A work-in-progress, my first novel is a fast-paced thriller which takes the reader behind the scenes of the glamorous but ruthless world of Formula 1 – a world where some people will do almost anything in their craving for more success, more power and more wealth. This is the book’s opening chapter.
SHE DIDN’T HAVE to look over her shoulder to know someone was there. She could sense a presence in the darkness. She could feel the stare against her back, cold as the concrete floor beneath her bare knees. And as she knelt as if to pray, she felt her hands begin to tremble. She felt it in the movement of the small metal key cool between her fingertips, the key to the unopened box.
Adrenalin, Maria told herself. Familiar side-effects of adrenalin, chemical addiction of her choice. This hormone raging through her body was preparing her for “fight or flight” – but in Maria’s case it was always flight. The dark hangar’s dusky air was rich with aviation fuel and engine oil, exotic perfumes of adventure and escape, and she inhaled until her lungs were full.
Maria had to squint to find the lock. She knew it was directly in front of her and at chest height when she knelt in front of the big aluminium box, knew it was top-centre and an inch or two below the lid – but only the vague outlines of objects revealed themselves to her in here. In the gloom, all else was lost. The one source of illumination inside this cavernous building was at least forty feet behind her, a small square of weakened sunlight seeping-in through a closed window coated in dirt.
It had been easier to see when she entered the hangar. The open pedestrian doorway had cast a white strip of daylight down the middle of the black floor. Then she’d turned right into dimness, made her way slowly towards the black corrugated-iron side wall, reached for the electric light switch – and found it dangling on loose wires from the wall. Broken. She’d gone back outside, talked briefly to Dino, picked up two worn tractor tyres kept as aircraft wheel chocks, and positioned them to wedge open the door. Then she’d stepped back over the doorway’s high sill and begun striding down the narrow white strip of daylight towards the far wall, a distance of at least one hundred yards. She’d walked more than halfway there, her long legs carrying her fast, when there was an echoing clang and the door slammed shut.
Maria had to stop. Had to wait for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She stood for a long time staring into the impenetrable blackness. She cursed the thoughtlessness of whoever had closed the door – surely they’d seen she’d gone to the trouble of propping it open? – and wondered why Dino hadn’t intervened. The boy must have wandered off.
Standing there, blind, the trapped indoors air cold against her bare arms and legs, Maria had sensed a movement in the dark. As if someone was in the hangar with her. Someone who didn’t want to be seen or heard. Goose-pimples covered her arms and legs. She thought of calling out, of asking “Who is it?” in a loud and firm voice. But she only tut-tutted quietly at the vividness of her imagination. Brave in so many other ways, she’d always been afraid of the dark.
After a while Maria could see again, though less than an arm’s-length in front of her. Now she would have to walk slowly, being careful not to bang against the unseen bulk of a light-aircraft or trip over the outstretched wing of a glider. But she had decided to go on: the front pedestrian door, with daylight the other side, was further from her than the back wall of the hangar and the line of locked metal cabinets.
Now she was there, in front of the aluminium box set on the floor, Maria located the lock more by touching than seeing. She ran a fingertip along the front of the box until she felt a hard, brassy lump. She leaned forward to insert the key, her expectant breath making moist patterns on the container’s cool metal skin. The lock clicked as the key went all the way round, through 360-degrees, and she pushed up on the lid with both hands. She pushed gently at first, then with more force, but the lid wouldn’t budge. She tried again, this time pushing against the resistance so hard she could feel her biceps tauten – and in the moment she let out a little gasp of effort she heard a sound in the dark. The sound of grit rubbing under the sole of a shoe.
Maria froze and listened, unsure what to do. The longer she held still, straining to hear through the dense black, the more menacing the silence seemed.
‘Scott, is that you?’ Her voice echoed around the black chamber. ‘I thought you’d be here by now, Scott. I’ve been expecting you.’ She surprised herself by sounding as if she meant it, as if she didn’t know Scott had been called away.
No sound in reply. Only the drumbeat of her heart.
Just take what’s needed, Maria, and get out.
She pulled at the lid of the box again, trying not to make any noise that might drown out the sound of any approaching footsteps. Still it was firmly stuck. As if her action of turning the key had bolted down the lid. As if Scott had left it unlocked. That wasn’t at all like Scott.
What was it Scott’s physiotherapist had told her on the mobile phone as she drove out here this morning, her silver Jaguar’s roof down, her jet-black hair flowing in the breeze? ‘Mr Hunter’s already been to the airfield,’ he’d said. ‘He’s still buzzing from yesterday. He put your glider together – “rigged it” was the expression he used. He asked me to tell you he’s given it the Daily Inspection and towed it out to the launch point. He even strapped himself in and did all the . . . positive-control checks, I think he called them. The glider’s all checked and ready to launch. But then he was called away on an emergency.’
Maria had been wondering why Scott hadn’t called her himself, why he’d left her to receive second-hand news of an emergency from someone she’d never met, when the physio said: ‘Of course Mr Hunter was going to call you himself. But when I saw him this morning I could tell he was in a real hurry, Mrs Manfredi, so I offered to pass all this on. He said don’t worry about the emergency; it’s nothing he can’t handle on his own. He said you should fly the glider this morning, and he’ll come back to the airfield as soon as he can.’
Typical Scott, letting me down today. Typical Scott, spoiling Dino’s surprise. Should have known better than to rely on him. Should never have expected him to put anyone else before Number One. Probably a typical Scott emergency, too. Probably another love life crisis. If he will always choose bodies over brains . . .
Maria had turned to Dino, sitting beside her in the front of the Jaguar and asked, ‘You hear that?’
Dino had nodded then stared into the distance, considering the disappointment of not seeing his grown-up friend until later in the day. Then he’d said, ‘That’s okay, Mum. At least he’s prepared the glider for you. He’s never done that before. And rigging’s such a pain.’
‘Well, you won’t have to help me rig today, Birthday Boy. You can start playing with that new camera straight away. And all I have to do is climb in and fly.’ Maria smiled in spite of Scott, smiled in anticipation of the day.
It was more than a minute now since Maria had heard the scuffing shoe. A minute in which she held onto her breath and listened to her own heart thumping in the silence. A minute in which she persuaded herself she was being silly and attributed the noise to a passer-by outside. A minute in which she convinced herself the footstep must have been out there on the rough ground outside the hangar before her imagination had seized it and brought it inside.
So Maria turned the key in the box again, this time in the opposite direction. The lock movement felt no different, the metallic click was unchanged – but now the lid lifted easily on its hinges and opened wide. Maria was surprised. She couldn’t remember a previous occasion when Scott had failed to lock the container.
Maria plunged a slender arm into the box and fished-out a laminated air map, to rest on her knees in the tight cockpit; a Garmin 295 Global Positioning System, to allow her to know her exact position even if the ground below became obscured by cloud; and a hand-held two-way radio, to communicate with other glider pilots and air traffic control. Finally she found the most important item of all, not quite where she expected it in the box but deeper down and to one side – one Butler LoPo 450, the parachute she hoped she’d never need.
Like all glider pilots, Maria always wore her parachute on summer days, when she soared so high that there could be time in an emergency to bail out and wait for the great silk umbrella to blossom over her head. She wore it on winter days too, even though there were no thermals to carry you high into the sky, because it softened the hardness of the fibreglass seat against her back.
This parachute comforted Maria in another way, a way known only to herself. Only when this Butler 450 was hugging her back, only when this Butler 450’s stiff grey straps were pulled hard over her collarbones and tight against the tops of her inner-legs, only then was she sure of safe flight. With this superstition observed, Maria could take-off confident she’d come back. Come back as she must for Dino, as the only parent of an only child.
Maria put the parachute backpack down beside her and heard its belt buckles clink against the concrete floor. In the same moment there was another sound, with a deeper resonance, from further away. As if a large weight had been leaned against the hangar’s side-wall, making its corrugated-iron panels creak under the strain.
Maria could no longer convince herself the sound came from outside. Her heart was thumping again. She quickly turned the key in the lock the box, then placed the map, radio and GPS on top of the parachute backpack, which she’d laid out flat like a tea-tray. She grabbed hold of the backpack, a hand at each end, sprung up from her knees, And swivelled around to face the far wall. She wished she could see the closed door, but it was too far away. She wished she could see to run, but knew that if she did, somewhere in that dark jungle of sleeping gliders and aeroplanes she’d trip and fall. And she knew that if she shouted into the blackness of the hangar again, only the invisible impostor would hear her cry.
So she forced herself to walk slowly, little step by little step, into the inky black. Her progress was slow and awkward. She held out the parachute backpack in front of her, both arms outstretched. She listened as she walked the hangar’s great length, expecting other noises but hearing only herself, her slow footfalls and quick breaths. If she couldn’t see the impostor, the impostor couldn’t see her. She kept herself back from the brink of panic by counting her small, cautious steps . . . until finally warm sunlight poured over her as she stepped out over the doorway’s high sill. She closed the little door behind her without looking back.
Dino had gone.
Maria guessed her son was at the far end of the grass airstrip, probably filming take-offs and landings with his new video camera, so he had something to show Scott this afternoon. She had to find someone else to help settle a question in her mind. Pulling nervously at her shorts, she walked swiftly to the nearby clubhouse, a small grey Prefab. Walking quickly past the shabby furniture in the lounge to the tiny kitchen, she found Graham the tug pilot chewing a Mars bar for breakfast and gulping back a mug of black tea. Graham was late for his flying duty, but when Maria shone her smile at him and asked for assistance, he immediately agreed.
‘A great drive by Scott yesterday,’ said Graham, and they walked out of the little clubhouse talking about the San Marino Grand Prix.
Maria could not have opened the hangar on her own. Four iron doors, each twenty feet wide and forty feet tall – the one at the right with the pedestrian entrance cut into it – covered the building’s entire airfield-end. Graham and Maria leaned together on one door at a time and pushed, the great sheets of metal creaking and groaning on rusty rollers as they stiffly rolled aside. When all the doors were open, the hangar’s vast interior was immersed in bright light. With Graham solid beside her, Maria stood defiantly on the threshold and looked in.
Maria could see past light-aircraft and gliders all the way to the cabinets at the far wall. Could see battered metal tool-boxes and plastic petrol cans lining the edges of the floor. Could see bald tyres for weighing-down glider wings and threadbare towels for wiping canopies clean. Could see oil glistening in a tin tray beneath the Pawnee’s nose and gashes in the canvas-skin fuselage of an old K6 single-seater glider that had been pranged. Could see all of these things with clarity – but couldn’t see anyone in there.
Maria privately damned her imagination. Sheepishly, she turned to offer Graham her thanks. Then a movement in the hangar caught her eye. She turned her head back swiftly and stared into the big room. Where a glider cockpit canopy was draped in a white tarpaulin, loose ties beneath it stirred in the breeze. Maria saw instantly, with the expert eye of an aerodynamicist, how the white fabric strips shifted left to right – not backwards and forwards as she’d expect in the draft from the opened doors. She watched the movement again, then looked left for the cause.
The dirty window, closed when she was in there, was now open wide.
* * * * *
A month before the day she went gliding, Maria had breezed into the Design office at FranktonF1 at the usual time of six-thirty and slapped a small green sticker on the department’s Wallplanner so hard it couldn’t be removed. Then she wrote over the sticker with a black felt-tip pen. Wrote two little words that spelt trouble.
At eleven minutes past eight – one minute behind schedule – Maria heard the leather shoes of Geoffrey Frankton squeaking down the wooden-floored corridor towards her. Heard him jab a finger at the security key-pad the other side of the department’s door. Heard the whirr and click, one second after he’d keyed-in the last digit of the secret code, as the door jamb let go. Then heard the squeak-squeak, squeak-squeak, as the leather soles headed her way.
‘What’s this, Maria?’ Frankton stood the other side of her desk, drawing himself up to his full five-foot-four. He was looking at the two new words on the Wallplanner with a frown.
‘It’s a radical new concept,’ joked Maria. ‘“Day off”.’
‘I can see that. All 16 people in your department can see it too. That’s my concern.’
Frankton sensed that Maria’s colleagues were straining to overhear the conversation and raised his voice. ‘If we don’t get our revised car out by June, Anglo-American are going to eat us alive. We have to make a super-human effort, all of us. Perhaps you’d delay this . . . this distraction, just for a few months?’
‘In normal circumstances, I would. You know I would. But this is an exception.’
Frankton raised an eyebrow, inviting her to continue.
‘It’s my son’s tenth birthday,’ said Maria. ‘The Monday after the San Marino Grand Prix. And after three long days in the pits and a late flight back to London, I’ll be of no use here that day, anyway. I’ll be brain dead.’ She leaned across the desk, as if about to impart a secret. ‘Apart from kissing the boy goodnight,’ she said quietly, ‘I’ve hardly seen him since he was five. I need to remind the poor lad who I am.’
Frankton parcelled-out a smile. ‘I understand. It’s not easy in this business to find time for a personal life. Not if you want to . . .’ – the hint of a pause before he emphasised the next word – ‘. . . succeed.’ Frankton opened his arms wide, showing Maria the palms of both hands. ‘Why not let us make a fuss of the boy on his birthday? Why not bring him here? I’ll have someone give him the VIP treatment, show him around.’
‘That’s a nice idea, but it’s not possible. Rose, my housekeeper, has already made arrangements. We’re throwing a surprise party for the boy. We’ve invited all his friends.’
‘Will the party last all day?’
‘Just the afternoon.’
‘So we could show him around here in the morning.’
Maria smiled. ‘Afraid not. Scott Hunter’s taking him for a glider flight in the morning. He adores Scott.’
‘Anglo-American let Hunter fly gliders?’ Frankton looked at Maria as if she’d told a lie. ‘I’m surprised his contract allows it.’
Maria shrugged. She’d heard Scott say of his contract, ‘It’s only a piece of paper. I’ve still got to live my life, for Christ’s sake.’
‘Where does Hunter fly?’ Frankton asked.
‘Shenington, just the other side of Banbury. He and I share a glider’ – Maria looked Frankton in the eye – ‘though I hardly ever get to see it because I’m always here.’
Frankton stared at Maria with hard eyes. Said nothing. Turned his small back. Then the leather shoes squeaked away.
Late that night, when Maria stepped out into cool darkness, carrying a black pilot’s attaché case heavy with work, the lights were still burning bright in Frankton’s office. She’d just slipped behind the wheel of her Jaguar and turned the ignition key when the car phone shrilled.
‘Hi Maria, it’s Scott.’
Months without hearing a word, and now the crisp, Californian voice talking to her for the fourth time in as many weeks. He always started with, ‘How’s Dino?’ A little later he’d ask, ‘How’s the job?’ And somewhere near the end of the conversation he’d ask, ‘Have you contacted Hardwood yet?’
Always Maria’s answers were the same: ‘Dino’s happy enough. He’s getting on really well with Rose . . . You know I can’t tell you anything about the job, you’re the competition . . . No, I haven’t contacted Hardwood, I’m reasonably happy where I am. Besides, Hardwood’s got Myers, and his cars win. Myers has been Anglo-American’s chief designer so long, he’s part of the furniture with you guys.’
‘Myers is good,’ Scott agreed. ‘But he’s losing his touch. He’s not as good as you. Not anymore. And it doesn’t mean diddly squit he’s been there a long time. Hardwood’s just like any other team boss – always looking out for a new advantage. You know there’s no such ting as loyalty in F1.’
Maria replied in an uncertain tone: ‘If Hardwood wanted to hire me, he’d call. And I don’t want to stir-up any bad feeling. Don’t want to start the law suits flying. Look what happened when Adrian Newey said he was leaving McLaren for Jaguar, then changed his mind.’
‘Yeah, and look at Newey’s salary, Maria. Probably $5 million a year. And what do you earn? No, don’t tell me again; it’s enough to make a grown man cry.’
Maria laughed down the line.
‘Frankton’s screwing you, Maria, and you’re just laying back and letting him do it. Jeez, what a horrible thought!’
Maria laughed again.
‘Frankton’s exploiting the fact that he gave you the big break, but you paid off that debt of gratitude years ago. It’s time to go get the recognition and money you deserve.’
Maria tried to interrupt, but Scott was on his hobby horse and going strong. ‘Frankton are spending – what? – $100 million a year? They’re paying their Number One driver $15 million a season because he’s worth three- or four-tenths of a second per lap. But you’re worth that much lap time, Maria. You’re worth millions to a top team.’
Scott paused, allowing Maria to respond, but she was busy turning the Jaguar around.
Scott broke the silence and Maria’s train of thought: ‘So how is Dino?’
‘You already asked me that.’
‘Yeah. But do you really know?’
‘What are you getting at?’ Maria asked sharply.
‘I guess I’m asking how much time you’re spending with the kid.’
‘And the sooner you have more than enough money in the bank, Maria, the sooner you will have choice. Maybe you could become a consultant. Have some time at home with the boy. Be a good race car designer and a good Mom.’
Maria’s words came out in a growl. ‘Don’t ever lecture me on that subject, Scott. Don’t you dare.’ She swung a hand at the phone’s off-switch and banged it hard.
But Scott was right. And with every tumbler of Glenmorangie-and-ice that Maria slugged back that evening, alone at the desk in her study at home, the more right she knew him to be. She had paid Geoffrey Frankton her dues. She could increase her earnings by moving on. She needed the money. And she’d neglected Dino for too long. She really wanted to be a caring mother as well as a successful designer. Wanted to provide the maternal love and attention snatched away from her when she was thirteen.
* * * * *
When Maria Manfredi made up her mind, she moved fast. Yes, Anglo-American Racing boss Michael Hardwood would meet her in private, away from prying eyes. Yes, he’d guessed her contract with Frankton would contain an expensive buy-out clause. Yes, Anglo-American would pay it. Yes, they could find $4 million a year for her. Yes, they’d prepare a contract straight away.
‘And no, you’re not going.’ Geoffrey Frankton slammed his fist down so hard the top of his desk bowed. ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to keep you, Maria. Whatever makes you happy. You’re part of this team’s heritage. You’re a member of the family.’ Then he spoke so quietly it was almost a whisper. ‘You only have to let me know what you want.’ ‘I’ve asked you for a rise twice before, Geoffrey, and both times you told me you’d see what you could do but never did a thing. I’ve waited long enough. I’ve had five great years here, and I’m grateful you had faith in me, but I need a fresh challenge. We all have to progress.’
‘How do you progress from here? Where is there to go?’
‘Sorry, Geoffrey, I can’t say.’
‘Can’t say? What is this, some kind of game?’ Frankton regarded Maria with suspicion. ‘Or are you calling my bluff?’
‘No, I’m not bluffing. But I’ve agreed to keep my destination secret until my new employers make an announcement.’
In his black leather chair, Frankton spun around so that all Maria could see was its high back. When he swung around to face her again it was with an expression of pain. ‘If it’s about money,’ he said, ‘this time we can talk. We really can.’
Maria shook her head, but Frankton went on. ‘Of course it’s about money. In the end, it always is. Everyone has their price. It’s just that saints have a higher price than sinners. So what’s yours?’
‘I don’t have a price,’ said Maria, tipping her head towards the resignation letter on his desk. ‘I just want to serve-out my notice and go.’
‘Two million dollars. How about $2 million a year? That’s a one-hundred percent rise.’
Maria shook her head.
Frankton chuckled. ‘I always knew there was steel under that soft surface of yours.’ He paused. ‘I’ll double again. Pay you $2 million a year for a five-year contract. That’s $10 million I’m offering you, Maria. Ten million!’
Maria shook her head more vigorously.
‘You won’t get that sum anywhere else. Only Anglo-American will pay a Chief Designer that kind of money, and they’ve got Myers. I don’t know where you are thinking of going, but it sounds to me like you’re taking a big risk. Going to a team that’s unproven, you’re gambling your whole career.’
Maria smiled politely but said nothing.
Frankton returned the smile. ‘We work well together, you and I. We’re a successful combination. Twenty Grands Prix wins in the last four years! And I admire you, Maria, I really do. I’ll break the bank for you.’ He stretched a short arm across the big desk, clawed at a calculator, and jabbed at its buttons. Then he took a deep breath, as if something was sticking in his throat, and said, ‘Two million a year basic and a $10,000 bonus for every World Championship point. In a good year that’s $3 million. Three million a year for five years will make you a very rich girl!’
‘I admire your determination, Geoffrey, but I’ve made up my mind.’
Frankton placed Maria’s resignation letter on top of a small pile of papers at one end of the desk, slid a folded copy of the Financial Times over it, and put both hands down on the arms of his chair. Preparing to rise, he said, ‘You’re a hard negotiator, Maria. You really are. Let’s discuss this over lunch.’
‘It doesn’t matter how hard you try to persuade me, Geoffrey. It doesn’t matter how much affection I have for you and your team. I’m committed. I’ve signed a contract.’
‘Come on! We both know contracts aren’t worth the damn paper they’re written on. We’ve seen that proved time and time again. And what about the buy-out clause? Who’s going to write me a cheque for $1.5 million?’
‘The money’s being wired to you this afternoon from an intermediary in Switzerland.’
Frankton looked at Maria as if seeing a face he couldn’t quite recognise. Quietly, he said, ‘So you are serious.’
An awkward silence.
Eventually, Frankton spoke again. ‘I can’t believe you’ve done this. Not without talking to me first. Not without giving me a chance. And after the chance I gave you!’ He stood up from the chair. ‘I brought you into this business, Maria. I made you. If it wasn’t for the risk I took, you’d still be designing bits of big, lumbering passenger aircraft. You’d still be a little cog in a great big corporate machine. You’d be bored out of your brains from nine-to-five and going home to a middle-class house.’
Frankton paced backwards and forwards behind his desk, a rush of leathery squeaks. ‘You’ve betrayed my trust, Maria. You’ve sold out. You’ve gone out there in short skirt and suspenders and paraded up and down the pitlane. And I thought you were different to the others in Formula One.’
‘I am. I have debts.’
The squeaking of shoes stopped. Frankton looked at Maria with confusion. Then contempt. ‘Debts?’ He spat out the word as if it tasted foul. ‘A senior member of the Formula One circus, and you have debts? Forty-two thousand dollars a month and you can’t manage the housekeeping?’ He sneered. ‘I’ve never heard anything so absurd.’
‘It sounds unlikely, I know. And I’ve not told anyone before. But I do have money problems. Big problems.’ Maria’s voice was quavering. ‘This move is motivated by survival, Geoffrey. Financial survival. And not just for myself, but for my son.’ She stopped before saying more, annoyed by the tear rolling warmly down her cheek.
Frankton saw her tears but didn’t abate. ‘Survival? You’re seriously trying to tell me you couldn’t survive on ten to fifteen million dollars over the next five years?’
‘Of course I could. But I had no idea you’d offer me that. No reason to expect anything like it. You’ve turned down my pay requests twice before. You’re only paying me fifteen percent of the amount you’ve just offered. Only fifteen percent of my true market value! I’m paying you back with every waking minute of my life. And I’m made to feel guilty every time I want to spend a day with my son. Even his damn birthday.’
Maria’s anger was making her say things she’d meant not to, things she may regret. Quickly she changed tack: ‘I’m sorry, Geoffrey, but I have bigger financial problems than you can possibly imagine. I had to do something about them.’
Frankton’s short figure was immobile at the side of his desk. A hardness like bullet-proof glazing had come over his eyes. When at last he spoke, it was with an angry tremor: ‘If the transfer fee is paid, your notice period is three months. Apart from the Monday you’ve got the kid’s party and the gliding, no more days off.’ He looked at Maria accusingly. ‘I’ll have Security check everything you take home with you in the evenings – every little thing.’ He pointed towards the door. ‘You know the way out.’
Maria saw that Frankton’s hand was shaking, that he was on the brink of saying something else, and turned quickly to leave. Before she made it out the door, he snarled at her: ‘I put you up on the pedestal, Mrs Manfredi, and I’ll bring you down.’
* * * * *
The walk to the far end of the airfield calmed Maria’s nerves. After the atmosphere inside the hangar, so cold and tense, the sun’s warmth relaxed her limbs and the outdoors air was easy to breathe.
She found Dino at the launch point. He pointed his video camera like a gun at her head.
‘You really filming?’ Maria asked.
‘Filming everything you do,’ said Dino. ‘It’s just like Formula One.’
Maria grinned with amusement and walked to the shining white glider parked at the edge of the field. Every time she saw her Schleicher ASW20, she thought proudly – as an aerodynamicist and an aesthete – how beautiful it was: the narrow cockpit tapered like a sharpened pencil towards the nose, the wings were so long and spindly they drooped, the impossibly skinny fuselage stretched back to a high tail. She’d bought this machine with Scott for £40,000 six years ago. Back then, it was a sum they could only just raise for cross-country flying performance they couldn’t resist. Now, Scott earned that much every few days.
Maria opened the ASW’s canopy, pushing the long Perspex bubble up on its forward hinges so that it stood vertically on the tip of the glider’s nose. She dropped the parachute into the carved-out fibreglass seat, then put the air chart, radio and GPS down on top of it. She reached in to one side of the narrow cockpit, delved into an elasticated plastic pocket, and plucked out the aircraft’s Daily Inspection book. Opening the worn yellow cover, she turned for the page, and sure enough it was there: today’s date handwritten in a printed box and Scott’s initials scrawled next to it. The aircraft had been passed as safe to fly.
Maria eased the canopy back down, then turned to look for help in pushing the glider to the centre of the field. Dino was busy filming, but a few yards behind him two men sat on white plastic chairs placed outside the Log-Keeper’s cabin. One – about twenty, she guessed, with long dark hair and goatee beard, grey chinos and baggy white sweatshirt – had his head bent over a clipboard. He’d be keeping the club’s Flying Log, a detailed record of take-off and landing times. The other – closer to thirty, short-cropped blonde hair, faded blue jeans and black tee-shirt tight over a weight-lifter’s body – was watching Maria with interest, but the instant she looked at him he averted his eyes. She moved towards him. He got to his feet without looking at her directly and began to walk away.
‘Excuse me!’ Maria called.
The Log-Keeper looked up from his clipboard but the bodybuilder didn’t hear.
‘Hello there!’ Maria called louder this time, but still she went apparently unheard.
Maria ran up to the deserter and touched his broad shoulder with a friendly hand. He surprised her by spinning around.
‘Hi, I’m Maria.’ She smiled, reaching to shake his hand.
‘Yes?’ he asked abruptly, keeping his big hands down at his sides.
‘I’m sorry to bother you. Would you be kind enough to help me push my glider out to the launch point?’
The big man shrugged. ‘I’m sorry, I have to go.’
‘It’ll only take a minute. Please.’
The man hesitated, glanced past Maria at the lad with the flying log, then said, ‘What about him?’
‘Yes, I’ll ask him too. We need one person to hold a wing-tip and two to push the glider along.’
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I must leave.’
Maria was unsure whether this accent held foreignness or hostility. She decided not to let him go. She pointed to the centre of the short-cut grass airstrip, thirty yards away, where a man was crouching beside the cockpit of a single-seat glider and assisting its pilot with visual checks of the controls. ‘He’s the only one out here,’ Maria said, ‘and he’s busy running the launch. There’s no-one else around. If you don’t help me, I’ll be stuck on the ground until someone lands. Looking at the sky, that could be a while.’
‘Thank you.’ Maria gave another warm smile, but it didn’t melt the blue ice from the handsome man’s eyes.
As soon as the three of them had pushed the ASW into position on the airstrip, left of the other glider that was lined-up and waiting to go, the Log-Keeper straightened his back and groaned. The bodybuilder, showing no signs of exertion, turned to go.
‘Thanks!’ called Maria, before asking quietly, ‘Who’s he?’
The Log-Keeper shrugged. ‘Saw him here a couple of times last week, and the week before, but don’t know his name.’
Maria re-opened the ASW’s cockpit and lifted out her parachute. She slipped her arms under the top belts of the chute, shrugged the belts onto her shoulders and the chute onto her back. Bending to reach the lower belts, dangling behind her legs, she heard a small voice say, ‘It’s torn.’
Maria turned to face Dino, thinking it was a prank. He lowered the camera and looked at her with a straight face. ‘Your parachute’s got a small tear in it, Mum. I saw it when I was zooming-in.’
Maria slipped the backpack off her shoulders and studied it with a frown. Dino pointed to the lower edge of the parachute’s back cover. With a slender fingertip, Maria gently prised open the hole and saw that it cut deeply into the tightly-packed woven nylon fabric .
‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘I can’t fly with this.’ Then realised, in a wave of hot panic, that she couldn’t fly without it.
‘I’ll get you another,’ said Dino.
Maria had never anticipated this. Never thought she’d be forced to confront her superstition. Her mind was racing as fast as her heart, but Dino didn’t seem to know. He’d sprinted over to the Log-Keeper’s chair and lifted a club-owned parachute from the ground. Now he was handing the chute to her before she’d thought of anything to say.
‘Here you are, Mum. Not as new as yours, but you won’t need it anyway.’
‘It’s just a cushion,’ Maria said automatically, and found herself holding the club chute as Dino took her Butler 450 away. Then Dino was looking at her through his camera again – about to turn her private crisis of confidence into a humiliating public display. She could see the video tape on re-play, see herself handing back the chute and refusing to fly. Could see Dino and Scott and others gathered in front of the television and hooting with laughter as they watched the Mad Woman And Her Parachute Fobia for the umpteenth time.
Maria looked away from the camera and tried to clear her mind.
‘Better get ready, Maria. This one’s about to go.’ The Marshal was attaching the launch cable to the Pegasus glider alongside her. She saw its pilot staring down the grass runway in unblinking concentration, ready for his rocket ride into the sky. His eyes were focused on the steel cable that stretched from a small circular hook under the Pegasus’ nose to a big winch at the other end of the airstrip. In a minute he’d be 1,200 feet above the winch, releasing the cable, and it would be Maria’s turn to hook-up with the second of the two wires and go.
Maria could feel the adrenalin with her again.
She slipped the borrowed parachute onto her back, its unfamiliar weight pulling down on the broad straps across her shoulders. She clipped the parachute’s belts together and pulled them tight. Then she lifted one leg at a time over the glider’s side and lowered herself into the narrow cockpit. She wriggled in the seat until she was almost lying down. With legs fully stretched, both feet pressed firmly against the rudder pedals. The sides of the cockpit touched her arms and shoulders, the lower edge of the instrument panel was barely an inch above her knees, the canopy would close only a few inches above her head. As an aerodynamicist, she admired the uncompromisingly efficient use of space.
In a ritual that always reminded her of racing drivers being belted into their cars, Maria brought the straps of the six-point safety harness together: two shoulder straps, two thigh straps and two crotch straps clicked together in a circular metal clasp pressing tight against her lower torso. She pulled the belts so tight her torso couldn’t move.
The Pegasus glider beside her was now attached to the launch cable. From the far end of the airfield she could hear the giant winch motor pulling hard. The thick steel wire hissed through the grass, straightening and tightening and jolting the Pegasus forwards. Within seconds the glider was rolling along the short grass at fifty miles an hour and rising up into the air like a great white swan: slender neck first, then long wings, then fuselage and tail, all of its weight pulling against the cable hard.
Maria lowered the canopy over her head, slid the bolt back to lock it, and directed her thoughts to pre-flight checks. She was interrupted by a loud bang. Looking up quickly, she saw the steel cable snatch away from the Pegasus and kink into a bow like a great lasso. The long, silver wire hung in the air for a second, fell as if in slow motion, and hit the ground. With a dull thud, the impact raised a narrow line of dust down the length of the field.
‘Cable break! Cable break!’ The Launch Marshal barked into his radio.
At the other end of the mile-long strip, the rumble of the winch engine died. Now the only sound was of glider wings whistling through the air. The Pegasus’ nose, inclined so steeply for launch, rotated slowly back down. A few long seconds passed before the nose tipped below level. Airbrakes emerged with a clunk from the wings. With half the runway ahead of it, the Pegasus came sailing down to land.
‘Shit!’ said the Marshal. ‘Just what we needed. Bloody cable’s come down on the other one.’ He turned and looked at Maria. ‘Sorry. You may as well hop out. Unravelling this tangle could take a while.’
Conscious of the borrowed parachute digging into her back, Maria had an excuse for abandoning her flight. She could tell Dino this was one delay too many and now she had run out of time. She could tell him right now about the surprise birthday party waiting for him at home and they could both get into the Jag and go. She reached for the canopy lock release – then saw Dino filming and Graham bumping across the grass towards her in the yellow Citabria tug-plane, and reluctantly changed her mind. Maria rarely launched by aerotow, but she’d go that way today rather than sit here losing time.
As Graham lined-up the Citabria in front of her, Maria hurried the pre-flight checks. These should have included positive-control checks. She should have asked someone to loosely hold the glider’s hinged surfaces and confirm the directions of their movement as she operated the controls – but the Launch Marshal was fretting over the tangled wire, Dino was occupied with his camera, the sullen bodybuilder had gone, she was in a hurry, and Scott’s physio had told her that Scott had run those checks anyway. So she asked Dino to attach the 150-foot rope from the Citabria’s tail to the ASW’s nose, then the plane ahead of her was straining at full power and kicking up dust and the ASW following it down the grass runway, rumbling along on its single belly wheel. With a joyous skip the glider lifted from the ground. Soon Maria was looking down through the sides of the deep canopy at a patchwork of green fields, a landscape of irregular shapes sewn together by the wobbly dark green lines of hedgerows and trees.
The tug dragged Maria through a great circle, staying close to the airfield in case of a break in the tow rope. As they crossed the runway at 1,200 feet she looked down. Where the cable had fallen, three tiny figures were bent double, unravelling the mess. At the opened doors of the big, black-roofed hangar, the slender white cross of another glider was emerging. On the dirt road to the clubhouse, clouds of dust billowed behind a moving car.
Maria glanced forwards to check her position relative to the tug, then looked down again at the ground. The car was blue, medium-size. Difficult to tell whether it was a BMW M5.
Maria divided her attention between the yellow tug ahead and the blue car below – and as they passed right over the hangar at 1,300 feet she saw that the car was halted and the driver climbing out. It was Scott’s BMW M5. He walked to the long, narrow white box-trailer that housed their glider. Then he opened the trailer door and looked in. Maria wondered why he needed to do that when he knew the glider was already rigged.
* * * * *
Scott was surprised to find the glider’s box-trailer unlocked. That wasn’t like Maria. He was more surprised, when he pulled back the door, to see the glider had gone. Hearing the noise of the tug overhead, he craned back his head, looked up, and saw the ASW sailing along on the end of the rope. Hell! Not often Maria takes an aerotow. And he’d never known her go gliding after only a few hours sleep. But last night’s Formula One charter flight from Bologna hadn’t got into London-Heathrow until midnight, it would have been another two hours before Maria reached home, and this morning’s rigging would have taken her nearly an hour, so she must have been out the door again before seven.
Scott drove slowly down one side of the airstrip to the launch point, climbed out of the blue BMW, then stuck out his tongue. Dino chuckled, video camera unsteady in front of his face.
‘Happy Birthday, pal,’ said Scott, putting an arm around the boy’s shoulders.
Dino looked out from behind the camera, eyes gleaming in delight. ‘Scott! Great win yesterday. You had the race all to yourself. But Perfitti’s Marauder held you up for ages – do you think that was deliberate, him not wanting to be lapped?’
‘Not sure. Sometimes I think Perfitti’s malicious, sometimes I think the guy’s just a flake. But I could afford the delay. I’m tellin’ you, the car made it so easy for me. I only hope it’s going to be that easy all year.’ Scott squeezed Dino affectionately and looked approvingly at the new camera, expecting an explanation.
But the boy surprised him. ‘What was the emergency?’ he asked.
Scott paused for a moment, trying to understand. ‘What emergency’s that?’
‘The thing you were called away to. We weren’t expecting you back here until this afternoon.’
Maybe this was another of the kid’s little jokes. ‘What are you talking about, Dino?’
‘Whatever you had to go and do this morning after you rigged.’
‘I didn’t rig. I only just got here.’
Now Dino smiled as if this might be some kind of joke. ‘Your physio told us,’ the boy said triumphantly. ‘Your physio said you were belted in and ready to fly, then you were called away.’
Scott looked surprised. ‘Dave Wales told you that?’
‘I don’t know his name, but yes, he called Mum while we were driving here. He told her to fly the glider this morning, then you’d be back this afternoon.’
‘So you and your Mum didn’t rig the glider?’
‘No,’ said Dino with impatience. ‘It was ready at the launch point when we arrived.’
‘You’re not kidding?’
Scott turned away from Dino to face the Log-Keeper on the plastic chair and said, ‘The ASW that just launched. Know who rigged it?’
The Log-Keeper loked puzzled. ‘I was told you did, Scott. It was already out here when we arrived.’
Scott reached into a small wooden box on the ground beside the Log-Keeper’s chair and plucked out a two-way radio. A crackle of static as he switched it on, three bleeps as he clicked through the channels. Then his deep, clear Californian voice: ‘Golf Pappa, this is launch. Golf Pappa, this is launch. Do you read me?’
Scott waited but the radio brought back no reply. He asked Dino, ‘Your Mom got a radio with her?’
The boy nodded, then said, ‘She probably hasn’t switched it on. She only does that when she’s about to go cross-country.’
Scott repeated the radio message and waited again. He scanned the blue sky with narrowed eyes, turning his body slowly through 360-degrees, squinting more, turning again. After a long minute he caught his first glimpse of sunlight reflecting off two little dots several miles to the west, beneath a large cumulonimbus cloud. From the same direction, the drone of the Citabria’s engine came faintly on the wind.
Scott’s mind was racing. Only he or Maria ever assembled the ASW. Only he and Maria had keys to the glider trailer. Neither he nor Maria had rigged this morning. Yet the damn thing was out of the trailer and up there in the sky. If there was an explanation, he couldn’t think what it was. Couldn’t take any chances, not with someone else’s life. They had to check the glider for themselves. Maria had to be towed back to the airfield gently and instructed to land straight away.
Scott said to no-one in particular, ‘I’ll call the tug,’ and raised the radio to his face. That’s when he heard the Citabria’s distant engine note change. The tug pilot had cut the power. Maria had released the glider from its umbilical cord. She was on her own.
Scott hoped the worry didn’t show on his face. Once more he turned his back to Dino. To the Log-Keeper he said quietly, ‘I’m going to the clubhouse to find out who rigged our glider. I’ll take this radio with me so I can keep trying Maria. I’d appreciate it if you keep Dino occupied down this end.’
The Log-Keeper said, ‘Of course,’ but Scott was already gone. Glancing in the BMW’s rear-view mirror, he saw the uncomprehending face of an abandoned child.
* * * * *
Graham had flown the tug west of the airfield, dragging Maria six or seven miles upwind. All the way Maria felt ripples of thermic activity in the air beneath her, making the glider as buoyant as a boat on the sea. As the plane towed her beneath the great white bulk of a towering cumulus cloud, an updraft grabbed hold of the glider’s port wingtip and shook it vigorously. Maria stretched to reach a yellow plastic knob at the lower edge of the instrument panel, pulled it, then pulled it again to be sure. The hook under the ASW’s nose clicked open and the rope fell away.
As Graham cut the Citabria’s engine power and made a descending turn to starboard, Maria banked the ASW the other way. The thermal was exactly where she expected it, pushing up against her wings and seat with unfaltering strength. Glancing at the instruments, she saw the little black needle on the variometer dart eagerly upwards to plus-five: climbing at five hundred feet per minute. Not bad for starters. Not bad at all.
Maria kept the ASW banked in a tight circle, all the time turning and climbing, turning and climbing, gaining height with the invisible column of rising air. Soon the circling glider was climbing as fast as a powerful light aircraft, but she wasn’t satisfied; her hands fidgeted on the control-stick, her feet on the rudder pedals, constantly hunting the strongest part of the thermal, its misshapen core.
The higher Maria went, the bumpier it became. By 4,300-feet the long wings creaked as they bounced and the cockpit shuddered as if it were being dragged up a long flight of stairs. At 4,600-feet smokey-grey tendrils of cloud reached down at her, tentacles grasping for prey. In seconds the grey arms were swirling all around the canopy, blocking out the sun’s glare. If she wasn’t careful, she’d be sucked right inside the cloud and it would be like riding a bucking bronco in blinding fog.
Coming round to face east, Maria moved control-stick and rudder-pedals from left to centre, waited a couple of seconds for the long wings to level, then eased the stick forwards a fraction. Through the summer haze she could just make-out the airfield, a distant, faint green line. The altimeter was showing 4,800 feet, the air speed indicator 60 knots. The variometer needle was jammed at the top of its scale. The lift was so strong it was difficult to halt the climb. Maria pushed the control-stick further forwards, dipping the nose so the view out the cockpit was half blue-sky and half green-ground – but the seething air mass above kept pulling her in. She was so close to the cloud’s dark underbelly she smelt its moisture and heard it sucking in air. Another few seconds and it would swallow her whole.
With her left hand, Maria quickly pulled back the lever to open the air brakes, and with her right hand she rammed the control-stick forwards as far it would go. The stick banged against its forward-stop and the ASW’s nose pitched down. Now the view was mostly green. She held the nose-down attitude and dived. Air rushed howling over the canopy. Opened airbrakes whistled loud. The air speed indicator needle was winding up, the altimeter needle racing down. Already at 80 knots – 88 miles an hour – and accelerating hard. Maria kept the glider diving for five or six seconds, then craned her neck to look up through the big Perspex canopy into the sky above. All clear. With her left hand she pushed gently forwards on the lever to close the airbrakes; with her right, she pulled back on the control-stick to ease out of the dive.
That’s when she knew she would die.
The control-stick felt heavy at first, as she’d expected when pulling-up at speed. She held the stick nearly all the way back, arm straining against the weight of the load. G-forces pushed her down hard in the seat as the glider’s nose swung up towards the green-blue horizon then blue-white sky. Suddenly the stick was free of resistance in her hand and flopping against its back-stop with a metallic slap. In disbelief Maria looked down at the control. She quickly pushed the stick all the way forwards, then brought it back. Forwards and backwards again, movements fast and loose. All sense of connection had gone. Maria’s brain was working at hyper-speed, questioning everything she felt and saw. But of all the possibilities she quickly considered, she knew there was really only one: the metal rod connecting control-stick to elevator had sheared. She’d lost control.
The glider was still sailing nose-up into the sky. Rate of climb slowing. Speed ebbing away. Air noise over the canopy fading away. Maria watched in horror as the indicated airspeed fell to 45 knots . . . 40 . . . 38 – then the whole glider trembled in the pre-stall buffet. It was dead in the sky. An agonising wait, an eternity composed of two or three seconds, before the left wing was the first to stall and dropped like a great lump of lead through the thin air. The glider flicked onto its side then rolled onto its back, turning Maria upside down. Her head filled with blood. Her shoulders strained heavily against the straps. The glider was falling out of the sky, wind roaring around the canopy, her world upside-down.
As Maria screamed, the glider slipped nose-first into a steep dive. The left wing, by stalling and falling, had given the aircraft a lopsided momentum all of its own. Now it was diving and spinning at the same time, long white wings turning like two arms of a windmill tipped forwards through ninety-degrees. Through the front of the canopy Maria saw green fields rotating fast to the left. With a stomp of her foot she banged the right rudder-pedal forwards and pinned it there for what seemed a long time. The spinning slowed, then stopped. With a firm push of the left foot, she centralised the rudder pedal to hold the glider straight. But with the control stick slack there was no way of pulling out of the dive.
Maria checked the instruments with wide eyes: 3,700 feet and 95 knots. Her mathematician’s mind quickly gave her the bottom-line: altitude half-a-mile, velocity one-and-three-quarter miles a minute. Less than 30 seconds to impact. And going faster all the time.
Maria banged open the airbrakes to blunt the acceleration, then held still for a precious second to think. But there wasn’t anything to think about. The control-stick remained loose in her hand. She had to bail out. She released her right hand from the stick and twisted the heavy circular metal clasp on her lap. All six belts of the seat’s safety harness popped free. Quickly she reached to her left, slid back the canopy release lever, and went to push the canopy up on its nose. Then realised she shouldn’t be opening the damn thing, because it would blow shut again. She needed to jettison it. Angry and afraid, she reached to the other side of the cockpit and wrenched at a small red handle. Ping-ping-ping. Ping-ping-ping. One by one, the hinges broke free at the lower edge of the canopy directly in front of her. She placed both palms flat against the inside-top of the canopy to push it away. But the passing wind had made the great lump of curved Perspex too heavy. She pushed harder. Still no movement. She began to panic. She yelled. Then suddenly the kinks in her elbows straightened. The canopy lifted one inch, two. Stuck. Slammed back down.
This is the lid of my coffin, she thought, and it’s firmly closed.
Again pushing up against the heavy Perspex, Maria caught a quick glance through the front of the canopy. Solid green fields were coming at her fast. As she pushed she screamed, and as she screamed she thought: this will be the last thing I hear. The leading-edge of the canopy rose up a fraction, then a fraction more. A fine stream of cold air squirted her in the face. Suddenly the great length of Perspex snapped up from the glider’s nose. It swung back overhead with a dazzling reflection of sunlight, disappearing from view. The a sharp crack as it hit the glider’s tail.
Now the cockpit was open, air came rushing in, boxing Maria’s ears with its deafening roar, stinging her eyes, slapping her around the face, grabbing at her long black hair. Her vision instantly turned distorted and watery – but she could make out that the green fields were near. Moving like a panicked animal, she pulled her knees towards her. She needed to stand on the seat. Needed to stand to jump. But her shins caught the lower edge of the instrument panel and jammed. She forced both hands down between her thighs and the cockpit sides, gripped the seat, then wriggled and pulled her legs at the same time. The roaring air pushed against her so hard it was difficult to move.
Now Maria could see the edges of the fast-approaching field and the knobbly texture of tree tops. She knew it was too late but her instinct was to fight to the end. With a scream she summoned all her strength to one sudden movement and brought both legs back with a jerk. Her shins broke free of the instrument panel with two hot blasts of pain. She drew-up the top-halves of her legs in front of her face, pulling both feet onto the seat. She pressed her hand against the slender rim of the open cockpit and tried unsteadily to stand up on the seat. It was so difficult. She was almost all the way up, raising a leg to jump, when the wind knocked her back down. Falling against the seatback, the parachute dug into her shoulder-blades and something hard banged the back of her skull. The impact brought to her eyes a fizzing catherine-wheel of white light. Her arms and legs had turned to lead. Her mind was paralysed by the fuzzy idea that she should sit still until the pain and the Catherine wheel went away. Sit still until she could see the altimeter. Sit still until she could see if she was going to live or die. But she knew her life was over. In that moment of realisation she saw the face of Dino, more vividly than in a dream.
My poor boy – orphaned by my selfish stupidity.