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Hennessy New Irish Writing: Flying Lessons


Butterflies provide a distraction

Butterflies provide a distraction

Butterflies provide a distraction

It had taken years of practice for her to defy the laws of gravity. Years of trying, of struggling against the Earth's strong pull, but here she was at last, floating. It was every thing she'd imagined.

Weightless, she drifted across the garden and set down just beside the compost heap by the fence. It might have taken several seconds, or a minute perhaps. No more. And she'd only managed a few inches high, a skim across the lawn. She'd wanted to get as far as the field of donkeys beyond, but wasn't unduly disappointed. This glorious feat would be the first of many; once she'd properly got the hang of it she'd go higher, further, longer.

She wobbled amongst the hairy-leaved comfrey plants, their purple heads nodding in acknowledgment of her great achievement. The air was alive with bees and the bushes rustled and tweeted with hidden feathered creatures. The sun was warm on her skin. She was stark naked.

"I'm one of you now," she said, referring to the birds rather than the bees, although it was clear none were listening, not even the single magpie poised on the fence a few feet away, cautious bead-black eyes regarding her wrinkly form before launching skywards with a great effort of "I'm nearly there," she called after the magpie, its two-tone form dipping up and down, long tail drawn along behind as it cackled away. When her tired, old legs gave way, she sank down into the grass, a little breathless from the effort of being airborne. An unexpected tightening of the chest was there, offsetting the initial glory of the deed.

She looked around for Maggie's partner, mildly concerned that there was only one. "I need two for joy," she said, squinting against the brightness, but was soon distracted by a trio of butterflies dancing from plant to plant in a complicated courtship routine. A memory surfaced from a time long past, and she smiled. "A threesome? Enjoy it while it lasts," she urged the butterflies.

She'd told Ted once, explained in hushed tones, trying to look suitably ashamed, but curdling inside with the recall. It had been a wild weekend, the kind that is compulsory for new students giddy with the first freedoms of being away from home. She'd been with Luke when his friend Sam had arrived; they'd shared the bed and a bottle of vodka to keep warm. They ate cold curry and talked gibberish about making a difference, about changing the world, about the meaning of life, about flying without wings.

She never found out if there had been spontaneity or collusion; it didn't matter. It was a delicious one-off, to be revisited alone, in later years, in the languid half-dreams of early waking, or in the torpid somnolence of late nights waiting for Ted to come to bed.

She'd hear him shuffling about downstairs, sometimes tapping away at his old typewriter well into the small hours, banging out learned essays for literary journals that no-one else seemed to have heard of. She'd recognise the thud of the dry, dusty tomes he was so fond of, his library of elderly books, friends as decrepit as he was, he'd say sometimes. And in the quiet hours when she didn't mind so much about him being down there, being welded to the Earth in a way she found so solemn, so dour and restricting, she'd think of youthful flings, of threesomes, flights of fancy without wings.

Ted hadn't believed her; he thought this was another of her racy stories, elaborate fantasies to get him going on slow days. "You should have married a young buck," he said sometimes, dismal at his fading potency, although keen to hear her erotic tales. He was right of course. A youthful partner might have helped her to fly sooner rather than later.

But Ted had been the only person to truly humour her yearning for flight. And there were times, when they'd talked about the children that never came and the life that was passing them by, that flying seemed the only thing to do.

"My dear little Birdie, I'll come back to visit you," Ted wheezed the night before he eventually shook off mortality, with much coughing and gurgling and gasping for air. She lay with his cooling corpse for a long while before she called for assistance, knowing that this was their last tenure, and the time was precious, to be savoured not rushed.

She wanted to believe that he'd come back to explain the hereafter to her, what it was like, what to expect when it was her turn, which would surely be quite soon now. But sense and sensibility dripped through the salted wet wrap of grief and it dawned that it was highly unlikely he'd ever come back from the grave. No-one else had, not that she knew of, anyway.

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Widowhood did not suit her; there was no-one to share her flying exploits, no-one to make pots of Earl Grey for, no-one to sit next to in the long, green garden. They'd watched the birds, exclaiming at their extraordinary little ordinary lives playing out before them. Watching the fledglings in the spring was a particular favourite, seeing the little creatures topple from branches and flutter and skip as they flexed newly grown wings.

"That should be you, Birdie," Ted would say with an indulgent smile as she envied the little birds the short time it took from nest to air, and the competence that nature conferred on them, unasked for, but expected. Legs were all very well for walking, running even, but what use were they to her when what she wanted, above all else, was to fly?

Ted used to take her to the park sometimes to feed the ducks and swans so she could marvel at their perfect mobility: the ability to swim, walk and fly. But he got to sense her frustration at not being able to match their pageant, and he paid for flying lessons in a light aircraft instead. It wasn't the same, but she appreciated the gesture.

Once she'd given up waiting for Ted's posthumous visit, she discovered she had more time to practise flying, honing her skills in the back garden, while the grass grew. After a while, people stopped visiting and she was left to her own devices; their friends had really belonged to Ted, and his passing had left them confused as to her role.

"I'm learning to fly," she told the last set of people who'd called in asking after her welfare.

She'd served tea in the living room, using the pretty chintz china cups they'd been given as a wedding gift by her aunt. She hadn't felt the need to be any more welcoming than offering Ted's best Earl Grey and some rather stale Garibaldi biscuits, Ted's favourites that had been in the larder since before the funeral. She'd remained standing, leaning against the mantelpiece as they'd swapped bland remarks about the weather and mutual acquaintances. She'd seen them looking around, noting the missing trinkets of Ted's, his first editions that had always before been on display but were now gone. She imagined them telling each other that she'd sold everything to pay for the flying lessons.

They would shake their heads in disbelief, sore losers at not acquiring that rare calf skin bound Tennyson's Love Poems, or the signed first edition of Hemingway The Sun Also Rises.

She'd boxed the precious cargo, with a view to doing something with it some time in the future and it glowed in the corner, throbbing with potential, if the friends had bothered to look. She'd half a mind to offer them the books, there and then, without preamble, until she saw them exchange a look. Raised eyebrows and knowing smirks, which she'd found distasteful.

"Flying lessons at her age?" she heard one of them say as they retreated, not too long later.

She smiled at the plate of damp biscuits and dregs of tea they'd left behind. "Oh yes, definitely flying lessons," she said, out loud. Of course, if they'd known her better, they would know she'd already had flying lessons a few years ago in a little Cessna.

She'd learned to fly, yet she was still frustratingly unable to fly.

Ted hadn't shared her love of aviation, but had indulged her quest for flight with first, a hot air balloon flight, then a trip in a glider, another in a helicopter, and ultimately, with a course of proper flying lessons with a trained instructor in a small aeroplane.

But mechanically assisted flight was not what she craved. Although she'd enjoyed the cloud hopping sensations of the various activities Ted arranged, she couldn't help thinking that they were missing the point. She wanted to achieve unassisted flight, to move through the air as a bird or insect might, but without having to strap on wings or start up a machine. She wanted to defy gravity when the mood took her, to fly off, unfettered, into the blue yonder, with as little effort as possible.

She sat in the grass at the end of the garden watching dancing butterflies, recalling lurid scenes of teenage exploration, flushed with the pride of her perfect levitation after all these years.

And then she heard Ted. Unmistakably Ted – no-one else called her Birdie as he did.

For a moment she was confused. Ted was no longer in the here and now; had he come back as he'd promised, to tell her about the hereafter? She turned her face into the bright light of the sun, squinting to see where the sound of him had come from. She smiled in recognition. He was above her, high in the air. Of course he was. He'd learned to fly, too.


  • Louise Cole arrived in Co Roscommon 11 years ago with her husband, two children and a herd of alpacas, intending to live the good life and grow organic vegetables. A severe Celtic Tiger mauling and many cabbages and courgettes later, she now harbours grandiose dreams of becoming a respected Irish author. This story is her first published work of fiction. Louise divides her free time between weeding cabbages and finetuning a literary novel about the vagaries of human recall and time's fecund distortion of memory. The rest of her time is spent working in Charlestown in Co Mayo on a range of community development projects.

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