Sins not Tragedies (1/4)Author:
(this part) Herc/CarolynRating:
(this part) PGWord Count:
(this part) 3,900Summary: She traces the letters drawn on her lover's chest... She's curious.Notes
This is the first part of the 2 part sequel to In Anticipation Of
. (I need to do some other things for a few days so you get the first half now.) With thanks to alltoseek
for the inspiration
Her pilots always play games.
Having only two of them and one plane means that they are in each other’s company for every hour of every day of the working week, year in, year out. The human capacity for small talk runs out pretty fast under those circumstances. There are worse things they could be doing to pass the slow hours; arguing about religion and politics, trying to provide half assed therapy for each other’s screwed up lives, irritating the hell out of each other or egging each other on to inflated grievances about the management (that’s her). Providing any monetary stakes don’t get out of hand (and she makes sure they don’t), games are harmless, and frequently entertaining for the onlooker (that’s also her.)
This, however, is something new.
She traces the letters drawn on her lover’s chest. He’s only staying awake out of politeness; a two day trip to Pakistan is enough to tire out anyone. Despite that he managed to be unusually ardent earlier but now his eyelids keep drifting closed. He’s waiting for her to turn the bedside light off and fall asleep on his shoulder, but even though it’s well past midnight and she has to be up in the morning to supervise the freight pickup she’s not sleepy. She’s curious.
“I’ll clean it off in the morning.” He yawns. “Something must shift permanent ink.”
“Nail polish remover. There’s some in my desk.”
“How do you know that?”
“Arthur was four, once upon a time. I know how to remove anything from anything. Except banana. That’s well beyond the capabilities of modern technology to shift.”
“Good.” He’s drifting off again. They had made love earlier in the dark. She’d felt the bare chest then, had rubbed her cheek against it, surprised and slightly titillated. He’d been serious about the razor.
“It will itch as it grows back” she’d pointed out.
“Will it? Damn.” He’d paused on his elbows above her to answer, unfailingly polite even when possessed with this flattering urgency. “Maybe I should keep it shaved, then.”
“Please don’t. It feels like being bonked by a teenager.”
He’d laughed at that, had dipped his head to kiss her. His mouth tasted very slightly bitter, of whatever vegetarian goo he’d eaten in Karachi. She’d been rather taken aback to find when she’d turned on the light that she’d been inadvertently caressing the triumphantly inked name of her other pilot. She just hoped that Douglas would never find out.
Now she wonders if she can persuade Herc to wake up enough to clean the words off now. There is something definitely odd about being expected to cuddle up against a picture of a legless hanged man and a declaration of Douglas’s inherent superiority, even in the dark. The inscription doesn’t seem to be bothering Herc as much as one might expect.
“When Martin was here,” she muses aloud, “this sort of thing didn’t happen.”
“Didn’t it?” He’s stirred a little. “How do you know? Don’t tell me you saw Martin naked.”
“I certainly did not! But I would have known if Douglas had shaved him and drawn on him. The poor boy would have been mortified forever.”
“Um. It’s terribly mortifying.” He’s falling asleep again.
She watches him for a while, the stick man on his chest moving up and down with his slow breathing. Then she goes to fetch a towel, arranges it over the offending area and climbs back into bed, turning the light off. When she rests her head on him he wraps a strong arm around her shoulders, falls back asleep again.
“Don’t get used to it,” she tells herself, as she has done for a hundred nights before. “It won’t last.” It’s an empty mantra now, she suspects. Hercules Shipwright is too far under her skin already.
“Stupid woman,” she whispers to herself. “Stupid, stupid woman. You shouldn’t be letting this happen.” But it’s without any real conviction.
“Herc out, Douglas back, alternate is Grenada and you owe me six pounds fifty, Richardson.”
He blinks at her, innocent. “I do? For what, might I ask?”
“Cleaning up your graffiti. Two whole bottles of nail polish remover and a nail brush ruined.”
Douglas grins. “In that case I think you’ll find that it’s Hercules who owes you. Me, I was happy to leave it there.”
“So was I,” Herc grumbles.
“Oh! Did it hurt?” Douglas asks, with an unseemly amount of enthusiasm.
“Like hell, thank you very much.”
“Well maybe that will stop you playing such stupid games,” she says, acerbically. “Douglas, don’t do that again.”
“Certainly not. When have you known me repeat myself?”
“That’s not entirely reassuring,” she points out.
“No.” He’s smug this afternoon, even for Douglas.
She still doesn’t know what the boys were up to. She disclaimed all interest yesterday and she can’t go back on her word. Still, curiosity nags. Had it been anyone else she’d have put it down to excess alcohol but Herc wouldn’t get worse for wear on a stop-over and if Douglas had touched alcohol at all she was sure that neither of them would be so relaxed this afternoon. They did this sober, which is intriguing.
As she and Arthur deal with the passengers she keeps thinking about it. There’s something that she can’t put her finger on, something that she ought to remember. Doling out the desserts in the galley, it comes to her.
“Oh no! Have you?” Arthur is staring at her entirely functional arms. “Which one?”
“Not me. Douglas. Remember when he sprained his wrist?”
“Oh yes!” Arthur beams, “That was fun! Not for Douglas, I suppose, but Herc got to fly Gertie and Douglas came and made coffee. It was weird!”
It was weird. That was what had brought it to mind. Douglas had turned up, scratched, bruised and with a wrist in plaster. He and Herc had been at a fancy dress party, something to do with Air England and they’d spun a long and suspiciously well drilled story about how he‘d been hurt. But what she’d remembered was the fear haunting Douglas’s eyes, and Herc’s unhappiness.
There seems no connection. Herc is in a particularly good mood today, despite the discomfort involved in getting the ink off, and Douglas is positively cock-a-hoop. Only that they seemed to share a mystery then and they seem to share one today.
She tuts at herself. This isn’t really a mystery. Herc had offered to tell her the story behind the wager and she’d turned him down. If she really wanted to know she could walk up to the front of the plane right now and ask and they’d both no doubt be delighted to regale her with every detail. She won’t of course, because that would be admitting to being interested in their silly game. But she could.
Whatever happened that night at the party, they’d both got over it fast enough. After about a week Douglas had insisted on coming back to work and she’d had a brief embarrassment of pilots for a couple of days.
She serves the customers without really seeing them at all. She remembers now. That first day the atmosphere on the flight had been bizarre, almost poisonous. Then Herc had gone off with Douglas in the evening “for a drink”, had rung to say he wasn’t coming back that night and had turned up next day with an unexplained wrenched shoulder but looking like the cat that had got the cream, while Douglas’s air of smug superiority had gone up several notches higher than usual. Then everything had gone back to normal.
That’s what has sparked the memory. Herc sparkling happy, Douglas smug, just like today. No strange wager that time, just that sore shoulder that had bothered Herc for a couple of weeks afterwards but that he’d never once complained about or explained.
What the hell are they up to? She’s sure now that it isn’t coincidence. She knows her boys and there’s something going on. Again.
When she takes coffee in they are playing a version of My Grandmother’s Cat that involves backwards adjectives and Herc is proudly announcing that his grandmother’s cat is a ertsulkcal cat. Carolyn thinks that Herc’s grandmother, if still alive, must have received a telegram from the Queen several years ago but she doesn’t say so. Age jokes wear thin fast.
Herc thanks her gravely and apparently sincerely for the coffee. Douglas makes some quip about her coming instead of Arthur but she gets the impression that he’s more interested in what Herc has to say to her than in saying much himself. That peculiarity aside, they both seem fine. Cheerful. Unstressed. She retreats back to the galley as puzzled as ever.
She’s not stupid. There’s an explanation that’s not just obvious but likely. That she doesn’t want to believe it doesn’t stop it from being true. They found a couple of girls in Karachi, she tells herself. They must have done. (She assumes it was a couple. Maybe they shared. That’s a really strange thought, but not terribly likely. They surely have some dignity, after all.)
Douglas is a free agent these days. There’s nothing to stop him having all the casual sex he wants. And Herc… well. There are two things that have to be true of a man who’s been divorced four times. The first is that he’s in love with the ideal of a serious relationship. The second is that he’s incapable of sustaining one. It’s not pure perversity that has made her refuse to listen to his protestations of love and fidelity. It’s not fair to either of them to let the man make promises that she knows he won’t keep. He wouldn’t keep them even if she were a decade younger than him and stunningly beautiful. As it is she’s got no expectations at all.
Arthur is chatting about pineapples. A passenger summons her to complain about the cabin temperature. She shows him how to operate the overhead fan (fortunately he’s got one that actually works) but she’s not paying attention. She’s thinking.
It’s the idea that she’s being taken for a fool that bothers her most. If Herc’s going to sleep around (and she’s always told him that who else he sleeps with is none of her business, although that was when the question seemed purely theoretical and she was mainly trying to put the brakes on his headlong dash towards a fifth set of nuptials as doomed as the first four were) then he should either hide it or let her know. This wandering around being dumbly happy as if she wouldn’t notice is rather insulting and she doesn’t like it.
This is a drop and turn around flight. She escorts the clients as far as Madrid security, confirms the pick up in three days time and returns to the plane. Douglas is outside talking to the refuelling guys in handwaving Spanish. Arthur is clearing up in the cabin, whistling the first phrase of “Spanish Ladies” over and over. She makes her way forward to the cockpit where Herc is snoozing, cap tipped over his eyes, and wakes him with a sharp cough.
“Hello, boss.” It’s his bedroom voice and she is tempted to slap him. Instead she ignores the hopeful pat to his knee and slides down into the co-pilot’s seat.
“Any word from the solicitor?” she asks. The house in Edinburgh is on the point of sale. Herc is supposed to be renting somewhere local to Fitton but so far all he’s done is arrange for all his possessions to go into storage. She knows he’s angling to move in with her- her spare room is already full of his clothes and his computer. She’d started to waver, but now… (A small voice tells her that she could still be wrong. Karachi could have been nothing; just Douglas and Herc messing about. But she doesn’t know, and she doesn’t know how to find out.)
“Still complete next Thursday. I need to go up to bring back some stuff.” He smiles at her. “How do you fancy a romantic break for two in Scotland’s glorious capital?”
She snorts. “You only want me for my aeroplane. Gertie’s charter rates are pinned up in the office. I’ll give you a ten percent discount if you fly her yourself, but you don’t get paid for it.” Every time the plane takes off it costs her thousands in fuel and fees. She can’t afford joyrides.
He shakes his head. “You’re a mean hard woman. I’ll take the car.”
“Good plan. You should be able to fit a spare toothbrush in there somewhere. Maybe the toothpaste as well.” Herc’s mid life crisis Mercedes has rather less luggage space than Douglas’s Lexus version.
Douglas is walking back towards the plane. She gets up to leave and Herc stands with old fashioned courtesy, bends down to kiss her on the forehead. “You’re an utterly irresistible mean hard woman and I trust that you haven’t forgotten our date tonight.”
She has. She spends much of the passengerless flight back pretending to be asleep in the front row of the cabin, but actually she’s fretting about the meal, about Herc’s house sale, even about Douglas. Everything seems to be coming to a head and she’s not ready for it. She doesn’t know what’s going on and she doesn’t know if she can trust anyone.
By the end of the flight she’s come to a decision. She’s knows she’s jumping to some pretty major conclusions from a couple of good moods, and she knows that alone is going to kill this relationship stone dead, whatever the truth may be. She thinks, maybe… maybe she can tolerate him sleeping around when he’s away, if that’s what he needs to do, but she can’t tolerate this not knowing. There’s only one sensible, adult conclusion. They are going to have to talk about it.
The idea fills her with dumb horror. That hasn’t gone by the time they are sitting in the bar, waiting for their table. Herc watches her rapidly down two gin and tonics with a slight frown. She looks through to the glittering restaurant, the chattering diners, and she knows she can’t do this here.
“Not hungry.” She grabs her bag and makes for the exit.
He has to pay for the drinks, so by the time he catches up with her she’s halfway down the high street, heading God knows where.
“Carolyn. What on earth is wrong?”
She keeps walking.
“Carolyn!” He neither grabs her arm nor moves to block the pavement in front of her, for which she’s grateful. Instead he walks next to her, his long strides keeping up with her frantic scurry. “Please tell me what the matter is.”
Walking away from this isn’t what she knows she has to do, however much she wants to. She stops. Blurts out the question with no finesse whatsoever.
“You and Douglas- you picked up women in Karachi, didn’t you?”
“Is that what you…No, we most certainly didn’t.” He’s staring at her. “Why on earth would you think that?”
She’s made herself look ridiculous now and she’s furious with him for it. “The way you two have been strutting around ever since. It’s obvious, Herc. Don’t lie to me about it.”
“Oh,” he says. And then, “Oh.” He does stop her then, gathers her up in his arms. “I’m not going to lie to you, ever. If you want to know what happened in Karachi I’ll tell you.”
“So something happened.” She’s looking up at him but his features are shrouded in the dark.
“Not what you think. Really not what you think.”
“And you don’t want to tell me.”
“I think I’d much rather just throw myself under that bus over there,” he admits. “But if you want to know, you can. Just- don’t sack Douglas. Please.”
It’s a Douglas thing. Of course. If the wretched man has started smuggling again she might do just that. “Tell me.”
His arms tighten around her, then loosen so that he can look down. “I slept with him.”
She pushes him sharply in the chest, releases herself. “If you’re going to make jokes…”
“No.” She shakes her head, starts to walk away again. He catches her up.
“He’s straight. Very very straight.”
“Not quite that much, it turns out. There’s a bit of wriggle room.” There’s a hint of amusement in his voice now.
“And you... I mean, why would you? With Douglas? Is this what aging pilots do when they can’t pull stewardesses any more?”
“It’s a bit more complicated than that.”
“With Douglas involved? I imagine so. How long has this been going on?” It’s too bizarre; she doesn’t know if she’s angry or just bewildered.
He sighs. “Months ago. Back when he sprained his wrist and I was flying for you. Just once.”
She lets a sigh of her own exhale. He’s not lying to her, at least. If he’d said anything else it would have been over. “You both strutted then, too. At least Douglas did. You just looked fatuously pleased with yourself.”
He winces. “I hadn’t realised… That’s a bit embarrassing.”
“The whole thing is extraordinarily embarrassing and you still haven’t told me why, Hercules Shipwright. Neither ‘I was drunk’ nor ‘he was pretty’ seem to apply. Is it love?”
“It’s Douglas Richardson, Carolyn. Of course it isn’t.” They have reached the market square; he guides her to a bench, sits down beside her. “There is only one person I’m in love with, and you know that.”
“Yet apparently at least two that you sleep with. Forget the sweet talk. I’m waiting for that explanation.”
He looks round and she follows his gaze. It’s cold and dark and there’s a group of teenagers nearby, looking their way and laughing.
“Can we not do this here?” he asks, a touch plaintively. “We could go home and order a takeaway. I’m still hungry, even if you aren’t.”
“That’s my home,” she snaps. “Not yours.”
“Your home.” Herc sounds appropriately subdued. “Honestly, Carolyn. It would be better than out here.”
She concedes that. She’s not enamoured of out here either.
Arthur’s gone to the cinema. Herc disappears into the kitchen and she hears the coffee percolator starting. He’s stalling, she thinks. And he slept with Douglas. Douglas! She sits down and waits.
When he comes back in the dog is dancing in circles round him, tail a blur. The dog loves him. Arthur loves him. Right now she could wring his bloody neck. “Sit,” she commands, points towards the armchair. “Talk”.
He does what he’s told. He usually does, in the end. He fingers his coffee and looks at her.
“Ok. Well. The thing with the razor and the marker pens?”
“I was,” he pauses, gives her an apologetic smile, “a little tied up at the time.”
She tries to picture that, starts to smile, despite herself. “Tied to a bed?”
“With clothes on?”
“Not clothes as such, no.”
She waits, again. He’s damn well going to tell her everything, and that isn’t everything. He grimaces, reading her intention.
“There was some other paraphernalia.”
“Blindfold. Tape. Ice.” He makes a disgusted face “Nail biting solution. He’s not a nice man.”
She thinks about this for a while, sipping her coffee, watching him shift slightly in embarrassment.
“You’re basically a big wuss.” she announces, finally.
“Yes,” he agrees. “I’m afraid so.”
“And Douglas is just a schoolyard bully.”
Herc looks as if he might object to that, but in the end he nods. “Moreorless.”
“Were you still tied up for the sex?” She’s genuinely curious now.
“No. That came afterwards, when we were both a bit…” He’s searching for the right word.
“Randy,” she finishes for him.
She shakes her head. “I still don’t understand how this works. What do you do, get together and decide you’re going to be kinky?”
He frowns at her, “Not really. The way it works…the way it worked last time… is that I wind him up and he reacts.” He’s clearly keen to make her understand. “When we went out to eat, I had a whiskey. I was a bit obnoxious about it, deliberately. There were some other irritations too. When he got annoyed enough I let him know that I was up for a bit of,” He casts around for another word, fails to find it, clearly chooses a poor substitute. “Play, I suppose.”
“Play.” She shakes her head again. “Hercules, you are insane. Don’t you know by now that Douglas never plays fair, especially when you annoy him?”
“That’s the point.”
She tries to imagine it. She’s still handicapped by ignorance. “What sort of sex?”
“I’m not sure that’s really the most important thing right now.”
“You said that you’d tell me everything.” She’s not being fair herself, but she’s had a bloody awful day worrying about this and she isn’t feeling particularly nice.
“Hands and mouths,” he says, reluctantly. “No kissing. It was very functional.”
Herc’s a gentle and considerate lover, sometimes excessively so. There is always kissing. She can’t get her head around this. The dog paws at her lap and she caresses her automatically. “Are you going to do it again?”
He looks unsettled. “I don’t… No, not if it upsets you. No.”
She doesn’t know if it upsets her or not. “Do you want to do it again?”
“Not any time soon.” That was heartfelt. “He doesn’t pull his punches. I won’t want to go through that again for a while.”
Douglas the sadist she can imagine. He’d be polite and cruel and very smug indeed. He’s not going to take her boyfriend from her, of that she is determined. She might have been expecting to lose Herc somewhere down the line to some trim forty year old divorcee but certainly not to Douglas bloody Richardson.
A man with any talent at all for monogamy doesn’t end up divorced four times. She doesn’t want Herc’s reluctant and essentially worthless promise of fidelity. She wants a very sharp word with her longest-serving pilot but that’s not sensible, not right now. If one absolutely has to go up against Douglas it should at least be after careful preparation.
“I fancy Chinese,” she says. “And Snoopadoop needs to go out. If you ring them we can walk out and pick it up. I’ll tell you about the court case and you can make suitably admiring noises.”
They eat takeaway and watch a mediocre film. They don’t mention Karachi again that evening, but as she gets ready for bed Herc is hovering outside the bathroom.
“I could sleep in the spare room,” he suggests as she emerges.
“No you couldn’t” she snaps. “My sewing kit is spread out all over there. I’m too tired to tidy it up just for you. Do hurry up and get ready for bed. Five minutes and I’m turning the light off.”
She curls up against the welcome warmth of his body in the bed, and he holds her a little more tightly than usual. This is not resolved, not yet, but she is determined that it will be, somehow. For that she has to deal with Douglas Richardson. She drifts off to sleep without yet coming up with a plan for that. Chapter 2