While he coaxed himself onto the building’s parapet, Jonathan breathed in the dawn air and tried not to imagine the sensation of falling. In the weeks when he first started to plan, he often experienced, without warning, a phantom plummeting sensation in his stomach. He only managed to stop it by dividing the future neatly into before the jump and after. The latter, he obscured behind a mental curtain, through which he dared not peek, worried that, if he spent even one moment considering the leap, he’d chicken out and this would become another of his failures. On the ledge, hand, as it were, gripping the curtain, he thought perhaps he should have taken the odd glimpse behind.
The building his heels clung to plunged down eight storeys of brutalist 1960s architecture. While tumbled below it, rows of decaying Victorian warehouses, now given over to garages and storage units, cascaded down toward the town centre, where church towers stuck out from the rooftops like crash-landed rockets. Behind all this, the fuchsia and violet sky curved up, laddered with grey clouds, their leading edges sugared with crimson. A lifting wind brushed against the moss patches dotted along the building’s flat roof and brought a churchyard smell.
When he looked directly down, the void tingling beneath his toes, Jonathan saw woolly blocks of darkness still strewn about. They turned the building’s portico roof into a feeble grey square and his car into a lonely frayed oblong. Squinting, he noticed he’d forgotten to close the car boot. Not that it mattered, someone would shut it for him. It was better, Jonathan decided, to concentrate on the gulls as they filled the space between him and the horizon. They wheeled above the rooftops, their crimped wings silhouetted against the ruptured colours of daybreak, and shrieked encouragement to each other.
As if on cue, one of the birds landed near him on the raised bulwark. It regarded him with dangerous, golden eyes.
‘Not yet,’ Jonathan said and aimed a teetering sideways kick at it.
The gull was too far away and didn’t bother to move, instead it tilted its head in a way that might have been a question or a goad for Jonathan to try his luck, if he had it in him.
The bird’s unblinking gaze made Jonathan acutely aware of his own painted papier mâché gull head, one he’d constructed around an old bicycle helmet and now wore as a wobbling, uncertain weight on top of his head. With the bird as a comparison, he realised that he’d not got the design quite right — he’d missed the bead of orange at the end of the beak, where it hooked down. Suddenly self-conscious, he reached up and touched his own hollow, hardened paper version where it curved into his line of sight. The movement caused his homemade wings to clash together. The sensation as the metal poles scraped put his teeth on edge. He’d made the wings from the articulated legs of a cheap, supermarket gazebo and, strapped to his arms, they exaggerated his movement, as they stretched beyond his fingers by two metres.
The bird, Jonathan identified it as an adult herring gull, opened the greedy chute of its throat and emitted a long, pulsing, car alarm screech that, no matter how many times he heard it, filled Jonathan with memories of hot sand, salt and vinegar, and the rustle of breaking waves. Up close, the bird’s scream hurt his ears and, to lessen the din, Jonathan shuffled a few steps away, careful to lift his arms to avoid soiling his handcrafted wingtips by dragging them against the rampart’s slab concrete surface.
The gull looked at him in a way that Jonathan understood to be expectant, quizzical. Was he being tested? He cleared his throat and let out his own version of that elongated, segmented cry. His effort came out blunt and honking. No matter how often he practised, he never got that prickly, stinging nettle edge to the sound. He glanced at the gull to gauge its verdict.
It tilted its head again – a gesture that, this time, Jonathan couldn’t interpret – then spread its wings. The long, thin bones flowed from one curve into another, over which fluffy, white down spread out to become tessellated layers of longer feathers, ending in sleek grey blades that, as the bird flexed them, stretched and spread like fingers.
‘Angel,’ Jonathan said. Desire and awe reduced his voice to a whisper.
He raised his arms, spread his own wings, hoping that the feathers he took months to craft from umbrella ribs and sheets of acetate, somehow repaid the gull for its own display of beauty. He tried the call again, pushing the sound aggressively through his throat. Overhead, other gulls answered him.
In a single effortless movement, Jonathan’s gull took to the air. He watched it coil upwards on an invisible corkscrew of current.
‘Wait for me,’ Jonathan shouted and, as the red sun pooled bright as blood on the horizon, he bent his knees, spread his arms wide, and stepped from the rooftop to take his place amongst the angels.
James Mason has, in small and superficial ways, been a poet, editor and comedian. His work features in The Phare, Flash Fiction Magazine and Horla magazine, as well anthologies by Black Pear Press, Retreat West, Creative Minds and Cranked Anvil. He has a Masters in Creative Writing, for which he received a distinction