Janusz tucks his mouth into his elbow, makes the shape of the word with his lips. He recognises the sound, insectile in the distance, pictures the plane on the runway, propellers whirling, ready to launch. He rolls his head so his cheek rests against his forearm, the open pages of his maths book a pillow beneath. He listens to the buzz accelerate harder, faster, into a roar and now: silence. A smile creeps across Janusz’s face. His pencil hovers over the blank space next to 6+6=, diverts to the margin instead. He scratches at the page, sketches the plane, its nose aiming directly upwards in that moment of suspension: a plane in silent stall.
Outside, the plane buzzes again, thumps into a low turn, the pilot having made the loop with an engine vibrating loud and fast.
‘Okay.’ Mr Decker stretches from the front of the room, covers a yawn with a fist. ‘When you have finished you can go.’
Janusz sits straight in his chair, scribbles the final answer, 12, and for a moment, forgets Aleksandr has gone. He closes his book, screeches his chair under the desk and jump-turns to the desk behind him. But Aleksandr has gone. To some town far away to live in a house with his family.
Janusz searches the blue for the Tiger Moth. It has flown away. Maybe the plane fly over Aleksandr’s town. Maybe Aleksandr is right now standing at the bottom step of his new classroom, placing a hand over the sun and watching the plane animate the sky.
Gasses jostle for space in his stomach and Janusz decides to go straight to Mrs Stugis’s today.
Outside her hut, Mrs Stugis begins another row of red stitches. She is saying something to Mrs Berzina, perched beside her on a folding chair. In the crib by her knees, Mrs Berzina’s baby gurgles, blows bubbles all over itself. The women’s needles click back and forth, transferring loops of cotton from one needle to the other. Janusz doesn’t know what they’re saying to each other; he doesn’t understand Latvian.
The knitted blankets are almost finished and, Janusz thinks, just in time. This morning, when he’d gone to fetch breakfast, he’d left footsteps in the layer of frost carpeting the grass. When the women finish these blankets, they’ll hang them against the walls of the huts to keep out the cold, the same way Janusz’s mother did last winter.
Mrs Stugis sights him. ‘Ah!’ she says, placing her knitting on the seat and coming to stand. ‘Jauns Janusz!’ She waves for him to follow her, ‘Nãc, nãc.’
This is their daily ritual. Janusz follows her into the hut where she fetches her watering can. Janusz treks to the bathrooms, fills it with water and returns to the row of spotted emu bush Mrs Stugis is nurturing by the entrance. Afterwards, she hands him two apples: one for Janusz and one for Aleksandr. Janusz makes to hand an apple back to Mrs Stugis now that Aleksandr isn’t here but she shakes him away, fixes his collar and winks in a way that makes him blink away tears.
He’ll keep the apple for Tomasz.
Janusz polishes his apple against his shirt and heads for the hill. He presses gently against its peel, is excited to feel it firm beneath his fingertips. He crunches into the white flesh. His loose tooth gouges painfully at his gum and he winces, transfers the bite to the other side of his mouth. Behind him he hears the Tiger Moth returning from wherever in the world it had visited. He searches for it over his shoulder and hops into a jog.
The Tiger Moth revs louder and Janusz runs harder. He will be able to watch it land.
‘James!’ Janusz recognises the voice as his mother’s. He pauses, turns to see her running towards him, towing Tomasz by the arm. Janusz had forgotten about his new name.
‘James,’ she repeats, gathering her breath and speaking quickly in Polish. She has to work in the kitchen tonight and she needs James to look after his brother.
James looks to Tomasz who can also hear the plane. He twirls on his mother’s hand and squints into the sun to locate it.
‘Dobrze,’ James says, taking Tomasz’s hand from his mother’s.
She kisses them both—she will see them at dinner.
‘Keep eyes on your brother,’ she says and hurries away.
They get to the hill just in time. Tomasz is complaining that Janu—James made him run too fast and he rubs at his wrist where he’s been pulled along. James hands Tomasz the apple from Mrs Stugis and laughs, watching his eyes widen. Tomasz plonks next to James, takes gleeful bites of fruit and they watch, side-by-side, as the plane lines itself up with the runway.
When the Tiger Moth lands, James watches the pilot chug it into the hangar, listens as the propellers slow to a stop. He looks to Tomasz beside him, his cheeks shiny with apple juice.
‘Creek?’ Tomasz asks through a mouthful.
On the weekend, Mama had taken the boys there to take their minds off Tata, who is busy turning water into electricity at some other camp. On the mornings that Mama flicks on the lights in the hall, she points to the tubes of light, clasps her hands, says ‘From Tata!’ Mama says that when he returns they will have enough money to move into a house outside the camp, just like Aleksandr.
This morning, Mama said Tata would be back in a few weeks. But she’d promised that weeks ago, too. On the weekend, they’d gathered sandwiches from the kitchen and walked out of camp and along Melrose Street. At the creek, James and Tomasz had hitched their pants above their knees and stepped tentatively into a cove. Tomasz had shrieked in delight when a turtle popped its head above water, chased it as it made for the river. James had followed, tugged him away from the deep water and, eventually, when giant raindrops began to fall, he’d had to drag Tomasz home by the arm.
Thunder roars in the cloudless sky and Janusz knows right away it’s the giant of the airfield coming home to rest: a B-52 bomber. These are the planes Janusz will fly one day, just as soon as he can. Mama says the bombers have other jobs to do now that the war is over, though Janusz isn’t sure what they are. It doesn’t really matter. He’d like to fly them and not be in a war.
The grey giant appears in the sky, first a small dot, and then bigger, eventually forming its familiar shape against the sky. Janusz reaches his arm to it, places a thumb on the underbelly, a forefinger over the fuselage. He sweeps the aircraft through the sky like a toy plane. He twists his body as the plane banks right, changes his grip, lines up the runway below. Janusz glides the plane down, its metallic wind-sound sluicing through camp, hurting the insides of residents’ ears. With his free hand, Janusz punches a button in the air and just like that, a yellow parachute surges from the back of the aircraft, swelling into a semi-circle of resistance to slow the galloping giant. Now dawdling, the bomber turns toward the hangar. Angles just so towards Janusz that its metallic wind-sound sheers his ear.
Janusz cups his ears and watches the plane wind down. Men in grey overalls rush from the hangars and Janusz grasps them each in turn. He moves one to the back of the plane to tend the parachute, another to tie down the wings, this man to lay a ladder against the cockpit. Once the bomber is secure, Janusz manoeuvres the men back to the hangar. He reclines on his elbows, smiles contentedly: job complete. He grins at Tomasz beside him but Tomasz is gone.
Janusz hurdles the cyclone fence, leaves the sign, looming in black letters, in his wake. He sprints down Melrose Street, careening toward the creek like a fighter jet. He is furious at Tomasz. Next time, Janusz will give the extra apple back to Mrs Stugis.
At the end of the street, he picks his way through the long spiky grass. A blade tears at his forearm, opening the skin and leaving a red slash of blood. Janusz ignores the sting, finds the trail they’d followed on Sunday. He hurdles the fallen tree, slips down the bank.
The jostle of water, fussing with itself to rush along the creek, sounds from below. At the bank, Janusz notices the stagnant water they’d played in on Sunday is now clean and gushing, yesterday’s rain sweeping it clear on its way to sea. He looks to the cove where they’d spotted the turtle; Tomasz is not there. Tomasz cannot swim.
Janusz doesn’t bother folding his pants. He wades into the cove, flinches at the water, cold and biting around his ankles. He pushes on, his feet sinking into soft sand until the tide, at his shins on Sunday, begins to lick at his chest. He drags his feet through spongey soil, hoping to find nothing but a turtle. Beneath his skin, his organs contract in the cold, and he tries to ignore the pain. His right toes stub something solid and he stops still, blinks away the image of his little brother laid still on the silt. He taps the object again. It is immovable.
Janusz takes a breath and, with a glance to the sky, a prayer. He fans his arms through the water, so foreign and mocking, feels it press against his frame. He must check the object by his feet. Janusz pinches his nostrils, forces himself underwater. On the creek bed, he reaches for the object, is relieved to feel only the slippery cracks of a waterlogged trunk.
Janusz surfaces, draws oxygen deep and hard into his chest, wipes water from his eyebrows. He edges out of the cove and along the bank, takes hold of a paperbark trunk and leans around the snake bend. The creek widens here and white caps top stationary waves, frozen and yet moving. He has never seen so much water. A black branch as thick as Janusz’s leg tears past him, the stream wisping it out of sight in seconds.
On the other bank, Janusz spots something and his stomach turns to stone. Tomasz’s blue jacket clings to a branch, its right arm flailing in the current. He searches the bank, left then right, but he cannot find his little brother. Janusz thinks of his mother rolling pierogi in the kitchen, his father fishing for eels at Somers Camp, Tomasz’s apple-juice cheeks. Janusz has ruined them all.
He leans around the bend; Tomasz must be somewhere down there, washed away by the torrent. Janusz wipes his eyebrows again, clenches his jaw. He is Tomasz’s big brother; he will go after him.
He steps one foot into the torrent. The water taunts him, presses him, hungry to snatch him away. He flexes against the push and places the other foot in the water, readies himself to let go of the tree. He looks back towards the cove. And there. There is Tomasz. Wading towards him, eyes red with tears, pointing to his jacket on the far bank.
Janusz wakes to the familiar call of Mrs Schaller on the other side of the wall.
‘Ursula! Aufstehen. Éssen holen.’
Janusz, too, will soon have to get out of bed and fetch breakfast from the dining hall. He watches Tomasz’s back rise and fall beside him. In the night, Tomasz had lifted the blankets and slid into the space next to Janusz. He’d pressed his back against him and they’d remained that way, soft and snug together in the cold night.
Now, Janusz looks to the window, a square of luminous indigo in the dark wall. Early morning outside is still and clear, perfect for flying.
Janusz pictures the men in grey overalls, parking their Beetles and treading toward the hangars. He imagines them peeling off covers, tightening bolts, checking oil levels.
Soon, he will jump out of bed, race to the dining hall, complete his morning chores. He’ll hurry to the hill, watch as many aircraft take off as he can before the school bell rings. But for now, for just a moment longer, he will stay warm in his bed, listen to the gentle snores of his brother and watch as the indigo square in the wall shifts through violet and on to light blue.
Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.