Learning to fly

by Jenny

Learning to Fly

Michael rested his head against the bus window and tried to tune out the noise of the other boys’ shouting as the bus jogged along the winding coastal road.

He focused on the graceful arcs of the seabirds’ wings, as they rose fluidly from the shore to wheel and swoop in the blue threadbare sky. The patterns they sketched in the air helped him forget the empty groaning of his belly and the too-tight pinch of his shoes. He forgot the jibes of the other boys, who had grown bored of teasing him, and he lost himself in the peace of the landscape for a time.

But it couldn’t last; it never did. Too soon the bus stopped jerkily and spilled the children out onto the seaside. Michael stepped off last, hoping not to be noticed.

The beach was deserted, except for a shabby old homeless man in a blue woollen coat scattering a bag of stale scones for the gathering seabirds. Michael saw himself in his huddled, self-protective walk.

As soon as the thought entered his head it flew straight out of another boy’s mouth:

‘Michael, didn’t know your dad lived here!”

Raucous laughter. The boys began impersonating the old man then, wobbling their chins and hunching over. Michael watched him stiffen and bow his head, ashamed, as he overheard. Michael turned to them, furious, fists clenched.

“What’s your problem? He’s not hurting anyone.”

Foolish. They didn’t hold back now but brayed about Michael and the old man living as tramps together. It wasn’t as if Michael was far away from that already. Look at those clothes! When had he last washed? Dirty tramp!

Michael simply walked off and left them then. The teacher wouldn’t notice, she had her hands full. Instead he stood at the shoreline near the old man, wanting to apologise for them, but not knowing how. He swiped angrily at the tears that sprang into his eyes.

“Don’t mind them, kid. We’re both big enough to take care of ourselves, aren’t we?” The old man said.

“Why can’t they just leave me alone? They have everything - why do I matter?”

“If they’ve nothing better to do than pick holes in other people then I’d rather be you than them.”

The old man stood beside him and they looked out together over the sea until Michael heard his teacher’s voice calling him and he knew he had to go back to the battleground.

“Thanks” Michael said. The old man nodded, still staring across the water.

Later, as his classmates ran around the museum gift shop, Michael stood, as always, by himself. He didn’t have money for toys. He shoved his cold hands deep inside his tatty pockets and shivered.

His fingers closed around something that hadn’t been there before. He drew out a single pound coin, coated in squashed breadcrumbs and blue fluff. Michael stared at it as he felt something slowly rise up to wheel and swoop inside his threadbare chest.