A short story by Marcia Hibberd
The alarm blares. I slam my hand on its top to stop the noise and prepare to face the cold October morning. It’s too early for the heating, so I pull heavy clothing over prickling skin without showering. I knock on David’s door and call softly;
‘Are you awake?’
I am answered by a grunt and the door opens inwards to reveal David, my teenage son. Six foot tall and skinny, despite the vast amounts of food he eats. With his brown hair, golden skin and startling bronze eyes, he looks just like his father. Well, apart from the spots. Angels don’t suffer from acne.
He smiles at me and I can see from his rumpled face that he didn’t sleep well. We hug briefly and stumble to the small kitchen, fiercely illuminated by a fluorescent tube. Blue light assaults our tired eyes as I make coffee. David sprawls on the chair, drumming his long fingers on the table and bouncing his right knee up and down. Looking out of the window I can see dark streets dotted with puddles of sulphurous yellow light, overlaid with our tired reflections.
It’s a relief when the doorbell rings to announce our taxi. It takes us swiftly through the awakening streets of Brighton, where exhausted revellers make their way home and others are walking to work: cleaners, delivery drivers, cooks. Gulls wheel above the city squawking as we move quickly from New England Road on to the Old Shoreham Road, passing the posh gated houses in Millionaire’s Row. The vanilla scent of the air freshener tilts my sour stomach and fills my mouth with watery saliva. David is chewing his lip, which he hasn’t done since he was small. I reach for his hand to reassure him, making sure the driver doesn’t see – David is getting a bit old for public affection from his old mum.
We leave the city and reach the Downs, the hills indistinct in the grey half light. We quickly reach the top of Devil’s Dyke and leave the taxi. The driver stops himself from asking why we’re here, but I can sense his curiosity. I pay him without speaking and he drives away, leaving us alone on the ridge.
We make our way across the grass to the edge of the cliff. I smile at David, but my face is tense, my heart is threatening to pound out of my chest and my mouth is now dry. I hope he doesn’t notice. David takes off his hoodie and hands it to me for safe keeping. It’s warm and smells of him – fresh sweat, the cigarettes he doesn’t admit to smoking – and it’s all I can do not to insist he puts it back on, to demand he comes home right now. But I know how important this is to him, so we stay.
David looks me full in the eyes, smiling broadly and reassuringly as if he were the parent and I the child. He hugs me to him and whispers in my ear.
‘It’s okay mum. I’ll be fine; honest.’
He kisses my cheek and releases me from his embrace, then walks a few metres to the steep drop. He turns to face me and unfurls his wings.
It’s the first time I’ve ever seen them fully extended. Our tiny flat isn’t big enough to take them – they must be twenty feet from tip to tip. The feathers are pure white, and remind me of swans. I approach him and run my hands across them, feeling the silk on top and down underneath, the smooth, light bones. They smell warm, like clean hair.
I take a few steps back and see David as if for the first time, with his powerful wings and the smile on his face. He looks as if he could take on the world. A deep breath and he’s ready. He flexes his wings, testing them properly for the first time, before entrusting his life to them as he leaps from the ridge.
For a few heart-stopping seconds he disappears from view below me, ascending quickly to hang above me before soaring over the Downs in the murky false dawn. I hear his whoops of triumph as he plays among the early starlings. At times, I can barely see through my tears. He calls to me from far above;
‘Mum, look – I’m flying!’