says next. The truth might not be a bad idea.
'You're a young, handsome airline Captain who's making a success of his life. That's nothing to be ashamed of. You need to have a bit more pride in yourself, Martin. The right sort of pride. Don't be so desperate to impress people - if you need to impress them, they're not the sort of people who matter anyway. Learn to laugh at yourself a bit - that's not easy, but it stops the bullies dead in their tracks. Because that's what they are, those people who pick on you - nasty little bullies. And I've probably been one of them. And I'm sorry about that, Martin, I really am. It would mean a lot to me if you could try to forgive me.'
Martin doesn't respond, but he's not shaking quite so badly.
'Shall I tell you something else, Martin? Something about me, that I don't tell people? I envy you, Martin Crieff. You, with your youth and your good looks and your beautiful girlfriend and your lovely home. You, who hasn't got three failed marriages, a daughter you rarely see and an alcohol addiction. You, with the Captain's braid on your cap. The cap that I so desperately wish was mine. I wouldn't envy you if I thought you were a failure.'
They sit in silence for a few minutes.
'Martin? Rhiannon does know about this, doesn't she? About how you feel about yourself?'
Martin shakes his head.
'I – I can't tell her, Douglas. I just can't.'
'Why not? I think she really ought to know. If it gets you so upset, she needs to know why. She won't laugh at you, or think the worst of you. I don't think any the worse of you, and I'm the nastiest person I know.'
Martin smiles slightly at that.
'That's better, Captain. Nil illegitimi carborundum - never let the bastards grind you down. Here - have another drink if you want - I'll be back shortly. I'm just going to track down a certain little shit from EconAir.'
'I haven't decided yet. Probably to black his eye. Or I may fracture a few ribs. No-one calls my friend Captain Martin Crieff a freak and gets away with it.'
For Launa Alvara, who helped me fine-tune this.
This is a chapter that I just had to write. I work with Young Adults with learning difficulties: the description of most people's perception of autism is - sadly - quite true.
There is absolutely no reason why someone with mild autism cannot become an airline pilot. Or anything else they want to be.
Chapter 37: Midnight
In which Martin needs to explain.
Martin's feeling nervous when he opens the front door.
More than nervous.
He really doesn't want to tell Rhiannon, but Douglas made him promise that he would. And he was feeling a bit better about it, right until the moment when he walked up the path.
He wishes he hadn't got to tell her, wishes Douglas hadn't made him promise, wishes she hadn't got to know. But he's got to tell her.
It's late, but Rhiannon's waiting up for him, curled up on the settee, in her dressing-gown, a book on her knee. She looks up and smiles.
'Good trip, cariad? How was Palermo? Everything go all right?'
He really, really doesn't want to tell her. But Douglas made him promise. But suddenly Martin has this dreadful feeling that it might not be the right thing to do. He'd meant to be calm, to just say that there was something he needed to tell her, something she needed to know about. What was it Douglas had said? Just tell her, Martin. She'll understand. It'll be all right. But what if it isn't? What if she doesn't understand?
What if she leaves me when she finds out?
And Christ, who could blame her if she does?
And so, because he's so very, very frightened and he can feel the dreadful, shaming tears starting - oh dear God, why can't I stop doing this? - he just blurts out 'Rhi? I - I'm autistic.'
She doesn't looked shocked, doesn't look horrified. She just reaches out to him and says 'Come and sit down, my love, and tell me about it.'
And she puts her arms around him and holds him while he talks.
There's a lot he hasn't told her - never intended to tell her, never wanted her to know. A lot he doesn't want her to know, because he's too ashamed of himself, of what he is. But he's tired, and frightened, and she's so comforting, holding him as though he were a child, gently loving him. So, before he can stop himself, he tells her more than he means to - about Simon and Caitlin being so close in age to each other that a much younger brother was an embarrassment, especially a much younger brother who wanted to be an aeroplane; about how they and their friends taunted him, especially after he was diagnosed as being mildly autistic; especially because of his autism; about how he was never able to make friends with anyone because he just didn't know how to, and so he was just that weird skinny ginger kid who stuttered and was obsessed with planes and fell over a lot because he had an inner ear problem, and who was always the target for bullies because he cried so easily.
About how his mother still tells him that he was such a disappointment to his father.
About how lonely he's always been, knowing that he doesn't fit in because there's something wrong with him.
What it's like to know that you're not normal.
And Rhiannon just goes on holding him tight and making little soothing noises. And he really doesn't want to tell her, but he can't stop, Christ, what must she think of me? But it's just so easy to talk to her - it always has been. And so he tells her about how it hurt failing his exams so many times, about how he'd never had a chance to make his dad proud of him, because of Dad dying just before he finally got his licence. How much it hurt that his dad left him an old van and a multimeter. How he's never told his family that he worked for MJN for nothing, because he can't bear to think how Simon and Caitlin would gloat. How he still doesn't know how to get on with people, how he always manages to do and say the wrong things, how he always feels as if he's on the outside, watching other people doing the right thing, not knowing how to do the right thing himself. Not knowing how to join in. Getting it wrong when he tries to join in.
About not liking himself very much.
About not liking himself at all.
And she just listens, and holds him until he stops talking, stops crying. She just listens and comforts him. She's just - just Rhiannon. His Rhiannon.
Rhiannon's angry, but she's not going to let Martin know that. She's not going to risk him thinking that she's angry with him. She's angry for him. Because what's happened to him is nothing short of abuse.
When he stops shaking, she kisses his forehead and gets up very slowly.
'Poor love. You have had it rough, haven't you? All your life.'
'W - what are you going to do?'
She smiles at him gently. Lovely Rhiannon, who surely can't want him now - not now that she knows.
'Right now? Right now I'm going to make us a cup of tea, get you something to eat, and then we're going to bed. You're exhausted.'
'Don't leave me, Rhi.'
'Only while I make the tea, sweetheart.'
'No - I mean - please don't walk out on me. Please, Rhi - you - you're all I've got.'
'I'm not going to do that, cariad. I've got no reason to.'
'Even though I'm so pathetic - so - so abnormal?'
Rhiannon knows exactly what it's like to crave affection, to need to be accepted.
'You're not pathetic, Martin. Or abnormal. Don't you ever think that about yourself, sweetheart. You just need someone to love you and look after you, that's all. Someone to make you feel better about yourself. Go on up to bed - I'll bring you a cup of tea and some toast. Don't look so worried - I'm not going to run away in the middle of the night in my dressing-gown.'
When she goes into the bedroom, he's lying face down on the bed, fully dressed, fast asleep. She manages to slip his shoes off without waking him, wriggles under the duvet and snuggles next to him.
So that's what's behind it, that's all it is - mild autism. But the constant bullying? Just look how they've damaged you. No wonder you've no self-confidence.
You'll take a lot of mending, Martin Crieff. But you're worth it.
When Martin wakes, Rhiannon's still holding him tight. She smiles at him sleepily.
'Good afternoon, my handsome Captain. Do you realise we've slept through the whole morning? You needed that, didn't you? To sleep - and to talk.'
'Rhi, I'm so sorry - '
'Hush, love. You don't ever need to say you're sorry to me. You've just been so very, very lonely, that's all. And frightened. But we've got each other now. No need for you to be frightened any more.'
She understands, he realises. She never judges him. She just - understands him. She's just - just Rhiannon. His Rhiannon.
Another chapter, much of which was written (sadly, perhaps) from experience.
Thanks, as always, to Launa Alvara for the comfort/advice/reassurance that comes from having to beta my writing!
Chapter 38: Wednesday
In which Rhiannon has rather a lot to say about certain matters.
Wednesday morning, and it hasn't exactly been the best two days of Rhiannon's life.
She'd spent most of yesterday trying to soothe Martin, who was quite horrified by what he'd told her - admitted was the word he'd used, as though autism was something quite shameful - and trying to persuade him that as today he was booked on a solo flight, it would certainly not be admitting defeat if, for just once in his life, he called in sick.
Martin being Martin, however, that was the last thing he was going to do.
And, in a way, Rhiannon agreed. If Martin wanted to carry on as usual and stick to his schedule, then perhaps a short flight to Leeds Bradford airport wouldn't be too much stress.
A pity that it's a solo flight though - if Douglas were with him, then at least Martin would have the comfort of having a friend with him if it all got too much for him.
Still, at least Arthur's on board.
Although it's always a moot point as to how much use Arthur could be in the event of a crisis.
And it's given Rhiannon some time to do some research into autism.
At times like this, Google is a girl's best friend.
And talking of friends -
Rhiannon reaches for the phone.
Wednesday morning, and Carolyn's world, while it doesn't exactly collapse, certainly shakes on its axis.
She thought when the phone rang that it might be Herc.
Carolyn had seen Rhiannon in happy mood, and comforted her when she was upset, but Rhiannon angry and in full spate isn't something Carolyn wants to encounter again.
She has a feeling that if they'd actually been face-to-face, Rhiannon might actually have hit her.
'You knew, didn't you? You bloody knew, and could you tell me? No, you bloody well couldn't! You just asked me if I could cope, without having the common decency to tell me what you were on about! Well, I can cope, and I'm going to cope, but let me tell you something, Ms Knapp-Shappey: the next time you want someone to show off to and take to posh lunches, you can bloody well find someone else to play your nasty little games with, because if I have my way I'll never have to speak to you again. From now on in, as far as I'm concerned, you're Martin's boss, and not a particularly nice boss at that.'
Rhiannon pauses for breath and Carolyn tries to explain.
'Rhiannon, dear - '
'Don't you bloody dear me!'
'If this is about Martin's autism, I thought you knew. I honestly thought he must have told you. And when I interviewed him, we agreed that if it didn't affect his work, it was nothing that anyone else needed to know. I promised him, Rhiannon, that I wouldn't tell anyone. It would have broken a confidence if I had.'
'Don't give me that! That's why you wouldn't pay him for years, isn't it? Because you knew?'
It's nearer the truth than Carolyn cares to admit.
'Rhiannon, please -'
'Sod off, Carolyn!'
And with that, Rhiannon slams the phone down, leaving Carolyn wondering what the blue hells she does now.
Wednesday lunchtime and Douglas pushes open the door to the pub.
It's been a long time since he went for a solitary drink at lunchtime. It's been a long time since he needed to.
Today, however, he needs to have a talk. He has a gut feeling that he's inadvertently opened a can of worms - what an odd phrase that is, now he comes to think about it - and he needs to know that he hasn't unintentionally made things worse.
Or, if he has, he needs to make amends.
Christ, what a bloody mess.
Shoulders back, Richardson. Face the music. Time to be a man: it's the least you can do.
Rhiannon smiles as he walks up to the bar.
'Douglas! What a pleasant surprise: we don't usually see you in here. Your usual?'
She does that sleight-of-hand thing she does so well, and what appears to be a glass of Talisker is in fact apple juice. She must be distracting his attention away from the glass for a moment, but he's damned if he knows how she does it.
'Shall I put it on a tab? So you can pay at the end?'
And that way no-one can see that he's actually paying for apple juice. She's a thoughtful girl.
There's no-one else at the bar - there's not many other people at all, and they're all sitting down at tables. Time to bite the bullet.
'I wanted to see you, Rhiannon: I need to know - how's Martin?'
She looks at him.
'He's flying a group of businessmen to Yorkshire today. But you know that, don't you?'
Douglas had known this wasn't going to be easy.
'But how is he?'
Rhiannon pauses to serve one of the other customers.
'Wobbly. A bit unhappy. Better than he was two days ago. This is about Palermo, isn't it?'
'It is, I'm afraid. I don't know what he told you, but I'm worried that I may have made things worse.'
'I don't want to say too much, Douglas, but I think that you already know a lot. He came home in a dreadful state - I don't mean he was drunk - I thought he was going to have a breakdown. He told me about his autism and about the appallingly low self-image he has of himself. I understand that there was someone in Palermo who triggered things off. He didn't tell me that you'd been involved. What he did tell me was that you'd said you were his friend. And at the moment that means a lot to him.'
She leans towards him, smiling. This time there's no humour in the smile.
'But if that's not true, Douglas Richardson, if you ever do anything to hurt him, as God is my witness I'll make you suffer for it.'
'Hand on heart, Rhiannon, I never will. I didn't know. I am his friend. Perhaps I should have let him know that. And I've come here to ask you what I can do to help.'
'Good. Watch out - the manager's here. Another drink, Sir?'
She pours him another pseudo-Talisker. He watches carefully this time. She's put the Talisker bottle so that it's half-hidden by the till; there's another bottle at the side of it. That must be how she swaps the drinks. But he can't for the life of him see the exact moment when she does it.
They make barmaid/customer small-talk for a few minutes until the duty manager finishes his perambulation of the bar.
'I'll tell you what you can do. You can watch out for him. You can make sure that when someone upsets him, if I'm not there to pick up the pieces, then you are. He's told me about what you said to him about needing to have the right sort of pride in himself. You can encourage that. He's been labelled, Douglas, by people who don't understand him, and a long time ago he started to believe the label, because if you're told something often enough, you believe that it's true. A real friend would help him.'
'I'll do that for him, Rhiannon.'
'It's not going to be easy. We're never going to be able to do anything about the autism, but we can try to make him start believing in himself. And it's going to be hard work and he's going to be bloody annoying, because the last thing he wants - or needs - is pity. But if you want to help, you're going to have to stick by him. If you're going to start, you can't ever let him down. Because if you do, you'll destroy him.'
'Is there anything else can I do to help?'
'Right now? Right now you can go and sit down with your drink and read the paper, before you get me the sack. And in half an hour, you can go and get your car and come and pick me up and take me for a drink somewhere quiet, where you can tell me all about Palermo and I can tell you what you need to know and then we can decide how we're going stop him thinking that he's abnormal. And we are never, ever, going to tell Martin about this conversation.'
'He's a very lucky man to have you.'
She grins suddenly.
'I'm the lucky one. To have him. Now go and read your paper. Oh - and Douglas?'
'I'm looking forward to hearing exactly why your knuckles are covered in sticking plaster.'
Many thanks, as ever, to my lovely beta, Launa Alvara.
Chapter 39: Sunday
Martin in contemplative mood.
Set some weeks after the preceding three chapters.
Martin usually likes Sundays.
He likes the Sundays when he's either flying somewhere, or he's just flown somewhere and the glorious adrenaline rush of flight is still there, or he's just about to fly somewhere and the anticipation of the flight to come is building up. Because, no matter how he and Douglas may complain about the boredom of the long flights when Gertie is on auto-pilot and there's nothing much to do, no matter how long they spend on standby, the wonderful, amazing feeling of excitement that Martin experienced on his very first flight has never left him.
And of course he likes the Sundays when he's not flying or just-flown-somewhere or about-to-fly, and he's with Rhiannon. It's just as exciting being with her.
He'd tried to explain that to her, but the words came out wrong and he started to worry that it sounded as if he was saying that she was sort of second-best, only there to fill in the time until the next flight, and that wasn't what he meant at all, and he'd got it wrong again but Rhiannon didn't mind - she just laughed and said she knew what he meant, she felt exactly the same way.
Then she'd kissed him and started to unbutton his shirt and he'd stopped worrying about the words and concentrated on Rhiannon instead.
It's really exciting living with Rhiannon.
Today's not the sort of Sunday he likes, though. Because today's one of those Sundays when he's at home and Rhiannon isn't, and it's not as if she's working the lunchtime shift at the pub and will be coming home later - Rhiannon won't be home for a week. She's gone to London, to do some research in the National Archive and she's stopping with Emilia and he's not going to see her for a whole week.
He hadn't realised, when Rhiannon started her doctorate, quite how much time she was going to have to spend away, researching. Sometimes they manage to arrange things so that they're both away at the same time, or so that one of them is only away for a few days when the other one's at home, but this time it didn't work out like that.
He still isn't used to having time to himself, to being alone with nothing to do. Lonely, yes - in the pre-Rhiannon days he didn't know what it was like not to be lonely - but in those days he was so busy trying to scape a living with Icarus Removals that he never had much time to do anything but work or sleep.
He has a slightly guilty feeling about this. Not about missing Rhiannon - that's normal, of course he misses her - but guilty because in a way he misses Icarus Removals, misses having something to do when she's not there. It must be worse for Rhiannon - he's away from home so much more, and despite all those therapy sessions, he knows that she still worries about him flying.
She's never told him that she worries, but he knows that she does.
In a flurry of post-Rhiannon-leaving activity this morning, he'd done the housework, prepared his lunch (he's discovered that he's a remarkably good cook now that he can actually afford to buy the ingredients) and tidied up her study.
And the spare bedroom.
Because Rhiannon is incredibly untidy. Unbelievably so. Martin can't bear to leave anything just lying around, not in its right place, but Rhiannon's belongings just sort of - spread. Sometimes he wonders whether they actually breed, whether the pile of books overflowing onto the floor is the academic equivalent of a new litter of kittens.
The idea of Rhiannon using the little box-room as a study hasn't quite worked. Arthur lined it with shelves, and built her a computer desk that was far, far better than anything they could buy (it started life as a Victorian wardrobe, and Martin is convinced that they now have the only computer desk in the whole of Fitton - probably in the entire world - that's made of burr walnut and has dove-tailed joints and brass handles and a secret drawer) but Rhiannon found the room too enclosed, too restricting. That's because of her fear of confined spaces, of course. So now the study has become a sort of library, and the computer desk has been moved to the spare bedroom together with an armchair and a table, and Rhiannon's books and papers make their slow, relentless march from the study over the floor into the spare room, across the table, the mantlepiece and the bed, and head towards the door.
And once a week Martin and Rhiannon look at the state of the room, and Rhiannon says shamefacedly that she's just hopeless, isn't she, and Martin kisses her and laughs and says that he's just so glad that she isn't good at everything and they tidy everything up ready for it all to start all over again.
And he doesn't mind in the least.
Rhiannon's so supportive, helping build his confidence up, not shouting at him when he starts to panic, not laughing when he makes a fool of himself, making him feel wanted and special.
She's so lovely. She's worked out a special way of gripping his hand, a sort of code, so that when he starts to get out of his depth she just squeezes his knuckles and he can start to relax because he knows that she'll take over and change the conversation, or make a joke or something so that the frightening moment goes away; and if he starts to panic he just squeezes her hand and she makes things better.
It doesn't always work, but a lot of the time it does. Last week he managed to get through a whole departmental sherry party at the University without making a fool of himself once, and he actually enjoyed himself.
Martin suspects that Rhiannon and Douglas are in cahoots, because Douglas has suddenly started being a lot more supportive of him, as well. He still teases Martin, and they still argue, but last week when one of the passengers had decided that Douglas must be the Captain, Douglas had just smiled and said that was a mistake that a lot of people made because of Martin's youth, but actually Martin was the Captain and that MJN were very proud that Martin was such a good pilot that he'd become a Captain at such a young age. And not so very long ago Douglas would have stood back to enjoy watching Martin getting flustered.
And when the ATC at Lyon had been very rude indeed about Martin's landing - and in all honesty it hadn't been one of Martin's best - Martin hadn't blustered or stuttered or got upset; he'd laughed and said any fool could land easily, but he just fancied having a go at that wing-and-a-prayer stuff for a change, and all Douglas had said was 'Nicely done, Martin - that put him in his place' and the ATC had actually apologised.
Carolyn's been a bit less acerbic too, recently, though that can't be anything to do with what happened in Palermo: after all, Carolyn's known all about Martin for years now.
Perhaps she's mellowing a bit. Though you wouldn't think so if you'd heard her shouting at Douglas last week.
Still, she's not quite as bristly as she once was. When Martin had put his foot down about the importance of complying with CAA regulations (and Douglas had rolled his eyes and muttered 'Oh Martin!'), Carolyn had smiled and said 'Well, Martin, you know best - after all, you are the Commander on board Gertie' – and she hadn't sounded in the least bit sarcastic.
She must be mellowing.
At least she's starting to take him seriously. She hasn't called him a berk for – oh, weeks, now.
Life's not exactly brilliant when you're autistic, but it's getting a bit better.
And there's a rumour going round that Shoreditch was caught with an opened bottle of whisky in his flight bag when he landed in Dubai, so that's his career as a pilot finished.
Douglas had looked innocent - which always means that Douglas is up to something - when Martin mentioned this, and said that Martin knew full well that they were both flying to Toronto at the time Shoreditch met his nemesis, so Douglas couldn't possibly have had anything to do with it.
Martin's not quite so sure about that, though.
Geoff from next door opens the back door, and wanders in.
'Fancy a pint, Martin, and a bit of a chat? I could do with some advice, really.'
Martin can't imagine for a single moment why anyone, especially a big burly army cadet instructor, would want any advice from him. But Geoff looks at the floor and Martin realises that perhaps he's not the only one who sometimes doesn't know what to do.
'It's a bit embarrassing really, Martin, but - well, it's about me and Emilia. I don't know whether we're in a long-distance relationship or just sleeping together occasionally, and I don't know how to ask her in case I say the wrong thing. And I thought - well, you're an airline Captain with shedloads of confidence and charm, and you must have had lots of experience with women, and -'
Martin starts to laugh.
'Really, Geoff, I'm the last person you need to ask. But I'll do my best. We might want to ask Douglas to join us - and Arthur. You wouldn't believe the experience they've had.'
'Would you, Martin? Honestly? Ask your friends to help me out? You're a real mate!'
Martin grins and reaches for the phone.
'I'm just discovering, Geoff, that's what friends do. Sit down while I organise an all-lads-together-sorting-out-your-love-life session. Which pub are we going to?'
Chapter 40: Advent
'Tis the season for goodwill to all men...
For Launa Alvara, with love.
Martin almost slips on the ice and curses under his breath.
He really hates this time of year. Cold and miserable, and half the time it's impossible to fly anywhere because the runway at Fitton is frozen, and Carolyn's always in a foul mood because she's tired of having to explain to clients that no, runways don't have underground heating systems, no, not even at the big international airports...
And in previous years Martin was always too poor to be able to afford to have the heating on, and Christmas at Parkfield Terrace was always miserable because all the students had gone home for their celebrations, and he was damned, he really was, if he was going to spend Christmas with any of his family pitying him, and even if Douglas or Carolyn or Arthur had thought about inviting him over for lunch, he'd have made some sort of excuse just so that they didn't realise how miserable his life really was.
How miserable his life had been.
Because of course this year he'll be spending Christmas with Rhiannon, and a roaring log fire, and plenty to eat and it's going to be just wonderful.
Because they'll be spending it together.
He hadn't even considered that Rhiannon might think that they might not be together over Christmas, until last night, when they'd been writing cards, and she'd just looked at him and said quietly 'I suppose you'll be going away to your family for Christmas?'
How could she even think that?
He'd just reached over the kitchen table and taken her hands and said 'We're spending Christmas together, sweetheart. Here. You and me. Our first Christmas – just us.'
And Rhiannon – who's so strong and brave and beautiful – had looked for a moment as though she was going to burst into tears.
He'd had all sort of plans for making their first Christmas a really tremendous day – one to remember all their lives – but when he'd suggested it, Rhiannon had said that actually she wasn't really that big on Christmas, it was a time really for kids, so she'd be quite happy for it just to be the two of them, and how about spending a quiet day and only exchange token presents, something silly, and then they'd have a really slap-up lunch and go for a walk in the afternoon?
He couldn't really argue with that – after all, for years he's been telling Douglas and Carolyn and Arthur that he's not really big on Christmas, and in any case, what does it matter what they do providing they're together?
It's a bit of a problem over the present though. Because he's already bought what was going to be Rhiannon's main present, and it isn't a silly token present at all.
He's bought her a really good watch (not a Hong Kong knock-off, he's learned his lesson about that) and Douglas helped him choose it so that Martin knew he'd got it right, and right at this very moment it's in Fitton's finest jewellers, waiting to be engraved with their initials and the date.
So he's going to have to explain that away – and how I'm going to manage that without stammering or saying the wrong thing'll be interesting, he thinks wryly - and hope she isn't too embarrassed, because Rhiannon isn't the sort of girl who'd be fooled for a minute into thinking that a gold watch is a token present, and then he'll give her the silly, romantic present that he bought only this morning.
And hope that she doesn't realise quite how much the silly romantic present has actually cost him.
Not that he minds – it's been quite a lucrative month, thanks to Mr Birling chartering MJN to fly him to the Autumn Internationals – but what seemed like a romantic gesture has turned out to be remarkably expensive.
Worth it to see her face, though, he thinks as he turns into the front garden.
And he'd thought of it all by himself. Hadn't even had to ask Douglas for ideas.
Rhiannon's already home. The big Aga range has been in all day, and the room is warm and comfortable, and he can smell the evening meal cooking and it's just so good to have a proper home and Rhiannon there waiting that he just gathers her into his arms and starts to kiss her.
After a few moments she pulls away from him and looks at him, laughing – not laughing at him, she'd never do that, but laughing, he realises with a certain smugness, with sheer happiness.
'Good day, my Captain?'
He shrugs his coat off and puts his arm round her.
'Not bad – the flight was pretty smooth, and nothing went wrong. Carolyn's put us on standby for the day before Christmas Eve, but if this weather holds, there'll be no danger of us having to fly out. It's just a belt-and-braces precaution in case another company can't meet their schedule for some reason.'
'Martin Crieff, can I believe my ears? Are you saying that you'd sooner spend time with me than actually flying? '
If anyone else were to say that, Martin would think that they were implying that he was obsessed with flying, and start to get flustered and panic. But this is Rhiannon, and he knows when she's teasing him. And he's learning how to joke back.
'Promise not to tell anyone else, sweetheart, but I rather think that I am.'
Rhiannon's just adding the finishing touches to the evening meal when the phone rings. Martin looks at the number, curses under his breath – what the hell does Carolyn want at this time of night that can't wait until the morning? – and takes the call.
'What? Yes – yes, that's very kind of you. Of course we will. See you at work tomorrow.'
Rhiannon puts the casserole back in the oven.
'Ten minutes. Would you lay the table, cariad?'
'That was Carolyn.'
For a moment, Rhiannon's face hardens.
'She's invited us for lunch on Sunday.'
'Oh. I – I've got a lot of work to do this weekend, Martin.'
'And so you'll need a break from it. And you haven't seen her for ages – she was asking me only this morning how you were.'
Rhiannon says doubtfully 'Well, I suppose I could make a bit of time –' and Martin realises that it's been a long time since she and Carolyn spent any time together. And they were so close, and he'd been so pleased that Rhiannon had a sort of mother-figure to talk to, especially as, from the little she told him, it appeared that her own mother had just walked out one day when Rhiannon was seven and never come back and Lord knows I never thought I had a particularly happy childhood, but at least my parents were there ...
Is that why you're not particularly big on Christmas, I wonder?
'Rhi? Have you and Carolyn had some sort of falling out?'
For a moment there's that odd sort of look on her face again – then it's gone, and she says 'Whatever makes you think that? It's just I've been so busy, and I don't like having to work when you're home, because I want to spend all my time with you, so I haven't been going out to lunch or stopping over there when you're away because of the studying and working in the pub and ...'
She pauses to take a breath – Martin knew she'd have to, eventually – and he takes the opportunity to say gently 'I can always phone back, you know, and just say that you're too busy. But she did promise that Arthur wouldn't have anything to do with the cooking.'
Rhiannon smiles and says that in which case how can they refuse, and talking of cooking if she doesn't get the casserole out of the oven at this very minute her dumplings will be ruined and she'll never be able to hold her head up in public again, and Martin laughs and says he'd never dare criticise her dumplings and would kill any man who does.
And Rhiannon laughs and hits him with the oven-gloves, and Martin thinks (with relief) that he must have been imagining things.
And the casserole is absolutely perfect.
Chapter 41: Spitzenberg
In which Arthur has a theory... and a brillliant time.
Despite the weather, which continued freezing, Carolyn accepted a booking for a flight ten days before Christmas.
To the disgust of both Martin and Douglas, the destination was within the Arctic Circle, and so it was that on a cold December morning they found themselves about to ferry a research scientist, a cargohold of scientific equipment and an over-excited Arthur to Spitzenberg.
'Spitzenberg? Wow – that sounds as if it's going to be an iceberg full of people who –'
Carolyn cut Arthur off short, but was unable to prevent Douglas commenting 'Or possibly an iceberg occupied by a single expectorating Buddhist?'
'Yes, thank you, Douglas; perhaps you could concentrate on the pre-flight walk round?'
'It could be worse, Carolyn – I've often wondered about the Flemish. Do you imagine that they – '
The research scientist was a pleasant young man by the name of William Chesterton, who cheerfully announced that his name was Bill and wasn't in the least fazed by Arthur's unremitting cheeriness and unending questions.
It wasn't long after takeoff that Arthur bounded onto the flight deck.
'Brilliant! Just brilliant! You'll never guess what they have in Spitzenberg!'
Douglas quirked an eyebrow.
'Toblerones shaped in the likeness of consumptive followers of the path of enlightenment?'
'Oh yeuch, I couldn't fancy one of those! No, they have – polar bears! And Bill says sometimes they wander onto the runway!'
'Hence your sudden enthusiasm for this flight. Well, Arthur, enjoy the bears - never mind the fact that in these conditions our Supreme Commander and I will be battling to bring Gertie down safely – there are polar bears. Closer to us than I would ever, in my worst nightmares, imagine them to be. What else matters? There are polar bears. Probably already happily contemplating the prospect of an MJN pilot or two for lunch. Happy Early Christmas, Arthur.'
'Polar bears! Brilliant!'
'You seem somewhat distracted, Martin. All well with our illustrious passenger?'
'I have this dreadful feeling, Douglas, that Arthur and Bill are twins, separated at birth. As I came back from the loo, they were swapping recipes. Arthur's next pièce de résistance would appear to be Toblerone cheesecake.'
'Could be worse, Martin. Faced with the prospect of an Arctic winter in a polar research station, with nothing to eat but Surprising Rice, I rather think I'd venture forth to battle with the polar bears for a portion of frappé Seal Steak Tartare.'
'Chaps? Bill wants to ask a favour.'
'He doesn't want to go to Spitzenberg after all? He'd like us to detour to somewhere nice, warm and noted for its complete lack of carnivorous wildlife?'
'Fraid not, Douglas! He was asking me what we did to pass the time on cargo flights, and I was telling him about your cabin addresses, and he'd like to hear one!'
'Did you explain that our cargo flight announcements are hardly – erm –'
'I rather think 'professional' may be the word you're searching for, Martin.'
'Oh, I explained that, Douglas! And I did my special safety announcement – the one with the screams – and he thought that was brilliant!'
'Arthur, if word of this gets out to your mother, we're dead in the water. What the hell were you thinking of?'
'But Skip –'
Douglas is tempted to suggest that Martin should go and talk to Bill, persuade him that this might not be a good idea. Just to enjoy seeing Martin working himself up into a state. But he remembers Rhiannon's face when she told Douglas that, if he ever did anything to hurt the young pilot, she'd make him suffer for it. He's not certain how she'd manage it, but he's damn sure that she would.
Sometimes First Officers just have to shoulder the burden and do the job they're paid to do.
'Martin? Would you like me to go and have a quiet word with Bill – dissuade him?'
'If – if you'd be so kind, Douglas.'
'First Officer dons cap and enters cabin.'
'And First Officer returns, cap undoffed but bearing coffee. And despite the season, I regret to say I am not the bringer of tidings of comfort and joy – Bill informs me that unless he hears a cabin flight announcement he'll refuse to tell me his joke about the penguin, the emu and the shopping trolley.'
'Oh God ...'
'It's only a job, I suppose.'
'Bing bong! Good morning and welcome to Flight 666, brought to you by Scrooge McDuck Airways. The weather continues – if you care to look out of the window, you can see that there is, indeed, weather. If you wish to read our safety policy, feel free to look in the pocket of the seat immediately in front of you – you are unlikely to find a copy, as we don't believe in safety policies, but you may well find your Captain' s Peppa Pig colouring book. Should you have about your person a spare pink crayon – or indeed, should you be so inclined, a lipstick - you'll earn his undying gratitude, not to mention second dibs on his parachute.'
Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, Martin thinks. 'This is your Captain speaking – we have now reached cruising altitude and the seat belt signs have been disilluminated. Feel free to move about the cabin; however, I would advise that you remain in the plane until we land – it's cold outside and if you walk about on the wing you may disturb the gaffer tape.'
'Disilluminated, Martin? Are you sure that's a word?'
'May I take this opportunity to apologise for the unwarranted interruption by my First Officer: unfortunately his medication is starting to wear off. Should any of the passengers happen to be carrying a tranquilizer gun, you may find that this comes in useful.'
Douglas begins to howl loudly, and Martin continues his announcement.
'Should you be worried about the noise emitting from the starboard engine, I can assure you that you're not alone.'
'As an experienced First Officer, may I say that the only thing that worries me is that we had no starboard engine when we took off?'
'Surely it was the port engine that was missing?'
'Ladies and gentlemen, as we glide through the skies today, I should like to take this opportunity to dictate my last will and testament...'
Martin starts to scream 'Save me, Mother!' and Douglas grins to himself. Not one of their best announcements, but not bad – not bad at all.
'We Built this City on Sausage Rolls?'
'Very good, Bill. And your contribution, Captain?'
It had taken all of Martin's concentration to dissuade Gertie from skidding sideways on the frozen runway, and a great deal of effort to persuade a disgruntled Carolyn that they were, under no circumstances, returning to England that night.
The accommodation at the research station, however, proved reasonably comfortable, and, as Douglas said, thankfully polar-bear free.
To pass the time, Douglas had suggested a game of 'Edible Song Titles', which was proving surprisingly successful with the scientists.
'Erm – the theme from Jurassic Pork?'
'Yes, I'll accept that – and counter with Marmite, He's Making Eyes At Me. Doctor Anderson?'
'Fifty Ways to Leave Your Liver?'
'Ah, you've encountered Arthur's catering, then. And talking of Arthur – has anyone seen him lately?'
'Last seen pouring over photographs of polar bears. Apparently they're brilliant.'
'Nothing new there, then, Doctor. Most things are to Arthur.'
'In which case, perhaps you'd care to give him a copy of the brochure on polar bears in Spitzenberg as a Christmas present from us? Some of the facts could, perhaps, be better phrased, but it might please him.'
'Indeed it would. Many thanks. Ah yes, I see what you mean – just listen to this, Martin.
Apparently you should take great care when camping in polar bear country. I think this is a mistranslation from the original Norwegian and should in fact read "Don't".'
'You're making that up! Pass it here!'
Douglas passes the glossy brochure over. Martin starts to read it and begins to laugh.
'My apologies, Douglas. Listen to this bit: if there is time, your first step should be to determine what kind of polar bear you are dealing with, and whether it is interested in you or not.'
'What kind of polar bear? What? Like sleepy polar bear? Angry polar bear? Tired polar bear? Hungry polar bear?'
'Try this bit: polar bears usually give clear signals prior to an attack, when they become anxious, but many of these cues can be quite subtle. Bears under stress often turn their heads away from the source of the stress, let their lips hang or yawn. More assertive signals can include front-foot stamping, growling or brief charges. Attacks can also happen very quickly and without warning.'
'Sounds like Carolyn on a good day!'
'That's your boss, isn't it?' Bill asks. 'I thought she seemed familiar.'
All in all, Douglas thinks, if you have to be stuck in the Arctic in midwinter, the company could be a lot worse.
Apologies are due to the good people of Svalbard, particularly for my referring to Svalbard by its previous name of Spitzenberg; Zen Buddhists; native Flemish speakers and - quite probably - the creator of Peppa Pig. No insult was intended.
Many thanks are due to my marvellous Beta, Launa Alvara, in particular for the somewhat surreal conversation, much of which is reproduced in the final section of this chapter.
Chapter 42: Starlight, Star Bright
Pure, unashamed Christmas fluff.
The weather in Spitzenberg was so filthy that it looked for quite some time as if Gertie wasn't going to get back for Christmas: a prospect which pleased none of the MJN crew other than Arthur, who was in a permanent state of euphoria over the polar bears prowling the area.
Carolyn, as she reminded Douglas and Martin every day in a series of emails, was furious at the thought of her plane stranded in the Arctic Circle and thus unable to earn her any money; Douglas feared that he was in imminent danger of developing cabin fever; and Martin was even more Martinish than usual, driving Douglas to fresh depths of despair with his constant talk of how much he was missing Rhiannon.
The only other person who didn’t seem to be too upset by the situation was Rhiannon, who assured Martin that everything was fine, these things happen, at least she knew he was safe, and he had no reason at all to worry – she missed him, but the weather would have to clear eventually and she was spending a few nights staying over at Carolyn’s, for a bit of company.
Rather than calming Martin down, this bit of news threw him into more of a flap than usual: he vacillated between relief that Rhiannon and Carolyn seemed to have made up – though what the problem had been in the first place he still had no idea – and sheer terror at the thought of Rhiannon sleeping in the same house as Herc.
Douglas said darkly that it would be a brave man who willingly spent any time at all in Carolyn’s company but only a suicidal maniac who would then even consider seducing another woman under the same roof.
Three days before Christmas, Rhiannon emailed Martin with the news that, as she would be on her own on Christmas Day, she was going to swap her shift with another barmaid who had small children and didn't really want to have to work that day. Christmas, Rhiannon said, would just have to be a moveable feast and they’d have their celebration just as soon as Martin got home.
Martin agreed that this would be much more sensible than her spending the entire day on her own and tried to put the image of a lecherous Herc clutching a sprig of mistletoe out of his mind.
And so it was arranged. And on Christmas Eve, when it was far too late for Rhiannon to change her shift again, the weather cleared and Gertie was finally on her way back to Fitton.
It was, Martin said bitterly, just typical of his luck.
It had been a passionate reunion for Rhiannon and Martin, and so it is not really surprising that Martin oversleeps and is only woken by Rhiannon bringing him a cup of coffee before she goes to work.
‘Hell, Rhi – I’m sorry, I should have brought you breakfast in bed. I was just so damn tired.’
Rhiannon sits on the edge of the bed.
‘Well, I’m hardly surprised you’re tired – after all, we’ve hardly had much sleep, have we?’
She giggles and kisses him gently on the end of his nose. ‘Merry Christmas.’
‘Come back to bed for five minutes for a bit of Christmas cheer.’
‘No chance. I know your five minutes. I’ll be late, and I really must go. Don’t worry about the meal – everything’s ready. I cooked the turkey yesterday, and everything else is prepared – just needs switching on when I get home.’
She must have been up for hours, and he was so tired he hadn’t even noticed.
‘Want to open presents before you go, Rhi?’
For a moment she looks as excited as a child.
‘No, wait till I get back – you’ve only got to wait until this afternoon. We’ll open them before we eat.’
She rises from the bed, moves towards the door, turns to blow him a kiss.
‘I’ve lit the fire in the front room – it should be nice and warm for you in there.’ And she’s gone.
Clutching his second cup of coffee of the day, Martin wanders into the front room.
‘Let’s not make a fuss about Christmas’ she’d said.
No wonder she was up early. For a moment he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Rhiannon has managed to find the sort of paper chains that Martin hasn’t seen since he was a kid - Lord alone knows where she bought them - and they’re draped everywhere.
The miniature conifer from the garden sits in pride of place on the table, hung erratically with small silver baubles, its pot disguised in Santa-patterned wrapping paper. A small angel is balanced precariously on the top.
Martin’s seen some dreadful Christmas trees in his time– most notably a broken umbrella covered in individual milk cartons.
This one runs it a close second. It’s lopsided, badly decorated and the angel is leaning over at a suspiciously drunken angle.
And it’s been decorated with love.
It’s the most beautiful tree he’s ever seen.
There’s a parcel under the tree, labelled in Rhiannon’s large, childish writing ‘Do Not Open Until I Get Home.’
There’s a stocking hanging from the mantelpiece, labelled ‘You Can Open This One Now.’
And next to it is a plate containing a mince pie (with a bite taken out), half a carrot and a sherry glass.
In a moment, Martin’s going to go and fetch the rest of the presents and put them next to the little tree. But just now – right at this minute – all he wants to do is just stand there. Just stand and look at the room that’s been decorated with so much love by a woman who said that she wasn’t that bothered about Christmas.
Captain Martin Crieff, aged thirty-five, professional pilot, is sitting cross-legged on the floor exploring the contents of the first Christmas stocking he’s had in twenty-five years. Still slightly damp from his shower, in his dressing gown and with his unbrushed hair sticking up, he looks much as he must have done when he was ten.
It’s probably just as well he hadn’t thought about making a stocking for Rhiannon – if he had, he’d have overdone it. He would have filled it with jewellery, perfume, expensive chocolates, things like that.
It wouldn’t have been a proper traditional stocking like this one is. So far he’s unearthed an Airfix kit for a Spitfire, an apple – red and shiny, just like Christmas stocking apples ought to be – an orange, a bag of chocolate coins – rather better than the ones I tried to make for Arthur that time – and a pink sugar mouse. The stocking is almost empty, but still tantalizingly lumpy at the foot.
Hazel nuts. He’d forgotten that you always put hazel nuts in a stocking. And what else?
Reaching into the toe, he finds six shiny pennies and – what? A piece of coal? Must be some sort of Welsh tradition, that, he supposes. And a small box which turns out to contain a silver St Christopher and chain. Martin isn't into personal jewellery, but this is different. Because Rhiannon bought it. He undoes the fiddly little catch on the chain and puts the talisman on, noting as he does so that the back of the medallion is engraved 'M with love from R. Christmas 2012'.
He bites into the apple, wondering whether he’s going to be able to make this Christmas as special for Rhiannon as she has for him.
Half-past three, and Martin hears a car pull up outside and Rhiannon shouting ‘Thanks for the lift! Merry Christmas!’
He opens the door and waltzes her into the little front room.
‘And a Merry Christmas to you, Rhiannon Pryce. Let me kiss you under the mistletoe.’
‘Have we any?’
‘I had an Arthur moment and drew some on a piece of paper.’
‘So exhausted I’m almost too tired to speak.’
‘That I refuse to believe.’
‘Arthur drove me home – he and Carolyn and Herc had their lunch at the Fitton and he’s on his way to a party. It was a bit awkward when I nearly got a customer’s drinks wrong because I’d just had a good idea for the thesis, but he only laughed and said it was a busy day for me. And he gave me a really big tip. Oh!’
She’s seen that the mantlepiece is now covered with little snowflake lights (lent by Josie from next door when she asked Martin to join her and Mike for a lunchtime gin and tonic, and Martin told them about Rhiannon decorating the room), nestling amongst the sprigs of holly and lengths of ivy that he’d cut earlier from the big bushes on the Green. The big candles in the hurricane vases are lit: they add to the warm, comfortable feeling of the room.
‘Martin! How pretty!’
‘Come and sit down, sweetheart – put your feet up on the settee and I’ll pour you a drink. There’s some mince pies warming in the Aga, if you’d like a couple. Dinner in about an hour, if that’s all right? ‘
‘You spoil me.’
‘You’ve been working.’
And now all I’ve got to do is keep you out of the kitchen until dinner, so that the table laid with all the best china and cutlery and the candles comes as a surprise.
Rhiannon takes a deep swig of her wine and sighs.
‘It’s so lovely to be home, it really is. And there’s a bottle of champagne in my bag – a present from the manager. I feel quite guilty – I usually call him a mean old buzzard. Shall I go and put it in the fridge?’
‘I’ll do it – I’m just going to fetch the mince pies. Relax a minute, and then we’ll open the presents. Save the special ones till last.’
The big intriguing squishy parcel from Emilia and Geoff turned out to be a patchwork quilt, hundreds of tiny jewel-bright squares carefully pieced together. Martin thought that they must have bought it from a shop in London, but Rhiannon said no, Emilia used to spend a lot of her evenings doing patchwork, you wouldn’t think she’d be interested in that sort of thing at all.
Considering Emilia’s predilection for men in uniform, Martin’s surprised she ever found the time to thread a needle.
Carolyn and Herc had given them a bottle of champagne and a pair of champagne glasses (at this rate, Martin said ruefully, he wouldn’t be sober enough to fly until at least Easter), and Arthur had made them a little cherry wood bowl with a lid.
‘Treen’ Martin said, knowingly, and Rhiannon said that she didn’t know that, and Martin was rather pleased that for once he knew something that she didn’t.
The small envelope from Douglas contained two tickets for a production of ‘La Boheme’ at Covent Garden and a typically Douglasy note ‘Thought Martin could do with a bit of culture, the uneducated oik. Lord knows, he’ll need it to keep up with you.’
And that leaves only three parcels – a thin narrow box and a larger package for Rhiannon, and something that looks like a book for Martin.
And Martin’s feeling distinctly nervous. Because of course Rhiannon had said they were only going to exchange token presents, and the contents of the slender box can’t by any means be described as a token present.
‘Two presents, Martin?’
‘Well, you did leave me a Christmas stocking.’
‘That was from Santa.’
‘So is this.’
He hands her the box, and sits back.
Rhiannon opens it and – for almost the first time since Martin’s known her – is lost for words.
‘Is – is it okay, sweetheart? I mean we – we did say only a token present, but –‘
Rhiannon says quietly ‘It’s absolutely beautiful. You shouldn’t have. But it’s beautiful. You buy me the most wonderful things, and I don’t deserve them, and –‘
‘Of course you deserve them. Why shouldn’t I buy beautiful things for my beautiful lady?’
Rhiannon looks as if she’s about to cry. Martin kisses her, and then takes the little gold watch out of the box and turned it over to show her the inscription on the reverse.
R from M. Christmas 2012.
Rhiannon sniffs – Good grief, she really is close to tears – and says shakily ‘Great minds think alike, huh?’
‘Indeed they do.’
Rhiannon hands Martin his present, and now it’s his turn to be astonished.
‘Where on earth did you find this?’
‘Is it all right? I know you collect them, and it’s a bit dog-eared but it’s got a dust jacket, and you’ve only got it in paperback, and I thought -‘
Martin turns the copy of ‘Biggles Flies North’ over in his hands.
‘Rhi, unless I’m very much mistaken this is a first edition.’
‘The man in the shop said it was.’
‘Do you know how much these cost? S-stupid question – of course you do. What on earth were you thinking of? Spending all that money –‘
Rhiannon says quietly ‘Please don’t be cross with me.’
‘Sweetheart, I’m not cross. Honestly. Not at all. It’s a lovely present – the most thoughtful gift anyone’s ever given me. It’s just that – you shouldn’t have spent all that money on me.’
‘But I wanted to.’
‘You’re a silly girl. Cheer up – I’m not cross at all. How could I be? You spend your money on what you want to – it’s just that I don’t want you to go short on anything yourself. Such a lovely present from the best girl in the world. Now –‘ he reaches for the last parcel– ‘this is your really daft present.’
And this time Rhiannon really does burst into tears.
‘Martin – Martin? That’s not daft– that’s – that’s wonderful. Magical. You did that for me? Oh - oh Martin –‘
He holds her tight and kisses her hair.
‘Nothing’s too good for you, my love.’
Later that evening, replete after the best Christmas dinner Martin can remember, they’re curled up together on the settee under Emilia’s patchwork quilt, sleepy and giggly and – if the truth be told - not entirely sober.
Martin’s poured them the last of the champagne and is lazily wondering whether to put some more logs on the fire or to suggest they go to bed.
Rhiannon’s almost asleep, her head on Martin’s shoulder, both hands holding the framed certificate that is part of the best, the most romantic present that anyone – anyone – could ever receive.
Because the certificate confirms that, thanks to Martin, up there in the heavens there’s a star that’s now known as Rhiannon Bethany Pryce.
Thanks as ever to Launa Alvara, my faithful beta.
Chapter 43: Tango, Foxtrot
In which Martin has a hangover and Carolyn and Rhiannon make a fresh start.
‘Rhi, I think my brain cells must have gone on holiday.’
Rhiannon giggles .
‘Well, my gallant Captain, you did have rather a lot to drink – I think I remember Douglas describing the amount you were putting away as an heroic quantity – and you really should know better than to try any of Emilia’s cocktails.’
‘Oh God, tell me I didn’t.’
‘You did. Quite a few of them.’
Martin winces and closes his eyes again.
‘It was certainly a New Years’ party to remember though, cariad.’
‘It might have been for you, sweetheart – I think I’ve just had the Lost Weekend.’
‘So you don’t remember Douglas helping me get you to bed?’
Martin suddenly sits upright. It’s a mistake – the room is tail-spinning round him.
‘Oh God, tell me you’re joking.’
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘The last thing I remember is him reciting I hope to see my pilot face to face when I have crossed the bar.’
Rhiannon takes a sip of her coffee and shudders. If she’s honest, her hangover isn’t that much better.
‘Mm. That was just before you fell over, I think, but I was a bit too busy trying to fend Herc Shipwright off at the time.’
‘I don’t remember falling over.’
‘Carolyn was trying to teach you the tango – well, she said it was a tango – and you fell over her feet.’
‘But you told us all it was a soft landing. Probably because you managed somehow to land on top of her. Douglas said it was as good as a cabaret tuen.’
‘Promise me you’re making it up.’
‘If it’s any consolation, Martin, we were all as tight as owls. Even Arthur was a bit squiffy.’
He groans hollowly. ‘Douglas wouldn’t have been. Douglas would have been stone-cold sober and making a mental note of every little detail. Douglas is going to spend the next year making my working life hell, dropping out snide little comments to make me squirm.’
‘Douglas is sweet! He rescued me from Herc!’
‘You don’t have to work with him.’
Carolyn’s New Year’s Eve parties are famed throughout the length and breadth of Fitton Airfield for the sheer amount of alcohol imbibed – the cost of which is written off against the tax bill as ‘Entertaining Clients’, even though there’s never a client in sight. MJN New Year’s Eve parties are strictly staff and partners only.
Wise partners stay at home, stockpiling Alka-Seltzer in readiness for damage limitation the following morning.
Very wise partners have been known to go back to their mothers’ for the weekend, leaving the impending damage to look after itself.
Martin hadn’t intended to go to the party – he’d never particularly enjoyed any of them before, and the fact that Emilia had come down from London to spend New Year with Geoff-from-next-door provided him, he thought, with a cast-iron excuse: the four of them would see the New Year together.
In a state of relative sobriety.
That plan had gone well until the moment he’d told Carolyn.
In a rare mood of munificence, she’d announced that in which case Emilia and Geoff should join the MJN jollities.
When Carolyn has made her mind up, argument is futile.
It hadn’t actually been a bad evening, although it was, in hindsight, a mistake to allow Emilia to show Carl (who was acting as barman) how to mix cocktails.
It was a greater mistake to drink anything that the two of them had concocted together. Martin – although he will never remember this – had refused to believe that the sickly green mixture adhering to the side of his glass in a successful attempt to defy the laws of gravity was in fact crème de menthe, Tabasco sauce and advocaat, insisting instead that it was some Harry Potter-esque potion.
Emilia promptly named it the Severus Special.
There’s one good thing about Emilia’s cocktails – after the first glass, your tastebuds go numb.
After the second, your throat stops burning.
Many people cannot remember which part of them stops functioning after the third.
Carolyn had drunk three G&Ts before the cocktails began to circulate, which probably explains her later performance on the dance floor and almost certainly explains why, when she and Rhiannon were standing side-by-side in front of the mirror in the ladies’ loo, busy retouching lipstick and mascara, she had said, apropos of nothing, ‘Martin seems to be coping much better with his autism these days.’
‘It’s all right, dear, there’s no-one else in here.’
‘That’s not the point! It’s not something that Martin would want to be idly gossiped about!’
Before she can stop herself, Carolyn retorts ‘And yet you thought I should gossip about it to you.’
Oops! That’s certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons. Or the Douglas amongst the drink trolleys, at any rate.
Rhiannon says sharply ‘I still stand by what I said. You should have told me. Don’t you think it would have made life easier for Martin if you had?’
‘And what if he’d already told you? What would you thought then – that I was just idly gossiping? I gave him my word, Rhiannon – which is a thing I don’t do lightly. I promised him that, as long as it didn’t affect his ability to do his job, I would never say a word to anyone. And I honestly thought that he must have told you.’
She sighs and says sadly ‘Whatever you may think of me, Rhiannon, I gave him a second chance when no-one else would.’
Rhiannon looks at the older woman.
‘We’re never going to agree on this, are we?’
‘I don’t think we ever will, Rhiannon. And I do honestly appreciate your point of view, even if you’ll never come to appreciate mine. But I would like us to be friends again.’
Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, CEO of her own airdot, astute businesswoman and a force to be reckoned with, has never before, even as a child, asked anyone if they would be her friend.
Something of this shows in her voice.
Rhiannon Bethany Pryce, postgraduate student with a glittering career lying in front of her, a woman who knows her own mind, has never before in her life, so far as she can remember, had anyone she could turn to as though they were her mother.
Two strong-minded women, each brilliant in their own way, and both of them flawed.
Rhiannon makes up her mind.
She gave him a chance when nobody else would.
Who has ever given Carolyn a first chance, never mind a second one? She’s had to fight, every step of the way.
Rhiannon’s had a lifetime of fighting for what she wants.
Martin’s a fighter, too. He might have been given that second chance, but he’s had to prove himself, struggling against his undeserved reputation.
This is ridiculous.
She makes her mind up.
‘Carolyn? I don’t think for a moment we can go back to how we were, but I’d like be friends again.’
She smiles. ‘After all, it’s ridiculous for us to fall out over a man! Especially – ‘
Carolyn says slyly ‘Especially when it’s Martin. Even if we do both have his best interests at heart.’
The two women burst out laughing and, arm in arm, make their way back to the party.
Martin had little memory of the later part of evening – Rhiannon had to remind him of how, after his spectacular dive onto the dance-floor, she’d told him that there was just nothing else for it; she’d have to teach him how to dance before the University May Ball.
He’d looked at her in horror and said ‘But I can’t! I’ll just make a fool of both of us!’ and Douglas had pointed out that whatever happened, Martin couldn’t possibly make a greater hash of it than he just had.
‘Although knowing you, Martin ...’
And then the Mighty Sky God had swung Rhiannon into a perfectly faultless foxtrot, leaving Martin thinking that Rhiannon teaching him to dance could only be a disaster.
But because he has no memory of this, he will never know quite how right he was.
Chapter 44: Rocky
Or "Knight In Shining Armour"
'Martin, what in the name of all that's holy were you thinking of? There are clients arriving any moment now: what if they'd arrived early and witnessed that disgraceful debacle? Not exactly the sort of behaviour that's going to encourage anyone to think that using MJN might actually be a good idea, never mind a plane load of nuns!'
'Sorry, Carolyn. Aargh - that hurts!'
'Oh stop squirming, you big baby! There, that should do. And may I remind you that the damage to your uniform is your responsibility and that you are going to pay for the repairs? Or quite probably for a new jacket. And for the repairs to Douglas's uniform.'
'Martin, are you drunk?'
'Then what unlikely excuse are you going to offer me? Two - two- of my pilots engaged in an unseemly brawl in the middle of the airfield!'
'Both your pilots.'
'Don't try to get clever with me, Martin.'
'I - I didn't know Douglas could fight like that.'
'I didn't know that Douglas could fight at all! It's not the sort of question one tends to ask when interviewing pilots - by the way, are you handy with your fists, because I may take leave of my senses and employ a Captain who suddenly loses his temper and decides that he's John Wayne in "The Quiet Man"?'
'It won't happen again.'
'It certainly won't! Because if I ever see you so much as raise your hand...'
'He shouldn't have said it.'
'For God's sake, Martin, you're not a schoolboy! Do you realise that you're very lucky that there's not been a formal complaint? Do you realise that I really should take disciplinary action and suspend you, and that the only reason that I'm not doing so is because Gertie is flying out in an hour? As it is, I'm going to have to somehow gloss over the fact that neither of my pilots have a uniform fit for anything except the dustbin, the First Officer has blood all over his shirt and the Captain has a black eye.'
'He asked for it.'
'Martin! You were once beaten up by a 14 year old! If Douglas hadn't waded in on your side just now, Dirk would probably have killed you! What in God's name possessed you to pick a fight with Dirk, of all people?'
'He shouldn't have said it. And I told him if he ever said it again, I'd hit him.'
'And he said it again. And then Douglas held him while I hit him. And that's when the trouble started.'
'What shouldn't he have said?'
'He shouldn't have asked me if it was true that my girlfriend's so fat I have to leave chalkmarks to see where I leave off.'
'Martin, go and put those appallingly bad-taste aviator shades on: they may hide some of the damage. And do try not to pick a fight with any more of the ground crew.'
'Oh, and Martin?'
'I really shouldn't say this, but you're quite right: he did ask for it. And you have a very impressive left hook. Well done, Rocky.'
With love, as ever, to my wonderful Beta, for all her hard work in proof-reading, suggesting corrections and amendments and generally just being there when I need her!
Chapter 45: Meltdown
Dark times ahead.
WARNING: mentions of violence and child abuse (non-sexual). Nothing graphic.
After the fight with Dirk, and once Gertie had returned to Fitton, Douglas had suggested that he should go home with Martin and help explain to Rhiannon what had happened.
Martin hadn't taken the suggestion at all well, and Douglas – not for the first time – was wondering why he sometimes bothered to try to help Martin at all.
'I'm – I'm not a child, Douglas! I'm a grown man – I'm perfectly capable of explaining to Rhiannon!'
'Are you, though? Believe me, the woman in your life is not going to be pleased if you tell her you've been – now how did Carolyn put it? Ah yes – brawling. And if the state of your uniform isn't enough of a giveaway, that black eye certainly is. The old "walked into a cupboard door" excuse is not going to work, my lad. It never does. And you can hardly tell her what Dirk said.'
Martin shook his head ruefully.
'You don't know how true that is, Douglas. I had enough trouble persuading her that she doesn't need to diet– if I tell her someone said she's fat, she'll only start starving herself again.'
'Then follow my lead, Captain, for I have a cunning plan.'
In hindsight, Douglas had to admit that, if Martin hadn't taken his offer of help well, that was nothing compared to how well Rhiannon hadn't taken it. As soon as she saw Martin's face – and that black eye was certainly impressive – she burst into tears.
'Martin, whatever's happened to you? Martin?'
If only. If only Martin hadn't, with his usual lack of forethought, tried to make light of the situation.
'You should see the other guy.'
Douglas had been about to produce his cast-iron excuse – and it really was a Richardson Special – but Rhiannon backed away, behind the kitchen table.
'You – you haven't been fighting?'
Douglas didn't like the look on her face at all. Nor her tone of voice. Nor the way she flinched away when Martin took a step towards her.
Unsurprisingly, the Richardson Special fell a little flat.
'Entirely my fault, Rhiannon. One of the ground crew said something to me which was both unforgivable and unrepeatable. I lost my temper and hit him, but he proved much stronger than I – as you can tell by the blood on my shirt and, indeed, my spilt lip. Martin, being the thoroughly good chap that he is, tried to extricate me from the ensuing melee, but got in the way of a flying fist.'
It wasn't a bad lie, as lies go – as he'd once told Arthur, the most convincing lies are based strongly on the truth – but Rhiannon didn't even seem to hear him.
'I – I never thought you were a violent man, Martin Crieff.'
'Martin? Violent? Never for a moment, my dear: he was trying to pacify the two of us. You know Martin – do you honestly think that he'd condone fighting on the airfield, let alone join in?'
Rhiannon cried and cried before she calmed down a little, but it was Douglas she turned to for comfort, not Martin.
And as Douglas stood there, letting her weep on his shoulder, rubbing her arm and murmuring 'There, there: everything's all right. You know Martin's not violent, don't you? Of course you do. You do, really. Everything's all right ' - as though she were a frightened child - the thought struck him that age must be mellowing him. It wasn't the first time that he'd had a beautiful woman in his arms, sobbing as if her heart would break: but it was the first time that he'd never tried to take advantage of the situation.
It was in the early hours of the morning that Douglas eventually returned to his flat, wondering whether there was more to Rhiannon's reaction than met, so to speak, the eye.
Martin slept on the sofa for the next few days, until Rhiannon finally forgave him.
Life at Fitton Green seemed to be slowly returning to normal.
Three weeks later, and Martin and Rhiannon are in the kitchen.
She's trying to teach him to jive, and they've pushed the table and chairs back and put a CD on, and even though he's clumsy and keeps forgetting the steps, they're enjoying themselves, laughing and dancing.
Everything back to normal.
And then suddenly it all goes wrong.
Rhiannon spins away from Martin, and he puts his hand out to take her hand, to bring her back towards him, and he misses and grabs her wrist instead.
That's all it takes.
He starts to laugh at how clumsy he is. But Rhiannon stops dancing and laughing and just stands there looking at him.
She just looks - indifferent. As if she doesn't know him, as if he's a stranger.
Perhaps he's hurt her. But he couldn't have caught her wrist that hard, could he?
He raises his hand to touch her cheek, just meaning to caress it while he kisses her and tells her he's sorry, but she flinches and backs away from him. And he doesn't like the strange expression on her face.
Exactly the same expression she had that evening when Douglas tried to explain away the fight.
What on earth?
Rhiannon takes another step backwards and says, without any emotion at all in her voice, 'Don't.'
'Rhi - '
She steps back again. 'Just bloody don't.'
Don't? Don't do what?
Martin moves toward her, she backs away again – a ghastly parody of a tango. She's right up against the wall now, nowhere left for her to go, and he suddenly realises what that look means. He never thought that Rhiannon - wonderful, laughing Rhiannon, the most important person in his life - would ever look at him like that.
He feels sick.
She's frightened of him.
He moves towards her again and puts his hands gently on her shoulders. She's stiff, rigid with fear.
Oh no. Oh bloody sodding hell. Surely not? She can't think - oh my God, she does. And there's only one reason she'd think that.
'Rhi - just tell me, sweetheart, it's okay, it's all okay - has anyone ever hit you?'
She looks at him and says in the same little flat voice 'Yes. My Da. All the time.'
Martin's furious. He says quietly 'I'll fucking kill him.'
They stand there for a moment. Neither of them speaks: the only noise is Phil bloody Collins blaring out 'You Can't Hurry Love' from the CD player. Martin reaches away and switches it off. He holds out one hand. Very gently, as if he's trying to comfort a small frightened animal, he says 'Rhi? Rhi? It's all right - I'm not going to hurt you. Give me your hand - that's it, good girl - and we're going to go and sit down and talk about this.'
Rhiannon takes his hand hesitantly, and very slowly he leads her into the living room.
Martin's never been in this situation before - he'd never thought for a moment that he'd have to cope with anything like this - but he knows what it feels like to be frightened. He knows what Rhiannon does when he's frightened. He's got to keep his voice gentle, soothing.
'Rhi? Come and sit down - no, here, next to me.'
'I'm s-sorry, Martin.'
'Sorry? What have you got to be sorry about? Just tell me. Please, Rhi.'
Rhiannon says, matter of factly, 'It's nothing. Just Da used to hit me a lot.'
'It's not nothing, Rhi. It's important. We promised each other - no secrets. Why didn't you tell me?'
'It's not exactly the sort of thing you can tell your lover.'
'It's exactly the sort of thing you should have told me.'
Rhiannon sighs and says 'What was I supposed to say? Oh, by the way, my Da's a drunken bully who beat me because I'm fat and ugly and useless?'
Martin's having real difficulties in not shouting. How the hell could anyone do that? It's a struggle to keep his voice soft, but he manages somehow.
'You're not fat, Rhiannon; or useless. And you're certainly not ugly. You're beautiful. Don't you know that? How can anyone be as beautiful as you are and not know it? Do you know Douglas calls you my Celtic Moon Goddess?'
Rhiannon looks down at her lap and whispers 'Does he?'
'He really does.'
He tries to take her hand, but she pulls it away from him.
'How long? How old were you when that bastard started hitting you?'
'I can't remember, Martin. I honestly can't. He started years before Mam walked out. She couldn't cope with it anymore.'
And you told me you were seven when she left.
'Dear God, Rhi. Your mother walked out and left you to be used as a punchbag?'
'She'd had enough of him hitting her.'
God Almighty, how could she? How could she leave you behind to be abused?
'Where were the social workers? Did you never tell anyone? A teacher or anyone?'
'I couldn't, Martin. He said if I ever told anyone he'd beat me even harder.'
'Did - did he ever do anything else to you?'
'No, Martin. Honestly. He just hit me.'
How can anyone say 'He just hit me' as if it doesn't matter? As if it's normal?
Martin doesn't quite know what he should do, what he ought to say, but there's something else that he's got to find out.
'Rhi? I'm sorry, but I've got to ask you - I need to know - have you ever tried to hurt yourself? To harm yourself? Please tell me.'
She shakes her head. 'No, I promise I never have.'
Martin lifts one hand and tousles Rhiannon's curls, and this time she doesn't flinch.
'And in the end, you left.'
'In the end, I ran away. Because I'm a coward. And no-one's ever going to make me go back there.'
'Rhiannon Pryce, listen to me. You are the bravest girl I have ever met. It's much easier to stay and be a victim than it is to get out. But you did it. And I'm never going to let you go back there. Now - don't be frightened, you're with me, and I'll never hurt you - come here and let me hold you. Please?'
'Rhi? It's all right to cry, you know.'
'I can't, Martin. I'm think I'm all cried out - I did all my crying years ago.'
Martin imagines a small unloved girl, lying in the dark and crying until she just can't cry any more. And no-one ever comes to comfort her.
And that's as frightening as anything else you've just told me.
But the most terrifying moment is, for him, when she looks at him and says– in the same emotionless voice – 'You're going to start hitting me now, aren't you? Now that you know?'
It's not a question.
'Christ, Rhi, no! Never!'
Still the same little flat voice.
They talk some more - or rather Rhiannon does, a lifetime of sickening abuse and evil secrets comes pouring out, and in the end she does break down - she cries and cries, great gulping sobs that go on and on, begging Martin not to hit her, not to be angry with her; and Martin sits there and holds her and prays to a God he doesn't believe in that she'll be all right, that they can get through this.
He leaves her for a moment, just to make her a warm drink, and by the time he's found the herbal teabags - caffeine's probably not a good idea - and brought the mugs in, she's fallen asleep on the sofa.
Exhausted. Best not wake her, best just let her sleep.
He fetches the duvet from the bedroom and tucks it round her. No room on the sofa for two to sleep – not much room for one - he'll just sit here on the floor, holding her hand in case she needs him when she wakes.
He's supposed to be flying shorthaul tomorrow, but he's going to have to call Douglas first thing and ask him to cover. There's no way he's going to leave Rhiannon on her own, and in any case he's not going to be fit to fly. And in the meantime he's got so much to think about.
Why didn't he realise? When it explains so much? Like Rhiannon's insistence that she keeps on with her part-time job, even though they can scrape through without it, and if she gave it up she'd have more time for her studies? He'd thought that it was a stubborn streak, that she wanted to try to contribute, not to be dependent on him, but there's more to it than that. She'd told him when they'd first started going out.
'I was Da's unpaid barmaid.'
He'd just thought that her father was a bloody miser. He'd never realised it was a form of slavery.
And when she'd moved in: he'd noticed then that she had no childhood mementoes - not a soft toy, not a much-treasured book, nothing. Not a photograph of her home or her family, or of her as a child. Nothing to suggest that she'd even existed for the first twenty years of her life.
And there's so many other little signs - her delight when he gives her a present; she wouldn't have had many presents in her life. The look on her face when she saw that pretty dress: no party frocks for a little girl who wasn't wanted.
What was it she'd said? You buy me such beautiful presents, and I don't deserve them.
I don't deserve them.
The way she decorated the living-room at Christmas - the child crying in the dark would never have had a real Christmas. The Christmas stocking - she'd never have had one herself. And the present she gave him - that book must have cost a couple of hundred quid. She must have gone without lunches for months to save up for that. Just because she wanted to please him.
Christ, she doesn't think she's got to buy my love, does she?
Her face when I was jealous of Herc - when she thought I didn't trust her.
All the times she was worried that I was cross with her, or angry.
I've been so bloody selfish. Never even thinking that she might have problems of her own.
All the times I teased her about her telling me all about what she'd written in her answers in her Finals, all the theories in her research, and I said I didn't understand a word of it. Does she think I meant she was showing off? Because I never meant that - she doesn't show off. She's just so very clever and she's so desperate for me to be proud of her. And I am.
No-one's ever praised her before. All her childhood, all she's ever known is anger and violence. And she thought I might have a violent streak. She thinks I'm going to be the same.
And is that why she won't marry me? I thought that was because her parents' marriage was a disaster, but I didn't know the half of it.
All those clues. There's so much I missed because I didn't know, didn't think.
Martin's getting uncomfortable sitting on the floor, but there's no way he's going to move. He pulls a corner of the duvet round him.
Oh Rhiannon, I thought I was the insecure one, and that you were so strong. And you must have been, to have survived all that. I've always envied you for being so confident when I'm not, but you're not at all, are you? It's just a shell you've built up round yourself to stop the hurt, and now it's broken. You're so very vulnerable.
Tomorrow when Rhiannon wakes up, Martin's going to tell her again that that it's going to be all right. That he'll never, ever hurt her.
Rhiannon may be broken, but somehow Martin's going to mend her.
Whatever it takes.
Thanks, as ever, to Launa Alvara.
Chapter 46: Confidences
Martin needs to talk.
Gertie's on her way to Prague.
'Douglas, thanks for covering for me the other day.'
'My pleasure, Martin. It's not as if you ask me to do it often - never before, in fact. You said that there was something wrong with your wonderful Celtic Moon Goddess - is everything all right?'
There's a long pause.
'I - don't know, Douglas. I hope so.'
'Martin, I know sometimes we don't see eye-to-eye, but if there's anything you need to talk about...'
'Oh Christ, Douglas, I need to talk to someone, but I promised Rhiannon I wouldn't say anything.'
There's another long pause. Douglas glances at the younger man. He's pale, tense, biting his lip.
Rhiannon really worked herself up into a state the last time I saw her. But I thought you’d got over that.
'Martin, I give you my word, if there's anything at all I can do, you only have to ask. And I'll never breathe a word to anyone.'
Martin's head's in a whirl. He needs to talk to someone, to make sure he's doing the right thing for Rhiannon - hell, he just needs to talk - but he promised her and if he breaks that promise, she might never trust him again. And if she doesn't trust him, she might leave him. And then what? What will happen to her then?
'Martin, don't jump down my throat, but if you need to borrow any money, you only need ask.'
Martin laughs. It's a harsh, unpleasant sound without any humour.
'God, if only...'
The cabin door opens.
'Arthur, can you do me a favour?'
'Anything you want, Douglas!'
'Sod off. For a very long time. Until I call you on the intercom.'
'Right-o, Douglas! Sodding off.'
There's very little that upsets Arthur.
Martin's made his mind up. He takes a sip of his coffee.
'If - if you had to describe my Rhiannon to someone, what would you say? Honestly?'
'I'd say you were a lucky dog: she's gorgeous and witty and almost frighteningly intelligent. She's got a face straight out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting - not conventionally beautiful to some eyes, perhaps - but she's a looker, with that long neck and strong jaw and those long dark curls. She's got an incredible figure. And she's - what - three inches shorter than you? Just the right height.'
'Would you say she was fat and stupid and ugly?'
'Martin! Have you two had a row? What the hell do you think you’re saying?'
'Douglas, I need to tell you something in confidence. It's not very nice, and there's nothing that you can do, but I need to talk.'
'Fire away, Martin. I doubt there's anything I've never heard before.'
Martin takes a deep breath.
'Rhiannon's father used to hit her and her mother. Repeatedly. Her mother walked out because she couldn't take it any more, but she left Rhiannon behind - her only child, her little girl, Douglas - to be used as a punchbag.'
'Jesus, Martin, I wasn't expecting that. How old was Rhiannon when it started?'
'She doesn't know. She can't remember a time when she wasn't being beaten. She was seven when her mother left. Seven, Douglas! When I was seven I'd only just stopped pretending to be an aeroplane! And he hit her every day of her life until she ran away. And do you know why he hit her? Because he said she was fat and stupid and ugly.'
'How old was she when she left?'
'Twenty. At least thirteen years of beatings, Douglas. And he was a clever bastard. Never hit her where he might leave a mark that anyone could see, or that couldn’t be explained away as clumsiness. Not mindless violence, Douglas - calculated violence. She slept in a damp cold room with mould on the walls and mice running all over the place and in the end she stopped crying because she couldn't cry any more. And when she was twenty she stole some money out of the till and ran away and worked in a pub on the coast, until someone came in one night who knew her father. So she ran away again, and she came to Fitton because that was as far as she could afford to go on the train. She ended up in a homeless hostel, and she found a job working in a shop and went to evening classes to do an Access course to get to university.'
Douglas takes another mouthful of coffee and says 'The man's an fucking arse. Complete bastard. Did the police do anything?'
'She never told them. And she won't tell them now. Says it'll only be her word against his and she can't bear the thought of ever seeing him again. She's still terrified of him.'
'Understandable. When did she tell you?'
'Two days ago - I found out by accident. We were fooling around and I grabbed her wrist, and - oh Christ, Douglas, she was frightened of me! Petrified! She thought I was going to hit her.'
'Dear God. She thought you - of all people – and of course after the other evening -'
'And the awful thing - out of all of this - is that she’s resigned to it. She expected that I’d start beating her, sooner or later – it’s as if she thinks it's normal.'
Tears are pouring down Martin's face. Douglas doesn't say a word. He'd never have guessed - Rhiannon always looks so happy, so confident. All except on that last evening he’d seen her.
You knew something was wrong then, Richardson. And you never did a bloody thing about it.
Seven years old - when my own daughter was that age, she had a pony, and a bedroom that was pink and lacy and warm, and was loved - still is, of course - and I’ve have killed anyone who did the least thing to upset her. Still would.
Douglas waits for a few moments and then says 'I'm not prying, but did she have a boyfriend before you?'
'Two. The first one turned out to be happily married; the second one decided it might be fun to surprise her and - er - liven things up with a riding crop. She had the sense to walk away from him. I didn't know about that until two days ago, either. Not much luck with men, my Rhiannon, has she?'
'She's got you, Martin. Not a sadistic excuse for a father, not a married man just after a bit on the side, not some fool who wants to spice up his love life without bothering to ask if his partner thinks it's a good idea: you.'
Martin rubs the palm of his hand across his face to wipe the tears away and takes another sip of coffee. It's cold.
'She's had therapy, of course? For this, I mean - she went about her fear of flying, and that was pretty successful.'
'She's never seen anyone about the abuse, and she refuses to go now. I begged her. She says it's too shameful.'
'I believe that's quite a common reaction.'
'No, not like that. She thinks I'm ashamed of her now that I know. She thinks I ought to be ashamed of her, that she's to blame for it. And that I’m going to start being violent because I’m ashamed of her. And she won't let me tell her doctor, or my doctor, or anyone. And if I do - Christ, Douglas, if I do she'll stop trusting me, and if she runs away again - what'll happen to her then?'
'I wonder whether it's connected, you know? With her phobia about flying - you said that she had an underlying fear of enclosed spaces, and from what you've said about her room at her father's - '
'I wondered that myself, Douglas.'
'Would she talk to Carolyn about the abuse. You told me they were very close.'
‘I asked her that. She won’t. She hasn’t said why, but they did have some sort of falling out last year, and perhaps she feels that she can’t trust Carolyn. Or perhaps she’s frightened that Carolyn might tell her that she’ll just have to accept my hitting her – that it’s what happens in relationships. Or perhaps it’s all to do with her own mother abandoning her and somehow she feels that Carolyn’s let her down, or will let her down. I just don’t know, because she won’t tell me. I honestly don’t think she really knows why.’
‘Do you think it might help if she talked to me? I mean, I’m no expert on this, but I was there the other evening, so she might just open up to me.’
‘She won’t talk to anybody. She doesn’t want me to talk to anybody. I think she just wants to pretend that it never happened and that no-one knows anything about it.’
'And how has she been since you found out - since she told you?'
'She - she's scarcely stopped crying. And she's - sort of shutting me out, mentally turning away from me, if you know what I mean.''
'So what are you going to do?'
'I don't know. Love her, comfort her, do everything I can to make sure she's never unhappy again - what else can I do? I've done and said things that must have cut her to the quick - things that were just jokes or little misunderstandings, that should never have hurt her - I never meant to hurt her, I wouldn't deliberately hurt her - but I just didn't know.'
'Of course you didn't.'
Dear God, Martin, which one of you is the more damaged by this?
Martin says in a tight little voice 'Did you know I'd asked her to marry me? Last summer - before we started to live together. And she wouldn't. She refused. I think it's because she expects it to turn out to be just like her parents and the violence all over again.'
Douglas had suspected that Martin must have proposed at some time: knowing Martin, it was inconceivable that he hadn't.
'But she lives with you, Martin. That means a lot. She does trust you - and it's obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense that she loves you. And if I could tell you what to do to put things right, I would.'
'Thank you for listening, Douglas.'
It's clear Martin doesn't want to say any more.
'Thank you for confiding in me, Martin. And I promise I'll not mention a single word to a living soul. And any time you need to talk again - you know where I am.'
A small smile appears on Martin's lips.
'Usually in the co-pilot's seat. Shall we ask Arthur for fresh coffee? Mine's awful.'
'Attaboy. Hang on in there - she's worth it.'
Chapter 47: Icarus
In which Martin struggles to cope.
It's a long, slow process, trying to heal Rhiannon.
Martin had thought – hoped – at first that it would be a matter of just reassuring Rhiannon that she was safe now, that he’d never let anything or anyone harm her.
Like a fool - he thinks bitterly - I thought that was all she needed. Just to be loved.
He hadn’t realised quite how badly she was affected by her past.
He often worries that they're never going to get there, that the Rhiannon he first fell in love with has gone away, leaving some damaged stranger in her place who looks and sounds like Rhiannon but who isn’t her at all.
Sometimes it seems as if they've made real progress, as if things are returning to normal; at other times Rhiannon descends into a personal hell.
She's told him nothing else about her past life; she said there was nothing left to tell him, that it was all out in the open now, he knew everything. Martin didn't say anything: he just hugged her and kissed her hair. That's about as far as physical contact gets these days: that and holding hands. Their sex-life is non-existent. Martin hasn't mentioned anything about this, not to Rhiannon, not even to Douglas - and Douglas is the only other person who knows anything about Rhiannon's dreadful upbringing anyway. Martin just waits until Rhiannon is ready to go to bed, and joins her, and holds her tight and tells her that he loves her. Sometimes she cries and he cuddles her: sometimes she doesn't, and he cuddles her anyway.
He hadn't known she even possessed a pair of pyjamas.
Strangely enough, all the trauma hasn't affected her studies. When she's studying, deep in her books or researching, she loses herself in her work and the old Rhiannon reappears. Sometimes Martin wonders whether he ought to feel hurt that she's okay when she's studying and not okay when she's with him, but it doesn't matter. She's what matters. Nothing else matters – nothing at all.
She's doing really well - it's been agreed that her thesis will be submitted for a doctorate, and she's been awarded the scholarship. In the next academic year, she'll be doing some tutoring.
At least she's not working at the Fitton Arms any more: after one night when she came home distressed - though Martin never found out what had happened - she agreed that she should give up the bar-work.
It doesn't matter to Martin whether Rhiannon is awarded her doctorate or not, there's a lot more at stake now: but it matters to Rhiannon, it's as important for her as getting his CPL was to him, and that means it's important for both of them.
And then there are days which are so bad that Martin doesn't think things can get any worse.
On a bad day, Rhiannon is in floods of tears, cowering away from him, shuddering in fear when he reaches out to comfort her. There's rarely any obvious trigger, any external cause - Martin guesses that it's the bad memories surfacing again, all the years of hurt and hopelessness when there was no-one to make the horror stop, so that in the end she became used to it, started to expect it.
Then the night terrors start.
'It's all right, sweetheart, I'm here.'
Rhiannon's sitting bolt upright in bed, wide-eyed and screaming in panic. It's half past four in the morning.
'Hush, Rhi, I'm here. It's just a dream, nothing to hurt you. I won't let anything hurt you.'
She's drenched in sweat.
'I'm here, sweetheart, you're safe.'
'It was dark and you weren't there and I was frightened and I called and called and you weren't there!'
'I'm here, Rhi. It was just a dream - I've been here all the time.'
She starts to cry.
'It's still dark, Martin, and I'm frightened.'
He switches the bedside light on.
'Let's keep that on, shall we? Chase the dark away? And get you into some fresh pyjamas, you're soaked.'
He reaches out and undoes the top button of her pyjama jacket.
She goes rigid with fear.
Not for the first time since this whole obscene nightmare of a life began, Martin feels physically sick.
'It's all right, Rhi, I'm only going to help you get changed. Nothing else. I promise. I won't hurt you. I'll never hurt you.'
He talks to her as though she's a small child, comforts her as he changes her night clothes, holds her tense body gently as she curls up beside him in a tight little knot.
'It's all right, Rhi, you're safe, it's only me and I'm here now; it's all right, Rhi, you're safe...'
In four hours he's got to fly a group of women he neither knows nor cares about on a champagne-fuelled shopping spree to Paris. He can't ask Douglas to cover for him, because they've paid for two pilots, and he daren't call in sick. Carolyn's noticed the number of times Douglas has already taken his shorthauls - she could hardly not notice - although she hasn't said anything yet. He can't afford to lose his job.
In four hours, he's got to fly, and he'll hardly be in a fit state. But it's really only a short hop, and if Douglas takes Gertie there, Martin can say he's got a headache and stop on board in Paris and try to get some sleep on the plane. Rhiannon will be all right in the morning; for some reason she always is after a night like this - she never remembers what's happened, and it's as if the night terrors chase away any horrors the coming day may hold.
God, he's so tired...
Rhiannon starts to shudder.
'It's all right, Rhi, you're safe, it's only me and I'm here now; it's all right, Rhi, you're safe...'
Martin doesn't think he could get through this without Douglas.
Douglas listens when Martin needs to talk, and doesn't intrude when Martin doesn't want to talk about anything.
Douglas is as worried about Martin as he is about Rhiannon. It's a huge responsibility for the younger man, and to do it without help - Douglas knows that he wouldn't be able to cope if he were in Martin's place. He's noticed the dark shadows under Martin's eyes - how could he miss them? - and the fact that Martin's losing weight again. He's not as thin as he once was, but he's noticably thinner.
And Douglas is worried how Martin's going to manage. Because if Martin cracks under the strain and is diagnosed as suffering from depression, then he can't fly. No matter how cavalier Carolyn's attitude may be to the CAA regulations, a pilot who is depressed simply cannot be a pilot any more. And that, coupled with the stigma of Martin's autism, is likely to mean that Martin is never going to work in the air industry again.
All Douglas can do is to be there when he's needed. For once in his life he hasn’t got a plan, or a plot, or some marvellous way to put things right. All he can do is be there. And sometimes he doesn't get that right. He was teasing Martin gently one day, and suddenly wondered if he was going too far, and stopped.
Martin turned on him and snapped 'Just because it's all falling apart doesn't mean I've lost my sense of humour.'
'It's all falling apart.' Poor bastard.
Christ knows, there’s been times when – if Douglas is honest with himself – he’s felt as if his whole world is falling apart, but it’s never been as bad as this.
Standing helplessly by, an unwilling observer, as two of your closest friends – your only two close friends – are torn apart by the long ago actions of a man who isn’t fit to lick the soles of Martin’s shoes.
He’d casually asked Martin the name of the village that Rhiannon hailed from.
Martin had shaken his head.
‘No go, Douglas. I know what you’re thinking – don’t you think I want to do it myself? But all it would achieve is a good man in prison. Let the bastard drink himself to death – if he hasn’t already – and hope it’s a long and painful one.’
Douglas had tried to bluff his way out of it, protesting that he had no idea what Martin could be referring to.
Martin had squeezed his shoulder and said quietly ‘But thanks for the offer. It means a lot. Let’s concentrate on flying some plane.’
Martin doesn't know that the only reason that Carolyn hasn't tackled him about why Douglas is covering so many of Martin's shorthauls is because Douglas took her on one side and told her to bloody well leave Martin alone. He's even done a little creative forgery on the log-books, to account for Martin's hours and ensure that the longhaul contracts can still go ahead.
And then there was that dreadful night in the hotel in Cairo, when Douglas and Martin had to share a room and Martin got drunk on the contents of the mini-bar and ended up crying his eyes out and telling Douglas all the things that Martin thought he had said or done that might have made Rhiannon worse.
Douglas doesn't think for a moment that Martin's got any reason to blame himself - it was bound to happen sooner or later, and it was just as well that it was Martin who was there for her. He'd spent most of the night trying to persuade Martin that it wasn't his fault, none of it was his fault, but Martin wouldn't listen.
Then Martin voiced his worst fear - the one that Douglas had wondered about.
'Do you think she does love me, or is she only with me because she thought she'd be safe?'
How the hell can you say that you've been wondering that as well?
All you can do is lie, and be there when you're needed.
At three o'clock in the morning Martin passed out cold. The next day he didn't seem to remember anything about what had happened, and neither he nor Douglas ever mentioned it again.
'Good morning, Martin. How is everything?'
'Dreadful, Douglas. Bloody dreadful.'
'Do you want to talk about it?'
She's falling, falling, her wings have melted in the sun, and he can't help her , can't save her, and he tries to fly towards her but he can't get any nearer and he tries to shout out, to call her name, but his voice won't work, the words are only in his head and she can't hear him and she's falling and she's going to break, to shatter, and he can't get to her, to save her, and she's going to break ...
He's awake now, soaked in sweat and shaking. Rhiannon's asleep, still in his arms. Poor broken Rhiannon, who he loves so very much. Poor broken Rhiannon, who used to be so happy.
He can't let himself go back to sleep - if his nightmare returns, he might wake Rhiannon. And she musn't know. She mustn't know that he's frightened that he's breaking as well.
Icarus flew too close to the sun.
When Pandora opened the box, all the evils of the world were let loose.
'Morning, Martin. How's Rhiannon?'
'Bad night again, Douglas.'
'Do you think her doctor might help? Have you thought of anti-depressants or counselling?'
'She still won't go.'
'Want to talk?'
'I'm here, love. You're safe. I won't let anything harm you.'
'I was in the dark and I was crying and - '
'You're not in the dark now, sweetheart, the nightlight's on. I'm here: I won't let anything hurt you.'
'It's still dark in the corners!'
'Let's have the bedside light on, shall we? There, nothing in the corners. Nothing to frighten you.'
'I was in the dark and I was crying and then there were footsteps and I thought I was safe, I thought it was you, but the footsteps weren't yours, it wasn't you, Martin, it wasn’t you and then -'
She's becoming hysterical.
Oh sweet Jesus, what happened then? Dear God, let this be a dream, don't let this be a memory, please don't let her remember this in the morning.
'Don't cry, Rhi, you're safe now. I'm here, I won't let anything hurt you.'
He holds her gently, whispering soft words of comfort.
There's no-one to do the same for him.
WIth love, as ever. to my wonderful Beta, Launa Alavara, for her gentle suggestions, reassurance and the sharing of several virtual boxes of tissues as this series of chapters unfolds.