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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

"I will fly a helicopter!": FTMT short story No4



“I will fly a helicopter!”

The Be-useful Transport Company of Coatbridge was run by Brian and Elizabeth Maybury. They’d operated the small transport and delivery company for over 6 years, survived the difficult first year, the rocky third, the barren fourth and the booming fifth that had seen their resolve and resources stretched to the limit. Now in year six it was back to survival and struggle. Their fleet of white vans that criss-crossed the central belt of Scotland had reduced from 10 to 6, margins were tight, traffic was getting worse, customers more demanding and the drivers were complaining. It was a hard and volatile business to be in.
Brian often wondered why they had started at all, what made them ever think going it alone was a good idea and when he looked at the returns he would certainly now say that they were not in it for the money.

Their gritty determination kept them going, customers came first and long hours and long schedules meant that they always delivered on time (well almost). Brian and Elizabeth were proud of this and gained a good deal of satisfaction from the fact that they really did put the customer first and that their regulars did seem to appreciate this.

“The red doesn’t seem right on me,” Elizabeth said watching herself go by in the hall mirror. “The black will be better, I’m going back up to change!” “Fine” replied Brian, “remember we’re meeting the Willoby’s at 7:30, and the taxi’s due now!” “OK OK, I’ll be five minutes!”

Friday night and a mixture of business and pleasure beckoned for the Maybury’s. Dining out with a client and his wife, one they had known for a number of years. This wasn’t a regular thing but Elizabeth enjoyed these evenings and Brian knew it was always useful for the greater good. It would be pleasant and maybe there would be the sniff of a new connection, a service or a needy customer somewhere in the supply chain. He was always anxious not to miss an opportunity or to hear gossip or hard facts about a client or competitor.

The taxi arrived on time, Elizabeth clip-clopping downstairs, now in a black trouser suit and shiny black boots with high-heels. Brian admired her to himself as he locked the house door behind them and headed for the taxi’s open door. The Willoby’s had chosen an Indian restaurant in town and the Maybury’s duly arrived, the couples meeting up in the bar to enjoy a drink before the hot and heavy-duty requirements of consuming an Indian meal. The Willoby’s were an odd looking couple, both middle aged, she (Grace) was taller than he (Simon) by a good four inches, physically straight and thin and reptilian in a patterned dress complete with straight and thin hair, beady blue eyes and pencilled lips. She chattered, hissed and fiddled with her earrings and looked so much like a snake that it seemed consuming even one of the list of starters on the menu would feed her for a week. Simon was crew cut ginger, rounder than long, redder than pale and was wearing an almost orange Italian leather jacket and light-blue polo shirt, eating would not be his problem. Elizabeth couldn’t help thinking he looked so much like a can of Irn-Bru. The snake woman and the can man, like a circus freak show double bill. They were however nice people, though Elizabeth was oddly conscious of being out with a couple that didn’t quite look right. What people might think was always important, even strangers or waiters or taxi drivers, she wanted them to have a positive image of her and Brian and the company they kept. She and Brian were solidly normal; proportioned correctly for a pair, both dark and matching, no irregular or excessive features and in the years before minor flabby and stretchy things had started to happen they had been a fine looking couple. Even now she did think they scrubbed up well and always knew how to dress appropriately for their ages, looks and their social engagements. “Making the best of ourselves is what we do best,” She said to herself.

The Willoby’s had galloped of and set the conversational pace by talking about holidays, as couples unfamiliar with each other often do when seeking a common vein of experiences. They nodded familiarly at each other as tales of Mediterranean ports and excursions; cruise companies and cabin types were reeled off as if from a script. So the Mayburys allowed the Willobys to hold the tone and content, letting “Grace the snake” brag a little and “Simon the can” punctuate her sentences with jokes and corrections. “It was the Tuesday-night meal, it was Naples, I told the captain, it was more expensive than that, I never did!” The Maybury’s felt smugly in control and a little superior as the Willobys dripped and droned on, holidays, followed by local schools then of course the price of houses. Half way through the exciting tale of their en-suite’s renovation the waiter arrived to take them all through for the meal.

As expected “Grace the snake” seemed to have no real appetite for anything other than trivial conversation, she toyed with her food like a bored cobra at high noon. “Simon the can” certainly could eat, still correcting Grace between mouthfuls of Madras and swigs of that peculiar type of lager all Curry Houses serve. Brian was of course waiting on the opportunity to talk business, as was Elizabeth, though Grace’s travellers tales and home improvement yarns proved a constant distraction and a poisonous hypnotic force that hung over the meal table. Eventually as the disappointing desert was about to arrive Simon began talking about GHL (Glasgow Handling Ltd), a competitor of Be-useful who had recently picked up a rather lucrative airport contract. “Three new vans and drivers, they are going for all the South-side business, double runs, flexibility, been offering us a lot of little extras to use them” Beamed Simon. “Bloody cowboys!” retorted Brian, “they’ll let you down when you need them most, I know all about them. Their drivers don’t care either, ex mini cab men or jailbirds”. GHL’s ways of working had always riled Brian, though most of what he said and thought was unsubstantiated.

“In fact” added Simon “ They’re going to be branching out into air-cargo, West Coast Hebrides, Northern Ireland and oil field equipment on the North East, I hear they’ve got a partner in helicopter work. Maybe even medical to, organs and spare parts, you know the kind of thing, could be very useful to us as well with our customer base”. Brian sucked on the sweet and sour sorbet that was filling his mouth. Elizabeth picking up the conversation on her radar despite extreme interference from shower doors and driveway paving and joined in “Yes we’re thinking along those lines also, air transport is the way forward for all express handling, Brian’s done a lot of research and we’ve linked up with some of the better providers”. Brian knew at this point the lie that Elizabeth was spinning had gone too far and was searching for a reverse gear. Of course the Willobys were now all ears eager to hear how competitive Be-useful might be and Elizabeth only could dig herself deeper.

For no obvious reason she blurted out “Of course we have our own helicopter now that Brian has his license”. The Willobys stared at Brian in amazement, “you’re a dark horse!” Smirked Simon, “ Aren’t you a bit old?” accused Grace. Brian, full stomach and bladder, hot and cold mouth stared questioningly at Elizabeth hoping she would pull him up out of this, Elizabeth only added to it. “Tell them about it all Brian! I’m so proud of how well he did in all the training!” she added as an aside. Brian knew his chapatti was charred so simply went for it, “ Been a few months but yes I’ve managed to pass out”. He was trying not to sound like a commando or Top Gun pilot. “Eh, Jet Ranger, that’s what I’ve been flying, 200 hours now, eh out of Prestwick”. He was desperate to change the subject now as his knowledge of helicopters was paper thin and he sensed that Simon would pounce with some simple question that he wouldn’t have a clue about. There was however no in depth technical questions just a simple demand. “Well Brian,” began Simon “I think you owe us a flight and the benefit of some of the connections you’ve got in the trade!” Brian summoned up his most confident front and simply agreed, “Sure, I’ll give you a call later in the week”.

Coffee and few frozen glances between Brian and Elizabeth followed. Grace had retreated now following the helicopter revelation, as competition was pointless, she was impressed and Simon was pissed. Brian had lost any sense of what to say next, angry but proud that he’d been accepted by the present company as a fictional helicopter pilot and terminally worried at how on earth he could make progress into next week’s arrangement. He has mumbled fairly well though vaguely about flying over Arran based on his only real helicopter flight (a Christmas present) and was desperately dredging up memories in order to maintain his cover. It fell to Elizabeth to lead the final stabs at conversation as she scaled the heights of multiple Mercedes van mileages coupled with moaning about margins and then down to murky depths with Mediterranean waters and the times and ways resorts cleaned their beaches. Everyone seemed relieved when the final brandies had gone and the waiter announced that their taxis had arrived. Both couples vanished into the night in different directions. Simon being robustly chastised by the python woman for getting so drunk so quickly, whist in a reverse manoeuvre Brian blew his top at a tearful Elizabeth over the fabricated helicopter story. Needless to say Brian and Elizabeth’s argument and embarrassment proved to be the longest runner. Simon had it relatively easy waking up sober and sorry the next day to find Grace already out on a shopping expedition and with the empty house to himself.

So Brian and Elizabeth’s row followed the regular five star pattern as it burned into the night, it became more complex with added frustrations and topics being thrown in from both sides. Clearly Elizabeth was in the wrong for making up the helicopter story but in a twist Brian now found himself apologising for not ever being a pilot and somehow lacking the drive and ambition to ever try it out. Like game of ping-pong being played with teaspoons, few if any points were scored until they became bored and exasperated with one another. Around 2AM both gave up the ghost and fell into a restless pair of sleeps with upset tummies, churning minds and threats to their marriages hanging on them and haunting them.

Brian was up first, down onto the PC and researching flying helicopters. He wasn’t even sure why he was doing it as he reasoned that the sensible thing was to phone Simon, apologise, say that Elizabeth was drunk (or something) and then avoid him for a while. It may be that Simon’s firm would look elsewhere for a carrier and well that would be that, hard times, hard knocks, Elizabeth’s fault but they’d recover. By the time that Elizabeth had risen and joined him still upset and cross with herself, he’d uncovered the secrets, complications and worst of all costs of learning to fly. Having absorbed some of the consequences all the more worrying was that he had realised that he harboured a deep-seated, life long ambition to fly. The Christmas present flight a few years ago had been a bit of a joke, rubbing salt into the mid life crisis wound everybody thought had healed by now. Flying and helicopters were back in his life with a vengeance.

Elizabeth saw this all as a punishment for her, she’d made a silly mistake, failed to correct it and now her husband was becoming obsessed with the subject. She had lost control and had no idea what to do. At first she simply put her foot down and forbad him to do anything to do with flying, but his candle was alight now and he was determined to take this new passion all the way. More websites were accessed, a PC simulator was purchased and a number of phone calls made. He also needed a convincing story to use to stall Simon.

“God bless the weather,” said Brian, as a heavy fog descended on Glasgow and the Clyde coast. It was only Monday but the forecasters were saying the conditions might last as long as a week, maybe more. Brian gave Simon a call on Monday afternoon; firstly hoping that Simon, being drunk at the time had forgotten the helicopter story, then ready to use the fog as an excuse. Naturally Simon had forgotten nothing (Grace had filled in a number of gaps for him) but understood the fog story and being too busy with other matters to chat the whole flight and the business contact conversation was dropped.

All that week Brian found it hard to focus on the transport work, he was forever falling into daydreams, helicopter picnics, views and aerial photographs, clubs and socialising and more vaguely the air cargo business. At night he did two to three hours on the simulator, at first he had been clumsy and crashes were common but now he felt he was close to getting the touch. “Ten hours and I’m this far on” he thought as an unexpected cross wind pushed his virtual machine over the edge of an oil platform, “bugger!”

The fog had also meant he’d avoided contacting any clubs or instructors as he bided time and tried to evaluate his options. Simon would expect something, what would it be though, how could he stall him until……? Fate then again stepped in as it had done with the fog. It was Thursday; the helicopter fight was temporarily parked so Elizabeth and Brian had a cosy evening meal together and a couple of bottles of wine. Tragically and marvellously Brian, whilst returning from a trip the wheelie bin by the back door, slightly drunk and giddy fell over the cat. His not so soft landing place was the concrete step and the result was a broken wrist. This was confirmed two hours later following a taxi ride to the casualty ward. The pain was very real, but a strange and smug pleasure now went with it. As far as Simon and Grace were concerned he was a pilot, a helicopter pilot and but for the plaster running from his knuckles to his elbow he was a disabled one. This injury and the subsequent physiotherapy might mean he couldn’t pilot anything for months, “what a stroke of luck” he thought.

Simon and Grace visited early the next week, unexpectedly. They brought a bottle of wine and some golf magazines for the invalid. Grace was anxious to hear when he might be fit again, looking at his plastered arm as if it was some heroic war wound gained as a pilot on some dangerous mission. Brian was of course still in some discomfort and the plaster and his inability to drive a car was a source of constant irritation, he grumbled a lot during their short stay. In an odd way he held them and Elizabeth responsible for the injury and began moaning to them about the opportunities to fly helicopters that he was missing. Trips, plans, survey and delivery work he’d hoped to participate in, all a complete fabrication and helping only to under pin the lie. Elizabeth was annoyed by his behaviour, she regretted her original slip more and more and now found herself biting her lip constantly.

After Simon and Grace had gone and they were in bed, Brian accidentally hit Elizabeth on the head with his plaster. He was reaching over to the bedside cabinet to set the alarm clock and thoughtlessly swung his arm over her at the same time, as she was about to switch off her reading light. It was a sharp and unrestrained blow that connected with her skull but completely unintentional. It made Elizabeth dizzy and nauseous for a while; there was some minor bleeding and a bruise. The nausea lasted all weekend and she was complaining of headaches and giddiness well into the next week. It was on the next Saturday morning that she was found dead in her Lexus in the local Tesco car park by the man who collected the shopping trolleys. She was slumped over two carrier bags she’d placed on the front passenger seat, half a dozen rolls were squashed and three eggs were crushed within the carrier bag onto which most of her weight had fallen. The trolley attendant told the police that Chicago’s “If you leave me now” was playing on the car stereo when he had opened the door and first realised she was dead. He had always been a fan of theirs and that track was a particular favourite of his, he owned it on vinyl, tape and CD.

A brain haemorrhage they said, most likely brought on by the blow from the plaster a few days before and aggravated by an undetected blood condition. Elizabeth was cremated three days later, the service being well attended by the local business community and many members of the road haulage trade. At the buffet afterwards nearly everybody commented how tasty the fajita wraps were, how good a cremation it had been and that the house red had that had been served was so good. Elizabeth would have enjoyed it very much. Brian had the plaster removed a week later; he was struck by seeing Elizabeth’s signature on the plaster only a moment before the plaster nurse cut it away from his arm and placed it into the bin. The plaster and bandage remnants were tossed away as Brian rubbed and scratched at his extra hairy arm and thought how light and cool it now felt. The next day he put the business up for sale.

Simon’s firm bought the Be-useful Transport Company after three other potential purchasers declined. It was, said Simon “a supply chain based piece of rationalisation that would help drive down their distribution costs ”; he was summing up the whole transaction and trying to put it all in a proper context. Brian bought a villa in Marbella built by Taylor Woodrow with the proceeds and after a few weeks of acclimatisation signed on for a pilot’s training course at the El Paso school of flying. He sat by his pool in the evening sipping the local wine and munching cold chicken legs, he’d be listening to 80’s CDs and sending text messages on his mobile as the sun set slowly behind the hills. Later in the summer “Grace the snake” joined him, apparently Simon was busy enough now not to care.

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