Sue Kingham

Blown off Course

It had been the wettest week since records began. Three streets away the river threatened to break its banks and, around midnight, it did. Several cars were submerged to the tops of their wheel arches, and a silver Mazda bobbed away like a bath toy.

In the morning, Joanna opened her curtains to survey the storm damage before clipping on plastic earrings. She tried to ignore her mother’s face, which greeted her whenever she looked in the mirror. Brushing her grey hair, she laid the hairbrush next to a double-photograph frame on her chest of drawers. Her dad, in the left pane, looked away from the viewer, and her mother in the right had lips which refused to smile. Both were gone now; her three years ago, and now him.

Joanna checked the back door to make sure it was locked, and left via the front, carefully sidestepping a pool of water. She gripped her hood under her chin as she pressed into the lashing rain.

It was a short drive to her parents’ home, and as her eyes flicked between the rear-view mirror and the speedometer, she chatted to her parents’ ghosts.

“Are you still giving him the silent treatment up there, Mother? I finished packing the kitchen yesterday. Why on earth did you need six teapots? And I’ve never seen so many jars of jam; did you live on the stuff, Dad? I’m going to tackle your workshop today. I know you won’t like it, but it’s got to be done.”

She parked her car and made her way around the back, pushing through a tangle of branches which had blown across the drive. Opening the door, she was welcomed by the familiar smell of stale cigarettes and mould. The house, now hollow as a dried-out sea urchin, made her heart ache with its emptiness. She manoeuvred her way around the packed cardboard boxes and made herself a coffee in the mug she’d bought her parents for their golden wedding anniversary. The print on the side was worn, but she could still make out the numerals 1948, next to their wedding photograph taken at the local Catholic church. Her mother, wearing a blue dress, clutched an oversize bouquet in front of her belly. Her smile was wide and toothy and contrasted with her dad’s straight lips.

Carrying her coffee along the violet-edged path, she fought her way through the rain into her father’s workshop, which was a low shed with white French doors. An industrial metal sign hung above the lintel, NO ENTRY. CONTAINS HAZARDOUS MATERIAL. Her dad had found it in a rummage sale when she was a teenager, and although he’d told her it was meant as a joke, she knew his workshop was off limits. To the left of the building, by the window, there was a large lilac tree. In its branches she saw three sparrows sheltering from the storm. The memory of planting the sapling when she was a child surfaced, and she heard her mother’s angry voice, Silly girl, free the roots first. Otherwise, it’ll grow up stunted.

The smell of brush cleaner and enamel paint caught at the back of her throat as she entered the workshop. She took a swig of coffee and set the mug down on the bench. The rain hammered on the tin roof.  Looking around the shed, a place she’d longed to enter in her youth, she surveyed her father’s hobby, ships in bottles. Pinned around the walls were plans for models alongside photographs of the vessels. She sighed and said under her breath, “Come on, best get started.”

A return trip to the kitchen to collect flattened cardboard boxes, rubbish bags and tape left her with hair plastered to her forehead. Exhausted and soaked, she flopped on her father’s chair and pushed her hair out of her eyes.

A powerful magnifying mirror on a flexible stand sat on his workbench beside an almost completed model of a lifeboat. Miniscule white and orange lifebelts lay on the deck, alongside fine strands of thread intended to tie them in place. Beside the rings lay a perfect scale model of a man wearing orange oilskins, just like a photograph she’d seen of her father when he was young. She picked up the figure and settled him inside the cabin.

“If it keeps on raining like this, Dad, I’ll be joining you in there.”

Another memory bobbed into her mind. This time it was her father’s voice whispering, You and me against the dragon, as he kissed her goodnight when she was small. She had spent much of her childhood in her bedroom while her father worked late or was in his workshop. Although she’d never given it a thought at the time, she now remembered he’d often slept in there too. She tried to haul up a memory of affection between her parents—nothing surfaced.

Drawing the lifeboat closer, she marvelled at her father’s ability to capture tiny details. His eyesight was almost perfect until the day he died. She was surprised to see the lifeboat was unnamed. He’d taken such pride in giving his ships names from their family; one of the battleships he named Phyllis, after his wife, and a seventeenth-century sailing ship carried her name on its side. She remembered feeling a swell of pride when he’d brought it into the house to show her. She’d been desperate to take it to school, but her mother had forbidden it. A clumsy girl like you...

She stood and stretched up to her maximum height to unlatch the doors of the blue cabinet next to the bench. Inside were three full-length shelves above a small chest of drawers. The top drawer, bulging with model boat plans, was difficult to fully open. She rocked it from side to side and managed to extract a few sheets of paper to release it. With a loud sigh, she heaved all the plans out and put them into a black rubbish bag. A large metal cash box in the middle of the top shelf then caught her eye. She lifted it down and tried the lid. It was locked.

“Where did you keep the key?” she asked. “Yes, of course—the desk drawer.”

Leaving the box on the workbench, she rifled through the top drawer and, at the back, behind the HB pencils and an orange-handled craft knife, she found a small silver key. Her pulse quickened as she inserted it into the lock. It turned easily. She lifted the lid mumbling, “What have we got here?” The box was stuffed with airmail envelopes. She carefully pushed the lifeboat to one side and tipped out the letters.

“Who are these from, Dad? I don’t remember seeing airmail letters arriving.”

She studied the top one, which was addressed to a PO Box. Delving deeper, she saw they all were, except for one which bore her parents’ address. Each envelope had been carefully slit but still contained its letter.  She opened the one addressed to home first. The writing was small and faded, but the black ink was still legible.

A Japanese address was in the top corner. She began to read.

My Dearest Gordon,

As if snagged by a fish hook, she sat bolt upright. She’d never heard her father addressed as dearest before.

I miss you every day.

I am enclosing this photograph of you with Keiko. I wish you were here to see how much she’s changed. She’s almost walking now. My parents have overcome their shame, as I hoped they would. They love her dearly, and she loves them.

A faded black-and-white picture was wedged inside the envelope. It showed an infant girl propped up on a blanket, laughing as she held out a flower towards a man. Joanna’s eyes bulged when she realised that man was her father. He was beaming. The child had a full head of dark hair which flicked up around her ears and two little bunches tied on the top of her head. Her white wrap-over top, with three-quarter sleeves, looked like a tiny kimono and was patterned with a large daisy print. On the back of the picture was written, in her father’s hand, Me with Keiko at ten months. June 1949. Joanna scanned down the page to the signature.

Love always


She ripped some other letters out and saw they were all from the same person. A small dried flower fell out of one. She picked it up and it disintegrated. Scanning the letter, she read it was a violet from Kazuko’s garden and that in Japanese flower language, violet meant ‘small bliss’. The writer said the purple blooms always reminded her of their time together.

Joanna’s coffee mug sat on the desk before her. The date 1948, the year of her birth, seemed to be pulsating. She sat very still, but the room felt like it was swaying. The rain lashed the window, and her gaze went outside to the lilac where one sparrow, now alone, clung to a shaky branch.

She mulled over her parents’ relationship. She’d never seen any warmth between them. Her mother must have discovered the letter addressed to their home and that’s why the others had gone to a PO Box. Conversations she’d had with her mother about couples divorcing came to her mind. Her mother had always been salty, Till death do us part has no get-out clause.

Joanna picked up the photograph of her father smiling at the infant. She only had a handful of pictures from her childhood; her father had always been on the other side of the camera.

“When did you find out that Dad had another family? Why didn’t you tell me?”

In one corner of the workshop was a shelf unit displaying his ships in bottles. Most were old galleons, but a red-sailed Japanese junk seemed to be signalling to her. She went over and picked it up. Her eyesight wasn’t good enough to read the name on the side, so she held it under the magnifying glass; Kazuko was painted in silver on the hull. Two tiny figures stood on the deck, one wearing a kimono, the other a smaller version of the figure in the lifeboat. Leaving the bottle on the workbench, she went to get her sailing ship. Under the magnifier, she saw there were no figures on board, but she noticed for the first time that it was towing a small wooden rowing boat. Her legs felt wobbly. She held the bottle up to eye level and muttered, “Who was the get-away boat for, Dad?”

She swayed and as she steadied herself, the bottle slipped out of her hands. It smashed when it hit the edge of the open drawer. She stared down at the mess then burst into tears.

“It was an accident, Dad.”

She picked up the model with its tiny rowing boat dangling like a fish on a line. Laying the twisted vessel on the workbench, she went over to the tool board to remove a pair of pliers. The outline remained where they had been. It struck her that she’d only ever known her parents as outlines. She tried to straighten the masts, but the task was too delicate for her unskilled hands and made matters worse.

Cursing, she sat down again and ripped out more letters. She could guess at what her father was writing by Kazuko’s responses—I am sorry that Joanna is nothing like you. Remember she is only a child, she may improve with time. In another—the money you send makes our life easier, but we dearly wish to see you. If only Phyllis would grant you a divorce and we could be together. Keiko is full of life. She would love to see you again.

Joanna reached across and fished the figure of her father out of the lifeboat’s cabin.

“I visited you every day, Dad. Why did you never tell me any of this?”

The expression on the painted face was inscrutable.

She gulped her breaths. Her skin felt clammy. She had a feeling of floating above herself watching from the ceiling. She wrenched a hammer from the tool board and grabbed the bottle containing the Japanese vessel. Holding it in place on the workbench with one hand, she brought down the hammer.

“All those years of trying to please you.”

She swung the hammer again. Silver shards of glass sparkled on the carpet like minnows. The paper sea beneath the model tumbled onto the floor followed by the Japanese junk. She needed air. Rushing outside, the sudden swing of the door startled the solitary sparrow. It flew upwards and faced the full force of the storm.

Sue Kingham

Sue Kingham lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, although many of her stories are inspired by her north of England roots or her travels. Sue is a tutor at the School for Young Writers and writes articles, poetry, flash fiction, and short stories. She is currently working on a historical novel.