Featured Story for the week of 04/16/2014

Airside

by Lane Ashfeldt

“Airside” appears in the collection SaltWater, recently published by Liberties Press.

I. Take-off — Tasha

Planes always make me feel extra safe and relaxed. Maybe it’s that thing with the oxygen masks and the inflatable jackets and those chutes you never get to slide down: it’s great the way none of this has changed since I was four years old. OK, so a plane’s bigger now and there’s more of a fuss over what you can bring on board, but as soon as you strap on your seatbelt you’re cocooned in a time-warp world. Nothing else on this planet has stayed the same for ten whole years. I certainly haven’t. Not so long ago going to Spain for the summer break was the highlight of my whole year. This year it’s been dismal.

We’re on our way home and Mum says why don’t I watch the in-flight film while she works on her laptop, but I’ve seen that film before and besides I’m fed up with her telling me what to do, so instead I listen to music. But I’m bored with hearing the same songs over and over so I take off my iPod and make a list on the airplane sick-bag of all the crap things that happened on this holiday.

Spain’s OK, I suppose. But I don’t speak Spanish so it can get a bit weird for me sometimes. ‘My idea of a perfect summer,’ I told Mum back when we were planning the holidays, ‘is to just laze about at home and hang out with my friends.’

‘We tried that at Easter. You barely saw them.’

Annoyingly, Mum is right. Whenever I contacted my school friends about meeting up, the messages that came back told me they were off surfing in Cornwall, or at some stupid camp, or in Scotland visiting their gran. One of them even went to the Caribbean. So that was that. Mum bought tickets for Spain as usual and out we came.

Two other English kids, Jamie and Sara, have a summer place in the village. Other summers I hung out with them, but this trip their house was barred and shuttered, the garden dry and dusty. Maybe they sold up, or their folks got divorced, or something. But those kids were, like, never the top thing about Spain. What used to be cool about it was when I was little and me and Mum would be all by ourselves with no work and no school, without even a telly. We did stuff we’d never do at home. Invent games, paint pictures, go out walking, learn to cook tortilla. Once, we made little animals out of driftwood and shells we found on the shore.

Only, this trip, Mum was too busy for all that. A few days in, she had broadband installed and after that she was online for hours every day. It just wasn’t like a holiday any more. She only went to the beach every two or three days — too long a drive, she said. That’s so lame. I mean, why come all this way just so you can work?

‘Swim at the outdoor pool here in the village,’ Mum said, ‘then you are free to come and go as you please.’

For years we drove past that pool to the sea, never once stopping. The bad news is that under-16s get in free, and since Mum found this out she has kept on about how I should make the most of it. But I hate being there by myself while the Spanish kids hang out together laughing at jokes I don’t get, so I spent most of my holiday up in my room listening to music.

It’s been a very long three weeks.

After I finish writing the list I start to rip shreds of paper off the sick bag. Then I take out my phone and just sit there fiddling with it, guessing how many new texts I’ll have when I’m finally allowed switch it back on, and hoping some of my friends will actually be around tomorrow. Mum snaps at me to ‘Put that damn thing away’ or some lame parenty thing like that. Whatever.

I hate her. I wish we’d never even gone on this holiday. I don’t know how yet, but somehow I’m going to get out of going to Spain next year.

+

II. Flight — Jeannot

Is good to be fast. Speed is what they pay us for here in Gatwick. If a plane come late we clean super-fast, until it taxi away so shiny it hurt your eye. Now is early-early, maybe six thirty, near the start of my shift. Soon will come many plane, clack-clack-clack, one after the next.

Me and Gil, we work the same shift. Twelve hours, from six in the morning to six at night. One of us clean from front of plane, one from back, till we meet somewhere between. Before, in Mauritius, we work together with fibreglass, making speedboat. Some days me and Gil would get up at dawn and go fishing before work. Everybody in Mauritius go fishing, is not something special like here. Best time is early-early when the sea is quiet. Mauritius don’t have too many fish, not like the old island, and if you fish for your job like Uncle Eric, you must go out pass the reef, and stay out long time — maybe five day, maybe two week. Until you get fish.

Is hard work, Old Eric say. On Diego Garcia, he would catch fish so easy he never leave the lagoon. But even on Diego there is not so much fish no more, Eric say. We can’t go there now, is forbidden, but Old Eric talk like he know. Maybe he been there in secret some night while the soldier asleep. The reef all break up, he say, and the village is jungle. And where is copra plantation before, now is a concrete runway.

I reach under the window seat, pick up many small piece of white paper that the hoover refuse to eat. Outside, people get off the next plane all suntan and summer shirt, coming home. Every day they leave behind many-many small thing: book, make-up, camera. Last week I find passport. British passport, under First Class blanket. A man, maybe fifty years old. So I radio supervisor because maybe they put this man in the prison at the custom desks. I know about this place because sometimes when families come from Mauritius to visit, they are not allowed to pass inside England. The custom officer turn them around and send them home again on the next plane, and in between they must wait in that prison room. But supervisor tell me the man pass inside with other ID, she will send on his passport by post. He must be very important, this man. Or very rich, maybe.

All week I hope for reward, but nothing come.

I drop all the piece of white paper in my rubbish bag, then start on the seat pocket. I fish out something small and hard. An iPod. So small is hard to believe it hold many-many song. Must be broke, I think. But I press a button and the sound is perfect. Is not right what I do, but I see again the photo of the man in the passport: a man who expect much from life, who look sure that everything he take is for him. Maybe I need to be more sure, too. I slip the player in my pocket and pass through Economy row by row until I find Gil at the wing.

Me and Gil did not want this work. Cleaning is a work for women. Still, we earn more money than before, when we made speedboat.

I want to tell Gil about the music player, but at the end I say nothing. Better he don’t know, in case the supervisor catch me.

People say that here in Crawley we’re still close to the sea, is just one hour away. But England is big island: they mean one hour by car, not by foot. Since we come to live here I never see the sea. But I know is here. When is storm, seagull fly overhead and the wind smell of salt. Then this whole town feel like an island that we stuck on, like the real England is far far away. Is maybe a place on television, a land we never reach.

+

III. Touchdown — Maycel

My new school is ginormous. It has a gym, and science labs, language labs and everything. It even has small rooms away from class where I take special English lessons, the first month or two. My first day I couldn’t say nothing, couldn’t understand nothing, because in Mauritius all our lessons was in French. I just sat in a corner and at the end of each lesson the teacher told me in French which classroom to go next, so I didn’t get lost.

When I’m on to sentences, my English teacher gives me a homework essay: do I like England, or not, she asks. I love it. In Mauritius we lived in two rooms, all six of us. Here we have a house with an upstairs and a downstairs, like we’re rich. My brothers share a room but I have a bedroom to myself, because my sister get marry two months ago and go to live in her marriage house. My dad says England is his third island and it will be his last. He is from Diego Garcia. For me England is my second island. I hope to see Diego one day, but there’s so many places I want to see. I want to see the whole world.

After I been at my new school a while I made new friends and went round their houses for birthday parties, so I see that, like, next to them we’re not rich, even if it feels like we are. Anyway we’re not, you know, Posh and Becks rich, but we’re not poor neither, never like before.

One thing I miss here is the sea. In Mauritius we went out on my dad’s boat most weekends, and cooked fresh fish over a fire on the beach. Dad still finds it hard to sleep without hearing the waves. I told him the cars at night sound a bit like waves, and he just looked at me, sad. He wants to bring us to the seaside. He’s bought maps to plan where to go, but we don’t have no car so he says we must wait until the summer holidays.

My birthday is in summer term, the day of our school trip. We bring a pack-lunch, and go on a big old double-decker bus, singing songs the whole way. When I get home after, there’s a cake with thirteen candles and a tiny present. I think of the girls at school, their huge parties and stacks of presents, and wonder what’s inside. I open the paper and see. An iPod. I don’t believe it.

I hug my dad, put in the phones. He’s put Sega music on the memory, and the shop must have helped choose because there’s other stuff here, too. New songs that I know he has never heard.

‘So how was your school trip?’ my dad asks. ‘Where did you go?’

‘The seaside. It was great.’

He looks at me strangely then, and pulls out his maps and asks, ‘Which sea you go to? Brighton, with the stones?’ He points at a photo of a beach with big round stones instead of sand, like the stones English people put in their gardens to hide the weeds.

‘Another beach. With small stones but sand as well.’

He runs his finger along the map and reads out the names, but none of them sounds right: Hastings, Bexhill, Bognor Regis, Selsey, Wittering. ‘Tell me, is it a big old castle there, or not?’ But I don’t know, so I say nothing.

When I was little my dad told me about his island: how Diego has a reef all round to keep it safe, and water foams softly on the reef day and night, like the breathing of a magical world. In and out, in and out.

Now he looks sad as he puts away his maps.

‘It wasn’t like our ocean, Dad,’ I tell him. ‘The water was so cold nobody went swimming.’

Because of my birthday, Dad lets me go to the big party on Saturday night. The weather has changed. It’s hot tonight, and everybody from the islands is here. Mums and grandmas sit gossiping, eating chicken drumsticks and sweetcorn. When the music change to Sega and their daughters come on stage, they stand up, smiling, to take photos. The hall is jammed with dancers and suddenly it’s so hot that I push through the crowd to the door, looking for cool air. It’s mostly men outside, talking and smoking. My dad is with friends, so I just wave. The man with him looks like his uncle, but it can’t be. Old Eric has gone back to Mauritius to celebrate there.

Eric came for the court case about Diego. He stayed in our house, and every day he travelled in a bus to the High Court in London with the other old people. How was it today, we’d ask him each evening.

‘Just another day of the long long talk of the men of law. One man talk for the Queen, one for the island,’ Old Eric said. ‘We see only their backs, each in a black cloak and white wig. It’s hard to tell which is which, because from their voices and clothes they could be twins.’

My brother asked Old Eric what the men of law could find to say all this time.

‘The men in wigs use long, long words that suck their meaning dry. One thing I see: each day they stop talking at exactly quarter to one. Then the frown-face judge bang his hammer and say “All rise”, and we must stand while the three of them leave by a private door to take their lunch.’ Old Eric shrugged, and out of his sun-dried raisiny face came a high-pitched giggle like the girls at school. Soon he had us giggling too at those silly men in wigs.

I know this is just a patch of unused land out past the community centre, but it’s the end of our little world: a place where the houses and shops just fade away. I walk with my iPod on random letting it mix up old songs with new. Dad beckons but I pretend not to see. I’m right on the edge of the party here and I want to enjoy this feeling. Long grass rolls back like dunes, and the cars parked on the grass have their doors wide open, all different musics pouring out, many small parties clustered around the big party in the hall.

Before he left, Old Eric told us this: the judge says we can go back to Chagos if we want. But my father never speaks of going back; he is tired of moving, he wants to stay here. Or maybe he doesn’t believe the men of law because they have said this before, and each time they turn and change their story again. This is what I think of as I pace beneath the red glow where the sun was a minute ago, as I walk between the cars, feeling the grass give under my feet.

In a gap between songs something makes me look up. A small plane, too far away to hear, pulls a cloud across a pink sky. I hear the soft white noise of saltwater foaming on coral. In and out. In and out. Breaths. Like that moment when the seawater draws back from shore, holding its breath, and finally crashes on the sand, foaming around your feet in tiny bubbles that tickle as they burst and pull away. We may be one hour from the coast, from Brighton or those other seas, but tonight we magic the waves to us. Tonight we make a beach party.

+++

Lane Ashfeldt has won several prizes for her short fiction, which has appeared in literary journals and anthologies and been performed live at events such as WordFactory, Bookstock, and West Cork Literary Festival. Her story ‘Pole House’ was aired on Radio New Zealand. SaltWater, her debut collection of fiction, is published by Liberties Press. More at ashfeldt.com.