Billy followed Rex down the stairs, though not in darkness this time. And, inevitably, the cat followed. Billy learned his name was Marius.
There were no pictures hanging in the hallway, or anywhere else in the house. There was a calendar hanging in the downstairs hallway. For October, it showed a blood-red sun descending over an autumnal landscape. Billy got the impression it was there for stricly practical reasons. A few dates had been circled.
In the hallway, there were more bookcases, once again rising almost to the ceiling. When he saw that Billy cocked his head sideways to read the spines, Rex stopped.
“I wrote these books, too”, he said, pulling a thick volume in navy-blue binding from a middle shelf. “I’m not just Rex Cunningham, you know”.
“No?” asked Billy. After Rex’s behaviour upstairs, he was almost frightened to say a word.
“No”, said Rex, and from his tight smile, Billy could say he enjoyed explaining this. “I’m also Morgan Archer, and Nelson Freeman, and Dexter Armstrong.” He handed Billy the volume. “This is one I wrote as Dexter Armstrong.”
Billy’s pulse had quickened as he took the book—more Rex Cunningham books that he didn’t even know about!—but the wild hope within him died when he read the title.
“The…The See-ux Wars: A History”, he read aloud.
“It’s pronounced Soo”, said Rex Cunnigham, frowning. “Don’t they teach you history in school anymore?”
“Yes”, said Billy, frightened of not answering. “Just not—“
“Just not the Sioux wars, evidently”, said Rex, taking the book from Billy’s hands and slotting it back into its place, as though he had decided the boy didn’t deserve to see it after all. “No, it’s not just make-your-own-adventure stories that I write. I write military history as Dexter Armstrong. I write marine history—that’s about boats and ships—as Nelson Freeman. And when I’m Morgan Archer, I write about the occult.”
“What—what is the occult?” asked Billy.
“Magic, boy, magic”, said Rex. “Guess how many books I’ve written?”
Billy knew instantly to make a low guess. If he guessed more than the old man had written, he could hardly act surprised if it was less—and it was plain as a newspaper headline that Rex Cunningham wanted him to be surprised.
“Fifty?” asked Billy. He knew that twenty-seven books had been written under the name Rex Cunningham. Billy owned them all.
“Not even close”, said the writer, with evident pride. “I’ve written over four hundred books, Master Reynolds. Four hundred and four, to be exact.”
Billy tried to look suitably gobsmacked. He stared at the old man, widening his eyes. “Four hundred? How is that possible?”
Rex shrugged, nonchalantly. “I write, Master Reynolds”, he said. “That’s what I do. Ever since my wife died forty years ago, I’ve been utterly alone in the world. I don’t bother the world, and the world doesn’t bother me. I sit in front of my typewriter and I write all day.”
“And read”, said Billy, looking around the hallway with its hundreds—maybe even thousands—of books. “You must read a lot too.”
Rex Cunningham shrugged again. “I used to”, he said. “I have read all these books, more or less. But for many years now—well, I don’t have time for much reading. There are too many books to write. Too many books to write.”
There was a knock on the front door. For a moment, Billy felt surprised to be reminded that there was a world outside this house.
“More intrusive children”, said Rex Cunningham. “They’re always spying on me, the whole year round. They want to know what the old recluse is doing. Goodness knows what stories they’ve concocted. Unless their imaginations have been completely wiped away by television and computer games and they’re incapable of imagining anything.”
There was another knock, and a pause, and then another.
“If it was only the children,” said Rex, staring at the door with an offended look, “I might let them in. It’s the parents I can’t endure. I can’t bear their chatter. Do you watch television?”
The question was so unexpected that Billy stared at the old man in bewilderment.
“Well, yes or no?” asked Rex, in a sharper voice.
“No”, said Billy. And then, frightened that the lie would seem too blatant: “I mean, yes. Not much, though. Barely at all.”
Even this was a lie. Before he’d discovered the books of Rex Cunningham, Billy had often spent whole Saturday mornings and afternoons watching television. Whole school evenings, too, putting off the moment when he had to do homework until after the next programme.
“Hmph”, said Rex, raising his right hand to his chin and stroking it with his thin, nicotine-stained fingers. “I suppose you won’t find a man, woman or child who doesn’t watch the accursed contraption anymore. I remember the first time I saw television. It was in a shop window in Birmingham, a little after the War, and it was showing some—some kind of variety show, I believe. I hated it from the moment I saw it, but I never guessed the effect it would have. Worse than an atomic bomb, if you ask me.”
There was another knock at the door, and Marius hissed again—louder this time.
“To blazes with them!, cried Rex, glaring at the door. “Let us adjourn to the kitchen, my young friend, away from these interlopers.”
Billy only knew the word interlopers from Rex Cunningham books. In fact, Rex Cunningham books had sent him to the dictionary a lot, and that was a part of why he liked them. He liked dictionaries. Sometimes he would read them just for the pleasure of it.
Words were amazing things, he thought. What were they except marks on paper? And yet, they could conjure up anything—space rockets, haunted houses, galaxies, centuries of history, mermaids, anything.
Sometimes he would come across a word that he liked so much that he would whisper it again and again, feeling it had some magical power; alabaster, zodiac, galvanize, pentangle, Olympiad.
Words were magical. That’s what he couldn’t help thinking.
“Through here, my young guest”, said Rex, giving a little ironic bow and opening the cream-coloured kitchen door. The hinge creaked a little as he opened it.
It was the largest, most high-ceilinged kitchen Billy had ever seen—you could easily hold a party of thirty people in it-- and it seemed even larger because there was so little furniture in it. The kitchen table was huge, as though it was designed for a party. Twenty people could probably have sat around it. But there were only four chairs—tall, carved, dark wooden chairs—neatly arranged, one each side.
The lino underneath was a green and white checker pattern, and it was so clean that it gleamed. A rather old-fashioned looking cooker was installed in the corner of the room, and the black marble-effect sideboard beside it gleamed as well. Along the walls ran cupboards with frosted glass panes in front. The white, basic-looking fridge, bare of fridge magents, looked tiny in the enormous room. Its hum barely made a dent in the kitchen’s silence.
Venetian blinds hung on the windows and the panes of the back door, closed so that there was no view of the outside world. Now and again, they glowed different colours as the fireworks continued to explode outside.
“I have a lady who cooks and cleans for me”, said Rex. “It took me a while to find one that wouldn’t snoop around and wouldn’t interrupt me when I was working. I wonder if you’ve ever met a lady—- as opposed to a mere woman-- in your whole life, Master Reynolds? They used to be quite plentiful, I assure you.”
Billy wasn’t sure what to say to this. He wondered if he should have been insulted for his mother’s sake. He pictured how she danced and sang when she was drunk, and somehow he couldn’t feel cross at Rex’s words.
“Do people still drink tea?”, asked Rex, drawing two mugs from a tree that stood beside the kitchen sink. There were only two mugs on the tree, and Billy guessed that there weren’t any more cups in the house. Both were plain white.
“Sure”, said Billy.
“I can’t keep up with the fashions” said Rex, opening a drawer. “All the books I ever seem to see in bookshops these days are cookery books. Or gardening books. Or books about sport. People getting fatter and fatter, and when they’re eating their burgers and chips they watch football and tennis and swimming. If they have a death-wish, I don’t really blame them. I’m not sure what they have to live for, when I look at their way of life.”
The author’s back was turned to him now, as he made the tea. Billy watched him, surprised at how small and bent he looked from behind.
“You think that’s a terrible thing to say, no doubt”, said Rex, still not turning around. A low whistle began to come from the kettle.
“No”, said Billy.
Rex turned around, and there was a sharp light in his eyes.
“I’ll thank you not to humour me, young sir”, he said. He rolled the final r, and cocked one of his eyebrows. “Are you a sycophant?”
“A…a what?”, asked Billy, more nervous by the second.
“A sycophant”, said Rex, smiling and speaking the word more slowly. “A yes-man. A toady. A lickspittle. Someone who doesn’t have the gumption to stick up for himself and his beliefs.”
Billy suspected this was exactly what he was—- he never argued with anybody if he could avoid it—- but he said, “No. I’m not a sycophant.”
“You’d better not be”, said Rex, narrowing his eyes, as though he was examining Billy closer. “Because if you were, I would have made a terrible mistake.”
The whistling of the kettle turned to a shrill piping, and Rex turned his back to Billy again. He had no idea what Rex meant, but it made him uneasy.
He heard the sound of water tinkling as it entered the mugs, the ringing of a spoon against their edges. It all sounded ridiculously loud in that huge kitchen. “Milk?”, said Rex. “I can’t offer you sugar as I don’t have any.”
“Milk. Please. Thank you,” said Billy.
“Sit down, Master Reynolds”, said Rex, stepping towards the fridge. “And stop shuffling your feet and panting like that. I’m not going to behead you any time soon.”
Billy stepped towards the kitchen table. Rex had only switched one light on as they entered and the kitchen was half in shadow. From underneath the table, Billy saw the glint of Marius’s eyes. The beast was still watching him. Every moment, Billy was concious of their green and unblinking glow.
Billy pulled out a chair and began to sat down on it. Then the thought struck him that it was at the head of the table and Rex was probably used to sitting there. He pushed it back into place and walked around to one of the table’s sides, pulling out the chair there and gingerishly lowering himself into it. He wondered if anyone had sat here before.
From beneath the table, he could hear the purring of Marius. It was a threatening sort of purring, he thought.
“Tell me, Master Reynolds”, said Rex, as he walked towards the table, a mug in each hand. “What future do you see for yourself?”
Billy hated this question more than he could say. He was disappointed that Rex Cunningham would even ask it.
“I don’t really think about it”, he said.
Rex placed the mug of milky tea in front of Billy, put his own mug of black tea in the place that Billy had just vacated, pulled out a chair, and sat down. He rested his elbows on the wood, joined his hands above them, and leaned towards Billy. The table was so huge, that there was two or three feet between the old man and the boy. But the stare in Rex’s eyes was so intense, the distance seemed nothing at all.
“I don’t blame you”, said Rex. “I don’t blame you one little bit.”
Billy’s disappointment evaporated at those words. He couldn’t imagine any other adult saying that. Whatever Rex was—at least he wasn’t ordinary.
“I wouldn’t think of my future if I was a boy your age”, he went on, his lips thinning with disdain. “What a prospect! Another few years of school, being drip-fed a diet of babyish lessons, political correctness, watered-down history, goodness knows what else. Then what? College? University? Sociology and feminism and Marxism and being taught to question everything when you’ve never been taught to learn anything in the first place? Being taught to rebel, when you’ve never been taught loyalty? And then, working life. A desk in a cubicle in an office block somewhere, a house in some ugly suburb, a car, a garden, a family who’ll give you grey hairs in middle age, all of them screaming for the latest products advertised on the television and having emotional scenes every few days. Is that what you want?”
Billy spent so much time wondering if he’d ever get a job, at anything, that he could easily have answered yes. But he just answered, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”, asked Rex, raising his eyebrows. “You don’t know? What on earth do you know? What would you like, Billy?”
Billy could see he was going to have to answer this one, so he said, “Well, I don’t want to work in an office but---“
“Oh, for goodness sake”, said Rex Cunningham, thumping the table with his fist so that both mugs of tea shook. For a moment—only a moment—he looked furious. “I’m not your career guidance counsellor, boy. I’m not talking about work. I’m not talking about earning a living. I mean, what would you like?”
The old man looked hungry now, almost like a vampire about to bite.
“I don’t know what you mean”, said Billy. “What—“
He expected Rex to thump the table again, but this time he only sighed. “What you’d like”, he repeated. “If everything was possible. If anything was possible. Forget schoool. Forget jobs. Forget college. Forget money and houses and the ads on the television. If you could do anything, anything at all, what would you like to do? Quick.”
The last word was spoken so sharply, so impatiently, that Billy had answered before he knew it—and he would never understand what made him answer like he did
“To fly”, he said. “That’s what I’d really like.”
Rex smiled. To Billy’s intense relief, it was a pleased smile. A very pleased smile.
“Good”, said the old man, rubbing his thumbs together. “Very good. Go on.”
“I don’t mean like flying in a plane—“
“Of course not”, said Rex. “I understood that at once. You mean, flying like a bird.”
“Yes”, said Billy. “I think about it when I’m walking to school. I think about how—“
“You think about how you could just run forward, getting faster and faster, and then begin to run over the ground instead of on it, and rise higher and higher, until you were higher than the houses, and then until you were higher than the apartment blocks and the tallest trees, and higher and higher until your school was a tiny square underneath you, looking no bigger than a postage stamp.”
Billy nodded, even though he’d imagined it different to that. In his fantasy, once his feet left the ground, he never looked at his school again.
Rex’s eyes were bright with excitement now. He reached his hand across to Billy, as though to clutch his arm. But they were too far apart and the hand simply came down on the table, it fingers clenched.
“What would you say”, said the old man, “if I told you that was possible? That you could do it right now?”
There was a long, deep silence. Even the fireworks outside had stopped, as though the world was listening.
Rex Cunningham was staring at Billy more intensely than anyone had ever stared at him before. It was very frightening. There was a wide smile on his face, and his lips twitched a little with excitement.
But it was obvious he wasn’t joking. Even Billy, who never knew when people were making fun of him, could tell that. He’d never seen anyone look so serious in his whole life.
He suddenly wished he’d told his parents, or somebody, that he’d come here. Who knew what this guy would do? But then, he thought he’d been pretty safe. He was a writer, for goodness’ sake. He had a publisher. His boos were sold in shops. Writers didn’t go around murdering people.
Or did they? Just because Billy had never heard of that happening…
“You disappoint me, my young friend”, said Rex, his smile slowly fading. “I thought you were different. I thought you would be a little more broad-minded. A little more open to life’s possibilities. And instead, you just gawk at me.”
Billy took a step backwards, without even meaning to. Rex noticed, and laughed. It was a harsh laugh, sarcastic laugh.
“You want to go?”, asked the old man, shaking his head slowly. “Why don’t you go, then? I won’t stop you.”
Billy stood there, gazing at the old man, unable to speak or move. Even the humming of the fridge seemed to have stopped.
The old man coughed—it was a dry, difficult cough—and rose from the table, his head bowed. All of a sudden, he looked very old and very weary.
“Go”, he said. “Go back to your family. Go back to school and timetables and pop music and credit cards and general election campaigns. That’s probably where you belong after all.”
Billy felt a hot flush of shame. This wasn’t how he imagined this visit going. In his fantasies, he’d become friends with Rex Cunningham. His trips to Dublin became regular events. He even imagined helping him to write books as he grew older.
And now he was being ordered out of his house.
“Please”, he said. The voice that he heard coming out his own mouth was the voice of a sulky, whingy little boy. “I didn’t mean to—“
“What’s that?”, asked Rex, in a flat voice.
“I didn’t mean to offend you”, said Billy. “I don’t want to go. I want to stay.”
Rex coughed again, but this time, it sounded like a deliberate cough. A surprised cough. “What, stay with an old man who’s losing his marbles?”
“I don’t think that”, said Bily, quickly.
“An old man who imagines crazy things?”, asked Rex, sardonically. He was smoothing out the folds in his dressing gown now, and his eyes avoided Billy’s.
“I believe you”, said Billy. “It was just a shock, that’s all.”
“I wonder”, said Rex, looking up suddenly. There was a dreamy look in his eyes, a look Billy hadn’t seen in them until now. For a moment, he looked twenty or thirty years younger. “I wonder if you could really believe? If the muscles of your imagination are that supple, that strong?”
Billy forced himself to keep looking into Rex’s eyes. Of course he didn’t believe this old man could make him fly. But he would play along. He would pretend to believe him.
There was another knock at the front door. Rex didn’t even seem to have heard it this time. He seemed to be trying to read Billy’s soul.
Then he seemed to snap out of the spell, gave Billy a mysterious—even playful—smile, and turned on his heel. It was a sudden, sharp movement and it reminded Billy of the military parades he’d seen on television and in films. He wondered if Rex had been in the army once, long ago—if he’d even fought in a war.
Something brushed off Billy’s ankle, and he jumped.
He looked down. Of course, it was Marius. In the semi-darkness of the poorly-lit kitchen, he looked like a living shadow, even so close. For once, his eyes weren’t fixed on Billy—they weren’t even visible, which Billy found a relief. The cat was rubbing itself against his legs, its tail curled upwards in contentment.
So Marius, it seemed, had accepted that he wasn’t an enemy. Well, that was something. It made Billy feel a little less uneasy.
“Here”, said Rex, stepping back towards Billy. He was holding something in his hand. In the gloom of the kitchen, it took Billy a few moments to make out what it was.
A tea-towel. A particularly grubby, old-looking tea-towel.
“I don’t know if children still play children’s games, in this Age of Electricity”, Rex said, crinkling his nose and pursing his lips with distaste. Billy was already getting use to that particular expression. “Have you ever heard of a game called Blind Man’s Bluff?”
“Of course I’ve heard of it”, said Billy, once he’d realised that Rex’s question was a serious one.
The old man seemed to be waiting for him to say more, so he went on: “One kid has something tied over his eyes. And the other kids spin him around. And then he has to catch them, without being able to see.”
(As a matter of fact, it was one of the only kids’ games that Billy actually enjoyed. He hated musical chairs, and he hated tag, and he hated hide and seek. They always got out of hand, and the loud kids ended up making fun of him.
But he liked Blind Man’s Bluff. It wasn’t so much for the game itself—that was as boring as most kids’ games. But having the blind around your eyes...he liked that. It turned an ordinary room into a mysterious world of darkness and whispers, and when you went around the room trying to catch the others, you could swear it was a completely different room. Nothing seemed in the same place. It was like magic.)
“Well, then”, said Rex Cunningham, opening out the tea-towel in his two hands. “Let’s play Blind Man’s Bluff. Come here”.
Billy stepped towards Rex, trying not to seem nervous. A moment later, the old man was tying the tea-towel around his eyes. It was damp, and it smelled of old vegetables.
“Except this is Blind Man’s Bluff with a difference”, said Rex, and Billy could hear amusement in his voice. All he could see was darkness, and the little splashes of colours that dance in front of your eyes when something is pressing on them, as the tea-towel was pressing on Billy’s eyes now.
“What do you mean?”, asked Billy, who was finding it very difficult not to show his nerves now.
“Well, this is a simple version of the game”, said Rex Cunningham. “In this one, I spin you around three times and then I take the blindfold off. Not very complicated, is it?”
“No”, said Billy, feeling confused as well as nervous now. Rex had already started to spin him around. He could hear the old man muttering something under his breath, but he couldn’t make out the words. They seemed to be coming from a long, long way away—although that was a ridiculous idea.
Rex spinned Billy around again, and again. Billy couldn’t tell if he was facing the same direction he’d been facing before the spinning.
“Now!”, he heard Rex say, and this time his voice definitely seemed to be coming from far away—it echoed, like somebody speaking through a loudspeaker. “Take it off!”
Feeling a bit ridiculous, Billy reached up and, with a bit of difficulty, untied the blindfold that Rex had made from a tea-towel.
And life, as he knew it, was over forever.
The kitchen had disappeared. Number 244, Belvedere Street had disappeared. Halloween night had disappeared.
The shadowy kitchen had been replaced by bright sunlight, sunlight that surprised and dazzled Billy’s eyes. For a few moments, he couldn’t make out anything but a blaze of brightness.
Then, slowly, the scene around him began to come into focus. Blue sky, light breeze, the sound of waves, the screech of seagulls, the smell of salt and seaweed on the air. He was beside the ocean.
He was far too astonished to feel fear, or to wonder if he had been hypnotised, or to ask himself whether he was going insane. All he could do was take in the sights and sounds and smells around him.
When he realized that the sound of the waves was coming from below him, he knew exactly where he was.
He was standing on the edge of the cliffs at Morristown, the seaside his mother used to take him to, after they had been visiting her aunt. They would get ice-creams at an ice-cream van in the village nearby and walk here when Billy was tired she would bring him in her arms.
He always remembered how blue the sky was, here. He could never remember seeing so blue, so perfect. It looked as though it was made out of some kind of coloured glass.
A wave of joy passed over him, and, incredibly—if only for a moment—he forgot all about the kitchen, all about Belvedere Street, all about Rex Cunningham. The times his mother had brought him here were probably the happiest moments of his life. For some reason he could never have explained, he’d felt completely and utterly safe here, even when his mother walked him to the rails at the side of the cliff and they looked down into the sea a hundred feet below.
“And though thy soul sail miles and miles beyond”, she would recite (more to herself than to him), “Still, miles beyond those miles, there is more sea.”
Miles beyond those miles there is more sea. He didn’t know what poem those words came from, or who had written it, but he’d always remembered them and they filled him with a wild excitement. The waves stretched as far as his eye could see, right to the horizon, and further beyond it than he could even imagine. Hundreds and hundreds of miles. Hundreds of miles where there were no streets, or supermarkets, or office blocks, or concrete, or cars. No teachers or school bullies, none of the dangerous-looking people that he saw on buses and hanging around outside shops. Just limitless ocean.
And he liked the idea of a soul swimming. A soul wouldn’t have to breathe air, would it? It could go all the way down, to the dark places of the ocean where all kinds of marvellous creatures lived…
Then Billy remembered Rex Harrison, and he said aloud, “Where are you?”
“I’m here”, said Rex.
Once again, the voice seemed to come from very far away—from out of the sky. It sounded different, too- deeper and somehow more grand. Almost like the voice of a god.
“Where?”, asked Billy, looking around. There was no sign of the village from here, except for a church spire just visible above the trees that surrounded him on all sides. Below him, the dark sands of the beach stretched as far as his eye could see, with only a few houses lying on the horizon, so distant they were little more than specks of colour. And, beyond the sands, the grey sea stretched on forever.
“Here”, said Rex. “You can’t see me or touch me, but I’m here.”
“I don’t understand”, said Billy. “How did I get here?”
There was a pause; and then what Billy thought at first was the whooshing of wind, before he realised it was the sound of laughter.
“Blind Man’s Bluff”, said the voice in the air. Rex’s voice. “You got here through Blind Man’s Bluff.”
“But how can this be October?”, asked Billy, staring up into the perfect blueness of the sky.
“Why does it have to be October?”, asked Rex.
It all seemed perfectly real to Billy. Not like a dream, or a hallucination—whatever a hallucination felt like, he was sure it wasn’t this. The ground felt knobby and uneven under his shoes. There were a few thrown-away crisp packets lying beside the railings. His legs felt tired, just like he remembered his legs feeling tired when he’d walked here with his mother.
The biggest surprise was that he didn’t even feel surprised. A voice inside him was telling him the whole situation was ridiculous, incredible. But it was a distant voice—like his mother’s when she was trying to wake him up in the mornings.
“What am I supposed to do?”, asked Billy, still looking around, and half-expecting to see himself at the age of four or five, appearing through the trees hand-in-hand with his mother.
“What you came here to do”, said the voice from the sky. “Fly.”
At the those words, Billy shivered—from excitement as well as fear. Fly? It was impossible. But how could he think anything was impossible now?
“How?”, he asked, looking at the railing that was only twenty steps away.
“Just do it”, said Rex. “Like you always imagined doing it. Do it now, or you’ll never do it.”
Billy tried to imagine running towards the railing, leaping over it, and ascending into the air, up towards that blue, blue sky. But somehow, he couldn’t. He didn’t move.
“Quickly”, said Rex, and there was such eagerness in his voice that Billy took a step forward, without even thinking about it. “Do it now or this will all disappear and I won’t be able to bring you back. Ever. Do you want to miss your chance? Do you want to spend the rest of your life wondering what it would be like to fly?”
“No”, said Billy, feeling panicky. He wanted to fly so badly he could feel it in his bones like an ache. But how did you run over the edge of a cliff?
And then, at that moment, he felt someone shoving him in the back, shoving him forward. He would have fallen over if he didn’t take another few steps forward.
He turned around. There was nobody there, but he was still being pushed forward. He couldn’t stop or he would go flat on his face.
A few more steps would take him to the railings. He cried out, “STOP!”, but in his heart, he wanted to keep going.
When he was only a few feet away from the edge of the cliff, he rushed forward so quickly that he could no longer feel the pressure on his back, and he jumped.
The sensation of going over the edge was like nothing he had ever experienced before.
But he didn’t fly. As soon as he was over the edge, he began to plummet towards the waves and the rocks below him..
He was so shocked that he didn’t even feel fear. He just felt frozen.
“Fly”, said the voice from the sky. “Fly, for goodness sake! You know how!”
Billy closed his eyes, and put all his willpower into flying. He flapped his arms in the air and shook his legs but he was still hurtling towards the rocks—
He screamed in terror, expecting to crash into the rocks below any second. But second after second after second passed, and—
He opened his eyes. The rocks were still below him, but they were getting smaller now.
He was moving upwards, not downwards. He was actually, truly flying.
He let out a whoop of sheer triumph and delight. It seemed to fill the gloriously blue sky. He imagined it echoing off the faraway mountains.
“Feels good, doesn’t it?”, asked Rex.
Billy tried to reply, but he couldn’t. Panic grabbed him again. His mouth—there was something wrong with his mouth, there was something wrong with his entire body…
He lowered his head to look at himself, and his horror doubled when he saw that his body had been changed. For a moment, all he could see was a mass of grey-white, glowing in the sunlight. Oh my God, what was it? It wasn’t human, or anything like human…
“It’s a seagull, Master Reynolds”, came the voice from the sky. It still sounded like the voice of a god, but now it was an amused god. “I mean, you’re a seagull. Don’t try to talk. You’ll just—“
It was too late, because Billy had already tried. Instead of words, a monstrous shriek came out of him, like the wail of a banshee. Billy had never heard anything like it—it certainly didn’t sound like a mere seagull’s squawk to him.
But already his horror was ebbing away—what was there to be horrified about, anyway? What was wrong with this body?
“Forget about being Billy Reynolds for now”, he heard a voice saying, and it took him a moment to remember it was the voice of Rex Cunningham, that he was standing in Rex Cunningham’s house. “Exult in being a bird of the air. Reach for the sky. Go!”.
And at that, Billy—or the deepest part of Billy’s mind, the part that had no name or history or doubts about the possibility of flying—climbed towards the sun.
It was so warm. It was like taking a bath in sunlight. He felt the sun was drawing him like some enormous magnet.
He shrieked again, this time for purest joy. He had never felt so happy—not on Christmas morning, not on a surprise day off school, never. He’d been waiting for this moment all his life, and all his life had been nothing but a preparation for it...
How could anyone bear to live on the ground? What was the worse prison compared to the prison all men lived in, the prison of not being able to fly?
And then Billy—who had already forgotten all about being Billy—forgot all about men and human beings, and let go of human thoughts, and lost himself in the limitless realm of the air.
It was hours later (though he had lost all awareness of time) when he heard a voice from the sky saying: “Master Reynolds! Master Reynolds!”.But he didn’t recognise his name, or even the words.
There was a blinding light...
...and once again he was standing in Rex Cunnigham’s kitchen, the smell of the tea-towel (which Rex was holding in his hands) still in his nostrils. The room seemed a hundred times darker than before, after the brilliant light of the sky above Morristown.
“Oh, my young friend”, Rex Cunningham was saying. His voice had become softer, more respectful—less like a teacher’s voice when he was talking to a schoolchild. “You have a special gift. Quite unlike anything I’ve seen before.”
“When can I go back?”, asked Billy. Being dragged from the pure ecstasy of flight was like getting out of a warm bed on a school morning in January. Mutiplied by a thousand.
Rex chuckled, and a mew came from Marius, who was sitting at his feet. Crazily, it sounded like the cat was chuckling, too.
“Patience, my little prodigy”, said Rex. “There are marvels far greater than that in store for you. Far greater.”
“I don’t want something greater”, said Billy, promptly. He would never answered back like this, in ordinary life. But this was a long, long way from ordinary life. “I just want to fly again.”
“That is the great crime, my young friend”, said the old man. The wrinkles on his face grew deeper and and longer as he frowned. It was a thoughtful frown, like the frown of a teacher coming to an especially important and difficult part in a lesson. “The great crime of not wanting more.”
There was a long pause. Billy heard some children laughing hysterically, beyond the house’s back garden. He thought Rex Cunningham was waiting for him to say something, so he said, “I don’t want to be greedy.”
“Not all greed is bad”, said Rex. He was looking past Billy now, as though he was talking to a classroom of students. “There’s a greed for knowledge. There’s a greed for life. The problem with the modern world isn’t that it’s greedy. It’s that it’s not greedy for the right things.”
“What do you mean?”
“All those millions out there”, said Rex, raising his eyes even further as though he was seeing through the walls of his own house. “For all their holiday homes and colour televisions and mobile phones, they don’t ask for enough. That’s their problem. Of course, I’m not talking about things. I’m not talking about life. Adventure...wisdom...amazement!”.
Rex’s voice had risen with every word, so that the “amazement” was almost a shout. The hands that were holding the ends of the tea-towel had clenched into fists. His lip was trembling, and his head was raised, as though he was looking at something up.
And his face....there was an expression on his face that Billy could only call noble. It was the kind of look he imagined on the face of Moses or Abraham Lincoln, or Winston Churchill when he was delivering one of his famous speeches. Suddenly, Billy felt sure that Rex Cunningham was truly a great man—the kind of men you usually see in oil portraits and read about in history books.
Then there was another knock on the front door, and the noble expression disappeared from Rex’s face, replaced by one of pure exasperation. He actually gritted his teeth (which Billy noticed were white and in perfect condition).
“Next year, I’ll put a sign up”, he said. “If I’m still around next year.”
The casual way he said the last words shocked Billy. Rex saw the reaction on Billy’s face.
“Oh, yes”, said the great author, “It’s by no means certain that I will be alive next Halloween. My time is running out, Master Reynolds. I may look hale and hearty—I’ve kept in good condition all my life—but the machine is breaking down inside.” He thumped his own chest, softly. There was no sadness on his face or in his voice. He might have talking about a vacuum cleaner that was about to break down. “And there’s nobody to inherit what I leave behind-- not just money, though there’s a heap of that. No, there’s something else to pass on, something much more important.” He paused, and now he did look a little melancholy. “You might even say it’s my whole kingdom.”
Billy didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. He couldn’t even look at Rex. His eyes had fallen to the floor, and his cheeks were hot. He had no idea what he was trying to say.
And then, out of nowhere, tears began to slide down his cheeks. He couldn’t have said whether it was sadness, or stress, or excitement, or embarrassment, or a mixture of all of them. Maybe it was just all the fierce emotions of the night finally catching up with him. He didn’t even care what Rex would think anymore. The tears came faster and faster, and his shoulders were shaking with their force.
He expected the old man to put his hand on his shoulder, or to bark at him, or to mutter soothing words. But there was nothing.
A few minutes later, when the tears had finally run out, he looked up at his hero. Rex was simply watching him, and the expression on his face was the last Billy would have expected to see. It was surprise—maybe even wonder. He looked as though he had never seen somebody crying before.
“Here”, said Rex, handing Billy the tea-towel again. “Wipe your face with that. It’s time for dinner. You must be hungry by now.”