Liesl Nunns completed a doctorate in Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford in 2011. She co-edits a literary journal, Headland, and works in arts administration and has work published in Southerly, Hawai'i Review, Two Thirds North, Takahe, Print-Oriented Bastards, Ember, Terrain.org, and Hippocampus Magazine. She lives in Wellington, New Zealand.
In their Belgravia bedroom, the Stanley boys were flying towards a collision of sorts.
‘4 April 1933,’ The Guardian was spread over Wally’s lap. ‘Everest conquered from the air! They’ve done it, Arun, they’ve done it.’
Wally was a flight enthusiast. The model F.R.O.G. Mk IV Interceptor fighter beside his bed soared into all his dreams. Bap-bap-bap, he sent down the Red Baron in a flaming spiral. Spsshh, he landed his seaplane after a Transatlantic flight. Out would climb Wallace Stanley, British hero. The crowd would cheer, the enemy would cower.
Arun too dreamed of flying. In his bed, four feet away from his older brother, he was in another world. He leant into the breeze as he propelled his canoe along a river flanked with tall trees; he smelled horse and grass as he galloped along a rippled stretch of a prairie; he felt the shimmer of heat against rock as he watched a circling eagle. Flying, through all of it flying. Leather and war paint and feathers.
To think of that as his ‘real home’ was a guilty secret. He loved Mother and Father, he even loved Wally. But his parents never spoke of where and how and why, and so he never asked. Maybe they were fearful he would grow up to be a great warrior like his people before him. A great warrior would be a hard thing to have in a son, he thought.
And so the past lay quiet as a quilt.
But his brother would, at choice moments, remind Arun that he was adopted.
Just one example of many: Wally’s face had been a picture of beatific kindness as he had handed over a scuffed cricket bat into Arun’s possession. ‘I’ve got far too tall for it, you know. Your family must have been short.’
Wally continued, his tongue tripping over the more difficult words. ‘Lord Clydesdale, Colonel Blacker, and Flight Lieutenant McIntyre set off early yesterday in the Westland planes on what was intended to be a trial flight. But the wind conditions turned out to be so favourable that they went on to Everest, circled the summit at a hundred feet above it, and were safely back again at Purnea soon after eleven.’
Arun felt for the book under his pillow. Every Boy’s Pictorial Guide: American Indians. It was his most prized possession, a gift one Christmas, his parents’ unspoken acknowledgement of his heritage. It formed the sole resource for the colours and shapes of his dreams. Familiar as family were the almond eyes and sleek hair of the braves, dark like his own. But the fringed trousers and triangles of teepees and the jewellery of bone were strange, so that his heart gave a twist within him.
He’d built himself a little tomahawk out of a pencil, two knucklebones, and some strong glue. It, too, lived under his pillow where it might follow Arun into his dreams: a sign to his fellow Indians that he was prepared to learn.
He did not remember anything of his life with the Indians, before his new family brought him to London. Sometimes he heard a bird outside his window, and thought for a second that he might remember a rich green space, hot and close. But then the robin would fly off down the street, taking the fleeting impression on its little wings. Sometimes the noise of traffic in the night would wake him with a start, and for a moment he would half-remember the sounds of a struggle, the cry of a woman. But she was not there, and he was not sure that she had ever been there. He tried to remember being inside a teepee, tried to find its poles and smoke flaps in the files of his memory, tried to smell smoke and hide.
‘Purnea.’ Wally scrolled his eyes back up the article. ‘Purnea. That’s in India, isn’t it? You must know.’
Arun blinked his confusion.
Wally resented the blank face of his brother. He understood Arun’s silence as denied entry into the sacred heart of the family. The division was one that Wally could never fly over, no matter how brave and clever he was. His brother was the chosen one, the one that truly belonged to his parents’ memories of the Indian Civil Service, of their former life half a world away. It was a word on Wally’s birth certificate, but it was a stamp on Arun’s soul.
‘You’re a lucky boy,’ Mother had explained to him once when he had asked about the Calcutta orphange where they’d found Arun. ‘You were born into everything that he would never have had.’
Wally was nearly ten now. He was nearly a man. He could feel the implication of his mother’s words. Luck was not noble. It was not something that brave and clever men earned, it was just something that anybody could have. Just as a child was something that luck could bring to any couple, while an adopted child marked his parents out as benevolent and cosmopolitan.
But luck was an asset for a fighter pilot. Up there he’d show them, he was special too. He would be the chosen one, for every secret mission. He would be the interesting one, seeing countries more exotic even than India.
‘Why, Wally?’ Arun was stalled at Purnea. ‘Why must I know?’
‘Why do you think, dummy?’
Wally threw the newpaper at his brother, and Every Boy’s Pictorial Guide tumbled on to the ground between them. Wally rolled his eyes. Arun was obsessed with that silly book about Indians.
For the first time Wally thought to make a joke about Indians and Indians. And then−but surely not. Laughter bit at his insides. Could Arun really think−?
Arun watched the book on the ground slowly flipping its cover closed, a farewell.
Wally had his ammunition. He had his first high priority target. A joyful breeze took his wings.