Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Elevator Shift


I killed God by accident. It happened in a grey pearl over Hanoi. It was unexpected and born from circumstance. Now death had the scent of our tracks.
I considered myself a Christian. I was raised a patriot, in Jackson, Alabama. I wore a slim tie and wingtips – polished, if I could – on my days off. So why, I wonder, did they decide to make me bunk with Chuck?
It had been eighteen months now. Chuck had no higher beliefs. He believed in himself. He was the source of that rumour, emerging just after Christmas last year, that he’d jumped eight feet during a basketball game. He once told me he landed in a lake in Korea, surrounded by enemy, and then confirmed three kills. Occasionally a greenhorn would come into one of our games of midnight Texas Hold'em and would look at the amulets, trinkets and miniature buddhas which he’d bought down in Panduranga market and mistake him for the real deal, but I suspect he’s as a real as any of this, these endless nights of swimming in the dark.
The trouble started in the afternoon. Beneath us, the vegetation looked black. In the air, the clouds were as pregnant as brains, and the silence of the engines was giving me tinnitus.
“So you think he’s got a hormone deficiency,” said Chuck, over the radio. He was talking about Walter Jr, my son, and Sue, my wife. I’d met her on a rally during leave from flight school. I missed her, I think, though her letters were getting kind of crazy.
“Yeah. That’s why I’m sending back so much money,” I replied. The radio made a hiss.
“Is she drinking again?” he said.
This made me kind of mad. He thought he was being funny but I was pretty sensitive, and the more I became annoyed, the more he thought it was hilarious.
“Not that I know of,” I said.
Hazily, I looked out through the glass. I was aware it was possible we would get enemy flak. I'll square with you, this was just what we didn’t want, as our enthusiasm for this had recently plummeted. Once I’d wanted to be here. Now I would consider myself disillusioned. Chuck, again, thought this was very funny, and would tease me about it. He didn’t realise that I kept a ledger of his sins beneath my bed.
There were various pops: scattered salt, chinking into the glass. Up ahead another bomber was swirling like a whale ship tackled to the ground. Chuck had started talking about his plans to open a meat shack in the US. I guess he’d not noticed the flak. He’d taken to wearing a sun visor and flicking through magazines during patrols.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, and yanked back on the stick.
I was shifting the elevator. You get them in planes. Many pilots use them to control variations in their pitch, but I’d taken to flipping them at random, possibly in a sub-conscious desire to get myself grounded for life.
The bomber swung up. Not much. Enough, though. There was a loud bang, like one of the engines had been blown out. I looked to my right and the cockpit glass had a spider’s web of cracks in it, ringing out from a central core. It looked unsteady. Part of my vision had turned purple.
“I’m turning around,” I said.
Chuck didn’t know what was happening.
“Did you see that?” I asked, and he hadn’t, but as we swept back, my calls to base remained calm and detached. Chuck started chattering nervously, talking about how I must have some kind of second sight because I’d instinctively curved away from the bullets. Maybe they would have scored a direct hit, who knows. I didn’t. It was surely a miracle, though I came to doubt even that in the coming weeks. Maybe it was what it was.

“You’re saying it wasn’t an accident,” said George, our squadron leader. He had a moustache. Half a moustache.
“Yeah,” said Chuck, “You should have seen it. Walter saw it, before it happened. He saved our lives.”
“Uh-huh,” said George, not looking up from his desk, where he was penciling a large turkey on to a blank piece of paper. Either that or he was filling out forms. We were in his office, where I stood in silence, looking out at the jungle rain. I liked George. Unfortunately I figured he thought we were a couple of assholes.
He stared at us, then. Looked into us. Not enough to get bored, but enough to realise his view of us was better than our view of him.
“Take a little load off boys.” Halfway through the sentence and he was already writing again, staring down at the turkey. Chuck looked at me and shrugged, so we went back to our barracks and began to get drunk.

I read the letters from Sue, the ones freaking me out, and started to realise I didn’t want to go home. She was worried about the war and was making plans, and while the security and sense of structure from these people who loved me had once been useful, I now wanted to run.
Chuck had begun inviting the other men over to tell them about the story of our little salvation. He was getting a bit too superstitious. He’d begun talking about this thing called an “elevator shift”, this impulsive forty-five-degree tilt of the wings which was supposedly good luck. The pilot was the one who did it, but actually I was beginning to think it was also controlled by the machine. The machine met you in the middle. It was the one that decided whether you lived or didn't.
As we sat around, then, the others began talking about other elevator shifts. There was a story about a member of the French resistance who’d once grounded an entire squadron of Luftwaffe with secateurs. The German pilots refused to take off because they couldn’t do elevator shifts. Danny, another navigator, started sneaking out to the hangar in the middle of the night and applying ice-packs to his bomber’s tail. He said it helped it function better. He said it would introduce a random responsiveness to his elevator function, which could help him when he was trying to avoid the enemy. How could they predict his movements, then? I figured they’d just follow the bomber which looked broken and shoot at it.

George called me into his office.
“What’s all this elevator shift bullshit,” he said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied. I had stopped wearing my crucifix, so these days I had nothing to clutch at when I was getting reprimanded.
He threw his pencil at me and it collided with the space above my head.
“Cut it out, OK,” he shouted. “The guys are starting to do it during patrols. If there’s an accident, I’ll blame you and Chuck.”
“Will there be a court martial?” I was hopeful.
“Negative. I might just shoot you in your sleep, however.”
He was tetchy. He said he was going to separate Chuck and me, he said we were a bad influence on each other. It hit me then. Previously I’d hated every bone in Chuck’s body. Now he was the only one who knew me, the man with whom I’d lost what I had.

We still had to go fly, though. Two months had passed since the first elevator shift. I hadn’t heard from Sue in weeks. Chuck was in a different plane, now, alongside us, and I was flying with Danny. We had to slide over Hanoi on a mission, but there was a big purpose this time. Chuck had started raving more and more recently and the other men were avoiding him. I wasn’t really sure whether I could picture any ghost in the machine, but by this point it made more sense to me than God. How could He stomach all this superstitious shit without taking His revenge? And how could He know that folks were dying, and about to die, and sit there, simply cool and just?
It all seemed rather trivial since I figured I’d forget all about these questions once I’d delivered a payload over one of the suburbs. This time I’d need to see people warmed up. I knew they’d get to smell the napalm on their houses. I wondered if that smelled the same as my God had smelled. The one whose breath was rich with the cut grasses of the South. He had evaporated too.
Danny never said anything. Chuck was murmuring about how this was wrong, how we needed to get out. I thought about Sue. I wondered how I could avoid going home.
I hung back. The sun was falling. Chuck, I saw, was up ahead and I focused on his tail. I saw that his elevator wasn’t working properly, stuttering and catching where it should instantly shift, and I wondered whether I should radio over to warn him. Warn Chuck. I tried to stifle a laugh. It didn’t matter to me: elevator or no elevator. Not really. But it mattered to him.
 “Your elevator’s not working,” I said, on the radio.
Next thing I know, Chuck’s pulled his ejector cord and shot up. I watched his canopy inflate and I fluttered up above him, up in the clouds above his plane, momentarily curving down as his pilot reeled from the shock. He barked over the radio back at us, poor son of a bitch. I could hear Danny, too, talking to Chuck’s pilot, but I was just thinking how I wished I was out there as well.
Danny and I whipped through the cloud and I panicked. What if Danny’s ice-packs had ruined the electrics? What if our elevator shift didn’t work either? So, well, I copied Chuck. I didn’t have much time to fathom it at all. I heard a raised voice as I did it – there was a protocol, we were trained in it – but in the end it came down to just me and Chuck. We were the only ones who knew what this was all about. I guess we had to believe in each other. So I took the time to compute, to watch, as I looked down at the fields which surrounded me and then I ejected into the sky.
The sun hung low, now, filling the parachute's under-side with orange, and my body was orange too, lit by a sinking sun. It struck me as beautiful, not just to consider, to worship, but for what it was. Unfathomable. As vivid as it was unexplained.
I saw Chuck to one side, his parachute descending in a long minute, and it felt strange there was no sound, like there should be, but he slid silently to earth and landed softly on its surface. I felt unceasing: like I could hang here, in the air, and never descend. But I sank anyway.
Hours later, I stood alongside Chuck again. I knew Danny would be OK. He could take the controls in an emergency, though I didn’t really know. You see Chuck and I both realised there was a lot we didn’t know. Not at all. Like why we were weeping, here, and why we were surrounded by local people, shouting and screaming into our eyes, pointing their fingers as if to attract the men with guns, the ones who wanted to kill us, and bring them close. It felt like I couldn’t remember the name of my own wife and son any more, though I guess, like everything, they weren’t just mine any more. They belonged to us.  
I fixed on a point on the horizon.
“You OK?” I asked.
“No,” said Chuck.
“Let’s get out of here anyway,” I replied.
He followed me into the wilderness. 

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Freedom


The bungalow was modern, sleek like a vehicle speeding over a small hill. Its wet doorstep was wrapped in apple blossom. 
Max Deblonsky shuffled into Lorna Bick's hall with his laces untied, a small plastic bag for his swimming trunks hooked under his arm. The leavers' party was around the pool, and it took Max five seconds, strolling to the back, to realise he hardly knew anybody. Part of him stung when he saw Lorna wasn’t there. He pulled a Marlboro from his pocket, hid behind a wall of guests and blushed. Then he grabbed a can of beer, threw it back, and felt it explode in his gut. Max was seventeen. He had never touched a girl. 
"If it isn’t my little man."
Moira Bick, divorced from Lorna's father, Steve, was already drunk. Red, round, and angry, she appeared out of nowhere and thrust Max into a group of her friends. She had platinum hair, wore a blue stole above baggy jeans, and was draining lager from a bottle. In doing so, she meted out punishment to everyone surrounding her. 
"Steve met Max, here, at primary school. Steve! Can you imagine? Always bad with people until he first produced David," she said, addressing three women, who mostly smiled.  
Moira and Steve met in the record business. Moira referred to the day’s celebrities — artists, musicians, the heads of major record labels — by their first names. She was remarkable because of her indiscretion and her opinions, but she was also openly anxious and jaded and bored, willing to expound upon her successes and criticise others to their faces. Those of use to her, she indulged. 
Max felt a tug at his sleeve. It was Lorna. 
"Hey Max."
They slipped away and kissed on both cheeks. He felt Lorna’s hair in his mouth and she doubled up, laughing, like she’d just got a shot in the arm. She was wearing an aquamarine one-piece, her hair pinned back by sunglasses, and she smiled warmly over his shoulder. Her lips were smudged purple. She rolled her eyes in the direction of Moira and pulled him down to a bench. While Max spoke Lorna focused on the clear, blue pool, studying whatever split, merged and multiplied upon it. 
“Moira seems good,” he said. 
“At least someone is.” He glanced sideways, then filled the silence before it came. 
“Not sure about the summer,” he continued, in a low voice. She seemed tired. He wanted to hug her, or at least tether her limbs to stop her floating away.   
“What Max? This music is too loud.” 
“I didn’t get in, you know,” he said. “I didn’t get my place. But it’ll be a great summer, it always is.”
He pulled the collar of his coat up; his face was chiselled, almost elfin. When he smiled his mouth made a ‘V’. 
Instead of replying, she watched Marvin Ackroyd. He had a football top on, and peeled off his clothes to reveal a pink set of abs. He slid into the pool with barely a sound. Those near him cheered. 
“I heard you got your place,” he said. 
“Yeah, that’ll be fun,” she replied in a sing-song voice. She stared blankly. Her eyes were dark and wet. 
“I’m lucky, I ‘spose. Don’t have to think about stuff for another year.”
He followed her gaze. 
“I guess I could maybe go swimming,” he said. 
 “Marvin!” 
Lorna stretched out both arms, ratcheting her wrists back. Marvin was throwing a football around the pool. He looked at Lorna and a scowl walked across his face. 
Lorna turned.
“Where did you say you were going again?” 
“Nowhere.”
He sucked on his cigarette. A note of bitterness rose in his throat. She was barely registering interest; she frowned, then hugged her legs. 
“I was wondering what I should do,” he said.   
“Oh, Max, you’ll be OK.” 
She leaned in to hug him, affecting a bleary expression, her eyes closed halfway in fatigue. She nuzzled his shoulder. 
“You coming into the pool later?” she asked, wiggling her eyebrows. “I see you’ve brought your trunks.”
He reddened.
Marvin edged up, trailing Moira, who’d looped her arm through the younger man’s. She waved, twisting the ends of her spoon-like fingers. Max felt Lorna’s breath on his cheek.
“I thought I’d take this nice boy for a ride,” said Moira. “He wants to teach us all to drink.” 
“Sure,” said Lorna. She turned to Max. 
“Unless you’re too busy?”

In the darkness the doors of the drinks cabinet were spread wide, beckoning those hungry for a fresh piece of freedom. Lorna was blank and set apart from the maelstrom, poised with her arms crossed, pressing her chin to her breastbone in a reflex that Max had seen since primary school. He could hear songs piped through a stereo outside, and a girl’s elated screaming burst out for a short second before falling back into muffled discussion. He drank the beer and vodka put into his hand by Marvin, whose mouth was permanently agape, though he wasn’t really that stupid. He tried to enjoy himself. 
Moira quizzed Marvin on his football scholarship and linked it to Lorna’s love of golf and water sports. She tried to relate this to Max, but couldn’t quite remember what he enjoyed doing. The mood was calm, though Lorna finished the ends of Moira’s sentences and sniggered when she name-dropped. Marvin cracked the sides of a plastic cup on its way up to his mouth while backhanding bottles to his friends. Lorna tried please her guests — ignoring the excess, filling mugs up to the top — but felt guilty. Max noticed Lorna’s forehead had become blotted and leathery, oddly shiny under the kitchen spotlights. 
“We shouldn’t be drinking all Dad’s alcohol,” said Lorna. 
“Are you serious?” said Moira. 
“We bought plenty of our own.”
“Why not? It’s just sitting here.”
“But it’s Dad’s.”
Outside, people danced by the pool. Boys pushed girls, their wet hair slapping the ground, their limbs marched like wheelbarrows, spinning over the overflow vents around the water’s perimeter. A young couple had locked jaws, lying down where the shallow end throbbed into a foamy grid. 
Revellers downed drinks stolen from Steve’s cabinet, spilling fizz on to a counter. Lorna grabbed a dishcloth, pirouetting her hand across the work-surface. Marvin, his feet stamping wet prints into the lino, registered Lorna’s disapproval. Moira threaded her arm around Marvin’s waist, then tugged at Max’s belt. He was still wearing his coat. She sneered when she spoke. 
“OK, Max, when are we going to see you in the pool? Why haven’t you been in?”
Max looked at Lorna and drained his glass. 
“I don’t fancy it.”
“C’mon, get your feet wet,” Moira said. 
“Mum, leave it,” said Lorna. 
“I could. But I wouldn’t like it,” said Max. 
Lorna looked at Marvin who shrugged. Max’s eyes vibrated with the music. He buried himself in a cotton fug. Was this how people enjoyed themselves?
“So what are you up to these days, Mrs Bick?” asked Max. “Lot of time on your hands?”
Max noticed Lorna scowl and he assumed he’d piqued her interest. Moira also seemed pleased.  The older woman opened her arms — a bracelet with a silver dolphin hung low from her wrist — and she clapped her hands. 
“You still can’t swim Max?”, said Moira.
Everyone laughed. Max didn’t answer. His vision danced. All he could see were his black, unlaced shoes, strangled by their skinny laces. He stepped back, accidentally clattering a fork to the ground with an urgent rattle which brought red to his cheeks.
“I guess we’ll just move along,” said Moira. 
“I’ve got a question,” said Lorna. “For you, Moira.”
“Have a go honey!”
Lorna let her drink fall to the floor. 
“Is it true you screwed Josh?”
Her eyes were raw, her pain had pleasure. She didn’t wait for her mother to reply, and ran out of the room and down the hall. A door slammed. Marvin offered to pour some more drinks. Max thought the older boy must go to these parties pretty often. 

The sobbing escaped from under the toilet door. Above it, a light bulb, painted blue, smoked and smelled of sulphur. He pushed the glossed wood and it yielded easily. Lorna sat on the toilet seat with her legs clamped shut, her make-up aflame. She pretended not to cry. Max wondered whether to offer to catch her tears.
Her thighs were blotchy but bronzed. He wondered what would happen if he touched them. As Lorna watched him, her head tilted forward, her pupils thrown towards the top of her skull, he ventured slowly near, tossed a towel down and lowered himself on to his knees. He waited, pulled her legs apart. They offered little resistance. He pressed his palm into the surface of her skin. His hand felt electric as it trembled on a delicate layer of hair. He slid his hand slowly along the warmth. He felt triumphant. 
Their eyes met. It was the first time in many years he’d seen her up close. He didn’t feel worthy to look at her. She let out a loud sniff and looked into him. He knew she was calculating what she could find in there, deep inside, and after several moments Max knew she knew. She had discovered that all he contained was more of the same. He was more of what she found in this house. He was more of what she would leave behind in three months when she went to university. She pushed his hand away. 

He followed her back to the pool. The music was off and Marvin was dancing on his own. Moira was throwing glasses into a plastic bag. Max walked up to Lorna, who was rigid and staring at her mother. What could she say? He whispered in her ear. 
“I’m going now,” he said.
He pulled back, threw his bag with his trunks over his shoulder and sloped off towards the front of the house. He saw the long drive roll down the hill, the shy sun, and he span and looked at the pool for the last time. There were a thousand memories drowning in its ripples. He wondered what it would feel like to jump up above it, curl his legs into his torso, and hang there, above its surface, for a moment longer than seemed possible. He thought he could hear countless other bodies piercing its filmy top, like hailstones troubling the surface of a village pond.
As surely as he arrived he turned around and left.