Charlie’s mother worked the early morning shift at the supermarket, in the delicatessen. The job came with a uniform, holiday pay and whatever amount of shaved ham, cheese and olives she could escape with down the front of her pants. She was out of the house by five, leaving Charlie in the care of his twelve-year-old sister, Miriam, and she looked after him with a necessary mix of tenderness and hell. Before school, Miriam would have to drag Charlie out of bed by eight, make him breakfast of toast and jam, order him to scrub his face and hands, and stand in the bathroom doorway to ensure he brushed his teeth. The pair would then leave the house and walk through the streets to school, with Miriam sometimes pulling Charlie by the hand, oblivious to his protests.
Weekends were different. Relieved of the school bell and the four walls of the classroom, Charlie would wake early and jump out of bed. He would quickly dress and not bother with breakfast, leaving the house to spend his mornings happily wandering. The back gate of the house opened onto a narrow laneway. Charlie would stop at a back fence three houses along the lane, put his hand through an opening in the rusting fence and pat the head of a yard dog starved of love. At the end of the lane, he would cross a railway line and walk a dirt track beside a fence topped with loops of barbed wire. The fence had been erected by local council workers in an effort to separate scavengers and curious children from the rubbish tip on the other side of the fence. Over the years, holes had been cut in the fence by trespassers, allowing kids, stray dogs and local junkmen endless opportunities to explore and plunder the tip of its treasure.
Beyond this boundary, a scrubby hilltop looked across to the skyscrapers of the city centre in the distance. The city was close enough that the bustle of its crowded streets could be heard, and yet it remained beyond the reach of children such as Charlie. The hill had been formed by decades of rubbish dumped from the back of tip trucks, and included termite- and bug-infested furniture, old machinery, the bodies of car wrecks—and, if local rumours were only half-true, the occasional dead body. Charlie often ended his walk on the hilltop. He would gather his breath and look across to the city, and then up at the morning sky.
He would never forget the first morning he saw the kite lifting with the breeze, just above his head, before he noticed the old man guiding it. The kite was brightly coloured and shaped like a butterfly. Charlie had stopped, craned his neck and stared up at the kite in wonder. It hung in the air for a moment before dipping and swiftly soaring into the soft blue sky.
Charlie followed the orange-coloured length of string back towards the ground. The old man holding the kite turned and smiled at Charlie. He continued piloting the kite, responding to the shifts in tension in the line that was attached to the light wooden cross that he held in his hand. The man wore a red hand-knitted jumper, baggy pinstriped trousers and a straw hat with the feather of a blackbird sticking out of the brim. He reminded Charlie of a clown. Charlie moved a little closer and returned his attention to the kite, awe-struck by the majesty of flight, controlled with the slightest movement of the hand holding the wooden cross.
The old man turned to Charlie and smiled.
‘Would you like to have a go?’ he asked.
Charlie blushed and nervously shook his head. Although he could have wished for nothing more than to fly the kite, he did not have the confidence to attempt it.
‘Might look difficult,’ the old man said, as if reading Charlie’s thoughts, ‘but it’s not hard at all. It’s all about feel. Feel the air. Feel the tension on the line. That comes to you a lot quicker than you might expect. My name’s Joe, by the way.’ He smiled again. ‘What do they call you, young fella?’
‘Charlie!’ Joe’s eyes lit up. ‘There you go. Charlie. I had an older brother who went by the same name.’ He continued talking as he slowly wound the nylon line around the cross, retrieving the kite. ‘My young brother, he fell from a boat one cold night in the middle of winter.’ He shrugged. ‘I still don’t know what he was thinking. Drinking beer and fishing should never mix. Particularly when you’re out in the middle of the bay on a rough sea.’
The kite glided towards the old man. He reached out, took hold of it with his free hand and placed it on the ground. Charlie looked down at the kite. Lying flat on the earth, it looked more like a brightly coloured face than a butterfly.
‘I haven’t seen you here before,’ Joe said. ‘But then I usually come flying of an afternoon. The wind suits me better. But I heard on the radio that there was going to be a nice south-westerly this morning and I couldn’t resist,’ he explained. ‘Are you new to the area?’
The old man’s questions to Charlie made him feel uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to being interrogated by a stranger, even gently.
‘You don’t have to say a word,’ Joe said. ‘I’ve always talked too much. Have done my whole life. My old mum, when I was a kid, she used to call me Bird. I could never keep my beak shut. When I wasn’t busy talking, I wandered around the house with my mouth wide open, hoping someone would take pity on me and drop a scrap of food in it.’
Joe picked up the kite, placed it under one arm and pointed in the direction of the city.
‘I’m headed this way.’ He doffed his straw hat towards the boy. ‘Maybe I’ll see you again, young Charlie.’ He looked up at the sky. ‘I reckon this wind direction is going to hold for a few days. I’ll be by again, around the same time tomorrow. If you would like to learn to fly this kite, you meet me here.’
Charlie watched Joe shuffle down the hillside, kicking up dust in his wake. The kite flapped about like a broken wing on an old bird. Charlie waited until the old man was out of sight and then slalomed down his side of the hill, gathering speed as he skated. Towards the bottom, he tripped on a length of rusted pipe and hit the ground with a thud, knocking the wind out of himself. He slowly raised his head and looked up at the empty sky, thinking about Joe and his kite, and wishing that he’d had the courage to say yes, that he would like to learn to fly the kite.
He heard voices in the distance, turned onto his stomach, and saw a line of teenage boys marching along the railway track. He knew them from school. They were older boys that he did his best to avoid. They bullied younger kids, in the schoolyard and on the street. Just weeks earlier, a classmate of Charlie’s was left with a stitched forehead when one of the gang rammed him with a pushbike and knocked the boy into the gutter. The leader of the group, Drew Cole, was swinging a golf club from side to side, looking grimly determined to wreak havoc. Charlie pushed his face into the dirt and lay still, fearful of being spotted. The voices of the older boys gradually faded into the distance. Charlie took a deep breath, got to his feet and ran for home, sprinting as fast as he could.
In the kitchen that night, Charlie sat at the table and made himself a paper plane. He inspected the model and took it into the yard. His mother was standing under the clothes line with a mouthful of wooden clothes pegs and washing draped over one shoulder. Charlie walked to the rear of the yard and climbed onto the rungs of a rickety wooden ladder that rested against the fence. His mother watched on anxiously, her words of protest indecipherable through the pegs. Charlie raised an arm and pointed the nose of the paper plane in the direction of the kitchen door at the other end of the yard. He drew his arm back and pitched the plane into the air. It dipped briefly before lifting, just as the kite had done earlier that day. He followed the flight path. It flew above the clothes line, across the neighbour’s fence, glided between the overhanging branches of a gnarled peppercorn tree, and continued climbing above the iron roof of the neighbour’s house. Eventually it disappeared from sight.
Charlie’s mother looked as surprised as he was. She removed the pegs from her mouth and smiled at her son.
‘Did you see that plane go?’ she asked. ‘That would have to be some sort of record.’
Charlie nonchalantly hopped down from the ladder and walked towards the kitchen door. His mother stopped him, patted his mop of dark hair and affectionately pinched the tip of his chin.
‘You might end up being a pilot one day, Charlie.’
‘I might do so.’ Charlie shrugged, as if there was nothing surprising in his mother’s prediction.
‘Your brother is going to be an aviator,’ his mother explained to Miriam as she washed up after dinner. It was Miriam’s job to dry and Charlie’s to put the dishes and cutlery away. Miriam looked at her brother and mockingly crossed her eyes at him.
‘Really, Mum? I’ve always thought Charlie would end up as a mad scientist, but I guess a pilot will have to do.’
‘Don’t tease your brother.’
‘But he likes it.’ Miriam added, ‘Don’t you, Charlie?’
In bed later that night, Charlie first thought about the flight of the paper plane and then the kite he’d watched in the sky that morning. He decided he would take up the old’s man offer and learn to pilot the kite.
Early the next morning, he dressed quickly, sprinted along the lane and didn’t stop running until he’d reached the hill. There was no sign of the old man or his kite. Charlie was overcome with disappointment. Resting his hands on his hips, he looked towards the city in the distance, and as he did he noticed the kite, and then spotted the old man, Joe, shuffling along a narrow track towards him. Charlie sat in the dirt and waited. Joe struggled to get a foothold on the hill and slipped back several times before he finally made it to the top. He took his straw hat off and looked down at Charlie with a puzzled look on his face.
Charlie stood up.
‘You came back. With your kite.’
Joe dropped the kite to the ground. He pointed a shaking hand at the boy.
‘And who are you?’
‘Me? I’m Charlie. From yesterday.’
The old man scratched the side of his head and whispered the boy’s name to himself.
‘Charlie? Charlie?’ he repeated until a memory switch flipped. His eyes lit up and he let out a gentle laugh. ‘Yes, Charlie. Well, I reckon you’ll have a bit more to say for yourself today.’ He picked up the kite. ‘But can you fly?’ He winked. ‘Let’s get this beauty up there and find out what sort of pilot you are.’
Joe handed over the kite. ‘Don’t be letting go of her. Not yet.’ He unwound the length of string from the wooden cross and slowly walked backwards along the ridge. He raised an arm in the air and cupped his hand, as if he was trying to catch the wind itself.
‘Are you ready?’ he called.
‘Well, hold it above your head and you wait on my call.’
Charlie held the kite aloft, both arms stretched above his head. He had the appearance of a worshipper offering a sacrifice to the sun.
‘Go!’ Joe called. ‘Let her go!’
Charlie released the kite. It immediately caught a gust of wind, turned onto its side and soared into the air, directly above the hilltop.
‘Come over here to me,’ Joe called. ‘You take hold of this.’
Now, as Charlie held the cross, Joe placed one hand on the boy’s shoulder and the other over the cross. He spoke softly.
‘Here’s the challenge. Soft hands, we call them. Soft hands. You’re gripping this for all your life. Have a look at them white knuckles of yours. That’s not the way to do it. You need to feel the air to guide your kite. And to do that you need to work with light hands.’
Although the boy wasn’t sure what Joe meant, with the old man’s patient teaching he managed to keep the kite in the air.
When Joe took his hand away, Charlie was sure that he would crash the precious kite and began to feel anxious. He needn’t have. The kite remained in the sky, responding to the boy’s guidance, and after several manoeuvres Joe helped Charlie return it to the ground. The boy was elated. As he wound the nylon string around the wooden cross, Charlie noticed that a set of numbers, written in heavy pen, had been scrawled on the back of Joe’s hand. When the old man saw him looking, he checked his watch.
‘I need to be on my way.’ He sounded nervous. ‘I’ll see you same time tomorrow morning for another lesson?’
‘I have to go to school.’
‘What time’s that?’
‘The bell goes at nine.’
‘That’s no problem for us,’ Joe said. He tapped the face of his watch. ‘I can be here up on the hill at seven-thirty, on the dot. Thirty minutes for flying gives you plenty of time for school. You’ll be here?’
Charlie had no idea how he would explain his new adventure, let alone his new friend, to Miriam.
‘Yep. I’ll be here,’ he said.
‘Seven-thirty,’ the old man firmly repeated. He tipped the brim of his hat and headed back down his side of the hill.
‘You’re not going up there alone,’ Miriam barked, marching along the laneway behind her little brother. ‘How can you call him your friend when you said he’s an old man? He can’t be your friend, Charlie. Unless he is your granddad. And we don’t have a granddad. I’m telling Mum about this, and you’ll be in trouble.’
Charlie looked over his shoulder at Miriam and began sprinting. She chased after him, quickly ran Charlie down at the end of the lane, and wrapped her arms around him.
‘It’s better if we don’t go at all. I won’t have to tell Mum and you’ll be saved a whack.’
Charlie was determined to fly the kite and would not be stopped from doing so by his sister. He wrestled himself free.
‘I promised Joe that I’ll meet him there.’
‘That’s his name. The man with the kite.’
Miriam ran ahead of Charlie and blocked his path.
‘I said you’re not going up there.’
Charlie tried baulking around his sister. She blocked him again.
‘We’re not going!’ she screamed.
‘I want to go,’ he pleaded. ‘The kite is beautiful.’
Charlie’s tears surprised her. ‘Stop sooking,’ she said, immediately feeling guilty. Miriam looked closely into his big, moist brown eyes. ‘Wipe your face. You look like a baby.’
Charlie refused her instruction and Miriam brushed the tears from his face with the back of her hand.
‘You win, then. But you’re not to tell Mum.’ She gently shook her brother by the arm to get his full attention. ‘And I’ll be watching this old man. He could be a kidnapper or something.’
Joe had arrived at the hilltop early. The butterfly kite was in the sky, dipping and soaring across a patch of blue. Charlie looked skywards and watched in awe.
‘Look, there it is, the kite. See how beautiful it is.’
He ran up the hill. Miriam walked behind him, looking up at the sky, following the flight of a giant butterfly.
Old Joe turned and looked at Charlie. He wore the same puzzled expression as yesterday. Charlie, recognising it, re-introduced himself.
‘It’s me, Charlie. I’ve come to see the kite again.’
‘Yes,’ Joe said, still a little uncertain. ‘Yes.’
When he saw Miriam, Joe was genuinely confused.
‘This is Miriam,’ Charlie explained. ‘My big sister. She’s come to see the kite too.’
Miriam watched the old man cautiously as he handed the kite to Charlie. She was sure that Charlie would lose control of the kite and cause a crash. But he didn’t. Although he didn’t fly with the precision of the old man, he managed to keep it in the sky. Miriam had never seen such a look of joy on her brother’s face. Now she understood why he had been so excited to fly and was pleased with herself that she’d given in to his determination.
‘Good boy, good boy,’ Joe repeated quietly, patting Charlie on the shoulder. ‘Don’t forget. Soft hands.’
Joe continued watching both the kite and Charlie closely, offering occasional instruction, always in a gentle voice. When the time came to bring the kite to the ground, the old man and the young boy worked together to ensure a safe landing. Miriam looked down at the kite spread flat on the ground. She felt that it looked out of place. It belonged in the sky.
Before heading home, Joe asked Charlie if he would return to the hilltop the next morning.
‘He’ll be here,’ Miriam interrupted. ‘We both will.’
‘Would you like to fly the kite?’ Joe offered. ‘I think this boy could teach you.’
This so excited Miriam she was unable to answer. She stood next to Charlie, watching Joe stumble down the side of the hill.
The next morning, brother and sister returned early to the hill. Joe and the kite had not arrived. Charlie sat patiently in the dirt and Miriam paced back and forth across the ridge.
‘Where do you think he is?’ Charlie eventually asked.
Miriam kept her eyes on the track. There was no sign of Joe. The time came for them to leave.
‘Come on, Charlie. If we don’t go we’ll be late for school.’
‘Can we wait a little longer?’ he pleaded.
‘Okay, but only five minutes.’
They waited another ten minutes and Joe did not arrive. Miriam took Charlie by the hand and helped him to his feet.
‘It’s time to go.’
They returned to the hill the following morning before school, and again Joe was nowhere to be seen. Miriam kept her disappointment to herself, and the next day she ordered Charlie to school without visiting the hilltop in search of Joe. On Saturday, Charlie headed along the laneway alone. He walked beside the rubbish tip fence and crossed the railway line. He looked towards the top of the hill and saw a wing of the butterfly kite flapping in the breeze. He ran up to meet Joe, but when he reached the top he was nowhere to be seen. A rusted metal spike had been driven into the ground with the kite secured to it. A cardboard label was attached to the pole. It read: The kite is for you—enjoy its flight.
Charlie looked towards the city, puzzled as to where the old man might be, and why he’d left the kite for him to find. He untied the kite from the stake, laid it on the ground and slowly unwound the nylon string. He held the line in one hand and raced along the ridge of the hill. The kite lifted from the ground. Charlie could feel the strength of the morning breeze in the tension of the line. He looked skyward and marvelled at the freedom of the kite just as he had on the first morning that he saw it fly.
Concentrating on his piloting, Charlie failed to hear the sound of Drew Cole and his wayward gang climbing up the hill. By the time that he realised they were standing behind him watching the kite, it was impossible to escape. The boys had surrounded him.
Drew Cole pointed into the sky.
‘Nothing,’ Charlie muttered.
‘Can’t be nothing. I can see it with my own eyes.’
The kite tugged furiously at Charlie, forcing him to lift his arm above his head.
Drew snapped his fingers.
‘Give it to me. I want a go.’
Charlie looked upwards. The kite defiantly ducked and weaved like a courageous boxer.
‘I can’t,’ Charlie said. ‘It belongs to my friend, Joe. You need his permission.’
‘I don’t care who it belongs to. Give it to me.’
His friends urged him on.
‘Just take it, Coley,’ one of them screamed.
‘You can’t have it,’ Charlie said. ‘It is my job to take care of the kite until Joe comes back.’
‘You’re a liar,’ Drew said. ‘I can’t see this Joe fella anywhere.’
He tried snatching the wooden cross from Charlie.
‘I said, give it to me. Last chance.’
The kite turned and reached for the morning sun. Charlie could feel its strength in his own body. He watched the older boy closely, who suddenly lunged at the cross, a cruel smile on his face. Although he did not have the words to express himself, Charlie realised in that moment that the flight of the kite was truly beautiful, and was puzzled why anyone would want to destroy such beauty. He looked directly at Drew Cole, could see the anger on the older boy’s face, but did not understand it. He did know that he had to protect the kite, for himself and the generous old man who had gifted it to him. Charlie’s own reflexes were sharper than those of the older boy. He released the wooden cross, looked upwards, and watched as the kite shot higher into the sky, the nylon string and wooden cross tailing behind its escape.