Fly by David Whelan

But I had never been a writer.  That was something I could never be. I didn’t have it in me to create, I could only destroy.

I was Jack Torrace with a nagging little voice inside my head all the time. Telling me to hurt, telling me to run, telling me to fly. But, mostly, it would tell me to block out everyone else from my life.

Sometimes it got so bad that I found myself projecting my face onto everyone I knew and I hated myself for it. That sneering little rat. Grinning like a gawking child, whispering in my ear like a fowl little vermin. I had become so desperately alone.

The voice was like a small black crow that followed me everywhere, that slowly grew into a flock until I couldn’t ignore the batting of wings. A slight murmur behind my back, whispers in the wind that picked up slowly then quickly, gently and then viciously, wrapping around me until the words hammered into my head and I become deaf with rage, fear and depression, murmuring. Hitting me over and over and over and over and over: Fly.

And so I ran. I ran from my parents, my family and everyone who had ever been tricked into loving me. Whenever I stayed in the same place, and lived that depressingly consistent lifestyle, my inner-me would start to talk and, before I knew it, the voice had become me and everything I thought I cared about would mean-absolutely-fuck-all when compared to the open road where nothing matters but the skin around my bones. Where the wings of the voice would grow from back and let me soar away into an unknown.

When I stop to think about it, after all these years, it was so damn selfish. And what’s worse, what’s so horrible, is that I never really ever gave a fuck. I was more concerned with my own peace of – of – what passed for – my mind. Because it wasn’t my fault.

To blame: My parents, My daughter, My wife, My Doctor, My College Latin tutor, My Reflection, My Dog, Television, Theatre, Vegetarians, Novelists, Scientists, Lawyers, Broadband, the Telephone, A rusty knife, Some metal wiring, Risks.

I remember giving my daughter a hug on her eighth – or was it ninth? – birthday and telling her I love you but my head was awash with fear, my heart started to pump harder and hard and my palms sweated, as I looked into her eyes and saw her future shining at me. I couldn’t stand still; I couldn’t raise this poor girl as my own. She would never be mine. I couldn’t truly ever love her when I could never love myself. I saw inside of her a girl who would surely never know the man her father was. I remember looking up at her mother at that moment and seeing her drifting away from me. We moved from the same floor to different beds, to different lives. I can hardly see her smile anymore, or hear her laugh. They’re confined to the murky darkness inside my skull; they’re just shallow flashes of something-I-can’t-picture or pale echoes of sounds once heard.

But I remember what we said the day I left.

‘I can’t help. I – I’m not FIT to be her father. “NOT-FIT”? You know that phrase? It means I’m too damn broken to raise her properly. Get it?’

‘Don’t talk to me like that. This is how you destroy something.’


I’m sorry. I love you. I promise.’


‘You CAN’T love. You don’t know the meaning of the word. You’re empty. Hollow.  You kiss me like it’s a job. You’re not there anymore. You need to try more medication, go somewhere new – the one in Scotland. They said that one was good.’

‘I – you, I, don’t, know – I, I –‘

–       I left.

Piece by piece I smashed every plate, cup, glass, window, mirror and picture frame that I defined myself by. I left myself empty and unfulfilled, with only that quiet whisper for company. As I moved on, a shadowy husk of myself, I felt like my heart and I were no longer on speaking terms, and I felt relieved.

As time has gone on, I found myself dreaming that my family was dead and in the ground, feeding worms, which in turn feed the crows. As they dream went on a dog would eat the crow, which would be eaten by a cow, which would be eaten by a man who would be eaten by me.

My parents had died years ago. Sometimes I cry about that. But I’ve seen death too many times to be preoccupied with the thought that their bodies represent another version of me, just thirty years older, and that one day I’ll be rotting in a cemetery and I know, I know, that there will be zero people crying about me.
As if honouring my wife’s last words, I flew north into the darkness, where the blackness of my feathers could shield me away from the world. I hadn’t run from anything for a while, but the shear power of the separation left me shattered inside and I could never, even when I looked in the mirror, see myself properly again. All I wanted to do was to hide and to never come out of the darkness again. But I am just as weak as I am broken and I fell into the house like a stupid child.

I met the others in Scotland and we were the same. They had that same dullness behind the eyes, the same drooping face in the mirror, and the same quiet torture underneath their skin, the wings behind their back. We lived, for a few weeks, as echoes of ourselves and we lived with abandonment. Balnagown was our home, our cure. A place where we could just be. I didn’t feel the nagging need to conform or society’s eye on me. I made love to people and I hurt people and I never cared about the consequences. I cried, I laughed and, for the first time in my sad life, I danced.

There were seven of us in the castle. Me, James, Helen, Catherine, Giles, Sarah, Michelle. I think I fucked all six of them. But my brain fails me. Their bodies mingle into each other. My memory: it’s just all flesh, sweat, blood and fingers running down backs, cupping breasts. There were drugs too, which bended my mind to its limits and probably broke it. Snapped it in two like a brittle piece of plastic. Cocaine, ecstasy and some new Thai fusion Michelle brought in the bag load warped my reality and silenced the voice inside my head. There were more drugs than I had ever seen in my life. More drugs than I thought possible to consume. We did it all, every last grain, and then ran into the grounds singing and fucking and dancing.

It wasn’t long until it caught up with us. Her name was Catherine. She was beautiful and young. She would sit up late and talk to us, as her eyes lingered just above our heads, and her voice shook with queer nervousness, how much she wanted to be do something with her life that was normal. She wanted to be a mother and raise children and walk them to school, watch them grow up. Grow old and be loved. It was touching and it was sad in equal measure.

James told me she fell from the first floor balcony. Giles told me she hung herself in her bathroom. Michelle swore she drowned. Helen said she fell down the stairs. Sarah hadn’t seen it. The truth is, none of us saw it. We were too coked and wrapped up inside our blissful world of release to notice. It seemed to me like she was there one morning, smiling sadly in the rose garden, and then – she was gone. We never found the body but we all knew she was dead. She would never have just run away.

After Catherine’s death I stopped the drugs. Something, in the mindless, sensational abandonment, had faded. I felt sick and, once again, I felt alone. It wasn’t long after that the voice flew back in and told me to run. It was on one of those days, when the others were downstairs shooting up to the stars or fucking or running in the garden, that I first saw the house. It was on the front of a postcard. It looked like home in so many ways: it was abandoned, it was falling apart, and it was lonely. The address was on the other side, in faded pencil.

I think it was at the point when I realised that the whispers inside my head had entirely consumed me. I wasn’t fighting them anymore; I didn’t feel like I was fighting against it. The thought, fly, had just come into my head by itself. I told the others that I was leaving. James and Giles, I recall, looked at me like I had done something wrong, that, in my leaving, I would destroy their newfound happiness. The girls reacted entirely differently: they wanted to come too.

From the moment we moved in we knew the house was falling apart. We found ourselves stuck amongst the asbestos and the ceiling, unable to move as the poison seeped into our flesh and broke our bodies down inch by inch. Trapped beneath the floorboards, we scratched into paintwork, as our skin rubbed off into the very walls that we had condemned ourselves to hide behind. We became prisoners in our own home, strangers on our own pillows. But it wasn’t fear of the outside that kept us in; it was fear of me. The birds gathered above the house and flew around it in circles, waiting for their meal.

My world fast became a darkened room lit up by the faded silhouettes of three women, none of whom I could ever have loved. They weren’t the same smiling girls I had loved in Balnagown. When Catherine died, something died in them too. Maybe, even, somehow, something had also died in me.

I would often, when my face was pressed up against one of their bosoms, feel the isolation of a lonely man. I would weep, she would coo, and the sounds would echo inside my body, until they too faded away into nothingness.

The first day, we moved in silently and undressed. I made love to Michelle until the sunset; our cries of empty pleasure and grunts urging up the stillness and hanging in the air long after the act had ended amongst guilty expressions and passionless embraces. We tried to speak; we thought that maybe a new room would open up ways for us to communicate. We hoped we’d be able to break down those barriers with the sweat of our fornication, the sound of our life we had given up.  We were just half-formed phrases, thrown across that gap between our eyes. We just couldn’t.

‘I’m sor-‘

‘I know, it’s jus-‘

‘Don’t worry, it’s not –‘

My fault?’

‘I –‘

That night I dreamt my hands were around her throat. A shovel, mud and rain. Tears: there were lots of tears. I woke up drenched.

Sarah, who looked and seemed so empty, convinced me to buy a dog, so I did. For a brief time, it’s large, dumb eyes lit up our lives. I could always hear its small feet on the weak floorboards; it’s shallow panting as it climbed the stairs. Sarah was particularly affected. She loved the young pup, with its broad smile and never-ceasing love. Sarah looked like she had rediscovered that fire that I had thought, once, I could have loved. The dog filled that void I could never reach and I loved her for it. We called her Catherine.

When Sarah saw the steps give way beneath her, breaking the poor bitch’s neck, we pretended that it hadn’t happened. We burnt the body that night and buried her amongst the weeds in the garden. We cried and then swore we’d forget. We went around the house and removed every picture or mention of her we could find. Once Sarah had fallen asleep, curled up on her bed like a frightened child, I slipped outside into the night and buried my hands into the grave, clutching her small skull through the roots and the mud until exhaustion overtook me. She was too fleeting and too precious to be gone. I needed to feel her body and her warmth. I wanted to channel what she had, to maybe feel my heart again. I fell asleep in the shallow of the grave, amongst the stars and the dead.

Helen quickly started to lose control. The demons she had hidden away in Balnagown began to resurface. They rose in arguments that she would start again and again. They chiselled away at me; they started to break me down.

‘I don’t remember your name on the welcoming letter. You just showed up. Giles was fucking right. You weren’t meant to be at Balnagown – you just SHOWED. Who are you, anyway?’

‘Helen, I don’t get what you were talking about. I don’t understand your point. Giles was a smog. Who cares about Giles? Where’s he now, eh?’

‘Sh – You’re a fraud. There’s something not right with you. I was an stupid fucking idiot to have come here with you – Sarah? Sa-RAH? Where’s Sarah?’

‘I don’t know. Out. I don’t know. Why?’

‘She saw you. SAW you. A few nights ago. Outside. With Michelle. Where’s Michelle?’

‘I – you, I, don’t, know – I, I -’

Helen had had therapy. She had sat for endless hours talking about herself (‘damaged flower’), her cat (‘just disappeared’), her mother (‘skinny bitch’), her father (‘lecherous’), her dead brother (‘sad little boy’), her terrible teeth (‘unique’). She would complain to us, normally over tea or a bottle of wine, about the sterile smell of the offices she would have to sit in as she waited for the latest prescription. The magical slip of paper gently, nervously, crushed between forefinger and thumb, slowly, coldly, wet with sweat, in her hand as she waited for the drugs that would make her normal. You can understand why she was blaming me. She had always needed someone to blame.

Helen stocked behavioural drugs like a pharmacy. She would eat anticonvulsant pills out of bowl in the morning (with milk, often full-fat) and follow them down with a glass of risperidone. I had, in moments of weakness that became more regular as the days in that house grew older, stolen Prozac, desyrel, serzone and pamelor. One night I did a concoction of them all and walked around the house in a blaze. I dreamt I had Helen’s dissevered head clutched between my fingers. It hung just low enough that, as I walked up the stairs, it would collide with a hollow BONK on every step. In the end, I crawled into her bed and made love to her, then pecked at her skin like a bird until morning.

With each successive argument, with every strong word or loose hand, our humanity drained into the cracks in the ground, until we were left barking at each other and squabbling in the scraps of our own muck. We would wander the house and the garden with our necks thrown back squawking like birds.

I swear I saw Helen with a knife before she did it. I swear I told her not to, but she did. I remember feeling how inevitable I felt it was: that once she had run out of someone to blame, for all the pain she had caused, she would have to, eventually, blame herself.

I saw her slice her white skin like cheese: ‘Balnagown. It wasn’t a retreat. It was a prison. THIS’- she moves the knife to the wrist –  ‘Is.’ – she breaks the skin – ‘A.’- she draws the blade across the artery, blood seeps out, drips – ‘Prison.’

The police still haven’t come. I’ve called them fourteen times and it’s been over a week. She’s lying on her bed right now, drying out like a prune. I saw a few birds fly in through her bedroom window and I can hear them scratching at her flesh as I sleep, their little talons greedily clawing away.

After Helen, Sarah never spoke to me again. I found myself retreating to the green garden shed staring at a decrepit typewriter, fingers crooked and poised. The light would falter by the woodwork and creak in the wind, as Sarah’s wails from across the garden died like whispers against the old, soft wood.

With nothing else left, I started to write. I felt like fucking Jack Nicholson and I loved it. I wrote endless reams of trash: poetry, short stories, novels, movie scripts. They all starred ME. At night I would leave them on the doorstep so that Sarah could read them. I wanted her to feel me inside of her one last time, to have my words become her reality. I didn’t want her to think that, just because we weren’t speaking, I wasn’t there. The more I wrote, the more I read my name over and over, the more the words became my only reason to live. There was no longer anything else but the words in front of my face, the adventures and lives I could have lived. I was no longer ME, I was someone else, someone better.

I am lost, I think. In the words I have written, in the tales I have edited. I have faded into the dreams I had always hidden away from myself. I am flying with birds that have been chasing me since I can remember. Those dark winged vermin, with blood on their beaks.

‘What are you doing?’ She asks.

‘Why are you typing?’ She asks.

David Whelan is a writer, journalist and student currently based in London. The Absent Word has been published in 3:AM Magazine whilst Runners is awaiting publication in the fall issue of the Marco Polo Quarterly. He has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Times. He’s currently employed as a freelance writer by Demand Media Studios. His interests span from football, through to There Will Be Blood, looping back to tennis, running, Lost, literature and tuna steaks.

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