FLY OR FALL
Can the allure of the unknown ever overcome the fear of stepping away from solid ground?
Nell admits that she doesn’t like change. Married young and kept at home by twin babies and an invalid mother, and dependent on her husband Trevor’s wages, her life has been limited. But when circumstances change for the better and her husband wants to move away from London, the ground seems to shift beneath her feet. She is gripped by an inexplicable foreboding.
Now in her early thirties, Nell feels cast adrift, far from her friends and all that is familiar. Trevor is no longer the man she married, and their teenage twins, Jonathan and Juliet, are grumpy and difficult. The new house is unwelcoming and needs modernisation and she’s thrust into a continuing chaos of rubble and renovation. The women she gets to know - Katherine and Felicity - seem frivolous and hedonistic. They wrongly assume that she’s ‘one of them’, someone who will delight in the knowledge that Patrick, one of the builders working on her house, is a notorious womaniser. At first grateful that he doesn’t make a pass at her, Nell begins to feel resentful that Pat finds her unattractive.
Nell takes a bar job at the local sports club, but she distances herself from the overheated atmosphere of flirtation and gossip. She’s not that kind of woman, but....
She can’t help being influenced by her new friends’ attitude of casual infidelity. Secretly Nell begins to fantasise about romantic adventures. When she’s pursued by a beautiful and enigmatic young man, whose name she thinks is Angel, she is tempted. Before she can boast about her conquest to another friend, the quirky, new-age Elizabeth, her world falls apart. The presentiment of disaster, felt as a tremor at the start of the story, rumbles into a full blown earthquake, delivering shock after shock. When the dust settles nothing is as it seemed, not even the life she left behind in London. The unlikely love which has blossomed from the wreckage is doomed and she is forced to confront the hair’s breadth between wishful thinking, self-deception and lies, when shocking truths about friends (old and new), her husband, both her teenage twins and even herself, are exposed.
Fly or Fall follows the dismantling of all of Nell’s certainties, her preconceptions and her moral code. By its conclusion, everything has altered for the ‘woman who dislikes change’, but has Nell been broken or has she transformed herself?
The cartoon rabbit ran straight off the edge of the cliff. He hung, oblivious to his predicament, feet pedalling the empty air. There was a snigger, halfway between laughter and derision, from the twins.
Perhaps belief is everything, I thought. If you believe you’re still on the same level, that life hasn’t changed, you won’t see the void which has opened beneath your feet. And if you don’t see it, you don’t fall. Inevitably the rabbit did stop running, did look down. I felt with him the nightmare lurch of panic, the sudden plunge downwards as he dropped out of frame. The result was explosive. As the dust cleared a precisely incised, rabbit shaped crater was revealed at the foot of the cliff.
‘I still can’t believe the amount of money....’ I murmured, with a dazed shake of my head.
‘So? What’s your problem? Any normal person would be jumping for joy.’ We were speaking quietly; the twins had yet to be told their father wanted to move, let alone that, without even putting the house on the market, we’d received an eye-watering offer for it.
‘I’m not arguing,’ I defended myself half-heartedly. ‘But I suppose I’ve always thought the amount it might sell for was academic. We have to live somewhere. Your job’s here, our friends are here, the kids go to school here. Why sell?’
‘We’ve been through this. There’s nothing to keep us, not really. Why stay in Battersea when we could live in the country? Clean air, green fields, a house with a proper garden and a driveway ... maybe even a garage ... to park the car off-road?’
I hadn’t reacted the way he’d wanted and expected, and I could hardly explain why to myself let alone to him. Why did I have such a sense of foreboding? If I agreed to sell and move out of London, our lives would change in countless superficial and practical ways but, to use Trevor’s words, they’d be changes which most normal people would regard as improvements to the style and quality of life. To him it was a no-brainer. Why stay in a property worth so much money when we could sell it and move somewhere better but cheaper in the country. Deflated by my reaction to his plans he had to work hard to keep his irritation in check.
‘But it’s such an unremarkable house.’
‘For God’s sake, Nell. Where have you been? You’ve heard about the property boom?’
‘But it’s smaller than the others in the terrace, with a much smaller garden. I never in a million years thought.... Anyway, what about your job?’
He sighed deeply. ‘I’m a teacher, I can get a job anywhere.’
‘Are you sure about that?’
‘I’m not dragging us off to the depths of the country on a wing and a prayer. I’ll make sure I’ve something to go to. I may quit teaching altogether.’
‘But you love teaching?’
‘I used to,’ he retorted darkly. I felt I was being drawn into an Alice in Wonderland world where all my certainties were being turned upside down. ‘Look, the whys and wherefores are not important … the important thing is this.’ He waved the formal offer at me. His taut, flushed face betrayed his excitement, as he contemplated a very different future to the one I’d envisaged.
‘I don’t want … we don’t need so much money. Wealth can be very corrupting.’
He sighed again. ‘Of course it seems a lot to us because we’ve been scraping along for years. It’s only recently things have eased up a bit. But we’ll still need a house to live in.’ His tabby, greying beard received another vigorous raking. ‘We’ll only have the balance to play with.’
‘I know that.’
‘Sure, our lives are going to change. But we are who we are. It is possible to be comfortably off, to have a few hundred thousand in an investment account, without abandoning your ideals. Unless you truly believe our principles are so flaky? The kind you adopt when you’re poor then slough off like a snake’s skin as soon as your circumstances improve?’
‘No one really knows how they’ll respond to temptation until they’re exposed to it. It’s a leap into the dark. Perhaps I am going to develop a taste for furs and diamonds and love-affairs. And you? Fast cars and bimbos?’
‘Do try to keep a sense of proportion. It’s not that kind of dosh.’
‘I am joking.’ But as I said the words I knew I wasn’t joking, not really. I had cloaked my real misgivings in the facile.
‘Anyway, how come you get to have love-affairs and I get the bimbos?’ he added, with a rueful smile. ‘Sounds a bit discriminatory to me.’
‘What is the male equivalent of a bimbo? A gigolo? A toy boy? Chance would be a fine thing.’
Much of the discussion so far had been conducted in this half-joking, half-serious vein. My insides still bubbled with a mixture of shocked surprise and apprehension, bordering on hysteria; I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. For me it was still too soon to properly and calmly evaluate what all this would really mean to us. At length he spoke again.
‘You think I don’t understand, but I do.’ His tone was now conciliatory, bordering on the condescending. I remained silent, repressing the urge to flash back, ‘Good for you.’
‘I know all this has been a shock. I know the last few months since Beryl died, have been hard on you. Losing your surviving parent has got to change your perspective on life and the way you live it. Even when she had long ceased to be the mother you knew. We always knew you’d inherit the house. The probate will soon be sorted and we ... you’ll get the title deeds. What the house is worth is the only new element for you.’
But not for him? Had he been comparing house prices for years? Weighing up what my mother’s death could mean for us? I sensed a ‘But’ coming, possibly an ultimatum. Did he want to secure my compliance here and now? Yet, as he proceeded, I saw apprehension in his eyes.
‘Seriously, Nell, it’s down to you. If you really don’t want to sell the house and realise some of the profits by moving out and down-pricing, then I can’t force you.’
I glanced away from his intent stare, back towards the TV, which now flickered in the corner without its cynical audience of two. Since I’d last looked, Bugs Bunny had not only survived his fall but had triumphed over his pursuers, in the interim mysteriously achieving a lifestyle of wealth and opulence. As the title music swelled the final frame revealed him lying back complacently against a pile of harem cushions, a jewelled turban balanced between his ears, the inevitable carrot held pinched in his fingers like a cigar.
‘Beats me why you can’t just accept it and rejoice?’ Trevor persisted doggedly. ‘Our ship’s come in. It’s our turn.’
He made my misgivings seem increasingly nebulous and perverse. How could I continue to resist? One moment I’d felt like I was at the edge of a precipice, facing a leap into the unknown, yet still clinging to the possibility of retreat. Now I realised the world had shifted on its axis; there could be no going back. The secure ground had vanished from beneath my feet. I had only two options left – to fall or to fly.