William Bedford | Flying Lessons

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    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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