Icarus

The London Magazine - - ROBERT HAWKINS -

‘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.

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