News from Gardenia

By Robert Llewellyn

A sci-fi novel by the star of Red Dwarf set 200 years in the future

I undid my seat belt, opened the canopy and clambered out of the plane. The first thing that struck me was the silence. Not some spooky man-made laboratory silence, but the complete lack of the rumble. I realized that it was a sound, or lack of sound I’d only heard once before when I was in a mountainous region of Norway.

Man-made rumble, even in remote rural areas in the United Kingdom was always discernable. I stood still for a moment, straining my ears as I tried to sense what was different. It wasn’t silent – I could hear copious birdsong all around me, but it was peaceful in some way I found slightly unsettling. The familiar distant rumble I’d heard all my life, I suppose the background rumble of traffic, distant aircraft and machinery was absent. There was nothing. It was like Christmas day or a quiet early Sunday morning in midsummer.

But I knew it was a Friday in mid-May and I was near the urban areas of Reading, Didcot, half a dozen flight paths heading to and from Heathrow. There was the M4, dozens of busy A and B roads crisscrossing the area – this, after all, was a major reason behind my choice of transportation.
By car my journey would have taken 2 hours on the heavily congested British road network, instead of twenty minutes by electric plane.

I glanced at the approaching group of what I took to be farm workers. The machine they were on was moving, but it too seemed silent. I could quite easily hear the happy chatter of the people on board the trailer but no familiar clattering diesel tractor engine reached my straining lugs.

As they pulled close I realized at once I’d never seen a machine like it and let’s face it, I was just the
sort of techie bloke who should know all about it. This was well within my field of knowledge and yet the tractor-type machine the people were being conveyed by looked most peculiar. It moved along silently except for the sound of the large almost balloon like soft rubber tyres on the ground. As it got much closer I could just pick out a faint mechanical hum coming from within its unusual plastic-looking bodywork.

‘Well I never,’ said a very old man who jumped in a surprisingly sprightly way from the trailer. ‘That’s a Yuneec E430.’

I smiled and raised my eyebrows. No one ever knew what my plane was.

‘It is indeed,’ I said and the man shook hands with me heartily. ‘You are the first person I’ve met who actually knows the plane.’

‘Good landing. I’ve never seen one land before – it must be an extraordinary experience.’

The two people riding on the trailer, a middle-aged man and a younger woman, came and stood beside the old man, looking at me with eager smiling faces.

‘That is amazing,’ said the young woman. ‘How did you learn to operate it?’

I smiled at her, not knowing what else to do.

‘Well, I, um, I had to train as a pilot, you know, in a regular plane.’

‘A regular plane,’ said the middle-aged man with a broad smile. ‘What’s this then, an irregular plane?’

Although his statement could have been a mildly irritating criticism, he didn’t seem to mean it that way. His smile seemed genuine and inquisitive.

‘I’m very sorry to land in your field,’ I said. ‘I got a little alarmed when I saw that.’

I pointed at the blue line splitting the skyline to the north.

‘Oh, the tether,’ said the old man. ‘Of course, that might be a hazard if you didn’t see it.’

‘A hazard! It’s a fucking death trap!’ I laughed, then stopped. Even with my mildly stunted sensitivity

I had sensed that my foul language might not have been appropriate.

‘Sorry, s’cuse my French but it gave me the fright of my life. What on earth is that thing?’

‘It’s the tether,’ said the young woman. ‘It’s Didcot tether, it’s been there for . . .’

The older man held up his hand and the young woman fell silent mid-sentence.

‘Where are you headed?’ the old man asked.

‘Where have you come from?’ asked the young woman. ‘Have you been unwell?’

I smiled. ‘No, I’m fine, I’ve just come from Enstone airfield.’

The old man turned to his comrades. ‘Up north in Oxfordshire.’ The other two nodded. The young woman said, ‘I know that, Father, I have seen a map.’

‘I was on my way to Basingstoke. I’m on my way to a meeting which I think I’m now going to miss,’ I said as I glanced at my watch.

‘A meeting. Goodness me,’ said the old man.

‘Is it a hall meeting?’ said the middle-aged man. Again his slightly flat delivery made the question sound peculiar.

‘No, no, sorry, it’s a meeting of my company.’

‘Your company,’ said the old man. ‘Goodness me, what does a company do, what do you do?’

‘I’m an engineer.’

‘Isn’t that marvellous, an engineer,’ said the old man. ‘What a wonderful thing to do. Do you have an area of speciality?’

I resisted the temptation to be snide – the questions seemed so naïve and yet they didn’t look stupid. They did look weird; their clothes were a bit strange, not disturbing strange but it looked like they’d really made an effort to look different, to look like well-dressed peasants. I wondered if they were members of some sort of cult. I answered them as best I could.

‘Well, strictly speaking I specialize in mechanical engineering; it’s a broad spectrum of heavy engineering products, mainly connected with ore extraction, mining, but more recently with renewable energy generation systems, large-scale stuff.’

All three people stood staring at me. It suddenly felt like I was speaking to people in Turkey or Croatia who didn’t have a word of English between them.

‘Mining,’ said the old man. ‘Ah, goodness me. Mining. Digging holes in the ground?’

‘Fairly big holes,’ I said. ‘Not here in the UK, usually in Australia or China, and just recently South America, in Bolivia.’

They all nodded.

‘I didn’t know people did that any more,’ said the woman. I smiled – I think it might have been a pained smile; I was really trying to be nice. However there was something slightly hippy-ish about the woman. What she said entirely fitted the stereotype of someone who happily made use of the products I helped produce while publicly shunning the process that brought them to be, but there seemed no judgement in her voice, simply a statement of fact.

‘Well,’ said the old man after a slightly awkward silence. ‘Although I’d love to stand here and chat away all the livelong day, I fear we have work to do. We are weeding the field and we still have a lot to get through.’

‘Yeah, I’m really sorry mate,’ I said, ‘I really didn’t have much choice, the sat nav’s kaput and I can’t get any signal on my phone. I’m a bit buggered, to be honest.’
I glanced down at the small wheels of the plane. They were dug well into the soft earth beneath the tall oil seed stalks.

‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to take off from here. I had to make a slightly unorthodox landing.
I got very confused when I was looking for somewhere to safely put down.’

The three people glanced at each other. ‘Well, allow us to help get your machine to the edge of the field,’ said the middle-aged man. ‘You see we need to go through here to pull weeds.’

They immediately busied themselves by unhitching the large trailer from the back of the tractor-like machine, then the middle-aged man expertly manoeuvred the machine to the rear of the plane.

He climbed off and unwound what looked like cotton thread from a small spool mounted on the rear
of the machine. It had a tiny steel clip attached to the end, which he looped around the rear tow coupling and clipped it together. I started laughing – it was like watching a child with a toy plastic spanner trying to undo the wheel nut of a fifty-ton earth-mover.

‘I don’t think that’s going to do much mate, you need more than a cotton thread to haul it. I mean, it’s not that heavy but . . .’

I stood motionless, my mouth hanging open as the silent tractor pulled the Yuneec backwards without any perceivable effort. The thin thread did not break.

I followed on foot accompanied by the old man and the younger woman.

‘I’m a little confused as to where I am,’ I said. I looked around, trying to spot a landmark on the horizon. One thing was certain, the Didcot power station chimney was huge; surely I should be able to see it.

‘You are just beside Goldacre Hall,’ said the old man. ‘My name is Halam, by the way. Sorry, with all the excitement of your wonderful flying machine, I have completely forgotten my manners.’

‘Gavin, Gavin Meckler,’ I said and we shook hands again. The old man’s hands were strong and thick-skinned.

‘This is my daughter, Grace.’

I shook hands with Grace, small, elegant hands which again had clearly experienced hard manual labour.

‘How do you do,’ she said with what could have been a slightly suggestive smile. For the first time, as usual with me, I suddenly noticed that Grace was a rather attractive young woman. I quickly put the thought out of my mind; things were bad enough with Beth already.

We approached the edge of the field, where a strip of unplanted land ran along beside a high hedge.

‘Ahh, this is a little more hopeful,’ I said, trying to assess the length of the open strip of grass. I grimaced because at either end of the strip was a standing of very mature Ash trees. ‘Or maybe not.’

‘Oh dear, is there a problem?’ asked the old man Halam. He was scratching his head and looking slightly uncomfortable.

‘No, no, well, I am only trying to find somewhere I can take off.’

‘Take off what?’ said Grace, she was still smiling broadly.

‘Sorry, the plane, get airborne, take off, fly,’ I said. Maybe this slightly attractive woman was also slightly stupid. Take off what? What a bloody stupid question

‘Oh, I see.’ Grace nodded and looked at her father. I thought she was about to say something and then the old man gently interjected.

‘I think we need some help here,’ said Halam. ‘Why don’t you go back to the house with Grace and have a nice cup of tea. I will go and see a good neighbour who is far better informed than I and we can try and sort something out.’

I shrugged. ‘Okay, not much else I can do at the moment. Maybe I can make a few calls on your land-line,’ I said.

The old man put his hand on my arm. ‘Just go with Grace, have a cup of something warm, relax, I’ll return in no time at all.’

I watched as the man on the tractor pulled to a halt. I walked up to the plane to inspect the damage.

The Yuneec looked fine, a few stalks of oil seed plants wrapped around the undercarriage, possibly a little paint damage to the propeller tips where they’d scythed their way through the foliage, but thankfully nothing disastrous. I turned and looked at Grace. She was standing in the bright sunlight with one hand on her hip, staring at me.

‘When you’re ready,’ she said. I followed her and we walked towards a small gate in the hedge.

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