The short form of flying

For a long time my best friend was a shy boy called Barry. We met on the day his family moved into a house up our street. It was a Saturday, as I remember, the last Saturday before the end of the summer holidays and the start of third grade. He sat in the open trunk of the ugliest car I’d ever seen, a purple, boat-shaped Valiant.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

He replied after some hesitation, “Barry.”

“Why are you in there?”

He seemed to think about this, and then he said, “I was naughty.”

Two thirds of his head and his one arm were bandaged and he peered at me through a narrow slit, like a little mummy.

“What did you do?” I asked.

He shrugged and sighed and looked into the distance, “I dunno. My mother just said to sit here.”

“No, to your face?”

“Oh,” he said after a pause. “I cooked vegetables in a paint tin.”


“It exploded.”


He frowned and then he said, “After a while.”

“No, how long ago?”

“Oh,” he frowned again and consulted a mental calendar. He nodded his head and counted on the fingers of his good hand, and then appeared to reach a result. “Last week.”

“Does it hurt?”

Barry touched his bandages as if my question had brought up something he hadn’t quite considered.

“I’ll be scarred for life,” he said solemnly.

I was very excited to hear this. Barry was the sort of friend I’d always wanted, someone who was quiet but had a history of violence. Such a friend would be my opposite. I talked a lot but I was afraid of everything. The two of us, I thought, could make a whole boy.

Barry’s family moved in without deliberation. They owned nothing that wasn’t necessary and so it wasn’t necessary to think about what they owned. They shoved their things into rooms and left them there. The more important things went in first—a bed, a sofa, a radio—and then the other things were pushed in after them. Objects stood abandoned at such short distances beyond doors that some of the rooms looked as though their contents had tried to escape. They stayed that way for years.

The single exception to all of this, the only thing without an obvious function and placed with what looked like intent, was a small, dreary oil painting that Barry’s mother hung at the end of their passage. It depicted a stream and a tree against a backdrop of mountains. They had no other pictures, nor any books or ornaments to speak of. At the time I just thought that their house was ugly, but in later years I realised that it was in fact a working example of what hell must be like, a landscape of peeled linoleum and chipped melamine, scuffed orange and stained turquoise, kept that way through careful indifference.

“I love it here,” Barry once said of our house and gestured to include all of it.

“What do you like?” my mother asked.

“Well,” Barry hesitated, “I like your food, and I like what things look like.”

“What do you like about our food,” my mother pressed on.

“It has names,” Barry concluded after some thought.

“What do you call the food at your house?” my mother asked.

Barry seemed puzzled by this question, and a little embarrassed by the answer he had to give. “We call it food,” he replied.

Until then it had never occurred to me that words and thoughts were cousins. But now I realised that my mother had thought long and hard about where things went, and what we called them. What I’d taken for granted about my family was transformed into my first inklings of style and cuisine as I got to know Barry, and got to see how his parents lived. His mother didn’t think long or hard about anything. She was a severe woman with an angular, manly face, and she was tall. Even her hair was tall. It grew from her head like a sheaf of wheat and it gave her the appearance of being in free fall. What made her even more scary was how abrupt she was. On that first day I watched as she abused the movers.

“What the fuck!?” she shrieked as a man walked from the truck with a toaster that was still plugged into an extension cord. “Are you crazy?”

“You packed it this way,” he objected.

“I know, goddammit!” she shouted as he walked on. “Move!”

But he was right. Open boxes brimmed with different things. A drying rack had a single sock attached. At one point the men carried an unmade bed from the truck. At first I thought that Barry’s parents had moved in a hurry, like criminals on the run. But as I got to know them it became clear that what I’d seen was just the shape of his mother’s neglect. She neglected her house, she neglected her children, and she neglected herself. This wasn’t because she had something better to do, but simply because she didn’t care. If she’d been a dreamy artist, or an alcoholic, it would’ve made some sense. But she didn’t even smoke. All she did was to listen to the radio—and in later years, to watch television—and scold Barry and his brothers. She never said anything kind to them. To her, I think, they were just like the painting of the stream at the end of the passage.

Even though we attended different schools, Barry and I became friends that same day and after that did everything together. We tried to do whatever we did at my house, or at least not at his, away from the barbed voice of his mother and as far as we could get from the strangled anger of his father, a short, bald, and eerily feminine man given to violent eruptions.

“I think they’re cursed,” Barry once mused. “Some witch switched their faces around.” And then, after some thought, he added, “They never hug.”

I remember Barry’s father as being mostly red, bursting with frustration and bitter resentment. He beat Barry and his brothers with the buckle-end of a belt whenever he felt like it, but this did not satisfy him. What remained of his anger was set forth in senseless and obscure rules which were then enforced without argument by Barry’s mother. Now, so many years later, so many years after Barry fell to his death in the mountains, it is clear to me that he was almost entirely shaped by this strange regime. At the time I was amazed to find, when I first stayed for lunch on a Saturday a few weeks after they’d moved in, that no one was allowed to talk at the table. Barry and his brothers stared at their plates and pushed around the puckered chicken drumsticks their mother had kept under a plastic mesh since Thursday. Barry’s father cleared his throat and turned maroon while his wife pointed at the drumsticks with her eyes, and then at each of us.

I was out of my depth. At my house there was verbal pandemonium. We talked about atoms and poems and things you could make with a hosepipe. Here, it turned out, even the cutlery had to be quiet, one of the many rules penned in camera by Barry’s father. When my knife scratched against my plate, Barry’s mother loomed over me until her hair cast a shadow across the knife and the plate and I understood what she meant. I stared at my drumstick, like Barry and his brothers did, and in that moment I knew for the first time what it felt like to have nothing to say.

“I’m fearless,” Barry called out to me years later as we first climbed up Tooth Gully toward the Devil’s Tooth in the Drakensberg Mountains. He moved out ahead of me, shifting his feet as though unaware of the gaping drop beneath us, and shouted into the breeze that combed the grassy ledges of the escarpment. “I’m fearless because I have no inner voice.”

But now, years later still, I’m convinced that his daring was not a lack of reflection, as he’d thought, but the brave face of loneliness.

“I have no one,” he once announced.

As he said this—we were perhaps twelve or thirteen years old at the time—I knew that he was right. We were walking home from the supermarket to which we had accompanied his mother. We had sat in the back of her purple Valiant on the way there and quietly picked at the fake leather seats. At the supermarket, Barry ran with the shopping cart and crashed it into a shelf of wine glasses.

“Is this your child?” the manager demanded of Barry’s mother while he held Barry by the arm.

She bent down and inspected Barry.

“I’ve never seen this boy in my life,” she said as she straightened and towered over the manager. Then she added, “Besides, he’s dirty. My children wouldn’t be dirty.”

The manager narrowed his eyes and looked at Barry, and then at his mother.

“He said you’re his mother,” he pressed on. “He pointed you out.”

Barry’s mother leant forward and rubbed a curl of Barry’s hair between her fingers.

“You should wash your hair,” she said and walked away.

Barry cried on cue and gave the manager the name and address of a boy we didn’t like.

“I’m an orphan,” he remarked as we walked home after the manager had let us go.

I didn’t know what to say and we walked on in silence. In all the years I knew him, before then and after that, I saw his mother touch him only this one time.

Perhaps the mirror of loneliness was also at the heart of Barry’s legendary bad luck. The indifference of his mother and the unspoken edicts and flaring temper of his father were the source of a fundamental superstition in him. For Barry, things could get better or go wrong for no reason whatsoever, at any given moment. As a result, everything he did was a gamble. And like most gamblers, he seized on coincidences as signs of a better future and he downplayed accidents as though they were just minor snags in a grander plan. Because he believed it, so it was, and things indeed got better and then went wrong for no reason whatsoever, like clockwork. He was, quite simply, the unluckiest person I’d ever known, or heard of. He wasn’t clumsy or timid but it would have been better if he had been. Instead, he was nimble and quick and ventured where others wouldn’t dare to go. There he posed in triumph for a brief moment, apparently on top of the world, and then he fell, or got burnt, or cut, or caught. He lost everything he staked with such consistency as to suggest a special talent.

Sometimes the credit wasn’t his alone. We were in the eighth grade, I think, when Barry tried to settle an argument by inserting his penis into the neck of a milk bottle. I had said that it couldn’t be done. It could, as it turned out, but once it was done it couldn’t be undone as easily.

“It’s stuck!” Barry yelled.

He yanked at the bottle but this only made things worse.

“Oh Jesus!” he howled. “I need soap!”

“Be quiet—“ I warned as he staggered toward his bedroom door.

But it was too late. He shuffled into the passage with his pants around his ankles, holding the bottle. As luck would have it, his parents had guests over and everyone could see him from the living room. The last I saw before his father, volcanic with rage, shoved me out the front door, was his mother dragging him by the bottle into the TV room.

Later that same year, Barry played with fire again and fell off a roof. In this, too, he wasn’t alone. An abandoned sharecropper’s cabin stood in the field behind my house, a reminder, my father said, that where we lived had been farmland just a generation earlier. The thatch of the roof was long gone, but most of the joists and rafters were still there. A fire some years earlier had burnt many of the beams halfway through, but Barry darted unfazed between them while the rest of us watched in envy. Sometimes we made fires in the hearth. One day, Barry decided to see what a fire looked like from above. He climbed into the roof structure and from there up the brick chimney. We piled extra grass onto the fire so that he’d have something to look at. When he reached the top, he stuck his head down the flue and he was ejected off the roof in a puff of smoke. When we got to him he was sitting in the dust, dazed and bruised, with no hair to speak of.

“That boy had more than bad luck,” my father once remarked as we recounted Barry stories at a family dinner. “His own team cheered him off the field.”

“Let it be,” my mother said and patted my hand.

“He had no chance,” my father insisted as he sipped at a sixties port.

My mother lit a cigarette. “Most of the time, what happened to Barry was just Barry.”

My father was right, of course, and so was she. To his circle of friends, Barry combined daring and comic relief. We wanted to see him try, and we wanted to see him fail. We urged him into any form of trouble he dared to undertake. But sometimes it was just him. His most serious accidents attended his abiding wish to fly, an urge that was his alone and found expression in a tendency to fall from things.

“I don’t mind falling so much,” he once told me.

He had just plummeted from a treehouse we were building.

“It’s like flying,” he went on, “only shorter.”

Because he couldn’t fly, he climbed trees and walls and poles and power pylons, in leaps, seemingly weightless, like a monkey. And then, at a point far above the earth, the trusted principle of gravitational acceleration took over. But the next day, he climbed again.

Over the time I knew him, Barry’s body became a living map of scars. The most prominent scar was the oldest one, a chocolate-and-ice-cream burn scar that spilled from his cheek down his neck. While most of his other scars were souvenirs of some fall or another, there were a few that commemorated other misadventures. A wide scar on his forearm marked the day he ran through a patio door. A long scar, like a purple weal, meandered down the back of his leg and was a constant reminder that one shouldn’t build a go-kart and leave a nail sticking out of it. But his most interesting scar was one that ran at an angle across his forehead. This he got—and I’m certain that no one else could make this claim—when he was hit by a Spitfire. A private school in our neighbourhood hosted an annual radio-controlled airplane show. Naturally, Barry had to see this. Every year we squeezed through the fence and mingled with the crowd and the flyers. There were model planes of every type and size. For a long time we planned to steal one, but we never got around to that. One year there was an array of war planes, from First World War biplanes to turbine-powered F16s. Among them, overshadowing them all, was a four-foot scale model of a Spitfire Mk IX. It was the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen. It was painted in the ocean gray camouflage typical of Spitfires after the Battle of Britain. When its turn came to fly, Barry was beside himself. The Spitfire took off and climbed high above the rugby field.

“Even its engine sounds real!” Barry called to me.

The owner of the Spitfire, an old man I now remember as distinctly English, with a tweed jacket and a cap, stood at the end of the field near us and controlled his prized plane as it tore across the crowd and soared to gain height again. Another plane took off, a smaller model of a Messerschmitt Bf 109, controlled by a pimply teenager. The two planes engaged in a mock dogfight. Barry jumped over the safety barrier and ran out onto the field to see them better. Seconds later, on a low dive, the Spitfire flew into his head. For reasons I’ve never understood, the Messerschmitt crashed awkwardly into the goal post a moment later. Both planes were destroyed. Barry was carried off the field while the old man and the teenager screamed at one another as they argued over what remained of their planes.

“How is it,” my mother asked in wonder as we recounted the incident yet again, “that so many bad choices could find a single person to make them?” She pinched a tear of laughter from her cheek and corrected herself, “It’s how I like to think about it.”

In high school we grew apart. Barry’s parents sent him to an all-boys school known for its dedication to discipline, and because of all this discipline, we saw less of one another. I also started to read a lot and Barry didn’t understand this.

“Are you just going to lie there?” he asked one Saturday. “Doing nothing?”

“It’s not nothing,” I said. “I’m reading.”

Barry waved this away, “But you’re going to stay here, in your room?”

“I guess so.”

“That’s crazy,” he declared. “Let’s go do something.”

And so, every weekend, we went off and did something. The discipline instilled by his new school was having a noticeable effect on Barry, and his injuries were fewer and less colourful. We built a raft from oil drums that Barry welded together. He got shocked only once. He burnt himself with molten metal but the results were only small pock marks. We made bombs by mixing chlorine and drain cleaner. Barry put one of these bombs into the mailbox of a man up the street who had once shouted at us when we walked across his lawn, but he couldn’t get his hand out in time. Even so, the cuts and burns he sustained weren’t too serious. We built various tree houses from which Barry plunged with punctual ease, but he never broke a bone. One tree house—a splendid platform about three storeys above the ground, perched between the trunk and two branches of a blue gum tree—still exists in part today. A while ago I went and stood under this tree and remembered with a pang of guilt how scared I was when we built it. Barry had climbed ahead, but I got stuck at some lower point, paralysed with fear, until he shinned around to help me.

“Just hold on,” he said calmly. “That way, you cannot fall.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” I whimpered.

“It’s me who falls,” he grinned. “You’ll be fine. Just don’t look down.”

Going off to do things created a new bond between us, one in which our roles of earlier were reversed. I was silenced, and Barry learned to talk.

“I’m in my mother’s picture,” he once reflected, years later, after we’d sat for some time on a ledge beside the last waterfall near the top of Tooth Gully. He pointed the way we’d come and dragged his finger along the dark wound of the Tugela Gorge.

“If you stood somewhere over there,” he said and made a frame with his fingers at arm’s length, “and you looked over here, you’d see a stream and this mountain, far away, at the end of our passage.”

After high school, Barry left for England. He wanted to avoid military service and study medicine. It seemed to be a reasonable exchange, given his prolonged exposure to senseless authority and his broad knowledge of pain. No one but my mother questioned his decision.

“I’ll be damned if I let him work on me,” she told me. “Can you imagine? He’ll slip, or something, and when you wake up you’ve had a lobotomy.”

When he returned during their summer break, we met by accident. His face was harder, as if bones had grown inside it.

“I’m back twice a year, from now on,” he said. “Let’s go do something.”

When we were kids he had always talked about climbing the Drakensberg Mountains. The one book he owned—a book he stole, if I remember correctly, from the school library—described the Drakensberg range and some of its climbs, and Barry spent hours looking at the pictures it contained. One peak in particular interested him—the Devil’s Tooth—a pinnacle of rock in the vast escarpment of the Amphitheatre, a lonely spire of eroded basalt towering over the valley and the Tugela gorge below.

“That’s one of the hardest climbs in the country,” I said.

“I know,” Barry answered. “We don’t climb it, of course. That cannot be done except with equipment, and only by skilled mountaineers. We just go there and see if we can get close to it.”

“That’s nuts.”


So we went to the Devil’s Tooth twice a year. Getting to within hiking distance of the Tooth was a five-hour drive. Barry drummed his fingers on the roof while we watched the yellow Free State grass slip past like the swell of the open sea. In the Van Reenen’s Pass the dry grass gave way to green vegetation as we dropped from the plateau into Natal. On a clear day we could see the mountains when we were more than an hour away. Sometimes clouds were brushed from the wind that raced up their slopes.

Barry was unconcerned with the weather. We had come to climb and the weather was expected to cooperate. He refused to check any weather reports, nor listen to any recounting of weather reports I tried to make. No matter what, we plowed on and camped in the Royal National Park to start out early the next morning.

It was always a beautiful hike through the gorge to the base of the steep gully that led up to the Tooth. Barry walked in silence, glancing at the Tooth and the smaller Toothpick beside it as we went along. There were places here with names that rose and fell on the tongue—the Pudding, the Policeman’s Helmet, Leaning Towers. We took no gear. We carried only water, some chocolate, and warm tops. We were extreme climbers, Barry explained.

“Extremely stupid,” I said.

The real haul was up the gully itself. Boulders were coated in slippery sand and recent rains had flattened clumps of grass. In Barry’s book there was an account of a group of students who had drowned here in the seventies. Clouds had gathered suddenly, a thunderstorm broke, and a wall of water had moved down the gully and overcame them almost three thousand meters above sea level. Despite this threat, it was breathtaking. We climbed through ancient history entombed in the face of the escarpment, a million years with every few steps. And yet there was no human memory here, no malice, and no pity. As we climbed we left no scar that the rain would not wash away, or the wind erase.

Near the top we had to negotiate three waterfalls. The first and second we climbed around by moving to their right, but the third was more difficult. We had to climb up its left, then cross the waterfall itself to its right before we could take a fork up the gully and traverse to the left again and onward to the Tooth Cave, an overhang where real climbers slept before they tackled the Tooth the next day. As it turned out, we never got beyond the last waterfall. It was obvious that one would need gear to come down again, and so we only tried to cross the fall and rest on a ledge before the long climb down.

The first time we climbed was during Barry’s summer break, and thus the middle of the winter in the Drakensberg. I got stuck traversing the third waterfall on our way back. My fingers were numb with cold. Crystals of ice expanded in every small fissure.

“You OK?” Barry called to me.

There was a staggered drop of thirty to forty meters at my feet, and beyond the rocks I’d hit should I fall, much more. I had my fingers in a narrow crack, and I couldn’t feel my toes. I was petrified. Coming up this way had been hard, but going down now seemed impossible.

“Two ways down,” Barry had once told me. “The right way, and the short way.”

“I’m not OK,” I called back.

“Just hold on,” he replied. “If you hold on you cannot fall.”

“Sure,” I whispered to myself.

“Hang on,” he insisted as he began to maneuver to a safer spot.

I closed my eyes and tried to come to terms with where I was. It seemed unthinkable that I had put myself in this desolate and forsaken place. I looked down, ignoring Barry’s repeated advice, and tried to accept what I saw. The gully was foreshortened from this angle. The black basalt that shaped its five hundred meter extent was now a mere margin to the expanse of yellow sandstone that stretched out farther below. At least, I realised, I was going to die in a place of beauty. This had to be better than a hospital bed or an old age home.

“Just relax,” Barry called as he kept moving.

Those two simple words, a gift so seemingly incongruous with where we were, reminded me of what he’d once said about flying and falling. I looked down again and imagined letting go. If I had the courage to fly, even as I was falling, I’d have three last seconds of freedom. Perhaps this is what Barry had meant, that flying was just falling in the right way.

“Talk to me,” Barry shouted when he reached a better position.

The option to die in defiance had removed the randomness of accident. I was still alive and already dead. It didn’t really matter.

“I’m OK,” I called into the breeze.

Then Barry began the slow process of guiding me toward him, directing my hands and feet to cracks and ledges in the rock, to the places he’d been.

Twice a year Barry returned from England, and twice a year we headed to the Drakensberg. We returned to the mountains for the last time near Christmas, almost three years after he’d left. We set out on a Saturday morning. Barry was in a hurry. His return flight was on the Tuesday. We had to climb on the Sunday and be on our way back on the Monday.

We listened to the weather report in the car but Barry changed the channel when the forecast mentioned things he didn’t like.

“Shouldn’t we think this over?” I asked as he took the onramp to the highway.

“I’ve met someone,” he replied.

“Is that why you came for such a short time?”

Barry thought this over before he answered.

“I didn’t really want to come at all.”

“So let’s turn back.”

He smiled a small smile.

“I came to see my mother,” he said flatly. “And to see if she sees me.”

Then he talked about the girl he’d met. She was quiet, he said, and liked to walk. They had walked to Epsom from central London one weekend and hardly said anything.

“I’ll bring her along next August,” he said. “You’ll like her.”

A little beyond the village at the top of the Van Reenen’s pass, a gentle slope beside the N3 highway led to a rock that jutted out above the seemingly endless lake of grass to the southwest. We always stopped here. One could stand on this rock and imagine it to be the prow of a ferry making for the opposite shore. From here the distant peaks of the Drakensberg were a sleeping crocodile, the spines of its tail darkened with the wet stains of valleys and shadows.

“You can’t see shit from here,” Barry said impatiently.

In the years since then I have often wondered about the irony of those words. From the promontory we could not see the barren Tooth nor the gullies and mullions of the cliffs beneath it. We could not see the coming storm. We had no way of knowing that Barry would not return this way. Nothing mattered to us beyond this afternoon in our early twenties, the sound of cars tearing along the highway behind us, and the silence of birds leaning into the wind.

The following morning, at first light, we set off into a landscape of graven stone. I was struck, as I always was, by the thought of moving through a vast cemetery. The sun rose above the escarpment ahead of us and smeared every tombstone of rock into a long shadow. When we returned, in the late afternoon, these shadows would be drawn the wrong way, facing us again, as though we’d never gone.

The climb up the gully was harder than ever before, perhaps because we knew we had to hurry. The sky darkened by the minute and the temperature was dropping.

“It’ll be fine,” Barry said after what looked like a brief calculation. “It’ll only rain tonight, after we’re done.”

For a few hours it looked like he might be right. It didn’t rain, and it didn’t get any colder. But then, as we were traversing the last waterfall, the storm broke. It didn’t rain, but it hailed. The small stones stung our backs and numbed our fingers. It came in hard and it made it difficult to see. Barry had moved ahead but now climbed back to me.

“I told you,” I called to him.

“It’ll stop,” he called back. “But we must turn around and get down.”

“We’ll drown in the gully.”

He tried to look over his shoulder, but then decided against it. “It hasn’t rained,” he shouted. “It’s just hail.”

My left foot was unsupported and there was unequal strain on my arms. Barry had a better hold. He was on a narrow ledge with space for both his feet.

“I can’t hold much longer—” I cried into the rush of the wind.

“I’ll find another ledge,” he called back. “You come to this one.”

He carefully turned to the far side of the waterfall and began to climb away and down. I pressed my cheek into the rock and tried to ease out the cramping in my right foot. By the time I managed to traverse to the ledge Barry had left me, he had moved beyond a bulge in the rock below me.

“Just hold on,” he called out.

On Barry’s ledge it was possible to vary the pressure on my feet and adjust the position of my fingers. I repeated his words to myself—just hold on—words I’d heard him say so many times before. If you hold on you cannot fall. It seemed like such a simple thing to say, but it had to be true. Yet I knew that in the end, whether to fly for a few seconds or to go home, I’d have to let go. I didn’t want to think about this and instead I tried to remember a haunting tune I had once heard on the radio while driving to class, and never heard again. The beginning of this tune was simple, a pair of repeated notes, like a pulse, but other tunes were easily drawn across it. At one point I thought I heard a sound carried on the wind, a distant cry thinned in the turning, cold air, but I couldn’t be sure. By the time the wind and hail eased up, Barry had been gone for a long time. There were shafts of sunlight through parting clouds and fog rose from the gully at my feet like shards of steam. Beside the beating of my own heart was only the sound of the Tugela river sighing in the gorge far below. I called out to Barry when I knew he wouldn’t answer.

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