“Where on Earth did you get a plane from?” Dad asked with alarm. A moment before, he had called on the Good Lord to explain what he saw before him. They were in a large, stark, wood-and-concrete hangar on a disused airfield. Tom stood there beside a plane.
Actually, it was more of a plane-in-progress. Mum and Dad came to realise this as their initial shock wore off a little. When you got a side-view of it, you couldn’t help but notice that it had no seats and that where there should be a control panel, there was nothing but a view into the hollow inside of the nose. Its bolts and joins were visible, a grey patchwork shell of a plane. With its belly open and empty like that, you felt like you were looking into a wound in the body of a great, silent beast undergoing surgery. Its flimsy wings looked like they were made out of some kind of stiff fabric, perhaps leather; they were really more like sails than wings.
Tom had his hands behind his back and he was leaning slightly away from his parents, squinting at them as if they were members of an exotic tribe whose customs he didn’t understand. He looked at them like that at least once a day. Mum said it was because he read a lot of books.
When Tom said he had built the plane, Dad’s next question was immediate.
“Why on Earth are you building a plane?” He had his face screwed up as if he couldn’t see Tom clearly – as if it was very early in the morning and he had not yet put his glasses on, or as if Tom was standing the other side of a dirty window.
It seemed like a reasonable question, but Mum scoffed. They had lived with Tom for twenty-four years. It was a long time since she had sought to understand why. She took comfort from the fact that the thing was empty – it was just some kind of model. What was the harm? It was something to keep Tom occupied, at least. The next time the neighbours asked “What’s Tom doing these days? He’s not still at home, is he?” she would have something to tell them. She put her hand on the wing experimentally. Its material felt unsettlingly like skin beneath hers and, she realised, it had something of a skeleton underneath. It didn’t feel like part of a machine at all, but something living. It was rather as if the plane was growing here organically, and Tom some kind of farmer. Dad was looking at those wings uneasily.
“Why are they like that?” He asked. Mum just scoffed again.
The airfield was shockingly cold, as if the bad weather was concentrated on this one area. Its surface was uneven and overgrown, giving the impression, against the grey sky, of some kind of wild moorland. As they headed grimly back towards the car, Tom walked behind his parents. He didn’t like to look too closely at their faces; otherwise he would notice the shallow lines that had begun to steal over their faces in the last ten years like the tendrils of some malevolent, creeping plant, and the grey hairs that hovered around their temples. When his mum smiled at him encouragingly in the rear-view mirror, he thought about how she would soon be old, crippled with regret and sickened by nostalgia. Once Jimmy had grown up enough not to need them anymore, and it would happen sooner than they chose to believe, his parents would find themselves without purpose. Their smiling lips would fall slack, their dancing eyes would turn into cold grey pebbles. He could see it coming for them as clearly as if it were prophesised.
There was a sense of urgency to his project. Once they had a plane, they could soar out of reach of the slowly closing fist of time.
Jimmy, the youngest child, was wild when he heard the news.
“Are we really going to fly in it?” He demanded. He wanted wings. He wanted them so hard that he could already feel them on his back.
“Yes.” Said Tom.
Jimmy was the product of a happy childhood. He had pink cheeks and curious eyes. His tantrums were transient and his cheerful humour enduring, born of the overriding confidence that good things were bound to happen. He was cheerfully convinced of his own immortality and of the infiniteness of the cycle of school days and weekends.
When the summer holidays came, he and Tom would sometimes sit in the garden watching the birds. From their garden, you could squint up at the bit of sky that was above the dual carriageway, where strong currents of air made for an invisible overhead playground. The sky was painfully bright, frighteningly blue, and the birds were nothing but black sketches against it, but they were worth watching. You would see them circle and circle, angelic, as if in slow motion. Then, without warning, they would drop out of their orbit, plummeting straight for the earth like falling stars before curbing their gradient and soaring again, now on a different plane.
“They tuck their wings in.” Tom said to Jimmy, not taking his eyes off them. “So they lose all their lift and they just fall. Head first.”
“Cool.” Jimmy declared. Before long, he got bored and raced off to lift the flowerpots and hunt for woodlice cowering underneath.
Tom had lived in the world far longer than Jimmy had. He knew of the cold dawn of awareness that would come with his brother’s teenage years. It would turn him into a young man who looked like Jimmy but no longer squeezed shut his eyes when he wanted something because he was sure that it would be there when he opened them. Tom saw this coming like a tidal wave for his flimsy cannon-ball brother. The only way to spare him was to finish the plane.
The middle child was a girl, Jessica. Tom hadn’t feared for her in the same way he had feared for his brother. She rolled her eyes at the idea of his plane, the way she rolled her eyes at everything.
“I’ll build it.” Tom said.
“I don’t care.” She snapped back. This was her official stance on almost everything, but Tom knew that it was not true. Jessica shared the same humour as her younger brother, and when caught off-guard she could often be found hooting with laughter with Felix and Lorraine, her head thrown back, her cheeks wet with tears.
She begged to be allowed to go to Felix’s older sister’s party, fierce-eyed and riled up with preemptive indignance. She had the same attitude as Jimmy had when he demanded an answer to an unanswerable question, like how much air is there?. It was the same energy with which Mum had always been determined to encourage Tom in whatever he showed an interest in, as a child psychologist had once advised her to do.
The phone rang at eleven-thirty that night: Jess, asking to be picked up.
“Tell me what’s wrong.” Tom heard Mum demand as they came through the front door half an hour later.
“Nothing.” Jess snapped. “It’s whatever. I don’t care.”
Tom came out of his room to the top of the stairs. Jess felt cornered.
“I had nobody to talk to all night, OK?” She yelled. “Felix and Lorraine just wanted to show off to Felix’s sister’s friends. I don’t even care!”
She stormed up the stairs. Tom caught a glimpse of her face, briefly illuminated in the hall light on her way past, captured like a photograph.
He saw the doubt that had begun to cultivate its toxic blooms in her mind, nightmarish. She was beginning to see that things wouldn’t always be the same, that her friends would let her down, that people were tragically three-dimensional. The only way to be truly happy is to believe that you will be happy forever, and that belief was about to be robbed from her. Tom knew that he needed to hurry up with his building.
Tom noticed a rustling in one of the borders of the garden. Down here was a complex, booby-trapped world compared to the clarity of the sky above. Peering more carefully, he spotted a bird flailing around in the narrow trench between soil and leaves, agonised. It managed to struggle out onto the lawn where it floundered helplessly. One of its wings was dragging on the ground. Its glossy eyeballs rolled in morbid terror.
“Oh, no!” Jimmy wailed in dismay. “Will he be OK?”
Tom shook his head. “It’s going to die down here.” He said. He didn’t look back up at the birds which still circled overhead: it would be far too painful a contrast between those flying and this one, their comrade, condemned to the terrible weight of gravity and reality.
It was with an obsessive intensity that Tom finished his plane, oiled the wheels, varnished the sides. By the time he painted it name on the tail in clumsy, uneven writing, it was May again. The thought of all that time having passed made him bounce on the balls of his feet, agitated. He ran his finger over the name for reassurance. Oblivion.
“I can’t believe this is happening.” Dad said grimly.
“Come on!” Jimmy demanded, bounding after Mum and Tom into the hangar. Dad met Jess’ eye and she made a face, but her scepticism was half-hearted. Dad saw her glance after the others and laughed at her.
“Come on, then.” He said, nudging her with his elbow, comforting himself with the knowledge that it would never actually fly.
“Is it a helicopter?” Jimmy asked doubtfully, touching the cold metal of the propeller on the nose. The plane was as tall as Dad at the front, then sloped gradually down along its length before flaring up again at the end.
“Don’t be stupid.” Jess said, hitting him on the shoulder. She was looking at Tom and beaming. “It’s a plane.”
Dad was touching the wings in horror. They were still those strange, prehistoric-looking sails. They looked impossibly flimsy, each one comprised of three boned sections.
“Are you sure this thing is sturdy, Tom?” He said, running his hand along the edge of one.
“Yes.” Tom said impatiently. “It’s based on a bird’s wing. That’s why it’s articulated.”
Dad stared at him.
“Don’t tell me it flaps.” He was overwhelmed by a dreadful image of the uncoordinated machine flailing in the air and the five of them helpless inside, rattled around like beans in a can. Tom shook his head.
“It doesn’t flap.”
Jimmy had his nosed pressed to the curved plastic hood, peering at the display of pilot’s controls. Dad tried to remember for the hundredth time that the thing would never get off the ground anyway.
“Let’s get it out, then.” Mum said, her eyes wide with something between disbelief and apprehension.
They pushed it out onto the airfield. Dad got in first, next to Tom and Mum, Jess and Jimmy behind.
“Let’s go! Let’s go!” Jimmy demanded, wild with excitement. Jess gave into his enthusiasm and bounced in her seat, her expression youthful and cloudless again for the first time in months.
“It’ll never get off the ground.” Dad muttered reassuringly.
Jimmy and Jess both cheered as Tom pulled the hood over the top of all of them with a whoosh. Instantly, they felt totally removed from the world outside, as if they had just dived into water. Dad worked hard not to be reminded of some kind of casket.
“You’re sure you know how to fly this thing?” He said.
“I built it.” Said Tom. Then it was too late to change their mind.
The noise of the propeller was deafening and unbearably exhilarating, and they could do nothing but look at each other in wonder. Then the plane started to roll forwards on its wheels, bouncing over the unmaintained ground of the airfield that was no longer meant for flying. Oblivion gained ground speed until the trees along the edge of the airfield were nothing but a blurred border. Then she caught lift and they were suddenly off the ground, rising, the propeller going like crazy, none of them breathing but instead all of their muscles tensed as if they could that way contribute to her gradient. By the time they reached the end of the airfield, the trees below were the size of scattered coins, and they kept climbing, watching the dual carriageway become a noodle, then a thread. The passengers were no longer aware of one another, each mesmerised by how the ground below had become a map.
They climbed to 5000 feet, and the entire world opened up beneath them. Dad looked at Tom, speechless. Jimmy began whooping, unable to control himself, jumping up and down, craning his head wildly to see everything. Mum tried to hold him still, but she was distracted by the fact that they could now see the railway, and the lake, and the scattered fragments of woods and the patchwork layout of the fields. The edges of the leather wings fluttered like a flag, cushioning the turbulence of the air.
“This is amazing.” Mum said, unable to hold in her smile. Jimmy screamed with delight.
“I wish we could stay up here forever.” Jess said.
That was Tom’s cue to press the button which cut the propeller and folded in the wings.
Anyone watching from the ground in town would have seen the plane, a black dot against the bright sky, suddenly pitch sickeningly towards the ground, steeper and steeper as it gained speed until it was in a vertical downwards trajectory. They would have seen it disappear behind the buildings.