| There are some lovely beaches down in the south west corner of Western Australia. Long stretches of pristine sand dividing the Indian Ocean from the dense forests of tall karri trees. Hundreds of kilometres of unpolluted and mostly unpopulated coastline stretched like a silver ribbon between rockbound headlands. Very nice - except when your idiot of an husband has bogged down the family four wheel drive on one of those deserted beaches. Believe me, there's no better way of exploring the strengths of a relationship than sharing a shovel on a scorching hot December day, especially when all your joint efforts to dig large holes in fine sand are proving futile. Which was one of the reasons why our marital relationship was sinking even faster than the Suzuki. Not that any of it my fault.
I hadn't wanted to drive way out of town and down some bush track to go rock fishing. As far as I'm concerned fishing is an old man's occupation. Jeff isn't even thirty yet, nor am I, so I thought we could have found something more interesting to do on a Saturday morning. Still, fishing was what he wanted to do and the only alternative if he stayed indoors was having him watch cricket on the TV - and compared to watching cricket, throwing a fishing line into the sea is an epic adventure full of drama and excitement.
So here we were, bogged down before we'd even got to the fishing spot and with no way of getting somebody to come and help us out. The nearest sealed road was five kilometres away, five kilometres of bare dirt trail bulldozed through the trees. No other signs of life on the beach, not even a boat in sight anywhere and Jeff snarling at me all the time just because I happened to be driving the bloody vehicle when it sank down to the axles. He was the one who was telling me where he wanted to go! The most annoying thing of all was my job - I'm a nurse and I was rostered on for the evening shift in the local hospital. A fine fool I was going to look if I couldn't even phone in and let them know I wouldn't be able to make it.
Then something entirely unexpected happened. I was walking back from the treeline with an armful of old branches to push under the Suzi's back wheels when I heard an engine. At first I thought it was a car and then I saw a small aircraft skimming along the shoreline so low it was well below the tops of the karri trees. It was the strangest looking thing I'd ever seen - not like a normal plane with a wing on each side. Instead there was just one wing that looked something like the sail of a yacht, with red and white patterns on it. Hanging underneath the wing was the rest of the plane, what there was of it.
Have you ever been to a fairground and had a ride in one of those little plastic pods that hang down from the edge of a big wheel? If you can imagine something like that, only smaller, with the pilot sitting in it and a windscreen down around his knees, you've got the idea. The only other difference was a nose wheel at the front and two more wheels at the back with pointy hoods over them. Yes, and the engine of course. The plane was flying so low that I could easily see it mounted behind the pilot, with the propeller right at the back of the pod, pushing the strange little contraption along. I suppose it was traveling about as fast as a car would on a normal road and as it came level the pilot waved to us with one hand. The other one was resting on a bar - like a trapeze bar, I guess - which was the bottom piece of a triangle which came to a point underneath the wing. There were two more metal bars that I could also see, from the front and back of the pod and also joined together underneath the wing. They obviously carried the weight of the pod and somehow the pilot was steering himself around with the bar he was holding.
Anyway, whatever he was doing and however he was doing it, he seemed to be having a much more enjoyable morning than we were. As soon as the plane was past us the engine revved up and the plane climbed away at a steep angle until my eyes were watering from the strong sunlight as I tried to watch it. The show seemed to be over, although when I got back to the Suzuki Jeff was still scanning the sky with his hands cupped around his eyes.
"That must be what they call a microlight, or an ultralight. Strange looking thing, like an overgrown hang glider. That's the way they steer hang gliders, with a bar attached to the wing, they push and pull against it to move the weight of the aircraft underneath in relation to the centre of gravity."
In case I haven't mentioned it yet, Jeff is a teacher, a high school teacher. . . oh, you guessed, did you? If there were any teachers on the Titanic they probably drowned whilst giving each other lectures on the way icebergs are formed. Anyway, since he was only wearing thongs, I dropped the tangle of branches on top of his bare feet as a means of self expression. He expressed himself back to me and the plane was forgotten about as we bickered at each other. Until we heard it again.
I was a little surprised to see it coming back again from the same direction as before and even lower and slower. It looked to me as if it belonged in a Star Wars' movie, with its strange shape and the way it was hanging in the wind like a mechanical hawk. I thought it must be a hell of a way to fly, in a seat with nothing around it but empty air. Then the engine noise dropped off and I quickly changed my mind about even thinking about wanting to try it - the wing had dipped lower and it seemed the ultralight was going to crash. The wheels wavered around unsteadily a metre or so above the hard packed sand left by the ebbing tide, like a drunk trying to get his arse back onto a bar stool. Then the ultralight settled down onto the sand with the sudden deftness of a seagull dropping onto a morsel of food. Little gusts of water sprayed out from underneath the wheels as the pod's weight fell onto them. The wet sand seemed to slow their rotation down very quickly, the plane wallowing to a walking speed about fifty metres away from us and the pilot revving the engine to keep his wheels turning until he was level with the Suzi. Then the high pitched yammering of the engine stopped and the propeller blades jerked to a halt. The pilot carefully tilted the wing over, keeping control of it with the steering bar he was holding until the wingtip nearest to us was resting on the sand.
Jeff and I were watching all this with surprise and interest. We kept on watching as a tall and slender man in tight fitting blue flying overalls unstrapped himself and climbed out of the pod. In fact it was only his figure - or his lack of it - which showed him to be a man because his head was completely covered with a wrap around motor bike helmet that had a tinted glass vision panel in the front of it. By God, I thought, I was right, not only does the plane look like something out of Star Wars but the pilot dresses like Darth Vader.
Before he even touched the helmet the pilot took something out of the pod that looked like a giant corkscrew, walked along the wing to the down-tipped end and drove the corkscrew into the sand before tying a lanyard at the top of the corkscrew to the wing tip. The intention was clearly to prevent the wing being blown around. At close range my first impression of it being like a yacht's sail also seemed right. The whole thing was just a collection of aluminum battens wrapped around with coloured fabric. It seemed incredible anybody would trust their life to such a flimsy support. Still, it wasn't my worry, though as the pilot finally removed his helmet I watched with interest to see what sort of a madman he was. A pity there was no chance of him being Harrison Ford.
It was another surprise to see that he was pretty old. In his forties for sure, though very well preserved, with a lot of dark hair turning grey at the temples, a sharp angled face with a wide smile that showed off excellent teeth and crisp blue eyes with crinkles of smile lines around them. Behind the good looks there was confidence as well, self confidence and self assurance. If I'd seen this guy in hospital whites I'd have tagged him straight away not only as a doctor but as a highly skilled consultant. Success smells on some men like aftershave, an enticing aroma which never fades away. And as we were looking at him he was looking at us: at Jeff, briefly, then at me, for a longer time.
"Hi, I'm Brett Reynolds." A nice voice, sharp but well controlled.
Jeff introduced us: "Jeff Pearson, and this is my wife Sandra. You've caught us at an awkward moment. We've got bogged down and can't seem to get out of it."
"Yeah, I could see you were in strife. I can't give you a tow but I thought you might want some messages passed on. I couldn't see any antennas on your wagon and I guess you'd be well out of cell phone coverage in this neck of the woods."
"That's right. We tried to use the mobile but it was a waste of time."
The pilot was still looking at both of us but I knew that most of his attention was on me. Not that I could really blame him for that because I wasn't wearing anything underneath my sweat soaked tee-shirt and my shorts were cut about as short as they could be. In fact I felt quite flattered that I could get a guy like that taking a lot of second looks.
"Is there anybody around here who could help you out?" Brett asked.
"Eddie Turner would come out," I said.
"Yeah, Eddie would be great." Jeff turned to the pilot to explain. "Eddie Turner is a mate of mine, he's got a Land Rover with a winch on it. He'd come and pull us out if we could let him know where we are. He lives quite a way down the road though, in Kilkenny Ponds. Must be about fifty or sixty k's from here."
Brett smiled widely, showing off his teeth even more: "It's rather less. It's forty seven point two kilometres from here. Or at least it is to the Kilkenny airstrip as the crow flies. I suppose it must be another five or six k's into the town itself. I've got it nailed down on the GPS because I flew out from there this morning. My car's still there."
"Oh." Jeff smiled a little himself, clearly as relieved as I was at the prospect of being saved a lot of walking and a lot of trouble. "Maybe you could phone through to Eddie when you get back?"
"No problem. It's a lovely day for a flight and I doesn't matter to me which direction I fly in. I can go back to Kilkenny Ponds now and call in from the strip. With the wind blowing the direction it is I should be there in about half an hour. What's your mate's phone number?"
Jeff told him and Brett wrote it down on the back of his hand.
"Could you do us another favor and phone the local hospital as well? Let them know that Sandra won't be able to come in for her shift tonight."
Brett nodded and seemed concerned: "You're a nurse, Sandra?"
"Can't have the hospital short of nurses - you never know when there might be an emergency. Why don't I give you a lift back to Kilkenny Ponds in the trike and then drive you into town?"
I didn't quite realize what he meant by a trike until he nodded towards the ultralight and my stomach flipped over like a tossed pancake: "Me! Go up in that thing!"
The obvious fear in my voice made him shake his head in rueful amusement. "Sandra, it's not like bungy jumping off Sydney Harbour Bridge - it's fun, and safe. I'm a licensed and insured pilot and my passengers are all insured as well. I've got a spare helmet and a spare set of overalls on board, though you'll hardly need them in this hot weather. Believe me, you'd be safer on board a trike than you would be on a 747." His eyes crinkled up in another sudden smile. "And I should know, I fly 747's for QANTAS for a living."
It was an exciting idea and an attractive one in many ways, provided I didn't find myself gripped in total panic once we were off the ground. Rather stunned, I walked over the ultralight and had a second look at it. True, there were two seats in it, one behind the other, but that was about all you could say there was in the way of accommodation. It was only at the front of the pod that the top of the plastic windscreen came up to about waist level. On either side of the front seat the bodywork was hardly ankle high, and barely much more than that around the back seat. I imagined myself looking straight down from one of them, straight down into a drop of hundreds of metres, and my intestines wriggled around like a nest of angry snakes.
"It's just like riding a motorbike, only with a better view and without all the road hazards," Brett said soothingly. "Why don't we go up for just five minutes and if you don't like it I'll bring you straight back down again."
"How would I tell you what I was feeling with all the noise?"
He held up a cable that hung from his helmet, showing me a plug at the end of it: "The helmets have earphones and a mike built into them. We can talk to each other as easily as we are doing now. Believe me, you'll never want to come down once you've tried it."
Then he sort of looked sideways, to where Jeff was standing a few paces away, and lowered his voice a little: "Or would you rather spend the rest of the day stuck here?"
I didn't think Jeff heard that. Or if he did I'm sure he didn't hear the insinuation in it that I did, a hint of surprise that somebody like me was wasting her time in this sort of situation. Or maybe I was hearing things which weren't really there. While I was standing undecided Brett reached underneath the back seat and took out a helmet, then a neatly folded set of overalls like the ones he was wearing.
"I can adjust the headband on the helmet for you, Sandra - there's not much I can do about the flight suit but. Normally, you'd need at least a jacket to keep the wind off but not now. A day like today, the only cool way to enjoy yourself is flying."
Jeff came over and looked at the helmet and overalls I was holding: "You're surely not going to try this, are you, Sandra? You'd be scared stiff."
If he'd wanted to stop me flying then it was the worst possible thing he could have said. Of course he doesn't really think of me as a frail woman - he often says that he'd faint if he had to deal with some of the bloodier situations that come along in my job. It was simply a typical case of a male opening his heart and his mouth without remembering to put his brain somewhere in the loop between them. And he knew it as soon as I did, hastily trying to back up without totally backing down. "I mean I'd be frightened myself, to go up in one of these things. Anybody would be, to fly around hanging underneath a few strips of alloy and fabric. And the hospital can certainly get by without you for one day."
It was too late though, my temper was up. "I'm not going to miss a shift if I can help it. Anyway, I'll probably never have another chance to do something like this and I want to give it a go, just to see what it's like."
"Aww, come on, Sandra, people crash in these things. It happens all the time."
"People crash in cars as well and that happens all the time."
He was genuinely concerned about me, not simply trying to carry on the squabble we'd had before, I knew that. But I wasn't going to let him stop me now that I'd made my mind up. After all it had been pretty much of a wasted day so far and here was a chance to do something I could talk about for weeks afterwards, something exciting. It would have been hard to live myself if I'd turned it down. The only real question, the one I was being very careful not to ask myself, was whether I was as excited by Brett Reynold's obvious interest in me as I was at the idea of flying in his plane.
Adjusting the helmet was no problem: trying to get into the flying suit was. It was cut for a man's body, a big man, and I'm a short girl, yet the seams around my hips almost reached breaking strain; I had to go behind the wagon and take off my shorts before I could wriggle into the suit. The real problem was in front though. As much as I tugged at the zip, I couldn't get it up past my breasts. Like my hips, they've always been too large for easy packaging. Eventually I had to go back to the men with everything hanging out over the zip and only the damp material of the tee-shirt between me and them. Not only that, but carrying my shorts in my hand as well.
Brett's mouth twitched a fraction before he looked away at the horizon as I held the sides of the overalls together while Jeff pulled the zipper together with brute strength. It was a minor demonstration of gentlemanly modesty which ended as soon as Jeff wasn't looking at him, because Brett's eyes immediately fastened on my squashed tits with frank interest. Like Sylvester eyeing Granma's canary, I thought, and hoping to find a way into the cage. If that was really what he hoping for he was in for a disappointment.
I watched in surprise as Brett knelt down behind one of the back wheels. There were three protruding metal legs that attached the wheel to the pod and in between them was a piece of metal about as long as my arm curved into a 'C' shape. It was apparently held onto the top leg by a clamp at each end, which he undid. Then he stood up and reclamped the 'C' onto one of the support arms on the side of the control bar before doing the same thing on the other side of the ultralight. I asked him what he was doing.
"You'll have to sit in the front seat, Sandra, to keep the weight distribution right. The control bar will be in front of you but I'll have my hands on these extensions from the back seat to do the piloting. That's what I like about these ultralights, everything is as simple as it can be. A control bar and a foot throttle and that's about it."
He bowed like a courtier and stretched out his hand towards the pod: "My lady, your sky carriage awaits."
After all the trouble he'd gone to I couldn't refuse to give it a try however nervous I felt. I wasn't any more nervous than Jeff though, who watched Brett strapping me into the front seat with a kind of desperate look on his face as if I was going up in a space shuttle. Mind you, I don't think I would have felt much different myself if I had been about to blast off. It was hard to believe that I was really going to go up into the sky in this thing. Brett held the helmet over my head and quietly talked to me as I smoothed my hair back.
"As soon as this is on, I'll plug in the intercom cable and switch it on. All you'll hear is static until I plug in as well. Nod your head if you're OK and then I'll untie the wing tip and straighten the wings. When the bar is horizontal in front of you just hold it steady while I get in the back. All clear?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Fine. I've pinned the front throttle so it can't be worked. The only thing you have to worry about are the bars underneath your feet - they're for steering the nosewheel, so don't press on them when we're taking off and landing. The rest of the time you can waggle them around as much as you like. OK?"
I nodded, and again after the helmet was on. It looked bulky but it was surprisingly light. I'd never worn one before, never even been on a motorbike because I thought they were dangerous. No wonder I held onto the control bar nervously when it settled over in front of me. I could feel my hands trembling on the rubber handgrips and then realized it wasn't just me that was twitching but the wing as well, shivering and bobbing at the wind's touch. I saw Brett speak to Jeff, and afterwards Jeff took off his own shirt and walked down the beach with it, off to one side on the soft sand. I wondered what he was doing. Then Brett came back with the corkscrew securing pin hanging by its lanyard from his wrist. He knelt down by the front of the pod, grinned up at me, put his hands on my knees and spread them wide apart.
I gasped in surprise, the noise muffled inside the helmet, and then realized he was bending forward to stow the pin away underneath my seat. Which was a totally innocent thing to do I guessed, but what wasn't so innocent was where his knuckles brushed against me as he slipped the lanyard off his wrist. But again, it something that was over and done with before I had a chance to even let go of the control bar. It might even have been a genuine accident, but I didn't think so. It was a clear message, as if I already needed one, about what Mr. Brett Reynolds would like to do with Mrs. Sandra Pearson if given even half a chance. Well, there was one thing about it, at least I was a lot safer from his advances in his plane than I would have been in his car. Uh!