Friday, 16 December 2011

Septimus Appleby's Lesson in Flight

Well, we're rapidly drawing to the end of another year, and I have achieved my customary level of controlled chaos in preparing for the festivities. The Christmas tree (this year we're calling him Fred. What do you mean, you never give your Christmas tree a name?) is sitting in a bucket of water on the patio waiting to come indoors.

Incidentally, I had an interesting chat with the man at our lovely, family-owned garden centre yesterday. I asked him whether he was sure the tree would be happy outside until we were ready to put it up, before realising that trees usually live outdoors, rather than in centrally-heated houses, and that bringing trees indoors is actually quite a bizarre thing to do, if you stop and think about it. So, let's not stop and think about it.

There is snow falling as I type this, and I have a Ted Heath album of Christmas carols playing on iTunes - talk about Nostalgia - so I'm starting to feel a bit Christmassy now. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for visiting my blog during its first year, and to say that I hope you'll return in the New Year, when I hope to be able to post more frequently.

Wherever you are, and whatever you're doing this Christmas, I hope you'll be safe and happy. And may 2012 bring with it a host of good things for you and yours.

Now, in a spirit of looking forward to a new year, and new beginnings, here is a short story, which I hope you'll enjoy.

Merry Christmas!  

Septimus Appleby's Lesson in Flight

That New Year's Eve, over his customary glass of sherry, Septimus Appleby made two resolutions. Firstly, he would build the first pair of truly functioning wings in the history of human endeavour, and then attempt flight in its purest form. Secondly, he would teach himself Spanish. He was painfully aware that one of these projects would be much more challenging than the other: he had never had a natural aptitude for languages.
    The next morning, he pinned an invitation to witness his maiden flight, to the parish notice board at the edge of the village green. It was a bright, frosty morning, and his slender fingers prickled with cold as he pushed in the drawing pins, one at each corner of the neat piece of card.
    'Good morning, Mr Septimus Appleby. Happy New Year.'
    Septimus Appleby looked down at the familiar, earnest face, with its big brown eyes framed by thick lashes.
    'Happy New Year, Kevin.'
    They shook hands, and he noticed that the little boy had fastened his duffle coat unevenly, so that there was a spare toggle at the top, without a loop to accommodate it.
    Kevin stood on tip-toe to read the notice on the board, his lips lightly shaping the words he found there. His breath hung on the cold air in a visible cloud, and Septimus Appleby pictured a happy dragon, full of youthful curiosity.
    'Where are you going to fly to, Mr Septimus Appleby?'
    'Spain, I think. Eventually. I shall buy a little house and live out the rest of my days there.'
    'Couldn't you go in an aeroplane?'
    'Yes, I could do. But where would be the challenge in that?'
    The smile on Kevin's face seemed to say that he could appreciate that point of view entirely, and his eyes were bright with imagination.
    'May I help you build your wings?'
    'It will be a pleasure to have your company.'

As he walked home, Septimus Appleby pondered on how people would react to his announcement. They would think he was mad. Of course they would. Some of the villagers might even worry about him. Mrs Robinson, Kevin's mother, for instance. It couldn't be done, could it? The scientists said so. If it could be done, someone would have done it by now.
    But 'the scientists', some of them, had claimed that the bumblebee should be incapable of flight, hadn't they? And look how wrong they had been on that one. He would ignore what everyone else might think. All it would take was imagination, hard work and a little faith. 'Where there's a will, there's a way.' That's what Molly had always said, and Septimus Appleby was determined to prove her right.

Septimus Appleby's shed, always a hive of industry, was especially lively on the following afternoon. The walls of the shed, usually bare, were now crammed with postcards of mythical birds, and pictures of old flying machines; the air was sweet with the scent of sawdust. Kevin was perched on one end of the workbench, swinging his feet to and fro, and watching attentively as Septimus Appleby sawed thin pieces of wood into precise lengths.
    'My mum says you won't be able to do it. She says if Icarus couldn't do it, why should you be able to.'
    'And what does your mother know about Icarus?'
    Kevin explained that they had 'done' Icarus at school, and that he had told the story to his mum when she got home that evening. She had found that story odd enough, but when Kevin had told her of Septimus Appleby's plans, she had just shaken her head and muttered something.
    'What do you think, Kevin?' asked Septimus Appleby. 'Do you think your mother's right?'
    'No. I don't think she has much imagination. I think you need imagination for something like this.'
    'Good lad,' said Septimus Appleby, smiling to himself. 'After all, it wasn't that Icarus was unsuccessful, was it? On the contrary, he was a victim of his own success. His wings were so effective, they enabled him to fly too close to the sun. That was his downfall - heat. Heat and hubris. Do you know what 'hubris' means, Kevin?'
    'Yes, Mr Septimus Appleby.'
    'You're a bright young chap.'
    Kevin frowned for a moment, and hesitated.
    'I think my mum's worried about you. She says maybe you're not expecting to be able to fly at all, that you'll just jump off the cliff and... well... She thinks... She thinks you never really got over... you know...'
    'It's alright, Kevin. Your mother is a wonderful woman. But you must tell her not to be concerned about me. I shall be alright. This is going to be the finest time of my life. Don't you think?'
    Kevin nodded, reassured.
    'Will you be using wax and feathers, Mr Septimus Appleby?'
    'No, Kevin.'

That evening, Septimus Appleby balanced himself on a chair against the wardrobe and pulled down a box with a faded design of antique roses on it. He was ready for the aching sense of emptiness it would bring with it, and tried to suppress it, but without success. He jumped nimbly down from the chair.
    He put the box on the floor, pulled off the lid, and removed the layers of crisp tissue paper protecting its precious contents.
    And there it was. Molly's wedding dress. The scent which rose from the fabric struck him like a physical blow, and a wave of loss and loneliness washed over him.
    He remembered Molly telling him the story of the dress. How it had been her mother's, carefully crafted from the parachute which had glided her father into occupied France in 1944. And it suddenly struck him that perhaps he should preserve the garment just as it was, as a piece of history.
    He hesitated a moment, pushing the tissue layers home again. He started chewing on his thumbnail, something he did when he was undecided. Then he realised what he was doing and gently admonished himself, just as Molly would have done.
    And the realisation struck him: his life had become like that wedding dress - preserved in layers of tissue paper, unchanging, suspended in time. Suspended. Yes. He pulled off the layers of tissue paper again, more urgently this time, hoping that a sense of purpose might extinguish his doubts.  
    'You don't mind, do you love?' he asked the face in the photograph on the bedside table. 'You do think I'm doing the right thing?'
    The face in the photograph smiled at him, the smile it had smiled forty-five years ago, across an airport departure lounge - the smile he had fallen in love with.
    'This way, you see,' he said to the smile, 'we'll be together again. And I can't do it without you, Molly. I don't want to do it without you.'
    The smile seemed to say 'You should always follow your dreams, Septimus Appleby,' and he felt the same sense of reassurance he had always felt from her.
    He pulled Molly's old sewing box from its retirement space under the bed, and took out a large pair of dress-making scissors. He had the strangest feeling that they had been waiting for him.

That weekend, Kevin watched as Septimus Appleby cut pieces of silk into the shapes he needed for his wings, adjusting his measurements from time to time, and trimming pieces of the fabric as he went along.
    Kevin was in charge of the glue pot, and had risen to this responsibility with an easy assurance surprising in a child of his tender years. As each piece of silk was cut precisely to its finished size, Kevin would carefully run the glue brush along the edges, his lips pursed in concentration. Then he would watch intently as Septimus Appleby eased the silk into place on the wooden frames.

And so, four months later, Septimus Appleby stood on the edge of a cliff, with a small group of people from the village assembled nearby. His white, silken wings were dazzling in the sunlight. He didn't look worried at all, Mrs Robinson was to remark a day or so later. No, quite serene, in fact.
    He looked up into the sky at one point, and his lips moved. Could it have been a prayer? they asked. But they agreed that no, it probably wasn't. He didn't believe in God, did he? They had seen him in the church occasionally, just recently, but he usually seemed to be studying the stained glass window of the Annunciation, and jotting down notes in a little book.
    So there he stood, looking up into the sky, and moving his lips. Nobody would ever know what he was thinking; nobody would ever know what he was saying, or to whom. Perhaps he was just talking to himself.
    After a moment, he closed his eyes and nodded, as if something had been settled, once and for all. He stared ahead of him, smiling softly. Smiling, why? Out of pure happiness? Out of a recognition of something suddenly understood? Out of resignation, perhaps?
    When he shifted a little in his harness, adjusting the straps ever so slightly, and slowly raised his wings, it was obvious to the villagers what would happen next. And they watched, not wanting to, transfixed in their unwilling comprehension of the disaster which lay only moments ahead.
    He would plunge to his death on the uncompromising rocks below, and they would have to wait until low tide before they could recover his poor, broken body. The retreating water would solemnly lap its last around the ragged remains of his improvised wings, the splintered wood, the silken tatters: Mr Septimus Appleby, and his wife, Molly, finally reunited - in death.
    Septimus Appleby appeared to brace himself for a moment, and take a deep breath. He flapped his suddenly flimsy-looking wings - once, twice, three times -
    and launched himself decisively off the ledge, to a sharp gasp from the crowd.
    Mrs Robinson turned her face away and screwed her eyes shut, as Septimus Appleby plummeted downwards, gravity scorning his unnatural wings. The villagers murmured, horrified, as he and the rocks came into rapidly closer proximity.

Kevin saw everything from a little further along the cliff, away from the adults, where he had been calmly feeding twenty-pence pieces into the viewing telescope.
    And it came as no surprise to him when Septimus Appleby suddenly soared away from the rocks, just in time, and up into the cloudless sky; or when, a few seconds later, he had established his wings into an assured, steady rhythm, and seemed suspended on the fresh, blue morning.
    Kevin imagined this was how an angel might look in flight, but he had never seen one, so he couldn't really know for sure. What he did know was that those silk panels seemed transformed into feathers now, softly embracing the air with each broad stroke, and that with the sun on his wings, Septimus Appleby shimmered like some mythic creature from a story book.
    The little boy watched as his friend grew smaller and smaller, flapping and gliding his way across the sparkling water, strong, free and invincible. Kevin put his hand into the pocket of his duffle coat, and pulled out a perfect square of silk, a gift from Septimus Appleby. He smiled to himself as he caressed it with his fingers.
    'Goodbye, Mr Septimus Appleby,' he whispered, not in a sad way, but with an overwhelming sense of pride. 
    He had known all along that everything would be alright. Because nothing was impossible to Kevin, just as nothing was impossible to Septimus Appleby. It never had been.
    And after today, it never would be.


  1. Hello Sophie:
    What a delightful story. Beautifully crafted and rich in characterisation, imagery and meaning with a narrative which compels the reader ever onwards to the somewhat surprising, and so promising, end. We have, dear Sophie, loved it, not least for the way it immediately engages the reader and retains his/her interest from the start to the finish. And we always feel that the short story is probably the most difficult of all fiction to master, something which you have so expertly done here.

    As for Christmas trees, they are not brought in nor decorated here in the Motherland until Christmas Eve, a tradition we rather like.

  2. Hello Jane and Lance! How wonderful to see you again! This is such a coincidence - I was going to pop over to Hattatt later on today, say hello and apologise for my long absence. It has been a funny few months... We are hoping to strike a much better work/life balance next year!

    I'm very touched by your generous comments, and so pleased that you enjoyed the story. I'm really not sure I can claim to have mastered the art of the short story, though it's very kind of you! I find it a rather scary medium myself: so many people do it so well, and I'm always tempted to compare my writing with theirs, which is always a mistake. I'm sure practice will, in time, give me more confidence.

    I like the idea of not bringing in the tree until Christmas Eve - it's much more of an occasion then.

    I do hope you are both well and happy, and enjoying life. Have the happiest of Christmasses, and a fine New Year! And thank you again for popping by.


  3. This was lovely, Sophie. Thanks for reminding me how important faith and imagination are. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,
    Mary Lou

  4. Hello Mary Lou - how lovely to see you!

    Thank you for your kind comments. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I really enjoyed writing it!

    I do hope you and the family have a very happy Christmas, and that 2012 will bring with it lots of good things for you.

    Thank you again for dropping by.

    Warmest wishes,

  5. What a beautiful story - some lovely images. I liked Kevin the 'curious dragon' with his wonky coat. Thanks for posting Sophie and here's to a year that gets better and better. :)

    1. Hello Sheepdip! Thank you very much for your kind comments - I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

      Wherever you are, and whatever you're doing, I hope 2012 is a really good year for you too!

      Thank you again for popping by.

      Best wishes,