MJN fly Maxi to school for the second time, not long after their impromptu snowy sleepover in Xinzhou. They’re supposed to get the young king over to Fitton for the start of the summer term, but since they’ve nothing booked in the week prior, and since Douglas and Carolyn are very curious in the wake of their discovery that Martin and Theresa are still going out, somehow the date of the booking gets a little mixed up and they end up staying in Vaduz Castle for a couple of nights, as personal friends of the princess, before they’re due to fly.
Theresa doesn’t fall for it even a little, and neither does she bother to hide how delighted she is. She doesn’t have many people she can honestly call friends – the girls she grew up with are mostly married now, some to foreign dignitaries, and most of the circles she moves in are in some way political. She has plenty of people she’s friendly with. But if any of them came to stay, it would be a complicated back-and-forth of pleasantries and social contracts, mostly for show and the rest out of a wistful longing for something that meant a little more.
Something like ...weirdly... this.
She’s only met the rest of them once. It shouldn’t work so well, when they turn up to Vaduz Castle with overnight bags slung over their shoulders, but it does: Arthur hugs her like they’ve been pals for years; Carolyn gives her a nod that’s far closer to recognition than the ordinary chill of respect; and she could honestly fall right into Douglas’s smile of greeting, deep and warm and gentle in a way she’d not expected from him.
She doesn’t, of course — she falls into Martin’s arms instead, and he kisses her chastely on the cheek and says something about sorry for the inconvenience, which makes her laugh.
“Inconvenience? I’ve been looking forward to it all week.”
They probably think she’s being polite, and she doesn’t mind, but they’re wrong. Between the meeting they did have and the stories Martin’s filled her in on since - both in person and over the phone - she knows these are people whose company she’ll enjoy. Even Carolyn, so far more a sparring partner than anything else - she’s not just Martin’s boss, they’re friends and sort of family, and maybe it’s stupid to entertain it this soon into a fling (with a commoner, her mother’s voice adds in her mind) but she can’t help thinking it’s a unit she wouldn’t mind being part of.
That first evening, they deposit their luggage in the rooms set aside, and then reconvene in Theresa’s parlour. Martin goes straight for the bookcase - she’s got vintage aeroplane books there and he knows exactly what page he got to last time. Arthur looks around the room in wonder, and then his glance lands on the piano in the corner.
“Oh! Douglas, can you play something?”
For about a quarter of a second Douglas looks reluctant, but then seems to remember that he quite enjoys an audience, and glances at Theresa.
“Be my guest,” she says, although he already is. “It’s not long been tuned, but I don’t touch it very often.”
And so Douglas plays - a rather grand piece at first, but then something softer and twinklier which Theresa recognises from years ago. It’s a four-hander, or at least it can be. She pulls up the smaller of the piano stools and plays what she remembers of the second part. Douglas nods approvingly. Theresa was never a musical genius but she can hear that his playing is impeccable, and her slender fingers feel a little like stubby carrots in comparison. She gets through the piece with only a couple of missed notes, though, and when they finish Arthur all but erupts into applause.
“That was BRILLIANT! Theresa, do you know ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’?”
She has to admit that she does not.
“Never mind. Douglas can teach you!”
Douglas obligingly starts up the introduction, and she listens close, although admittedly Theresa is not learning how to play the song. She’s learning about voices, how they don’t have to be tuneful to sound exactly right, they don’t have to harmonise to fit together. In three go-arounds of the chorus, Arthur never sings it the same way twice (actually, she thinks he manages four different iterations, but the mathematics of that ought not to work), and Carolyn lays her higher, tinkling voice over the top as though fond, not trying to drown him out as she often does in speech. Douglas’s baritone carries them all through it, is the only one who seems to know when each verse should start, and they all hop in to meet him on the second word. And Martin, well. She falls a little bit in love with him at the point where his singing voice meets laughter, rolling through the song and very visibly enjoying every second. It probably helps that the song is about aeroplanes, she thinks with a smile that lasts until the chords die out.
The next time Theresa finds herself in a room with Douglas and a piano, it’s in Fitton, shortly before they take Maxi back to Liechtenstein at the end of the school year. Martin is, currently, somewhere over Bali in a 737, six weeks into his new job at Swiss Air, but OJS - as they’re calling themselves now - are still Maxi’s first choice of transport. He’s told Theresa, deadly serious, that he thinks Arthur is too powerful an enemy to leave unchecked, and what if the Sheikh of Qatar were to book them and find out Liechtenstein’s state secrets from the steward? Theresa had giggled, ruffled his hair and told him she liked Arthur, too.
With Maxi still at school for the moment, Theresa has some downtime in Fitton, and Douglas has them all over to his house the night before they fly. ‘Them all’ in this case means Theresa, Arthur, Carolyn and Herc, whom she’d not spent a lot of time with between all the confusions of the auction, but who doesn’t question her presence without Martin or the level of their familiarity with her.
They pass much of the time chatting and swapping anecdotes. At first Theresa feels like she doesn’t have much to offer in return for their escapades, but with Herc and Douglas chipping in with observations, even her own tales of court life and courtly eccentrics sound amusing to her ears.
Inevitably, sometime after dinner when talking takes a dip, Arthur lifts the lid of Douglas’s baby grand and makes what is apparently his usual request. Carolyn rolls her eyes and says, “Must we have Magnificent Men again?” and although Theresa is fairly sure Douglas will end up playing it at some point, he starts off placating her with a bit of Bach.
“What was that thing you did together?” Arthur asks Theresa, a little further in. “The one that sort of went, duh-duh-DUH duh-duh, duh-duh-DUH-DUH...”
She’s not sure she would recognise it from that description alone, but she’s only ever played one piece with Douglas, so she doesn’t point it out. At the end of a section, she sidles over and Douglas makes room, though they have to perch on the same stool here. With anyone else aside from Martin it might be the slightest bit odd or trigger childhood warnings about improper behaviour, but with Douglas it’s just music, and the undercurrent of warmth from his shoulder adds to the glow of family she’s been feeling, even in Martin’s absence. Well, it’s not really absence. He has a place here.
And so does she.
“You play well,” says Douglas, when they reach the end of the part she remembers. Theresa has had her playing complimented plenty of times but this is the first time it’s not perfunctory, and doesn’t feel like a judgement on her character. It’s nothing to do with being an accomplished young woman or a well-bred little princess. He’s just saying it.
“Thank you,” she says, “Although I’m nothing like you. I can memorise, but my heart has never been in it.”
Douglas chuckles, and from the sofa behind Carolyn chips in, “Careful, Douglas, she’s onto you. He likes to think it’s all brainwork.”
“Nonsense,” he says, “I’m a deeply artistic soul.”
“You’re artful, I’ll give you that,” comes the reply, and her emphasis on the word has Arthur yelping about Consider Yourself from Oliver. Douglas pulls down a box of sheet music marked ‘Musicals’ and grimaces through his sight-reading as if it’s somewhere below his expectation, although Theresa can’t hear much wrong with it.
The castle is big enough for bride and groom to be housed without fear of running into each other the night before the wedding, not that being home does Theresa much good in the way of restful thoughts. Her jitters surprise her - usually she’s the calm one while Martin spins out, but she wakes before dawn, shivering, convinced that everything is going to go wrong: that her mother will bring proceedings to a halt the second Theresa hits the runway - the aisle, even - or that some stupid page of her brother’s has kidnapped Martin in the middle of the night and left him in the woods somewhere, claiming some Liechtensteinian nuptial tradition that nobody’s ever heard of. She knows, really, that it’s all nonsense, but as Hélène reminds her by torchlight, it’s her wedding, so being a bit irrational is not surprising.
Her sister snaps off the light after that, effectively ending the channel of communication, since even childhood elocution lessons haven’t lent Theresa enough power to force her to lipread in the dark. She slips out of Hélène’s room, but instead of heading for her own quarters she lingers in the hall, catching the faint noise of piano music drifting up from the floor below. It’s not a piece she recognises, but it’s lovely – soft and lilting, though not without purpose.
She’s certain it’s Douglas before she reaches the room, and tries to just stand in the doorway and listen for a bit without disturbing him. Somehow he knows she’s there - or knows someone’s there - because he glances over his shoulder and says, “Morning. Sorry, I was hoping the sound wouldn’t carry.”
“It doesn’t go far,” she tells him, coming further into the room. “I was already up. What is it? It’s beautiful.”
“Not sure what it’s called,” says Douglas casually, but then he leans forward to add a scratch of pencil-marking to the paper on the stand and she understands exactly what’s happening.
“Why are you awake so early?”
“Pilot’s curse, I’m afraid. My body clock is always between timezones. What’s your excuse?”
She pulls out a chair. “Didn’t feel like trying to get to sleep again.”
“Not cold feet, is it?” She can tell by his tone that he doesn’t seriously think it of her, but the concern is genuine, and that’s nice.
“No. But I think I’d rather just take Martin to some... tiny anonymous registry office and have it over with.”
“He’d probably rather that too. Actually, if he had his choice you’d be married in Duxford Air Museum...”
She laughs, and it’s less hysterical-sounding than she might have feared. “That sounds perfect.”
“Duxford Sonata,” says Douglas suddenly after a moment of silence. He goes back to playing, apparently from the top of the composition. Theresa closes her eyes and imagines the tiny, intimate wedding that was never to be. Douglas at the piano. Herself and Martin either side of the nose of a P-51.
“Here,” says Douglas, pulling her out of her reverie. He’s scribbling a few notes on the far side of his staff paper. “When I go for the third C, bring in a couple of goes of that.”
They play it through, and Douglas hums and swaps some notes on his side, keeps hers the same. Theresa obediently thumbs out the sequence again. Gets used to the pattern of it. It’s a comfort that breaks through her early morning tension, brings her somewhere closer to ready for the day.
Later, when the castle comes alive with other footsteps, she thanks him and he pretends not to know what for.
It’s a while before their next duet, but Douglas comes prepared - he’s been practicing the overture of Carolyn’s favourite opera, or (as she puts it) the opera she hates the least. “I don’t care much for Ruslan, but I do like the preposterous giant head they drag on stage for him to sing with. Commit to being ridiculous, I say. Even Herc couldn’t pretend it was highbrow then.”
“The death of the giant is terribly moving. And it is highbrow. He’d have had the highest brows in the land, in fact.”
“Yes, if only he weren’t just a head.”
“A-nyway,” says Douglas, cutting them off before it descends into yet another quarrel, “As I was saying, the overture is quite fun. It’s supposed to be played by four people, but I’ve found an arrangement that could be done by two. If Theresa can still get close enough to reach the keys...”
She giggles and swats at him. “I’ll have a go, even if you are very rude.”
He actually does have a point, she finds – a month off her due date, there is a certain distance to be reckoned with. “Can the baby hear the music?” Arthur asks, hovering fascinatedly at her shoulder.
She nods. “Apparently so, yes. Some people say if you play enough classical music, the baby will be born intelligent...”
He grins mischievously. “I bet Mum wishes she’d given that a go.”
“Arthur! Don’t say that. Be nice to my friend.”
“I’m joking. I don’t mind. I bet your baby will be clever, though. You and Martin are.”
“I think you sell yourself short, Arthur,” Douglas chimes in from Theresa’s other side. “You’re improving all the time. A couple of years ago, I’d have had to make that joke about your mum.”
“Yeah! I got there first, didn’t I.”
“You certainly did. Quick-witted.”
Arthur beams. “Anyway,” he says, “Get going with Russel and Lucy. I’ve got other requests.”
It takes her a second to realise what he means, but Douglas props up the overture and starts going, taking the more challenging of the two parts. Theresa puts in hers and has to agree it’s a good piece – it soars here and there, like a plane, but it’s jaunty enough to feel more like a Lockheed McDonnell than an Airbus or a Boeing. Good. It fits.
The baby kicks, of course.
They’re celebrating Martin’s captaincy at Swiss Air on the patio of their new house in Switzerland, and Aida (4 and a half) and Arthur (37 and three quarters) have been dedicated to the cause of Making A List of Things That Have Wheels for almost an hour before Aida comes up with, “The piano,” and leaves Arthur confused.
“Do pianos have wheels?”
Theresa counts down mentally from five and before she reaches zero the request has been made. “Can we bring it out here?”
Martin and Arthur bring it between them, Aida having been given strict instructions to stay well away, and Douglas scrolls through his phone for some sheet music. In keeping with the occasion, he starts off with a rendition of For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow, only of course they sing it with ‘captain’ in the title. Martin, over the years, has acquired the grace to be a bit embarrassed by that. Only a bit, though. The rest is pure boyish joy and it’s adorable, Theresa thinks as she leans against him.
On the grounds that Martin is not only Jolly Good but also a Magnificent Man, Arthur makes a case for his favourite song which, for a change, nobody tries to argue with. Aida only knows a little of the words but has great fun with “UP! DOWN!”, especially when Arthur lifts and ‘flies’ her accordingly through the air. Then, for old times’ sake, Carolyn requests the Glinka overture that Douglas and Theresa have reprised a couple of times in the interim years, though not terribly recently.
Obligingly, Theresa hands off their baby son to Martin and drags her garden chair over to where Douglas is sitting. ‘Russel and Lucy’, as it’s now permanently and affectionately known, is just as fun as ever and has become synonymous with this group of people for reasons Theresa can’t exactly put a finger on.
An unknowing echo of her thoughts, Arthur muses aloud that if Mr Alyakhin ever did make that documentary exposé he threatened them with on his final trip, this would be a brilliant theme tune.
“I don’t think it would be quite in keeping with the story he wanted to tell,” Carolyn says with an arched eyebrow, “But for some reason, I know what you mean.”
“Always a bit worrying,” quips Douglas, not unkindly.
“Kindly concentrate on the job at hand, organ grinder’s monkey.”
“I like that! I’m playing primo - I’m the organ grinder.”
“Well, someone’s got to be the monkey.”
“Me,” Theresa pipes up. She dares not say any more, lest she lose her place in the music.
Afterwards, Douglas busies himself with some improvised tinkering, and Theresa watches Aida, stationed at one end of the instrument, watching his hands move, fluttering her own fingers absent-mindedly at her side. She nods Martin’s attention in the same direction, shares his smile.
For Martin and Theresa’s tenth anniversary, there’s a concert. Douglas, of course, is the main event, but he yields centre stage willingly: Arthur’s taken up the mantle of the overture, Douglas having coached him to play a solo version over Skype during the quarantine of 2020. He also debuts a new composition they’d worked on together called Mice That Are Not Mine (“Douglas helped a bit with the writing of it, but I did the title.”)
“And now,” Douglas says, once Arthur’s set is finished, “For the grand finale. I’d like to invite my duet partner to the keys.”
Theresa’s eyebrows flick up, not expecting the summons, but before she can move to join him she sees her seven-year-old daughter detach from Martin’s side and scuttle over to the piano, looking thrilled. Douglas points to something on the music stand and Aida nods, then whispers something in his ear. Theresa is pretty sure she sees Douglas wink in response.
“This is for Mama and Daddy,” Aida proclaims. Then, reverently, “The Duxford Sonata.”
It’s as beautiful as she remembers. Martin loves it, too, but doesn’t know all of its history on his first hearing. Aida plays the notes Theresa can still pick out, without fault or hesitance.
“Takes after her godfather,” she whispers to Martin, and he says,
“Heaven forbid,” with not a drop of sincerity.
Either side of the nose of the P-51, they join hands and listen.