The Helicopter Pilot’s Handbook
Valentine Fallere was a man whose exotic sounding name belied a person whose interest in life didn’t go much beyond next Thursday. He wasn’t suicidal or suffering from an addiction of any kind but nor was he particularly challenged by the settled notion of his death, and should it accident upon him then he thought that he would struggle as the light died, but that was only to be expected since everyone wants what they don’t have.
He lived by himself in a room of a house with others that he did not know and he had a sedentary job with the Civil Aviation Authority in an office in Holborn, which required little supervision and demanded even less in the way of results. Bad analogies are bad but sometimes they are the only ones and so, if ever asked to describe his life, Fallere would tell people that he was a ‘very small cog in the motionic wheels of a very big cog indeed and that cog is on the wheel of an aeroplane, somewhere.’
‘Is motionic a word?’
‘I’ve never heard it before.’
And, if still doubtful, the questioner would only have to look at whatever book Fallere had in his hand to understand that he wielded a thesauric superiority.
‘What are we reading today?’ he might be asked as he sat at his desk not working but not defiant about it either.
‘The Defence, Nabokov.’
‘What’s it about?’
‘Oh, you play?’
‘Then why are you reading about chess?’
‘It’s in the story. Luzin is a chess player.’
And, as Fallere began to explain the plot the other person would smile and walk away, although on this day another office worker passing by Fallere’s desk stopped in front of it.
‘I hear you’re into chess,’ the other said and moved the book on Fallere’s desk closer to get a better look.
‘So you play chess I hear?’
Fallere moved the book back and as he did the other man held out his hand.
‘Baxter,’ he said, introducing himself. ‘I’m up in bean-counting. A few of us play chess at lunchtimes. If you’re not too busy, you should pop up.’
‘I don’t really play.’
‘That’s what all you ringers say. Any lunchtime,’ Baxter said. ‘Come on up.’
In his room in the house where he lived, Fallere had a bed, a table, a sink (the shower/bathroom was along the hall), a long shelf, some wire coat-hangers, a wardrobe, a stool and a kitchenette with a fridge, a two ring cooker and a mini-oven. Tonight he cooked a dinner of sweetcorn, tuna and spiral pasta and read as he ate and when he had finished reading the tragedy of Luzin he went to The Monarch, a pub in the next street. The landlord and Fallere were on nodding terms. Surmising that Fallere was a man who liked to keep his own council, the landlord always made a point of talking to him.
‘On your own?’
‘Wife at home.’
‘I’m not married.’
‘We’ll be showing the match later.’
Fallere opened a new book and with satisfaction, bent back the soft red cover page and splintered the cheap glued spine of Othello.
Barely had Iago begun scheming than a voice, not in the play, spoke to Fallere.
‘Are you reading a play?’ It was a woman sat a table behind Fallere.
‘Are you an actor?’
‘No. Are you?’
‘Why would you think that I’m an actor?’
‘You’re reading a play?’ she said, asking as a statement rather than a question, her voice rising on the last word.
‘I like to read.’
‘Especially in pubs.’
‘Doesn’t bother you then?’
‘No. I like people.’
‘Perhaps you’re studying them. That’s what actors do. I read that in an interview with an actor. Didn’t like being famous because she was no longer anonymous and couldn’t study people.’
‘Oh, I don’t remember. I haven’t read anything like that since school. Don’t see the need really. I found it all so boring then and God, I can’t imagine how I’d find it now. What use is a play in modern life? Or algebra for that matter. I’d like to be an actor though. Good life I reckon. What do you reckon?’
‘I’m not an actor.’
Two weeks later, Fallere sat on a train going to Bury St Edmunds. For the journey, which he knew well and liked, he took as his book The Little Prince, so that if he were distracted by something outside of the window as he passed it by, he could always return to the story of the little prince. The book contained his favourite written sentence of all time – ‘what is essential is invisible to the eye’.
Opposite Fallere sat a man in a dirt-shiny blue suit with a tin of lager in his hand and two more in a thin plastic bag by his side. Their coldness had seeped wet through the material of the man’s trouser leg. He leant over from his side of his table in the buffet car and spoke to Fallere.
‘For the kids is it?’
‘No. I don’t have any.’
‘Oh, I have. But I asked because of the book. You’re a teacher then.’
‘No. I just like the story.’
‘I like to pigeonhole people. I like to guess. Judging a book by its cover, perhaps? I should know better. Peadiatrician then are you? I read that book as a child.’
‘I guess it’s comforting. Do you think that we can go back to our childhood?’
‘How do you mean?’ Fallere asked.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Oh, I’m sure we can. I’ve done a bit myself. Sort of releasing the inner child. I went back and I remembered a conversation that I’d had with my father. I remembered that he told me that I wasn’t very bright but that I was a good chap and people liked me so I’d be okay. I’d never set the world on fire but I’d be okay. Imagine that.’
The man sat back opposite Fallere and looked out of the window as if he were imagining that, and having once been made to do so could now no longer not ever imagine it being so.
‘Was he right, your father?’ Fallere asked.
‘I’m currently being made redundant, so I guess yes.’
In Bury St Edmunds, with his visit over and an hour before his train back to London, Fallere found a branch of Waterstone’s in the old market square and went browsing the shelves. He asked for the ‘self-help’ section, found psychiatry, and on the third shelf down found a book by Dr Quentin Wright called The Child Within You. Fallere bought the book and then sat in the Hazelnut and Squirrel pub and began to read. With the title of the book visible above the clasp of his hands, Fallere had got to page four before he was disturbed.
Fallere looked over his book at the man behind the bar.
‘Curious about the human mind, that’s all.’
‘That’s what my wife says.’
‘She’s curious about the human mind, especially mine. How it works and why.’
‘She’s a woman.’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘Perhaps you should tell me.’
The barman thought this through and then walked over to Fallere and leant over to him and, before talking, wiped his hands on the white bar towel that hung from a belt loop on his black jeans.
‘I’m a bartender right?’
‘We’re all hoping you are.’
‘Yeah. In this business I’m in the business of people and sometimes other women are people too. Nothing happens and yet she’s still jealous.’
‘The green eyed monster?’
‘Whatever. What should I do though? About her.’
‘Talk to her.’
‘And say what?’
Fallere put his book down and looked straight at the bartender.
‘Why don’t you bring her in here one night and let her watch you work and
‘And also invite the most beautiful woman that you know, introduce them and see what happens.’
‘What’s the point in that?’
‘It’s psychological,’ said Fallere, and tapped the cover of the book. The bartender moved the book around towards him and re-read the title.
‘We’re all children. Trust me,’ said Fallere.
The bartender went back to the bar and served a man who had been standing there for a few moments and when the man complained about waiting the bartender told him to pipe down.
‘This is real man,’ the bartender said and then returned his attention to Fallere.
‘Doc,’ the bartender said to Fallere, ‘I am liking your wisdom.’
Fallere finished his beer.
Fallere smiled and shook his head, put the book in his bag and stood up from the bar.
‘I have a train to catch. Good luck,’ he called out as he left the bar.
On Market Street Fallere took the book out of his bag and dropped it into the black mouth of a dirty, grey plastic litter-bin.
On Monday mornings more than half of the staff where Fallere worked were late by an hour or more and some simply failed to turn up. Fallere, however, was always on time and such was the surprise of his superior to find him already at his desk that Fallere was ignored for the rest of the day. The rest of the day involved the Times crossword before lunch, lunch and then a walk if it wasn’t raining, a bit of browsing in WH Smith’s, where bookshop snobbery prevented him from buying anything, and then back to work to look at his desk and open one or perhaps two of the blue envelopes which contained documents in circulation around the offices of Runways and Contractors. Fallere’s name was written in a box below several others and when he’d read the documents he had to sign off on them and forward them, through an internal mail service, to the next name on the list.
Sometimes the envelope contained an unusual article or book or magazine and this day the envelope produced an article about helicopter pilots and the effect of alcohol on their co-ordination. Fallere separated this article from amongst the others and kept it and then signed off on the envelope and re-sealed it and sent it on to its internal destination, with the pilfered papers laid out on his desk.
The article pointed out the obvious disadvantages of being drunk in charge of twin rotary blades, which function horizontally but in the opposite direction to each other. The bubble cockpit of smaller helicopters added the extra nuisance of being unprecipituously hot when flying (no cloud, sun, the greenhouse effect) causing accelerated dehydration and dizziness and then nausea and finally death by falling out of the sky.
One of the references given at the end of the article was – The Helicopter Pilot’s Handbook, by Burnham & Walsh.
Fallere called up the internal library.
‘Have you got Burnham and Walsh?’ Fallere asked Jill, the in-house librarian.
‘The Helicopter Pilot’s Handbook.’
‘Thinking of flying helicopters are you?’
‘I think about nothing else.’
Jill found the book, called Fallere back, and he went down and collected a large A4 manual. Fallere signed it out with the same due process as when signing the brown envelope.
‘You can have it for sixteen days and if you want to take it out again you have to bring it back.’
‘Is there much demand for it?’
‘No. None whatsoever. It’s for pilots, brave souls, and there aren’t any of those in this building.’
Along the street from his office was a café where Fallere went in the mid-afternoon. He took one of the comfortable leather seats in the non-smoker’s area and sat down with a double espresso, opened The Helicopter Pilot’s Handbook roughly in the middle and began to read. Aside from the colour picture of a Bell Jet Ranger mk IV, there was nothing of interest and so Fallere let his eyes rhume over the text. Fallere put the book down on the table, cover facing upwards, and leant back and closed his eyes.
‘My uncle’s a helicopter pilot!’ said a voice. Fallere lowered the ridge of the book and looked over the low table at a boy who had sat, unnoticed by Fallere, in a chair to his left.
‘Really. He was in the Royal Navy.’
‘Oh. Air Corp myself.’
‘They’re the ones in blue hats aren’t they?’
‘Yes. Knowledgeable, aren’t you?’
‘I know all military stuff. Army, Air Force; The Royal Air Force, actually.’
‘Actually, you’re right. Does your uncle still fly?’
‘No. He had a bit of an accident.’
‘Mmh.’ The boy hesitated and then looked at Fallere, assessing his aptitude for the information he was about to give him.
‘You don’t have to tell me,’ Fallere said, ‘if it’s top secret and all. I have clearance mind you.’
‘Eyes only and all that.’
The boy looked lost.
‘Or is it something else?’
‘No. It’s an honour thing among pilots, isn’t it? You know, like a secret.’
‘Well, yes, I suppose
‘You know. You’re a pilot too.’
‘Well. My uncle was flying in the desert, I don’t know where, and he was shot at and the bullet or rocket or whatever, we don’t know really, hit him and his friend who was in the helicopter and then
…’ The boy stopped talking and looked around and then he leant across the arm of his chair and whispered to Fallere.
‘Some goat herders took him and no one has seen him to this day. He’ll be back though. He always is. He flies a chinook transport helicopter so he wasn’t firing anything or anything like that. So he wasn’t really in the war or anything. Some stupido told me he’s dead or tortured and that. My mum says no. Can you fly a chinook?’
‘No, I can’t.’
‘But you flew in the war?’
‘Well, what did you fly then?’
Fallere waited until he could hear the familiar whirling sound as another of his lives took off.
© Nick Armitage 2006