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Desertion Fold

by  shotgun45

Posted: Saturday, August 06, 2005
Word Count: 3100
Summary: We all try to make fresh starts once in a while, but they don't always go to plan...




Gate seventeen, she told me, was on the other side of the airport, which meant a long, treacherous walk through the armada of travellers who swarmed before my eyes. I thanked the lady at the desk as she addressed the next enquirers in the queue with practised tones of insincerity. If she’d wanted to help me she could’ve explained why gate seventeen wasn’t next to gate sixteen as it should be, but actually up by gate twenty-four.
I hurried myself aside, swung my long single-strapped bag over my head, lifted the handle of my suitcase onto its fragile wheels, and began my journey. I don’t like airports. Glancing up from the floor convinced me that every woman and man knew exactly their destination: keen eyes focused on a fixed target as they marched headlong towards it. I was already lost, and contemplating rejoining the queue at the help desk when all of a sudden the handle on my suitcase contorted, cracked, and broke off in my hand. The case itself toppled over and bounced open as it hit the ground. Out fell my aftershave which rolled in a complete circle before reaching a stop. I quickly replaced it and snapped the case shut, sufficiently convinced that the incident had gone unnoticed.
String was the only thing to save me from pushing my suitcase any further with one hand and one guiding knee. I bought some from a grey-faced man whose expression told me he had already decided for what purpose I was buying it, and didn’t approve. Such a face should worry about its own problems and not concern itself with me and my string. Away from the shop, in a corner where it seemed fashionable to stub out cigarettes, I smartly tied and knotted myself a new handle.
The lady was right about gate seventeen: it wasn’t all that far away. The departure lounge beyond was sparsely populated and a welcome opportunity to rest my weary legs. I sat down in the middle of a row of empty seats. To my left sat an elderly couple, reclined as if this were their very own living room. Four seats along sat a girl with a bag at her feet just like Belinda’s old one. I rubbed my face with my hands, and remember thinking that it would have been appropriate to have shaved this morning.
A scream vanquished my thoughts. A young family had entered the lounge. Father first; then a girl with a pink rucksack and the shoes to match; then two twin boys tugging at each other’s matching knitted jumpers; and finally a flustered and weary, red-faced mother. The father calmly separated the two boys and sat them down on far side of the lounge. He crossed his arms pointedly and the twins followed suit. The mother ushered the girl into a seat opposite and, after vigorously wiping one of the boys’ faces with her handkerchief, sat down next to her.
My newspaper came as a welcome distraction and guard from the pairs of curious, wondering eyes around the room. I wasn’t reading, just busying my own eyes and resting my mind. I knew if I began to think I would convince myself that this was all a mistake, a rash move, a pointed but empty statement to myself that would prove nothing but the fact that I was incapable of any force of change. No, thinking would stir my fears, and I’d be back at the beginning again.
“What are you reading?”
I earnestly hoped that the question wasn’t directed at me. I lowered my paper slightly to reveal the top of a blond head of hair. Suddenly my paper creased violently at the spine, and a muffled giggle exploded behind it. I put the paper down and felt my blood rush to my tired face.
“My daddy says newspapers are proper gander,” she politely pontificated.
I explained to her that I wasn’t reading the propaganda, just the cartoons. She accepted my defense with a casual shrug of her shoulder, then effortlessly slipped herself into the seat next to me. I sat up straighter, opened out my newspaper but then hesitated, and folded it away again. I turned to the girl who was merrily swinging her slender legs to and fro. Would she think it rude if I didn’t at least try to acknowledge her in some way?
“Are you going on holiday?” I eventually asked.
The girl’s keen brown eyes suddenly focused and darted sharply towards mine.
“Well I wouldn’t call it a holiday, but it’s as much as we can afford.”
That response didn’t offer an easy opportunity of continuing the conversation, but I at least tried
“Hey, any holiday’s pretty good, isn’t it?”
She frowned slightly and with a swift, unconscious gesture flicked back her long hair. “Nope. Not when you have to share a room with your brothers. I’m nearly eleven years old. Do you realise what that means?”
I said I didn’t and worried I might have upset her. I certainly didn’t want to create any kind of scene. If anything I wished her parents would beckon her back over, but they seemed preoccupied with another fist-fight that had broken out between the twins.
“Every girl needs her privacy.”
I agreed, then glanced at my watch. Four minutes until boarding.
“Are you going on holiday?”
I told her I wasn’t, not realising that the easier option was just to say otherwise. The girl looked down at my patched-up suitcase and bag.
“But you have all that stuff… either you’re going on holiday or you’re running away… Are you running away?”
I forced a laugh, trying to make light of the girl’s comment, but instead of a laugh came something which closer resembled a muffled sneeze. I’d had enough.
“I don’t think your parents would want you spending all this time talking to a stranger… do you?”
“You’re not a stranger!” she yelped with apparent delight. “You’re mister string-man! We were behind you in the queue. Besides, they don’t really care about me, I’m adopted.”
She whispered this last piece of news to me. I looked for a sign that she might have been joking, but her face remained stoic.
“I don’t mind that you’re running away. I won’t tell. I’m a truth-owl.”
I asked just what a truth-owl was.
“Oh, we always tell the truth, even when it’s better to lie, and we always keep our secrets – only truth-owls have those abilities.”
“But who says I’m running away?” I said.
“I do,” she said pertly. “You look like a runner. I think it’s your arms – they look good for running.”
She studied me with half-closed eyes. I tried to smile, then started to say something, but stumbled over the first two words. She giggled. I tried again.
“Business trip. I’m on a business trip. With my company. It’s very important.”
The girl clasped her hands to her mouth to keep the laugh from bursting out of her. Instead, she banged her feet against the chair legs, and shook her head from side to side as if she were trying to rid herself of her own hair.
“Oh, and truth-owls always know when someone else is lying. You’re so busted, mister string-man!”
She was right. Why would I be on a business trip? What kind of businessman can’t slip a simple lie past a ten year old?
“You’re right,” I admitted to her. “I’m not. You’re a very good truth-owl. I am running away.”
The girl started to swing her feet from side to side, lightly brushing my leg with her pink sandal. “What’s your name?” She asked,
I looked at the string on my suitcase, and then at the girl’s sandals, gliding back and forth through the air. Quickly, I sprang from my seat, swung my bag over my shoulder, and lifted my suitcase.
“Where are you going?” asked the girl.
“I’m going back.” I turned toward the exit.
“But wait!” shrieked the girl. “I don’t know your name!”
“It’s John,” I said, lying again, and not staying to see the girl’s response.
Whether it was embarrassment, or just because I was sick of the place, I ran all the way to the airport exit. I’ve never known anyone to buy a plane ticket only to run away from the plane. I didn’t even consider trying to get a refund. I just ran until I reached fresh air again.
There were puddles on the ground, and though the rain had now stopped, the air smelled moist, as it had when I’d arrived at the airport. Nothing had changed. I felt my plane ticket protruding from my jacket pocket. As my hand brushed passed it, a wave of hot anger diffused from my head and down through my body. I wanted to throw my broken suitcase as far and as high as I could.

There was a certain time in my life when toys and sweets dictated most things I did. Back then my mother presented to me a purple bag with swirly green writing on the side. Inside the bag I found a lion with the softest, friendliest face I’d ever seen on a lion before. Danny, as I christened him on contact, was to be my new brother. My father, I was told that day, was no longer able to bring me a real brother on account of his operation.
Danny went everywhere with me; he was everything I could have asked for in a brother. Together we sailed the Seven Seas, discovered unchartered islands, and fought countless foes. On one voyage Danny and I discovered buried treasure, but my father told us the only way we could spend our coins were if we were to build ourselves a time-machine. Neither Danny nor I knew what parts we needed to make such a machine, so we buried our treasure again for future pirates to find, to whom it may be of some use.

Out of nowhere a taxi sped passed me, throwing up a spray of water onto my trouser legs, soaking them instantly. The taxi flashed an indicator and came to a halt ten yards up the road. I cursed my misfortune and hoped that I’d be dry again by the time I reached the restaurant. That seemed like the only place I could go now. Maybe this time I’d stay to order. I hadn’t felt like eating all morning, and thought I probably should.
The seat of the taxi was even more uncomfortable than its appearance suggested. Yellow sponge exposed itself where the thin vinyl cover had ripped at the seams, and a smell of disinfectant hung in the air. I wound down the window slightly. My driver seemed to take this as a cue to start some kind of conversation.
“You have a good vacation?” he asked in a broad but erudite Indian accent.
I said that I wasn’t on holiday and tugged at my seatbelt to allow myself room to breathe. My driver, as he marauded along at speeds which bordered on ludicrous, asked me what I was doing with so much luggage if I wasn’t on holiday. I held tight on to the hand rail and answered with irrational honesty.
“No, I thought I was going away… well, I was going to, that was certainly my plan. But I changed my mind… something I need to do first. Well, someone I need to talk to.” I felt I should explain myself better. “There’s only so long one can live with his parents, you know? And I’m pushing the big three-oh now. But I just can’t… see, if there’s a chance, just a chance that she might…I know she and I haven’t exactly…”
“What about United, eh?”
“What?”
“What do you think about United?”
He must have been talking about the local football team, and when I said I didn’t follow the sport he ceased all conversation.
When we reached my destination, I paid my driver, inviting him to keep the change from my note, despite my feeling that neither his driving nor his company deserved such a gesture. And so there I was again, standing in the same spot outside the same restaurant where exactly one year ago this whole thing had began. Nothing had changed.
The fact that I had no plan etched into my mind this time made it easier to get through the door of the restaurant – a task I’d achieved only twice before during this past year. I dragged my suitcase to an empty table and sat down. My eyes immediately started scanning the room, looking for her, afraid almost of seeing her, as if seeing her was too much of a commitment to something I couldn’t hope to control.
I took off my watch and wound it furiously with the trembling tips of my thumb and forefinger. My eyes were still searching. With every second I sat there I wished ever more that I’d had the will to get myself onto that plane. I wished I’d never laid eyes on her in the first place. I wished I’d met someone else in the meantime who could have swerved my thoughts well away from her. I wished many more things until my attention was alerted to a door swinging open at the back of the restaurant. From it I saw her emerge, pacing through without a care to shake the rhythm of her elegant stride
.
It was on a Sunday in October I recall my parents taking Danny and me on a trip to see a very famous and very old bridge. Through my eyes, the bridge only looked old, hardly special. Although it was the colour of it that stood out in my memory. I’d never seen anything seem so bright that was so black in colour. It seemed brighter and more colourful than the green of the trees and grass beneath it. To my surprise the handrail of the bridge was warm to the touch. I let Danny walk along it, guiding him carefully with my left hand. Danny didn’t find the bridge warm underneath his four feet, but he liked it well enough regardless.

“Would you care to order?”
Belinda stood before me. She held at the ready her notepad in her right hand. With her left she gently removed the pencil that hung perfectly balanced behind her ear, and held it poised. Her eyes, brighter and bluer than I remembered, illuminated mine as she waited for an answer. A whisp of her hair fell over her ear whence the pencil had come. She slid it back as if she were applying a brush to canvas.
“A salad, please.”
It wasn’t what I wanted but it was the only thing I could pass by my frightened lips.
“Anything else?” she asked.
“No, thank you.”
She smiled, replaced the pencil behind her ear, took my menu, and was about to take my leave when she surprised me with another question.
“Have I seen you in here before?”
I shook my head and looked dismissively down at the table. She left.

We weren’t the only people on the bridge that day. I understood the other people being there, but what I couldn’t fathom was the continuous flashes and clicks of cameras all around us. I wondered if perhaps they’d never seen a lion walk along a bridge before. It must have been a sight so delightful that it couldn’t simply be left to fade in one’s memory. One such man with a camera stood in front of Danny and me, blocking our route along the handrail. He must have sensed our resolve, because he took a step backward as we approached. He didn’t see the bag on the floor behind him, which momentarily cost him his balance. Trying to correct himself, the man, who wasn’t particularly large, threw his weight forward and grabbed onto my free arm to aid his recovery.
To my surprise I was spun almost completely around. The man thanked me and picked up his bag. I turned back to see what Danny had made of the whole episode, but Danny was not there on the rail. The silly lion had obviously slipped just as the man had done. I looked over the side of the bridge. I saw Danny not far beneath me, resting comfortably on one of the bridge’s supports.
“Come on, Danny!” I called. I climbed up a little and leaned over the side of the bridge. I reached out for him, but my arm was too short. I shuffled myself further over the rail and leaned again, but was suddenly pulled back onto my feet again. My parents announced that I was being dangerous. I showed them where Danny was and told them he wanted to come back. Dad leaned over to get him, but came back with empty hands and a forehead full of creased lines. He said it was time to go, and that Danny had found a new home on the bridge. I knew that Danny didn’t want to live on a bridge, he wanted to come home with us.
I ran over to the edge again, jumped up, and leaned over with all the might I could. My outstretched fingers touched Danny’s fur, but still he lay there out of reach. His eyes held the same expression as they always had. Didn’t he realise he’d fallen? Didn’t he know he might have to stay on the bridge forever or was he just too scared to look concerned? I leaned one more time and caught his ear between my thumb and finger. But as I frantically pulled, Danny fell back out of my reach. Again I was pulled back off the rail, and this time I was carried back to the car.
I screamed. I kicked. I flapped my arms like a bird trying to take off out of treacle. I just had to reach a little further, and I could get Danny. I explained all this, but all I got in reply were words like danger, fall, and hurt – none of which meant anything to me while Danny was laying lost behind.

“Oh, sorry,” said Belinda, “would you like a drink with your salad?”
I said I didn’t, and stood up. I told her I had to leave right away. Her face held a startled expression, one which I hadn’t seen before. I picked up my bag and suitcase and dragged myself away from her and away from the restaurant, out onto the rain-drenched streets.