Cargo by Stephen Connolly
Tap, tap, tap. Milo climbs the final stairs, legs aching, ears cocked, determined to locate the source of the noise.
Tap, taptaptap, tap, tap.
He’d woken at 6, crazy early as Grandpa would say, the distant sounds like fingers tapping on the back of his head.
‘Can you hear that?’ he’d asked at breakfast.
‘Hear what?’ said Grandpa from behind his newspaper.
‘Eat your toast.’ said Mother.
Mother was soon gone, to whatever she did in the city, leaving him to Grandpa. Who was soon fast asleep, leaving him to explore.
Tap, tap, TAP, tap.
Milo has run out of stairs, of breath. Before him stands the final attic door, right at the top of the rattlesome building, a room he has never entered. Milo reaches for the handle, which should be locked.
Inside, Milo forgets the miracle of the unlocked door. A flock, a school, a squadron of coloured Balloons jostle and squeak outside the vast attic window.
TAP, TAP, TAP, TAP.
The balloons carry ballast, small items which tap against the glass. Odd things: lengths of bone, pencil sharpeners. A battery, a pen. Each tied to its respective balloon with string, thread or ribbon.
Each balloon also carries a folded scrap of ragged paper.
Within seconds Milo has opened the window, shepherded them inside and begun investigating. Each scrap of paper bears a drawing, small but intriguing. And somehow two hours have passed and Grandpa is calling him for lunch.
As he leaves, Milo looks back through the window. In the far distance upwind lies a dark smudge on the landscape. The Camp, notorious from the TV news. Filled with refugees from the East. Half-savages, wild people, invaders.
‘Grandpa! Look what I found!’
Milo will never forgive Grandpa for squealing on him.
He stares out of his bedroom window, lip wobbling. Below, Grandpa feeds the punctured balloons, the scraps of paper, even the ballast into the flames of a brazier as Mother stands behind, making sure.
She has been quite specific. The attic is now firmly locked, and strictly out of bounds. The Camp is not to be discussed.
Milo has been hearing about it and its occupants for as long as he can remember. People driven from their homes by conflict, come West in search of… anything. Food, water, a roof over their head, a chance of survival. A future. They have no money, they don’t work. ‘They contribute nothing to society’.
Milo remembers the pictures on the scraps of paper, the squiggles of words in a foreign script. He loves to draw, but he has never managed anything so beautiful, he feels shame that his first reaction to them had been envy. Now he just misses them, wonders about their creator, pictures a small exotic person clutching a pencil, somewhere in the distant Camp.
Can they all draw? Milo wonders. And wakes at dawn to a disappointment of birdsong.
They were beautiful. Animals and birds and boats and cars and things he doesn’t recognise but wants to learn about. Caught so easily, deftly, on scraps of paper torn from books and newspapers. So flammable.
His mother’s books, Grandpa’s newspapers, sawdust from the rabbit hutch. Matches from the kitchen.
Mother is at work, Grandpa asleep, Milo has plenty of time. The key to the attic is soon found in grandma’s purse tucked away in a wardrobe.
Milo stares out at the Camp, barely visible through the rain. He steels himself and the fire is soon lit, just as Grandpa taught him, on an ancient breadboard nobody will miss. The forbidden attic is soon bright, he hopes the flames will be enough, that he has enough fuel to keep it going, that it will do what he hopes.
An hour passes. Milo makes three trips downstairs for things, anything, that will burn. Even his own drawings, those he is most proud of.
But it’s getting late, the fire dwindles and he is reluctant to take more risks. Grandpa will wake soon, his mother will return from work, his absence will be noticed.
And then he sees it, almost afraid to look in case it’s his eyes playing tricks. Balloons approaching from the East. But not in ones and twos, to tap, tap, tap on the window. A cluster of balloons, all sharing the weight of a single cargo. A passenger, child-sized.
Milo hurries to open the window, already anticipating the first picture they will make together.