In the air, Heimo was untouchable. The crowds knew it. His students knew it and had turned him into a legend. Some had even dared to ask him about the bird tattooed on his chest, wings spread from collar-bone to collar-bone. Heimo wore his shirts wide open at the neck, even on winter mornings when the hangar doors were crusted with ice, so the bird was always visible. It created the illusion of power on a light frame, as if Heimo could leave the ground at will with every step he took. All he would say was that he had designed it himself from an image burned into his memory in childhood. Anyone could tell there was more to the story, but who was going to pin Heimo down? He was up there; always up there.
The bubble cockpit canopy was like a drop of water in the sun. The air Heimo knew was a living thing with unseen hands that clasped and pulled in all directions. Distant Earth fell downwards into bright blue. Forces thrust him upwards and fell away. The shadow of a wing slashed across the sun and the world rolled over. Heimo felt, rather than heard, the music of the engine: a giant humming, sometimes high, sometimes low. The tight harness bit into his shoulders, then eased off. Sometimes in the high air the engine would die and he hung for a while, poised on a wire, until everything fell away and the ground screwed up towards him. Then the music bellowed and dropped to a grumble when the horizon showed itself again.
Heimo took little notice of anything except the sensation. The physical state of being part of an aeroplane was wired into his soul. Half the time he could not have told you exactly what he did with stick and rudder, but sometimes it occurred to him that driving through the air is a commitment that denies you the opportunity to stop and think.
Gazing down at the landscape he imagined himself on one of those ribbons of road, walking, stopping, settling down to orientate himself. In a car you have the privilege of rolling to a halt, stepping out and taking stock. A ship at sea can drift while the navigator scratches his head, looks around and makes sense of it all at leisure.
In the air you stay up and work it out, or you die. That’s fine. Death is a certainty, whether you make a mistake or just wear out. The certainty comes closer all the time. Old men know this and they’re frightened of it, whatever they say.
The sun cut across the glistening bubble reminding him that the flight goes on, the engine makes its music, and none of it can stop until the ritual of descending is complete, the skills of levelling and balancing have been tested once again, the tyres have kissed the runway and rolled to a halt in their own good time.
The man with the bird tattooed across his cheek fascinated the twelve-year-old Heimo. The man lived in the village where Heimo grew up, but unlike most of the inhabitants he didn’t seem to have local roots, which set him apart. People with tattoos were a rarity in that intensely conservative community, and Heimo, whose family had lived there for generations, had instructions to avoid the freak.
Men of standing in the village – men like Heimo’s grandfather who wore grey and green flannel jackets, smoked pipes and wore a brush of goat’s hair in their hats – toyed with the possibility that the man was a communist, excluded him by simply refusing to acknowledge his presence, and let it be known that their families were expected to comply. This was a sure way of arousing any twelve-year-old’s curiosity. Heimo picked up the word ‘communist’ and whispered it urgently to his friends, who decided the bird tattoo was a clue and the man should be watched.
This was easy. The man, whose name was Kurt, had a job sweeping up in the village shop, which was also a barber’s, and most of the kids had to go in there at least once a month, except for those whose mothers cut their hair for them. Heimo used to watch Kurt in the mirror while he was having his hair cut. The spread wings of the bird stretched from just below Kurt’s right eye to the knob of jawbone under his ear. From a distance it looked like a purple scar but when you got up close you could see the detail, like a badly blotted ink drawing.
Since no one bothered to communicate with Kurt, various rumours circulated about him from time to time. He was not old – perhaps thirty-five at the time – and seemed fit and active. Word got round that he was simple; that was the only possible explanation for someone of his age doing a menial job with no prospects, and the tattoo was taken as further evidence of a feeble intellect.
To Heimo and his friends, Kurt was a challenge and they took to concocting their own stories about the turbulent past which had brought him to his present situation. Kurt was a spy. Kurt was a gangster hiding from hit-men after absconding with millions of mob dollars. He was a wealthy banker who had murdered his wife’s lover and changed his identity. He was a psychopath who roamed at night with an axe.
The challenge was to talk to him but that took nerve, and anyway, Kurt was a man of few words. He would give you Gruss Gott if you said it to him in passing, but you couldn’t call that a conversation.
Reluctantly, Heimo decided there was nothing dangerous about Kurt. If he had a secret it was a sad one; it was there in his face, and in the way he avoided social contact as if unwilling to pass on his problem to other people. One afternoon he saw Kurt leaning against the fountain in the village square smoking a cigarette. Kurt was facing the sun, eyes narrowed, and Heimo went over and asked what he was looking at.
‘The sky,’ said Kurt.
‘Is that all?’
‘That’s all.’ Kurt dropped his cigarette, trod on it and walked away.
‘He’s definitely a spy,’ Heimo told his friends. ‘He’s expecting an air attack.’
This idea, delivered with calm authority, became the accepted version. From then on, anything Kurt was seen to do was discussed earnestly by the group. This went on until Kurt’s sudden and spectacular death made him immortal.
In later years Heimo reflected that the indelible image of this event descended, almost literally, upon his head. Crossing the square on his way from school to the barber’s shop, a flicker in his peripheral vision caused him to glance up and he saw in silhouette a man in flight, arms and legs spread, suspended against the bright sky.
The impact, a few yards away from him, was a dull slap of great force which made him screw up his eyes and leap backwards. When he regained control the square was alive with people closing around Kurt’s body, which seemed to have been assembled all wrong, one arm crooked behind the neck in an impossible position, the other trapped under the torso. The right side of Kurt’s head was flat to the ground, his left eye staring into nothing, the wings of the bird tattoo spread in motionless flight.
He had fallen from the church steeple, and faces turned upwards to measure the distance of the fall as a murmur of suicide rippled round the square. Old women crossed themselves. The men shook their heads and looked to one another for reassurance. But before anyone could take any effective action a weak voice from up above froze the crowd and a head and shoulders appeared, leaning over the ledge of the bell tower.
A rescue party swarmed up the spiral staircase and brought down the elderly priest who had apparently been making routine repairs to his bell pulley, as he had done for years without regard for his advancing age. Gasping with the pain of a broken leg, he told them how he had slipped and become trapped, half in and half out of the window, with no way of getting himself down. Kurt had seen and gone to his assistance, but in the act of prizing him free had himself slipped and fallen.
All talk of spies, simpletons and communists was snuffed out on the instant. Kurt had died saving a priest and the village knew how to honour a hero.
What followed affected Heimo more than he realised at the time. The descending, spread-eagled figure, glimpsed in a flash, was burned on his memory, but not in isolation. It triggered a curious sympathy for the man whose last split second of life he had witnessed, and with that went a contempt for those who presumed to mourn him. Heimo, who had never questioned the integrity of his elders, watched with growing disgust as men of his father’s and grandfather’s generations squabbled over who would speak for the deceased at his funeral. Suddenly they all seemed to have held Kurt in high regard and had anecdotes about encounters with him, which for some reason they hadn’t seen fit to mention at the time.
It seemed odd to the twelve-year-old, turning thirteen, that everyone was united in their suspicion of Kurt while he was alive, but as soon as he was dead they put him on a pinnacle and turned against each other. Moral, according to Heimo’s logic: everyone needs a living being to hold in contempt, but the dead are above it.
The priest stepped in (on his crutches) to stop the feuding. He decreed that in the absence of an overwhelming claim to Kurt’s acquaintance the honour of giving the funeral address should fall to the village’s senior dignitary, Herr Flores.
This portly, bearded septuagenarian prepared a speech of stupefying pomposity for the occasion, but never got to deliver it. Newspaper coverage of Kurt’s death produced an astonishing turn-out at the funeral and on the day a stranger came forward announcing that he had something to say for the departed.
Herr Flores, already on his feet, was forced to concede to the stranger, who had the congregation’s fullest attention the moment he stepped up to the altar. No one doubted that he was in some way connected with Kurt’s past; the backs of his hands that gripped the lectern were covered in tattoos, and half his face was a swirl of Rococo patterns.
The stranger spoke quietly with an accent that was hard to place, but a tendency to swallow syllables suggested French was his first language. He had come, he said, to make belated apologies to Kurt for a wrong done some years ago, from the best motives, which he believed had destroyed Kurt’s chances of making a successful career.
The stranger explained that he was a tattooist, and held up his hands, backs outwards, to illustrate the point. He had not met Kurt as a client. Kurt, he felt, was not the kind of man who would normally favour tattoos. A quiet man, a medical student, Kurt had rented the room over the stranger’s shop in Marseilles, and they had become friends.
Drinking together in a bar one evening they had been caught up in a fight, and before they knew what was happening they were both on their backs on the floor with splintered tables, broken glasses and churning feet all around them. Kurt had tried to help a man whose face was a mask of blood and been hit over the head with a bottle for his trouble. The tattooist remembered collapsing under a shower of punches, the flash of a knife in front of his eyes, then a sensation of being dragged into the open, semi-conscious.
Kurt had pulled him out of there and almost certainly saved his life in spite of being badly injured himself. How do you repay anyone for that? You offer the best gift you can, of course; and in the days to come, while Kurt was drifting in and out of consciousness on his bed, the tattooist applied all his skill to the finest work he had ever done. This mark of gratitude, offered without thought for the consequences, was indelible.
Kurt recovered, looked at himself in the mirror and said nothing. Soon afterwards he left without a word.
The tattooist wished to apologise and pay his respects to the man he believed he ruined. He left the lectern and walked slowly down the aisle and out of the church.
Heimo watched him go and thought of Kurt falling. He had never seen anyone dead before, but it seemed to him that a moment in flight, even in freefall, was something to cherish. If the fall could last a lifetime, surely that was life lived to the full.
In the air, Heimo was untouchable. Everybody knew it.