We missed out on yesterday’s posting, so a day late, here is the sixth installment in Joyce Chng’s serial, The Basics of Flight!
THE BASICS OF FLIGHT
by Joyce Chng
A Moment of Gravity
The next few weeks were frenetic and filled with activities, as if the academy plunged back into routine to rid itself of the overhanging anxiety brought on by the fire. Over in London, there was uproar and argument over the damages from the fire. The broadsheets and papers breathed indignation and threatened to expose the culprit who caused the fire. It was also edging towards Winter with the weather becoming considerably colder. The first snowfall came, a day after All Hallows’ Eve. All outdoor training stopped with most Athletics activities being confined to the Exercise Hall.
With Winter came a sense of gravity. The Great Manor was solemn and quiet. Everyone walked in thick coats and scarves, shuffling about in their boots. Winter also ushered in a period of Examinations. The games had stopped during Last Light with students going back to their books.
Katherine found that she loved the solitude provided by this wintry time. Wrapped in a warm scarf and a comfortable woollen jumper, she studied by gaslight. She loved Mathematics, barely tolerated Biology and was intrigued by Physics. Engineer Morley thought well of her and said that she would make a fine engineer.
She studied with Alethia during the designated study times. The blind girl read by running her fingertips over raised notches in special books. It is Braille, she explained to a curious Katherine once. Braille is designed for the blind as a kind of tactile alphabet. We can feel our letters.
Then, Examinations descended upon them like a sudden rush of wings. Cook commented how mouse-quiet everyone was at mealtimes and how her soups were ignored by tired and pallid students. “They will lap it up like eager puppies once Examinations are over!” She declared to Captain Sagan after a desultory turnout during Tea.
For Katherine, the Examinations did not faze her. They felt like extended homework, timed by harsh taskmasters. During this period, her dreams involved flying quill-pens and overflowing inkpots. To her relief, Miss Sharpton did not make an appearance and she slept relatively undisturbed.
“Do you plan to go back to Dorset?” Alethia said, soon after their last Examination subject. “Are you celebrating Yule?”
Katherine was in high spirits after this paper. The questions were easier than she’d thought. However, Alethia’s question shocked her. She had not planned to go back to Dorset. She did not have the courage to face her parents.
“I am going to stay here during the Yule holidays,” she said quietly.
Alethia tilted her head to one side like a bird. After an uncomfortable silence, she smiled and said, “You are going to spend Yule with me. You are going to visit London.”
“No… I …” Katherine shook her head, overwhelmed by Alethia’s generous offer.
“The Great Manor is going to be exceedingly boring,” the girl continued and placed her hand gently on Katherine’s arm. “You are going to taste the best baked turkey in the world.” In the cold chill of a winter’s afternoon, Katherine’s heart was warmed by a simple offer of hospitality.
The Examinations results were released, pasted on large wooden boards outside the Administravia. Students thronged before the boards, searching for their names. Someone had clearly and painstakingly arranged and written down all names in alphabetical order and with the attached grades. After a fair bit of good-natured jostling and pushing, Katherine edged her way to the board under the letter ‘R’. She scanned the board intently.
Found her name: RILEY, KATHERINE. Written in quaint and neat black ink.
With trembling finger, she traced her name and the grades. Athletics – Alpha. Basics of Flight – Beta. Humanities – Beta. Engineering – Alpha. Languages – Beta, Mathematics – Alpha. Her heart dipped. Science – Delta.
But she passed and she was thankful. That would mean another year at the academy and a chance for her to fly. Deep inside, she felt guilty that her parents were paying straight from their pockets.
She pushed herself away from the board and headed for the courtyard where Alethia and Thomas waited.
“How did you fare?” Thomas grinned when she approached. He had passed most of his subjects with good grades and he loved comparing his performance with Katherine.
“I passed,” Katherine said simply and shrugged. Alethia laughed at her friend’s sardonic tone. The fair-haired girl had excellent grades but she did not like to compete with others and therefore had remained silent.
“Aw,” Thomas pouted like a little boy. Katherine made a face and they both laughed. It was the End of Term and the beginning of the Yule holidays.
London was definitely different from Dorset.
As the horse-drawn carriage made its way through the busy London streets, Katherine stared at the bustling crowds of people and the number of carriages and vehicles. Steam rose from various vents, swirling together with the light fog and parting as carriages ferried their passengers around. She could see people standing around lit fires, taking in the much-needed heat. Chestnut-sellers were doing brisk business; Katherine’s mouth watered. She loved roasted chestnuts, oh deliciously hot nuggets, especially during the chill of winter.
Above her, she knew, were a few leo-fins, no doubt carrying cargo and passengers. She wondered if Eddington was up there and she blushed, hiding her face behind her thick scarf. Alethia, sitting opposite her, did not say anything. She was dressed in a sober brown coat and her slender hands were snug in fur.
And there were so many more buildings! They were all around her, stately buildings, closely packed buildings, smaller houses in rows. Of course, there was Westminster Abbey with its gothic grandeur and the Tower of London looking ominous in the London fog. Not to mention the clock tower Big Ben, a giant in the midst of giants. She had not forgotten the factories too. They blew spumes of smoke, visible columns of white and grey issuing forth from long chimneys. The memory of the London fire was still fresh in her mind.
When the carriage passed by the Thames, she marveled at the river barges steaming their way up and down. She could hear their haunting horns echo in the evening darkness. Somewhere she knew were the larger ships coming in to unload their exotic cargo, clad in steel: heralds for a different age of commerce.
From her warm seat in the carriage, swaying gently as the horses trotted down cobblestone streets, she watched the women in their elegant gowns and thick winter muffs as they stepped daintily on pavements covered with dirty snow. There were also women who wore breeches, like Captain Sagan – and they were laughing cheerfully as they strode together down the street, Yuletide packages in their arms. It was indeed a grand age for women.
She rested her chin on her fist, watching London rush past her in a pastiche of sounds and images.
“A penny for your thoughts?” Alethia’s soft voice broke the silence and Katherine turned to look at the blind girl.
“Just thinking,” Katherine said quietly.
“London can be quite overwhelming,” Alethia smiled. “It is called a city for a reason.”
Katherine smiled back, knowing that Alethia had somehow acknowledged her smile.
“You will like my father,” the fair-haired girl said, grimacing slightly as the carriage suffered a jolt as it dipped into a pothole. They both heard an apologetic “Sorry, ma’am!” from the coach-driver and they laughed. “He spends a lot of his time in his workshop. Just be careful not to step on his inventions.”
Just then, the carriage slowed to a halt. Alethia’s face instantly broke into a radiant smile. Katherine could see a plump older woman in prim clothing and an apron standing outside a mahogany-colored door, carrying a glowing lamp.
“We are home,” Alethia said. “Mrs Potts!”