The Man In Orange

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JULY 8

As soon as his hand hit the radio alarm-clock by his bed and silenced the blaring tone he knew it had been a futile gesture even setting the wake-up call: the thundering sound from the ceiling told Hughes there would be no flying today. He decided to lie for a few minutes more before deciding to rise and fix a coffee regardless. Being a Saturday he couldn’t call the THS office to see what, if any, impact he could make on the pile of paperwork that seemed to accumulate on his desk. There were times he missed the seemingly carefree days of being “just another flyboy”, but he had to admit he did like having some seniority over his team.

Coffee in hand he made his way to his hangar, unlocked the door and switched on the light. His beloved ZK-HMH was absent, being looked over by Smalley’s team of spanner-swingers for another inspection, so its trolley sat empty and a cloth covered the 4x4 tug. The fuselage of Fletcher ZK-DCH sat off to the side of the hangar, its wing leaning against the far wall. He had mounted the old aeroplane in a wheeled frame for ease of access and was well into the de-construction process, essential for his plan to restore the old workhorse to flying condition. He placed his mug on the workbench and stood to examine the airframe, hands on hips.

He had already removed several panels from the rear fuselage, so much so that the aircraft was beginning to resemble a cutaway drawing. Removed skin panels lay on shelves nearby, ready to be stripped, examined, any corrosion treated and then replaced on the frames. Hughes decided that once he removed the skin he would look at the smaller components, remove what was left in the cockpit, and then closely examine the longerons – the long, thin aluminium strips that held the fuselage frames together. He retrieved a drill from the tool wall near the door, attached an air hose and fitted a drill bit. He decided on which panel was to be removed next and set about his task, gently drilling out the rivet heads to unzip the panels.

After three hours the shelves were almost full, so he replaced the drill on the wall and wound back the air hose. Latex gloves were pulled on and a respirator mask strapped around his head as he poured out a small amount of paint stripper. He then lifted the lid from a 44gal drum nearby and untied a length of wire from the grille on top. Out came a small skin panel, paint almost gone, dripping with the viscous stripping agent. After giving the panel a rubdown with a rag, Hughes placed it on the newsprint-covered bench and began to remove the remaining paint with a small brush and an acrylic tool. Soon he held the panel up to examine for any corrosion present, noting some around the rivet holes.

He took the panel over to his bead-blasting cabinet and used the gun within to blast the pitted areas into submission, and after dusting the panel clean admired his handiwork. The vast majority of panels would be used again, he thought, but some on the underside would need patching or even replacement from having sat on the ground for more than a decade.

“Hard at work, I see.”

Hughes sharply turned to face his unexpected guest. A voluptuous woman with shoulder-length blonde hair stood in the doorway, a long wool coat slung casually over her right shoulder.

“I’ve gotta say this shed reminds me of you,” the woman remarked, admiring the building’s interior, “a tad run-down on the outside but organised chaos on the inside.” Her full lips parted into a grin, revealing gleaming white teeth.

“I hear you have a new man, did he buy you those lovely pearly whites?” Hughes asked, placing the stripped panel next to a shallow pan of alodine, a pre-painting treatment.

The woman’s smile faded. “That’s a little hurtful, Maxwell.”

Hughes began to scrub the panel with an alodine-covered square of Scotch Brite. “I try to be honest - some say blunt - at the outset so that a year or twelve down the line there’s no pain.”

She seemed to ignore the barb. “Are you going to invite me in, or is this a boys-only club?”

“You can come in if you tell me why you’re here.” He set down the panel and glared at her.

Sarah Hughes, nee Marsh, closed the door behind her and lay her coat and handbag on the desk next to it. “And yes he did, Dennis just so happens to be a dental surgeon.”

“Figures,” Hughes snorted, “it’s always money or thrills. With this Dennis character I imagine it’s the former.”

She smiled condescendingly as she walked over to DCH, running a well-manicured hand along the aircraft’s spine. “So, you finally talked Lance into selling you a Fletcher. Well done. Although I still don’t understand why you’d want a decrepit old thing like this.”

“Preservation,” Hughes declared defensively. “No-one else seems to care that all the old piston-powered jobs are falling by the wayside.”

“Hmm,” she purred, reaching the aircraft’s tail and walking around it to Hughes’ side. “Thanks for the money, by the way.”

“Loose ends. You know I don’t like owing anyone anything.” He turned away to the skin shelf to select another panel for stripping.

“You know,” she said with a grin, “for a while there I actually thought you were holding out on me so you would have an excuse for me to call you.”

“Don’t give yourself too much credit,” Hughes snorted as he tied a length of lockwire through a rivet hole on the panel. “So did your courtesy call actually have a point, or did you come to con me into one last, no-strings-attached fling?”

“Dennis is more than satisfactory in that department, thank-you,” she replied smugly.

Hughes slammed down the lid on the drum full of paint stripper, causing her to jump. “Do you really think I want to hear that?”

“You brought it up!”

“What I did was try and find out what the hell you’re doing on my property!”

“Well, legally the house is half mine -”

“It bloody well won’t be when the cheque clears!” He spun away and walked to fetch another panel.

“Max, I came here to apologise.”

Hughes stopped. “You what?”

She began to approach him slowly, tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I had too much to drink that night, far too much, and besides you and I seemed to be growing apart...I never meant it...”

“Ricky sure as hell thought you did.” Hughes’ face began to cloud over. At the THS New Year’s party he had found his wife in a corner, lips locked with the newest crewman in the firm. The young man tendered his resignation the next day, and Hughes had kicked Sarah from their home. “You always seemed to have drunk too much.”

“That’s not fair!”

“Don’t you dare talk about what’s fair!”

“But I didn’t mean it...”

“Oh? You didn’t mean to kiss him?” Hughes started toward her. “Just like you didn’t mean to with Chris? You didn’t mean it with Bazza?” He stopped, shook his head and turned. “Get out, Sarah.”

Her face streaked with tears she began to sob. “But Max -”

“No buts. Go.”

As he placed his hands into the bead-blasting cabinet’s gloves, Sarah Hughes stood silent. Hughes aimed the little silver gun at a particularly nasty bit of corrosion and squirted the beads at it.

“You can go fuck yourself, Maxwell Hughes,” Sarah spat at her ex-husband.

“Likewise. Oh, wait, you’ve got Dennis for that now,” he countered, opening the lid to retrieve the panel. As he heard the clack of heels across the concrete and then the slam of the door behind him, he placed the panel on the bench and began to scrape the paint off.

#

An hour passed since his wife had stormed out of the hangar and Hughes found himself struggling to concentrate. He’d blasted the same rivet hole so many times the aluminium was becoming pockmarked.

“Bloody hell,” he said as he saw the damage, putting down the sandblasting gun and opening the lid to inspect it. He held the thin piece of aeroplane skin close to his eye, looking along it to check. He decided it wasn’t too bad, lay it down again, and stepped back to stretch his back.

He held his arms out and spun at the waist like a washing machine, feeling tension and aches bleed away. He yawned, checked his watch and made for the door.

If it was a weekday and Hughes found himself wanting to go into town for any reason he could do so quite easily, as he had a car kept in his personal space at the THS offices. Just in case he decided he should have a vehicle at home, too, as the shop owners probably wouldn’t take kindly to his 500 descending onto the street outside their shops.

It was a beaten up Ford Mondeo, mid-90s, painted silver. Mostly. It had had some bumps and scrapes repaired but Hughes had never quite gotten around to having the repairs painted, leaving several panels in primer. He prided himself on the fact he flew solo before he ever even owned a car, let alone commuted in one. The Mondeo was good for the rare occasions he didn’t expect the weather to turn foul and needed to get into town.

Collins Road led almost due north from Hughes’ property to Tangikea airport, and then it veered northwest to join up with the state highway leading to the town itself. This approach to town never seemed to change much as most of the traffic came from the west, passing through the city to head off north again on the other side. SH14, however, was barely maintained for the airport traffic let alone any wayward tourists.

Hughes bypassed the shopping centre and miscellaneous small shops he passed, instead making for his local, the White Hart. He’d been drinking there for years. It was still very much a typical country pub, the same crowd of cow cockies and farmhands frequented the place most weekends. During the week it changed into something of a nightclub, with the Thursday night karaoke being particularly popular with the students. Being a muggy, wet Saturday afternoon Hughes guessed the usual suspects would be there, and he smiled slightly as he saw familiar, mud-covered Toyota Hilux utes and Land Rovers in the Hart’s parking area.

The rain had picked up its pace on the trip in, Hughes noted, and almost ran to the back entrance of the old pub. As soon as he opened the door the smells of stale beer and animal dung wafted out and enveloped him, sounds of muted rock music and amplified laughter reaching his ears. As soon as he closed the door a big hand clapped his shoulder.

“G’day, Hughesie!”

He turned to see a Swanndri-clad brute of a man with a half-empty pint glass in hand. His stubble-covered jaw was broken into a wide, slightly tipsy smile.

“G’day Jack,” Hughes replied.

Jack Waterson shifted his hand to cover Hughes’ own in a massive handshake. “How are you, me old china?”

Hughes smiled, returning the firm grasp in kind. “Not too bad mate, and yourself?”

“Look outside,” the big farmer replied, nodding back in the general direction of out of town. “Bloody marvellous, this is. I was beginning to think we’d never see any rain again.”

Hughes laughed. He knew the area had been through a dry spell – autumns were generally hard on the farmers around Tangikea – but it was hardly a drought. “Count yourself lucky Jack, at least I didn’t have to water your paddocks with my chopper.”

Waterson laughed heartily, a booming, genuine sound. “Bugger that! The wife’d never let me hear the end of it with the rates you charge. What’re you drinking?” he asked, guiding Hughes to the bar.

Hughes leaned forward slightly to check the taps, even though he always had the same thing. “Just a Kahu Lager, thanks Jack.”

The solid farmer nodded, and made his way over to the bar as Hughes looked for a stool.

The place wasn’t packed, but it was certainly busier than he would’ve seen on a normal Saturday. There were several familiar faces, including a couple of pilots and loader drivers from Mathesons, and one of his own blokes. His quiet study was interrupted by the “clunk” of a heavy pint glass as it was placed on the bar in front of him.

“Compliments of the Waterson Estate,” the smiling farmer said as he gestured toward the vessel. “You did a bloody good job on those thistles out back, they were giving my lads hell.”

Hughes picked up the glass and raised it in salute. “My pleasure, I exist to serve.” He drank from the cool amber liquid, relishing the taste. It wasn’t often he drank – he made a pledge never to touch alcohol less than 12hr before flying after a mate went in at Taupo one night, taking a lady passenger with him – so he always made a point of enjoying it when he did.

“Funny you should show up, I was just talking about you actually,” Waterson said, having drained his own glass.

“Is that right,” Hughes replied, after placing his glass back on the coaster.

Waterson nodded, waving his glass behind him. “Yeah, I was talking with this joker, another pilot, funnily enough.”

“Who, Liam?” Hughes asked, craning his neck to see the young man he’d spotted earlier.

“Nah, nah, Yankee bloke.”

Hughes looked back to Waterson blankly. “Who’s that?”

Waterson turned to look down the bar. “Him, forgot his name. You know how it is,” he replied, motioning to the barman for another.

Hughes leant around the farmer’s broad shoulders to see a man in a red-and-black chequered shirt and worn blue jeans, a cap tilted back on his head. The man turned.

“Hi there, Mister Hughes!” the man called out.

Hughes stood from his stool, grabbing his glass as he did so. “Nice to see you, Jack,” he said to his friend as he walked past. Waterson grunted absent-mindedly and took to his refilled glass.

“I heard about that Robinson that went down a few months back,” Francois Charles said, removing his hat to mess with his receding hair.

“Francois, was it?” Hughes asked as he approached, knowing full well there was only man in the area with a DHC Beaver on his hat.

“Yes, the one and only,” the Canadian smiled, extending his hand.

Hughes took it. “Yes, that was damned unfortunate.”

“Was it one of yours?” Charles asked, taking a drink from a tall glass. Hughes couldn’t tell what was in it.

“It was, the pilot was a young guy. Just recently married, and a baby on the way.”

Charles winced. “Bun in the oven, huh? How sad.” He placed his glass back on the bar, and put his hat back on. “What happened?”

Hughes noticed a spare stool and pulled it over to sit. “Don’t know. Looks like he just went in flat,” he replied, using his two hands to demonstrate. One was angled slightly, like the hill, the other rapidly came down onto it in a clap.

Charles shook his head and clicked his tongue. “I sure am sorry to hear that, Mister Hughes.” He raised his glass. “To your man.”

Hughes grabbed his own and nodded in thanks. “To lost friends.”

The Canadian placed his glass back on the coaster. “It’s never fun to lose anyone, especially a young fella with a kid on the way.” Charles shook his head sadly.

Hughes noticed, for the first time, a scar crossing Charles’ chin ending halfway up his right cheek. “Have you had any incidents yourself?”

Charles grinned. It wasn’t a warm one, Hughes thought. “A couple.” He took a deep drink from his glass and Hughes decided not to pursue the line of questioning. “How’s business?”

Hughes shrugged. “So-so. Lost a contract with DOC last month.”

“Doc who?”

Hughes grinned. “No, the Department of Conservation. They look after national parks, native birds and such.”

Charles nodded slowly. “Ah right, I getcha now.” He lifted his glass to his lips. “That was me.”

Hughes paused, his glass partway to his mouth.

“Nice bunch of people.”

“You took the Waitaki contract?”

“I hardly ‘took’ it, Max,” Charles replied, motioning to the bartender.

“We’ve been working with them since 1990, since they became a separate department.”

“You must’ve got complacent, I made them a better offer.”

Hughes placed his glass on the table. His hand was shaking and he didn’t know why. “How can you have made a better offer, we weren’t even making a profit!”

Charles drank from his replenished glass. He took the whole lot in one go, leaving Hughes waiting for an answer. After putting the glass on a small towel behind the bar he wiped his lips on the back of his sleeve and stood up. He leant over Hughes and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe you should’ve found a way.” He patted Hughes twice and walked past him, Hughes turning to watch the man leave the pub.

“You want a top up, Max?”

Hughes turned once the door closed to see the barman standing before him. Hughes nodded. “Yeah, cheers Ken.”

#

After an hour or so Hughes left the bar, the rain falling lighter than when he arrived but the wind had picked up. He unlocked his car and got in, wrestling with the wind to close the door.

He pulled out onto James Avenue, the “main drag” of the town, and noticed there was very little traffic. Partly because of the weather but, probably more likely, because most shops closed by 1pm on a Saturday.

Thanks to the minimal traffic – just one other vehicle visible, and that was a fair distance behind him - Hughes was soon beyond the town’s southern limits and onto the highway. The wind was rougher out here, and Hughes had to keep both hands on the wheel to ensure the car was travelling straight.

He turned onto Collins Road and aquaplaned for a moment, the car having hit a particularly large puddle. Hughes was so focused on keeping straight he didn’t see the car behind turn off with him and get closer.

Without warning Hughes felt a jolt and the car lurched to the left.

“Jesus!” Hughes struggled to straighten up again. He looked in the rear view mirror and there was a large, black vehicle behind him. It moved to the right and there was a bang and a lurch.

“What the hell?!”

The other vehicle slowed, pulling behind him. Hughes turned to see the driver but the light was getting worse and the rain was getting heavier. He turned back to face forward – not far till home.

This time he heard the other vehicle’s big engine revving.

Before he even had time to think Hughes stood on the brake pedal and turned hard right, his car skidding across into the other lane and colliding with a power pole. The other vehicle sped off and disappeared around the bend past Hughes’ driveway.

Hughes sat still, shaking, with both hands on the wheel. Slowly he undid his seatbelt and got out of the car. He could see the impact with the pole had done some damage to the front of the old Mondeo but it didn’t seem too bad. He looked down the road after the truck but it was long gone.

Thankfully it was only a two minute walk to his home, so Hughes grabbed his wallet and other items from the car and walked away. He’d call the towing contractor on the landline.

#

The damage was worse than Hughes had thought, although he told the towie cars weren’t his strong point. The stubble-faced recovery man had tutted over the broken vehicle and told Hughes it would easily be $1500 to fix, if not more. Hughes asked the other man for the scrap value and they shook on it, leaving Hughes’ wallet a little fatter and a fresh space outside his front door.

He tried to get back to work on the Fletcher but he couldn’t focus, with not only the crash but also Sarah’s visit. Hughes believed that, from experience, bad news came in threes, so he didn’t want to foul up anything on his project. Instead he shut off the compressor and the lights, locked the hangar, and retreated inside.

He looked inside the office and decided he could handle something going wrong with paperwork. He switched on the kettle and prepared a coffee before tackling the small pile in his “In” tray.

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