Seize the Reckless Wind
JOHN GORDON DAVIS
Seize the Reckless Wind
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 1984
Copyright © John Gordon Davis 1984
Cover photograph © Shutterstock.com
John Gordon Davis asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
This novel is entirely a work of fiction.
The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Source ISBN: 9780007574414
Ebook Edition © SEPTEMBER 2014 ISBN: 9780008119300
I am deeply indebted to Malcolm Wren of Wren Airships Ltd. and his staff for all their patient instruction in the science of airships, and to Kevin McPhillips, Harry Green, Lynn Wilson and Michael Owen for taking me literally under their wing and allowing me to learn at first hand about the air frieght business.
All the characters in this novel are, however, fictitious.
It was a beautiful morning. The Eiffel Tower rose up into a cloudless sky. Crowds thronged the Champs-Elysées and the cafés, bonnets and parasols and top hats everywhere, and carriages were busy. A parade marched towards the Arc de Triomphe, the people cheering and flags waving. Then there was a new sound above the applause, and a blob came looming over the treetops, spluttering. It was a man flying a tricycle.
His name was Alberto Santos-Dumont. It was one of those newly-invented De Deon motor-tricycles; but the steering was connected to a canvas frame behind, like a ship’s rudder, and the engine turned a wooden propeller. Above this contraption floated a big egg-shaped silk balloon of hydrogen, from which the tricycle with the incumbent Alberto were suspended.
Alberto sailed low over the crowds, and all faces were upturned, delighted and waving. The air-cycle went buzzing and backfiring round the Arc de Triomphe, then it headed over the rooftops towards the Eiffel Tower. It rose higher and higher, then sailed ponderously round the mighty tower to roars of applause.
Whereupon Alberto wanted a drink. He came looming down towards the boulevards, spluttering between the treetops, making horses shy. Ahead was his favourite café. Alberto brought his flying machine down lower, and steered it towards a lamppost. He threw down a coil of rope, and his friends grabbed it and tied it to the lamppost. Alberto’s engine backfired, and died. The balloon-cycle was moored, hitched above the cobblestones like an elephant.
Alberto jumped down, and walked jauntily into the café, smiling and shaking hands.
Those were the days of glory and empires, when the statesmen of Europe carved up the world, planted their flags and brought law and order, and Christianity, to the heathen. Everything was well ordered, and if you looked at an atlas much of it was coloured red, for Great Britain, not red for communist as it would be coloured today. The world was full of adventure; and the vast wild places teemed with animals, the seas were full of fish and whales. This was only yesterday, only in your father’s day, and maybe in your own. The world was beautiful, and there were no oilslicks on the seas, no oil fumes hanging in the air, no pollution blowing across oceans to make acid rain in faraway places. In those days there were some dashing young men in flying machines, but it was before the age of air travel.
In a field outside the town of Bedford stood two great hangars. Inside one of them, hundreds of men were building a great airship, as long as two football pitches put end to end, great frames of aluminium covered in canvas, and its huge gasbags were made of ox-intestine, to be filled with hydrogen. The ship was being built by the government and it was called the R 101. Across country, in Yorkshire, another airship was being built by a private company for the government, and it was called the R 100. The R 100 was finished first, and she flew on her trials to Canada and back, to much acclaim. There was great urgency to finish the R 101 so she could carry the Secretary of State to India and back in time for the Empire’s Jubilee. But when the R 101 was tested, she was sluggish. So they cut her in half and added a whole new section to hold another huge gasbag. But there was not time for all her trials before she left.
It was a cold, rainy afternoon when the R 101 took off for India, with her famous personages aboard. She flew over London, and down in the streets people were waving madly. It was dark when she flew over the Channel, and the rain beat down on her. As she flew over the coastline of France the captain reported by radio to London that his famous passengers had dined well and retired to bed.
That was the last communication.
It is not known for certain why it happened but near Beauvais the great ship came seething down to earth out of the darkness. There was a shocking boom and the great frame crumpled and a vast balloon of flame mushroomed up, and then another and another, and the huge mass of buckled frames glowed red in the ghastly inferno.
There were only six survivors. The world was horrified. And, after the Commission of Inquiry, the other airship was dismantled in her hangar, and broken up with a steam-roller, and sold for scrap.
NEW JERSEY, AMERICA: 7 MAY 1937
In the late afternoon the monster appeared.
It came from the Atlantic, looming slowly larger and closer towards the skyscrapers of New York. It had huge swastikas emblazoned on its tail. It was over seven hundred feet long, a leviathan filled with seven million cubic feet of hydrogen. The sun shone silver on her mighty body, and down in the concrete canyons the people stared upwards, awed, and the passengers gazed down on beautiful Manhattan, the Hudson with steamships from all around the world, the Statue of Liberty, Long Island fading into distant mauve, America stretching away in the lowering sun: Her sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin, had made one hundred and thirty trans-Atlantic flights in the last nine years, but people never tired of seeing such massive beauty sailing so majestically through the sky. She was called the Hindenburg, and she was the newest prize of the German airfleet. She could carry seventy passengers, sleeping in real cabins and dining in a saloon at real tables with real cutlery, strolling along promenade decks, looking down on to the countrysides gliding quietly by below, so close they could even hear a dog bark and a train whistle.
There was a big crowd awaiting her at the Lakehurst airfield in New Jersey; the ground crew, people to meet the passengers, pressmen, sightseers. The sun was setting when she came into sight. She came through the darkening sky, slowly becoming larger and larger, the captain slowly bringing her down, and the crowd broke into a mass of waving.
The mooring mast was a high steel structure. The ship came purring across the airfield towards it, headed into the breeze, a wondrous silver monster easing down out of the sky; a rope came uncoiling out of her nose; the ground crew ran for it. There was the sound of an explosion; for an instant there was a hellish blue glow, then a great flame leapt upwards.
It exploded out of the stern, and in a moment most of the airship was engulfed in barrelling fire. Instantly half the canvas was gone and the frame glared naked in the sky; the flame mushroomed enormously upwards, yellow and black, and the stern began to fall. There was a second explosion and more flame shot up, the great ship shook. All the passengers knew was the terror, and the deck suddenly lurching away beneath them, and the terrible glare, and the heat. Now the flaming ship was falling to earth in a terrible slow-motion, stern first. There was a third explosion and the airship hit the ground, a blazing mass of frames and flames. The crowd was screaming, people were running to try to help and the radio commentator was weeping, ‘Oh my God … It’s terrible … I can’t watch it … All those people dying … Oh my God this is terrible …’
Some people leapt out before it hit the earth, some managed to fight their way out as it crashed. They came staggering out, reeling, on fire, twisting and beating themselves, roasting and crazed. The night was filled with flame and weeping and shouting.
It is always hot in the Zambesi Valley. From the hard escarpments the valley rolls away, descending through many hills, stretching on and on, mauve, fading into haze, like an ocean, so vast you cannot see the escarpments on the other side. It is a wonderful, wild valley, with elephant and lion and all the buck, and the river is hundreds of yards wide, with sandy banks and islands, and hippo, vundu fish as big as a man, big striped fighting tiger fish, and many crocodiles. The mighty river flows for thousands of miles, from the vast bushland of Angola in the west, over the Victoria Falls – the Smoke that Thunders – through Rhodesia, and Mozambique, and out into the Indian Ocean in the east. The river flows through many narrow rock gorges on this long journey, and where it twists and roars through the one called Kariba it is the home of Nyamayimini, the river god. It was at the entrance to this god’s den that the white man built a mighty wall across the river, to flood a huge valley to the west and create an inland sea.
For those were the days of the ‘winds of change’ that swept through Kenya to the rest of Africa, and the big brave days of Federation and Partnership between white go-ahead Rhodesia, black copper-rich Zambia and poor little Malawi; partnership between the races, equal rights for all civilized men, big white brother going to help little black brother, economic and political partnership, white hand clasped with black hand across the Zambesi. And the white man built the wall across the mighty river to create electricity for the industries that were going to boom, and the inland sea was a symbol of this new partnership. There were the political ones, black men in city clothes who came to the valley and told the Batonka people that the story of the flood was a white man’s trick to steal their land, and that they must make war; but the wall slowly went up and the great valley slowly, slowly drowned and died. And with it a whole world of primitive wonder. It was heartbreakingly sad. One day all of Africa would die like that, under the rising tides of the winds of change.
And very soon the partnership died as well, because by the nature of things it was a partnership between the white rider and the black horse, and because the winds of change moaned that there must be One Man One Vote and that the rider must be black. And the political ones, who had been to Moscow and Peking, swaggered through the bush calling the people to meetings, telling them that they must join the Party and take action. Action, boys, action! Burn the schools and burn the missions, burn the diptanks in which the government makes you dip your cattle, stone the policemen and stone the people who are going to work in the factories, burn the huts of the people who do not take Action, maim their cattle and beat their wives and children – and when we rule the country every man will have a white man’s house and a bicycle and a transistor radio. And great mother Britain had lost her will; she dissolved the partnership and gave independence to black Zambia and black Malawi because it was easier and cheaper to give away countries than to govern. But she refused independence to white Rhodesia, because that too was easier than to shout again st the winds. And the white men in Rhodesia were angry, for they had governed themselves for forty years and they feared that if they were not independent Great Britain would give them away too, and so they declared themselves independent, as the American colonies had done two hundred years before. Thus the white men made themselves outlaws, and the winds of change howled for their blood, and began to make war.
In the third year of that Rhodesian war, when a new election was coming up, Lieutenant Joe Mahoney, who was a lawyer when he was not soldiering, almost won a medal for valour, but do not be too impressed by that because it happened like this:
The truck carrying his troopers was trundling along the escarpment of the Zambesi valley when suddenly there was a burst of gunfire, the truck lurched and Mahoney, who was standing at that moment, fell off the back. He landed with a crash on the dirt road, but still clutching his rifle. For a bone-jarred moment all he knew was the shocked terror of being left in a hail of gunfire; then he collected his wits, scrambled up and fled. He fled doubled-up across the road, and leapt into the bush, desperately looking for cover, when suddenly he saw terrible terrorists leaping up in front of him.
Leaping up and running away, terrorists to left of him, terrorists to right of him, all running for their lives instead of blowing the living shit out of him. For Mahoney, in his shock, had run into their gunfire instead of away from it; all the terrorists saw was the angriest white man in the world charging at them with murder in his heart, and all Mahoney knew was the absolute terror of running straight into the enemy and the desperate necessity of killing them before they killed him, and he wildly opened fire. Firing blindly from the hip, sweeping the bush with his shattering gun, the desperate instinct to kill kill kill the bastards before they kill me, and all he saw was men lurching and crashing in full flight – he went crashing on through the bush after them, God knows why, gasping, Joe Mahoney single-handedly taking on the fleeing buttocks of the Liberation Army – he ran and ran, rasping, stumbling, and through the trees he saw a man, fired and saw the blood splat as the man contorted; then Mahoney threw himself behind a tree and slithered to the ground, on to his gasping belly; then his own boys were coming running through the trees; and he sank his head, heart pounding, sick in his guts.
He had just killed seven men all by himself, and he was a hero. Maybe the whole thing had taken one minute.
For the next two days they tracked the rest of the terrorists. The tracker walked ahead, flanked by two men to watch for the enemy while his eyes were on the ground; the troopers followed behind, eyes constantly darting over the bush, every muscle tensed for the sudden shattering gunfire, ready to fling themselves flat. For two days it was like that, stalking through the endless bush under the merciless sun, slogging, sweating, and all the time every nerve tensed to kill and die – and oh God, God, Mahoney hated the war, and hated himself.
Because Joe Mahoney, QC, Africa-lover, African lover, just wanted to kill kill kill and get it over, with all his stretched-tight nerves he longed for contact, so that he could go charging in there and get it over with … But for what?
Because the enemy were murderous bastards who brutalized their own tribesmen, burned their huts and crops and schools and maimed their cattle, terrorizing everybody into submission because that is the only law Africa respects? Because they were smash-and-grab communists, their heads stuffed with the nihilism of Moscow and Peking who are dedicated to the destruction of the West, to the wars they were waging and winning in the rest of Africa and Central America and Asia and the Middle East, winning by default because the West was now so pusillanimous and gutless? Ah yes, when he reminded himself of these matters Joe Mahoney did not feel so bad. ‘What are you fighting for, lad?’ he sometimes asked round the fire at night, when the theory is you should be a father-figure to your men, though he really asked it because he wanted to ease his conscience.
‘For my country, sir.’
‘Against the communists, sir.’
(And, God knows, was that not enough?) There always ensued a rag-bag discussion in which half-digested evidence steamrollered itself into gospel truth, tales of barbarity mixed with contempt. How the fucking hell can they rule the fucking country, sir? Usually Mahoney just listened like the magistrate he used to be when large tracts of the world were still governed by the impeccable Victorian standards of the old school tie, a good grasp of Latin verbs and the ability to bowl a good cricket ball. Sometimes he interrupted them with something like: ‘Gentlemen, I know we’re all in the bush getting our arses shot off without the comfort and society of our womenfolk, but do you think we can uphold some of these standards we cherish by not making every adjective a four-letter word?’
But usually he just sat there and listened, his dulled heart aching, for Africa. Because Africa was dying, bleeding to death from self-inflicted wounds. And his heart ached for his troopers too, because Africa was all they had and they were going to lose it, and they did not realise that it was really a black man’s war they were fighting and dying for. ‘For my country, sir, because how the hell can they run the country, sir?’ Oh, it was true. But they thought they were fighting a white man’s war, for the white man’s status quo. And, if so, was it a just war? Had the white man given the black man his fair share of the sun? And, if not, could this war be won? To win, must not the army be the fish swimming in the waters of the people? Was not the real battle for hearts and minds?
The next afternoon the spoor led to a kraal of five huts. The troopers silently surrounded the kraal, while the tracker did a big three-sixty through the surrounding bush, looking for the terrorists’ spoor leading out. After fifteen minutes he found it.
‘A few hours,’ the tracker said. ‘They left about noon.’
Mahoney turned and ran back to the kraal, while his men kept him covered. ‘Where is the headman?’ he shouted.
The African woman looked up, astonished. An infant with flies round his nostrils stared, then burst into tears. People came creeping out of the huts, wide-eyed, young and old, in white man’s tatters. ‘Are you the headman, old gentleman?’ Mahoney demanded.
The man was grey-haired. ‘Yes, Nkosi.’
‘Some terrorists have been to your kraal today. How many?’
The old man was trembling. ‘I have seen nobody, Nkosi.’ Everybody was staring, frightened.
Mahoney took him by the elbow and led him aside.
‘Their spoor leads into your kraal. Where were they going?’
The old man was shaking. ‘They did not say, Nkosi.’
‘What did they want from you?’
The old man trembled. ‘They ordered my wives to cook food.’
‘How many men?’
‘I think there were ten.’
Mahoney took a big, sweating breath. ‘If anymore come, you have not seen me. When I leave now, you will obliterate my spoor in your kraal. Understand?’
Mahoney turned and left. The soldiers started following the spoor again, hard.
When darkness fell they were less than two hours behind the terrorists. With the first light they started again.
After an hour the spoor split into two groups.
‘They’re looking for more kraals. For more food.’
Mahoney divided his men. After an hour the spoor he was following turned. It headed back towards the old man’s kraal.
When the terrorists got back to the kraal they ordered the women to cook more food and they sat down to wait.
‘Have you seen any soldiers?’
‘No,’ the old man mumbled.
Everybody had their eyes averted. Then a child spoke up boastfully: ‘Yesterday a white soldier came.’
First they beat up everybody, with fists and boots and rifle butts, and the air was filled with the screaming and the wailing. Then they threw the old man on his back. They lashed his hands and feet to stakes. They staked his senior wife beside him. Then the commander thrust an axe at the eldest son: ‘This is how we treat traitors to the Party! Chop your father’s legs off!’
And the women began to wail and the youth cowered and wept and so they threw him to the ground and kicked him, and then the commander picked up a big stone and he held it over his mother’s face: ‘This is how we treat people who do not obey!’
He dropped the stone on to the old woman’s face. And her nose broke and she cried out, spluttering blood, half-fainted; he picked up the stone and held it over her again, and dropped it again. Her forehead gashed open and she fainted, gurgling blood. The commander shouted: ‘Now chop your father’s legs off!’
And the boy wept and cowered, so they beat him again. And the commander held up the stone again: the old woman had revived, her face a mass of blood and contusion, breathing in gurgling gasps, and when she saw the stone poised again she cried out, cringing; and the man dropped the stone again. There was a big splat of blood and she fainted. The commander shouted: ‘Tie wire around his testicles!’
They pulled the boy’s trousers off and tied a long wire tight around his scrotum so he screamed, then they yanked him to his feet in front of his father and thrust the axe in his hand.
‘Chop well! For each chop we will pull your balls and drop the stone on your mother’s face! Now chop!’ And the wire was wrenched.
The boy screamed, and the wire was wrenched again, and he lurched the axe above his head, his tears streaming, and the old man wrenched at his bonds, and the commander slammed his boot down on his throat. ‘Chop!’ he roared and the wire was wrenched and the boy screamed again, and they wrenched the wire again and his face screwed up in agony, and he swung the axe down with all his horrified might. There was a crack of shin-bone and the leg burst open, sinews splayed, and the old man screamed and bucked and the commander bellowed.
And he dropped the stone on the woman’s face and the wire was wrenched so the boy screamed through his hysterical sobbing, and he swung the axe on high again and swiped it down on the other shin, and there was another crack of bone, and another gaping wound in the glaring sunshine, white shattered bone and sinews and blood, and the commander shouted.
And he dropped the stone again and the wire wrenched and the boy screamed, reeling, and he swung the axe again at his father’s legs.
And another crash of the stone, and another wrench of the wire. ‘Four!’ And again. ‘Five!’ And now the boy was hysterically swinging the axe, out of his mind with the horror and the agony, and there was nothing in the world but the screaming and the blood and stink of sweat under the African sun. Altogether it took the boy nine swipes to chop his father’s legs right off, but his mother was dead before then, suffocated in her own blood.
The troopers heard the screams a quarter of a mile away. They came running, spread out. Mahoney saw the old man writhing, the youth reeling over him with an axe, the terrorists, and he thought the youth was one of them – and he fired; then his men opened up, and there was pandemonium. The cracking of guns and the stench of cordite and the screaming and the scrambling and the running.
A minute later it was almost over. The women had fled into a hut. Three terrorists lay dead, three others had dived into a hut, but they had been flushed out by the threat of a hand-grenade. Mahoney knelt beside the groaning old man in the bloody mud, aghast, holding two tourniquets while the sergeant gave the man a morphine injection. He could not bear to look at the two stumps, the splintered bones sticking out, the severed feet. After a minute the man fell mercifully silent. Beside him lay his wife, her head twice its normal size, her lacerated eyes and nostrils swollen tight shut, her split lips swollen shut in death.
Then Mahoney got the story from the weeping women. He stared at the youth he had shot, and he felt ringing in his ears and the vomit rise in his gut. He walked to the back of the hut, and he retched, and retched.
When he came back the sergeant had lined up the terrorists. They were trembling, glistening with sweat. Mahoney could feel his men’s seething fury for revenge.
‘Shoot them, sir?’
Mahoney stopped in front of the three.
‘Or let the women shoot them, sir?’
‘Chop their legs off too, sir?’ a trooper shouted theatrically.
Mahoney looked at the three. One had his eyes closed in trembling prayer.
‘You savages,’ Mahoney hissed.
Silence. He could feel his men seething behind him. The commander said, ‘I demand the Geneva Convention.’
Mahoney blinked. ‘The Geneva Convention?’ he whispered. Then his mind reeled red-black in fury. ‘The Geneva Convention?’ – he roared and he bounded at the man and seized him by the neck and wrenched him across the kraal to the corpses. He rammed the man’s head down over the stumps of legs: ‘Did the Russians teach you this Geneva Convention? And this?’ He rammed the head over the woman’s pulped face. He seized up the bloody axe and shook it under the man’s face: ‘Is this your Geneva Convention?’
For a long hate-filled moment he held the cowering man by his collar, and with all his vicious fury he just wanted to ram the axe into the gibbering face. Then he threw it down furiously. The sergeant grabbed the man. ‘Shoot them, sir?’
The three terrorists stood there, terrified. Mahoney stared at them. Oh God, to shoot them and give them their just deserts. Oh, to shoot them so that the weeping kraal members could see that justice had been done. Oh, to shoot them so that all the people in the area would know that the white man’s justice was swift and dire.
‘They’re going to be tried for murder and hanged. Radio for a helicopter.’
And oh God, God, he knew why Rhodesia could not win this war. Not because these bastards outnumbered them, not because Russia and China were pouring military hardware into them, and certainly not because they were better soldiers; but because the likes of Joe Mahoney could not bring themselves to fight the bastards by their own savage rules; Joe Mahoney could not even shoot the bastards who chopped people’s legs off. Instead he had to hand them over to the decorous procedures of the courts, where they would be assigned competent counsel at the public’s expense, presumed innocent until proved guilty. They would have a lengthy appeal and thereafter their sentences would be considered by the President for the exercise of the Prerogative of Mercy.
And Joe Mahoney knew that he would soldier no more, that he was not much longer for God-forsaken Africa.
The town of Kariba is built on the hot valley hilltops above the great dam wall, and the inland sea floods into these hills to make many-tentacled bays and creeks. Along this man-made coastline are hotels and beaches. The army barracks is on the hilltops overlooking the vast blue lake that stretches on and on, over the horizon, reaching into the faraway hills. Way out there was a safari lodge for tourists, which Mahoney partly owned. In those days of war, Kariba was an alive little town. At nights the hotel bars were full of soldiers happy to be back from the bush alive, and Rhodesian tourists who had almost nowhere else to go because of the war, so the air throbbed with dance and music, and talk and laughter. Mahoney was always happy when he came back to Kariba: it was an end to weeks of confrontation with death, and exhaustion, an end to running, and fear, and sweat, and thirst. But when he came out of the bush that last time, trundling down the hot hills of the escarpment back to his barracks, Joe Mahoney was not happy, because he loved somebody who did not love him.
‘But I do love you,’ he heard Shelagh say. ‘It’s that I can’t live with you anymore … I’ve got to be my own person. If I didn’t fight every inch of the way you’d just steamroller my needs underfoot. I’m an artist, which means delicacy, whereas you bulldoze your way through life, like you go into court and bully the witnesses and bully the other lawyers and come out dusting your hands – I’ve seen you in court.’
‘You can stop work altogether and paint all the time.’
‘But I don’t want to stop work, I’m me, I don’t want to be dependent on you! God, why must women be housewives and second-class citizens and even change their names – put “Mrs” in front, like we’re somebody’s sexual property? …’
But he ruthlessly pushed Shelagh out of his mind – he had had six weeks in the bush to get used to the idea. He showered and drank three bottles of beer while he wrote his report. Then he drove to the officers’ mess to buy a few more to take with him. It was a small mess and as he walked in the first person he saw was Jake Jefferson, the Deputy Director of Combined Operations; he turned away, but Jake looked up, straight into his eyes. ‘Hullo, Joe,’ he smiled.
Mahoney stopped. ‘Good afternoon, sir.’ He shook hands. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Jake’s the name, off duty. A few days’ fishing. With my son. What’ll you have?’
Mahoney felt his heart contract. He desperately wanted to see the lad – just to see him – but yet he didn’t think he could bear it. ‘Nothing, thanks, I’m only buying a few for the road. Barman,’ he called.
Jefferson looked at Mahoney while he made his purchase. ‘I hear you made quite a kill?’
‘Luck.’ Mahoney wondered how the man really felt about him. He then heard himself say, although it was the last subject he wanted to bring up: ‘And how is your son?’
‘Top of his class,’ Jefferson said, and Mahoney wondered for the thousandth time how the man could have no doubts. The barman mercifully came back with his change and he picked up the bottles.
‘Well, excuse me, Jake, good to see you.’
‘Look after yourself,’ Jefferson smiled.
Mahoney walked out, clutching his beers, into the harsh sunlight, trying to look as if nothing had happened. His old Landrover had ‘Zambesi Safaris’ painted on it. He got in, started the engine, and drove off hurriedly, in case the boy should arrive. He got out of sight of the mess, then slowed, letting himself feel the emotion, and the confusion. Then he took his foot off the accelerator entirely, his heart suddenly beating fast. His vehicle rolled to a stop.
Walking towards him was an eight-year-old boy, carrying a fishing rod. Mahoney stared at him, eating him up with his eyes: the blonde hair, just like his mother’s, the same eyes and mouth … The boy came level with the Landrover and Mahoney knew he should not do it, for his own sake, but he couldn’t resist it. ‘Hullo, Sean.’
The boy turned, surprised. ‘Hullo, sir,’ he said uncertainly.
Mahoney smiled at him. ‘Do you know who I am?’
The lad looked embarrassed. ‘I’m not sure, sir.’
‘I’m Joe Mahoney, a friend of your father.’ He wanted to say, And your mother. ‘I haven’t seen you for a couple of years, I should think.’
‘Oh,’ Sean said. ‘How do you do, sir?’
Mahoney felt shakey. ‘You’ve grown,’ he laughed.
‘Yes, sir,’ the boy smiled, and Mahoney wanted to cry out Don’t call me sir!
‘Your father tells me you’re top of your class?’
‘Yes, well, this year, sir.’
Mahoney felt his heart swell. ‘Keep that up. And how’s the rugby?’
‘Well, I’m in the Under Nines A team,’ the boy said, ‘but I’m better at cricket than rugger so far.’
Oh, he wanted to watch him play. ‘Your dad says you’re going fishing?’
‘Yes.’ The boy held up a can. ‘Been buying some worms. We’re after bream, though we won’t have much luck until later.’ He looked as if he wanted to get going.
Mahoney said: ‘Well, do you trawl for tiger fish while the sun’s high?’
‘Yes, sir, I’ve caught five tiger fish in my life.’
In your life … And oh, Mahoney longed to be with him, teach him all about life. How he wished he was taking him fishing this afternoon. Sean said earnestly, ‘I’d better go now, sir; my father’s expecting me.’
‘Well, have a good time, Sean.’ Mahoney reached out his hand. The boy hastily transferred the rod and with the feel of the small hand Mahoney thought his heart would crack. ‘Look after yourself, my boy.’
Sean pumped his hand energetically once. ‘Goodbye, sir.’
‘Goodbye,’ Mahoney said. And it really was goodbye.
The boy strode resolutely on down the road towards the officers’ mess. Mahoney sat, watching him in the rear-view mirror, and the tears were burning in his eyes. He whispered: ‘And keep coming top of the class!’
He drove slowly on, out of the barracks, shaken from seeing the boy; up the winding hills; to the little cemetery at the very top.
He got out of the Landrover. The sun was burning hot. The Zambesi hills stretched on and on below, into haziness. It was a year since he had been here. He stood, looking about for some wild flowers. He picked one. He walked numbly into the cemetery.
The headstone read: Suzanna de Villiers Jefferson.
Mahoney stood in front of it. And maybe it was because he was still tensed up from seeing the boy, and from the bush, but it was all unreal. He whispered: ‘Hullo, Suzie. I’ve come to say goodbye.’
But Suzie did not answer. Suzie only spoke to him when he was drunk nowadays. He did not often speak to her now either, even when he was drunk, because it was all a long time ago, and he loved somebody else now. He stood there, trying to reach her. He whispered: ‘I’m going to tell the people what I think, Suzie. The truth. And they’re not going to listen to me, so then I’m going to leave.’
Suzie did not answer.
Mahoney stood there, waiting. There was only silence. He knelt on one knee, laid the solitary flower on her grave. He closed his eyes and tried to say a small prayer for Suzie to the God he was not sure he believed in. He whispered: ‘Goodbye, Suzie, forever …’ And suddenly it was real, the word ‘forever’, and he felt the numb tension crack and the grief well up through it, the grief of this grave high up in these hot hills of Africa. The heartbreaking sadness that he would never come back, to these hills, to this valley, to that mighty river down there, to this Africa that was dying, dying, to this grave of that lovely girl who had died with it: suddenly it was all real and he felt the tears choke up and he dropped his head in his hands and he sobbed out loud, and he heard Suzie say: ‘Come on now, it’s not me you’re weeping for, or the boy, is it, darling? It’s for yourself; and for Shelagh.’
And he wanted to cry out loud, half in happiness that Suzie was there and half in protest that Shelagh was over, and Suzie smiled: ‘Well, you always wanted a soulmate. And you got one, in spades. But you’re still not happy. Will you ever be happy, darling?’
‘You made me happy, Suzie.’
She smiled, ‘Ah, yes – but I wasn’t clever enough for you, I couldn’t argue the problems of the world with you, and it’s not me you’re weeping for now.’
‘Oh God, forgive me, Suzie …’
She smiled, ‘Of course, darling. Didn’t I always forgive you everything? But what about our son?’
And Mahoney took a deep breath and squeezed his fingertips into his face in guilt and anger and confusion. He whispered fiercely: ‘He’s safe, Suzie, he’s safe and it would be wrong for me to interfere.’
Suzie did not answer; and suddenly she was gone. And Mahoney knew very well that she had never been there, that the conversation had not taken place, but in his heart he almost believed it. He knelt by her grave, trying fiercely to control his guilt and his grief. For a long minute more he knelt; then he squeezed his eyes and took a deep breath. ‘Goodbye, Suzie … ,’ he whispered. He got up, and walked quickly away from her grave.
He drove slowly down the hot, winding hills. He felt wrung out; and when he got to the lakeshore he just wanted to turn left and start driving up out of this valley on to the road to goddamn Salisbury, three hundred miles away, and start telling the people what they had to do to save the country, tell them and then get the hell out of it – wash his hands of goddamn Africa …
But he was going to Salisbury by air, and he had two hours to wait.
He did not want to hurt himself any further: but he had to say goodbye to the Noah’s Ark too. He drove slowly to the harbour.
There she lay on her mooring, long and white, her steel hull a little dented where drowning animals and treetops had hit her.
Mahoney sat, looking at her. The brave Noah’s Ark … He was leaving her too. He picked up a beer, got out of the Landrover and walked on to the jetty. There were a number of rowboats tied up. He rowed out to his Ark.
‘Hullo, old lady …’
He clambered aboard her. He stood on the gunnel, looking about. It was a long time since he had used her, because of the war. He stepped over to the wheel, held it a moment. Below, fore and aft, were the cabins and saloon, locked.
He sat down behind the wheel, with a sigh.
And oh, he did not want to sell her. He had bought her to keep forever. She was part of his Africa, a symbol of this great valley that had died, she had been here from the beginning – that was why he had bought her. For in those brave days of Partnership, when the waters began to rise behind that dam wall, the wild animals retreated into the hills, and slowly the hills became islands as the water rose about them, thousands of hilltop islands stretching on and on; and the animals stripped them of grass and bush and bark, as all the time the waters rose higher, and they crowded closer and closer together; and now they were starving; and eventually they had to swim. But they did not know which way to swim to get out of this terrible dying valley, so they swam to other hilltop islands they could see, and they were already stripped bare. The animals swam in all directions, hooves and paws weakly churning, great emaciated elephants ploughing like submarines with just their trunktips showing, starving buck with heads desperately stuck up, desperate monkeys and baboons and lions. Many, many drowned. The government sent in the Wildlife Department men, and volunteers like Joe Mahoney, to drive the animals off the islands with sticks and shouts and thunder-flashes, to make them swim for the faraway escarpments while they still had strength, heading them off from other islands, trying to drag the drowning aboard. The animals that would not take to the water they had to catch, in nets and ambushes and with rugby tackles, wild slashing buck and warthog and porcupine, and bind their feet and put them in the boats. For many, many months this operation went on as the waters of Partnership slowly rose and more hills became islands and slowly drowned: and the motherboat of the flotilla was this Noah’s Ark.
Now he sat behind her wheel on the great lake, eyes closed; and he could hear the thrashings and the cries and the cursing and the terror, the struggling and the dust and the blood, and the heartbreak of Africa dying. And he remembered the hope: that all this was going to be worth it, that out of this dying would come the new life that Great Britain promised. But it had not come. And now the valley was dead. There were now new cries and screams under the blazing sun, new blood and terror. Partnership was dead, and this grand old boat was all that was left of those brave days, and she also was going to be left behind.
There was military transport to Salisbury, but Mahoney and Bomber Brown and Lovelock and Max and Pomeroy flew back to the city in Mahoney’s Piper Comanche, with a crate of cold beers. Bomber did the flying because he did not drink and because Mahoney did not like piloting any more. In fact he downright disliked it. He had asked Lovelock to fly the aeroplane, but Lovelock had shown up at the aerodrome brandishing a brandy bottle and singing, so Mahoney had asked Bomber along. It was a squeeze in the Comanche with five of them, and there were only four sets of headphones, but they made Lovelock do without so that they could not hear him singing, only see his mouth moving. Pomeroy could have flown the plane, for he was an aircraft engineer who also had a commercial pilot’s licence, but Pomeroy was accident-prone and tonight he was throwing one of his back-from-the-bush parties and he had already started warming up for it. Pomeroy was a sweet man but when he drank he tended to quarrel with senior officers. Mahoney had represented him at several courts martial. ‘But Pomeroy,’ he had sighed the last time, ‘why did you make it worse by assaulting the police who came to arrest you on this comparatively minor charge?’
‘I didn’t,’ Pomeroy protested – ‘they assaulted me. They send six policemen to arrest me? An’ they say, “Are you coming voluntary?” An’ I said, “Voluntary? Nobody goes with coppers voluntary – you’ll ’ave to take me.” An’ they tried. Six police? That’s downright provocation, that is …’
But the army put up with Pomeroy because he was such a good aircraft engineer, like they put up with Lovelock because he was such a good flier. Lovelock always looked the same, even when he was sober; amiable and lanky and blonde and pink, not a hard thought in his head. He was one of those English gentlemen who had never done a day’s work in his life because all flying was sport to Lovelock, like golf. The Royal Air Force had finally had enough of him. The story was that he was bringing in this screaming jet for an emergency landing and he had the choice of two airfields: ‘For God’s sake, man, which one are you going for?’ his wing commander had bellowed over the radio. ‘Which one has the pub open, sir?’ Lovelock had asked earnestly. The RAF had fired him. So he got a job with British Airways, and the story was that when he was getting his licence on 747s he rolled the jumbo over and flew her along upside down for a bit, for the hell of it, and got fired again. Now he flew helicopters for the Rhodesian army, and the terrorists fired at him. It was said Lovelock may look like a long drink of water but he had nerves of steel. Mahoney’s view was that he had no nerves at all. He had been flown into combat only once by Lovelock, and that was enough: goddamn Lovelock peering with deep interest into a hail of terrorist gunfire, looking for a nice place to put his helicopter down to discharge his troops, had given Mahoney such heebie-jeebies that he had threatened to brain him then and there. Now Lovelock’s head was thrown back, his mouth moving in lusty silent song:
‘Oh Death where is thy sting-ting-a-ling …
‘The bells of Hell may ring, ting-a-ling …
‘For thee, but not for me-e-e— …’
Max shouted in his ear: ‘Louder, Lovelock, we can’t lip-read.’
‘I can’t hear you,’ Lovelock shouted apologetically, ‘I’m not a lip-reader, you know.’ But they couldn’t hear him.
Mahoney smiled. He had a lot of time for Max. Max was a Selous Scout, one of those brave, tough men who painted themselves black, dressed in terrorist uniform and went into the bush for months spying on them, directing the helicopters in by radio for the kill. Max still had blacking in his hairline and he was going to Pomeroy’s sauna party tonight to sweat it out and run around bare-assed. Bomber said to Mahoney over the headphones: ‘Do you want to fly her for a bit?’
‘No thanks,’ Mahoney said, ‘I don’t like heights.’ And he heard Shelagh say: ‘I don’t know why you bought the wretched thing. As soon as we’re airborne you say “Have you had enough, shall we go back now?” Why don’t you sell it? But no, it’s like that Noah’s Ark, and your safari lodge – you just like to have them.’
‘What else is there to do with money? You can’t take any out of the country.’
‘You could buy a decent house in the suburbs, like a successful lawyer, instead of living behind barbed wire on that farm.’
Oh, he could buy a lovely house in the suburbs for next to nothing these days, he could have lovely tennis courts and clipped lawns and hedges in the suburbs instead of his security fence; and he could also go right up the fucking wall. Mahoney took a swallow of beer to stop himself thinking about Shelagh as the aeroplane droned on across the vast bush, and Pomeroy said: ‘Why don’t you sell the bleedin’ thing if you don’t like flying?’
‘But I do love you,’ he heard Shelagh say. ‘It’s just that you’re so stubborn …’ He said to Pomeroy: ‘I’m going to. And the farm, if I can get anything like a fair price.’
They all looked at him, except Lovelock. ‘Is this Shelagh speaking?’ Max said. ‘Are you getting married at last?’
‘No,’ Mahoney said grimly, ‘I’m going to Australia.’
Max glared at him. Then looked away in disgust. ‘Here we go again. He’s taking the Chicken Run again.’
It was a stilted, staccato argument, over the rasping headphones.
I am proud to be a rebel, said the T-shirts, I am fighting for my country. And by God they could fight! And the government told them, and they believed it, and it was almost all true, that they were fighting for the best of British values, for the impeccable British standards of justice and efficiency that had gone by the board everywhere else; the rest of the world had gone mad, soft, kow-towing to forces of darkness it had not the guts to withstand, and subversion of trade-unionism and communism that was rotting the world – the Rhodesians were the last bastion of decency and sense, the last of the good old Britishers of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, they alone would fight for decency and commonsense in this continent of black political persecution and incompetence, this rich continent that could not even feed itself any more since the white man left, this marvellous continent that had gone mad with One Man One Vote Once. And anybody who does not stay to fight is taking the Chicken Run.
‘Their fair share of the sun?’ Max echoed angrily over the headphones. ‘The African has his share of the sun but what does he do with it for Chrissakes? He lies in the shade and sleeps off his beer and watches his wives scratch a living! He doesn’t want to work for anything more – he’s incapable of anything more! How can you hand over the country to people like that? What was his share of the goddamn sun before the white man came? Tribal warfare and pillage!’
Mahoney rasped: ‘A whole new generation of blacks has grown up who wants more than that, and two guerilla armies are massing across the Zambesi to get it—’
‘And who’re these armies fighting for? A handful of wide-boy politicians, and if they win because people like you take the Chicken Run the poor bloody tribesmen will get even less of the sun because the country will sink back into chaos!’
‘And how the hell are you going to beat these armies—’
‘By blowing the living shit out of them!’
‘– if we don’t win the hearts and minds of the people?’
‘We’ve tried to win their hearts and minds for Chrissake! Schools and hospitals and agricultural services and diptanks – who paid for all that?’
‘But we didn’t give them Partnership!’
‘Partnership?’ Max shouted. ‘We gave them Partnership and Britain sold us down the river for thirty pieces of silver! We’ve still got Partnership here – the blacks have got fifteen seats in Parliament out of a total of sixty-five!’
Mahoney shouted, ‘Hearts-and-minds Partnership, Max! The educated ones can vote but do we pay the uneducated ones a decent wage, the factory workers and farmboys who’re the basis of the economy? Do we make the black man who’s got a tie and jacket and a few quid in his pocket and wants to take his girlfriend on the town? Do we make him feel like a Rhodesian? Do we hell! Do the black kids at school feel the sky’s the limit if they work hard? And do we make the poor bloody tribesman feel like a Rhodesian, that we’re doing everything to improve his lot?’
‘Oh Jesus!’ Max shouted. ‘How can a handful of whites do more? We do ten times more than the rest of Africa where their own black governments cannot even feed their people! Oh Jesus, somebody stop me from braining this bastard!’
‘I’m going to a better land, a better land by far,’ Lovelock’s mouth bellowed silently.
When you love somebody and she doesn’t love you anymore …
Mahoney tried to thrust Shelagh out of his mind as he drove into Salisbury from the airport, and he was almost successful because he was still angry from his shouting-match with Max, and he had had six weeks in the bush to get used to the idea, and few things unclutter a man’s mind so well as the constant prospect of sudden death: but when he saw the familiar outskirts, he was coming home home home, and every street shouted Shelagh at him; and, when he stopped at wide Jamieson Avenue, all he wanted to do was keep going, across the big intersection into the suburbs beyond, just swing his car under the jacaranda trees with a blast on the horn and go running up the steps and see her coming running down into his arms, a smile all over her handsome face, everything forgiven and forgotten.
But he crunched his heart and turned right, into central Salisbury.
The city rose up against the clear sky, the new buildings and the old Victorians, the streets wide enough to turn a wagon drawn by sixteen oxen, and all so clean. It was home time and the streets were busy, people hurrying back to their homes and clubs and pubs and cocktail parties. Many were carrying guns. There was the big old High Court where he earned his living, the prime minister’s office opposite, the Appeal Court beyond, Parliament and Cecil Square with the bank that kept his money – it was his hometown, and he loved it, and, oh God no, he did not want to give it away.
He parked outside Bude House, left his kit-bag but took his rifle. He took the lift to the seventh floor, to Advocates’ Chambers. The clerk’s back was turned; he hurried down the corridor, past the row of chambers, into his own.
His desk held a stack of court briefs, tied with red tape. He propped his rifle against the wall and started flicking through briefs.
‘I saw you dodging past me. Welcome back.’
He turned. It was the clerk. ‘Hello, Dolores,’ he smiled. ‘I’m in a hurry.’
‘Is Pomeroy all right?’ Pomeroy was her ex-husband.
‘Fine. I flew back with him.’
She relaxed, and turned to business.
‘Well, unhurry yourself, you’ve got lots of work there, first one Monday.’
He sighed. ‘But I’m not going to wake up till Monday! What is it?’ He scratched through the briefs.
‘Company Law,’ Dolores said.
‘But I’m no good at Company Law and I’m going to sleep till Monday!’
‘It’s a fat fee.’
‘What good is money I can’t take out of the country?’
Dolores leant against the door and smiled wearily. ‘Here we go again. Where to this time?’
She shook her head, then ambled into the room. ‘But only after you’ve run for parliament, huh?’ She sighed and sat down on the other side of the desk, and crossed her plump, sexy legs.
He was flicking through the briefs. ‘That’s right.’
She looked at him. ‘You’ll be a voice in the wilderness.’
‘I’ll at least do my duty. And make a hell of a noise while I lose.’
‘So we should just give up everything we’ve built? Just hand it to savages on a platter?’
‘There’s a middle course. And if we don’t take it, it’ll be our heads on that platter.’
She sighed bitterly. ‘How goes the war? Are we really losing?’
‘We’re thrashing them. But we can’t keep it up forever.’ He put down the briefs and crossed his chambers and closed his door. He sat down heavily. He dragged his hands down his face. ‘Dolores, we’re going to lose the war, this way. Not this year, not next, but soon. By sheer weight of numbers. And the rest of the world is against us, the whole United Nations.’
‘The United Nations,’ Dolores said scornfully – ‘that Tom and Jerry Show.’
‘Indeed,’ Mahoney sighed. ‘But that’s where the economic sanctions come from. We’re outlaws, Dolores. And we cannot win unless we also win the hearts and minds of our own black people.’ He spread his hands wearily. ‘The answer is obvious. We’ve got to make a deal with our own moderate blacks – bring them into government. Form a coalition with them, and unite the people, black and white. Have a wartime coalition, with black co-ministers in the cabinet, and meanwhile write a constitution that guarantees One-Man-One-Vote within the next five years.’ He spread his hands. ‘Then we can turn to the world and say, we are truly multi-racial, so stop your sanctions now! And then we can get on with winning this war against the communists. As a united people.’ He looked at her wearily. ‘That’s the only way, Dolores.’
She said bitterly: ‘What you’re saying is we must fight the black man’s battle for him, so that within five years he can rule us with his usual incompetence.’
Mahoney cried softly, ‘For God’s sake, either way you slice it, it’s a black man’s war we’re fighting. Because if we carry on this way we’re going to lose and we’re going to have the terrorists marching triumphant into town and ruling all of us, black and white, butchering all opposition. We must act now, while we’ve still got the upper hand and can bargain to get the best terms for ourselves under the new constitution. Next year will be too late.’
She was looking at him grimly. He smacked the pile of court-briefs. ‘I’ll do these cases, but don’t accept any new work for me. I’m starting my brief political career.’
She sighed deeply and said, ‘You and your sense of duty – I hope it makes you learn some Company Law before Monday.’ She stood up wearily. ‘Come on, I’ll buy you a beer.’
He shook his head. ‘I’ve got to work, Dolores. And sleep.’
She looked at him. ‘It’s Shelagh, isn’t it? You want to wonder who’s kissing her now.’ He smiled wanly. ‘She’s just not worth it, Joe! Heavens, snap out of it, you could have just about any woman you wanted.’ She glared, then tried to make a joke of it. ‘Including me. Pomeroy says I should have a fling with you, get your mind off Shelagh.’
He smiled. ‘It’s a pretty thought.’ He added, ‘Are you going to the party?’
‘Hell no, it’s Vulgar Olga’s turn tonight.’
‘Why do you put up with him?’ Mahoney grinned.
‘Just because I divorced him doesn’t mean I’ve got to stop sleeping with him, does it? One may as well sleep with one’s friends …’
But he did not set to work. He went down the corridor to the library, found Maasdorp on Company Law, slung it in his robes bag, picked up his rifle and left. He started his car, then sat there, wondering where the hell to go. He did not want to go to Pomeroy’s house and swim bare-assed and hear how he couldn’t get spare parts for his aeroplanes; he did not want to go to Meikles and see the one-legged soldiers drinking, nor to any bars and feel the frantic atmosphere around the guys going into the bush; nor to the Quill Bar and listen to the journalists talking about how we’re losing the war; nor the country club and listen to the businessmen crying about sanctions. The only place he wanted to go was Shelagh’s apartment.
But he did not. He drove through the gracious suburbs with the swimming pools and tennis courts, on to the Umwinzidale Road. The sun was going down, the sky was riotously red. He drove for eleven miles, then turned in the gateway of his farm; he drove over the hill. And there was his house. He stopped at the high security fence, unlocked the gate, drove on. He parked under the frangipani tree, and listened. He heard it, the distant, ululating song coming from his labour compound. It was a reassuring sound, as old as Africa, and he loved it.
It was a simple Rhodesian house that he’d built before he had much money. A row of big rooms connected by a passage, a long red-cement verandah in front, the pillars covered with climbing roses, then thatch over rough-hewn beams. It was comfortably furnished with a miscellany which he had accumulated from departing Rhodesians. He went into his bedroom, slung down his bag and rifle. The room was stuffy but clean; he looked at the big double bed, and it shouted Shelagh at him.
He turned, went to the kitchen, got a beer. He was not ready for work yet. He opened the back door, and stepped out into the dusk.
It was beautiful, as only Africa can be beautiful. The smell and sounds of Africa. The lawns and gardens were surrounded by orchards. He had planted a eucalpytus forest and beyond were sties in which a hundred sows could breed two thousand piglets a year. Stables, chicken runs. He had nearly a thousand acres of grazing and arable land, plenty of water from bore-holes. It was a model farm. He did not make much profit, but what else had he been able to do with his money, except buy more land, start more projects? Beyond his boundaries was African Purchase Area, where black farmers scratched a living. Once upon a time he had cherished the notion that he could help them, by being an example, but that had not worked out. The wide boys from the towns had sabotaged that, burnt his house, killed his prize bull, and Samson – good old Samson, who had been with him on Operation Noah – had hanged for it. It was a model farm, but who would want to buy it now? And what good would the money do him? When he emigrated he could only take a thousand dollars.
Mahoney turned grimly towards the swimming pool. And, oh, he did not want to emigrate. He did not want to leave this marvellous land and go and live with the Aussies, where there was nothing important to do except make money. …
Suddenly he realized something had changed. He stopped and listened. Then he realized: the singing had stopped.
Not a sound, but the insects. Automatically, he wanted his rifle. He turned and started towards the labour compound, through the orchards.
From fifty yards he could see the huts. He stopped amongst the eucalyptus. He could see his labourers around the fire, their wives and children, silent, staring. He walked closer.
An old man was kneeling near the fire. In the dust were some small bones. Mahoney had never seen the man, but he knew what he was. He was a witchdoctor.
Mahoney stood there. What to do? The practice of witchcraft was a crime, but he did not like to interfere in tribal customs. He stood in the darkness, waiting for the man to speak: then his foreman glanced up. ‘Mambo …’ he murmured.
Everybody turned, eyes wide in the flickering firelight.
Mahoney called, ‘Elijah, please come to my house.’
He turned. The old foreman followed him.
Mahoney walked back through the trees, and stopped outside the kitchen. Elijah came, smiling uncomfortably. Mahoney clapped his hands softly three times, then shook hands. He spoke in Shona: ‘I see you, old man.’
‘I see the Mambo,’ Elijah said, ‘and my heart is glad.’
‘I have returned and my heart is glad also.’
Mahoney squatted on his haunches. Elijah squatted too, and they faced each other for talk as men should. And the ritual began. It was an empty ritual because Elijah knew the Nkosi had seen the witchdoctor, but it was necessary to say these things to be polite. ‘Are your wives well, old man?’
‘Ah,’ Elijah said, ‘my wives are well.’ The Nkosi did not have any wives, so Elijah said: ‘Is the Nkosi well?’
‘I am well. Is Elijah well?’
‘Ah,’ Elijah said, ‘I am well.’
‘Are the totos well?’
‘Ah,’ said Elijah, ‘the totos are well.’ The Nkosi did not have any children, so Elijah said: ‘Does the Nkosi sleep well?’
‘I sleep well. Does Elijah sleep well?’
Ah, Elijah slept well. Are the cattle well? Ah, the cattle were well; but there is drought. Are your grain huts full? Ah, there is drought, but there was grain in the huts. Are your goats well? Yes, the goats were well …
Everything was well. Business could begin. ‘Old man, is there sickness in the kraal?’
Elijah knew what was coming, and he looked uncomfortable. ‘There is no sickness, Nkosi.’
‘Are any of the wives barren?’
Elijah said, ‘The wives are not barren, Nkosi.’
‘Are there any witches living amongst us?’
‘Ah!’ Elijah did not like to talk about witches. ‘I know nothing of witches, Nkosi.’
Mahoney sighed. Once upon a time he had been a young Native Commissioner in charge of an area the size of Scotland or Connecticut. How many men had he sent to jail for this?
‘Old man, there are no such things as witches who cast spells to make people ill, or barren, or their cattle sick, or their crops to die. There are no such people as witches who ride through the sky on hyenas in the night.’ He made himself glare: ‘And it is a crime to consult a witchdoctor to smell out a witch, because stupid people believe him, and they banish the woman he indicates, and she is homeless. And very often she takes her own life. That is a terrible thing, old man!’
Elijah said nothing.
Mahoney breathed. ‘The cattle are thin.’ He looked up at the cloudless sky. ‘How much have you paid the witchdoctor, to make the rains come?’
Elijah shifted uncomfortably. It was no good to lie. ‘Each man paid thirty cents, Nkosi.’
Ten men, three dollars, his labour force had just been defrauded of three dollars. What was he going to do about that? Make the witchdoctor give the money back? Drive him off his property? He sighed. No. It would shock and embarrass Elijah, terrify his labourers, show contempt for the peoples’ customs which he certainly did not feel. He looked up at the starry sky again. ‘I see no clouds.’
Elijah stared at his bony knees. Then he said uncomfortably: ‘Does the Nkosi remember my bull, which he wanted to buy for two hundred dollars?’
Mahoney remembered. It was a good animal. He had offered several times to buy it, because he needed another bull and Elijah’s land was over-grazed. The old man shifted. ‘I will sell him to you for fifty dollars …’
Mahoney looked at him. ‘Fifty? Why? Is he sick?’
‘Ah,’ Elijah said, ‘he is very sick.’
Mahoney sighed. He did not want to buy more cattle, if he was emigrating. He said, ‘Have no more to do with witchdoctors. Where is this bull?’
‘I have brought him to your cattle pen,’ the old man said.
Mahoney got up resignedly, fetched his rifle, and followed the old man to the cattle pen beyond the eucalyptus trees.
The animal was sick all right. It was very thin, its head hanging. Mahoney knew what was wrong with it; because the native land was overstocked, it had eaten something bad. It would not live. He said wearily, ‘Fifty dollars?’
He counted out the notes. Elijah clapped his hands and took them. Mahoney regretfully walked to the bull’s head. He raised the rifle. There was a deafening crack, and the animal collapsed.
‘Cut it up, and hang it, then put it in my deep freeze, as ration-meat for your family.’
‘Thank you, Nkosi!’
Mahoney looked at the dead bull; the blood was making a tinkling sound. He said, ‘Elijah, your land is over-grazed. You could have sold this animal last year for two hundred dollars.’ He looked at him. ‘Why did you not sell him to me then?’
Elijah looked genuinely surprised, then held up his hand.
‘Nkosi, how much money have I got in my hand today?’
Mahoney looked at him. ‘Fifty dollars.’
Elijah held up the handful of money, and shook it.
‘And if I had sold him to you last year, how much money would I have in my hand today?’
Mahoney stared at him. Then shook his head, and laughed.
The sky was full of stars. From the labour compound came the sound of a drum, the rise and fall of singing. The Company Law brief was spread on his study table, but Mahoney sat on the verandah of the womanless house, staring out at the moonlight, listening to the singing; and, oh no, he did not want to leave his Africa. Maybe he should have stayed a Nature Commissioner in the bush, with people who needed men of goodwill like him; to help them, to judge them, to show them how to rotate their crops and put back something into the land, how to improve their cattle; someone who knew all their troubles, who attended their indabas and counselled them, the representative of Kweeni, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen, Defender of the Faith … Maybe that was his natural role, to serve – and God knows thev’ll need men like me for the next two hundred years …
‘And if I had sold him to you last year, how much money would I have in my hand today, Nkosi?’ Oh, dear, this is Africa. Today! Today the Winds of Change have driven the white man away. Today we have his roads and railways and schools and hospitals. Today we have fifty dollars … And tomorrow when the roads start crumbling and the sewerage does not work any more, that has nothing whatsoever to do with today.
Joe Mahoney paced his verandah in the moonlight. It was so sad. Africa was dying, but not in the name of Partnership anymore like in those big brave days of Operation Noah, but in the name of Today. And tomorrow the new prime minister will be President-for-Life of a one-party state and there will be no more One Man One Vote, and the roads will be breaking up and the railways breaking down. And he heard Max shout: ‘Then why the hell do you want to give them more power?’
‘Because that’s the only way we can win the war and hang on to just enough!’
But that is only half the godawful story of the dying of Africa, Shelagh. The other half is even more godawful. Because the African counts his wealth in wives and cattle, and in daughters whom he sells as brides for more cattle – his standing is counted by the number of children he has. Twenty years ago there were two hundred million Africans in the whole of Africa, today there are four hundred million, in twenty years there’ll be eight hundred million – and they can’t even feed themselves now.
So what’s it going to be like in twenty years? But even that’s not all. What about the forests these starving millions are going to slash trying to feed themselves? What about the earth that’s going to turn to dust because they’ve sucked everything out and put nothing back? What about the rain that won’t come because the forests are gone? And what about the wild animals? Where are they going to go? The African word for game is nyama, the same word as ‘meat’!
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a man. He turned. Another figure followed. It was Elijah, followed by the witchdoctor. Elijah raised his hand. ‘The nganga wishes to speak with Nkosi.’
Mahoney sighed. He thought the man had gone. ‘Let him speak, then.’
The witchdoctor came forward, dropped to his haunches, his hands clasped. He shook them, muttering, then flung them open. The bones scattered on the ground.
Mahoney stared down at them. And for a moment he felt the age-old awe at being in the. presence of the medicine-man. The witchdoctor looked at the bones; then he picked them up, rattled them again, and threw them again. He stared at them.
He threw them a third time. For a full minute he studied them; then he began to point. At one, then another, muttering. Mahoney waited, in suspense. Then the man rocked back on his haunches, closed his eyes. For a minute he rocked. Then he began. ‘There are three women. They all have yellow hair … But the first woman is a ghost. She is dead …’
Mahoney was astonished. Suzie. …
‘The second woman has an unhappy spirit. This woman, you must not marry.’
Mahoney’s heart was pounding. The witchdoctor could know about Shelagh from Elijah, but not about Suzie.
‘The third woman …’ The witchdoctor stopped, his eyes closed, rocking on his haunches. ‘She has the wings of an eagle …’ He hesitated, eyes closed. ‘She will fall to earth. Like a stone from the sky …’
Mahoney tried to dismiss it as nonsense; but he was in suspense. He wanted to know why he must not marry the second woman.
The old man rocked silently.
‘And you too have wings. You will go on long journeys, even across the sea. You have a big ship …’ The man stopped, eyes still closed. ‘You have spirits with you … But you do not hear them …’ He was quite still. ‘There are too many guns.’
Guns? Mahoney thought. Too right there were too many guns. But ships? He waited, pent. But the man shook his head. He opened his eyes, and got up. Mahoney stared at him.
‘Nganga,’ he demanded, ‘what have you not told me?’
The man shook his head. He hesitated, then said: ‘The Nkosi must heed the spirits.’
And he raised his hand in a salute, and walked away in the moonlight.
Mahoney sat on his verandah, with a new glass of whisky, trying to stop turning over in his mind what the witchdoctor had said. But he was still under the man’s spell ‘This woman you must not marry …’
Suddenly he glimpsed a flash of car lights, coming over the hill, and he jerked. He watched them coming, half-obscured by the trees, and his heart was pounding in hope. They swung on to his gates a hundred yards away, and stopped. He got up. The car door opened and a woman got out.
Mahoney came bounding down the steps and down the drive.
She stood by the car, hands on her hips, a smile on her beautiful face. He strode up to the gates, grinning. ‘Hullo, stranger,’ Shelagh said. He unlocked the gate shakily. She held her hand out flat, to halt him. ‘Why didn’t you come to see me?’
‘You know why.’
She smiled. ‘Very well … What do you want first? The bad news or the terrible news?’
He grinned at her: ‘What news?’
She took a breath. ‘The bad news is I’m pregnant.’
Mahoney stared at her; and he felt his heart turn over. He took a step towards her, a smile breaking all over his face, but she stepped backwards.
‘The very bad news is: I’ve decided not to have an abortion.’
And, oh God, the joy of her in his arms, the feel of her lovely body against him again, and the taste and smell of her, and the laughter and the kissing.
Later, lying deep in the big double bed, she whispered: ‘Ask me again.’
He said again, ‘Now will you marry me?’
She lay quite still in his arms for a long moment.
The moon had gone. He could not see the storm clouds gathering. They were deep asleep when the first claps of thunder came, and the rain.
And so it was that Joe Mahoney got married, stood for parliament, and bought a Britannia cargo aeroplane.
The wedding was the following Friday, before the District Commissioner in Umtali, a hundred and fifty miles from Salisbury. The bride wore red. Nobody was present except the Clerk of Court, as witness, and Mahoney had such a ringing in his ears that he went temporarily deaf. Afterwards they drove up into the Inyanga mountains, to the Troutbeck Inn, where they spent a dazed weekend. On Monday Mahoney got rid of all his cases to other counsel, and started his short political career.
He was standing as an independent. He had posters printed, bought radio and television time. He chose the most prestigious constituency to contest, so he would make the most noise. He made many speeches, visited over a thousand homes, had countless arguments. Not in his wildest dreams did he expect to win; his only interest was the opportunity to tell people the truth. He didn’t expect his message to make him popular. ‘Let’s make it a grand slam!’ the government propaganda cried. ‘Let’s show the world we are a united people!’ Let us BE a united people!’ Mahoney bellowed. ‘White and Black united to fight the enemy!’ He drew good crowds, much heckling, and few votes. On polling day the government won every white seat, and there was cheering.
Thus Joseph Mahoney did his duty, then washed his hands of Africa and prepared to emigrate to Australia; but ended up buying a big cargo aeroplane instead, which happened like this.
In those days there were many sanction-busters, men who made their living by exporting Rhodesian products to the outside world in defiance of the United Nations sanctions against Rhodesia, and Tex Weston was one. He was a swashbuckling American with prematurely grey hair, a perfect smile, and a Texan drawl that he could change to an English accent in mid-word; he owned a number of large freight airplanes which plied worldwide, changing their registration documents like chameleons. Tex Weston made a great deal of money by dealing in everything from butter to arms, with anybody. Today it might be ten million eggs, tomorrow hand-grenades. Tex Weston talked a good, quiet game, and claimed he owned a ‘consultancy company’ in Lichtenstein which devised plans for clandestine military operations for client states and put together the team to do the job. In the Quill Bar, where Mahoney did most of his drinking with the foreign correspondents, they called Tex Weston ‘The Vulture’, and nobody knew whether to believe him, although it was suspected that occasionally the government employed foreign professionals to carry out operations against the enemy in other countries. But it was undeniable that Tex Weston was once a major in the American Green Berets, that he was a supplier of arms to Rhodesia, that he knew all about aircargo, and that the Rhodesian government sorely needed the likes of him to bust the sanctions.
Now, on the day after the election, a Portuguese sanction-busting aeroplane was shot up by terrorists as it took off from a bush airstrip, and made an emergency landing in Salisbury. The next day Mahoney was in the Quill Bar, waiting for his wife to finish school and trying hard to spend some of the money he could not take with him to Australia, when Tex Weston sauntered up to him. ‘I hear you’re leaving us for Sydney. I fly Down Under a bit, and sometimes need an understanding lawyer.’
Mahoney smiled wanly. He wondered whether Tex Weston didn’t find it a disadvantage being so good-looking. Men distrusted him for it. But he was one of the few people who quite liked the man.
‘You’d better get one who understands some Australian law. I’ve got to re-qualify first.’
Weston shook his head sympathetically. ‘How long will that take?’
‘A couple of years. Of pure fun.’
Weston smiled. ‘What about money? You’re only allowed to take a thousand dollars, aren’t you?’
Mahoney wondered whether Weston was about to offer to do a bit of smuggling. ‘Shelagh’ll get a job teaching. And we’ll buy a bit of jewellery here and flog it there.’
‘You never get your money back on that sort of thing.’
‘As long as I get some money back.’
Tex said, ‘Tell you what. There’s this Portuguese cargo plane that got shot up. The owner’s lost his nerve, he’s selling her cheap: twenty-five thousand pounds, payable in Rhodesian dollars. She’s in good condition.’
Mahoney looked at him, taken aback.
‘What do I do with a bloody great aeroplane? I’ve just sold my little one.’
Weston said, ‘Fly her to Europe, sell her there. You should
make a profit. But even if you lose a bit, you’ll have got twenty-odd thousand pounds out. Which is better than it sitting here in the bank until the communists shoot their way into town.’
‘But I can’t fly a big aeroplane!’
Tex laughed. ‘The co-pilot’s still aboard, wondering about his next job. Pay his salary and he’ll fly you to Kingdom Come. Out-of-work pilots come pretty cheap.’
Mahoney’s mind was boggling. ‘But how do I go about selling an aeroplane in Europe?’
‘There’s plenty of brokers – planes are for sale all the time.’ He shrugged. ‘She’s a good buy. The Britannia is an excellent workhorse. She’s worth double, I guess.’
‘But even fifty thousand sounds suspiciously cheap for a big aeroplane.’
Tex shook his head. ‘A popular misconception. Planes are like ships. In Singapore there’re hundreds of freighters going rusty. You could pick up a good one for a hundred thousand dollars.’
Mahoney was staring at him. ‘And what is fuel to Europe going to cost?’
‘A few thousand pounds. But you can get a cargo to cover that; Rhodesians are screaming to export. My agents will get you a cargo tomorrow.’ He added, ‘She’s a bargain, but have your pal Pomeroy check her over.’
Mahoney wondered why the great Tex Weston was being so nice to him. ‘If she’s such a bargain, why aren’t you buying her?’
Tex smiled. ‘I’ve already got twenty. What do I need the hassle for? But it’s different for you, you’re an emigrant.’
The next week, Joe Mahoney and his patched-up Britannia took off for Lisbon with a cargo of tobacco. Mahoney had three big diamond rings and three enormous gold bracelets in his pocket. The pilot was a fifty-year-old American with a gravelly voice called Ed Hazeltine. Pomeroy had put up five thousand pounds of the price, for a piece of the action. Dolores, his clerk, had put up two thousand pounds. Pomeroy was co-pilot and engineer, though he was not licensed for Britannias. Mrs Shelagh Mahoney was not aboard: she would join her husband later, in Australia, when he had sold the aircraft, rings and bracelets and found them a place to live.
When they were over the Congo, in the moonlight, Mahoney said: ‘What’re you going to do when we’ve sold her, Ed?’
‘Look for another sucker who owns airplanes,’ Ed rumbled. He added: ‘If you sell her.’
‘You think that’ll be hard?’ Mahoney demanded.
‘Britannias?’ Ed said. ‘Nobody can make a living with these old things, except bus-stopping around Africa where nobody else wants to go.’
When they got to Lisbon there was a telex from Tex Weston offering to buy the aircraft for ten thousand pounds.
‘The bastard,’ Mahoney said.
He spent that day telephoning aircraft brokers all over Europe, but nobody wanted an old Britannia this week. He spent the next day selling a gold bracelet and feverishly telephoning freight agents, trying to find a cargo, because the most terrifying thing about owning an aircraft is how much it costs on the ground. The next day it took off for Nigeria with a cargo of machinery. Mahoney felt he had aged years. As soon as they were at a safe altitude he said grimly, ‘O.K., Ed, start showing me how to fly this thing.’
There was no cargo for the return flight awaiting them in Nigeria, although the Lisbon freight-agent had promised one. In desperation Mahoney went to the market place and bought seventeen tons of pineapples, as his own cargo.
‘So now we’re in the fruit business?’ Pomeroy said.
‘We’ve got to pay for the fuel somehow.’
‘Where to, boss?’ Ed said.
‘To wherever they like pineapples. To Sweden. And stop calling me boss.’
‘We ain’t got enough fuel for Sweden, boss.’
‘To England, then,’ Mahoney said.
As soon as they were airborne he climbed back into Pomeroy’s seat. ‘O.K., Ed, now you’ve really got to teach me to fly this bloody awful machine.’
‘Boss, you can’t operate this airplane with your private pilot’s licence, you’ve got to go to aviation school.’ ‘Start teaching me, Ed!’
It was a hand-written letter, in a brisk scrawl:
The Managing Director
Redcoat Cargo Airlines Ltd
Gatwick Airport, England.
Dear Mr Mahoney,
I read your letter to The Times about the escalating costs of aviation fuel. I will shortly be floating a company to build aircraft which will be very economical on fuel, and I am seeking all the moral support I can get. Plainly it is vital to build these aircraft in (to quote your Times letter) a hostile world of oil bandits holding us to ransom with ever-increasing fuel prices, a world full of poor countries plunging deeper into poverty and despair because of oil prices, becoming ripe for communist takeover as a consequence. I would like to meet you. Rest assured I am not asking you, or Redcoat Cargo Airlines, for money. I will telephone you.
(Major) Malcolm Todd
The telephone call, from a coin-box, was equally brisk. So was the meeting, in a pub called The Fox and Rabbit. Major Todd thanked him for coming, bought him half a pint and got straight to the point, as if rehearsed. He was a grey-haired man, mid-fifties, with a cherubic face and bespectacled eyes that seldom left Mahoney’s; he stood very still while he spoke:
‘I have a Master of Science degree and until the year before last I was in the Royal Engineers. Five years ago I was given the task of formulating a plan for moving British troops to various battle-zones in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East; I had to assume that the Channel, Gibraltar and Suez were blocked by enemy navy, our airforce fully engaged in challenging enemy airstrikes, and that all ports, airfields and railways in Europe were in enemy hands.’
Mahoney was intrigued. The Major went on: ‘After considering every form of transport – and of course all methods of breaking blockades – I and my staff concluded that the quickest, cheapest and safest system would be the transportation of troops and armour by airship.’
‘By airship?’ Mahoney interposed.
‘Yes. We calculated that an airship with a lifting capacity of seven million cubic feet of helium – not hydrogen – could airlift almost a thousand men, at a hundred miles an hour, at a fraction of the fuel cost of any other vehicle, exposing the troops to less vulnerability-time en route. Remember that all airfields are assumed to be in enemy hands. An airship, however, can hover anywhere, like a helicopter, and lower its troops by scrambling net.’
Mahoney’s mind was wrestling with the image of being flown by airship into a hail of terrorist gunfire. The Major glared at him. ‘You’re thinking that because of its size an airship is vulnerable. But we’re talking about the airship as a troop carrier, not as an assault vehicle. As a carrier, it is no more vulnerable than a troop ship, or a train, or a convoy of trucks, and it goes much faster than all of them! A paratroop plane is also a big target for modern weapons, and when hit it crashes to earth with all her men! Whereas an airship, even if badly holed, would sink slowly as the gas escaped, giving the troops an excellent chance of survival.’ He paused briefly. ‘But there is another big advantage. Whereas your poor bloody paratrooper must often fly to his drop-zone through airspace dominated by the enemy, the airship can take a safe, circuitous route because it can stay airborne for days. To reach a battle zone in Germany, say, troops could be flown into the Atlantic, avoiding the Channel, swing over north Africa, and approach Germany from the east–even attacking the enemy from behind.’
Mahoney was fascinated. The Major continued:
‘Plus the advantage of costs. Such an airship would, on today’s prices, cost only about ten million pounds. A big troop plane, say a 747, costs sixty million pounds. The government, therefore, could afford to buy six airships in place of one 747. Expressed another way, it could afford to lose six airships before it cost the same as one 747. And the airship is really no bigger target for today’s weapons than a 747.’
Mahoney was intrigued – and almost sold on the Major. ‘What did the Army say?’
Malcolm Todd glowered. ‘My report was well received by the General Staff, but it’ll be years before it is implemented because of damn-fool politicians.’ He took a breath. ‘So, I decided to retire and devote myself to the resurrection of the airship commercially – as cargo-carrying and passenger aircraft. I formed a private company to consult aeronautical designers. We now have all the necessary designs. With modern technology we can build perfectly safe airships.’ He burrowed into his raincoat pocket and pulled out a large envelope, which he slapped on the bar. ‘Here is a summary of our achievements – please read them.’
He looked at Mahoney. ‘From your letter to The Times, it’s obvious that you’re concerned about the under-developed nations and how oil costs are crippling them.’ He tapped the envelope. ‘The airship is their answer. Uses a fifth of the fuel. It would enable them to exploit remote, mountainous, desert and jungle regions where there are no roads or airfields: the airship could simply hover to deliver the mining equipment or whatever, winch up the produce, and carry it away. It would revolutionize their economies!’
Mahoney was grappling with the enormity of the idea. ‘Marvellous,’ he agreed sincerely. He left out, ‘If it works.’ He had a feeling he would get an earful from the Major if he said that. ‘But what do you want from me?’
The Major suddenly looked thoroughly uncomfortable. ‘Not money.’ He cleared his throat. ‘But, in short, until I float my company on the Stock Exchange, I’m flat broke. All my savings, and my military pension, have been used up in research and in buying a lot of important tools and equipment that have come my way cheaply.’ He cleared his throat again. ‘I’m not asking for money, but Redcoat Cargo Airlines owns a chunk of farmland near Gatwick Airport, which has an old cottage on it, in disrepair. I would like to rent it.’ He blinked. ‘I confess I will be unable to actually pay any rent until happier days come along. But meanwhile I undertake to make the cottage fully functional again.’ He smiled for the first time. ‘I am an engineer, and as good with my hands as I am with my head.’
It was a windy, overcast day, and Joe Mahoney was grateful for it, though he detested the cold. He even wished it would come pissing down with rain. He stood in the goods-shed and watched the forklift crossing the tarmac towards his aeroplane. It stopped at the open tail, lifted the crate into the plane. A second forklift was trundling back for another.
‘Slow down,’ Mahoney said to the superintendent, ‘she’s half full already.’
The super smiled. ‘It’s your money.’ He called, ‘Have a smoke-oh, Bert.’
‘But be ready to look busy when they arrive.’
Mahoney turned and paced through the bleak corporation shed. It was packed with cargo, consigned with different airlines. The whole cold place was filled by plaintive cheeping and all the cargo was dominated by thousands of stacked cardboard cartons holding two hundred thousand day-old chicks. Mahoney walked to the nearest stack, lifted a lid. One hundred fluffy, yellow chicks cocked their little eyes up at him, cheeping. He looked at them. They were twenty-four hours old and they had not yet taken their first morsel of food or drop of water. They were still living off their body fluids, but in twenty-four hours they’d die without food and water.
Mahoney took one out. It sat in his hand, little wings hunched, completely unperturbed. Mahoney smiled sadly at it. In three months it would have its head chopped off. It was enough to turn you vegetarian.
His walkie-talkie radio rasped: ‘Here they come, Joe!’
He hurried through the shed, straightening his tie. ‘O.K.,’ he yelled, ‘get those forklifts working!’ He strode on to the tarmac.
Coming past the row of hangars were two black cars. The second car was a Rolls Royce, flying the Ghanaian pennant. In the back sat three black gentlemen.
The leading car came to a halt. It had two white men in it. Mahoney put on his most charming smile, and opened the door.
‘Good day, Mr Pennington! Welcome to Redcoat!’
A dapper little man, Mr Pennington looked thoroughly peeved. ‘This is Mr Johnson, PCC’s house-magazine photographer.’
Mahoney shook hands. ‘Well,’ he said brightly, ‘your cargo is nearly all loaded!’ He pointed.
‘I thought’, Mr Pennington said, ‘that you would be ready for take-off by now.’
‘Well,’ Mahoney said, ‘all airlines use the Corporation’s shed and labour, so sometimes we do have small delays.’ He strode towards the other car as it came to a halt. He flung open the door. ‘Good day, Consul-General! Welcome to Redcoat!’
A large black gentleman climbed out. He shook Mahoney’s hand amiably. ‘This’, he said, ‘is the head of our Information Department, and our photographer.’
‘How do you do.’ Mahoney took the Consul-General’s arm. ‘You have met the publicity director of PCC, of course?’
‘Indeed, sir!’ Mr Pennington’s manner had changed entirely. ‘I’m sorry it’s such a miserable day but it’s a very important one for PCC. We hope this is only the first of many contracts with your government.’
‘And Redcoat will always be ready to fly your goods,’ Mahoney got in cheerfully, rubbing his hands. ‘Well, gentlemen? Do you want to take your photographs immediately, or after some refreshment?’
‘But you haven’t finished loading.’ Mr Pennington’s manner had changed again. ‘We need a picture of the plane taking off!’
Mahoney’s heart sank. ‘But isn’t it better to get photographs of the forklifts working, more action and all that?’
Before they could answer, he turned to lead the way to the aircraft. Mr Pennington hurried up beside him. ‘Mister, er … ?’
‘Whether or not Redcoat get any more contracts from us depends on prompt delivery. These fertilizers are urgently needed in Ghana and they were supposed to fly out yesterday.’
Mahoney wanted to say: Listen, Mr Pencilton, I’m sorry about the delay but if you knew Africa you’d know that it doesn’t matter a damn that your fertilizers are late because in Accra they’re going to sit for weeks while corrupt officials haggle with other corrupt officials about who gets what rake-off. Instead he said, ‘Mr Pennington, our motto is “The Redcoats Are Coming” … We deliver. To out-of-the-way places with strange-sounding names. More, Better, Cheaper, Faster …’
It was an excruciating hour, standing in the cold, a fixed smile on his face as they posed for the photographers, shaking hands with each other, under the wings, on the forklifts, on the flightdeck. All the time Pennington whispering complaints that the loading was still not finished, that Redcoat better pull up its socks. Mahoney assured him Redcoat would. For an hour the handshaking exercise went on. Then the last crate was loaded, the tail closed, the plane crammed with PCC’s fine products. ‘Well,’ Mr Pennington said, ‘I presume you’re now ready for take-off and we can get our final photograph?’
‘Indeed,’ Mahoney said. ‘And while we’re waiting for the crew, would you join our staff in a few drinks? They’re all waiting to meet you!’
‘Mr Mahoney,’ Mr Pennington said testily, ‘I thought the crew were ready!’
‘Any moment now, Mr Pennington.’ (He so nearly said Pencilton.) ‘They only sign on duty shortly before take-off because they’re only allowed to do so many duty-hours a month, by law. They’ll be arriving any moment. This way please, gentlemen …’
It was a big galvanized-iron hangar, but it never had an aeroplane inside it because it was full of engines under repair, plus Redcoat vehicles, spares and gear. Redcoat Cargo Airlines had only two aircraft and they were never on the ground long enough to squeeze them into the hangar, and it would have been a financial disaster if they had. Redcoat stayed afloat only because its aircraft stayed aloft, by being repaired the moment anything went wrong, in the middle of the night if necessary, out on the tarmac while the new cargo was being loaded. The other engines in the hangar belonged to other airlines whom Redcoat serviced in a desperate effort to pay its way. Every time he entered the hangar, Mahoney, for whom engines were one of life’s mysteries, wondered where the money came from. He had intended showing his customers the hangar and explaining what a wonderful success-story Redcoat was, but Mr Pennington was having none of that. Over the first cup of tea in the corner office, he got Mahoney aside.
‘I would like a word with the managing director.’
It was on the tip of Mahoney’s tongue to say the boss was out. ‘I am the managing director.’
‘I see …’ He drew himself up. ‘This shipment was supposed to leave yesterday, then it was put off until this morning. Now it’s four o’clock.’
The hand-shaking exercise was in danger of degenerating into a hand-wringing exercise. Just then Dolores exclaimed: ‘Oh dear, it’s started raining!’
‘Oh dear!’ Mahoney cried, turning to the window.
‘Damn!’ Mr Pennington said.
‘I’m afraid’, Mahoney turned sadly to the Consul, ‘that you won’t get your photograph of take-off.’ He brightened: ‘But never mind, we took some last week, specially for you!’
Like a conjurer, Dolores produced a pile of glossy photographs. ‘Taken in sunshine,’ Mahoney said, ‘much better.’ It was a photograph of the Britannia taking off, not the Canadair CL44. He waited with baited breath.
Mr Pennington looked at the photograph with distaste. ‘Good,’ said the Consul, who didn’t think much of the English climate. ‘Don’t you think?’
The moment the Rolls Royce disappeared out the gate, Mahoney went racing across the tarmac, into the Corporation shed.
‘O.K.,’ he shouted, ‘get her unloaded! And load the chicks!’
On one side of the road was Gatwick Airport, acres of building, hangars and carparks: on the other side was the pub called The Fox and Rabbit; down a wooded lane stood Redcoat House, in tranquil isolation. Beyond, the company’s farmland ran up to a hill, behind which was the home of the managing director of Redcoat Cargo Airlines. A plaque by the front door of the House was inscribed with an impressive list of companies all beginning with the word ‘Redcoat’. But Redcoat House was an old barn. It wasn’t even legal. The land was not zoned for commercial purposes. The municipal council had been threatening Redcoat for two years, but Mahoney kept stalling them. One day the council would get Redcoat out, and it was going to cost a lot in legal fees, but it was a lot cheaper than renting legitimate premises. So was the use of Tex Weston’s hangar, but the price was that Weston insisted on being on the board of directors, and that the rent be in the form of Redcoat shares.
That worried Mahoney. During the first year, Weston was so seldom in England that he did not matter; but then he began to show up more frequently. As a director, he was entitled to know all business details. Mahoney began to get the feeling that the man was biding his time.
‘Fire him off the bleedin’ board,’ Pomeroy said.
‘Then what will you use for a hangar?’ Shelagh wanted to know.
‘He won’t kick us out,’ Pomeroy said. ‘We’re no threat to to his routes. We even hire his engineers if I can’t cope, like.’
‘We’ve got to get our own hangar,’ Mahoney said. ‘He’s got nearly twenty-five percent of the shares already.’
‘What’ll we use for money?’ Shelagh said. ‘You and your grandiose schemes.’
‘Earn it! We’ve only got two aircraft and they’re working flat out – and we’re still broke!’
‘We’ve got to get rid of that Britannia and buy another Canadair.’
‘But the Canadair costs a hundred pounds per hour more to run!’
‘But it carries ten tons more cargo.’
‘Good God,’ she cried, ‘where’re we going to get the money? We couldn’t sell that Britannia – that’s how we’re stuck in this godawful business! Listen – you said we were going to stay in just until we had enough money to get out.’
‘That’s why we’ve got to find another Canadair,’ Pomeroy said.
‘God! Next you’ll be trying to build one of Todd’s airships …’ She got up and walked out of the board meeting.
Dolores shot Mahoney a sympathetic look. Pomeroy and Ed avoided his eye.
That afternoon, after a great deal of hesitation, Mahoney telephoned Shelagh’s psychiatrist, and made an appointment to see him that night, at ten o’clock. Then he drove slowly home, to dress for dinner at his Inn of Court, where he was a goddamn law-student again.
It was a beautiful cottage, two hundred years old, with a thatch roof and low beams and small windows; it needed a lot doing to it. The garden was overgrown but completely surrounded by woods, which cut off the airport noise. Mahoney parked the car, and entered the kitchen door with a heavy heart.
She was bathing, and did not hear him. He walked through the living room, up the narrow stairs, down the corridor to Catherine’s room, calling, ‘Is this where the beautiful Miss Mahoney lives?’ There was a squeak and a toddle of little girl across the room, all curls and smiles, arms outstretched. Mahoney picked her up, and hugged her and kissed her, and his eyes were burning at the thought of losing her.
He left ten minutes later, in his only decent suit. It was grey pinstripe, which was unfortunate because his Inn of Court required black. Shelagh was still in the bath; he called goodbye, got into the car, and drove slowly through the woods on to the road for London, thinking.
He parked and walked into Holborn, through an arch, into the courtyard of Gray’s Inn. He walked grimly across into the cloakroom. He took a gown, paid the clerk, signed a register, and walked into the Inn. It was crowded, students finding places at the tables, a clamour of voices. Half the students seemed to be African. He muttered to himself: ‘I thought more than three constituted an Unlawful Assembly …’
At the top of the old hall was a dais, where the benchers dined. Below were rows of tables, the length of the hall. There were stained-glass windows and high beams. Mahoney walked up an aisle, and sat down at the first empty place. ‘Good evening,’ he said.
He was sitting between a portly black gentleman and a thin Indian gentleman. Opposite sat a fresh-faced Englishman, and a pretty Chinese woman.
‘I think you happen to be Mr Senior of our mess tonight,’ the young man said, ‘if you’re sitting in that place.’
‘Oh, very well.’ He reached for the strip of paper and printed his name. He got the names of the other three and printed them in order of their seniority within the mess: Mr Fothergill, Mr Obote, Mrs Chan. He then asked for the names of the people in the messes immediately to right and left of his, and printed them, in order of seniority. Just then there was a loud knock, and all the students stood up.
The door opened, and in walked the benchers, a solemn single file. The senior bencher said grace. Everybody sat down and the tucker began.
Waiters went scurrying down the aisles thumping down tureens of soup. As Mr Senior, Mahoney started ladling. The wine steward passed with two baskets.
Mahoney filled the glasses and picked up his elaborately: ‘Mrs Chan, Mr Fothergill, Mr Obote, lady and gentlemen of the best, your good health. May you live long, plead well and judge with humility.’
He drank solemnly to that. After a minute Mr Fothergill proposed his toast to the mess. They smiled politely. They resumed their soup. Mr Obote picked up his glass.
‘Mr Mahoney, Mr Fothergill, Mrs Chan, I wish you good health.’ He added with a twinkle: ‘May your children be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and your goats and cattle even more numerous.’
Mahoney laughed and slapped the black man on the shoulder. ‘Thank you, Mr Obote!’
Mrs Chan piped up, blushing: ‘Mr Mahoney, Mr Fothergill, Mr Obote, I wish you good health and happiness.’
Mahoney took a weary breath and muttered, ‘Let’s get it over with.’ He leant forward and addressed the mess to his left. ‘Mr Senior of the Upper Mess, may I interrupt your scintillating conversation by proposing a toast?’
‘Why, certainly, Mr Senior, if you can tear yourself away from the illuminations of your own mess.’
‘With difficulty, Mr Senior.’ He read from the list: ‘Mr Johnson, Mr Patel, Mr Patel, and Mr Patel – may your cups run over with happiness and may your seed, both severally and jointly, be more numerous than the stars in the sky, your progeny even more fertile, and theirs after them, and your herds even more prolific than the whole damn lot of you put together.’ He added, ‘All this in your lifetime.’
He drank. The two messes were laughing, except Mr Fothergill. Mahoney then turned the other way and said, ‘Mr Senior of the Lower Mess, may I pray your silence while I drink to your sterling health? …’
And so on. Lord, Mahoney thought, this is supposed to train lawyers?
Finally they were through the dessert and on to the coffee and port. Then the shouting started.
But Mr Junior of the lowermost mess, the person closest to the door, studiously ignored the call.
‘Up Junior! … Come on, Junior! …’
For five minutes the shouting went on. Finally Mr Junior stood up. Except Mr Junior was a woman. Immediately the jeering and bellowing began.
‘Mr Senior,’ Ms Junior shouted across the hall, ‘may we have permission to smoke?’
The boos and jeers drowned her. Mr Senior of the uppermost mess studiously ignored the request.
Ms Junior shouted again and the boos and jeers doubled.
‘On the table, Junior!’
Ms Junior was looking very embarrassed, though she was smiling. She climbed on to her chair, put her hands to her mouth and bellowed.
‘Mr Senior, may we have permission to smoke?’
‘Shut up, Junior!’ ‘Louder, Junior!’ Mahoney put on his spectacles and looked at Mr Senior of the uppermost mess. He was sipping his port as if nothing was happening. Mahoney looked at Ms Junior, and he felt sorry for her. She was about thirty, ten years older than the youngsters ragging her, and Mahoney thought she was beautiful. She had tawny hair in a bun and her embarrassed smile was wide. Now she was clambering up on to the table. She was tall, with good legs.
‘Mr Senior!’ she bellowed – but Mahoney could only see her mouth moving. He sighed. This was supposed to teach law-students the art of public speaking? Mr Senior was looking up as if he had just noticed something.
‘I beg your pardon, Junior?’
Laughter and sudden silence. She started again: ‘May we’ – and the gleeful catcalls burst out again.
‘Smoke?’ Mr Senior said, looking puzzled. ‘Oh, very well.’
The woman climbed down off the table, and blew out her cheeks.
Mr Mahoney began to get up. ‘Well, Mrs Chan and gentlemen, excuse me …’
‘One moment, Mr Mahoney, please!’ Mr Fothergill said. He stood up. He bellowed: ‘Mr Senior in Hall!’ The hall fell silent. Fothergill shouted: ‘I have two serious charges to make against Mr Mahoney … Firstly, when proposing a toast to our mess, he first addressed Mrs Chan, who is Junior of our mess, instead of first addressing me. Secondly, he is wearing a grey pinstriped suit.’
Mr Fothergill sat down, grinning.
‘Mr Mahoney,’ Senior in Hall intoned, ‘how do you answer these weighty allegations?’
Mahoney stood up.
‘Mr Senior,’ he shouted, ‘they are as weightless as the area between Mr Fothergill’s ears.’ (Laughter.) ‘Surely it is customary, even in those dark corners of England which Mr Fothergill hails from, to address a lady first? If I am wrong, I am glad to be so, and my only regret is that I had to toast Mr Fothergill at all.’ (Laughter.) ‘As to the second charge, my suit is not grey pinstripe, but a white suit with a broad grey stripe in it. I am in the ice-cream business, you see.’
He sat down midst more laughter. Senior in Hall passed judgement.
‘On the first charge you are cautioned. On the second, you are fined a bottle of port.’
Mahoney signalled to the waiter … At the next table a young man was standing and shouting:
‘Mr Senior, I have a most weighty complaint. This gentleman – and I use that in the loosest possible sense of the word – stole my bread roll!’
‘Goodnight, everybody,’ Mahoney whispered to the mess. He turned, bowed to Senior in Hall, and hurried out. He handed his gown back. As he emerged from the robing room, the beautiful woman was coming out of the hall.
‘Well done,’ he smiled at her sympathetically.
She rolled her lovely eyes. ‘Isn’t it a laugh-a-minute?’ He caught a trace of an Australian accent.
Mahoney hurried on through the courtyard, out into Holborn. He half regretted that he had not struck up a conversation with the tawny Australian. But what was the point?
He got into his car, and sat there a minute, not relishing what he had to do now.
The house was in Hampstead, but the consulting-room was small. ‘It’s very good of you to see me so late, Dr Jacobson,’ Mahoney said.
‘The name’s Fred.’ He was unsmiling. ‘I don’t know what you expect of this meeting. Every patient’s problem is confidential, so I can’t tell you what’s wrong with Shelagh – if anything. You’re not really consulting me as a patient, so’ – he looked at his watch – ‘the quickest will be if I ask you questions, like you do in court. I warn you, some of them may be painful.’
‘That doesn’t matter.’
‘Oh? O.K. Why’s your marriage on the rocks?’
Mahoney was taken aback. On the rocks! This expert thought it was that bad?
‘Shelagh hates living in England,’ he said.
‘Why? And what can you do about it?’
Mahoney sighed. ‘The weather. The people. She feels they’re narrow. The cost of living … Our house. My job.’
‘And’, Mahoney said, ‘she misses her job in African Education.’
‘The last thing you mention. Because you consider it unimportant? And why aren’t you living in Australia, like you promised?’
Mahoney had to control his irritation with the man.
‘Look, I couldn’t sell the Britannia, so I set up the cargo company as insurance and went to Australia and had a good look. And I decided against the place. They’re nice people but they’ve got nothing to worry about except keeping up with the Joneses.’
‘And why haven’t you re-qualified as a lawyer?’
‘Because’, Mahoney said wearily, ‘I’m in the airline business whether I like it or not. I have to make it work. Look, I’m pretty bright, but I had to go to aviation school to get my commercial pilot’s licence – as well as run the airline.’
‘It’s a big undertaking, to become a pilot.’
‘It’s not. There’re a lot of exams, but any fool can learn to fly; some people fly solo after eight hours! On the big ones you just got to remember which bloody buttons to press.’ He added, ‘I only fly as co-pilot anyway.’
‘To save a pilot’s salary. Away half the time. What kind of life is that for a woman?’
‘But most pilots’ wives survive. Look, I’m not flying for fun. They’re bloody dangerous machines. And boring.’
‘Why haven’t you sat any of the law exams yet? Shelagh says they’re easy.’
‘Shelagh’s not a lawyer, to my knowledge.’ He shifted. ‘No, they’re not hard, and I’m exempted a lot of the exams. But it’s still a pain and I’m tired out when I get home. Listen, I’ll re-qualify. But I’m not a steam-driven genius.’
‘How much did you earn in Rhodesia?’
Mahoney sighed. ‘Sixty thousand dollars a year. A hundred thousand, if I worked my ass off.’
‘And it’s all sitting in the bank back home?’
‘I spent most of it.’
He shrugged. ‘The farm. A boat. I don’t know. Booze. Women. I was a bachelor.’
‘And now you only earn housekeeping money. Is that fair? Why don’t you at least take your family home to Rhodesia where you can earn a decent living?’
Mahoney sat forward. ‘Rhodesia is finished. The whites have lost their chance to make it a multi-racial society, there’s no point defending a doomed situation just to earn money which you can’t take out when the blacks turn the country into an intolerable mess.’
‘And you’re not a racist?’
Mahoney shook his head. ‘No, I am a realist. Is there one African country which isn’t misgoverned? That’s not prejudice, it’s fact. Look, Shelagh taught in the Department of African Education, so all she met were nice black children eager to learn. And she’s British, brought up here; she doesn’t know about the vast mass of primitive ignorance out in the bush. She thinks they’re noble savages who just need a bit of education and one-man-one-vote to turn them into western democrats. She thinks the Russians are sincere people, that we’re all the victims of American propaganda.’
‘You haven’t a high regard for her opinion. Do you think you qualify as her soulmate?’
‘I like to read, but I haven’t much time. But Shelagh? – she writes poetry. She’s into long walks in the woods when it’s pissing with rain. Women’s Lib. Now she’s into meditation. I simply haven’t got the time.’
‘No, you’re the breadwinner, the Victorian husband who says: “This is what we’re doing, here is where we’ll live, I’m the man in this house” …’
Mahoney stared at him. ‘You think I’m like that?’
‘I’m suggesting Shelagh sees you like that … So, you don’t like Australia, and Shelagh must accept your life here.’
Mahoney took a breath. ‘You may not appreciate this, but being a Rhodesian makes me British to the goddamn core. Rhodesians may be a bit slow off the mark making the reforms people like me wanted, but the Rhodesians – even including Ian Smith and most of his cowboys – the Rhodesians are the last of the British! The last custodians of the good old British values in Africa. Like hard work. Incorruptible public service. Good judges. Good police. Good health and education services. And’ – he held up a finger – ‘a Victorian civilizing mission.’
‘Victorian …’ the psychiatrist murmured.
Mahoney held up a hand. ‘Ah yes, those good old values are old-fashioned in today’s milk-and-water egalitarianism and the world-owes-us-a-living ethic. But I was brought up to think and feel British – I feel like an Englishman. I don’t want to be Australian or American – so if Rhodesia is finished, I’ll come back to the land of my forebears.’ He added, with a bleak smile: ‘In fact, God is an Englishman.’
‘And you want to run an airline instead of being a lawyer.’
Mahoney sighed. ‘In Rhodesia I was a big fish in a small pond. But here there’d be many lean years before I built up a reputation. And I don’t know much Law, never did. A seat-of-the-pants barrister, that’s me. And now I have to make that airline work because all our capital’s in it. And it is working. All around airlines go bankrupt, but we’re making it! Because we’re lean and work hard. O.K., we only get housekeeping money, because we’ve got to pay off mortgages on our aircraft, and homes. Do you know what our aviation fuel-bill is? One and half million pounds a year! Cash on fill-up. No credit. Our pilots carry five thousand pounds with them on each trip, to fill up. And the banks that lend us that kind of money want it back at the end of each week. How do we do it? By working hard … Once our mortgages are paid we’re going to be well off. But right now we’re two weeks away from bankruptcy at any given moment. It only needs those OPEC bastards to hike the price of oil unexpectedly, or we lose two engines, or we’ve got an empty plane, and we’re broke. So we have to work …’
He massaged his brow. ‘And’, he said ‘it’s worthwhile work! Britain has to export. We’re helping British goods go worldwide, at cheaper rates. And we specialize in out-of-the-way places the big airlines refuse to serve, and we bring back products that otherwise wouldn’t be sold! Shelagh sees us as a trucking company, but aren’t we helping the economy? And isn’t economics the key to Africa’s backwardness – a man will never grow more than he needs to eat unless he can sell his surplus and buy something else with his money.’ He sat back. ‘Isn’t that better than arguing Carlyle versus The Carbolic Smokeball Company, which any fool lawyer can do?’
‘So you haven’t washed your hands of Africa – but Shelagh must! And now, far from going back to Law, you’re talking about airships.’
Mahoney slumped back.
‘Airships … ,’ he sighed. ‘Airships don’t even exist, except these mickey-mouse Goodyear blimps.’ He shook his head. ‘I’m very interested in the principle of airships, because they would revolutionize the Third World economies. But’, he smiled wearily, ‘all I’ve done is lent a tumble-down cottage to a guy called Malcolm Todd. That’s a far cry from spending Shelagh’s housekeeping money on an airship.’
The psychiatrist put his hands together. ‘So what are you going to do to get her back? That’s why you’re here, isn’t it, at forty quid an hour, which you can ill afford?’
Get her back? Oh God! And Cathy …
‘Well,’ the psychiatrist demanded, ‘do you love her?’ He answered himself. ‘Of course, you adore her, don’t you?’
Mahoney breathed deep. ‘Yes.’
‘And does Shelagh love you?’ He answered again: ‘Yes, when you were the young big-wheel lawyer around town? Then she realized you were also a dictatorial Victorian bastard who didn’t go too much for transcendental meditation, so she began to cool off you? Tell me, what did you love about her? Her mind? Didn’t you find her a little way-out for you, a bit too arty, undergraduate? She didn’t even like to get drunk with you.’ He leant forward. ‘It’s her body, isn’t it?’
The psychiatrist said, ‘You’re hooked on her body. Her loins … And Joe Mahoney had never been rejected before, he’d always been the one to love ’em and leave ’em. And you couldn’t bear the thought of her screwing somebody else, could you?’
‘Is that unusual?’
‘So when she comes back to you the last time, you marry her. Why? Because she’s pregnant? Did you think that marriage would change your relationship? Is that the advice you would have given a client?’
‘Probably not,’ Mahoney sighed.
‘Exactly. But your heart ruled your head – as always, I suspect.’ He added: ‘And now you’re being illogical. You’re the Victorian, but instead of kicking her out, as a Victorian would – or giving her a hiding and taking on a mistress for good measure – you’re a supplicant.’
Mahoney stared at him. ‘Me? A supplicant?’
‘Oh, you don’t walk around with a hang-dog expression begging her favours – in fact the opposite, you doggedly lay down the law – but mentally you’re trying to figure out how to get her love back, and you badly want to make love to her. Right? Tell me – how’s your sex life?’
Mahoney didn’t answer.
‘Exactly,’ the psychiatrist sighed. ‘How can you be a confident lover with all that? And remember the old rule-of-thumb: a woman who’s getting well laid will forgive her man anything. But if she isn’t …’
The summer went that way. Afterwards, he did not remember much about the days. They were all work work work, chasing cargo, juggling overdrafts, worrying about engines, schedules. It was the nights he would remember. Redcoat preferred to fly out at night because there was less time waiting on the runway for permission to take off, burning fuel, and it allowed Mahoney to do some office work during the day. You have plenty of time to think and feel, flying through the nights.
And he remembered the Africa at the other end. Redcoat always tried to arrive after sunrise, in case they had forgotten to switch on the runway lights, or they were off at a beer drink. They parked on the apron and let the warm, fertile air of Africa flood in, and the swarm of cargo handlers, and they broke out the beer while they talked to their agent, changed money at blackmarket rates, got the good news or the bad news about the cargo that had or had not shown up; then went bumping into town over broken roads to another run-down hotel. If Mahoney didn’t have to buy twenty-five tons of bananas or pineapples as his cargo, he usually walked downtown through the broken-down shops and chickens and derelict cars and children with flies around their nostrils, and went to a pub and drank beer which would have cost three pounds a bottle if he had changed money at the official rates but cost thirty pence at the blackmarket rates, and he watched Africa go by. And he loved these people, and he despaired. He thought: in ten years Rhodesia is going to be like this. And he thought: I wish Shelagh were here … Twelve hours later they took off again, into the African night.
And maybe it was because of the droning beauty of the night, flying home, home, home, but when he saw the desert begin to change down there, and then the coastal mountains of the Mediterranean begin, and then faraway lights, and just a few hours ahead was the Channel and England – every time it seemed that all the pain and anger had been purged by those two days away, that none of that was important, all that mattered was love and life, and in a few hours he would be bouncing up the track to his home, and he wanted to walk in the door and shout:
‘Hey, I love you! What’s all this nonsense? Life is beautiful and you’re beautiful and our daughter’s beautiful and this house is beautiful!’
And she was running down the stairs, her hair flying, and she flung her arms around him, and told him that she had come to terms with herself and she was going to live with him happily ever after.
She said: ‘Please sit down. I want to say something.’ She was standing at the kitchen window, her back to him.
He sat down slowly at the table. She took a breath.
‘While you were away, I made up my mind. About my life.’
He started to say, Your life is with me – then stopped himself.
She said: ‘I’m going back to Rhodesia, Joe. You know my reasons …’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t like England. I don’t like this business you’re into. I want my work – my real work, teaching Africans. My own money—’ She paused. ‘I’ve written to the Education Department and asked for my job back. They’ve agreed, though I forfeited all my seniority because I left. I’ve also written to the university, enrolling in a part-time arts course.’
His heart was knocking. It was unreal.
‘You’re not taking Cathy away.’
She said, ‘I am. I’ve taken legal advice. A court will always give custody of an infant to the mother. You obviously couldn’t look after her.’ She turned around and faced him.
His heart was hammering, but he also felt a numbed, deadly calm. He did not think she had seen a lawyer, but she was right about Cathy. Time, he still had time to work on this. He said, ‘Rhodesia is not a safe place for Catherine.’
‘Nonsense, people are having babies out there all the time. The war is not in Salisbury. It’ll be over long before the fighting gets near town, you said that yourself. And why should anybody hurt me, I’ll be teaching their people …’ She dismissed that, then added uncomfortably: ‘We have to discuss money.’
He stared at her.
‘You want to talk about money at a time like this?’
She said defiantly: ‘I’m sorry, but we must clear the air. We don’t want to go through this again tomorrow. Besides, you’re flying tomorrow.’ She took a breath. ‘I own twenty-five percent of the shares in Redcoat. Admittedly you gave them to me, but didn’t I work, even while I was eight months pregnant?’ She took a breath and looked at him squarely. ‘I want your assurance that you’re going to support us.’
He was incensed. It crossed his mind to say that he wanted those shares, he would buy them from her, but, oh, maybe they were a key to keeping her and Catherine with him. He said softly, ‘You’re leaving me. You’re taking my child away, and you want to talk about money in the same breath?’
‘I’ve got to be my own person, Joe!’ she cut in tensely. ‘I’ll bring Cathy back for holidays. Or you can come and see us. Listen, you needn’t even send money; you’ve got thousands frozen in the bank in Rhodesia. Or you could sell the farm, and the safari lodge, and the boat. I’ll supervise it all for you.’
He could hardly believe she was saying this. For a moment he almost despised her.
‘I didn’t sell the farm because I couldn’t get anything like what it’s worth. And the situation is worse, now, and the safari shares aren’t worth anything.’
‘Please yourself. But the market can only get worse.’ She waited, guiltily defiant.
He sat there, feeling sick in the guts. Not yet the grief, the final pain; what he needed was time – to figure out if there was one last card to play.
‘Please sit down,’ he said.
‘My mind’s made up, Joe.’
‘Sit down, please.’
She did so. She had never looked so beautiful. He took a deep breath.
‘Please don’t interrupt me.’ He looked at her. He felt gaunt. ‘This has been coming a long time, and I have also reached a decision.’
She waited, grimly. He said, ‘Give us one more year, Shelagh. In one year the airline will be on its feet, we’ll have a good income, in foreign currencies. Then we can go back to Rhodesia, and take our chances. We won’t be dependent on frozen Rhodesian assets. You can go back to work then – to university – anything. But …’ He shook his head. ‘If you leave me now, it is finished, Shelagh. You cannot come back. I will give you only enough money to support Cathy properly. No more, no less. I will not pay you to desert me.’
Her eyes flashed, but he held up a hand. ‘Let me finish.’ He looked at her steadily. ‘If you leave, you must take everything of yours with you. I will pay for its freight. Anything of Cathy’s can stay here. But I want absolutely nothing of yours to remind me of you, especially not any pretty clothes, not even a hairclip.’
She flashed, ‘You’re trying to make it difficult for me!’
He said, ‘No, I’m trying to protect myself against pain.’
She jumped up. ‘Very well! I’ll go and start packing now.’
She strode out of the room.
He sat there, staring across the kitchen. It was still unreal. He felt exhausted. He got up, and walked slowly out of the kitchen. Through the living room. Up the stairs. He could hear Shelagh in the bedroom, pulling out suitcases. He walked on, into Cathy’s room.
She was playing on the floor, a mop of curls on her beautiful little head, and her infant face burst into smiles.
‘Hullo, my darling …’
He picked her up. He held her against him, her tiny arms around his neck, breath on his cheek; and he felt his heart turn over. And then up it came, the grief.
Flying. One of the best things to do when you are unhappy is to fly. Fly away into the sunset, every moment hurtling you further away from your pain, into a different world: the unreality of crossing continents, high mountains down there, seeing faraway lights and oceans; one moment flying through black cloud, the next through moonlight or sunshine, from the countries that have rain and snow to the countries that have sunshine and flowers; within hours, from great cities to countries that have only jungles and deserts; and you look down and realise there is an infinite amount of life apart from your own, all those millions of people down there living and dying and loving, and millions of other creatures whose lives are just as important to them – and the skies stretching on into infinity, not contained by anything, holding millions of other worlds: and you realise just how small one human being is, how unimportant one heart-break, and maybe for a moment you will almost glimpse the whole cosmic picture and what a minute, insignificant part of it your troubles are.
But flying is also one of the worst things when you are unhappy. Because there is nothing to do but sit there, and stare out of the perspex at the night, every moment your aeroplane hurtling you further away from the place you really want to be, your home and wife and child who are busy leaving you, and when you get back it’ll be two days nearer, and all you want to do is get this aeroplane to the other end and discharge the cargo and fly, fly back home before it is too late and walk in the front door and say …
Say what? Please don’t leave? … I love you? …
‘Hullo,’ he said.
‘Hullo. You’re back early! Have a good trip?’
‘Is Cathy asleep yet?’
‘Yes, don’t disturb her, please. Did you have a good trip?’
Oh Cathy. He just wanted to be with her. Each day was precious. ‘The homeward-bound cargo didn’t show up.’
‘So. More pineapples, is it?’
‘No pineapples, either. Tomatoes. Can I get you a drink?’
‘One day you’re going to find yourself stuck with twenty-eight tons of rotting tomatoes. Did Dolores find a buyer?’
‘God, you take chances.’
‘Will you have a drink if I light a fire?’
‘No, it’s too early. You go ahead.’
Oh God, he did not want to stay in the emptying house, and he did not want to go out. ‘Would you like to go to The Rabbit? I’ll ask one of the Todd children to babysit.’
‘No, you go ahead. I’m awfully busy.’
She was very businesslike. The paintings were the first to go, and the walls shrieked at him. For days the paintings stood stacked: then, when he came back from a trip, they were gone.
‘Malcolm Todd built me some crates. The rest I farmed out, for safe-keeping.’
For safe-keeping? Till when? And despite himself he felt the hope rise. He heard himself say, ‘You could have left them here.’
‘Oh no, you told me you wanted no reminders.’
She was punishing him. Then she said: ‘Actually, I’ve left two you might like. That one of Cathy. The other is that old one of the farm.’ She added, ‘If you don’t want them, just chuck them.’
He felt his eyes burn. ‘Thank you. Yes, I’d like them.’
‘Well, make up your mind where you want to hang them.’
Off the shelves everything systematically came, all her books and ornaments and knick-knacks, packed into cartons; out of her wardrobes came her clothes, neatly packed into trunks and suitcases, depending on whether they were winter or summer clothes.
‘It’ll be summer there now. The winter stuff can come by sea.’
Maybe she was expecting him to break, tell her she could leave all her things, come back whenever she chose, and her house and all would be waiting for her. And God knows there were times during that long bad month when he almost broke and said it.
He spent every moment he could with Cathy. He hated coming home to the heartbreakingly emptying house, and he was desperate to be with her. He told Dolores to rearrange his flights, so he could get home before she went to bed. If it was raining, he played with her in her room, to have her to himself. But he could not bear the sounds of packing going on and whenever he could he took her out. She was not yet two but he loved to talk to her, to figure out what was going on in her little head. Sometimes he took her to the park, to play on the swings and roundabouts, but she always got over-excited there, and he preferred just to walk with her down the lanes, carrying her on his shoulders, or holding her hand as she toddled along. Sometimes he drove into the village to buy her icecream and to show her the shops. Christmas was coming, and it crunched his heart. Christmas, but no Cathy, and no Shelagh. For that reason he did not like the Christmassy shops, but Cathy thought they were wonderful and he relented, taking her inside on his shoulders so she could see everything, and he always ended up buying her something. He liked to think of her out playing with them in sunny Rhodesia. And oh God, he just hoped that she would remember him when she did. But no, she would not; she was too little to remember these heartbreaking days, when she was leaving her daddy. He took her to see his aeroplanes, tried to explain them to her, hoping she would remember something, he desperately wanted her to remember as much about him as she could. ‘I’m your daddy, my darling, and I will always love you, always, you can always turn to me, for the rest of your life …’ But no, she did not know what was happening to her little life and to her daddy, and it made him feel desperate. She would grow up without him, and get to love some other man as her daddy, and that man could never, never feel the love that he was giving her …
At last he had to take her home to the heartbreaking cottage in the woods, to the sights of packing. And he sat with her while she bathed, watching her; and, oh, the feel of her small body as he soaped her, her little ribs and back and shoulders, then rubbing her dry while she giggled, and clutching her to his breast. And, after he had kissed her goodnight, he did not know what to do. With all his heart he longed to walk up to her mother, just take her in his arms and tell her he loved her, and their daughter, please don’t leave me. But he could not. Neither could he go and sit with Shelagh while she went about her packing; he did not want to let her out of his sight either, but he could not bear the house, so sometimes he went down to The Rabbit.
One night Danish Erika, who owned the joint, said: ‘I hear Shelagh’s leaving.’
He felt his heart squeeze. ‘She’s only going for a holiday.’
‘Uh-huh,’ Danish Erika said. ‘Nice work, if you can get it. So, you’ll be a bachelor. Well, when you start dishing it out, remember your friends.’
He pretended she was joking. At Redcoat House Dolores said, ‘If Shelagh’s only going for a few months, how come Malcolm crated up her pictures?’
‘She needs them at her summer course at the university.’
She followed him into his office. She said: ‘The council served a summons on us yesterday, to get us out of here. They’re sick of you stalling them.’
He looked at the summons. He hardly cared. The hearing was months hence.
‘We’ll wait till the last moment, enter an Appearance to Defend and ask for an adjournment.’
‘Then where do we go?’
‘To the Town Planning Tribunal. Then to the appeal court. Stop worrying, we’ve got years here.’
She looked at him sympathetically; then sat down on the corner of his desk. ‘Joe? It’s all for the best.’
He hated people knowing.
She said quietly: ‘This, too, shall pass …’ She sighed: ‘I should know; I feel much better since I washed my hands of Pomeroy.’
He didn’t say anything.
‘All right,’ she said, ‘I’ll mind my own business.’ She stood up. ‘But you are my business, remember.’ She added, challenging. ‘Where’s the beer-swigging, womanizing, life-and-soul-of-the-party I used to know?’
‘O.K., Dolores,’ he said.
‘O.K. But, boy – how the mighty are fallen!’
In the second last week he came back from Accra and the carpets were gone. They were hers. The living room looked very bare. She said, ‘It looks a bit sad, doesn’t it?’
‘The bedroom ones I sold. I need the money. The living room one, Malcolm wrapped up for me, for shipping.’
His throat felt thick. ‘I’d have bought them from you.’
‘Oh no. You told me.’ She added, ‘You’ll probably notice that all your shirts have now got buttons on. I had a blitz.’
He was taken aback. ‘Thank you, Shelagh.’
‘And I’ve stocked the deep-freeze. I opened an account for you, so don’t forget to pay it. The bill’s on the spike.’
He was touched. ‘Thank you.’
She said, ‘Well, I’m going up to Mom and Dad this afternoon, back by Monday night. Do you want to come? I’ll be driving through the Lake District; I haven’t seen it for years.’
The bloody Lake District. ‘No, thanks. I don’t want to intrude on your parents’ last weekend with you.’
‘Very well, please yourself. You always do.’
After they left, he went slowly upstairs, with a glass of whisky. He stood in the bedroom doorway. The bare floor shrieked Shelagh at him. He walked slowly to her wardrobe.
It smelt of her, that faint, woman-body smell of powder, perfume. Only three garments hung there. Dresses she would wear before she left. All her shoes gone, her sexy high heels, her boots, summer sandals, all gone into those cardboard crates that had disappeared. To fly, fly away, a whole life flying away, off to another continent, for other lovers to know. Her dressing table had almost nothing on it. He pulled open her underwear drawers. There were just two pairs of panties left. Gone were her stockings and suspender belts, her slips and bras. Into one of the suitcases to fly, fly away, to other lovers.
He turned slowly out of the naked room. He walked down the passage, into Cathy’s. He stopped. Almost everything of hers was gone. Off the floors, the shelves, all her toys and colouring books gone, the pictures all gone off the walls: just one teddy bear left on her neatly-made bed. The room was empty, childless. He walked slowly in, and laid himself down on her bed, and he put his arm across his eyes; and his heart broke, and the tears ran silently down his face.
That long, bad weekend he just wanted to turn his face to the wall, to be in a dark place, to hide. On Saturday Dolores telephoned to ask if he was coming in, but really to find out if he was all right. He just sat in the kitchen, staring at nothing, drinking beer. Saturday night was very bad. He woke up at three a.m. He got up, tried to work, but he couldn’t. Finally he got a beer and sat in the dark kitchen again. On Sunday there was a persistent knocking on the door. Finally he got up and opened it; there stood Dolores, in her tracksuit.
‘Is there anything I can get for you? A barbecue chicken?’
‘I’m O.K., Dolores.’
‘You look like hell. Shall I get a relief pilot for tomorrow?’
‘No, I’ll be all right.’
‘When this nonsense is finally over.’
Then she put her arms around him, and held him tight; and with the feel of her womanness and sympathy the tears choked him, then suddenly she kissed him. Hard and fierce, as if she wanted to bite him, then her fingers went to her zip and she said, ‘I guess we’ve got to do this – for your good. And mine.’
He backed off, half shocked, half guilty, and wanted to protest that everything was all right with his marriage …
‘If you’re worried about being my boss, don’t be; I’ll pretend it never happened.’ She unzipped her tracksuit and came towards him. He held her again, rigidly. He closed his eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
She stared at him, then slumped against the table, her magnificent breasts free.
‘Wow! I don’t know any man who’d knock back an offer that strong. Are you really that hung up on her? Or do I need a bath, I’ve been jogging, dammit!’
‘But you went to bed with her.’ She nodded in the direction of The Rabbit.
He stared. ‘She told you that?’
‘No, but the word’s out.’
He felt absolutely unreasonable panic. ‘Well, the word is wrong! God, what a town.’
‘There’s more adultery here than there are passengers. Pomeroy loves it.’ She held up her hands, and got up. ‘O.K., I’ll go now.’ She looked at him sullenly. ‘Can’t I buy you a beer at The Rabbit? Come on, they’ll be singing Christmas carols.’
Christmas! ‘I’m fine, thank you for coming.’
‘I wish I had,’ she said. ‘More important, I wish you had …’
She left, jogging through the forest, and blew him a truculent kiss. But an hour later she was back, in her car, and a little tipsy. ‘I want to put my case again.’ And she unzipped her tracksuit purposefully; but just then there was a knock on the door. He went to it, with relief, while Dolores hastily zipped up; and in walked Val Meredith, whose husband sometimes flew for Redcoat. In fact he was flying one of the Redcoat planes right that moment. ‘Hullo, I’ve come to invite you to Sunday lunch.’ Then she saw Dolores smiling at her icily. ‘Woops, sorry!’
After she left Dolores said, ‘Not Val Meredith, is it?’
‘No,’ he sighed. He wondered how the hell Val Meredith knew Shelagh was away.
‘O.K.,’ Dolores said, ‘the Florence Nightingale in me is cooled.’ She got up to go, fed up. ‘But do you see? What fun life could be?’
He took a deep breath. ‘Dolores? …’ Then he shook his head. ‘Forget it. I don’t want to know.’
She looked at him. ‘You mean has Shelagh? …’ She put her hands on her hips, wearily. ‘No,’ she said. I haven’t heard even a whisper about her playing around. And believe me, I’d tell you if I had.’
He was a bit better on Monday, but Dolores had arranged a relief pilot. He did not work on Tuesday and Wednesday, so he could be with Cathy. He did not want to let her out of his sight. He played with her in her room. He had to go into the village so he took her to a tea-room and bought her icecream, as much as she wanted, so he could have her to himself, listen to her. He did not want to take her home; she would no longer be alone with him. He bathed her and sat with her while she had her supper. Then he had to let her go to bed. He sat with her until she was asleep, just looking at her. Finally, he had to leave her alone, and then he did not know what to do with himself. He sat in the kitchen and drank beer and tried to read the newspapers, while Shelagh cooked dinner between going upstairs to do the last of her packing. They were polite to each other, even kind. Sometimes she just touched him in passing, though she did not want to start anything. She showed genuine interest in the airline.
‘We’re having a record month,’ he said.
‘Great. That’s three in a row.’ She sighed. ‘Well, you all deserve it. But, truly, don’t buy a third Canadair. Get rid of the Britannia, but don’t replace her.’
‘We’re talking about doing passenger charters with the Britannia.’
‘But she’s such a mess inside.’
‘Tart her up a bit. Quick Change seating, and so forth.’
‘But you need wide-bodies for passenger work. Like Freddie Laker.’
‘It’s easier to fill up a small plane than a big one.’
‘Don’t you think Freddie knows what he’s doing?’
‘He’s a genius. But he’ll come unstuck with all these wide-bodies he’s buying. Small is beautiful.’
‘Remember’ that if you’re thinking of building a bloody great airship, darling.’
It touched him when she used the endearment. Another time she said: ‘I really do think airships are a wonderful idea. So romantic. It’s just …’ She waved her hand. ‘I just don’t believe in them. For all the obvious reasons. And I think you’re …’ She decided not to finish.
‘Wasting my time?’
‘Oh, you’re wasting yourself. You’re a brilliant barrister – everybody says so. But you’re an incurable romantic, darling – your head literally in the clouds.’ She sighed. ‘You’re going to lose every penny you make, and end up a broken man, like Malcolm Todd.’
He smiled. ‘I think he’s a genius.’
She smiled wearily. ‘Of course you do. Birds of a feather.’
They slept in the same bed, but did not touch each other. He lay in the darkness, pretending to sleep, and with all his heart he yearned to reach out and take her in his arms and tell her he loved her, and beg her not to leave. But he could not. Maybe she was also pretending to be asleep, feeling the same. But no. You can feel these things. Maybe she was waiting for him to break, tell her she could come back after she had done her thing, and God knows there were times when he nearly did. On that last Friday morning he awoke before dawn, found himself lying against her, his hand holding her breast; and for a moment, in his half-sleep, he was completely happy. Then he came back to reality, and his heart cracked. He got up, straight away, racked, slammed on the shower, the water beating away his tears. He got dressed, and left the dark cottage. He did not know where he was going; he only knew he could not stay there, waiting for them to wake up and leave. He walked through the woods, down the road, towards Redcoat House. He unlocked the door, and stood there. He could not work. He started walking again. It was getting light when he got back to the cottage. He opened the front door, and her suitcases were lined up. Shelagh was standing there, and he looked at them, and he broke. He leant in the doorway, and the tears rolled down his face, and he reached out and took her in his arms, and whispered, ‘Please come back …’
She stood in his arms a long moment. Then she said gently: ‘Breakfast is ready.’
After that he composed himself. They drove to Heathrow airport, with Cathy sitting between them. They were silent all the way. He checked them in. They had ample time for coffee, but he could not bear it.
He picked up Cathy. He held her tight, and his throat was thick as he said: ‘Look after Mommy, won’t you, darling?’
Then he turned to Shelagh. Her eyes were clear and steady. He held her tight once, then kissed her cheek.
‘Goodbye,’ he whispered. ‘Good luck.’
She smiled. ‘Good luck.’
‘Go on,’ he said. ‘Go now.’
She took Cathy by the hand and turned, without looking at him. He watched them walk away, Cathy toddling along. At the door Shelagh stopped, and looked back, smiled, then waved; then she bent and waved Cathy’s hand at her daddy.
Then they went through the door.
He walked out of the concourse, the tears running down his face. He got into his car, began to start it: then he dropped his face into his hands and wept.
For five minutes he sat there. Then he dragged his wrist across his eyes. He did not want to leave the place he had last seen his wife and child, but he made himself. He drove slowly out of the parking block, then into the tunnel. He drove through the tunnel, out at the other end; he drove slowly round the traffic island, and back into the tunnel, back to the airport again.
He went up to the observation lounge. He could see the plane, but not the passengers boarding. He just stood there and watched the plane.
Finally the Boeing reversed out of the bay. He imagined Shelagh and Cathy inside. He watched it taxi, disappear from sight: then it reappeared, roaring down the runway, fast and faster; it took off, and his heart finally broke, and he sobbed out loud.
He watched it go, getting smaller and smaller. Then it was gone, into the clouds.
But he did not want to leave the airport, the last place he had seen his wife and child.
Now, this is how you fly a bloody great aeroplane. It’s simple really: a simple matter of life and death.
First, you’ve tanked up with twenty-five tons of fuel, which is the combined weight of five adult elephants, to blast your twenty-five tons of cargo (another five elephants) plus fifty tons of aeroplane (ten elephants) through thin air in defiance of gravity. You’ve filed your Flight Plan, telling the guys in control the route you’d like to fly. Now you’re waiting on the runway, engines whining, brakes on, waiting for them to tell you it’s safe to go, waiting for a gap in that black sky midst all those dozens of other aeroplanes screaming around on top of each other all wanting to come in, all of you blindly relying on that same little guy in his control room who’s looking at his radar set. And then he says Go, and, boy, off you go.
Blindly trusting in the blind faith everybody has in everybody else, galloping down the black runway, the lights flashing past, eighty miles an hour, ninety, a hundred, just praying you don’t burst a tyre. Then you reach V1, the speed at which you become committed to taking off, you cannot stop now without killing yourself and making everybody very cross. You reach VR, ease back the stick, up comes the nose, and, bingo, you’ve done it, you’re airborne! Lifting up into thin air, you and your twenty-odd elephants. Up up up you go into the blackness where the little guy told you to, aiming for that nice gap he’s found for you between all those friendly aeroplanes screaming around in circles up there; but it’s O.K. because he’s watching you all on his radar screen. Sometimes he screams over the radio, ‘Romeo Yankee, left, turn left’ and you holler, ‘O.K., left!’ – and some fucking great machine comes screaming out of the blackness, just missing you. But not often, hell no, those guys are good; anybody can make a mistake. And you’re on your way to sunny Africa or wherever, and he hands you over to the next control sector. You twiddle that up on your radio and in Paris some dolly-bird says, ‘Oui – oui, Romeo Yankee, I have you …’ And you tell her your compass heading and the slab of air the little guy allocated you and she says, ‘O.K., bon soir.’ Or she says something like, ‘Descend a thousand feet, somebody’s coming!’ And, boy, you do as you’re told. As simple as that. It gave Mahoney the screaming heebie-jeebies.
‘Hell, England’s easy,’ said Ed. ‘You should see some of the balls-up airports I’ve flown into, especially in Africa. Sometimes you have to fly low over the control tower to wake them up.’
‘Give me Africa every time,’ Mahoney said, ‘at least you’re the only plane in the sky there. It’s going for the gap between all the other guys that gives me the willies.’
‘You’ve got to learn to relax, or you don’t do this job.’
‘I’m only doing the job, Ed, until we can afford to keep me on the ground, believe me.’
‘Well, that may be some time, boss, so you better learn to quit passing me the buck everytime something tricky happens.’
‘You’re the fleet-captain. Of course I pass the buck; that’s what I pay you for.’
‘Not very much. You should fly more with the other guys, stop being so dependent on me. Fly as captain for a change.’
‘Fly as captain? Never,’ Mahoney said. ‘Never.’
‘Take responsibility. You’re quite a good pilot, really.’
‘I’m a lousy pilot, I’m only here to make up the numbers. You want to take over some of my responsibilities? You’re quite a good co-director, really.’
‘Hell, no. Never,’ Ed said. ‘O.K. – go and work, boss.’
And Mahoney got out of his seat and sat at the fold-away table that Pomeroy had made for him, and he worked on Redcoat business that Dolores had packed for him. She prepared the same lists of SDDs (Suggested Dos and Don’ts) as she had done with his legal briefs in the old days. Nowadays it was: ‘O.K., sign encls.’ ‘Study carefully.’ ‘Have arranged appt with Bank Mgr for …’ ‘F. says pineapple glut, bananas O.K. this week …’ ‘This is prick who gave us so much trouble over …’
And there was the telephone. It went ‘bing-bong’ on the flight-deck, and that meant trouble because Dolores did not waste money. Engine trouble, or cargo trouble, or crew trouble. ‘That engine on the Britannia has gone on the blink again, Pomeroy says he’s got to take the whole thing out, at least five days, do you want me to charter an aircraft or do a handwringing exercise?’ Oh, God, engines! ‘Meredith has just lost the number two engine on the Canadair and turned back to Naples, which means tomorrow’s Khartoum cargo …’ ‘Pomeroy has just heard of an excellent second-hand engine going cheap in Cyprus; he must go there immediately to inspect it and this means that …’ And goddamn cargoes. Tour homeward-bound cargo has fallen through, but Abdullah in Uganda has got one. Is it worth flying empty from Ghana to fetch it? …’
The other big trouble was crew. Hard-luck crews, that’s what Redcoat tended to get. Ed Hazeltine and Mahoney were the only pilots in Redcoat’s full-time employment. For the rest, Redcoat hired pilots, flight by flight. There were usually plenty, with so many airlines retrenching. The trouble with pilots is they tend to drink, to relax from the unnatural business of defying gravity for a living. Bing-bong. ‘That cargo of bulls for Johannesburg? Well, Captain Meredith’s gone on a bender, he caught a tailwind and got home early and found his wife in the bathtub with you-know-who …’
‘Then get Mason!’
‘Unfortunately, that’s who she was in the bathtub with. He’s suddenly got two very black eyes and no front teeth.’
‘Oh Jesus! Then get Cooper!’
‘Cooper’s flying for Starlux, Benny’s flying for Tradewinds, Renner’s flying the Canadair right now, Morley’s goofing-off on the Costa del Sol. I assure you there’s nobody …’
‘Just got a full-time job with Ethiopia Air.’
‘Well, find somebody, Dolores! Even if you’ve got to drop your knickers and run bare-assed round Gatwick Airport! What are we going to do with thirty bulls around Redcoat House?’
‘That’s why I phoned, dammit! Sounds like a lot of bullshit to me …’
When he got to the hangar the next evening, there was his new captain awaiting him. ‘Good evening, name’s Sydney Benson.’
Mahoney was taken aback. ‘Are you Jamaican?’
‘As the ace of spades.’
Mahoney grinned. As he was signing on duty he muttered out of the corner of his mouth, ‘You sure he can fly aeroplanes?’
Dolores slapped the desk and burst into smothered giggles. ‘Your face – it’s a scream.’
As they walked together through the grey drizzle to the Canadair, Mahoney said: ‘Dolores tells me your last job was with Air Jamaica, Sydney. What brings you to England?’
Sydney broke into a little shuffle:
‘This is my island, in the sun
Built for me, by the English-mun
All my days, I will sing in praise
Of the National Assistance and the Labour Exchange …’
Mahoney threw back his head and laughed.
After they had settled down on the flight-deck, Mahoney said: ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to do take-off.’
Sydney looked at him.
‘You don’t like spades taking off? Well, I’m not too wild about honkies, either.’
‘Not that,’ Mahoney smiled. ‘You see, I’m managing director and I’ve a lot of work—’
‘And I’m captain of this aircraft, sah, and what I say is law. You got that?’
Mahoney sighed. ‘Got it.’
‘And I also just got fired, right?’
‘No. Go on, take off, you’re the boss.’
Sydney sat back, with a brilliant smile. ‘O.K., you take off, then go’n work, I’ll hold the fort, pal.’
After that Sydney often flew for Redcoat, and Mahoney liked to fly with him. The man was an excellent pilot, and bloody funny. It was an asset, too, having a black captain to argue with black officials about dash and blackmail and blackmarket rates. ‘How you’ve stood these mothers,’ Sydney complained, ‘it makes me embarrassed about my pigmentation, and I’ve always thought nothing was worse than pinko-grey like you unfortunates.’ Sydney’s wife was a buxom American black lass with flashing eyes, called Muriel, who came to work for Redcoat. ‘Don’t think I’m going to shoulder the whole white man’s burden, I refuse to work more than eighteen hours a day for this pittance!’ Mahoney was rather intimidated by her, Pomeroy was terrified of her, Dolores was delighted with her. ‘Works like a black,’ Dolores enthused, ‘and so funny …’
Mahoney hardly ever saw Pomeroy or Vulgar Olga these days. Vulgar Olga worked as a barmaid across town and Pomeroy was always inside some engine, covered in grease, going cuss cuss cuss. Sometimes they met at The Rabbit, to talk some business, but Pomeroy was no good at anything except engines, and booze and women, he wanted to leave all that mindblowing management crap to Mahoney. And Mahoney didn’t know anything about engines, he wanted to leave all that mindblowing crap to Pomeroy, anything Pomeroy decided to do with Redcoat Engineering Ltd was O.K. with Mahoney as long as it made money. He was very pleased with Pomeroy, and wished he saw more of him. Sometimes Pomeroy took a break and went on a flight as engineer. He amused Mahoney. Pomeroy was a cockney barrow-boy at heart, but now that he had made good he was getting awfully toffy. Pomeroy and Vulgar Olga lived in a chintzy mortgaged house, and when he wasn’t inside engines he was socializing with the gentry and he didn’t assault policemen anymore now he was respectable. ‘Cor-er, marvellous crumpet in the suburbs,’ Pomeroy confided. ‘Worth all the effort, even thinking of taking elocution lessons, like.’
‘And what does Olga think about all the crumpet?’
‘Loves it! Old Olga, y’know, she’s only here for the beer. I’m even thinkin’ of marrying her, we get along so famous. Wot I mean is, you really should come along to some of these toffy parties and get some of this marvellous married crumpet. Biggest club in the world!’
‘I’ve got to work,’ Mahoney smiled.
And when he was through with office work, there were the piles of Malcolm Todd’s airship material. The principles of lighter-than-air flight, the esoteric formulae he had to grasp, the significance of comparative graphs, Malcolm’s screeds of essays and promotional material, all the draftsman’s drawings, all the books. Mahoney had the gift of the gab rather than a mathematical turn of mind, so the science did not come easily to him, but being of above-average intelligence he could, with effort, understand it. It also helped to keep his mind off the empty cottage that was waiting for him. And he was fascinated. It simply did not make sense to be hurtling twenty elephants through the night sky in defiance of the laws of gravity when you could float them, riding the air like a ship rides on the sea.
Work, booze, and adultery. And guilt.
Mahoney half-woke feeling terrible, thinking he was late for work, and he started scrambling up when Dolores mumbled: ‘Relax, it’s Sunday …’
He slumped back, his head thudding. He remembered where he was now. Pomeroy’s house. Oh God, with Dolores … As if reading his mind, she muttered, ‘Relax, we didn’t do anything.’
But, oh, why hadn’t he gone home? Why did he ever drink brandy? … Then he remembered: chocolate mousse. …
It came back, fragmented. The lunch was clear enough. Dolores was not there then. Wine flowing like water, dropping on to the gins and tonics. Why did he ever drink gin? Then the brandies. They all knew each other very well, except for Mahoney. Mahoney only knew Danish Erika and Pomeroy well, and he knew how his parties turned out. Then the whiskies, getting dark now. Sitting around Pomeroy’s fake mahogany bar with all its gear, its erotic curios, all the suggestive talk and laughter and double meanings. Memory began to blur. He remembered starting to feel very drunk. Remembered seeing it was nine o’clock. He remembered Vulgar Olga taking off her clothes for the sauna. Then Pomeroy, then the other women, then Fullbright and Mason. And all this was fine, the naked women were fine, but no way was he going to get undressed and sit in a hot sauna. He didn’t give a damn what they did. Once upon a time he’d have filled his boots and maybe one day he would again, but right now no way was he going to get involved, he just wanted to go home. He remembered them calling him a spoil sport, and too drunk to drive, and Erika stealing his car keys. He remembered bumping upstairs to look for a bed; then blank.
The rest was very confused. He remembered waking up, finding himself on the sofa in Pomeroy’s bedroom, clothes on. Olga shaking him, telling him to get his gear off and join the action. The next thing, Danish Erika shaking him saying it was four o’clock, time to go home, did he want any chocolate mousse? He sat up, holding his head and feeling like death, and there were the six of them – evidently Fullbright had gone – sitting on the floor stark naked and drunk and disorderly around this big bowl of chocolate mousse and bottles of champagne.
He did not remember how it started because he was too busy feeling terrible; maybe Pomeroy did it because Vulgar Olga squirted champagne at him, or maybe Pomeroy slopped a spoonful of chocolate mousse on Vulgar Olga, but suddenly there were these squeals and there is Pomeroy with champagne all over his face and Olga with chocolate mousse on hers – then Janet Mason splatting chocolate mousse on Pomeroy midst screams of laughter, and then Erika letting Mason have it, and the real shambles began. Sitting pole-axed on the sofa, Mahoney stared in bludgeoned astonishment at the spectacle exploding before him, everybody fighting with chocolate mousse midst screaming and squealing – then champagne squirting everywhere; then Pomeroy screaming and clutching his chocolate-face and the door bursting open and there stood Fullbright, fully dressed and unchocolated, seething with righteous indignation. The battle stopped as suddenly as it had begun, everybody staring at Fullbright, except Pomeroy who was whimpering, clutching his chocolate face.
‘You!’ Fullbright jabbed his pristine finger at Mason – ‘And you!’ – at the dark, wailing Pomeroy – ‘And you!’ – at an astonished Mahoney – ‘stay away from my wife!’
‘I’ve got chocolate mousse in my eye—’ Pomeroy wailed, and Vulgar Olga wailed, ‘Oh darling!’
‘You all stay away from my wife!’ Fullbright was yelling.
‘Somebody stuck their finger in my eye—’ Pomeroy was wailing.
‘A doctor,’ Vulgar Olga was wailing. ‘Call Dolores—’ ‘Nine-nine-nine,’ Pomeroy was wailing at everybody – ‘tell ’em I got chocolate mousse in my eye—’ Then Fullbright bounding at his wife as Pomeroy was blindly scrambling for the door with Olga lumbering chocolate-arsed after him, and all four of them colliding in the doorway in a big chocolatey bottleneck. Fullbright was now getting pretty chocolatey himself, and Lavinia Fullbright was screaming at him, ‘You bastard—’ And Olga was screaming, ‘Get out of the bloody way,’ and then Fullbright went flying through the doorway with Pomeroy exploding after him in a sudden unbottlenecking. He crashed on top of Fullbright, and the whole chocolatey lot of them went crashing down the stairs, crash bang wallop to the bottom in a mad tangled bellowing mess, then Olga was scrambling for the telephone and Pomeroy was blundering around yelling, ‘Tell the Eye Bank I’ve got chocolate mousse in my eye—’
Something like that. All very confused. Mahoney remembered the front door slamming, Fullbright’s car roaring away with Lavinia: then the ambulance wailing, Pomeroy reeling out into the night with a blanket around him, wailing to everybody that he had chocolate mousse in his eye.
Then Dolores arriving, to sort this lot out.
Mahoney got out of bed carefully. He staggered into the bathroom, found a toothbrush, brushed his teeth, turned on the shower. He stood under it, suffering, then scrubbed himself and washed his hair. Then let cold water hammer on his head, trying to knock out the stunned feeling. Cold showers are like flying aeroplanes: they’re so nice when they stop.
He dressed, tiptoed down the stairs, feeling a little better. The stair walls were smeared with mousse, and it smelled as if Olga had tried to clean the stuff up with benzene. The living room looked like a battlefield, clothes everywhere. You expected to find bodies. He found his jacket.
He went to the kitchen, got a beer. He took a long swig, then sat at the table, suffering, waiting for it to steady him. But why should he feel remorse? It was their business. Their wives. He hadn’t even stuck his finger in Pomeroy’s eye. So why should he feel remorse?
It was sick. Marriage, the biggest club in the world … None of the desperate wining and dining of bachelorhood, the heavy-duty charm-treatment, impressing her with what a big wheel you are, the hopeful dancing cheek-to-cheek, the worrying, and finally the acid test when you get her home, the protests. But with adultery? All you’ve got to do is look for the signs. Why do married people talk about sex so much? Oh God, he just longed for his lovely wholesome wife and child …
He went to the fridge for another beer. He heard footsteps. Pomeroy tottered in, all hairy and horrible, a bandage around his head.
‘Are you in the Black and White Minstrel Show?’ Mahoney said.
‘Oh boy,’ Pomeroy said. He tottered to the fridge, got a beer blindly, slumped at the table.
‘Can you work tomorrow?’
‘If you don’t mind one-eyed engineers.’ He lifted the bandage. His eyelid was black and swollen and stitched, his slit of eyeball murderously bloodshot.
‘Who was it?’
‘I couldn’t see because somebody stuck their finger in my eye.’
Mahoney was grinning. ‘What did they sat at the hospital?’
‘Caused a bit of bovver at the hospital,’ Pomeroy admitted. ‘Old Olga, you know, you should have been there.’
‘What did Olga do?’
‘Naked as the day she was born under that blanket,’ Pomeroy said, ‘and chocolate mousse. Raised a bit of a bovver. She didn’t know the black doctor was a doctor, you should have been there. He said, “Medem, is this a case of the pot-i calling the kettle black?”’
Mahoney laughed and it hurt his head. Pomeroy sighed, ‘Isn’t that Fullbright a prick?’
‘You better leave the Fullbrights out of your chocolate mousse parties.’
I’m going to leave you out, an’ all,’ Pomeroy said. ‘Here I go to this enormous expense and pain to cheer you up …’ He glared with his good eye. ‘But no, you’re still brooding about her.’ He got up. ‘I’m goin’ to the loo,’ he said.
The rest is legend. Pomeroy goes to the lavatory, sits down, lights a cigarette, and drops the match into the lavatory bowl. And in that bowl unbeknown to him is the wad of cotton wool with which Vulgar Olga cleaned up the chocolate mousse, all soaked in benzene. And, sitting in the kitchen, all Mahoney heard was a mighty whooshing bang and then Pomeroy howls and comes bursting out of the toilet with his arse on fire. There’s Pomeroy running around hollering, ‘My arse is blown off,’ and Olga coming running stark naked screaming, ‘Oh darling, I forgot to flush it!’ – and Dolores yelling,’ What’s wrong now?’ – and Pomeroy hollering, ‘Call the ambulance – my arse is burnt off!’ And the women chasing him, yelling, cornering him, trying to inspect his arse while he hopped around hollering.
Then the wailing of the ambulance above Pomeroy’s wailing, and in burst the stretcher-bearers, and they’re the same guys who came for him earlier. And they load him on to the stretcher, and out the front door Pomeroy goes, red raw arse up and his bandage round his eye, still covered in dried chocolate mousse. And the ambulance boys were laughing so much that one trips down the front steps. All Mahoney saw was a sudden mass of crashing arms and legs and Pomeroy’s arse. Then Pomeroy was wailing ‘My shoulder!’, and his collar bone was broken.
Mahoney helped Dolores tidy up the house while Olga and Pomeroy were back at the hospital getting his arse and collar bone fixed; then he left. He drove slowly home, trying not to think about bloody Sunday. He was flying at midnight so he had to sleep off his hangover this afternoon. He could have a nice pub-lunch at The Rabbit, then get Danish Erika or Val or Beatrice to sleep it off with him, so what did he have to complain about? What’s so tough about being a bachelor? And tomorrow he’d be in Uganda, would you rather be in court tomorrow, worrying about all that Law you never learned? He took a deep breath, trying to stop thinking about Sunday and Cathy, and stopped to buy a newspaper.
He looked at the front page for news of Rhodesia.
SMITH ANNOUNCES ‘INTERNAL SETTLEMENT’
The Rhodesian Prime Minister announced in Salisbury today that his government was setting out to seek an ‘internal settlement’ with the country’s moderate African leaders, in terms of which a ‘Transitional Co-alition Government would be formed with them, pending a new one-man-one-vote constitution …
Mahoney read the piece with stumbling speed: and for a minute he felt confused elation. Then he slumped. He thought: Big Deal …
Big deal, Mr Smith … You should have done this years ago when I told you to! … You think a coalition government now will get you international recognition so economic sanctions and the war will end? Well you’re too bloody late, Mr Smith …
Mahoney took a deep, bitter breath. Because it was too bloody late for such a compromise, because now the Rhodesians were fighting with their backs to the wall, and no way were Moscow and Peking going to rejoice in a nice moderate settlement and let their boys in the bush lay down their arms – Moscow and Peking didn’t want a nice moderate black government in Rhodesia, they wanted a communist one. You did not have to be a clairvoyant to see that the war would go on.
And the news of the war was shocking. The next headline made his guts turn over:
TERRORISTS SHOOT DOWN RHODESIAN TOURIST PLANE
A Rhodesian Airways plane carrying over fifty civilian holiday-makers, mostly women and children, from the Zambesi Valley to Salisbury, was shot down yesterday by terrorists using a heat-seeking anti-aircraft missile of Russian manufacture …
He felt sick in his guts. He could almost hear the screams as the plane came tearing down out of the sky, the smashing and crashing. Miraculously, ten survivors had crawled out of the terrible wreckage, hysterical, astonished to be alive, and four of them had gone off to find help: then the terrorists had arrived, raped the women, then shot them all. The Selous Scouts were now tracking the terrorists. Meanwhile, another mission station was attacked yesterday, all the missionaries butchered, two of them women, two babies bayoneted …
Jesus! He started the car furiously. What do you say about a war like that? You want to bellow to the world, ‘What the hell areyou supporting communist murderers like that for?’ And he wanted to grab Ian Smith by the scruff of neck and shake him.
He drove angrily home. Through the cow-meadow, through the woods, to the empty house. He thought, And what are you doing about it, coming home hungover from a drunken orgy while the communists close in on your country – with your daughter in it?
He got out of his car, slammed the door. No, he did not believe that Catherine was in danger: the terrorists would never get the towns; they would only ravage the countryside like roving packs of wild dogs. But that would be enough to win the war.
He went inside, put the radio on loud to stop himself thinking about it. He went upstairs, changed into fresh clothes, to go to work at Malcolm Todd’s cottage.
By law he was only allowed to work ninety hours a month, to be in good condition to fly aeroplanes; but he could not stay in the empty cottage, so usually he went to Redcoat House and did his paperwork, then worked on drafting the new Civil Aviation Authority’s Airship Regulations. The best place for that was the Todds’ cottage, so that Malcolm could explain everything, the technicalities, the importance of each part, and Mahoney tried to put it into the legal language that civil servants like to hear.
‘Those heaters won’t go wrong,’ Malcolm said.
‘What minimum dimensions must they be to heat all that helium? And snow and ice?’
‘Snow and ice will not collect during flight,’ Malcolm said, ‘because of the slipstream of air around the hull. Snow collects while the ship is stationary, but the heating system will warm the hull and melt it.’
‘But if the heater broke down, how do we get rid of the ice?’
‘It won’t break down. It is simply the heat from the exhaust, piped through the hull and out the other side. That hot pipe is surrounded by a jacket with a built-in fan. The fan sucks cold helium in one end of the jacket, it is heated by the pipe, and blows warm helium out the end of the jacket. Can’t fail.’
‘But if that fan breaks down?’
‘You’d have to send a man inside to fix the damn thing, that’s all. With a breathing apparatus because helium contains no oxygen. What scuba-divers use.’ He added: ‘Helium’s not poisonous.’
‘Let’s make a note … And if he couldn’t fix the fan? He’d have to go out on top to shovel the snow off? Maybe during flight. What kind of life-lines must we have?’
Malcolm sighed irritably. ‘Any fool can fix that fan! And those German boys on the Zeppelins never wore life-lines when they went topside to stitch up canvas. But what you must impress on the C.A. A. is we can send a man up there to shovel snow off. But if the heating fails on the leading edge of a jetliner’s wings you can’t send a man out – you get iced-up and crash! … Bloody cats!’ he shouted. ‘Get out!’
A cat fled.
‘I heard you shouting at Napoleon,’ Anne shouted from the kitchen. ‘Poor Napoleon, was the general being nasty?’ Malcolm snorted wearily to himself.
‘I heard you snorting wearily to yourself in there, Field Marshal. Isn’t it time you boys knocked off, your dinner’s getting cold.’
‘It’s only eleven! We’re making history in here, woman!’
Anne recited in the kitchen:
‘I always thought it rather odd
That there should be two Ds in “Todd”
When after all there’s only one in “God”.’
She came into the room. She was a good-looking, weary woman. She slipped her arm around Malcolm’s shoulder. ‘Come on, old gas-bag, reveille, this man’s got to fly aeroplanes tomorrow.’
‘Less of the old,’ Malcolm muttered. ‘He’s got to bang the C.A.A.’s head together next month.’
‘Our attitude’, the very precise, hard-to-charm civil servant said, ‘is that we’ll believe it when we see it. Until then …’ Mahoney waited. ‘Until then, I’m afraid you can’t expect us to do any work on this. People have been talking about bringing back the airship for fifty years – ever since the Hindenburg. Nothing has ever come of it. Because the airship proved itself a thoroughly unreliable, dangerous machine. Oh, I’m aware that hydrogen caused those disasters and you want to use helium.’
‘The Graf Zeppelin’, Mahoney said, ‘flew between Germany, South America and New York for years without a single accident – even though she was filled with hydrogen.’
The neat man nodded. ‘Mr Mahoney, the C.A.A. is a very busy government body which acts as watchdog on aircraft safety, and we’re very expensive. If you design a new aeroplane, our experts would check minutely whether it conformed to these safety regulations.’ He tapped a thick book. ‘Now, we’ve got no regulations on airships. And we’ve got no aeronautical experts on airships, because airships simply don’t exist. And I don’t know where such people are to be found.’
‘I mean expert by our standards. And we’d have to put a lawyer exclusively on to drafting the legislation – and you’d have to pay for all this. We don’t give free legal advice, you know.’
‘I know,’ Mahoney said, ‘I’m a lawyer.’
The man was surprised. ‘I thought you were a commercial pilot?’
‘I’m both. I went to Aviation flying school a few years ago.’
‘I see. How very odd. Then how is it you’re a captain already?’
‘I own the airline. The major partner. In fact, I only fly as co-pilot, not as captain.’ The civil servant looked at Redcoat with new suspicion. ‘But, as a lawyer, I’ve started drafting the legislation to shortcut …’
‘I need a proper lawyer, Mr Mahoney – the C.A.A. doesn’t take shortcuts.’
‘I am a proper lawyer, Mr White. And I do understand airships, which your lawyer won’t. All I’m asking for is cooperation, so we know what you’re worried about.’
‘We’ll be worried stiff about everything! Good Lord, a monster twice as long as a football field, flying over London in a gale … Mr Mahoney, before you ask us for guidance, you’ll have to convince us our effort is not going to be wasted.’
Mahoney smacked the pile of files. ‘There are the plans, prepared by an expert. And there’s my effort so far at drafting the legislation. Now, are you going to read them or not, Mr White?’
Mr White sat back and looked at the ceiling. ‘Mr Mahoney, how much is one airship going to cost?’
‘Between ten and fifteen million pounds, once we’ve got a production line.’
‘And’, Mr White said politely, ‘has Redcoat got that kind of money?’
‘No,’ Mr White said, lowering his eyes. ‘And the banks won’t lend it to you. And where do you propose building such a huge thing? No building I know of is big enough.’
‘At Cardington,’ Mahoney said grimly. ‘There are two old airship hangars.’
‘Cardington?’ Mr White mused. ‘Where the ill-fated R 101 was built? Charming connotations. And will the government lease them to you, do you think?’
‘They’re a white elephant, and government will be delighted that we’re providing employment.’
‘If the Civil Aviation Authority endorses your plans. And what about airports, Mr Mahoney? You can’t land these things at Heathrow. You’ll want government to build airports? Where? At what tremendous cost? That’s the sort of thing—’
‘That’, Mahoney said, ‘is exactly the sort of thing I want to talk about. I have here provisional plans for airports, plus full-scale ones for the future, all diligently prepared by Major—’
‘Indeed? And who’s going to pilot these things? You have been awfully busy, Mr Mahoney, but who is going to instruct the instructors who’re going to instruct the trainee pilots? It’s a whole new ball-game.’
Mahoney took a breath. ‘We are, Mr White,’ he said. ‘Redcoat.’
Mr White stared. ‘But what’, he said, ‘are your qualifications?’
Mahoney leant forward. ‘Mr White, I’ll soon know more about airships than almost any man alive. Now, the C.A.A. is going to have to allow somebody to test-fly the first airships. And you’ll have to grant concessionary licences to those test-pilots for that purpose.’
Mr White looked at him. ‘I see …’ Then he scratched his cheek. ‘What about the banks? What do they say?’
‘We haven’t been to the banks yet. They’ll want to see that the C.A.A. are taking it seriously.’
Mr White glared at the formidable pile of files. ‘The chicken or the egg?’
‘Yes,’ Mahoney smiled.
Mr White suddenly shook his head wearily, like an ordinary human being. ‘You know damn well I’m required to look into this bumf.’
Mahoney put on his most charming smile. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said.
Cash flow. That’s what airlines desperately need, to pay their huge operating costs: and plenty of it. Cash flow, that’s what the Civil Aviation Authority insists on seeing in airlines’ books, to satisfy themselves that this airline can pay engineering maintenance so their aeroplanes do not come crashing down out of the skies. (So you can’t even cheat on your income tax.) Cash flow, that is what bank managers insist on from little airlines who haven’t got big shareholders behind them: cash constantly flowing in, to justify the huge amounts of revolving credit the airline needs to keep it aloft from one week to the next: no sufficient cash flow, no more credit, no more airline.
‘Five million pounds was our gross cash flow last year.’
‘Yes, but our local branch had to lend you over four and a half million while you earned it,’ the bank executive pointed out.
It was Mahoney’s first venture into the City. He didn’t like messing with bank managers, men who could cut off his lifeline at any time, but if he had to he preferred the suburban variety who held Redcoat’s purse-strings at Gatwick, not these silver-haired, heavy-duty gentlemen of the City.
‘You’ve earned a lot of interest,’ he said. ‘We’ve been good business for Barclays.’
‘Indeed,’ the banker said, sitting up. ‘Mr Mahoney, we are not belittling Redcoat. We respect you as hard-working and ingenious. In fact we’re amazed that you’ve survived, let alone prospered. Your local manager’ – he consulted a letter – ‘says that, when you first arrived, the airline wallahs expected you to collapse in two weeks.’
Mahoney knew he wouldn’t get the money. ‘But?’ he said grimly.
The banker decided to cut through all this.
‘Mr Mahoney, five million pounds turnover a year is a great deal of money to you and me. But to banks, Redcoat is a very small business.’
Mahoney nodded. ‘But if British Airways were asking you for fifteen million pounds, it would be different.’
‘Obviously it would put a different complexion on the matter.’
‘British Airways’, Mahoney said heavily, ‘lost eighty million pounds last year. Redcoat made a good profit.’
‘But’, the banker went on, ‘even if it was British Airways, I would not be financing an airship project. I am a good deal older than you, and I remember the old airships, though I was only a boy. I remember them flying over London, darkening the sky. Wonderful things – but completely impractical.’ He shook his head. ‘I remember the Hindenburg crashing in New Jersey. Our R 101 crashing in France—’
Mahoney groaned. ‘Modern airships …’
‘I know. Will use helium instead of hydrogen. But I took the trouble, when your branch manager referred you to us, to approach a client who is the chairman of one of the biggest airlines in the world.’
‘And I bet he’s losing money. Well?’
The executive smiled thinly. ‘He gave me seven reasons why airships will never work. I’ll read them.’
He picked up a letter.
‘One. The huge cost of design and development …’
Mahoney said, ‘They have already been designed by Major Todd and his consultants. The only cost was Major Todd’s army career, and the shares he will give in his company to the consultants for their work.’
‘Two,’ the banker said. ‘The slow speed, about a hundred miles an hour, which means it will be very difficult to keep to schedules in high head winds.’
Mahoney shook his head. ‘Speed is so unimportant, Mr Hampstead. Who needs speed? Only fat businessmen flying to New York and Tokyo. I’ll be flying not them but their products. And a hundred miles an hour is a lot faster than ship and rail.’
‘Three. The powers of lift vary with atmospheric temperatures and pressures. For instance, in the tropics, twelve percent of lift is lost by the heat.’
Mahoney said, ‘Aeroplanes are affected too! Who is this guy?’
‘Four,’ the banker said resolutely. ‘The problems of having to fly low. For every one thousand feet of height the helium expands three percent, so you either have to valve it off, which is expensive, or start off your voyage less than fully inflated.’
‘Sure!’ Mahoney shrugged. ‘Who wants to fly high?’
‘But what about mountains?’
‘Fly around the high ones! Plan your routes.’ He shook his head. ‘Next complaint?’
The banker shot him a look. ‘Five. The environmental objections to flying a monstrous and noisy machine low and slowly over inhabited areas.’
Mahoney was amazed. That this ignorance, from an alleged expert, was stopping his loan.
‘Noisy?’ he exclaimed. ‘It’ll make a fraction of the noise of a jet! Good Lord – ask the people who live near Heathrow and Kennedy about jet noise! And airships will cause one-fifth of the pollution from engine exhaust!’
The banker looked at him. ‘What about this one? Six: the problems, especially in high winds, of controlling a monstrous machine as large as the Albert Hall and as light as a feather?’
Mahoney sighed. There was no point in antagonizing the man. ‘All aeroplanes are affected by winds. So are ships. But airships will also use the winds, like the sailing ships did, to push them along. They’ll fly trade-wind routes. And as for landing in winds, an aeroplane can only tolerate so much cross-wind, but an airship doesn’t use a straight runway like an aeroplane. It can approach its mast from any direction, so it’s always flying into the wind when it’s docking. And it can fly away and stay up there for days, waiting for the weather to improve. An aeroplane can’t do that.’
The banker put the letter down. ‘Finally,’ he says, ‘a 747 can fly five times the number of miles that an airship could in a year – therefore do five times the work. Earn five times as much.’ He looked at him with raised eyebrows.
Mahoney sat back.
‘Bullshit, sir.’ (The banker blinked.) ‘Who is this guy? Which airline?’
‘Look, all the big airlines are losing money – British Airways, Pan American, Air France … How many failures do you people need? Of course a jumbo 747 can fly five times as many miles a year, because it flies at five times the speed. But at five times the cost of fuel for each mile! And the world’s going to run out of fuel! And a jumbo can only fly to big expensive airports – it can’t fly to the middle of the Sahara or the Amazon jungle! So add to the cost of a jumbo’s cargo the onward transmission of it by road or rail – if they exist! And for every 747 you’ve got to have at least three crews: one flying, one resting, and one about to take over! Big airlines have six or seven crews.’
‘And how many crews for an airship?’ the banker asked.
Mahoney held up a finger. ‘One.’
The banker looked surprised. ‘How?’
‘Because’, Mahoney said, ‘they’ll sleep aboard. A ship only has one crew, doesn’t it? We’ll keep watches, like a ship at sea. A captain and two officers. Plus an engineer. Plus a loadmaster – who’ll double as cook.’ He shook his head. ‘They’ll have proper sleeping cabins, bathrooms, dining room – they’ll five aboard.’
The banker was silent. Then he smiled, and sat forward. ‘It’s a romantic notion,’ he admitted. ‘Young man, may I ask your age?’
‘Thirty-nine.’ Mahoney had decided to stay thirty-nine for some years.
The banker nodded, for a moment envy flickered on his face. ‘You look younger. But will you forgive me if I offer some friendly advice?’
‘You used to be a lawyer. And I suspect you were a good one. Now you’re an airline owner, and doing it well too. But you’re a romantic, I can tell. Which is fine. Enjoy it. But out here in the big bad world of business, it’s cold-blooded. Not romantic.’
‘So what’s your advice?’ Mahoney smiled grimly.
‘Stick with your proven aeroplanes. Because this real world of business does not lend money on dreams.’
Friends. And lots of them. That’s what you need if you’re an impoverished ex-army major trying to launch a multi-million pound airship industry. Plenty of good, long-suffering friends, to invest in a dream.
‘I’m in, for five hundred pounds,’ David Baker said.
‘Who’s David Baker?’ Mahoney said.
‘Insurance pal of mine,’ Malcolm Todd said. ‘He’s bought five hundred shares. And Admiral Pike’s buying three thousand.’
‘Three thousand! Who’s Admiral Pike?’
‘Retired Royal Navy. Nice old boy. Sees a great future for the small, non-rigid airship in coastal surveillance. Knows lots of people in the right places. I can pay Redcoat some back rent now.’
‘Pay your consultant,’ Mahoney smiled, ‘he deserves it. Pay yourself some salary too. And take Anne to dinner.’
‘A hamburger’s all I’ll get from the O.C.,’ Anne said. ‘And we’ll talk airships all through it … Piss-off, cat!’ A cat fled.
Malcolm said, ‘We can’t afford any salaries, but we’re paying Redcoat some rent.’
‘We’ll take shares in your company instead.’
Malcolm smiled. ‘You’re a bloody good friend.’
‘And a bloody good worker,’ Anne said.
One advantage of being a barrister, perhaps the only one, is that you train yourself out of sheer necessity to absorb huge volumes of fact rapidly, marshall them correctly, then present them persuasively: middle-aged soldiers, however, are often men of few words, and often the wrong ones. ‘There’re the facts,’ Malcolm Todd tended to say, ‘take it or leave it, just look snappy about it!’
‘Malcolm,’ Mahoney said, ‘these guys are big wheels. Captains of commerce. You’ve got to grab their attention cleverly.’
‘I should grab their shirtfronts and bang their thick heads together.’
‘Malcolm, explain it to me, and I’ll say it for you.’
‘It’s all written down there! Self-explanatory! Clearly!’
‘Clear as mud. Even I can’t understand it, and I’m pretty smart about airships, now.’
‘Listen to Joe, darling,’ Anne called from the kitchen.
‘Will you’, Malcolm said, ‘tell that woman in there to shut up?’
‘Malcolm, start at the beginning.’
‘You tell him, Joe,’ Anne called. ‘I couldn’t understand that essay, and I’m pretty smart about airships too, now. Boy!’ – she rolled her eyes – ‘have I heard all about airships …’
One advantage of being boss of an airline, perhaps the only one, is that you can give your captains orders, even if you’re only the co-pilot. And, definitely, the only advantage of being a pilot at all, in Mahoney’s view, was that it gave you plenty of time to think. Being a pilot, in Mahoney’s view, was about the most stultifying job an intelligent man could have: flying is vast stretches of intense boredom punctuated only with moments of intense crisis. The more he learned about aeroplanes the more he considered them a dangerous business. As managing director, Mahoney insisted on doing take-offs, even though he hated take-offs, because he wanted his two hours and the nasty congestion of Europe over with, so he could go aft and work: as soon as his two hours were up he said, ‘O.K., Captain, I’m off,’ and he went to his folding table. He was reworking the screeds of brochures that Malcolm was writing to precondition the public for the launching of his company on the stock market. Mahoney thought he knew everything about airships now, but every time he went back to Malcolm there were new drawings and notes. Then one day he found Malcolm busily reworking designs for small, non-rigid airships, with Admiral Pike. That really worried him.
‘We have to have designs of several different ships available to show to potential buyers,’ Malcolm explained.
‘But these small blimps hardly carry any cargo, Malcolm.’
‘Two tons, plus seven people!’ Admiral Pike said. ‘It’s an ideal machine for naval surveillance. Patrolling fishing grounds, for example. Stays aloft thirty-six hours cruising at sixty miles an hour! No aeroplane or naval vessel can match that performance – and it’s much cheaper. I’m sure old Ocker Anderson will go for it.’
‘Who’s Ocker Anderson?’
‘Admiral Anderson, Australian Navy, chum of mine. Dinkum Aussie, rough as they come, but a good egg. Can’t sail ships, of course, without pranging them into each other, but he’s got a lot of clout with the government.’
Mahoney smiled despite himself. He had never met a real, live admiral. The old boy was as ramrod straight with a bristly beard, exactly as an admiral should be. ‘Ocker will go for it,’ the Admiral insisted, ‘save risking his precious ships at sea, old Ocker will love that. Those vast coastlines patrolled for him by airships? And the government, you know how jumpy they are about those yellow fellahs in Asia – if there’s one thing that makes an Aussie uptight more than suggesting that Donald Bradman wasn’t the world’s greatest cricketer, it’s those Japs and yeller fellahs. Little Johnny Johnson will go for it too.’
‘Is he another admiral?’
‘New Zealand Navy, nice little chap. I’ll buzz down there and bang some sense into them.’
Mahoney was very impressed by all these admirals but he was worried about Malcolm being sidetracked. ‘Those are wonderful contacts, but think this through …’
‘I know,’ Malcolm said, ‘I don’t like these blimps either, Mickey Mouse little things —’
‘Mickey Mouse? …’ the Admiral said indignantly.
‘– but we’ve got to get a name for ourselves and the navy wallahs are our most likely first customers. Then, we’ll be in good shape to tackle the big rigids.’
‘What about China?’ the Admiral said, ‘their vast coastline, and borders with Russia? It would be an ideal patrol vehicle for those fellahs.’
‘Do you know Admiral Wong too? Listen,’ Mahoney said worriedly, ‘no government will buy airships until they’ve actually seen one. Demonstrated. That means you’re going to have to build one. Then they might not buy! And we’re stuck with a white elephant. Stick with the big cargo rigids, Malcolm.’
‘Have you’, Admiral Pike said frostily to Mahoney, ‘got fifteen million pounds?’
Mahoney took a worried breath. ‘O.K. … I’m only a shareholder; it’s your company, not mine. But please don’t go off half-cocked. Let me rework your brochures. Redcoat will print them up.’
The Admiral slapped him on the back. ‘That’s it, young fellah! Good to have you aboard! And I’ll buzz Down Under to talk some sense into old Ocker and Johnny Johnson.’
‘Wait.’ Mahoney said. ‘Until our literature’s perfect and you’re properly briefed, Admiral.’
‘Right-oh, good thinking! Meanwhile, what can I do? I’ll go and see those RAF fellahs, shall I, and talk them into giving us those hangars at Cardington. I know old Air-Marshal Thompson, used to play rugger against him. Hopeless at rugger, he was, couldn’t catch a pig in a passage, but he knows a bit about aeroplanes, I suppose.’
‘Excellent,’ Malcolm said.
When the Admiral had gone Mahoney said: ‘Malcolm, be careful of him. Don’t get talked into building a blimp unless a government has actually ordered it.’
‘We may have to.’
Mahoney shook his head. ‘Malcolm, it’s time we started on the Onassis principle. Go to places like China and Brazil to talk them into giving us a contract to carry their cargo, then go back to the banks.’ He added soberly: ‘Redcoat will finance the trips, by buying some of your shares. Buy yourself a new suit too.’
‘The pot calling the kettle black!’ Malcolm said.
Except it was much easier for Onassis. Tankers existed. Onassis could contract with the Arabs to deliver their oil and, armed with the contracts, go to the banks to borrow money to buy the tanker to carry the oil to earn the money to repay the bank.
‘But there are no airships,’ the Chinese girl interpreted.
‘There soon will be!’ Malcolm said. ‘I’m going to build them! Tell them that.’
They were in a panelled office in the Bank of China. Outside were the jampacked streets of Hong Kong, the teeming harbour, hazy in the heat. Mahoney watched the three communist officials. He suspected they understood English. Before they could reply he interrupted: ‘Gentlemen, we are not necessarily trying to sell China an airship. Interpret that please, Miss Li.’ She did. ‘We’re selling the service of our airships to China.’
Miss Li interpreted. The three solemnly smiling Chinese nodded. One spoke. ‘There are no airships,’ Miss Li interpreted.
Mahoney soldiered on. ‘China needs airships because its the size of the whole of Europe, with inadequate droads, railways, ports, insufficent ships and aircraft. With one thousand million people. You could be exporting more than the whole of Europe!’
Malcolm interrupted: ‘Near Mongolia, you have huge deposits of coal and iron. But you can’t mine it, because it’s so mountainous and you have no roads! You can’t afford to mine it, my dear fellow!’
‘Wait, please,’ Miss Li said, ‘I cannot remember everything.’ She interpreted. One Chinese spoke and Miss Li said: ‘How do you know this?’
Malcolm looked at her as if she were a raving lunatic. Mahoney trod heavily on his toe. ‘Because’, Malcolm beamed politely, ‘it’s in the public library. In the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Good Lord, they don’t think we’re spying, do they?’
‘The point’, Mahoney cut in, before Miss Li could interpret the last bit, ‘is that we could fly in your heavy mining equipment, your men, hover, and off you go. When your iron or coal is ready, we come back, hover, load it, and take it away, direct to your factory. No roads needed, no trucks, no ships, no airports.’
‘But who will fly these airships?’ Miss Li interpreted.
‘We will! If China wanted to buy an airship we would provide the crew, and maintenance, for a fee. Or we would train your crews. Or you can contract with us to deliver your cargo in our airship – which will be much cheaper than any other means.’
One Chinese said in English: ‘China has typhoons. Very dangerous.’
Malcolm shook his head. Mahoney said: ‘Aeroplanes and ships have to avoid typhoons too. Typhoons move slowly. Airships would fly away from them, or around them. If necessary, the airship can stay up there for days to keep out of danger. Aeroplanes cannot do that.’
‘But where is your airship?’
Mahoney groaned inwardly. ‘Now, if you look at page twelve of the brochure …’ It was an impressive, glossy booklet, in English and Chinese characters. ‘There I give actual tonnages of cargo China exported last year by air, and what it cost you.’
He paused for Miss Li to translate.
‘How do you know these figures?’
‘From the Far East Economic Review. Now, on the opposite page, I show how much less it would have cost China if you had exported that cargo by my airship.’
The Chinese studied the figures, spoke amongst themselves. Then looked at Mahoney inscrutably. He said, ‘And now, look at this.’ He produced a document. ‘Here is a Bill of Lading for cargo that Redcoat carried from Hong Kong to Europe only last month. You see what it cost for fifty tons. And whose cargo was it? China’s. Your government paid for it!’ He paused. ‘And here is another document. It shows how much less it would have cost you by airship.’
They studied the documents.
Mahoney took a breath. ‘Now, what we seek from China is a contract for us to fly her cargo at a guaranteed, attractive price for a specified period. Then I will build the airship to do the job.’ He held up another document. ‘Here is a specimen of that contract, Written in both English and Chinese.’
The Chinese said: ‘But how can you do it without an airship yet?’ Mahoney groaned. The Chinese smiled: ‘We will consider everything.’ He added: ‘In Peking.’ Then: ‘Maybe it is better if you build your airships in China?’
Mahoney was taken aback. In China? In a communist factory? The Chinese said, ‘Then we could see it.’
Mahoney’s mind was racing. The ramifications were enormous. As if on cue all three stood up. ‘Thank you,’ the official said. ‘We will write. Ho choi, good luck.’
Outside, the stone lions guarding the bank stood at revolutionary attention. Mahoney and Malcolm walked between them, then round the corner into Statue Square. Ahead was the mighty Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, the big black lions guarding its portals imperialistically recumbent.
‘What do you think, Malcolm?’
‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Malcolm said.
Maybe it wasn’t so easy for Onassis, either.
In the British Natural History Museum you can find out everything about this plant. With their geological maps, books and atlases you can find out all the proven sites of precious minerals. In the Department of Mines of Canberra and in Ottawa, anybody can, on payment of a search-fee, and with patience, find out registered owners of the mining rights.
‘My doctor tol’ me I could only drink wine,’ Tank O’Sullivan mumbled through his big mouthful of curry. ‘So that’s all I drink.’
‘All day,’ his wife sighed.
‘Tol’ me to quit with the whisky,’ Tank explained reasonably to Mahoney and Malcolm, ‘so now I only drink wine.’
‘All day …’
‘Hey, what’s ’at?’ Tank jabbed with his fork at a passing waiter. ‘I wan’ some o’ that!’
‘That’s the sweet trolley, Tank,’ Malcolm said.
‘Waiter, c’mere!’ Tank shouted. His hand shot out and grabbed a chocolate eclair. He opened his mouth full of curry and chomped. (‘Tank, dear … ,’ his wife said.) ‘C’mere, waiter!’ Tank’s big hand grabbed a fruit salad, up-ended it over his curry. ‘An’ some more of this!’ He held up his wine tankard.
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