Wings can only escape so far


Mirage of Life

By Lydia Trethewey

For The Enlightenment Award


There’s a stranger a few paces in front of me, leaning out over the railing. He has a camera slung about his neck and snaps images of the dusk that seeps across flattened concrete rooves. Orange light reflected in his glasses, the sun burning low and bleeding into the dirty estuary. I watch through the crevices of jostling bodies and forced smiles, tourists vying for position on the viewing platform.

One push would send him over the edge. The uncompromising pavement meeting with cracked skull and shattered lens.

I shake my head and try to reign in my thoughts. They surge down into subconscious depths and backwash up through my tired brain. From nowhere the impulses appear, to ease my car into oncoming traffic or to violently punch my aging grandma in the face. Slithers of my mind worm free and shout raw aggressions into the hollow chamber of my being.

The man shuffles on, looking out through his camera. Dust motes dance in the upper atmosphere as it closes around the day. A frustrated woman with a lens the size of a small dog glares at me as I squeeze past. Her eyes brush my washed-out uniform, the thin hairs escaping from the twisted knot on my head, the white name badge that reads Hi, my name is Finley in false plastic cheeriness.

The black blood of broken cells swims in my eyeballs.

It would be frighteningly easy to snap the bonds of moral adherence, to rebel. In a single moment I could reach into another’s life and change its course, a stranger’s future crystallised in a sudden firing of neural impulses and an uncontrollable jerk of muscle.

The man’s wristwatch shows the wrong time, and he wears a small grey backpack high on his shoulders. I come up behind him.

I tap him on the shoulder.

‘Excuse me sir. Please don’t lean out over the railing.’

In my dreams I walk through a blue garden and disturb a butterfly from its sleep, watch it wing like two silvered crescents into the sky. I wake into the purgatorial heat of a small apartment to the abuses of an alarm-clock. Wash and eat on auto-pilot, sleep congealed about my eyes. I feel my body atrophy, and with it my spirit.

People sit with folded newspapers, plugged into iPods, watching the minutes tick over until the next train. I try to imagine the minutiae of their lives, all their fears and loves and dreams. My head spins with the effort. I could extinguish those vast incomprehensible memories, I could harness the power to destroy worlds. A gentle knock with the hard edge of my shoulder as the train comes in, send someone sprawling onto the tracks, eaten up by steel and screams as the monster roars into station.

The tower thrusts upwards in a shard of silver and grey, dominating the sky. If I strain my eyes through the thin yellow haze I can see pinpricks of colour drifting about on the viewing platform.

I breathe in the stale air of the elevator. It groans and rattles as we lift off, sliding up the building’s windpipe towards the highest point of the city. I adjust my name-badge, shifting uncomfortably in my sweaty shirt. In the endless mirrored reflections of the elevator I see myself, slumped already under the weight of the day. Living a mirage of life.

In one pocket are my apartment keys, a ball-point pen without a lid, and a carefully folded piece of paper. In the other a small folded pocketknife, humming metallically against my leg. I scrunch up two fists and caress each item with the white of my knuckles.

The elevator doors open. A low drone of sound reverberates through the morning hush, the pulse of the tower as workers hurry to and fro. A few customers are scattered around the restaurant, rubbing their eyes and idling about the sunrise. A woman with neatly combed hair and pursed lips sits alone and glares at the waitresses as they scurry about.

Imagine the punctured bodies trailing beads of red over their toast and orange juice. Gaping mouths and bulging eyes asking why, and the answer could only be; there is no reason. No reason to any of this. My body itches, my brain slowly relinquishing its control.

I look out towards the viewing platform, the sky stretching overhead with all the terrifying openness of possibility. I sense the ugliness of freedom and choice on the horizons of my being.

I turn my feet towards the staffroom.

My manager leans over the computer, plagued by optical fatigue. The glow of the screen penetrates his eyeballs. My gaze settles on the soft vulnerable skin at the base of his skull.

I step forward.

‘Excuse me, Mr Dawson.’

He turns his tired eyes to me, unseeing. Silence spreads through the room, laps into the corners and recedes to the centre. I reach into my pocket.

‘I quit,’ I say, bringing out the folded piece of paper. ‘I just can’t do this anymore’

Hand shaking slightly, I give him the letter of resignation. He blinks, face momentarily arrested with surprise.

I feel myself reaching into the future, grasping to take hold. It slips away and stretches out into a vast, terrifying realm of possibility.

Mr Dawson just nods.

Beginning to smile, I wing my way outwards into the unknown.