Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016, by Fergus Barrowman (ed)
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From: The Society of the Air, by Craig Gamble
Quill waits on the sea-bitten concrete of the stairs. Seaward—at the point where the causeway crumbles into a rough path of stones and sand and pools of stranded water—stands his uncle.
Sid is tall and lean. Quill watches his fingers spin the brass oval of his lighter, and sees the sun catch it so it winks like the beam of a miniature lighthouse. In his grandmother’s house, Quill has watched him pace the front room, his hands busy at his face or hair. He bites the skin around his thumbs until they bleed, and staunches it with a cigarette paper. He talks in short sentences, and few of those are directed at Quill. But his uncle has offered to take him on a walk, over to Foulness Island and back, and Quill is glad to be outdoors. Eager for the sun and ground that does not tilt and plunge like the deck of the ship he still dreams of. Though they have been in England a week now.
Far out across the sand—on a horizon hazy with the remnants of morning mist—lies a silver line. Quill can smell the sea and smell its stain on the water-sheened sand beyond the causeway. But it has retreated to some other country. His uncle has warned him not to stray from the rubble path. An inch under the sand on each side is black mud thick and dark as engine-oil, waiting to claim his shoes and then his feet. There are other dangers on the path, if it can be a path Quill thinks, when it’s wiped away twice a day by the tides. Sid tells him how easy it is to lose your bearings, how the water comes in faster than a man can run. Quill can’t hold these cautions for long. He’s eager to make friends with the new coastline and his uncle. The narrow white beach and miles of empty sand remind him of the upper Manukau back home. There the only menace is the stink of the mangrove mudflats and the bite of sand-flies.
As they start there is a buzz in the sky and above them crawls a boxy aeroplane, double-winged and silver. Close enough to see the open cockpit. A Felixstowe, says Sid, up from the Isle of Grain. Quill knows it’s not a Felixstowe, easy to spot with their huge tailfins and wide hulls. It’s an AD, or maybe a Channel, made by Supermarine. He’s seen both machines from the beach at Canvey Island only the day before, testing out of Port Victoria. His father tells him about engine power, crew size, loaded weights and armaments. Quill can’t explain why none of these things excite him, though he likes the aircraft names and the names of their parts: fuselage, aileron, dihedral. And with seaplanes: float, chine, sister keelson, step. He gathers the names of clouds too. Which ones a pilot can use, and which to avoid.
There is something in the stretched fabric of an aeroplane’s wing, or the polished curve of a hull that holds him. Especially flying boats. The way they lift so slowly from the water; their stubborn crawl into the sky. They are alive. Fragile creatures of wood and wire that balance on the air, always on the edge of falling. Alone, he sometimes imagines the snap of a bracing wire. A crumpling wing wrapping the fuselage like a skeletal hand. Above him the plane has levelled off, its engine settling into a steady drone as it drops away to the north.
When they reach the firmer, tide-ridged sand at the causeway’s end, Quill feels the world open. In the flat, warm country of silver and grey, wide pools of motionless water mirror the sky. The scattered clouds seem to sail along both above his head and under his feet. It’s a fairy-tale land built of cumulus and cumulonimbus. A place of giants. Or better he is flying himself, and glides along with the twittering birds.
Sid stops frequently to check their bearings, using a gunmetal compass that he says is from the war. There are tall poles in the sand to mark the way, but they are widely spaced and easily muddled. Quill asks if he can go barefoot. Sid says yes, it’s the best way, but he will have to carry his own shoes. The sun-warmed water slides around Quill’s bare toes, the sandy ridges massage the soles of his feet. He wonders if the sand has a message for him, one patterned out on its wavy surface. A language he can only hear by walking.
The further out they go the quieter Sid becomes. In the warm air his limbs loosen and lengthen. He strides out to a quickening rhythm conducted by the swing of arms and legs. Several times he gets ahead of Quill, who has been halted by the play of some tiny creature in a pool. But when Quill catches him again, Sid is smiling and patient. The sun is high now, and Quill finds it hard to tell how long they have been walking.
The coastline has flattened to a stripe of white and green. Sid points out the military buildings the army uses to test weapons. To Quill they are just pale, anonymous lumps. More interesting is his own shortening shadow, and the hopping oystercatchers and red knots out from the shoreline to feed. There are no other people, except perhaps miles away where the sea lives. Out there Quill thinks he sees a string of figures, black marks along the line of the low tide. They waver and blur against the haze of distance and sometimes aren’t there at all. He doesn’t mention them to Sid.
They stop at another pole, taller than the others, and adorned with spars that make it look like the mast of a long buried ship. Halfway, says Sid. There is a gap in the coastline that marks the mouth of Havengore Creek, but Sid seems more interested in the swing of the ebb tide, and the mist that still hangs over it. He mutters and shakes his head, as if throwing some thought away. Not a cloud, he says looking up, and we still have an hour before the turn.
They angle toward the beach and as they approach the shoreline again, Quill’s stomach rumbles. His uncle asks him to put his shoes back on. But Quill forgets, distracted by the paper packet of sandwiches emerging from Sid’s backpack. They find a seat on the concrete causeway that is the twin of the one they started from. Sid gives him a mug of warm tea from a tartan thermos.
After he has eaten, Quill lies back and looks straight up into the blue above. His father has promised him a flight, perhaps in one of the new Sea Lion’s, made for racing. Quill thinks about holding his hand on the wooden ribs of the cockpit, and feeling through it the shaking roar of the engine. He is worried only by the possibility of being sick, as he was on the voyage over. His father has told him a flying boat feels nothing like a ship at sea.
They are a little way back onto the sand before Quill realises he has left his shoes where they ate, his socks rolled into them. He stops, watches his uncle stride ahead, and looks behind to the beach. It looks close; close enough to sprint for his shoes and return before he is missed.
He runs. It takes only a short sprint to retrace their route and find his shoes. As he turns, the figure of his uncle is still clear and sharp out on the sands. Sid seems to have stopped, and is somehow twice his normal height. A trick of the pooled water, but Quill runs on more slowly. There is a wink of gold, and he remembers the cigarette lighter.
Sid’s figure is moving. It’s long minutes before Quill realises that what he thinks is his uncle is somehow always at a distance, and could be one of the marker poles. Or something conjured out of the thickening air. He’s walking now. The calls of the feeding birds are closer, then all around, then gone.
The horizon has lurched nearer, and along it walks the line of hazy people again. They are tall like his phantom uncle, but bent, and they waver as if they cannot hold their place on the ground. He calls to them, and they turn his way or seem to. He feels any moment they will walk toward him with their arms out. He thinks he doesn’t want that and runs again, looking back at them as he goes. He calls for his uncle.
Quill no longer trusts the language of the sand, and stops to put on his socks and shoes. He tries to calm his breathing by tying his laces, and then tying them again. Perhaps he would be better barefoot, if he has to swim. He is not a confident swimmer, and when he looks up, his world is shrinking. The edges marked by sea and coast have smudged under a creeping haze. Sid can only be a little way ahead, surely. Waiting by one of the poles that mark the path. Quill stands and looks around for one but he is alone. He does not count the shadow people along the horizon and does not look for them, in case they are closer still.
He is lost. The thought clamps his mind and stops his feet. He shakes it off and makes himself walk. Above his head he finds that even the sun is failing. All around him now the air is thickening and closing in. He can’t tell if he is headed out to sea or back in to the land, and calls until his throat is sore from it.
Quill watches for the sea, knowing the tide will come. Expecting the sound of it to come first. The boom of a breaking wave, the hiss of it over the sand. He grits his teeth and knows that he is fast, he will race it if he has to. But it comes up out of the ground, swelling from the sand until the pools are joined into an inch-deep ocean. The water deepens and swirls around his feet, and running is impossible. And walking against the tide is impossible, so he turns with it. Towards the shore he hopes. Perhaps he will be carried in by the tide, if he can stay afloat long enough. He remembers floating on his back in the harbour back home, and wonders how long he can last.
A foot sinks, and is sucked down so quickly it feels as if someone has wrapped a hand around it and pulled it down. He is on one knee before he can tug his foot free. His shoe and sock are gone when he pulls it clear. The water is up to his knees, and reaches his waist too quickly. Under his bare foot the sand has become soft, unreliable, so he can’t tell what it hides. Through the mist he hears a low hubbub that might be voices. He wonders if the wavering shapes at the horizon have come for him.
Something hits him in the back of the head. Before he can turn it hits him again, and he falls face first into the water. A deep shadow passes over him and seems to gush into his mouth and stop his throat. He struggles against it. There are miles between his struggling hands and feet and the screams in his head. For a moment he hears his father’s voice. His hands push against the sand and find only mud that sucks him down further. Something pulls at his legs. He kicks away, but it grips him by the shoulders and he can’t escape. He can’t push himself out of the water, and he feels his arms go slack. His mind close to a point of light.
He is being lifted, though he can’t see by who. Only the sensation of being lifted up. As if by a circle of hands that holds him from the water. They raise him higher—above their heads—until he floats away.
A sharp smell brings him back. A tightness across his chest. All of him is shaking. Shuddering with cold and with tremors that seem to come up out of the ground. It’s not ground, he realises, as his mind returns. Above his head the sky is blue again. Under his hand the metal edge of the seat to which he is strapped.
One of the wavering people is seated in front of him. Or it’s a pilot in helmet and goggles, haloed against the brightness of the sky. He is in the rear cockpit of two. Behind his head the giant roaring of the engine, the wind an urgent push against his face. He cranes his head to see above the scooped side of the cockpit. But it is only when the aircraft banks that he can properly see the double wings. Close up they are like a cage, a criss-cross of wood and wire. And below them is a sea of white. They are above the clouds, Quill thinks, until he sees a spar of something rising clear. It’s dark and crooked, and to Quill it looks like the branch of a tree. Or perhaps, if he looks harder, the arm of a drowning man.