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Winged a novella (of two.., p.3
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       Winged: A Novella (Of Two Girls), p.3

           Joyce Chng
 
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  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.

  Chapter Five:

  Maintaining Equilibrium

  By noon, everyone clustered near the auditorium, waiting for more news. A major factory, situated near London central, had exploded. It was a factory processing metals and ores. Alethia said that there was an explosion of red and orange in her head, just when the jolt hit the academy. It scared her to the core and her face was still ashen.

  Captain Sagan regrouped her College and gave them words of comfort and encouragement. It was an Age of Invention and Discovery. But nobody said anything about Safety and Health. The air smelled distinctly of burning and of metal.

  The leo-fins had been dispatched to help with the firefighting. London burned with a ghastly yellow-green light, turning the layer of smog into something out from Hell. There were the faint sounds of bells as water-bearing teams rushed to extinguish the raging fire.

  For a while, lectures were suspended as some of the lecturers had gone to pilot the leo-fins. Even Captain Sagan took her leave and left with her leo-fin to help combat the fire.

  The academy throbbed with undercurrents of disquiet and fear. There was a sense of desolation in the academy grounds and in the Manor while the whole of London was in turmoil. Fortunately, no more explosions followed and by late night, the fire was contained.

  Everyone – even the cook and her maids – kept vigil, watching the skies for the returning leo-fins. In the cold Autumn night, students huddled together in small groups, sitting around gas lamps and watching their breaths plume white in the air. Alethia was the most affected – her father was in London central. She perched, white and silent, beside Katherine who draped a blanket around her thin shoulders and only prayed for the best.

  Suddenly, Alethia became ramrod straight and said, “Rainbows. They are back.”

  Immediately, someone shouted and pointed at the skies. “They are back! They are back!”

  Eyes peered into the foggy darkness lit intermittently with flashes of yellow-green. There were bright spots in the sky, like stars. The stars gradually became brighter and brighter, until they became the form of lamps on leo-fins. A flight of leo-fins, all six of them, appeared, bold as courage, and lifting everyone’s spirits instantly. Everyone cheered and watched the leo-fins land in a disciplined V-formation on the Flying Field.

  Doctor Ash strode forward, medical bag in hand, in case of any injury on the part of the pilots. The first to appear was Pilotmaster Lee, pulling his dark goggles off from his tanned face tiredly. The second was Captain Sagan who had her right arm in a makeshift sling and causing a few pangs of horror in the breasts of her College students. Ash spoke to the pilots quietly and examined Sagan’s arm with a careful eye, nodding as he listened to her exhausted explanation.

  A few other pilots followed slowly behind the more senior pilots, their bodies showing signs of weariness. Their leather uniforms were covered with soot and one or two looked as if they had very minor burns.

  Students surged forward to their lecturers, questions on their tongues, eager to know what had happened. Lee’s face had a warm smile though.

  “The Queen is safe. Buckingham Palace is far from the fire and Her Majesty is away at Windsor.” He said, accepting a bowl of hot clear broth from Cook thankfully.

  Alethia pushed herself forward. “Sir?”

  “ Miss Forrester, your father is safe,” Sagan’s voice was calm and Alethia’s furrowed brow became smooth.

  After this brief interlude, the pilots were led back to the Manor by Doctor Ash, no doubt for further questions and examinations. Katherine tugged Alethia gently on the arm. It was past Last Light and she was starting to feel really sleepy. The wave of excitement was finally fading away.

  It was then she got sight of a familiar face, amongst the few pilots straggling from behind.

  “Eddington!” Katherine breathed and the familiar face turned to face her, surprise writ on the handsome features.

  ~*~

  “It was very hot, like hell-fire. We had to fly directly above the flames, just to pitch the water in. It was quite a challenge! Wes got himself burned when he flew too closely to the fire but it was a minor burn.”

  Richard Eddington sat with a mug filled with warm cider and a bowl of beef stew, courtesy from Cook. It was noontime when Katherine had the opportunity to meet him. The lectures and lessons were back in schedule.

  He had scrubbed up well and was looking like his old dapper self. He had changed his uniform for a simple brown coat and trousers, looking like a relaxed gentleman out on an afternoon jaunt. Only the dark shadows around his eyes spoke eloquently of his exhaustion.

  They had met before. It felt like another lifetime. In fact, Eddington had flown her over from Dorset to London.

  “The fire was hard to contain. It was a raging beast. But by Jove, we tamed the beast!” Eddington said with a bright grin and drank the cider deeply.

  “You made it sound as if it was a walk in the park!” Katherine laughed.

  “Well, it is part of a pilot’s job, doing chores and running errands, even something as big as this fire.” Eddington tasted the stew and began to shove it down with gusto. “Just look at you. You look different!”

  Katherine felt self-conscious and stared at her booted feet. Her face blushed, a
slow heat pooling in her cheeks.

  “You have become more … self-secure.” Katherine did not like Eddington’s expression as he gazed at her appreciatively. “Definitely more self-secure.”

  “Richard Eddington!” She snapped at him. Within her chest, something blossomed, something like joy.

  The man laughed and went back to his beef stew. Katherine sat quietly, watching him. A shadow fell across the table and it was Captain Sagan, her arm still in the sling.

  “Now, Mister Eddington,” Sagan was half-amused, half-stern. “It is unseemly of you to sit with female students.”

  “Captain Sagan, madame!” Eddington stood up and snapped to attention. His eyes though gleamed with mischief. “I was once a student!”

  “Not anymore, young scoundrel,” Sagan’s tone remained stern, even though her lips curled up slightly. “You are a proper pilot now. Should you be on a flight run by now?”

  “Aw,” he rubbed his jaw. “A tired pilot makes a careless pilot.”

  “Do not be glib,” Sagan shook her head. “Just for a hour and no more.” She saluted and walked away slowly.

  Katherine stared at him. “You are impossible.” She stood up, preparing for the afternoon lectures. She was about to leave with her dignity still intact when he spoke.

  “So, we will meet again?”

  ~*~

  The activities before Last Light buzzed mainly about the London factory fire, everyone with their own theories of the origins of the fire. Some said that the factory was an ammunitions factory and something caught fire in that, causing the inevitable explosion. Some said that the fire was just a careless mistake, caused by negligence. Everyone became quiet and wondered to their selves if the company who owned the factory was to be shut down. The broadsheet writers and the union movements would have aired their irate complaints by now.

  Alethia retired early, drained by the aftereffects of the fire. Katherine made her way out of the Manor, to catch some fresh air, suddenly finding the dormitory hall too warm and stifling to her liking.

  Richard Eddington left in an hour, exactly as he had promised Captain Sagan. Katherine saw his leo-fin lift off and disappear into the distance. She was surprised to feel a sense of bittersweet melancholia and suppressed the feeling quickly.

  It amazed her that she could still see snatches of stars in the night sky. London was normally cloudier than Dorset, because of the greater numbers of factories and refineries. Dorset had one factory and even then, the smoke obscured the sky occasionally. She looked up. It was a clear night, exceedingly rare. It seemed as if the heavens pitied London and gave her a starry night to cheer her waning spirits.

  She stood, inhaling deeply. The London fire was shocking. However, by the end of the year, people would have moved on and the fire would have become just a memory, something to talk about during salon gatherings. “People are more concerned when their bellies are concerned,” her mother once told her in one of her rare conversational moments.

  Katherine gazed at the stars while the constellations spun their slow orbits around her.

  Chapter Six

  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 wi
th 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.

 
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