"Good day to you, my dear Company of Cretins upon this fine and sunny summer morn. Attend. We have a-"
Carolyn Knapp-Shappey tailed off, mildly affronted. When you stride purposefully into a room and start dramatically reeling off instructions, it generally throws you off your stride rather to discover that the room is in fact unoccupied.
A brief foray into the galley, the passenger area and the hold all revealed them to be empty.
This did not make Carolyn happy . . .
She eventually discovered her male colleagues outside the plane, sitting in the shade of the wing.
Arthur was sat in his shirtsleeves, drawing bunny rabbits on the runway in chalk; Carolyn made a mental note to tell him that rabbits only had two ears, not three. Martin had removed his jacket, tie and socks, had rolled his trousers up and was re-reading Principles of Climatology for Pilots for what had to be the millionth time. Douglas was lying there, ankles neatly crossed with his hat pulled over his face, looking as effortlessly comfortable as always.
She strode up, pretending the past few minutes of undignified searching had not happened. "Well, well, well, if it isn't the Three Stooges. We have a . . ." But again she tailed off as something occurred to her. "Apologies, but would someone please explain to me why you are sat under the plane, instead of on it? Like normal people would?"
"It's really hot on the plane, Mum." Arthur said, scratching his face and leaving a stripe of chalk behind.
"Well, put the air-conditioning on then."
"Um . . . Well, I would have done Mum, only . . . last time I chose that course of action you threatened to beat me round a head with a tea-tray and gave me a three-quarters-of-an-hour long lecture about wasting fuel."
"Oh yes . . . well, why didn't you go sit in the hanger then?"
"Just as hot and it doesn't have air conditioning at all." Martin pointed out, turning the page. "It's like a sweatshop; you could probably grow cannabis in there."
"Alright Biggles, I get the point, we'll grab a cheap fan from Argos or something when we're back from tomorrow's trip. Or we could get Douglas to acquire one from God knows wherever he gets all his stuff from."
"I could tell you Carolyn, but then I'd have to kill you." Douglas said lazily, not bothering to remove his hat. "What's this job then?"
"Rich Exec wants us to fly his socialite wife and two young children up to Norfolk, they're holidaying there and apparently taking a plane there is a birthday treat for his little boy who is apparently obsessed with planes and flying."
"Whereabouts in Norfolk? Norwich airport?" Martin asked, replacing his bookmark.
"No, Little Snoring airfield."
Martin let out a small snort of laughter. "Seriously? There's ACTUALLY a place called Little Snoring?"
"Yes. And that is where we are to drop off a Mrs Bethany Lukis and her two small children. Best behaviour, no biting, kicking, gouging, swearing or thumping the children this time please . . ." She said, looking at Martin meaningfully.
"Oh don't give me that look!" He protested. "You're making me out to be some sort of child abuser."
"You did thump that nice little boy." Arthur pointed out.
"He was not little! He was 14! And he definitely wasn't nice! He was horrible! And violent . . ."
"Now now, I do think you're all being rather harsh on our dear captain here." Douglas pointed out.
"After all, let's not forget who came off worse after that encounter." He said, smugly.
"Oh, you had to bring that bit up again, didn't you?"
"I'm sorry, I can't quite remember what it was you said to him Martin. Something along the lines of 'aaaaaaaargh, no, no, no! I'm sorry! I'm so sor-aaaaargh!' wasn't it?"
Martin's nails bit angrily into the cover of his book as they all laughed.
"Well, not to worry. I don't think you have to worry about these two attacking you." Carolyn chuckled. "One's three and the other's six months."
"Yes, they'd probably only be able to knock you out by throwing building bricks at you instead of making you fall to the floor and shriek for mercy . . ."
"Fuel Warning system?"
"Expecting lots of ice in the bleak wastes of the vast, arctic tundra of Norfolk, are we?"
"Douglas . . ."
"Checked as a chess board."
"You've dealt with the fuel run off?" Martin said, looking briefly over his shoulder at Arthur who was assisting their passenger with getting installed in her seat.
"Yes, my Lexus now feels like it's on Red Bull and is wondering where its wings are."
"Are you the pilots?"
The two men paused and turned around.
In the doorway to the cabin was stood a tiny little boy with thick dark hair and huge eyes magnified still further by corrective glasses.
"Er, yes. Yes we are." Martin offered.
"Toby!" An harassed looking woman with lots of frizzy, wavy hair appeared in the doorway. "So sorry, gents." She apologised. "Sweetie, what have I told you about wandering off? You need to sit down with Mummy for take off. You can explore later."
She vanished, taking the little boy with her.
Douglas blinked. "She didn't look much like a socialite. Socialites generally look more . . . svelte."
"Don't be rude." Martin chastened him. "It can't be easy looking after two little children."
"Oh it isn't. But my point is, normally someone that rich has an au pair."
"Oh here we go, leave it to little Mr. Public School to think of a Nanny. Go on, I bet you had one, didn't you?"
"Oh God yes." Douglas grinned. "Great, big strapping Dutch girl named Hilda. Wonderful woman, patient, intelligent and a huge pair of-"
"What? I told you I started early."
"Urgh, forget it. Just finish doing the take-off checks while I do the walk around, will you . . ."
"Post take-off checks complete."
"Thank you, Douglas. Tower, this is Golf Tango India and, just for future reference Carl, just saying 'you are now cleared for take-off' is infinitely preferable to you shouting 'Fly, my Pretties! Fly!' and then cackling evilly."
"Sorry, Martin . . ."
"What's that?" A little dark-haired head appeared in between them.
They looked down at Toby who was chewing on his fist and looking up at them, curiously.
"That was the control tower." Martin explained, slowly. "They talk us through take-offs and landings, so we don't crash into anything."
"Can I talk to them?" The little boy asked, eagerly.
"Erm . . . Well, I'm really sorry little man, but you're not really allowed in here while we're flying." Douglas said.
The little boy's face dropped.
Douglas bit his lip. Oh sod the anti-terrorism laws, he's wearing Thomas the Tank Engine dungarees, I think he's a bit young for sabotage. "Oh well, Martin?"
"Come on then, Tiny." Martin picked Toby up and balanced him on the seat next to him. "Press and hold that button for me, good lad, Tower, this is Golf Tango India again with a quick hello from one of our passengers. Say hello, Toby."
"Hello!" The boy called happily, for some reason deciding to wave at the tannoy as though it could see him.
"Hello Toby, you have a good trip now. Over and out."
The little boy giggled happily and clapped his hands.
"So, you like flying then Toby?" Martin asked, smiling.
"Do you want to be a pilot when you grow up?"
"I wanna be a dragon!"
"Well, aim for the stars and then you won't shoot yourself in the foot as I always say." Douglas said, drily.
"Can I drive the plane?" Toby begged, bouncing up and down.
The two men looked at each other. They shouldn't really watch the little lad AND fly the plane at the same time. What they needed was something to distract him while they worked.
What they needed, was another child.
Luckily that's exactly what they had.
Douglas gave the little boy a glowing smile. "Just a minute, little man." He reached over and buzzed the tannoy. "Arthur? Can we borrow you for a minute?"
Carolyn strode down the aisle to where the lady's service light was on. "May I help you Ma'am?"
"Sorry, just thought I'd better check, do you have any baby-changing facilities on board?"
"Oh . . . no, as a matter of fact."
"Not to worry, do you mind if I change him just in the aisle?"
"Er . . . no, no that's fine."
The woman sighed and started removing various items from a bag. "Urgh, Lord." She groaned. "What I wouldn't give for a good night's sleep?"
"Disturbed night last night?" Carolyn said, sympathetically. Very few things unite strangers better than sharing experiences of parenthood.
"Yeah, poor little mite's had heat rash for the past few nights, nothing I do seems to touch it and so he won't stop crying." The woman wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. "I was up practically all night last night."
"Didn't the father help at all?"
The woman gave a short, brutal laugh which spoke volumes.
"Oh, not the hands-on type is he?"
"You could say that." The woman laid out the things in the aisle and began to change the baby in swift, practised movements.
Carolyn was rather surprised. Most of the socialites she had ever met didn't even open their own car doors or run their own baths, let alone wiping dirty baby bottoms.
"I keep asking him to either get his arse back and give me a hand or, if not, let me get someone in to help me during the day but nooooooooooooo, no, no, no heaven forbid I'm actually allowed to spend any money." The woman said, sourly.
"You're not . . . then-" Carolyn cut herself off.
The woman looked up at her, knowingly. "This is so he can brag to his work colleagues about what a good husband and father he is, chartering a private plane to take us to Norfolk, what an idiot. To be honest, if it wasn't for the fact that we're bringing down some of his precious vintage wines for him I don't think he'd have even bothered to invite us. Still, Toby seems to be enjoying it. Speaking of which, where is he?"
At that moment the intercom cut in. "Mummy! They're letting me sit with them while they fly the plane." The toddler yelled, excitedly.
"Alright, sweetheart. Just behave yourself and do what they tell you." She called along to him.
"Right, we've done Old MacDonald had a Farm and we can't do the Hokey-Cokey sitting down, what's next?" They heard Arthur say, eagerly as the intercom clicked off again. "Oh! Oh! I know! If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!"
The toddler clapped his hands, starting to sing along.
"If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!"
Even Martin joined in with that one.
"If you're happy and you know it, and you really want to show it, if you're happy and you know it, clap your hands."
"You didn't clap your hands." The little boy pointed out to Douglas.
"No." He said, moodily.
"Aren't you happy, then?"
"No." Douglas didn't like children at this age. He could take them in small doses but not for prolonged periods. They were just at the age where they were too loud, too snotty and permanently under your feet. He was fine when they were little and you just stuck stuff in one end and cleaned the other or when they were older and just grunted at you over a book/games console, but at this point they were just annoying.
"Why?" He asked, curiously.
"Is it 'cos of me?" The little boy asked, in a small voice.
"What? No, no, no!" Martin said, hastily, as tears welled in the little boys eyes. "No, he didn't mean that. He's just a grumpy old fart who is going to sing along right now because Carolyn won't like it if he makes the passenger's child cry."
"You're not serious-"
Martin glared at him. "If you're happy and you know it clap your hands!" Never had Douglas heard those words sung in such a threatening manner before.
Sighing grumpily, Douglas clapped his hands.
"If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!" Arthur joined in again cheerfully.
"If you're happy and you know it, and you really want to show it, if you're happy and you know it, clap your hands." The little boy shouted gleefully.
The intercom crackled into life once more. "If my son would care to take a break in performing in the most inept Barbershop Quartet known to man and actually take note of the fact that the service light is on and he should probably do his job, it would be greatly appreciated . . ."
"Morning Madam, how may I be of assistance to you with you on board with you today?" Arthur said, smoothly.
"Dear heart, light of my life, remind me when we're landed to explain you how many mistakes you made in that last sentence." Carolyn sighed, despairingly. "Two coffees and a tea towel. The little one's just sicked up all over 9B."
"Sorry." The lady said, sheepishly, for the fifteenth time.
"Not to worry, occupational hazard with children, animals and passengers. And it's still better than that time with Herr Salzerti."
"What happened with him?"
"Ah . . . Do I want to know?"
Arthur returned with the coffees before disappearing again.
The lady's phone buzzed and she reached for it idly.
Then her expression tensed as she read the text.
Carolyn's eyebrows quirked. "Everything alright?"
"Oooooooh, oh ho ho . . ." The woman made a strange noise between a growl and a laugh. "He's done it this time."
"I'll take that as a no . . ."
"Look!" The woman snarled, thrusting her phone under Carolyn's nose.
Carolyn took it and read it, her eyebrows slowly creeping up her head as the words sunk in.
She coughed awkwardly, blushing. "W-well, he's certainly very descriptive. And . . . affectionate."
"Yes, but he calls me 'his dear little Bunny.'"
"That's NOT my nickname. That IS however the nickname of his 21 year old secretary Barbara whose name is just above mine in his phone . . ."
"Ah . . ."
"Well, that explains all those nights 'working late.'" She growled, her fingers clenching on the arm rests as Arthur and Toby went rolling down the aisle, giggling wildly, Toby having somehow talked Martin into allowing him to borrow his hat.
"Yes of course, 'cos this isn't going to be awkward . . ." Carolyn muttered nervously to herself. She HATED it when she got involved in passenger's personal problems.
"What isn't?" The woman demanded.
Crap. "Er, your holiday."
"Sod that. There's not going to be a holiday. Has my husband paid for this flight yet?"
Toby ran back into the cockpit, grinning massively and holding Martin's hat in place on his tiny head.
"He's put down a fuel and security deposit but no, he hasn't paid in full yet. Why?"
The woman had a very scary look in her eyes now, and with her bushy hair the overall effect was impressively leonine. "All these nights spent waiting for him to come home, raising his children with no one to help him. Budgeting like a normal housewife whilst he's funnelling oysters into his gullet and washing it down with caviar pickled in champagne. No! Time to hit him in the only place it'll truly hurt . . ."
"In the wallet?" Carolyn said, hopefully, spotting a way in which this situation could easily be improved.
Something in the back of Carolyn's mind made a ker-CHING! noise and started to dance for joy.
"When we get to Little Snoring, can you refuel and fly us back home again straight away?"
"Of course. Arthur!"
Arthur rolled to a halt, looking up at her with a happy expression reminiscent of a Labrador puppy. "Yes Mum?"
"Go and tell Feckless and Witless that we're going to refuel at Little Snoring and return straight away."
"Screwing a philandering husband out of his money." Mrs Lukis interjected, hotly.
"Righto. Fair enough" Arthur said, evenly.
"Is there any way we can screw him even more?" She asked, eyes glinting.
"Ooh! Hang on!" Arthur scrambled up and away, returning with a blanket which he used to create a partition behind Mrs Lukis' seat, separating her from the rest of the seats. Once done, he bowed. "Madam, as a valued customer you have been upgraded to First Class at an extra cost of 15%."
"Arthur!" Carolyn said, scandalised. "That was refreshingly devious, I'm proud of you."
"Aw, thanks mum."
"Is there anything else we can do?"
"Oh of course." Carolyn smiled. "I'm afraid that we are going to have to impose an airport fine due to our delayed departure."
"But we left on time, Mum."
"No, we didn't Arthur." She said, winking at him.
"But we di- oh! Oh, I see, yes."
"Also a landing tax, take-off charge and oh, let's not forget the cleaning bill for the chair that the baby was sick on." Carolyn said, her smile getting wider and wider and her purse feeling fuller and fuller with each passing word.
"Excellent." The woman kicked back in her chair. "You don't happen to have any expensive food or drink on board do you?"
"Arthur, notify the pilots and on your way grab that packet of Honey-glazed Macadamias and the Talisker Single Malt please."
"Enough for two please! My little treat."
"Oh, you're very kind."
"Want me to do the landing, Captain?" Douglas offered. "You appear to have your hands full."
Little Toby had clambered onto Martin's lap in order to be able to see out the window and, due the excitement and exertions of the day, which had included a whole other flight more than he had been expecting, the little three year old had dozed off.
"Very kind." Martin carefully rustled his cap from the three-year-old's head and replaced it on his own head.
Douglas looked sideways at him. "You're surprisingly good with him."
"You think so?" Martin said, faintly touched.
"Oh yes, of course it's only because he's too young to knock seven bells out of you . . ."
"Skipper!" Arthur stuck his head around the door.
"Can you think of any more ways to screw Mr. Lukis out of any more money?"
" . . . Nope, nope I think we've just about done them all." Martin mused, then one hit him and he reached out and flicked a switch.
"Martin! What on earth are you doing?" Douglas demanded but Martin was already reaching for the comms system.
"Tower, this is Tango Golf India. Just letting you know we will be landing without Hydraulics-System One and you might want to have the fire truck ready and waiting . . .
"You sure, Skipper? Carolyn won't like it, you know how much that costs."
"Not to worry, Carl, someone else is very kindly footing the bill." Martin said, smugly, snapping off the tannoy again.
"Oh bravo . . ." Douglas said, approvingly.
"By the way, Skipper." Arthur said, ducking away before returning, this time bearing a crate of wine bottles with him which he deposited on the floor between their seats. "Mrs Lukis very kindly gave us some of her husband's wine collection as a gift for being so accommodating."
"Oh, very kind of her. What is it?" Martin twisted around and picked up a bottle as Douglas carefully lined up the plane for the touchdown. "Chateau Moutin-Rothschild, Paulliac 1986-JESUS!"
The entire flight had been perfectly smooth but that final ten feet down onto the runway was about as comfortable as the Dakar Rally.
"Jesus Christ, Douglas!" Martin yelped. "Arthur, before your mother comes in and demands my head for trying to attempt an aerial re-enactment of the maiden voyage of the Titanic go and tell her it wasn't me please! Good grief man, what's wrong with you?"
"Chateau Moutin-Rothschild, Paulliac, 1986!" Douglas whispered. "Chateau Moutin-Rothschild, Paulliac 1986!"
" . . . Is that . . . Good?"
"£9228 per bottle!"
The bottle slipped from Martin's hands in shock and he scrabbled to reclaim it.
Douglas pointed at him with a trembling finger. "If you had dropped that, I would have been forced, for the good of the human race, to beat you to death with a shovel."
"Nine grand . . ." Martin gasped. "Bloody hell . . ."
"And there must be at least eight bottles in that crate, plus the over-ten grand of other stuff we've managed to screw him out of." Douglas calculated.
"What's that?" They looked down and saw Toby gazing sleepily up at them.
"Your Mummy has been very, very nice and has given us a present for flying you today." Douglas said, gleefully.
"Tha's nice. I love my Mummy." The little boy said, yawning.
The two men looked at each other and, for once in their lives, they were in absolute total agreement.
"My dear boy," Douglas said, with complete and utter honesty. "We love your Mummy too."