Kingdom of the Sky
By Beverley Eikli
The morning sky was clear. No wisps of cloud that heralded the daily summer storms, Stuart was relieved to note as he killed the engine of his battered Land Rover in front of Maseru’s deserted corrugated iron Flight Terminal.
He was also glad to see that Philemon, the local Masuto boy who did his refuelling, hadn’t arrived. After the news Stuart had just received—shouted to him by his boss through a car window two blocks away—he needed a few moments to pull himself together.
But the urgency to get going without any further hold-ups soon had him leaning over the back seat to retrieve his leather navigation bag, though as his hands were still trembling he waited a few more minutes and stared at the treeless mountains rising up from the yellow plain like two sentinels.
Finally he dragged himself out of the car, the sweet mountain air cooling his heated cheek. Just to have one thing go right would be nice he thought at the very moment he took in the crazy angle of his blue and white Piper on the airstrip.
He strode forward, resisting the urge to curse and shout. A flat tyre was not a disaster, but the knock-on effects could make it one. In fact, it had the potential to inflict on him a fourth cold and soulless winter, sleeping alone in the single bed he occupied in a lodging house in the capital of this tiny, splendid mountain kingdom that had attracted him by its remoteness but that was slowly sending him mad with loneliness.
A rock pigeon distracted him but as his gaze returned to the crumpled rubber of the disabled plane, there was no escaping the fact that for a man in a hurry, Stuart was going nowhere.
He weighed up the repercussions. His two passengers might not make it to the diamonds fields before the weather rolled in. That was the least of his concerns. So was the inevitable frustration of the Public Prosecutor in Maseru awaiting the text for the medicine murder preliminary investigation Stuart was to pick up from the District Commissioner in Mokhotlong.
Stuart’s latest set-back just felt horribly personal, as if the Gods had singled him out as the object of some cruel and merciless joke to test his breaking point.
The single kernel of hope that something good might happen today depended upon making it airborne on his second take-off from Mokhotlong before the storms rolled in, as they inevitably did during early afternoon at this time of year. Come hell or high water, Stuant intended being where he’d promised to be tonight: at the Maseru Country Club.
As he threw his bag and jacket into the plane, he did a quick calculation of his flying time. Even if he were to factor in the slimmest margin of a hold-up in Mokhotlong before he was to carry on a further one thousand feet to the diamond fields of Letseng-la-Terae, it was touch and go.
‘Bloody marvellous!’ he muttered under his breath as he began his walk-around.
‘And why is it marvellous to have a flat tyre, Morena?’
Philemon’s voice floated down from the wing where he was crouched, topping up the Avgas. He must have hopped up when Stuart was fetching his nav bag. ‘I think it is a very bad thing to have a flat tyre, Morena, because with a flat tyre, how can this plane then fly?’
Stuart kicked the good tyre. ‘It’s called irony, Philemon.’ He breathed in the cold mountain air that frosted in an angry cloud as he added, ‘It’s anything but a ‘marvellous thing’ to have a flat tyre.’
‘What will you do now, Morena?’ The skinny lad leaned precariously over the wing, cupping his ear.
‘What will I do?’ Stuart chuckled without mirth. ‘No, not me, but you, Philemon.’ He brushed back the troublesome curl that refused to submit to the brylcream he applied when he woke up feeling extra hopeful—ironic, considering how today was panning out. ‘You, Philemon, will fetch your bicycle and ride over to Mr Pretorius’s house and fetch our esteemed and reliable engineer.’
Ignoring Philemon’s horrified and mutinous expression, Stuart continued his walk-around while he reflected on his boss, Dan Green’s rushed excuses as to why there was yet another paperwork delay that prevented Stuart taking the twin-engined Dornier rather than the single engine Piper up to the mountains.
He flicked a glance in Philemon’s direction. The boy was still crouched on the wing, his lips pressed tightly together with concentration—though he might have been sulking—as he siphoned the last of the fuel from the 44-gallon drum. One bony arm clutched his darned yellow cardigan about him as he shivered in the cold, a snail’s trail of snot running down his dark skin like a silver ribbon.
A marvellous thing, indeed! Stuart muttered, wishing there was something marvellous to look forward to. For four years he’d lived in the British Empire’s most remote outpost, alone and, until now, uncomplaining. Yesterday, buoyed up by the promise of twin-engine flying time that would enable him to build the hours he needed to advance his flying career, he’d asked Helen Maxwell, the Resident Commissioner’s pretty new secretary, to join him for a drink at the Maseru Club. Tonight. Unless that tyre got fixed in a hurry, that didn’t look likely to happen.
He dashed the contents of his fuel sample onto the ground and swung around. ‘Pronto Philemon!’ he snapped at his reluctant employee though he wasn’t entirely without sympathy. Johannes Pretorius would be a frightening sight for anyone who roused him from his bed before noon.
‘What if he’s not in his bed?’ the young Masotho hedged, his eyes looking huge in his pinched face as he screwed on the fuel cap.
Philemon had a fair point. The last time someone had gone in search of Pretorius—it had been Philemon then, too—the lad had found the old drunkard passed out in the smoky shebeen where he liked to fraternise with the locals.
‘If he’s not in his bed you know where to find him.’ Stuart glared at the troubling sky. The cumulonimbus cloud was building fast. ‘Just make sure you get him back here so he can fix that tyre. Understand?’
Philemon hopped to the ground. ‘Yes Morena,’ he replied with more resignation than mutiny as he crunched across the yellow grass towards his bicycle. But he perked up when Stuart called after him that there’d be two shillings for the lad if he could get Pretorius to the air strip within twenty minutes.
It would be a well-earned two shillings, too, for if Stuart wasn’t airborne within half an hour the inevitable thunderstorms meant he could kiss his weekend plans goodbye instead of the girl he hoped to share them with.
A little less than an hour later a more hopeful Stuart greeted his two Basotho passengers who were waiting for him in front of Drakensburg Air’s air terminal, now operating as a Departures shed. Flying conditions were good, he told the men following introductions, and with no further delays he estimated he could make his first scheduled stop at Mokhotlong, followed by the diamond fields of Letseng-la-Terae, and be back in the lowlands before the afternoon storms scotched his plans.
That would give him ten minutes to shave and splash on a liberal dose of English Leather before putting his best foot over the threshold of the Maseru Club.
Young Philemon had found Pretorius sleeping in his own bed and the engineer, with ill grace but commendable efficiency, had just finished changing the tyre and departed with a surly farewell.
Suddenly the sky above suggested a panorama of possibilities. Stuart reassured the grizzle-headed miner and anxious-looking police trooper of a short though bumpy flight while his mind, for a change, was occupied more with the pleasures he hoped he could anticipate tonight, than with the mechanics of the machine that had obsessed him since he’d been in short pants.
A man needed more than a plane for company and he was sure he’d not imagined the gleam in Miss Maxwells’s eye when he’d cornered her on the steps of the Resident Commissioner’s office during their chance meeting the previous day and offered to buy her drink if she pitched up at the Club tonight. Not a date, exactly, but close enough.
‘Eh, Morena, look!’
Stuart turned at Philemon’s excited cry. The lad had picked up his bicycle that had been leaning against the tin shed housing the fuel drums and was now hopping excitedly from foot to foot, stabbing his finger at the sky.
‘Big plane, Rra,’ remarked Moeketsi, the older of Stuart’s two passengers as he shaded his eyes and the gusting wind tugged at his patched and ragged shirt. Behind him Stuart could see the town of Maseru which straggled towards the mountains, a cluster of rondavels and government administration buildings. His now serviceable plane perched proudly on the runway silhouetted against a backdrop of three treeless mountains referred to by the white residents of Maseru as The World, The Flesh and The Devil.
Reluctantly, and painful though it was, Stuart forced himself to transfer his gaze from his faithful Piper to the shiny vessel that glinted above them, an unusual sight in Maseru airspace.
‘Eh! Will it land here?’ asked the younger man who looked not much older than Philemon though he was dressed in the brown wool trousers, coat and slouch hat of Basutoland’s troopers. His eyes looked enormous in his young, pinched face. ‘That plane’s bigger than this one, eh, Rra? What do you call this plane that makes such noise?’
‘A South African Airways 707.’ The excitement that had consumed Stuart at the thought of squiring the RC’s pretty secretary tonight was replaced by a reluctant yet desperate thrill at the sight of the jet, curdled with longing. South African Airways had received their first order for the new jet just over a month before. ‘It must be making a detour for some reason. It’s certainly off-course.’ He tried to keep his tone neutral as he encouraged his admiring passengers towards the Piper. He was lucky, he reminded himself. He would never have had the opportunity to soar above the skies in normal times. Thank God for the war. ‘No, they won’t land here. The Maseru strip isn’t big enough.’
Philemon caught up with them, wheeling his bicycle, and said something in Sesotho to the young trooper, Moses, as he drew level. The two men guffawed.
‘Will you fly the big plane, Rra?’ Moses asked, stopping abruptly at the steps of the Piper to look upwards once more. ‘Philemon says only the big men fly the big planes.’ His tone was ingenuous.
Stuart put a hand on the back of the lad’s brown coat and used a little gentle force to guide him up the steps and into the plane. ‘That’s the plan,’ he muttered, trying hard not to go over, yet again, the implications of the gutting news he’d received from his boss earlier that morning. Big man, big plane. Surely one day if he were patient enough, daring enough, it would happen.
Reluctantly Moeketsi shambled up the steps and when the two men were seated Stuart slammed the door, tossing his weatherproof jacket onto the right hand seat before coming round to check his passengers were buckled in.
This was the first time Moses had been in a plane, Stuart suspected, for he’d not flown him before on his regular flights to the diamond diggings where the young trooper was obviously about to start a two-week rotation keeping law and order amongst the three resident miners living in the shanty town.
‘We’ll have you back on the ground in no time, Moses, I promise,’ he reassured him over his shoulder as he climbed in. ‘It’s only an hour to Mokhotlong and then another thirty minutes up the mountain to where you’re going.’
As Stuart nosed the Piper up towards the Maluti Mountains, blue-tinged and beautiful as they rose up from the yellow plains thirty miles away, the cocktail of worry, anticipation and disappointment dissipated and he felt free again.
This was where he felt most at home: at the controls though preferably without nervous passengers.
At a thousand feet the bone-rattling turbulence kicked in and it was a struggle to keep his stoic little Piper on course. He imagined the smooth run those lucky bastards flying their 707 would no doubt be taking for granted and he steeled himself against the poisonous envy that threatened to rip the heart out of living if he let it. Right now, the contrast between his lowly position on the aviation pecking order, and where he wanted to be, had never seemed greater.
In his peripheral vision he saw a vulture suspended in the air, encompassed by a panorama of treeless mountains as far as the eye could see, and he reminded himself that this very sight had been balm to his soul when he’d returned as a young man to the country he’d left so reluctantly when still a boy.
Yes, he was the lucky one. Most of the lads he’d grown up with were cadging what labouring jobs they could, or were behind bars.
He was the one who’d escaped.
The ground was a long way beneath them before his two passengers in the back got over their first-timers’ nerves and started talking. Since they spoke in Sesotho Stuart paid little attention, though he was familiar with the word ‘diamond’ which peppered their conversation.
The irony wasn’t lost on him. Diamonds offered these local men the possibilities that joining the jet age offered Stuart. Perseverance and a good dose of luck were all that was needed, he thought with another stab of irony.
‘So you found a diamond, Moeketsi?’ He tried to shake off his mood by joining the conversation. Adjusting the mixture so the engine ran more smoothly he twisted his head to take a more considered look at his passenger. A prospector had to be lucky to find anything at Letseng-la-Terae, the barren diamond fields where they were headed. Only the very lucky would be able to afford the ten pound air fare for the short flight there from Maseru.
‘Eh, Rra, it was a big one!’
Six months ago, Moeketsi told Stuart and Moses, he and his wife, Mabel, had sold all their sheep for some sifting equipment and a pick and shovel. It had taken them days to journey by foot up the bridle path, the only means other than flying to reach the diggings at the top of the mountain.
There the couple had joined the ranks of ragged miners who toiled with pick axes and sieves through baking heat in summer and thick snow in winter in search of the riches that were considered too difficult to access commercially when the area was surveyed.
Moeketsi scratched his grizzled head and grinned as he repeated the parting words of the more sceptical of their family: Mother and father, you are chasing a dream.
But after weeks of hard labour the dream came true, said Moeketsi, for they had found a good sized stone which a visiting diamond buyer from Johannesburg had taken in exchange for a sum that had at first seemed incomprehensible; but, said a more blasé Moeketsi, was nothing compared with what they would earn in the future.
Stuart was not one to begrudge anyone a good return on his hard work though he wouldn’t have minded some of his own just now. He wondered if Moeketsi had a white business partner. The diggings consisted of small claims, roughly thirty feet square, which only citizens of Basutoland could register but Stuart knew of whites who partnered with the locals to share in any possible good fortune.
‘Do just you and your wife lease the claim?’
‘Just me, Captain!’
‘So what will you do now that you’re a rich man?’
Moeketsi reeled off a string of Sesotho, his voice growing increasingly high pitched while Moses guffawed with laughter before translating that Moeketsi’s wife now wanted peacocks instead of goats.
Peacocks meant status, of course, Stuart understood, as Moeketsi added that soon they’d move out of their mud and dung thatched hut and into a fine brick house in the lowlands with peacocks strutting over green and manicured gardens. That was what his wife desired, he said, and Moeketsi would be happy to please her.
The Piper had reached altitude and the turbulence had subsided at last as Stuart congratulated him, though he knew that without any knowledge of finance Moeketsi and his wife would not be the first forced to return to their humble beginnings when the money ran out. In all likelihood, Moeketsi and Mabel would squander their unexpected largesse on peacocks and generosity to their relatives, just as Stuart’s father had squandered his on drink.
Moses shifted in his seat to peer through the window as Stuart altered direction. ‘This is a very little plane, Morena, not like that other one.’ He tapped the glass as he stared at the jet contrail which appeared to Stuart like a smug reminder of the 707 that had long since left them behind.
‘But it can go more places than that big plane,’ Stuart countered, turning to look over his shoulder. The admiration in Moses’s bloodshot saucer-sized eyes was not helpful to his current mood and the devastation of the news he’d received earlier that morning washed over him again.
Had Dan made up the excuse that the delay with his checkout on the Dornier was simply due to a ‘paperwork issue’? Stuart considered himself more than just a competent pilot. In four years of challenging mountain flying he’d never lost his way or crashed. Not that that would make him a bad pilot. The aviation old-timers in these parts dined out on tales of crash landings and horror near misses that had made them legends in their own lifetimes. Perhaps the more precise and cautious Stuart hadn’t passed some similar test of his prowess before his initiation was complete. Was that what Dan required before he was prepared to give his youngest recruit a chance at the next rung of the ladder?
‘Big is better,’ Moses remarked sagely.
Moeketsi was still caught up in visions of his own success. ‘Big is better,’ he agreed. ‘Peacocks are better than goats, says my wife. Only rich men can afford peacocks and everyone admires a rich man. Do you have peacocks, Captain?’
Stuart snorted. ‘Even if I were the richest man in the world I’d not have peacocks. You must tell your wife that peacocks are vain and difficult creatures. I’d rather put my money into something that will bring me even more wealth.’
He shot another grin over his shoulder at Moeketsi’s condescending smile which suggested that of course Stuart wouldn’t know what to do with money when he didn’t have any.
Which was absolutely true. Stuart had less than a hundred pounds in his bank account. Now, it would seem, there was not even the possibility of a glittering future as a jet captain to entice Miss Maxwell if matters should progress to the romantic.
Gloomily he reflected on the truth of Moeketsi’s words. The proud miner was describing the size of the diamond saying that because of it, none of his six sons would break stones five hundred feet underground in the gold mines around Johannesburg where so many Basotho earned the money they sent home to feed their families in Basutoland.
‘You are not as rich as I am, Captain, that is true,’ Moeketsi said, after a pause. ‘But if you fly the big plane you’ll be a big man. Then you’ll be rich and you can buy your wife peacocks because even if you don’t want them, she will.’
Stuart didn’t reply. Flying a jet had been his dream for as long as he could remember. He’d taken his first flying job with Drakensburg Air in order to build his hours quickly and then to get some twin time on the Dornier which, with the two Piper Tripacers, made up the operation’s small fleet. He’d calculated, when he first arrived, that he’d be out of this bleak, windy Colonial outpost within three years.
‘The man who flies the biggest plane can afford the fattest wife, eh Morena?’ Moses giggled.
The young trooper was little more than a schoolboy and Stuart was ready to humour him and change the topic from planes to women. ‘When I’m flying the big plane I’ll have the pick of the ladies, Moses. You tell your friend Moeketsi that in three years’ time when he’s a rich diamond trader travelling the world, I’ll be flying one of those big planes if he’s brave enough to get onboard.’ Though he felt far from light-hearted, he forced humour into his tone. ‘But if we’re talking of women, I’m not looking for a fat wife but rather a beautiful, slender one with long glossy dark hair, high cheek bones and sparkling eyes.’ He hesitated as he allowed his imagination to run away with him. ‘Unfortunately my first choice has already been taken.’
‘Ach, shame, Captain! And who might your first choice have been?’ Moses enquired politely.
‘Then she has made a great mistake, but perhaps that is not a bad thing for you because a fat woman makes the best wife, Captain,’ Moeketsi said. ‘You must try one. But maybe after you are flying the big plane you will persuade Miss Hepburn to marry you. Then you can take a fat wife for wife number two.’
Stuart could tell Moeketsi was serious but he merely grunted, reflecting rather dismally that in fact the only woman he ever had ‘tried’—though she had in fact hurled herself at him—had been exceptionally large. Magda Marais, the formidable wife of one of the Afrikaans building contractors, admired for her Rubenesque figure, her brash confidence and her rich and delicious koeksisters, a syrupy South African delicacy, had taken Stuart under her wing during his second year in Maseru after they’d been introduced at a drinks party hosted by Charles Tremain, the Mokhotlong-based District Commissioner.
Memories of Magda made Stuart squirm for although neither had been in love, he’d grown fond of her once he’d got over the shock of learning that the older woman’s interest in him was far from maternal. Magda had been, in fact, fifteen years older and Stuart, as a raw twenty-one year old, had found her initial insinuations that he needed a tutor in the art of carnal delights, embarrassing.
In the end he’d given up and let her have her way. After all, it wasn’t as if he had any other offers to consider.
‘When you are a rich pilot flying a jet you can afford even more than two wives, eh, Morena?’ Young Moses was getting cocky.
‘One wife will be enough, thank you.’ Stuart gave a short laugh, not without bitterness given his current situation. ‘Two would be far too much trouble and that’s not considering the expense.’
‘What man would not want to buy two wives if he could afford it?’ Moeketsi asked over the top of Moses’s boyish sniggers.
‘A man who knows how hard it is to keep just one woman happy.’ Stuart laughed, wondering if he could relay this conversation to Helen tonight and whether it would amuse her.
‘But it is the job of the wives to keep the husband happy,’ Moeketsi corrected him.
‘One woman is all I need to make me happy.’ Just one woman. Stuart’s recent trip to London had reinforced the fact he didn’t want an English wife who’d get homesick for a country he’d be quite happy never to set foot in again.
He hoped Helen Maxwell, who hailed from Pretoria, might share the enthusiasm of Lizzie Cameron, the sweetly enthusiastic little dumpling he’d taken dancing in London. Lizzie, an Australian nurse working at Grey’s Hospital, had insisted that Stuart looked like British heart-throb Bryan Hyland whose latest single had just soared to the top of the charts. She’d been so sincere and so clearly smitten he’d nearly asked her out a third time. But Lizzie was the sort of girl who’d be easily encouraged and he’d not wanted to get her hopes up. Plump with bouncy blonde curls and baby blue eyes, she just wasn’t his type.
Helen, on the other hand, with her silky reddish-brown shoulder-length bob, her self confidence and the knowing look in her sparkling green eyes, most definitely was.
The peaks were high on all sides of him now but the widening gap of blue sky through the windscreen fuelled Stuart with optimism.
He’d make it to the Maseru Club after all and if the maid had washed and ironed his blue shirt—the least threadbare around the collar—perhaps he really could persuade Miss Maxwell that he had prospects. That one day he’d fly the big plane.
Stuart’s Basotho passengers had lapsed into silence and as the Piper reached ten thousand feet Stuart’s hopes for the future were reinvigorated. Thwarted ambitions aside, this was one hell of a view. Deep gorges hugged by rugged, treeless mountains disappeared beneath a glowering sky as far as the eye could see. As a little boy with a big imagination, Stuart had dreamed of leaving the squalor of the slums where he saw little beauty beyond the snow-laden fir trees on the lids of the chocolate boxes his mother had received from Stuart’s father each Christmas.
Stuart’s ideas on beauty, and a great many other things, had changed when he’d first come to Africa. Africa offered sanctuary and adventure. Still, though, Stuart yearned for what he’d never had growing up. He’d discovered it in the warmth of the family who’d taken him in as an evacuee during the war until the terrible accident that had robbed him of their love five years ago.
Love. It’s what Stuart had been looking for ever since. Topped with a healthy dose of success and the respect that came with it.
By the time Stuart put the Piper down on Mokhotlong’s short dirt runway en route to Letseng-la-Terae he was well on schedule.
‘Cold as charity, eh?’ Charles Tremain, Mokhotlong’s District Commissioner raised a hand in greeting as he leant over the gate that separated the garden of the handsome stone Residence from the airfield. Behind him, the tiny community of Mokhotlong was bordered by mountains, dark and ominous storm clouds roiling above.
‘I never did understand that expression.’ Stuart pulled his head back in and jumped to the ground, hailing the luggage unloader as he strode over the yellow grass towards the DC. On this crisp early summer morning Tremain looked his usual dapper self. His smooth dark brown hair was unpeppered by grey and his pale blue eyes were bright. He hadn’t let himself go like some grieving widowers, though of course he was in the fortunate position of having three household servants to look after him, Stuart reflected, taking in the DC’s clothes, conservative and hardly new, but carefully pressed.
A collection of local children gathered around the plane, chattering excitedly as they inspected the luggage pod and poked their noses into the interior.
‘Never really thought much about it.’ Tremain shrugged. ‘I suppose the poor aren’t used to warmth in general and there’s more pleasure in dishing out charity than receiving it.’
Stuart knew there was truth in that. He blew on his ungloved hands. ‘It was bitter earlier. I had a flat tyre but Pretorius had us going again in record time and we’re back on schedule.’ He felt sorry for Tremain who, from all accounts, had taken the recent death of his wife badly. Not that he knew him well, but he seemed a compassionate man who had a reputation for being a fair and respected administrator.
‘Back on schedule? Good… good. You’re after this, of course.’ He handed a thin file to Stuart. ‘I also hoped you could make another quick stop here on your way back from Letseng-la-Terae.’ Tremain smiled pleasantly and puffed on his pipe as he stared at the mountains.
‘An unscheduled stop?’ The request took Stuart by surprise and irritation bubbled up inside him. He was glad Tremain had turned his attention to directing one of the Basotho prisoners, clearly identified by his red and white striped jersey, to a tree he wanted watering in his garden on the other side of the fence.
Too late to see the workings of Stuart’s face, the DC turned back to him. ‘Philippa is on tomorrow’s flight from Bloemfontein to Capetown,’ he continued. ‘She was supposed to go down the Sani Pass with Mr and Mrs Lehman yesterday but she’s had a nasty cough. I’d be much happier if you flew her down.’ He knocked out his pipe and refilled it with single-minded concentration, missing Stuart’s thunderous glare. When he raised his chin to smile again, the small gold filling in his eye tooth reminded Stuart with a pang of his foster father. James Franklin would have been about twenty years older than Tremain. He was the one man Stuart would have walked to the ends of the earth for. If he’d only asked.
‘That would be awfully good of you, Stuart.’ There was more persuasiveness in the DC’s tone than before. ‘And if it’s not too much trouble, perhaps you wouldn’t mind driving Philippa to the Lehmann’s after you land in Maseru.’
Stuart glanced at the residence then pointedly at his watch. ‘Maybe Philippa’s ready now. I could wait another five minutes.’ He didn’t care he sounded terse.
Not that the DC seemed to notice. ‘Oh, I don’t think she’s ready. You know women. However I’ll make sure she’s waiting at the strip if you buzz the house. I believe you’re going down empty from Letseng-la-Terae and it surely won’t put your schedule out too much if you do another quick pickup here instead of flying direct from the diggings?’
Stuart glanced again at the storm clouds. ‘Fuel will be tight and weather could be a problem. I calculated I’d only just be ahead of it if I flew direct to Maseru from Letseng-la-Terae.’
‘If the storms roll in early you can stay in the guest rondavel and fly Philippa down first thing in the morning. Brenda at Drakensburg Air said you had no flying scheduled after this run until the day after tomorrow.’
‘No, there’s nothing scheduled.’ But that wasn’t the point. Stuart kept a lid on his simmering resentment as he tried to formulate a reason as to why he couldn’t accede to the DC’s request. Yes, it was true he was back on schedule but the gathering cumulonimbus could change that in an instant and Stuart was not going miss out on his drink with Helen and all the possibilities that might follow just because he was required to ferry the DC’s precious daughter like the Queen of Sheba to wherever she wanted to go.
Tremain flicked a piece of ash from his expensive though well-worn Savile Row houndstooth sports jacket. ‘Philippa was very keen to go down with you today and I don’t want to disappoint her.’
Stuart took a careful breath so that his words came out with the right tone. His father would have accused the DC outright of relegating Stuart to the serving classes with such a demand but Stuart had spent a lifetime ensuring no one could ever use the phrase ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ on him.
‘All right then.’ He kept his tone neutral while reflecting spoiled Miss Tremain would probably benefit from a few disappointments. However he’d not be surly. Tremain was a decent sort, and doing him a good turn bettered Stuart’s chances of being invited to social events where he could further his acquaintance with Helen who might consequently think Stuart more of a catch.
‘Good, good.’ Tremain continued to tap his pipe as he stared over Stuart’s shoulder. The unloading was nearly complete. ‘Philippa’s a conscientious student. Doesn’t want to miss anything.’
Stuart nodded, shouted an instruction to check that the postal bag for Mokhotlong hadn’t been mixed up with that for Letseng-la-Terae, then to fill the awkwardness asked, ‘When does she finish school?’ Tremain had developed the habit of letting conversation drift into silence since his wife had died.
The DC blinked as he returned his attention to Stuart with a visible start. ‘School? Good lord, Pippa’s all grown up now. She’s in her second year at varsity doing law.’
‘Law?’ The last time Stuart had seen Tremain’s only daughter she’d been a gangly, freckled little thing in a neat St Anne’s uniform on her way to the posh boarding school in Hilton where she spent most of the year.
‘A lot of nice young men do law.’ Tremain sucked on his pipe, clearly disposed to taking the conversation in a direction that centred on his pride and joy. ‘Pippa’s ambitious. She and Susan, Police Sergeant O’Rourke’s daughter, are both studying law.’
Stuart took a moment to assimilate this new information. ‘So Philippa’s going to be Basutoland’s first female lawyer?’ There’d been nothing studious about the shy, toothy teenager who’d shadowed him when he’d first arrived in Mokhotlong all those years before.
‘That’s not where her ambitions lie but Pippa’s strategic. Well, certainly as regards her marital ambitions. She’ll do far better than her mother.’ Tremain smiled. ‘Roughly what time will I tell her to be ready for you?’
Stuart turned the nose of the Piper into the wind for the ascent to the diamond fields. It was only a short flight and the weather looked passable, though at eleven thousand feet conditions at Letseng-la-Terae were generally bitterly cold with a gusting wind, even in the summer months.
In the seat behind him Stuart was conscious of Moeketsi and Moses growing restless. Moeketsi was obviously keen to be reunited with Mabel. By contrast his companion’s few words on the subject suggested the young police trooper was not looking forward to his next couple of weeks no doubt trying to keep warm in an unlined corrugated iron shack.
Well, Moses was not the only one not looking forward to what he had to put up with in the short term. However Stuart’s resentment towards the DC’s daughter was superseded by the need to concentrate on his tricky descent as the shambolically laid-out cluster of huts that comprised Letseng Le Terae came into view below him.
Touching down on the short single north-west runway was only possible if the wind was blowing in the right direction which, fortunately, it was today. Stuart’s first attempt four years before had been a humiliating nightmare though he’d since come to suspect Dan Green had orchestrated it in order to forfeit paying his round of beer. Lord knew what Stuart’s expression on approach must have been as he’d assimilated what he was required to do but Dan’s colourful rendition later that night had brought the house down.
Stuart didn’t remember it with such humour. The wind had been gusting from all directions and the runway mired in mud. There was no suitable alternate while the end of the runway that plunged over the precipice was too close for comfort. Stuart had gone around three times before giving up and returning to Maseru. Only after three beers and much ribbing from others in the bar afterwards did Dan admit that no pilot could have landed in those conditions.
Since then Stuart had grown to relish the challenges of flying in Lesotho’s mountains, anticipating the thermals that spiralled from below, negotiating short runways that hugged mountain tops, bobbing in and out of the blankets of cloud that shrouded the peaks in a seemingly impenetrable cloak.
He’d done so many of them that today it was second nature to carry out a text book landing despite the hostile conditions.
Once on the ground Stuart supervised the unloading of the postal bags while a few of the miners abandoned their picks and shovels and sieves for the diversion of hearing outside news. It was a hard life, working in temperature extremes all day and living in huts built of peat squares thatched with locally gathered grass laid over poplar rafters brought in from lower down the mountain on donkeys. The roofs could not have been waterproof but Staurt was always struck by the sense of camaraderie and collaboration amongst the miners.
Moses shambled off to his police post armed with a large cardboard box of supplies and Moeketsi was greeted by the hardworking Mabel who wanted peacocks. Dressed in an ankle-length brown skirt with a basuto blanket pinned at her neck, Mabel had a good honest face though Stuart couldn’t begin to guess her age as she’d lost most of her teeth.
He wondered what kind of demands a wife would place on him if he acquired the fortune old Moeketsi had managed through pure luck. Instead of peacocks, Stuart’s wife would probably insist he take her jewellery shopping at Tiffany’s and outfit her with a new wardrobe at Gucci. Stuart watched as Mabel balanced her husband’s heavy bag on top of her head in the traditional Basotho manner and then, with a ramrod straight back and the usual Basotho grace, accompanied him towards their rondavel.
Tiffany’s and Gucci. Stuart smiled. When he finally got himself a wife she’d be worthy of all that and more. With a charge of fresh awareness he recalled Helen’s smile when he’d spoken with her on the steps of the RC’s office. She’d virtually smouldered with availability as she’d smoothed her plaid skirt over her knees and said, yes, she intended being at the Maseru Club on Friday evening. This evening. There’d definitely been a connection. It was a pity Stuart had at the last moment lacked the courage to ask her to meet him in other than general terms since Helen had been with a friend. Forget Audrey Hepburn. Dark haired and full of confidence, Helen Maxwell was exactly the kind of woman who attracted him.
Stuart strode back to the plane as a distant rumble of thunder echoed around the mountain ranges. A couple of rock pigeons whirred across his path as he sent another troubled glance at the cumulonimbus building behind Thaba Ntlenyani.
Wasting no time, he jumped into the left hand seat and slammed the door shut as the wind suddenly gusted, shifting the small plane as if it were no sturdier than a tin can.
Perhaps it was just as well he had no wife, he consoled himself as the propeller spun into action. Basutoland was not going to make his fortune unless he landed himself a diamond like the one Moeketsi had dug up.