Originally published in Victorian Writer October-November 2010. Winner of the Fiction category of VWC Grace Marion Wilson Competition.
Originally published in Victorian Writer October-November 2010. Winner of the Fiction category of VWC Grace Marion Wilson Competition.
HENRY’S WIFE BEATRICE insisted he go and see a doctor, so they packed their grumbling children into the car and went to visit their local GP, Dr Johnson. He’d been the family’s doctor since Beatrice’s first pregnancy, and Henry felt he could trust him with this kind of sensitive problem.
Beatrice flicked through an old Woman’s Day, barely noticing the sequined gowns, recipes and sex scandals. Penny and Thomas crouched on the ground and rummaged in a box of miss-matched toys. Henry sat hunched in his overcoat, fidgeting with the brim of his hat as a droplet of sweat travelled down his spine.
Dr Johnson finally ushered them into his office with a practiced smile and asked Henry to take a seat on the examining table. Beatrice sat at the Doctor’s desk, across from an over-sized model of the human heart. She clutched her handbag to her chest as she watched Dr. Johnson run a finger down Henry’s file.
“How’s the sleep apnoea?”
Henry nodded. “Good. I mean, the diet helped.”
“Good, good,” Dr Johnson muttered, eyes still on Henry’s file. “So just a routine physical?”
Dr. Johnson turned the page. “What seems to be the problem?”
There was a pause as Henry worked his mouth, trying to form the words. Beatrice shifted in her seat and sniffed loudly.
“Yesterday I had a slight case of… flying.”
Dr. Johnson looked up from the file. “Flying?”
“Yes.” Henry stared into the quizzical eyes of his doctor and felt compelled to explain further. “Levitation. Off the ground. Mid–air.”
The doctor slowly closed the file and looked Henry up and down over his spectacles.
“Can’t you help him doctor?” Beatrice fished inside her bag for a tissue, accidentally knocking over the model heart.
Doctor Johnson bent down and scooped up a valve, a left ventricle and a superior vena cava. “Well, there’s not much I can do, but there are plenty of fine institutions that can help him with his… flying.”
Henry frowned as he watched Doctor Johnson trying to fit the parts of the model back together. Then he stood up on the examining table and dove into the air.
Beatrice burst into tears. “You see, Doctor? You see? Mid–air!”
Dr. Johnson dropped his heart on the floor.
All the doctors in the practice examined Henry as he floated above them; prodding him with wooden depressors, pressing stethoscopes in strange places, even running a hula-hoop over him to check for wires.
Each test made Henry’s neck tighten, his heart stuttering as he wondered what could possibly be wrong with him. Eventually the doctors ended up sitting around, sharing a cigarette with shaky hands, and watching Henry float up and down.
“Go up. Now go down. To the left. No, my left,” the doctors ordered as they finished the cigarette and lit another. Henry obeyed every direction with mounting frustration.
In the end, they could find nothing wrong. Besides his ability to fly around the examining room, there was nothing out of the ordinary about Henry Stanfield. So they chalked it up to a phenomenon and sent him home with two aspirin, a windsock, and some stern warnings about overhead power lines.
When Henry returned to his house he found most of the neighbourhood waiting for him in his front garden. The sight of so many people made Beatrice flush and become instantly nervous. Henry sank in his seat, embarrassed at the attention.
“Oh my! They’re crowding out onto the road!” She exclaimed as she tried to park the family station wagon in the driveway.
Penny and Thomas were pressing their little faces up against the windows, smiling in excitement and waving at the gawkers standing all over their lawn. Henry rubbed his forehead and sighed before getting out of the car and facing a torrent of questions.
“Is it true?”
“You can fly?”
“Do you have to flap your arms?”
“What’s your top speed and altitude?”
Henry held up his hands to quiet everyone down. A few people took a hasty step back, expecting a take-off.
“I just want to be left alone.”
The crowd moaned. “Come on, Henry. We’ve been waiting all day.”
Henry looked back at his wife. She was clinging to the side of the car, forcing a smile at the mob trampling her gardenias. His children pranced around, pulling at his arms, chanting.
“Please, Daddy? Please?”
Henry sighed and floated up into the air, looking down at the open mouths of his neighbours.
“Happy now?” he asked.
“Do you know any tricks?” someone called from the back.
“Yeah. Like a loop-de-loop!” called out someone else.
Henry hung there in mid-air, thinking about it. Then he shot off across the heads of the crowd, a few baseball caps flying up in his wake. After a few wobbly attempts he managed to make a circle in the sky. He landed back at his parked car to applause, laughter and some excited woops.
“Do it again!”
Henry started flying all over the neighbourhood – pin-wheeling and zigzagging across the sky, a darting blur of tweed and Old Spice. People would look up from their garden hoses and barbecue tongs and give him a wave as he scooted through low cloud cover and buzzed the treetops.
When he took off he felt exhilarated. Free. He would stretch his arms wide as he flew, the wind and the happiness filling his eyes with tears. He loved to give neighbourhood children rides – with their parent’s permission of course. They’d cling to his back while he zipped just above the playground, the other children running below them, clambering to go next.
The local newspaper even wrote an article about him and plastered it on the front page, complete with a picture of him hovering above his family.
“Did your husband always have a love of flight?” the reporter had asked Beatrice, as she poured milk into tea from a china jug shaped like a cow.
“Not really,” she replied, fiddling with her string of pearls. “He’s never even been on an aeroplane.”
Every morning his secretary got to work fifteen minutes early and opened his office window, then she gestured with two handheld light wands to make sure he landed safely.
Henry’s boss, Mr Carlton, would often wait for him, smoothing down his tie and watching the open window, especially before an important meeting.
“Today’s the Hoffenmeyer proposal,” Mr Carlton said as Henry touched down on the thick carpet one day. “If we land them, the sky’s the limit.”
Henry smiled back as his secretary bought him a cup of coffee and a comb to fix his hair. “Upward and onward, Mr. Carlton.”
The people from Hoffenmeyer were already seated at the long conference table. They pursed their lips as Henry talked his way through the PowerPoint presentation. Water was poured while he explained his pie graph. There was a single cough as he finished his last bullet point.
“Of course, we can guarantee rising profits,” Henry quipped as he floated up to the top of the screen and pointed at the quarterly projection graph. The Hoffenmeyer people’s tired eyes snapped open in amazement. They lapped it up. If a man could fly, what couldn’t he do?
Once the Hoffenmeyer people had signed on the dotted line, the office erupted into cheers, gathering under Henry as he floated above the typing pool. He settled down on to their shoulders to be carried in a victory lap around the desks.
“Great work, Stanfield,” Mr. Carlton assured him. “I’d say you’ve earned a raise.”
While Beatrice was stuffing a raw chicken, Henry snuck up behind her and whispered the good news in her ear.
“Oh dear!” She breathed, wrist deep in the cold bird.
“We should have a party!” Henry exclaimed as he roughly kissed her neck.
“Yes,” stammered Beatrice. “Maybe some quiet drinks?”
Next Friday night the entire neighbourhood turned up to the Stanfield house, dressed to the nines and sporting bottles of cheap red. Beatrice scooted and scurried around the kitchen, pumping out trays of sausage rolls, mini quiches and dates wrapped in bacon.
Henry floated around their living room, passing down snacks to the giggling guests and making the same joke about “getting high” to anyone who would listen.
Every time a new tray of appetisers was ready, Beatrice would ask him to come down. “Why don’t you come down here and mingle with the guests!”
Henry laughed and poured himself another drink from a champagne bottle stuck in the chandelier.
“Why don’t you come up here?” he beamed.
And with that he grabbed her playfully around the waist and hoisted her up into his arms, flying in a circle above the party. Beatrice kicked her legs and slapped his shoulder, as he drunkenly sang Fly Me To the Moon into her ear, while she protested.
“Put me down! Put me down!”
Henry’s problems started when Beatrice woke up shivering in the night. He had floated up off the bed in his sleep, taking the doona cover with him. She poked him in the belly and he spluttered awake, looked down at his wife hugging her knees, and gave a tired laugh.
“I’m sorry, dear.” Henry floated back down and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “I must have been sleep–flying.”
He gave another chuckle and went back to sleep, pushing down his concern.
Later that day, Henry started floating up above his co–workers. He couldn’t help it. He’d be sitting at his table, concentrating on a spreadsheet, when he’d hear a stifled laugh. He’d look down and see most of the office looking up at him. He’d grin and float back down, but a half an hour later he’d be back up there.
Finally, he was sent home, after a female co–worker complained that he was floating above her to look down her top.
Henry blushed when his boss told him. He mounted a defence. “It’s just…stress.”
Mr. Carlton shuffled some papers around and cleared his throat. “Still, best you head home. Come to work when you’re back on your feet.”
That night he went to see his son’s school–play. He was puffed up and proud to see Thomas playing the lead part of Peter Pan, barely fumbling any of his lines.
Then Henry started to hover. He grabbed the arms of his fold out chair and tried to stop himself from rising. It was no use. There were gasps from the crowd as Henry rose up over the audience, chair and all. People were rushing out of the way and the children on the stage were sniffling and crying.
“I can’t get down!” yelled Henry as he bumped against the lighting rigs.
The play was stopped and the firemen managed to get him down with a long ladder. Beatrice held tightly onto his arm to stop him floating off again, but he kept rising, until eventually she was pulling him along, his feet six inches off the ground.
They went back to Dr. Johnson, but he still couldn’t find anything wrong with Henry, except that he was lying against the ceiling of his office.
“Tell me how it feels,” asked Dr. Johnson as he opened another pack of cigarettes.
“It’s like butterflies in my stomach,” Henry called from the ceiling.
Dr. Johnson lit his cigarette. “Well, there are a few things we could try.”
At first they put some small weights in his pockets. Henry stayed on the ground for about twenty minutes before he floated back up to the ceiling. So they tied him down to the examining table with straps. But after a while he took off again, taking the table with him. They even tried putting a bowling ball on each hand, but he just ended up in a hand–stand.
The doctor put out his last cigarette and sighed out some smoke. “It seems that no matter how much weight we apply, Henry will eventually lift it.”
Beatrice was a blubbering mess. “Is there any hope?”
Dr. Johnson wrote on his chart. “Oh, yes. Definitely.”
It was decided that it was best for him to go home, to familiar and comfortable surroundings, where he could concentrate on not flying as much as possible.
The family tried their best to help. At meal times Penny and Thomas would throw food to their father, while Beatrice would pour herself another glass of wine.
Going to the toilet was extremely difficult. He had no choice but to float above the shower and aim as best he could. The rest of the family started taking baths.
When Henry needed fresh air they would tie a rope around his ankle and take him for a walk in the park. The children, both holding onto the other end of the rope, tugging their father along through the air, like a sulky balloon animal. He would shoot challenging stares at the dog walkers and Frisbee throwers, while Beatrice walked slowly behind them, trying not meet anyone’s eyes.
Wednesday nights were worst of all. It had always been Henry and Beatrice’s special night. But with Henry hanging in the corner of the room, it had become a rather tricky proposition. One Wednesday, after the kids had brushed their teeth and blown their father a kiss goodnight, Henry looked down at Beatrice and bit his lower lip. “What if we got a step–ladder?”
The suggestion was met with a cold silence.
As time went on, Henry started to fade into the background, living his life above everyone’s head. His children would be getting ready for school, Penny tapping her foot as Thomas struggled with his shoelaces. Quickly grabbing their lunches and running out the door, forgetting to say goodbye to Henry. He would remain silent.
Henry would be reading a book; something off the top shelf of the bookcase, and Beatrice would turn the light off and go to sleep, right when he was in the middle of an interesting paragraph.
Sometimes they would forget to throw him his dinner, so he’d just pick at whatever scraps clung to the wall.
He was like a spider, a daddy–long–legs living in the corner of the room. Forgotten.
Penny’s eighth birthday party was the first time the Stanfield house was opened up to the neighbours in months. All the kids on the street had been invited, and Beatrice had bought a pink ice cream cake shaped like a pony. The house was filled with energy, as tiny feet ran back and forth in stiff, leather shoes, and fairy bread got smeared on brand new party dresses.
“It’s time for Happy Birthday!” called out Beatrice as she spiked the ice cream pony with eight little candles.
The kids gathered around the dining table, bouncing in anticipation. In came Beatrice holding the cake, lit up by the glow of the candles.
“Quick! It’s going to melt!” yelled Penny as her mother placed it on the table.
“Now, now. We have to sing Happy Birthday,” clucked Beatrice, as she led them through the familiar words, the children singing one or two steps behind her.
Then they got to the end of the song.
“Hip-hip!” cried someone from the corner of the ceiling.
The children looked up and screamed. The horrible bearded thing covered in stink that used to be Henry Stanfield smiled down at them.
They bolted for the door, leaving Penny in tears with her melting pony.
The next morning Beatrice tugged on the rope around his ankle. She pulled him down to the ground and held him there.
“Take a seat,” she said. “I made you breakfast.”
It was his favourite; eggs and potato, with rye toast and a big mug of coffee.
“But, your arms?” he croaked.
“It’s ok,” she panted.
He sat down slowly, picked up a silver knife and fork, and started shoveling the food into his mouth. He finished quickly, aware of the bead of sweat trickling down his wife’s face as he drank the last drop of coffee.
“Time for a bath and a shave,” she gasped.
The rope was looped around the toilet, and wrapped around her forearm as he stood in the bath and scrubbed off the filth. She braced herself against the tub with her foot as the rope started to squeal against the porcelain.
Henry finished shaving away his beard and started drying himself off. He couldn’t remember feeling so clean, so fresh, so good.
“Thank you, honey.”
“It’s ok.” Her knuckles were white and her arms were quivering. “How about we go for a walk?”
She took him down to the park. The sky was clear and chilly, the morning new and damp. There were no dog walkers. No Frisbee players. No shrill children.
Beatrice held Henry down, her face white and slick with sweat, and he was able to take a few steps. The joy of grass under Henry’s feet was almost too much for him to bear, so soft and lush.
“This is…amazing,” he sighed.
Beatrice looked at Henry. There was a tear in her eye. She tugged him close and kissed his cheek.
Then she let go of the rope.
Henry didn’t make a sound. His eyes and mouth went wide as he floated up into the stratosphere. He was a speck caught on the wind, pulled up and up and up until he disappeared.
People from the neighbourhood don’t look at the sky anymore. Dog walkers keep their eyes on the ground. Children don’t lie in the grass and look for shapes in the clouds. Young lovers sip champagne and ignore the sunset. No one remembers why, they just know there’s something missing
Except one old woman. Every now and then, when she’s sure nobody is watching, she looks up at the clear expanse of blue. She remembers.
Henry Stanfield could fly.