They came to the cliffs, both furtively, for different reasons. He, looking for the safety of solitude to soar his arms and to run with the wind, growling the noises of aeroplanes over the high expanses of crumbling coast. She to watch him. Sniggering, quietly at first, she sank to her haunches and sat behind the long strands of weed.
He pulled his grey jumper over his head and used it as a gas mask, barking orders and stemming the blood from his flesh-wounded chest, all the time shooting down the imaginary enemy.
He had been up on the cliffs for an hour, happily believing himself to be alone. In front of him, land littered with accumulated rubbish, hemmed in by wire fences. Near the edge, as high as the land dared go, if he timed it right on a windy day, he could almost believe himself to be flying.
Occasionally, and only to confirm the illusion, a real plane would pass distantly overhead. Then he would stop and wave, waiting for his friend to pass before chasing after him, feet pounding, growling even louder from the back of his throat.
From her place of concealment, behind the thin strips of wire fencing, she sniggered again. Too loudly this time, because he stopped and stood still, his arms by his sides, peering through the gap in his jumper, his small dimpled face a picture of humbled embarrassment. An intruder had encroached upon his world and shattered the illusion until everything around him became nothing and himself. Now he stood, four feet ten in his shoes, with his baggy, tatty jumper too big, gathered in a woollen clump around his neck.
They fell quiet. He stared around, watching for any sign of movement. Soon she could contain herself no longer. The excitement and exquisite delight of spying for a while unperceived boiled over into a fit of giggles. She rolled over to one side, laughing hard and disturbing the long grass of the bank.
‘Who’s there?’ he shouted, reddening as he straightened his jumper until he wore it properly. ‘Who is it?’
At last, the mocking ceased and from amongst the high-grown weeds, she stood, with thinly disguised amusement, a small laugh threatening behind an obdurate smile.
‘What were you doing?’
She crossed her feet, standing awkwardly. ‘I was only watching you play,’ she said innocently.
He looked cross. ‘It’s not funny. It’s not fair. I was here first.’
‘How do you know, David?’ she asked, placing a mocking emphasis on his name. ‘I might have been sitting up here all day.’
‘Why did you have to do that? It’s not fair,’ David repeated, trying not to show how upset he was. ‘I come up here every day. I’m always alone here.’ He could not look at her for shame, but could see her approaching out of the corner of his eye. ‘Go away, Sally.’
‘So you do know my name!’ She sounded victorious.
‘Of course I do, stupid, I’ve seen you,’ David replied huffily.
He walked over to the edge of the ground, past the spot where a wooden bench had once stood in memory, until he could see the pebbles on the shore beneath as the tide faded out. He sat with his arms folded, looking out to sea, and became aware of Sally approaching him.
‘Go away. You’ve ruined everything.’
Sally plonked herself down where there was a flat area of grass.
‘I didn’t know you were allowed up here,’ she said, as if she had not heard him.
‘I’m not,’ said David. ‘I shouldn’t be here. You won’t tell anyone, will you?’ he asked, cautiously looking at her and beginning to feel vulnerable again.
‘Well, I might not,’ said Sally with a teasing grin. ‘Why are you here?’ she asked, full of curiosity.
‘Our home’s busy. They won’t know I’m gone.’
‘There’s only mother and me. My daddy’s missing. That means he’s a hero,’ she said, full of pride.
David did not care to either agree or disagree. ‘When I’m big enough, I’m going to be just like your dad. I’m going to fly planes.’
‘No you’re not. You’re too young. My mother says one day it will all be over and everything will return to normal,’ said Sally.
‘Yes. My daddy will come home from abroad and bring me lots of presents, and the planes will stop flying and we can all eat what we like,’ she explained in one breath.
‘I doubt it.’ David shook his head. He did not want the planes to stop. ‘Not until I’ve flown, anyway. That’s why I’m practising.’
‘Does your dad not fly?’ Sally asked.
David felt angry, but not at Sally. ‘He stayed when the rest of us moved. I haven’t seen him since. Now my uncle is at home for the moment. Only I know he isn’t my real uncle. My mum’s not waiting for my dad any more. Not since she lost his photograph. That’s why I’m here. I’m waiting for him still.’
Sally thought about this for a moment, but soon enough her smile returned. ‘We’re having cake for tea tonight,’ she exclaimed.
David felt momentarily jealous. ‘No you’re not,’ he said, pulling up grass in his hands and sprinkling it over his feet.
‘We are. What are you having? My mother says you don’t eat properly. None of you do. And you don’t do anything normally. She says that you’re all responsible and that’s why my daddy’s missing and why the planes have to fly.’
David sat quietly for a while, listening patiently, rubbing grass between his forefinger and thumb until they were stained green. ‘What do you say?’
Sally smiled. ‘My mother would go mad if she knew I were here.’ She jumped up and grabbed David’s arm. ‘Come on!’
David shook himself free of grass, and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. ‘Where?’
Leading him by the arm, Sally made for the steep bank that led down to the village. She held on to him and began to run, slowly at first, but gathering pace as they flew downhill, unable to stop or to slow, their momentum carrying them on as if they could run that fast forever.
Their joined hands pulled the other in different directions until they reached the gravel path which petered out into level ground. There, hands apart, they leant into the earth, breathing heavily into the still air, unable to move or speak for minutes. They had made it down in record time, flying like birds, leaving the world in their wake.
‘Come to our house,’ Sally said when she had found her voice between deep breaths.
David wiped the sweat from his forehead on the sleeves of his jumper and at once felt his brow begin to itch. ‘Your mother wouldn’t let me.’
‘She might for a while,’ said Sally hopefully. She began to walk in the direction of the village. ‘I want to show you a photograph of my dad. He’s a hero,’ she called back to David.
Composing himself and catching his breath, David set off to catch up with his friend, intoxicated by her assuredness, as she tramped her way through the village.