Flying Machine

A short extract from LOVE AND INVENTION

The Flying Machine - 1942

Abbas stretched canvas over a framework of rods, threading twine through the eyes he'd stitched and pulling it tight, drumming on the cloth with his fingers to hear the notes. He tied off the chord and stepped back to admire his work, then pushed the doors of the barn and dragged his creation out into the open.

Boy and machine projected shadows down the hill that rippled in the grass and the wind, curious, bustled round them, making the contraption sing with clicks and vibrations – take me with you. Take me with you Abbas Ibn Firnas. We will soar above fields and trees, gliding over villages without a sound, circling on thermals up, across the hills into the next valley, a long way off, high towards the border. No one will see us as we fly Abbas, beyond the reach of guns and soldiers.

Two crows thrashed out of the grass racing towards the woods. They flew in an arc, playing in the air above the stream.

Abbas lifted the machine across his back and fixed the straps. He climbed the ladder to the roof, found steady footing and gripped the handles. Then he stretched his arms and the wings unfurled. A gust of wind threatened to upturn him and a chorus rose from the canvas panels. The crows rushed back, swooping round, beckoning him, then off again.

He checked the watch fixed to his wrist - the birds were already way ahead - then he closed his eyes and leaned into the flow of air, feeling it pull against his weight as he bent his knees. With a downstroke of his arms he pushed off like a boat into a river and the wind caught him and carried him upwards. He worked the wings with solid rhythm and as he rose the world opened out in golden evening below. The tops of trees and then the village rushed into view and his body felt like electricity might crackle from his fingertips. He watched his shadow glide away over the canal and the river and roll on to the rooftops.

There was a flash from the top of the tree by the church. That must be light reflected on the glass of binoculars. The tree was a lookout post. Abbas held his line and ploughed the sky towards the gap between the hills, hoping the dazzle of the sun and his distance would hide him, but the damage was done. Figures in uniform were moving on the treetop now.

He lowered his head and beat down on the wings, hard. The leather strap that steadied the machine across his back snapped. He fought to hold his arms in position, but couldn't stop them trembling and the ground rushed up to meet him. He pushed out his legs pre-paring to run on landing, but they folded and dragged behind, his arms were drawn back as arms were not designed to do and his face hit the ground. The machine crackled as all the rods snapped in unison and the full weight of his body pushed him against sweet grass and dry earth.

He pulled himself free of the straps and rested on all fours for a moment, tensing and relaxing his hands and feet to check that everything still worked. The watch had stayed in place. There was no time to wait — they'd be on their way to look for him. And as he stood, warm blood dripped down his chin. He ripped a square from the canvas to wipe his face, then held the bridge of his nose to block the thick liquid. He rubbed out the red on the ground and kicked dirt and grass to cover any trace. Then he skipped and limped, carrying the remains of his wings back to the barn to hide. And, as he ran, he laughed with joy. There were no more dogs in the village and the men alone would not be able to find him. The next time he built the machine it would be stronger. Abbas Ibn Firnas had learned how to fly.