A Charlie Bellman story
Oysters, Curry, and Piracy.
“Two hours,” said Ensign MacDonald. “Grab a meal at the Western Wind. And don't be late.”
She looked oddly at Bellman, and his poshteen. It did look rather alien, but it was warm. There wasn't much difference between being in a 'plane and a night on an Afghan hillside. “Back at seven pip emma,” he agreed. “You have food arranged?”
“My turn on sandwiches, while the rest of the crew get to the mess. I'll be fine. Rain Islanders make really good sandwiches.” She grinned. “Besides, it's oyster season, and I don't like oysters.”
Carol asked, “You're sure you'll be all right.”
“Don't worry about me, but thanks.” She smiled. “Two hours, it isn't such a long time.”
“Jiggy-jiggy ladies,” said Bellman, “No time to waste!”
There are some ladies who don't know what walking is. Once they rode fine carriages about town, and now motor-cars. They ride to hounds with delicacy rather than enthusiasm. They never walk to get anywhere. Not these two, but Bellman had stopped being surprised, hours ago. The Western Wind was a restaurant and bar, set back from the shoreline, looking a bit more classy than the bars nearer the docks. There was even a doorman, and Bellman, almost unconsciously, slipped back into the style of an Indian Army officer, sure of his caste and status, but nevertheless aware that he was a stranger in a strange land.
Wasted effort: they were expected. The Transportation Synidcate had made arrangements. And, oh joy, they had a choice of curries. Bellman became enthusiastic. And cautious. “You'll need the yoghurt: water doesn't wash away the fire.”
No need; the ladies knew curry. One of Helen's uncles was an old India hand, and, it seemed, was a very friendly fellow.
“He had a nautch-girl,” said Helen. She rolled yoghurt around her mouth with her tongue. “She was his mistress, of course. Everyone knew that, and nobody said anything.”
“Dancing-wench,” said Bellman. “You could call some of the better sort courtesans.”
Carol had chuckled. “Well, when he died Gunny discovered he had married her, all nice and legal.”
“She taught me some of the dancing,” said Helen. “All sorts of little things. It was a bit disconcerting, sometimes, but it was stuff a girl needs to know.”
“I can imagine,” said Bellman. Helen, he reckoned, would have been a shock to her husband, had she married. Indian brides might be virgins, but they were not naive.
“No thanks. I feel as if I shall burst.” Helen burped indelicately. “Charlie, I think you would almost know my aunt without meeting her.”
He nodded. “Very like. I know the type, at least. Though India is a lot of different places.”
“I owe her a lot. She was there when I needed something like a mother.”
“There are good 'uns and bad 'uns, everywhere.”
“She probably saved my life, Charlie. I knew enough to know when to run away.”
Bellman glanced at his watch. “It's a lesson some never learn.” And sometimes, he knew, running away wasn't an option. He kept his face calm. He was, after all, running away again, even if he was under orders.
Helen wore a wristwatch too, not so unlike his, in that it was heavy, and a little too mannish in style, with radium-paint on the numbers and the hands. She was, after all, an aviator. “We had better start back soon.”
Bellman nodded. “Carol?”
“I like my sister-in-law, Charlie, And I think she'd like you.”
“We do seem to have him outnumbered, mother.”
“Oh God”” exclaimed Carol. “I'll catch up with you...” She was hurrying away, and Bellman thought he recognised the sort of strained look on her face..
“My Aunt taught me a trick with a silk scarf, and hoped I'd never need to use it.” She blinked. “Yes, we may as well start.”
“The phansigar scarf?”
“Yes. You're heard of it. Sleeman, I suppose.”
Bellman slightly moved his left shirt-cuff. “Well, that as well, but a man who wishes to, he can learn things in India.”
“My Aunt told me that to use it would be murder.”
“Premeditation, they'd say. But a soldier goes armed: it's as much a state of mind as a hand on a weapon.” He looked at her. He was already married, and yet a man could do far worse. He wondered if she would kill, if the need came, or if she would freeze in that stunned shock which would get you killed.
She was a pilot. Stunned shock probably was not something to expect of her.
They stood at the cloakroom for a long moment, looking at each other. Leather, fleece-lined jackets, though his poshteen looked almost barbaric. They were almost a pair, he thought, but there would be nothing come if it. There couldn't be....
The image of Alice Bellman's face came to his mind It would be like betraying a child. He could, so easily, commit adultery with this woman, but it would be a betrayat that he just couldn't commit.
“OK, you're married.” She smiled slightly. “There are some things you're not good at hiding, Charlie. And I'm glad you don't.”
“Dammit, girl, there's something about you, and...” He shook his head. “Helen all alone...”
“Sounds like you know your Kipling.” She didn't smile. “I almost envy your wife.”
“You shouldn't.” He wondered if he should explain, and what his brothers might have said. There was nothing he wanted to hide, but it would be so hard to speak of.
“To the aeroplane!” She struck a pose almost like some theatrical hero, breaking out of the uncertain tension. “The mail shall get through!”
“It had better,” said Bellman. “We're on the same 'plane.”
“Corporal i/c Lewis guns,” said Bellman.
“I've shot at pheasants,” noted Helen.
They walked into the late afternoon light. “I'm glad I'm just a peasant,” said Bellman.
“You will, no doubt, have noticed the flight of floatplane fighters that Rain Island keeps here. Air pirates, no matter what the pulps suggest, choose easier targets. And, I would judge, those 'planes would not be a walkover.”
“You know this stuff?”
“Charlie, when I'm flying a 'plane, if anything goes wrong it's my fault. Like the captain of a ship. And I don't even jump into a motor-car the way some people do.”
He nodded. “I approve.” He grinned. “I'm not sure how you'd check up on a husband. Test flights are hardly approved of.”
“Maybe I should ask my mother to do the testing.”
“Somewhere out there...” He gestured vaguely out to the southwest. “...there are two very lucky men.”
“I'm not sure if Carol has gotten over my father's death yet. They were very much in love, with a sprinkling of wanton lust.” Bellman said nothing. “I was there when they met, at the Royal Academy in '27.”
“I hear her coming,” warned Bellman, looking back up the road. “I recall some sort of scandal.”
“Josslyn Hay was involved.” Helen paused, choosing her words carefully. “I don't think anything quite happened, but my father wanted to challenge him to a duel, when he heard the full story.” She shrugged. “Well, he said he did. I suppose it was different to threatening to horsewhip Hay.”
“I'm a Consular Officer. Josslyn Hay has his own chapter in the reference handbook, which, should the opportunity arise, I shall completely ignore.”
“Ignore?” Carol had been walking with a longer stride than was ladylike. “What do they teach you to do about Josslyn Hay?”
“He's an Earl,” said Bellman. “He's the sort of person we're supposed to keep out of foreign jails.” He grinned with a lightly hinted savagery. “I'm very good at my job, but anyone can make a mistake.”
“Charlie Bellman, I like the way you think.” She took his left arm, and with Helen on his right, they headed back to the 'plane, quoting poetry and leaving a faint scent of spices in the air behind them.
Friends, Bellman hoped, and nothing more, and that was pretty good.
MacDonald was waiting, chewing on a large and crusty sandwich. “Curry?”
“Yep,” said Helen.
“Oh my God, the farting from you three as we climb to cruise altitude is going to stink out the cabin for the rest of the month.”
“Can it be worse than oysters,” asked Bellman.
“Oh, when you put it like that.” A bit old, but there was something about the guy, she thought. Heck, there was something about all three of them. And, tomorrow night on Casino, done up to the nines, you just wouldn't recognise them as the same people. Whatever it was they had, it would be invisible again.
The English, she reckoned, could be so damn stupid, sometimes.
“We bought some packed suppers. Only a little curry, and no oysters.” Helen handed over a parcel. “Not very traditional for a midnight feast. Couldn't get any ginger-beer.”
The English, Catriona allowed, could also be rather nice.
And a take-out from the Western Wind, that was an Admiral's fare, usually. Not that it was so dreadfully expensive, but it took time to arrange that she didn't usually have. She finished the last of her sandwiches. “If, perchance, you are planning to pirate the mail, I think you have an accomplice.”
“Unlike Calico Jack Rackham,” said Bellman, “I am sober enough to fight.” There were baffled looks. “The infamous female pirates, Anne Bonney and Mary Read, were a part of the crew of one John Rackham, known as Calico Jack. When their ship was surprised by the Royal Navy, they were the only two sober enough to fight.”
“But they'd all be hanged,” complained Helen.
“The two claimed to be pregnant, so the executions of the women were delayed. The records of what happened to them are missing.” He shrugged. “Calico Jack couldn't delay things.”
“Piracy isn't romantic,” said MacDonald, firmly. “And we don't take prisoners.”
“I read about that business last November,” said Carol, “and I'm with you on that.”
Bellman nodded. “Pirates or slavers, it doesn't make a difference. There's a Latin tag for it that the lawyers use, and what it means is that, wherever it happens, any country has jurisdiction. Not necessarily hanging 'em from the yardarm, but the normal legal process.”
“If you bother to take prisoners,” said Catriona.
“Not dead or alive?” Was that Carol or Helen?
“It's not a secret,” said Catriona, “but we don't talk about it much. Before the Naval Syndicate, we had naval militias. And some of them were part-time pirates. It got messy. So we're very severe about such things.” She shrugged. “It's still something personal for the senior officers.”
Bellman nodded. “Senior officers tend to prepare for the last war they won.” He paused. “By 1918 we'd learned how to beat the German Army. What I saw in Berlin, I don't think they plan on fighting the same way. We'll have to learn again.”
“I suppose we're trying to do the same, trying to find a new way of fighting a naval war. And that, I really can't talk about.” Catriona paused for a comment. “Some is obvious enough, I guess. Aircraft are part of it. They can be built faster than ships, for one thing.”
Bellman looked around before he stepped into the boat. “Floatplanes, so you don't need to build runways. The real secrets, I suppose, are in how you use them. I was a soldier, but never went to Staff College, not quite the right sort of chap.” He grinned. “You have the bases, here and out in the Spontoons. Not aircraft carriers?” He stepped off the dock. “It's easier to find the enemy when they come to you. Just like a convoy.”
She grinned for a moment, but said nothing.
to find them,” repeated Bellman, “But then you have to fight