A fact is neither true nor false; it simply is. Facts come in various degrees of import and expense, but there isn’t much a writer can do with a fact other than to perhaps hang it on a wall, gift it away for their best friend’s wedding, or put it on E-Bay or Amazon and see what they can get for the damn thing. But truth, now, there’s something that we writers can use. Unlike facts and contrary to myth, there aren’t many different truths. There’s just one kind of truth and they are all consumable but not necessarily digestible. The important thing though is that they come with just enough “enoughness” to reveal an almost infinite variety of stories. Debbie Robson’s story is one example.
It’s about a fallen angel. Almost all angels in fiction have had falls. The ones who’ve managed to remain upright and in God’s good books generally don’t seem to have interesting lives; they’re like facts that way. The angel in this story has fallen, and it isn’t thrilled about it, just as we aren’t necessarily thrilled when we fall in love, but the fact is, the angel now gets to truly live. It suffers. It endures. It loves.
So what’s the underlying truth here? On which truth’s broad shoulders has Debbie Robson stood her fine and moving story? Friend, if I could tell you, would the story be necessary? The truth cannot be experienced independent of a story. Read, fall in love, understand.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
The Sea and the Sky
After my fall of grace in November 1918, I didn’t speak for over a year. I lived wherever I could rest my head undisturbed and during the day tried to cope with the ceaseless chatter and terrible smells of my new world, scrounging food near the markets in this strange southern city called Sydney. With so many people around me all the time I was unable to block their talk; I couldn’t evade their thoughts or their memories. It was an endless assault causing nauseating headaches – such pain as I had never imagined, even in the midst of the Somme, that Hades wasteland of 1916.
The first year after losing my wings and being grounded is still a blur. All I remember now is the long, slow process of learning to sleep and eat. As I struggled to adjust, people were dying from an epidemic I suspected was worldwide. Others walked the city wearing masks. My former colleagues occasionally glanced at me quickly whilst they were about their duties. I avoided their gaze as I could feel only animosity. It was obvious I was no longer one of them. This was my life now, the earth not the sky.
Instead of mourning the loss I concentrated on coping with the heat and the cold, the sunlight and the shadows of my new environs. Slowly I began to understand humans when they spoke to me. So different from connecting with their souls. I still couldn’t answer but I could nod or shake my head and in that strange half world of the Spanish Flu and returning soldiers, I was tolerated. I was given food and a little money in exchange for work. And because of my height and strength, I found a job with a furniture remover and delivery driver towards the end of 1919.
My boss was incongruously named Chubby, which surprised me on first hearing it as he was a painfully thin man of around 40 summers. He didn’t mind that I didn’t talk although it seemed to annoy the other two. One was named Irish (appropriately as I found out later) and the other Billy, a young man who walked with a limp and sometimes didn’t turn up for work. I gave my real name – Zachariah. I’m not sure why but it was declared a mouthful and shortened to Zach.
The three of them sat around at smoko, as our breaks were called, making suggestions as to what happened to me, theorising out loud as if I was deaf as well as dumb. Chubby asked me the first week whether I was shell-shocked, an expression I had heard before and simply nodded. I moved the heaviest objects and never complained, sleeping at night in an abandoned warehouse near the docks.
Rattling around in our lorry, I studied the streets and back lanes trying to orientate myself. I had always relied on finding my destination from above and now to be trapped without an aerial view of our location was debilitating. I was no better than a child astray in unfamiliar surroundings. A truculent child I realised after a while and forced myself to identify the streets from the ground.
Gradually I began to recognise factories and warehouses that we often visited. The streets and buildings became familiar. There was the pull up Druitt towards George, an imposing structure on the corner of Clarence I liked to look out for. Countless department stores and hotels, many of the latter Chubby and Irish seemed to be quite knowledgeable about. I always watched out for the run of large but elegant warehouses on Kent Street, the magnificent Queen Victoria Markets and also the architecture of a hotel on King which I particularly admired; the curvature of window and pediments echoed the buildings of my childhood. And, of course, there was my favourite building in the city – St Andrews Cathedral. When shafts of late afternoon sun hit the honey-coloured stone turning it into gold, the sight would lift my spirits for days; an iconography assuring me that perhaps I could still help people.
After a few weeks I was able to envisage the area that Chubby had mapped out for himself with the wiliness of a fox. His spiel to prospective clients now made sense. It rolled off his tongue as smooth as honey. ‘West to Sussex, north to King, south to Liverpool and east to George. Don’t do the docks, the quay or the toffs and I don’t do Surry.’ From the way Chubby stressed the last location it was obvious even to me that this was not a desirable location to visit, let alone work in.
There was a flurry of workmen putting up decorations in the city for some sort of visiting dignitary in the month of June. I wandered out one night to look at the Town Hall illuminated against a dark sky. Loops of light descended from the top of the clock tower to the roofs either side of the central portico: the rooflines were also outlined making a mesmerising spectacle. Other buildings too were resplendent; they were dazzling to the eye. And then things began to ease about a month later, in the middle of the southern hemisphere winter. More people were staying indoors, I was learning how to block out people’s thoughts and slowly picking up the intricacies of the English language and the Australian version of it.
Chubby had found me a place in a boarding house in Sussex Street. Luckily my room was in the attic and I could look out over the finger wharves below in Darling Harbour, the bridge to my left and across to Pyrmont – the whole view an amalgam of oblique and perpendicular shapes that I found soothing against countless sunsets. And now that I had a lamp and a comfortable bed, I began to teach myself to read, tackling the day’s newspapers every night. Soon I would have to start speaking, slowly finding my way into conversations without revealing that this was a new language to me and that I had already mastered it. For now, I was just uttering the odd yes and no.
Sometime in August I picked up a folded piece of paper that someone had dropped in Bathurst Street. I opened it to discover what appeared to be an aerial view of several towns with undulating peaks and valleys in between. It was very different to the flat landscape I used to fly over in my other life, seeking out the souls that I must guide heavenward. And it was all spread out before me to examine. I read the unfamiliar names on the map. Katoomba Falls, Leura Falls, Minni Ha Ha Falls, Nelly’s Glen. On the top left-hand corner of the paper it said, ‘Distance from Sydney 65 miles’ but I wasn’t sure in which direction. There appeared to be train lines weaving through the landscape. I studied the street names of Katoomba: Waratah, Merriwa, Lurline. There was a Lyre Birds Dell, a Sublime Point and Boars Head Rock. All of it was fascinating and I longed to see it from the air, but this piece of paper was the closest I could get to that perspective.
The next day I showed it to Chubby on our smoko. ‘I found this,’ I told him.
‘He speaks!’ Irish said, glaring at me.
‘Shut up, Irish,’ Chubby told him. ‘Planning a holiday, are you?’
Not to be left out, Billy grabbed the map from Chubby. ‘Me mum went there once. Well to Jenolan Caves. Her fancy man took her. That Caves House charges an arm and a leg. You won’t be able to stay there on the wages Chubby pays us.’
‘Yep, you’d have to save your money to stay there,’ Chubby said finally.
‘Is that on the map?’ I asked.
‘Nah, it’s south west of there’, Billy replied.
‘Where can I get more?’ I pointed at the map.
‘You want to buy more maps? Whatever for?’
‘Leave it Billy.’ Turning to me Chubby said, ‘We’ve got a job on Friday at York. There’s a printer in Mullins Lane nearby that might have some maps. Or you could try the Lands Department in Bent Street but that would have to be after we knock off.’
‘Thank you, Chubby.’
‘So did you fly in the war?’ Billy said, handing me back the map.
‘Yes,’ I answered.
‘And why are you suddenly talking now after all this time. It’s a bit odd,’ Billy said, looking at Irish. ‘And you don’t sound Australian.’
‘I was in England,’ I told them.
‘Course you were, if you were in the air force during the war. Do you think we are idiots?’ Billy’s anger confused me.
After a moment Irish said, ‘He don’t sound English.’
Luckily Chubby ordered us back to work. Over the next few weeks I stocked up, buying as many maps as I could afford on every state and territory of Australia including Tasmania. I spent hours each night drinking in the details – the small towns, the larger cities. My life was settled and predictable until the 15th of September when a yacht called the Amelia J was reported as overdue. Five days later shipping was put on alert to watch out for the yacht. From that moment on I became obsessed, like so many humans, wondering what had happened to the schooner. I also wondered if one of my former confreres could tell me. I was determined to find out.
The next week I bought a fountain pen and a small notebook and taught myself how to write. Slowly I compiled details of the yacht. When it left Newcastle full of coal. When it was expected in Hobart. The others soon noted my interest and theories were thrown about on our breaks. Irish mentioned a storm. ‘Sure it was. Last week of August. Maybe it got caught in that.’ I made a note in my book. Along with the fact that it was last seen by a crew member of the SS Melbourne in a gale off Gabo Island on the 5th of September.
‘A lot of ships go missing in the straits. They’ll never find it,’ Billy said.
‘Ever the optimist, Billy,’ Chubby said.
‘I’m just saying. All those lost souls.’
‘Why lost,’ I asked suddenly, before I could stop myself.
‘Dead, he means,’ Chubby explained.
‘Souls?’ I asked.
‘It’s what they call people on board,’ Billy explained. ‘Not sure why though.’ Billy looked at me closely. ‘Haven’t you heard that expression?’
I shook my head. Too confused to utter a word. There was a long silence and Chubby spoke to fill it. ‘Bet you wish you could get up there and search for the yacht.’
‘Yes,’ I told them.
On Wednesday 22nd of September the owners of the Amelia J offered one thousand pounds to the first airman to locate the vessel. On Thursday 23 of September I read about ships lying idle and the public outcry that nothing had been done, the Prime Minister not answering two urgent telegrams about the missing schooner. It was feared that gales off the Australian coast had blown the yacht off course. I noticed the Daily Telegraph published the list of names of the crew of the Amelia J which seemed ominous to me and an airman, Captain Cumming, was awaiting a reply to his request for the use of a seaplane to search for the yacht. I also read about Senior Constable Mansfield at Flinders Island who had been wired to make a search of the east coast in case the schooner was sheltering there. I wrote a note to look up Flinders Island when I got to my attic room.
On Friday night when the other three went to the pub, usually Sweeneys on the corner of Clarence and Druitt Streets, I visited the Mitchell Library before closing. Below a chandelier with late afternoon sun streaming through an arched window, I read my way through all the papers I could get my hands on. Two planes had set out yesterday at midday from Point Cook, Victoria to search for the Amelia J, heading for the Kent Group, Flinders Island and then on down the east coast of Tasmania towards Hobart. I was fascinated to read that mysterious lights were seen at Settlement Point on Flinders Island, possibly distress signals, ‘like a star changing colour – red, white and blue’. Other lights were seen in a heavily wooded area around St Helens in Tasmania. A resident of Vansittart Island saw two planes flying overhead and going south east towards Cape Barren Island. I made more notes in my book.
On Saturday we had two deliveries to make and I heard from Irish, who had been reading up on it all as assiduously as I had, that one search plane hadn’t returned with a Captain Stutt and a Sergeant Dalzell, his mechanic on board. Also wreckage had been found that Billy was certain was the Amelia J. Chubby argued that it was not the erstwhile yacht. The wreckage was in the wrong location to be the Amelia J. It was near King Island and that wasn’t on the missing schooner’s route. I needed to study my map of Tasmania and Bass Strait more closely and took a Melbourne paper home with me to read.
Stutt’s De Havilland had been last seen flying into a fog bank off Flinders Island. How I longed to circle those islands now. What would it be like above such a stretch of ocean, following the east coast south until it ended in the Bass Strait? Treacherous, many said, but how exhilarating. Looking out for the Kent Group which was hard to find on my map, let alone from the air and then the tip of Flinders Island pointing North West. Flying over a deep blue, churning sea instead of a grey wasteland of bodies and barbed wire. No longer searching for the souls of the dead but hopefully trying to find the living. Perhaps the plane had crashed in that heavily wooded area, branches slicing through the plane, dismembering it. If I still had my wings, I could perhaps discover the airmen’s whereabouts and guide others to their location. But I had been stripped of them with no reason given. And no communication since that time.
Around midnight I walked to the harbour to see the yachts and other vessels moored there, tied to shore just as I was. Above the spars and masts blinked the stars that I could no longer get close to. In my former life death was known and waited for. Everything was calm. We knew what had happened and what we had to do. Here, so much was uncertain. So many events with the potential to never be understood or explained. I was trapped on a very large island surrounded by oceans that I would probably never fly over again. And south was a smaller island separated from the mainland by a treacherous strait that had claimed many ships. Had it claimed the airmen too?
On Monday there was more dire news along with drizzling rain. Wreckage off King Island had been identified as the brigantine Southern Cross.
‘Carrying a cargo of benzine, so what do you expect,’ Irish remarked when they picked me up at the end of Sussex Street. ‘A supposed explosion, whatever that means.’
‘It means they think it blew up,’ Chubby said unnecessarily. ‘More speculation,’ he added with annoyance.
‘But what else can they do,’ I said. I was sitting in the back with Billy, so couldn’t read the expressions of the other two in the cab. There was an awful silence and I waited for a response from any of them with a tightness in my chest.
‘Quite right, quite right, Zach. That’s all they can do,’ Irish said loudly. ‘That’s all any of us can do.’
‘They can find the airmen and Amelia J at least,’ Billy said quietly.
After that our attention was caught by a spectacle at the bottom of Druitt Street. A large dray piled with bales and tea chests had overturned. One of the horses was severely injured. Several people were grouped around it and then a shot rang out, taking me back to the horror of the battlefields. I jumped but I noticed that Billy was shaking. I tried to reassure him but he pushed me away.
‘Oh, I don’t like it when the horses are hurt,’ Irish said. Chubby pulled our lorry over and the three men ran towards the scene to help move the bales and tea chests off the road. The tea chests must have contained spirits because the sickly smell permeated the air, making me gasp. ‘What a waste,’ I heard Chubby say.
Someone had draped something over the dead horse and the other was being quietened. But there was more horror that my friends came upon. I stood back as they contemplated the overturned dray and one of the drivers pinned under it. I waited because I could feel one of my former colleagues nearby. And then I noticed there was another standing by a woman sitting on a bench away from the road accident. She slumped over and then the angel was gone. The one closer to me turned suddenly and communicated in the old method.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I am waiting for my friends,’ I answered. ‘I want to help.’
‘You can’t help. Not as you used to do.’
‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ I said, after a moment.
‘Then I can’t help you.’
The angel remained where he was. ‘What happened to the woman,’ I asked.
‘A quiet death.’
‘Such as I have never seen.’
‘But you must have,’ the angel replied.
‘No, I started my apprenticeship when the war started.’
‘Then I’m sorry you had no guidance. Although I suspect you still would have made the same decision.’
‘And what decision was that?’
The angel’s gaze swept my being. ‘The decision that stripped you of your wings.’
‘That, I have no idea about.’ I paused. ‘Perhaps you can tell me though, what happened to the Amelia J and the airmen.’
There was no change in the angel’s demeanour. ‘The yacht broke up in a storm. The airmen’s plane became a ball of fire.’
I couldn’t stop a sigh escaping from me.
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘Because the not knowing is a torment.’
‘Then you have already been here too long,’ the angel said and moved off towards the dying man under the dray.
I could hardly breathe for a little while. I simply stacked all the bales and the intact tea chests in neat piles. As I worked, Billy wouldn’t meet my eyes and now I knew the reason he often didn’t turn up for work. He was the shell-shocked one not me. I was sorry for all the lost men, the living and the dead, and wondered how I could keep existing like this. Neither fish nor fowl.
After a week the missing airmen became the lost airmen. The SS Melbourne stopped searching for the Amelia J. Other searches stopped too. In early November there was another quest for the airmen on the slopes of Ben Lomond with no result. How heartbreaking it all was. The airmen and the crew of the Amelia J would never be found.
Gradually there was less in the news. I put my maps away for a while and tried to come to terms with my exile here. I realised now that I hadn’t asked the right questions of the angel. My first words about my situation had been that of a lost child. Not framed as a question at all. I should have been more specific and direct, but things are still hazy from that time.
I should have asked, Is it more than just dereliction of duties? But speaking to him I wasn’t ready to form that question. Somehow, I must move forward. Obviously I made some sort of decision that contributed to my being sent here. Right now, I still have no idea what that was. Perhaps it will eventually come to me. In the meantime I have my job, my friends and the city I am beginning to enjoy. Only this morning, the 9th of November, Irish waved the newspaper in front of me. He had been reading about an enquiry into the missing airmen.
‘So, the military enquiry into the missing airmen has ended and what does it matter their findings! The men are still lost and Cabinet won’t send the Navy anymore to look for the Amelia J.’ Irish shook his head. ‘Only God and the angels know what happened to those men, Zach. Only God and the angels.’
He handed me the newspaper. I glanced at it briefly and then threw it away. Hopping into the back of the lorry, I nodded to Billy and looked at the sky above our heads. Great drifts of clouds were dancing, swirling to the west. I knew that the harbour would soon be roiling and that raindrops would patter against my attic window as I read, long into the night. Flightless, all I could do was pray for those at sea and in the sky.
Image Credits: Keith Haring’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There’s a lot about Haring’s crowded, joyful, oppressive paintings that bring to mind William Blake’s poems and illustrations. Debbie Robson’s story about a fallen angel seemed to call for a visual genre that too straddles different dimensions, namely, street art. Born of the streets and all the grey necessities this implies and yet able to soar towards the steeple heights of artistic expression.
Debbie Robson loves to write fiction set in the first sixty years of the last century. She has had stories published in Vestal Review, Many Nice Donkeys, Serious Flash and others and poetry in Boats Against the Current, Ethelzine, Emerge Journal and more. She tweets at @lakelady2282.