The Right Time to Fly
by Shirley Golden
‘She’s back,’ Marcus says. He claps his hands and waves. ‘Whoa, stop. Stop.’
Owen brings the crane to a halt. He leans from the open window and shouts, ‘There a problem?’
‘Wait here. Don’t aggravate the situation.’ Marcus frowns. He heads around the bank of rubble. ‘Damn it,’ he mutters and yanks off scratched goggles and shoves the hard hat back from his forehead. He walks past moored barges, awaiting their scrap pile destination, same as everything thing else in and around the yard.
He approaches her; her face is obscured by the camera lens, her finger poised waiting for a clean shot. She shuffles her cowboy booted feet, which are split along the seams. Her slung-on denim jacket is frayed and faded.
Marcus sees his reflection, dwarfed in the plug of the lens. Stretched around his outline are miniature wheels. Cracked screens and industrial drums encircle his image.
She lowers the camera. ‘Nice one, arse-wipe. You think I want your ugly mug in my shot?’
‘Don’t care. I’m this close to chucking that thing on the heap with the rest of the junk. How many times do I have to tell you, this is a restricted area?’
She conceals the camera behind her body. ‘I’m not doing any harm.’
‘You’re putting yourself in danger. Go to the other side of the fence if you must do it. Why you want to snap at people’s throw outs is beyond me.’
‘I can’t shoot from there. Come on, I need this for Uni. Come on.’ She steps forward.
‘You want me to call the police?’
She scowls. ‘Thanks for nothing.’
Owen hangs from the crane cabin. ‘You sort her out?’ he says, his tongue working the gum around his mouth. ‘I’d like to sort her...’
‘You lot will keep clear of her.’ Marcus rubs at his forehead where the rim of the hard hat left an impression. ‘I don’t understand how she’s getting in. Think I’ll check the fence tonight, put a stop to it once and for all.’
The operatives muster outside the office door. Owen taps on the glass and signals a cupped hand to his lips. Marcus shakes his head as always. Owen shrugs, says something to one of the other men. There’s a muted laugh and they leave.
Marcus glances at his watch and heads into the yard. The cranes are giant birds, petrified in mid-flight. The air is opaque with dust; the river below is dark and motionless.
On the other side of the bank, oaks and beech trees are thickening skeletons. A cloud of starlings gathers against a colourless sky.
Marcus removes his hat and sighs. Damn it, why can’t she take photos of nature, of things of beauty?
He completes a circuit of the yard. The sharp sweetness of metal filings mingles with oil, beneath an odour of brackish water. The scrap heap rears over the cranes and cabins, like the shell of a lifeless monster. Twisted steering wheels jut from fridge doors. Phone pads balance along railway sleepers, numbers missing, and their screens cracked.
Rusted palisades surround the compound like wartime defences, yet to be dismantled. The entrance is a mess of barbed wire.
He scans the perimeter. He looks out across the water. A cormorant squats on the channel buoy and dries its splayed wings.
He has to blink away the memory of their frayed washing line rigid across the balcony, tiny clothes, limp and dripping.
The barge below sways and water ripples. A shadow moves across the port hole, a fox looking for scraps, perhaps a cat? But the shadow reappears and fills the circle. Her pixie face and heap of rust-coloured hair are now distinct.
Marcus unlocks the side gate and marches down the dockside. The barge door slumps on one hinge. He hesitates, then takes a breath and steps inside.
A pan floats above his head like a decayed moon.
‘Shit,’ she says, ‘it’s just you.’ She lowers her weapon.
‘What are you doing here?’
In the galley, blankets cover lumpy seats. Clothes and towels are dumped on the end.
She splashes oil into the pan and it sizzles over a portable stove. ‘Frying,’ she says. She rips into Iceland beef burgers. ‘You want one?’ She opens a porthole and smoke funnels out. Her camera dangles, Western holster style. ‘I know. I shouldn’t be here. Can you please give the lecture a miss for once? Sit.’
His stomach grumbles. He can’t remember the last time someone cooked for him. ‘This doesn’t mean I’m going to let you in the yard…’
She grins. ‘Hey, stay cool. It’s just a burger. We’re not gettin’ married or nothin’.’
He sits down. ‘Have you been living here?’
She shrugs. ‘On the odd night – the lights across the way creates a…you’re not gonna grass me up, are you?’
‘You can’t stay here. It’s not safe.’
‘How old are you?’
‘You act like an old man. I’m guessing you’re thirty, tops. How old?’ She tears open a Bap, and smears tomato sauce across its innards.
‘What’s your name?’ Marcus says.
‘If I tell you my age, I should at least know your name.’
‘See, old man mentality. Suzy.’
He holds out his hand. ‘Twenty-nine. Marcus.’
‘Knew it.’ She slaps a burger into his palm and flops beside him. ‘You been working here long?’
‘Ten years,’ he says.
She almost chokes on her mouthful. ‘You been here ten years. No wonder you look done in.’
It’s not so bad, he thinks. ‘So, you’re a student then?’
She nods, nibbles at her burger. ‘Art and photography,’ she says. ‘I suppose you’re married and shit?’
The burger tastes better than it looks. Marcus nods and says slowly, ‘I was, yeah. Not any longer.’
‘A boy.’ He pauses. ‘He died.’ He can form the words now – just.
Seven years have lapsed. Hard to believe he had a son. Ben is a faded photo in his head. Yet flashbacks descend, hard and fast: the flat, with its wide window-seats. Her words, sharp like a slap: ‘Just watch him.’ Marcus sulks after another row. Ben plays by the window.
Then, an empty space instead. The flutter of net curtains. Silence.
Marcus recalls fear in his wife’s face. He can’t speak. He points and she rushes past him, leans out of the open window and looks down. He sees her mouth in a wide ‘O’ as if she is screaming but he doesn’t remember any sound. He can’t move. He can’t look.
Later fear is replaced by pain, and then an erosion of loathing.
‘Oh.’ Suzy looks around as if she might find a suitable response in the opaque air.
He studies his burger and stops eating, brings a hand to his forehead, and asks too loudly: ‘What are your plans when you finish your studies?’
Her lips pucker to a scowl. ‘You sound like Mum’s latest bloke – what a bore.’ She wipes her mouth with the back of her arm, smearing sauce up her cheek. ‘I’m nineteen. I’ll be…I’ll do whatever I like.’ She shakes her head. ‘Don’t you remember how to wing it, how to have fun?’
Marcus stares off through the pane, tries to see through the layers of salt and dirt. ‘No,’ he says.
She stands up. ‘Come on, I’ll show you something.’
He leaves the half-eaten burger and trails after her. ‘This doesn’t involve going back into the yard, does it?’
The scowl is back. ‘You game or not?’
They walk to the corner of the railings. ‘Look.’ She points to the side of the heap. Wires spiral like springs from a broken clock. Imbedded in the tangle is a radiator half-folded, its corners point towards the sky. ‘It’s like a pair of wings, waiting for release, for the right time to fly,’ she says.
Marcus shrugs. ‘Looks like a radiator mangled in the rest of the rubbish,’ he says.
She frowns, turns and presses her head against the bars. ‘Here’s how I do it.’ The space in-between the right angle of railings is a fraction wider. She twists her body to the side, dips down and squeezes through like a cat slipping from one territory into another’s.
Marcus stares and everything slows.
She lifts the camera and angles it towards the tower of waste. She raises her eyebrows. ‘Better be quick if you wanna stop me.’
Damn it, he can’t believe she tricked him.
His windpipe is raw by the time he unlocks the side gate and hurries towards her. He shields his face from the barrage of flashes. ‘Stop it, will you?’
She backs up stepping into a metal knot of waste, finger pumping as if performing mini CPR on the shutter.
He lunges for the camera. She stumbles. A pipe catches at a tear in her jeans and digs into her skin.
They pause and stare at each other.
‘Come on,’ he says, his voice unsteady. ‘You need to clean that up.’
She sits on a plastic chair in the hut. He crouches and squirts disinfectant on a pad of cotton. He cleans it as best as he can through the hole in her jeans. Her blood stains the edges of the fabric.
‘Wait.’ She aims her camera towards the wound.
‘You’re one sick individual,’ he says. ‘We need to cover it so it doesn’t get infected – especially as you’re holed up in that damp old barge.’
‘Suppose you’re gonna grass on me now, close off the gap?’
He sighs and rubs his fingers into his eye sockets. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Just be careful. And don’t come around during the day anymore, or I’ll be in as much trouble as you.’
She tilts her head to one side. ‘Sorry I called you an old man. Mum says I’ve got a gob on me.’ She grins.
He shrugs. ‘It doesn’t matter. And you’re right, anyway; I feel like an old man.’
He walks her back to the side gate and unlocks it. She touches the plaster briefly. ‘Thanks,’ she says.
‘Hey, Suzy. That barge you’re on, it’s programmed for demolition in a month – thought you should know that.’
‘You know, you’re not half bad,’ she says.
Marcus looks for her everyday. Part of him hopes she has moved on. Part of him is sorry not to see her.
A week elapses before he returns to the barge.
In the water, his reflection hits him, clear and hard. He’s a ghoul, a shadow. He feels ancient – she was right. He needs a hair cut too.
When he pushes the door, it falls inwards, the hinge finally giving up its duty. The place smells worse than he remembered. Empty: no clothes or blankets, no stove or oily pan. On the shelf is an envelope. In a small, quick motion, he rips the seal. Photographs: the first is of him, masking his face. In the next he is closer, eyes narrowed, mouth in a tight line, looking mean. Lastly, there are shots of her injury with him in the background, plaster in hand, his expression different, softer. On the back, scribbled in bubble letters: Not too old to start over.
He tucks the photos inside his pocket. His eyes smart. He walks up the ramp, blinking. By the time he’s back in the yard, everything appears clearer.
Water hisses from a pipe, spraying the heap, and the claw above waits. In amongst the ruins are greens, blues and yellows. And the sun, evident for the first time in weeks, glitters off a single burnished surface, like a star fallen in the waste.
He tilts his head, charting the range of shapes until he lifts his gaze to where the radiator remains.
And damn it, he must be at the oddest angle because it looks just like a pair of wings.