Fly­ing Lessons

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Wil­liam Bed­ford

The dark hours shift was the only one Stephen had liked, and tonight was his last. The beat pa­trols were al­ready out around town and the di­vi­sion’s two pa­trol cars were miles away. San­der­son was in the can­teen tak­ing his break. It was mid­night, and the switch­board had been si­lent for nearly an hour.

The main duty on night shifts was to look af­ter the switch­board and make a note of wire­less mes­sages from the in­for­ma­tion room in county head­quar­ters. That was usu­ally to send cars to drunken fights af­ter the pubs closed. Night shifts were al­ways full of long si­lences. ‘The grave­yard shift,’ some of the older men called them.

He was read­ing Lorca, trans­la­tions of some of the New York po­ems and a note his friend Florence had scrib­bled at the front of the col­lec­tion: ir­ra­tional­ity, earth­i­ness, and a dash of the di­a­bol­i­cal. Florence al­ways wrote with a flour­ish, try­ing to at­tract his at­ten­tion, but he knew from her let­ter this came from an es­say that hadn’t been trans­lated into English.

As he read, he heard some­body come into re­cep­tion. It was Ca­role Beck, one of the fe­male pro­ba­tion­ers shar­ing the night shift. She sat down be­side him and started fil­ing her nails. She was a sharp-faced, pretty girl, a year older than Stephen and the only per­son on the sta­tion who had tried to be friendly. A few weeks back, she had lodged a com­plaint about do­ing night shifts on the cars, one of the men be­ing too free with his hands. She had been put on night du­ties ever since.

‘What’s this?’ she asked, glanc­ing at the Lorca.

‘A Span­ish poet.’

She leaned for­ward and saw the note Florence had scrawled. ‘“Ir­ra­tional­ity, earth­i­ness, and a dash of the di­a­bol­i­cal,”’ she laughed. ‘Sounds like this place.’

‘He was mur­dered,’ Stephen said ir­ri­ta­bly.

‘I was right then.’

She smiled at him and went on fil­ing her nails. ‘I don’t reckon I can stand this job much longer,’ she said. ‘I wanted to be an air host­ess when I was at school. See how the rest of the world gets on. You should go to Amer­ica, Stephen. All these writ­ers you read. You’d love New York.’

‘I’m go­ing to Spain.’

‘You don’t speak the lan­guage.’

‘ Si.’

She laughed. She seemed brighter than the men on the sta­tion, kinder, in­ter­ested. But tired, makeup giv­ing her face hard clean lines, her mouth thin lipped, breasts press­ing against her uni­form as she worked with the nail file. She re­minded him of some of the dancers in the Fla­menco posters he’d bought for his room. ‘ Duendo,’ Florence would have said. ‘She has duendo.’

Ca­role had fin­ished with her nails.

‘So, this is your last night?’

‘Yes.’

‘I saw an ad­vert for fly­ing lessons last week.’

‘You don’t need fly­ing lessons to be an air host­ess.’

‘You don’t need Span­ish to go to Spain,’ she grinned.

They both laughed.

‘I will write to you,’ he said.

‘No, you won’t. Peo­ple just say that. It’s my break.’ ***

The red light on the emer­gency line rang half-an-hour af­ter Ca­role left. He made the con­nec­tion, not­ing the time, and lis­tened to the cat­calls echo­ing round the switch­board room. San­der­son re­turned from his break as the callers broke the con­nec­tion. ‘Did you make a note of the time?’ He was a fresh-faced, youth­ful of­fi­cer, not long out of his pro­ba­tion­ary two years and keen to make a good im­pres­sion. The red light flashed again be­fore Stephen could an­swer.

The emer­gency calls had be­gun the pre­vi­ous week. They came in the early hours of the morn­ing, in groups of half-a-dozen, fol­lowed by a long pause be­fore start­ing again. The duty sergeant was sure they in­volved a gang of kids off one of the coun­cil es­tates. They’d been caught roast­ing a cat over a work­men’s bra­zier while the work­men had a good laugh. A pass­ing of­fi­cer chased af­ter them and man­aged to lose them in the lanes around the mar­ket. The night shift on the streets had to keep an eye on the town’s call boxes. ‘What’ll hap­pen if they catch them?’ Stephen had asked an older constable. ‘Noth­ing we’ll put on a charge sheet,’ the man laughed.

Noth­ing came of the night’s at­tempts to find the callers, and leav­ing San­der­son in charge of the switch­board, Stephen walked down to the can­teen for his break. The cor­ri­dors were arsenic green with dark brown skirt­ing boards. The mor­tu­ary where post-mortems were held, a left­over from the nine­teenth cen­tury, was off one of the side cor­ri­dors, the doors kept locked. Cadets were sup­posed to at­tend a post mortem as part of their train­ing, and the other cadets in the di­vi­sion man­aged that eas­ily enough. A

lo­cal doc­tor acted as pathol­o­gist.

The only body Stephen saw had been in the River Trent for two weeks. When the pathol­o­gist threw the green sheet back, what looked like a large white slug lay on the op­er­at­ing ta­ble. Stephen passed out, his head crash­ing into the mor­tu­ary door. The story went around the di­vi­sion, even af­ter the su­per­in­ten­dent sent an in­struc­tion telling the men to grow up. In re­cep­tion, where the pa­trol car ra­dio mes­sages were broad­cast across the county, he heard his pass­ing out turned into rau­cous jokes.

A pa­trol car team were in the can­teen hav­ing their break. He got his cof­fee and sat at one of the ta­bles at the back of the can­teen. The older man, Gal­lagher, was telling one of his ran­cid jokes. Hichens laughed loudly, sup­port­ing his part­ner. Ca­role just shook her head, ig­nor­ing the foul lan­guage. She was sit­ting on their ta­ble, smok­ing a Gauloise, her legs loosely crossed. Her black ny­lons showed un­derneath her skirt.

She waited un­til Gal­lagher fin­ished his joke, then un­crossed her legs, slipped ca­su­ally off the ta­ble, and fetched her­self a cof­fee. Walk­ing over to Stephen’s ta­ble, she sat down on a chair with her back to the two men. No­body spoke while she lit an­other ci­garette. She swal­lowed the smoke, a fleck of to­bacco stick­ing to her lips.

‘Your last night then, lad?’ Gal­lagher grinned.

‘You know that.’

‘Not ev­ery­body’s game.’

‘No.’

‘Your dad must be proud, but pass­ing out like a lass.’

‘He didn’t say.’

‘Well, he wouldn’t, would he,’ Gal­lagher grinned. ‘Strong si­lent type, your dad. I re­mem­ber my first post mortem. Be­fore the war. The quack opened him up, and when he’d done chuck­ing things about, left me to stitch the body back up.’

Hichens laughed loudly, then stopped, see­ing Gal­lagher’s scowl. You never knew when Gal­lagher was jok­ing, or what went on be­fore the war. Ac­cord­ing to Gal­lagher, quacks then were fre­quently pissed.

Stephen went on drink­ing his cof­fee.

He wanted Ca­role to speak. Tell Gal­lagher to shut it. She looked bored.

‘Made him a bit of a laugh­ing stock,’ Gal­lagher went on qui­etly. ‘Proud man. Best winger we ever had in the county. And what he went through at Dunkirk.’

Stephen fin­ished his cof­fee and stood up.

‘Don’t for­get to wash your cup, lad.’

‘You wash it.’

He heard them laugh­ing as he left the can­teen. Ca­role was al­ready walk­ing back to their ta­ble. The cof­fee made him feel sick.

While San­der­son went down­stairs to check the cells, Stephen sat in the switch­board room, lis­ten­ing to the empti­ness of the early hours. At five o’clock the men on their beats would be ring­ing in from the blue call boxes that stood on street cor­ners. The dawn cho­rus would soon spread from the east where the sun was ris­ing over the sleep­ing coun­try­side. Down in the cells, there was only one prisoner, an old tramp who fre­quently broke win­dows or shouted abuse at po­lice pa­trols to get him­self a good night’s sleep and a free break­fast. It was Stephen’s job to fetch the break­fast from a nearby ho­tel.

Stephen’s father had one of the re­mote ru­ral beats, with seven vil­lages and an Amer­i­can USAF base to look af­ter. The po­lice house was part of the po­lice sta­tion, with two cells for trou­ble-mak­ers. His father rarely had a prob­lem with trou­ble-mak­ers. He was a hard, bul­ly­ing man, dan­ger­ous when he lost his tem­per. His mates knew they could rely on him. Get him in a fight, and he would never stop. When Stephen was four­teen and be­ing bul­lied in the post of­fice by the lo­cal vil­lage thug, his father told him to get back to the post of­fice and give the lout a ‘good hid­ing’. Teach­ing Stephen to box, he’d bro­ken his left hand, and had a dress­ing-down from their GP. Stephen’s mother got a smack when she tried to in­ter­fere.

Gal­lagher wasn’t jok­ing when he said Stephen had made his father a laugh­ing stock. It was his father who forced him into the cadets, threat­en­ing to kick him out of the house if he didn’t give it a try, per­suad­ing the in­spec­tor in charge of train­ing that his son would soon learn the way of life. There wasn’t much else to do in the dreary mar­ket towns of the county, so Stephen agreed. His mother had died shortly be­fore he signed up.

Now he’d had enough. In the morn­ing, he would be leav­ing for London, and then on to Spain. He had Jack Ker­ouac’s On the Road be­side his bed and read it sev­eral times. Green­wich Vil­lage sounded the place to be, but Spain would be cheaper. He could live for a year on the money he’d saved. Spain was also the first place he chose be­cause his mother had a hol­i­day in Barcelona the year be­fore she mar­ried his father. ‘That was the last time I was happy,’ he heard her yelling at his father in one of their fights. Stephen couldn’t re­mem­ber be­ing happy.

While San­der­son took over the switch­board, Stephen walked through the mar­ket square to the ho­tel. The door into the kitchens was down a side al­ley stink­ing of cats and ex­cre­ment. The pros­ti­tutes brought drunks here for hand jobs. There was only one break­fast to collect this morn­ing.

It was Collins on duty. ‘You’re late.’ ‘It’s my last shift.’

‘I should care. O’Rior­dan is it?’

‘He broke a win­dow in the chemist’s,’ Stephen shrugged.

Collins fin­ished dish­ing out the food. He al­ways did the morn­ing shift. His arms were stained yel­low from the oint­ment he used for burns. His shirt col­lar looked filthy with grease. Hold­ing the plate out, he winked at Stephen, then spat into the scram­bled eggs. Stephen won­dered whether to say any­thing. He watched Collins slam the cover over the food to keep it warm.

‘See you,’ the cook grinned.

Back at the sta­tion, Stephen heard San­der­son ar­gu­ing with some­body on the tele­phone. An­other phone was ring­ing down one of the cor­ri­dors. A door slammed. He won­dered whether he should tell the duty sergeant about the eggs, but he wouldn’t want to be told. ‘Not an­other fuck­ing com­plaint,’ would be his line. He would be think­ing about Ca­role Beck’s com­plaint about be­ing on night pa­trol. Stephen could hear him say­ing ‘Eat it your­self,’ an­other story to make his father a laugh­ing stock. He took the se­cu­rity keys and went down to the cells.

O’Rior­dan was sit­ting up on his bunk, his back to the wall. He was chew­ing a plug of to­bacco, a habit he’d picked up years ago in Amer­ica. Stephen imag­ined him rid­ing the trains across the west, but that was Ker­ouac. O’Rior­dan had worked on build­ing sites in the south­ern states and hated the blacks as silently as they hated the red­necks. That was how Stephen imag­ined it had been.

He un­locked the cell and put the tray down on the bunk be­side the tramp. O’Rior­dan closed his eyes. Then he opened them. He was watch­ing Stephen. His eyes were pale blue, his face tanned ma­hogany from his years on the road.

‘They reckon it’s your last shift,’ O’Rior­dan said.

‘Yes.’

‘Go­ing trav­el­ling.’

‘Yes.’

‘On the road.’

‘Not like you.’

The tramp looked down at the tray, leaned for­ward and lifted the metal lid. The food smelled good in the cold cell. He nod­ded briefly, wait­ing for Stephen to leave.

‘Thanks, Peter.’

At the cell door, Stephen paused with the keys in his hand. That wasn’t his name. No­body ever used his first name in the sta­tion. He ought to tell the tramp, but it seemed un­kind. The old man was thank­ing him.

‘I wouldn’t eat the eggs,’ he said abruptly.

O’Rior­dan sat still, hold­ing a fork in his hand. They stared at each other. Stephen was confused, dis­gusted now that the words had been spo­ken. The tramp said noth­ing. What was in his eyes? Some­thing worse than lack of sleep or food. In­dif­fer­ence. That was it. No sur­prise. Stephen locked the cell door and went back up­stairs to re­cep­tion where San­der­son was whistling the lat­est coun­try and western hit record.

No­body said good­bye. ‘Kirby’s joke,’ his father had said. ‘Make sure there’s no­body there to wish you well.’ He couldn’t imag­ine the chief su­per­in­ten­dent both­er­ing to do that. Men were busy get­ting ready for the morn­ing shift or tired af­ter the long night. He changed into jeans and a T-shirt and left his uni­form in re­cep­tion. The morn­ing’s duty sergeant would collect it later.

As he left the sta­tion, he saw Ca­role Beck wheel­ing her bi­cy­cle out of the sheds. She looked mis­er­able, dark bruises un­der her eyes, her face drained white with tired­ness. He caught her up, but she wasn’t in a mood for talk­ing. Her com­plaint had been turned down.

‘I’m back on pa­trol cars tonight,’ she said. ‘I heard.’ She shrugged. ‘See you later.’ ‘You want to go for a cof­fee?’ ‘No.’

She started walk­ing faster, wheel­ing the bi­cy­cle. He didn’t try to keep up. He had a bus to catch back to the iso­lated po­lice house where his ruck­sack was packed ready for the journey. His father would not be there.

‘I’m go­ing to see your mother’s grave,’ he’d said yes­ter­day. Stephen knew that wasn’t true. He never vis­ited her grave. Maybe he didn’t want to say good­bye.

The sun was al­ready hot as the bus wound through the coun­try lanes. But it wasn’t as hot as the sun in Spain would be. He opened his book, and started read­ing, look­ing for­ward to be­ing away.

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