A Charlie Bellman story
A landing you can't walk away from...
Spontoon Control, in the spring of 1934, was a colonial bungalow on the shore of Meeting Island, which had seen better days. It had the merit of overlooking the lagoon, and the seaplane lanes, and half the roof had been hacked away to add a second floor, with big windows, topped by an observation platform. There was a flagpole flying the Spontoonie National Flag, which was liable to change without warning if the Althing was feeling frivolous, or couldn't agree on anything else, and another, now unused, intended for naval-style signal flags. From a stubby mast on the observation deck ran an aerial for HF wireless, anchored at the other end to a convenient palm tree.
It looked about ready to fall down at the slightest hint of a storm, but, so far, it hadn't.
At the front of the building were three piers, a little less decrepit. Crash boats were moored at two, leaving some space for tenders, and the third was a semi-public pier, where a water-taxi could slip in and out, or sometimes other, more specialised craft. Occasionally, one of the larger water-taxis would pull in, and load a party of Constables, and leave flying an Ensign to do something seriously official.
It rarely looked anything other than placid. Though perhaps somebody might rush out and shoot off a Very flare. Or, if you were close enough to hear, somebody might scream an oath into a microphone.
So, a little after dawn, people took note when the excitement became visible. The crash boats started their engines (and, one must note, those engines always started). Two water-taxis arrived, and were loaded with people from the hospital before heading out into the lagoon. Two of the tenders, smaller and faster craft, were running along one of the seaplane lanes, eyeballing the water for any floating debris, and making sure that nobody was taking a shortcut.
It was noticeably more than the usual wake-up routines, and it caught even more attention when two of Rain Island's fighter floatplanes taxied up to the start of the lane, accompanied by an R.I.N.S. tender, and did a more than usually energetic take-off.
That wasn't as significant as the newspaper reporter on the roof of the Mirror building was making it, gabbling on the internal telephone to the Night Editor, who was wondering it it was worth stopping the presses for a few minutes. And, besides, his office window faced downwind this morning. He even had a pair of binoculars.
“Calm down, Jethro, it looks like that mailplane coming in.”
“And the crashboats? The Doctors?”
The Night Editor nodded. “I'll get a photographer up there, and...” He looked out his window again. “I'll hold the presses for ten minutes. No longer, unless you have a flying-boat fireball in the middle of the lagoon.” He shrugged. Jethro was excitable, but he had a newsman's instinct
“The Rain Island crash-boat has turned up.”
Now that was interesting. He picked up the phone connected to the press room. It could just be an exercise: After all, the mail plane was Rain Island, too. They could have arranged some training. But ten minutes, that would be enough time.
And no fireball in the lagoon. His aunt was a Wise One, and she'd never forgive him if she heard him wishing for that.
Now, Mr. Crane might have been a hot newspaper proprietor, able to smell a story through two brick walls, and sell it to half the planet, but Crane had missed a chance. There was no law against listening to the wireless, nor any expectation of privacy. And yet nobody in the Mirror building had a wireless tuned to Spontoon Control.
In a cramped office, over Merry's Wireless Shack and Gift Sho (the last letter of the sign had fallen off two years before) the editor and chief reporter of the Island Birdwatcher was listening to the wireless. Both the HF voice channel and, quiescent now, the CW Morse.
“Control, Toc Emma One Four, lane in sight.”
The voice was male, English, and very precise. But “Toc”? “Emma”? Still, the story was clear enough. Most of the crew incapacitated, and one pilot, helped by a civilian passenger with light aircraft experience. Which was odd. And what could have taken out all the crew at once. Almost all the crew.
Joe came up the stairs. “That bloke was in the Army,” he said. “British,” he added, “In the war. Like I was.”
“A lot of people were.”
“Well, Rain Island would have taught him their letter-code, and the Brits don't use that one any more. And he wasn't Navy.”
“No telephones, right.”
Control was acknowledging the signal. The guy might be an antique, but his voice was rock-steady. You could cut a disc of the conversations and use it to give lessons. This is how you talk when you're in trouble. No shouting, no gabbling, no prayers (the Gods don't need wireless to hear you pray), just get the message through.
“Five hundred,” said Helen. “Seventy knots.”
Catriona MacDonald forced her grip on the stick to relax a little. She wasn't going to get this wrong. She had the experience, but she knew who the better pilot was. Her eyes flicked over the panel one last time, and then she concentrated on the sea, waiting for the right moment to pull back a little, raise the nose, and shift the energy from air-speed to slowing the descent rate. Get is right, and the 'plane would be on the verge of stalling as the keel touched the water. Get it wrong, and bad things might happen.
At the wireless desk, Bellman prayed, quietly. His seat-straps were tight. He'd done all he could. He couldn't see what was happening, and he found he didn't want to. Carol Todd was in the navigator's seat, and she had her eyes closed.
Catriona knew it wasn't a good landing, with a very solid thump as the stall came a little high. But it was a landing, one you could walk away from. Well, swim away from. Helen was smoothly closing the throttles. The needle on the air-speed indicator dropped to the stop. She took her feet off the pedals and set her left hand on the water-rudder lever.
“That was OK,” said Helen.
Charlie Bellman came past, sans coat and shirt, ducking into the passage to the bow turret and the mooring hatch.
“So's that,” said Catriona.
“Real nice,” agreed Helen. “He's married.”
“Can't I admire the view?” There was the tender, with the “Follow Me” flag flying from a stubby mast. Bellman was standing in the open hatch now, half-hidden by the turret, and she saw a flash of white fur. “Did somebody shoot him?”
“Probably. He was in the war. But that might be natural.”
“If you get a chance at an inspection...” Catriona was grinning now. “He's never done this before?”
“Play nice, dammit!”
“Time it right and we could get him all wet.”
“There's the buoy,” said Helen, a phrase that Catriona needed a moment to think about before she had her mind on the job again.
Bellman slowed his breathing, and checked the mooring line. This wasn't any different from the times he'd been on his brother's barge, but that had been more than thirty years before. Lean over, reach, and...
“Nice,” said Catriona, reaching for the magneto switches. “I think I want his children.”
“Join the queue,” said Helen. “Fuel taps to off. You're the one who knows the checklist, not me.”
“Yeah, but we have it written down. We only borrowed this 'plane.”
“It's a Good 'plane,” said Helen.
“Damn right. Best 'plane in the world.” She twisted round in her seat. “Carol, open the cabin door and let the stink out.”
“At last!” came the fervent reply.
“Helen, I couldn't have done it without you.”
Helen glanced across the central console at her fellow pilot. “Thanks.”
“You've got the talent. Get the paperwork.”
Helen opened the side window, and felt the air movement ruffling her cheek fur. There was a strange scent in the air, fresh and green, the scent of the islands. She breathed deeply. “Smells good.”
“That it does,” said Bellman, coming up from the bow compartment. “Ever seen the calendar?”
“Tourism syndicate one?” Catriona tried to control her expression. Bellman nodded. “Helen, you've got a shock coming.”
“You have that calendar, Mr. Bellman?” And then, as the implication sank in. “Oh dear.”
“The calendar?” Carol was at the back of the cockpit. “Mr. Bellman is a gentleman, but I suppose I shall have to sacrifice myself to protect my daughter.”
“Ladies...” Bellman sounded embarrassed. “Nobody here will need to be protected from me.”
Carol leant against the doorframe and grinned. “We might not want to be.” Slowly, she shook her head. “No more teasing, Helen.”
Helen nodded. “No more,” she agreed. Bellman looked relieved. “I don't want this to be a joke.” That changed his expression, and then, just once, he nodded his head.
This time, Bellman didn't mention his marriage, and he felt terrible about that, even if he was certain that Helen knew.