Authors: Nevil Shute
Three reputations cling closely to the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford. To the clever people it is the Reading Room of the famous Bodleian Library and, as such, entitled to the utmost veneration. To tourists and sightseers it is a quaint old circular building, from the roof of which a fine view of the colleges can be obtained. But to the young undergraduates it has more unusual associations, for that same circular roof is one of the very few places in the city of Oxford where they can meet in intimate conversation unchaperoned. Nobody else connected with the University ever dreams of going up there.
Stephen Morris was up there early, fully a quarter of an hour before the time that he had stated.
He moved round to the side of the building from which Helen Riley would approach, and as he did so he saw her down below. She rode her bicycle to the foot of the steps, alighted, and entered the building, very delicate and sweet.
Oh, but he must be firm - must, must be final.
Then she was with him.
‘Good evening,’ she said nervously.
‘Good evening,’ he said. ‘Let’s sit down.’
So they sat down together under the shadow of the grey dome.
‘What is it, Stephen?’ she asked very gently.
He cleared his throat and looked straight ahead of him. ‘I suppose we’d better get to business right away,’ he said. ‘I wrote and asked you to marry me - you know that. I’m afraid I want to back out of it.’
The girl stirred suddenly. ‘You made a mistake?’
‘I made a mistake,’ he said evenly, ‘not in what I said to you about … myself, but in other things. One gets carried away, I suppose. I can’t afford to marry and I never could, really.’
‘But, Stephen,’ said the girl. ‘You didn’t ask me to marry you at once. You told me we should have to wait.’
There was a brief silence. A sparrow came and perched in the sunlight upon the stone balustrade, looked at them for a moment and flew away again.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘But when I wrote that, I had an unusually good job in rubber in sight. I’ve lost it now - they can’t take me on, certainly for a year and probably not then, business being very bad. I had the time in sight when we could get married. Now that’s gone.’
‘But, Stephen,’ said the girl, ‘isn’t there anything else? What are you going to do?’
‘I met your cousin Malcolm yesterday, out at the hill climb. He spoke of a possible job for me in his little business, at three pounds a week. It’s flying and mechanic’s work - manual labour, I suppose one ought to call it. I don’t see that I can do any better than that, other than clerical work or schoolmastering. I haven’t been able to find anything that gives me the faintest chance of marrying, now or in the future.
‘So I want you to be free,’ he said, ‘and do your best to forget this. One does, you know.’
‘It’s a pity it ever happened,’ said the girl.
‘It’s a pity it ever happened,’ he repeated.
They got up and for a little time leaned against the parapet, looking out over the spires of the town, sick at heart. At last Morris turned to her.
‘I don’t think we have anything else to settle, have we?’ he asked, very gently.
‘I suppose not,’ said the girl. She turned and faced him.
‘Stephen dear,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what to say.’
Stephen turned away, and avoided her eyes. ‘I think I do,’ he said. ‘There’s only one thing I want to say about - this. We’ve had a good time, haven’t we? And nobody can ever take that away from us.… ’
Then she was gone.
Stephen Morris walked slowly back to college. He wanted someone to talk to - frightfully badly.
The summer ran on its course, through the sunny indolence of Eights Week, as good an Eights Week as before the war. After that there were a couple of pleasant little dinners in the garden of the pub at Bablock Hythe, and then came Schools.
They were a jest, these Schools. Those who had taken the shortened course had done so with the intention of getting a degree of sorts; what sort did not matter very much to them. First of all came Greats, involving the placid Christie and bearing him swiftly to the Nemesis of five terms’ complete idleness. Then the Honours School of Jurisprudence, where Lechlane was offering three years’ work as the result of five terms’ study, and was expected to get a First on it. History came in due course to plunge Wallace into a sort of feverish indignation, and English to sweep in Johnnie, though what he was doing in that galère nobody could quite make out. Last of all, Stephen Morris presented himself to be examined in his shortened course of mathematics.
He had heard from Malcolm Riley. Riley had consulted Stenning, his partner, and had written to offer Morris the post that he had asked for, the pilot of the third Avro. He was to start immediately he got away from Oxford, in time for the summer rush of passengers at the seaside resorts along the coast. He was to get a screw of three pounds a week and a tenth share of any takings that were left after the Company had paid its expenses for the week.
Morris was left at Oxford after the term was over; the
mathematical finals were among the last to be taken. One by one his friends had drifted away; some to rest and recuperate, some, like himself, to find a means to keep themselves, and that quickly. Soon he too was free, free to go where he liked, to do what he wanted to, with nobody else to think about. There was a certain relief in this freedom.
In the last day or two that he was at Oxford he collected and packed his possessions; one box he would store with his uncle, the old rubber merchant. The gladstone he decided to take with him, and packed it with all that he needed for an indefinite period. In the course of turning out five terms’ accumulation of rubbish he came upon his old war-time flying-helmet and gloves, and sat for a long time on his bed, fingering the furry, oily relics.
Well, he was getting back into it again. He never ought to have left it; if he had tried hard enough he might have been able to get a permanent commission in it. But he had depended on civil aviation. Now he was going into civil aviation - to cart airsick trippers about the Solent, seven and sixpence for ten minutes in the air. Well, aviation would grow out of that in time.
The train carrying him to Southampton carried a man who grew perceptibly more cheerful with every revolution of the wheels, with each farm that passed the window. He was sick of Oxford and the humanities. They were for clever people, for dons and embryo dons who would spend their lives in thinking of scholarly epigrams to let off at their fellows, in moulding their manner to fit in with the traditions of the place, in travelling to Athens in the vacations. Ineffective people, who would never do anything in the world but tell young men all about the humanities. He was sick of the lot of them. He was a mathematician and a student of realities.
As the train meandered peacefully into Hampshire, he was almost jubilant. He was getting back at last to the work he loved, the thing he should never have dropped. It had been a mistake, all that rubber-merchant business; he should have stuck to aviation. Already in his mind’s eye he could see the open spaces of an aerodrome, the dirty, oily grass, the delicate wings, the clean dull gleam of a rotary engine dripping oil, the feathery substance of a cloud.
He crossed to Cowes on the paddle-steamer past the long lines of ships laid up on Southampton Water, mystery ships, ships with bow and stern so much alike that it was practically impossible to tell which was which. Past the Avro works on the Hamble shore, past the mouth of the Hamble River, marked by a big red buoy, and on down to the seaplane station on Calshot Spit. Here were three big flying-boats at anchor; F.4s, he thought they were, delicate great things lightly swaying to wind and tide, straining gently at their buoys. It would be good sport to fly one of those; he had never flown a flying-boat. He thought you had to be pretty careful on them. Then on to Cowes, past one or two yachts in the Roads, white and gleaming in the sun.
An hour later, he was walking up the hill behind the aerodrome. He had taken the little railway on the Island from Cowes, had left his bag at the station, and had inquired his way to the aerodrome. Presently he came in sight of it on top of the hill and stopped to look.
It was an aerodrome in the grand manner. Evidently one of those white elephants built on the supposition that the war would last for ever, it consisted of four immense concrete and steel hangars with a perfect host of smaller buildings, huts and stores, all beginning to shown signs of decay. A flagstaff on one of the hangars floated a long red and white streamer, showing that the huge place was still inhabited by some vestige of aeronautical
life. Morris walked on and inquired at a sort of lodge for the Isle of Wight Aviation Company. A slatternly-looking woman with a pleasant, cheerful face directed him to one of the hangars. He walked on up a broad asphalt road, down another, past several more, and entered the hangar.
There was one machine in it, an Avro, dwarfed by the vastness of the hall. Over in one corner a mechanic was working at a bench; he straightened up and watched Morris as he walked towards him.
‘Morning,’ said Morris. ‘Is Mr Riley about, or Mr Stenning?’
The man laid down his tools. ‘No, sir,’ he said, ‘- nobody but me in this morning. Mr Riley’s flying from Portsmouth today, and Mr Stenning from Newport.’ He looked at his watch. ‘They should be back in an hour - an hour and a half. Are you Mr Morris, sir?’
‘I was to tell you to get your things into the hut where they lives - Number 11 hut down the road by the gatehouse. They lives in there and the caretaker’s wife does for them. Mr Riley says I was to tell you that if you wanted the car you was to have it, only you wasn’t to put it in first gear because it won’t go in. I’m to see about it when I get a minute.’
‘Right,’ said Morris. ‘I’ll get my things in now. Where’s the car kept?’
He found it by itself in an immense garage, and drove down to the station for his bag. Coming back, he found the hut and went inside.
They had made themselves fairly comfortable. There were several camp bedsteads, one of which he appropriated, and three deck-chairs. A deal table in front of a cylindrical iron stove, one or two trunks and boxes, pegs for clothes, shelves, a few novels and magazines, a splintered propeller in a corner, shaving-tackle, basins,
and general oddments littered about the place. Morris arranged his things and talked a little to a woman who came in, the caretaker’s wife, who promised to make up a bed for him. Then he had a wash and walked back to the hangar, wondering at what he had seen. This firm was unlike any other that he had ever come across. He wondered if it was paying at the moment. Anyway, they lived economically enough.