Accountancy is a notoriously unremarkable profession. When you’re an accountant for a middle-of-the-the-road firm – one that is not by any means prestigious, and not at the other end cooking the books of the gutter quangos – well, I won’t bore you with the details, simply state that that was how I occupied my days. Commuters, computers, papers, numbers and home again to my unexceptional house by a main road, and the demure affections of my wife Mabel. It was a life.
But everyone has a tipping point, a moment that once reached, their brain will begin to float itself in a lake of absurdity. I guess that I was lucky on at least two counts: first of all with the stressless and non-violent manner in which I reached my “moment”; and secondly that my absurdity turned out to have a direction and a practical application (and not many people can claim that). For a period it lifted me up out of the humdrum and blew the winds of the sublime square into my face. If I have any regrets now I should recall the sheer grace of that experience.
I remember it well, It was morning – rush hour – and I was sat in heavy traffic inside of my Series 3 BMW. The air conditioning was functioning at just the right temperature, and Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” was tinkling out of the radio. Someone in a black Golf was, with some aggression, trying to push forward in the wrong lane, causing angry honks from several directions, and my mind wandered over the great capacity I possessed to accept whatever fate came my way with the utmost stoicism. Nothing seemed to affect me. Mediocrity? – I remained content. Rudeness? Selfishness? Barging in? – never bothered me. Paul McCartney on the radio? – let it be. Where others would stop and stomp their feet and scream enough! I would float on like a ghost in a different dimension, untouched by the world around me. And how did I feel about that? Well, stoically, of course.
I gazed over the Golf driver’s shenanigans; they didn’t matter to me. I could see the stupid, inhumane gridlock that was barring my way to work, but it failed to touch any emotional centre. The gaggle of honks signifying my fellow man’s frustration with the world swilled around my ears but stirred neither empathy nor disgust.
Everything was okay.
Everything was okay; it was a feeling that sat like a crowned king in my sternum. The phrase echoed in my cranium like a mantra. But in that moment something, for some reason, changed. It began to spread through my body like an emergency shot of adrenaline. Everything was okay; it was so okay it began cloying. It was too okay, but there was no need to shrink from the overwhelming feeling, because everything was okay.
That was the moment, that was when I decided, with my fingers relaxed around the steering wheel, that I would solve the problem of morning gridlock, not for anyone else, just for me, and not because there was any need to, but precisely for the opposite reason.
When I got home that evening I pecked Mabel on the cheek on my way through the kitchen and marched out back into the potting shed. My poor darling, that honourable woman Mabel, must have been disconcerted when she heard the great ceramic “crash!” as I cleared the workbench, preparing to create something that would change my morning commute forever.
Every night from then on was the same. I brushed past my wife on my way to the shed and buried myself in the evening’s work until it was way beyond my bedtime, until I was exhausted. Only then did I emerge to pick at my cold dinner and grab a few hours sleep, before beginning the rigmarole of my daily life afresh.
During this time my personality underwent an overhaul, although I was barely aware until later. My once placid and impenetrable self became prone to mood swings. In the few moments of the day that I saw Mabel I became filled with anger and contempt for her. I could see in her eyes that she was wracked with anxiety over the sudden change in my behaviour, but her passive demeanour ensured that she would never address the problem; there was nothing in her past experience from which to draw to aid her through it. My feelings were in dilemma. On the one hand I didn’t, under any circumstances, want to discuss what was happening, as though naming the beast would bring the whole escapade crashing down around me. I was far too caught up in my metamorphosis to allow that to happen. On the other hand I wanted to slap her for being so pathetic. I pondered again and again – how could she let me go on like this?
The need to escape my thoughts drove me further into my night work, they accelerated the processes. A moment in the shed was a moment out of the house and away from those paradoxical sentiments. Happily I blinkered myself from all other considerations.
One morning two weeks later I was sat in my car among the gridlocked throng, when I found myself attempting an even more aggressive manoeuvre than the Golf owner’s had been the morning of my epiphany. Revving and bunny-hopping, I forced other road users to give me the highway, all the while laughing exultantly as my fellow man beeped and shrieked in chagrin.
That same day I was called into my boss’s office. According to him I had told one of our regular clients he should roll up his tax returns and use them as a trumpet. Why would I do that? What did that even mean? It could have been that my boss explained it to me right there in the dressing-down. I just heard “blah, blah, blah.” I looked instead out of the window and into the midday traffic.
The months rolled by, my attitude taking bizarre turns during the day, and my night work rushing on toward its zenith. Then, one spring Monday, bright and early – it was March 31st (I remember the date because no one would believe the news reports the next day) – I emerged pale-faced from my little potting shed with a self-satisfied smile upon my face.
Mabel, who was busying herself at the other side of the kitchen window, must have wondered at first if I was wearing some kind of rucksack, and if so what on earth for, as I should have already been in the car and on my way to work? The particular rucksack I had chosen to wear, though, had no earthly pursuit.
A quick pull of a lever put paid to any such notions. From out of my back unfurled, in the most elegant fashion, a great pair of leathery wings.
Mabel stood frozen, behind the window her eyes popped and her gob smacked. She must have scanned her brain for a reaction and come up with nothing. But this was not the day to hold things against her. I beckoned to her and she came, zombie-like, to the back door.
“Could you fetch my breakfast for me darling? I’m going to have to eat on the run this morning.” So, with a mug of tea in one hand and a slice of toast in the other, I beat my pterodactyl wings and took off into the sky.
It was a lovely day in the valley. The air was astonishingly cold, but it didn’t faze me, I simply made a mental note to dress more suitably the following morning. Anyway, my toast was hearty and my tea refreshing.
Below me the rush hour traffic was quickly building up. At junction 27 the cars were all facing each other like the various factions of China’s warring-states period. It was here, against all odds, that a businessman happened to pry his attention from the car in front of him, look to the skies and notice me. The tiny figure leapt from his vehicle and gawped upwards. A couple of others, perceiving his reaction, cottoned-on and followed suit, beaks to the air, but it wasn’t until I took a shortcut and came swooping low over the wheat fields to the west of the main city road that the multitudes really took note, bounding out of their cars to form a roadside crowd of spectators for the minute or so that I was in view.
In record time, and much to the surprise of the surrounding pedestrians who were trudging their way to work, I touched down lightly in front of the office, folded my wings up and began what was to be the most content day of work I had hitherto seen.
By the fourth day of flying to work, Mabel and I were already being harassed by a variety of persons. It hadn’t taken a genius to work out from where I originated nor where I was landing, and resultantly there was a daily media frenzy, both on the steps of my workplace and outside the front of my home. Already I had opted to land precariously upon the ledge of my office, where a colleague would graciously let me in through the window. I was receiving daily and nightly calls, emails, letters from entrepreneurs and aviation companies wanting to buy the rights to my aviation device, for the purposes of mass-production. Magazines wanted interviews and scientists wanted studies. I didn’t want to talk, my device was my own and the world could be damned. They’d only ruin it. What an invention the car had been! And yet look at how mismanaged it was, exploited for profit, polluting, damaging to our very ways of life. I was resolute my device would not follow the same path.
On my morning flight I would watch with interest as the morning traffic got worse: a curious side-effect of events, as people flocked to catch a glimpse of the Amazing Bird-Man, who, I was told, was the subject of much debate in the newspapers and on TV. I did not know firsthand, as I shunned all media at that time. In fact, I was more stoic than I had ever been in those early days, I paid little attention to the reactions of people around me. I flew clear of the roads as much as I could, and I didn’t read the papers, which I heard ran articles such as “Is the Birdman Breaking the Law?” and “The Future of Flying Travel.” Instead I floated euphorically above the concerns of the masses, and spent my days crunching numbers more efficiently than ever as a result. There was even rumours of me being made a partner, not only for the excellent work I was producing, but also because I had already raised the profile of the company exponentially.
I should have known that epoch of serenity couldn’t last. From the start the wolves were at my door, wanting their pound of flesh. Eventually something was bound to penetrate my defences – heroic as they were. And it finally came one night whilst Mabel and I were nodding off in a post-coital stupor (since I had grown wings, so had my virility and general vigour increased).
There was a horrendous crash downstairs. Mabel lurched forward in her soporific state with a guttural moan of fear.
There will be moments in your life where you face everything at once. At the sound of the crash and the moan of Mabel the heavy burden of reality came crushing down upon my shoulders. I had created something that interested the world, and the world demanded answers. I felt that everyone wanted a piece of me and that they wouldn’t stop until there was nothing left of my soul. Not only did I have to bear that, but there was an intruder in my house, an unknown quantity with enough tenacity to illegally enter another’s home in order to seize what he wanted, and it was imperative that I rise to face him.
I stumbled with trepidation down the stairs, my fingers feeling my path out along the wall ahead of me. I fought the reluctance in my spindly legs, tiny things lost at the tops in the vast chasm of my outsize boxers. All of my internal defences, once so reliable, dependable, had abandoned me in the same moment, and I felt it bitterly.
I reached the foot of the stairs and peered into the shadowy recesses of the night, wondering with dread in which one I would find the perpetrator.
I didn’t have to wonder for long. A black silhouette stepped out, seemingly wanting to make its presence across the hall known. My heart leapt. I had never truly understood the meaning of that saying until that moment. It literally leapt.
As I stood inanimate facing the terror of that shadow, someone else coshed me horribly over the back of the head.
I came to in the gentle arms of Mabel. Her tiny hands squeezed my shoulders urgently, forced me to look properly for the first time in a long time into her verbally mute, yet physically expressive face. What anxiety I saw there! What a face wracked and run through the mill. And I realised what I’d done to her, not only from the beginning of this crazy affair, but before that, from the beginning of our relationship. Things became clearer. Had I not pursued her because of her timid demeanour, her weakness, her proclivity to wilt under the slightest pressure? Yes, that was it. She’d served my stoic defence-mechanisms admirably, but what had I done for her? Her timidity must have been borne of some early trauma, but I had not even the slightest inkling what that was! Instead of lifting her up I had fuelled her weakness for my own ends. I had been a chauvinist , thinking of her as a ‘poor dear,’ telling myself that women were like that. What woman plays the doting housewife in this day and age? Yet she had done so for me. Now my behaviour of late had almost ruined her nerves, and still there wasn’t an iota of blame in her eyes, just a dogged, hopeless concern for me. I was a criminal. I deserved my split skull.
She helped me into the kitchen and onto a chair. The place was ransacked. Draws sat open or fallen out of their slots and cutlery lay strewn across the floor. Outside the potting shed was all but gutted, and if it hadn’t been for a wobbly crockery cabinet in the dining room who knows how far their search would have gone. I was only thankful that their venture had ceased at coshing me over the head, that they had left Mabel unhurt, and of course my flying machine, which was tucked safely under the bed.
The next day was Friday, and in the afternoon, still with a sore head, I was called unexpectedly into my boss’s office. I must admit that as I wandered over I entertained the idea that word had come from on high concerning my ascendancy.
I knocked and entered. Three men were present discounting myself: Mr McGovern, my boss; Gary Grayson from personnel; and an unidentified but well-heeled businessman. Things looked good for a promotion. With friendly gestures McGovern bade me sit, which I did. We all looked at each other.
“Well, we’ve been looking at your work record and I must say,” began McGovern, “It’s impressive.” The indiscretions of the previous quarter had obviously been overlooked. “The figures you’ve been pulling in of late have interested head office. Well done.”
I nodded a thank you.
“There’s an impressive package on the table that will see you heading up a new branch, and you’ll be written into the senior partners, of course.”
I sensed a ‘but’. McGovern shot a sideward glance at our unnamed guest.
“The package isn’t entirely conventional, however. It involves, erm, the contraption you’ve invented. The company want the rights. There’s a huge payment involved.”
I looked that man dead in the eye as he shrank out of existence in my esteem.
“Not interested,” I told him.
Grayson stood up with a sigh.
“Think about it man, you’re being unreasonable. Sign this contract and everybody wins, you’ll be set for life.” He stepped towards me, “why would you want to keep such a thing for yourself anyway? It seems more than a little arrogant. Do you think you can keep its secrets hidden forever? Come on, let’s just have a look at it.”
I always kept my wings on during the day. I pinned a discreet cloth, fashioned out of the same material as my suit, over it to keep it concealed. This meant that I normally walked around looking more like a hunchback than a man with wings. It was for this cloth that Grayson lunged. I leapt from my chair and yelled “backoff!” so close in his face and with such force that the chap actually fell on his arse and shrank back across the carpet to his original perch. I looked at his frightened expression and wondered for a second what had become of me.
It was the unknown man’s turn to rise. It seemed we were all going to get a go.
“Let me introduce myself,” he said, “my name’s Ron Cooper, I’m head of Nastro Aeronautics…”
“Never heard of you!” I heckled childishly, with what felt like a sudden case of Tourettes. I’ll give the man his due, he retained his composure. Didn’t even blink.
“…forget about the accountancy contract. I can make you one of the richest men on the planet.” He dismissed the rising protests from McGovern with a wave of his hand. “Your company will get their recompense, McGovern,” he said, and returned his attention to me.
“Look, I get it,” he continued, “you’re a humble guy, you’re not out to make a fortune. You’re just after the what-dya-ma-call-it, the simple pleasures. You’ve cottoned-on to this great thing, soaring up in the sky above everybody, all by yourself – of course you don’t want to give that up. It’d be like turning your own private island into a cheap holiday resort. But here’s the newsflash: that island up there isn’t yours to own, and very soon someone’s going to plant a resort up there – much sooner than you can imagine. Look, your own private airway is lost to you whatever your next move is. There are, however other joys to be had from life. Sure, vast wealth doesn’t ensure happiness – believe me, I know from personal experience – but, managed well, it helps. Think beyond yourself. Think about the life you could offer your wife, the legacy you could leave your progeny.
“Let me clue you in as to where you stand right now. Do you think while you’ve been floating around flaunting your contraption interested parties haven’t taken detailed photographs of it? I have some of the best aeronautical engineers in the world on my payroll and I’ve had them working with a hundred detailed photos to produce your whirligig. They’ve already succeeded more or less, and my corporation is by no means the only group in the race – there must be twenty or thirty groups on the verge of a prototype. You’ve created a media storm and now this thing is worth big bucks. And you haven’t even filed for a patent pending!
“There are only two reasons why I’m even here talking to you. The first is that I don’t like to cheat a man out of his due, not until it’s entirely clear that he’s too stubborn to take it; the second is that it makes good business sense to have the high-profile, original creator on board before we launch this thing. It’s your choice, are you going to miss out? What do you think?”
“You waffle on a bit,” I said.
“Why don’t you go home?” He said, “here’s my card. Rest up with your wife and think on it over the weekend.”
“Good idea,” I replied and left, pausing only briefly at the door to wonder whether he had any authority to let me off work.
At home with a cup of tea I mulled over everything he said. His rhetoric had been powerful and confusing. But I always hated and resisted people with the power of rhetoric – at least, my new found bad-attitude-self always did. It seemed underhanded and circuitous. I went and lay down.
In the morning I slipped past the paparazzi on foot and precipitated myself to the bank of the canal for a spot of fishing and reflection. All I could think about was Mabel and how I could put things right by her. Whatever happened I was a changed man as far as her welfare was concerned. I would take care of her needs so well that she wouldn’t know what had happened to her. But there was still the question of which path to take with regards to my invention. The damn thing didn’t even have a name! I was half a mind to give in to Cooper, take the money and show Mabel the Life of Riley.
I recast my fly into deeper waters and saw a fat trout glide from a recess with an interest to taking the bait. “No!” I cried, and reeled in before he could place himself on the hook, “that’s just what I want you to do.”
I mulled over my actions, “what Cooper is offering me is the equivalent of that fly to the trout, it’s no real morsel. Who’s to say the man’s not bluffing? All I have to offer the trout is a plastic fly followed by a hook and then a cosh on the head – maybe that’s all that Cooper’s got for me. I don’t need to see if that’s the case; I have everything that I need. That creep isn’t going to snag me! What I’m going to do is carry on flying regardless. To hell with the world at large, if they’re intent on joining me then so be it. I’m damned if I’m going to help them, and I wouldn’t want to profit from it if I did.”
I left the canal feeling light. I went straight home, coerced Mabel into a little, black dress and took her to the theatre to see Blood Brothers, followed by a fancy meal in a bistro down by the canal.
On Monday the skies were heavy with clouds but the rain was holding off. A westerly breeze was carrying them in a procession over the outlying hills and into the dales beyond. From the height at which I was coasting I had a great view of the spectacle.
The wind creates a tremendous noise at that height as it buffets off itself and literally tears itself apart. I always wore earmuffs, partly due to this fact and partly due to the cold. You might think the fact that I heard anything at all then fortuitous. Well, that depends on your definition of fortuitous. Anyway, there it was, a thin sound beyond the wind. I knew immediately what it was. “Ignore it, ignore it,” I told myself, but a mixture of curiosity and fear spurred me to turn my head.
There, behind me, was my neighbour Dave, flying under the power of a contraption not dissimilar to mine. It was shoddier, to be fair, and he was having some difficulty maintaining equilibrium, hindered further by his efforts to attract my attention, which including waving and bellowing my name with the full force of his lungs.
So it had begun. My neighbour Dave of all people! With stalwart resolution I faced forward and acted as though I had never seen him. He managed to come alongside me and tried, through screaming, to strike up conversation.
How had it happened? It hit me. Of course! Dave was a mechanic, good with his hands. As my neighbour he must have had ample opportunity for surreptitious, close-up observation of my contraption and over time been able through trial-and-error to imitate it.
“Hey, it’s a free country,” he shouted, “plenty of room for everyone. HEY!”
On Tuesday Dave had a mate with him in the sky, and the arduous one-way conversation began again.
“I’ve started producing them down at the garage,” he called over. “Come into business with me. With your expertise we could make a killing!”
I floated on.
By the end of the week there were six or seven of them, and they’d learned well enough to leave me in peace.
The next week began with around thirty of the beasts. Some of the contraptions were of much better design – better even than mine. Someone with good expertise was clearly manufacturing them. My news embargo remained in place, so I kept myself in the dark upon the topic and fluttered on regardless. Every day their numbers increased, and by Friday they were beyond count. I fell into a depression. At the end of the day I came home and buried myself under the duvet of my bed, intent on never seeing day again, abandoning myself to hopelessness and misery.
Later that night the covers moved and I felt a warm body next to me. Mabel put her arm around my waist.
“I’m sorry,” she said. I had been crying so I dried my face with my wrist.
“Why are you sorry?”
“It… it was me. On the Saturday that you went fishing… Dave asked me to see it. I let him come in and take photographs. He said that he already had a prototype. I thought that if he had one then everybody might bother him, leave us alone.”
I stared at her blankly, not knowing how I should feel.
“That’s not all,” she continued. “Almost as soon as he’d gone, a Mr Cooper came around with another man. I let them look at it too. He offered me money, lots of it, but I didn’t want it.” her eyes and lips were trembling, “I just wanted this to go away!” She pulled me close and sobbed into my chest. I clutched her hair in return. So my Mabel had the guts to change her destiny after all!
“Ssh, ssh,” I soothed, “you did the right thing – look at me – you did the right thing. I’ve been an idiot.”
Monday morning was bright with a fair southerly breeze. I stepped onto the driveway, ready for take-off and looked up to the skies. Above me the regular commuters swarmed like locusts in flying contraptions. It looked like a scene from the End of Days. Hapless aeronauts desperately manoeuvred out of each others’ paths only to collide with other hapless aeronauts and come tumbling out of the sky to injury or death. Interspersed amongst them was a flotilla of police and news helicopters that were faring little better. They wheeled through the chaos as commuters bounced off or clung onto them for dear life. From within, police officers frantically attempted to issue orders as make-shift air-traffic-wardens, while others tried to catch the aeronauts in huge nets.
I unstrapped my wings, dumped them in the recycling, and slipped into my BMW. The roads were clear, with not a police officer in sight. I sped to work, barely dipping below one-hundred-and-twenty miles per hour to take a corner. I arrived in record time. It appeared I had finally solved that traffic problem.