THE BASICS OF FLIGHT
by Joyce Chng
Finding Her Balance: Walking Aware
The air was suitably chilly for an early-morning Athletics. There was fog rolling in from the Flying Field, a fleecy sheet coating just about everything and making flying lessons for the final-year ensign class impossible.
Stenton made them all stand in a large circle, including Alethia who shivered in the cold. They had their jumpers on but the Autumn cold was indeed bone-deep. The students hopped from foot to foot, trying to keep themselves warm. There would be a lot of howling and complaining later. But now it was not the time to. Stenton’s sharp tongue would whip them into shape.
Katherine’s skin broke out in goose pimples. She hated Autumn, even when she was back in Dorset. The house was always clammy, the cold having seeped into the very bricks and stayed there like a stubborn ice wall. She would pile on several layers of blankets and the cold would still permeate through. Little Alice, her sister, hated it and often fell ill with winter colds.
“You must be wondering why you are all standing in a circle,” Stenton began. He was a stocky man, in his late thirties, his salt-and-pepper hair close-cropped to the skull. He was a Cockney man by birth and he was proud of it.
“We are going to do an exercise,” he continued, watching the students and their discomfort in the chill air with amusement in his eyes. “I want everyone to start walking in three paces, at your own will, within this circle.”
The students eyed one another and then at Stenton who grinned back. “Walk normally, breathe normally, making sure you do not come into contact with your peers.”
Katherine darted a glance at Alethia anxiously. For this exercise, the blind girl would have found it difficult in doing so. But the girl showed no sign of anxiety or indeed nervousness, standing with a faint smile on her lips.
“You can begin … now!” Stenton whistled sharply and the students began to shuffle, pace and walk, each in his or her own style of movement. Three paces, Stenton reminded them, three paces.
The strands of fog made perception fair tricky, clouding in-coming traffic and playing games with the eyes. Katherine tried to breathe normally, listening to her heart, trying hard not to knock into her classmates. Someone brushed too closely to her and it was Thomas Von Dyke who grinned at her wickedly and moved away, like a dancer. Everyone was shifting around her, each in his own world but slowly becoming aware of the others. Even Alethia moved remarkably well, steering herself with her walking stick.
Katherine was aware of the currents around her, the shifting flows and eddies. For a few breaths, she paused, perceptive of the dance and the dancers. Then, someone approached her and she neatly stepped away without missing a beat. The fog simply added to the flow, becoming part of it, dispersing when one of the students moved through it and merging back again seamlessly.
Is flying like that? She wondered, listening to her heartbeats. Knowing the flows and currents of the air? Like a bird? Or knowing who I am?
She was reminded of the nightmare she had a while back and she shuddered, almost losing her concentration when Thomas passed her again. She caught herself and swirled away, almost hitting another boy who glared at her indignantly.
The dance carried on, everyone moving – by now – easily. At the sidelines, Stenton watched pleased.
“That is a fine exercise!” Thomas commented as they retired to the dormitories to refresh themselves before the afternoon classes. His German accent was almost gone with the number of years spent in London, only a faint hint of it showing when he became excited.
“It is,” Katherine nodded, feeling the exercise still lingering in her bones. Alethia walked beside her.
“You almost knocked into me twice,” the boy laughed cheekily. He was almost nineteen. At times, Katherine swore he acted even younger than his real age. She was the oldest amongst the three, having reached the maximum age of registration for the academy. She was passing glad she made it into the academy. Passing glad …
“Hmph,” she retorted back and Thomas shrugged. He was in a jolly good mood. Alethia merely smiled, no doubt understanding the nuances in the conversation.
Now Alethia’s professed vocational training astounded her. She was not training to be a pilot. Instead, she was training to be a controller, the person tasked to give directions to the leo-fin pilot. Now how she was going to do so remained a mystery, even for Katherine. Alethia’s senses of perception were uncanny; she claimed to hear the leo-fins by color and was hence – or she said – able to direct the leo-fin when it took off or landed.
“I do not mind working with you,” she once told Katherine privately. “If we both graduate from the academy first!”
Alethia sounded confident and she seemed to know herself well. She seemed so solid, so self-assured. So aware, even with her disability. Katherine had to admit that she admired the blind girl.
“Off with you,” Katherine mock-scolded Thomas who bowed cockily and peeled off to the nearest washroom. When he was gone, she breathed a sigh of relief. “He is such a frustrating lad!”
Doctor James Ash was a busy man. Not only did he have to look after the health of the entire student cohort, he was also part of the Faculty. Biology was the subject, even though his own specialty was general surgery.
It was common to see the bearded tall gentleman stalking down the corridors of the Manor, simultaneously physician and teacher. He would check on the students, especially those who were sick and were in quarantine, regularly, making they had their ample rest. Likewise, he would supervise his students in the laboratories.
He was a busy man. One would expect him to be scatterbrained, the very image of an university professor. He was not. He was sharp. He was acerbic. Mind you, he just cut young Joshua Baker into fine shreds for being tardy in his homework. Mister Baker was an intelligent young man. He just frittered his time away with his laziness. He would have words to say to Pilotmaster Lee. And as Tutor-in-charge of College Azure, he needed to make sure the students were in tip-top condition, academically and physically.
Now why was he so concerned about a simple ankle? He was constantly on the move. Yet, a simple ankle was causing him some a degree of concern.
It was not just torn tendons and broken skin. It involved the whole person. Common sense, in the form of adequate nutrition and rest, would help remedy the ankle’s problem. If he could get that into the head of the said person with the problem ankle, he would.
She did not tell him how the injury was caused or inflicted. And by what, she was not forthcoming. As he observed her quietly as a calm clinician should, the ankle seemed to be getting worse, not better. Of course, with all the exertion she was putting on it.
He would recommend bed rest. Barring that, simple surgery. Other than these options, it was not just an imbalance of humours. It was a psychological reason.
And no, he was definitely not going to the nonsense of phrenology. Lumps on the skull were not going to tell him about her mind. Lumps were lumps. Not real problems.
If she is aware of this fact, he mused, looking sternly at a few students who quickly went back to their schoolwork. If she wants to be a pilot, that is.
Katherine dreamt again. This time, she found herself moving around with Miss Sharpton. Avoiding the ancient harridan became a dance of shifting eddies and currents. The woman would try to hit her with the brown belt and she would evade it simply by sidestepping or moving away quickly.
It was a pleasant dream, because the dream Miss Sharpton grew increasingly furious and annoyed with her failures to hit Miss Riley. Katherine slept on without waking up.
It was First Light when everyone was jolted awake by a loud rumble. It felt as if the earth was quaking in fear, rumbling and groaning away in travail. Alethia cried out, greatly alarmed by the sound and how sorely it impacted her senses. Katherine fell out from her bed, nearly spraining her already-aggravated ankle.
London was burning.