To Feel the Air

Last night was an excellent evening at Rattletales at the Brunswick in Hove.  There were stories from Alice Cuninghame, Neil Jones, Stephanie Lam read us an extract from her book, The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House, Sarah Salway, Alex Maunder, Shirley Golden, Jo Gatford and me!  Everyone’s stories were good and there were a lot of interesting questions from the audience. Rattletales is wonderful because it gives writers and readers the opportunity to interact face-to-face.  I’m looking forward to their next show in the new year.

Here’s my story.  I hope you enjoy it.

To Feel the Air

His attic window faced hers – at either end of orderly gardens that belonged to the ground-floor flats. His was east and hers west. That summer was one of glorious mornings. The sort of summer when each day makes you a hot promise that it seems to have forgotten by its cloud-smothered lunchtime. But in the morning, when she was dressing for work and looking out at the day, his window was a dazzling block of light against the red slope of his roof. Of course, she had no idea it was him inside. But there was someone. There was someone who, one morning at about 7.40am, levered open the Velux slightly more, tilting the light to the sky, opened their hand and loosed a bird into the air.

They did this seven times on that sparkling morning. Sometimes it was the work of a second – of a fraction of a second. Other times the hand hovered there, flat-palmed and swaying for several minutes, until the bird took faltering steps to the edge and dipped and tumbled into the warming air. They were small, little more than specks really, but unmistakably birds. Universally, they seemed to take the decision to descend into the willow of the house next-door but one to her own. That brought them rather closer to her eye but still all she knew was that they were birds.

She knew very little about nature. She was not the sort of person who learned for the sake of it. For her, things needed to be relevant to the task at hand. One day that would become clear and he would wonder what on earth he’d been thinking to have opened himself to a woman who couldn’t tell a starling from a thrush and would tire of looking before he had a chance to explain. But that’s the end of the story and we’re still at the beginning.

Yes, the beginning was the facing of their windows when the day came for the brood to fledge. He didn’t know that anyone was watching. He didn’t think about that. He rolled the white sleeve of his shirt to the elbow and cupping each one, starting with the largest and boldest, he freed them into the sky. He worried that it was too high – that it was not gradual enough an introduction into the medium in which they would have to survive. It was the equivalent of pushing an eighteen year-old into Leicester Square and walking away. But then, that wasn’t so very far from how he’d grown up, was it? Anyway, there was no choice. If he tried to smuggle the birds out of the flat, he ran the risk of bumping into someone on one of the landings of the broad Edwardian house. No pets allowed. Not that they were pets. But anyway, he had no adequate way of containing them now they could easily decide to coast several feet through the air. No, the simplest thing was to let them fledge through the attic window. And then it would be over.

And that would be a relief really, wouldn’t it? It would be good to be free of their yellow gapes, of the anxiety of watching them day-by-day – with the pins of their feathers emerging through delicate pink, with their balled eyes splitting to let in the whole world. He had never known such responsibility. When they were gone he would hoover the flat clean of the stray feathers and go back to his solitary life. It was only the fact that she saw his arm, his arm against the blue morning sky, that meant he would never know that peace again.

She was late for work that day. She was late because, as she sat by the little mirror to do her make-up, she found that she kept closing her eyes and seeing it all again. She hadn’t counted (I mentioned she wasn’t one for irrelevant detail, didn’t I?) but she knew there had been lots. Someone in a flat out the back – a flat much like her own – had kept a load of birds and let them go today. And that was weird. That wasn’t something she’d ever seen before. She thought, later on, that the beginning was probably the best part of it, being, as it was, so unusual. It was the high point.

If she had been less confident then the middle of the story wouldn’t have happened. But she was the sort of woman who didn’t do doubt. Doubt had been pressed out of her by her mother, as efficiently as she’d ironed her primary school pinafores – producing a result of uniform texture and crisp edges.   So, that evening, at seven o’clock , on her way home from the tube station, she rang the bell of the top flat in the house behind her own and he answered. And that was the beginning of the middle of the story. And her confidence kept it all air-born for a while. They coasted. He soared. She lifted the white sheets of his bed. He had never known what it was to feel the warm inch of air humming between himself and another person – flying in sensation. And all the times that happened he stretched himself a little further. Until he was Albatross-broad across the streets of the city. She was steady, cutting through the gusts of reserve and blasts of his anxiety with her sure beating wings. Persistent, sharp-eyed and attuned to every problem that arose. She worked with the focus of a corvid at the task in hand. He didn’t know he was a task.

He explained it all to her – how he had seen the mother taken into the jaws of a tabby cat, a long-furred beast with fat paws and a dusty white muzzle. And how he’d shinned into the lower branches of the sycamore and scooped the whole nest down – held it inside his jacket, out of the wind. How he’d offered a slurry of meal-worms from the tips of tweezers. How he’d feigned a persistent stomach flu to keep work away. And watched his brood transform from alien-like nudity to the perfection of blue tits. How they had alighted on his head and shoulders as he read in the evenings, how he had watched their ever-increasing ability to fly. And known the day would come for them to leave. He needed to tell her often, though. He needed to repeat the story. He needed the re-assurance of the perfection of it. How the story had begun. How he had done it right. How their freedom into the world had brought him her. And she, she did know how much it mattered. But still, there was a job to be done here. So, the day came when she interrupted with mention of a basement flat on the other side of the park. It was closer to the tube. They could start to save for a deposit. He felt the ground looming up at his fragile body. And that was the end of the middle of the story.

The end itself was not a tidy parallel. Would you like that? Would you like a story where they hopped through his Velux together? Where she flew West, into the setting sun, and he flew East on his broad, white wings? I’m sorry, but the end was that she left her flat and got a job in sales in Watford. She met a man who had a Labrador and a son from a previous relationship. And him? He did always look out for another chance to raise a brood. But he didn’t ever find one like that again. His window still faces east and some mornings, in the summer time, he stretches out his arm to feel the air.

© Allie Rogers 2014

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