Paper Boats

Lilian D. Vercauteren

I was ten years old and you were my new stepfather. It was late summer of 1983 and you had asked me (me!) to come with you to London.

Blue skies were pierced by towers and ancient cathedrals, and you felt that we shouldn’t waste our time on them. They will always be there for you, you said.  So instead you let me crane my neck at dizzying video displays over our heads on Piccadilly. We dangled our feet down railings of bridges and you told me the names of different types of ships that the Thames calmly carried underneath us. We both marveled at the selections of candy and licorices at Harrods. You assured me that those enormous black birds at the London Tower were harmless, that they were actually really clever and mythical because they carried messages from the Gods. While you asked strangers to take our picture, the ravens eyeballed—and then ate most of—our lunch. I figured the food upstairs must not be as good and that made you laugh (and me proud).

You; collected and eagerly facing the world, tall, blond hair laced with gray streaks. Me; shy and nervous, short for my age, with disobedient hair. You; dressed to the nines in khakis and a button down dress shirt, earmarked books and maps under your arm. Me; my hand hooked around your free arm, the other in one of the innumerable pockets of my trousers, and often taken for a boy.

Inside small diners with Persian carpets on the floors, and restaurants with ballroom sized bathrooms with real towels, and at smoking street vending carts, we really did try all the foods the city had to offer. Without questioning my judgment, you would hand me the menus and let me order for us both. Surprise me, you'd say. You showed me how to ask the waiters what was good and what wasn't. And so we had the good: Toad-in-a-hole, Bubble and Squeak, Bangers with Mash and Roly Poly (all of which I chose because the names sounded so strange and funny and we laughed when we repeated them out loud over and over again). The messy: sticky toffee pudding and fish and chips plunged in creamy sauce wrapped in newspaper, (we used our fingers and I licked mine when I thought you weren’t looking). And the terrible: Kidney Pudding, Eel Pie and Crappit Head. The latter even you didn’t dare to touch, but because I cheered you on, you did after all. It was not bad, you said and laughed.

Our hotel was in the throbbing heart of the city and you gave me earplugs to sleep through the night, because you knew I wasn't used to the noises. But I fell asleep to the sound of you sleeping in the other bed, lullabied by the symphony of the rhythmic metropolis that played all through the night. There was the low bass of roaring cars, the tenors of car horns with high accents of brakes. Soprano sirens and lone voices that soloed, sometimes backed by choirs of people shouting down the depths of the night to their hidden audience. But the city played on and, without missing a beat, crescendoed into each new morning, impatiently waiting for the sun and us to rise to the stage.

One afternoon, I accidentally locked myself out of the room while you had to make phone calls for work, so I went downstairs and looked at the fancy boutiques in the hotel. You had searched everywhere for me, even on the roof. When you finally found me, your face was so pale and I felt terrible I had made you worry. I was sure our trip was over because I ruined it. I thought about running away, hiding. But then you did something I will never forget. You kneeled on one knee and hugged me and told me you were the one who was sorry. You promised not to tell anybody that I had cried and I promised that the whole affair would be our secret.  Let's have ice cream to settle our stomachs, you decided, because there were so many more adventures waiting.

You said that sometimes it is good not knowing exactly where you are and so, on some days, we just left your maps at the hotel and embarked the London streets without tactics. It was in those streets you taught me how to align the small, trembling needle of the compass you carried in your pocket, with the gold colored arrow pointing north (so I could always find my way). When we were a little bit lost, you'd ask someone for directions. If I was tired, I did my best to never show it to you, (because I knew you never were). But there was no fooling you, because just when I thought to myself that my legs were never going to be able to walk ever again, you said you heard a park bench calling your name and that something must be wrong with my ears for not hearing it. Or you'd say that you needed to sit down in front of some English tea to do some talking and thinking about our next destination.

We ran into statues of noble war heroes, archangels, important people, royal people, dead people, dragons and beasts (I liked the ones you let me climb on, but out of all of them, the great lions were the best). On other days, we lingered the afternoons away in the parks, some larger than my hometown, some small, cozy, secluded, and overgrown. On the damp grass, we ate our newfound favorite English licorices and wrote post cards home. You didn't get mad at the green stains I made on my clothes when I rolled down that hill (in fact, you declared it an improvement for both me and the hill) but thought it best to soak the worst of it out in the sink that evening.

I remember the air was sweltering and damp that summer. Smells that only belong to the city penetrated our noses until they tingled and itched. We deeply inhaled the recycled air of the Underground as if it was fresh sea air, a bit earthy, humidity mixed with concrete and electricity all around us, charged with a promise of adventure. At the end of each day, a layer of gray covered our skins and you ran a bath for me at bedtime and, once in my pajamas, you would let me sit up for a little while, just like an adult.

On our last day we laughed at street performers that belonged in a circus in Covent Garden and counted men with derby hats in the business district (13, at least!), before we cooled our blistered feet in the huge fountain on Trafalgar Square. That was where you waded in the water with the legs of your pants rolled up and told me stories from your years at sea. From restaurant receipts you folded two paper boats and I wrote my name on one, and 'Pop 2' on the other. I saw you smile when we watched them bob on the crystalline blue, bumping into each other and then drifting apart until they soaked up too much water, and the ink started to run when they finally sank to the bottom. You gave me all the pennies you had and told me to make a wish for each of them.  One you threw over your own shoulder but never told me what you wished for (because then the wish will never come true). I watched them glimmer in the sun while you tied a special sailor's knot in my shoelaces so they wouldn't come undone.

The day we left we woke to find the city had changed color. The streets were silver, the sky iron and steel. You were quiet that morning, while black umbrellas hurried by and taxis splashed our suitcases on the sidewalk. We joined the everyday Londoners inside the swift, silvery slick tubes for the last time. The dampness in the air was colder now, as if the city had run out of warm water and the rain had washed away the summer, like the color that got drained off a watercolor painting. There would never be another time for carelessness and freedom like I had that week, and naturally (but regrettably) so, I didn't know it at the time.

It was on an autumn day years later when there was just such a cooled and sudden dampness in the air that crawled under my skin. There were boxes with books and maps in the hallway and many bags on a small trailer that carried everything you owned away. I found the compass (I know you wanted me to, but you never said a word about it) on the small desk in the hallway by the telephone. The copper casing is a bit dulled and the face scratched like an old man's, but when the sunlight hits it a certain way, late in the afternoons, it shimmers like pennies do at the bottoms of fountains in distant cities.


About the Author

Born and raised in The Netherlands, Lilian Vercauteren switched the clouded skies of her home country for the wide horizons of America at age 22. She has studied fiction writing at the Writers Studio and is a member of the Low Writers Collective. In Tucson, Arizona she currently works on her first novel. "Paper Boats" is dedicated to A.C. Kooijman.