When Chris’ parents died, we went through the house before putting it up for sale. We thought we’d finished when I discovered a high cupboard, above the linen cupboard, boxes stuffed full of papers. My first thought was to toss the lot. On reflection, and some perusal we discovered Chris’ father had written stories, (unbeknown to us). He had completed courses in mathematics, English literature and philosophy. He was a quiet achiever.
Eric’s quiet, unassuming nature brought him close to my father, as he was a similar character. This short story describes my father, Frank, who was part owner of Waterhouse Island. Tom is Eric. He has encapsulated their characters perfectly. I hope you enjoy his short story:
‘Getting the Wool off’
Reg circled the grassy strip, noting the wind direction, and the sheer drop at the windward end of the runway where the level plateau fell abruptly two hundred feet to the sea. In this breeze, it will be like taking off from the deck of a carrier, he thought.
He circled again for another look, losing height, and searching for hidden fence-wires, or rocks buried in the long billowing grass. Reasonably satisfied, he made a wide banking turn over the island and came in to land at stalling speed. The wheels touched, and the aircraft ran along for a short distance over the bumpy ground before coming to a halt near a stack of up-ended bales of wool, where two men stood waiting.
Reg cut the motors and climbed out.
‘Morning, Frank. Morning, Tom.’ He called. ‘We’ve a nice fine day for it. Good fresh breeze along the strip. What d’you reckon, twenty knots?’
The two men walked over to meet him. Frank, tall and rangy, in a checked shirt and stained khaki pants, a striped woolen hat on his head; Tom, shorter and more stocky, wearing khaki overalls and a black beret.
‘Morning, Reg. Yes, it’s a good day for it. Wind’s in the right quarter and, yes, I suppose it would be about twenty knots.’ Frank studied the short, white-capped waves and the distant shore. ‘Yes, about twenty knots, I’d say.’
‘I saw you looking at the strip, Reg, Tom said. I’ve been over it pretty carefully and filled up all the holes.’
‘Yes, but it’s old fences and bits of wire hidden in the grass that bother me most. They’re inclined to get foul of the wheels, or flick up and hit a prop. But it looks pretty right to me, it’s clear of sheep, anyway,’ Reg chuckled. I nearly landed on top of a sheep once,’ he laughed, ‘it ran the wrong way. I don’t know who got the bigger fright, him or me.’ He squatted down on his heels against the bales, prepared for a yarn. But Frank, who was paying the bills, headed him off.
‘Well, we’d better get on with it, I suppose,’ he said. ‘How many can she lift each trip, Reg? We’ve got seventy-eight all told.’
Reg got to his feet, chewing a stalk of grass, and glanced at the stack of bales.
‘Oh, she’ll lift far more than you can squeeze into her,’ he said. ‘I reckon about four bales will pull you up, but we’ll soon see.’ He opened the big side door of the plane, and hooked it back. All the seats had been removed, except the pilot’s seat, but the space inside seemed very small. They rolled the bales over and lifted one through the doorway.
‘Up in front with this one, ’said Reg. He sunk his hook into the bale and stood it up on end, behind the pilot’s seat. ‘Now another one behind her.’ They lifted another bale through the doorway and stood it up behind the first one. Then another, lying flat on the sloping space in the tail. Then one more, standing up inside the doorway, and the plane was full. Reg was already in his seat, fastening his belt, as the two men closed the door. He glanced around to see that they were clear. Then the motors coughed into life, and the plane swung round and taxied back along the strip.
Reg turned the plane into the wind and revved up the motors, flattening the long grass. He released the brakes and the plane bounded forward, rapidly gaining speed. Half way down the strip they were airborne and climbing. He roared low over the stack of bales and the two watching men, then, catching the up-draught from the cliffs at the end of the strip, he leveled-off for the short trip across the water to the landing strip on the mainland, about ten miles away. The men watched the plane disappearing into the distance.
‘He used only half the strip,’ Frank said. ‘I bet he’ll cut his run much shorter next time.’
‘Yes, He’d no problem getting off in this strong breeze,’ Tom agreed. They sat on the grass in the lee of the up-turned bales. In front of them the island sloped away gently for about a mile, to a low rocky beach on the western side. Beyond that the blue sea, flecked with little white-caps, reached out to the empty horizon. Only to the southward was the sharp division between the sea and the sky interrupted. Here, across the channel, the coastal dunes and scrub hid the farmlands, which spread to the smoke blue ranges beyond.
Tom turned his head listening.
‘He’s coming back, Frank. I can hear him.’ They watched the tiny black spot in the sky growing larger, until the plane banked steeply and dropped down to land two hundred yards away. Moments later it stopped beside the stack of bales, and Reg jumped out.
‘Sixteen minutes for the round trip,’ he said. ‘We can get that down to fifteen this time, I reckon.’ He climbed back into the plane to help stow the first bales. Then, as the last two went in he got back into his seat and fastened his belt. Tom locked the door and stood clear as the motors roared.
This time Reg taxied only half way along the strip before swinging the plane into the wind and pouring on the power. The wheels left the ground as the plane raced past the two men sitting on the stack of bales, and it had gained twenty-five feet of height before crossing the cliff edge and lifting on the up-draught. Reg levelled-off at three hundred feet, singing quietly to himself. It wasn’t really like a carrier take-off, he had to admit. How could it be, in a fifteen-year-old Norman Islander with a belly –full of wool and a top speed of 150 knots? Yet some of the old thrill still remained. It was good to be still flying, and in his own plane too. He sighted the farm buildings, and the landing –strip beyond, with the truck waiting for the wool. A few moments later he commenced his descent.
Back to the island the two men lounged on the bales. Above them the sky was a vast empty dome of cloudless blue. They were watching a skylark which had risen from the grass nearby, and was gradually ascending into the clear air in effortless, soaring flight, singing and trilling in sheer joy.