A Brief Introduction.
This was the first piece of my writing that did well, so it has a special place in my heart.
I entered it into the Conflux 9 (2013 Natcon) short story competition and was lucky enough to win first prize (and a very generous $500!). The writing prompt for the competition was ‘angels, junk and steam’.
The work was subsequently republished in the Novascapes anthology.
It is very, very different to my novels in both style and structure, but I really hope you enjoy it anyway. The story itself came to me fully formed in a moment – no planning or plotting required. The first and only time that has happened.
I can’t remember when I first noticed the Junker. He had been around so long that most adults no longer noticed him – he was as simultaneously present and yet invisible as the great chimneys that loomed over us. Of course there was also no shortage of madmen wandering the streets in those days. Broken in the factories or malfunctioning due to grief, illness or injury, thousands of them lurched aimlessly through the gloom of the city till the cold or the smog killed them.
But the Junker was different. Far from aimless, he walked the same path every day. We passed him every morning as we walked to school and no matter the weather he always looked the same. Shoulders stooped, an ugly patched coat wrapped around him like a shroud, a little cart squeaking and jolting along behind him and an ugly little dog trotting by his side. In the grey light of dawn he trudged downhill towards the vast rubbish dumps along the banks of the Terva. In the evenings I would sometimes see him returning home through the dark, his cart laden with junk.
Little Illyich was afraid of the Junker and he would hold my hand tightly when he saw him. ‘I don’t like him, Anna,’ he’d whisper. The Junker didn’t scare me though. His strange sense of purpose caught my attention and I constructed fables around him. He was a witch’s servant, searching for parts to repair an infernal device. Or he was a ruined lord, faithfully repairing his broken steam-retainer.
It was the year I turned twelve and winter’s grey snows had just buried autumn when I first spoke to the Junker. One evening I came across him surrounded by a group of urchins, leaping, screeching and jeering, as they tried to steal his day’s scroungings. Even as a little girl I had a well-developed sense of outrage and I drove them off with a flurry of kicks and yanks on their greasy hair. Once they had fled I walked back to where he stood by his overturned cart.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I am used to them, but they do scare Bounce.’ Bounce showed his gratitude by covering my skirt with muddy footprints that would earn me a smack from mother.
‘They are babies anyway,’ I said, pleased with myself.
The Junker smiled and I noticed that his eyes were the brightest blue, the kind of colour that travellers said the sky outside the city was in summer. ‘I am in your debt.’
I muttered something awkward, before my curiosity saved me. ‘How did you go today?’ I asked pointing to junk scattered in the snow.
‘Oh, nothing that I need,’ he sighed.
I said goodbye. He nodded very formally. Bounce ran around barking.
Every morning after that I would say hello to the Junker and in the evenings I would ask him how he had gone. His answer was always the same. ‘Nothing that I need.’
On Midwinter’s day, the Blackhaven ether leak closed my school for the week and left me free to roam about as I pleased. On the third day of our unplanned holiday I was listlessly fulfilling the role of some princess’ lady-in-waiting for my friends when I spotted the Junker hobbling down towards the Terva. Abandoning my royal duties, I ran after him.
‘Can I come with you today Junker?’ I asked. His daily ritual seemed more interesting than princesses.
‘Shouldn’t you be at school?’
I told him it was cancelled.
He nodded. ‘Very good. One mustn’t waste school.’
‘So I can come?’
‘It is dangerous,’ he paused to take in my gloomy, ash stained neighbourhood. ‘But no more so than here, I suppose. Will you do as you are told?’
So the Junker, Bounce and I went down to the great dump at Icarnus Field. Although I had seen it countless times from a distance, up close it seemed to go on forever, endless piles of junk rising from the earth like obscene mountains, a kingdom of feral despair, stretching away down to the turgid river. Overhead, a few sickly birds circled through the fetid sky.
The Junker led us confidently through the labyrinth of rubbish until we came upon a small blue flag.
‘This is where we start today,’ he announced. Bounce barked in apparent agreement.
‘What are we looking for?’
‘I am looking for something special. You may look for what you will.’
I was annoyed not to be let in on his secret, but I was old enough to realise sulking wouldn’t help tease it out. Instead I set to picking through the blue-flagged pile with gusto, marvelling at the things the dump surrendered; springs, gears, hats and even the eyeless skull of a steam-servant. I was somewhat mollified when the Junker began to ask for my help. First I helped him lift a heavy iron plate, then I shinnied down into the black guts of an old boiler.
‘This isn’t a very nice place, Junker,’ I said accusingly as I scrambled back out of the claustrophobic belly of the machine.
‘It’s not.’ He sat down heavily on the junk. ‘It was a beautiful meadow when I was a boy.’ He absently patted Bounce’s head. ‘A very pretty brook ran down a wooded valley just over there.’
‘Did you live near here, then?’
He shook his head. ‘I worked here. See that factory?’
I couldn’t miss it. The mill rose fat and glum above the rubbish, its stacks vomiting oily soot into the afternoon sky.
‘That was where I worked, although it wasn’t the factory then. It was a pretty sandstone building with thin dreaming towers for plump, dreaming academics.’ He paused for a long moment. ‘My wife loved to see the dawn star. Sometimes, if we had worked all night, we would come out here, sit together and watch it rise.’
‘Now it’s ruined.’
He nodded. ‘It is.’
‘That’s terrible!’ I had never really thought about what Ironholme had been like before the factories.
‘True. But that factory makes steam-men. They do dangerous work that stops men like your father from being killed in the factories.’
I looked out at the desolation. ‘So it was worth it?’
‘Men wiser than me would say yes. But it was a beautiful meadow.’
The Junker, despite his years, worked tirelessly through the afternoon, only pausing occasionally to give Bounce something to drink or eat. To my frustration I had got no closer to uncovering the secret of what he was looking for when the distant sirens bellowed. The Junker sunk his little blue flag into the foot of the junk pile to mark tomorrow’s starting point and motioned for me to follow him. ‘It will be dark soon. Your parents will be worried.’
At the foot of the viaduct, just under the heavy brow of the hill, we said our goodbyes and I made my way home. The Junker was only just out of sight when some of the brats emerged from the smog, snickering and laughing.
‘She’s friends with the Junker!’
‘We saw her scrounging around with him like a little rat.’
One of the bigger boys danced in front of me. ‘You know why he searches around in all that junk?’
I ignored him
He yanked on one of my pig tails. ‘It’s ‘cause he cut his wife up and he can’t remember where he buried the head.’
I ran home, cries of ‘Rat!’ following me.
I wasn’t a devious child and over dinner I told my parents what I had done that day. I saw mother cast my father a nervous glance, but he only shrugged.
‘How long has Junker been going to the dump?’ I asked, sensing I was safe.
‘Since before we lived here, dear,’ my mother said.
‘That long! He seems very sad.’
My parents shared a knowing glance.
‘What? Tell me. I want to know.’
‘A long time ago he was a scientist.’ My father paused and swirled his spoon through his water thin broth. ‘His wife worked with him in his laboratory. She was killed in an accident.’ Father wasn’t a man to patronise his children.
My stomach lurched and I thought of the brat’s taunts. ‘But why does he go to the dump?’
‘Sometimes, when something very bad happens to someone, they are never the same again,’ he said slowly.
‘Junker has a dog. Can we have a dog, mother?’ asked little Illyich suddenly.
‘You know we couldn’t afford to feed a dog,’ she said in that kindly, motherly way that brooked no argument. ‘Now eat your broth before it gets cold.’
His lip quivered, but he did as he was told.
As I took my empty bowl to the washing up dish, father stopped me with a gentle hand. ‘I don’t want you calling him Junker anymore, Anna. The old man’s name is Bazarov.’
From then on I would meet Bazarov and Bounce under the great statue of the Redeemer at sixth bell.
We would walk me back to my house and he would ask me questions about my day at school. As the winter dragged on he would set me riddles and, if I answered them correctly, he would present me with prizes that he must have scavenged from the dump. The best was a bit of metal the size of a dinner plate that carried a beautiful heraldic crest. At the time I fancied it to be a knight’s shield, but I realise now it was probably the front plate on a dirigible.
He frowned when he saw my excitement. ‘You must be careful with that.’
‘I won’t let anyone steal it.’
‘It’s not that, some might come to the wrong conclusion if they saw you showing that off.’
‘That is the King’s crest. People might take you for a Royalist.’
‘Never! The King was a traitor.’ I was a good product of the parliament’s schools at that age.
‘He was certainly wrong. But he went to his death believing he served his people.’
‘He fought the Tall Parliament!’
‘That was a crime. But I still don’t think he deserved the steam wheel.’
‘All of us deserve a chance to right our wrongs.’
On the first day of spring Bazarov didn’t arrive for our meeting. I went to look for him and found him halfway up the hill, lying by the side of the road, stepped over by passersby like he was nothing more than rubbish. Bounce was licking his pallid face as if attempting to wake his master. I hurried to him, sure he was dead. But, as I approached, he opened his eyes. Their blue had faded to a colour as flat as our heavy sky.
‘Anna,’ he croaked.
‘Nothing,’ I watched as a tear trickled down his lined face. ‘I’m spent. I’ve failed.’
In those days I was full of the burning optimism of youth and I helped him back to his feet. Once back upright, his colour improved, but it was obvious he would never be able to make it home under his own steam.
‘I’ll help you home,’ I said.
He looked like he wanted to argue, but I could tell he didn’t even have strength for that. ‘Thank you.’
Doing my best to support him, we hobbled back up the hill to the statue of the Redeemer, under the viaduct and down past the smouldering edifice of the Romanov Ironworks. His house, when we came to it, somehow looked exactly how I had expected it to. It sat in the palm of a skeletal hand, the bony concrete fingers of grey tenements surrounding it, guaranteeing that even our weak sunlight would never fall upon it. The house itself might have once been pretty, but now it was ramshackle and tired, all dirty sightless windows and cracked, flaking scabs of ancient paint.
Bazarov unlocked the door and let us inside. Stumbling into the darkness he collapsed into the nearest dusty chair with a groan. Bounce jumped up into his lap.
Shutting the door behind us, I took in the room. The air was thin, hot and sulphurous. The benches were cluttered with bubbling vials and hissing burners. Books were piled around the wall in tall stacks. Warm brass pipes, humming and rattling with an unseen machine’s rhythm, ran over the ceiling like the ribs of some ancient mechanical beast. It looked like a cross between a library and laboratory.
I turned back to Bazarov. ‘Can I do anything?’
He nodded weakly and pointed towards a work table. ‘Fetch Bounce his food, he’ll be hungry.’
I hurried over to the bench and searched amongst the clutter. Lifting the box of dried meats, I stopped.
Behind it was a beautiful sculpted face of polished brass. Life sized, the mask almost perfectly captured the features of a middle-aged woman.
I picked it up gingerly and studied it. The woman looked about as old as my mother and her mouth and eyes were framed by lines left by smiles. ‘What is this, Bazarov?’
‘This? I suppose it is a recessional,’ he said sadly. ‘A trinket I made to remind me of my wife.’
‘You made this?’
‘I did.’ He laughed a flat empty laugh. ‘I was once famous for the steam-people I made. They were almost lifelike, my colleagues said.’
‘She is beautiful.’
‘She was.’ He sank deeper into his chair. ‘Now you should leave. Your mother will be worried.’
I didn’t want to leave, but he was right. ‘I will see you tomorrow, won’t I?’
‘I don’t know Anna,’ he whispered.
‘I… I… am just so tired.’
‘But winter is over; Mother says everything is better in spring.’
A smile ghosted across his face. ‘Does she?’
Next day when I reached the Redeemer, there was no sign of Bazarov. But the brats were there, squawking like crows.
‘Hey, Little Rat, we saw Big Rat running back up the hill, carrying that little rat dog and some piece of junk,’ a black haired boy called down. ‘He looked like he was crying. Crying!’ They laughed.
I ran all the way to his house only to be stopped by the crowd was gathered outside at a safe distance. The house was shaking and straining like it was trying to burst apart and steam was gushing from every crack. I tried to break free and get through to the house, but the press held me back. Finally, when my cries and thrashing got too much, a constable dragged me home.
I begged my mother to let me go back, but she refused. I could tell by the scared look on her face that she wasn’t going to change her mind. That night, for the first time since I was little, I threw myself into bed and cried myself to sleep.
I awoke before dawn to the sound of incessant barking. Illyich and I rushed downstairs to find that father had already opened the door. We peered past him and there on the doorstep, tied by his collar to a sturdy wooden box, was Bounce.
‘What is it?’ my mother called down.
‘The Junker’s dog,’ called Illyich, rushing forward to untie Bounce.
‘Oh…’ my mother said simply. No doubt she was already wondering how we could hope to feed him.
My father gently pushed Illyich and Bounce inside and then reached down into the box and took out a small tin. He studied a note attached to it and then turned to me. ‘It is addressed to you.’
I took the tin. Tied to it was a letter with my name written on it in an old fashioned script. With shaking hands, I opened it.
Thank you for all your help. I could never have got through this winter without you.
I was hoping you could look after Bounce for me. It is horrible to leave him, but he cannot follow where we are going. I have included some scraps I found in the junk to help pay his way. Be kind to him, he has been a faithful dog.
I may have overestimated how much it costs to keep Bounce. Anything left is yours. Remember not to waste school.
I opened the box and heard my parent’s sharp intake of breath. A lump of roughly melted gold as big as my finger sat on top of a sparkling bed of tiny precious stones, intertwined with glittering threads of silver and gold.
My father was already pulling on his heavy coat, his face a confused mix of wonder and concern.
‘Are you going to check on Bazarov?’ I asked in a quavering voice.
He nodded. ‘You can come.’
Bazarov’s house had been torn apart. The roof was peeled back against the encroaching tenements like a mad artist’s wooden flower. The walls sagged outwards like old drunks. ‘What happened?’ father asked a constable standing in front of the ruin.
‘I’ve no idea,’ the constable snapped. ‘The only witness is talking bloody gibberish.’
His witness was the black-haired brat. Only now he was ashen faced and his wide eyed. ‘I was just havin’ a look around after things quietened down was all. Wasn’t stealin’. But then these two angels came bursting out of the cellar. Two of them, made from metal and the like. Then, then…’ he gulped like a landed fish. ‘They bloody rose up on wings of steam, they did.’ He pointed upwards.
We looked up, following his gesture. The crowd gasped almost as one. A great hole had been torn in the smog. For the first time in my life I saw stars. They glittered down on us, cold, eternal and beautiful.
As we watched transfixed, two of the stars shook themselves free from the firmament and danced together in a graceful, intertwined arc across the ink black night, until they disappeared into the east and the dawn.