Friday, July 1, 2016

Freedom by Beryl Ensor-Smith

Ethan dreams of flying, but is his loving wife holding him back? By Beryl Ensor-Smith.

For as long as he could remember, Ethan had memorable dreams. When he was very young, they were mostly coloured by stories his mother read him about dragons, dinosaurs, spacemen. Magic filled his dreams. As he grew older these changed, and in his high school years, were mostly about achieving fame through sporting achievements or academic prowess. In actual fact he was very average in both, but in his dreams he shone so brightly that he became the centre of attention and popularity as every youngster desires.

However, it was when he reached his thirties that his dreams became most exciting. It was then that he took to the skies when he fell asleep. All he had to do was press down on the balls of his feet, spread his arms, and he would spiral upwards, travelling great distances in the twinkling of an eye. He would look down onto the town where he lived and see it from an entirely new perspective, the houses like tiny matchboxes and the farms beyond them patches of green, yellow and brown. When he woke in the early morning he would tell his wife Elvira about his night-time travels. Depending on her mood she would either tease him, laughing, telling him he was daft as a brush, or crossly suggest that he put his mind to trying to find a better job instead of wasting it on crazy dreams.

Ethan understood her impatience, as they had to live very frugally on his salary as a stacker and general handyman in the supply store in the centre of the town and what Elvira could earn as a char. Ethan accepted this state of affairs without stressing, acknowledging his limitations. He knew that no matter how much he "put his mind" to trying to find better employment his abilities were few and he would have been foolish to expect anything better than the work he already had. He did it cheerfully and to the best of his ability and was relatively content.

Not so Elvira. She was far more intelligent than Ethan and was frustrated and unhappy, knowing she was capable of doing more interesting and challenging work than cleaning people's houses. She came from a big family, the eldest of many siblings, and once she turned twelve her parents removed her from school and sent her to work in a clothes factory on the edge of the city, adding a few years to her age. As she was tall and the factory short-staffed, no questions were asked and she was taken on as a seamstress. Elvira had to start work early each day, so could no longer live at home and was sent to an elderly uncle and aunt living within walking distance of the factory. Their own children had long since fled the nest, and while they were never unkind Elvira knew she was there under sufferance. She felt lost and lonely and at first returned home every weekend, but soon anger at her parents took root and grew. Every time she saw them and her brothers and sisters, still happily at school, she burned with resentment, eventually becoming estranged from her family. Once she met and married Ethan and moved to the village where he lived, she seldom saw her parents or her siblings.

This upset Ethan. He was an only child, his parents long dead and he couldn't understand why she didn't treasure the family he wished he had. Even more disappointing was that he and Elvira were unable to have children. There was no reason that doctors could find, but after twelve years of marriage they accepted that they were not destined to become parents. Nevertheless they loved one another and were happy together, the only bone of contention between them being her attitude towards her family. It saddened Ethan that she was unwilling even to connect with her nieces and nephews as he knew she loved children, and he felt her life would have been enriched if she could allow herself to bond with them.

Instead, Elvira lavished her love on the children of the people for whom she worked, especially the younger ones, and she soon found herself being enlisted to babysit them in the evenings. She enjoyed bathing and feeding the youngsters and read their bedtime stories using different voices for each animal or character, bringing them to life. The children became as devoted to her as she was to them and it was when she was with them that she was truly happy.

With Elvira absent a few evenings each week babysitting, Ethan missed her company. He could see how much happier she was, so said nothing about being lonely. It was during the years when she was so busily involved that he stopped being able to fly in his dreams. He would struggle to lift himself, flapping his arms wildly, but to no avail. He remained firmly rooted to the earth. He expressed his disappointment to Elvira and she was sympathetic, knowing how much pleasure he had had from his nocturnal 'travels'.

"Perhaps," she consoled, "they'll return again later, when you least expect it."

Ethan hoped so, but as time went by and his dreams remained mundane, he stopped wishing for what he could not have. Elvira, meanwhile, watched the children she babysat leave their infancy behind as they developed first into pre-schoolers and later into teenagers, sadly seeing their dependency on her dwindle, although their affection remained constant.

Once she was home again every evening, Ethan was much happier and this rubbed off onto Elvira. She too settled into a comfortable routine, the two of them preparing dinner together, later watching some TV and chatting while they prepared for bed. Ethan knew that with her it was more a case of bowing down to the inevitable than of peace of mind, and continued to urge her to renew contact with her family, particularly as her parents were now quite elderly. To please him, Elvira said she would but always had an excuse not to get round to it, saying crossly, when he persisted, that they were busy and didn't have time for her. Ethan knew this was not strictly true as from time to time they tried to initiate contact, and for the past few years, every Christmas and birthday, Elvira received cards with affectionate messages from not only her parents, but also her brothers and sisters. Ethan risked annoying her by insisting it was time to acknowledge their olive branches and reluctantly she took to reciprocating. He noticed that she had stored the birth dates of every one of her many nephews and nieces in her memory and was soon having to add the new arrivals born. He knew better than to comment, and hid his delight at this chink in the armour she had built around herself.

It had been hard for Elvira to leave school to swell the family finances, then stand by and see the other children complete school and have the education she so dearly craved and use it to acquire work that was fulfilling and well-paid. At some deep level, although she knew it was not their fault, she found this hard to forgive.

When he was in his forty-second year, Ethan found he could 'fly' again when he slept. Not only that, but he was now travelling far greater distances to countries he had only read about or seen on TV. He looked down onto the Alps in France and Switzerland, swooped through the skies over major cities and small hamlets, observing architectural differences in the construction of the homes and buildings. Even though he dreamed at night, wherever he flew it was always daylight. He saw polar bears in the Alaskan snow and 'felt' the shimmering heat of the Australian deserts, the light so bright it hurt his eyes. He traversed the length of Africa, taking in the bright colours, exotic sights and contrasting terrain. He marvelled at the 'newness' of the USA and its evident prosperity, compared with the age and historical antiquity of India and Asia. He looked down in wonder at the marvels of China and Japan, culturally so different from other countries with marvellous edifices built to their deities. Each night he went to bed with a sense of anticipation and was never disappointed.

Elvira was now always willing to hear about his dreams, knowing how much pleasure they gave him. His latest had been about Taiwan and the amount of detail he described amazed her.

"It's got massive, jagged mountain ranges in the east and flat land in the west. It seethes with people, particularly along the coast where the sea divides the island from the mainland. From above it's shaped like a potato, Elvira. I hovered over it to have a good look, and do you know, there's a park at the bottom of one of the mountains with a huge statue, a black Buddha, guarded by two lions!"

That Saturday morning Elvira enlisted the help of a librarian to do some research on Taiwan as described by Ethan, and was astounded at the accuracy of his dream. How could Ethan know so much about an island he had never in real life visited or, to her knowledge, read about or seen on TV?

Ethan was equally interested in her pursuits and encouraged her to tell him about the families she worked for. He was genuinely pleased to hear of the achievements of the children she had once minded.

Then came a letter from Elvira's parents inviting them to the wedding of her youngest sister, born after Elvira went to live with her uncle and aunt. They said how much it would mean to the family to have Elvira and Ethan with them and begged them to come.

"We must, Elvira," Ethan said firmly. "It's time for forgiveness."

Elvira looked at his set face and capitulated. "Very well," she agreed reluctantly. She set about buying a new dress for the occasion to prove that despite her lack of education, she and Ethan were not short of anything. However, her efforts to persuade Ethan into a new suit failed dismally.

"What for? The one I've got has hardly been worn. I only trot it out for weddings and funerals and there haven't been many of those!"

Elvira was anxious and short-tempered in the days leading up to the wedding, but the warmth of their welcome when they arrived in the city set her at ease. There were hugs and kisses all round and her father, in particular, made no effort to hide his emotion.

"You have no idea," he said with his arms tightly around her, "how badly I've wanted to do this, and for so long!"

The wedding was a very happy occasion with family and friends celebrating unrestrainedly. A group of musicians had brought instruments and soon the guests were dancing to the music of the fiddlers, all else forgotten while their feet executed the intricate patterns of the traditional dances in her parents' front room. The brother nearest to her in age, Ryan, drew her to one side where they could talk.

"Mom and Dad did wrong by you, Elvira, taking you from school and sending you out to work, but it was all they knew, having done the same themselves. They tried it with me too once I reached twelve, but I flatly refused. I told them I'd work before and after school to bring in some money, and I did; I had a paper round early mornings and worked in Cleson's stables in the afternoons. The other kids also got jobs when they grew older, but we all finished school and still managed to contribute to the family finances."

"You did?" Elvira was wide-eyed.

"Yes, but you were the one who was short-changed and we know it, especially as you were the brightest of all of us. We're sorry about that, Elvira; Mom and Dad too. They were heart-broken when they sent you away. We kids cried for days and I suspect they did too. Mom's eyes were red for weeks."

"Oh, well," Elvira was at a loss, "I did all right, didn't I, marrying Ethan? He's a lovely man."

"That he is, and you're lovely too. Now we've persuaded you here, we won't be letting anything get between us again. Let's celebrate our reunion, Sis, with something a bit stronger than a cup of tea, shall we?"

Ethan was sensible enough not to say much on their return journey on the bus, other than that he had enjoying socialising with her family again. Elvira, too, said little, but she was very thoughtful and her eyes brighter than he had ever seen them. Ethan smoked his pipe with great contentment, sure that bridges had been mended.

And they had. Although they did not see one another often, all being employed, there was a constant flow of letters between themselves and her family, and Elvira even agreed to their acquiring a telephone; something Ethan had been eager to do for years. Seldom a day went by without a member of her family telephoning.

"Do you know," she told him with pride, "My brother Ryan now has his own business? He sells and fixes computers. He's got his own shop in the city and employs two of my brothers!"

Ryan had said more than that when he phoned Elvira. He told her that he needed an office manager and that if she would agree to move back to the city and take it on, he would send her on computer courses so that she could type and do the book-keeping too. He was sure Ethan would soon find work, especially of the kind he was doing. Elvira stifled the excitement she momentarily felt at the thought of expanding her horizons and doing something that would really challenge her.

"Ethan hates change," she told Ryan regretfully. "He's lived in this village all his life and has worked at the supply store since he left school. He would be like a fish out of water in the city, and very unhappy."

"Well, Sis, if you ever change your mind..."

Ethan's dream-flying continued.

"I've been just about everywhere," he told Elvira. "The only continents I've yet to see are South America and Antarctica."

"Well, you'll just have to fly further afield then. We're only one small planet in the whole of our solar system."

"I don't know whether my arms are up to that kind of distance," he grinned.

But the thought lodged in his mind and resurfaced months later when his nocturnal visits had taken him all over the earth and he longed to see something new. Perhaps he should do as Elvira had suggested; fly higher and see if visiting other planets was a possibility? It would certainly be a new experience, and who knew what he would find? Deep down he felt that he would be crossing some boundary and wasn't sure if he had the courage to do so.

One hot summer night when they retired to bed Ethan decided that this was time to find out. When he fell asleep, he dream-travelled to the highest point near their house, a hillock just outside the village. He flexed his arms, took a deep breath, pushed upwards on his feet and took off into the heavens, soaring higher and higher. He was relieved to find that he had no difficulty travelling so much further and his confidence grew as he rose into the blue until he felt he was far enough away to see more than only the planet Earth when he stopped. He slowed, hovered, and looked down.

Ethan was aghast at what he saw. The whole of earth's solar system lay below him, its sun being a mere spot of brightness in a band of mistiness, shedding pinpricks of light on what must be the planets. Ethan then looked around him and was astounded to see other galaxies extending into the distance as far as he could see. Looking upwards, there were more! He was filled with delight; he would never run out of places to visit! He spread his arms and headed for the nearest galaxy above him... and was suddenly brought up short and pulled backwards, as if he had reached the end of a piece of elastic that tethered him to something. It was like being in a sweet shop, seeing the delights on offer and not being able to enjoy any of it!

So frustrated did he feel that instinctively he dived downwards, made a turn, and then, at great speed, surged up, aiming at the point where he had met resistance. Knowing it was coming be braced himself and used every ounce of his strength to counter it. For a moment he felt a sharp, painful tug, then was free and soared onwards, laughing with triumph. There was now nothing to stop him reaching his goal. He set his sights on his objective, moderated his speed and got going, thinking that he would have one hell of a tale to tell Elvira when he went home.

The next morning Elvira arose early, as was her habit. Ethan was still bundled under the duvet, only the crown of his head showing, his hair thinning on top. She felt a surge of affection for her life's companion, her best friend, wondering what dream he would later relate to her. Filling the kettle, she prepared to make their first cup of tea for the day, laying out two of their best, thin porcelain, for a change. They would celebrate the coming of a new day.

Elvira carried the tray carefully up the stairs, pushed their bedroom door wide open with a foot and called out:

"Wake up, Lazybones. Time to get up."

She set the tray down on the nightstand and turned, expecting to see Ethan stirring. He didn't move and a nameless fear gripped her. She ran towards the bed and shook him, at first gently, then more feverishly, frantically calling his name, finally realising with despair that Ethan was beyond rousing. Instinctively she knew he had escaped to a dream destination, and a wail of anguish filled her throat, turning into a shriek of protest as it issued from her open mouth.

5 comments:

  1. A charming and poignant story. I loved the imaginative twists and could not have predicted the ending. I'd like to have heard more of the dialogue between them through the piece to get a better sense of their relationship and individual characters. Thank you Beryl,
    Ceinwen

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  2. I enjoyed the dream flights. I could imagine myself on high, looking down over landscapes. Thank you.

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  3. As a frequent dream flyer I identify with Ethan. I like the way the ever-so-slightly fairy tale voice of this piece holds its magic.
    B r o o k e

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  4. What an original story
    Did Ethan set Elvira free?
    Either way convincing characters
    and fascinating idea.
    Mike McC

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  5. Thank you Ceinwen, Nancy, Brooke and Michael for your comments. Readers' feedback is invaluable, both from the point of view of knowing whether subjects chosen are interesting and from taking on board suggestions for improvement (as Ceinwen's) and I appreciate your reading my stories and letting me know what you think of them.
    Best wishes to all of you.
    Beryl.

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