'Right! That's the last of it, I think?' Martin clapped his hands together and raised his eyebrows questioningly at Arthur.
Arthur mimicked his satisfied clap. 'Should be, Skip! Only maybe I'll just take one last quick look-around inside, to make sure I haven't missed anything?'
'Dear heart, you've had about twelve 'last quick look-arounds' already- if you take any more, you won't make it to Mopsy's at all,' Carolyn interrupted.
'Yeah, but you know how if you're really used to something you just sort of stop seeing it, like the stair rail, because even though I use the stair rail every morning when I come down the stairs I don't really think about it so even if I thought about it I probably couldn't tell you if it's on the right or the left, even though I know it's on the right. I mean left. I mean-'
'Martin, get into the van and start driving, will you? We'll be along behind you as soon as soon as I can shove him into the car.'
And that was that.
Martin- who was somehow even a little more pathetic looking when dressed in worn jeans and tee that showed his scrawny frame rather than an oversized costume uniform- unloaded the van at Mopsy's flat, even carrying everything to its proper room and helping shift the furniture to make room for Arthur's things while Arthur himself gabbled excitedly with his girlfriend over how best to share mantle space between her Pony Club trophies and his random collections. She couldn't tip her pilot, of course- she had balked at paying him at all, until he pointed out that this man-with-a-van thing was indeed his only paying job- but he seemed perfectly happy to accept a 'Welcome Home Arthur' meal as a substitute so long as the meal came in cardboard cartons rather than from Arthur's own hands, and the evening ended quite cheerfully on all sides. Arthur and Mopsy trundled off to organise their bedroom, Martin contentedly rubbed his stomach all the way back to his van, and Carolyn went home to a blissfully quiet house.
Arthur always left the radio or a cd playing at night. The silence, at long last, would be wonderful. She took a long bath, drank a glass of wine in her pyjamas in front of a programme Arthur would have been utterly bored by, and went up around midnight- long past Arthur's usual bedtime- to her dark, quiet room. She didn't sleep a wink.
'Ah, Carolyn! I was just about to send out Sir to check for four approaching horsemen.'
'What do you want now, Douglas?' Carolyn snapped. She was tired. Tired, and not in the mood for mouthy, sarcastic pilots.
'I, Fearless Leader? I wanted nothing more than to allay my curiosity as to your whereabouts. It's not every day you show up even later than I do. Never, in fact. I just worried that Hell might've been feeling a touch of Autumn chill,' Douglas purred gleefully, leaning back in his chair. A cup of coffee and phone lay on the empty half desk before him; Martin, on the other side, sat before several neat stacks of paperwork and was studiously avoiding her gaze, clearly not wanting to get into a turf war so early in the morning. Arthur was nowhere to be seen.
'Yes, very amusing, Douglas. Where is my son?' Carolyn set her purse and a large paper bag on one of the free chairs.
'Who can predict the movements of the Slippery Steward?'
'He's outside, Carolyn,' Martin interjected quickly. 'Mopsy rang and he stepped out to answer it. I think she was asking what he wanted for supper but then they were talking about squids and chameleons...' He trailed off, frowning a little. 'What's that?'
'What's what?' she asked impatiently. They only had forty minutes before the client was due to arrive and she did not want to leave Douglas any more opportunities to taunt her for her unheard of lateness!
'That smell,' Martin persisted. 'It's like...I don't remember, but...'
'It smells like muffins,' Douglas cut in with a roll of his eyes. 'Really, Martin, I know you've practically patented the Victorian orphan act but surely even you remember what blueberry muffins smell like?'
'Yes, well,' Carolyn said sharply. 'I was running short on time this morning- no, I do not require your opinion just now, Douglas- and picked up a box of muffins from the bakery on my way here. I overestimated my appetite.' She reached into the paper bag and pulled out the cardboard box used for large orders at the only bakery in Fitton open before six in the morning, and dropped it casually on her pilots' desk. 'Here. Enjoy, and never let it be said again that I do not provide for my faithful minions.'
Douglas snorted and picked up his phone. 'Thanks, Carolyn, but I've no interest in being poisoned today by whatever you've snuck into your leftovers.'
Martin eyed the box with obvious longing, then shot a beseeching glance Douglas' way- unseen, as the older man was already absorbed in something on his screen. He swallowed visibly and reached out to the box. 'Well...I-'
Douglas finally glanced up, but with a look of disbelief. 'Sir is feeling particularly brave today,' he commented in mock surprise. Martin shrank and snatched back his hand, hiding his skinny, bony wrist from view.
'No, thank you, Carolyn,' he muttered.
Carolyn sighed. 'Martin, I realise the waif look is incomprehensibly popular just now but I really don't intend to spend my last moments hurtling down into the Atlantic Ocean because my foolish Captain believes visible ribs will ensnare him a partner. Now, I expect to see nothing left of those muffins but crumbs on your shirt by the time I return, or I will instruct Arthur to make and see to it that you eat every single one of your in-flight meals until you are approaching your First Officer in width- and I'm sure even you can guess that that will take a very long time indeed and carry with it a distinct risk of cholesterol trouble.'
'Oh, complain to someone who cares, Douglas. I am going to find Arthur, and then I will fetch our client, and I will be back in thirty minutes.' Carolyn waved her hands in a shooing motion. 'Go to.' And she left.
The two pilots stared at the door as it swung shut.
'Douglas...' Martin started hesitantly. '...What was that?'
'That, Martin, was something you should commit to memory, because it is a thing you will quite probably never see again,' Douglas informed him seriously, still without looking away from the worn hut door.
'Oh?' Martin was even more confused now. 'What do you mean? What was it?'
'That,' Douglas said slowly, 'was something that even I have absolutely no understanding of whatsoever. And as I'm sure you are by now aware, I always understand everything. As I said, mark this moment well in your memory, as it shall never come again.'
Martin snorted. 'Rubbish. You've been baffled by loads of things.'
'Like what?' Douglas asked sharply, clearly affronted.
'Well...like what's actually in Surprising Rice.'
'Martin, God is baffled by Surprising Rice. It doesn't count.'
'Fair enough. Well then, that stewardess in Paris who actually turned you down.'
'I think it's about time you went out to do the walk-around, there's a good chap,' Douglas said stiffly, and turned back to his phone.
Martin was always a little nervous about landing in Boston; Douglas supposed he could be forgiven for this, given that his first time there involved being an accessory to murder and rugby tackled by a number of American airport security. Still, he couldn't tone down the teasing too much. The sight of his captain quivering in his seat like a jellyfish (and just as damp and pale) was far too much to resist.
'Is Sir quite well?'
'What? I'm fine. Of course I'm fine. Why would I not be fine?'
'Convincing words indeed. Is Sir intending to get out of the airplane at any point in our stay?'
'Of course, Douglas,' he snapped irritably. 'I was just doing the post-landing checks. You know, those things you always forget about and will one day probably cost us a wing.'
Douglas put up his hands in mock surrender but before he could throw out a retort, the flight deck door was shoved open and Carolyn barrelled through. 'The plane is on the ground, Martin, Gertie doesn't need your help to sit still on the tarmac. Why are we not leaving yet?'
Douglas puffed up with a smirk. 'Sorry, Carolyn, but our esteemed Captain was merely-'
'Our esteemed Captain can tell me himself,' Carolyn interrupted. 'Now- oh dear. Martin, are you quite well?'
Martin somehow managed to flush red in embarrassment on top of his nervous pallor.
'I already asked him,' Douglas told her. 'He claims, quite effusively, to be fine. In, what was it, three different ways? Four? I think that's rather conclusive, don't you?'
Carolyn wasn't paying him any attention, but frowning down on her younger pilot. 'You look dreadful. Do you feel hot or cold?' She didn't wait for an answer but pressed the back of her hand to Martin's forehead.
Douglas gaped. 'Martin, don't make any sudden movements. She's just trying to lull you into a false sense of security before she strikes at your neck,' he hissed urgently.
'Shut up, Douglas. Martin, you're all clammy and warm. When we get to the hotel I want you to go straight to bed. I'll bring you by something to eat and a packet of Lemsip when I've unpacked my bag. Douglas, the two of you are sharing a room so I expect you to drink lots of orange juice and be careful not to get sick yourself.' She patted Martin's shoulder gently. 'Wait here, Martin, I'll go find us a cab.'
If anything, Douglas thought as Carolyn bustled away, Martin looked even more terrified now than he had been whilst remembering his captivity in an American security room. 'Don't worry, Martin,' he said consolingly. 'Think of it like Hansel and Gretel. At least they got to eat lots of sweets before the evil witch decided to eat them. She'll probably bring you lots more muffins and things before she starts sharpening her knives.'
Carolyn was a little annoyed by the time they returned to Fitton airspace. Arthur had somehow managed to char the inside of the microwave and, aware that she wouldn't be able to wait until they got home to give him a lecture on why planes and fires are not the best of friends, she'd had to quietly scold him in the galley, which led to her distraught son moping pitifully in front of the passengers and pilots for the rest of the flight. Douglas had given her a reproachful look when she tried to escape the oppressive atmosphere of the cabin by ducking into the flight deck and Martin seemed unduly alarmed by her sudden appearance.
'Really, Martin, I know I don't spend much time up here but I'm not going to whip you for your mistakes while you're still making the plane stay up,' Carolyn grumbled irritably.
'No, I imagine you save that particular pleasure for Herc,' Douglas muttered under his breath. Martin spluttered.
'However,' she added loudly, 'only one pilot is required from now until we land so you, Douglas, are not remotely safe.' The man swiftly sat up a little straighter and Martin quickly cut off what was sure to be a scathing retort by contacting ATC.
'Tower, this is Golf Tango India-'
'Ah, the little kite that could! And how were the colonies?'
'Sorry, Martin. I suppose you'll want to be- be- ahchoo!'
'Oh dear,' Carolyn said. 'That sounds like a nasty cold. I wonder if that's where you got yours from, Martin. I hope he's bundling up and taking medicine so he doesn't pass it on to anyone else. Martin, ask him.'
Martin, inexplicably, blanched. 'Carl, we'll be there in five minutes and we need to land. Just please, please let us land,' he begged quickly.
'Right you are, Golf Tango India, cleared for landing. You've got your pick of runways 'cos no-one else has bothered to show up today. Everything alright up there, Martin?'
'Yes, yes, yes, everything's fine. Just fine. We're fine. Thank you Tower,' Martin babbled.
The radio crackled a few times as though Carl had prepared to speak and then stopped. 'Look- ahchoo! Urgh. Sorry. Anyway. Martin, we ATC guys have to go through hijacking and terrorism courses same as you pilots, and I've got to say, you're showing several of the major indications of distress and potential emergency scenarios,' Carl said seriously.
'What!' Martin yelped. 'No no no. No. Everything's absolutely fine!' His voice steadily climbed in pitch. 'I promise we're fine, no hijackers, everything's fine- lucky cheese seventy-one, charmed potato, whatever the secret everything's-fine phrase is, I'm saying it!'
'...Right,' Carl said slowly. 'Is Douglas there?'
'What? But I'm the captain...'
'Yes, hello, Carl, Douglas here. You find our intrepid leader in most eloquent form this morning.'
'Right. Douglas, has your plane been hijacked?'
'Not to my knowledge, no,' Douglas replied lightly. 'And as I'm sitting where they'd have to be sitting in order to hijack it, I'm fairly sure I'd know.'
'And- and- ahchoo! Sorry. Has your plane been boarded by one or more terrorists?'
'Well, Carolyn isn't exactly the kindest of bosses, but I wouldn't go so far as to call her a terrorist. Terrifying, perhaps...'
'Pilots, shut up. Carl, this is Carolyn. Our plane is perfectly safe and about to land. As soon as we have done so, I will be making my way to you, so as to enquire as to why you chose to come into work whilst clearly ill and therefore risking infecting pilots and vital ground staff.'
There was a long pause, broken only by Douglas' rather immature snigger.
'Welcome home, Golf Tango India,' Carl said abruptly, and signed off.
Martin was well-known for arriving early to the airfield, eager to fly and anxious to allow plenty of time to fill out the flight plan, do a thorough walk around, and perform all the pre-flight checks he (and the manuals) thought necessary- not just the few Douglas agreed were a bit vital. He was also well-known for staying late to fill out his and Douglas' logs and make sure all the other paperwork was up to date.
He was also well familiar with being teased about these habits, so after half a dozen flights where Carolyn was already in her office when he arrived and was still there when he left, he was a little concerned by her suddenly-found dearth of things that needed to be done at the airfield. He was more concerned that when he arrived every morning, something warm and breakfast-like was waiting for him.
'I'm simply used to picking up breakfast for both myself and Arthur,' she snapped when he tentatively inquired as to the now regular presence of blueberry muffins and bacon butties on his and Douglas' desk. 'And I don't pay you to interrogate me while the flight plan lies unfiled!'
'You don't pay me at all,' Martin muttered irritably, but went back to the flight plan.
By the end of the month, though, even Douglas had noticed Carolyn's new habit. And he wasn't put off by the glare.
'Carolyn, don't you think you're spending a little too much time here?' he asked, pulling on his coat as Martin got started on their logs for the business trip to Stockholm. 'I mean, I'm not normally one to pry, but the fire crew are starting to think our departure hut has developed a ghost.'
Carolyn raised a brow that promised severe pain should he continue on his current train of thought.
Martin frowned. 'Do places develop ghosts? Or do they...earn them, or something?'
'No, no, I read about this once. They spring up wherever they died if they've had a violent or traumatic death,' Arthur said excitedly. 'And then they haunt people so someone can set right...whatever isn't. About how they died. Not that they died, obviously. I don't think anyone could do that. Even though it would be brilliant.'
'Indeed,' Douglas agreed indulgently. 'Who would you bring back if you could bring someone to life, Arthur?'
Arthur's eyes went wide. 'Oh, but- there are loads of people. The Queen Mum, the guy who wrote Winnie the Pooh, Dumbledore, everyone else in Harry Potter- except Voldemort, obviously, and the rest of the bad guys. I wouldn't bring them back.'
The theme song to Postman Pat suddenly rang out in a tinny whine, making Martin jump. Arthur fumbled in his trouser pockets and pulled out his mobile.
'Oh, it's Mopsy! She's probably wondering where I am, I told her I'd be home around now. Bye, Skip! Bye, Douglas! Bye, mum!' He hurried out of the departure hut, bringing his mobile to his ear, and they could hear him chattering away until the door swung shut.
'And I believe that's my cue to leave,' Douglas said breezily. 'Don't stay too long, you two. I don't think we're actually allowed to use this place as living space.'
'Wait, I'll come with you,' Martin said quickly, hastily gathering his papers together and grabbing his flight bag. They strode out together, Douglas muttering something quietly to Martin and making them both stifle chuckles. 'Bye, Carolyn!' Martin called over his shoulder.
Then she was alone.
Carolyn settled herself at her desk and began going over the accounts. MJN had done a healthy number of short day-trips over the last month; good for her, because she didn't have to shell out for hotel rooms; poor for business, as cargo flights rarely generated repeat business. People only moved across the country or bought too-large-for-post parcels every so often, after all...
The door opened with a dull creak and a woman even younger than Arthur slouched in, wearing the yellow uniform of the airfield maintenance staff. 'Here for your bins,' she muttered. 'Got anything for recycling?'
Carolyn eyed the woman critically. She looked half dead on her feet, with dark shadows under her eyes like she hadn't slept properly in days. Probably a student, Carolyn thought, working as a cleaner at the airfield to pay for her classes. 'Don't worry about it, dear,' she said sympathetically. 'I'll get them myself when I lock up.'
The girl eyed her sceptically. 'I'm supposed to take your bins,' she repeated slowly.
'And I told you not to bother,' Carolyn said briskly. 'I'm perfectly capable of carrying two small office bins on my own, and the skips are on the way to my car. Go along, off with you.'
She shooed the clearly suspicious girl out of the hut.
When Martin arrived for their hen night trip to Madrid, he paused outside. Herc's distinctive voice was audible even through the closed door. Carolyn's snarling certainly was.
'Carolyn, it's perfectly acceptable and understandable that you miss your son.'
'I do not miss him. Missing is something weak-minded, vapid people do to other people they don't see on a weekly basis.'
'It is also for people whom you are accustomed to living with and who suddenly and unexpectedly leave.'
'Only if the 'you' in that sentence is someone soppy and sentimental!'
'Or, possibly, a mother who loves her son.'
'Hercules Shipright, you are being utterly ridiculous. This conversation is over.'
'This conversation is not over. You're clearly upset by Arthur leaving-'
'Oh, now you're just exaggerating!'
'No, I'm caring!'
'Well, if that's your idea of caring, then I don't think I want you to!'
There was a long pause.
'Well,' came Herc's voice finally.
'Yes,' Carolyn said haughtily.
'Very well, then. Good-bye, Carolyn.'
The hut door swung open and Martin barely had time to jump out of the way before Herc ran right into him. The door banged shut and Herc started in surprise.
'Herc! I wasn't- er- I mean, I didn't mean to-'
Herc smiled, but it looked rather forced. 'Not to worry, Martin, Carolyn was just telling me you'd be turning up any minute.' He waved over his shoulder in the vague direction of Carolyn's office. 'She's got some...muffins, I think, for you.'
Martin winced. 'Look, Herc, I'm sure she didn't mean- well, she meant it, obviously, but she hasn't been quite herself since Arthur moved out, so I'm sure she didn't really mean it.'
'I know,' Herc sighed, glancing up as a small plane lined up for landing over the airfield. 'And I expect you and Douglas are bearing the brunt of it. Just...don't hold it too badly against her, will you?' Herc caught Martin's eye and held firm. 'If she would just admit to herself that missing her son does not make her a silly little lady, she'd be able to let all this go and get over it.'
Martin nodded, feeling very grateful for the noise of the landing jet's engines as they'd probably prevent Carolyn overhearing Herc call her (however inadvertently) a silly little lady. He really didn't want to wash blood and guts out of his crisp, clean uniform.
'Well,' Herc said abruptly. 'I must be going. Have a good flight Martin. And give my regards to Douglas.'
'Thanks, Herc,' Martin replied half-heartedly as Herc strode off across the tarmac with a painfully stiff spine.
He stayed outside, leaning against the hut wall while small crashes and bangs emanated from inside and wishing he smoked or had someone to call on his mobile so he would look idle and cool, not like a man leaning on a hut because he was too frightened of his boss to go in.
It was a little after four and a truck rumbled noisily past Carolyn's house as the first bin men of the morning got to work. She'd been up for a while- never gone to bed, really, even though she'd tried once but the house felt too quiet and cold even with the central heating blasting higher than she could really afford to keep it and the tv droning on downstairs. Then she'd tried to sit up with a book but couldn't concentrate with the strong gusts of wind outside scraping tree branches against one end of the house and rattling bins down the street. She'd almost gone to the phone and called Arthur at that, knowing how heavy winds always disturbed his sleep and the noises often gave him nightmares, but paused at the last moment with her finger on the first number. If Arthur was sleeping restlessly, Mopsy was there to take care of him. It wasn't her place anymore.
Carolyn stood in the kitchen, leaning against the refrigerator and holding the same half-empty glass of wine, until the first rays of weak sunlight began to filter through the windows. Then she turned and examined the calendar stuck to the fridge door. There were more empty squares than full ones; more days of wondering what fresh nonsense her exasperating son might be getting up to than knowing. Well, that just wouldn't do.
'Right, listen up, all of you. There are changes to the schedule which have been added to the wall chart, and if I were confident of your collective abilities to read and understand the wall chart, I'd be scoffing a cheese Danish right now while you go and examine it. However, I am not remotely convinced that you have any such abilities at all, so Martin and Arthur will eat the Danishes and all three of you will listen as I explain.'
'Why don't I get a Danish?' Douglas asked petulantly, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair.
'Because you do not need a Danish. And anyway I pay you to buy your own,' Carolyn replied sternly. She caught Martin shooting a smarmy smirk Douglas' way out of the corner of her eye as he happily stuffed a piece of gooey pastry in his mouth. 'Now, if you glance the way of the wall chart you will see that there are many, many more squares with writing in them than there were the last time you saw it. MJN has lowered its prices slightly in a promotional deal and as a result we have gained a significantly higher amount of business. We will be flying as often as possible, as cheaply as possible. Martin, know now that any unnecessary diversions, repairs, or other unforeseen expenses will be severely punished; you've been with us long enough that I don't think I need to elaborate. Douglas, forget about your sweet little gifting ring, because you won't have time to be visiting dear old international friends. Arthur...' She eyed her son, who simply smiled cheerfully. 'Well. Any questions?'
Douglas and Martin stared at her, clearly aghast. 'Just one,' Douglas said, rather coolly. 'You do realise that the schedule you've outlined on the wall chart has Martin and I very firmly on the absolute legal limit of flight time, don't you?'
'Of course,' Carolyn replied briskly. 'If you were allowed to fly any more, I'd have booked us more jobs.'
'But if anything goes even slightly wrong, if we have to divert around a thunderstorm or something, Douglas and I will get in loads of trouble,' Martin pointed out. 'You have to cut down the schedule, Carolyn! We'll be jetlagged and exhausted after one week like that, let alone four. This isn't safe!'
'It's perfectly safe. That's why there are legal flight time limits, and as you have pointed out, I've kept the schedule within them.'
'Martin, are you here to fly a plane or to argue? Because if it's the former then you had better get started on the flight plan, and if it's the latter, I simply don't care. I have work to do.' Carolyn sternly avoided Arthur's slightly worried look and shut herself in her office.
'Douglas, what am I going to do?' Martin felt panic clawing up his throat. 'I won't have any time for van jobs for the next month! How am I supposed to pay my rent?'
Douglas was frowning pensively. 'Don't worry, Martin,' he said soothingly. 'Carolyn's just going through a rough patch. We'll work something out. We always do, don't we?'
He wasn't fooling either of them. Arthur looked on, worried.
By the end of the month, even Arthur had lost a little of his enthusiasm for flying. When Douglas asked about his subdued presence on the flight deck that evening on the way back from Cairo, he shrugged and said that he'd never realised flying could just feel like a job.
Douglas himself was utterly exhausted, and he knew Martin felt even worse. They'd both been run to the ragged edge for four weeks with too little sleep, irregular meals, and a string of terrible hotels. During the few hours they stayed in Fitton Douglas at least could drive home, collapse in his comfortable bed, and order in an obscene amount of Chinese takeaway, but he knew full well that Martin had nothing to return to but near-empty cupboards and a tiny, dreary attic he was growing ever closer to being thrown out of. And he'd've invited Martin over to share the fried rice, he really would've, but they were so sick of each other's presence by now they'd nearly stopped playing word games entirely, so the other pilot probably wouldn't have willingly come even if it meant starving to death alone. The stress was clearly written in the deep lines of his freckled forehead and his shaking hands every time he had a moment to think about home. Douglas knew the last straw had been broken when ATC gave the First Officer instructions for landing and his Captain merely continued to stare out of the window, more dazed and dreaming than awake.
'I'll take the landing, shall I?' Douglas announced quietly into the darkened flight deck.
Martin didn't respond.
Douglas set his teeth. This had to stop.
The landing wasn't quite up to his usual smooth standard, but Douglas figured he could be forgiven for that, seeing as it was his twentieth landing in as many days- even though he and Martin had started trading off evenly some time ago. Gertie slowed and wobbled to a stop. Martin finally stirred.
'What? Are we here? Oh, God, Douglas, I'm so sorry, I meant to take the landing! I just, I zoned out-'
'It's alright, Martin,' Douglas muttered, patting him heavily on the shoulder. 'Don't worry about it, we're both worn through. Go home and get some sleep, we're on standby for a week starting tomorrow so you can come in as late as you like.'
'No!' Martin said frantically, his eyes wide and fever-bright. 'We can't come in late just because it's standby, that's so unprofessional! And what if they want to leave first thing in the morning?'
Douglas sighed. 'Martin, if they wanted to leave first thing in the morning on the first day, why would they book us for an entire week?'
Martin groaned and rubbed his eyes painfully hard with his fists and started what sounded like another despairing apology. Douglas waved it off.
'Don't worry about it, I'm just as tired and foggy headed as you are. Go home. Eat everything you have and sleep about eighteen hours. That's what I intend to do. You'll feel better in the morning.'
'If I've still got a home to go to,' Martin muttered sullenly. 'The landlord was threatening last time that he'd chuck my things out if I can't come up with the rent by the seventh. How am I supposed to do that when we're spending from tomorrow until the sixth on standby?'
Douglas hesitated, then grasped his shoulder again firmly. 'Look, Martin, if you need a place to stay for a while- I know the last thing you probably want is to spend any more time in close quarters with me, but my house is big enough we could avoid each other for a bit until the madness settles down- or I could just lend you the money, until Carolyn regains her sanity and you get the van business back underway...'
Martin smiled wearily. 'I really wish I could just say no thanks, but...well. Thanks, Douglas. It's very...decent of you to offer. I'll let you know.'
'Carolyn, this has got to stop.'
Carolyn looked up from her paperwork. 'The spinning of the earth, you mean? Clearly it must, if my work-phobic First Officer is still present after my work-obsessed Captain has already departed.'
Douglas settled a sharp and no-nonsense expression on his face, posture relaxed and hands in his pockets but somehow still giving every indication that anyone who entertained any thoughts about taking control of the situation might as well give up without a struggle. 'This ridiculous schedule you've set- it ends now. We'll get through this standby because we can't cancel on a client, but when it's over, you will not contact Martin or I for a full week for any reason whatsoever except to apologise for your sudden turn to ritual sadism. When that week is over, we will go back to our regular scheduling.'
Carolyn scoffed. 'And what, pray tell, shall I run my business on? Good feelings and rainbows?'
Douglas barely twitched the muscles around his eyes, but nevertheless managed to convey more sincere disapproval than the deepest frown would have done. It suddenly occurred to Carolyn just how successful a shady dealer Douglas Richardson probably was.
'You have to run your business on less than that, when Martin and I decide we'll no longer stand for your abuse and leave the company,' he said mildly. 'Because we will, you know. I've already worked it all out. He'll have to come live with me for a while; his landlord has already declared he'll be throwing your unpaid pilot out of his attic in the student house if he can't come up with the rent by the seventh. And he can't, of course, because you've not left him time to earn a single cent for groceries let alone for rent. But that's alright, we get on well enough and it's just as easy to cook for two as for one, so for quite possibly the first time in a decade the poor boy will some good regular meals down him. I've got enough friends in various places that I'll find a new First Officer's seat without too much trouble- probably at a pay cut, but that's alright, my daughter can live without her allowance. Martin won't find another airline willing to take him, obviously; he'll just have to give up on his dream of flying and be nothing more than a man with a van. But both of us will be better off doing that than allowing ourselves to be run into misery and exhaustion until one of us finally makes a fatal mistake and lets the plane fall out of the sky.'
Carolyn, for once in her life, couldn't think of a single thing to say.
Douglas held her gaze and let the silence expand for a long moment. 'See you tomorrow, then.' And he left.
Arthur sidled in through the door behind him, biting his lip.
'Arthur, dear heart,' Carolyn sighed. 'I am really not in the mood for whatever has happened now. Either fix it yourself or it can wait until tomorrow.'
'It really can't, though,' Arthur said uncertainly. 'Because Douglas is unhappy, and Skip is maybe even more unhappy. And I'm not completely happy, and I don't think you are either, mum. And I can't fix it on my own and it can't really wait anymore, can it?'
'Douglas and Martin are unhappy because they are lazy, lazy pilots being made to work like the rest of the world,' Carolyn snapped. 'There's nothing to-'
'D'you want me to move back in?' Arthur blurted out suddenly. When Carolyn merely stared at him in surprise rather than answering, he rallied and carried on. 'Because it seems like you started being unhappy and everything started to go wrong after I moved out and started living with Mopsy. So...do you want me to move back in? Would that make things better?'
'Arthur,' Carolyn managed. 'I am perfectly content living on my own. How on earth do you think moving back into my house would solve whatever problems Douglas and Martin have dreamed up for themselves?'
Arthur's shoulders slumped. 'I don't really know,' he said resignedly. 'Only, I mean, I know I'm a clod-'
'A clot, darling.'
'-a clot, but I thought about it, and I thought the timing matched up, so I wondered if maybe somehow it was all my fault,' he finished with an awkward sort of shrug.
Carolyn stared at him for a long moment. She looked at the bristling wall chart, the pilots' desk with countless empty coffee cups and the wrapper from a granola bar that Martin had salivated shamefully over before eating, and her dejected son. She sighed, stood, and began gathering up her papers. 'There is nothing wrong, Arthur, merely a misunderstanding. Everything will be back to normal soon.'
'Oh, good,' Arthur said, relieved.
'Yes.' She herded Arthur back outside, flicked off the lights, and locked the door. They began walking in silence to the car park.
'You know,' Arthur said suddenly. 'I was going to ask you, mum, but Mopsy said I shouldn't, because you're usually so very very busy now and she said you'd probably just say no only in a really long and sarcastic way, kind of like Douglas, only with Douglas he always manages to make the person asking him whatever it is they're asking him to do look like a bit of an idiot, and you always just make them feel scared, and I know that because in Ipswich they said when a person suddenly goes really pale in the face and their hands start shaking a bit and they stumble backwards away from you, those are three good indications that they're probably really frightened-'
'Light of my life, do please stop babbling and get to the point?'
'Oh, right- would you maybe come over in the evenings and teach Mopsy how to cook? Because it turns out she's awful at it and apparently she's allergic to anything Icook and we're both getting really tired of beans on toast.'
'...I'll think about it.'
Martin raised bleary eyes and Douglas raised a sardonic brow, the two men unconsciously leaning towards each other as if for group protection.
'We await your instruction with all apprehension. Oh, sorry- I meant avidity.'
Carolyn ignored her first officer and tapped the new month showing on the wall chart. 'As you are aware, we will spend this week in standby. Next week, the world at large has apparently decided against air travel so there are no bookings. I, personally, will be thoroughly enjoying the time off so I expect not to see or hear from either of you.'
Martin looked as if he'd been offered his own aeroplane. Douglas' lips twitched in a repressed smirk and he inclined his head slightly.
'At the end of this week we will go over future bookings. Any questions? The answer is no.'
'Except for one,' Douglas said immediately. 'Where are the muffins? I've gotten rather used to supplementing my eggs and bacon in the mornings.'
Carolyn sneered at him. 'Much as it pains me to deprive you of anything- oh, wait, it doesn't. I've stopped eating muffins.'
'What happened to providing for your faithful minions?' Douglas cried.
But it was Martin's face that captured her attention- and Douglas' too, a moment later. Her captain appeared crestfallen and miserably disappointed.
Of course, Carolyn realised a moment later. If Douglas hadn't been exaggerating his financial situation, those warm muffins in the mornings were probably the best food and the closest thing to a homemade treat that the boy had had in ages.
'A trifling pity, but no matter,' Douglas said suddenly. 'I need to save up my appetite for tonight anyway. My daughter was supposed to come by- she's a pescetarian now, I told you that- but she's picked up the 'flu at school and had to cancel, and now I've got an absurd amount of fish and vegetables to consume. I already started some things in the slow cooker this morning, there's nothing to be done but eat it all tonight.'
'How terrible for you,' Martin muttered sullenly.
'It is,' Douglas agreed, setting his coffee down and angling toward the younger man. 'So terrible, in fact, that I'm even willing to ask you for help. What do you say, Captain? I'll even go ahead and make the dessert I had planned if you'll do all the washing up and promise not to talk about planes at the table.'
Martin looked sceptical. 'What sort of dessert?'
'Vanilla cream cannoli with raspberries and lemon sorbet,' Douglas offered. 'And you'll find that my skills as a pastry chef quite match my talents with main courses. That is to say, they are superb.'
'All right, then.' Martin licked his lips and actually wriggled a little in his seat, apparently unbearably excited by the prospect of a whole home-cooked meal that consisted of more than pasta or beans.
Douglas threw Carolyn a significant glance. 'You know, Carolyn,' he drawled loudly. 'I've been thinking- and was just reminded- you ceaselessly insist that you can't pay our supreme commander-'
'Because I can't.'
He overrode her smoothly. '-but surely you could at least save him a little petrol money. If Martin drives to your house in the morning and you drive the two of you to and from the airfield, that'll save you at least a few pounds a week, won't it, Martin?'
Martin glanced uneasily at his boss. 'Well- it would, technically, but I wouldn't want to put her to any trouble...and anyway, I'm not entirely sure how professional-'
'Oh, alright, have it your way, Douglas,' Carolyn snapped.
'Really?' Both pilots looked unreasonably shocked.
'Of course,' she said irritably. 'I'm not sure what sort of con you're running, Douglas, but I don't want any knowing part of it so I'll just go along for now. Martin, you will be at my house tomorrow morning at seven o'clock.'
'Seven o'clock, Martin.' She quickly turned to her paperwork to block out Douglas' unbearably smug smile.
The doorbell rang at precisely seven. Carolyn threw open the door, scowling. 'And what do you think you're doing here?'
Martin staggered back a little on the step. 'You said- yesterday- seven o'clock-'
'I said nothing of the sort!' Carolyn threw the door open wider. 'I told you to arrive at seven-thirty. Why on earth would I tell you to arrive at seven when we don't have to be at the airfield until eight? I assure you, Martin, I do not relish your company and conversation so much that I would willingly endure it any longer than necessary.'
'No, I heard you, you definitely, definitely said seven!'
'Martin, who do you think knows better what I said? I, being the one who said it, or you, the questionably sane one with the inner ear problem?'
'Oh, just come inside. You're letting the cold in.'
Carolyn strode back towards the kitchen, leaving Martin to close the door behind himself and slink warily down the hall. The oven beeped loudly and she shut off the timer, grabbing a pair of oven gloves to pull out a tray of bubbling Chelsea buns. Martin watched with wide eyes and pursed lips as she quickly glazed the tray with sugar and cold water.
Carolyn was washing her hands in the deep kitchen sink when Martin's stomach let out a loud and insistent growl.
He clutched his stomach, face flushing a deep and humiliated red. 'Sorry, I'm so sorry, I just didn't really have time for breakfast this morning- Arthur always has extra apples, I'll grab one of those and be completely fit to fly, I promise-'
'Oh, go on,' Carolyn sighed, waving a hand at the tray of buns. She crossed to the refrigerator and pulled out the bottle of milk. 'Plates are in the cupboard just in front of you, napkins are behind you on the counter.'
Martin edged closer to the steaming tray, licking his lips. 'Really?'
'Martin, have you ever witnessed me offer anything to anyone without meaning it? Don't expect such generosity every morning, but I shouldn't eat all of these myself at my age anyway.'
'Oh, you're not so very-'
'Martin,' Carolyn said severely. 'If you intend to finish that sentence with anything remotely like the word 'old,' you should seriously consider whether or not you value your continued existence.'
Martin wisely fell silent and devoted himself to stuffing his mouth with hot, sticky current buns with the kind of fervour he usually reserved for landing in a crosswind.
Carolyn was torn away from the morbidly arresting sight by the ringing of her mobile. She glanced at the screen, and flipped it open. 'Hercules. What an absurd time of the day to call. I sincerely hope you're not interrupting my morning for anything less than an invitation to dinner.'