Railings ran with a liquid that spilled to the pavement staining it blood-brown. A pool formed and spread with every drip… drip… drip…
Icarus had fallen.
The tram bucked suddenly as a vicious squeal ripped the air bringing me back to cold reality. I glanced about at the wall of blank faces staring at nothing. It was then I saw him. Our eyes locked momentarily before I turned away.
Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “There are chance meetings with strangers that interest us from the first moment, before a word is spoken.” Tall-Man stood at the far end of the carriage from me towering a head above his near neighbours. His thin lips squashed below a bent and battered nose looked unable to cast a smile set as they were between the lean façades of his stubble-covered cheeks. He wore the same blank-grey, and that conspired to make the scar down the right side of his face more livid.
The tram spoke but I understood nothing. With a jolt it came to a halt. Its weary doors half opened. People bundled off, among them Tall Man.
I stepped from an old tram into a young winter and looked up and down the platform. Tall Man was waiting by the exit. I walked towards him as the last passengers disappeared. His cold blue eyes held mine and I felt I was soaring through the vast space beyond the clouds.
Where Tall Man led, I followed. We walked through meandering streets flanked by anonymous buildings until he stopped at an apartment block whose balconies reached into grey clouds. Everything here was grey. The faces of the citizens; the render on the buildings; the pavement we stood on; the sky above our heads. Even the yellow trams had a grey hue.
In his apartment the sound of boiling water bounced from the kitchen, off the walls, through the window I stood by, and out over the endless Steppe.
“There will be snow soon,” said Tall Man, entering the room. He brought with this news two steaming vessels with fading images of the golden age of flight etched into their flanks. He seated himself in an armchair built for a standard person. His knees reached his sunken jowls as he played cards by himself on a small table. I reposed on a solid sofa and stared up at an Orthodox crucifix hanging by a framed print that pictured two men hanging over a Mediterranean blue. The feathered wings of one peeled from his arms and horror wrought a face I knew only too well. Christ bowed his head in solemn lament. I looked away.
“Icarus,” Tall Man informed me.
“I know,” I said.
“You know, I could you be brother,” said Tall Man.
“No, you couldn’t,” I replied: “My brother wasn’t very tall. Besides, he’s…” I couldn’t say it. Instead, I asked: “Do you know my mother?”
“No,” he replied.
“I do,” I said: “Well, I did. She had a room like this. Same kind of furniture, a Crucifix and that same picture on the wall.”
“Yeah, Icarus. She spent most of her time in that room. My brother and me used to watch my parents having one-way arguments there. Dad talked while mum listed. She would lie on her sofa, glazed eyes staring back at dad as he went on about money and stuff. Then dad left and the arguments stopped.”
“What was she like, you mother?”
“I never really got to understand her. She used to paint and she sang in a band. Then the band split up and no-one bought her paintings. So she just smoked. She smoked a lot. Strange, foul smelling tobacco in roll-ups. My brother and me would quiz her about food and that as she lay on the sofa. Or we watched her from our bedroom windows when she went out shopping. Really, she was leaving us for her friends.”
“Do you love you mother?”
“I think we did. I suppose I did… But did she love us? She was quick to leave us alone. She used to lock us in our rooms, for safety. My brother used to climb through his window after she went. His door was locked. Mine wasn’t. Mum wrapped a towel between the handle of my door and the banister. I would rock the door back and forth then slip my arm through the gap. And, hey presto, we were free. Mum went out for hours. Sometimes we never knew she’d returned. We’d just find her slumped on the sofa in the living room.”
“You still see you mother?”
“No. She left us for good one day. The day my brother… They took her away. She told me she’d write.”
“No. I wrote to her two or three times, but she never replied. My last letter came back unopened.”
We sat for a moment with our thoughts for company. My eyes cruised his bookshelves. They were largely empty, save for a collection of Shakespeare’s plays, The Forsyth Saga and a copy of the Bible in Cyrillic. So I asked Tall Man: “What do you do?”
“I pilot,” Tall Man replied. Then a thought flew through his memory, and he added: “I was pilot.”
“Yes, I was pilot. I flew internal flight for State airline. I took passengers from one end of country to another. I flew a lot as I hoped one day to fly to another countries. Once I took one samolyot from town in north country to east. Far east. I fly about four kilometres up. Then came big rainstorm. Rain, she… Kak bydit’ mochenyy?… Soaked. Rain soaked plane body. I took samolyot up higher, to the sun, and hoped to dry. But body became too heavy. Wings start to crack. I try make emergency landing. Airport I went to was too small. Samolyot was too heavy and runway… And the runway was too short.”
Tall Man looked out the window. Deep in the grey of his mind he saw a white bird twisted in flames, and blood dripping… dripping… dripping…
“Samolyot crashed. Bang! Hundred peoples killed. But not me… of course. I lived, and the Government took my pilot licence away. And I have this scar,” he said, tapping his face, “to remind me everyday what happened. As if I need reminding.”
I looked at Tall Man as the wings of our conversation shed their feathers and we plunged into silence. Like Tall Man, I had a scar I carried everywhere. But I didn’t think mine could be seen by anyone. And I too could recall a bad flight with a terrible landing.
Rain had fallen heavily that day and everywhere reflected sunlight pouring through broken clouds. My brother started out as soon as the tin rattle of mum’s car faded down the street. On the ledge he edged towards my window. Just as he approached safety his foot slipped on the sodden stone. His hands flew out for a hold but only flapped in the wind like wings taking flight. I reached out trying to help him. But Icarus was beyond the cliff. Only air supported him. He grabbed for something, anything, in desperation. Horror belched every breath from his lungs and sculpted a face I would never forget.
When I reached him, my brother lay over the railing that bordered our house. His cold blue eyes held mine. His last cry echoed in my ears as I stared. A wine-dark stream poured from him, staining the pavement, with every drip… drip… drip…
Icarus had fallen.
I sat on the sill my brother had tried to cross and stared at the houses opposite, at the road bisecting them, at the dark clouds moving away. I watched gulls wheel in flight through a window weeping with rain. My cheek pressed the glass. My eyes drifted to the street below. Half obscured by the ledge I could see the railing. The pavement. The bloodstain. The house ran with the memory of that fatal fall. Above the lintel the gutter overflowed and water fell with a thudding drip… drip… drip…
Malek Montag, Rochester, Kent, 2015