Icarus won Second Prize in the 2016 Short Story Competition.
‘That morning, I think, we were both within an inch of learning to fly, or at least I think I might have managed as much as is required for a decent crash. But we never catch the propitious moment.’
W. G. Sebald, Vertigo
There is a space between the roof and the stone vault of the college chapel where, in the first years of my academic life, I would lie for long hours, flat out with my back to the skin of the vault, facing up into the shiplike timbers of the roof, feeling the air breathe through that long and secret tract of space. I think it was the knowledge of the immense void below me that electrified the experience; I would sit on the keystone bosses, feeling their time-worn masons’ marks, trying to appreciate the exact antagonism by which this puzzle of stones pushed against each other, maintaining an illusion of relaxed levitation, hundreds of tonnes of Purbeck limestone in perfect flight. Sitting in this position I imagined myself on the bridge of some titanic vessel: the chapel, an oceangoing craft, dry-docked by time and fate on the parched back lawn of my college. From the porthole-narrow windows at each end I could observe the ebb and flow of tourist tides and the flotsam-drifting of gowned fellows across the court, aloft in my crows nest, removed from the storms below, free to chart fictitious courses and sound imaginary depths. And, like a stowaway, I found I could withdraw behind one of the great timbers of the roof, hugging my legs up to my chest, and make myself invisible, whereupon the roofspace would go about its usual business, seemingly unobserved. Sparrows and starlings would flit from east end to west towards the setting sun which, for a few magical days each year, would throw a golden ray from bow to stern, from porthole to porthole, piercing the space, illuminating the motes in which the sparrows drew a turbulent wake.
It was early one May that I first found my aviary disturbed by another fugitive from college life. Huddled like this behind my concealing beam, watching the loft slowly drain of light, I became aware of a scratching, shuffling step on the spiral stair behind me which became steadily louder until a small man, who I recognized to be Dr. E, a classicist, appeared in the roofspace. I kept myself hidden and observed his movements as I had the sparrows’. His arms held an ungainly bundle of books, papers, and various measuring devices, all of which he let clatter to the floor before pacing the length of the space, west to east and back to where I sat hidden. He swept a patch of the pitched vault-skin clear of dust and cobwebs, measured it, and left, leaving his pile of papers, nest-like, in the loft.
The following day Dr. E. came again, with more papers, and the next day, with lengths of thin timber, stripwood and dowelling in long, supple rods that slowed his progress on the stairs to a limp. On the occasion of his fourth visit I could suppress my curiosity no longer and, rather than hiding myself in the shadows, I sat waiting on the ridge of the vault. E. was late to arrive and I could not prevent myself from leafing through his amassed nest, much of which appeared to be scrap paper. But I found drawings of birds and a copy of Ovid, which, for the hour that I waited for him, captivated me. When he did arrive he was carrying cans and buckets, of glues and solutions, which clanked up the stair ringing, I am sure, throughout the chapel. As was his habit, Dr. E. did not meet my eye, and instead began muttering, fussing over his materials, nudging his nest with a foot in a gestural parody of tidying up. He apologised for the mess, and said he was doing a little research up here; did I mind sharing the space? I replied that I did not, and asked what form of research. Something I have read of, he said, something I would like to test. Icarian wings, he said, suddenly meeting my eye. I want to fly with Icarian wings.
This first meeting with Dr. E. upset me, for I could not see how such an endeavour could ever end other than in injury, embarrassment or disaster. But E., albeit a messy worker, had a steely determination and an utter belief in the worthiness of his work that meant that for a time I could entertain the idea that I had a new friend in the chapel loft, working on a brave and noble piece of research, albeit strange. Genius, I considered, appears as madness to those observers without sufficient imagination to appreciate it. He had applied for funding and hoped to receive a substantial grant. And so I thought of E. nesting there above the chapel as I worked away in the library, and, when I came across them, took him things that I believed might help him. Facsimiles of Leonardo’s doodles for flying machines (amateurish, according to E.); a print of the Gowy painting of Icarus’ fall (unhelpful, he said); and some sections of the chapel vault, constructed, I explained, like a bird’s wing, each rib hollow, lightweight, though of cut stone. This pleased him and he traced the worn, raking pavement of these ribs with his hands as I explained the structure. The lengthening June evenings allowed him to work late, notching, planing, sanding, laminating, and I watched him in the monochrome light that seeped into the aviary from its portholes.
Later that month Dr. E. and I spent a weekend together quite accidentally, occasioned by the departure of Dr. P., his closest colleague, also a classicist, on a madcap voyage. Dr. P. planned, he told the college assembled at dinner, to murmured approval, to sail southwards on a route connecting various ‘Finisterres’ (from Land’s End to Finistère, Brittany, and on to Galacian Finisterre proper) before veering westwards, following the setting sun, to find and photograph – he meant to include prints in the college magazine – the edge of the classical world, the limit on Hecataeus’ map, the lip of the plate-flat earth off which brine poured into nothingness. He thought, he said, that a book might result from his wanderings, and that the publishing of a travelogue of this liminal archipelago might be a fitting memorial to Dr. S. (who had mysteriously disappeared on his research expedition to measure the depth and flow of the River Styx – the location of which, I seem to remember, remains uncertain). This eulogising note was especially well received, and Dr. P. was awarded a substantial grant from the ‘Dr. S. Memorial Fund for Classical Expeditions of a Hazardous Nature’ for the purchasing of materials and the construction of a suitable vessel.
I watched from the library windows over the coming weeks as Dr. P. took delivery of timber and supplies at the porters’ lodge and began his assembly in Webb’s Court. First came a colossal pine trunk, imported from Norway, he said, which he set about squaring, planing and jointing to form a keel. Then came the garboard strakes, then the lap strakes, fixed with iron nails and slapped all over with a rough coat of teal blue paint. The mast arrived by river, too long to turn in King’s Parade, and its installation required the boat be moved out onto the back lawn: a more public position which turned out to be advantageous, for Dr. P.’s efforts quickly captured the imagination of the college. Housekeeping staff sat stitching bedsheets into a colossal mainsail and tablecloths into a serviceable spinnaker. Even the porters were tempted outside, admonishing P. for the unseaworthyness of his ropework, and slowly correcting it, tutting all the while but producing neat and firm braiding, coils and bundles. Finally, P. stocked the capacious boughs with dried meats from the kitchens, skins of the finest wines from the pantry, fruit and oats, and warm Persian rugs from the library (upending my desk in the process), and was at last ready to begin hauling his vessel across the lawn to the Cam. This final procedure destroyed any favour P. might have garnered with the porters, who followed behind the boat as it creaked towards the river, inspecting and measuring gouges and divets in the grass so as to fine Dr. P. proportionally when the time came for the settling of his college bill.
E. appeared beside me as stood I watching the craft settle to its proper loaded level in the Cam, after a rough launch down King’s’ steep grassy slope which the rugby 1st team, enlisted by P. to slow the descent by heaving on waxy ropes at the stern, could do little to prevent. He asked, tugging at my sleeve, if I might fancy an expedition, a moonlit jaunt, to accompany P. as far as Ely, paddling alongside in a college canoe. The pomp and ceremony was all well and good, he said (the Provost clattered a bottle of expensive claret against the prow and began a Latin recitation), but not Homeric, and in any case we should see the craft under sail, with a following wind (it was a windless night), scudding across the Cam. I agreed reluctantly. But as we approached the Jesus Green lock in our canoe in pursuit of Dr P. (who had wasted no time stepping his mast to squeeze under the bridges of Clare, Trinity and St John’s) I began to enjoy the gentle rhythmic lapping of our wake against the bank, and to find a pattern in which E. and I could paddle together without the oversteering and argument to which we were prone. We caught up with him at Waterbeach, where, much to my surprise, a firm breeze began to inflate his sail. And so, with the canoe trailing by its painter, we climbed aboard the larger boat and sat with P. amongst his many provisions, sipping college wine from a skin and discussing his coming voyage. I soon understood that P. had little sailing experience, for A Very Short Introduction to Seamanship peeked from his duffel bag. P. explained proudly that the librarian had granted him an extended loan of that trusty manual – of up to three weeks – to ensure exemption from fines. Many hours later (Dawn, with her rosy-red fingers, said Dr P., was waking) we slid into Ely and P. gently unhitched our painter to cast us adrift, waving a silent goodbye across the gap, milky with mist, which slowly opened between the two boats as wind filled his well-stitched sail, pushing him on to King’s Lynn, Land’s End, and somewhere beyond.
I am haunted not by this final and weighted departure of Dr. P. – whose chair has remained empty at dinner for a full four years, and seems set to remain so – but instead by the morning that followed, which E. and I spent exploring the cathedral. E. had offered cups of homemade yoghurt as we sat in the canoe in the growing light (it’s very Homeric, he muttered to himself when I declined, and helped himself to some from the thermos which I had hoped would be carrying coffee), but no breakfast to speak of, so it was with shaky steps and arms weary from our evening rowing that we climbed the hill to the cloistered southern door. Did I know, asked E. as we crossed underneath the West tower, that George Basevi, architect of the unfinished Fitzwilliam Museum, had in 1845 fallen to his death from the old bell chamber above us whilst surveying it for repairs? I said that I did not, and imagined the sight: his well-built frame rushing past columns and capitals; a cloud of plans and drafting tools swirling around him: like Dedalus, that Cretan architect, though horribly let down by the absence of his wings, crashing into the very same marble flags on which I sat feeling nauseous and giddy. He fell through an opening in the bell chamber’s floor, continued E.: how sudden his fall must have seemed (and then again, I thought, such an eternity, to soundlessly sink through sixty meters of unexpected void, considering your plight), and how the crack of his impact must have shattered the stillness in the nave. We rowed back to Cambridge in near silence, I making some vain attempt to make my paddle move soundlessly through the water, as if to recover the tranquility of the day which had been so shattered by that image of Basevi rushing towards the ground, measuring tape in hand, parishioners tottering through the nave, oblivious.
E.’s application for funding was much slower in its processing. Eventually he was summoned to the committee and advised, as he sat peeling glue from his blistered fingers after an evening’s work on his armature, that his project would go unsupported. Some expeditions, commented a senior fellow, such as Dr. S.’s and Dr. P.’s, struck an admirable balance between risk of failure and reward of success. Others, such as E.’s own, would end in certain death, and, more worryingly, a total lack of publishable research. I found him later that night, dejectedly sanding and notching one of his painstakingly cut wing struts, working by candlelight on the skin of the chapel vault. I offered that the concerns of the committee might be well-founded; that flight on an Icarian model might be best left untested. I can manage it frugally, he replied. Cut some corners, steal wax from the chapel candles, feathers from the pigeon carcasses that collect in the eaves, cloth from table linen. His eyes shone in the half-dark. I descended the spiral stairs, biting my tongue, not letting on that the wooden frame, delicately made though it was, looked too fragile, too rickety, to hold the weight of a man, even one as slight, as birdlike, as Dr. E.
Towards September E.’s presence at dinner became less and less frequent, and whenever I was able to catch him in the hall or the chapel he was slipping candles or napkins into some concealed panel of his gown. His physical mass appeared to me to be dwindling, his fraying jumpers hanging loosely from his shoulders as the skin of a starving animal might. And his face became hollowed, his nose beak-like, his movements darting and his eating, whenever I could observe it (which was hardly ever), a sort of pecking. Yet in these weeks of obsession E. seemed more animated than anyone could remember him. I caught him more than once under the arch of the porters’ lodge on warm August evenings, sketching the starlings that nested there amongst the intricate vault ribs. His eyes flitted from bird to bird, paying particular attention to their exists, little moments of freefall tumble from the nest which became soaring glides across the front lawn. He seemed content.
Soon, though, the evenings began to shorten and the shadows lengthen, and the autumnal leaves loosened their grip on the trees of the backs and strewed the brooks which led from the Queen’s Road to the Cam. The sparrows were no longer to be seen at the Porters Lodge, and so Dr. E. became harder to find. I added to my daily routine a covert ascent of the chapel stairs, to see that all was well in his aviary: I saw him each morning, nested in feathers, his wings, increasingly impressive in construction, hanging from the roof timbers. It was to my dismay, then, when, on the first day of full term, in October, I mounted the stairs to find the loft empty, pierced from East to West by a shaft of autumnal light. I found no wings, no feathers, no Dr. E. But running to the porthole, I saw him, falling bravely, his oar-like wings scooping the air, a tumbling, spiraling flight. I lept for the stairs, and near-threw myself into their pattern, spiraling downwards, thinking of E., and of Basevi, and of both of them at once, wheeling in sickening spirals to meet the ringing flags of nave and quadrangle.
Yet exploding onto the back lawn, I found not the body of my friend, crumpled and broken, nor wreckage of the contraption he had made. Shouting his name I raised the alarm and the lawn swarmed with fellows. We searched Scholars’ Piece, the meadow, surrounding roofs and by evening had even searched the Cam, with punt-pole and flippered swimmer, but found nothing. Later, turning the morning over and over in my memory, I could not be sure that amongst the scattering starlings which my first shout had awoken was not the winged form of Dr. E., silhouetted against the waking sun, migrating from the chill autumn air.
Robert Hawkins is a research student at King’s College, Cambridge, studying for an MPhil in Medieval Art History. He is beginning a PhD in the autumn. He also writes and grows vegetables. This year he was pleased to find out that in Latin, to think [putare] is also to prune (a shrub, a garden, an untidy mind), and so he tries to divide his time between the two.