Authors: Nevil Shute
FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, DECEMBER 2010
Copyright © 1951 by William Heinemann
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by Cassell & Co., London, in 1926. This edition published in Great Britain by William Heinemann in 1951, and subsequently published in Great Britain by Vintage, a division of Random House Group Limited, in 2009.
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage International and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
began in June. I was one of the pilots of the Rawdon Air Taxi Service then; as everyone knows, a civilian pilot, like a dramatic critic, is merely a young man who is too lazy to work for a living. I claim no exception. I had nobody to think for but myself; in those circumstances I didn’t see that it mattered much how I earned my living so long as there was plenty of it, and the work not too hard. Moreover, I was a pretty good pilot in those days. I was thirty-two years old that June, and making an income of just under a thousand a year for an average two-hour day. I used to play Rugger for the Harlequins and was making some progress with my golf, though I was never so near to the Amateur Championship as I thought I was. For the rest, I had a small bachelor flat off Maida Vale, and led about as dissolute a life as was consistent with keeping reasonably fit.
I came down from Manchester that afternoon at the conclusion of a photographic tour. It was a Wednesday, I remember, and a very hot day. I flew all the way in my shirt-sleeves with my arms bare to the elbow, and without a helmet. Even so I was hot. The air was very bumpy so that we had a rough trip; from time to time I would look back at the photographer in the rear cockpit, white to the gills and retching and heaving every time we hit a bad one. I wasn’t sorry to see him like that again; for a fortnight I had been cooped up with the wretched little man in indifferent hotels. If the devil had flown
away with him I could have borne up under the blow, I think. Rather he than I.
We got to London at about three in the afternoon. There was thunder about down there; great masses of cumulus were rolling up from every point of the compass, heavy-looking and pink at the edges. It grew more bumpy than ever. I wasn’t at all sorry to be home; it had grown suddenly cold, for one thing, and I wanted my coat. I had a thirst on me that I wouldn’t have sold for a fiver. I looked forward along the long bow of the machine to the familiar hangars and the aerodrome as I put her on the glide down to land; Collard had got his car out on the grass of the aerodrome in front of the Pilots’ Office and was tinkering with the engine. To announce my arrival I opened out my engine again and dived on the car; he looked up and waved an oil-can at me. I passed within a few yards of him, zoomed up again and finished with an Immelmann turn at the top for the sake of that wretched photographer. Then I throttled again, came round in a wide sweep, side-slipped her in over the hedge, and put down gently on the grass by the hangars.
I got out of the machine, cross and tired. I was as deaf as a post through flying without a helmet, and I felt as though my eyes were full of oil. I was shivering. The ground felt as heavy as lead. I’d had a pretty thick night the night before. Annesley had turned up in Manchester and had produced a couple of Flossies; before the night was out we’d done Manchester pretty thoroughly—dealt faithfully with the town. If there was a low dive in the place that we hadn’t been in, Annesley didn’t know it.
I handed the machine over to the mechanics, swore at the photographer, collected the log-books, got all my stuff out of the rear cockpit, carried the lot
across to the Pilots’ Office and dumped it all on the floor.
‘Had a good trip?’ Collard.
I told him in a low monotone, while I sorted out my stuff upon the floor and put on a cardigan, what I really thought about my trip, Manchester, the machine, and the photographer. He heard me to the end, and then—
‘Been missing his Kruschens again,’ he observed. ‘What you want is a holiday.’
I stood up and let fly. ‘If you think I’m going to take a ruddy holiday,’ I said, ‘just because Mr. ruddy Collard thinks I want my Kruschens, you’re barking up a rocking-horse like the puppy.’ Then I saw he’d got a Bass there, and I remembered I was thirsty. ‘Give that here,’ I said. ‘I’ll show you what to do with that.’ There was a short struggle before I put him on the ground and got it away from him; there was no corkscrew and I cut my lip against the broken neck of the bottle.
While I was trying to stop the bleeding and thinking what a rotten world it was, the office girl came down to the hut.
‘Mr. Morris wants to see you in his office, Captain Stenning,’ she said.
I mopped at my lip and turned to Collard. ‘If he wants me to do another job of work to-day,’ I said, ‘he can go and——’ but the child was there. Then I followed her out of the hut and up through the works to the main office.
I never really got to know Morris, though I quarrelled with him every week. He was Chief Pilot and Technical Editor and Lord High Everything Else in the Rawdon firm. He was one of those lean, saturnine fellows that go about with an air of ‘I keep myself to myself, damn you.’ He was a pretty good sort in his own way. A married man; he lived in a house overlooking the aerodrome. I believe he married money.
I went into his office and found him at his desk. ‘Afternoon, Stenning,’ he said. ‘How d’you get on up north? I’ve got another job for you—want you to take a machine down to Devonshire this evening.’
‘Damn it,’ I said. ‘I’ve only just come back.’
He raised his head and looked at me like a corpse, so that I knew that there was trouble coming.
‘Well,’ he said quietly. ‘You’re going away again.’
It was poisonously hot. I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance, but the rain still held off. The air was close and heavy in the office, so that I was sweating and sorry I had put on my cardigan.
‘I’m ruddy well not going away again to-day,’ I said. ‘I’ll go first thing to-morrow morning, if you like. At dawn.’
‘That won’t do,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to start from there to-morrow morning at dawn, to take the passenger first to Liverpool and then back here. I’m sorry, but the machine’s got to go down to-night.’
I laughed shortly. ‘You’re going to be unlucky,’ I said. ‘I’ve done three and a half hours’ flying to-day, and I’m tired. You work us too hard, Morris. I’m fed up with it. Besides, you haven’t got a machine to send.’
‘You can take the one you’ve had up north,’ he said.
‘You can leave me out of it,’ I replied hotly; ‘as for the machine, she’s due for overhaul in three hours’ more flying time, and from what you say this will be an eight hours’ job. And the engine’s running rough—damn rough.’
‘Are you putting in a formal complaint about the engine?’ he said.
There was a sudden flurry of wind about the building and the first drops of rain splashed heavily on the window-sill. I could see that he was getting me into a corner, but couldn’t for the life of me see how to get out of it.
‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s no worse than some of the engines I’ve had to fly since I’ve been here.’
He disregarded that. ‘You can refuse this job on medical grounds if you feel you aren’t fit,’ he said. ‘In that case I shall take the machine myself. You know that won’t count against you.’
‘Damn it,’ I said sullenly, ‘you know I’m not as bad as that. But you work us too hard, Morris—by God you do. It’s going to be a perfectly filthy evening for getting down west.’
‘If you call three and a half hours’ flying a day’s work,’ he replied, ‘I don’t. But there it is. You can take it or leave it.’
At that I lost my temper. ‘I’ll take it,’ I said. ‘But you don’t give us a square deal, Morris. You don’t play fair. I’ll do the job—but I’ll tell you this much. I’ll take the machine down empty, but if you wanted me to carry passengers this evening I’d turn it down. Now that’s straight. Where have I got to go?’
He looked at me doubtfully for a moment. ‘Are you sure you’re fit?’ he said.
‘If I wasn’t I should send in one of your ruddy pink forms,’ I said irritably. ‘Come on. What have I got to do?’
He turned to the map on the wall. ‘You’ll go to Westward Ho!’ he said, ‘and put down on the golf links for the night. And, for Heaven’s sake, keep off the greens.’
I turned on him. ‘Damn it—you know it wasn’t I who went over that green.’
‘Didn’t say it was,’ he replied. ‘What I said was—don’t. The passenger is Sir Arthur Bardsley, who is staying at Carew Hall, near Northam. You’ll report to him, or there may be a message at the club house for you. In any case, I understand he wants to make a start soon after dawn.’
Well, that was that. I took my instructions, got my ticket, and stalked out of the office in as vile a temper as any I’ve ever been in. I wasn’t particularly annoyed with Morris; one couldn’t help liking the man, and he certainly did work like a nigger to put the show on a dividend-paying basis. No, oddly enough the man I really was annoyed with was Collard for suggesting that I could do with a holiday. The worst of it was that I knew that it was true. For a long time I had been burning the candle at both ends to a greater extent than was altogether healthy, and lately there had been warnings that I should have been a fool to disregard.
‘Things can’t go on like this,’ I muttered sullenly, as I walked down to the Pilots’ Office. At the same time, I didn’t see any real reason why they shouldn’t.
I saw the foreman of the mechanics and told him to get the machine filled up again, and then I telephoned for my tea. Then I went to look at the oil, my latest venture. There is not much left now in France of the stuff that was taken over there for the war, but Collard, having occasion to land near some little French village that had been behind the line, had discovered fifty barrels of (alleged) motor lubricating oil mouldering in a pasture. I went into it with him, and we were engaged in tentative negotiations for buying the lot at a price that worked out at a little over a halfpenny a gallon. It certainly had the viscosity of oil, but it was far too light in colour to attract a purchaser; in these circumstances Collard was trying the effect of various pigments in an endeavour to turn it into such a colourable imitation of good oil as to catch some poor simp up from the country and sting him for at least a shilling a gallon. After all, in most motor-car engines the function of the oil is to wash the heat away from the bearings, and for that this oil would probably do as well as any other liquid.
There was a little pan of it there. I dipped my finger in the oil and drew a little picture on the wall in the style that Collard finds amusing. I laughed at it myself, then went out on to the aerodrome and found the rugger ball and started punting it about in the rain. Then my tea came. By the time I’d finished that, a mechanic was in the hut to tell me that the machine was ready; I told him to get her started up and began to look for my leather coat.
By the time I was all togged up it was half-past four; I had none too long if I was to get my job done before dark. The flight down there would take me over three hours against the stiff westerly wind; after that I should have to find a car and drive it to Bideford to collect fifty gallons or so of petrol, return to the links and fill up the machine. Besides that I should have to report myself at Carew Hall and find myself something to eat and—if the gods were kind—a bed. It was still raining in buckets; the clouds had thickened up and come lower and the barograph showed the glass dropping a little bit—not much. It looked perfectly beastly outside; in any other circumstances I would have put off starting for half an hour. There was none too much time, however, and I felt that, having indulged in the luxury of speaking my mind to Morris, it was up to me to carry the job through without quibbling. So I started.