Title: Engine Country

Author: Damien Wilkins

In: Sport 1: Spring 1988

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, October 1988, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Sport 1: Spring 1988

Engine Country

page 14

Engine Country

There! Where? Oh. Nope. I thought. . . (thought he was going crazy and that he'd be the youngest madman in his school, younger even than the loopy kid hare-lipped so bad he couldn't blow his nose without. . .). Do you think, Otto, there's enough oxygen out tonight? Ssshhh . — .

Erich screws his nine-year-old knuckles into his eyes which tonight seem crusty and ancient. He is exhausted from being so alert. He and his older brother have been crouching in the damp grass at the edge of the runway for hours, days, weekends, hoping for any moment's impression of light or movement in the night sky to solidify into real action and, Erich trembles at the word, disaster on the ground. He squeezes his hands back between his frozen thighs. If his fingers still worked he would like to reach up, break off the stinging red flaps of his ears and tuck them, for the time being, inside his jacket pocket. His cheeks are humming and paralysed. It feels like the whole month, the complete February allotment for 1944, has run out on them and that Schaffhausen airbase, where extra-terrestrial visitors are long overdue, will wake into spring with only a slow blink.

He watches his brother's breath disappear in quick puffs made blue by the light from the control tower which seems to hover in the distance some hundred yards above the ground, the box illuminated but without visible sign of support. It is a good omen, this sight, being so unusual. Otto has a book about spectral phenomena, the network for interstellar messages. Be on the look-out for the strange, it says, it is everywhere. (It has long been the boys' ambition to leave the planet.) The wind turns the grass silver and you could read by the moon. At home Mama is making soup. The thought of the soup forms a canal from Erich's head to his stomach. Whassthat! Me, just me.

Otto rocks back and forth on his haunches mumbling a repeating , medley of songs. 'Stop it Otto, stop it, stop it, stop it.'

Then it arrives, without the warning they thought had been promised page 15them by their vigilance. It literally falls out of the sky. Yoww! Erich isn't thinking — he's stopped. But Otto grabs his little brother's arm in mortal terror and leaps out of hiding. The huge thing showers sparks over the schoolboys as it scrapes along the runway making a noise like a giant's fingernails across a blackboard big as a football field. Otto hurtles ahead with Erich's hand in his own. Erich, almost airborne behind his brother, flies fast as theory, almost. . . His mother him by the hand, yanking him along as if he was a golf trundler paying for some misfortune on the links. His mother is moving at furious pace, pushing through the city crowds using her left arm, over which she's hooked a bulky shopping bag, as a kind of battering ram, while swinging her son, like a crazy rudder, against the legs of everyone she overtakes. Erich is frightened at first — that his feet are leaving the ground, that he may never come down — but he soon learns that if he surrenders to it, lets his body go limp, the bumpy trip becomes an exciting kind of game. Swelling in the boy is a sense of exhilaration — at distance, speed, height — which makes him invulnerable to the curses and kicks which now accompany his path through the undergrowth of shoppers and commuters. It is rush-hour (a phrase Erich now half-understands). It is also his first near-success at leaving the earth, rising above it. Then he stumbles, his legs tangling in the wheels of a sluggish pram, and he skids to a halt, tearing his knees. His mother, finding herself anchored in the bustling and abusive crowd, looks down at her son who is in shock, bends over and clips him hard across the ear.

Alive now to the cold night air and the noise of the machine, its crackling fireworks and shrieking metal, he finds himself skimming over the grass, being pulled towards the perimeter fence which glints dully in the distance. It seems too far away for Otto's liking so he casts off the weight of his brother and doesn't hear Erich's screams over the din of the flaming vehicle nor over his own screams as he desperately scans the moonlit gloom for the darker patch of the hole through which he can escape. Erich watches his brother's shape until it disappears. He stops calling out and lies in the grass, panting and wrenched, listening to his own choked sobbing. The airbase is otherwise silent now. A hiss of steam, a sob. Then he hears voices, speaking in a language he can't quite pick out, and Erich presses himself flatter into the cold dew. Eight beings from another planet walk past him, one swinging, with low groans, clear of the ground, supported on shoulders of two companions. The others limp or do not walk page 16straight. One says, 'Friggin crate.' Another, 'Doncha badmouth Bertha, got us down didn't she.' 'Yeah, not before bomber Washington got his balls shot off.' 'Always thought they'd look better on a horse. . .'

Erich waits until their voices are gone then gets to his feet and creeps over the grass to the runway's edge. He is just about to approach the thing when a spotlight sweeps over him and lands on it. He ducks down. Small flames giving off a purplish smoke lick at the bottom of a painting on the side of the cockpit. The spotlight tilts and Erich sees clearly the hand waving, the spangly swimsuit, the high-heels, and the legend, BERTHA LOU. Otto will never believe this. Then there is a flash; the earth is suddenly dried beneath his fingertips.


Whenever he replayed it, his childhood stuck at Schaffhausen. He could never be older than nine and, when his friends spoke of remembering their first steps, their first words, even their mother's breast, the earliest experience he could recall was the shopping expedition, aged four. These were the parameters of his memory. When one acquaintance spoke of leaving the womb and how he had felt keenly the loss of the severed umbilical cord, Erich had to leave the room. He did not feel deprived exactly, but when he tried to analyse his conviction that most of the testament of his friends was spurious, he had to concede that the 'missing' parts of himself were still painful, that the arbitrary chopping had left him haunted like an amputee. Every morning he had to sketch in his eyebrows and put on the glasses with the large dark rims, like a drug pedlar in a B-movie, or a camp spy with a dresser-full of secrets. And this ritual was more than an embarrassing reminder of the explosion of the American bomber, its bad disguise felt like an effort to escape detection, his own detection of himself. For there was, periodically, the terrible suspicion that he had imposed those parameters on himself and that what lay outside them was somehow truer than anything he could locate, or describe to himself, more intense than the heat which scorched the tarmac and burnt the wet grass that night.

He was living in another country now which, in part, was not unlike the one he had travelled from — especially the mountains, the frozen lakes, the glaciers, the foreign accents in the ski resorts. Such familiarity in the features of the new country had annoyed him because, deliberately avoiding research and throwing away the pile of brochures the travel agent had tried to press on him, he had embarked on a journey page 17into the unknown, only to 'discover' things he already knew. It was a bitter blow to arrive in the south and see the hills capped with snow and beyond them the white of the mountains he thought he had left more than thirty hours ago in sonic time, along with the tamed adult face of Otto the banker and the grave of his mother, now encased within the concrete foundations of a restaurant-and-sauna complex in their presently fashionable village.

He had left the day after his brother's fiftieth birthday. Since Otto's childless marriage had dissolved a number of years before and he himself had never married, Erich insisted that it was appropriate for the birthday and the emigration to be celebrated in true male style. So they hit the town like a pair of gawky bachelors — Erich with his heavy spectacles and too-finely painted eyebrows, and Otto, in a suit which eliminated fashion even as an idea, with his stolid look and heavy monied manner. Maybe we'll get lucky tonight, eh Otto?' Erich joked.

They went to a restaurant where Erich got drunk and started telling the waitress the story of the two schoolboys who saw an American bomber explode. 'Mind you,' he said, 'my big brother here can't remember it all that well seeing as how he was pissing his pants at the time.' The waitress thought it was going to be a dirty story and didn't know whether to laugh or not. Then they went to a bar where Erich became morose and asked his brother whether the pleasure industry had any right to develop a village cemetery. He cursed tourism; then, in a still louder voice, he cursed his country. They were attracting hostile looks. Otto, who had been drinking steadily but to little effect, helped Erich from the bar. Outside the air had a chill despite it being July. 'Now,' said Erich, 'the stripper!' Otto protested but his brother started off wobbling down the street, calling out that he hadn't given him his present yet.

Watching the striptease Erich was merry again and swallowed his drinks in single gulps. There were a number of acts on the bill — a schoolgirl, a Negress, Minnie Mouse, an SS officer in a shiny leather mini-skirt peeling off a Hitler moustache. Otto stared earnestly at the stage. He couldn't understand what his brother was doing. He had asked him again whether he was selling everything. Yes he was selling the whole works. He had advised him again to keep an interest in he factory. No, Erich had told him, that is in the past. After they lad been there a couple of hours, Erich pulled out a padded envelope from his inside jacket pocket and gave it to his brother. 'Happy Birthday Otto.'

page 18

Otto looked at it suspiciously. 'What's this?'

'Open it you idiot and see.'

Otto carefully removed the tape and slid his hand inside the envelope. 'What's this Erich?' He was holding a small, empty test tube sealed with a rubber stopper.

'Go on, go on, there's more to come.'

Otto pulled out some papers. 'It's a cheque, an American bank cheque . . . but Erich I have enough money. . .'

'Read it stupid, read it.'

'Oh, it says it's a deposit slip for a . . . a seminal bank. . . but wha—?'

Erich smiled and said, 'Yes Otto it's for your semen. I mean someone's got to think of the future, don't they.'

'Oh Erich, but this is absurd. . . this is . . .'

Suddenly Erich reached across the table, knocking the drinks over, and grabbed his brother's wrist. The test tube went flying out of Otto's grip but Erich held firm and locked his bleary pupils onto the hooded, bloodshot eyes of his brother, forcing Otto to meet his stare. 'We were going to leave this place, remember!'

Otto was confused, he wanted to retrieve the test tube from the carpet before anyone stepped on it. ' This place Erich? You want to go home now?'

Erich relaxed his hold and slumped forward. 'No, no, never mind, drink up, drink. . . here's the next act.' Tom-toms sounded and a pale-faced Sitting Bull appeared dragging a long tail of feathers.

The picturesque view in the south when he pulled those first hotel room curtains was not, thankfully, representative of the country as a whole. He went north and lived in a city with a deserted harbour. Sometimes he watched the agonizing slowness of a lone container ship as it manoeuvred itself through the harbour's thin passage, as if it was entering the neck of a bottle. He took English lessons and fell in love with his teacher, a woman in her thirties, an American who had learnt to teach English in Japan. The configuration of nationalities, commonplace and uninteresting in his own country, here became intense and personally focused — a source of strangeness. Who or what has brought me to this woman and she to me? he wondered helplessly, two foreigners playing an accidental melody against the dissonances of the lives each had led, and, when he could bring himself to admit it, continued to lead despite 'being together' (a phrase Erich had page 19struggled with for more than forty years and only now had got past half-understanding).

One clear morning he checked on the progress and brilliance of the white which topped the hills in the far distance — the snow wasn't shining nor had its approach shortened. He was pleased with things, gratified that the city was resisting the terrible burden, more terrible, considered, because the cheap aesthetic of snow cloaked its real cohorts — the frozen, the immobile, the dead. He admired the city which did not want to be pretty. He saw Otto sitting glumly in his favourite and charming cafe while an English family, goggles hanging und their necks, their noses whited-out, played cards at the next table. He smiled to himself. The air was making him weak with philosophy; what if Otto had been the one to wait by Bertha Lou and watch the dazed and wounded airmen file past and lie there willing himself to believe that these were, in fact, aliens hobbling from their damaged spaceship and, not satisfied with the strangeness of wartime, figure this to be an invasion, not through siren or bomb or parachute, but some other, unimagined means, that the world at war was only a cover-up for something larger, something from outside and that he, Otto now, a boy, a lonely shivering schoolboy, had become a witness, a spy, with a secret which could save the whole damned human race? What if Otto, not Erich, had not only thought it, but believed it too? And what if Otto had seen her gaudy costume, her ridiculously hopeful wave as the flames spread up Bertha Lou's legs and heard the popping noises of metal changing shape under heat? And what if little Erich, not older Otto, was half-way home to his mother and it was Otto whose fingertips went suddenly dry but who never heard the sound he explosion but saw the flash and lay back free forever from body hair? The woman could not see Erich's point when he posed these questions out loud. And what if it was Otto, not me, who flew behind Mama until he fell and was beaten for it? Yes but why? she asked. He tried to explain that by regularly considering this substitution he might be able to rid himself of the disappointment, the private cataclysm even, which each event described. He hoped to displace the shopping trip and Schaffhausen in the hierarchy of his memory. He wished to make them no longer seminal.

Erich did not need to work since he could draw on the money from several industrial patents and live comfortably, though, when he was forced to describe his circumstances, he flinched at the mention of comfort. In strict money terms he managed nicely, but he could rarely page 20relax, nervously tuned to the signals he was constantly inventing for his surroundings. The woman told him as much when, for a week, his 'winter inventory' so clogged his thinking it was nearly impossible to get a word out of him, either in his own language or in his now excellent English. His inventory, when Erich had emerged from this period of deepened self-obsession, appeared to him to comprise a kind of weary sentimentality, a layering of small detail upon small detail — the upward curve of a leafless branch, the sound of the wind trapped in the porch, a child pulling its gloves off with its teeth, the churned and steaming grass of a football field — an accumulation of signs as heavy as the night snow backed up against that other front door, when Otto and Erich would leave for school through the kitchen window.

The woman hit back with her own silence, only talking to him during evening class in the stilted conversation of a phrase book. The situations they rehearsed in class became poignant, then overloaded, analogies for their relationship — he took his car to her garage to be fixed, he visited her with a bad tooth, a sore back, a sick child, he applied to her for a job. They both played the straight man and produced for the class an impeccable blend of serious speaking and informal chat. Both of them found it unbearable. After this had been going on for several weeks, one evening Erich announced, in a perfect American accent in front of a studious audience of second-languagers, in the middle of a conversation he was having with the teacher who was pretending to be a customs officer, 'Always thought Washington's balls would've looked better on a horse.' The other students were puzzled when the teacher smiled but did not correct him.

The American teacher was returning to her own country for her father's funeral and said she would make a slow journey back to Erich, if at all, since she may well feel responsible for her mother, or even for the flatness of the terrain which had landscaped her childhood, unrelieved except for the odd water-tower or church spire. 'And who's going to correct my English now?' he asked. 'No-one Erich, no-one would dare.' 'Maybe I'd like your United States,' he said. He didn't know if she was pretending not to hear him and found he was unable to repeat himself.

When she had gone he hired a campervan and drove north, towards the centre of the island, entering the volcanic engine-room of the country in the late afternoon. He turned off the main road along a dirt track page 21marked with a sign about military manoeuvres. After a few miles he stopped and got out. It was bitterly cold. In the literature of the country, which the American teacher had set for reading practice, Erich recognised his situation as a kind of archetype — loneliness and land — a pioneering male search for the realities which might bridge the distance. But as he surveyed the location he struggled with what he perceived as a dangerously creaking naturalism. The mountains looked like they had been dropped on to a movie set by helicopter, smoke machines blew puffs from inside the fake craters, everything was silenced as for a 'take'. He climbed into the back of the camper and picked up sorne music beneath the static of his portable radio. He lay on the little bed holding the radio on his chest. It scared him to think that the overwhelming evidence of the deserted plateau and the activity of the nearby volcanoes which, he now noticed, had coated the windows with a fine grey ash, had failed to convince him, failed to take hold and lift him from his state of melancholic reverie.

He imagined the woman standing beside her father's American grave and wondered if his own father, or at least, that is, the man who had contributed biologically (a different donor to the equally anonymous figure behind the creation of his brother), was still alive. He was, however, immediately annoyed with himself and thought instead about his mother whose unhappiness had been the source of not only her own but her children's suffering as well. He suddenly felt the sting of her slap and the smarting from the cuts on his knees, but worse than that he felt again the public humiliation which had ended his flight and considered for the first time the stricken child with the grown-up name Erich who, even as a four-year-old, had sought release from the despair of his family. Then, inevitably, he flashed forward to the airbase and one part of that memory detached itself and bobbed to the surface like a piece of underwater ice breaking off and forming a new berg. He had never seen it before, not this clearly.

He is lying in hospital, his hands bandaged and what feels like a wet towel wrapped around the top of his head. There is a sensation of coolness across his forehead, but also one of rapid drying, as if he is in the path of a hot wind. He moves his head to dodge the flow but it follows him. He needs to scratch the backs of his hands beneath the bandages. He wants to panic and call out but the low-noted calm, the resigned hum of the ward, seems even more threatening than his personal discomfort. It is a shut-in country, reverberating with its own sounds and repeating mindlessly its own scenes — the rough page 22swish of a nurse's uniform as she bends over a patient, the squeak of leather shoes as the doctor turns in the corridor to berate his students, the mad orderly skimming along on the back of a food trolley. Erich doesn't know how long he'll be kept here but he seems to grow more unwell as the days and nights tick by. Then his mother and Otto visit him. She blames him for all of it. She says he can't understand the pain he's caused her. She looks at the other beds and calls him a stupid foolish ingrate and wonders why she ever went ahead and had him in the first place when an abortion would have solved the matter. She tells him he'll be bald, bald at age nine, imagine the shame. Erich finds it difficult to imagine anything outside of the timetabled life of the ward. She says she blames his brother just as much but at least Otto wasn't dumb enough to get blown-up.

She begins to talk about taking the path of duty and the pride of mothers out walking with their children, other mothers, other children. It trails off. She looks down at her hands. The waterfall, she mutters, the Rhine! A flat-bottomed boat in the dead of night-time. He looks at her hands with the sudden recognition of that gesture — her thumb grazing the top of her other thumb, back and forth, the fingers not touching. He can nearly put a name to it. Not the man looking at the boy but the boy, conscious only in his wildest dreams of ever looking through the eyes, the same eyes, of the man looking at the boy, he feels curiously free of the observation of his life which is his life as a boy. He is, for one moment, the woman. It would be summer, the dark not so complete we couldn't see something of the river but no thanks to the ghastly romantic moon which is the sign of bad luck. We would be taken just underneath the rock which divides the falls into two parts and we would nestle for only a short time there. The voice weakens. The man looking at the boy looks at the man whom the boy is now dreaming of; the grief of our mother, he begins and ends, seeing already the life of the woman drift into a pattern of the life of the woman, like the thumb's repeated brushing over the thumb it partly hides then reveals. She pulls on her long winter coat, briskly straightening it behind herself.

He watches his mother and brother leave and when they are nearly gone Otto turns around and fires an apple from under his jacket at Erich who reaches out and takes a reflex catch between his two bandaged hands.

He thought the explosion was a burst of static but when the camper shook and the radio slid off his chest, Erich uncramped his legs and page 23sat up on the edge of the bed. There was another jolt. The radio hopped on the floor, still playing scratchily, 'When the lights go out there's three of us . . .' Had he heard that right? He reached down and switched it off. He thought if he pulled back the door, the army, with its blacked-out faces, camouflaged wardrobe, rifles and other props, would be waiting. It would be too silly. He sat there for a moment, cradling himself, thinking of the woman, the teacher, him in hospital, and of the Washington who was not the American president.

Erich smiles, throws back the camper door, steps out, stretches, gets in and drives back the way he came.

Sport 2 will be published in April 1989. The contents will include:

An exclusive extract from Chinese Opera, Ian Wedde's novel-in-progress

When the Mice Failed to Arrive', a 10,000 word short story by Melbourne writer Gerald Murnane

A new short story by Fiona Farrell Poole

PLUS New poetry. . .

Two issue subscription: $27

Sport, PO Box 11-806, Wellington, New Zealand