Outside looked wobbly. Grace closed her eyes hoping that when she opened them the world would have settled back into place. It hadn’t. She made a mug of tea, spilling hot water as she did so. She sat and stared at it and couldn’t remember why it was there or what she should do with it. Moving over to the window, she watched the sun and the clouds shimmering over it. Each time she blinked their colours changed. She imagined being in the sky. She thought about the freedom of being in the air. No one to tell her what to do. The pleasure of floating, weightless, worry free.
When she was a child she had tried to fly. One spring afternoon when she was five she made paper wings, gluing on tissue and sparkles, feeling happy as she worked, singing a song to herself. When she’d finished, she asked her mother to pin the wings on her back but her mother looked at her as if she couldn’t see her. So Grace took off her shirt and fixed them herself. Carefully she put her shirt back on and over and over again she climbed the stumpy apple tree that sat in the middle of the long grass in the back garden and jumped, praying that instead of landing on the ground, she’d float up into the air. Her prayers weren’t strong enough. When most of the sparkles had fallen off the wings and they were too torn to work Grace gave up. She went inside to where her mother was sitting in the kitchen smoking and staring at nothing.
‘Why won’t God let me fly?’ Grace asked, putting her hand on her mother’s knee.
Her mother looked down at her, breathing smoke out of her nose. ‘Don’t be silly,’ her mother said and Grace let herself cry.
That was a long time ago, over thirty years, maybe forty, maybe more. It was the strangest thing but sometimes when she thought about the past, it was as if it had been scribbled on her brain. Then rubbed out, then scribbled again. Pictures with people all jumbled up so that she couldn’t be sure who was who or what was what. One day her mother had gone. She never came back. Or maybe it was Grace who left her mother.
‘No, I think she went and never came back,’ Grace said aloud to fix it as a fact, at least for the time being. She switched on the radio, hoping that it would tell her what day it was and other things that might be useful to know. She looked at the mug and remembered what it was. She raised it to her lips and drank the tea, all of it, even though it was lukewarm. Grace rinsed the mug under the tap, feeling that she was gaining control. Maybe the wobbles were going to stop. Some days she felt almost normal. She went back to the window to look out. The woman on the radio was telling the news. There had been a disaster in another country, far away, and the price of food was going up. Grace imagined the prices rising into the sky, getting so high that no one could catch them. She gazed up at the scudding clouds. One looked like a dog, another looked like a woman smiling. But the smile was secretive, hiding real thoughts. When Grace looked down again her neighbour, Rosie, had come out of her unit with her dog, Cuthbert. Sometimes Grace imagined that it was Cuthbert who took Rosie for a walk. This time she couldn’t tell who was in charge or if Rosie could see her. Cuthbert wanted to go one way and Rosie was standing undecided, probably planning to go in the opposite direction.
Grace opened the window and called out: ‘Rosie! Rosie!’
Rosie turned and frowned at her. ‘What do you want?’ she asked.
Grace said nothing because she didn’t know the answer. She tried to think of something to say.
‘Prices are going up,’ Grace said and held her breath.
Rosie nodded. ‘Must be off,’ she said and Cuthbert barked. Grace watched as they went down the road, not looking quite right, as if Rosie could easily turn into Cuthbert and Cuthbert into Rosie.
Grace realised that she should have gone with them. She moved away from the window and ran out through the front door.
‘Sorry,’ she said when she reached Rosie. ‘Sorry, sorry.’
‘Oh, Grace,’ Rosie said. ‘Go home.’ She sounded sad and cross at the same time. Just like Grace’s mother had done so often all those years ago.
‘There’s been a disaster. On the radio,’ Grace said. She wished she could work out the right things to say to people. Words were like presents that you gave to people, but sometimes you gave presents that the other person didn’t want. More than anything, she wanted to share. But it was the hardest thing to do because of the problems of understanding.
Rosie had stopped.
‘Cuthbert wants to go on walking,’ Grace said.
Rosie sighed and shook her head. ‘He’s not Cuthbert. He’s called Dog.’
Grace thought for a bit. She knew Rosie was wrong. Cuthbert was a dog, but that was not his name. Rosie didn’t want to know what he was called. Grace scratched her cheek.
‘Why don’t you use his name?’ she asked Rosie.
Rosie stamped her foot and groaned. ‘Have you been taking your tablets?’ she asked.
‘Have you taken yours?’ Grace responded.
‘I don’t need to,’ Rosie said, her voice sharp. Grace closed her eyes and when she opened them Rosie and Cuthbert had moved away. Leaving her. As they so often did.
Grace watched as they turned the corner. When they’d gone she walked slowly home, her head bowed. There were patterns in the pavement that hadn’t been there before. Instead of going inside Grace went into her little back yard and sat on the bench. It was a shame that there was no apple tree for her to climb and jump off. Maybe now she was older she’d be able to fly. She considered that for a bit. Probably if God hadn’t let her fly when she’d been small and light she’d not be able to now she was grownup and heavier. She looked down at her legs. She was wearing a brown slipper on her left foot and a black sandal on her right. When she’d been a little girl she’d hated shoes and had gone barefoot whenever she could. But after she stopped living with her mother, it had been more difficult. Uncle Ted and Aunty Ellen had been strict. There’d been a lot of rules. Uncle Ted had punished her. Uncle Ted had liked to punish her. When she was older, he’d liked to come into her room at night, whispering and telling her not to tell. His breath had the same smell as her mother’s. Smoke and something sweet.
‘Whisky,’ Grace said sitting in her garden scratching her knees, remembering the smell and how she learnt what it was when she fell in love with Josef and ran away to live with him. They had all left her. Or she had left them. Even little Jack, her baby boy, had gone. But he came back. Most days he came to see her. Sometimes it was him, sometimes it was someone who said it was him. Like Rosie, he talked about her tablets.
Grace leaned back thinking about the wobbliness of the world. It made her tired to think about it. She raised one of her legs. It went up easily. She raised the other one. It was as if she were filled with air; she was so light.
‘Please God, I want to fly,’ she prayed, closing her eyes, and putting her hands together as she did when she was a child. She put her legs down and knelt on her small patch of grass. It felt right. The buzzing in her brain had become almost silent. She repeated the prayer again and again. When she finished and opened her eyes, she expected to see an apple tree in her garden; when it wasn’t there, she shook her head.
She went out to the front of her unit. Rosie and Cuthbert were coming home; she saw them walking up the road. Sitting on the low wall that divided her place from the street, she willed her thoughts to give the right answers. When she went inside she couldn’t find anything that she could use for wings.
‘Perhaps I can fly without them,’ she told herself and went back out again.
It wasn’t working. Grace had jumped off the wall over and over and each time she landed on the pavement. Probably it wasn’t high enough. Rosie and Cuthbert came out of their house. Cuthbert sat down, his tongue lolling out. Both he and Rosie looked at her. Rosie had her arms folded.
‘Have you got a ladder?’ Grace asked. She had begun to think clearly and knew what she needed to do.
‘Why?’ Rosie asked.
‘So that I can get onto the roof,’ Grace explained. Now that she had a purpose, talking was easy.
Rosie went back into her house. Cuthbert followed her. They came back a few minutes later.
‘Where’s the ladder?’ Grace asked. Rosie shook her head. She had a secret that she didn’t want to share: Grace could tell.
‘I’ll have to climb without then,’ Grace said.
‘No. Wait. I’ve phoned Jack. He’ll be here very soon,’ Rosie said. Cuthbert barked. Grace ignored them. She went inside and undid the flaps of the kitchen table so that it would fit through the door. Her mind was tidy now and telling her exactly what to do. She no longer needed tablets for that. She dragged the table out through the front door and placed it between the low wall and the front of her little house. Next she fetched a chair and a stool. She put them on the table. Taking off her slipper and the sandal, she pulled herself onto the table and lifted the stool onto the chair. She climbed onto the chair and then onto the stool. Now she, instead of the world, was wobbling. She leant one hand against the wall of her house, closed her eyes and prayed again. She heard the noise of a car approaching and then parking.
‘Ma,’ someone calls. A man is standing with Rosie and Cuthbert. He looks like Jack. He climbs onto the table and grabs Grace. ‘What are you doing?’ he asks.
Grace looks down; the pavement seems far away; dirty and messy, a place where disasters happen. She looks up, at the bright stringy clouds where she wants to be.
‘I’ve been praying. And God has told me that I’m ready to fly,’ she tells him. This time she knows it will work and she will reach the sky. She struggles and the man – Jack – wobbles and lets her go. Grace raises her arms ready for flight. She takes a little jump and she’s soaring in the air. She is flying back in time, she sees her mother looking up at her, smiling, waving. Grace goes higher, becoming younger. She is a baby in her mother’s arms. She is happy.
‘Suicide,’ the neighbours whisper to each other later. If Grace were there she would tell them: ‘no, not that, not at all. It was a flight for freedom.’
My novel ‘Archie’s Daughter’ was accepted by Really Blue Books (nothing to do with porn) and e-published in 2012. It has received excellent reviews. Several of my short stories have been placed, highly commended or short-listed in international competitions. Many have appeared in anthologies or magazines. Others have been broadcast on Radio New Zealand. As a freelance journalist I had a column in a magazine called ‘Bonjour’ and sold pieces to the Guardian, the Independent and other British publications. And I am the joint fiction editor for Takahe, a New Zealand literary magazine.