Chapter One - Above the Noise
Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.
—Leonardo Da Vinci
When I can’t sleep, I like to watch the sunrise from the top of a skyscraper. It’s not enough to do it from my bedroom window anymore. Nothing can compare with seeing all of London beneath me while it goes from deep-purple to orange and its numerous lights go out. I’d like to witness the same from the top of the Empire State Building, or the Hancock, or even the Burj Khalifa, but that may not be for a while.
This morning, I sit on the roof of Heron Tower with the rooftop bar beneath me. It’s closed at this hour, but I doubt I would go in for food anyway. I haven’t been able to hold food down for the past twelve hours, not since Dad showed me that letter. I can’t get Uncle Michael out of my head, and I don’t want to risk eating, lest I empty my stomach lining.
The city is already on the move. I fish out a pair of binoculars from my drawstring bag and spy on the construction workers near the Gherkin, bike couriers on the streets below with cubes on their backs, and businessmen in a tele-conference with their Chinese partner. I love watching people’s lives from the outside, it’s like being a movie extra or a videogame NPC. Plus, it takes me away from all the bloody things in my life.
I put the binoculars away, because of course I’m not going to find what I’m looking for. Something tells me Uncle Michael would stay in or near London. Either way, it’s only a matter of time before I see him again, it doesn’t matter how big this city is. He could be on the same train I take back to Kensal Green, or he might wait for me at the school gates one day.
Life was so much easier when he was in prison.
I’m half-an-hour early for the sunrise, and the warmth I built up getting here is wearing off. I delve into my bag once again and pull out a fleece blanket. Though it’s January, I’m wearing plain black leggings, and a teal t-shirt with a red vest over it. You don’t want too many layers when you’re always on the mood. It’s taken many trials and errors, plus research into wind resistance, to understand how much or how little to bring on a run.
The five pigeons I have for company occasionally look at me and cock their heads. It’s not normal for them to see humans up here. I open the bag of sunflower seeds I was going to eat and toss them a handful. They don’t complain.
I look out at the city again; the horizon is about to turn orange. ’To be, or not to be, that is the question: whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…’ The pigeons start cooing, I toss them more seeds. ‘…Or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them…’
Bracing my elbow on my knee, I get into character and keep reciting the monologue without missing a beat. ’When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause—there’s respect that makes calamity of so long life. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of dispriz’d love…’
I know this speech by heart, the benefits of a photographic memory. I pull out my hair tie and let my red waves come down before they catch on the wind. On the last line of the monologue, I hear a door open behind me and find a tall Japanese teenager standing behind me. I reach out. ’Soft you now! The fair Dante! Nymph in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered.’
Dante grins as he comes over in his grey tracksuit, ruffling his windswept hair. ‘How’s it going?’
He takes my arm and kneels down to see my face fall into an uncertain pout. ‘I want to say great, but…’
My eyes turn downward. Dante sits on the ledge with me. The blanket is big enough for both of us – I don’t take up much room anyway – and we wrap it around ourselves. We look as if we’re sitting on the sofa watching a romantic movie, not perched on the edge of a skyscraper. We wouldn’t die if we landed on the rooftop bar, but we would be looking at a lifetime of paralysis.
‘What’s wrong?’ asks Dante.
Rather than tell him, I reach into my bag for a final time and pull out the letter. ‘It’s from my dad’s solicitor,’ I say, watching my friend read it slowly. Some of the legal jargon takes a while to process, but he reaches the end and hands it back to me.
‘He’s really out then?’
‘Yup. Sentenced to a decade, let out after barely seven years. Who does that?’
‘Sometimes you only need to serve half your sentence before you’re eligible for parole.’
‘I still thought he’d serve all ten years. It doesn’t look good on the justice system for a child abuser to be let out early.’
‘How did your dad react?’
‘He’s meeting with said solicitor later today to discuss restraining orders. His parole conditions might ban him from coming near me, but Dad wants to make sure.’
Dante pulls me into a half-hug. ‘It’ll be okay.’
That’s the last we say about it. I’d rather talk about anything else. Maybe it will be okay. After all, Aunt Lesley has been out since I was twelve and she hasn’t come near me. Maybe because I want Dante to be right, or he’s the friend I trust most, but I decide to accept his words.
I wonder if I would be sitting here if I never spent those years with Lesley and Michael. We never can tell what might have been, but I would still have the need to fill a hole in Mum’s absence. Between ages four and eight, I was always running and climbing to get out of reach.
When I started living with Dad again, I kept running and climbing, though I didn’t need to hide. Dad has photo albums full of me climbing all the trees in the garden, and there’s a video of me somewhere using the garden wall as a balance beam. When he caught me scaling the outside of our country house, he would take me to the climbing centre and signed me up for gymnastics. The skills I learned there took me to the rooftops where I improvised obstacle courses, edging towards Central London once Kensal Green didn’t thrill me anymore. Museums, apartment blocks, shopping centres and finally, the skyscrapers.
That was how I met Dante. I was thirteen and running through Westminster when I misjudged my landing. Clinging for dear life from HMRC, Dante jumped the gap from Churchill’s War Rooms to pull me to safety. We’ve been parkour buddies ever since. He’s not a thrill seeker like me, rather, he is a self-taught athlete. His parents want him to have a steadier career and won’t hire a coach for him.
We tighten our grip on the blanket while the sky changes. The streetlights are already dimming and the roads fill with cars and buses. These sunrise vigils always have clear views, mainly because we don’t do them on extremely cloudy nights in case it rains.
‘I wonder if I’ll ever get bored of this,’ I say. ‘What do I do for kicks when this isn’t enough anymore?’
‘You’ll probably climb Everest,’ says Dante. ‘First person under sixteen. But I bet even a world record wouldn’t settle you, would it?’
I shrug. ‘You never know, I might miss my jump one day and that’ll be the end.’ I act like I’m unbreakable, but I’m definitely not stupid. The higher I go, the more I stare death in the face. You cannot hesitate or you’ll lose momentum, all it takes is one mistake.
‘Never,’ asserts Dante. ‘We do this together to stop each other from falling.’
‘Will you be there when I fly too close to the sun?’ I ask.
Speak of the Devil, the sun peeks over the horizon, lighting up the Thames with an orange glare. Buildings with glass exteriors, like the Shard and Leadenhall turn from blue to yellow. It’s blinding, yet mesmerising. But I’m not looking at the sun this time. I’m waiting for Dante’s answer.
‘I will,’ he replies, and I hug him ’round the middle.
Our usual routine after the vigil is to make our way to the ground and have breakfast at the nearest café. That can’t happen today, I need to get home before Dad wakes up, and Dante ought to shower off before school.
‘There,’ he says, and points north to Liverpool Street. ‘Do you want to go the scenic route or take the lift to the ground floor?’ I raise an eyebrow at him. ‘Yeah, I thought so.’
We take a lift a dozen floors down, open a window and jump onto the cranes which take us to the next building. Before we can think where to go next, a chubby builder notices us and we switch rooftops again. Dante tends to run in a straight line, while I vault over skylights and do backflips over gaps to make it more interesting. I’m too busy focusing on a well-execute roll that I bump into a random guy in a suit having a cheeky cigarette. He swears at me because I made him drop it over the side and grabs my shirt. Dante nudges him from behind and we keep going.
‘Thanks!’ I shout. ‘That could have gotten violent.’
‘You did him a favour,’ Dante jokes. He sprints to the next jump and waits on the other side to grab my hand when I make it.
I reach the ground after hanging from a windowsill, leaping to a bus stop, and landing on the concrete to the surprise of an old lady and her yapping dog. Dante does the same and the lady hurries away, probably thinking we’re going to rob her.
I look up to the buildings we were traversing. Above the city, I never notice how short I am, but on the ground, everything and everyone towers over me. And it’s loud too. You take it for granted until you come back to rattling trains, honking cars and people swearing in all different languages.
Dante and I jog across the road to Liverpool Street Station, winding through the crowd of commuters coming up from the Underground. The way down is so quiet we can stand two abreast on the escalator. Once we reach the bottom, he hugs me goodbye and heads for the Circle Line. ‘I’ll see you tonight. Looking forward to it.’
‘That makes one of us,’ I say.
‘You’ll be awesome, Iorwen.’
Again, it is always best to trust him. I take the Metropolitan and spread myself out on my seat, even put my feet up. The car is deserted, no one need judge me. Only now do I realise I’m caked in sweat with my hair and clothes sticking to me. Every muscle in my body burns from the exercise. If the Bakerloo line is just as empty, I can stretch out then.
The café at Kensal Green station has just opened when I get off the train. Having fed my sunflower seeds to the pigeons, I take a gamble on my unreliable stomach and buy a caramel latte and blueberry muffin. I might not be able to hold it down before I get home, but I am running on fumes here.
‘What happens, happens,’ I say, and scarf down the muffin in three bites.