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Paper Aeroplanes

by Midnight_Sun 

Posted: 10 June 2011
Word Count: 2217

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I am gazing down over my street in Finchley; the warm sun on my back. A rustling sound fills everything, like avenues of swaying trees in an empty world; devoid of any other noise. All around me are paper aeroplanes; fluttering in brilliant white against the blue; I am gliding on the freest breeze for what seems like eternity. Suddenly the rattle of an Ack-ack gun; bullets whoosh past; the flimsy wings are full of holes, and now I am falling...

I awaken with a gasp. The dream escapes me as my eyes adjust; it is well after dawn. Daylight slices through a gap in the curtains, illuminating specks of dust trapped in its pale beam. The anaemic light filters through this sparsely furnished room, dimly lighting my surroundings; a tiny single bed with a lumpy mattress, and musty, coarse woollen sheets. An ancient dark-stained wardrobe; the door hanging off its hinge, and by the window, a dilapidated Edwardian writing desk, strewn with old books, and half eaten plates of food. Reality sinks in. I’m Ivan; seventeen, and motherless. My father flies a Halifax heavy bomber in the RAF: Bomber Command. I am stuck here with my grandfather; a sullen old man, almost a stranger. The farm dates back to nineteen hundred or so, and I doubt much has changed; there is no electricity or running water. It’s as old fashioned as my grandfather; an inhabited shrine to austerity. It suits him.

I sit up and listen. The jackdaws bicker in rasping craws at one another. There’s a rhythmic thud and crack of a hatchet splitting wood; that’s my grandfather. The chinking rattle of chains and a sharp bark; that’s Bess the collie, she’s just a pup; a present from my father. He volunteered in November. I wish I was out there fighting with him. He said the war wouldn’t last long; that we’d be sure to beat Hitler in no time. So for now, I have promised to take care of the dog. It’s been over two months since his last letter. Maybe I’ll receive word soon. He might come walking up the lane any minute. I hope so, but I am sort of afraid too. I might disappoint him if I break my promise. My grandfather has taken to chaining Bess up, says she is just a nuisance; he keeps threatening to shoot her. I don’t think my father would be happy with me if I let that happen to an innocent creature.

Silently I swing my legs out onto the bare wooden floor; the boards creak in time with the crack of the bones in my naked feet, as I cross to the window. I hear the drone of an aeroplane and scan the sky, but cannot see it. Beyond the zinc roof of the hay shed, the skeletal trees stretch their branches out; like ragged black veins. The grey bulging clouds swallow the fields into a wet mist; out towards the Norfolk Broads. A deathly dull nothingness; I really miss London. My grandfather is standing in the yard; framed in the cracked, cobwebbed window pane; a great hulk of a man in his sixties; white haired, with a deeply furrowed, weather-beaten face. I watch as he aims precisely, swings the hatchet, and splits the wood down the middle; like an executioner.

The minutes on the clock tick blindly by; ten past ten and counting. A soulless mechanism with clacking hands; I think how work worn and callused my own look. They’d be of more use holding a rifle instead of a stupid shovel. My stomach churns with emptiness. A plate of leftover fried potatoes and bread sits next to a black and white photo of my mother and father; how happy they look. The sight of hardened dripping on the plate disgusts me. I hate this food. I pick up the photo; my index finger traces around their smiling faces, and I swallow back a creeping pressure rising in my throat.

‘Ivan!’ my grandfather startles me with his half spluttered roar, a disease has eaten its way into his body over many years; breathing in fungal spores from hay and silage; “farmer’s lung” the doctor said. I don’t know why anyone would work in a job if they know it is killing them.

A heavy sigh escapes my nostrils as I lift my dirty work clothes from the floor; they seem like a lead weight. I shake out the dried in mud from yesterday’s toil. It is so boring; soul destroying. I cannot wait for that letter, but console myself with imaginings of what it is like to fly in an aeroplane; or shoot a gun. Anyway, it won’t be long till I find out, with any luck. The hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Hastily dressed; I make my way downstairs, and out into the sulphurous smell of slurry that hangs heavy in the cold air.

‘Those logs want baggin and put in the shed.’

I stamp in gritted slaps across the wet gravel, in oversized hobnail boots, with an armful of hessian sacks, and do a mock salute behind my grandfather’s back. Resting on my haunches, I pick up the slippery, splintered, mouldy smelling logs.

‘S’pose you’ll not be right awake sayin as yer just up.’ The words rumble out of his vocal chords into a breathless wheeze; he clears his phlegm filled throat, and spits out a glob of yellow slime. ‘Should av been up hours ago!’

Yes sergeant. No sergeant. ‘The alarm clock isn’t working properly.’ My grandfather is standing over me, watching as I tie the ends of the heaving sacks. I want to ask him if any letters have arrived yet. My half smile contorts into a frown, as if something bitter has touched my tongue, for I see his glowering look; my courage saps from me as he interjects:

‘Ain’t my problem …you’ll av to pay yer way ere and it ain’t no holiday camp … no molly coddlin from me … I ain’t your …’ His voice trails off. Taking a deep rasping breath, he lets out a rattled sigh, straightening his back he turns and says, ‘when you finish baggin them you can clean that over there.’

‘The privy?’

‘Aye … and the bedding wants changed in them there stalls … after you’ve mucked em out.’

‘But ...’

‘I can’t go doin it ... my lungs are buggered as it is!’

‘I wasn’t comp …’

‘You needn’t bother to … your father ...’

‘Did I get a letter ... anything?’

My grandfather pauses for a moment, looks at the ground and then says ‘Just get on with it … any letters come I’ll be sure to give em to you’.

I heave a sack awkwardly onto my back; its sharp edged lumps jut into me. He’s such a liar. Bess begins to whine and runs out towards me, but the chain only lets her go so far; she barks in frustration. I feel like throwing the sack down, and walking off. Instead I toss it into a corner of the shed, and return for the rest.

‘Caustic soda and a brush in there.’ My grandfather points to the kitchen. I grab an enamel bucket from beneath the counter, and fill it with water, shaking in the caustic soda. Taking a hard bristled brush from the top of the counter, I come back out into the damp early afternoon air; my grandfather is tapping his pipe against the whitewashed wall of the outhouse; considering me with a squinting eye. His mouth twists into a toothless scowl, ‘when you’re done with that you can fed em sows ... slop buckets where they usually are … ’

‘Are you going to …?’

‘The farmhand’ll help you.’ Raising his leg in stiff slow motion over his old rusted bike, my grandfather pushes off across the yard, kicking out with his boot at Bess as she slopes towards him; tail cautiously wagging. He pedals unsteadily down the lane, and heads in the direction of the village. Probably off to get drunk. I reach out to gently stroke the subservient animal. Poor innocent little Bess. I won’t let him hurt you. I imagine my father flying low in his bomber chasing after my grandfather as he wobbles along on his bike.

With my boiler suit soaked through, from kneeling and scrubbing around the interior of the outhouse, I emerge and toss the dirty water onto the grass verge. Give me a trench any day. I throw the bucket on the stone floor in the kitchen, and clump upstairs. My stomach aches with hunger, so I eat the cold tasteless potatoes and bread, swallowing the bland lumps down in successive, strained gulps. Whatever an army marches on it must be better than this.

At eight o’clock the clamour of a tin dish kicked across the yard, and the bark and rattle of Bess announces my grandfather’s return, I wait for a yelp; nothing. I’m in bed reading, although it’s hard to see by the light of the oil lamp. My grandfather is drunk; I hear him throw the bicycle at the backdoor and stumble through the kitchen. After some time, he ascends the creaking stairs; the shadow of his body looms in the doorframe of my bedroom.

‘Ere.’ He throws a cardboard box onto the bed. Inside is an alarm clock.

‘Thanks,’ I say, in an almost inaudible tone.

‘It’s a bad business …,’ my grandfather sways in the doorway, ‘Thought we’d seen the last of it with the Great War … maybe it’ll get worse.’

‘Maybe.’ Why so talkative. Probably the drink. ‘I’m joining up … RAF … Bomber Command hopefully.’

‘What about doin yer bit ere … farmers are needed just as bad.’

‘I’ll be eighteen in a few weeks …’

'You’d be mad to …’

‘No I wouldn’t, I’d be like my father … fighting for King and Country … is that so mad?’

‘I ain’t sayin …’ for a moment he pauses then opens his mouth to say something else, instead he hiccups. Reaching his hand into his coat he produces another item wrapped in brown paper; he tosses it onto the bed. Then he waves as if to shoo away a fly, and turns with a grimace. ‘You know nowt about it boy … you’re too young …’ He staggers to his bedroom and slams the door shut.

Tearing away the paper I uncover a book: Wilfred Owen; I don’t even like poetry, hated it in school. I fan through the pages; yellowed and tatty. Huh like my grandfather. I stop at one remotely familiar: ‘Dulce et decorum est …’ I can’t remember what it means, let alone what it’s about. A vague memory surfaces; my cheeks flush; I remember the sound of my voice, stumbling over the words; the laughter of the class. I flick past to the back; there is an inscription: “To Ivan, happy eighteenth birthday.” A warm well of tears suddenly spill out, and a smile creases up my face. It’s from my father. I’m certain, although the handwriting looks a little shaky. I turn the book over, and flick through the pages again. Is that it. No letter tucked inside. Maybe he didn’t have the time.

I awake feeling perturbed. It is still dark outside. As my grandfather’s intermittent muffled snores subside, I silently creep across the room, and pull the curtain back; the moon bathes the room in an ethereal glow. How beautiful. The ticking clock is now the only sound; quarter past five. After getting dressed I go downstairs to the kitchen. I soak bread in milk with scraps of bacon rind. I have forgotten to feed Bess from yesterday, and am unsure if the pang I feel in my stomach is hunger or guilt. By the light of the moon I slop the mixture into a bowl and carry it over to the hay store, quietly calling ‘Bess.’ There is no response. Feeling around in the darkness, I unexpectedly touch the cold metal chain. I tug it gently, but there is no weight at the other end. Panicking, I pull it towards me; nothing. ‘She’s gone!’

I run into the kitchen to find a torch; tearing through the drawers on the kitchen dresser; tipping them onto the floor. I have to find her. I was supposed to look after her.

‘What you doin boy?’ My grandfather is standing in the kitchen now.

‘What have you done with …’

‘Is this what yer after?’ He thrusts a crushed envelope into my hand. ‘God knows I tried ...’

‘But … I don’t under ...’ I remove the paper, unfolding it with trepidation. The words glare out at me; stark black and white; taunting me. But it can’t be. This must be some nightmare. I feel the crumpled telegram in my hand; it’s real. Reading the words over and over; in a blur of pulsing shadows, they swamp my mind. The rattling breaths of my grandfather grow dimmer as the pounding of my heart, like some ominous solemn drumbeat, fills my ears. I wish now that I had not woken from my dream; had kept on falling; hit the ground. Suddenly, I am engulfed by a suffocating fear.

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Comments by other Members

euclid at 20:20 on 11 June 2011  Report this post
This is a very interesting piece. Maybe not quite an entire story, because not a lot happens to the boy.

Your choice of the present tense is interesting and gives a dreamy quality to the prose.

You use the words bore, boring a lot in the first half of the story and I can understand why, but when you use these words, and when there is not a lot of action or movement of any kind, you run the risk of boring the reader.

Maybe your narrator should express his frustration (iso boredom) at being where he is, itching to get away from the old man and join the war.

What happened to the dog? Did you leave that loose end unresolved?

Also, the ending arrives a bit out of the blue. He never indicates that he is aware of the possibilty of such a telegram before it arrives. The story would be stronger if you foreshadowed this, if he yearns to join his father in the war, but dreads the possibility that his father might be killed before he enlists. If you don't want to do it this way, you could have him imagine joining his father and then when the telegram arrives, he could be totally surprised, shocked, as he never considered that this might happen.

Lots of seventeen year olds lied about their ages and signed up. Maybe you could make him 16 and have him plan to sign up as soon as he reaches 17.

One other small point: You tend to overuse the semicolon. Commas and periods are usually better.

Nice piece. good work (IMO).

Hoping you find my comments helpful.


Gerry at 11:43 on 12 June 2011  Report this post

JJ, I think, makes a lot of very valid points. A nice piece. I like the use of the present tense, too, especially as the time period is so specific. As JJ says, it is minor but I also felt the semi-colons were a bit overused.



Becca at 13:32 on 12 June 2011  Report this post
Hello Patricia,
First of all, welcome to Short Story. Your story is very well written and I like the way you pay attention to noises and sound in it. Your descriptions are good and nicely woven into the text. You show Ivan's feelings about his surroundings and his grandfather skilfully.
My one comment about style would be to beware of phrases like 'A heavy sigh escapes my nostrils' because although a character might notice such a thing if another character was doing it, when the character describes his own reactions this way it comes over as very self-conscious. Another example further up is 'I awaken with a gasp, although in this case it could be argued that Ivan was so surprised by his gasp on waking that he mentions it for that reason. One further down in the text is '...a smile creases up my face.' [Was he looking in a mirror, no, lol.] I think there are occasions when these kind of remarks about self can be made, but I always personally think more than twice before writing them in.

Your characterisation of the grandfather and his sparse dialogue is very convincing, I can see him clearly in my mind's eye. I loved this image:- 'I imagine my father flying low in his bomber chasing after my grandfather as he wobbles along on his bike.'
A couple of further points:
Why are the sacks heaving?
and what does this mean 'Huh like my grandfather'
One sentence that lets the rest down is 'I reach out and gently stroke the subservient animal.' I think it would be good to re-think this and make it simpler because we know already that the dog is being subservient by 'tail wagging cautiously' above.

Finally, I have to say that the story is very intriguing because there are three elements, the telegram which I am assuming tells of Ivan's Dad's death, and grandfather might have been trying to keep from him, the loss of the dog, and the book of poems by the anti-war poet Wilfred Owen.
My reading is that the poetry book comes from the grandfather, not the father who is fighting in the war, especially as the grandfather doesn't want Ivan to join up. This turns the grandfather from a sour old man into someone with true heart and feelings even if he can't express much. But then the missing dog is intriguing because the grandfather, knowing his son has died in the war, might feel he can now get rid of the dog by killing it, in which case, the grandfather becomes less likeable again, or the dog might have escaped by himself. I'm not necessarily suggesting that you make these things clear, except you might want to ponder on the dog loss aspect?
A good story.

jonnyhols at 15:27 on 12 June 2011  Report this post
It’s a very descriptive piece, the language and style really evocative. I enjoyed it a lot.

All the little details about the farm that you’ve woven into the narrative adds realism, which counters nicely with the dream-like flourishes.

It’s only a small thing, but I like how you held off telling us outright what the telegram stated.

Couple of things. “Passes in a blur of shadows”, didn’t really work for me. I couldn’t visualise what you were trying to say. And do you need the "fills my ears", after the "solemn drumbeat"?

Like Becca, I was confused by the “huh, like my grandfather”. On reading it a second time I twigged you were comparing him to the tatty and yellow pages of the book (I think). Maybe just me, but the comparison seemed superfluous, it doesn’t really add anything new. You’ve already done a great job by this stage of depicting how he feels toward his Grandfather.

Anyway, just wanted to say nice work.

Cheers for the read,

Midnight_Sun at 16:15 on 13 June 2011  Report this post
Thanks very much everyone for taking the time to read my work,

all your comments are very much appreciated and I will take some time over the next draft and take on board all your helpful comments.



DorothyD at 19:23 on 14 June 2011  Report this post
I liked this a lot. You have some lovely descriptive phrases here which bring the characters to life. The grandfather is a beautifully drawn character, grumpiness and all. I would try and hold back on describing your narrator's actions quite so much. We aren't aware of what we do, whether we gasp, smile or whatever, others observe that. My partner says I have an expressive face but I don't appreciate it has changed. It takes others to see that. If you concentrate on bringing the old grandfather alive through his facial expressions, actions and grunts, the narrator will seem even more vivid to the reader somehow. It works, but I don't quite know why.

I too liked the held back telegram, rather than foreshadowing it, although the reader may be aware of the fact subliminally, it is better than having it thrust in front of us. The story is delicate in that way.

I am reminded of a story which won the John O'London short story competition many, many years ago, possibly 50 years ago, which concerned a young boy waiting for his father to return from the war. The story was simple and intensely moving. I cannot remember the author, more's the pity but the fact the story has stayed with me all these years says so much about the impact it had. With the right editing and redrafting, this one could be as vivid and as moving. It has a lot to say. Congratulations on a fine piece of work.

Midnight_Sun at 12:03 on 15 June 2011  Report this post
Thanks very much Dorothy,

in relation to the foreshadowing that you and a few others have mentioned, I tried to hint at a letter the boy was waiting for from his father a few times in the story:

in the third paragraph
It’s been over two months since his last letter. Maybe I’ll receive word soon.

then in the dialogue between Ivan and his grandfather

‘You needn’t bother to … your father ...’

‘Did I get a letter ... anything?’

and when he receives the poetry book:

I turn the book over, and flick through the pages again. Is that it. No letter tucked inside. Maybe he didn’t have the time.

I had posted this story on my Open University Forum and someone older than myself had said that during the second world war if anyone received a telegram they knew instantly it was bad news so I left it at that; although the boy was waiting on a letter and had no idea of the fate that had become of his father, when he opened the telegram he knew instantly, so I was sort of going for a bit of tragic irony.

You have all been wonderfully helpful on this and I am glad you pointed out the fact that no-one is that self concious that they notice their own heavy sighs, lots of laughs! I think I went overboard there with trying to avoid abstractions.

Thanks again!


BifferSpice at 10:51 on 23 June 2011  Report this post
Patricia, this is excellent. Sorry it's taken me a while to get to it to read it. Some beautiful phrases and you build the scene so (seemingly) effortlessly. I was captivated throughout. Lovely work.

Midnight_Sun at 14:03 on 27 June 2011  Report this post
Thanks Biffer Spice,

glad you enjoyed it!

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