- Alan Ward
Tuesday afternoons are good up here, Abigail thinks. The tourists run thinner for some reason. There are so many places in London with a view these days that the Golden Gallery at the top of St Paul’s isn’t sought after. It’s not even that high.
She feels the man’s eyes before she sees him. She’s waiting for the people to clear so she can be alone. Her shoulder blades burn inside her rosy cardigan. It can’t just be the sun, it’s not that warm, and she turns to catch him looking.
He’s at a distance, up against the wall, alone like she is, hair a little wayward from the climb. It gets terribly narrow if you want to come all the way to the top. That’s why Abigail likes it so much: it’s not The Shard or London Eye or Sky Garden. There’s no lift. If you want to come up here you need to be prepared to get your knees a little dirty, to have your clothes snag on the railings.
“Lots of the tourists don’t get further the Whispering Gallery,” the man says, approaching her. His eyes are solemn and dark, and she wonders if he’s going to talk to her about his beliefs. This is a cathedral, after all.
“I often notice that,” Abigail replies. “Although I normally get pulled into taking photographs up here, so some of them must make it.”
She’s been here hundreds of times.
The man seems on edge. She stands looking out over the river. There’s really no need to find anywhere with a higher vantage point: the whole of London looks flat from here. Flat, but close enough to touch.
“People jump,” Abigail catches herself saying.
“From there,” she points across the street. “The top of that restaurant. It’s got a reputation as a place bankers go for one last drink before throwing themselves off. There, see, next to the fountain. That’s where they land.”
The man is looking at the sky.
“You’re not looking.”
“I can’t,” he says. “Heights are … not my thing.”
“Then what on Earth are you doing up here?”
“Let’s call it an experiment.” The man’s eyes, Abigail notices, are chestnut. He casts them over the foam of cloud scudding along above the skyline.
“Well don’t look up there,” she tells him with a smile, stepping away from the railing.
“People who are afraid of heights are utterly preposterous.” Abigail smiles. “Especially if you’re going to look at the sky the whole time.”
It’s one of those days when the moon is visible. Abigail gestures at it.
“See all those things up there, floating around in the air.”
“In space,” the man says. “Yes?”
“They’re all whizzing around up there. Up there, there’s no right or wrong way up. You’re looking up at the moon, but you’re also looking down on it. It you think about it, looking up, looking out into the blue sky, is the same as looking down.” She pauses, thinking. “It’s further, more frightening.”
She takes the man’s hand and leads him to the edge. His eyes automatically flick to the sky to avoid looking down, but then he screws them closed.
“You’re right,” he says. He steps back from the edge and looks at his feet. “I don’t have anywhere to look.”
When he opens his eyes, slowly, Abigail has moved so that she fills his vision. His brown eyes meet hers.
“Time for me to go,” she says. He moves to walk with her to the exit, keen to get down. They’re the only two left up here now. “No.” Abigail hasn’t moved. “We can’t go together.”
She slips off her cardigan. She’s wearing a strappy top underneath it. It lets out her wings, which have been pulled skin-close to her back. She slips the cardigan into her handbag.
“I don’t normally let people watch this bit,” she says, “I have to wait ’til no one’s about.”
“What’s different about me?” the man says. He’s taken aback by the sleek-feathered, barn-brown wings.
“You can’t look down and you can’t look up. You’ll not know if I can really fly.” She hitches herself over the ledge, and slips off. Now she’s not there to fill his vision, he can only look at the railing. He can’t run to the ledge and look down, and she doesn’t swoop upwards into view.
When he exits the building there’s a commotion in the square where the bankers jump, but he doesn’t investigate.