A young man works alone in a sparsely furnished office, tapping at a computer keyboard. He wears dark wool trousers and a white shirt, open at the neck. A lightweight nylon sports jacket is slung over the back of his chair. He has a pale, elongated face and his eyes are watchful beneath a tousled fringe. At a right angle to his desk there is a reception counter with a potted plant on it. An overcast summer sky is visible through the sash window, glowing with diffuse light.

The young man works for another quarter of an hour, then begins tidying his desk and closing documents on his computer. He is just about to shut it down when his boss appears at the door, brandishing a sheaf of papers. ‘This is the codicil to Mrs Joscelyne’s will,’ his boss says. ‘Sorry Simon, I’m afraid it has to be typed up tonight. She’s coming in first thing tomorrow morning to have it notarised.’

‘Sure Mr. Prowse, that’s fine,’ replies Simon.

Mr. Prowse is in his early forties. In spite of his thinning hair, he has florid, almost babyish features. He used to work at a large law practice but left for unspecified reasons, albeit with a handsome pay-off. Now he is starting up on his own, employing just a couple of paralegals – and Simon.

‘Thanks, I appreciate it.’

Mr. Prowse turns and leaves. Having been to the county court earlier in the day, he has forgotten to take off his robes, which accentuate his round- shouldered posture.

Simon takes the sheaf of papers from the counter and looks at them. The spidery scrawl of the handwriting is all too familiar, but no less indecipherable as a result. Yet he does not display the slightest annoyance as he starts his computer up again.


About ten minutes later, Mrs Prowse enters with her children, a boy and a girl, in tow. Slender and blonde, she exudes an air of casual hauteur, which precedes her everywhere she goes, like a cloud of expensive perfume (called ‘Casual Hauteur’). She ushers the children through the narrow gap between the reception counter and the wall, as if herding sheep.

‘Hello Simon,’ she says. ‘Finishing up?’

‘Hello Sylvia. Yes, sort of.’

‘You’re so lucky, being able to finish work at the end of the day. I’ve had these two at the gymkhana all afternoon. I’m exhausted but we’ve got friends coming for dinner tonight.’

‘Well I…’

‘Is the big boss in with a client?’

‘No, he’s…’

Before he can finish she has left again. He hears her enter her husband’s office with a trilling, ‘Hellooo!’

Meanwhile the children, who have already started to squabble, approach Simon’s desk and start pawing at the contents. They engage in a half- hearted tug of war over the stapler until, envisioning the consequences, he wrests it from them. Eventually they retreat to the opposite corner of the room and content themselves with pinging elastic bands at each other. The girl, Kerry, stares at Simon, mouth slightly open.

‘Do you like working here?’ she asks.


Once he has finished typing the codicil, he realises he has missed his bus home, so he decides to clean the toilet, to avoid doing it in the morning. (‘We’re starting up on a bit of a shoestring,’ Mr. Prowse told him at his interview. ‘So I’m afraid we can’t afford much help. We’ll all have to muck in at first.’) As he crouches in front of the bowl, scrubbing round it, the children gather at the open door to watch.

‘Do you like doing that?’ Kerry asks.

With his back to her, he can permit himself a grimace. The detergent he is using is called something like ‘Alpine Fresh’ and the odour of rotting fir trees does indeed present itself readily to his nostrils.

‘Has to be done,’ he replies.


At last, he has finished and is out on the street. Other people are heading home from work like him, but the low pressure causes them to move slowly, as if they are wading through an element thicker than air. Slinging his rucksack onto his shoulder, Simon starts towards the bus stop. His mobile phone rings. Glancing at the caller display, he sighs then answers it. ‘Hello Mum … No, I had to work late … No, I’m fine … I’m fine, really … I know, I should have called, sorry … No, don’t do that, I’ll get my own dinner when I’m back … Well, have yours in front of the TV, then you won’t feel like you’re eating alone … I know we never used to, but … No, I’m sure he wouldn’t have disapproved … Okay … Okay, bye … yes … yes, me too … bye.’

As he nears the bus stop it starts to drizzle and he seeks shelter within its graffiti-smeared walls. Eventually his double-decker bus appears at the end of the street, listing slightly as it rounds the corner. He tries to get up from the plastic bench he is sitting on. But a strange debility settles upon him and he finds he cannot move. The bus stops, its doors sigh open and shut, then it sets off again.

The rain gets heavier, almost tropical in its abundance. He sits for a while longer, watching it pool at the kerbside and boil in the relentless downpour. Another bus appears – a single-decker. Seeing its number, he knows where it will take him. He rises slowly and climbs aboard.

The bus’s route winds through the city centre. The buildings here are mostly mid-Victorian, with an occasional concrete tower rising amongst them. The impression is of the timeless encroached upon by the dated. Then the bus heads out towards the suburbs. Endless bungalows go by until even they disperse, replaced by flat farmland and the occasional hamlet: five or six cottages along each side of the road. Simon watches all this without expression, calmed by the bus’s stop-start rhythm as it lets passengers off every few miles, calmed by the simple fact of being on the move – heading somewhere, anywhere, except home.


The bus travels on. Simon aside, the only remaining passengers are a couple of pensioners, a man and a woman, who hold hands with the calm solidarity of the aged. Then something appears in the distance – a large, windowless rectangular structure, with a smaller shed-like building attached to one end and a tarmac landing strip running parallel to it. The bus curves round the landing strip, which is partly overgrown with weeds, and pulls up beside the smaller building. Above its entrance there is a sign saying ‘Museum of Flight’, with opening hours and admission prices printed immediately below. Simon gets off the bus. The pensioners stay aboard – apparently they are just out for an evening’s drive in the country. A cluster of other visitors stand inside, buying tickets. Most are tourists from southern Europe. He can tell this partly from their accents and partly from the fact that they have dressed for a summer holiday in the UK as if they are on an expedition to the Arctic. He buys a ticket as well and joins them inside the main hangar.

The interior is even more cavernous than its outward appearance would suggest. The floor is tiered on levels, with each given over to a particular aspect of aviation, and there are grainy old photos ranged in sequence along the walls. But the most impressive feature is the ceiling. It is supported by a complex network of exposed metal beams, from which hang numerous replica aircraft, all two-thirds scale. Planes from different eras, pointing in the same direction, they look as if they are flying in formation through a time warp.

Simon stops with the others to absorb this spectacle for a few moments. Then a uniformed guide emerges from the ticket office. He is pale and thick-set, with close-cropped grey hair. A couple of spare chins spill over the loose knot of his monogrammed official tie. After a few vague introductory remarks, he begins his commentary.

‘If you’ve ever doubted how strong the dream of powered flight is for

humans, you only have to look at the kind of contraptions early aviators were willing to climb aboard in order to attain it. Wings were made of ash or hickory and usually covered in some kind of hand-sewn fabric. To begin with there were no fuselages at all – look at this photo of the Wright Brothers’ Flyer from 1903. And even when fuselages were introduced, they were flimsy beyond belief, as you can see here from the Bleriot XI and the Bristol Boxkite. Now, moving on…’

He leads them to the next set of photos. He is quite good, Simon has to admit: authoritative without being too emphatic, as if he is casually letting slip all these facts. ‘Once the need for a fuselage had been accepted,’ the guide continues, ‘early aircraft began to look more recognisable to our modern eyes. This, for instance, is the Ryan M1, a mail plane.’ He gestures to the sepia-tinted image of a single-engine plane with a fuselage covered in silver scales. Its somewhat bulbous silhouette makes it look, to Simon’s eye, endearingly like a flying trout. ‘Some of you may be able to recognise the next plane.’

‘The Spirit of St. Louis,’ offers a voice from amongst the visitors, pronouncing the last word ‘Loo-ee’.

‘That’s right,’ replies the guard. ‘The Spirit of St. Louis, in which Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927.’

Simon’s eyes stray around the rest of the hangar. He knows most of this, so he is beginning to lose interest. The guide’s commentary continues in the background, growing more fragmented to his ear.

‘The early 1930s offered the Boeing 247-D, the world’s first true airliner … developed from its predecessor, the Boeing SOA-1, known as the ‘Flying Pullman’ … Competition from the 247-D inspired Douglas to build the DC3 … It inaugurated the first transcontinental sleeper service from New York to San Francisco…’

Simon looks back round.

‘Los Angeles,’ he says, in a louder voice that he had intended. ‘New York to Los Angeles. And there were three re-fuelling stops – at Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Albuquerque.’

The other visitors glance at him, then at the guide, wondering if there is about to be a minor contest of the wills. The guide blinks a bit, but recovers quickly.

‘Well, East Coast to West Coast,’ he says. ‘That’s the point. Anyway, the DC3 ruled the skies for more than a decade. Then the piston-engine age began with…’

Feeling self-conscious, Simon edges away from the group. He wanders at random amongst the exhibits. At one point, he pauses to stare into a glass case full of paraphernalia from aviation’s early days. Every item, he notices, is damaged in some way: a torn leather helmet, a cracked pair of goggles, a dented compass that some fog-bound pilot was doubtless frowning at when he flew into a hillside. It all attests to the courage of those pioneers. Simon is impressed, not least because he so often suspects – fears, in fact – that he lacks courage himself.

He becomes aware of a presence nearby. Looking round, he sees another visitor has also broken away from the main group. She is early middle- aged, attractive, dressed in jeans and a puffer jacket with her fair hair tied back in a loose pony tail. She smiles at him.

‘You know a lot about planes,’ she says. At first he thinks she is American, but the way she pronounces ‘about’ is the tip-off; she is Canadian.

He shrugs.

‘A little, I guess.’

‘Looks like you know more about some things than our friend over there.’

‘I’m not sure about that.’

She glances back towards the other tourists.

‘My husband brought me here. But I hate being part of a crowd,’ she says. ‘I feel like a duck paddling after its mother.’

‘Right.’ ‘Can you show me around?’ ‘Uh, sure.’ ‘I’m Sally, by the way.’


They shake hands then wander further away from the rest of the group.

‘So how come you know so much?’ she asks. ‘Is it a hobby?’

He smiles. He likes her gently inquisitorial manner. It makes him feel interesting, instead of self-conscious, the way questions normally do.

‘Partly,’ he replies. ‘But maybe it’s because I flew a lot when I was young.’ ‘How come?’ ‘My father worked abroad.’ ‘Where?’

‘Florida. I mean I was very young. Pre-school. But ever since, I’ve been really into airports and stuff. I even get a buzz from the smell of kerosene.’ He gives a self-deprecating laugh. ‘And then I’ve got family in Italy. So when I was a teenager we used to fly over each summer to visit them. We’d go on really sketchy charter flights. On a clear day you could see the Alps, even the Jet d’Eau on Lake Geneva. But I haven’t flown in a long time.’

‘How long?’ ‘Must be, uh … six years.’ ‘How come?’ ‘Well, my Dad died.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ He shrugs again.

‘He was self-employed. No pension or anything. My Mum only worked part-time. And I was a student for a couple of years, so we were pretty skint.’

‘Why only a couple of years?’ ‘I hated my course and we needed money, so I left.’ ‘What did you do your major in?’ ‘Media and communications. It was a joke.’

‘So why did you do it?’

‘Well … I was a real film buff when I was younger. I worked really hard to get on the course, but it wasn’t what I expected. Since then I’ve just temped in offices.’

‘Still like films?’ ‘I guess. I prefer reading these days.’ ‘About planes?’ He laughs.

‘Yeah, amongst other things. I do try to keep up though: the Dreamliner, the Super Jumbo. I even go to the airport sometimes and just hang around, have a coffee, watch the departure board, pretend I’m heading off somewhere.’

She smiles and nods, as if he has opened the window on his life wider than he had intended. Then, gesturing around her, she says, ‘What’s your favourite of all these planes?’

He contemplates the display above them for a few moments, then points to one of the models.

‘That one – the de Havilland Comet. It was the first passenger plane to have jet engines – Rolls Royce Avon 525Bs. I love how sleek it is. It’s because the engines are part of the wing instead of just stuck on underneath. I reckon it looks much more modern than planes today.’

‘Was it comfortable?’

‘Pretty comfortable; although…’ He nods back towards the photo display. ‘It must have been great flying in the fifties, in the DC7. The cabin was finished in mahogany, there were sleeping berths, there was real cutlery, each passenger had a minimum of two stewardesses assigned.’

She sighs. ‘A more elegant age.’ ‘Yes.’ They continue to plot their own course around the hangar. He offers a

potted history of civil aviation as they go, cherry-picking the details he thinks will most appeal to her.

‘That’s the 707. When the Comet turned out to have major problems, it stole the lead and basically started the Jet Age … Over there, that’s the original Jumbo Jet, the 747-100. You can tell because the top deck is smaller than on later models. The original airlines that flew it put all kinds of cool stuff up there. American Airlines even had a piano bar … And then, of course, there’s the Concorde, pretty cramped inside, but the heat of the airstream when it was supersonic made it stretch, so you got a bit more legroom …’ She listens attentively, but does not patronise him by overdoing it. Eventually they reach a small display dedicated to spaceflight. Ranged in front of a diorama of the moon’s surface are models of various capsules and launch vehicles: Voskhod, Soyuz, Apollo, the Shuttle. There is also a fragment of asteroid in a glass case. A prototype space suit – bulky and slightly threadbare – stands to one side, in a vaguely dejected slouch.

‘Do you like this stuff too?’ she asks. He nods. ‘Oh yes. I think it’s amazing.’ He hesitates. ‘Don’t you?’ ‘I suppose so.’ She frowns.

‘It’s weird though,’ she goes on, pointing to a model of the Saturn 5 moon rocket. ‘I mean I’m no expert, but to my eye it looks so old-fashioned, so 1960s, like a lava lamp. But it’s something we can’t do anymore. Can we?’

‘No. Pretty soon there’ll be no-one left alive who’s walked on the moon. And there’s no space shuttle left. Not even Concorde. It is strange. It’s like all these ladders in the sky being pulled up, one by one. Mind you, I reckon someone who’s just a kid today will be the first person on a commercial flight around the moon. They’re probably the son or daughter of a billionaire, but still …’

‘How would that happen?’

‘Well, in the sixties the Russians came very close to orbiting a cosmonaut around the moon in a modified spacecraft called Zond.’

She laughs.


‘Yeah. It was launched on a Proton rocket. The Proton’s really powerful. It’s the same rocket they use to launch big spy satellites today. So there’s no reason they couldn’t do the same thing now.’


He gets a dreamy look in his eyes.

‘Yeah. Just imagine what it would be like,’ he says. ‘To go up so far, so fast that there’s no down; to – what’s that phrase? – “slip the surly bonds of earth”; to look back and see nothing but a blue marble hanging in total blackness; to look down and see this landscape of rock – every feature on it frozen in time for three billion years, sliding by. It would be incredible. It’s …’


A tall, bearded man, standing about twenty yards away, is peering over at them, one hand raised. He does not look especially perturbed that she has wandered off and is talking to a complete stranger; perhaps it happens all the time. Having got her attention, he gestures to the gift shop. The official tour has finished. She nods and waves back.

‘Well, I have to go. It was interesting to talk to you Simon.’

‘Oh … right. You too.’

She hesitates, then places a hand on his arm.

‘Looking up is wonderful. It’s inspiring; it really is. But try to look at what’s around you sometimes as well, yeah?’

He blushes.


She smiles and walks off towards the gift shop. As soon as she is out of sight his phone rings. Fishing it from his pocket, he stares at the caller display for several seconds before answering it.

‘Hi Mum. Yes, I know. I got held up … No, there’s nothing wrong. Yes. Yes … I’ll be home soon.’

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