"Have you been fiddling with that tie again? Come here." Michelle grabbed Noel by the shoulders to square him up, then held him there with a look as her fingers transformed the dead moth at his throat back into something resembling a bow tie.
"I knew I should have got one of the ready-tied ones," he grumbled, pouting but secretly enjoying the attention she was lavishing on him, and looking forward at the same time to a rare boys-only night out.
She examined him carefully, trying to make out if he was really upset or merely acting up. He gave her her answer by kissing her lightly on the end of her nose. "Look after yourself, Love," he said as he wriggled into the unfamiliar constraints of the rented dinner jacket, "and if anything happens... you know the number." With that, he was gone.
Michelle returned upstairs, quite glad that she wasn't expected to go along to Hugh's birthday dinner, and not at all worried by the "men only" nature of the evening. She knew that they were glad to be able to do some male bonding without her for once, and contentedly got back to folding clothes and packing them into her holdall. She had just walked into the bathroom to get her washbag when she suddenly realised the floor was all wet.
~ o ~
Noel was almost out to Clarinbridge when his pager went off. It didn't matter how many years he had the damned thing, it always made his heart skip a beat when it went off, and tonight more so than usual. The high-pitched beeping almost made him miss the brake lights on the car in front, but he stopped just in time and pulled over to the side of the road. His overcoat was on the back seat, and he had to take off his seatbelt to reach around for it. After a brief bout of fumbling, his fingers seemingly unwilling or unable to follow his brain's instructions to them, he plucked the pager out and read the message. "Report to Station". What terrible luck! There would be no dinner tonight after all.
~ o ~
In the changing rooms he chatted to Hugh as they got out of their dress shirts and into their flying overalls.
"It could only happen to me." Hugh laughed. "My fiftieth birthday, and I'll be buzzing around out there over Galway Bay, dangling you on the end of a rope."
"Oh, you love it." Noel replied. "You feel more at home out there than you ever could in a stupid penguin suit - and younger, too. What about your other guests, did you call them?"
"Oh, most of them will be out there too. Apart from the guys from the lifeboat crew there was only my brother, and he'll be happy enough down there in the dry, swigging down the claret I had lined up for you all."
As they walked out onto the pad and climbed aboard the chopper, Noel surveyed the sky. It looked more like February weather than May, the light of the long evening blotted out by a huge black cloud with a feeling of menace about it. He climbed aboard and squeezed the shoulder of young Brendan, the stand-in pilot, giving him a thumbs-up of encouragement. Noel knew the lad was fully trained, but this was his first placement with Air-Sea Rescue and the rest of the crew would have felt more comfortable in that forbidding sky with the pilot they knew - and loved.
~ o ~
Meanwhile, the hands that normally held that joystick with calm assurance were instead gripping the rails on a trolley as it was wheeled into the University Hospital's Accident & Emergency Department. The Doctor looked down at the pilot's anguished face and smiled gently. "We don't normally see you like this. It must be quite strange for you to be here as a patient, not checking up on some poor soul you've just plucked out of the Bay. Now, how often are they coming?"
~ o ~
The full details of the call were only now coming through on the helicopter's radio. It seemed that a certain Padraig Keady, up from Tipperary, had decided to take his son Tommy out into the Bay for a Saturday afternoon's fishing trip. The boat in which they'd gone out was not really suited to being so far offshore, and Keady clearly wasn't aware just how quickly bad weather could sweep in off the Atlantic. Their engine simply wasn't powerful enough to let them outrun the sudden storm. His wife, back in their cottage in Renmore, had phoned the coastguard to express her fear at the worsening of the weather. Luckily for the misadventurers, a man from Carrownabranra had been out walking his dog and seen their distress flare. The coastguards had connected the dots, and now the rescue helicopter was heading out across Aughnish and turning towards Deer Island, the line on which the pair had last been seen.
Brendan was circling now, but as usual it was Hugh who was the first to spot the vessel in distress. "Off to port, about five hundred metres. The boat's overturned." Noel was amazed by his winchman's ability to spot trouble from a great height, a talent for which Noel himself had had occasion to be thankful on many an occasion. "I can see one figure holding on. Looks like an adult male."
Brendan held them hovering over the upturned shell as Hugh carefully lowered Noel down to sea level. He grabbed hold of the hull and heaved himself, hand over hand, to the stricken sailor. The man was exhausted, head drooped down so that his face was regularly swamped by the waves. Noel grabbed him and began clipping him into the safety harness, and as he was finishing the man looked up past his rescuer's shoulder, and gasped. "My son!"
Around the two men the sea thrashed and raged, driven by the fierce winds into foam-capped peaks towering over deep troughs, dark as blood. Noel struggled and turned, battling against the elements and the twisting of his rope, until a vivid ginger head popped into view, soon followed by the even brighter orange of the boy's lifejacket. Hugh saw it too, and signalled the direction to Brendan. In his eagerness, the pilot misjudged the swinging of his dangling human load and sent the two men swinging smack into the boat's hull. Noel was momentarily dazed, but hearing a voice crying out above the tearing winds, he instinctively held out a hand and felt it grabbed by a much smaller one. With one tug the child was firmly against his chest, and he held him there with one arm - he would have to hold him, because there was no other harness. He looked up at Hugh and once more gave the thumbs-up signal. The winchman grinned back and started to hoist up the three bedraggled figures, like drawing water from a well.
Tommy was surprisingly light. He couldn't be more than nine or ten years old, and Noel was suddenly filled with rage at the father's irresponsibility, but a look across at Padraig told him that now was not the time; the man's energy was spent and he had passed out. Despite his years of dangling on the end of a rope, Noel still hated looking down from any height - they were now half way back up to the safety of the helicopter - but he did so, to check up on the boy. Tommy's head was covered in blood, and Noel wanted to check it out immediately. A bent knee took enough of Tommy's weight to free up one hand again, and Noel was able to pull a handkerchief from his pocket. As he did so, another scrap of cloth dived out and floated away on the air currents. It tumbled down towards the lifeboat, arriving now rapidly but too late to be of any use, and he smiled to see the crew waving their congratulations, one of them holding up a handwritten sign saying, "Happy 50th Birthday, Hugh". It more than made up for the fact that he now owed Joe Greene Dress Hire the price of a new bow tie.
Returning his attention to the bundle still held tightly in his left arm, Noel had to wipe the boy's face clean twice before bursting out laughing as he realised that it was not Tommy, but his own head which was bleeding.
~ o ~
Just as Noel was wiping the blood off young Tommy's head, so back at the hospital a nurse was gently towelling an even smaller head clean. Michelle smiled as the infant boy was passed over to her, and cradled him lovingly in her arms.
~ o ~
"I've heard all about you." Michelle ribbed Brendan, bluntly but kindly. "Don't you be trying to kill my husband any more!"
They all laughed, joy and relief - as well as people - filling the private room. Michelle's parents were there, and so was Hugh, passing round his flask of whiskey. This was more his idea of a party than the formal dinner he'd had arranged. A sheepish-looking Padraig Keady had joined them, his wrist in plaster, having left his son fast asleep and recovering from his ordeal further down the hall. Michelle sat by the bed with her new-born son held tenderly to her. He was to be called Tommy in memory of the day's events, and slept now every bit as soundly as his namesake. Lying in the bed, Noel protested that his head looked worse than it felt.
"I'm just glad," he grinned, "that we all got through today in one piece. And go easy on this lad, Michelle, he'll do just fine - at least until you're ready to come back to work and finish me off!"