by Nichola Bendall
Story dedicated to Kay Bendall, August 1938 - May 2014.
She wakes up the way she always does, quickly and slowly. Her pulse, quick quick slow, quick quick slow. Quick, the adrenalin that flashes in her and it feels like she’s ready to run, to fly, the fooled, frail, exhausted body. Slow, being the fog. The numb-skulling pea-souper that doesn’t lift till two in the afternoon. All because of the goddamn pills; the pills she took first for performance anxiety, then when Frank died, and now she is enslaved to their little white wiles.
She feels her body, limb by limb. Finds it intact, but aching. It doesn’t want to run, or fly. She feels it resisting, beneath the cool, blue sheets, the hand-sewn daisies. Her stale breath. There’s something jagged in her tear ducts, mini icebergs that will melt down her cheeks into the morning. She doesn’t lift her head yet so her eyes move around the room. Twenty-five years they’ve roamed this same room, she doesn’t know why they bother, her or her eyes; nothing’s changed in it in all that time – there’s not going to be any surprises. She feels her body again and doesn’t know why she bothers with that either, nothing’s changed there in a long time, except the saggy southern migration. The rest slowing to stop. But, you never know. Maybe the dancer in her, checking her equipment. The only structure left in her day apart from the pill-popping.
She’s got to go somewhere today. Where. She hopes she’s written it down or no chance. Neurons fire optimistically and fizzle out in the fog. Yes… something… important, to do with… aha! The election. Such a relief, the remembering. Yes, she has to go and vote today. God knows why/who. All the same. Although that new young chap what’s his name – something like… leg.. Dick… somebody, yes, Dick Leg, he seems more genuine than the rest, she’ll vote for him. The lowly trinity. Is this really the best England can do. Where are all the visionaries? I mean Labour! What the! What with Iraq, the economy. How could anyone consider voting for them. Yes, that handsome one with a bit of integrity. Not the smarmy one with all the rich chums who’d leave snail trails all over number ten.
A spider moves slowly along the architrave.
Yes. That’s all she has to do today. Go and vote for that nice Dick Leg.
She can cope with that.
She moves her feet out of the bed first, ignoring the cracking sounds. Then she stands, rubs her watery eyes and looks in the mirror, recognises herself, just. She stares at the deep lines around her mouth, then strokes her vanishing hair wondering what that hag Mother Nature’s thinking with all the thinning on top but bushy and plentiful down there. Good job Frank’s dead; he’d need a guide and a machete to make love to her now.
Missing Frank is at the beginning and end of every day. And lots of bits in between.
She looks at her eyes, still searching for Frank, at the down-turned mouth, waiting for his kisses, and the old, folded body, still expecting his arms.
Since he’s gone she has to look for herself every day in the dance. Or.
So that’s what she does. Over and over, religiously, like prayer.
She sighs and starts the routine and there’s all the clamouring inside and resistance of her actual body outside. It’s a constant fight she’s used to, bored with.
She moves her feet together.
Drops her arms by her sides.
Her pulse is too fast. Focus. Breathe. Slow it. Slow. It.
Quick quick slow.
Her head drops onto her chest and she rolls it slowly from left to right. There’s the sensation of ball-bearings clicking against each other inside her head. They said there’s nothing but she can hear them.
Click, click, click.
She lifts both arms in an arc over her head, her palms meet gently together and, straight-backed, she bends forward.
If you don’t control the dance, it controls you.
Breathe. In, slow, out, slow.
Focus on the pelvis. Strong. Solid. Dangle hands over feet. Let energy flow through the body.
Hold position. Repeat.
Now, her day can start.
She turns and pulls open the curtains, in the way they’d told her at the hospital: with gusto.
Rip them back Ingrid! They’d made her do it, again and again. No, like this: as though you can’t wait to see what’s outside. She’d felt foolish, ridiculous. Young whippersnappers who knew nothing of life yet, just babies, really. She did it feebly and then more enthusiastically until they were satisfied and they all stared down at the dejected parking lot populated with weeds and rubbish and graffiti.
What she hadn’t expected was that this morning, there would be an angel, upside-down, in her flower bed.
He was born with wings. She, (the woman he can’t forget, but can’t remember either) called him Little angel. How are angels born? He thinks not like that, tunneling out of a deadbeat. Anyway, she took a pill and he wasn’t born, so much as excavated from her depths. He must have looked like a tiny, slimy, broken chick – and she left him every promise except the one where she’d stay.
He’s not like the other boys at the school. The other boys can’t fly. But otherwise like them; all insulted body and clear, clever thoughts. The Outsiders treat them like they’re morons without brains, but, mostly, there’s nothing wrong with their brains, so who’s the moron.
Of course, he’s not supposed to be like this, but they’re trying out new things with old drugs now, for cancer and stuff, including Thalidomide. Wouldn’t want to waste their efforts, their original investment after all. Maybe she had cancer and agreed to be in a trial; he’ll never know. All he does know is that desperate people will swallow any lie – but it’s not the greedy, powerful and ambitious who pay the price. Look at that grinning berk Tony Blair and the wooden hat stand, George W.
It’s the election today. He’s way too young, but that won’t stop him voting. More than one way to tick a box. He doesn’t get why people believe all the shit they’re told, he’s just a kid and he can see straight through. All the chickens coming home to roost and the hen-house full of suicide bombers.
The Outsiders don’t like him. They try so hard to but it’s implicit in their body language and he the linguist. No-one calling him Angel here. They liked him before he was a teenager, when his arms fit him better, before his anger grew with his body. Overtook. He didn’t want anyone to like him anyway, when there was clearly nothing to like. That woman – the mad poet, Plath, she was right, that poem she wrote seemingly just for him with knuckles at his shoulder blades. Can’t even wank! He won’t drop like mercury though, she was wrong about that. The air, unlike the world, will hold him.
His wings the strongest they’ve ever been. It was now or never because Woody Allen’s right: eternity does seems like a very long time, especially towards the end. It’s what he’s built for, and people are built for things, he’s read it. The others don’t know theirs, but he knows his purpose. Understands aerodynamics, wind pockets and limited resistance. He can recite the names of all the world war flying aces alphabetically. He’s sick of land under him. To twist away upwards, he knows what’s possible. Practice. That’s the thing. And the secret stamina exercises for the run, the launch. They don’t know he does it but they don’t know anything that goes on in the school. They think they watch like hawks but they’re not built for that. Hawks watch from the air, can see a mouse at 4,000 feet, or a mole surfacing, fifteen fields away.
Today, there’s a picnic. And a flurry of excitement through the rooms. He waits. Imagines. The longing for it, up and over, the rushing air and envious birds. No possibility of failure, and definitely no passengers. He knew the other kids sensed it, nervously looking his way, kicking him or crying. Their pitiful heads lolling, seemingly neckless and their rolling eyes. Poor sods! He’d like to take them all. But.
Of course, once she’s seen it, she can’t unsee it. She quickly shuts the curtains. Her body’s tingling, instantly, announcing a hundred different urgencies like a clamouring bell. She stands for a while, a shaking hand gripping each curtain.
Her banging heart.
She will have to look again. Make sure that what she thought she saw, is really what she saw.
What to do.
Sweat, now. On her fingertips.
Think Ingrid! She opens the curtains again, slowly this time, and looks down.
Yes. It is still there.
An angel, upside-down, in her flower bed. Where she planted the begonias last week, her angry back.
This is just what shouldn’t happen! No big events, they said. No surprises. Slow, even, calm days. Well, too late for that now! Too much adrenalin and now she’s swooping, soaring. No stilling the body, now. Without.
Right. The phone.
Quick quick quick.
Then, the pills.
At Bahrain Airport a British Airways plane turns and begins taxiing along the runway and Ayaz streaks out from his hiding place and runs as though his life depends upon it. Which it always had. Stealing food and dodging stray bullets was easy though, compared to this. It’s too fast, he isn’t going to make it! His bare feet slap the tarmac and his calf muscles rip, he pumps his arms and the smell of airplane fuel’s like a stinking hot wall. He starts screaming and there’s something jagged in his chest but with a last desperate burst he lunges at the giant wheel, grabs metal and hurls his slight body upwards.
He’s made it! He’s shitty made it!
He grins, and climbs, fourteen feet up the aircraft’s wheel and into the chamber above. They told him he’d be able to get through, into the plane, but something drops in his stomach when he discovers that’s a lie. The plane nears the end of the runway and starts the engines and the noise is like a roaring animal eating him alive and he screams again in fear and panic. He presses his palms over his ears and rolls into a tight ball, but it makes no difference because the sound is so loud it’s inside his blood, splitting atoms, separating his soul from his body.
The plane climbs.
Slowly, he unravels, relaxes. Sweat covers his entire body and he begins to cry.
But he’s thrilled he’s made it, cadging a ride on a jet to England! Angel Land. His unimaginably exotic life beckons. His parents, his brothers will be so proud! He knew he could make it, will make it, now. He has no idea of the odds so guesses he’s the one in five hundred thousand who could do it. To calm his nerves he imagines the big new telly he will sit in front of and watch his favourite football team Chelsea play. He’ll soon get a job; he’s good with people plus his English is excellent and he’ll send so much money back to Pakistan so his mother won’t have to kill herself at the factory. He smiles to himself. He knows it’s shitty hard to do, yes, but he can do it. She will worry about him, yes, but be secretly proud, plus she will be able to buy new saris.
The plane accelerates to a hundred-and-eighty miles per hour. Ayaz smiles.
Not fleeing now, flying.
Maybe he isn’t upside down. It’s her eyes seeing upside down and the mind not intervening because of the pills.
Maybe he isn’t a he. Whatever. He/she/it is definitely a black angel. Not that that matters, but were there black angels? Or, not black but dark. Its beautiful wings splayed out, feet rigidly together, pointing towards the blue sky.
She walks from room to room. Out and back, look, yes, its still there. Definitely. It’s not her. It’s real.
She checks her body again.
Feet together on the floor. Eyes closed. Feel the floor.
The ball-bearings drop, click, click.
She’d starred in a dance once called Angel. They gave her beautiful gossamer wings and sewed tiny diamante jewels on her dress. She flew across the stage… She can still hear the applause, her chest heaving.
She allows half an hour to pass before she goes to look again, and then calls the police.
Today, he registers every thing. Every freakin’ minute thing. Every thought, breath, sneeze, cough. Part of the code that signals this day, the picnic, the day he’ll fly. He hasn’t slept. Everything’s suddenly bright, electric, neon. He’s flooded with adrenalin.
The Outsiders start arriving, all buzzing like bees about the election. What it’ll mean for them, for education, if, if, if. Daft cows. Don’t they know it’ll all be the same? Like anything will improve. Pathetic. Look at all the hope and happiness when labour got in. All those years. Look at the mess. But they bumble on with their jolly colours and voices.
The minibus arrives and they load the baskets, the blue-striped cloths. Some mother’s bought serviettes. Like it’s goddamn Glyndebourne! Another’s brought houmous. No-one likes it and it makes them all fart and on the way back he would have had to lean out of the window.
Not today, though!
There’s going to be a cake. To celebrate. Who celebrates an election before it’s won? So incredibly sad he’ll waste breath if he focuses on that. Measured breath now, like a diver. Breathe. In, slow, out, slow.
He knows the diversion necessary for success. Maybe not hawks, but still sharp as a box of scalpels; if he doesn’t do it right, they’ll head him off.
Even as a small boy, Ayaz dreamed of England. His father talked of it constantly, and of Mr Hinge, his English boss who carried a cane with a silver top made out of a smashed bullet from the Boer war. The English, Ayaz’s father announced, have class. They know how to speak, to treat people with respect. Mr Hinge, he is always respectful, even to the servants, isn’t it? Ayaz and his brothers look to their mother for validation. She nods her head but she does not look up from her sewing. England is beautiful, beauty full! Mr Hinge says it is green and lush and everyone has jobs and they love people from other countries, celebrate other cultures isn’t it! He chuckles to himself and looks at his sons. Maybe, probably, when you are older, you shall travel there or even live there and your old parents can come and visit! Yes, yes, Mr Hinge says any of us would always be most welcome. Most welcome. In his father’s mind, England assumed the shape of a pronoid person and, despite all evidence to the contrary, assumed everyone adored it.
And, like father like son. Of course in his heart, Ayaz knew it was Mr Hinge that his father loved. But the seed had been planted.
What she can’t stand is fuss.
And, now, it’s everywhere. Strangers, all over her house and she’s a rocket, about to launch and they can’t tell because she looks okay on the outside, but inside, her body’s hurtling.
I mean, she’s not even religious! No holy chord ever struck her… not even when Frank, and they said that’s when, if it was going to. So, to pitch up in her garden, rather than Betty Riley’s down the road who was always on her knees, eyes to the skies, dying for a visitation of some sort. She’ll be green, when she hears.
The day’s too loud, now. She can’t think.
The police arrive, ask questions.
When. How. What. Who. A policewoman – a girl so young the police uniform looks like fancy dress – sits beside Ingrid on the pink sofa.
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, she answers and her head moves from side to side.
She hasn’t had time to take any pills and her heart is pounding.
Quick quick quick quick.
So many men in black moving through her house, into the back garden. The neighbours queuing at the front, trying to peer in.
He thinks they’ll never get there. A punctured tyre. Or, rain. An accident. Conspiracies that will prevent him catching his flight. The anxiety makes him sweat and he can smell himself. They want him to sing and he barks swear words until they leave him alone. He’s on the edge of panic. It’s the journey that scares him, not the destination beyond. Never mind the New Age crap about enjoying the journey: he gets car sick.
His father was a pilot. No-one’s confirmed nor denied this but despite the lack of evidence he feels it. He knows the others are envious. His body, his thoughts, light and fast. They know the air won’t hold them. He didn’t talk about it but they all knew he was the flier. There’s only one in about every five hundred thousand.
They finally arrive and he’s out and running while the Outsiders unload the minibus. He breaks through the first field and then the next and then he can see the cliffs. There’s shouting behind him but they won’t catch him now. He’s going so fast in the end he’s just smoke. He can see the drop and the sea and the cloud all at once and there’s a hot dizzyness in his head, expanding, ready and then his wings catch the current like swimming and he remembers how to fly and how to swim at the same moment and there’s a smile and a sound, exultant with the flapping wings and the sure clear knowledge that he was right all along. His suddenly graceful, supple body and he wants the leap again. Wondering if they’ve caught it, on camera. The only thing there is. Out and free, flying over the lip of the world.
He’s into the flight and the first thing’s a memory. The journey out of her and she’s all exhausted joy before she saw the doctor’s face, the flaps where his arms should’ve been. Her little bird. And now the bird’s a big beautiful swan in the air and his wings are holding him and the world’s there, all craned neck, straining to see him fly.
So Ayaz’s dreams involved green trees, football, and girls with pale skin and light eyes on their feet, cheering him on. Even when he was working as a labourer in Dubai, he still had the same dream about England. At first, he felt like a sophisticated, international traveller, far removed from his father at the factory and his brothers, farming onions in their village on the border of Afhanistan. But after a few months, exhausted and lonely, he watched tv in a café where giant cockroaches clattered to and fro, and worried about the money his family had borrowed to pay the agent to get him to Dubai, plus a visa, plus a bribe. His salary turned out to be only one-fourth of what the agent had promised, and it would take two years to pay back the money. He could barely afford to eat. Plus, his employer had taken away his passport.
In desperation, Ayaz hatched the plan to fly to England and a new excitement mounted in him when he watched football in the café. Soon, he’d be there, the match unfolding in front of his eyes – and all this Dubai business would be just a shitty memory!
He did not tell a soul about his plan.
At 18,000 feet, he begins to hallucinate from the lack of oxygen. He sees his mother in the tiny space above him and he cries out. ‘Mother! I am afraid!’ His mother is wearing her cross face and he begins to cry.
Inside the plane, a few feet away, the British Airways stewardesses patrol the aisles with metal trolleys, dish out drinks and peanuts to the passengers.
30,000 feet. The temperature in the undercarriage compartment is minus 56 degrees.
Ayaz is dead.
XI. Ingrid, Alex and Ayaz
Not an angel but a frozen boy from Pakistan.
Not wings but where the impact split his arms so it looks like.
The policeman tells her the undercarriage is always lowered at the same point, so these poor souls fly right across the world and usually end up in a smashed pile in a car park in Richmond.
‘The West embracing the migrant.’ His colleague laughs, not cruelly, sadly.
He tells her one boy called Pradeep survived the flight in ’96. ‘Incredible! He hit the ground, got up and disappeared into the bowels of London. There may be others, but I’ve never heard.’
There’s silence while they think of the plane, dropping its secret freight.
The policeman’s phone rings again. He turns to the young girl.
‘Some young Thalidomide boy just launched himself off Beachy Head. Press’ve got it.’
They look at Ingrid but she is blank with the new information. She looks out the kitchen window and watches a flock of birds move like a line of barbed wire across the sky. Nothing to do with her. That boy didn’t end up in her flower bed, her day. Although, like he’s arrived, now they’ve said it. Her hands shake. She has to move. She goes to put the kettle on, turns on the radio and the story comes back out at her sensationalised into election fodder.
All these desperate boys, throwing themselves into the sky.
How bad must it be, to do that.
She thinks of Frank.
The depths some people will go. The heights, of others. Clinging to the underbelly of an airplane because hope beckoned.
The kettle boils and she reaches for the PG tips. Eyes the dirty boot prints through her hallway. Another knock on the door. They’ve come for the body.
Later that night, she kneels by the bed. They reckon no-one’s won the election outright and they don’t know what’s going to happen. She didn’t get to vote for that Dick Leg and she hopes her one vote won’t mean he loses, but it looks like it will be that ghastly rah man you just know is lousy in bed.
She starts the routine.
Body upright and rigid, legs at hip-distance, head back, arms back, pelvis pushed forward.
Her arms drop by her sides.
Her pulse is still too fast. Focus. Breathe. Slow it. Slow. It.
Quick quick slow.
Her head drops onto her chest and she rolls it slowly from left to right.
Click, click, click.
She moves her arms in an arc over her head and her palms meet together.
Her heart bangs in her chest.
Quick quick quick.
This event (is it one or two?) could unpick her. Like when Frank. Can’t let that happen. Has to snatch herself back from the throat of that river or she’ll be rushed away. It’ll zig-zag in her mind until that’s all there is. Those poor boys! She sits on the bed, opens the bedside cupboard, takes out the box, pops out a couple and scoops the pills into her mouth.
She senses the silent, empty flowerbed beneath her window. Wishes he had been an angel. Maybe he was and they’re wrong, or lying to her, to everyone, like they always do. What suddenly strikes her is the possibility that neither of the boys saw their own deaths and she is staggered by the triumph of the human imagination. She remembers the images like some grotesque ballet of those desperate souls flinging themselves from the Twin Towers.
When she goes.
Will the world fly open on the page of her?
What would it see?
No child, no echo. Just a footstep, on a stage.
A loved man.
‘Night Frank,’ she whispers.
Flying’s fine, she thinks. As long as you know the size of the drop – and what’s there to catch you.
Or if it’s just air, and broken bones.
Nichola Bendall is an artist and writer from the UK. Her work has been published and shortlisted for (amongst others) The Ian St James Award, The Bridport Prize, and The Asham Award. She is currently editing a novel, completing commissions for book sculptures, and thinking about where to go on holiday.
Zoë Murdoch's art is a visual expression of the language of her life, created from her own realities and imaginings; it is fundamentally illustrating the inner workings of her mind and is, for the most part, inspired by memory. Essentially Murdoch strives to create a unique interpretation of her own story and make memories into art because with art there comes a sense of permanency that can help preserve an existence that may otherwise remain concealed. View more of her work at http://zoejmurdoch.format.com/