"Oh God. Oh God oh God oh God."
Douglas looked over at Martin, who was staring intensely at the control panel.
"Are you experiencing some kind of mystical trance or epiphany, Captain Grant?"
"Douglas, we're rapidly losing altitude!"
"Are we now? Mr Greg Altimeter isn't the most reliable of sources, he tends to be a bit of a doomsayer, you know."
"What? Douglas, this is no time for jokes, this is serious!"
"It always is, isn't it? I'm sure it's a very serious pocket of air, nothing to worry abou-ow!" The sudden bump that shook Gertie right then suggested that things were a lot more serious indeed. "Oh."
"That's what I said, oh! Oh God!"
Arthur lumbered awkwardly along the aisle. If Carolyn knew him, and she did, he was probably finding it very exciting.
"Uh, Mum, did we divert again? It seems kind of sploshy outside, and I don't think we're in Washington yet."
Carolyn took a deep breath and tried to calm her racing heart.
"It's... OK, Arthur, pay attention. It's an exercise, like that SEP training we did a while ago, and it's very, very important that we all get out of the plane and into the life raft. If we don't, there'll be no more flying for us, got it?"
"Sure, Mum! ...Where's the raft?"
Irritation was a good way to stave off blind panic, apparently.
"I'll get it! Do you know where the life jackets are, at least?"
"Oh yeah, I've always wanted to play with those! Brilliant!"
"Right, there's Mum, Douglas, me... Where's Skipper?"
Douglas blinked ocean water out of his eyes and looked around.
"He was right behind me. He insisted I go out first as the 'junior officer on board', stubborn dolt."
"Oh, he was probably putting in his earplugs. Douglas, do you think he's had enough time to put in his earplugs?"
"You know - how he can't go swimming without earplugs or he blacks out?"
Oh God, thought Douglas. A chill went through him that had nothing to do with the freezing water. How come it was the idiot amongst them who actually paid attention to the stuff that mattered?
"It's OK, I'll go fish him out!"
"No, no, Arthur, you can't go. I'll have to... Or Douglas..."
"'course I can! I love swimming, and I did best at the pool exam last year, didn't I? Me and Skip will be back in a jiffy!"
Before any of them could say anything more, Arthur launched himself in the freezing waters that had swallowed Martin. How long had it been? Martin's so-called "Patek Philippe" was going to be thoroughly wrecked. Oh, God, Martin.
Douglas allowed himself a wisp of hope when Arthur surfaced again dragging something white to the surface. It was squashed as soon as it was revealed what it was.
"No sign of him yet. Found his hat though. Would you mind holding on to it, Douglas? He'll want it back when we find him."
The polluted water must have irritated his eyes, because the world became very blurry around Douglas. He clutched the white fabric in his hands to stop them from shaking.
"Arthur! Arthur, please be careful."
"Sure, Mum, we're all gonna pass this one, I promise!"
Carolyn was huddled against the life raft, looking small and lost, one hand clutching a rope and the other extended towards Arthur.
The bright orange of the life jackets was almost offensive against the leaden skies and the leaden waters. There was a lot of splashing, Arthur's head kept popping above the waves and then below again, and just when Douglas couldn't take it anymore and was prepared to jump in himself, creaky joints be damned, Arthur emerged accompanied by a second, smaller shape.
Douglas and Carolyn jumped as one and helped drag Martin's unmoving body on board.
"Come on, Skip, you can start breathing now, we're out of the water," Arthur said encouragingly.
'Oh God,' thought Douglas. 'Oh God, I know we don't talk much, not seriously anyway, but if I could ask for one last favour...'
Two long-ago years of medical training, which had been mostly spent chatting up present and future nurses rather than learning, bubbled up with a vengeance to the surface of Douglas's mind.
Martin was breathing again, at last, and coughing up large amounts of water.
"Would you like some garlic to go with that plankton?"
Martin tried to laugh, which only unleashed another cascade of coughs, followed by wheezy breaths. Douglas held him tightly through all of it.
"God, can't you stop being funny for a moment?"
Martin's voice was raspy, but Douglas could hear the faint amusement.
"I can't. It's a curse I have to live with."
Martin huffed a half-laugh and leaned his forehead on Douglas's chest.
"Oh look," he said suddenly, "there's my captain's hat."
The wretched thing had ended up on the bottom of the raft. Martin picked it up and squeezed most of the water out of it.
"Hmm. Think Carolyn would have let you be the captain if... you know?"
He tried to fit the hat on Douglas's head. The world got blurry again.
"Douglas, are you all right? I've never seen you..."
"It's the pollution in this bloody ocean."
"I've never seen you with... polluted ocean water in your eyes."
"Indeed, and-" his voice cracked, "and I'd appreciate it if you never gave me the opportunity again."
"Oh. Well, it wouldn't fit you anyway. Your head's too big."
Douglas took the hat off and fit it on Martin's head, rakishly tilted to an entirely unprofessional angle in an entirely unprofessional manner. His hands lingered in Martin's hair.
Martin seemed to ponder something, and then bit his lip and brought up a hand to wipe gently at Douglas's eyes.
Those lips, through which he'd just been pumping air desperately minutes ago, when they were cold and blue, seemed so far away and untouchable now. And yet... Douglas Richardson's life was not made of "what if"s.
"Uh, Mum, why is Douglas still giving mouth to mouth to Skipper?"
Carolyn almost choked on her biscuit.
"Because the Cowardly Lion and the Baron of Münchhausen don't want me to die peacefully in my sleep, that's why."
The look of blank puzzlement on Arthur's face was comfortingly familiar.
"Because, my only son and the light of my old age, they're celebrating."
"Oh, so we did well on our exercise then?"
"Yes, as demonstrated by all of us being alive, on a life raft in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Only, you see, it was a pretty thorough exercise, so now we have to wait for someone to pick us up in a rescue boat."
"As soon as we get the radio working."
"Want me to help with it?"
"No, no, I think you've been brilliant enough for one day, I don't want to push our luck. You could... sort our provisions and ration them. And no biscuit stealing!"
"No Mum, I promise! I'll only eat the mouldy ones, so they don't spoil the others."
"No, don't...! Oh, never mind. It's lucky you have the stomach of a crocodile."
Her son munched away happily, counting soggy biscuits and wrapped up in his own world. Further away sat her two - well, if Gertie was ever going to take flight again, pilots, but for now they were just... friends, safe and wrapped around each other. She sighed. There could be worse ends to a day.
The radio crackled to life.