Take a look in the mirror. Notice anything about your orientation? That’s right: you’re upright, like the rest of us. Relax, it’s just the way we grow; up, it seems, is the way we go.
Okay, step away from the looking glass.
While you were admiring your anthropomorphic erectness, you may not have twigged to something else: our feelings are vertical, too, or at least they are in the ways we think about them.
We’re up or we’re down. Our spirits are high or they’re low. Our mood is elevated or depressed. If our metaphors are anything to go by, our emotions are like mercury in a tube. (Ha, there’s another one! To be mercurial, of course, is to have sudden changes in mood.)
Why so much Y-axis in our thoughts about feelings? It comes back to gravity, methinks, to that perpendicular pressure which drags us down – down to die, if we’re not careful, our brains dashed out on a rock somewhere. For if down equals death and death equals despair, then down clearly equates to despair.
Which is why, one Sunday past, I went and stared at a bridge. An irresistible force was weighing me down, and part of me wondered whether gravity would flatten me if I gave it the chance.
But as I sat in the car, dog-walkers wandering idly by, my thoughts turned from the bridge to the page, to the net that catches me when I dive for oblivion. Because stories, for me, are the upside of down.
Falling to Safety
I met him at the park. He said it was near his place but he couldn’t face his girlfriend so he’d come here instead. He was on my seat – the one with the view of women pushing kids on swings. Only he wasn’t watching.
When I arrived he had his head in his hands. I didn’t encourage him to talk, he just started. Told me he was a fireman; asked me if I’d heard the news. I told him I hated the news. So, after a pause, he filled me in. Fire, apartment block, trapped mother, trapped baby. Straight out of a comic book. Then the crazy bit: mother dropping her baby from a window to a fireman.
That pulled me up.
Hold on, I said, go back a bit. You caught the kid? The fireman groaned. That’s the thing, he said. I almost dropped it.
But didn’t, I said.
Listen, he hissed. I almost dropped that thing; I almost killed it. Next time I won’t be so lucky.
Next time, I said, you won’t be so unlucky – you won’t be the poor prick stuck underneath. You don’t know that, he said. True, I said, nodding. I don’t know a lot of things and that’s one of them.
We went quiet for a bit. I watched a mother try to coax a boy down the slide. The fireman watched with me. You any good at sport, he asked, after a while. Not as good as my brother, I said. And that’s all that counts. You reckon, he said. I’m fucking useless.
I looked at the size of him, the wide shoulders, the monstrous arms. Bullshit, I said. It’s true, he said, with a shrug. I can pump iron but I can’t catch to save myself. I’m a clutz.
That’s not cool, I said. Not in this country. Don’t I know it, he said. I copped hell at school. And fair enough too, I said, with a grin. You gay prick. Sometimes I wished I was, he said. Least I would’ve had a few decent mates. Yeah, I said, I know what you mean.
He turned to look at me, just as the boy went down the slide.
So, he said, you’re finally getting it? That my career’s over? That my cover’s blown? That all this flab, and my uniform, is a disguise? That I’m going to drop the next baby?
Everything’s a disguise, I said. Look, what if you weren’t lucky. What if the catch wasn’t half empty but half full?
I almost dropped it, I tell you, he cried.
But you didn’t, I said.
He thought about this for a while. But how can I be sure, he said finally. Catch another baby, I said, knowing straight away where I was going and not knowing if I liked it one bit.
Don’t tell me, said the fireman, looking at the pram beside me. You live in a two-storey house. Sorry, I said, it was my wife’s idea. I hate climbing stairs.
And you’ve got a baby. Sorry, I said, it was my wife’s idea. That’s pretty piss-weak, he said. Sorry, I said, that’s me. My wife’s idea.
The fireman snorted, got up and walked away.
Catcher in the Rye, I called after him. Ever read it? He kept walking, that big body of his blocking out the sun. Then he came back, mothers turning to look at him in a way they’d never looked at me.
It is funny, though, he said. Me running into you like this. Isn’t it, I said.
But you can’t be serious, he went on. You don’t want to take that risk, surely, with your own kid. You’re a fireman, I said, squinting up at him. What’s not to trust.
You trust me, a stranger?
Okay, I said, maybe I’m just trusting full stop. I even trust in trust. You’re a fucking idiot full stop, he said.
Ah, I said, now you’ve seen through my disguise.
He stood there, flexing his fingers. I would like to know, though, he said. Before I throw it all away.
Then he turned to me, his eyes shining with hope. You think I can do it?
More to the point, I said, do you think I can?
On and on we went, round and round the mulberry bush, until, trembling and quiet, we up and walked to my wife’s two-storied house, me pushing the pram.
Here, I said, pointing to a spot below the bedroom window. Try not to put your feet in the garden.
As I turned to go, the fireman grabbed my arm. I was top of my class, he hissed, his eyes glittering.
Hold that thought, I said, and took my son upstairs.
It was here, let me tell you, that I almost lost my nerve. I went to a shelf, I took down a bear. I turned it over and over. It was real enough. Then I saw the note you’d left and I put the bear back.
My throat was burning as I scooped the boy up. Three lives, I said as I clutched him to my chest, as I walked with him to the window. Three lives and the whole of humanity. Surely, Ben, we have to take the risk, just to find out.
I opened the window. It’s all right, said the fireman, I’m here, I’m here.
He looked massive as he stood there looking up, hands big like baskets filled with bread and fish.
How could I miss?
No, the fireman screeched, as Benjamin fell. Holy fuck, I cried, as he tumbled out of the fireman’s grasp.
When I got down there the bastard had gone. But Ben lay in the rushes, asleep and unhurt.
I turned and saw the fireman, who had crept back, massive hands hiding his mouth.
It’s all right, I said. He’s alive.
But I dropped him, he cried.
No, I said, he’s been safely caught.
But I dropped him, the fireman said.
So did I, I replied.
We stood and looked at each other, in something like wonder.
Then Benjamin woke with a cry.
At once, the fireman became a fireman again, and me, well, I went back to being a dad.
Which I did, having experienced, yet again, the upside of down.