Algebra

Tramway

Issue 2

In the Days of the Comet

by Ronald Frame

Listen to this piece in audio form

Ronald Frame

DE HAVILLAND COMET 4C.

I didn’t need the name written down like that to tell me.

The model sat in the window of a travel agent’s in Glasgow, one of a row of model planes.

BOEING 707, MCDONNELL DOUGLAS DC-8, VICKERS VC10, CORVAIR 990, BOEING 727.

And sixth, DE HAVILLAND COMET 4C.

The Comet was in its declining days, and yet it had a streamlined beauty and purity which, in my wisdom at ten years old, I felt that none of the others could match.

I would stand in front of the window, before my own reflection, admiring the grace of the Comet’s fuselage, the smoothness of the nose, the elegantly urgent thrust of the wings, the very British no-nonsense modesty of that upright tail (a little like a raised dander).

The early version had had square windows.  Now the windows were portholes, round or – more properly – very slightly oval.

I squatted down, on my hunkers, to gaze at the ingenuity of the double air-intakes ahead of the engines (De Havilland ‘Ghost’, turbojet).

An engineer in the making, anyone would have thought, seeing me so rapt before my object of devotion.

Such functionality, such élan, such glamour!

Each weekday I paid homage to the Comet, on my way back from school.

The strict routine I had developed meant that I did the same thing every twenty-four hours, but only once, going by one particular street in the early morning and another in the late afternoon.  I looked forward, anticipation bubbling inside me, to turning the corner into Bothwell Street - crossing the straight-grid road on a diagonal at a certain point - reaching the wall clock on the corner of the block which housed the travel agency.

Some days came the disappointment of finding I didn’t have the window to myself.  A person, or more often a couple, would have got there first.  They would be standing in front of the glass looking in at the posters, blocking my view of the Comet.  Why that plane, they might have been thinking as I lurked behind their legs, when any of the others were more modern, showier, longer-range than the Comet was allowed to be, inter-continental

I crouched, while they continued to stand and sometimes turned to look behind, to check on what I might be up to.  The details of transportation to those imaginary destinations on the posters didn’t concern them as they leaned into each other, the women (angling their ankles) in thin-heeled court shoes for the city streets, the men (as if able to ground them both) in business shoes or in brogues.  They feasted their eyes on the Trevi Fountain, on the Golden Gate Bridge, on the Taj Mahal. 

It didn’t greatly matter to them where the places were, only that they weren’t here.  They weren’t Glasgow, on a grey day of grainy light with a blown spit of rain just catching the plate glass of the window.  (Umbrellas, sir, madam?  Try instead the paper parasols in a Japanese temple garden, among the blossom trees.  All-time-is- one.)

There was my means of escape.  The Comet! 

At eleven years old I already knew every travel agency in central Glasgow.  Geography at school consisted of the red swathes on the map of the world, the British Commonwealth, countries thereof: that was our project work.  We had to steel ourselves to walk into those agencies, and ask for any ‘literature’ (the term had a nicely academic, high-minded ring) they might have about Canada, Australia, India, South Africa, New Zealand.  Some of the assistants would reach into their desk drawers before we could even clear our throats in preparation – ‘Which one are you after this time?’ – and a brochure or two would be slid across the desk top.

In another agency in St Vincent Street I had helped myself to a BEA catalogue of flight routes.  BOAC were giving up their long-haul services with the Comet, and the plane was now working alongside the Trident and Vanguard on certain European services.  The Comet was more intimate, and more luxurious by all accounts, than the other two. 

From a foot away, on the other side of the plate glass, down at sill level, with a faint chill from the pavement cement rising to my buttocks, I am picturing this slim steel giant pencil – not in these demeaning BEA markings, but in more exotic BOAC livery - cleaving the air at thirty five thousand feet, at its five hundred miles per hour cruising speed. 

The couple have gone, she on peerie-heels and he striking the pavement with his metal heel clips, and cars are running past, currents of noise which flow along the gullies between the slabs of sandstone buildings.  A face, not my own, is looking back at me through the glass, someone from inside, one of the male supervisors who has been summoned.  He is watching me with irritation, but nothing worse: he has better things to do with his time, he’s thinking, and why don’t I just sodding scarper, vamoose?

Okay, I will.

But I return.  Every weekday afternoon I’m there at the window, sprinting there now instead of walking, so that I have more precious time to spend with my love-object.  I sense each or both of the girls at the nearby desks tensing as the time comes for them to consult their compact mirrors, or to take vital but unnecessary walks across the office, so that they can observe me as they come back.  He’s here again, that creepy little kid – the boy in the ridiculous brown and gold uniform, dressed up like a stupid wee chocolate soldier.

Then one day it happens.

I arrive, just like yesterday, and the day before that.  I’m out of breath, but some discomfort only adds to the pleasure for me.  I head across the street towards the travel agency.  I know that I soon need to do another round of the rival agents, because Ceylon and Nigeria are among the next batch of topics in Geography.

I make straight for the second of the big windows.  The day is incomplete without a survey of the model planes on their stands, saving the best – of course – until last, at the end of the row.  I’m superstitious about the business, the precise order of the different stages in which I do things.

By this juncture my schedule is perfectly organised, I’ve got it off to the nth degree.   This, this, this, and finally THIS.  

Nothing is strictly owing to my parents, or to my fellow pupils, or to anyone except myself.

This, yes, is my consummate act of self-assertion, or possibly selfishness.

But I’m wholly unprepared for what happens now.  Or rather, for what fails to happen.

The Comet has gone!

There’s no mistaking the sequence: Boeing, DC, VC, Corvair, Boeing.  But instead of the beautiful Comet, the archetype, instead there’s a Caravelle in Air France colours.

A useless apology for a plane, the Sud Aviation Caravelle, which looks as if it was designed by different committees and all bolted together at the last minute, a typical French exercise in eccentricity, like their wonky madcap cars, and not even – as aircraft go – any more contemporary than the Comet.

I might have supposed that the Comet had been placed on display somewhere else – except that at the moment I was thinking it, one of the girls at the desks turned round and smiled slyly when she saw me.

I wasn’t mistaken.  For those long seconds as I stared back, she was bloody smirking.

I couldn’t believe it.

Perhaps my expression alarmed her, because she then looked away and resumed her work.  A fresh sheet of paper, then her fingers were busily sweeping over the keyboard of her typewriter, like speeded-up film.

It might have been just then, standing on the pavement on Bothwell Street, or it might have been at any point over the next few days that I realised, This here and now is not for me

I scoured the other travel agencies, on the pretext of soliciting some rare Ghana literature, but all the while I was searching for a glimpse of a Comet.

Not the model of the plane, which had only been a means to an end.

What I would have given for some BOAC literature, from any recent year, to show a Comet at full pace, with uniformed hospitality crew pampering the international clientele as silver oceans were crossed, red deserts traversed.  But it was almost as good to have this First Class mealtime (silver service, more or less) with – through the windows - the Alps visible, or that most personable business executive (jacket donned, white shirt very white and tie firmly knotted under adam’s apple and jutting chin) looking loftily down (down over the aerodynamic wing pinion tanks) at the glorious milky stone ruins of Ancient Athens.  (All-time-is-one.)

I enter the dream world on board this aircraft in BEA livery.  But while I’m thinking it, the dream world is not the one being conducted so graciously inside the cabin of the Comet – it’s the dull unreality which is taking place blurrily on a Glasgow street on all sides of me.

I can leave here for that other place any time I like, and no one – nobody at all – can prevent me.  In time it will stop being ‘that other place’, it will be the only where I was ever meant to be.

One Saturday morning.

I was trailing behind my mother, on a trek round the city-centre department stores.  The businesses she gave her custom to – or, rather, those shops which were willing to have her as an account customer – were whole blocks apart.

I noticed a young woman in the street, among the tide of strangers walking towards me.  She looked alarmed, for some reason.  Then I realised where I had seen her before.  I had seen her many times in fact, but usually from behind, and in her flannel uniform, seated at her desk with her back to the model planes ranged along the window sill.

Her features were fixed now in a kind of grimace.

I was quite happy that she should look at me with such distaste.  I wanted her to dislike me – to hate me, even.  That was fine by me, it suited me very well indeed.

But I was looking above her head, far above, into a providential blue sky.  Somewhere, if not quite here, a silver cigarillo was testing the coldness of heaven, dropping a vapour trail behind it.  In the best of worlds the Comet flew, the 4C – or even the fabled longer and wider 5 version-in-the-making, which will be scrapped before it can ever take to the skies on its sharper-raked wings, but why restrict life to the banality of facts?

Ronald Frame

Ronald Frame was born in Glasgow, and educated there and at Oxford. His most recent novel is Unwritten Secrets (2010). Many of his short stories have been broadcast, alongside his drama, on BBC Radios 3 and 4. Several collections have been published, with stories appearing regularly in newspapers and magazines in the UK and in the USA and Australia. Read more at his website carnbeg.com