The only words spoken as Herc drove them back from the airfield were Arthur pointing out a yellow car. Even so, he only spoke softly, as though not wanting to interrupt the silent conflict going on in the car. Herc considered asking Carolyn if she was certain it was alright for him to leave again but couldn’t find the words to make it sound like he wasn’t being pushy. On top of that, it wasn’t really a conversation to be had with Arthur in the car.
The discomfort dragged on. The journey to Carolyn’s house seemed to take far longer than usual, time stretching like a wire to keep them in a limbo of feelings no-one would say.
The plane was made of gold. Gold! It was so unexpected, so miraculous that Herc had forgotten for a moment all about Zurich and moving and seemingly one-sided feelings. Carolyn had more than enough money to save her business, to do whatever she wanted. She’d made sure Martin was going to Swiss Air, but as for MJN, all she had said was that she’d think about what to do with it.
When they at last arrived, Arthur jumped out of the car straight away to go and say hello to Snoopadoop, leaving Carolyn and Herc alone. “Carolyn.” Herc started. He wanted to tell her that he would drop his job in stupid Zurich in a second if she would just say it; that he loved her and would do anything for her and Arthur. Instead he just looked at her, their eyes locked. She opened the door.
“Are you staying tonight?” she asked, straight to the point. He could hear the strain in her voice, see her jaw clench and her eyes narrow as she tried not to betray any emotion. He nodded. All the words in his throat were knotting around his voice box, strangling him
“If you’re sure it’s okay, yes.” Carolyn rolled her eyes as she got out of the car, making sure to slam the door with force enough to make it shake.
“Would I even ask if it wasn’t okay? Just because you’re leaving tomorrow doesn’t mean we’re never going to see each other again.” As Herc followed her to the door he smiled slightly. She was angry. Which meant she cared. Which meant she was trying her damnedest not to give that away.
It had taken her long enough to admit that what they had was a relationship and not just an acquaintance, or friendship. Herc found himself almost bitter that it was over now after they’d been on the same page for such a short time. No matter how many times he insisted his moving wouldn’t change anything, it would. It would end surprise popping over for tea and cake, it would end weekly dog walks no matter the weather, it would end being rude about bad telly late at night for hours at a time. He knew Zurich would be good for his job, but he wasn’t completely convinced that it would be worth the cost.
Arthur had immediately put the kettle on when he got in, running straight to the kitchen. Carolyn herded Herc into the living room, and soon after they sat down, two cups of tea materialised on the table: his milky, two sugars, hers black. The news hummed in the background, a stern-faced man in a suit reporting some boring story about a complaining farmer. Seeming totally oblivious to the internal conflicts in the room, Arthur sat himself on his bean bag and asked brightly “Are you looking forward to moving, Herc?”
All the eyes in the room were on him, even the little porcelain dog on the fireplace. He chuckled awkwardly and cleared his throat. “Moving is a pain, Arthur. No-one looks forward to it.” He smiled at his attempt to evade the feelings dancing around the question.
“No, I mean Zurich! It must be exciting to be going to a whole other country.” Herc could feel Carolyn’s stare burning into him as he tried to think of ways to keep skating around what Arthur was trying to make him say.
“I don’t suppose it will be very different to going around the world as per. Travel loses much of its appeal when you do it for a job.”
“Yeah but what about-”
“Arthur, why don’t you go and find that lemon cake from the other day.” Carolyn interrupted before Arthur’s questions got any more uncomfortable for Herc or for her. “Check if it’s out of date first.” Arthur got up and left the room without another word.
Carolyn couldn’t remember the last time the air had been this empty around them, usually filled with teasing and light insults and a comfortable understanding of each other. That was what had changed, even if she wouldn't admit it. She knew Herc didn’t understand why she wanted him to go. Did he think she really did? Did he know she didn’t?
But then, the stupid man would have stayed if she’d asked, pretending that feelings were more important than a job, a salary. It didn’t matter that a position had opened at MJN, because she would never be able to pay enough for him even with her new fortune, and she’d be damned if she was going to cheat another person out of a salary. Going would be better for him. Maybe if she kept saying it she could believe it.
Saying any of this aloud would be like admitting a weakness. If she missed him, that would prove she cared. And he’d never let her live that down.
“Carolyn-” he started, breaking off as he saw her face twist in preparation for whatever soppy nonsense he was going to say.
With a fake air of levity, she asked “Do you want more tea? Or I could get Arthur to find something more substantial to eat than cake if you’d like.” Herc shook his head.
Arthur returned, putting an end to the unstarted conversation with a plate of unevenly sliced cake. He placed it on the table with a grin. Only he ate it, neither Carolyn nor Herc in the mood for cake. After a while of Arthur’s aimless ramble, Carolyn stood and announced that she was going upstairs to read. Loathe as she was to admit it, she was exhausted after dealing with Gordon and finding her plane was made of gold. The last thing she wanted was to deal with more emotional baggage.
Herc gave her a look as she rose, that stupid smile that didn’t touch his eyes that he did whenever she brushed off an ‘I love you’ or other equivalent nonsense. She did her own thin-lipped smile back, then turned on her heel before she could ruin things. Even as she climbed the stairs, she could hear Herc and Arthur chatting.
Arthur was telling him about how Douglas and Martin had saved the day with Gordon, and it felt like being sick. She shut her door before she could hear any of Herc’s responses, knowing they’d be perfectly crafted, thought through to exquisite detail. Damn him for doing that. He was the father Arthur always deserved. And maybe now she was letting down Arthur by taking that away.
When Herc snuck upstairs later, she pretended to be asleep.
Herc’s plane to Zurich was the same as Martin’s the next day, noon. Carolyn had offered Martin a lift seeing as she was already taking Herc. Partly this was to avoid any awkward conversation because Herc wouldn’t say anything soppy with Martin in the car, but also because she wanted to see Martin off too. He had become a part of the almost family they had made, and seeing him leave on a plane that wasn’t GERTI was strange. Heart wrenching, even.
Douglas had picked Arthur up earlier in the morning. That meant, without a doubt, that they were up to something. Carolyn couldn’t predict what it was, but assumed it was some sort of leaving present. Then again, it was very nearly impossible to guess what was happening when both Douglas and Arthur were scheming.
The car journey wasn’t as quiet as Carolyn had expected. Herc and Martin chatted away, far more than she had anticipated. Martin was bubbling with excitement, as well he should have been. He was making his break with a big airline, as he deserved, even if it was sad to lose him. Though Herc seemed enthusiastic, there was a sense of falseness under his words as though he did not really believe what he was saying about how excited he was to be flying big planes again.
Carolyn remembered a conversation they’d had, once, many months ago, fuelled by wine and bad telly. He’d told her how boring flying 747s was, how they lumbered around in the air and landed like a rhino trying to be delicate. He’d told her about the plane he’d learnt to fly in, something tiny and, like Gerti, falling apart. She remembered his face when she asked him to help her out and fly Gerti with Douglas.
As predicted, Arthur and Douglas were waiting for them at the airport. In Arthur’s hands was a huge, glitter covered ‘good luck!!’ sign that was almost too big to hold properly. It had clearly been made in a hurry. The writing was bold and curved, elegant enough to be Douglas’ but with enough colourful felt tip spiking over the lines to make it clear who had coloured it in. On seeing the three arrive, Arthur handed the sign to Douglas and ran up to them, launching into a hug with Martin. He almost bowled them to the ground. Douglas strolled over, more or less keeping his composure, but Carolyn noticed the small, sad looks he kept giving Martin when he though he wasn’t looking. She knew them, because they were same ones she kept giving Herc. She just hoped Herc was as oblivious to them as Martin was.
Martin’s eyes had begun to well with tears when Arthur let go of him at last. He looked at the sign again, smiled and then bit his lip in an attempt to stop himself from showing emotion. “When did you do this?”
“Oh, Arthur and I have been planning how to send you off for weeks. The sign was Arthur’s idea.” Arthur beamed at this before diving into Douglas’ bag to fish two small books out. He held them out to Herc and Martin.
“This was Douglas’ idea. So you don’t forget us.” Carolyn leaned over Herc’s shoulder as he leafed through the pages. It was full of pictures of them, of their trips, of all of them together, smiling. Herc pressed his hand to his mouth in an attempt to not cry. Martin wasn’t even trying to pretend any more. As calmly as he could he went to Douglas and hugged him, mumbling a thank you as silent tears streamed down his face. Herc nodded as he turned back to the first page, managing a choked ‘thanks’. Carolyn imagined that the pages would be worn very quickly judging by how he couldn’t take his eyes away from it. She pretended not to notice how he lingered on the pictures of them.
Arthur then spent a painstaking amount of time and effort explaining in detail every single part of the sign. Douglas looked like he’d stopped listening three weeks ago and Carolyn had heard enough of Arthur’s stories before to know what he’d be saying and let herself get wrapped up in thinking, but Martin and Herc were giving him their undivided attention. In a way, Carolyn was proud of Arthur for getting them to listen for once. Then again, at this point he could have been presenting an essay on the brilliance of toblerones and they probably would have listened to every word.
He was barely finished by the time the final call for the gate came through on the loudspeakers. Arthur broke off with a soft ‘oh’ as he realised that this was really the last time he would see either Herc or Martin for some time. He gave the sign back to Douglas who barely reacted and hugged them again. Douglas smiled through thin lips. “You’d better go. Theresa’s going to be there to meet you, we’ve sorted it all out. She’s going to drive you to where you need to go herself. I hope your flight’s good.” Douglas caught Herc in a small hug, patting him on the back and concealing his frown.
“You both have to visit really soon.” Arthur said, forcing his smile - Carolyn could tell that he was because it had the same level of cheeriness that her fake smile had. Genetics had given him some of her.
“Of course.” said Herc. He caught Carolyn’s eye for a long second as if he were trying to build up some courage to say something. For a moment she thought he was going to come over and hug her. She wouldn’t have protested. He had to know that. Instead he just turned his eyes to the floor, nodded once and started to walk with Martin. The remaining three watched them leave without a word as they all but vanished into the crowd, merging with the other holiday goers and businessmen. It would be easier if they were holiday goers. Then they'd be coming back.
As they reached the gate, Herc looked back over his shoulder. He couldn't see anything but the crowd. If he imagined hard enough he could just make out Carolyn in the distance.
In some ways Herc felt bad for feeling relieved that he and Martin were at opposite sides of the plane. Martin was obviously more than ready to take his new position, and Herc wouldn’t have been surprised if Martin had just wanted to talk about that all journey. The thing was, Herc didn’t want to. He was looking forward to Zurich, sort of, but just thinking about it just led to thinking about what he’d left behind.
He really didn’t want to do that.
He slept for most of the trip. It was only an hour or so but that was far preferable to listening to the annoying children three rows back, or dealing with the shuffling of the man next to him, or talking to the stewardess who kept smiling at him and reminding him that Carolyn thought that all cabin crew hated their passengers. Reminding him that even if most of them didn’t, she definitely did.
On landing he jolted awake. The seat was uncomfortable. Martin met him as they headed for the airport. Herc only half listened to his interesting facts about Zurich airport, something which Martin seemed to have an endless number of. Usually Herc would have had a genuine interest, but at that moment all he wanted was to get to his new flat and start moving in. Stop thinking about unpacking his things into an unfamiliar room.
Theresa spotted them before they spotted her. She ran over, kissed Martin and beamed at them both. Herc smiled at her, pleased to see her. For a princess, she was not what he would have expected at all, running around airports wearing casual clothes and hugging pilot boyfriends in public. Then, he supposed, she was just a person too. And a lovely one at that. She and Martin chatted about the new job all the way to the car. Herc felt a pang of guilt that he hadn’t given Martin much of a congratulations about it and even less a discussion, but Theresa was here now and she wanted to talk about it and they weren’t bringing him into it, which was exactly what he wanted. Martin was going back to Vaduz with Theresa, who had her car waiting. “You could come too, if you want, Herc. We have plenty of rooms.” she offered with a smile. Her shook his head.
“No, I couldn’t. I have a flat that needs moving into.” He forced a small chuckle, hoping it sounded natural. Theresa didn’t look convinced but didn’t push the matter.
“Well, you’re always welcome if you change your mind. If there’s one thing we have plenty of, it’s space.” Seemingly with ease, she wheeled their bags to the boot and started to lug them in. She waved a hand at Martin who was trying to help her, telling him she was more than capable.
“Thank you, Theresa.” I’ll visit, some time.” He wasn’t sure he sounded genuine, but the fact that she and Martin weren’t too far away did help to untwist the knot tying tighter in his chest. He sat in the back of the car on the way to his flat, only speaking to give directions. They didn’t have a large charade of a goodbye when he got out. Theresa helped him get his bag out of the back, then he said goodbye again to them with another promise to visit.
Then they drove away and he was alone.
He sighed. He had to pull himself together because moping was doing him no good. It was just a new job, for heaven’s sake, and in Europe - not so far away. It wasn’t like he’d gone to the moon. It would be good. He’d get paid well and he’d visit often. It was just different. And he’d have to get used to it.
Though he'd tried to make it as homely as he could, Herc’s new flat still felt empty, lacking anyone else’s mess to tidy up. Everything was where he wanted it and where he’d put it which was almost more frustrating than if someone had moved it. Still, it wasn’t like he was ever there for long. If he felt like it he could walk to the airport, though most days he got a taxi. Then he was away on trips, flying around the world, or at least around Europe.
Martin seemed to be doing well in his new job too. Herc never saw him for long, both busy with their own jobs. Despite not being the Captain, Martin seemed happy to be with a big airline. Herc wouldn’t complain at being a Captain, of course he wouldn’t, but the expectation of everyone was that he knew what he was doing at all times. For the most part he did, but he wouldn’t have minded if someone had told him what to do now and again.
As per, he arrived at the airport ten minutes earlier than he needed to for a flight. They were going to Paris, a standard trip that wouldn’t be hard. He yawned his way into the pilot’s lounge. A few others were in there, some that he knew, most that he didn’t. To his surprise, even if it shouldn't have been surprising at all, Martin was sat reading an aviation magazine. He went over to sit next to him.
“Hi, Martin.” Herc felt almost bad for interrupting as Martin looked up sharply in surprise. He smiled.
“Herc!” He took that as an invitation to sit down next to Martin. As he did he noticed that the magazine Martin was holding was full of annotations and underlined bits, and was from five years ago.
“Where are you flying to today then, Martin?” Herc decided this was a safe conversational topic, one that Martin would talk lots about and therefore not about anyone back in Fitton. He’d already fallen behind on speaking to them, finding himself too much of a coward to pick up the phone and hear whoever answered. And, with any luck Martin had checked the rota already and knew which flights they were both on.
“Paris.” he said with a smile. Herc blinked in surprise. It shouldn't have been a surprise. Lots of flights went to Paris. It was a busy place.
“So am I.” he said, the coincidence not quite occurring to him. Martin grinned excitedly, which made Herc frown in confusion, because surely Paris wasn’t that exciting.
“I know! We’re on the same flight.” Martin beamed at Herc who took a moment to process what Martin had said.
“You’re my FO?” he asked, startled. Of course it was totally possible, it was just something Herc hadn’t at all prepared for.
“Yes, I am. It’s going to be great to fly with someone familiar. And who gets here early by a normal person’s standard. I mean, the other captains are great but some of them don’t turn up until the last possible moment they can get away with…” Herc couldn't pinpoint the moment he stopped listening. He hadn't meant to, but he couldn't help but be distracted by the thoughts of the inevitable conversation about Fitton.
He’d gone out of his way to avoid it before. He didn’t want to talk about Carolyn with Martin, not when he already felt bad about not calling her often enough. He wanted to visit, of course he did, but the idea of visiting made him queasy because what if he visited and didn’t want to come back? What if it wasn't what he remembered? What if Martin spoke to them every week and they’d mentioned that Herc had barely called? What if Arthur had said something? What if -
“Herc?” Martin looked at him intently, snapping him back into reality.
“Sorry, Martin.” he mumbled, almost ashamed to be avoiding someone he considered a friend. “Lost you totally for a moment then.”
Martin smiled as though he understood the panic going on in Herc’s mind. “It’s okay. Do you want a coffee?” Herc nodded, thanking him quietly as Martin got up. He slumped back in the chair, running his hands through his hair in despair. He couldn't keep ignoring his problems like this. It wasn't practical.
When Martin returned, their conversation stayed mundane, discussing the weather report and the clear sky, and the specific technical details of the plane. It was so Martin that Herc couldn’t help but smile. With no-one else could a conversation about a plane last so long. The call for them to board interrupted them twenty minutes later. Martin jumped up, tossing the cheap polystyrene cup into the nearest bin and waiting for Herc. He had taken to the new job well, and Herc noted that his uniform looked well-fitting and smart, something he hadn’t had at MJN. Out of the two of them, the move had certainly benefitted Martin more. Which gave Herc an idea.
The pre-take off checklist was done quickly, uninteresting. Martin had already done three laps of the plane, and it was fine, so now all they needed do was wait for the passengers to board. “Tourists going on holiday or going home, do you think?” Herc asked.
Martin shrugged. “I don’t think they’re tourists at all. They all look like they have fancy briefcases, and suits.” Herc nodded, mentally kicking himself. Of course Martin had seen them already. It was fine, he could still keep attention distracted from anything less than light-hearted. He was in control.
Once they were in the air, Herc smiled at Martin and said, “A game?” in the hopes that that would be distraction enough. But as Martin frowned, Herc realised he’d made a massive mistake.
“They don’t play games in the same way here. I never thought I’d say it, but I miss Douglas’ games, even the ones where he’d tease you for playing badly.” Martin stared out the window, his forehead creased with worry or sadness. Herc couldn’t tell which. He knew the feeling. Douglas could be annoying and horrible, but there was something fun about flying with him that no-one else in the world could match. No-one could cheat at games quite like him either.
“You’ll never find anyone else with quite the flair for inventing stupid games and then winning them as Douglas.” Herc said, his shoulders slumping as he remembered that Douglas would be flying with someone altogether new. That would wind him up too. He never liked the new pilots and in retaliation tried to wind them up as much as he could. Both Herc and Martin had been subject to that.
“No.” Martin sighed softly. There was a long pause. Herc waited for Martin to say something else, though got the sense that Martin was waiting for the same, so he took the opportunity to steer the conversation the way he wanted it again.
“How’s Theresa?” Herc didn't know her very well, but the times he had met her he had been taken aback at how nice she was, how unlike his preconceptions of a princess.
“She’s fine. It’s still strange to think that I get to go home to a castle with a princess.” Martin looked down, then glanced at Herc and said, “You must miss Carolyn a lot.”
Buggar. He’d set himself up for that one. Trying not to look too affected by the question, Herc forced a smile and said “Yes. I do.” He hoped that would be enough to stop Martin probing further, but luck wasn't on his side.
“I miss flying with Douglas and Arthur, I’ve barely spoken to them since we came here. I’ve been too busy. I can’t imagine you’ve been any less busy, you must be dying to go and visit.” Herc was quiet for a moment.
He couldn’t tell Martin about how much he longed to see them, to go back and walk the dog, and tease Carolyn about opera and be teased about vegetarianism, and willingly listen to Arthur’s lecture about whatever topic was of his interest, and hell, even let Douglas shove a cheese tray in his face while pretending to forget he wouldn’t eat it. He’d happily take all of that again. He’d willingly go back if it meant he could spend more than a few minutes on the phone to Carolyn every now and again.
He didn’t want to tell Martin he’d been neglecting their calls either. Not on purpose, but under guise of being busy because he didn’t want to have to think about putting the phone down again. He didn’t want to tell Carolyn he loved her to be met with a pause. “Yes.” was all he said. There was no point in pretending. He missed them almost every second he was away from them. He just wondered if they missed him the same.
It has been some time since I last updated this fic, so sorry to those who still remember it. The good news is that I am trying to resurrect it, so I've edited the whole thing again and hopefully it won't be many, many months again before another update. Thanks for reading, and please let me know what you think!
Of course, if Arthur was in the house it could never be truly empty, but Carolyn couldn’t help but feel the sense that something was missing. Specifically, someone. Herc. Not that she could ever admit that out loud. But in the privacy of her own thoughts, she allowed herself to take note of the missing noise of the newspaper in the morning, or the fewer mugs and plates to wash, or the way Arthur seemed to miss Herc being around. Even he seemed quieter, not having someone to pester all hours of the day with random nonsense.
Douglas too was furious at Herc having gone - not because he missed Herc at all, but because him going meant that Carolyn had had to hire another pilot. Another captain, which Douglas felt was totally unjust because he’d been at MJN for long enough that he deserved a promotion. Carolyn had told him that she didn’t give a damn what he thought he deserved, and that he was lucky to have a job at all. That had been a hell of an argument.
She sent Arthur on all the flights for some time after that, trying to pretend she didn’t care that she had let down one of her closest friends. She had been in a foul mood since Herc had gone, and she knew it. Though it had only been a few months, it felt like a whole lifetime. She kept catching herself thinking things like that and reprimanded herself for being so emotional.
The problem was that she was. God, how she hated it! This was why she had sworn she was never getting involved in relationships and feelings again, and here she was pining of all things. The worst bit was that even Arthur had noticed that she was deliberately trying to be out when Herc usually called, though mercifully he hadn’t said anything. She imagined he didn’t understand why. She wouldn’t have been able to give a satisfactory answer. How could she explain in any sort of words that she was too scared to hear him tell her that he loved her in case she said it back?
September was drawing to a close and all the leaves on the trees were beginning to brown. Snoopadoop got manically excited over falling leaves, launching herself into the air to miss them altogether. Carolyn paid her no notice, holding the lead in case she needed to round the dog up in a hurry. Fortunately, it was a chilly morning and few people were around. She put her free hand in her pocket. She hadn’t realised just quite how cold her knuckles had been until warmth tingled in them again, making her shiver and scowl. Herc would have laughed at that. He'd have made some quip about gloves. Herc. Why had she let him go? She had thought it would have been easier to pretend that she didn't care and let him go than admit any semblance of feeling.
How wrong she had been! At the time it had been a fantastic idea, that they could still be in this relationship but with even fewer stakes than before because now she wouldn’t see him all the time and therefore wouldn’t be wrapped up in caring. It turned out that distance only amplified everything. Distance was proving to her that she was wrong. But she couldn’t admit any of this now, not to anyone and least of all to Herc. She breathed out, slowly, watching as her warm breath condensed into a cloud in front of her. It would be hypocritical to want him back now, surely, after she had spent such a long time persuading him that he ought to go.
She hadn’t realised quite how untrue the claim of wanting him to leave was. Was it selfish of her to want him to stay? After all, he would have had to become redundant, and there was no way she could afford him at OJS. It would be unfair to underpay someone else, and even worse if it was deemed acceptable because of love. Love! She laughed out loud to herself, bitterly enough to bring Snoopadoop running to see if she had been called. Carolyn crouched down and ruffled the dog’s ears, smiling as she rolled over, enjoying the attention. “What am I going to do, Snoopy? Look at me, this is ludicrous.” She chuckled again. Absolutely ridiculous.
Who knew that happiness could be found in other people? Who knew that longing like this could exist beyond the television? Certainly she did now. The sun was low and orange on the horizon, scattering bronze over the thin clouds. Herc usually called before he left for a flight when it fell at a convenient time of morning, like right now. It had been a week or so since his last call, so it was due. “Come on then.” she said, clipping Snoopadoop’s lead back on. She couldn’t decide if she wanted to miss it or not but walked quickly anyway.
Arthur was in the kitchen when she got back, the kettle pinging to announce that it had boiled, as though the sound of boiling water wasn't sign enough. He noticed her and went straight for another cup, not even needing to ask. Snoopadoop launched through to greet him, jumping more or less into his arms. Carolyn followed more slowly. “Hi mum. Good walk?” Arthur beamed as he poured the tea, stabbing the teabags with a spoon in impatience for them to brew.
“Cold. Snoopadoop enjoyed herself.” She sat down, and Arthur pushed her cup towards her. “Thank you, dear.”
As though seeming to hear what she was thinking, Arthur said “Herc called.”
Carolyn couldn’t decide if she was relieved or disappointed. Her hand tightened around the handle. Keeping decidedly neutral, she said “Oh, did he?”
Arthur nodded. “Yeah. He said he was flying to Paris today, and got me to write down where he was going for the next few weeks.”
“He says he has a plan, and I didn’t really understand it all, but I think he’s basically wondering if we’ll bump into each other. Doesn’t that sound brilliant?”
This time, Carolyn was sure of her emotion - cold dread. This was a plan, and it was a horrible one. Herc knew as well as she did that where they flew was completely up to her. Just glancing at the list in front of Arthur, written in his perpetually childish all-caps, she could see they would cross paths at least once. Even without speaking to him, this was clearly a question: do you want to see me? Carolyn could be cruel, she could cancel their flights - she would have to now Arthur had seen the list - and lie, telling him that nothing was planned.
Of course, they both knew she could get them to fly anywhere so they could meet at any time. Or they could cross paths, a pure accident. She wanted nothing more than to see him, and clearly from this scheming he was missing them as much as he claimed to be. Why did agreeing feel so much like conceding? Why did it feel like she was losing when the only battle she was having was against herself?
“Mum?” Arthur said. He had put his spoon down, having stirred in all five piles of sugar and was cradling his tea with a look of concern.
“Sorry, Arthur. What?” She tried to look like she was smiling genuinely but knew Arthur wouldn’t be fooled. He was good when it came to feelings, he could sense when things were wrong and seemed to instinctively know what to do to cheer someone up. Not for the first time, Carolyn found herself wishing for that sort of openness.
“Don't we have that trip to Berlin next week? We could meet then!” He beamed at the idea. It hadn't been easy on Arthur either. He had become so used to having Herc around, so to lose Herc’s more or less permanent presence was strange. “He really misses you, you know. And he means it. I don’t think he'd lie about that sort of thing, not like some people. I think he’s quite good at relationships.”
Carolyn chuckled. There he was again, her sweet, deluded son. Of course he would see four marriages not as a failing of relationships, but as an ability to have that many. She never failed to be amazed at how different they could be. What she saw as a loss, he saw as a gain. She saw the end and feared it, where he feared that things may never begin. Sadly, this time he was wrong. Four marriages really did indicate someone who couldn’t sustain a meaningful relationship. But then, it had been almost two years, and Herc didn’t seem to be any less infuriatingly infatuated. And even more annoyingly, neither did she.
“I think we do, yes. Would you like to see him?” Carolyn smiled. Yes, this was a winning strategy. If Arthur desperately wanted to go, she could deflect attention from herself and her own mess of feelings.
“Oh yes please! It would be brilliant!” Arthur’s smile reached up to his eyes and pushed any of the worry out of them.
“I will see what our plans are.”
“He asked you to email. He thought that might be easier than a phone call.”
Damn him, yes it would be. Stupid man. He just had to go and be right all of the time. He just had to be far enough away to make her miss him.
Subject: Re: Zurich
It seems like an age since we last spoke, if you’ll excuse such a grandiose statement. I do enjoy talking to Arthur, but I miss hearing your voice too. I am delighted that Arthur is looking forward to Zurich - I am too, especially knowing you will both be there. Loathe as I am to admit it, I was beginning to doubt that you would have booked a flight that would cross our paths. Looks like fortune was in our favour.
As for your second point, I have managed to get three days off by some minor miracle and so, in hoping I am reading the implications to your message correctly, it turns out that the opera happens to be Rigoletto. I would very much like to go, and of course you are invited along too if you so choose. As for the rest of the time, I am sure that Arthur will enjoy the zoo. And Douglas too, most likely.
By the way, did you hear? Martin told me - we were on a flight together just last week - that he and Theresa intend to get married in the spring. He told me that official invitations would be going out in November after he gets his citizenship, and that of course we are all invited. I think he misses MJN as much as I do. He has grown, though, being here. It’s given him confidence, and opportunity, something I’m afraid that I shall never see as much of again.
It is strange how one can see their opportunities folding as others spread their wings.
Anyway, give Arthur my best and tell him not to overdo it on the toblerone.
All my love,
Subject: Re: Re: Zurich
No, I had not heard. Theresa had mentioned that she had been thinking about proposing, but I had no idea of any real plan. If you see Martin again soon, pass on my congratulations.
If you can persuade Douglas to visit a zoo with Arthur, then you are a better man than I. I cannot possibly imagine such a thing happening, not after last time. Get Arthur to tell you the story, he tells it far better than I ever could. In short, it involves an idiot boy and a very angry albatross.
As for opera, well. It has been some time since I have been, and I have been told that the opera house in Zurich is very nice. I should look forward to seeing it in person.
Arthur is very much looking forward to it. Send me exact times and dates.
Subject: Visiting in Zurich
I’m so pleased that we’re going to be able to meet when we’re in Zurich. I have missed you all lots, and I’m looking forward to catching up. However, as I’m sure you will have realised, it will be very nearly your mother’s birthday by the time our visit rolls around. I think I need some advice on how I should act on this. I am taking her to the opera, but should I do anything else?
As ever, your advice is appreciated, and sorely and desperately needed. Help!
Lots of love,
Subject: concerning the issue of visiting Herc in Zurich and the matter of Mum’s birthday with specific conce
It’s BRILLIANT that mum let us go on this trip! She’s really really missed you even though she won’t say it because I can see it in her eyes every time I tell her you called. She also sometimes forgets that you’re not here and makes extra cups of tea and things which she thinks I don’t see if she gets rid of it quickly.
Don’t tell her I said any of that, I don’t think she would want you to know. Even though I think she should.
But! Birthday! I’ve already got her some flowers and Thornton’s so I wouldn’t do that – you need something that she can bring back easily, but not something boring or generic like a necklace or something pretty. I’m not really sure what that leaves but I know you’ll think of something brilliant! She knows you love her even if it’s something silly.
Maybe I shouldn’t have said that either.
Mum also said we could go to the zoo!! Please please please can we??? Maybe there’ll be polar bears!! And birds and lions and fish!! I would find this really exciting please, so I would like to a lot.
That’s all from me! Speak soon! Lots and lots and lots of love, Arthur xxxxxxxoooooxx
Subject: RE: concerning the issue of visiting Herc in Zurich and the matter of Mum’s birthday with specific c
Something not bland, not too big, not too impersonal, and not edible, hey? You’ve given me quite a task there, as I suppose you know. Fortunately, I think I have an idea that will not disappoint. I’ll keep it a surprise, partly because it is not certain.
Of course we can go to the zoo. Please learn many facts about the animals, I can’t wait to hear them.
Yours, with love,
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Zurich
My dearest Carolyn,
You’ll be delighted to know that I have booked the opera. I, at least, am tremendously excited to be seeing you all again. If you think of anything else that you would like us to do, please let me know, or else I shall let Arthur make all of the plans, and I wouldn’t be certain that Trip Advisor can handle Arthur’s trip planning.
I’ve promised him the zoo as well, God help me. Strangely, I’ve found that I’ve missed his little comments and facts about things. There’s something so unbearably happy about Arthur, so infectious and wonderful, and I miss his little insights. It still makes me wonder how, being raised by you, he has that personality.
Anyway, looking forward to the visit and the opera, and to seeing you.
Lots of love, always. Herc.
Subject: RE: RE: RE: concerning the issue of visiting Herc in Zurich and the matter of Mum’s birthday with sp
I think that arranging a dinner with you and your mum, and I, and Douglas and Martin is a wonderful idea!! I know that Martin would love the MJN reunion, and I’m certain it’ll do Douglas some good, even if he is a grumpy old sod about it. It also takes some of the pressure away from Carolyn, I suppose, to dine with all of us together. Don’t tell her that I’ve been worrying about her, will you? I’m sorry to have spilt these worries to you.
Anyway, I will arrange a booking for us all, so if you could let Douglas and Martin know that we’re all going to meet, that would be brilliant! :)
I’m so excited, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned, for you to visit!
See you soon, Herc xxx
To: firstname.lastname@example.org , email@example.com
Subject: a brilliant and wonderful idea for a trip that me and herc have arranged and hope that you can join us for
I thought it would be of most easiness to put you both into this email in which I will give to you the plans that Herc and I have created for a trip in Zurich that we will have, and to give to you a formal invite to a dinner that we are going to be having in which we will have an official and proper MJN reunion and we shall all be happy and also Herc said there will be cake. Brilliant!
Herc also sent me an email with a word document which has a list of times and stuff which he said was probably easier if I just attached that on to you. So I have! I hope that you think it’s as good of an idea as I do, and even if you don’t want to do the zoo, you still come to dinner. I think maybe Douglas you have no choice, but Martin it’s really weird without you here, and we all miss you a lot even Douglas even though he won’t admit it.
Please reply to me in RSVP if you will be coming. Douglas maybe you can just tell me tomorrow.
Okay, bye!! Love, Arthur!!!
How have you been? I
I hope you’re well. It’s been strange here without you, but Peter is almost as charming as you, so I’m managing without.
I must say he hasn’t taken to the lemon quite as
It will be nice to see you again, and tolerable to see Herc. Mainly, this is an email to ask if you want to split costs for a present for Carolyn. I’m sure Arthur’s told you in great detail about his plans, and I have no doubt that you know more about whatever nonsense Herc has decided it would be apt to do,
seeing as I am fully certain that he is as caught up on Carolyn as he ever was, and she certainly still is,
I was thinking orchids. For old time’s sake. After all, they are expensive.
And with your new salary
Arthur has fully informed me of your plans of zoo, and dinner. I’m fairly certain that I only agreed to opera, but it seems that forces beyond my control have acted. Know now that I am only agreeing to any of this because of Arthur. I would hate to disappoint him.
See you in Zurich soon.
“Mum?” Arthur crept up to Carolyn, interrupting her book.
“What?” She frowned as she put the bookmark in. Knowing Arthur, this would not be a brief interlude. She gestured to the seat next to her. He looked at it for a moment, then decided it would probably best to obey. Something was clearly the matter. He was only ever this hesitant when he was unsure whether to tell her something or not.
“Well,” he began, knotting his fingers together. He had an inability to sit still, even if the world depended on it. “I think Peter and Douglas might not be getting on very well.”
“I mean, they’re both brilliant of course, but,” and here Arthur lowered his voice to approximately a comedy stage whisper, “I think Douglas might be missing Martin a bit- well, a lot, and I don’t think it’s making him very happy that Peter doesn’t want to play games all the time, and maybe a bit too that Peter’s the captain.”
Carolyn clenched her jaw to force herself to think before she said anything else. This was no surprise to her. The icy atmosphere between the pilots was blatantly obvious. Maybe she should have hired a more mockable new pilot to appease Douglas. But Peter had been cheap, and she had slipped back into old habits. He hadn’t quite been ‘fly for free’, but he certainly wasn’t as pricey as Douglas would have been as captain, or indeed a new first officer with Peter’s experience.
The interview had been wonderful, in fact. Carolyn was hesitant to say that she had been charmed, but Peter hadn’t placed a foot wrong, and even when she started to pull the purse strings around his neck there had been no panic. Just the acceptance that he was too old for anywhere else, and that frankly being allowed to fly at all was an honour. And it wasn’t like she wasn’t paying him at all, so really what was there to feel guilty about?
Douglas’ main complaint had been that he was too boring.
Carolyn rather suspected that ‘boring’ was Douglas code for ‘old, sensible, and experienced enough to actually put me in my place’. In many ways it would probably do him good to do what he was told for a change. That was what she was telling herself, anyway.
Deliberately, she said “Arthur, listen to me. If Douglas cannot get used to the new power structure on board, then that is his problem. Peter is a perfectly nice man, isn’t he?”
Arthur nodded, though his face was still saying ‘problem unresolved’. Carolyn knew that she agreed with him when she thought about it, and she knew that the solution wasn’t to not think about it, but right now it was the easiest option. She continued, “I’m sure they will get used to each other eventually. Why don’t you see if some coffee will cheer them up?”
He trudged off towards the galley, doing his very best impression of a smile. Carolyn tried to go back to her book, but she found her thoughts drifting too much to concentrate. As the sea turned into mountains that grew into Germany below, she realised that she couldn’t quite get rid of one thought: what if she felt nothing when she saw him, but worse, what if she still felt everything?
A Douglas landing was always obvious if only because of the look on his face afterwards, one that said “well done me”. And, because Peter was far better at landing than Martin ever had been, Douglas had decided it was more important than ever to let them all know when he had landed it. It hadn’t gone unnoticed how oblivious Peter seemed to be to all this, and how much more that riled Douglas up.
They all wandered into the arrivals zone of Zurich airport to find a man in a smart but plain suit waiting for them with a sign in an unmistakably familiar handwriting. Carolyn Knapp-Shappey with MJN air. Martin, of course. The man spotted them as they approached, and led them out to a car, explaining that Theresa had insisted they stay at the castle. Carolyn’s first instinct was to snap about them not needing charity, but Arthur had whooped and Douglas’ smile had relaxed into something real for the first time in weeks, so she bit her tongue. Besides, it would be nice to sleep in a real bed abroad for a change.
There were fortunately few yellow cars in Switzerland, but nothing could stop the tidal wave of Arthur’s excitement. Having foreseen this, Carolyn had made Arthur sit in the front and hoped to hell that the poor driver’s English wasn’t very good.
Every now and then, when Arthur’s background noise lulled, they could hear fragments of whatever Swiss radio was on. Carolyn knew very little German, and even less of the Swiss variety but she was glad that it was filling the silence. Even if it was awful pop nonsense. Douglas and Peter were sat next to each other, both arms folded, both frowning. It was like dealing with children, but Carolyn would be damned if she was going to change her mind about the situation now just because Douglas was sulking. And, even if she wanted to, there was no way they could get Martin back now.
She looked out to the mountains looming around them. Nothing seemed to be changing though they’d been driving for the better part of forty minutes. All mountains were the same to her, but occasionally she’d catch a glimpse of a waterfall, or a deep ridge, or a funny-looking rock and then watch as that zoomed past them and faded back into the generic mountain scene. If she’d been feeling more sentimental, she’d have said that was like life. Instead, she kept herself focussed on the landscape, taking that in and tuning Arthur out.
So, for a change, she was the first one to see the castle. Uncharacteristically, she burst out with it, pointing with a triumphant “Aha!” which Douglas raised an eyebrow at.
“Wow, Mum, brilliant! I always forget that it’s an actual castle.”
“You’re right, it is,” said Peter, his face falling as he looked out of the window.
“Look, there’s Martin!” Arthur bellowed. At this point, the seatbelt was acting as more like a restraint as he waved wildly.
Indeed, Martin was stood there, hand in hand with Theresa who was waving more serenely. It hadn’t even been six months yet, but Martin already looked comfortable. His posture was better, his clothes fit him better – though Carolyn suspected this was helped by the personal tailor they no doubt had. She took a breath. This was no time for bitterness.
The second he was out of the car, Arthur raced over to Martin and Theresa and engulfed them both in a hug. Theresa managed to maintain her dignity, but Martin had clearly forgotten the force with which Arthur hugs were delivered and stumbled backwards, nearly pulling them all down into a heap. The rest of MJN walked over a little more slowly.
“Theresa, Martin, this is Peter. Our new Captain.” Carolyn gestured for him to come closer, ignoring Douglas’ frown. “Peter, this is Martin, our former Captain, and Theresa… the princess of Liechtenstein.”
They had briefed Peter on the situation beforehand, but he still looked startled to be in proximity of a real princess. Theresa was as graceful as she always was in this situation and just shook his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. We can’t wait to hear all about your adventures, can we Martin?”
Martin, who had only just recovered from being tackled by Arthur, nodded as she nudged him. “It’s really great to see you guys.”
“There’s no need to go soft on us now, Martin,” Douglas said before Martin could tell them he had missed them. He smiled as if he was teasing, but the look in his eyes said that his heart wasn’t in it. The fact of the matter was that it was weird without Martin and that they did miss him.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I think it’s jolly cold out here so if we don’t mind, I’d quite like to go inside.” Carolyn picked up her bag – she refused to let some royal lackey treat her like an old lady- and headed for the door.
“Carolyn, hang on,” Martin looked panicked, suddenly. Carolyn scoffed and didn’t stop, pushing the door open with one hand to prove her point, despite the fact that it was a heavy door. Had royalty really gone to his head so much that he though she needed an escort? How could he have forgotten that she relied on no-one, a perfectly capable woman able to open doors and run an airline and-
Her internal monologue stopped dead as she saw the reason why Martin had wanted her to wait. She scolded herself, stupid woman, of course Martin wasn’t trying to be over-chivalrous. She had forgotten that not everything in the world was against her, and now…
Theresa, being wonderful and wise, had herded the gaggle of pilots into a living room to leave Carolyn and Herc in a what appeared to be a small room with the exclusive purpose of drinking tea. Carolyn wasn’t sure how Theresa knew how they took their tea, but she had a strong suspicion that one Hercules Shipwright might have something to do with it.
There was an electric fireplace set into the mantlepiece, the image of flames looping over and over. One of the things that always struck Carolyn about other people’s homes, or indeed, castles was the lack of knick-knacks. So many other people had a tidy, minimalist design to their homes, a single clock over the fire as in this room, or a neat stack of books on a shelf. Even excluding Arthur’s contributions, the Knapp-Shappey household had reminders of trips and other assorted bits and bobs strewn all over. She tried to maintain some order, but Arthur had once made a complete city out of old toblerone boxes, so there was only so much she could do. But she could never really get rid of them. Not even for reasons of sentiment, not always. Little things just made rooms feel lived in, unlike this one. No matter how many warm tones were designed into a room, ones like this were too perfect and unused to feel anything but unwelcoming.
Eventually, Herc broke the silence. “You look well. I take it you’ve been busy.”
“Yes. You know how it is, stag dos and CEOs and the like.” She knew what he was doing and she hated him for it. Arthur texted him all the time, giving him little updates on where they were and what their plans were. It wasn’t like he didn’t know that she had been deliberately missing his calls, but here he was giving her a reason to have done so.
She’d have been angrier. She’d have been furious about the whole thing and come in here guns blazing. Yet here was Herc, as calm and gentle as ever, not even a flicker of confrontation in his eyes. In some ways, she wished he had been angry. He certainly had every right to be.
“Well, we’ve had nothing like as exciting I’m afraid, mostly lumbersome leaps across Europe carrying a standard array of businessmen and tourists.”
“Businessmen?” Carolyn quibbled before she could stop herself. She didn’t fail to notice the little smile that flashed across Herc’s lips. When was the last time anyone had bickered with him? Or even disagreed with him at all? Did they even play games at Swiss Air or was it really as boring as sitting in a tin can for hours?
“No, sorry, you’re quite right – people doing business. Of which I’m sure some are beautiful and capable women.” They locked eyes but Carolyn said nothing. How dare he flatter her like that! He continued, “Anyway, the closest I’ve had to excitement is the rare occasion when Martin gets assigned to be my FO. He’s really come into his own, you know, he looks proud to be a pilot rather than a boy playing at it.”
Carolyn didn’t hide her smile at that. It didn’t have to be a secret that she was proud of him. “At least someone’ll play word games with you, then.”
“It’s not as fun when you always win.”
“Yes, it is.” Carolyn looked away, clenching her jaw as she chided herself again for speaking too fast. This was supposed to be a reunion, not a fight.
There was a moment of silence, then undeterred, Herc said “I take it Douglas is less happy at being FO still.”
Carolyn pushed the guilt away. “He’s just being Douglas about it. He’s just upset that he can’t take the piss out of Martin any more. He’s just getting used to it.”
“I know. You can see it on his face. He’s not been made to work properly in years.”
“I’m not sure anyone can put Douglas in his place at this point.”
Herc chuckled at that, relaxing into the tall armchair he was sat in. Carolyn had always rather thought that red upholstery was trying to hide something. “I suppose Arthur might give him a run for his money, mind, at the zoo.”
“If anyone can get Douglas to go to the zoo, it is Arthur.” Carolyn smiled at that again, and for just a few moments that old familiarity and comfort they had shared was back, and it was warm, and Carolyn remembered that she did like him rather a lot indeed, and maybe this time she should just say it and stop this stupid chasing each other around. Maybe if she just screwed up her courage enough she could ask him to come back, to admit she missed him, to admit that just maybe she loved him.
Then the maid came in to refill the teapot, and the moment was gone.
“That was, without doubt, the worst production of Rigoletto I have ever seen.”
“You have only seen Rigoletto twice, Carolyn.”
“Yes, and this one was worse.”
“Which must mean you think that one was better.”
“Oh, shut up.” She punched Herc on the arm to try and wipe that smile from his face, and to try and cover for the smile on her own face.
And, not that she’d admit it, she was also trying desperately to banish the urge to reach out and hold his hand. It was soft, she knew that, but just seeing him here was making her remember just how much she’d missed him. No matter how much she wanted to, she couldn’t lie to herself. Sitting there in the opera, watching him mouth along to all the songs, watching him shed a tear like he did at the end every time, trying to police her own expression to avoid looking too happy to be there… it was proving harder than she’d imagined.
“Carolyn, let’s go this way.” Herc gestured for her to follow him. She narrowed her eyes.
“Oh, let’s call it a birthday surprise.” He smirked to himself.
“Or we could not do that and you could tell me what’s going on.” She raised an eyebrow, but now her curiosity was winning. She allowed him to lead the way.
They wandered through the streets of Zurich, chatting meaningless words away from the opera house and into a street which smelled of a hundred restaurants and sounded like it too. It was becoming obvious that she was being taken to dinner. What an obvious gesture. Carolyn was certain that he must have consulted with Arthur and if this was the only thing they could think of to do with her, then they were slacking, quite frankly. Dinner! Not that she was complaining that much, but it was hardly an original notion.
Herc led her down yet another street, away from the bright lights of the tourist traps. “Nearly there,” Herc said. Carolyn said nothing, suspicious yet curious. Clearly this was another area of restaurants, the smell of pizza and meat, and the laughter of people sharing a meal not having subsided.
“Herc, where are we going?” Carolyn asked, exasperated as they turned another corner. For all she could tell, this street was empty, boring, quiet.
“Stop fussing. It’s just along here. I promise.” They appeared to be heading for an orange light at the end of the road, and Carolyn could swear she could smell bacon. Herc had started grinning in that smug way he did when he knew something she didn’t and decided that it was going to make her happy. She set her face in the decisive frown reserved for such scenarios.
“Here we are, then.” Herc stopped abruptly in front of the restaurant. Its name was written above the door in a large jaunty font, backlit by a warm orange glow that was clearly meant to represent fire. Carolyn looked between it and Herc several times, trying to understand why they were at a restaurant whose logo appeared to be a cartoon pig using a barbeque as a trampoline.
“’Pig and Cow’? Okay, Herc, hilarious. Where are we really going?”
Herc smiled. Carolyn couldn’t help but feel like she was in the middle of some ridiculous and elaborate practical joke. Herc opened the door a little, letting the smell of meat waft out into the October air. “Happy Birthday, Carolyn. There’s a table booked here if you want it.”
She looked into his eyes, and judging that he was being sincere, went in. Now, her guard was up for the others, for some sort of surprise attack involving Arthur and balloons and singing. There was no way that Herc would choose to come here, not after all the debates they’d had about the pointlessness of vegetarianism, or otherwise. Surely he wouldn’t just for the sake of impressing her. Yet the young waiter led them to a table for two, no different from any of the others in decoration – one wilting flower of non-descript variety, a faded red tablecloth under a white one with stains from whoever ate there last, and a variety of steak knives to pick from.
They sat, and Carolyn leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. “What’s all this about, Herc?”
She watched him closely as he thought of how to word what he was trying to say. His mouth always twitched when he did that, no matter how fast his thinking time was. She hoped her own mental dialogue wasn’t so clear on her face. To Herc, it probably was. That damn man knew her too well. She knew, deep down, that that was why they were here, because she would enjoy it and he wanted to do something nice, but this sent a stab of guilt through her. They’d barely spoken recently, so why would he want to go to this length to please her? Did he think extravagance was the way to her heart? If that was so, maybe he didn’t know her quite that well at all.
“Because it’s the only steakhouse probably in all of Switzerland that happens to have a vegan option too.” Damn him! She couldn’t quite disguise the smile that was threatening to break out over her face. Of course he’d checked all the menus!
“Well then, I think I shall have the steak.” There was a silence before the waitress came over, the kind that came with pretending to read the menu even after you know you’ve decided what you want, but you can’t really think of anything to say. Then the waitress was suddenly there and Herc was ordering in a surprisingly neutrally-accented German, and refusing to be outdone by him, Carolyn ordered in German too. Thank goodness she’d made herself learn how to order food in a whole bunch of languages some years ago!
As the waitress faded away into the restaurant, Herc turned back to Carolyn. “I didn’t know you could speak German.”
“Only the real thing. I have no idea what the Swiss are saying.” The corner of Herc’s mouth turned up at that. Carolyn chided herself for looking. The cogs were turning in his brain again, as always signified by the wrinkle that appeared at the top of his nose. She wasn’t sure that she was ready for the depth of whatever that conversation was going to be, so quickly she said “Arthur’s excited for the zoo tomorrow.”
Herc blinked as he parked what he had been about to say. “I must say I’m excited to spend some time with him too. You don’t realise it, but something really does feel like it’s missing when he isn’t there to give his little insights into things.”
“Believe me, I realised that long ago.” It was selfish, she knew, but she was glad that Arthur had never wanted to move out. Without him, she would just be an old lady in a big house. And though she tried not to think about it, the fact was that Fitton wasn’t a big town and that she had lived there for so many years that most people at least knew of her. She was sure they talked behind her back. At least with Arthur, she could pretend that she didn’t care.
“No, of course,” Herc paused, then said “If I may be so bold as to say it, I have missed you too, Carolyn. I’ve missed you both so much, and don’t worry, I won’t say it,” he pre-empted, seeing her face wrinkle, “But I just… It hasn’t been easy. I know it’s not like I can’t speak to you, but sometimes hearing your voice makes me miss you more.”
They were sat near a window. Carolyn found herself looking at the red-lit pavement, and the occasional figure passing by. Across the street was a derelict looking café, the window cracked and boarded up, the lettering on the windows peeling. It had probably stood empty for some months. Had Herc stopped speaking? Carolyn hadn’t exactly stopped listening, but her internal monologue had taken over, commenting in the gaps between his words. Sometimes she forgot what she had actually said aloud, but this time she knew she had kept her stony silence.
“Carolyn,” Herc drew her back to the table. “You don’t have to say anything. I just want you to know that I still care, no matter what.”
“I know,” she said, the words she really wanted to say sticking in her lungs and making breathing feel difficult. “I’m sorry, Herc. It’s just not easy.”
“Now that we can agree on.” Before she could stop it, Carolyn smiled. Before Herc could say anything, the waitress arrived again.
Carolyn decided that, for a change, she wouldn’t say a word about the horrible salad. That didn’t quite extend to not giving it a disgusted look, which Herc said nothing about either, though he did raise his eyebrows at her. And the steak. Disappointingly, it was in fact just the way she liked it, red in the middle. Was that really disappointing? It was a good meal, and she was with Herc, so why did something still feel wrong? If she would let herself admit it, she knew exactly what was wrong. She ate a chip angrily.
The conversation lulled for a while, until finally Herc looked her in the eye and said, “I know we said no gifts, but I saw this a little while ago and I just thought it was perfect. May I?” Carolyn nodded, watching every movement he made. If this was something soft – well, no matter what it was, she decided she wouldn’t be happy about it. She was too busy trying not to feel anything to enjoy a present.
From his bag, he retrieved a small box, wrapped in plain green paper. One of the flaps had several layers of tape holding it down, proof of incompetence, but the ribbon tied on top was neat enough. Herc held it up as if to prove that it wasn’t a bomb, or anything else unsavoury, then placed it on the table in front of her. She peered down at it. She’d told him not to get anything! And here they were in a nice restaurant, with gifts on the table! She clenched her jaw as she picked it up.
“You didn’t have to, you know,” she grumbled as she untied the ribbon.
“I know. But I wanted to. Shouldn’t that be reason enough?”
Carolyn didn’t reply, just peeled the tape off, trying not to rip the paper. She felt her stomach drop at seeing the small box within. She tore the rest of the paper away and looked back up at Herc who was still smiling softly. “This had better not be-”
“Just open it,” he interrupted. “Please.”
She could neither think of an argument nor find the desire to have one, so she snapped open the box. Inside, just as she feared, was a ring. She opened her mouth to say something horrible, feeling the anger bubbling on the surface of her tongue. The scene where she stood and threw it at him flashed behind her eyes, but as she took it from the box she noticed the engravings. Little sheep danced their way over the metal, legs all askew. Her chest felt like it was imploding.
“It’s not any sort of proposal. It’s just a token, in the hope that it will remind you of me. It’ll fit your middle finger anyway, to avoid any confusion.”
“How did you know what size to-?”
“Arthur,” they said together. That scheming boy, of course! No wonder he’d been acting like he had a secret. Who else would Herc have asked for present advice? She slipped it on, pleased to see it fit. For a second she considered flipping him off, but he had done all this for her, so did he really deserve it?
“He did well to pick the right ring of mine to measure. I assume that’s what he did.”
Herc nodded. “We had quite the email chain about it. It’s incredible how he manages to write in exactly the way he speaks.”
“He has a way with words.” Herc laughed at that, and for just a second all the weight and anger and emotion lifted, and they were again just two friends who enjoyed the company of each other. In another world, she might have gone so far as to say loved each other.
Taking advantage of this, even if the emotion was setting back in, Carolyn said “Thank you, Herc. It’s- unique.”
He paused slightly longer than Carolyn deemed necessary, which she imagined was him trying to word a sentence saying ‘I love you’ into something more acceptable. He settled on “All the best things are. I’m glad you like it.”
And the conversation died back into a comfortable silence, occasionally picked up by some random thought or idea. If she tried hard enough, Carolyn could pretend they were back in Fitton, and that none of this nonsense had ever happened, and that Herc still came over for tea and to walk the dog, and to cook vegetarian cheese for Arthur, and was just there. but he wasn’t. It was too late now to go back to that. The only way Carolyn could cope with that thought was to pretend she didn’t care.
Later, when they came to leave, Carolyn found herself emboldened by the wine and the mood and allowed herself to gently take Herc’s hand as they walked back down a Swiss street towards the car, and the castle.
I'm sorry it keeps taking so long to update this, I just keep getting demotivated for it - writing sucks, in short. I'm hoping to try and get as close to finished as possible by Christmas, but no promises! But any support is a big help ;P and deeply appreciated - to everyone who keeps reading this, thank you so much <3
Martin’s face had gone so red with laughter that Theresa had started to fuss over him in case he had actually ruptured something. Even Douglas had laughed at the story. If there was something Arthur was good at, it was long, rambling tales of a day’s events, told in such a long-winded manner that even the tale of popping out to the shop could last ten or twenty minutes. This zoo story had racked up thirty-five so far and they’d barely gotten to the tigers.
Carolyn was only half listening to her son. She’d lived the day with him, after all, watching him tell facts to Herc, who had not only paid attention, but listened open-eyed and smiling as if he really had missed it. They’d spent forty-five minutes at the penguin enclosure alone.
“..and then, you see, a lady came up to us and said ‘wow, you know a lot about penguins!’ and then told us this really brilliant fact about albatrosses…”
And then she had turned to Herc as Arthur had all but pressed his face against the glass, trying to get the penguins to look into his eyes, and she had said “You have a lovely son,” and Herc had smiled, really genuinely smiled and said “I know.”
Had he thought Carolyn wasn’t listening? She had been sat on the bench nearby reading her book. She knew from long experience to come to these sort of things well prepared because once she’d nearly gone out of her mind waiting for Arthur to finish looking at an aquarium. They were just fish, how long did it take? But she could never tell Arthur no, so instead she’d started to tell him that she would wait just over here, and he could take all the time he wanted.
Somehow, Herc had paid attention to everything Arthur had said. Between Herc and Douglas, he had all the dads he could ever need, and the ones he deserved. Carolyn had tried to ignore the guilt all day, the feeling the she didn’t quite have words for but that sat in her stomach like a rock, reminding her that she was sending one of the best things in Arthur’s life away because she was too stubborn to admit that she wanted him to stay.
And like that, the thought crossed her mind, clear and sharp as a cold morning, and with the same power to knock the air from her lungs. She wanted him to stay. She had always wanted him to stay.
This wasn’t as much of a revelation as she might have liked.
“You’re making our day seem boring, Arthur!” Martin’s face was still flushed from laughing. Theresa was holding his hand, leaning in close to him. Carolyn looked at the clock and blinked in surprise to see that another half hour had passed. She hadn’t heard a word that Arthur had said, too busy wrapped up inside her own silly thoughts. She frowned despite the rest of the room and ignored the questioning look Herc gave her.
“I’d have rather come to the zoo,” said Douglas, languishing in an armchair.
“Douglas!” Martin admonished him with all the effect that such a thing had ever had. Theresa shook her head, smiling affectionately.
“The Duke wasn’t that bad,” she said, wrapping her arms around Martin.
“I’ve met better,” said Douglas, a small grin crossing his face in the way it did when he was being facetious.
Arthur, being the way he was, let the subtext fly far overhead. “Wow, have you Douglas?”
“Oh yes, all the Duke’s I’ve met have been complete-”
“He’s having you on, Arthur. Honestly, I’d have thought you’d have learned that tone of voice by now.” Carolyn interrupted whatever Douglas was about to say, because the chances of it being inoffensive were very slim. She wasn’t in the mood for double meanings and snide comments this evening.
Arthur made a show of being a goldfish having a revelation, all but throwing himself onto the stool he had decided was his for the trip. Silly boy, Carolyn thought. After all this time, Douglas could still wind him up. Then, Douglas could still wind up Martin even though he had a real job and a very real fiancée now. Carolyn rather suspected that Douglas was still jealous of him.
“I can tell you for a fact that Duke Tormas is by far not the worst Duke one could meet. I have met so many Dukes and so on who are far more vulgar and a thousand times more boring. At least Tormas is only self-satisfied – the worst ones are the ones who are boring and love the sound of their own voices.”
“She’s right,” said Martin, a flash of fear showing in his eyes as he remembered royal dinners that he had been forced to attend.
Carolyn nodded in recognition. It was in no way hard to believe that Dukes and the like could be thoroughly awful. Her job had after all been to deal with all sorts of people, including thoroughly repulsive men. They had spent a long time on one flight discussing some of the horrible people they had met. Carolyn was just sorry that Theresa had been born into a life of stuffy dinners and public service.
“I’d like to meet a Duke, I think,” said Arthur, having recovered from Douglas’ deceptions. “I think I could be quite stately.”
Theresa’s smile broadened. Carolyn noticed Herc's fond smile mirroring her own. “I think,” said Theresa, “You will have plenty of chance to meet all kinds of people at the wedding, Arthur.”
“We’re definitely invited then?” His eyes widened.
“Of course you are! There’s no chance in the world that I would get married and not have my best friends there. Even my mother cannot take that away from me.” Arthur beamed.
“I’m only coming for the food,” said Douglas, pretending to be disinterested. This Duke must have put him in a really bad mood for him to be being so snippy.
That launched Arthur off into a ramble about wedding food, how he’d once seen the most brilliant looking cake, but it had tasted awful. Such was the manner of wedding cake, Carolyn usually found. And marriage.
“Well, I was going to ask you to be my best man, but if the food’s all you’re interested in then I shall have to ask someone else.” Martin raised an eyebrow at Douglas, trying to keep a straight face. Douglas’ mouth had physically dropped open. For the first time any of them could remember, Douglas was speechless.
Carolyn did have to admit that that had been a good one. He would never have managed such a good crack as Gerti’s captain. That thought hurt. Martin leaving had been for the better, he was looking so much better in every way, and now he had a wit! But none of that stopped them missing him.
There was a long moment of Douglas looking at Martin, then at Carolyn and Herc, and back to see Theresa smirking over Martin’s shoulder in pride. Arthur looked like he was about to burst with excitement. Eventually, he recovered enough to say, weakly, “I’d be honoured, Martin.”
Arthur launched himself into Douglas, hugging him. “That’s brilliant Douglas! Martin thinks you’re the best!” He took a second to think about that, his face dropping. “If Douglas is the best, what can I be?”
That old panic flared behind Martin’s eyes. Theresa placed her hand on his knee and said gently “It doesn’t mean that, Arthur. You’re brilliant too. It just means Douglas needs to make a speech and help Martin with anything he might need.” She looked pointedly at Douglas before continuing. “And of course you can help too, it’s just Douglas has plenty of experience with weddings.”
“Can I still make a speech?”
“We would like that very much.”
“Oh thank goodness! I’ve been making a list of jokes since we found out that Martin asked, and I just think it would be a shame to let them go to waste. I don’t think Douglas would be able to do them properly.” Arthur lifted his chin in that way he did when he was trying to make himself seem more adult.
Douglas chuckled. “I don’t think I would, Arthur.”
No-one could do Arthur’s jokes like he did. Indeed, most of them were only funny because Arthur said them and thought they were.
Carolyn just hoped they had plenty of alcohol. She was pleased for her friends, of course she was, but no occasion could make her want to listen to ‘funny’ speeches sober. If she and Herc ever got married, she was considering banning speeches.
The thought was in her head before she was aware it was forming. If. As if such a thing could happen now! She didn’t even want it to anyway. Being near him here and now was hard enough without all these stupid thoughts about marriage and togetherness.
He’d been looking at her wistfully all evening. If he was having similar thoughts, he probably wasn’t doubting himself over them. It was what he had wanted anyway. She avoided his eye again and tried to force herself to listen to the conversation again.
They had moved on to animal jokes now. Carolyn tuned straight back out. She tried her best to focus on thinking about how happy everyone looked, how genuine their smiles were and loud their laughing. This was the sort of moment you wanted to freeze, to keep the feeling of forever, trap it somewhere for moments when you needed the chaotic calm of having a stupid conversation with the people you were closest with. The sort of moment that happens often if you’re with those people, and the sort of moment you hold out for when you’re away from them.
And it would have been perfect if she hadn’t been aware of Herc sat beside her, smiling sadly. There was this look in his eyes, like the scene was so close to being perfect of only she wasn’t so stubborn and awkward. A few times now he had half shuffled closer to her, gone to put his arm around her and stopped as if he wasn’t certain what she wanted any more.
She wasn’t so sure herself any more.
Without a word, she leaned back into him, not resisting as his arm came to rest over her shoulders, pulling her closer. She shut her eyes, making herself listen to the conversation again to try and drown out her thoughts. It worked, a little bit, every now and again letting her have a few seconds where all the stupid conflict going on in her head stopped, and everything was just as it should have been.
This was just as it should have been.
Something was becoming very clear to Carolyn, and it was that this could not carry on. She was either going to have to ask him to come back home to her, or she was going to have to tell him that she was cutting him off, that she never wanted to see him again. Not because she didn’t, but because it was too difficult to play this game of tiptoeing around each other, afraid to say what they were thinking in case it became real.
The other four were engaged in a deep conversation now, with so many layers that following it was becoming hard. Carolyn offered a snide comment every now and again.
Once, and she couldn’t be sure, but she thought she heard Herc whisper “I love you,” to her while the conversation was too loud for anyone else to hear. She pretended not to notice in case it was just her imagination.
If it was her imagination, then it was being overactive. And it was giving her what she wanted. In her head, she said “I love you too,” but in the real world just tried to paint every part of the room into her memory just in case it really was the last time anything would feel like this.
Believe me when I say I truly am sorry, but I for one cannot go on like this. I hope that we can still be on good terms if ever we meet again, but I think it is for the best that we commit fully to the paths we have chosen, and stop playing this game of will we or won’t we. I’m sorry that it has come to this.
When you wake up, we will be gone. We have an early take off home. Thank you for the last couple of years. They weren’t entirely awful.
The phone was ringing. Carolyn was out with Snoopadoop. She’d been taking a lot of long walks recently. Arthur wasn’t stupid, he knew why. And that was why he was stood staring at the phone, not sure what quite to do.
Call fram: Herrrrkuleees, said the automatic American lady every three rings.
Call fram: Herrrrkuleees.
Arthur might not have understood a lot about people, but he did understand his mother and he knew very well when she was afraid. In his opinion, not that he would ever voice it, she shouldn’t be afraid of Herc because he was a very nice and kind man and all he really wanted was to be part of their family. Arthur had no objections to that whatsoever.
In his opinion, what she was really afraid of was herself. He thought that, probably, it was less Herc showing his feelings that was the problem, but the fact that she didn’t really know how to show hers, or even how to feel them properly. There had been a little while when Arthur had thought that just maybe she would be able to tell Herc that she loved him, and that he would move into Fitton forever and they’d be a brilliantly happy family.
Things never happened like you thought they would, or even hoped. That was something else Arthur knew.
Another thing that he knew was that Carolyn definitely did love Herc and that she was being very silly in pretending that nobody else at all had guessed.
These were all the thoughts passing through Arthur’s mind, flowing into one another through his stream of consciousness. He stared at the flashing green light on the receiver. It had rung nine times now, three sets of three rings, three American ladies announcing Herc. If he was going to pick up, he only had two more ladies before it went through to voicemail.
Herc didn’t leave voicemails any more because he had found out that Carolyn never listened to them.
She hadn’t said that Arthur wasn’t allowed to answer the phone to Herc any more, but the last few times he had passed on the message, her face had creased in a way that Arthur didn’t have words for. He hadn’t quite decided if that had meant that he should stop, or that he should just stop telling her. It was all so confusing! Why could people never say what they meant?
Call fram: Herrrrkuleees.
Herc had been quite upset the last few times he had called and Arthur had picked up. Arthur was fairly sure that this wasn’t Herc being upset with him but rather him being upset that it wasn’t Carolyn. He didn’t know if this meant that Herc didn’t want him to pick up any more either. But he was definitely only pretending to listen properly to Arthur telling him what was going on.
Arthur had heard that tone more than enough times to have learnt it well.
And if anyone had bothered to ask him, it actually hurt his feelings quite a lot. Herc had always really cared in the past, and even asked him questions, but now it just seemed like he only wanted to talk to Carolyn. And she really didn’t want to talk to him. And Arthur really didn't know where all this was supposed to have left him, other than confused and in the middle.
Arthur wondered if this all of this meant that they had broken up for good. He hoped not. Carolyn had been so much happier with Herc there. None of it made any sense! Why would she cut him off? No matter how much Arthur thought about it, he just couldn’t understand what she was thinking. Did she think just ignoring him would make it easier?
Easier for who?
Call fram: Herrrrkuleees.
The phone spluttered one more ring, then beeped to prove it had put Herc through to voicemail. It beeped again as Herc hung up.
Arthur ran upstairs and sat on his bed, turning his music on and up very loudly so he could pretend that he hadn’t heard the phone at all.
When Martin had still been here, Douglas had sometimes liked to meet up with him for a coffee in Fitton’s only good coffee shop. Of course, Douglas would never say out loud that he thought it was anything more than adequate. It looked out onto the high street, and occasionally cars drove past, on their way through the town towards some other destination. No locals ever drove through the middle of town, they weren’t crazy.
In the absence of Martin, and in the need of a good scheme, Douglas was once again sat in that coffee shop but this time in the company of Arthur, who was consuming an enormous chocolate milkshake. Douglas was nursing a regular sized latte. With six extra shots.
Only one yellow car had gone past so far. Much more interesting was the woman with the massive haircut and the massive umbrella and the massive dog. Incidentally, the dog had much the same hairstyle as the lady, and was probably easily 70% fur. She was pristinely turned out, all in blue, and matching her dog down to the collar. Arthur was providing a running commentary.
Douglas was thinking.
It was displeasing to him that there were several problems in his life right now that he could do nothing to resolve. The whole point of Douglas Richardson was to be the one who made everything right again. Insurmountable issues did not sit right with him.
The way he saw it, the issues were these:
Number one, MJN. Why Carolyn had hired a man to be Captain was beyond him, especially such a bastard as Peter. Maybe that was harsh. Peter’s biggest flaw was that he was bland. At least Martin, though ineffective, had been very teasable. Peter was so painfully average that even Douglas was struggling to make jokes about him. It was not making the flight deck pleasant. The man didn't even enjoy games, for heaven's sake! They sat in the flight deck in silence so often that Douglas had started to memorise some poetry just to give him something to think about in the air.
Number two, Carolyn herself. God knew what was going on in her head, because it was completely obvious to the rest of the world that all her problems with Herc were completely of her own invention. Douglas wasn’t a relationship counsellor, and goodness knew there was no way he'd ever qualify, but if he had been one, he’d tell her to just get over herself and admit that she was miserable without Herc and that she made a mistake letting him go. Because it was starting to make everyone else miserable too.
Number three… Douglas’ internal monologue hesitated. In fact, if he did say so himself, he had summarised the main things very well into two points. Never mind that he’d lost the trail of what he'd been thinking about. It wasn’t like there was a quick fix for any of this anyway.
“Yellow car! See, Douglas, I said there’d be more!” Arthur beamed at him. Douglas returned the smile, an idea forming. He’d overlooked the biggest weapon he had. Arthur Shappey.
“Arthur, you know how Martin and Theresa are engaged?”
“Of course! It’s exciting, isn’t it? They said that I could help decorate the room, which is brilliant, and I’ve already started to collect ideas in a big notebook with scraps and stuff, you know, like they tell you to do on the telly, and-”
“Well,” Douglas interrupted, “What do you say to the idea of us hosting an engagement party for them here in Fitton?”
Arthur’s eyes went wide as he began to imagine the possibilities.
Douglas continued, “Because I was thinking it might be nice for us to invite them here, even just on an informal basis. Perhaps we can go out for dinner, and then maybe to a bar?”
Arthur nodded sagely. “And in the day, we can have cake and a bouncy castle!”
“I think you may be confusing this event with a children’s birthday party.”
Though the idea was ludicrous, it was always somewhat crushing to watch Arthur deflate like his bouncy castle dreams. Douglas thought quickly, then added, “But, what we could do is have dinner at my house and then go out after that. I can cook and you can be in charge of… fun.”
That had potential to be dangerous, but it flipped Arthur’s mood as fast as popping a balloon. He beamed. “We can play games! And I can use my fun party playlist!”
Douglas dreaded to think what was on that playlist, and what occasion it possibly could have been invented for. A thought of Arthur making it for a party held in his room with imaginary friends floated into his mind and Douglas dismissed it quickly. That was a little too mean even for him.
“The precise details need to be kept a secret,” Douglas gave Arthur a pointed look and Arthur mimed zipping his lips shut. “But we can tell them about dinner and then going out. I’ll sort out inviting everyone. Obviously, Theresa and Martin need to come or what’s the point? Then you and me, and Carolyn if she wants to, and maybe Herc-”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea Douglas.” Arthur’s firm tone made Douglas pause for long enough that Arthur elaborated. “I mean, yay, Herc! But I don’t think Mum would be very happy about it. I’m not sure what exactly’s happened, but Mum’s been avoiding him and he left a really long voicemail the other day that I listened to by accident and I think Mum might have sort of broken up with him but don’t tell her I said any of this. I think she wants it to be a secret.”
So that explained Carolyn’s horrendous moods recently. Arthur’s face had fallen again, a deep furrow forming between his eyebrows as though he had a lot more to say but didn’t quite have the words to. He looked at Douglas and with a seriousness that he didn’t often display, said “I’m really worried that Mum’s making a big mistake but I don’t know what I can do to help.”
Douglas placed his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and tried to smile comfortingly. A yellow car drove past and Douglas thought that the small, sad voice Arthur used to call it out might just break his heart. That decided it. He was going to have to fix all of this.
Using his best ‘don’t worry, Douglas is on the case and will sort it out’ voice, Douglas said “For what it’s worth, I think she’s shooting herself in the foot with what she’s doing. It’s obvious enough to everyone else that they love each other. If we can get this dinner organised right, I think we might just have a chance at making her admit that. But you must promise not to let Carolyn know that Herc’s coming, or else she’ll dig her heels in and refuse to come.”
Nodding as if he were in on some dark master plan, Arthur said “Cross my heart, hope to die,” and in unison they finished, “Terrapins tickle me if I lie.”
They both smiled. Douglas downed the last of his coffee and stared out the window. He really hoped he was doing the right thing.
“Please may I decorate your dining room for the dinner?”
Douglas smiled. “Of course you can.”
Of all places to meet Martin for lunch, this would have been Herc’s second guess. His first guess would have been a restaurant in the airport. This was a small place well in view of the airport, but otherwise unattached to it. Herc wondered just how hard Martin was having to contain himself to not to point out every aircraft in sight. He had a feeling that neither he nor Theresa would have really minded that much.
He tapped his phone. No messages. Checking it had become a compulsion, endlessly and obsessively tapping it to see if he had anything but an email. He never did, these days. He was half hoping to see ‘missed call’, but the truth was he was so attached to the stupid device that the only way he’d miss a call was if he was in the shower or in the air.
Sleep wouldn’t even have stopped him. The volume was on, and he slept restlessly anyway. He always had been somewhat of an insomniac, which wasn’t always great in his line of work. And waking up alone didn’t help anything.
A few weeks ago, half in sleep, he could have sworn that Carolyn was there, until he blinked and came to his senses. He checked his phone. Nothing. No force in the world could have sent him back to sleep on that night. Except perhaps Carolyn. He just wanted to speak to her. Even a text.
“So,” Theresa was saying, and Herc became aware that he’d forgotten to listen to his friends. “Martin’s got a day off next month that we think will work well, and I’ve already practically organised the flight, so if it works for you, you’re more than welcome to come with us.”
This was very clearly a question that Herc had missed. His fingers were itching for his phone, so he wrapped his hands around his glass instead and stared at them blankly. “I’m sorry, what?”
“For this party Douglas is organising, yes? Next month?” They had explained it to him briefly, that Douglas had asked them to ask him to come to Fitton for some wedding-based celebration that Arthur had a large hand in helping with. He had agreed to go, but really only for Martin and Theresa, who had seemed so excited for a get-together with them all. The thought of seeing Carolyn was making him feel a bit sick.
He checked his phone. “Yeah, sorry. What day is it? I’ll put a note in. I doubt they’ll say no to me.” He left ‘and even if they did, I don’t know how much I’d care’ unspoken.
Theresa told him the day, and he jotted it down in his diary dutifully. Apparently, it was strange to all the new, younger pilots that he kept all his appointments written down on paper rather than in their clever phones. And it was strange to call them appointments. He tried not to dwell on it, but he just felt so old among all those eager, wrinkle-less faces. When had he become so old?
“It’ll be nice to go back to Fitton, won’t it? I mean, I love it here, of course I do, but I do sometimes miss living somewhere small.” Martin smiled wistfully, his eyes following the jet that had started to bank away out of sight.
Herc wished he was in more of a reminiscent mood.
“I remember the first time I saw Fitton, with Maxi, when he first went to school. Of course, his school isn’t in Fitton, but it’s the closest airport to it. I remember thinking ‘is this it?’ because my mother had told me it was this modern English town. I think what she meant was ‘it’s moved on from the 18th century’.” Martin laughed at this, possibly more loudly than he ought to have done.
Herc smiled as politely as he could. He was happy for them, of course he was, and he liked nothing more to see happy, young people in love. He’d been there once. And these were his friends, and they were getting married! But a part of him was watching them bitterly, knowing that he was an old fool in love who’d missed his chance.
Their conversation had wandered off into memory, talking about Fitton, and Vaduz castle and Herc tried very hard not to think about the only real holiday – trip – he’d ever done with Carolyn. How had he come to this, at his age? Without thinking, he tapped his phone. He’d been emailed a work schedule. No messages.
“You know, Herc,” said Theresa, pulling him firmly back into the conversation. He looked up from his phone, guilty of having been only making affirmative noises. “You’ve been looking at your phone a lot for someone with no messages.”
Herc opened his mouth to reply, hoping for something eloquent and witty to come out. Instead, all he managed was a weak “Yeah.”
“You ought to talk to her,” Theresa said. Herc sat back in his chair and folded his arms. He told himself very firmly not to be too openly bitter.
“She doesn’t want to speak to me. We haven’t spoken hardly since they came over. Even Arthur won’t pick up any more. I think- I think it might be over.” His voice caught in his throat and he clenched his fists, trying to avoid seeming as torn up about it as he felt. Somehow, he didn’t think he was succeeding. How did Carolyn make hiding emotions look so easy?
The last time he had felt so heartbroken was a lifetime ago, from his twenties when he realised he’d married the wrong woman and that she actually didn’t like him very much at all. At least he could blame that on being young and stupid. He should have known better now. He should have been able to cope with this better. All it was doing was confirming the fact that he really did love Carolyn more than ever.
Herc turned his head to stare out of the window. A passing plane caught Martin’s eye, and Theresa kicked him under the table to bring him back to reality. He frowned at her. She smiled an apology, then raised her eyebrows, looking pointedly at Herc. Martin sighed softly, hesitating before he said “You don’t have to come to Fitton if you don’t want to,”
Theresa glared at him again and he added, “But we would like it if you did.”
This was all so stupid. Here were two of his closest friends, and all Herc could think about was himself! He turned back to them and tried his best to smile. “No, I’m sorry, this is ridiculous. Of course I’ll come. I couldn’t miss your engagement party, could I?”
Later, after they’d all gone home, and when Martin and Theresa were finally allowed time alone, Martin said “Do you think Herc made a mistake coming to Switzerland?”
Martin was leaning against Theresa who was twirling his hair between her fingers absently. The question took her by surprise, making her stop. “Why? Are you worried about him?”
“Don’t pretend you’re not. You saw how sad he looked, and you know how much they miss each other. I hope they haven’t really split up.”
“I texted Douglas earlier, and he says that Arthur says that Carolyn seems to be trying to cut Herc off.”
“Douglas has a plan?” Martin sat up, swivelling round to face Theresa properly. She raised her eyebrow, amused at Martin’s faith in Douglas.
“I think Douglas has the beginnings of a plan, which involves our party and Carolyn and Herc being in the same room. It almost makes you think that this party isn’t really for us at all.”
Martin hesitated before he said anything else, thinking about what Douglas might be planning. Knowing him, it would be ridiculous and magnificent, but with high risk potential, and the last thing they wanted to do was ruin Herc and Carolyn’s relationship beyond repair. Theresa touched his cheek gently, tracing his cheekbone with her thumb. “What are you worrying about, my dear?”
“It’s just – well, don’t you think Carolyn might be just a bit cross if she thinks we’re meddling?”
Theresa pressed a kiss to his forehead. “I think she’d be a fool to let her defensiveness get in the way of her happiness. You’ve said it yourself that she seemed happier when she could boss Herc around.”
“I dread to think how she’s taking it out on Douglas and Peter,” said Martin, the wrinkles in his forehead deepening into valleys. He’d been on the wrong side of Carolyn’s ire enough times before.
“Then I’m even more pleased that I have you safely here with me.” Martin blushed at that, redness creeping down his nose and over the tops of his ears. He chuckled, embarrassed, but not protesting as Theresa pulled him close to her again. This was the most comfortably awkward he’d ever been.
For some time they sat there, not saying what they were both thinking, about Herc and Carolyn, and about missing old friends and worrying about what was to come. Eventually, Theresa said, quietly, “Yes. I do think Herc should have stayed in Fitton. I think he’s miserable here, and I think Carolyn is miserable there. The trick will just be in getting them to see that too.”
Martin said nothing. He only nodded gently in agreement and tried to focus on the warmth of his fiancée’s arms rather than the coil of worry that was starting to tighten in his stomach.
Douglas’s flat was not designed to hold a big dining table. Still, he had one wedged into the kitchen, almost blocking the path through to the living room. He didn’t need a lot of space, hat with only being one person, and he’d downsized since his last divorce – he found he only really needed one spare bedroom, and even then only occasionally. As his daughters were getting older, they didn’t come to stay for long periods any more, just the odd weekend here and there, an evening at his and then away again.
Despite the space constraints, Arthur had been in the kitchen all day, under the careful supervision of Douglas. Whatever they were cooking was secret and the others had all decided it was probably best not to ask.
That morning, Martin and Theresa had walked down to the river in the park. It was one of the places Martin had used to walk to quite a lot in Fitton, far enough for it to be a good walk, but not so far that it took hours to get there and back. He had walked along the bank, through the trees, into that little clearing, and up, weaving up through the undergrowth until the trees finally thinned enough that you could see the sky again from the top of the hill. Every time he had needed to clear his head, to find some respite from issues rolling round in his head, that’s where he’d gone.
Carolyn too had gone for a walk that morning, to Brinkley Chase with her dog, where she’d parked in her spot and resolved herself to only think about what a nice day it was. And it was a nice day in fact, just like that day they’d… She tied Snoopadoop up outside the pub and promised to be fast, and ordered white bait, because it was her favourite. It was only when the little fish eyes were staring up at her that she thought… And then, the walk had been lovely, and she’d talked to Snoopadoop like a mad old woman, not because she needed company, and laughed when the dog chased the sheep, barking at them like she was yelping in fear…
Herc had woken late and gone straight to Douglas’s. He had decided that the only way he could face the coming evening was to get there first. From time to time, Arthur had popped in to see him, sat on the couch with whatever crap channel he’d flicked onto, checking if he wanted tea, or cake, or crisps, or to help, or to be helped (with what was unclear), or to have a chat, or to do anything that wasn’t sit mindlessly watching the telly. What he really wanted was a strong whiskey and to fall into Carolyn’s arms like nothing had happened, but he doubted he’d get either of those things, so he just turned Arthur away and sat, waiting. Worrying.
As though she’d planned it just so she didn’t have to arrive alone, Carolyn picked up Martin and Theresa on the way. Douglas had said ‘get there at six’, but it was easily going on for seven by the time they got there. As though she’d realised it would create ‘dinner’s almost ready’ chaos, and avoid small talk for an hour.
The idea of petty chat made her want to run far away.
Douglas had arranged a seating plan, signified by cards that had been made all too clearly by Arthur. Somewhere, Douglas had found a years-old art box, the kind full of feathers and glitter glue and pipe cleaners, as well as a handful of half-dried gel pens. The result was a mess of colour, places where Arthur had had to go over the text four or five times in different pens to make any sort of mark, highlighted with sparkles and blobs of glue.
He’d been working on them all morning, he told them proudly, while Douglas had been doing some of the food preparation and they’d not had a lot else to do. “Look, Martin, yours even has an aeroplane!” And, in a vague way, it did. Martin couldn’t think of a single aeroplane he’d ever seen that had a tailfin made of feathers.
Carolyn had been sure to stack her plate with meats, trying to create any sort of wall between her and Herc who had been sat next to her, for some reason. She was trying to avoid looking at him, trying to avoid leaning towards him, avoid acknowledging him. There was a fight going on in her head between pretending he didn’t exist and pretending she’d never made the mistake of sending him away.
It had been a terrible mistake. She knew that now. She was paying for it now, and everyone could see it, everyone knew how much she wanted Herc back, she could see it in their eyes, why else would they have sat them next to each other? But she couldn’t admit to being wrong, not in front of everyone like this, she couldn’t stand the idea of Herc’s stupid, smug, I-was-right face, couldn’t stand the idea that he was there next to her and she had been too stupid to make him stay, it was too late –
“Can you pass the gravy please, Carolyn?” When had he started to sound so tired and old? Wordlessly, and with a pang of guilt, she handed it to him, careful to avoid his eye and his hand. He didn’t comment that she hadn’t even fought against the vegetarian option.
Martin and Theresa seemed happy. That was what Carolyn was trying to focus on, the way they kept giving each other little glances as if they had to be secretive, how Theresa kept taking Martin’s hand and he kept leaning into her, how they kept laughing and smiling. Every time Arthur said anything, Herc smiled too.
That had always been something Carolyn had admired about him, how attentive he was to Arthur. She tried not to notice Arthur beaming back at him. How Herc’s hand rested on the table, how easy it would be to just take it and say sorry for all of this nonsense. She’d changed her mind! She really had, it wasn’t too late and if he’d ask her just one more time, she’d tell him, she’d demand that he came back because –
“Mum? Are you okay? Do you want apple crumble?” She blinked at her son who had a serving spoon poised over the layer of crumble. If Arthur had had anything to do with making it, which he probably had, then it would be at least three-quarters crumble with a tiny, thin apple layer. He’d always liked the apple part least.
“Yes, sorry, Arthur. Lots of custard.” He obeyed with an obligatory amount of mess, and handed her the bowl.
Herc held up a napkin. “Here,” he said, mildly. “I think some even went in the bowl.”
Without thinking, she smiled, huffing a tiny laugh. Then she did think, and her face couldn’t decide whether to keep smiling to show him the conflict shouting in her head, or to frown deeply to keep him at a distance. It settled on somewhat disgruntled, but as is so often did, the tone of her voice gave her away. “Thank you.”
There was so much more that she wanted to say, but she couldn’t in front of the others, not while Martin and Theresa were having their day.
And then Arthur brought out the cake.
No amount of telling him that you were actually supposed to have the big showpiece at the real wedding, because Arthur had decided that they needed a cake and so a cake was what they were going to get. It was a mass of icing and cake glitter and edible ball bearings in all colours possible, three layers of chocolate and vanilla and something on top that was supposed to represent Gerti and the six of them. Martin and Theresa were in the middle, huge smiles cut into their round heads. It was by far not the most elegant sugarcraft anyone would ever see, but it was among the most endearing. And terrifying.
“Bagsie eating myself!” said Arthur, once Theresa had blown out all the candles.
“Who else were you going to eat?”
“I don’t know, but I made myself chocolate flavour on purpose.” No-one dared ask how.
Theresa leaned into Martin to whisper something in his ear that made his entire head flush tomato red. Carolyn raised an eyebrow at her, smiling. Theresa shrugged innocently back. The idea of biting Herc’s head off occurred to Carolyn, but she thought that just maybe she’d done enough recently without decapitating him too.
Once Arthur made sure that everyone was stuffed full of cake, he ushered them all through to the living room. Perhaps a more traditional engagement party would have involved going out, but Arthur had spent a good portion of his day creating little decorations for Douglas’ house out of paper and string – he had a hidden talent for origami. What quite the origami shapes were was a completely different issue. Herc had helped too, shunting all the furniture around with Arthur until it had reached some presumably optimal arrangement.
“So, I’ve got games and songs and films, what do we want first?” This had been the part that Arthur had prepared earlier in the week, meticulously crafting a playlist of songs that wouldn’t always be hated by everyone as well as have some degree of relevance or significance. That alone had taken him hours and hours. The games and films were, fortunately, easier to prepare.
Martin, looking like he was going to drop straight into a food coma, said “Maybe let’s save the games for later. How about a film?”
Arthur beamed, selected the box from the top of his somewhat ambitious pile of dvds and put it in the machine. It was one of those mind-numbing rom-coms that Arthur enjoyed and Carolyn hated, with the copied and pasted woman and cardboard cutout man who had about as much romance between them as a wet sponge. This particular one was one of Arthur’s favourites, about a pilot and a stewardess in an ‘unlikely’ relationship. Carolyn found it altogether ridiculous.
Nothing good ever came of pilots falling in love with stewardesses. In her reality, that had always ended badly.
She managed the first twenty minutes, then excused herself to ‘go to the toilet’. It was almost certain that Arthur knew this was code for ‘go and sit in the kitchen and read instead’, but no-one seemed to protest. If she had to see that pilot smile one more time, she was going to break something. Possibly one of the pilots in the room.
As though she were an antisocial seven-year-old, she always brought a book to these sorts of events. It was like a side-effect of doing things with Arthur, that he wanted to do things that she found mind-numbing and so in the interests of letting him have fun, she brought her own entertainment.
The sounds of the film filtered through into the kitchen, sometimes with added laughter, or commentary and trivia from Arthur, whose voice managed to carry over the maximum volume of the speakers. Carolyn ignored it all, settling in with something altogether more enjoyable.
She was just getting to a good bit when Herc came in.
“There you are, Carolyn. I was starting to think that you might have gone home.”
“No you weren’t.”
Herc dropped his smile of fake innocence. “Alright, no I wasn’t. May I?” He gestured to the kitchen chair opposite her. She put her bookmark in and nodded, pressing her lips into a thin line as she tried to keep her face neutral. There was no point in pretending that he hadn’t come to find her, to talk. There was no point in trying to avoid the conversation any more.
They both looked at each other for a long moment. Carolyn was willing to wait for Herc to start, because he clearly had something he wanted to say. He was trying to think of some way to make it palatable, trying to lie to himself that it might be easier if he wasn’t direct.
Then, eventually, simply, he said “Carolyn, I still love you.”
She winced automatically. If she’d known that was how he was going to start, she would have tried harder not to, but as it was, she was just trying not to blurt out ‘so do I’.
“No, listen,” Herc continued as though she was going to interrupt him. “I miss you so much, Carolyn, and I love you, and I want to make this work but I’m starting to wonder if you want to. And I really don’t want to push you into anything, but I can’t keep doing what we’re doing now. Why have you been avoiding me, Carolyn?”
She tried closing her eyes as though that might block out the guilt and the tired, miserable look on Herc’s face. He looked older and it had only been a few months. And all of this was her fault. She took a deep breath and tried “I’m sorry, Herc.”
“Are you?” Though he was smiling, his eyebrows were frowning. This was it, Carolyn realised, the moment where there would be no coming back if she rejected him again. Telling him to leave now would mean he was never coming back. And she realised that she couldn’t let that happen.
“I am. I really am. I don’t know what to say,”
“Unusual,” Herc cut in, and for a split-second they both smiled like they weren’t in the middle of a serious conversation.
“But, I am sorry that I haven’t been as… attentive as I should have been, recently. I do still like you, I- I really do. But it’s hard without you here.” Everything in her brain was screaming to tell him that stupid word, to let go of her pride and ask him, beg him to come back.
Still, he knew her, and he knew that even alluding to love and wanting was hard for her. He knew what it was she was trying to say, in between the words that came out. He reached out and took her hand, pleased that she didn’t resist.
She was glad that he was holding her, because in that moment it felt like the only thing tethering her to the Earth.
“You know what I’m willing to do to fix that. You could ask me to come back tomorrow, and I would. By God, I’d drop everything to come back to you tomorrow.”
“And you know why I can’t do that.”
“I wish you would.”
“I know.” The thought struck her with perfect clarity, I wish I would too. Instead, she said “Let’s just have tonight?”
“I’ll think about tomorrow,” she said, feeling all the tensions and awkwardnesses float away, leaving that comfortable space they’d always had in the background where they bickered and didn’t mean it.
“I’m here all week.”
“I’ll think about that too,” said Carolyn, letting the smile that was trying to spread across her face break through, hoping that Herc understood that what she was really asking was for him to stay.
In the way he leaned forward and kissed her, she assumed he did, and kissed him back, determined not to let go. At least, not for tonight.
Arthur had organised the entire week for Martin and Theresa before they’d arrived. It was to include walking and bowling and dinner and lunch and ice cream, and if they felt like it, a trip to the pet shop because that was the closest thing that Fitton could provide to either a zoo or an aquarium.
What he hadn’t quite realised that the lunch after the party would turn into a meeting. Douglas had tagged along, offering to drive them all. His ulterior motives quickly became obvious as they sat down. Arthur dove straight for the menu, although he would order the exact same thing he always did when he went to that pub – bangers and mash, no peas but lots of carrots, please. The chef had grown fond of him over the years, and usually ended up giving him an extra sausage and a hearty serving of mash too.
“So,” said Douglas. “Do we think we’ve succeeded?”
Arthur glanced up from the menu. He had just been about to start reading the puddings, and his face was uncharacteristically blank. Martin, slow as ever, frowned in confusion. “With what?”
Theresa shook her head fondly. “With Herc and Carolyn,” she said, in that sort of tone that meant ‘come on, dear, keep up’. Martin’s mouth formed a silent ‘oh’.
“Well?” said Douglas, raising his eyebrow at Arthur, who had returned to thinking about apple crumble.
“Well, I did walk in on them snogging last night, so I’d say that’s something,” said Theresa. She had been glad that it had been her instead of any of the others, because they would have all reacted as if it were a big deal. She just averted her eyes and moved quickly on, though once she was out of the room, she allowed herself a smile at the way they had acted like teenagers being caught.
Before Douglas could say anything else, Arthur said “I think- I think maybe we shouldn’t interfere any more. I think that maybe Mum would be not happy if she found out we were… interfering.” He pressed his lips tightly together, staring firmly down at the table. Douglas’ face softened. If there was one thing that he would not stand for, it was Arthur feeling like he couldn’t say what he was thinking.
More gently than before, he said “Why not?”
Arthur frowned more deeply as he wrestled the words around in his mind. He knew what he was trying to say, that all he really wanted was Mum and Herc back together so that they could be happy again, but what he wasn’t really sure how to verbalise was the fact that he didn’t like how manipulative this was. He liked the idea that they could make Carolyn and Herc talk to each other, but forcing them into situations where they had to see each other? Something felt backhanded about it to him. He’d seen enough manipulation in his life to know it never really made people happy.
Slowly, deliberately, he said “They’ve been talking at home, and I think Herc’s going to stay with us this week now, so maybe it might be just a bit better if we just leave them to it. I just mean… I don’t want to be the reason why they fall out.” His voice was smaller than any of them could ever remember it being.
Theresa put one hand on his shoulder, and with her other took Martin’s under the table. Arthur looked out if the window, desperate not to catch anyone’s eye. He hated the idea that he might be upsetting one of Douglas’ brilliant plans, but he hated the idea of Herc and Carolyn falling out forever even more. Douglas signalled to the waiter, making a universally accepted hand gesture of ordering apple crumble.
Then, he said “Alright, Arthur. You’re the boss. You know Carolyn better than we do, anyway, at least in the situation. It must be a good sign if Carolyn’s let him in the house, right?”
There was a general murmur of agreement. Arthur nodded, a small smile touching his face again. “Do you really think they’ll like each other again, Douglas?” He looked back across the table, their eyes meeting. Douglas felt his heart do a backflip as he saw how sad and small Arthur looked. He’d made a promise to himself a long while ago that he would do whatever was in his power not to let Arthur feel like anything or anyone was making him feel small.
Little did Arthur know that he was asking Douglas to be powerless, and that made Douglas’ heart break. He just hoped that he’d done enough already.
The waitress chose that moment to interrupt with pudding. The chef always did half and half for Arthur of cream and custard, a cheeky blob of ice cream on the side and, when he was feeling especially generous, a few spoons of extra crumble. Today was, physically and emotionally, an extra crumble kind of a day. Arthur’s smile widened at the sight, but by a fraction, not as much as he usually did, nor did he thank the waitress as vigorously as usual.
This whole thing really did have him worried. Douglas smiled a smile that he hoped was reassuringly Douglas-knows-best enough. “I think, Arthur, that they never really stopped.”
A whole week had gone by almost normally. Almost like time had remembered last year and grafted a tiny piece of what had been into the here and now. Almost.
The fact still was that Herc was going to walk out of that door at the end of the week and that would be that, again. He’d be gone.
The fact still was that Carolyn didn’t want to let him go.
But for that week they had allowed themselves to pretend. The first night had been strange. They’d gone home from Douglas’ late, Arthur sat quietly in the back of the car pretending to be falling asleep. He’d run straight upstairs, offering Carolyn a quick goodnight then he was gone, like he was expecting something to happen.
Herc hadn’t been sure how much he was allowed to treat this like coming home again, so he’d sat squarely on his side of the sofa, hands carefully on his knees so he was touching as little as possible, like he was visiting for the first time and trying not to take up space.
Carolyn had waltzed in with two cups of tea, sat down next to him, and told him in no uncertain terms that he would have to cancel his hotel room in the morning.
“I can stay?” He hadn’t meant to sound so surprised, but Carolyn’s directness had taken him aback. It was so to the point that it almost hadn’t sounded like her, when of course, there was nothing more Carolyn in the whole world. She’d raised a fake casual eyebrow, pretending the whole thing had been obvious all along.
“I don’t see why not. Unless you don’t want to.”
“No, I do! Of course I do. Thank you.” He had leaned in and kissed her forehead, then she had settled into his arms, and then, just like they always had, they’d stayed up late being rude to the contestants of late-night quiz show repeats.
Arthur, quietly as a ghost, had retreated from his listening step, three from the top where, if you were very sneaky indeed, you could just about see through the bannister and into the living room. A long time ago, he’d learnt that the fourth one was squeaky, but you could go uncaught on the third one. He’d gone back to bed smiling because he was letting in the hope that maybe, just maybe, he might be getting back one of the best things that had ever happened to them.
Carolyn had woken up first on that first morning, startled for a moment by the sounds of someone else breathing in her bed. It hadn’t taken her as long as she might have liked to get used to falling asleep alone again. She lay there for a few minutes, allowing herself to listen to the proof that he was really there, watching his chest rise and fall. Each of her heartbeats was like a hammer, nailing a sign to the post that said ‘don’t let him go again, stupid!’
Then she had gotten up, let Snoopadoop out into the garden, made herself breakfast, turned on the radio, and enjoyed her first cup of tea in the stillness of the morning. It was some of her only truly alone time, the early hours before anyone else was awake. Then Herc and Arthur had risen and meandered and bounced down the stairs respectively, and, almost like a proper family, the had sat round the kitchen table, together.
Then, the week had just rolled on as if it thought it was just another normal week. They had gone for long dog walks in the park, by the river. They had gone to the pub. They’d stayed up late to shout abuse at the telly, and the idiots inside it.
It was very nearly just like it had always been.
Arthur kept scuttling off to meet with the others, presumably to scheme and talk about them behind their backs. Carolyn had pretended not to notice. Even before it had begun, she had had suspicions that this whole week was some kind of elaborate set up, wrapped up in the illusion that it was for Martin and Theresa. She wasn’t going to let any of her suspicions loose, but mostly just because she wasn’t as angry as she ought to have been.
If anything, she had needed a push to admit to herself what was really going on in her head. And this had been it.
And it really had been lovely to see Martin and Theresa. She had met them for coffee one morning, when Arthur had taken Herc to the pet shop, and then seen Theresa a few days later for a dog walk, because that was quite possibly the least princess-y activity Carolyn could think of. It got some use out of the spare wellies, anyway.
They hadn’t talked about anything, really, just walked and chattered about weddings and Switzerland. Occasionally, they had nearly drifted into dangerous topics like ‘secretly I think Martin misses MJN’ or ‘I feel guilty for letting one of Arthur’s best father figures slip away’ or ‘I feel guilty for making Martin go to all these awful royal events’, but both of them had an understanding that this was not a walk for talking. It was a walk for walking.
Theresa had been delighted to put something so bright red on her feet. They were Arthur’s old ones, and though Theresa had bigger feet than was seen as respectable for a princess, they had had to stuff some socks into the toes. Carolyn had warned her that she was probably going to get blisters. She said that she didn’t care. Better blisters from standing in mud or jumping over stiles than from horrid heels a size too small because they looked better.
She had told Carolyn once that she despised all the awful royal things she was expected to enjoy. She had to force a smile while jumping daintily through royal hoops, because even if you were a princess of a country no-one had ever heard of, there were still certain expectations that came with such a title.
From that moment on, Carolyn had decided that it was up to her to give Theresa as many normal, and possibly horrible experiences as possible. So far, it had mainly involved mud and sleeping on sofas. Theresa had never said it in so many words, but she appreciated it more than she really knew how to express.
But now, the week had flashed by and the flight back loomed, and all the perfect moments were starting to fracture under the weight of regret. The idea of Herc leaving again was starting to make Carolyn feel sick. He’d slotted back into their lives so easily, and he was going to leave such a big hole, again. The sun had risen early on that final morning, Carolyn had woken up before it, staring at the ceiling as shades of orange marked the time passing.
Eventually, as the birds started another movement of their chorus, Herc said softly “What are you thinking about?”
“Why are you awake?”
“Couldn’t sleep to begin with. Why are you?”
“The stupid sun.” Which wasn’t fully a lie, but she could feel Herc looking at her as he waited for the full answer. She sighed. He looked away, waiting patiently for her to find the right words. She knew it wasn’t fair to dodge the question. “I’m… thinking about tomorrow.”
“What’s tomorrow?” Herc asked, confused.
He turned his head to look at her again. “You’re going to have to help me, here. Why is that important?”
“Because,” and what she tried to say was you’ll be gone again, but what actually came out was “It will be strange for the house to be quiet again.”
Before he could help himself, Herc said, “Where’s Arthur going?” Carolyn breathed out a chuckle, smiling up at the air. The moment hung there in the sort of quiet that only the earliest hours could bring, but the real question lay like a shadow. Herc’s voice was still soft as he said “I could stay, you know.”
Carolyn opened her mouth to argue, the retorts sparking on the tip of her tongue. She shut it again. She was tired of this, tired of having to push him away for reasons she couldn’t quite remember any more. She was tired of pretending that he had to prove himself. “I know,” she whispered.
“Do you want me to?”
There was a long silence, marked by the long warblings of the finches who were nesting in the big tree in the garden. Carolyn shut her eyes, but nothing could stop the feeling of Herc’s stare burning into her. She commanded her voice to work, her mouth to move, she could visualise the shape her lips needed to make to say the words her thoughts were shouting. She managed one, at last: “Yes.”
Herc breathed out the breath he had been holding. Carolyn realised she had been holding hers too. She let him wrap his arms around her and pull her close to him, wanted him to. They said nothing for a while, not needing to because now it was all there in the open, the truth. Something in the air felt like it had cleared, something had fallen into place that had been trying to for a long time and had never quite managed, like a cog that had been stuck had remembered how to turn.
But Carolyn was contrary by nature, and she had more that she needed to say but couldn’t quite manage to, so what she did say was “What about your flat?”
“What about it?”
“Well… what would happen to it?”
“If you were to… come back?”
Herc hesitated. “I suppose… well, I’d have to sell it, wouldn’t I?”
“And Swiss Air?”
Herc hesitated again. “Carolyn, are you asking me to move back in? Because I will in a heartbeat if you want me to, and you know I’d drop everything for you because I still love you so much that being away feels like it’s draining my soul, but I need you to say it. I need you to tell me you want me back, if you mean it.” He felt her tense. He hated the idea of an ultimatum, but he needed to know. He couldn’t keep pining after her if she didn’t mean it.
And because he knew she found it hard and the last thing he wanted was a forced confession, and because he wanted to make it easy for her, he asked, “Do you want me to stay?”
“Yes.” Then, emboldened by the rush that telling the truth was giving her, she whispered “I love you, Herc.”
Many of Douglas’ jokes were lost on the royals and esteemed guests, and indeed some of them had been giving him disapproving looks. Theresa’s mother especially looked unhappy with the situation, though whether it was the obscure humour or the class of Martin and his friends that she was taking issue with was hard to tell. But that sort of thing had never deterred Douglas.
The whole thing had made Martin cry. He’d had tears in his eyes for most of the day, from being stuck with pins in the morning as he was made presentable, to seeing Theresa walking towards him in a gown that, though beautiful, was far more subtle than her mother might have liked. And now Douglas saying things that were genuine and tender and it was all a bit much. He knew his whole head would be bright red, but it was his day so he figured that he was allowed to cry and blush as much as he wanted.
Theresa was teasing him softly for it, whispering would-be mockeries into his ear. They would all have had fractionally more effect if Theresa’s eyes hadn’t been shining too.
Many of Arthur’s jokes were lost on the guests too, though the duchess who was sat opposite him on their table kept laughing politely every time he did, either out of pity or fright. It wasn’t entirely obvious. Theresa had tried to convince her mother to allow MJN to sit on their own, but the rule was six to a table, and so six to a table there would be. At least she had been able to pick who would be with them, the often-drowsy German duke and his mild and sweet wife.
Carolyn was enjoying watching the duchess try to understand Arthur. She was nodding along with him, her eyes wide in panic, her responses limited and non-committal. There was no way Carolyn was going to tell her that language barrier wasn’t the main issue in this situation – her English was very good, but Arthur rarely made sense at the best of times. The duke had been dozing for almost the entire time they’d been sat down.
Arthur hadn’t seemed to notice, or, if he had, he didn’t care. It wasn’t very often he was allowed to ramble on and on without being stopped.
The whole ceremony was nice, Carolyn conceded. Nice, but as with every wedding, too long, too extravagant by far, and just a touch too boring for anyone who was there just to watch. Arthur’s speech had been the highlight so far just for the amusement she got out of watching other people’s confusion at him. If they had really listened, if they’d actually understood Arthur, they’d have known that all his long-winded ways of phrasing things were in fact steeped in friendship.
After, when they managed to finally speak to Martin and Theresa, they’d both hugged Arthur and thanked him, knowing exactly how sweet he had been. Martin had cried again, and Douglas had teased gently. Just like the old days.
Carolyn decided that she would take the information that Douglas had shed a few tears and that she had noticed to the grave.
She also decided that Arthur must be the only person, perhaps in all history, who not only enjoyed wedding food, but who went back willingly for more. She’d snuck a few sandwiches into her handbag, a tradition she had held for a good number of years. There was no way she was going to starve at an event which was already bad enough. And although she found, to her surprise, she was in fact quite enjoying this one, she had an image to maintain and therefore kept her face on the more neutral side of unhappy.
Unfortunately, Herc spent much of his time at the table looking at her and looking right through her. “Enjoying yourself?” he asked with a cheeky raised eyebrow. She raised hers back.
“Perhaps. I find weddings to be a whole lot of nonsense for the sake of just signing some forms.” She lowered her eyebrows down into a frown. Herc kept just looking at her. “What is it, Hercules? Surely after four of them you should know I’m right.”
To avoid looking at Herc, she picked out Arthur in the crowd of dancing royals. It wasn’t at all hard to spot him, his limbs flailing around wildly out of time to the jazzy number the band was playing. Earlier, they’d played a waltz, and Douglas had tried to show him how to move a little more rhythmically. No doubt Douglas would have sore toes now. Several people had approached Arthur so far to ask him to dance and he had said yes to all of them.
Not for the first time she found herself wishing for his unreservedness. She’d take it with the ability of spatial awareness, though. Another duke or prince or whatever went reeling after taking an Arthur to the knee.
“Of course you’re right in that regard, but I rather like the romance of it all. A celebration of love, what could be better? Don’t answer that one, it was purely rhetorical.” Carolyn shut her mouth again.
“I just don’t see the point of all the carry on. No-one likes sitting through the ceremony, or all the speeches, or the food or the dancing anyway.”
“Except Arthur,” she agreed, “But he could enjoy stepping in dog poo if he really tried.”
Herc shrugged, conceding. “All I’m saying is, I like looking at people being in love.”
“Stop being so soft, Hercules.” Her face didn’t change, but there was a smile in her voice. Under the table, he reached out for her hand and she took it without hesitation, emboldened for a second. She even let herself return his expression of fondness.
They said nothing for a few minutes, just sat and watched Theresa and Martin, inseparable on the dancefloor except when Arthur drifted over and joined in. They looked so happy, even in their eyes as they span in circles and tried their hardest to copy whatever in the world it was Arthur was doing with his limbs.
Every time they looked at each other, they smiled. It was enough to make Carolyn smile too. For the longest time she would have resented that sort of open affection, the loving glances, the long touches. The smiling. But these were her friends, dear friends even if she wouldn’t say it to them in so many words, and it felt like their happiness was infecting her, making her think things that she’d promised she never would again, thoughts that were by far too soft and too sweet, but ones that she knew without hesitation were true.
She thought about how nice it felt to hold Herc’s hand, here and now. How good it felt to be close to him, to touch his arm or shoulder, to rest her head there.
She thought about all the times she had denied his affections for fear, and how wrong she had been to do that, how much she really did like it when he said loving things to her because, finally, she believed that he meant it.
She thought about how ridiculous the concepts of marriage and love were, that it was stupid how much people turned all gooey for them and yet, in this exact moment, she could almost believe in them again too, seeing Martin and Theresa smile. Holding Herc’s hand. She thought about dancing. About smiling, about all the little things, good and bad, wonderful and annoying that went into knowing a person properly, all those things that added up and delighted you if you knew that person and cared.
She thought that she loved him.
“What if,” and here she took a small breath to steel herself for the next suggestion. She refused to lose her nerve at this point, even if her heart was racing. “It was just signing the papers?”
“What, the wedding ceremony?”
Carolyn hummed noncommittally. Herc squeezed her hand, though kept his face impressively calm. She knew that his heart would be doing backflips too at the idea that she might be suggesting it. And that he was trying not to show it because he knew she found the idea hard. Her heart flipped again because this was exactly the sort of thing she liked about him. The sort of thing that was making her entertain the idea of marriage at all.
“Sometimes it’s not the extravagance that matters at all, but the people and what they want.”
“And what do they want?”
“You tell me.” Herc’s voice was almost inaudible, but the noise of the room had faded away around them and all Carolyn could focus on was him.
Deliberately, she said “Nothing extravagant at all. Just a signing, then perhaps some music. Cake. Whatever Arthur can concoct for a party.”
“You’d really say yes?” Herc was pressing his lips together so tightly that they’d gone pale and was making his smile look pained, like he was trying to hold it back.
“No, you idiot, I’m asking you.” They both breathed out, the tension melting away as they settled back into their normal roles.
“Well then, yes, of course my darling, whatever you want. Yes, a thousand times over.” Feeling that more soppy words were on the horizon, Carolyn took the executive decision to stop them and kissed him instead. He didn’t seem to mind that as an alternative.
“You’ll have to get settled back in Fitton first, after you’ve moved back. I’m not having more than one stressful event happen at once,” Carolyn said sternly as Herc took both of her hands in his. She wasn’t sure how convincing her alpha dog act was at the moment, not when Herc was looking at her like that.
“Of course, my love. God knows I can’t wait to sign that paper with you, but He also goes out of His way to make moving house one of the most traumatic experiences known to man, so…” Herc trailed off and they both shuddered as they imagined boxes.
The rest of the party was still rolling on around them, dancers sweeping around the floor as the band played endless tunes that rose and fell, fast and slow, quiet waltzes that swelled into wild jigs. Arthur waved at them as he paused for breath before spinning back into the masses. Carolyn wondered how she was going to tell him that technically they’d just got engaged. He’d probably want to do the cake and she had every intention of letting him.
What would the others say? Douglas would laugh and laugh, she knew that straight away. She’d told him once, after slightly too many glasses of wine on a layover, that she was never ever marrying anyone ever again, and that she’d bite the nose off the next person to ask. She was probably safe from that threat at least. And what about Martin and Theresa, settling into their new life of royal duty? Would they even be allowed to go?
She tried to banish the thought that asked, would they want to? They weren’t too royal for their friends, she hoped.
The music slowed again, and this time the lights dimmed too, trying to entice people into a romantic waltz. Arthur was still flailing around with some Prince who had taken an interest in him. Douglas was watching them from a distance, a knowing look in his eye.
Herc held out his hand to Carolyn. “Well?”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“A dance, Carolyn?”
Hundreds of mean or deflecting things raced through her head. He knew she wasn’t a dancer, at least not while she was still this sober, but then she told herself firmly to stop being so silly. Appearances didn’t really matter anymore. In fact, not a whole lot did, in that moment anyway. All that mattered then was them, and that just maybe, allowing love wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
“Just one,” she said, taking his hand. She didn’t try to pretend that she didn’t want to, not that it would have fooled Herc anyway, and he didn’t say anything as one dance turned into the whole night.
Arthur thundered downstairs the second he heard the phone ring. He answered it with a big grin, then wandered out to the garden where Carolyn was tearing weeds out of her flowerbeds. “Mum!” Arthur’s voice was loud enough that everyone in Fitton probably heard it. Carolyn barely blinked at the interruption.
“What?” She stuck her trowel in the ground hard, making it clear that he was on the clock.
Had it not been Arthur, she wouldn’t have allowed her face to soften quite as much as it did. She held out her hand for the phone. Arthur dutifully handed it over and scampered off. He hadn’t felt the need to listen in on conversations in years and trusted that Carolyn would tell him anything important.
“Have you finished packing?”
“They took the last of it today for shipping. Not that I have anything particularly valuable, but I still hope they don’t ruin anything.”
“When’s your flight?”
“Tuesday. First thing in the morning.” She hadn’t really needed to ask. She and Arthur had both been counting the days down, marking them off on the calendar. Every time she looked at the date, the time, it was a countdown. Two days.
Arthur was more excited than he had been about anything in years. He was trying his best to contain himself, but as the day got closer and closer, almost everything he said related to Herc.
And as loathe as he would have been to say anything even remotely like it aloud, Douglas’ actions betrayed that, secretly, he was at least a little bit excited too, if only to have a first officer to boss around again. He hadn’t even been that against it when Arthur had been going on and on about how brilliant it was that Herc was coming back to MJN forever and ever.
Carolyn suspected that it had something to do with the fact that on that particular day, she had fired Peter and promoted him to Captain. Although in concept, firing someone had sounded fun, and indeed to an extent it had been, she had felt no real pleasure in telling Peter that he had to go. He had been caught up in between all the feuds of MJN since the start, the poor man, and this felt like a cruel way to end it all.
He’d told Arthur that he was going to give up being a pilot, anyway, and go and become a specialist in miniature gardens, and if anything, being let go from here had pushed him towards his dreams. So that was something, she supposed.
“I’ll be there to pick you up.”
“Is Arthur planning on baking?”
“Not sure, why?”
There was a pause as Herc tried to phrase what he wanted to say nicely. “Please tell him that, if he does, I think 8am might be a little early for so much sugar, but that I would be happy to enjoy any and all of his celebrations a little later on in the day.”
Carolyn laughed at that and stood up. Her joints weren’t designed for kneeling for long stretches any more. “I’ll pass the message on. I hope you like bunting.”
“Oh dear,” said Herc, though his tone suggested nothing but fondness. Carolyn described to him a few of the celebrations Arthur had prepared – not too much as to spoil them, but enough to give Herc some idea what he was coming home to.
As she did, she caught sight of Arthur floating around the garden, chasing after a butterfly. A memory of him doing something similar while only just able to waddle around by himself hit her. His smile had been the same. He would never catch it, but that had never been the important thing to Arthur. As long as he was telling himself a story in his head, which he inevitably was, he was happy.
Long ago, she had fostered a similar ability to hold conversations in the real world while her mind drifted elsewhere, a skill that had proved useful in so many areas of her life. But, and she didn’t admit this lightly, she quite liked listening to Herc. She felt a small pang of guilt for not listening as she forced herself to pay attention again.
“Well, anyway,” said Herc, rounding off whatever tangent he had floated along. “I’m sure you’re terribly busy over there, and so I shall let you get on.”
“Right. Good. See you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow. Love you.”
Carolyn hesitated, glancing around as if there might be someone around to overhear what she was going to say next. Softly, she said, “Love you, too,” and heard half a chuckle before Herc hung up. It still felt quite unnatural to her to summon the words into existence, but the more she did, the less she found she hated it.
Arthur had given up butterfly hunting and was instead now rolling around in the grass with the dog. He was talking to her, not loudly enough for Carolyn to hear well, but she knew her son enough to have a guess what he was telling the dog.
Herc was coming home.
She smiled, holding the phone to her chest, watching Arthur for a long moment, then turned and headed back into the kitchen, humming some refrain from some opera that had popped into her head all of a sudden and now was refusing to leave. And it didn’t even take her by surprise to find that she didn’t really mind at all.
In hindsight, he should have expected the party blowers, though how Arthur managed to get three of them to work at once would be a mystery to him forever. Carolyn said nothing, relishing in the confusion and chaos that was unfolding.
They hadn’t said a lot on the drive over. She had been there waiting, watching as the plane landed, and tried her very hardest to hold a massive smile in as Herc wandered into arrivals. To what degree of success she managed this, she wasn’t sure, especially not when Herc’s face had lit up on seeing her. She had stayed resolutely glued to the spot, afraid that if she let herself move, she’d run, and she could feel Dirk and George watching. She still had a reputation, after all.
Not that she minded ruining it that much when Herc all but ran to her and kissed her, there and then, in public. And she didn’t pull away.
They hadn’t really had a lot to say on the drive, anyway, not first thing in the morning, just “Welcome home,” and “I’ve missed you,” and, but only quietly, “I love you.”
Herc spent most of the time staring out the window, feeling a weight lifting from inside his stomach as familiar trees and houses rushed past faster than he thought they ought to be. Not that he would criticise Carolyn’s driving ever again. Not after the last time. He thought that maybe he should say something, but the silence was comfortable and warm, and said ‘we’re almost home’ where the home in question was the one he really did want to go to.
Carolyn tried to stop her eyes wandering off the road and onto Herc, wondering what he was thinking about, what he was feeling. Was he excited? She somehow doubted that he thought he was making a mistake, not with how quickly he’d said yes to coming back, but the worry persisted. If she hadn’t been driving, she’d have reached out to him, asking for a wordless comfort.
Then again, Arthur’s party would be the teller. He had been up half the night gluing old Quality Street wrappers to things and trying not to make too much noise baking. Carolyn had slept through it all, quite used to Arthur’s nocturnal movements. It sometimes seemed like he never slept at all, especially not when he was excited.
Arthur led Herc through to the kitchen while Carolyn shut the door. She grinned to herself as Herc made a thoughtful noise with an underlying tone of shock and horror. That was the usual, and usually most appropriate noise to make upon seeing one of Arthur’s baked creations.
“Are these… us?” he asked carefully, peering at the figures. They looked more like snowmen than people, the colours muddied from all the attention Arthur had given them. The one meant to be Arthur had a huge smile carved into its head while the Carolyn and Herc looked out with wide eyes. Herc particularly liked the angry eyebrows Arthur had given his mother, and the subtle way they were all holding hands.
Subtle because by that point, Arthur had begun to run out of roll-out fondant so their arms were so thin and flimsy that one move would probably snap them. Herc dared not wonder how he’d managed to give them fingers at all.
He didn’t think he’d ever uncover the secret of how Arthur made cake taste so good either, especially considering how… interesting his decorations usually were.
There had been some quiet moments allowed as Herc had brought his bags in and unpacked some basics, and then Arthur had ‘helped’ and things went downhill. Or rather, Herc’s things went everywhere. Eventually, they gave up trying to organise the things that had been flung out of the suitcase and meandered back downstairs to Carolyn in the living room.
She said nothing as they came and interrupted her second morning coffee and turned off the radio, allowing it only because it was a special day and because she knew that Arthur had a bulging list of films he wanted to get through. Carolyn had gently suggested that they watch things in the morning, because as delightful as his singing and board games idea sounded, she didn’t think she had the patience to deal with that before the sun started to set again.
Herc curled onto the sofa next to her, resting his head on her and letting his eyes flutter shut as Arthur faffed on with the DVD player. He would enjoy the singing more than Carolyn, but he was glad that that was coming later. Right now, he was content to doze gently to Arthur’s commentary.
The nap turned out to have been a very good idea later, when Arthur pulled out some monster game he had invented himself. It had far too many rules that put it somewhere between charades and guess who with an added sprinkling of karaoke. Carolyn only understood it because she had watched it grow, though she would admit that watching Herc try and play seriously added an extra element of hilarity. Especially when it came to the interpretive dance guessing part.
Arthur’s dance for Winston Churchill had always been impressive. For multiple reasons.
This, she guessed, was what people meant when they said things like ‘endearing’ and ‘heart-meltingly sweet’.
And although Arthur’s party was a little exuberant, and some of the bunting genuinely disturbing (the soulless-eyed sheep dangling by their heads had been Carolyn’s idea), there was not one moment where any of them felt truly uncomfortable, or like they were ready to go home. They were home. Herc was home, and he was here to stay.
The next morning, Carolyn woke up early but let herself stay in bed for longer than usual. She had nowhere she needed to go. The only place she wanted to be was there, in that moment, next to Herc, but eventually the bathroom called and she was forced to get up. When she wandered downstairs, she found Arthur sat at the kitchen table, a huge slice of cake with a suspiciously large hole before him.
He lowered the fork from his crumb-covered mouth and said sheepishly, “Morning, Mum.”
Carolyn found she was in a rare good humour, so said nothing about it. Arthur wisely decided to change the topic. “Is Herc still asleep?”
“I thought I should let him sleep in after all the excitement yesterday.”
Arthur beamed. “It was brilliant yesterday! Do you want tea?”
“Yes, please.” Arthur blinked at the please. That was a signifier of Carolyn being in a very good mood indeed. They said nothing while the kettle boiled, both watching it tremble as it roared.
As Arthur placed a very full mug in front of Carolyn, he said “Do you think Herc thought it was brilliant too?” A line of genuine worry creased his forehead and Carolyn tried her best to smile comfortingly.
“I’m sure he did, dear. It was all very thoughtful of you.”
“You don’t think I was too excited?” Carolyn turned the mug so the handle was facing her, hooking her fingers into it while she tried to think of the best response to give. She knew exactly where his worries were coming from.
“I think,” she said deliberately, “That you’ll never have to worry about that with Herc. I think…” She drew a sharp breath in, pausing before she committed to what she was about to say. “I think he loves you just as you are.”
“As much as he loves you?”
Carolyn felt like her heart skipped a beat. Arthur always had such a way with words. “Yes, Arthur. Just as much as that.”
This satisfied Arthur, who went back to eating his cake. Carolyn didn’t criticise it, and she’d put the theory of how much Herc enjoyed Arthur’s enthusiasm when she made him deal with the sugar rush later. Somehow, she suspected he would take it all in his stride.
She would find that suspicion to be true. Though tidying the glitter glue after had been a nightmare.
And as time rolled on, she would find out, or rather, have it affirmed to her again and again that Herc loved them both dearly. She would find out exactly what family meant, and that it had been hidden in the wings of that stupid, beautiful plane all along.
One could tell when Arthur had designed or written anything through his exclusive use of the medium of felt tip pens, or when he was feeling fancy, gel pens. The letters he had written here definitely counted as fancy and in fact so fancy that he’d dug right to the bottom of the pen drawer to find the gold sparkly one. He had spent a long time making sure that the text on both cards was as exactly the same as he could make it, and that the decorative swirls more or less matched.
He had aligned the stamp in the corner with unusual precision, then glued the flap down. He had never liked to lick them because he didn’t like the taste. Then he had inscribed the relevant addresses and gone immediately to the postbox on the corner of the street. He had always been glad about it because it had meant that he had never had to go far to send letters, and it made him consider how far they would have to fly.
He supposed that ones delivering to the same country they were sent from were probably driven rather than flown. Or maybe they took the train. It was something he had never quite remembered to look up. He liked to imagine them flying anyway, like birds. If these ones had been birds, they would have been doves, definitely. That was traditional, anyway.
And so the letters flew and landed through the letterbox they were meant for, read by eyes that knew Arthur’s unique artistic style instantly.
You are CORDIALLY and HAPPILY invited to the BRILLIANT wedding OF
~Carolyn Knapp AND Hercules Shipwright~
ON November the Twenty-Fifth, at the Town Hall of Fitton.
Please RSVP ASAP by SMS or MMS or E-Mail, or if you really fancy it, Return Postal Mail.