This, Martin Crieff realized rather belatedly, was definitely one of MJN’s more chaotically unusual flights, even accounting for the fact that MJN Air had never in its existence operated what any of the training manuals would consider a ‘usual’ flight. He’d thought at the pick-up that Douglas had seemed abnormally chipper for 5am, but had initially put that down to either another smuggling mission about to be successfully completed or just to his first officer’s natural air of being excessively pleased with himself. When Carolyn too had seemed genuinely pleased to see him, however, alarm bells of bemusement had definitely begun to ring in earnest. Arthur might also have been particularly excited about the flight, but as his standard setting was as close to that of an exceptionally excitable Labrador puppy as Martin had ever seen a technically-adult human being to attain it was impossible to tell.
The passengers, Carolyn informed him, were an old friend of hers and a party of pupils belonging to the old friend’s school, which went some way to explaining her cheeriness until she also mentioned that she’d given them a special rate as a result. Since this was simply one more puzzle he couldn’t solve on top of a week filled with puzzles he couldn’t solve (amongst them: how to persuade his landlady to postpone her demands for rent until next week; how to remove the creases from his captain’s uniform in the absence of a functioning iron; and how to fit a return flight to Gran Canaria and a moving job into the same Thursday) he shelved it for later on the grounds that Douglas would probably be audibly smug about whatever it was soon enough. Hopefully he wouldn't do so at least until after he’d had time to finish this week’s flight plans.
Their passengers turned out to be well over half an hour late – a fact which Carolyn was oddly philosophical about; almost as if she’d expected it – and to be heralded by the snorting, honking arrival of a (heavily battered; even more heavily graffitied) school coach. Douglas, who’d spent most of the delay fussing with his hair and lapels like a nervous teenager before a date, left the cockpit with the kind of alacrity Martin had last seen him display when a senior customs officer had been spotted advancing towards a particularly large cache of ‘presents’ with a triumphant gleam in his eye. Martin himself emerged exactly two minutes later (as timed by the watch which even he had now had to admit was not a Patek Philippe), self-consciously not rushing and blinking awkwardly in the mid-morning sunlight. When his vision adjusted (he’d worn an old pair of aviators one of his housemates had discarded until Douglas’s exhaustive supply of Top Gun cracks had grown unbearable), he could see Carolyn in the centre of three late-middle-aged women, and Arthur apparently overrun by what looked like either an army or a pack of war-painted prepubescent girls. Now even more thoroughly bemused than when Carolyn had greeted him with a cheery “good morning, Captain Crieff!” at 6am, he made his way down the steps to finally spot his co-pilot in the conspiratorial midst of two exceptionally leggy young women in school uniform.
“All right,” said one, a curvy dark goth of about eighteen with insouciant red lipstick and black hair in a bob. “So shall we say five boxes from the twins to Madrid, three from Taylor and Andrea to Hong Kong, and six from the geeks to Seoul, with an eleven percent commission?”
Douglas considered. “We-ee-ell, I should be able to accommodate those sorts of numbers, but I’ll need at least another five just to cover expenses. Twenty percent.”
“Not a chance,” said her companion crisply, raising her eyebrows with superb worldly-wise cynicism for a six-foot teenage girl with an iPad and ginger pigtails. “That’s at least eleven over market average.”
“Thirteen percent,” said the dark-haired girl; Martin, slightly fascinated by the way his first officer, a middle-aged smooth operator who was commonly accepted to have a PhD in suave, appeared to be being deftly outmanoeuvred by a couple of schoolgirls (and, he suspected, to be actually enjoying the experience) attempted to make himself as unobtrusive as possible in the hopes of picking up a few tips. “Final offer.”
Douglas pursed his lips. “Fifteen, Miss Jones, and that’s an insult to smuggling and aviation.”
She crossed her arms. “Twelve and a half.”
Miss Jones spat on her hand and held it out for him to shake in a crooks’ bargain, her pillarbox-red lips curving in a shark’s grin. “You certainly have been.”
“Pleasure doing business with you, Mr Richardson,” her compatriot said briskly, shutting the case on her iPad with a snap. “Shall we take our seats, Kel?”
“Let’s,” her friend agreed, then raised her voice. “Tania, Tara: load ‘em up, girls!”
“Ah, Martin, there you are,” said Douglas smoothly, apparently noticing him for the first time. “I don’t believe you ladies have made the acquaintance of MJN’s Captain Crieff?”
“Kelly Jones,” said the brunette, dark eyes flicking over him with a kind of cool scrutiny which he could feel making him blush as she offered him her hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Captain Crieff.”
True to form, his ears went almost as red as her lipstick as he shook her hand. “It’s, er, likewise, K – Miss Jones."
“Polly Holmes, senior prefect,” said Kelly’s friend, shaking his hand in turn. It was a slightly odd – though sadly not completely unknown – experience to be towered over by a schoolgirl, to the extent that Martin almost entirely missed the squabble of eleven-year-olds marching past behind him with Arthur in tow. When he did notice them, they were already busily engaged in loading a total of fourteen heavy-looking boxes into Gertie’s hold under the shouting supervision of hockey-stick-laden blonde twins.
“Pleased to meet you, Captain,” Polly continued, then glanced at Kelly. “Time to go?”
“I’ll show you both to your seats,” Douglas almost purred, well before the idea could have occurred to Martin’s stuttering braincells, and true to form there was a definite spring in his step as they walked up the steps. Martin couldn’t entirely blame him: uniform or no, Kelly Jones walked like a queen, albeit the kind who was more mafia than house of Windsor. She was both a little bit frightening and (for an entire Jumbo Jet-full of reasons) entirely out of his league, and so there really was no reason at all to be so irritated at Douglas – or at any rate no more irritated than normal. Rational reaction or not, however, Martin couldn’t entirely keep himself from pouting as he trailed back after them.
Two hours into the flight to Turin, it occurred to Annabelle Fritton that she hadn’t seen any of the Posh Totty in some time. Also, she was bored – Kelly was off in the cockpit, most likely flirting relentlessly with both pilots at once to keep them off the scent of their cargo, and Polly had been entirely engrossed by her MacBook since she’d been allowed to turn it back on; something about bringing down the Bolivian government, apparently. Chelsea Parker, however, could always be relied upon to have all the latest and best celebrity gossip: she was practically the audiobook equivalent of Tatler, and whilst Peaches and Chloe could generally be relied upon to be doing something relatively harmless involving makeup, it always paid to pay rather more attention to their leader. She couldn’t be in this funny little plane’s one dingy loo, since the Emos had set up camp in there and were taking it in turns to partake of solitary, pitch-black (and rather smelly) confinement. The galley likewise was definitely out, for several obvious reasons: firstly that she was ninety-nine-percent certain that no member of the Posh Totty could successfully operate a microwave; if they could, they wouldn’t have been Posh Totty, and secondly for the purely practical reason that the newly-formed Ecos had taken over it. Given how dinky this little plane was – barely thirty-seater; many of the girls were enjoying the excuse to sit in each others’ laps – that did not leave many opportunities for three tall eighteen-year-olds in exquisite footwear to hide, and therefore Annabelle grabbed a bottle of cheap fizz and three glasses from the abandoned hostess trolley and made with purpose for the cockpit.
The door was locked, but such trivialities presented no difficulty to a St Trinian – especially one whose curls were habitually restrained by a small army of hairpins. What she finally saw, on pushing the door open with her hip, was not entirely surprising: Kelly was tucked into a corner, apparently doing her level best to make the older and most obviously attractive of the two pilots blush, whilst all three Posh Totty were draped around or on the strawberry-blushing captain and appeared to be questioning him closely in hopes of picking up dieting tips. Chloe had actually elected to sit herself on his lap, presumably to save space, whilst Peaches had managed to neatly purloin his hat and was now wearing it at a suitably chic angle on her immaculately-styled black hair.
“Well, you’re so svelte, darling,” Chelsea was cooing, to solemn nods from the other two.
“I wish I was so thin,” sighed Chloe longingly, apparently heedless of the way her sighs pushed the two main reasons she had a larger circumference than the captain perilously close to the poor man’s nose.
As entertaining as all this was, Annabelle felt it incumbent upon her as newly-minted St Trinian’s prefect, headmistress’s niece, well-known goody-two-shoes and acknowledged fancier of gingers to rescue the beleaguered little man before his cheeks could match the colour of his hair permanently.
“Um, girls?” she ventured. “I’m pretty sure the First-Years have broken the locks on your makeup cases.” She paused for a moment specifically calculated to let the full horror sink in – and then a second moment, just to let Peaches catch up. “All your makeup cases. Including the Viktor & Rolf La Vie En Rose Limited Edition you got from Paris Fashion Week.”
She hadn’t seen any of them run through a door that quickly since that one time Harvey Nicks had announced a seventy-five-percent-off-everything sale. In the Moschino-scented silence their glamorous whirlwind left behind, Kelly smirked at her and raised a fist.
“Awright, Annabelle?” she drawled. “Nice one.”
Annabelle grinned back, bumping the headgirl’s fist with her own before passing over a champagne flute. “Well, I was slightly worried they’d crash the plane.” She patted the captain (what was his name? Grief or something) on the shoulder consolingly. “Don’t worry – all that just means they like you.”
The poor thing’s braincells were clearly still struggling to recover, a frequent side-effect of an unexpected outbreak of Posh Totty. She passed the bottle to Kelly (who had a slightly unnerving talent for cracking open champagne krugs with her teeth) too and offered her free hand to shake. “Annabelle Fritton,” she said, smiling. “I’m Miss Fritton’s niece.”
She was a very pretty girl, all wide brown eyes and tumbling curls, and seemed to be a rather less unnerving kind of friendly compared to her friends. Trying to stop blushing was clearly a lost cause by now, but Martin made a concerted effort to pull his scattered braincells together and at least sound more coherent.
“I’m Mar – I’m Captain Mar – I’m Crieffmar –” This was a disaster, a complete and utter bloody disaster, he should have known it from the start. Thank God he hadn’t even tried to talk to Kelly – “I’m Martin,” he finally finished, lamely, and shook her hand. “Hi.”
“The captain is what we at MJN Air like to call a ladykiller,” Douglas put in, because clearly his day wasn’t already bad enough. “Just in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Probably it was just his imagination, but he could have sworn he saw Annabelle shoot his first officer a distinctly nasty look. “I’m quite good at noticing things, thank you,” she informed him primly, but then – he was certain – smiled back at Martin again. “Pleased to meet you, Captain Crieff.”
Buoyed up by this success – or least this lack of failure – he risked a slightly more complex coherent sentence than ‘I’m Martin’ this time. “I’m surprised Carolyn – our CEO – let you get away with that.” He nodded to the bottle of champagne from which Kelly was now pouring Annabelle a generous measure. “She’s, er, protective.”
“She didn’t see me.” Annabelle smirked cheerfully, glancing through the cockpit door. “I think Matron brought her entire medicine cabinet on board with her.”
“It’s sweet, the way she still thinks we don’t realise ‘mur’ and ‘akdov’ on medicine bottles aren’t Latin,” Kelly remarked. “Even if those Geralds she keeps mixing up are excellent.”
“A rather sad comment on what she thinks of your education in languages, though.” That, of course, was Douglas; the headgirl raised an insolently lascivious eyebrow.
“Why, do you think there’s much you could teach us, Douggie?”
“I think the only things anyone could teach you, Miss Jones, are probably found in the Necronomicon.”
Martin became aware that he and Annabelle were both watching them, much in the manner of a pair of mildly bemused forensic anthropologists, or possibly like two curly-haired David Attenboroughs. Annabelle seemed to be reading his mind, or at least to be equally as entertained, because she caught his eye and shrugged amusedly.
“Champagne, Captain?” She offered him the third glass, quite possibly just to see what he’d do.
He couldn’t deny he was fleetingly tempted – he hadn’t been offered a drink by a pretty girl in, well, ever - but he also knew full well that he didn’t dare. All his aviation textbooks were unanimous in their gruesome strictures regarding the inevitable fate of pilots who drank on duty – and besides, his hind brain supplied rather later than he was happy about, she was far too young for him; she couldn’t possibly have been older than eighteen.
“Er, no. Thank you.” He smiled back at her in a manner that he at least hoped was more friendly than awkward, and shook his head. “I’d, ah, hate to crash the plane – and you couldn’t trust Douglas with it, after all.”
He was going to pay inventively for that crack later, he knew, but after all it wasn’t every day that he got to make jokes to a pretty woman at his first officer’s expense. Besides, he liked the way Annabelle smiled at him as if she hadn’t noticed that he was ginger and scrawny and roughly the same height as she was, and how she called him captain matter-of-factly, as if that was his name.
“The twins could fly it,” Kelly suggested, amused but not entirely joking as she clinked her glass enthusiastically against Annabelle’s. “They’ve been taking lessons and everything.”
“Who from?” Annabelle joked, taking a cheerfully gluttonous gulp of the champagne. “Evel Knievel?”
“Now, now, ladies,” said Douglas, for a wonder not even attempting to return fire to Martin with regards to the earlier slight on his flying abilities. Martin suspected the words ‘revenge’, ‘eaten’ and ‘cold’ were going to apply, not that Douglas ever needed a reason to make his life difficult; he just needed an excuse, and Martin’s life was full of them. “Planes – even such a disreputable old lady as Gertie – are not its. They’re shes.”
Kelly, about to reply, found herself unexpectedly cut off by a burst of raucous singing coming from the back of the plane; faintly astonished, Martin realised that the voice belting out the lyrics “hockey sticks and balls of steel” at full volume in fact belonged to Carolyn.
“Christ, they’ve started.” Kelly rolled her eyes. “We’d better sort them out before they try for a singalong. Remember the last time, Annabelle?”
“I’m still trying to forget.” She glanced at the headgirl, who raised an eyebrow before giving an ‘oh, alright then, if you must’ sort of half nod. Apparently fortified by this tepid sign of approval, Annabelle chirped the words “see you later, Captain!” very fast and pressed the absolute briefest of cherry-lipgloss pecks to Martin’s astonished cheek before bolting through the door at top speed. Kelly’s reaction was rather more leisurely: she merely ruffled his hair with a grin before sauntering out after her friend with a backwards “Later, fly-boys!”
In their wake Douglas looked across to see Martin still sitting bolt upright, a thoroughly stunned expression on his face and his cheeks the same bright vermillion as Kelly’s lipstick. He grinned.
“Well, Captain, I do believe you’ve pulled.”
Silence; Martin, not actually capable of thinking as such, still felt the thought percolate through the mental static of I’ve just been kissed that it was likely to be some time before he was capable of making any kind of sensible response.
“Of course,” Douglas went on gleefully, “She probably just wants you for your nice big –”
Annabelle considered the charges thoughtfully, nibbling on a fingernail as she did so. She wouldn’t say she’d fallen for him as such, but he had an interestingly wonky face, all high cheekbones and slanting blue eyes and almost girlishly full lips. He certainly wasn’t George Clooney (to whom she’d been mentally betrothed since she was fourteen) but he was... cute.
“Mmm,” she said noncommittally. “I do a bit.”
“Ah-uh!” Kelly made the buzzer sound from Family Fortunes and shook her head, grinning like a First-Year on a sugar high. “You properly fancy him.”
“I said I do, a bit.” And she liked the way Martin looked at her as if he hadn’t noticed she was skinny and awkward and still not entirely sure of her new-minted prefectship; being regarded as if she were queen of absolutely everything for once was actually rather gratifying even if she remained slightly happier to spend most of her time living just inside Kelly’s shadow. “Maybe more than a bit.”
“I knew it!” Kelly crowed, giggling. “Annabelle and Martin, sittin’ in a tree...”
Annabelle, giggling pinkly, hit her square in the face with a complementary pillow. “Oh, shut up, div-face, and chuck me one of those miniatures I saw you nick in duty-free.”
Kelly, still laughing, passed the bottle over along with a copy of last week’s Vogue and they both settled back down. Running a school like St Trinian’s was not one of the world’s most restful occupations – in fact, it came somewhere on the scale between being a mafia don and the manager of a Premiership football team – and so any opportunity for a break, even a short one, was to be enjoyed while it lasted.
In the end, it actually wasn’t a bad landing at all: one of his better efforts, in fact. He was grateful; at least he’d be able to tell Annabelle it was his, if she asked, and maybe even look competent for once. Once the seatbelt sign had bingely-bonged off he half-expected Douglas to ensure he got to the doors first in order to wish the Sixth Formers, at least, a particularly charming goodbye, but instead Douglas remained seated, giving him one of those specialised looks which he knew from experience meant that his first officer was going to give him some advice whether he wanted it or not.
“Well?” Martin had spent hours in the mirror trying to copy the way Douglas could raise an eyebrow as eloquently as he was doing right now, and had given up when he eventually realised it only made him look cross-eyed and constipated.
“Well what?” he snapped back, feeling himself rapidly growing flustered.
“Well,” Douglas repeated patiently, “What are you going to do about the delightful Miss Fritton?”
From the back of the plane they distinctly heard a bark of well-bred but quite definitely alcoholic laughter that could only have belonged to the St Trinian’s headmistress.
“That is,” he continued, “Miss Fritton the younger. Somehow I doubt her aunt is quite the type to float your boat.”
Martin swallowed awkwardly. “I’ll – er. I can’t – I’ll have to –” He licked suddenly dry lips, feeling himself give in. Good things never did happen to him, so there was no point in trying, certainly not on top of the common sense that said she was too posh, too pretty and most of all definitely far, far too young for him. Resignedly, “I’ll tell her that she’s very nice, but that I’m far too old for her.”
“Oh, really Martin!” Douglas rolled his eyes with an expression of supreme exasperation. “The young lady is a fully-fledged adult who offered you a glass of champagne, not a marriage proposal. And more to the point, if you ever allow yourself to learn one thing from me, let it be this: if a charming young woman genuinely wishes to buy you a drink, let her do so.” He stood up, deliberately chivvying Martin out of the cockpit in front of him. “At the very least, you can come and say goodbye.”
When they emerged, most of the St Trinians had already disembarked: only the red-headed Polly and her coterie remained, carefully doing such needed clean-up work as the retrieval of forgotten knuckledusters and the removal of all incriminating fingerprints.
“Good luck, Captain Crieff,” the senior prefect called when she saw him. “You’ve got an approximately 70.6% chance of success.” She permitted herself a grin at the look on his face, looking suddenly more like the seventeen-year-old she was than the forty-five-year-old she imitated. “Gossip travels fast.”
Martin peered outside, blinking in the bright Italian sunshine as he disembarked. Down on the runway Kelly and Annabelle could be seen supervising the removal of their cargo from Gertie's loading bay; Carolyn rolled past them in the still-singing company of the senior Miss Fritton and her staff; she ruffled his hair on her way as they passed him, cheerfully granting him a pay rise which he knew better than to believe. In the end it was the two prefects who found them, rather than the other way around, appearing as a pair to say goodbye.
“Nice working with you again, Douggie,” Kelly said with a grin. “Same again on the way back, yeah?”
“Always a pleasure, Miss Jones,” Douglas assured her. “What exactly are you all in Italy for, anyway?”
“Oh, just a bit of banking,” Kelly said, looking the very picture of either innocence or shamelessness. “And Chelsea’s got her first part in a film, so we thought we’d come along for immoral support.”
“It’s The Legend of the Gold Cauldron,” Annabelle piped up cheerfully. “She’s going to play an elf-lady!”
“We should be back on the twenty-third,” the head girl added, then found her attention caught elsewhere and raised her voice. “Tara, Tania! Put him back where you found him! Now!”
Arthur, his round cheeks striped with smeared lipstick warpaint and wearing a bedraggled school tie as a bandana, was beaming dizzily at the centre of a tribe of small girls who seemed rather reluctant to give him up.
“Oh hell, he’s gone native,” Kelly swore, striding off towards the group to begin hostage negotiations. “You can’t keep him! He’s not a bloody puppy!”
Annabelle was now left alone with the two pilots – who shortly became one pilot as Douglas suddenly remembered having left his glasses onboard Gertie. Martin looked at her and she looked back, smiling and twisting a curl of hair around her finger.
“Er,” he started, shifting nervously from one foot to another. “Um, Annabelle – look –”
“I brought your hat back,” she volunteered brightly, her ears a vivid pink. “And I’ll buy you that drink I offered you. Some other time, okay?”
“Right, er –” he attempted again, aware that his own face was once more bright red, only to find her card pressed tightly into his hand. “Great, just –”
“Great!” She dropped his captain’s hat on his head and pressed another cherries-and-champagne kiss to his cheek as she did so, neatly cutting him off once again. “Better go help Kell see you again soon bye!”
She darted away in a faint swirl of perfume, the dark curls of her hair flying behind her. Martin stared after her retreating back, unconsciously turning her card over and over in his hand.
“Oh, well done, sir,” Douglas remarked, appearing behind him. “Masterfully done, in fact.”
“Oh – well.” A cherry-red heart was sticky-shiny on the other side of the card, one which matched the lipgloss mark currently camouflaged by the blushing of his cheek. Still thinking about this, and the way Douglas’s barbs seemed to have temporarily lost their usual sting, he put the card away in his top pocket before he could lose it.
“You know,” Douglas said thoughtfully, watching the school semi-collectively recede towards the airport building, “Isn’t The Legend of the Gold Cauldron Hester Macauley’s next film? How do you think she’ll take to the girls?”
Martin began to grin. “I wonder,” he said, as certain mental images began to flicker like a film reel. “Although I think I could make an educated guess...”
And maybe, he mused hopefully, sometimes good things could happen to him occasionally after all.