There was snow on the mountains of the Hottentots’ Holland and the wind came off it, whimpering like a lost animal. The instructor stood in the doorway of his tiny office and hunched down into his flight jacket, thrusting his fists deeply into the fleece-lined pockets.
He watched the black chauffeur-driven Cadillac coming down between the cavernous iron-clad hangars, and he frowned sourly. For the trappings of wealth Barney Venter had a deeply aching gut-envy.
The Cadillac swung in and parked in a visitors’ slot against the hangar wall, and a boy sprang from the rear door with boyish enthusiasm, spoke briefly with the coloured chauffeur, then hurried towards Barney.
He moved with a lightness that was strange for an adolescent. There was no stumbling over feet too big for his body, and he carried himself tall. Barney’s envy curdled as he watched the young princeling approach. He hated these pampered darlings, and it was his particular fate that he must spend so much of his working day in their company. Only the very rich could afford to instruct their children in the mysteries of flight.
He was reduced to this by the gradual running down of his body, the natural attrition of time. Two years previously, at the age of forty-five, he had failed the strict medical on which his position of senior airline captain depended, and now he was going down the other side of the hill, probably to end as a typical fly-bum, steering tired and beaten-up heaps on unscheduled and shady routes for unlicensed and unprincipled charter companies.
The knowledge made him growl at the child who stood before him. ‘Master Morgan, I presume?’
‘Yes, sir, but you may call me David.’ The boy offered his hand and instinctively Barney took it – immediately wishing he had not. The hand was slim and dry, but with a hard grip of bone and sinew.
‘Thank you, David.’ Barney was heavy on irony. ‘And you may continue to call me “sir”.’
He knew the boy was fourteen years old, but he stood almost level with Barney’s five-foot-seven. David smiled at him and Barney was struck almost as by a physical force by the boy’s beauty. It seemed as though each detail of his features had been wrought with infinite care by a supreme artist. The total effect was almost unreal, theatrical. It seemed indecent that hair should curl and glow so darkly, that skin should be so satiny and delicately tinted, or that eyes possess such depth and fire.
Barney became aware that he was staring at the boy, that he was falling under the spell that the child seemed so readily to weave – and he turned away abruptly.
‘Come on.’ He led the way through his office with its fly-blown nude calendars and handwritten notices carrying terse admonitions against asking for credit, or making right-hand circuits.
‘What do you know about flying?’ he asked the boy as they passed through the cool gloom of the hangar where gaudily coloured aircraft stood in long rows, and out again through the wide doors into the bright mild winter sunshine.
‘Nothing, sir.’ The admission was refreshing, and Barney felt his mood sweeten slightly.
‘But you want to learn?’
‘Oh, yes sir!’ The reply was emphatic and Barney glanced at him. The boy’s eyes were so dark as to be almost black, only in the sunlight did they turn deep indigo blue.
‘All right then – let’s begin.’ The aircraft was waiting on the concrete apron.
‘This is a Cessna 150 high-wing monoplane.’ Barney began the walk-around check with David following attentively, but when he started a brief explanation of the control surfaces and the principle of lift and wing-loading, he became aware that the boy knew more than he had owned up to. His replies to Barney’s rhetorical questions were precise and accurate.
‘You’ve been reading,’ Barney accused.
‘Yes, sir,’ David admitted, grinning. His teeth were of peculiar whiteness and symmetry and the smile was irresistible. Despite himself, Barney realized he was beginning to like the boy.
‘Right, jump in.’
Strapped into the cramped cockpit shoulder to shoulder, Barney explained the controls and instruments, then led into the starting procedure.
‘Master switch on.’ He flipped the red button. ‘Right, turn that key – same as in a car.’
David leaned forward and obeyed. The prop spun and the engine fired and kicked, surged, then settled into a satisfying healthy growl. They taxied down the apron with David quickly developing his touch on the rudders, and paused for the final checks and radio procedure before swinging wide on to the runway.
‘Right, pick an object at the end of the runway. Aim for it and open the throttle gently.’
Around them the machine became urgent, and it buzzed busily towards the far-off fence markers.
‘Ease back on the wheel.’
And they were airborne, climbing swiftly away from the earth.
‘Gently,’ said Barney. ‘Don’t freeze on to the controls. Treat her like—’ he broke off. He had been about to liken the aircraft to a woman, but realized the unsuitability of the simile. ‘Treat her like a horse. Ride her light.’
Instantly he felt David’s death-grip on the wheel relax, the touch repeated through his own controls.
‘That’s it, David.’ He glanced sideways at the boy, and felt a flare of disappointment. He had felt deep down in his being that this one might be bird, one of the very tare ones like himself whose natural element was the blue. Yet here in the first few moments of flight the child was wearing an expression of frozen terror. His lips and nostrils were trimmed with marble white and there were shadows in the dark blue eyes like the shape of sharks moving beneath the surface of a summer sea.
‘Left wing up,’ he snapped, disappointed, trying to shock him out of it. The wing came up and held rock steady, with no trace of over-correction.
‘Level her out.’ His own hands were off the controls as the nose sank to find the horizon.
‘Throttle back.’ The boy’s right hand went unerringly to the throttle. Once more Barney glanced at him. His expression had not altered, and then with a sudden revelation Barney recognized it not as fear, but as ecstasy.
‘He is a bird.’ The thought gave him a vast satisfaction, and while they flew on through the basic instruction in trim and attitude, Barney’s mind went back thirty years to a battered old yellow Tiger Moth and another child in his first raptures of flight.
They skirted the harsh blue mountains, wearing their mantles of sun-blazing snow, and rode the tail of the wild winds that came down off them.
‘Wind is like the sea, David. It breaks and swirls around high ground. Watch for it.’ David nodded as he listened to his first fragments of flying lore, but his eyes were fixed ahead savouring each instant of the experience.
They turned north over the bleak bare land, the earth naked pink and smoky brown, stripped by the harvest of its robes of golden wheat.
‘Wheel and rudder together, David,’ Barney told him. ‘Let’s try a steep turn now.’ Down went the wing and boldly the nose swept around holding its attitude to the horizon.
Ahead of them the sea broke in long lines of cream on the white beaches. The Atlantic was cold green and ruffled by the wind, flecked with dancing white.
South again, following the coastline where small figures on the white sand paused to look up at them from under shading hands, south towards the great flat mountain that marked the limit of the land, its shape unfamiliar from this approach. The shipping lay thick in the bay and the winter sunlight flashed from the windows of the white buildings huddling below the steep wooded sides of the mountain.
Another turn, confident and sure, Barney sitting with his hands in his lap and his feet off the rudder bars, and they ran in over the Tygerberg towards the airfield.
‘Okay,’ said Barney. ‘I’ve got her.’ And he took them in for the touchdown and taxied back to the concrete apron beside the hangars. He pulled the mixture control fully lean and let the engine starve and die.
They sat silent for a moment, neither of them moving or speaking, both of them unwinding but still aware that something important and significant had happened and that they had shared it.
‘Okay?’ Barney asked at last.
‘Yes, sir,’ David nodded, and they unstrapped and climbed down on to the concrete stiffly. Without speaking they walked side by side through the hangar and office. At the door they paused.
‘Next Wednesday?’ Barney asked.
‘Yes, sir.’ David left him and started towards the waiting Cadillac, but after a dozen steps he stopped, hesitated, then turned back.
‘That was the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me,’ he said shyly. ‘Thank you, sir.’ And he hurried away leaving Barney staring after him.
The Cadillac pulled off, gathering speed, and disappeared round a bend amongst the trees beyond the last buildings. Barney chuckled, shook his head ruefully and turned back into his office. He dropped into the ancient swivel chair and crossed his ankles on the desk. He fished a crumpled cigarette from the pack, straightened and lit it.
‘Beautiful?’ he grunted, grinning. ‘Crap!’ He flicked the match at the waste bin and missed it.
Copyright © Wilbur Smith 1974.