Arthur tightened the straps on his left leg, and then the other. He’d worn shorts, not wanting to waste a good pair of trousers – ridiculous, now he thought about it – and the leather was cold and unyielding across his shins. It was no easy task to rotate within the frame and slide his arms through the wings without help, but this was the way it needed to be. Old joints didn’t like twisting. A spasm of cramp shot through his elbow before he got both arms in place.
A light breeze was snagging at the canvas already, making it balloon between the struts; the conditions were all but perfect. And now he stood erect: a Human Bird. Arthur took a breath. Felt the morning air shiver through his lungs. Shuffled his feet and coughed, fiddling with the handholds. He hadn’t expected to feel so self-conscious.
At least the hilltop was empty. At his back was a clutch of pines that had been planted to mark the anniversary of Waterloo. Sun-dried cones lay here and there in the meadow grass, out of place amongst field scabious and clover. Before him lay the early-misted lowlands of South Gloucestershire, edged by the ramrod straight track of the Gloucester-Bristol line, the blue-grey snake of the Severn, and the Black Mountains far beyond.
There was a heart-shaped meadow down there somewhere, formed within an oak wood. He’d read about it. Planted by a widower in memory of the wife he loved. A family secret until a hot air balloonist spotted it, sending a photograph to the local rag. Arthur thought how much he’d like to look down on that from the air.
What had he done to mark Ann’s passing? Very little, save to keep her grave weed-free. Even at that, he’d been found wanting. Buying gaudy petrol station carnations on the way up to the cemetery, until Mrs Haverthorn from next door had complained at finding the plot ‘spoiled’ by a spilt vase of cheap flowers. His cheeks had pinked with shame.
The funny thing was, Ann wouldn’t have cared a jot. Would have laughed, even. Still, Arthur had been into town for roses every time since, and taken with them some of that pretty blue campanula she used to grow in the bed by the back door. He knew he could have done more. That fountain she’d always wanted for the garden. Or an apple tree – a sweet Belle de Tours – that would have blossomed for her birthday every Spring. Another soft rag of failure across his shoulders.
He looked along the wing now. Waggled his fingers, feeling foolish. God, they looked old. Grey-blue veins bulging through creped skin, his wedding ring nestled between limp folds like something lost. He thought of Ann’s hands: laced through his own, in a churchyard in Devon; cupped around a baby sparrow that had plunged from its aerial home; cupped around their own baby, when Helen arrived, pink and cross, in the hospital bed in Southmead. Graceful hands, Ann had: she might have been a dancer if she’d been taller. Her hands always put him in mind of that Da Vinci sketch: elegant fingers, pastel soft skin over taut muscles below.
Da Vinci was where this had all started, back when Arthur was a little boy. It had been a big deal, back then, going up to London as a family, to see the small collection which had travelled from a museum in the Italian’s home town. Arthur’s mother was the driving force: she had studied art before she married. His father wouldn’t have come were it not for the ride on the Torbay Express, caught as it stopped off in Bristol en route to Paddington.
His mother had had a guidebook sent through the post in advance. “The human bird shall take his first flight, filling the world with amazement,” read the quote on the first page. And there they were: the whirligig helicopter, the bat-like glider, and that ornithopter that took its inspiration from the flight of birds. Arthur had never seen anything like it.
At the exhibition, young Arthur had pressed his nose to the glass, poring over the spidery words that spoke of Da Vinci’s inspiration from the natural world. “A bird is an instrument working to mathematical law.” Afterwards, he’d been haunted by those scrawled notes and sketches, poring over them in the half-dark of his room, sketching out his own idea. He’d modelled his creation on a jay; the one which used to hop about under the oak tree in his parents’ garden, with its smart camel coat brightened by that famous cerulean flash. He’d loved the jerky, robotic movements of its head as it considered the acorns at its feet, picking one, beak improbably wide to accommodate it. And when the bird flew, at first in a great burst and flurry of wings, and then with soaring grace, he’d admired the fantail of its wings and the flash of white rump as it careered towards the wooded hillside. He’d spent many hours watching from the kitchen window, sketching and planning his maiden flight.
He hadn’t got very far with the build on that occasion – a first wing, which then sat unloved on a shelf at the back of the garage, until he was sixteen and they moved from their cottage on the wooded hill to a two-up, two-down near Bristol. His father had left them, for reasons never explained, and Arthur’s mother, angry and sad, wanted to be nearer her sister in Weston-super-Mare.
Arthur’s eyes were watering now; his vision blurring. It was that wind, he told himself. He wished he could bend his arms to reach his handkerchief, but his elbow wouldn’t thank him for it.
Months, years had gone by before he’d thought of flying again. It’d been a trip to Malmesbury; a visit to an elderly aunt. Arthur had wandered into the town museum, sent to occupy himself while his mother washed up week-old teacups. His eye had been caught at once by an image of a winged man: Eilmer, the Flying Monk, whose study of the flight of birds led him to build his own wings. Five hundred years before Da Vinci puzzled over his ornithopter, Eilmer’s maiden flight from the abbey tower had taken him right over the river, breaking only his legs on the far bank.
Arthur had been inspired. His childhood model had survived the move, but its size rendered it useless for his near-adult frame. He’d dismantled it and rebuilt. Two wings this time; taut bedsheets fanned across the struts instead of the silk that Da Vinci favoured, and the tail that Eilmer had wished for. A real-life ornithopter. Arthur had never tried it out. For a while, the thing hung suspended from his bedroom ceiling, but he kept bumping his head on the wingtips and his mother complained of the dust. So once again it was banished to a garage, left unloved on the back shelves while he left home for an engineering degree in Cardiff.
The breeze was picking up now. Arthur stamped his feet further apart to steady himself. In the distance, he watched a grey heron: long legs stretched ballerina-straight; fast, shallow wing-beats as it traversed the plain. The bird was flying north-west, perhaps to the wetlands at Slimbridge. That was where their daughter Helen used to work, as a warden on the reserve. Helen loved birds like her father – it was something they did together, sitting in the kitchen in Redland, watching goldfinches snatch at Niger seeds from the feeder.
When he had retired from the firm in Bristol, he and Ann had moved back here to be nearer their daughter. She’d been on her way to join them for lunch on the day she had the crash – at her father’s suggestion, she had taken one junction of the motorway for speed. When he thought about that, Arthur sometimes wondered why he kept on breathing. He and Ann had seen the tailbacks on the news while they prepared the roast, but the chicken had been cold and greasy by the time the call came to say that her old Polo had been trapped between two juggernauts, and that she’d died before the ambulance had even arrived on the scene.
There was a woman at the Clinic who always sought him out: Alice Trimbell. They’d been at school together, though she’d been a prefect and a bully and they’d not been friends. Even now, she didn’t seem to notice that he always tried to avoid her eye. It was a mercy – she never missed an opportunity to tell him – that both of his girls had been snatched quickly; mutual friends had aged decades while they nursed loved ones into the ground. It was true that Ann’s cancer had taken them both by surprise with its aggression, making its presence known on a scan one September Monday, and taking her last breath before the month was out. He’d been numb afterwards, for months, and even then he’d barely shed a tear. He’d wanted to feel more, but he had suspicions that his marriage, like the rest of his life, had been a quiet nothing. Between them, Ann and Helen had held his fragile hopes in the palms of their hands, and now they lay prone like a broken-winged sparrow.
A whole year had passed before he left the house for any length of time. Ivy had begun to insinuate itself between the slats on the porch roof, and next door’s cat – recognising that its enemy was weakened – had found dominance over the small birds in the garden. Then one day, he’d surprised himself by walking out of the door. Only to the shop, to buy a newspaper, but it was a start. He hadn’t read one since the day before Helen’s crash. It was only when he’d got home he noticed the image on the cover, although perhaps his subconscious had been onto it sooner: Leonardo Da Vinci – the Life of Birds.
Just seeing the sketches again in the paper’s feature had relit the fire, and he was sketching in the margin before he’d finished reading the piece. Up in the loft, he retrieved the fragments of the model he’d built in his teens. He’d indulged himself over the winter months, using the thermodynamics from his degree and perfecting a scale drawing of what he planned to build. A thick, chesty cough snared his lungs, and some days he questioned whether he had the strength to go on. But the day he’d begun the construction, a jay had visited the garden, and it seemed like a sign.
‘You ok, mate?’
Arthur almost lost his footing. He turned awkwardly, found a man with a Staffie behind him, scratching at the logo on his tracksuit as he stared.
‘Haven’t you heard, mate, we got aeroplanes that’ll do that for you these days?’
The dog was straining at the leash. The man was bent sideways as he grinned at Arthur. One of his front teeth was missing.
‘Thanks, I know.’ Arthur cursed the bloom across his cheeks.
‘Want some company? I’m not in a hurry, even if Vader is.’ He yanked at the lead, and the Staffie whimpered.
‘I’m alright, thanks. Just minding my own business.’
The man shrugged. Behind him, a great buzzard launched itself from a branch in one of the pines, spreading black and tan wingtips to ride the thermals. They both watched it as it soared over their heads.
‘I’ll be off, then, if you’re sure. Stay safe, mate.’
Arthur watched man and dog climb the stile and disappear into the woods. Moments later, the hoarse croak and hectic wingbeats of a pheasant flushed from cover marked their path down the far slope. Then silence fell again, broken only by the breeze and the soft pat and roll of another fir cone.
From his hospital bed, Arthur remembered those last moments. He remembered watching the buzzard against the lifting clouds, taunting him with its effortless flight. He remembered looking out over the fields of the Severn Vale as he started to run. The ground had been rutted and fragile and the slope had dropped away faster than he expected. Even as he’d stumbled and corrected and staggered on, he’d tried to keep his eyes on the white matchsticks of the twin bridges, the lumpen mass of the disused power station at Oldbury, the purple ribbon of distant hills.
And then there’d been a moment, before the fall, when it had really felt like flying. Arms jolted upwards by the air filling his canvas wings. Feet first dragged and then lifted clear of the damp grass. Sweat dampened hair was cooled by the breeze. He’d flown.
Then, darkness. Voices.
‘Bit old for the Flugtag, aren’t you, love? Need a bit more Red Bull next time, would be my advice’.
A sharp pain in his arm, something jabbed in the back of his hand.
‘Almost took the Staffie with him, I heard. Got him by the ankle just as he was taking off. Nasty landing, mind.’
More darkness, more pain, great waves that ebbed and flowed across his skull.
‘Grown man in a pair of shorts always looks a bit strange, if you ask me.’
Louder: ‘Says he’ll come in tomorrow, see how you’re getting on.’
A pause. ‘Can you hear me?’
‘Mr Chisholm’s still out for the count, Terri. This Kev guy said he came back for him. Said he thought he looked weird. All dressed up like Superman or summat. Ended up going back to check on him. Anyhow, if Mr Chisholm wakes up, tell him they couldn’t fit Kev in the ambulance, so he’ll pop round in the morning.’
‘Alright, Mand. Have a good night tonight, love’.
When all was quiet, Arthur opened his eyes: one first, then the other. There was a plaque on the far wall, he could just make it out: ‘presented to Gloucester Royal, 2002’. He’d been here before, too many times. He almost vomited at the memories, or perhaps that was the pain. There was a whole shelf of feelings to choose from, and no doubt he should be choosing shame.
Strange, though. That wasn’t what he was feeling at all.
The plaque sat under a picture – a silly thing, no skill in it, just a chintzy cartoon of a baby bird. Still, it reminded him of that Emily Dickinson poem about hope: “the thing with feathers”. Ann had liked it so much she’d bought it printed on a fridge magnet. And he wondered if there was something perching in his soul that might want to keep on singing after all. All his life he’d wanted it, and today, for a moment – the sweetest, briefest moment – he had been the Human Bird. Inside this broken, twisted old body, not worth a jot to anyone, there was something that could fly.
CHLOE TURNER (@turnerpen2paper) is a writer from Gloucestershire, whose stories have been published in various literary magazines including Kindred (US), Halo, Hark and The Woven Tale Press (US/UK). Her short story ‘Long-gone Mary’ was released by InShort Publishing (Australia) as an individual pocketbook, and ‘Labour of Love’ was a For Books’ Sake Weekend Read in 2016. Chloe blogs about books and writing at www.turnerpen2paper.com. ‘The Human Bird’ was Specially Commended in The Elbow Prize 2016.