“For he’s a jolly good fellow!
For he’s a jolly good fellow!
For he’s a jolly good f..e.llo..w!
And so say all of us”
The chorus ended with a raucous cheer and a round of applause. The general held up a hand for silence and gradually got it.
“This is a special day and we are the privileged few who understand its full significance. Let’s raise our glasses and say ‘Many happy returns of the day, Scarlet - and Happy Birthday!’”
“Thank you, General,” Scarlet said, with a modest smile. The celebrations laid on for his birthday had become something of a tradition and the staff of Cloudbase considered them as much part of the holiday calendar as the approaching Christmas festivities.
The music restarted and the elite captains and the young Angel Pilots resumed their dancing.
General White came to join the ‘birthday boy’. “It is good to see them having some fun; it has been tough going these last few months.”
Scarlet nodded. “That’s the way it seems to go: the Mysterons throw everything they’ve got at us for a few months and then they relax. Odd to think that it is settling down into some sort of a pattern.”
The general nodded. “Perhaps I should get the researchers to correlate the incidents of threats with… sun spots, or phases of the moon?”
Scarlet smiled broadly. “Or whether there’s an R in the month…”
“I am serious, Colonel; perhaps it has to do with the orbital route?”
“Sorry, General; I was being facetious. It is always worth looking into anything that might give us the edge over the Mysterons. Being able to tell when they are likely to attack would be a distinct advantage.”
“I wonder, has it been done before?” she remarked, glancing at him with a forgiving smile.
“Not to my knowledge,” he replied, smiling back at her. “But I’m not the oracle; you should check the computers.”
“I will,” she reassured him. “But right now, I want you to dance with me, Colonel. It is a party after all…”
“My pleasure, General White.”
Colonel Scarlet stayed until the last party-goers bade him a friendly ‘goodnight’ and went out of the gym arm in arm. Then he glanced around at the empty hall and wondered if he should start clearing up. He had got as far as stacking the plates and glasses on the buffet table, when the door opened and half-a-dozen cleaners came in, with robo-vacs and waste disposal bins.
“I’ll leave you to it; you’re much better at it then I am,” he said, with a genial salute.
“Thank you, Colonel. Goodnight, sir,” the team leader replied.
“Goodnight,” Scarlet responded, smiling as a young woman called, ‘Happy birthday, sir,’ after him.
He wandered the familiar corridors and stairwells of this venerable old base, recalling sadly that from next year they would be relocating to a new headquarters: a larger, more militaristic version, dubbed ‘Skybase’ by Spectrum’s commanders.
It’s more than time we moved, he thought, sadly, this old girl’s served us well but she’s getting creaky now. I just wish they hadn’t changed the name. I mean, what’s the point? To my mind it doesn’t have the inspiring poetry that Cloudbase does.
He stopped and placed his hand against the smooth, cold wall of the corridor to his quarters. “I’m gonna miss you, Old Girl,” he murmured.
Then he glanced around and shuffled away quickly, in case anyone should see him acting like a certifiable idiot and talking to a machine.
In his quarters, he threw his radio cap onto the table with practised accuracy, unzipped his uniform tunic and sat down to remove his boots. He wiggled his toes in the bright red socks and smiled. It was an old habit started decades ago as a joke by the original Captain Ochre; he had bought every colour captain, and Lieutenant Green, a pair of colour-coded socks for Christmas. Scarlet still continued the custom on high days and holidays, although now he bought his own.
He changed into casual jogging pants and T-shirt, and shoved his feet into sheepskin slippers. He wasn’t sleepy, but he was tired – well, too tired to go back to the gym and work off his excess energy. He flicked on his music centre and picked up the magazine he’d been reading before the party started.
Nights had always been the worst time for him: he didn’t need much sleep and without someone to go to bed with, he often didn’t bother; if he was sleepy he could cat-nap in his chair easily enough. He could’ve patrolled the corridors, but with the new state-of-the-art CCTV system and all the other high-tech gadgetry Cloudbase bristled with, there seemed little point.
He had just finished another article about the global trials and catastrophes that had led to the formation of the World Government when the door bell tinkled.
He went to open it.
“Trudy,” he said in surprise. “I thought you were in Futura?”
“I was,” she replied, with a smile as she gently pushed past him into the room. “But I got away sooner than expected. I’m sorry I missed the party, Paul; but I have bought you a present to make up for it and I thought you might like a little company through the wee small hours while you drink it?”
He chuckled. “If White catches you smuggling booze aboard she’ll do her pretty nut,” he warned her. “Even if it is for me.”
Trudy grinned. “I can handle anything Zeynab can throw at me.” She handed him a long, brown paper bag. “Didn’t have time to wrap it...”
He took it from her and slipped the bottle out of the bag. “Gailbhinn? Captain Argent, this is way too generous. This stuff costs a fortune!”
“You’re worth it, Paul.”
“Ah, Honey… come here…”
He embraced her and pressed his lips to hers. She settled comfortably in his arms and sighed.
“Happy birthday, Handsome,” she whispered.
“It is now…”
He left her sleeping in his bed, her dark hair spread across his pillow, and went back to the living area. The whisky stood on the table where he’d left it and he smiled at the thought of her impetuous generosity. It had long been his favourite brand but it had gone out of production a decade ago. It would be something he would cherish for many years to come, but right now, his mind was on something else.
He walked to the neat bookcase and removed a couple of bound volumes. Nestled behind them was a cylindrical leather bottle case. He drew it out and took it to the armchair, placing it carefully on the low coffee table alongside. Then he went to the cupboard over the microwave and hotplate that constituted his kitchenette, and took out an elaborately crafted thistle-shaped crystal glass.
Back at the armchair he sat down and placed the glass on the table before opening the bottle case. He drew out an identical bottle to the one Trudy had given him, except that this one was almost empty, and poured the remains of it into the glass.
He screwed the lid back on and settled back in the chair, nursing the glass in his hands. He sniffed in the aroma and let the memories come flooding back.
Captain Blue – as he was then – and Captain Ochre had rushed back to Cloudbase with this bottle of his favourite whisky, that was the same age as he was. He remembered the delight on his friends’ faces as he’d stammered his thanks and clutched the precious bottle to his chest. Every year since then he had taken one drink from it, stretching it out across the decades, until now. He remembered Blue refusing to share that specific bottle whenever he’d offered – and he had offered often enough. There had been other whiskies for other occasions that he had shared with his American friends, but this one had remained special.
He inhaled once more and felt his eyes moisten and his throat growing uncomfortably hot and constricted as the memories grew stronger.
Captain Blue, determined to kill, firing at him at the London Car-Vu and later on, apologising for saving him from an eternity of Mysteron enslavement. Blue at his wedding to the vivacious Symphony Angel and then acting as Best Man at his own wedding to his adored Dianne – Rhapsody Angel.
Captain Ochre, laughing at some outrageous practical joke he’d perpetrated against an unsuspecting colleague or frowning in concentration as he worked on another exquisite model aircraft. Ochre, listening in disbelief as Colonel Blue told him of the death-in-action of his partner and close friend, Captain Magenta, and then, a few years later, Ochre’s stoical solemnity as he explained why he had decided it was time to retire.
The horrendous days surrounding the death of General Blue, which had also led to Dianne’s death, and the loneliness of the decades that had followed as he lost everyone who had really understood what had happened to him: the first Colonel White; Dr Fawn, a man obsessed with understanding retrometabolism and who had died disappointed; Captain Grey and Destiny Angel; Melody and Harmony Angels and – perhaps, most of all – the heartbroken Symphony Angel, who, bereft of the man she had adored, lived out a solitary existence until her mind was unable to cope and retreated into a happier past where her husband was expected back at any moment.
The one happiness that had alleviated this litany of woe was his son’s marriage to Blue’s illegitimate daughter. That was a great success – the pair were as close as ever he had been with Dianne, or Blue with Symphony - and he was consoled by the fact that their children were now grown enough to have families of their own – in fact, he was a great-grandfather several times over.
Scarlet smiled and raised his glass to Adam and Freya Metcalfe and their children and grandchildren. He never saw them now, for the danger of the secret of his retrometabolism becoming known were greater than ever.
He hoped that, in time, memories of the Mysterons’ first act of retaliation against the Earth and the man who, acting under their control, had kidnapped the World President, would fade. But, even then, he was unsure how his family would cope with the fact of his indestructibility – his only – and dearly-loved - daughter, witnessing it for the first time, had been traumatised to the extent that she had never felt truly comfortable with her father again. It was not something he wanted to subject the people he loved to ever again.
For a moment he considered if, on this occasion, he should call Adam and say ‘hi’. He felt relatively sure his son would appreciate it; after all, he had sent a card and photos of his grandchildren.
The whisky was warm as it slipped down his throat, and he sighed.
Was I right to cut myself off from them as much as I have done? Could I have done otherwise? It must have seemed harsh to them, but surely they could see how much worse it was for me? I know the day will come when I will have to face the deaths of my children. What I don’t know is how I will be able to face it – all I know is that it would be much worse if I’d been there beside them every day.
He bit back the tears and sipped again at the whisky.
Seems like I may have eternal youth, because I’m just as I was on the day of the Mysteron-induced car crash. They used me to abduct the World President and that led to Blue tracking me down and killing me. If he hadn’t, and he hadn’t killed me there, at the top of the Car Vu, I might still have been a Mysteron slave. I guess having perpetual youth is better than living forever without staying young… but, God, sometimes it is so lonely.
His thoughts strayed to the young woman in the bed. Trudy Goodwin had proved to be the first woman he’d felt anything for that was even remotely akin to the love he’d had for Dianne. She was an unassuming woman from Alberta in Canada, and she said she was happy to be his friend ‘with benefits’, if that’s what it took to be close to him. She certainly had never even hinted that she expected marriage or, indeed, any kind of commitment from him and, for his part, he had been brutally honest with her from the start, and left her in no doubt that he would never marry again and would never have any more children. He would miss her very much when she left him – and she would leave, he knew that. She would find a man – a normal man – to marry and raise kids with and perhaps, some day, she’d look back and wonder how her indestructible and seemingly immortal lover was coping with the next phase of his life.
Until then: thank God for Trudy!
He sat on in silent reverie for what seemed to him like several hours when suddenly he was interrupted by the soft purr of the videophone. He crossed to the wall-mounted screen and checked the number. After a moment’s hesitation he pressed ‘accept’.
It was an outside call and opened as ‘sound only’, as all non-Spectrum origin calls did.
“Hello?” a familiar voice said.
Scarlet’s heart was pounding painfully. He found it impossible to speak.
“Colonel Scarlet, is that you?” the voice asked with a hint of uncertainty.
“Yes,” he replied quietly. The sound of a relieved gasp came from the video-phone. “What do you want?” he asked rather sharply.
“We want to talk to you, of course.” There was definite relief and affection in the speaker’s voice. “We want to wish you a very happy birthday – today of all days!”
“We can’t see you yet; I know there can be a delay, depending on where the base is, but it doesn’t take this long. Have you activated the screen?”
Scarlet’s hand hovered over the video-screen button, but he couldn’t find the courage to press it. After a long moment’s delay, the voice said:
“Please, Colonel Scarlet; please activate the screen. We have security clearance – you know we do.”
Scarlet said nothing but shook his head in a mute agony of indecision. He wanted to – he so wanted to, but at what cost? Even if it didn’t hurt them, he knew it would crucify him.
“Colonel Scarlet? Can you hear me? Why won’t you open the screen? Please…” the voice begged, almost choking. “Please, Dad – open the screen.”
Scarlet stood motionless, tears streaming down his face.
“Dad! Please, Dad – please…”
Trudy’s hand appeared from nowhere and pressed the screen button. She stood beside Scarlet, her hand resting gently on his arm as the screen came into focus.
The face on the viewer was very like Scarlet’s, with a strong chin and bright blue eyes, but the hair was grey and receding slightly from a high forehead. The face was lined as was normal for a man in his late middle-age. Yet the smile that broke out on that face as he saw Scarlet was a timeless one of pure happiness and emotion mixed. Then his lips trembled and he shook his head, covering his mouth with his hand, unable to speak for a moment.
“Oh, Dad…” he gasped through his fingers, quite heedless of the tears that spilled down his cheek.
Scarlet wiped a brisk hand across his eyes. “H…hello, Ace,” he managed to say, without stumbling too much. “G…good to see you, son.”
“You too, Dad… You’re looking so well…”
Scarlet smiled and Adam Metcalfe shook his head at his own stupidity. “Occupational hazard,” Scarlet reminded him gently. “You’re looking well – how’s the family?”
“Great; they all wanted to be here with me – look!”
Metcalfe flicked to wide angle and Scarlet could see Freya and both sets of the twins: Adam and Paul, and Robert and Dianne, in the background. The young men waved and Dianne blew him a kiss. Scarlet’s gaze travelled along the line and stopped in amazement, for next to Freya, clinging to her arm for support, was Susannah – his beloved daughter.
“Suzie,” Scarlet breathed. “Oh my darling Sue…”
“Daddy…” Susannah gasped and then dissolved into tears, resting her head against Freya’s shoulder as she stared at the video screen.
“Hello, Paul,” Freya said to cover the emotional silence. “Happy birthday, darling.”
Her children chorused the same refrain and Scarlet, visibly struggling to keep control of his heightened emotions, thanked them in a somewhat muffled voice.
Adam Metcalfe, who had recovered something of his habitual poise by now, spoke again: “Dad, we’ve talked about it and decided that we all want to you to come here for Christmas. I know you said you wouldn’t come again and that it was too big a wrench for you to have to leave us all – and we understand, we really do! But… but we miss you. We hear all the things you’ve been doing and… we miss you, so much. Just let us see you – one last time? We won’t ask again… Please?”
As her husband was robbed of his voice by his emotion, Freya Metcalfe came to his aid. She stepped forward and explained:
“Paul, it’ll only be us – just the family - for Boxing Day. Suzie’s agreed with Alistair and the kids that she’ll come and visit Longwood and the twins have arranged it with their partners and spouses and God knows who. Please, say you’ll come?”
Scarlet was speechless. Seeing them all was a double-edged sword – it was all he had really wanted and all he had really dreaded. The offer was even worse.
“I’d love to,” he admitted without realising he was speaking aloud, “but…”
“But me no buts!” Freya interjected. “Look, Paul, we all know everything there is to know already, and imagine how it feels for us, knowing you are there and you are… as you always were – and we’re here, growing older and missing you, just as Ace said. It would mean the world to us, to all of us, if you’ll come.”
Still Scarlet hesitated.
From where she was standing, Trudy could see that he was aching to go; that these unknown people meant far more to him than she would ever do. Her heart went out to all of them – to her lover and to his family.
She knew Scarlet was indestructible and that he was much older than he looked, but she had never really comprehended, until this moment, what the reality of that unique situation was. These middle-aged people and their grown up children were his children and grandchildren and he had denied himself the consolation of their love and support for – probably – decades.
Anxious at his father’s slow response, Adam Metcalfe added his own, rather inarticulate support for his wife’s appeal; yet still Scarlet did not reply.
Suddenly, Trudy took a small step forward into the video camera zone and spoke for the first time:
“ He’ll be there, Mr Metcalfe. I’ll see that he gets there.”
Adam Metcalfe looked rather surprised at the sudden appearance of this young woman, in such informal garb. “Thank you…eh?”
“Captain Argent,” Trudy said, and glancing down at Scarlet’s red dressing gown that was wrapped around her naked body, she added, “Off duty, of course.”
“Of course,” Adam Metcalfe replied, with a somewhat bemused smile. “Thank you, Captain Argent. I - and my family- will appreciate it if you would make sure he arrives. There’s room for a helicopter to land in the paddock beyond the house.”
“I’m sure Colonel Scarlet will be able to give me directions,” Trudy replied, with some amusement.
“Yes, of course he can,” Metcalfe said apologetically. “How stupid of me…”
Freya Metcalfe leant forward slightly, as if to get a better view of the young woman, and said “Thank you, Captain Argent. Of course, you are more than welcome to stay as well.”
Trudy shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I wouldn’t want to intrude on a family gathering; I can keep myself busy and I’ll collect him when it is time to leave.”
“You’re awfully sure General White will give us both the time off, aren’t you?” Scarlet asked her, speaking for the first time in a while and sounding far more like his usual self.
She glanced up at him. “You leave the general to me, Paul. Zeynab owes me one - or two -and I’m gonna collect.” She turned back to include the watchers on the video-screen. “This year should be a special one for you and your family, Paul… Colonel Scarlet, I mean – so I don’t see how the general could object to a couple of 24-hour passes. After all, it isn’t everyone who gets to celebrate their hundredth birthday and Christmas, is it?”
“Certainly not in the style you appear to have been doing, Paul,” Freya said, with a jovial chuckle. “We’ll expect to see you in time for breakfast on Boxing Day; and please, Captain Argent, if you change your mind – I meant what I said - you would be most welcome.”
The time limit for the call was almost over, so, with many professions of love and best wishes, the family said goodbye.
As the screen darkened there was a stillness and silence in the room that lasted for several minutes.
Then Trudy, glancing at her lover to see that he had recovered his equilibrium, remarked, “You gonna open that whisky, Hon? ‘Cause I could sure do with a slug of it.”
“Yeah. Yeah, why not? I’ll only be a hundred once…” He turned and smiled at her.
Captain Argent laughed and reached across to give him a kiss that was full of promise.
“Now that really is worth celebrating,” she said affectionately.
For the 10th Anniversary of the website, I wanted to write something about a birthday that would have some special significance for Captain Scarlet, and it occurred to me that his 100th birthday would be just such a suitable occasion.
In the future that I have written for Scarlet, he loses his wife and best friend in 2100 and, some years later, takes the decision to distance himself from his children and their families once his grandchildren become old enough to question his unique ability to remain as a 31-year old man, however old he actually is.
I feel this time would be an especially hard one for Paul Metcalfe: his children are still alive and there would be nothing too remarkable in his living to be a hundred. However, the deception that would be necessary to prevent the secret of his retrometabolism leaking out beyond his immediate family would have grown increasingly complex and I do not believe that it is in his nature to lie so prodigiously. Therefore, to protect his children and grandchildren, he made the decision to remove himself from the lives of those he loved most.
I hope I have managed to convey something of the emotional cost continually paid by Scarlet and those close to him as a result of the War of Nerves against the Mysterons.
My thanks, as ever, go to Hazel Köhler for beta-reading the penultimate version of this story. Therefore, I can honestly say, hand on heart, that any mistakes in the text are mine and mine alone. (Sorry, Hazel; my only excuse is that the Inspiration Fairy delivered some last minute tweakage.)
Chris Bishop is the indefatigable webmaster and leader of the band of international reprobates familiarly known as The Scarletinis. Her ‘Scarlet’ fiction is an inspiration to me and an example of how it should be done. I strive to emulate, but fear I fall far short. I extend my thanks to her for allowing me to post my stories on her wonderful site and for sharing her enthusiasm and friendship with me for the past ten years.
‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’™ does not belong to me. It is the property of Carlton, I think, and the brainchild of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. It was bought to life by a wonderful production team in the late 1960s and lives on in my imagination. My heartfelt thanks to all of those involved.
Finally, thank you for reading. I am sure you will join me in wishing Paul Metcalfe another very happy birthday.
11 December 2011