Thursday, 1 March 2012

Becoming Panoramic by A J Grace-Smith


When she was small, Helen possessed the secret of flight.

Thinking about it when she was much older, she decided that it was perhaps because she was small that she never attempted to fly outside. The cavernous flat she lived in with Mummy and the man she still called Daddy, then, felt too big with its high white ceilings and endless empty floors. The few pieces of furniture they had were islands of comfort, or utility. She remembered the fall of light through huge sash windows, diffused through swathes of net curtains, golden or grey depending on the weather in the world outside. Inside, the weather depended upon her mother’s moods. Helen played alone. Flying was safe enough indoors. Outdoors was either going shopping in Ponders End, holding tight to Mummy’s hand and trying not to ask for Smarties, or the flat roof where the washing lines were, and the topmost branches of the sycamore, and the vast ceiling of sky. She was never allowed up there on her own. Flying was for when she was safely alone.

But then her brothers were born, and the suddenly larger family moved to another county, and a small house of modestly modern proportions, lacking the white glossed spacious splendours of Victorian detail. And Helen went to school.

They do say – whoever ‘they’ are – that small children who manifest unusual abilities tend to lose them once they’ve settled into school. These abilities, gifts - call them what you will - become hidden, latent, lost. Helen couldn’t remember exactly when she came to lose hers. It never occurred to her to wonder why. She didn’t remember missing it.

Years later, another house – larger, and Victorian again – another county, and a strange day: a day when everything seemed too sharp too bright too real. Helen was in a rush to get down the stairs. Sunlight surged through every open window, filling the house like water. Bannisters cast sharp shadows, barring the upstairs landing, and the heavy cream curtains stirred in the breeze. The scent of philadelphus mixed with honeysuckle, and the shocking pink sherbet-scented climbing rose, met the smells of lunch wafting from the kitchen - roast chicken, and thyme; it must have been a Sunday. The road was quiet, and the birds singing in the pine trees faded away as if the volume had been turned low. Thick silence covered her. Helen took the first step downwards. One step …

She staggered, right foot absorbing the shock of her weight. Sound resumed, birdsong buffeting her eardrums. Disoriented, she paused by the open front door. The milk bottles had been put out for the following morning with a rolled up note for the milkman. A quizzical blue tit perched there briefly, then sped twittering away. Unprepared, Helen had forgotten how to land without injury. Her mother bandaged the swollen ankle without comment, used to Helen’s habitual teenaged clumsiness. The real test of her ability was yet to come.

Age twenty, she is running up a road at midnight, heedless of the heavy rain and her high heels. She can hear Martin trying to start the car, the engine refusing to do more than sputter. No streetlights along this country road; her clothes will help the night to hide her, but where the hell is she? She can’t just dive into the hedge… there! Adrenaline lends wings to her feet and she sprints for the turn-off at the bottom of a long graveled drive. And hears the roar as he starts the car at last. She had trusted him…

Drumming rain on the roof and the pleasing sensation of lips nuzzling her throat, her breasts, rousing her from drink-laden sleep. Steamed windscreen, rearview mirror askew and the strong soap-spiced scent of his cologne as his lips move insistently deeper into her cleavage, his hand already under the hem of her skirt and working upwards. Skin sensitized by the October chill, Helen shudders when his fingers find the flesh of her thigh. His weight half covers her, pressing her deeper into the reclined passenger seat. When had that happened? Helen can’t move as his hand creeps higher. This is wrong. She accepted a lift home, but not this. He is a friend, but not this, not a friend anymore and she can’tmovecan’tbreathecan’tthinkhowthehellisgoingtogetoutofthishe’snotstoppingnonono

Silence hurts the bones in her ears.

Running, heedless of all but the need to flee.

Ducking behind the hulk of an ancient Morris Minor, hoping he won’t think to look for her here. Tyres squeal as he pulls up level with her hiding place, and the sound of wiper blades working hard. She can hear him fumbling with the central locking, and he curses until his door opens. Helen stays low but his search is half-hearted; the weight of water and darkness defeat him. Only when the after-image of his headlights has cleared from her vision does she emerge. There’s a phone box just up the road; home is a taxi ride away.

Helen never spoke of what happened. She did not speak to Martin again.

She buried the memory eventually, but of course it was still there, inside her. There were long years ahead of her, and lonely ones too, until Helen found the man who reminded her how it felt to be happy. It took less than a week after their first date for her to realise that she was at last beginning to relax, no longer exhausted from perching on the wire, waiting to settle or to fly.

They’ve made a life together, a good life, a real life. Not an idyll, not an interlude of brief passion, but something steadier. Days, and months, and years, of small domestic happinesses and irritations, pleasures shared and separate. Pain too, because this is real life, but it rarely lasts. They have a daughter, Elsa, and are thinking about having another baby.

Can Elsa fly? If so, Helen is unaware of it, though she watches her daughter carefully. Did her mother watch Helen like this? Did her mother have this? Did she know what Helen was doing, playing alone on the huge landing below the flat where they lived when Helen was barely three years old? Coming down from the half empty kitchen, those black and white acres between the legs of the kitchen table and the door to the empty hall; by stretching on tiptoe Helen could lay her left hand on the cool balustrade sweeping in its white gloss curve. One breath, maybe two, and she would rise from the thick pile of the bottle green carpet to float down the stairs. At the bottom, by the giant - to her eyes - newel post, her feet would once more touch the floor. There were dolls’ clothes waiting to be washed in pretend water and pegged on the clothesline strung between windowsill and bannister. There was apple juice tea to be poured for the teddies, the dolls, and Mummy, though Mummy rarely descended those bottle-green stairs. Helen doesn’t remember minding, then. She was not a lonely child, not while she could fly. Now she sits cross-legged on the pale carpet, while Elsa pours apple juice tea for the teddies, the dolls, and for her.

Now there are days when she becomes disassociated from her self in the space between two breaths. Walking on the common, caught between that perfect British summer-blue sky, the gold-green haze of grasses and meadow flowers, and the skylarks rising on their cascading song... concentrate just a little and Helen rises out of herself, the sky a perfect bowl above. Glancing down, she can see the top of her head - her senses double; she is aware of the grasses catching at her skirt hem; warm scent of trampled earth, wild herbs, and cow dung; the border collie loping after his ball; the happy shouts of Elsa carried on her Daddy’s shoulders. And overlaying all this, the breeze whispers round her, through her, as Helen rises. The hills fall away, grey ribbon-roads twisting through the valleys, and the silence deepens, while the thread of walking sound remains spiraling round earthbound senses. Higher still and she is now a moving dot of red and brown on the wide green canvas below. The wind is stronger here, pushing the clouds, and if she is not careful it will take her too. The azure freedom calls, rising and rising, merging with the sky, becoming panoramic. The temptation to go beyond the point of no return rushes through as the breeze that separates self from self; senses attenuate, becoming meaningless. Then Elsa calls; Helen’s senses snap back with a whiplash. She missteps, staggers on springy turf as once she staggered on green stair carpet, and she is only earthbound again. It is time to return home.

About the author: AJ Grace-Smith (Anna to her friends) lives in the not quite wilds of Gloucestershire, in the west of England. She has worked in bookselling for several years, writes short stories (one each forthcoming at Metazen and Bewildering Stories), and is currently working on the second draft of her first novel. She blogs at http://flyingnotfalling.wordpress.com .

Photo: Modified version of original 'Levitation' by Anna Malina