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Authors: Nevil Shute

Slide Rule

BOOK: Slide Rule
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Copyright © 1954 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 1954. 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.

eISBN: 978-0-307-47418-6



My full name is Nevil Shute Norway. Readers will find on
this page
an explanation of the reasons that made me use my Christian names alone when writing my books.

Nevil Shute

Langwarrin, Victoria, Australia October 1953


The poem by E. F. A. Geach on
this page
is quoted by kind permission of Messrs. Basil Blackwell Ltd.


A YEAR OR SO AGO I was driving on the coast road near Mornington, forty miles south of Melbourne in Australia. I was going to see some friends to return an unwanted kitten that they had wished on to my children while my back was turned. Maybe the kitten had a malignance that I did not fully understand, because I was driving along between the red cliffs and the blue sea and thinking no evil when I was stabbed suddenly by an intense pain in my chest. It was so sharp and so agonising that I could not go on; I was alone in the car but for the kitten, so I pulled in to the roadside and parked to sweat it out. Ten minutes later I was rather better and went on, but two miles further on I had to park again. Finally I got to the house of my friends but I didn’t get out of the car; it hurt too much to move. I stayed in the driving seat and hooted, and when the wife came out,

“Look, Joan,” I said. “I’m sorry, but we can’t cope with this ruddy kitten. It’s come home. Apart from that, I think I’ve had a heart attack. Will you get in and come with me to Mornington? I’m going to see the doctor, but I’d just as soon have someone with me in the car.”

It wasn’t the first time that I had had this thing. It happened to me first in 1939, in Grand Central Station in New York, at midnight. I had been in America for about a month and in a few days I was to sail for home; during that month I had been lavishly entertained by all manner of Americans as is their way. I had travelled a long
distance, I had made the first public speeches of my life, I had met a great number of interesting and important people, and I suppose I was very tired. That night I dined and danced with a charming lady in the Rainbow Room, who introduced me to mint juleps. We refuelled on mint juleps from time to time, and when at last I took her to Grand Central Station to put her on the train to her suburban home we found that she had missed it, and had three quarters of an hour to wait. The prudent course was clearly to turn in to the station bar for a mint julep, and after that,

“I know a lovely drink,” she said. “It’s called a Bebeda Commodore.”

“What’s in it?” I enquired.

She was a little vague about that, but said it was delicious. So I called the waiter and ordered two Bebeda Commodores.

The waiter raised his eyebrows. “On top of a mint julep?” he enquired.

If there weren’t any fools in the world there wouldn’t be any fun. “On top of a mint julep,” I said firmly. He raised his eyebrows again as if to say, ‘It’s your body,’ and brought two of these things.

When I got up to take her to the ticket barrier to catch her train the pain shot me through, as if the bullet had gone in in front and had come out behind. It was difficult to walk or to breathe, but I got her to the barrier. She was concerned to leave me so, but I made her go, and found a seat, and sat down very motionless till the pain eased. Finally I got myself to a taxi and went back to the Hotel Chatham.

In the morning the hotel doctor told me how silly I had been, and sent me to have a cardiograph taken. The report was that I had strained my heart, not very badly; if I took things easily for a few weeks I should be as good as
new. I did so and I was, but it was six weeks before the pain entirely disappeared.

The second time it came was during the London blitz, early in 1941. I had joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as an ‘elderly yachtsman’ in the official phrase, thinking to spend the war in charge of a drifter or a motor minesweeper. But Their Lordships had other views; I had only been in training for two days when I was pulled out of the squad and asked some awkward questions about my previous career and technical experience, and I was sent up to an Admiralty office to work on the design of unconventional weapons. And there I stayed for most of the war, living in my club and going to the office every day, with occasional excursions to sea to attend trials of my toys. By the middle of the war I had attained the dizzy rank of lieutenant-commander, in the executive branch to make it worse, so that I ventured on board little ships wrapped in a secret terror that I might find myself the senior naval officer on board and have to do something. I think I must have been the only executive lieutenant-commander in the Navy who had never attended Sunday Divisions, and didn’t even know what happened at that ceremony.

However, all that is by the way. It was in a train coming back to London after some trial in a ship or at a port that the pain shot me through again; perhaps it had to do with hard work in the middle of the bombing. I went to the Admiralty doctor, a temporary officer who had a Harley Street consulting room, and told him about New York and the Bebeda Commodore. He took a lot of trouble over me, and at the end of it he said, “You’ve not got a heart attack, and what’s more you’ve never had one. What you’ve got is wind. Take these six powders, and if you get any more trouble come and see me again.” I never did.

So when I got to the consulting room again, at Mornington
in Australia, the score was one all, so to speak. By that time I was well known as a writer and the doctors took me very seriously. They put me to bed and got me a specialist, and took cardiograph after cardiograph in the hope of finding something wrong with me, with results that were ludicrously negative. Finally they ordered me to stay in bed for three weeks, and not to do it again.

That didn’t worry me, of course, because three weeks in bed is a light sentence to a man who can work a typewriter upon his knees in the morning and dabble with an oil painting on his knees in the afternoon. More serious was the matter of my pilot’s licence.

Most of my adult life, perhaps all the worth-while part of it, has been spent in messing about with aeroplanes. Kenneth Grahame once wrote that ‘there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’ With that I would agree, yet for a fleeting period in the world’s history I think that aeroplanes ran boats very close for sheer enjoyment. For about thirty years there was a period when aeroplanes would fly when you wanted them to but there were still fresh things to be learned on every flight, a period when aeroplanes were small and easily built so that experiments were cheap and new designs could fly within six months of the first glimmer in the mind of the designer. That halcyon period started about the year 1910 and it was in full flower after the first world war when I was a young man; it died with the second war when aeroplanes had grown too costly and too complicated for individuals to build or even to operate. I count myself lucky that that fleeting period coincided with my youth and my young manhood, and that I had a part in it.

Sitting in bed for three weeks at the age of fifty-two I had time to speculate on what would happen if this thing came a fourth time, while I was flying my Proctor. I could
probably fly again because it was clear that the doctors had found no real reason for this pain, and nobody but I knew quite how incapacitating it had been. I could probably bluff them in to a renewal of the medical certificate of fitness for my pilot’s licence. If it came a fourth time, and came while I was flying? I very seldom have another pilot as a passenger. I would probably grow tired very quickly with the pain; I should have to land as soon as possible. If I were on a long flight over mountains or sea, that would be just too bad. Like many men today, after two wars I have been in danger too often to bother very much about being killed, and when it comes I would prefer that it should happen in an aeroplane, since aeroplanes have been the best part of my life. It would be bad luck on any passenger who happened to be flying with me, though.

If I went on flying, I should have to fly alone. My four-seat Percival Proctor that had carried me across the world and back would have to go lest I should be tempted to take passengers, and to replace it I should have to find a single-seater aeroplane for my enjoyment. Finished for me were the days of cruising from country to country with my wife or friends, the cheerful comradeship of perils shared. Flying alone, when the clouds dropped down to touch the mountain range ahead of the long nose of the machine, there would be nobody to turn to with a grin and say, “Stuffed clouds. What the hell ’ll we do now?” There would be nobody with me to enjoy the chasms of the sunlit cumulus, nobody to share the look out for a training plane upon the circuit as you came in to land, nobody to plot wrong courses on the map for me, nobody to share with me the joy of the first landfall after a flight over sea. All that was over; if I went on flying I should have to fly alone.

I didn’t want to fly alone, of course. As you grow older you learn that everything comes to an end, and you accept
that phlegmatically as just one of those things. In England no more private aeroplanes were being built except by one small firm to fill a diminishing market, because the controls on private flying were now so strict, to prevent collisions with the many air liners, as to make flying less attractive for a hobby. If now at the age of fifty-two my flying days were over, well, I had had a good innings, and flying days were ending for all amateurs. It was no tragedy and there were other things to do, where sudden stabs of pain would not preclude companionship. Yet as I sat there in my bed thinking of all these things the break was a great one, because aeroplanes have been my interest since I was a little boy and were my whole life’s work between the two world wars.

I will not say that aeroplanes and flying form the earliest recollections of my childhood, but they come very close. I was born in 1899 in Ealing, a suburb to the west of London, on the edge of the country in those days. So much was it in the country that a very early recollection is of seeing a balloon descend voluntarily about a mile to the south-west of Somerset Road, where I was born. I can remember very clearly seeing the big golden thing drift slowly in the sunset light of a calm summer evening, and watching the envelope grow slowly pear-shaped as the pilot pulled his valve, and the slow, vertical descent below the line of the garden wall. I don’t think I can have been more than five or six years old when I saw that, too young to go off on my own to have a look at it, but I understood what the manœuvre meant and what was happening. I think the truth must be that aviation was in the air in those early days; probably the highly coloured comic that I spent my weekly penny on was full of the adventures of people in balloons.

BOOK: Slide Rule
6.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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