The Secret Carriers

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Chapter 18

Gideon stared down at the broken and twisted metal in his hands. It was pieces of what looked like a small wolf, a figurine that had been smashed and broken into miniscule pieces of pins and coils and cogs. He wondered why he was here. How he had got there, underground. And he wasn't talking about the ladder that had brought him down here.

He looked at the remnants of this toy. He couldn't remember the last time he had worked on making a simple toy - something simply for fun, with no other purpose. It was cold and damp there, standing in the tunnel under Londinium. But he felt the warmth. The warmth of the summer sun, shining through the barn loft, bringing with it the rich, enticing scent of hay, dry and sweet in the sun. He could remember dropping handfuls of hay down into the troughs for the horses below him. He would watch the dust motes and little stray slivers of hay, dancing in the sunlight. He wouldn't allow himself to be distracted for long - the pull of the puzzle that he had spread out all around him, on his small cleared away space of the loft was too strong. He needed to put the pieces together, to finish the puzzle so that it matched what he saw in his head. Most of the time he barely noticed when the sunlight disappeared, taking its comforting warmth with it, replaced by the harsh cold moonlight and indifferent twinkling of stars. His fingers seemed to have a mind of their own sometimes and he didn't even seem to be thinking of what to put where next. Hours would pass when it felt only minutes. He would hear his mother calling his name to come in for supper, but it would be a momentary distraction, like a buzzing fly, that he would quickly put out of his mind. When it got cold at night, he would get up and take one of the old, heavy, ratty blankets that they used to cover the horses on the frostiest of nights, and huddle underneath it, pulling it over his head and around his shoulders, like a cape. The weight of it was comforting, though the stray bits of hay that always managed to stick to them made his nose tickle and caused him to sneeze.

His fingers would get stiff and sore, if he was using one of his small pliers or wrenches, or doing something with a piece of wire so thin it was like a strand of hair. That required every single fibre of his being to be focused on what his hands were doing - if the wire snapped, he would have to start from the beginning again. He squinted his eyes against the sting of sweat when it trickled down, breaking through the barrier his eyebrows were supposed to offer. "Come on, Gideon!" he would whisper aloud to himself, encouraging. "You can do it!"

He heard loud, heavy boot steps crossing the yard to the barn and tried to disappear deeper into the blanket. He lowered the light of his lantern, bringing the pool of light closer around him, a protective barrier around his important pieces. He lowered his breathing, trying to quiet it, not bring attention to him. He was so close! So close to finishing this flying machine he had been working on for the last four days. The boots began their slow and ominous climb up the ladder to the loft. Gideon had squeezed himself between two stacks of hay bales, careful not to have the lantern too close to the bone-dry hay. That would be foolish, and would certainly guarantee his father getting mad at him.

"Gideon?" Gideon cringed, and then he realized the voice didn't belong to his father. He sighed loudly and sat up, removing the protective cape of a blanket. "Fran?" He saw her pale boots in the light of his lantern before the hem of her dress came into view, a mish-mashed riot of colour - different patches - a blue gingham next to a yellow cotton and bordered by a rough spun square of red that looked like it had a yellow sun in the middle. It was one of her favourite dresses, he knew. One that their mother had made her, out of some old blankets and the faded old curtains that used to hang in the kitchen, the ones that were a light spring green dotted with pretty purple flowers.

She smiled at him through a curtain of flaxen hair, which the summer had attempted to lighten - single strands of gold streaked through the dark like shooting stars. "If you stay out here much longer you know it will bring father out here."

"I know," he said, in an almost whine. "But I’m so close to finishing this Frannie! Look!"

She crouched down next to him, just on the edge of the light from his lantern. She stuck a thin finger out and gently poked the hull of the ship. It had a tiny captain's wheel, and thin ropes, barely bigger than a couple strands of hair looped around and over a multi-coloured balloon. "Is that-?"

Gideon nodded, a smile brightening his face, his eyes gleaming like polished copper pennies. "It's from one of mother's old dish rags, the really light one that weighed almost nothing at all and was horrible for drying any dishes. But it was the only thing that would work for my airship. Everything else I tried was too heavy."

Frances removed a small square handkerchief from the pocket of her dress. "What about one of my hankies?"

Gideon shook his head. "No, those are yours. Those were given to you from Gramma just before..."

France's head drooped, a wall of hair obscuring her face. "Before she went up to heaven?"

Gideon nodded but didn't speak. He didn't trust himself to speak. Instead he busied himself with putting a cog the size of a small button inside the stern of the ship through a small hole in the deck. It looked like it was full of gold but it was really only all the wires that would allow it to fly.

"Gideon!" A shout from the direction of their house - the only indication of which was a golden rectangle of light a few hundred yards away - the front door, wide open. Inside the rectangle was a silhouette of a man who filled almost every inch of it.

"What are you doing out there? If you’re doing what I think you’re doing, you are going to regret it! Have the horses been fed and watered yet? It’s almost nine o’clock Gideon, and you’ve been out there all evening! You’ve even missed the supper your mother put on the table for you. And you’ve missed your chance on it. You know the rules, if you don’t show up, you don’t get it.”

Gideon’s stomach rumbled loudly at the thought that he would be going to bed hungry yet again. He removed a small hard piece of cheese from the pocket of his waistcoat and bit into it, screwing up his face at the bitter, sour taste it left in his mouth. He looked out through the large square opening in the loft where the hay was delivered and saw the silhouette detached itself from the doorway and melt into the darkness between the house and barn. He grabbed his airship as gently as he could and shovelled the remaining pieces of his puzzle into his hand which he dropped just as gingerly into the small pocket in his vest. He stuffed the remainder of the cheese in his mouth, making his cheek bulge. He thrust his prized possession of the week at his sister. “Take this for me. Hide it!”

Frances nodded at him with large, wide eyes, the same bright gold colour as his and she plopped down on a hay bale and held a finger to her lips. He snatched up his lantern and ran as quickly as he could down the ladder, the lantern swinging wildly causing shadows to leap and jump as if they were monsters on the verge of attack. But he was only worried about one monster attacking. He ran to the end of the barn and hung his lantern on a bent rusted nail sticking out of a post and grabbed a heavy, equally rusted pitchfork and started to throw wads of hay into the trough of the nearest horse, a small chestnut coloured bay with a shock of white down the middle of its nose. It snuffled at the forkful of food and began to eat. Gideon shoveled as fast as he could, and finished the filling the trough of the first stall before the sound of boots reached his ears and he froze. His father towered over him like a giant. Even at fourteen, Gideon was small for his age, scrawny and sunken chested.

In the light of his lantern his father’s dark eyes glowered at him, full of disappointment. “No wonder you’re not done!” he shouted, grabbing Gideon by the arm painfully. “Look at your arms! They’re as fragile as a baby bird’s!”

Above them in the loft there was a thump. His father’s head whipped up. “What was that? Do we have rats again?”

“N-, no father,” Gideon said, willing his voice to sound stronger, more confident than he felt. “I was just up there, there was no rats. It’s probably just an owl in the rafters.”

His father shook his head, his short cropped light hair the colour of wheat caught the light. “As long as it’s not rats, we don’t want them in at the grain. And if it is, and you’re lying to me,” Gideon watched with fear as his father’s hand went to the thick rope that hung on a support post, and he flinched.

Frannie! He wanted to scream at his sister for being so careless and making noise when she promised she wouldn’t. He just hoped she was being careful with his airship. “It isn’t father! I’ll check again right now!” He tossed the pitchfork against the towering pile of hay, grabbed his lantern from its nail and fled back up the ladder to safety.

“Don’t worry father! I’ll check every single corner of the loft for rats!” he raised his lantern high, casting his sister in its light like a net. He glared at her and she clapped a hand across her mouth, stifling a giggle, and she shrugged her shoulders in an apology.

He heard his father mutter something and then stalk out of the barn. “Don’t be after half past, Gideon. Your sister is already in her bed like a proper young lady, someone who knows how to follow orders.”

Gideon stared at his sister, his mouth hanging wide, and she shrugged again trying to keep a grin in check, but it spread across her face unwillingly.

His father’s shadow lingered downstairs. “Yes, father. I promise!” He glowered at his sister as he took out his pocket watch. He had ten minutes. He held out his hands and she deposited his ship back in his hands. He folded his fingers protectively around it like a cocoon. “No thanks to you,” he mumbled. “I’m going back in. I can’t risk getting on father’s bad side tonight.”

Frances bobbed her head silently and watched her brother move awkwardly down the ladder as he held his ship in one hand, and the side of the ladder in the other.

Gideon made a show of coming through the front door, making sure his father noticed him, and then ran straight to his room, up the stairs at the end of the hallway, and past the still empty room of his sister’s next to him.

He waited, sitting anxiously at the edge of his bed that was dressed in a patchwork quilt not much different from his sister’s dress. He opened his wardrobe and placed the airship gently at the bottom of the closet, on top of a pile of neatly folded shirts. He looked out the window, watching the moon make its slow march across the night sky. He waited and waited for the dreaded sound of his father’s heavy, worn boots that made a strange off-kilter clopping sound, one heel being worn down more than the other. The warm sun shining through his window woke him. He was lying on top of his patched quilt, still wearing what he had been the night before. The scent of hay reached him, and he looked out his window to the barn, and its loft. His workshop. He smiled, even though he knew he wouldn’t risk going there today and get caught up there, in the loft, a second day in a row. That would just lead to unnecessary aches and pains, and he was still recovering from the last of those gifts his father had given him last week when he had overstayed his welcome and had lost track of time working on a solution to the problem that Mr. Fitzwilliam was having with his printing machine down on Mission Street. But Mr. Fitzwilliam had given him two whole dollars for his help, and had said he would call on him again if he ever needed his machines fixed again.

“Please don’t call on my father, Mr. Fitzwilliam,” Gideon had almost pleaded. “He doesn’t know I do this sort of thing.”

Mr. Fitzwilliam had looked puzzled. “He doesn’t know you help others?”

Gideon shook his head and lowered his eyes to his scuffed shoes with the hole in the right toe. “No, and he’d get mad at me if he learned that I was. Because that just means I’m not doing stuff to help out at the farm.”

Mr. Fitzwilliam pushed his glasses higher up on his nose and nodded gravely. “I see. Well, I will ask for you directly then.”

“Or how about, I can just come by once a week and ask if you need anything fixed. I’m the one father sends to pick up the new bags for the grain from the factory down the road on Foster Avenue.”

Mr. Fitzwilliam smiled, his blue eyes crinkling at the corners. “I think that works out just fine, Mr. Hendry. Thank you dear boy, for all you do. For all of us.”

Gideon smiled shyly and took his leave.

He put the two shiny dollars in his vest pocket.

Gideon held the broken wolf in his hands. Out of habit, he slipped the loose pieces of the beast into his vest pocket, and continued down the tunnel, chasing away the darkness with his lantern.

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