At the mention of food, I nearly dropped my spanner and ran for the door - but I caught myself at the last second, restraining my eagerness and setting the spanner down before pulling off my gloves and then making my way for the door with moderate haste. When I met Ash at the door, I grinned nervously and allowed him to go first. When he was through the door, though, I followed immediately and quickly passed him in the hallway headed for the deck as fast as I could without running.
Even if all I got was typical grub, I thought, it was still food and probably better than what my uncle had put on the table for me most times. I shuddered at the memory of many a disgusting meal eaten with the flies while I worked.
When we reached the deck where food was being served, I pushed my way past a few sailors, offering a brief word of apology for any upset glances which shot my way - though there weren't many - and grabbed a tray. I then proceeded to fill it with plenty of all the food which was on the table and counters nearby, then picked out a corner to stand in while I ate. A few other boys came over and stood near me... Ashwin included. This kid was starting to irritate me.
I was silent for a moment, then noticed that he kept shooting glances my way.
"Yes?" I spat, looking angrily his way before calming myself almost immediately. I was being irrational and abrasive, and I knew it. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm just... not used to getting much attention. Makes me uneasy, is all." I lowered my head, feeling completely embarrassed at my own behavior.
"'S alright," Ash said, smiling at me as I glanced up from my grub tray. He nodded kindly as I looked up, and I nodded back, my mouth full.
I stayed quiet for several moments as the other boys conversed, trying to avoid anymore unnecessary confrontations. This was why I hated dealing with large numbers of other people. It was far too awkward for me, and it made me uncomfortable in the extreme.
I mostly tuned out what they were saying to one another, until one of them said my name. "What about you, Pat?" I heard over the low rumble of the sailors talking among themselves.
I looked up and realized it was Charlie who had spoken. I recognized him almost immediately, because I remembered thinking that something didn't smell right with him - more so than anyone else on the ship. He was cleaner, wore a blade but didn't look a fighter, and he otherwise just didn't seem like the kind of boy to join a ship's crew at this low station. An officer, maybe, a few years older, but certainly not a ship's boy.
"Huh?" I asked, unsure of what they'd been discussing.
"Well, we've all been talkin' about our life stories and all, an' I was just wonderin' about your own. You worked on an airfield, you said?"
Oh...this. They wanted to know my story. "Uh," I began, "Yeah. Well... my mum died about four years ago." My voice grew quieter and actually cracked as my memories of her came back, if only for a moment. The one person in my life who'd actually cared about me, and she'd left me alone with all the others. Uncle Wayne had been kind, but he'd never treated me like his own. His dog had been the most friendly member of the household.
"Pa serves in the army - he's a lieutenant." Or at least he had been, when I'd heard from him two years ago. "And he spends most of his time off on some adventure...so I lived with my uncle and worked on the airship field with him. Until I heard about this ship, and I asked my uncle, and he said..." I hesitated. What he'd actually said at first was a bit harsh, so I altered it slightly. "He said that, if I really wanted to go, then that was fine. So I told him I did, and he signed the papers, and now..." I held my arms out around me, as if to say "Now here we are."
Charlie's eyes met mine, and I saw sympathy behind his eyes. A few of the other boys' gazes held similar looks, but quickly lost them as I returned to eating and shrugged as if what I'd said was nothing. In the back of my mind, I still remembered simply sitting with my mother and talking, watching the airships fly overhead and dreaming about becoming a captain and fighting pirates all the time. Looking at Ash, I saw that he was being more cautious about looking my way.
I felt a pang of regret. I'd already done it again - distanced myself from the others with my attitude. I sighed and looked at him when he did glance up, grimacing when I tried to force an actual smile.
"So," I said to Charlie, "What about you?" He hesitated for a moment before speaking.
"I, um..." That was all I ever heard - just then, a loud boom sounded from below and all was silent until, seconds later, Footer came running with his face blackened by smoke.
"Pat - we need yeh! Come quick! And, Allerton, is it? Maybe you should come, too! It's bad!"
We both went running after quickly glancing at one another, and Footer led us straight to the engine room. A disaster awaited us, and Earls stood with his hands on his head as if in disbelief, soot all over his face much as it was Footer's. Fortunately, though, the situation didn't seem quite as bad as it did at first - it looked to me like a relatively quick and easy fix. If we could get things right quickly enough, nobody would even notice that anything was wrong. Ashwin and I pulled our gloves on, grabbed wrenches, and set to work.