Printed from WriteWords -

Paper Aeroplanes

by  Midnight_Sun

Posted: Friday, June 10, 2011
Word Count: 2217

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.