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Too Scared to Fly
by Graham Dickson
 

PAUL WOKE SCREAMING. He sat up and after a while made a note in a spiral notebook he kept at the side of his bed. In it he kept a record of all his most vivid dreams. Dreams in which, sitting on the top floor of a bus, he would realise that he wore only the top half of his pyjamas. On other occasions he would wake soaked in sweat having dreamt he was running to escape from dark, hooded figures only to find a long piece of elastic holding him back. Once he had even dreamt he swam in a translucent blue lagoon while a dozen beautiful women swam around him like divine curving dolphins fluorescing in a pale blue glow, but still, ever since the age of ten, twice a week he would have this most unsettling dream: the one where he could fly.
        He thought of this dream when he spotted a book at the rear of a ramshackle gift shop one Saturday morning. He was on holiday in the west of Scotland for the weekend and had stopped at Luss, a small, charmless tourist trap on the side of Loch Lomond where the centre had been cleared to fit thirty buses. The book was in a section of self-improvement titles for which Paul readily admitted to being a sucker. He had wandered to the book section because, not only could he scan the titles by tilting his head to 45 degrees, resembling a dozing heron, but from this viewpoint he could also admire his companion for the weekend, Carol. Dressed in leggings that emphasised her spectacular legs and bottom, she was idly standing by a shelf of souvenirs, biting a stray wisp of hair and deciding between a red-knitted Loch Ness monster and a kilted in-car air freshener.
       Paul had felt a surge of pride and reminded himself that she was all his for the weekend. I deserve to be seen with her he told himself and to devour her like a box of chocolates. Then something caught his eye. Between "Find Three Missing Hours a Day", "Mega Manager" and "Be All You Can Be In Six Days" was the book that reminded him of his disorientating dreams: "Too Scared To Fly?: Release the Bird Within" by A.J. Abelman.
       By the time he had paid for it Carol was settling herself back in the car so he missed the chance to claim her from under the eyes of the Italian boys trying on tartan tammies by the door. Paul slipped on his narrow "Carlos the Jackal" sunglasses he had bought to make him look more continental. He was in his early thirties, dressed in tweed trousers and hand-stitched shoes topped off with a red hand-knitted Pringle jersey that concealed the fact  he wore an old "Gary Glitter: I'm the Leader" T-shirt underneath. He liked to think that the sum total of all his gestures and movements allowed him to be cloaked in an air of calculated precision and that he had, with many years practice, cultivated a look of permanent superiority.
       It was the first time that Paul had been back in Scotland for eight years. He had moved, seamlessly, to London after University to take up a highly paid job with a firm of European lawyers in Threadneedle Street. He was surprised to find himself back, but no one had been more surprised than he that Carol had agreed to come away for the weekend. He had made it sound as casual as possible as he passed her in the corridor one lunchtime, barely looking up from the bundle of faxes he was studying,
       'Thinking of motoring up the West Coast this weekend,' he said, 'Just a bit of a gas, what do you say? Fancy tagging along ? Are you game?'
       She, to his astonishment, was and it was the talk of the mail room where Paul was held in some esteem.
       ''Ere, you heard that Paul's taking Carol up to the ancestral lands for a dirty weekend in the heather?'
       'Lucky bastard. I don't know how the bugger does it, I really don't. What odds will you give me that he gives her one?'
       Carol, or 'the lovely Carol' as she was invariably known by the men in the office, had joined the firm as a trainee two months before. Her beach blonde looks and her languid confidence either terrified men or reduced them to the sort of drooling adolescents who blush crimson from head to foot when smiled at by any woman who is not a blood relative.
       They had caught the first shuttle that morning, picked up a car at Glasgow airport and headed for the Erskine Bridge towards the Highlands. Just before the road left the built-up area around Glasgow it sliced through the middle of a 1950s housing estate. To Carol, the tenements, closed up tight with steel doors and black mesh window screens, appeared at odds with the hills behind. There were still patches of blinding white snow on the tops as if the grassy slopes had been scratched away to reveal sparkling alabaster underneath.
       The only colour in view was the single red of a child's anorak as he sat in a doorway idly watching the cars through the eight-foot fence.
       'It's a bit of a dump innit? This where you come from then?' she said.
       They passed under a flyover which Paul remembered had had the word "Scared?" daubed on it in large white careless letters. The question mark had disappeared, turning the taunt into an admission.
       'Certainly not,' he said, 'I lived a bit further to the south nearer the airport.'

The sun was slowly starting to burn off the morning cloud as they pulled out of Luss and back onto the road north. Carol hooked her long red nail under the ringpull of a can of Coke, pulling it open with a spray and a hiss.
       'Want some? So where we heading then?'
       'Up the lochside to Crianlarich, over Rannoch moor to Glencoe then find a hotel.'
       'Funny names, what do they mean?'
       'Mean? Well, hard to translate directly of course but, roughly, it means, ah.... sheep, the moor of the sheep and, well, Glen, a valley obviously and Coe meaning, ah, blood, massacre, that sort of thing.'
       'Oh. What about the other one, Crysomething?'
       'Crianlarich? Well that's Gaelic for place of rest, of baking and of meeting of the roads. Good God is that an eagle?'
       'Must be nice being bilingual. This where you bring all your girls, dazzle them with the scenery first before charming their pants off?'
       'First? God no, ah, I mean...'.
       Paul considered this carefully. Was she going to be his girl? Nothing had been mentioned about the sleeping arrangements yet.
       'First time I've been back in years actually.'
       'Oh, I thought you came back for the shooting and the fishing and all that stuff.'
       'Did you? Really?'
       'What about your family?'
       'Well. My parents are still around...odd postcard, letter, phone call, you know.'
       'Ain't you seen them since you left.'
       'No'.
       'What about your friends? Dropped them too?'
       'No, well, yes, sort of'.
       'Call in on Monday on the way back.'
       'I'll think about it'.

They stopped for lunch at Tyndrum, a village with the air of a frontier town. Here the day trippers settled Gran in the back seat with a pack of toffee and swung their cars around and in bad-tempered silence headed south again.
       The road north wound up over the pass hugging the mountainsides then plunged down onto long narrow straight sections and floated over black peat moors. On either side of the road the blue green pools shone in the May sun like drops of mercury.
       The clouds were like clouds drawn by nursery children, snow white, teased and scrunched from soft down and blown from the palm with a kiss. They slid over the mountains' shoulders and balding tops in the breeze, dotting the moor with their inky shadows as far as the eye could see, and below the railway was strung from hillside to hillside by toy-town viaducts and bridges. Paul let the car run away, speeding up but still feeling pinned to the moor, becalmed under a vast stretched sky.
       Carol was looking as if she was about to sleep, her hair rising and falling over her mouth as she breathed.
       'Not far to the hotel,' Paul said, 'then we can get nice and cozy, eh?'
       'Umm.'
       'You like working at Davis and Gregory then?'
       'Yeah. Well, to tell the truth it's not really what I expected.'
       'How do you mean?'
       'Half the partners are Old Etonians, right, who only want an excuse to run their bony hands up my thigh at the coffee machine and the others are all blokes from the sticks who spend their time pretending to be Old Etonians. In fact, I've been offered a job in Strasbourg. I might take it, don't know yet. Keep it under your hat though.'
       As night fell they pulled into a hotel in Glencoe that sheltered under the cauldron-black bulk of the Buchaille Etive Mor. It was an old shooting lodge, faded and worn with mangy stag heads on the walls and old hand-drawn maps on the wall of the bar.
       'This is a bit more like it,' said Paul as he waited at reception.
       They booked two single rooms and met up in the bar for supper. The only other people in the bar were an elderly couple who gazed silently at a spread-out O.S. map, a travelling salesman sitting with his briefcase in front of him like an altar and a younger man with long curly blonde hair wearing an old dinner jacket, staring into the peat fire.
       The younger man got up from the fire and came over to talk to them while Paul was up at the bar. He had a soft, islander's accent and a gypsy smile.
       'You up here on business? 'he asked.
       'No,' said Paul returning with two large whiskies.
       'Holiday, 'said Carol, 'Paul's showing me his homelands. We might get a bit of shooting tomorrow, what do you think Paul?'
       'Showing you around? Sorry Paul, I'd never have guessed you were from up here.'
       'Oh yes. Where do you come from Mr?...'
       'Nicky,' he said, offering a hand, 'Where do I come from? Same as you, of course.'
       'What, Carnwood?' asked Paul, confused.
       'Carnwood ? You mean 'Spam Valley',' said Nicky laughing, 'No, no, same as her.'
       'What, Kent?' asked Carol.
       'No, same as everyone, six inches below the navel. Ha Ha. Slainte Bhath everyone, cheers.'
       'That's really profound, Nicky,' said Carol leaning towards him.
       Paul who had been annoyed at having admitted to coming from 'Spam Valley' stood up.
       'Well, busy day tomorrow, early night I think. You coming up Carol?'
       'Yeah, I suppose so.'
       At the door she said goodnight to Nicky then followed Paul to the hall.
       'Must be all that whisky,' she said. 'I think I'll get some fresh air before I turn in. See you in the morning.'
       'But I .. well goodnight then.'
       Paul trooped unsteadily up the stairs, muttering to himself. In his room he flopped onto the bed. If that hippy hadn't turned up he'd be tucked up with the lovely Carol by now. Fuckety, fuck fuck.
       He remembered his book and broke open the cellophane which clung to his hand like a kitten.

CHAPTER ONE

All through our lives we are weighed down, held down to earth by gravity, yet what is this force? We crawl around the dirt, heavy and tired, dreaming of the birds swooping free in the air. Think! Every time a baby raises a rattle to its mouth it defeats the gravity, the attractive force of the whole world....Some of the most rigorously tested psychic experiments have shown beyond all possible doubt that weight can be changed....My work over the last forty two years has shown that will-power alone can change its force, this weak force that shackles us to the soil........In the next chapters I will show you how you can do as I did one awesome January afternoon in Vermont. Conquer the force of gravity! Like the eastern mystics, like western mediums such as D.D. Home, like the 230 Catholic saints who did it. Learn to fly!

The next morning when Paul came down, Nicky was still there, finishing a breakfast of mushrooms and bacon.
       'Slept in the bunkhouse at the back,' he said.
       'No wonder you look tired,' Paul grunted, reading the menu and feeling the first hammer blows of his whisky hangover.
       'Carol reckoned it would be OK if you gave me a lift.'

Paul was severely pissed off. Nicky lay sprawled across the back seat humming to himself.
       'What's the best bit of advice you ever had Paul?'
       'Never use the word 'nice' and always check your jersey label isn't sticking out,' said Paul.
       'Carol?'
       'Trust your instincts and never take advice from anybody who wants something from you. What about you?'
       'Never trust anyone with the same number of vowels in their name as consonants.'
       There was a silence as they thought about this.
       'Bollocks,' said Paul.
        
Before they left the hotel Paul had inquired about shooting but when the receptionist passed out the dog-eared leaflet with the cost of a day's stalking Paul suggested the visitors' centre down the road. The three now stood in the rain looking at the plaque commemorating the dead. It was written in Gaelic. Nicky read it out in English.
       'Hope you two aren't going to talk about me behind my back,' whispered Carol.
       'Shall we go,' said Paul suddenly heading for the carpark, 'rain seems to be getting heavier.'
       'What do you mean,' asked Nicky running to keep up.
       'Paul speaks it too, don't you?' said Carol opening the car door.
       Nicky spoke some words of Gaelic. There was a long pause.
       'Well,' said Paul, 'I'm just a bit rusty now, in fact, forgotten most of it, all of it. Come on, let's go.'
       They drove off into the rain and mist, the car steaming up.
       'How do you make a living Nicky?' asked Paul.
       'I'm a climbing guide but the real money is playing for the tourists in the car parks round here. I've got my pipes here. If you want, I can fire them up, let you hear them. They make a powerful sound.'
       'No thanks,' said Paul before Carol could answer. 'So how much do you make fleecing our visitors then?' There was a touch of a sneer in his voice now.
       'Japanese buses are the best, say thirty of them on the bus, say a tenner each for having a photo taken with me, then usually there's another bus in fifteen minutes.'
       Paul did some sums.
       'You make twelve hundred fucking quid an hour? That's disgusting.'
       'Aye but remember it's only for eight months of the year.'

They spent the last night in a hotel near Gairloch looking out towards the east coast of Skye and Raasay. The evening was still, the light bronze and the silence total. The day, however, had not gone according to plan for Paul. They checked in and said goodbye to Nicky who said he was going to hitch up to Ullapool. Paul and Carol had dinner, not saying much to each other, then when Paul came back from the toilet Carol had vanished. He waited in the bar for an hour then ordered a milky drink and went up to bed where he opened his book again.
       He lay on the bed to read. The rest of the book seemed to consist of various accounts of sixteenth century Italian priests and concerned flight during their states of religious ecstasy. Paul skipped to the last chapter.

There is only one way to regain the lost knowledge of the ancients. Yes, my friends, you must believe in your ability to leave the world beneath you; gravity is an illusion.......but you must learn to see it as such.  Then and only then will you truly be able to leave your old self behind and then the bird within you will be released.

Paul closed the book. "Gravity is an illusion" he said out loud and that was when he fell onto the ceiling.
       The ceiling was cold on his face so he sat up. He felt a warm drop of blood trickle down his nose then fly up to the floor of the room now upside down above him. Everything else seemed normal: his bag lay on the floor above his head. It felt as if the room had changed, not him, no light-headedness, only a fast thumping in his temples.
       He kicked the light fitting which swung to and fro. It stopped after a while and stood straight up from the ceiling. He went to the open window to look out and saw, in a rush of sickness, the infinite drop below him. Stars sparkled beneath his feet, inviting him to jump. He ran to the door, his feet tapping loudly on the plaster of the ceiling, reached the handle and slowly opened it. He stepped over the lintel and down into the corridor. His feet slithered through the dust and the cobwebs and he jumped over a strip light that lay in his path. He walked along the ceiling until he got to the stairs. Paul reached up for the banister, pulled himself up and over onto the floor above. He knocked on Carol's door halfway down the corridor
       'Who is it?'
       'It's me, quick, open the door something really incredible has happened.'
       The door opened a crack and Carol peered out.
       'Look Paul, I'm sorry but ...Jesus Christ!'
       The door swung open and Nicky came out wearing Carol's dressing gown. He stared, wide eyed in silence at Paul standing on the ceiling.
       'You're...... upside down,' was all he could say.
       While Paul paced up and down on the ceiling in Carol's room, they phoned the publisher in New York listed on the jacket of the book and eventually got hold of Abelman's number. It rang for what seemed like ages before a woman's voice answered.
       'I'm sorry but Mr Abelman doesn't take personal calls. The publisher should not have given you this number. Please contact him in writing with any inquiries you might have or any invitations to address meetings.'
       Paul was hysterical by now and grabbed the phone.
       'Tell him I'm stuck on the fucking ceiling!'
       There was a long silence then A.J. Abelman came on the line.
       'This is incredible, I have never heard of a case like this before. Normally just little wobbles, you know, but this ...'
       'Just get me down, now, please.'
       'That's easy. Just do the opposite of what you did. Remind yourself that you weigh, you are tied to the ground, not a bird at all.'
       Paul did... and landed heavily on the bed.
       'This is.... incredible,' said Nicky, 'Are you OK? You look like shit.'
       'Do you want to tell me what the fuck you are doing in Carol's room?'
       In the brief interval between Paul asking that question and the moment when she pushed the door closed in his face Carol did indeed describe what the fuck Nicky had been doing in her room. She also described, in what Paul thought was unnecessary detail, exactly what she was intending to get Nicky to do for her next. In fact, as soon as Paul fucked off out of her room. As Paul trooped back to his room he thought he could hear laughter. He pondered on the fact that despite protesting to Carol that he really didn't want to know about which knot she was going to use and just what exactly Nicky could do with his tongue he now had a raging hard on.
       Back in his room he dealt with it in the way that he was forced to acknowledge was the sole repertoire of his sex life for the foreseeable future. He lay awake for an hour until at last drifting off to sleep where his dreams awaited, dreams which were undeniably more satisfying, vivid and comforting than the real world could ever be.
       Outside he heard a hissing noise like a million tyres leaking. The noise he heard was air molecules rising into the air. Gravity had been reversed. He choked for air whilst the sand and earth outside started to rise, forming a dense dust-cloud all around and swallowing up the moonlight. All over the world small stones were rising gracefully into the sky, then bigger and bigger ones. The effect spread out in a ripple from Gairloch until within a few minutes it was all around the world.
       Next animals, mice and insects, then dogs and cows rose flailing and kicking their legs, snapping and howling, then people. Screaming wordlessly in city streets, falling out of restaurant windows surrounded by scraps of salad; couples having sex half-dressed; people trapped inside cars; people shrieking, praying, cursing, crying or gazing in silent wonder. He saw two people who looked like Carol and Nicky. They were clutching at each other, moving faster and faster until they disappeared  into the dusty sky.
       Trees pulled out of the earth with a sucking noise like rockets lifting off from launch pads. Then roads peeled off the ground, black licorice ribbons twisting and coiling with a sigh before the earth itself crumbled into pieces five thousand miles wide that slowly spun away from each other, disappearing into the dark vacuum.
       The hissing and screaming changed to a rumble and a tearing then a ringing silence. He hoped never to wake, to stay this time in his world of weightlessness as the Earth changed from a blue ball into an expanding black cloud like ink from a squid, floating in a blue lagoon.
        

1998  Graham Dickson

This electronic version of "Too Scared to Fly" is published by The Barcelona Review by arrangement with  the author.

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spanish translation | catalan translation
Graham Dickson
Graham Dickson grew up in Edinburgh and Malta and since 1994 has lived in rural chaos on the east coast of Scotland. His playwriting has been performed at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and by 7:84 Theatre co. in Glasgow. He is currently finishing a play based on the murder of Thomas Overbury at the court of King James I and VI and writing a novel. He can be contacted at graham@corbiehill.demon.co.uk



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