Its engine cut, the light aircraft must have sauntered over the field into the line of pines where a wing broke against a trunk and Pierre was flung face down upon a mound of earth. I’d like to have seen it, but I missed the plane dozing, wings resting on the air like elbows flopped, its occupant tossed out before he could leap—it was my reading of the situation. I only saw the wing break and heard the thud ofPierre. The namePierreof course came later, when his wallet was found. You couldn’t have guessed that name from anything: not from his sack of a body, or the dark coat, far too hot for a summer’s day. Nor from the hair suggest ing the brown of apricot juice, nor the big feet with no shoes.
His mouth moved against the earth.
Hello, said Ben close to his ear. Hello, you could get hurt landing a plane that way.
Why do we go walking with Ben? I wondered looking at Angie, who was too shocked to speak. Because he can identify birds for us? Because Angie (so she told me) gets to look into those blue eyes and those Arabian desert good looks? Otherwise I don’t know why we do. We just do.
I looked at the wreck age of the fuselage held loosely by the pine branches; a section of instrument panel twirling below; a tartan seat-back propped neatly at the foot of a tree. Mind you, said Ben walking towards a place in the corn as he dialled for help, I’d hardly call that landing.
No, but is he hurt?
Hurt? Breathing. We’d best leave him as he is. I can’t remember when I last saw a man in a heap. Hello?
I once saw a woman in a heap: Helen. How my mind wanders—a proper story would get the paramedics here in no time, would soon find the pilot standing in a field of his own half a mile away, parachute spilling around him silkily and nylony, his business in ruins. But when do real times proceed like stories? Because what do I do, I go back twenty years to Helen fallen asleep on a Welsh beach, lost to gravity and heavy likePierre, but other wise not like him, pleasantly weary and fully dressed, in jeans and shoes, clamped to the wet sand.
Now you’ve seen this come from the sky, said Angie, you may believe other things.
I’ve got his wallet, said Ben. His fat black wallet. Let’s look before somebody gets here.
Why? I asked.
If he can drop down like that, said Angie, why shouldn’t a buffalo cross the living room. Why shouldn’t I meet a penguin in the high street on its way toAntarctica. It’s time for it. I’m not going to live long, I know I’m not. I could just walk into the fog one morning.
This isn’t helping you Angie, I said. We’ll go back as soon as we can.
His name is Pierre Bouchet, announced Ben. A lot of cards. Credit cards. Business cards. Some Scottish connection.
Don’t say he came all that way in that old plane?
From up north? It is old, isn’t it? A piece of junk really. Made in the days before every plane was a Cessna. What should we make of that?
Shouldn’t one of us keep contact to him? I said. Hold his hand? I will.
Last week, said Angie, we saw the postman with his red cart, going from grave to grave in the churchyard, didn’t we Paul.
Here’s a photo.
That’s enough Ben.
It’s a dog.
When Helen wasn’t lying pressed on the sand she said people with dogs were different somehow.
A French dog? said Angie hooking her hand into Ben’s arm.
They are both mad. I longed for the emergency services to come and put an end to the stupidities. I would tell them: I imagine the plane floated over the fields, because we heard nothing. Then we would forget these diversions for a moment and be imagining the plane sauntering over.Pierreopening the door wondering if he somehow should jump.
Isn’t it extraordinary, said Angie. Someone takes a photo of a dog, an image of a dog, and he carries the image in his pocket, the dog complete with his dog bowl or the garden he knows, this goes on journeys down roads, over bridges and through tunnels, flies miles high, over the fields, here into my hand, I’ve got the dog in my hand while the real live dog is somewhere completely different.
It is, I agreed. But we must put it back, along with everything else, into the wallet. Leave other people to draw conclusions.
It is very mysterious Paul. Dozens of people have photos of me, me being somewhere else and next thing, any time at all, they might crash and another kind of Ben will be standing there looking at me. I don’t know if I want my photo taken again. Once you have photos they’re out there, you can’t reclaim them all.
Help me turn him on his side. So he doesn’t swallow blood or something.
He’ll roll down, said Ben. I won’t take the responsibility. He looks comfortable enough. Let’s wait. He’s still breathing.
I wouldn’t be comfortable like that, said Angie. I never sleep on my front.
People do though, I said thinking of Helen. Helen lying on that sand for ever.
Where’s the pilot? said Ben.
What makes you so sure he isn’t the pilot?
There was nothing about flying in his wallet. He doesn’t look like a pilot.
I agree, said Angie. He looks so heavy.
The pilot’s gone, where is he, she?
Yes, said Angie, where is the pilot? Is it animal, vegetable or mineral? What a puzzle. Remember? Does anyone remember? On the radio.
It’s a serious question, said Ben.
If god is dog backwards, said Angie, what does it mean for this photo. That photo, give it to me. Is that god jumping in and out of a wallet, backwards.
Angie stop, I said. God is not in that wallet.
I know. But he’s hiding somewhere. Somewhere we’d never look.
Like where? said Ben.
Where? He’s a crow by a motorway. We just swish on by. Or he’s high in the clouds after all.
Possibly, I said quietly.
Playing poker dice with Anne Boleyn. I see these things. They’re swopping notes about their long hair. Look. There’s a handkerchief blowing down that track. See the red? Do you think it’s a handkerchief? Do you think it’s his? I’ll get it. Who’s coming with me?
Not me, said Ben. I’m going to look in the trees.
I’ll stay here. Angie, you be sure to keep me in sight. Then come back. Don’t go following things if you can’t see me. It isn’t a time to start flitting about the countryside.
I bent down toPierreand tried to remember some French.Pierre?
I remembered blessé. Douleurs. Entendez-vous. Was it entendez-vous moi or M’entendez-vous? Both sounded strange.
Nothing. His lips didn’t move. I held a stalk by his nose and imagined it moved.
Vous avez des … des … Q’est-ce qu’il y a?
Nothing. Still no one came. No helicopter chose a spot to flatten theSuffolkcorn. No vehicle sped up the track. No one in a high-visibility vest hurried with a folded stretcher.
Ben came with a pair of shoes.
They were under his seat, he said. There are two seats. No sign of a pilot. I took some photos.
Are you sure you told the emergency services everything?
Of course. Duty done. Where’s Angie?
Here I am. It was an oily old rag. I left it to a frog.
Feel his cheek, I said, it’s still warm. He is breathing.
Just, agreed Ben. Though it’s the opposite of heavy. It’s hardly the breathing of someone who’s been carrying a piano.
What piano, ah Ben, said Angie, I think I caught you being amusing. Naughty. I caught you.
Does everyone have to turn fanciful at a moment like this? I said. Where are those people?
Where? said Angie. When I die I want someone young and good-looking holding my hand. I would like a young man from somewhere I know nothing of, like theWest Indies—
Angie is convinced she will die soon, I explained to Ben.
—someone with the mystery of a whole other world, reminding me of I don’t quite know what.
I don’t know either, I said.
I wish I’d seen that plane float over. This would be a way to go. If it’d been me I might have missed the trees and gone on to the marshes. In with a flop. Or dropped with a yawl and a chinch on the shingle. I’d like that. Whatever the way they’d have to scrape me up, up from the mud, the road, the pavement.
I don’t want to go in the middle of summer, said Ben.
No, said Angie, these dragon’s-breath summers.
Call them again Ben. Christ, he must have been here twenty minutes.
You see, said Angie, you’re speaking to Christ.
Over there by the barn, two men coming.
Everything happening at once, said Angie. Just when I was going to try and talk toPierre. And you were talking to Christ. And Anne Boleyn is busy asking him why there are no shrimps in heaven. She loved shrimps. It was funny the way we were just walking along talking about birds and he happened to fly our way, monsieur in his glider—
Shitting in his pants no doubt, added Ben.
Yes, shitting in his pants, said Angie. And here he is.Pierre? His lips moved again, did you see.Pierre? You’re still here,Pierre. Say something.Pierre?
John Saul has had three collections of stories published (Salt Publishing, UK). Call It Tender was described by The Times as ‘witty and playful’, proof that ‘the short story is not only alive but being reinvigorated in excitingly diverse ways’. He has a website with more information at www.johnsaul.co.uk