She’s started to get post through the door now, circulars, letters from the local council, bills, all addressed to Talitha Cawthorne. That was the name she gave the gas board, when she moved in, and the water board, and the name she gave to the lex-engineer who needed it for the new telephone connection, and it was the name on her birth certificate, once.
“Yes,” she said, because that was true, or at least, she remembered being called that, years ago; she wondered if she’d still turn around at the sound of it. “Thank you. Perhaps you can direct me to the nearest grocer’s?”
It wasn’t far, up on the road towards the airbase. And now this is her third weekly shopping expedition, picking up eggs, bread, Heinz tinned soup, cheese. She leaves the bicycle leaning against a railing—Downham is safe as houses, the estate agent has said—and walks along the road from the little grocer’s, past a bookshop with law and lex textbooks in the window, up to a café with a row of tables by the window. There are a couple of other customers: a woman gesturing wildly at the chalkboard menu, and a man moping into a coffee cup the size of a soup bowl. She sips her own drink and looks up at the little biplane rising and circling from the base, diving, looping the loop. She knows the place used to be RAF Downham—it’s been in civilian control only a few months—but it seems to have held on to its skilled craftspeople: the plane corners and turns with eerie, tight precision. And perhaps, she’s thinking, drinking in a little self-awareness with her tea, it’s why she’s here, after all. She could have gone anywhere, but she’s come to a place where they still fly.
The woman at the counter has stopped gesticulating and is now crossing the floor with another soup-bowl coffee cup and a plate of biscuits balanced precariously on a tray. Talitha frowns, looking at all the chairs that she’ll have to avoid tripping over, gets up and says, “Can I help you with”—and then it’s too late.
“Shit!” the woman yells, stumbling against the table. The hot liquid makes a boiling arc above, and Talitha’s mind works overtime—Scottish, from the voice; probably demobbed, to be yelling profanity in public places; possibly stationed at the base here in the town?—before she notices the coffee has slopped over the table edge, soaking into her shopping bag. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” the woman says, reaching down to pick up the things spilling out across the floor. The liquid has got into the soup tins so the paper wrapping is coming away, the ink on the inside of the labels blurring into featureless smudges. The metal is visibly tarnishing and the woman groans. “So sorry, I’m going to make your soup go off. Look – what’s your name?”
Talitha takes a breath. “Talitha.”
“Look, Talitha, give us your napkin, will you?”
Talitha gives it to her. The Scottish woman pulls a soft pencil from her pocket with hands that are covered in inkstains. Working quickly, she sketches a sequence of symbols on the napkin and hands it back to Talitha. “Quick patch,” she says. “When you get home wrap it round the tins with an elastic band, it’ll do the trick. I really am sorry. I’ve lost my assistant at work, everything’s at sixes and sevens, it’s a wonder I can keep my head screwed on, but that should fix it.”
Talitha inspects the napkin, folds it carefully and puts it away in her pocket. “Thank you, ah…”
“Cat. Catriona McDonald.” She looks up at the big wall clock and hisses through her teeth. “Shit, shit, I’m late! Nice meeting you. Sorry!”
She flies out of the café, leaping over a cardboard box in the way of the door and disappears in a flash of movement crossing the glass. Surprising herself, Talitha laughs. She finishes her drink, picks up her bags, lets her hand close on the napkin in her pocket, and starts on the walk home.
Cat thuds into the hangar, slams her coffee down, finger-combs her hair and gets her breath back just in time for the outside door to swing open. She looks up, hoping she’s giving the impression of calm competence, and says, “Audrey Knapp?”
“Yes. A pleasure to meet you.” Her new client reaches out for a handshake and Cat winces at the amount of ink on her hands. But Mrs Knapp turns over her palms, inspects them with interest and no displeasure, and Cat thinks perhaps she, like Cat herself, considers the stains honourable badges of the trade.
“Catriona McDonald,” she says, a little belatedly. “We’ve corresponded.”
“Of course, Miss McDonald.” Mrs Knapp smiles at her, but her eyes are on the great structure behind them, the glowing bronzed surfaces of the metal. When she seems to recollect Cat’s presence and turns, she’s distracted again: this time by the coiled scrolls on Cat’s beautiful carved oak desk, the mess of discarded brushes.
“Perhaps you’ll call me Catriona,” Cat says, smiling. “Or Cat, everyone does.”
“Then you must call me Audrey.” Mrs Knapp finally drags her gaze back to Cat and smiles back. “Tell me how this is going to work. You said you’d figured out a new method of lexical locomotion—can you explain, please?”
“With pleasure.” With sudden decision, Cat walks to the back of the workshop so the whole scene is spread out in front of them. The prototype craft dominates the space in its struts. “You know, of course,” Cat says, “that I’m used to working with smaller aircraft. Biplanes, mostly.” Almost unconsciously, she looks up to the giant hook in the roof from which they are hung, and the old Moth they’re using as a model. “You’ve seen the wings in the process of the workings. I can have craftspeople in here eight hours a day with their brushes, painting the lettering on the outer surfaces. I suppose if there were no need for that, we could use something other than canvas for the wings.”
Audrey nods. “But she’s going somewhere where canvas won’t cut it, I’m afraid.”
Not for the first time, Cat wonders what is taking her on this journey—this middle-aged woman of no particular background, deciding suddenly to cross oceans by air and devoting a large portion of her not-inconsiderable resources towards it. Looking at her, Audrey seems to guess what she’s thinking. “Peacetime doesn’t agree with me,” she says, with a studied lightness. “My former husband departed in search of a quiet life.” She gives Cat a small, conspiratorial smile. “Now tell me how we’re doing this.”
“It occurred to me,” Cat says, “that you don’t have to see the lettering, even on an aircraft—it’s just how we happen to do it. Now, if you take the heavy paper”—she points at the burgeoning scrolls on her desk—“and load it safely into the skin of the vessel, for example in the vacuum spaces between the layers of plating, then…”
Audrey smiles. “I understand.”
She starts forwards, going to inspect the work, and Cat hangs back to wait for her verdict. Suddenly, a voice pipes up: “How do the letters make it go, then?”
Cat turns to the stranger coming inside from the rain. “Hello?”
“I’m Toby,” he chirps—a boy, not quite a young man. “That’s m’mum over there. How does it work?”
Cat is thrown off balance for a moment. She considers, then draws a piece of paper towards her. Quickly, she sketches a basic form, and the paper crumples in her hand, becomes a folded swan.
She hands it over to Toby, who accepts it joyfully. “Wow! That’s brilliant! How did you do that?”
“It’s like mathematics,” Cat says. “Once it’s written, it can’t not be true. See?” She takes the swan back and adds a descending stroke to the character on the neck. It takes flight and flutters around Toby’s head.
“Brilliant!” Toby says again. “Do you think I could learn how to do that?”
Cat inclines her head. “Possibly. In earlier days I’d have said you were too old—I started learning when I was twelve.” She smiles at the memory. “But the war has turned everything topsy-turvy. If you have the talent, you could be teachable.”
Toby is delighted. “Can you show me now?”
Cat grins. “That’s not quite how it works. But sit down over there and I’ll see what I can do.”
He sits down obediently at the empty desk and she gives him the first exercise from memory. It’s no struggle, to remember being twelve years old with a sharp pen in her hand, sketching open and close and open and close, making a child’s four-fingered fortune teller with the concentration of a chartered craftswoman working on a de Havilland.
“That’s kind of you,” Audrey says softly, and Cat startles; she hadn’t noticed Audrey stepping back from her aircraft. “Sure he’s not in anyone’s way?”
“He’s not,” Cat says. The base at Downham is filled with junior craftspeople, but Cat’s own assistant and right-hand man left her service only a week earlier to return to civilian life. Cat explained in vain that they were no longer RAF Downham; they were civilian lexical engineers working on civilian aircraft. “Not good enough,” he said, and departed for a life presumably connecting telephone lines or mass-producing Fords or some such thing. She knows in her heart it’s wrong to blame him; she had been feeling it herself in those latter days, the grief and weight of seeing their craft become a part of the government war machine. “I’ll need to recruit someone new at some point, I suppose, but right now it’s an empty desk.”
Audrey nods, her eyes serious. “Right, Miss McDonald,” she says. “I’ve seen what I need to see. I’m impressed with your work. Let me have a quotation for labour and materials and we’ll see about getting this thing done.”
Cat blinks, surprised. “I thought—I mean”—she pauses, aware she’s about to self-sabotage out of nervousness—“that’s a very quick appraisal, Mrs Knapp, I had this meeting booked in for the whole afternoon.”
“You were head of the engineering corps here, weren’t you?” Audrey snaps.
Cat nods, a little unsure of where this is going. “86th Lexical. I had captain’s bars, but it’s professional courtesy, really. I never ordered enlisted men about; I did my own job throughout the war.”
“You were in charge of this place,” Audrey continues, implacable, “and you, and it, are still here. That’ll do for me. Toby, come along.”
“Wait!” Toby cries, and waves his little square of paper. It’s half-squashed and covered in inky smudges, but he holds it quite still in his palm and Cat sees the movement.
“Well done,” she says, and looking at his bright, sweet face, and Audrey’s serious one, makes an impulse decision. “Toby,” she says, “would you like to stay a while?”
Talitha is sure it’s the right door, with the right voice filtering through it, for five minutes before she brings herself to turn the handle and go in. Inside, the open hangar space is familiar, airy under the rafters and filled with light filtering through dust motes. There is a biplane at the far end—de Havilland Giant Moth, provides the part of her mind that never forgets such things: single-engine and four-hundred mile range—half-occluded by a swarm of craftspeople, sharpening the smudged flying forms and doing something to the structural lexicography. Something experimental, that same part of her mind adds, and Talitha turns away sharply.
“Can I help you?” asks a voice, and Talitha looks at the junior craftswoman with her hands on her hips. “This is a working hangar, I’m afraid, it’s not safe for…”
“Don’t be overzealous, Lindy,” says a familiar Scottish voice, and Talitha wheels around. McDonald is there, her arms full of scrolls of paper. “You’re my friend from the café, aren’t you? Let me just—hey, Toby, put these somewhere, will you?”
A boy scurries across from the other side of the hangar and does so, seemingly delighted to be asked. “So good to see people happy in their work,” McDonald says, sounding quite sincere.
“Your apprentice?” Talitha guesses.
“Not quite.” McDonald sits at the edge of a desk—there are a half-dozen of them in a row at this end of the hangar, although only three seem occupied at present. “But the lad has a fancy for the craft, so he’s spending a week or two with me to see if it’s for him. Lindy, this is—Talitha, isn’t it?
“This is Lindy, she’s helping out on that monster thing over there.” The ‘monster thing’ is the Giant Moth. Lindy nods stiffly and returns to it without another word, striding determinedly across the hangar. “And,” McDonald continues, “she’s still not quite on board with the whole civilian aspect of our work, these days. I think she misses the barbed wire.” She grins. “Anyway, Talitha, what can I do for you? How did the tins hold up?”
“Oh,” Talitha says, suddenly brought back to herself. “They were fine, thank you. Ah, you left this in the café the other day, I asked the owner where I might find you, and…”
She trails off awkwardly, but McDonald takes the sketchpad from her. “Thank you!”
She flips through it and Talitha catches sight of a whole multiplicity of forms, some for flying, some for strength, some for precision, some she’s never seen before. “Are you in the trade?” she asks, curiously. “Not many laypeople know how valuable one of these things is.”
The paper, Talitha knows, has metal filings in the weave—so even a perfectly-executed form will not take, and a craftswoman can practise without accidentally turning her sketchpad into a paper aeroplane. “No,” she says. “But I picked up a little bit in the war.”
“Right.” McDonald nods. “A lot of people did. Well, listen, if you want to come back at twelve, I’ll stand you your lunch, all right? It’d have cost me ten times as much to replace this, after all.”
Without waiting for agreement, she turns away to her not-quite apprentice and starts giving him a list of forms to memorise; she breaks off in the middle of the last to call some instructions to the team working on the Giant Moth; she breaks off from that to try some new form of her own on her newly-returned sketchpad; then asks the boy to repeat back the first five items on the list. A little bewildered, Talitha goes back into the cool, heavy spring air, and thinks it chilly after the warmth of the space inside.
They have lunch at the same café, though not at the same table. Cat orders toasted sandwiches and tea for them both and goes to fetch them when Mrs Daly behind the counter calls her name. “That the girl who’s taken Amelia Pennyroyal’s spare room?” she asks Cat. “Odd fish, that. No one knows her here. See if you can find out what brings her to Downham.”
“You’re a terrible old gossip, Mrs Daly,” Cat tells her, and picks up the tray with utmost concentration. She makes it to the table without incident and Talitha looks up and smiles.
“Thank you,” she says. “You know, this wasn’t necessary.”
“Not a bit of it,” Cat says, biting into cheese, ham and pickle. “Eat up, it’ll get cold. Maybe I should have ordered chips as well. I can, if you want?”
Talitha laughs, surprising herself once again. “I forgot that,” she says. “Lex engineers are always hungry. I worked with one chap who had scrambled eggs on the hour. It was quite endearing.”
“I’ve read theories that say it’s some of our energy that makes things fly,” Cat says, composedly. “Even if it’s not, it’s thirsty work. Where were you stationed?”
The sudden shift in conversation startles Talitha. “A long way from here,” she says, after a moment. “Up north. You know,” she adds, “there’s money in wires and cables, these days. Telegraphic lex engineers, household appliances, that sort of thing.”
Cat nods. “And there always will be. When I’m old and not on the top of my game any more, that’s what I’ll do.” She has a craftswoman’s dispassionate assessment of her own skills, Talitha notices. “But right now—Toby, wee Toby, you met him. Well, his mother has an idea for a new kind of plane. Further, faster, with proper long-range cargo. It’s all to do with a stronger physical skin, maybe made out of metal. When I can’t fly any more, that’s when I’ll do household appliances.”
Talitha nods in return. “Metal, though? Won’t that stop the forms from executing?”
“Somewhat,” Cat says, “but it’s not an absolute effect, it depends on other factors and I’m hoping we can work around it. I’ll show you the diagrams if you like.”
“Cat,” Talitha says. “Should you be telling me this? If it’s a private commission, and…”
Cat sighs. “You sound just like Lindy,” she says. “Listen, Talitha. I was born into the trade. I got my charter mark when I was twenty.”
Talitha whistles involuntarily—she knew, of course, that Cat’s talent was something out of the ordinary—but perhaps, hadn’t quite grasped the extent of it. She says nothing.
“And during the war,” Cat continues, “I had to do some things I wasn’t proud of. I built new, improved lightweight planes that dropped new improved heavy artillery, and I put planes back together faster than the medics could put together the pilots. And I did it all behind the barbed wire up there.” She motions to the window and the road up to the base. “No apprentices and not accountable to anyone, though my charter swears I’ll teach my craft to anyone who asks. They can do proprietorial washing machines, frankly, I don’t give a damn. But anyone who wants to fly gets to learn how.”
Cat knows when she’s finished speaking that she must be flushed with emotion—it’s a practised spiel that nevertheless works its way through her body every time, like a form through canvas. But she looks up and Talitha is smiling at her, tentative, luminous. “I understand that,” she says.
“We could do this again,” Cat says, suddenly. “I mean, it’s nice to have company at lunchtimes. It’s been lonely since everyone up at the base started to leave.”
“I’d like that,” Talitha says, and she’s smiling again.
“What happens,” Toby asks, “If I do this?”
He picks up his pen—privately, Cat notes his grip has got much better: firm between forefingers and thumb—and rests the nib on his own wrist. He glances up at Cat, then stubbornly begins to sketch a form, a simple one for flight that’s on the list that she drills him on every day. He reaches the end, smudges the ink and then looks disappointed. “Oh.”
Cat breathes in and shoves down her immediate reaction, which is to grab the pen from his hand. “What were you hoping for?” she asks, keeping her voice gentle. “That you could sketch out avis-alpha-b and up, up and away!”
“Alpha-b?” he asks, distracted, and she shakes her head.
“A little beyond your pay grade, I think. You need to get avis-unmarked absolutely spot-on before we do the variations. And soon I’ll have to think about getting the first-year syllabus for you. I’ll make a note.”
“Cat,” he says, a hint of a whine coming into his voice. “Tell me.”
She relents after a moment, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Toby, you mustn’t try and do forms on yourself like that. Not on yourself or anyone else. Do you understand?”
“Why not?” He looks up at her in confusion, and Cat reminds herself that he isn’t like she was; he wasn’t born into this life.
“There are long textbooks about it,” she says, after a moment, “which you’ll have to read before you get your charter mark.” His eyes shine at that and Cat realises that it’s because she’s talking about his charter mark, as though it’s a given that he will get it, some day. “But for now: think about it like robbing Peter to pay Paul. You can’t burn up the energy in your own body that way. What’s the First Axiom of the craft of flight?”
In his frustrated expression, Cat sees herself at his age, and smiles beatifically. Finally, he says: “Remember Icarus.”
Cat nods. “That’s right. Don’t do that, Toby. It doesn’t work, and it’s not” – she hesitates – “it’s not right. Promise me you won’t do that again.”
Toby glances up at her. “I promise.”
“There’s a good boy.” She ruffles his hair and he ducks away, heading across the hangar presumably in an attempt to escape both form drills and gestures of affection.
“That’s not quite it, you know,” Talitha says, emerging from the shadows behind the prototype. The aircraft is about half-done and is beginning to take on a personality of her own. Cat can’t quite see the shape of her yet, except in shadows and absence, like a dry patch under a tree in the rain. It’ll come.
“What’s that?” she asks, as Talitha walks out from under a wing.
“What you said to Toby.” Talitha looks at her, her eyes dreamy. “It’s not quite right. There are some forms which will work on skin. If someone else draws them.”
“Oh,” Cat says. Before she can think of anything to say, Talitha is gone, edging back into the dimness behind the aircraft, heading for the door out to the sky.
Cat formally declares Toby her apprentice after he’s been hanging around the hangar for a month. “Getting in the way,” Lindy says, but Cat knows that’s not right. The lad has fetched and carried messages, stirred great pots of ink, trimmed brushes, got up early and stayed late. Cat herself was born into pre-war privilege, the daughter and granddaughter of flight craftswomen; she respects the boy scrabbling for his start.
Audrey is grim but accepting, when she visits next. “God knows it’s in his blood,” she says. “His father was a craftsman. A mediocre one, mind you, never stretched to anything but rivets and joins. But it’s a trade for the boy.”
Cat smiles, then feels herself grow abruptly serious. “I’ll do my best by him,” she promises, “but my best isn’t what it might have been. Before the war I’d have sent him to Woolwich for his theory, and he could have come here for his practical, but since the war…”
Audrey holds up a hand. “I’m grateful for whatever you can give him, Miss McDonald.”
“Call me Cat,” Cat says, for at least the fiftieth time, and smiles again. “Would you like to see how the work is progressing?”
“I would, thank you,” Audrey says, and this time, as Cat shows her around the bare skeleton of the aircraft, she’s less nervous: she knows the work is good. She and her people have been scratching forms and grammar on scraps of paper, making tiny models to dart around the hangar; they’ve been testing materials out on the hill, in the full blast of the wind; they’ve been consulting the sort of textbooks the craftspeople often leave for the academics. The aircraft doesn’t yet look very different from any other of its size – the forms have been done on the usual heavy paper and then laid on the surface of the metal plating; Cat means to have them put within the skin only when everything is complete – but she’s aware on a subconscious level that this one is different. A different presence, she thinks to herself, then smiles at her own fancy.
“It looks like you’re making good progress,” Audrey says, with reserve; Cat thinks that she probably doesn’t say anything she doesn’t mean, and keeps on smiling. “Have you considered a name, yet?”
“For the type?” Cat shakes her head. “Not yet. We might have to move away from the” – she gestures at the Giant Moth they were using as a model, now on the other side of the hangar from the prototype – “insect theme.”
“For the particular craft.” Audrey is hesitant. Nervous, Cat realises. “I don’t know what the custom is, with these things – for the builders of the craft to name her, or for…”
“Oh,” Cat says, and then, gently, “I think you should name her. If she’s your” – Cat pauses – “unquiet life.”
Audrey gives her a half-smile. “In that case,” she says, “I suppose I’ll have to think of something.”
And after that, Cat thinks she’s forgotten – after another week, some of the metal plating is appearing, and craftswomen in the hangar are calling it the Beast and the Thing and other such hefty monosyllables, so Cat thinks she’s not the only one to have felt the presence of it, sitting squat in the hangar – but then Audrey asks, in a routine letter that otherwise deals with quotations for further materials, how they’re getting on with Margaretha Zelle.
“Mata Hari!” Talitha says, startled, when Cat tells her.
“I had to look it up,” Cat says, ruefully, over a cheese bloomer. “I don’t know much about – well, anything that’s not flightcraft.”
“That’s understandable,” Talitha says. She seems amused, taking a bite into her own sandwich with piccalilli. It’s a bright, breezy day, so they’re sitting on the hill on the grass and holding on tightly to the sandwich wrappers. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever had much time for anything else.”
“And you should forgive me if I’m wrong,” Cat says, tentatively, “but wasn’t she a spy for the other side?”
“Brave as anything, though,” Talitha says, and Cat is content to take her word for it.
Not long after that, Cat needs a favour.
“You’re afraid of flying!” Talitha says, and chuckles. A shared and excellent steak pie has just rather robbed them of any great urgency to return to work.
“Not at all,” Cat says, primly. “It was part of my training. But”—she pauses—“Miller, my old assistant, you know. He used to do it. When they wanted a craftsperson along on a test flight.”
“Seems to me they ought to have one along on every test flight,” Talitha says. “I’ll do it, Cat. But you should try it sometime.”
“Oh, no,” Cat says, “no” – and then almost gets knocked flying onto the grass. “Lindy!” she says, stepping backwards. “Don’t rush about so! What is it?”
“You’ve got to come,” Lindy says, breathless and incoherent, “I called the fire brigade but they won’t come in time, you’ve got to, Cat…”
She turns and runs back up the hill, her wildly scrabbling feet pushing up tufts. Cat follows her up and into the hangar, pushing open the little door with her eyes on her feet, so it takes her another second to look up and swear extravagantly. Margaretha Zelle had been hung from the roof: now she’s half on the floor, great strips of paper hanging from the now-bent hook, and one of her wings is almost broken off, turned into a shapeless mess from the impact. “Is there someone under there? When did it happen?”
“Toby,” Lindy says, tearful but steady, “he was looking at the forms, he was trying to figure out the pattern. Just a minute ago, Cat, he wasn’t under the fuselage, he was under the wing, he might be…”
“Shut up, all of you,” Cat snaps out, with military sharpness. “Not a word! Now.”
In that textured silence, the paper flaps in the draught, a drop of water falls from the roof, and from the left wing of the stricken aircraft, two metres down and along, something – someone – taps. “Toby?” Cat says, loud and clear. “Tap twice if that’s you.”
“Tap if it’s just you under there.”
“And once more if you’re hurt.”
“All right,” Cat says, clapping her hands. “The fire brigade have to come all the way from King’s Lynn, we can’t wait for them.”
“Cat,” Talitha says, urgently, “the plane’s on the edge.” She gestures at the hook, at where part of the structure remains suspended. “If we pull or tug at it, we might bring the whole thing down. It might crush…”
“Understood.” Cat breathes. “We need to lift it. Not manually, you know how. None of you distract me for the next two minutes.” She’s getting down on her knees as she speaks, drawing forms quickly on the sheets laid out on the hangar floor. It’s only the skill of long, long practice that keeps them neat and true. She draws strokes in abbreviated forms, crossing out rather than erasing her mistakes, waiting for them to execute; she thinks for a second about the hook she hadn’t even considered, designed to hold up aircraft made out of canvas and not metal, then pushes away the thought. It’s not useful.
“Cat,” Talitha says, gently, “I can help”—and Cat wants to cry over the junior craftsmen who departed for telephone engineering, rather than do this work that matters.
“Do the groundwork,” she tells Talitha, screwing pieces of paper into tiny balls and throwing them north, northwest, north-northwest. Talitha follows them and lays down the right forms for rigidity and tension, not with textbook perfection, but with the fluid essentials.
“You’ll put yourself into a coma if you try this with no help,” she says, without looking up. “There’s not enough push in the forms for you to lift this alone.”
Cat gestures wildly and put in a cross-stroke. “No other option.”
Talitha holds up her pen and pulls up her sleeves, exposing the unmarked skin of her forearms.
“You’re mad,” Cat breathes.
“It’s energy,” Talitha says, with head back down. “It will fuel”—she draws a form in the air, and Cat breathes in sharply—“under the wing, if you—look, Cat, we don’t have time to argue over this. Say yes or wait for the fire brigade.”
Cat stares at her for another moment, then pulls up her own sleeves. “I didn’t mean you,” Talitha snaps, a little panicky, then begins to draw. Cat’s fingertips are on the edge of the sheet and as the forms take shape something crackles at the paper’s edge. Cat stares at it in bemusement, not thinking about the pain, as the fire catches and carries along the sheet and in its wake Talitha sketches out form after form, ones Cat only knows from textbooks, with no time to perfect her work before it’s sacrificed to the flames.
“Done,” Talitha says, and the two of them look at each other, then both reach downwards. Cat has time for fear, feeling her eyebrows singe and the roaring heat inches from her bare hands—and then they press the new sheet of paper down onto the aircraft wreckage, the flames leaping across. They only have a minute or two, Cat thinks, before the metal starts to heat up.
“Now!” Talitha yells, and Cat adds one more form with a hand that barely grips, simple enough for an apprentice to have done it—avis-unmarked, a stylized bird, for flight—and the broken pieces explode upwards.
Before Cat can move, Talitha dives in, grabs Toby, covered in dust, with blood showing at his mouth, then goes back to check there’s no one else there. “Go!”
“Get back!” Cat presses both hands down, bloody and ruinous, destroying all the forms. The mess of the wing rattles down like unholy rain, Cat’s knees hit the ground and the last thing she remembers is the sound of steam hissing, and Talitha’s voice, soft and determined, as she calls to the others, as she pours water on the flames.
“Mrs Knapp,” Cat’s saying, not for the first time, “I’m so, so sorry” – and Audrey stamps her foot.
“Cat, with all due respect, shut up,” she says. “It’s a fat lip and a broken leg. Toby’s had worse playing cricket. And even if he hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been your fault.”
“He’s my apprentice,” Cat says, stubborn and frustrated, “he’s my apprentice, and I should have protected him, and I should have…”
“Cat,” Audrey interrupts, “if you must make a martyr of yourself, go back to fixing my aeroplane. I will take Toby home for a while and run him back to you when he’s ready. A very good day to you both.”
She bows, turns on her heel and stalks out of the hangar. In the ensuing dusty silence, Talitha sighs. “She’s right,” she says, tentatively; Cat has not been easy to talk to, these last few days. “It’s not your fault.”
She waves vaguely as she says it: Margaretha Zelle is still spread in pieces across the hangar floor, though the remaining craftspeople have been working hard to remove the destroyed pieces, as not to warp the whole. Before Cat can say anything else, Talitha adds, “How’s Lindy?”
“She says she’s feeling a little better,” Cat says, sounding defeated. Other than Talitha herself, Lindy had the worst of the smoke inhalation and falling debris. “She’s going to stay with her sister-in-law for a few days.”
“Glad to hear it,” Talitha says, and then stops short. “The first part, I mean. And – Cat. What about you?”
“What about me?”
“How are you?” Talitha asks, insistent. “Cat, you lifted that wing more or less entirely by yourself. I know I helped make the thing susceptible, but you made it fly.” She pauses. “I’ve seen what happens when people do mad things like that.”
“Mad things like that,” Cat repeats, with something in her expression that Talitha can’t read. After a moment Cat gets to her feet, slowly and stiffly—Talitha wasn’t wrong that what she did has taken the energy out of her – and beckons imperiously. “Come with me, please.”
Curious, Talitha follows. Outside the hangar, on the grassy hillside, Cat sits down on a soft tussock and leans backwards, looking right up at the sky. She doesn’t speak for a couple of minutes, and Talitha reaches over and touches her shoulder. “Cat?”
Still silence. Cat takes a number of deep, steady breaths. Talitha is starting to wonder if she’s ever going to speak when Cat finally sighs and says, “So. These forms.” She pulls back her sleeves as she says it, showing the damage: the lexical cuts are healing faster than the burns around them.
Talitha looks across at her face. “Yes. What about them?”
“I’m not sure,” Cat says, mild. “I’ve been wondering, you see, if you might have used them in the war. If that’s how you know what you know.”
“You’ve worked it out, then,” Talitha says, dispassionately.
“Have I?” Cat says, still looking straight up. “I don’t know what I’ve worked out. I do know the old stories, about people who work with skin, and blood, and all those things that are neither ink nor paper.”
“Mostly,” Talitha says, sighing, “I worked with ink and paper. Mostly, but not always.”
“Can you tell me?”
“I probably shouldn’t.” Talitha shrugs. “It was a place up north, somewhere near Loch Laggan, if you know it. If an aircraft came down with something interesting in the visible lexicography, that’s where the pieces were brought. And…” – she pauses, then goes on – “with them, they brought the pilots.”
“I was approached, myself,” Cat says, matter-of-fact. “Just a few weeks after the declaration, actually. Someone came up to me in a café in Soho and said they’d known my father. They probably did, at that. Told me about the importance of the war effort. And how everything could be a weapon in the wrong hands. Asked me to consider a role in special operations, italicised, and awaited my answer.”
Talitha shakes her head in return, impatient. “You said no.”
“I want to say I thought about it,” Cat says. “I want to say I had that kind of… courage? But I sent him away and he didn’t come back. Tell me, what forms did you use on the pilots?”
“Lapidary forms, with proprietary modification.” Talitha shrugs again and gestures. “If you work them on rock, it crumbles.”
“Jesus Christ.” Cat puts both her hands over her eyes, and Talitha flinches.
“We didn’t all have the luxury of the long way around,” she says, more sharply than she’d meant; she does not care about Cat’s opinion of her, not about this. “We didn’t all have the kind word, the fair start. We weren’t all like Toby, or…”
“Me.” Cat hasn’t moved. “All of us raised in the grand old tradition. Remember Icarus. Help all who ask for it. Thou shalt not kill. Did you…”
“Yes. When it could not possibly be avoided.”
“Among other reasons.” She pauses. “You saw the value of generating energy in a hurry.”
Cat looks up at her, something awful in her eyes. “Christ.”
“Cat.” Talitha stands up and takes a step downhill. “I did what I did. And I saved Toby’s life. Yours, too, in the war. A dozen times, perhaps, without your knowing it. If you call it dirty work, well, I’m not here to answer to you.”
She’s trembling a little as she walks down the hill, but not too much. She’s thinking about the pretty little room she’s renting from an old lady who’s kind to her, and how she came here where they still fly.
“Talitha.” Cat scrambles to her feet, swaying slightly. “Stop, please.”
Talitha says, over her shoulder, “Perhaps you should have waited till the fire brigade came from Lynn. Perhaps you should have let the undercarriage tip and crush Toby’s bones.”
Cat makes a frustrated noise and holds up her palms, still partly bandaged, all the exposed flesh shiny and raw. “Talitha…”
“Your own skin was in the form you made,” Talitha says, and she’d meant to walk away, but she’s turned on the spot, facing up. “Burnt away. Don’t talk to me about clean hands.”
“I’m not, for God’s sake,” Cat says, staggers and lands on the grass, makes a muted noise of pain, and moves no further. Talitha takes one more step, and has a sudden memory of meeting Cat in the village cafe, the rising arc of boiling coffee, the tins of tomato soup that are still sitting on her shelf at home, now sealed for all time, or at least until she stops having lunch with Cat every day. With a groan, she starts back upwards.
“You did your own war work, Cat,” she says, half with anger and half something else, as she gives Cat a hand to steady herself with, and sits back down beside her. “You told me yourself.”
Cat just looks at her. “I know.”
“And,” Talitha says, cuttingly, “you implemented what I learned. What I got from them, and the improvements you made…”
“You might not have done the work, but you…”
“I know!” Cat puts her head in her hands, then looks up. “For goodness’ sake, Talitha. I know what I did.”
“Well, then,” Talitha says, hands shaking.
For a moment, there’s only silence. Then Cat leans back and breathes out, and her expression slowly loses some of that bleakness. “Believe it or not, Talitha, before the accident I was planning to offer you a job.”
Talitha stares. “What?”
Cat nods. “Lindy and the juniors are good and sweet and Toby has promise, but I need a real second.”
Talitha’s still staring. “You want me to be your assistant?” She pauses. “I mean—you still do?”
“My right hand.” Cat gestures with her actual right hand, the bandages making the point. “Will you consider it?”
“I don’t have your qualifications.”
“We’ll put you in for your exams when Toby does his. Will you do it?”
Talitha says, “Even if I do, I won’t apologise for who I am, Cat. Nor what I did. I don’t need your forgiveness.”
“I used to build efficient aircraft,” Cat says, softly and sadly, “delivering efficient artillery, on top of people. I don’t know what happens, about that.” She spreads her palms. “I told you before, I don’t know much that isn’t flightcraft. I don’t know about what’s written, what’s true. Thou shalt not kill and all that. But I’ve got to rebuild that damn aircraft, Audrey’s bought her goggles. I’ve got to get the new syllabus for Toby, and I need to send a get-well card to Lindy and I need to put in an order for a few hundredweight of wing canvas and I need to not be sat on my arse on a damp hillside, and I need your help.”
Talitha grins, suddenly. “All right,” she says. “On one condition.” She holds out a hand to Cat, who takes it, and between them they get Cat to her feet. “When she’s built, you’ll fly in her.”
“Oh, no, no,” Cat says. “Don’t even think about it.”
Talitha shakes her head. Despite the chaos in the hangar, out here in the wind and the sun, she can imagine Margaretha Zelle clearly, how strange and beautiful she’ll look, with forms hidden within her skin and so much more than she seems. “Don’t worry,” she says, giving Cat a shoulder to lean on, “I’ll teach you how.”
“All right,” Cat says, sounding entirely defeated, “if that’s what it takes”—and Talitha laughs as they go on up the hillside, into the curve of the sky.