First Things
By Leia Fee


Jeffrey Whyte sat quietly in the small cabin that passed for office, control room and general gathering space for the small airfield and watched the outside world slowly disappear as the night drew in.

Just as the windows had started to show the reflection of the room more clearly than the field outside, the door banged open and the last of the scheduled arrivals burst in.

"Jeez, s'only five o'clock and it's almost dark already!"  The pilot grabbed up a pen from the desk and startled scribbling in his logbook.  "Thought I was going to get a chance to brush up on my instrument landings for a while there."

"Yup.  You're the last one down."  Whyte retrieved the pen as it bounced on the desk and waved it in a farewell as the younger man hurried out again. 

"Night, Steve," Whyte said to the empty room.  Slowly he stood up, shaking his head.  "Always in a hurry."  He gathered the papers from the desk and limped across the room to file them away.  He checked the notices on the board, took down the two that had applied only to today then swept his eyes across the room, looking for anything he'd forgotten.  Satisfied, he headed to the door, clicked off the lights and made his way cautiously down the broken steps.  He really should ask one of the lads to fix that before someone broke their neck.

The cooling air outside had brought with it a light mist, turned into a yellowish haze by the marker lamps at the edges of the airstrip.

Whyte walked slowly towards the hangar where Steve had considerately, or forgetfully, left the lights on.  Watery light spilled out from the open door, casting strange shadows on the tarmac.

He made his way around the parked aircraft, checking that no one had carelessly butted a wing up against someone else's tailplane or overlapped props where they might tangle.

Suddenly the silence was broken by the clatter of feet and Whyte turned in surprise to see a small boy running full tilt along the hardstanding towards the hangar.  His shadow trailed long and dark behind him in the light from the hangar and he held a small model plane high above his head.  He came to an abrupt stop when he saw Whyte.  His cheeks were flushed red from his run and he stood and stared, like a startled animal poised between curiosity and flight.

They regarded each other and the boy's eyes strayed past Whyte's shoulder to the planes arrayed behind him.  After a few moments it became apparent the boy was not going to be the first to speak.

"Hello," Whyte said.

The boy stared at him.  "My nana says I'm not to talk to strangers."

Whyte nodded.  "Very wise.  What does she say about running round airfields in the dark?"

The suddenly guilty expression on the child's face made Whyte smile.  He was pretty sure he'd worn exactly the same one after being caught out as a child.  He nodded towards the model.  "I like your plane."

The child lowered the model in his hand to look at it.

Whyte smiled.  "I used to fly one like that."

The boy's eyes widened and he gazed up at Whyte with a searching look, as though he expected to be able to read all the secrets of flight in his face.

He opened his mouth as though to speak then closed it again and Whyte could almost see the questions tumbling behind his eyes as he decided which one to ask first.  He saw him look down at his crippled leg, with a child's unabashed inquisitiveness, then up to meet his gaze again as he settled on the most important question.

"What's it like?"  His fingers tightened about his toy as he spoke and the longing in his voice made Whyte sigh for the idealistic child he'd once been himself. 

Whyte took a seat on a bench which had once been a wing and the boy jumped up beside him, all rapt attention.

Whyte spoke slowly, considering his words, only half-certain himself of what he was trying to say.

"I can only tell you what flying is like for me.  You have to fly yourself to know what it is to you."

The child nodded immediately at that, as though it was something he'd already known.  Whyte watched him thoughtfully as he continued.

"It was something I always wanted to do.  Something I never stopped wanting.  I can't remember a single moment I've been on the ground when I wouldn't rather have been in the air." 

He saw the boy's eyes slide again to his crippled leg.

"I did that, landing with a big hole in my engine.  A deadstick landing is no time to lose your concentration and I flipped right over when I hit the deck.  Flying doesn’t forgive carelessness."

"My nana says it's too dangerous and I shouldn't keep on about it."

"Your nana may be right."  Whyte reached out his hand.  "Can I see your plane?"

The boy shrugged and held it out for Whyte's inspection. 

Whyte accepted it and gravely examined it.  "Did you make it yourself?"

The boy nodded.  "It took a long time--I'm not very good with glue and things, I kept having to start over.  And the painting went a bit wobbly.  The next one'll be better."

Whyte flicked the propeller with a finger and watched it spin.  "It's a good model."  He handed it back.  "You should be getting home before your nana starts to worry."

The boy jumped off the bench then turned back.  His eyes wandered across the hangar then back to Whyte.  "I do want to fly.  More than anything."

"Then if you work hard enough for it, you'll get there."

The boy nodded once then spun and spread his arms and chased his shadow back out into the evening, leaving the hangar seeming oddly quieter than before.

Whyte sighed and closed his eyes, wondering whether he'd done right.  "Should I have lied to him?" he asked the silent planes.  "Told him to listen to his grandmother and stay on the ground where it's safe?"  He shook his head.  "He'll fly through fire, that one.  He's got the passion for it." 

Slowly he climbed  to his feet and limped towards the door.  He shut off the lights, and fumbled in the darkness for the handle to swing the heavy hangar door closed.

--The End--

Based on First Things First by Gill Rob Wilson.  The illustration is mine.  The poem isn't.

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