I met Bert by chance, a few days after the season started. I was wandering back to the digs the leisure resort’s management had provided for the summer staff, when I noticed a pall of grey smoke pouring out of the propped-open door of a garage next to one of the Thirties houses I was walking past.
Thinking there was a fire taking hold, I rushed up the driveway and yanked the door fully open. I was just about to bellow something about the fire, when I heard a muffled curse, and caught a glimpse through the gloom of a blue flame being extinguished. The garage’s occupant, an elderly man in blue overalls, was standing and turning to face me. He was removing an old-style pair of welding goggles, and didn’t look too happy.
“Bloody hell, you scared the life out of me! What do you want?” he said.
“Sorry mate, I saw smoke and thought something was burning in here.”
“Just doing a bit of welding, you fool! Nothing to worry about.”
I was suppressing a giggle. The welding had grimed up his face, but the goggles he’d taken off had revealed ovals of clean skin around his eyes. At that moment, it was as funny a sight-gag as I’d ever seen.
“No, no.” I half-snorted a chuckle. “Sorry, it’s just that you look a bit like a panda now you’ve taken the glasses off.”
There was a little pause while he twigged what the strange man was talking about.
“Oh, I see. The eyes. I get it.” A little smile played at the corners of his mouth. Maybe now he wouldn’t hit me round the head with the nasty-looking welding implement he still held.
“Anyway, like I said, I thought something was on fire. I’m sorry I made you jump.”
The smoke was clearing now, and I could see more of the inside of the garage. It wasn’t a garage at all, more an immaculate workshop. Workbenches, vices, a big circular saw, a shadow-board on the wall, with every hand-tool in its place. A metal framework, looking a bit like the prow of a small boat, sat on the floor, with the welding gear next to it.
“Great workshop you’ve got here. My grandad used to have one like this in his shed.” I gestured at the frame. “What are you making, a boat?”
“No, it’s a flying machine. For the Birdman. I was just welding on the wheel-mounts.”
The penny dropped. The town was holding its first ever Birdman event on August Bank Holiday. I’d seen it in the local paper. Dozens of charity fund-raisers and traditional Brit-eccentrics would leap off the pier in their home-made, unpowered flying machines. Prizes were on offer – longest distance covered, longest time in the air, cleverest machine, silliest machine. The town’s council had realised how much trade similar events brought to other seaside resorts, and had decided to take a leaf out of their book.
“Oh yeah, I read about it. So that part is -”
“Fuselage. She’s nowhere near ready, of course. But I’ve got a couple of months yet, and I reckon she’ll be a beauty by then.”
We seemed to have reached the end of the conversation.
“Right, well I’d better leave you to it, then. Very nice meeting you. And sorry again for startling you”. I told him my name, he told me his – Bert. A quick, stilted handshake, and I was on my way. Turning left at the end of his driveway, I saw him retreat back into the shadows of the workshop.
I took on as many shifts as possible at the leisure complex, which meant I walked past Bert’s place almost every day. I would go past at all hours, and every time I did, he seemed to be working away on his flying machine. Daytimes, I’d see one of the doors propped open. Nights, the doors would be closed, but tiny chinks of light would shine out through the gaps in the wooden panels.
I would sometimes knock on the door, shout a hello, and crane my head around to look inside. Bert would always be working away on some part of the contraption, whether planing a length of balsa wood, nailing down a piece of canvas, or bolting on a wheel. We would chat. His demeanour was always friendly, but slightly reserved. I learned about his Army life, his subsequent career on civvy street, his retirement. But there always seemed to be something missing, something he wouldn’t mention.
One evening I suggested we go for a quick pint at the pub at the end of the road.
“Oh, thanks but I’d better not.” And saying that, he seemed to make one of those barely-perceptible sideways nods, in the direction of the main part of the house. Or did I imagine it?
I figured it out in an instant. He must be married to some domineering woman, who kept him on a tight rein, and wouldn’t take kindly to his disappearing down the pub. The poor sod had probably been unhappy for years, hen-pecked and marginalised, his only pleasure building strange stuff in his workshop-sanctuary. I understood now why he hadn’t mentioned her in our conversations.
“Well, I know you’re a busy man. But if you do fancy a beer sometime, just collar me when I’m walking past. I’m buying.”
The weeks wore on. I served meals to the tourists, cleaned their toilets, changed the linen on their beds, broke up their fights in the bar, sold them sunburn remedies in the shop, and saved their kids from drowning in the pool. I was exhausted. The end of the summer couldn’t come soon enough – not only so I could leave the place behind, but because I wanted to see Bert’s machine in action.
I dropped in on Bert the night before the competition. He was putting the final touches to the machine, which was looking fantastic. The colour scheme was gunmetal grey, giving it a militaristic look. Every part showed little touches of individualism and loving attention to detail. He had stencilled tiny, pretend rivet-heads along the wing surfaces and fuselage. RAF roundels and USAF stars-and-bars insignia adorned the wings. Fake exhaust outlets belched orange flame either side of the machine’s nose. On one side of the cockpit was a drawing of Betty Boop. On the other, a stylised, head-and-shoulders sketch of a cheesecake movie belle.
“It looks terrific! You’ve put so much work in, you deserve to win something.”
“Well, it’s not really about winning anything, is it? It’s the taking part, and all that.”
“What’s with the American references?”
“Knew some good Yanks when I was stationed in Germany.”
“Oh, I see. Have you given it a name yet?”
Bert looked away, his eyes skirting around the workshop.
“Of course she has a name. Always has, just haven’t painted it on yet. You’ll see, tomorrow. You are still coming, aren’t you?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Swapped my shifts and everything.”
August Bank Holiday dawned bright, with moderate winds and warm temperatures forecast. I wandered down to the seafront around noon, to give me time to grab some fish and chips, and check out the flying machines in the roped-off area at the foot of the pier.
I found Bert standing alongside his machine. He was peeling off his jog pants to reveal swimming trunks underneath.
“Nice day for it,” I said. “How are you feeling?”
“Looking forward to it.”
“Do you think she’ll fly?” I asked.
“Of course not, don’t be daft!” He smiled. “But I think she’ll swoop into the sea very nicely, though.”
“Need any help with anything?”
“No, that’s fine thanks, son. All going according to plan. I’m due on in about 10 minutes.”
“Great. I’ll go and get a good vantage point. Best of luck, Bert.”
I shook his hand and turned to leave. But then I remembered what I’d meant to ask. Turning back, I peered over his shoulder at the machine.
“What did you call it in the end? Spruce Goose, Enola Gay, Spirit of St. Louis? Something like that?”
“Gladys? What kind of name is that?”
Bert hesitated, then did that thing where his eyes look downwards and away.
“Gladys was my wife’s name. Passed away a year or so ago. Lovely lass, miss her like mad. Truth is, I’d been moping about a bit, sitting in the house, feeling sorry for myself. Then I heard about the Birdman, and thought I’d pull myself together a bit, and have a go.”
I managed to make it to a clear spot on the pier without crying my eyes out too obviously. I’d stammered and babbled away at Bert, saying how I wasn’t aware of his loss, how sorry I was, apologising in case I’d ever said anything to upset him without realising. But he dismissed me with a wave and a smile, telling me I’d best get a move on and find somewhere to watch from.
Under my breath, I cursed my insensitivity and my heartless assumptions. I had thought Bert was building his machine as an escape from an unseen, uninterested wife. But now I understood. She was gone, and Bert had built the machine as a tribute to her, lavishing his time and love on something carrying her name.
I’d dried my eyes by the time Bert stepped up. The loudspeakers announced his name, and that of the machine. The onlookers cheered, none louder than me. From the open cockpit, his legs dangled down to the surface of the pier. He shuffled the machine forward, shifting her axis round a little, pointing her directly off the launch ramp. Then he paced the machine backwards, giving room for a good run-up. At the sound of the announcer’s klaxon, he grasped the machine’s handles, and ran flat out with the contraption, before disappearing over the edge.
I’d love to tell you that Gladys defied the laws of physics, that she soared over this little English seaside town. But she ended up in the drink just like all the others.
But there was a moment, just one tiny instant, which would always stick in my mind. As Bert and his machine went off the side of the pier, I swear I felt little puff of wind blow through. I might have imagined it, but the wind seemed to catch Gladys’s wings, and keep her and Bert aloft for a tiny fraction of a second.
One thing I know I did see was the look on Bert’s face at that moment. A huge, ecstatic smile, his eyes full of joy.
I rushed down to the shoreline underneath the pier. The organiser’s people were helping a grinning Bert ashore, along with what remained of Gladys.
“I think she held up pretty well,” he said. “The starboard wing has had a knock, but the fuselage looks right as rain.”
I held a bath-towel around Bert while he changed out of his swimming gear. The organisers would take Gladys back to Bert’s garage in their van after the event had finished. We were free to go.
“Fancy a pint, Bert?”
He paused. And then smiled.
“Do you know, I think I do.”
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