“What is the meaning of this?”
Theresa tucks a foot behind the leg of the chair in which she is sitting, tête-à-tête with her mother, who perches on the chaise lounge across. She endeavors to look confused. “Whatever could you be speaking of?”
Her mother, likewise, endeavors to look scandalized at the implication of ignorance. She flutters a paper fan. (Gifted. Premium paper from an artisanal workshop that’s so artisanal it doesn’t even have a sign out front. It doesn’t matter.) When she speaks again, it’s with a disdainful undercurrent in her tone she knows Theresa will read. “You have already deigned to associate with a commoner: to most of the world it looks as though you mean to take him as a consort.”
Theresa momentarily grinds her teeth. The action will show plainly in the clench of her jaw, the tightening of a muscle in her cheek. But she doesn’t care, she’s fine with showing her frustration on this front—when her own mother cannot even bear to let the name of Martin Crieff cross her tongue, a man who is far more noble than she will ever be. Theresa’s mother, the present queen consort of Liechtenstein, keeping the rest of the world at bay from the opulent rooms of their palace in Vienna.
“But now!” her mother cries, evidently not finished. “Now word comes to us of you traveling abroad to further lower yourself among even more foreign commoners. What’s more—taking lessons from them!”
Theresa inwardly groans. They have tried to be careful with this arrangement, they really have. But it had happened by accident, the last time she went to Fitton airfield. Some photographers had followed her for the first time, catching her by surprise after completing a mock checkride and re-entering the OJS portakabin. It had been a mistake to schedule for that day, as the heir to the Norwegian throne had just arrived at Maxie’s finishing school.
“What do you say to that?” Her mother settles back in her seat with an air of triumph. In other words: she has the queen; Theresa does not.
“I am trying,” Theresa chooses her words carefully, “to assure for myself a future.”
The queen laughs. “A future?”
“What am I to do after Maxie’s accession?” Theresa retorts, her fingernails digging into her knee as she leans forward. “What am I to do with myself? I cannot bear the thought of sitting idly by when my time is done—I must have something to do—”
“There are plenty of things you can do. You can continue to support your brother, for one—make official visits in your capacity.”
“You have five other daughters, one of whom is more politically minded than I will ever be, and I plan to hand over all official business to her upon Maxie’s accession.” There it is—the plan. The plan she has never said out loud: not to Maxie, who labors in finishing school, happily unaware; not to Elisabeth, the “politically minded” sister; not to Douglas, who sits silently next to Theresa in the training aircraft as she briefs him on the landing she will make and the vectors she will use; not to Carolyn or Herc or Arthur, no matter how deeply she trusts them, because even though they’re more of a family to her than her actual family is, they do not yet get to know this part of her; not even to Martin, who she trusts with her whole life, with whom she would happily chase the clouds across the sky forever and ever—
Her mother swells up before her. “Impertinent—”
Theresa is done with the conversation, even if her mother isn’t. She rises to her feet gracefully, the way she used to practice over and over again as a child during etiquette lessons. She will not let her mother have the last word.
Momentarily, she prays—to whom, she doesn’t know and doesn’t care—for some strength. Her mind is far away from the royal family she’s supposed to be representing; it begs for the strength of the family she has chosen for herself to be lent to her in this moment. She prays that she might be lent an ounce of Douglas’s smooth delivery, an inch of Carolyn’s firm spine, a dash of Arthur’s bright smile, a pint of Herc’s resolute calm, a pinch of Martin’s zeal—and all the love they’ve given her.
“May I remind you,” she cuts across her mother, “that according to our constitution, it is I who holds the regency. Not you. I will decide my own life and the future of our country. Good day.”
She bows a little, straightens, and walks out.
Apart from Martin, the other members of the OJS family probably know something is up, that something has happened. Theresa is eternally grateful that nobody mentions it during the lively dinner Arthur has put together that they all share at Carolyn’s table, or as she and Herc and Douglas and Martin pore over review books for the fourteen tests she’ll need to pass before her scheduled checkride with the examiner.
But Douglas excuses himself on the grounds of needing to be up early the next morning, and Arthur waves goodbye and heads for the house he shares with his friends, and Herc goes to set up the guest room while Martin takes a shower—and Theresa and Carolyn are left in the kitchen to trade stories of how they’ve been since they last talked.
“Something’s happened, I gather?” Carolyn asks during a lull in the conversation, leaning back against the cupboards. “You seem a little...forgive me, but you seem a little off-color.”
Her tone is gentle—schooled down noticeably from her usual clip, and it’s enough to send Theresa over the edge. She averts her gaze so Carolyn won’t see her eyes stinging, clenches a hand into a fist behind her back. Her fingernails dig into the base of her palm. “Yes. You’re right. Something did happen.”
“No. Nothing like that, we’re both fine.”
“Is it…” Carolyn trails off before guessing, “Something to do with your family?”
A pause. It’s a loaded one, and both of them know it.
“Would you like to talk about it?”
Theresa briefly considers, then shakes her head a little, still not looking directly at Carolyn. Then she reconsiders. “Actually…”
Theresa musters up the courage, then looks at Carolyn again. I will decide my own life. “Do you mind if I...Is it…”
She doesn’t know how to ask.
“Do I mind if you…?”
“Do you mind if I...if I could possibly...perhaps, sometimes, I could call you ‘Mum’? Is it okay?”
They don’t talk for a while, and Theresa ponders for a second whether it was a weird thing to say, a strange thing to wonder—but when she steels herself just enough to look up, Carolyn’s eyes are as oddly bright as hers, and it isn’t the fluorescent lights.
Theresa has her answer.
“Pass me the controller, I want to try.”
They are in Martin’s room in Zurich, the curtain drawn, the computer monitor illuminating the place. She is sitting next to him on his floor, their backs braced against the foot of his bed. Though next to is possibly an understatement, as personal space has gone squarely out of the window.
“Of course you would; after all, you need practice ,” Martin teases gently, ending his session in a 787 (the newest member of the Swiss Air fleet and his current ambition) and handing the controller over to her.
“It’s not the same,” Theresa pouts at him, taking the controller. Having completing the last of her checkrides for a private pilot’s license some months before, Theresa is yet to start the process of instrument and two-engine training—both of which Douglas has assured her he will provide.
“Yes. Once you’ve actually done it for the first time…” Martin briefly loses himself in his thoughts, and Theresa smiles, only a little envious. After all, he’d been able to pursue his dreams of flight unhindered by national politics or thoughts of duty.
She leans back against him, fingers flying across the controller as she reconfigures the player settings and chooses the aircraft and airport. Martin reaches over and gently combs his fingers through her hair, and she momentarily closes her eyes and relaxes.
“You’re still thinking about your mother,” Martin observes, pausing mid-comb.
“ Am I?” She opens her eyes again and looks up at him.
“You chose Vienna for your airport again.”
She looks back at the screen; sure enough, the computer has rendered the familiar tower in the distance.
“Bother,” she mutters, sagging a little bit.
“No. Not again.” Theresa picks up the controller, dips back into the main menu, and lets the system pick an airport for her.
It spits out Innsbruck. Both she and Martin wince—it’s a Category C airport and, as much as Theresa enjoys a good round of escapism, she’s nowhere near the skill level in real life required for it. After randomizing a second time, the simulator suggests a trip to Kansai out of Zurich, and she shrugs and takes it.
“The fancy aircraft carrier,” Martin jokes, sensing she doesn’t want to talk more about her mother, and for that she’s grateful.
The Boeing she’s chosen intones the altitude as she descends over the artificial island. “Minimums.”
She chooses to proceed.
“One hundred. Fifty. Forty. Thirty. Twenty.”
She pulls up the nose to flare, but upon glancing at the instruments on the screen, finds herself a victim of the ground effect. Muttering a word that would be considered unkind in Bavaria, she powers through it—but having used up a significant portion of runway, she lands past the point she’s aimed for and has to deploy every single spoiler and brake she can control to get the imaginary plane to stop.
Letting out a sigh that’s more gusty than relieved, she ends the session and passes the controller back to Martin, thoughts swirling through her mind that she doesn’t feel willing to say out loud.
Martin understands, lays the controller aside, and puts his arms around her.
“Good, good. Close your eyes for me, will you?”
Theresa nods and complies. It sounds counterintuitive, dangerous even, to do this while flying, but having them open is counterintuitive too if she thinks about it.
As part of her instrument training, Douglas has her wear something Martin calls the hood and what Douglas calls foggles . Martin insists the hood lends more gravitas to the tool’s intended purpose, while Douglas stands firm that foggles describes more accurately and succinctly the tool itself.
As far as Theresa is concerned, she doesn’t care what to call these—she just wants to get them off.
If she opens her eyes, she will not be able to see the sky and the earth out of the windows of the aircraft. And as much as she wants to see the green countryside from above, it is obscured—simulating foggy or poor conditions or even nighttime. All she will see is the instrument panel, spread out before her, glittering. Computer screens next to good, sound, old-fashioned buttons—her lifeline. The reason she needs to wear these goggles is that she needs to learn to depend on this captivating array of instruments.
Today they are working on unusual attitudes to improve her instrument proficiency—Douglas will knock the plane out of equilibrium and then have her return it back to stable flight without visual reference. She must only depend on the instruments.
Theresa feels the aircraft tilt and angle around her. She reckons the nose is pointing down and guesses that the left wing is higher than the right.
“Okay, get us back to normal; the pretzels are spilling,” Douglas announces, handing control off to her.
Opening her eyes, Theresa resists the urge to try and look out of the windows and scans the instrument panel. The artificial horizon confirms her suspicions—they are indeed pointing down and banking to the right. With a touch of the trim wheel and a twitch of the yoke, she stabilizes the aircraft into level flight and checks the altitude to ensure they haven’t broken into the next level of airspace.
“Good work,” Douglas praises. “Want to do one more before we turn back for lunch?”
“Sure,” she turns to her right and smiles, even though she can’t see Douglas all too well from under the foggles.
He chuckles, and Theresa feels the plane roll slightly when he takes hold of the yoke on his side of the aircraft. “Well, you know the drill. I have control.”
Theresa’s eyes drift shut again. It’s highly apparent that Douglas is in his element, up here in the sky with an instructor’s credential and a lifetime of experience in his tool belt. They’ve spoken about this before: Douglas has confided that he reckons he can squeeze a few years more out of instructing once he’s passed his mandatory retirement age as a pilot, since there is no mandatory retirement age for instructors.
That will come later. Theresa doesn’t really want to think about it—she dreams of a day when she will be flying next to Douglas not as a student, but as an equal. But with the time it’s taking her to obtain her instrument rating, and with the time it has already taken her to obtain a private pilot license, it’s a dream that looks increasingly out of reach.
“Take us back to normal, Theresa,” Douglas fairly sings, breaking her out of her reverie.
She scans the instruments again. They’re pointing up this time, at an angle that could produce a stall if left unchecked. Theresa fixes this first before bringing the roll of the aircraft back to stability.
“Perfect.” There’s a smile in Douglas’s voice, and Theresa loves it. She wishes she could bottle it up and take it back with her. That way it could cheer her up when she’s studying for another exam, locked in the study at Vaduz castle, trying to keep at bay the anxiety over what the people might think of her. Their pilot princess. “Now off with those foggles, and take us home.”
She’s marching across the airfield, a storm eating away at her chest, visibility vest left unfastened and fluttering behind her as she walks. Her eyes are stinging. It could be the wind, but the cheery orange sock sitting outside of main ops is hanging limply.
Theresa has just failed her last checkride for the two-engine instrument certification.
It was an honest mistake. The examiner had used panels instead of foggles, and she had gotten confused. She and Douglas had trained with panels once or twice, but Douglas had been under the impression that they would use foggles to block her outside view for the actual test.
Sometimes upon descent to an airfield, the proctor would move the panels away from where they obscured the visual reference, which was a cue for the pilot to follow through the descent. The examiner had reached for a panel, and Theresa had assumed that he was going to remove it and continued the approach to an airport in a neighboring county.
She had nearly cried when he’d told her she’d made a critical error in continuing the approach without an appropriate visual reference.
She should have known. Other pilots have made the very same mistake. She should have been more careful.
But she is not instrument-rated, and she is stalking across Fitton Airfield, trying desperately not to show that she’s very close to tears.
A few minutes later, she approaches OJS’ portakabin and lets herself in.
She’s a little surprised when she encounters Herc sitting with his feet propped up on his desk, reading the paper—admittedly, she’d been expecting Douglas and Martin to be waiting for her. His socks are artfully and subtly mismatched—one stripey blue and one checked blue.
“Why, hello Pr—Theresa. Hello, Theresa.” He corrects himself without blinking and smiles brightly at her. “Well, then! That was quick. How did it go?”
Theresa stands immobile in the doorway of the portakabin, not entirely sure how to reply. But after a few seconds of inaction, she gulps and admits, “I didn’t pass. The examiner’s going to have me try again tomorrow.”
A little bit of shock crosses Herc’s face, but he elegantly hides it, putting the paper down on his desk and taking his feet off.
The full magnitude of what’s just happened finally hits Theresa, and it hits hard. She slumps into the sofa by the door, putting both her hands over her eyes and letting out an involuntary groan. The examiner has given her another chance, yes, but time is limited. Her time in England is limited; Martin’s time in England is limited. Normally she wouldn’t have had room for an error like the one she’s made today.
She feels the sofa dip next to her, and a hand comes up to squeeze her shoulder. “Hey. You have another chance. It’s fine. You’re fine. Erm…” Herc still seems a little shocked—had he been expecting her to pass? He is not disappointed though, Theresa can tell for sure, and that fact, amidst everything else, is comforting. “Douglas, Arthur, and Martin went out for some food while waiting. Although I’m fairly sure they just wanted to distract Martin a little. He was near ready to tear apart the portakabin carpet, the way he was pacing...I mean, if you’re wondering where they…”
“Thanks. It’s okay.” But a pulse of frustration roars through her stomach, and she crushes her face into her palms to hide the fresh wave of tears blurring her vision. It hasn’t been a struggle for her to bear alone, this endeavor. It’s been everyone’s struggle.
The hours Douglas must have spent, shelling out his own time and savings to attend instructor courses to begin with—not to mention all the time they’ve spent building hours upon hours of instruction in the sky. The negotiations Martin has put in with his colleagues, taking the flights they can’t make, volunteering as a reserve pilot when nobody else wanted. The video calls Herc made to her as she sat in her study in Vaduz castle, with a review book and a stack of manuals on the desk next to him, coaching Theresa on radio communications, patiently correcting her when she leaves out some overlooked detail. And Carolyn and Arthur, always there for her with a cup of tea or a conversation over text…
Guilty, that’s how she feels now.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbles into her hands, and then remembers herself. Scrubbing the heels of her palms into her eyes, she sits back up and turns to face Herc, who looks a little stricken. “I’m sorry,” she repeats simply, wiping the tears off on the knees of her trousers.
“Don’t be.” Herc’s expression shifts into one of sternness.
“You do so much for me. You all do so much for me, and I…”
“Don’t think of it that way. That’s how it is, being in this family. We do so much for each other, because this is family.” Herc reaches behind the sofa and twitches the window blinds up, looking out to the carpark before turning back to Theresa. “You made a mistake today. That’s fine. So we all do; but you walked away unscathed, and that’s what matters. And what’s more, at least you have another chance. But regardless of whether you have another chance or not, a mistake is no grounds to turn back on your family. Now,” he sent her a look that said that there was no arguing to be had with that point, “I think I saw Douglas parking. I’ll get you some water; you want to wash your face?”
Nodding, Theresa rises shakily to her feet; Herc does the same and pulls her into a hug before releasing her, smiling, and walking over to the communal water cooler.
And she knows everything will be okay.
She does end up passing the next day—with no mistakes. They celebrate with a dinner at Douglas’ place that’s filled with anecdotes, laughter, and some of the best fish she’s ever eaten.
But a few weeks later, she gets a call in the middle of a meeting with a Swiss cultural delegation interested in setting up new exchange programs. Seeing that it’s Douglas’ contact photo that blooms across the screen of her phone, she excuses herself and leaves to answer it.
“Hello, Theresa here,” she greets in a hushed tone, moving off to one side of the corridor—they’re in a federal building, with legislators and aides hurrying to and fro. “Is everyone fine? Has anything happened?”
“Hi, Theresa; no, nothing like that, we’re all fine,” Douglas’ voice echoes down to her over the line. “It’s just—there appears to be a small issue with your license.”
“Oh!” She experiences a brief flash of anxiety, then regains her footing. “But I’ve passed all the tests and met the other requirements, haven’t I?”
“Yes, but what they’re telling me now is that we don’t have enough logged hours.”
At this point, she can’t help but be rather bewildered—after all the time they’ve spent in the sky, surely they’ve logged enough hours? “Oh…” she managed.
“How much...how much do they say I need?”
“Well, good news is that we—rather, I should say you —have a deficit of only three hours. That can be solved easily—next time you can come over, we can go up for three hours.”
“And? Do I have to...is it instructional time? Do I need to do anything special?”
“Well, no. You just need the three hours.” Douglas sounded amused. “You have three free hours in the air.”
Theresa comprehends—then she smiles. “Sounds great.”
She’s allowed to bring a guest in the small aircraft, and she knows exactly who she wants to ask.
“This is just brilliant , Theresa. Thanks for inviting me!” Arthur grins, buckling himself into one of the rear seats and accepting a headset from Douglas. “Although, Martin, I do hope you’ll be fine on the ground.”
Martin is leaning in through the open door next to Theresa. He smiles, hair ruffled a little by the breeze. “Oh, don’t worry about me. Rules are rules, and there’ll be plenty of chances for Theresa and me to fly together once she converts her license to a European one.”
Theresa beams at Martin as she opens a chart on the tablet she’s mounted over the yoke.
Eventually, Martin bids farewell and shuts the door on her before carefully stepping away from the aircraft and retreating to a safer observation point.
“All right, Theresa, start her up and let’s head out,” Douglas rubs his hands together excitedly.
After receiving clearance and leaving the airfield behind, Theresa gets clearance from ATC to ascend and does so, keeping an eye on the instruments.
They break into a beautiful late-summer afternoon, a patchwork of green unfolding beneath them as they soar above the land.
“That was brilliant!” Arthur exclaims, and Theresa can’t help but smile.
“Thanks,” she grins back at Arthur after completing her checklist.
“Lovely start,” Douglas compliments. “Where were you planning on going?”
“I’m not sure,” Theresa says truthfully. “I mean, I haven’t been around much...Say, Arthur,” she leaves the controls steady and turns around to look at her other passenger. “Have any ideas?”
“Well...I’ve had a song stuck in my head for weeks.”
“That’s certainly helpful. What song?” Douglas asks.
“If you’d happen to know it...it’s a bit old...something about white cliffs?” Arthur suggests.
“White cliffs?” Theresa puts her head to one side.
“Ah!” Douglas hums a few bars. It’s a slow song, Theresa can tell, and a bit sad. She’s surprised—she wouldn’t have expected joyful Arthur, of all people, to be listening to music of that kind of emotion.
But to all people there is contrast, and maybe it’s not so surprising after all.
“Is that the one you were thinking of, Arthur?” Douglas breaks off his humming to ask.
“Yes, that. You’re right,” Arthur nods from the rear of the aircraft.
“What’s the song?” Theresa asks.
“‘The White Cliffs of Dover,’ I’m pretty sure.” Douglas taps his chin. “Oh—Arthur, you’re suggesting we have a look at them?”
“Yes, if Theresa wants.”
“Sure, I’d like that.”
They bank over small towns and head south. Passing London, Douglas helps her to avoid the busier airspace around the major airports, and they continue until the land drops sharply off into the sea.
The aircraft may be one of the most stalwart in the world, and they have full reserve fuel tanks, but the plane has a significant deficit of water survival gear. Theresa makes the decision to hug the coastline and peer down at the exposed and eroded chalk plunging toward the ocean.
“Wow,” Arthur comments, snapping a picture with his phone. “I don’t think we’ve seen them from this low.”
“That’s true,” Douglas chimes in. “We’re normally at a much higher altitude. Look, you can even see people walking along the trail. They still look so small, though.”
They continue to survey the scene below them in silence. After a while of flying along the coast, Theresa consults her timer and finds that they have nearly met the three hours she’d been missing from her log. Douglas notices, too.
“Ever seen Canterbury?” he asks them. Off both their answers to the negative, he says, “We can take a look at the cathedral on the way back up to Fitton.”
“Sure!” Theresa nods.
“Yeah, let’s,” Arthur grins, taking one last photo of the scenery below.
Theresa takes hold of the yoke and banks briefly over the sea before turning back the way they’ve come. For a second, she can imagine that they aren’t turning around and heading back north. Pointing out to sea, she can imagine crossing the Channel and flying over France, and then in the middle of Switzerland and Austria, the Rhine valley. A castle on a hill, a microstate—she can show them her home.
But isn't it the old adage, that home is where the heart is? Because if so, her home is not just there. Her heart is also in a house in Fitton, filled with stories and warmth; a pilot’s room in Zurich, softly lit; a portakabin on an airfield, where she can find comfort; this very aircraft, filled with lessons learned.
Her home is with this family. Where she truly feels as though she belongs—because she does.
She banks, and heads back home.
They end up editing the brochure and the website.
The biggest change comes with an update to the pilots’ photos.
Rather than two pilots, there are now images of three.
Herc and Douglas are pictured together in the studio, looking as if they want to out-dignify the other, the way they’re standing so solemnly. Theresa can’t help but smile every time she sees it—because behind the camera, she and Carolyn were in hysterics watching the two pilots try to outdo one another.
But where is the third pilot?
Below the main pictures of the company is a portrait. A photo of someone standing against a backdrop of the windshield, in G-ERTI’s flightdeck—fresh out of obtaining a type rating to fly her.
It’s Theresa, her epaulettes sporting a new second pair of gold stripes. One elbow propped on the captain’s seat, a gesture that comes naturally. Like she’s always belonged there and will remain.
And the text next to the photo reads: Theresa Liechtenstein, OJS permanent reserve pilot.