Herc was surprised to find Carolyn in the portacabin when he arrived, a good three hours before their scheduled flight to Monte Carlo. He hastily whipped the Christmas present he’d just stopped to buy behind his back, and mentally resolved to postpone wrapping to a later date. “You’re here early,” he remarked, sauntering as nonchalantly as he could to his locker.
“It is my airline,” Carolyn replied, waspishly. “I thought you were going to meet some ghastly former colleague of yours?"
“Old GW isn’t ghastly. Douglas likes him.”
Carolyn raised an eyebrow. “I rest my case.”
Herc shrugged. “We finished our drink early. Is Arthur here too?”
“Out at GERTI.”
“What’s he doing there?”
Carolyn groaned. “I sent him,” she explained. “With every day we get closer to Christmas, Arthur gets a little more… excitable.”
“I’ve noticed.” That was an understatement. Herc had lived with a partner’s children before, certainly, but he’d only ever known four-year-olds to even approach Arthur’s level of anticipation in the run up to the big day. Now they’d reached the 23rd – or “Christmas Eve-Eve!” as Arthur had bounced around singing that morning – Arthur was verging on the hysterical. And the portacabin looked as if a crack team of elves had made every possible surface glittery. “Does Arthur support the entire UK tinsel industry single-handed, do you know?” Herc asked, his lips quirking as he spotted that during the day Arthur had managed to work new strands of the stuff in and out of the ceiling tiles.
Carolyn gritted her teeth. “I believe the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree also helps.” She looked round her, then closed her eyes and rubbed her temple. “Though not by much.” She waved a dismissive hand towards Herc. “Can you see if he’s alright? I don’t mean bring him back inside –“ she added hastily – “just – make sure he’s not trying to decorate GERTI?”
Herc nodded, but called back over his shoulder. “I think that ship has definitively sailed, you know.”
“Just don’t let him add any more - !” The rest of Carolyn’s sentence was lost as Herc let the door swing behind him, chuckling. Hands in pockets, he strolled over to where GERTI sat, silhouetted in the evening light. Her familiar, squat shape made him smile, but as he drew closer he frowned. There was a most unfamiliar noise faintly echoing from her open door.
Herc climbed the steps, listening curiously. It was music, or it had been once; there was a terrible squealing quality to it, as if someone had tinned twenty chipmunks. As an undertone he could hear a man’s voice – something that sounded like ‘oh no oh no oh no’ repeated on a loop.
“Arthur?” he called, having to shout to make himself heard as soon as he poked his head into the cabin. “Are you in here?”
“Herc?” Arthur’s distracted voice seemed to be coming from the flight deck and Herc winced as he poked his head through the cockpit door. The noise was nearly deafening, but Arthur’s face cleared as he saw who’d arrived. “Thank goodness it’s you!”
Herc was amused. “Why?”
“Well, what if it had been Mum?”
“I take your point.” Herc covered his ears, the noise becoming nearly painful. “Turn it off, can’t you?”
“That’s just it!” Arthur looked utterly woebegone. “I can’t!”
“You can’t?” Herc was horrified. “We can’t fly like this, the client will be here in an hour – we’ll all be deaf and mad by our take-off slot –“
“What is it, anyway?”
“Christmas carols!” Arthur straightened up in the captain’s seat more proudly. “I found an old tape in Mum’s office – and I just thought I’d brighten up the cockpit, now I’m banned from decorating any more, but I think the ribbon was mangled.”
“And now it’s stuck?” Herc prodded at the panel, where GERTI housed a very dusty cassette deck as a sign of her old age.
“I tried to turn it off, but it just seemed to speed it up.”
That explained the pitch, Herc mused. “Get me a screwdriver."
“But… you’ll hurt GERTI!”
“I’ll only hurt the tape player. At this point, it’s it or us.”
Arthur pouted, but departed and returned quickly with the requested item. Herc bent and attacked, the scratching noises clashing fittingly with the garbled tune. At last, with a dying-elf screech, the cassette came free and blessed silence fell. Herc rubbed his face. “Thank Christ for that. No more music, I’m afraid, Arthur.”
Arthur sighed, but quickly brightened. “That’s OK. I’ll just have to sing carols to you, Douglas and Mum during the flight instead! Right, Herc? ...Herc?”