Authors: Nevil Shute
FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, DECEMBER 2010
Copyright © 1951 by William Morrow & Co. Inc
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in book form in Great Britain by William Heinemann Ltd., London and in the United States by William Morrow & Co. Inc., New York, in 1951. This edition first published in Great Britain by Vintage Books, an imprint of The Random House Group Limited, London, in 2009. Copyright © The Trustees of the Estate of Nevil Shute Norway.
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.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Mrs. James Elroy Flecker for permission to quote from
The Gates of Damascus
The Golden Journey to Samarkand
, by James Elroy Flecker, and to The Macmillan Company for permission to quote from the works of John Masefield.
Some men of noble stock were made, some glory in the murder blade
Some praise a Science or an Art, but I like honourable Trade!
JAMES ELROY FLECKER
into aviation the hard way. I was never in the R.A.F., and my parents hadn’t got fifteen hundred pounds to spend on pilot training for me at a flying school. My father was, and is, a crane driver at Southampton docks, and I am one of seven children, five boys and two girls. I went to the council school like all the other kids in our street, and then when I left school Dad got me a job in a garage out on the Portsmouth Road. That was in 1929.
I stayed there for about three years and got to know a bit about cars. Then, early in the summer, Sir Alan Cobham came to Southampton with his flying circus,
National Aviation Day
, he called it. He operated in a big way, because he had about fifteen aeroplanes, Avros and Moths and a glider and an Autogiro, and a Lincock for stunting displays, and a big old Handley Page airliner for mass joyriding, and a new thing called an Airspeed Ferry. My, that was a grand turnout to watch.
I knew from the first day that to be with that circus was the job for me. He was at Hamble for three days, and I was out at the field each day from early in the morning till dark. The chaps fuelling and cleaning down the aircraft let me help them, coiling down a hose or fetching an oil drum for them to stand on; when there was nothing else that wanted doing I went round
the enclosures picking up the waste paper that the crowd had left behind and taking it away to burn in a corner of the field. It was fun just doing that, because of the aeroplanes.
I got the sack from the garage on the second day.
On the evening of their last day, I went to the foreman of the ground crew and asked him for a job. He said I was too young, and they were full up anyway. He said that he was sorry.
I went home all down in the dumps that night. I must say, Dad and Mum were good. They didn’t lay in to me for getting the sack from the garage, although they might well have done. I’d told them airily that I was going to get a job with the circus, and when I went home I suppose they saw by my face I hadn’t got it. They were ever so nice; Ma opened a small tin of salmon for tea to make a bit of a treat for me. The show was going on to Portsmouth, twenty miles away, and when I told them I was going over there next day, all Dad said was, “That’s right. Keep trying.”
I went to Portsmouth on an early bus and I was out at the airport long before the first machines flew in, helping the ground crew to put up the first enclosures round the edges of the aerodrome. The foreman scratched his head when he saw me, but they were always shorthanded so they didn’t turn me off. He must have said something to Sir Alan, though, because while I was holding a post straight for another chap to hammer into the ground, Sir Alan himself came up behind me.
“Who are you?” he asked. “I thought we’d left you behind at Hamble.”
“My name’s Tom Cutter,” I said.
“Well, what are you doing here, Tom?”
“Helping to get this post in, sir,” I said. I was a bit shy at being talked to by a knight.
“Haven’t you got a job?”
“Got the sack day before yesterday,” I said. It sounded bad, but I didn’t know what else to say.
“Is that because you spent so much time out here with us?”
“I suppose so,” I said reluctantly.
He snorted. “Well, don’t be such a young fool. Go back and
ask to be taken on again. There’s no work for you here. What was the job?”
“I was in a garage, sir. I can’t go back. They took on another boy.”
“Well, we can’t take you on here. We’re full up. I’ve got hundreds of boys writing to me for jobs every day, hundreds and hundreds. I’ve got no jobs to give.”
“Mr. Dixon told me that there wasn’t any job,” I said. “I just thought that if I came over while I’m doing nothing, I could help, picking up the paper and that.”
He stared at me so long in silence that I felt quite awkward. I know now what a good answer that was. “I’m blowed if I know,” he said at last, and turned away. I couldn’t make head or tail of that.
I went on all that morning helping put up the enclosures, and when dinner time came round the foreman said I’d better go and get my dinner in the mess tent with the rest of the men. It was good of him, because being out of work I hadn’t got any money to chuck around. I went and helped park the cars in the car park when they started to come in for the afternoon show, and then I watched the show again. They had stunt displays, and wing walking, and a parachute descent, and a pretty girl flying a glider. They had a public address loudspeaker system rigged up, and the announcer stood up once and said that Sir Alan Cobham had offered to let any pilot of the last war try his hand at flying again. A pilot dressed up as an old tramp came out of the crowd and did a bit of clowning with the announcer, and tripped over his umbrella and fell flat, and got into an Avro back to front and took it off the ground facing the tail, holding his hat on, waving his umbrella, and shouting blue murder, and went into the best bit of crazy flying ever seen in England, bellowing all the time to be told how to land it as he went crabbing down the enclosures three feet up, and the announcer bellowing back to him. My, that was fun! They finished up with a Gretna Green elopement of a couple in a terrible old Model T Ford, with Father chasing after them all over the aerodrome in a Moth and bombing them with little paper bags of flour and rolls of toilet paper.
I’d seen it all before, but I could have watched that show for ever. I’d go and see it again, even now.
I went and helped unpark the cars and get them away after the show. Sir Alan had been flying the Handley Page himself most of the afternoon, joyriding, taking up twenty-five passengers at a time. He handed over to another pilot at about five o’clock and came through the car park to his caravan for his tea. He was always in a hurry, but never in too much of a hurry to notice the humblest detail of his big concern, and he checked when he saw me.
“You still here?” he asked.
“I been helping park the cars and that,” I said.
“Oh. Get any tips?”
“Three and six,” I said.
“Fair enough. Want to earn five bob?”
I grinned and nodded.
“I’ll give you five bob if you’d like to do the girl in Gretna Green this evening. Think you can do it?”
“Oh, aye,” I said. “I can do that all right. Thank you, sir.”
I was young, of course, and I’d got a fresh, pink and white face in those days, so I could make up as a girl quite well. All I had to do was to dress up in the most terrible women’s clothes and drive about on the aerodrome in the old Ford, trying to get out of the way of the Moth. The Ford was driven by a boy about my own age, Connie Shaklin. Connie was short for Constantine; he was a cheerful, yellow-skinned young chap with straight black hair who put me in the way of things. He was dressed up as a young farmer in a sort of smock and we did the turn together; we never turned that Ford over, but we came bloody near it sometimes. It was good fun; we wheeled and skidded the thing all over the aerodrome, shrieking and hugging and kissing while the Moth dived on us and bombed us. The show ended, of course, with my skirt getting pulled off and me running off the field in a pair of red flannel knickers, covered in flour and with streamers of toilet paper all over me, while the crowd laughed fit to burst.
I got the five bob and Sir Alan himself said I’d done very well. That was the first money that I ever made in aviation.
I made eight and six that day in all, and when I got home
I’d got four and twopence left, clear profit, after paying for my bus fares and my tea. I showed it to Dad and Mum and told them I was going over to the show again.
Next day they let me do the Gretna Green girl in both performances, and gave me ten bob for the two. For the rest of the day I picked up paper and carried things about for the ground engineers; there was always something to work at. Then I helped in the car park again and got some more tips, and when I went back home that night Dad said I was getting my nose in.
The show moved on to Winchester and I followed it there, but after that it was going to Newbury and that was too far for me to go over every day. I asked the foreman about a job again then, and he said he’d speak to Sir Alan for me. Next day was a Saturday and Dad was off in the afternoon, so I got him to come over in case they said I was too young again. Sir Alan saw Dad for a minute and said I was a smart boy, but if I came I’d have to be laid off in the winter. Dad said he thought it was best for me to do what I was keen on, and we’d take our chance about the winter. When we got on to the bus that night to go back home I’d got my job in the air circus, four quid a week, which was more than I’d been getting in the garage.
Thinking back over my life, I know of two or three times when I’ve been just perfectly, radiantly happy. That was one of them.
I went all over England, Scotland, and Wales with the show that summer, from Falmouth to Inverness, from Kings Lynn to Swansea. I did labouring work and Gretna Green, and helped with the aeroplanes whenever I got a chance. That was mostly when some passenger had been sick on the floor. From that I got to washing off the dirty oil with a bucket of paraffin and cleaning down generally, and by the time the season ended I’d picked up quite a bit of knowledge about those particular aeroplanes, just by keeping my ears open and working on them whenever I got the chance.
I got laid off when the show packed up for the winter, but Mr. Dixon said that I could come along next year if I wanted, and if I turned up or wrote in the first week of April there’d be a job for me. Sir Alan himself came round on the last evening
and shook hands with us all and thanked us, and when he came to me he asked what I was going to do.
I said, “I’ll get a job of some sort for the winter and come back again next year, if that’s all right.”
“Mr. Dixon tells me that you want to be a ground engineer,” he said.
“That’s right, sir,” I replied. “I was going to go to evening classes in the winter.”
“Fine,” he said. “If you do that, bring along some kind of a report with you next spring. If it’s a good one, I’ll see you get a bit more to do with the aeroplanes.”