Rain had fallen overnight and Campbell’s boat wouldn’t start. Sina sat in the prow of her own and watched him yanking the engine’s starting cord. Water dripped from the overhanging mangrove trees, ran down his nose and into the water of the river.
“Did you not get petrol yesterday?” she said, deliberately distant. She wouldn’t mock him, she wouldn’t.
“I forgot. Thought they’d bring some today.”
Ignoring his curses, Sina finished rolling up the oilcloth she used to keep her boat dry. She heard footsteps approach and strained to see above the decking, eager to spot a potential customer, but it was just the boy who manned the shed selling snacks, back from the market. She didn’t have to try too hard to hide her disappointment as he tossed a paper bag towards her.
“Happy birthday!” he called. Sixteen sweets, wrapped in shiny paper for her special day. She stowed them under her seat in the boat, for later.
Sina turned to thank the boy, but he had already darted off, away from the echo of louder, booted footsteps. That sounded more promising. A man in a smart suit, tie clipped down with a shiny pin, stood as close to the edge as he could and peered down at Campbell.
“Are you going upriver?” Rain meant the roads would be closed. A good day for business.
“I’m real sorry, but I just can’t get this damn engine to start.” Campbell smacked it then rocked on his heels, knocking his cap back an inch to peer upwards. “Not enough petrol. Someone’ll probably be along in a bit with some.”
“I haven’t really got time. I have to be in the city by noon.”
Sina, halfway up the ladder from the water, stuck her head over the edge. “I’ll take you.” She threw herself up the remaining rungs and adopted her best customer service smile. “It’ll take no more than an hour, and the seats are dry.”
The man’s critical eyes scanned first her and then her boat. His nose wrinkled at her bare feet, the tattered ribbon hanging limply from her wide-brimmed green sunhat, and the stacks of books crammed into the boat for passengers.
“Go on. She’ll not sink,” Campbell called over, enthusiastic as he ever got.
Sina jumped back down and, eager to persuade the man, took out a few small cushions and threw them into the stern.
“Have you been sailing long?” The verb sounded odd, like he didn’t quite want to call it sailing.
“Seven years.” Sina held out her hand to help him down the ladder as Campbell gave his engine a further kick. She was already looking forward to the canals and byways of the flooded city. Once there, she could taxi around all day. As the man settled himself, briefcase on his knee, she held out one of the sparkly plastic umbrellas. “For the trees. They drip.”
She eased out the oars, anticipating the fast run of the current downriver. They would shoot past the villages clinging to its banks. She knew how to navigate past the remnants of buildings and swept-away telegraph poles still lodged in the channel. It was an obstacle course only the best sailors survived. Campbell, with his engine, spewing out the sickly sweet fumes of burning petrol, couldn’t do it. Stay by the bank, always in control, that was the way he played it. He didn’t stand a chance without that engine, or his precious petrol.
“How much will it be?” the man queried as they edged into the wide river itself. He was already fishing in his pocket for money. They had barely set off.
Bringing in the oars as the current took hold, Sina leaned forward and tapped the sheet of paper pinned to the mast. “Any of those things, if they aren’t crossed out. If you’ve not got them, owe me. If you’re going back this way.”
Blinking and squinting, the man gave his head a small shake. Then, fingers quivering just a little, he removed a pair of glasses with only one arm from his top pocket, wiped the lenses on a spotted handkerchief and peered at the list. Campbell said she should just collect the money, but people had so many broken or just useless bits of machinery and electronics in their houses these days, it was easier to ask. Not everyone could afford the rates Mr. Tomar charged for use of the generator by the schoolhouse. Campbell said a lot of things that made no sense, Sina pondered as she held the rudder.
“Did I hear the boy say it was your birthday today?”
Sina nodded, hoping the man wasn’t going to talk the whole way to the city. She wanted to enjoy the peace of the middle-river, so far from the bustle of the road running along the top of the stilt-houses. But she need not have worried. After watching her for a while, eyes curiously distant, he settled back in the boat and let himself enjoy the journey. When the city neared, she even thought she saw regret in the way his breathing slowed. His face never turned to check on their progress. As they slipped into the canals of the suburbs, he stopped looking around at all. He left it until the very last minute to tell her what time he wanted to return.
The city positively shook with the noise of people. It had begun to assault her ears long before she dropped her passenger off. A gondola glided past as she eased away from the dock, its pilot tipping his hat in her direction. It was no surprise the gondoliers of the city were a silent folk; the clamour of the bazaars made it a struggle to even think.
Sina pottered about the lower city by the river, where the water was too deep for the gondoliers, and returned to the docks in the late afternoon to pick up Mr. Pal-Dupont. With the sail out, they forged ahead against the current, accompanied at intervals by other boats heading upriver or passed by the larger, flat-decked cargo vessels, their spout of steam visible on the horizon, their wheels churning up the water so little boats like Sina’s bobbed about like driftwood. A few of the passers-by signed a greeting, exchanged a hurried sentence with a flickering of their fingers. She knew them by the names of their boats and the registration codes painted underneath. Captain 7NCDHAK, pipe jammed behind his ear, threw over a mango, which she dragged from the water in a net and halved with Mr. Pal-Dupont.
They made good time despite the lull in the wind and pulled alongside the pontoon just as the boy was locking up the shed. Campbell’s boat clung abandoned to its mooring rope. No one had got through with petrol then. That did not surprise her. He should really plan better.
Mr. Pal-Dupont climbed the ladder before opening his briefcase and handing her a jute bag with a butterfly on the front and only one handle. “That should cover it. A stress-free journey, thank you.” Then he hurried away before she could check.
The boy shoved both keys and hands in his baggy pockets, peering with a distant air into the boat. “How was the city?” he said.
“Busy.” She refused to look at him. She would surely laugh.
“Go to the lower quarter, did you?” He kicked the toes of his shiny boots on the decking.
“Get any new books then?”
Her grin escaped as she fished under the seat again, but she knew he couldn’t see it. “A couple.”
“Well. . .”
Sensing that the torment bordered on torture, she turned and threw the book. She hadn’t fooled him, of course. He reacted quick enough to catch it then darted off, up onto the weathered gate-post, along the wire of the fence and over the thatched rooftops like a jungle cat. The precious book remained clutched to his chest. Give it an hour or so, and the whole village would hear his mother hunting him for dinner because he was late.
She covered the boat with the oilcloth again before leaving, smelling more rain on the air. Her uncle wouldn’t have dinner ready for an hour or more, so she settled herself on the side of the dock to inspect her new acquisitions. Part of her still doubting the man’s trustworthiness, she upended the bag onto the planking, then had to react quickly to stop the contents rolling away into the river. A battered collection sat before her, assorted wiring and, most importantly of all, a single heavy object with a plastic coating that had dropped like a stone.
Her heart soared when she saw it. She hadn’t been expecting something so beautiful. The silver writing along its side glimmered in the dying sun. It probably wouldn’t work. The man wouldn’t have wasted such a glorious thing on her. Of course, the city was probably full of these things, but still. . .
A few neighbours called birthday greetings as she dashed through the village. They inspired a momentary flutter of guilt that she hadn’t got them something as she had the boy. Hardly anyone ventured as far as the city very often. She could have got Mrs. Shengelia something for the new baby. And little Adelaide next door needed a new hat. Her old one barely kept the sun off and she had such pale skin, all freckles.
But, it was her birthday. She could afford to be a little selfish, couldn’t she?
Her uncle wasn’t even back from the hills yet, so she went straight to her room and dragged the box from under the bed. Wires peeked out from where she had carelessly put it away last time someone had given her a part. Carefully, she set aside some of the things Mr. Pal-Dupont had given her. Those she would save until she had everything to make this work as she really wanted. Sound was all well and good, but video would make it perfect.
Fingers quivering, she held out the weighty cylinder in one hand, wondering if it weighed more when it was charged. Then, crossing her fingers and twisting her toes round the wood of the bedpost, she fitted it into the slot.
The little light blinked on and a thrill shot through her fingers, flooding her with excitement. Hoping her uncle wasn’t about to return and disturb her, she placed the headphones over her head and flipped the microphone down, urging it to work. What if they weren’t there?
“Hello?” A familiar voice, made strange by the months since she had heard it. When was the last time she had been given a battery—last year? Perhaps even the year before. How old must Jalika be now?
“Hello. Its Sina.” Her own voice sounded breathy. Would they hear her?
“Sina.” Surprise and then a pause as Jalika digested this information. Her sister turned away from the microphone to shout. “Mum! Its Sina.”
A scream from the background and hurried footsteps, before her mother’s voice drifted across the thousands of miles between them. “Sina, darling. Happy Birthday! How long have you got?”
“Thank you. I don’t know.” She stared at the battery, willing it to last. “How is the moon? It was full yesterday, and I thought I saw the lights of the colony.”
“We were celebrating the Day of Arrival.”
She had forgotten. Ten years was a major landmark, she supposed. That would definitely explain the lights.
“I thought perhaps you’d got Diwali wrong.” She joked because she had to ask, as always, “How is the ship?”
“They’ve run out of parts again. It’ll be another year.” Her mother sounded less sad. Was she getting used to the idea of being stuck in space? Perhaps, after ten years, she’d given up hope of ever seeing the rest of the family again. Sina, and her uncle, and Bella, now ten and away at school. The compensation package apparently didn’t stretch to her, but she didn’t mind. If she couldn’t be with her family, at least she could stay where their memory lingered.
“They don’t know,” Jalika interjected.
“Because you’d know,” Sina teased her.
“I do.” Jalika adopted a defensive tone, and Sina tried to imagine her face. She saw a four-year-old. A petulant toddler with the voice of a teenager. “I was top of my class last year. I’m going to be a physicist.”
Well, at least it had all been worth it, Sina thought, if someone from this backwater could become a physicist. “That’s great news. I’ll tell uncle. He’ll be so pleased.”
“How’s Bella?” her mother asked. “Is she doing well at school?”
“Yes. Very well,” Sina answered, the same old words, no longer caring if her mother believed them. Bella hadn’t written her a letter in five years. Not since she’d learned to write. Sometimes, Sina forgot she even had another sister. Sometimes, she forgot she had anyone but uncle.
“I’ll have the video working soon,” she continued, trying to bring some enthusiasm back into the conversation. “I’ll be able to see you.”
“I’ll tidy the living room then.” She heard the smile in her mother’s voice, the unquestioning confidence that she would see her daughter’s face soon.
“As if I care. I just want to see you.”
“It’ll be lovely to see you too. Jalika still doesn’t believe you’ve dyed your hair purple.”
“That was three years ago.” Sina glanced up at her shelf to check if the remains of the dye were still there.
“I’d better go then. Save the battery. I’ll try and call tomorrow if it holds.” She didn’t want to say goodbye, not after only a few minutes. She wanted to tell her mother every tiny detail of her life.
“Happy birthday again, then. And make sure you remember to clean your teeth after the sweets you’ve no doubt been given.”
“Thank you. I will.”
Then she switched off, before either of them had a chance to say it.