Memory ten: Far from home
The ship is parked on a spit of land in the middle of the ocean just big enough to hold the ship.
Yesterday after we had dinner, we just sat across one another on the opposing sofas, I had my book, and she had hers.
It was nice.
But this evening Dana has a wooden box that she puts down on the coffee table.
“I brought a game to try if you’re interested?” she asks as she opens up the lid.
“What game?” I put down my book to inspect the piles of tokens and stacks of cards.
“It’s a game of strategy, you have to lead the armies to the right places and give the right tools to conquer more land than your opponent.”
“Sounds violent,” I remark.
“Well, the attacks are dealt with playing cards and the soldiers are mere tokens on the board. If you prefer to read instead or-”
“I can try it.” I quickly tell her afraid to be a bore.
She nods and starts explaining the rules.
“You need to lay out the battlefield and set down the army tokens. Each army has its own colour and the amount of stripes on the token shows the rank of the battalion”
I nod, trying to push all the rules into my brain.
“Do you understand?” she asks.
“Well it’s not as simple as flying an airship but I think I got the gist.”
She laughs at this, then starts dealing around the cards.
About an hour later it’s the final turn, we both have eight territories and if I can just conquer one more I win.
And I have just the thing.
I move my army down the board but Dana shakes her head.
“You can’t move this way, there’s a mountain in the way, you either have to move around or stick to this side of the mountain.”
“Really?” But then my plan falls apart! I huff disappointedly. I wanted to impress her by winning but now it must look like I don’t even understand the rules.
There must be a loophole somewhere right?
“Right, one second.” I get up and walk to my room for a bit.
I pluck a pencil and notebook from my bag and then head back to the parlour.
Dana looks a bit confused but writing helps me think and as far as she told me there’s no limit on how long your turn can take.
I lay out the problem, the mountain is too high to climb, the territories on this side are already mine and it takes too long to go around. Unless there’s a way to travel faster than the normal speed…
“Can I split my army in half?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“The speed an army can travel at is determined by their means of transport and their size. They’re all foot soldiers so I can’t change that variable but if I can reduce their numbers enough that they fall into the ‘scout’ category they can make it to E6 and because I have the bomba card conquering that territory with a small crew shouldn’t be that difficult.”
Dana looks at me with intrigue “I’ll have to check the rules. One moment.” She starts reading the small booklet that came with the game and tells me “it says here as long as you have a general you can execute whoever you please in your battalion effectively removing them from the game. You can have the smaller force, you just can’t make it big again later on.”
“Oh, never mind then.”
“I’m not killing people on my own side just to win a game.”
“But it’s the last round. If you capture E6 now you win.”
“I don’t mind losing. I learnt something so if I challenge you again I’ll be better at it ”
She chuckles “all right then. Another round?”
I nod and we start resetting the board.
And that’s how our journey goes.
The hours in the cockpit are spent by me talking about nothing in particular.
I’ll comment on the sights below us or some random facts I read about and Dana will listen patiently and ask just the right questions to get me talking again.
Yet every time we settle down and Dana leaves for the kitchen, I wonder if I said too much. Maybe I talked for too long? Maybe I bored her?
What she thinks of me feels so important to me, even though I can’t articulate why.
She’s so cool.
I want to be just like her, not a mechanic or a teacher but just…
A person who decides what she wants to do and isn’t stopped by anyone from doing just that.
Chart your own course and stick to it.
That’s what I want to do.
And going to my mother now is the very first step.
“She lives here?” Dana asks with wide eyes.
I smile, my childhood home is indeed very beautiful.
“Well, I wish you a lot of fun, I’m going back to the ship to see how its first long journey left it.”
“You’re not coming in with me?” I ask surprised.
“I don’t speak Cygnian, I’m also not sure what I ought to talk about.”
“I guess…” I try my best to hide my disappointment “well, I probably won’t be back until after dinner so feel free to eat out and I can pay you back afterwards”
“I’m sure you can find a better way of spending your pocket money than buying me dinner, but I appreciate the offer.”
Honestly, I really can’t but I smile all the same “I’ll see you tonight Dana.”
She smiles, then gives a little wave before stuffing her hands in her pockets and walking back to our parking spot.
I watch her leave, then take a breath and ring the cute little bell that hangs next to the door. The butler who opens the door is unfamiliar to me.
It’s been a long time so that’s not such a surprise.
“Can I help you miss?”
“I’m here to visit mother.” I tell him and try to step inside.
The butler doesn’t budge, I’m confused.
“I’m Elizabeth Chattoway, Nora Chattoway’s daughter…” I try to explain.
“Elizabeth? What are you doing here?” Mother gasps as she walks into the entrance hall.
“This is your daughter?” The butler asks.
“Yes of course she’s my daughter, get out of the way.” She pushes the butler aside and he walks off unperturbed to attend to other things. “Where did you come from so suddenly?”
“I flew here!” I tell her excitedly.
“Flew here!? All by yourself?”
“Yes, well with Dana, but she’s checking up on the ship.”
“Oh…well, do you want to come in then?”
“Yes please, thank you.”
I follow mother to the garden and the marble table that I remember from my childhood and will probably still be here four hundred years from now.
A man quickly rises from his seat as we come in. “Nora? Who’s this?”
“This is my daughter Elizabeth, she’s decided to surprise us with a visit.”
“Oh, how nice.”
“Elizabeth this is Maurice, he’s… a dear friend of mine.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance Elizabeth.” He extends a hand towards me and I have to resist the urge to bow, taking his hand instead.
Then he pulls my hand close to his face and kisses it which is odd and when I get my hand back again it feels sort of icky.
“Sit, sit. How are things in Choumuri?”
Well father has a new wife and kids, I’m learning how to wield a gun in secret and I try to make friends but everyone outside the wall hates me because of my dad. I open my mouth “Oh, same old, same old. I learnt the Jigani language through storybooks and talking to the staff in their native tongue.”
“Of course you have.” She then turns to her other guest “Elizabeth is so clever. Even when she was just a kid she would try and solve the mysteries in her books, oh you should have seen her, surrounded by ink jars each colour with a different meaning and making notes on what everyone said and did.”
They were only three jars, but I know mother has a penchant for exaggerating so I don’t correct her. Just smile vaguely as I think back to those days.
The man chuckles “Back when my brother and I were children we would just go out into the woods to make fires and wrestle.”
Mother laugh heartily “Julien would have expired if Elizabeth did any of those things. He was such a boring man.”
They both laugh and I feel myself sitting on the sidelines. I’m not sure if mother expects me to drag down father with her but doing so doesn’t feel right.
I have my own complaints with father, his insistence on calling the Jaobainu ‘kani’, having a second wife and not even having the guts to properly divorce the first. Keeping his job and duties from me, trying his best to look like the image of propriety and then turning around and doing heinous things like lowering funding for public schools and exporting large quantities of resources out here under the guise of ‘taxes’.
How am I supposed to trust him if I don’t even know him?
But I don’t want to tell mother any of that.
The conversation passes by without my input and then they’re talking about in-jokes and people I’ve never heard of before.
Mother cackles and holds the man’s hand and it’s clear to me that father isn’t the only one who moved on in this marriage.
I’m not sure how to feel about that.
I don’t think father ever intended on returning here. I think he lied to mother about it not being forever.
Or did mother just tell me that to make me feel less bad about having to leave?
All these grown-up matters with their grown-up problems make me loathe the prospect of becoming eighteen by the end of the year.
Being young is so much simpler.
Back when your parents are heroes, your nursemaid knows best and your days are spent laying on your belly and drawing pictures while dreaming of amazing places.
Thinking back on it, I think Clara was about my age when she worked for our family.
I can’t imagine how she did it.
Having to care for a child at my age I’d straight-up panic.
At least that’s not an issue I’m ever going to have…I mean…with what guy?
I chuckle at the thought.
“What’s that dear?” Mother turns her attention back to me.
“Oh, nothing, just a thought.”
“Ah, okay then.”
They pick up their conversation again and things move on without me.
I listen, it reminds me of the rambling mother used to do at me when I was young but Maurice knows what she’s talking about, and chats along. They laugh, have fun together.
They look happy.
Then a music box starts playing out of nowhere and mother says “Oh dear it’s five already, will you be staying for dinner Lizzy dear?”
Part of me feels like saying yes out of politeness, but I feel like they’d enjoy dinner more if I weren’t here. “Actually I promised Dana I’d buy her dinner.”
“Such a shame… wait is Dana your…?” she holds the end of that sentence like a lifeline.
“Girlfriend? No, no just a…friend.” I tell her though I’m not entirely sure if she’s even that. She’s my teacher, regular mechanic for the Chattoway family but what am I to her? A student, customer?
Is it proper of me to call her my friend?
I mean she didn’t have to come all the way here for me and did anyway.
Isn’t that what friends do?
Help each other.
“Oh well, maybe next time.” Mother doesn’t sound too broken up by it. “Oh, and before you go I have a gift for you.” She walks back inside for a bit leaving me with Maurice. We look at one another for a bit “So uhm…what do you do?”
“I’m a reporter for the newspaper.”
Just when I feel I might succumb to awkwardness mother comes in again holding a big cardboard box with a bow tied around it. “Shipping to Jaobai has become incredibly expensive lately, no doubt thanks to your father. So I figured I’d just give you these directly next time you come by. Happy birthday, sweety.”
“Oh…thank you.” I pull the bow away and open the box to find a large stack of Antionette Delarouge books.
“I tracked down every last one of them, now you have the whole set.”
My stomach sinks as I look at all the shiny volumes. It feels…off.
Mother wraps her arms around me before saying “I’m so glad you came by, let me walk you to the door.”
I wave a quick goodbye to mother’s ‘friend’ and then follow mother to the door.
And then I’m back on the street, holding a heavy box and wondering ‘now what?’
Dana didn’t actually expect me back for dinner. And I got these books to lug along now.
I want to believe the books are a nice gesture, that I’m happy with them. But deep in the pit of my stomach, I know what this really is.
Sending me a book on my birthday was the one time she reached out to me.
And now I’ve been handed the last responsibility my mother had to me.
The box doesn’t feel like a birthday present, it feels like a parting gift.
Perhaps I should just go back to Dana, explain what happened and ask if I can have dinner with her instead.
But getting rejected by my mother isn’t something I’m eager to share.
What else did I want to do here?
Oh! Lady Isobel.
I have a whole box of books now!
We could read them together and pretend we’re small children again.
Sure, it may be a tad rude to come in around five but I could tell them I have a dinner engagement so I can leave once the table is set.
It’s only three streets away.
I put my hands firmly underneath the box and start walking.
The house is still there, with the odd windows and pinnacles on the roof.
I walk up to the door feeling suddenly a lot more nervous than I did standing before mother’s door.
Maybe I shouldn’t go in after all.
Maybe I should ask for the lady to come to the door to make a proper appointment tomorrow.
I think that’s the ladylike thing to do.
All right, I tell myself, my plan set.
I knock on the door.
I wait for a good minute before the door opens. A young man in a blue suit asks “How may I help you miss?”
“I’d like to have a quick word with lady Isobel, is she in?”
The man bites his lip “I’m afraid the De Lingue family has moved away quite some years ago.”
“Oh, really?” I feel my heart sink. “Do you know where they moved?”
He shakes his head solemnly.
I’m too late.
“Well, thank you for telling me.”
“You’re quite welcome.” He closes the door softly.
I walk back to the curb.
Lost and forlorn I set the box down on a bench, sit down next to it and just feel hollow for a while.
I came here to see mother but mother is quite well without me.
I went to meet up with a friend to find she has moved away.
I wish I came back sooner.
I wish I put more effort into this place.
Now it moved on without me and I’m no longer needed.
I don’t feel at home here, I don’t feel at home in the palace in Jaobai.
Do I even have a home?
I open up the box and do what I always do when I’m sad.
Pulling out a fresh volume at random, I open it up and start to read.
Dana doesn’t expect me for a while.
If I just kill enough time, no one needs to know.
By the time I make it back to the ship, it’s nine in the evening and I finished reading one of the volumes from cover to cover.
I find Dana in the ship’s parlour making notes in a canvas-bound book. Upon closer inspection, I find she’s not actually writing, but making a drawing instead.
“What are you making?”
“One of my customers is looking for automatic shutters for his ship so I’m making a couple of quick sketches.”
“Yes, but never mind that.” She closes the notebook and pats the spot next to her on the sofa. “How was your time with your mother?”
“It was fun.” I lie then immediately try to fold the conversation back to the sketchbook “Can I see?”
And then Dana gives me the look.
I hate it when Dana gives me the look, she knows I’m lying but she won’t tell me she knows I’m lying because I have to be the one to tell her I’m lying and I don’t want to. I resist the urge to cross my arms and get up from the seat instead. “I’ll make tea.”
“Wait.” She tells me.
I stop, heart thumping.
“Are you okay?”
My eyes sting and I feel the urge to disappear. I try my best to keep my voice level but the first thing that comes out of my mouth when I open it is a sob and the word “No.”
Dana gets up, clears the room and hugs me before the first tear can fall from my eyes.
I don’t know what to say.
I don’t know what to do.
So I just stand there weeping for what seems like forever while she holds me in her arms.
I don’t know how she does it but around Dana, I feel safe, protected.
After a long moment she asks “Do you want to talk about it? Or rather not?”
I shrug and manage to push out a ‘dunno’ from my sore throat.
She waits patiently for me to collect myself.
And then I just tell her…everything.
I just start talking and ramble on for I don’t know how long while she sits there, patiently listening.
“-And I have no idea how to feel I just know I’m not at home anywhere and I thought that by coming here I thought I’d at least feel at home here but no, no everything moved on without me, even my own mother. And I feel stuck in a world that doesn’t need me.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“I don’t know…I don’t even know what I’m doing here anymore.”
“Well, what do you want to do?”
I want to go to the beach, get shaved ice with two syrups and pretend everything is how it’s supposed to be.
But I don’t want her to think I’m childish.
“How about we play the game? Just to get your mind off things, we can think of what you want in the morning.”
“Right, yes. I’d like that. Thank you.” I hug her again, wondering if she can hear my heart racing.
It’s so loud.
We get back to the palace sooner than planned but no one asks why.
I’m not sure if it’s because they value my privacy, or they don’t care.
I’m grateful either way.
Two weeks later a new kid joins the shooting class, a moody-looking boy by the name of Hui Go.