What We Learnt From Vitruvian Man by Joe Williams

3

When Dad said he was going to learn to fly, we all assumed he meant in a plane. He was saying it for months, after he’d announced he was going to retire at the end of the year, any time someone asked what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Mum bought him lessons for Christmas. He never used them.

At first he spent his days shut in the bedroom. We could hear him tapping at the laptop keyboard behind the closed door. He stuck to his old work routine, minus the commuting, working nine-to-five on whatever he was doing, then clocking off for the rest of the evening, just like he had for the previous forty-odd years. When we asked him what he’d been doing all day he’d refuse to talk about it. ‘Work is for work time. Now it’s family time,’ he’d say. ‘Research,’ was the most we could ever get out of him.

‘He’s bought a shed,’ Mum told me on the phone one day. He’d never been a shed kind of guy, never had any use for one, but now he’d arranged for someone to come and build one for him in the back garden. He moved his operation into the shed, started working in there, locked up behind a door that no-one else was allowed to have a key for.

Packages began to arrive, marked with the logos of obscure academic publishers, or in reused boxes with excessive parcel tape and a handwritten address. He’d take them into his shed before anyone else could take a look. The only thing we got to see was a poster of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, which he stuck up on the living room wall. ‘This,’ he said, wagging his index finger, ‘is very important.’ He spent hours staring at it, ignoring Mum’s reminders about his family time rule.

That rule became increasingly stretched as time went on, and it took me a while to realise that Mum was getting genuinely bothered by it. The nine-to-five gradually crept into earlier mornings and later evenings. ‘He was in there till after midnight last night,’ she told me. The deliveries got more frequent and more mysterious, unmarked parcels brought in unmarked vans at all hours of the day. Sometimes he’d pack boxes into the car and drive off, who knows where, coming back hours later.

I’d been hearing about all of this in phonecalls, seeing some of it when I visited, but I only understood how stressed Mum was getting when it all spilled out one night while we were supposedly relaxing in the living room after a family dinner. Dad stood up and walked over to Vitruvian Man. He drew his fingers around the figure’s limbs, muttering under his breath.

I jumped in my seat as Mum exploded in an uncharacteristic outburst. ‘Will you stop it with that bloody poster? I’ve hardly seen you all bloody week, and now we finally get together, all you can do is look at that bloody bastard man. What are you doing, Jerry? What’s going on? Are you ever going to tell me what’s going on?’

Dad just looked at her, calm as ever, and said, ‘Yes. Soon. I’ll be able to tell you very soon.’

Mum stood up. She looked like she was about to cry. ‘Please,’ she said, ‘just tell us what it is. I feel like you’re going mad.’

Dad moved towards her and held out his arms. They hugged tightly and Mum’s bottled-up tears started to flow.

‘No, love, I’m not going mad,’ he said. ‘I’m not. I promise.’

‘Then what? What is it?’

‘Soon. I’ll show you soon.’

*

The call came at one in the morning. I felt a jolt through my chest when I saw the name on the screen. Any call at that time would have been surprising, but Dad never called me. He never called anyone, if he could avoid it.

‘Dad,’ I said. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘What? What’s wrong? Why would anything be wrong?’

‘Well, it’s one in the morning, Dad.’

‘Is it? Oh. Sorry. Can you talk?’

‘Yes, Dad. What is it?’

‘I was just wondering if you could come round in the morning. I think I’m ready.’

*

I got to Mum and Dad’s at about nine thirty, and found Mum sniffling at the kitchen table, mascara running down her face. She stood up and hugged me tight without saying hello, and started crying again.

‘What’s up, Mum? What’s happening?’

‘I don’t know,’ she sobbed. ‘He’s in the shed as bloody usual. He’s hardly been out of there for the last two days.’

‘OK. Don’t worry. It’ll be OK. I’ll make sure it’s OK.’

We went out into the back. Lined up along the edge of the flat roof of the shed there were three cardboard boxes, held in place by a small pile of bricks at either side. Standing on top of the boxes was a stepladder, and at the side of the shed there was another ladder providing access to the roof. The blackout blinds on the shed’s only window were pulled down, as they always were.

‘Dad?’ I said, rapping on the shed door.

‘Morning, son,’ came the voice from inside. ‘Nearly ready.’

‘What’s going on?’

‘You’ll see.’

A loud noise started inside the shed. It sounded like an electric saw, or some similar tool. I didn’t know what I could do, other than wait for him to come outside.

‘Do you want a coffee?’ Mum asked, raising her voice above the din. The mundanity of the question felt out of place.

‘Yes, OK. Thanks.’

She went in to the kitchen, and I looked again at the construction on the roof. I put my face close to the shed door and shouted, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing in there, Dad, but this doesn’t look like a good idea. Mum’s really upset.’

The noise of the machinery wound down.

‘It’ll be fine. Just a minute,’ said the muffled voice inside, followed by an unreassuring crash, and an ‘Oops!’

A minute or two later I heard the rattle of the key in the lock, then Dad pushed the door open and stepped out into the yard. He was dressed from neck to feet in something resembling a wetsuit, skin-tight, but with tapered ridges sticking out around it like fins on an enormous fish. One ran down the length of his spine, two more down the backs of his legs. Strapped to his arms there were flaps that looked to be made of tiny metal plates, hundreds of them knitted together and overlapping like scales. His head was completely shaved, and adorned with a high, thin crest that stretched from his bald crown down to his neck. There were similar spurs on his heels, and he was wearing swimming goggles.

‘Where’s your Mum?’ he asked, looking around.

She stepped out of the kitchen at that moment, and froze on the back step.

‘Ah, there you are,’ Dad said. ‘Excellent. Then we can begin.’

He rushed up the first ladder onto the roof of the shed, without any sign of being hampered by his outlandish costume. Mum hurried to my side, spilling a fair amount of the coffee from the mugs she was carrying.

‘What are you doing?’ I said. ‘Don’t.’

Beyond pulling the ladder from under his feet, or wrestling him to the ground, neither of which seemed like a good idea, I didn’t see any way to stop him. Once on the roof, he clambered up onto the row of boxes, and started to ascend the stepladder propped on top of them.

‘This isn’t safe, Dad,’ I said. ‘Come down.’

‘Don’t worry,’ he replied. ‘I know what I’m doing.’

He climbed to the very top of the stepladder, taking the last two steps carefully, unable to use his arms for support. I could see the ladder wobbling underneath him. He stood up straight and lifted his arms, pointing them up into the air. He must have been twenty feet from the ground. Mum and I watched in horror as he leaned forward, as if he was about to bellyflop onto the tiled patio beneath him.

‘Jerry!’ Mum shouted, dropping the mugs and what was left of the coffee. I rushed into a position where I thought I might be able to catch him, and held my arms out, waiting for the fall. I stood looking up at him, watched him bend his knees into the ladder, then thrust away from it. The ladder fell away behind him, clattering back off the cardboard boxes and onto the roof of the shed. I was surprised by his momentum, and realised I was standing too near to the shed. I tracked back to adjust my position, but in my haste I lost my balance and fell backwards, lifting my arms to the air in the hope that I might still be able to catch him, or at least break his fall.

My back smashed onto the concrete. I waited for my father’s frame to land on mine, but instead I saw him cruising away from me, behind my head. He spread his arms wide and lifted upwards, over the fence and away over next door’s garden. I rolled over to watch him go, saw him swoop to the left, over the back street, and up to the roof of one of the houses opposite. There, he landed, on the peak of the gable roof. He stumbled slightly, but kept his balance. He paused for a moment, then raised his arms in a victory salute and gave a long whoop that echoed around the houses. I twisted my head to look at Mum, who was staring, frozen still, open-mouthed. I turned back to Dad.

He shook himself and turned to face along the line of the roof, then ran along the ridge of it, perfectly balanced, and launched himself into the air once again. He lifted clear of the building, dipped one arm and raised the other, drew a wide circle in the sky, twice, then straightened his path and headed away from us again.

He flew towards the spire of St Cuthbert’s church in the distance, the silhouette of his body diminishing. As he passed over it he reached out a hand and batted the weathervane, spinning it round in a hurricane twist, then continued up into the sky, fading away behind the clouds, out of sight.

*

I’m not sure when we stopped expecting him to come back. The thought just slipped away, day by day. It never really went away completely, but expectation turned into hope, and hope turned into a wish. I suppose there must have been a point when I knew, but I couldn’t say when it was.

I don’t know what I’d do if I could fly. I don’t know if I’d stay where I was, or say goodbye to the world I knew before. He always liked Italy. The food, the wine, the football. I like to imagine him there, flying into Juventus Stadium, perching on the roof of the stand, no need to pay for a ticket, celebrating victory with a soaring loop-the-loop.

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