Free Spirit by Kathy Goddard

Finn has never walked towards danger - he runs at it, actively seeks it, determined to enjoy every moment. Strapped securely to a hang-glider, soaring silent as a bird, he throws back his head and laughs. He watches his black shadow race across the fields, miles beneath him, tiny as a pebble.

Finn is a free spirit. He refuses to be tied down, not by a job, a wife or children. His only goal is to live life to the full. He isn’t one to sit and watch adventure pass by - instead he chases after it with long practised determination. Closing his eyes he feels the wind blow his hair off his face; the irritating curl that tickles his brow temporarily banished as the air brushes against his face.

Being alone in the sky gives him time to remember his past adventures; he remembers climbing the rigging of a tall ship, joking with his fellow crewmen as he swung amongst the ropes. They gripped so tightly that their knuckles were paler than the white foam topping the rolling waves. Finn had no fear of falling, but rode the swaying rigging as if it was a fairground ride. ‘Don’t be a fool, Finn,’ they yelled, before wincing and closing their eyes as he let go with one hand, swinging his body outwards as if he was a sail catching the wind. ‘Don’t worry about me, lads, the gods are smiling on me!’ The salt frosted his eyelashes and crusted his lips as he became one with the motion of the sea.

He remembers the crunch of frosty grass underfoot as he conquered the country’s highest mountain. He had swigged a tot of whisky as he reached the summit, feeling it smooth on his tongue, warm in his throat, then hot in his belly as he surveyed the landscape opening before him when the clouds parted. He no longer felt the pinching of his leather boots and he was warm despite the snow, breathing in the cold air, feeling it gradually grow warmer as it reached his lungs before it was puffed back out. Spurning the ‘easy’ route his cheeks had been slapped by wet bracken and his palms scraped on rocks as he clambered and slipped on the moss covered track on his way to the peak, but triumph had outweighed any discomfort. He felt alive, howling into the sky. Even as he descended he was planning to travel to a new country, to climb a new mountain, to face a new challenge.

Diving beneath the waves he has encountered nature’s underwater wonders; bright fish, corals sharp enough to cut skin and gently swaying anemone tentacles, their bright colours a distraction from their poison. He has been close enough to a pod of whales to reach out and stroke the underbelly of a calf as it followed his mother across their ancient ocean route. He has watched the miracle of an octopus changing not only colour, but also shape, in order to evade predators. More recently he has learned to free-dive, unencumbered by scuba tanks, using nothing more than weights to gain depth and fins to speed his ascent when his chest started to burn and his lungs craved oxygen. ‘Surely you don’t want to go deeper, Finn? It’s dangerous.’ But Finn didn’t listen to anxious advice and dived again and again, the water enveloping him in a cool embrace. He is equally at home under water or in the sky.

Land also presents him with a variety of opportunities. He has driven across deserts and through jungles in jeeps held together with string, elastic bands and prayers, striving to conquer new challenges. He is never satisfied that he has seen all that this world can offer. He has felt the same awe on seeing the towering structures built by termites, as when standing at the foot of the soaring building of the Mayan people. He has found the remains of their sacrificial children as poignant as those uncovered in Pompeii. Their mummies, preserved in ice or in the hollows left in volcanic mud, continue to tell their stories.

He has experienced the hot, wet rainforests and the dry heat of the deserts. He has plunged underground to explore the deepest caves, marvelling at the art left by those who inhabited them in the earliest days of human evolution; the outline of a man’s hand and the crude paintings of the animals roaming the land in that era picked out by the beam of his torch. Ice caves presented a different challenge, which he attacked with the same gusto. Standing deep below the oceans others cowered when the ice shifted and creaked, but he liked the idea that the oceans could reclaim the locked water and faced the possibility of being found years in the future, trapped in the ice, perfectly preserved, with equanimity.

He has followed Hadrian’s Wall, treading in the footsteps of his ancestors with the same enthusiasm as when he walked the Great Wall of China. He has discovered that he enjoys joint ventures and solitude equally, finding a different kind of contentment in each. He has learned to be a team player but more importantly he has taught himself to be self-sufficient and to enjoy his own company. He chooses not to carry a camera or a notebook to record his ventures, but locks each sight, sound and sensation into his memory, to be pulled out and re-lived in their full glory during his rare visits to his home.

Here in the air he is free of all earthly bonds. His only companions are the birds that share his air-space. He catches a thermal and finds himself surrounded by red kites, also making the most of this free ride. They accept this intruder as if he was one of their own and they circle together, swirling higher and higher until he can no longer see his shadow. Turning his face away from the ground he looks up, striving to gain even more altitude, to keep going until his oxygen runs out and he can be certain that he has reached his limit. Close to death, he has never felt so alive. He likes the idea of taking his last breath on this flight, but no. It is not to be.

A casually cruel voice cuts into his reverie and he plummets back to earth. A rough hand brushes back the curl that has flopped across his brow. He wishes they would just cut it off.

‘Come and meet Finn. He was brain damaged at birth and has spent all his life sitting and drooling in that wheelchair. No life for a man, is it? Still, at least he’s no bother, not like some of them. Finn, this is Maria. She’s joining the team and is going to be your new key-worker.’

‘Does he understand you?’ The voice holds curiosity and sympathy, something he doesn’t want.

‘Who knows? We’re told to speak to him as if he can understand, but there’s nothing to indicate that he can. He can’t even use his hands to sign.’

‘Hello, Finn.’

Maria kneels in front of him and even as she introduces herself and shakes his nerveless hand, he feels her eyes rove across his face and body, coolly assessing him. It won’t take long for her to deem him not fit for purpose. Cynicism will soon override her initial compassion. It always does.

Finn doesn’t care. The hours spent dumped by the television while the carers stepped outside for a crafty fag, the audio-books played over and over whether he wants to listen to them or not, and the song lyrics heard on the radio have all been absorbed and have fired his imagination.

Finn grunts, closes his eyes and prepares to set off on a new adventure.

Selected: March Short Story Contest
Published in #Issue 28

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