THE BROKEN COMPASS
by Ciaran McLarnon
From a distance they seemed smooth and angular, but still snow managed to cling to the slate-grey peaks that kept the landing strip secluded. Bryce watched through the porthole beside his seat as the plane juddered and groaned through the mountains. It weaved through the crosswinds as it descended to heights where Bryce could distinguish fields and then trees. He allowed himself a contented smile when the roads around the airport came into focus; they appeared to be almost empty of cars. He thought of the early days of aviation and imagined rusty, noisy, propeller-driven cargo planes screeching to land at bumpy airstrips. He leaned back, drummed his fingers against the rests slightly; closing his eyes to picture an era when adventure and exotic experiences were easy to find. With all this turbulence he could almost believe he had travelled back in time 70 years. But he opened his eyes and watched the woman in the seat beside him grip the grey leatherette upholstery. ‘It’s okay’, Bryce assured her, ‘might be a bit of a bumpy landing though.’
‘Thank-you’, she replied, smiling weakly but maintaining her grip on the seat, ‘but I have flown before, I just don’t like it.’
‘Natural enough’, he nodded then continued, ‘I travel so much it seems I encounter turbulence almost every month. It isn’t a problem for me, probably isn’t a problem for most travel writers, but I must admit I’m always glad to stretch my legs when I land. I never seem to be able to get enough leg room! Do you plan to stay in the area long?’
‘I live here,’ the woman responded curtly, trying to get the attention of the steward. He was sitting down, fastening his seatbelt in anticipation of the landing.
‘It’s a lovely place’, admitted Bryce, ‘shame it’s so cold. But it will get even colder for me, I’m going to a village in the mountains.’
‘Very good,’ the woman said, looking in the pocket in front of her for the flight safety instructions.
‘Just as I expected.’
Bryce made the comment to his neighbour just after the plane had made a clumsy contact with the tarmac. From the overhead compartment he got his Panama hat and brown duffel bag, then joined the small queue of passengers waiting to exit the plane. He was nearing the end of his journey, he could feel himself getting more nervous, the butterflies in his stomach were getting stronger.
His hand held his hat in place as it was buffeted the wind, goose bumps raised the hairs on his exposed arms. He hadn’t realised how much cooler than the capital it would be here; not changing into something warmer before departure had been a mistake. But at least his cream shirt and trousers matched well with the show-capped peaks of the blue mountains that loomed behind the terminal, a coincidence that encouraged him to feel he was prepared for the journey ahead. But these feelings of preparedness were dampened by his brown leather sandals; a regrettable footwear choice. In his hand he carried his compass with a firm grip, a grip that had rarely relented as he travelled through terminals as he hopped from airport to airport and to his destination.
Inside the terminal building Bryce again that feeling that he had travelled 70 years back in time, to remote sphere that was largely untouched by the modern world. The small, dilapidated airport was refreshing to an experienced and world-weary traveller like Bryce. He was welcomed by a member of airport staff who then checked his passport. ‘Thank-you very much’, he said to the staff member, ‘I hope I enjoy my stay!’
Bryce had a look around the terminal building, waiting for his luggage to be taken off the plane. It was very functional airport, with only one café and a terminal building grey seating that had become lumpy with overuse, frayed and split polyester cushions seemed especially uninviting. His eye was drawn to the panoramic view encapsulated by the window. Most airports are flat, desolate places, but here the airport was hemmed by mountains on three sides and by meadows close to the airport fed into them; first travelling through hills of brown terraces where the village he sought could be found. Bryce’s mind turned on his adventure-seeking father as he stood with the other passengers, waiting for their names to be called; he focused on the compass in his pocket, running his fingers over its rough surface.
In a few days Bryce would leave the town and travel to the village where he hoped his search would finish should end his search; but he really felt like organising that trip wasn’t his problem; somehow a way to get there would present itself. He was happy stumbling from one situation into the next, as if he was being guided on one last journey off the beaten track.
‘I’ll have to take a few more days,’ Bryce explained to his secretary.
‘Of course, you take your time’, he replied.
‘Thanks, I’ll fly back when I can. I hate to miss more classes, but I need to do a few things here.’
Bryce hated clearing out his father’s house, the house where he too had once lived; the memories made it take too long, but Bryce was only one left now. At the funeral he was the only one to accept condolence from the mourners, not that there are was many of them. He was the only pallbearer, him and a few employees from the funeral home carried the casket. The few mourners, perhaps 10 or 15, mainly consisted of friends and colleagues of his father plus a few distant cousins, from his mother’s side. The bright spring day gave Bryce more clarity than he wanted, reminding him that he alone carried his father’s name. Bryce was the last of the Evans’s, he hoped he was strong enough to carry the weight.
Despite all his misgivings Bryce enjoyed times of solitude; he considered it his duty to clear out his father’s house, and to do it alone. Old books, old newspapers, old photographs; all yellowed with age. The whole house seemed sepia toned, resigned to growing old disgracefully; years of neglect and inconsistent use had finally caught up with it. His father had been a travel writer, his long trips away a reason for the collapse of Bryce’s parent’s marriage. But there was no bitterness from his parents towards each other, only regret at the missed opportunity.
The corrugated iron roof pinged with the sound of raindrops as he left the airport and that part of his journey behind. The cold was ripped through his linen shirt; he decided to look in his luggage for something warmer. The streets teamed with people; a river of humanity rushed past. Under his breath, Bryce cursed those who almost knocked him over; tutted and moaned as he sifted through his luggage on the pavement. He sighed as he fished out a jumper and closed his suitcase; and gripped the brass compass a little tighter.
A taxi driver shouted as Bryce looked up and down the street; a bewildered tourist. He opened the back door of his red saloon with a cream roof and cream stripes along each side, beckoning Bryce with rapid Spanish Bryce was too slow to understand.
‘I return to Boston tomorrow,’ Bryce announced to his secretary, ‘so I should be back in work next week.’
‘That’s great, I’m sure the faculty will be glad to hear it.’
He had been clearing his father’s house for days and, finally, was about to attempt cleaning his father’s bedroom. Bryce was a little anxious, hoping he wouldn’t uncover some personal demons that would shock him to the core. He was relieved that he discovered nothing untoward, just that his father had a scrapbook that seemed to contain every article he’d ever had published.
Bryce was proud that his father had been published in National Geographic many times and thought of the travellers guided by his words in Lonely Planet. He read these articles as words he never knew, more a guide to the author than the lands he passed on his journey. They lived in the same house, but his father always seemed to be on the way to somewhere else.
‘Be independent Brycie,’ even then, it irritated Bryce when he wasn’t addressed properly, although he could never mention it to his father. ‘You can’t rely on people to do things for you,’ and then his father was off.
Bryce was lifted from his daydreams by a shoebox in his father’s wardrobe. He found a box full of his father’s memories; ticket stubs and hotel matchbooks, a broken brass compass greened by time and stained with tiny rings that Bryce assumed to be watermarks. The missing piece might be the fragment that my father sent to me, thought Bryce. He had received the package some ago, and he had thought the gift strange. But his Dad always gave him things that only made sense later.
As he left his father’s house, he locked the front door with a sigh, knowing he would never visit again. Bryce missed his students and his classes more each day, he needed to fly back. He missed the respect he received as a young professor, but it was only when away from his classes that he could be confident he was the smartest person in the room. He knew it didn’t matter, he’d seen many smart students fail, but the knowledge of his intelligence was a perennial source of comfort to him. Academia was his place, he wondered if his father had ever found his.
In his luggage he carried the broken compass to the home he had found. As he suspected, the broken piece fitted into the reverse of the large compass perfectly and popped it open; on a hinge between the face and the casing, revealing a compartment where a piece of paper, now yellowed, had been hidden. The piece of paper was a note from his father that said, ‘Dear Bryce, you are not alone.’ The note was accompanied by a simple map to find a hidden a hidden heritage, cousins from an almost forgotten secret.
Bryce eased his rucksack into the boot of the taxi, the driver then closed it firmly. The driver took his seat; the hinges on the door screeched and whined as he slammed it shut, with a force enough to shake the windowpane. Bryce’s passenger door closed with less effort.
‘Where are you going my friend?’ Said the taxi driver in his heavily accented English, ‘Want me to take you to a hotel?’
His father had written that accommodation here was inexpensive, so Bryce didn’t worry about which one he was taken to. ‘I will take you to a nice hotel,’ the driver assured him.
Bryce thanked his driver as the man handed him his luggage outside the ‘Hotel Parodies.’ The reception was upstairs, and the small room, little more than a hallway, was empty apart from a few houseplants and a wooden reception desk, behind which sat a girl who looked around ten.
‘Hello,’ she said.
‘Erm, I think I want a room,’ replied Bryce.
He sat in the best room the hotel had, perusing a bus schedule he had asked for at the reception desk. As his Dad had promised the room was cheap; but it was also dark, damp and smelled faintly of disinfectant. The only window in the room looked out onto a dusty street dominated by the dregs of the day’s market, but for Bryce this was a pleasant relief from the oppressive atmosphere inside the room. Across the street were gates to a park filled with trees, although at this time of year the leaves were still very new and just beginning to unfurl; and in many cases the twigs crawling across the sky held buds still waiting for their moment. But at least there was the pink hue given to the clouds by the setting sun reminded him that this world would get warmer. He imagined these trees could be filled with birds, although he couldn’t hear them above the noise of the street directly below. Out of the sunset came a woman, wandering down the central avenue to the park. Unhurried, the raven-haired woman was passing each tree, stopping to absorb the essence of each monument as she made her way towards the wrought iron gates. Suddenly she looked up, her gaze seemingly fixed on Bryce. Bryce returned her smile as she wandered on in her unhurried fashion.
The gates joined pavements clogged with people and a sea of cars travelling in both directions; a multi-coloured mass of iron and smoke meandering past the tranquil beauty of the park. Market stalls were dotted along the sides of the street, stall holders shouting at cyclists whistling past and preventing them from closing their stalls for the day.
Bryce cast his eyes back inside, gloom clawing back over him. He would depart early the next morning to catch his bus, he would get something to eat a little earlier than usual, so he would have time to explore. He closed the door on his sparsely furnished bedroom, decorated in a dark wood that sucked all light that came to it, the dull hue broken by the sparkle of the white bed linen.
As he locked his room he wondered where he might go. The girl at the desk might not be the best person to ask. She was busy when he passed reception, anyway, talking to a woman who apparently had a problem with her shower that had not been fixed. Bryce stopped as he wandered past, then looked again; it was the woman he had seen in the park. A remarkable coincidence, he thought, then furrowing his brow as the receptionist caught his attention.
‘Excuse me’, said the flustered girl behind the counter, Bryce noticing her rosy cheeks for the first time, ‘You’re staying here, aren’t you? Can another of our guests use your shower while you are away?’
Bryce paused before he answered, narrowing his eyes and wrinkling his forehead, ‘I suppose that would be fine.’ He said to the woman, ‘don’t make a mess!’
‘Thanks,’ smiled the woman, ‘I’ve got an early flight and I’d like a shower before I eat.’
‘I’m looking for a good restaurant! Can you recommend anywhere?’
‘Oh, I saw a place today I’d like to try! If you don’t mind waiting, I could join you?’
Why not, thought Bryce. ‘Certainly, I would prefer some company.’
‘Great’, said she, ‘I’ll go and get changed. My name’s Kat.
‘And my name is Bryce. Take your time Kat, I’m in no rush.’
A few minutes later Kat returned, her straight, black hair still wet where the ends swept down to her shoulders, ‘it took me forever to find a dress that was long enough to fit me when I was shopping, so I thought I would wear it before it got all crumbled in my backpack.’
‘It looks just lovely’, replied Bryce, ‘there is a lot of gold in it. I’m sure it’s not gold thread, but it suits you very well.’
‘Thanks,’ Kat offered, ‘I got it in an old place downtown. Well it looked old, more of bazaar really. But they sold fashions you would never get back home, and the staff seemed very happy I was there’
‘Yes, it does seem a local style, filled with gold and red and turquoise, but an Oriental influence too I think,’ Bryce had noticed a dragon scaling down one side of the dress.
Bryce slowed as the pair walked down the street together, exchanging bits of information. Kat was from Springfield, Illinois, she was returning home after spending three months with the Peace Corps, ‘I figured I should see the rest of the country while I am here, who knows when I will be here again.’ She had just finished college, majoring in English.
‘That’s interesting’, replied Bryce, ‘I teach English at Quincy College near Boston.’
‘But you’re from Wales, right?’, said Kat, ‘So how come you ended up in Massachusetts?’
‘It’s a long story, but….’ Bryce told her how he moved from Bangor to Boston for postgraduate study a little over ten years ago, and he stayed because he no reason to go home. He had found his way into a professorship; he didn’t quite know how. His father had passed and now he felt alone.
‘Oh, I’m sorry’, said Kat, pulling a shawl around her shoulders to protect her from the night air.
Bryce sighed before he confessed, ‘It’s been a lot to take in, but I think I’m getting through it. I’m not doing it alone anyway.’ He pulled the compass out of his pocket and showed it to Kat, explaining what it meant. ‘My father was a travel writer; he is still trying to be a guide.’ He showed his map to Kat, ‘it will guide me to my relatives,’ he assured her, ‘they are just up there,’ said Bryce, pointing to the mountains that loomed in every background.
‘And so is the place I found,’ Kat responded quickly, ‘it’s still early, so we should be able to get a table.’
‘Do you think of the locals eat out?’
‘Well the place seemed local, but who can tell? Why are you smiling?’ Bryce wiped the grin off his face, ‘it’s nothing. Just nice when things work out.’
Kat smiled back at him.
When they arrived at the restaurant it was empty, and suddenly Bryce wondered if dinner was such a good idea. He needn’t have worried though; the food was good.
‘I had resigned myself to eating alone,’ he explained to Kat, ‘I don’t mind, it’s inevitable when you travel alone.’
‘People dwell too much on things,’ replied Kat without looking up from her plate, ‘not everyone has something interesting to say. When did you decide to be a teacher? I might do something like that.’
‘I don’t think I like teaching so much as telling people where they went wrong.’
‘Yeah, that makes sense,’ laughed Kat.
When they left the restaurant, it was later than Bryce planned, but in the plan he ate alone. His heart beat faster as he thought about tomorrow, ‘So what do you think of my travel plans? I hope my cousins are pleased to see me.’
‘Lots of people do that’ mused Kat, ‘travel in search of their ancestors. I don’t think it will work for you though.’
‘How so?’, replied Bryce, astonished at her frankness.
‘It’s sad you have no family, but you still have friends. And guy like you probably has lots; I think you’re a nice guy and I barely even know you.’
‘Really?’ Replied Bryce, ‘I thought most people found me quite obnoxious, on first impression.’
Kat considered this for a moment, and then replied, ‘well, you do talk a lot; but that gives me time to think.’
‘Thank-you,’ Bryce smiled as he responded, ‘most people don’t pick up on my generosity so quickly. But you’ve had so much time to think, what do you fill it with?’
‘Mostly thinking about what I will do when I get back to the States. I think I will miss places like this.’
‘Yes, it’s having that effect on me too,’ nodded Bryce.
‘Are you trying to change the subject? My point was you’re spending a lot of money to meet some people who don’t even know you and you might not even like.’
‘You’re right, Kat’, he confessed, ‘it’s a big risk. I think what I really wanted was one last adventure with my Dad.’
‘Getting here at all is an adventure!’ Retorted Kat, ‘And who says you need to follow the map exactly anyway?’
‘Well my dad never did that himself.’
‘Exactly!’ Kat was silent as they walked farther down the street, then spun on her heel to look back at Bryce, ‘You know, the peace corps said I could come back anytime, they need any extra volunteers they can get. Why don’t we both go back teach English or something? What do you think?’
‘What about your ticket? Won’t you lose money?’’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ laughed Kat, I’ll just mention the peace corps a few times, I’ll get a change. How about you?’
Bryce sat on the edge of his sofa, spinning his compass on the coffee table. Now he had fixed it, it was remarkably well balanced. It spun and spun, he stared intently into it and considered if he was ready to go back to work. They did say take all the time you need.
The map continued to intrigue him, and the note that he had found with it. You are not alone. He thought about these words as pulled back his curtains to look at the people scuttling back and forth on the street below. So many, all the different people; meeting so many, his dad had never been alone. Maybe he should follow the map, just to make sure he got the message.
About the Author:
Ciaran J. McLarnon is a writer from Northern Ireland. He lives in Ballymena, a town close to the North-East coast. He has written on many subjects, and is currently interested in History and Nature. His stories have recently been published in AHF (Alternative History Fiction) and Gold Dust magazine.