Short Story: The long flight to home
A young man returns to India in search of the family he was separated from at the age of five…
A young man returns to India in search of the family he was separated from at the age of five…
How this story came to be
“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you wrote this story in 24 hours. I write novels. I know how hard it is — and how long it takes — to write 5,000 words.”
That’s what the tutor said on the second day of a short story course I took in the heart of Bloomsbury in February 2015. The course was structured as tutored writing sessions over three days, with the intention of ending up with the first draft of a story.
My background in journalism means I write quickly and (fairly) accurately, and this was a story that had been pushing to get out of my head onto the page for some time. It was speculative fiction about a young woman struggling with the debt piled on her generation, and the effects of that debt on society.
Part of the reason for booking the course was to carve out the time to write it — and I found it flowed out easily onto the paper.
So, rather than take until the Sunday afternoon to have a first draft ready, I had it done in time for my first tutorial on the Saturday lunchtime. I was looking forward to having it taken apart by an expert I so I could do a good solid rewrite for the next day. I’m a firm believer in quick & dirty first drafts and that the magic happens in rewrites. But the tutor remained fixated on his disbelief that it had been written during the course.
The only way I could see to break this stalemate was to challenge him to give me any theme he liked for a story — one I couldn’t possibly have a draft ready for — and I would write another 5,000 word story to a similar first-draft standard in the next 24 hours.
He had some newspaper printouts in his bag and picked one for me: the story of an Indian boy who had become separated from his family at a young age, ended up at an orphanage, and had been adopted by an Australian couple. As an adult, he had then tracked down his hometown and family by using Google Maps.
So, the story below is the result I presented the next day.
I didn’t spend much time on research — just a quick bit of googling (which seems fitting really), so forgive me any technical, geographical or cultural mistakes or faux pas. Also, I took a lot of artistic license with the story. It’s ‘inspired by’ the article at a basic level, but is then not based on reality in any way. It’s fiction.
The story was published in 2016 in Off Track, an anthology of short stories. This year a movie came out called Lion, and although I haven’t seen it yet, the blurb suggests it might be inspired by the same news story.
When I presented the story, the tutor accepted that maybe I could write as quickly as I said, and agreed to give me notes on it.
I should mention that he was otherwise a good tutor, and my speed to first draft just seemed to hit a sensitive spot in his own writing life. The course was run by an organisation I have huge admiration for, and really want to go on one of their novel-writing courses. Although I was frustrated not to be believed, I had great fun taking on the challenge and ended up with twice as many short stories from the weekend as I expected. So I consider it a win!
This story achieved its objective, but isn’t one I intend to work on further— so here it is in its first draft state…
The Long Flight To Home
A short story by Stephen Parks
Sapoo clutched the armrests as the plane picked up speed on the runway. Not from any fear of flying — quite the opposite. But, this was only the second time he had been on an aeroplane without being at the controls, and the first time had brought him here at the tender age of seven. It seemed so strange to be out of control again.
He dared a glance out of the window to wish a last goodbye to Australia, and imagined his parents and sister at the viewing area, watching the plane and waving him off. He felt bad for causing them this pain, but he knew they understood.
As the plane shook and the engine noise grew — four engines! — Sapoo couldn’t help but run through the checklist as if for his own small single-prop. Elevator trim neutral, apply first degree of flap, mixture rich, open throttle to full, apply gentle right rudder, airspeed attained, flaps ten degrees, rotate, gently back on the stick and lift the nose — a thrill that never diminishes, no matter how many hours you notch up, as the bird soars into the sky, pushing you back into your seat, and making the earth fall away beneath you.
The family’s drive to Sydney airport had been a long one. Sapoo had insisted that he could take the train on his own, but his mother wouldn’t hear of it: They would go by road, and the whole family was going, or no-one was leaving the farm at all. She’d packed them all into the truck, including little Lucie — now not so little, but the affectionate terms of his childhood had stuck — and their father had taken the wheel for the first leg of the journey. All three adults took turns, to stay on the road longer and break the journey only over the one night.
The four of them squeezed onto the worn bench seat at the front, with their luggage strapped in the back. But Sapoo didn’t have much. He never needed many things, and on this trip he carried just a week’s worth of clothes. If he was a savvy business traveller he’d have taken it as carry-on.
Whilst his father drove, Sapoo was at the other end of the bench, arm lazily hanging out of the window to catch some breeze. The intense heat caused a hypnotic haze to rise from the endless trail of tarmac, stretching all the way to the horizon.
There wasn’t a lot of conversation, they weren’t a talking family. Something about the emptiness of the landscape they lived in made life quieter. There was a local radio station playing softly in the background, which quickly needed retuning to another as they made progress.
His parents had cared for him like their own for nearly fifteen years now, and the bonds in the family were tight. Even when they’d had the surprise addition of Lucie when he was ten — having been told they’d never have their own children — his parents’ love for him had not diminished.
Lucie was next to him, her head resting against his upper arm. She’d miss him most. Each of them hadn’t really had anyone else, and whenever they’d finished with their jobs for the day, or on Sundays, the pair of them would go out on the horses — or, later, the truck — and explore, imagining great adventures in their world.
Back then she’d wanted him to tell stories of India, but he’d left at such a young age he couldn’t really remember anything, so he just made up fanciful wild adventures… “I was face to face with a dozen tigers the size of cars”… “we lived in a palace with a hundred servants”… “I had to swim the entire length of the river for a bet.”
Now, she had been the one imploring him not to go: “But you already have a family, us, and we actually love you. If they didn’t want you then, why would they want you now?”
He hadn’t blamed her for these words. He remembered how he had felt about his own older brother, and how painful it had been to be pulled apart so suddenly. But he had to go.
It wasn’t that his real family hadn’t wanted him all those years ago — just that none of them had any choice.
Within a week of landing in Calcutta, Sapoo had established himself in his new — or, perhaps his old, he wasn’t sure how he felt about that yet — country. His money went a lot further here, making him feel like a wealthy man, but he’d chosen a basic room in a cheap hotel on the outskirts in order to preserve his funds, as he didn’t know how many weeks the search would take.
His first days had been a confusion of jet-lag. He hadn’t considered this, as he’d not experienced it in his adult life and no one had told him about it. Even just the four hours threw him. Was he ill already? He couldn’t sleep when it was time for bed, couldn’t wake when it was time to start the day. He didn’t feel like eating at mealtimes, but was intensely hungry later. With difficulty adjusting to the food as well, he had a tough first week, and many times felt like going straight back to the airport and going home. But by the end of the first week things felt more normal.
Something had hit him harder than the travel, harder than the jet-lag — he was a foreigner. After years of being different from everyone else, and dreaming of his homeland where he would one day visit and one day fit in at last, Sapoo found he was just as much of a stranger. He didn’t know the language and had to converse in English, they laughed at the strange accent coming from someone of his skin colour, and he knew nothing of the foods or customs.
At night he dreamed of flying.
He could picture, so clearly, the landing strip on their farm at home. He knew every bump and rut on its length. The horses would start in their paddock as the engines kicked in. Lucie would be running towards him from the stables, “Sapper, wait! Take me with you Sapper!”
Even in his dreams he would step through every part of his pre-flight checklist, and he’d wake up in the morning wanting to leap up and write a note to remember to replace the tail tie-down when he returned, and then realise it had been a dream. But, real or not, his heart would still beat harder and faster as the aircraft began to taxi, and at the moment he pulled back on the stick.
He would be soaring over the prairie, loving the freedom, watching the animals scatter below, and buzzing his friends on a nearby farm.
Flying hadn’t been leisure for him — they weren’t nearly wealthy enough for that kind of luxury — it had been work. Each farm covered such vast areas that air was the best way to get and make supplies, but the most important part of the work was spraying the crops. Sapoo had gained respect as the hardest working, longest flying, most accurate crop-duster in the entire state. Most importantly, he had the guts and skill to fly low — really low — and that was the key to accurate spraying with minimal drift, and lower costs.
At an early age his father had let Sapoo help with the plane: cleaning it, learning the methods of maintenance, passing the tools, and learning about each part. By the age of 12 he was a useful and competent mechanic. “Sapper” had become his nickname after a neighbouring farmer — who’d served time in the army — had watched him work with speed, skill and precision to fix an engine. It stuck.
He worked hard on persuading his father to teach him to fly too, and there was only so long that such destiny could be denied. Despite protestations from his mother that had kept him grounded over the years, even as a passenger — “that boy is not to go up in that damn thing, ever!” — he eventually got his way. On his 14th birthday, a box that would normally have contained another kit aeroplane for him to build and add to the collection in his room, was opened to reveal only a key. He recognised it immediately, and raised his gaze slowly, unbelievingly, towards his father, who simply nodded once.
It was two weeks before he felt strong enough — in every sense — to leave Calcutta for the next step in his plan. While there he had sought out the orphanage, but it was long closed, and no one knew how to locate anyone or anything that might be able to shed light on his time there. A few enquiries with other official people with official job titles in official buildings had yielded nothing useful either. It was time to move on.
With trepidation, he finally picked up the courage and boarded the train at Chitpur station. His memories of that fateful journey to Calcutta by his five year-old self were so vague, but the sounds and smells and bustle must have evoked something, because when he came to sink into his seat his pulse was running high, and the sweat was from more than the heat. He felt a little panicked and wondered if he should disembark, but by the time the whistle blew he was still in his seat and his opportunity to back out passed.
Sapoo distracted himself by taking out the map he had purchased and busily studying the route. The train itself was antiquated and dirty. Little had changed since he and his brother had earned a few rupees travelling the line, picking up litter and sweeping carriages.
He’d remembered that the route he and his brother worked always took them 14 hours to get from their home station — the name of which his illiterate 5 year-old self had not known — to the end of the line in Calcutta, and then 14 hours back. So at the station the puzzled ticket seller had suggested that Khandwa was the biggest station the train would get to in about length of time. “I’ll have a ticket to there then please,” Sappo had said, happy to have a destination.
The journey was going to be long, but he planned to break the journey en route at Sambalpur, about a quarter of a way into the route. That was the part of his plan he was most unsure about.
“Sapper, rest up a minute, I got us a beer.”
Sapoo put down the heavy plastic barrel of fertiliser he was carrying to the aircraft, to take hold of the beautifully cold can from his father. He cracked the ring pull and took a sip.
“Cheers. I don’t have long. Just a quick fuel and refill.”
They sat in the shade under one of the wings and quietly drank.
“Do you have a plan for your trip?”his father asked after a while, affecting indifference.
“A little. Not much. I’ll go to Calcutta, find the orphanage, ask around. Now I’m older I should be able to figure out where to look, what to ask.”
“We never asked what happened before Calcutta, your mother and I, we assumed you…” his father paused, “We assumed you’d talk if you wanted to, or wouldn’t if you didn’t. But maybe you do, and we never gave you a chance.”
“There’s not much to say. I only remember a little. It’s mostly a blur, and I can’t figure out what was real, or what was told to me later at the orphanage or by the church people that brought me here, or what I may have made up in telling the other kids stories.”
But he did remember one part of the story very, very clearly, and that was when the train stopped in Sambalpur.
The train stopped for long periods at certain stations, and Sambalpur was still one of those. Passengers streamed down from the carriages to the local shops and stalls ready to serve them. But Sapoo didn’t go further than the platform now, standing next to the train, surveying the station, with tears already streaming down his cheeks. His journey had brought him back here, after all these years, and he recognised it. But being here unlocked the memories of that day even further. He felt once again like a lost, confused and frightened little boy.
He could see himself running up and down the platform looking for his brother, calling his name frantically. He could see himself running to the station master and asking after the train — “That went 20 minutes ago my boy, you’re too late! What happened to your face?”
He remembered putting his hand to his forehead, feeling it wet, and then seeing blood on his fingers. He didn’t cry, he took action. He ran back down the side streets to where he had just woken up and run from to get back to the train. His small shoulder bag was there, with the contents strewn across the ground, but none of it was of any value. The few rupees he had earned were gone of course. But his brother was still gone too, and there was no sign of him at all. No clues that could lead Sapoo to him. He walked up and down the streets for a while, searching, but with no luck.
Sapoo had followed his brother everywhere since he was able to walk. He worshipped him, and the four years difference in age sometimes felt like decades as he listened intently to imparted wisdom on life, and the insights into the lives of people they encountered on the train. “You see that big, fat, ugly, old man Sapoo? The one with the wart on the end of his nose like a small temple? He is a prince with a hundred beautiful wives! One day I will grow large and ugly like that and marry well and often. I will give you a small palace at the end of my garden.” Remembering now, the tall nature of these tales was clear, and Sapoo knew where his talent for telling stories to Lucie came from.
But he also remembered being a small boy, feeling so alone, stood behind the station, wishing desperately they hadn’t got off the train to search for a place to buy a cola with the money they had earned.
He’d waited for hours, but his brother never came for him. Eventually the station master took pity, or at least wanted to shift responsibility, and, after Sapoo was unable to explain where home was, he was bundled onto the next train with a note and the suggestion he might find his brother again when he arrived in Calcutta.
But he never did.
“Sapper, what’s it like to fly?” his sister had asked one day, soon after his first solo flight.
“It’s like you’re as free as it’s possible to be. Free from the ground, free from your body, free from your mind and free from everything that ties you to anything. You can go anywhere you want. A train can only take you further down the same tracks. But a plane… a plane can take you anywhere.”
“Where do you want to go?”
The train finally pulled into Khandwa station, and the noise of doors slamming and porters calling awoke Sapoo from sleep. This was as far as his planning had gone — now he was making it up as he went.
He let a boy grab his small case and take him out to the taxis, pushing a path through the jostling crowd. Sapoo gave the boy a 20 rupee tip, then asked the driver to recommend a central hotel for less than 3000 rupees a night. The driver said he knew just the place.
When they arrived the hotelier greeted the driver like a brother — Sapoo guessed there was good reason for that — and so the passenger became a guest. The hotel was basic, a little run down, and probably much cheaper normally than he was being charged, but it would do. He ate lightly, retired early, and slept long.
The next day he began doing the only thing he could think of. He walked the streets, taking a map and methodically exploring each to see if anything would jog his memory. Nothing did. It took a week to properly explore the main part of the town, and then he began hunting in the sprawling conurbations that surrounded the centre. Weeks passed, his legs ached and his feet got sore. Nothing.
The place he remembered was much smaller, but then that was seventeen years ago. Places grow, places change.
Once two months of wearying exploration had passed, Sapoo gave up searching in and around Khandwa. Home wasn’t here.
He treated himself to a particularly nice meal in a good restaurant to try to lift his spirits, but he was despondent. He didn’t have a plan and he was coming to the end of the money he had brought with him.
Over dinner he wrote a long letter home, putting an entertaining spin on his adventures, making him smile a little, but on finishing his writing and leaving the restaurant he was homesick for Australia, and found the noise and heat and smells of India oppressive. The people mocked him, he was sure, and took him for a ride. He didn’t belong here — he was a fool on a fool’s mission that he should have known he would only fail at.
He went to one of the bars serving alcohol, the B-52 on Ninawaar road, to seek some comfort in a cold beer, and decide what to do. He had one week’s worth of money left, he calculated, before he would have to give up and return home a failure. This would have to be his last treat until home.
Sitting on his stool, one elbow propped on the bar, Sapoo must have looked glum, because the white man next to him took pity and bought him another.
“You look like you need it. Rough day eh?”
“Thanks. Rough couple of months if I’m honest. And also, to be honest, I’m running out of cash — so I can’t really return the favour. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry old chap. What’s your line?”
“What do you do? Work.”
“Ah, well,” Sapoo shrugged, what did he do? Looking for his family wasn’t work, and he didn’t want to start that story just now.
The man didn’t wait for any further explanation: “If you’re willing to work with your hands, and willing to work hard, I’ve got work if you need it.”
Another beer revealed that the man’s name was Julian, and he was from the British government on a post-imperial guilt-trip to improve the Indian agriculture industry.
“It’s a bit of a joke to be frank with you. Productivity through the floor, suicides through the roof.” He gestured with his index finger in either direction, “Poor buggers can’t make it work, can’t make it pay. We’ve given them some fancy tractors and stuff, but they just keep breaking down. British engineering not what it once was and all that, yet too space age for the local mechanic. So we’re going old school and need men, lots of, for some damn hard work on some old-style manual farming. Game?”
“I can do better than that,” Sapoo said. “I can fix the tractors.”
Six months into his travels, Sapoo was no closer to finding his family, but he had found a purpose. After proving his worth to Julian within the first week, he’d been given a truck and spent his days driving between small farms repairing their tractors and other machinery. He was a curiosity to the farmers with his dark skin and Australian accent, but instead of mocking him he’d found they respected him for his skills. They’d gather round to watch as he worked, calling advice — not of much use, as he still didn’t understand Hindi — but at least they felt they were making a contribution.
Of course, his journey to and from the farms involved a meticulously planned network of routes that weren’t necessary the quickest way to his destination, but allowed him to mark off new areas on his search map. Still he found nothing that he recognised or that could give him any clue as to where he came from.
He had plenty of time to think on these drives too. What would his brother look like now? What would he be doing in life? How long had he searched for Sapoo in Calcutta, and had he ever gone back to Sambalpur again? What did they think had happened to Sapoo? He decided that they had probably given him up for dead.
In all this thinking he searched for memories of his childhood here, but there was little to find. Flashes here of running down a dirty street, chased by his brother; flashes there of sweeping the train, trying to budge the stubborn dust from the grooves in the wooden floor.
Sapoo had quickly given up questioning why his mother had let a five year old boy go out to work on a train when he saw just how many young boys — so young — worked everywhere. He’d see them on the farms, carrying, digging, picking cotton, even walking behind the archaic harvesting machines, mere feet from the spinning blades, gathering up the corn.
At night he slept the deep, dreamless sleep of the hard-working, but he still day-dreamed of flying. If he saw an aircraft overhead — and he was always scanning the skies — he would pull sharply to the side of the road, jump out and stand in the back of the truck, neck craned, to identify the plane and imagine being the pilot. Only when it was a tiny fleck of glinting sunlight in the distance of the deep blue sky would he slowly climb down and resume his journey on land.
Sapoo found the old airstrip in the last days of the sowing season. He’d been working longer hours than ever to keep the machinery of the local farming industry alive throughout one of the busiest times of the agricultural year. He’d been sent round to the north of Khandwar, up towards the lake, to fix a large old Ferguson tractor shared between three farmers — none of whom seemed to care for its maintenance and the poor thing had been in a sorry state.
At first he thought it was one of his day-dreams, the long straight dirt strip to the side of the road, the rusting arched corrugated iron of the old hangars, and the old windsock pole — with the sock long since rotted away. He parked the truck, and approached the airfield on foot. It seemed eerily quiet.
The doors to one hangar were locked, and although the other hangar was open, there was nothing inside save from rubbish and the smell of human waste. There were no planes on the apron, or any sign of human life.
Dejected he strolled down the runway. It was in reasonable condition. One or two pretty deep potholes that would need to be filled, but otherwise no obstacles. But a runway was no good to a man without a plane.
He turned and walked back towards the hangars. After a moment, he became aware that the buzz of an engine in the distance was getting closer, much closer, and that it wasn’t on the road. He turned around to see a Piper Cherokee making its approach, with wheels moments away from touchdown. Sapoo made a dash to the side of the runway, and then followed the aircraft to the apron.
“Stay off the bloody runway man!” the pilot shouted once Sapoo reached him. He was a balding white man, late fifties with a big bushy moustache. He helped two passengers out from the aircraft and lifted down their luggage. A car had arrived just in time to whisk them away.
The pilot busied himself with the plane, giving Sapoo time to study it too. It was old, but a beauty. He spotted a few things he’d want to fix. Then he noticed the words ‘Air Taxi’ painted on the side, and was struck with excitement.
“Can I apply for a job sir?” he asked.
“A job? You make good tea, boy?”
“I’m a pilot.”
“Ha! A pilot! Well you don’t sound like a farm boy, I’ll give you that. But no, you can’t have a job as a pilot. Business is shot to buggery. Had to let my only other guy go just the other month.”
His spur of the moment plan failing hit Sapoo harder than the failed months of searching had. It had seemed like a gift from the gods to find an aeroplane at last. As the pilot went into the office door of the small cabin next to the hanger, Sapoo slumped down in front of the hangar doors.
A paper plane. He remembered a paper plane his brother had made for him, floating in front of his eyes. He ran after it, with it always just out of his grasp, and then picked it from the floor. He studied it carefully, each fold, each angle. How did this fly? To him it was beautiful. He threw it, but not well, and it simply dived to the floor.
“Here, let me show you.”
His brother put the plane in his hand, and guided him to draw it back behind his head, and then throw forward in one smooth movement, letting go before his hand curved down. It took to the air, and glided.
And as he once again pictured the paper plane flying, he could now see the house behind it. He could finally see the detail, the colour. It all cane flooding back. Home.
“Are you always going to be in my way today?”
Sapoo snapped back to the present, and looked up to see the pilot glaring at him. He stuttered to find a reply.
“I need to get her in for the night, you might as well help.”
They each drew back one of the hangar doors, and Sapoo saw it then. A dark shape, covered by tarpaulin in the very back of the hangar.
“Is this other plane yours too, sir?”
“Yes, used to run three of the things. Sold one off last year, now that’ll have to go too and I’ll be down to just one.”
“It’s for sale?” Sapporo’s spirits soared once more.
How would he ever raise 5 million rupees? His hands gripped the wheel of the truck tightly as he drove home for the night. He hit the dashboard in frustration — it was an impossible number to even imagine when he earned less than 4000 rupees a month in his bloody job. A few months ago that had felt like riches to him.
He drove too fast, fuelled by his anger and frustration — and he was too close to the level crossing, and travelling too fast, when he finally saw the movement in the corner of his eye. He snapped his head left and saw the heavy black locomotive of the train bearing towards him. He knew he couldn’t stop in time. Even jamming the brake pedal to the floor would place him in the middle of the crossing just as the train would reach it. He instead stamped on the gas, shooting narrowly in front of the metal teeth of the train’s cattle fender.
At the other side he screeched to a halt, opened the door and vomited onto the dirt track as he watched the dozens of carriages pass with curious faces watching him from every window.
Eventually Sapoo set off again, continuing his journey back to the farm project offices at a more sedate pace, defying his surging adrenalin. He parked the truck in the yard and climbed up to the room above the garage that had become his home.
Sapoo paced the room, trying to make a plan. Trying to even understand the numbers.
Finally he strode across the yard to the office, burst in and found Julian at his desk.
“How much is 5 million rupees?”
“Hello Sapoo. That’s a bit of an odd question. 5 million rupees is 5 million rupees.”
“No but how big is it. How many tractors is it for example?”
“Oh, I guess you’d get two, maybe three tractors for 5 million.”
“Only two or three?”
“Sure, if you were going for reasonable condition.”
Sapoo thought for a moment, pacing the bare floorboards.
“Julian, I have a business proposal for you.”
For just over three months he flew nearly every day. Julian couldn’t believe the increase in efficiency the aircraft brought — after a few weeks of repairs and additions for its new role — crop spraying, top-dusting and delivering supplies.
On days Sapoo wasn’t flying he’d be in the project office with Julian, working out which new sectors of land he should cover, which farmers to contact and sell the idea to. Julian’s people would pay visits and arrange terms with a cluster of small farms, and then Sapoo could fly his mission. He’d colour off each part of his own map. Green for places he’d flown and spotted something he recognised that he should investigate further, and red for places he’d flown and spotted nothing. Everywhere he’d marked on the map was red.
There was only one no-fly zone on his map — the farm of Mr Singh. He was a crusty old farmer with strong ideas about modern techniques. When Julian had approached him he’d sworn to shoot down any plane that dropped chemicals over his land. Sapoo had to be particularly careful serving neighbouring farms as Mr Singh, on hearing the engines, patrolled his property with an old shotgun pointed in the air, and had even fired off a warning shot or two.
One day, after he had completed his sorties, he noticed a tributary off the Narmada river, the Veda, that he could follow as an alternative route home. It would provide a scenic route, a chance to enjoy himself. He flew low and fast over the water, screaming with joy at his freedom.
It was out of the corner of his eye that he saw it, and he looped back and flew more slowly.
He recognised the waterfall. The distinctive overhanging rock that the water spilled over. The azure pool beneath it into which he and his brother had dived and swum so many times. The tree that grew at an angle over it that they could climb up and jump off. It was, what? Half an hour’s walk from their home?
Home must be near.
He flew in gradually increasing circles out from the waterfall, gracefully looping, the cockpit angled for better view of the ground. After half an hour he found the small town, and then he saw the house. Just as it looked behind the paper plane, but faded and fallen into disrepair.
A few times he buzzed the area, and must have been the talk of the town. Finally, he marked the spot on the map and returned to base.
Julian gladly gave him a day off — the boy had worked like a trooper for months — and Sapoo took the truck north to find the house.
“Sapper,” his sister asked, on the day before he left, “Will you come back?”
“Of course I’ll come back! I live here! I’m just going on a trip, a holiday.”
“I’ll think of you every day while you’re gone.”
He knew she would, because he had thought of his older brother every single day.
As he drew up outside his mother’s house, Sapoo had never felt more foreign in his life. He’d relearned some Hindi, but only enough to converse with farmers, not every day conversation with his family. What if they didn’t speak any English? They probably didn’t. Imagine not being able to talk to his own brother!
But as he stood in front of the door, he realised it was pointless. The house was deserted. It had been empty some time, and was boarded up.
A elderly neighbour paid him some interest.
“Woman. House?” Sapoo asked and gestured.
The neighbour shook his head. Sapoo recognised a few Hindi words along with the gestures — woman, gone.
“Speak English?” Sapoo asked in rudimentary Hindi.
The man shook his head but came and took Sapoo’s hand and led him up the street. They stopped outside a well-kept house and knocked. A colourfully-dressed and elegant woman answered the door. The elderly man chatted away to her, then she turned and addressed Sapoo in English.
“Mr Khan says you are seeking Mrs Jhadav? She moved away many years ago I’m afraid. She had some very bad news.”
“I am her son.”
“But you… you can’t be?”
It took some questioning before she would believe it, but then she revealed that she knew where Mrs Jhadav had moved to. They all climbed into Sapoo’s truck, and with the old man jabbering away the whole journey, they travelled to a nearby village.
The reunion seems a blur to Sapoo now. The shock on his mother’s face — incredibly, she recognised him immediately — then the tears came to them both.
She had ushered the three of them inside and immediately set about cooking a feast, with her and the old man chatting away and the woman occasionally translating when she could gesture for enough of a gap. Every now and then the woman would translate a question from Sapoo’s mother, and then the answer back, but the main flow of conversation was between his mother and the old man.
By the time darkness came no one else had joined them at the table, and Sapoo finally asked about his brother. Before the woman could even start translating his mother’s reply he knew everything from her face.
“Sapoo, I’m so terribly sorry, but we assumed you already knew. Your brother disappeared at the same time as you, but a few days later his body was found near the tracks. He had been killed with a knife, and robbed. Everyone thought the same had happened to you. Your mother has been mourning you both. But now she is so happy you are alive, you are here, and you have built a good life.”
The news came hard to Sapoo. He hadn’t even considered that possibility. His brother was invincible. The food was delicious, but his stomach was bunched so tight now he had to push the rest away.
Since that night he hadn’t felt able to leave his mother again. He visited regularly at first, as they got to know each other, and he re-learned her language.
But after six months the maternal bonds were as strong as ever, and Sapoo used his generous wages to rent them a house together, so he could take care of her more.
Some years passed, and Sapoo’s letters back to Australia grew less frequent as he settled into his routine of working and looking after his mother.
But then came the day that Julian retired. At his leaving party he turned the tables and presented Sapoo with a gift. A small, light, box, wrapped in brown paper. Sapoo un-wrapped and opened it to reveal just a key. The key to the plane. He looked up at Julian questioningly.
“The project is closing down,” Julian said. “But I had a word, and — as thanks for all your work — Her Majesty’s government are gifting you the plane, and anything else you need from here to set up your own crop-dusting business.”
At that moment Sapoo realised exactly who he wanted to be able to share the news with, and when he finally got home he sat until the early hours writing a long letter.
The reply came two weeks later, bringing warm praise and great pride from his parents, and a photo of Lucie waving from the cockpit of what she had determinedly claimed as her plane now.
But before he could reply another letter arrived — by airmail this time. He tore it open, only to read that his father had been ill — very ill — for a while, and had now passed away. “He was so glad to read of your success, and I know he was very proud of you Sapper.”
As he read the letter his tears flowed, great wet circles spreading across the tissue-thin letter paper where they fell.
Sapoo wanted to travel back straight away, but he had responsibilities now. Staff, customers, his mother. He recognised, though, that a deep homesickness had long been growing — for the place and people he had known most of his life.
It took him another two years to get the business running well enough and train up a promising young apprentice to run it.
But then, one bright May morning, they are finally on the runway. As the aircraft gathers speed, his mother grips the armrests of her seat tightly. Not from any fear of flying, quite the opposite — this is just the first time she has been in an aircraft that wasn’t piloted by her son.
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