Learning to Fly by Anne Collins

When he asked to see me that morning, I should have said no. I couldn't. The memories were too strong, trailing after me with their scent of violets. In spite of everything, I agreed. In my tailored suit and uncomfortably high heels, I stumbled over the miles of cobblestones leading into the marbled entrance hall with its cavernous domed roof. In the immensity, a tiny fluttering movement caught my eye. A huddled mass of filthy, once-white feathers, squawking miserably. A seagull, trying to flex a wing smeared with oil. The foul-smelling substance had matted the individual feathers into a clump that hampered any wing movement. It tottered a few feet and collapsed again. A crumpled heap, waiting for the inevitable predators.

I scanned the various openings off the vast circular space. There he was, a bulky figure in a charcoal-grey overcoat standing alone in one of its many recesses, his back to me, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. I could still walk away. I shouldn't be here. While I was wavering, he turned around and I was sucked back into the middle of the old nightmare. I could feel his clammy hands travelling over my skin with their stubby yellowing fingernails, smell the rank, whiskey-soured breath coming in waves. I stood immobile while something inside me shrivelled.


His narrow eyes settled hungrily on me. The familiar corkscrew of fear twisted its way up from my gut. Like an insect paralyzed by the spider's sticky grime, I was caught in his malevolence, powerless, my mind staggering back down the stairway of years.

"What do you want?" My voice, almost inaudible through a wall of hoarseness. "I think you know, honey lamb."

The term of endearment sent me hurtling back into the past. Six years old, shrinking against the wall, heartbeat banging the familiar rhythm of terror. Mammy huddled in a comer, blood oozing from the gash over her eye, congealing like a clot of tomato ketchup. The dinner plate smashed on the tiled floor, peas rolling dizzily across the patterned squares.

"Not fit for a pig, that muck! Is it trying to poison me ye'are? Ye'll leam to cook yet, woman!"

His words stabbed the air, filling the world with dread and the sour reek of whiskey. A short belligerent man with the huge, calloused hands of a labourer. His past clung to him like a fungus. His food paranoia traced its origins back to the hungry years of the fifties. How many times had he told us that dinner those days consisted of bread scraped thinly with margarine and a bowl of watery soup. If fwhat was on his plate failed to measure up, he would hurl the contents with a flood of abuse in the general direction of my mother, his aggressive instincts inflamed by a night's drinking. As a child, I had learnt to read the danger signals. Once his breath stank and his eyes glittered, there was trouble ahead. The next day, it was always violets. A riot of colour, filling the house with their scent. And a bar of Toblerone for me.

It was on the night of my tenth birthday he first came to my room. To read a bedtime story for Daddy's best little girl. His gravely voice purred at me. Whiskey fumes swam around my bed.

Half-way through the chapter, his arm snaked around my shoulders and his huge, sweaty hand slid down my pyjama top. I was his honey lamb. This was our special time together.

The next day, it was a big Toblerone. And a new story book. With colour pictures.

Suddenly, David was beside me, steering me across the courtyard, away from them. "You know this was a mistake," he hissed. "That's the last thing you need right now. He'll wreck your head." He had already done that. And now he was in control again. My face crumpled.

"Joanne, you're not thinking of giving in to him."

"But David." My voice seemed to come from miles away. "It's Mam. It'll destroy her as well."

Once again the images of her huddled in a comer, always in fear of where the next blow was coming from, assaulted me. Surely she'd been through enough. The next day, it was a big Toblerone. And a new story book. With colour pictures.

"Joanne, sweetheart. Can't you see he's using her?" His tone became more urgent. "You know he's going to do whatever it takes. You've come this far. You can't give up now!"

I was starting to feel like a victim of Genghis Khan I had once seen in a film whose four limbs were each tied to horses facing opposite directions, so he was slowly pulled apart. I no longer knew what the right choice was - or even if there was any right choice. The options whirled around in my head, each one with its own foul residue of evil.

"Come on, love." He was already moving down the corridor towards the network of little rooms where clients met their counsels. "Let's at least talk to Peter and get his advice."

The interview room was bare and dingy, walls painted a dandelion yellow. Windowpane streaked with grime. Non-stop traffic on the quays outside rumbling past. Peter Johnston was a delicate little man with finely manicured hands, and a strawberry birthmark. He extended a limp hand and motioned us to sit down. David informed him of the latest development while I hung back, islanded in a world of shifting goalposts where even those I most trusted were no longer on my side. As he grasped the situation, Peter's features creased with concern.

A sense of hopelessness enveloped me. I'd been depending on Mam's testimony. Even knowing she was there, willing me on would have made a difference. Without that, who'd believe me? They'd see me as a vindictive little bitch trying to bring down a good man. A man who had worked his way up from nothing to provide for his family. A pillar of the community. Never missed Mass on a Sunday. Who'd ever believe what happened behind closed doors? No, I couldn't go through with this.

As if through a fog, Peter Johnston's voice cut into my reflections. "Try not to worry, Joanne, this just means we need to tighten up on a few details. Without your mother’s testimony, we'll be focusing more on the long-term effect. Your ability to sustain a relationship, for example. Can you fill me in on that, please?"

Pen poised over his notepad, he looked up at me expectantly. I glanced across at David, the skein of memory floating me back to our first night together. The horror of his hands reaching for me. It was three years later before our marriage was consummated. Three years of panic-stricken nights before I could obliterate the feel of those clammy hands moving over my skin with their stubby fingernails, invading my soul with their coarseness. How could I convey that kind of anguish? The rawness eating into me when all trust has gone. I stared at Peter Johnston, dumb with misery.

"Perhaps we could go back to your earliest memories of your father?" His tone was more gentle now, softly probing for an alternative route into the past. "The time you first began to feel uncomfortable with him?"

Without warning, the Sunday picnics by the river exploded into my head. Mam would pack a cold chicken to eat with mayonnaise and bread rolls. There were always paper cups filled with lemonade that fizzed up into your nose, and coconut cream biscuits. Dad would spread out the tartan rug on the sandy bank, and pull me down on it, tickling me into fits of laughter. Later, the tickling became more forceful and only happened when Mam had gone to the river to rinse the plates. Then his breathing would quicken, and his hands would slide inside my clothes. That was when I knew. Something wasn't right. I must have been only seven or eight years old. The words began to tumble out.

"That's good, Joanne, very good." His voice had slowed to a soothing rhythm. That's how we 're going to convince the jury. Just hold on to those details. Don't let the defence counsel distract you from the facts."

Oh, Jesus! The cross-examination. Of course Dad's barrister would question me. I'd be at the mercy of an interrogation hell-bent on proving his "innocence" And once he took the stand, he'd have his own story, repainting the past with a brush that showed only a loving father in a close relationship with his little girl. It would be my word against his. They'd tear me to pieces. No, no, no! I couldn't do this.

"Joanne." David's eyes reached across to me, reading my fear. "Let's go for a walk. Get some fresh air. Give you time to think."

He steered me out towards the domed entrance hall, where knots of people had now gathered. The non-stop traffic snarled its way along the quay. Seagulls whirled and drifted against the slow-moving clouds. We sat down on one of the grey stone benches scattered around the perimeter.

"Well?" David's questioning look tapped into my reserves of courage. This was the only way I could be free from the tyranny my father had inflicted. Sure people would talk, but we'd get over it. In time, Mam would understand why I had to act. Once she too was released from his malignity, she would see things differently. She was as much a victim as I was. Like the rumble of thunder, the fury that had festered in me for years came roaring to the surface. All the violets and Toblerones in the world couldn't obliterate the horror; my bloodstained mother huddled in a comer, those massive hands, ingrained with dirt, pushing their way inside my clothes, clawing at me.

Suddenly, a tiny movement to the right transfixed me. A flurry of feathers. The gull I had seen earlier, now almost white again, was making aborted attempts to fly. Through sustained effort, it had finally managed to rid itself of the oil. It stretched out its head tentatively and staggered forward. As I watched, it rose into the air with a shrill scream, a frenzy of beating wings, and soared away towards the river.


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