A Childhood That Defies Gravity

Literature

A Childhood That Defies Gravity


The Art of Levitation by Marcus Stewart

Children hopped along the logs arranged as stepping-stones in the playground; Lewis stood next to them and stared at his shoes. Big, black shiny plastic shoes, with big black laces. He was sure the shoes didn’t affect it. He just had to concentrate. He was standing upright, ready to go, with his head tilted sharply downwards, looking at his shoes and the ground beneath them. Tarmac, with hundreds of little stones in it, in between which were little pockets of dirt and over which climbed the occasional ant, fighting its way through a field of boulders, sometimes carrying a small bit of twig as an extra burden. He would often stare at the ants, coming and going. But this was a distraction. He closed his eyes.

“What are you doing, Lewis?”

He looked up, and there was Matthew. He liked Matthew. Lewis lowered his head again. “I’m trying to float.”

Matthew looked at him to learn his technique, and after some consideration commented, “It’s not working.”

“I know” said Lewis, “it does sometimes though.”

And Lewis kept trying, kept staring at his feet, then closing his eyes for extra concentration and hoping—expecting—to open them and to see that his feet were maybe an inch or two above the ground, and then perhaps he could lift a little higher, and move forward, like a hovercraft. But it wasn’t happening this time.

Matthew looked a while longer before getting bored and then turned and ran off at full speed to somewhere not very far away, briefly looking back again at Lewis just in case he’d succeeded. Maybe it was the shoes.

Lewis often dreamed he was floating, because you often do dream of things you like doing. But it wasn’t only in his dreams that he could float, he knew exactly how to do it. There were two ways really—one was by doing what he was doing and concentrating and then you may get a little bit of lift. He remembered on a good day being able to float from log to log while the other children could only jump.

The other way—once you’d had a bit of practice—was like extending a jump. You’d push forwards and up with one foot and when both feet were in the air you’d just hold it; still moving forwards, but not down. Sometimes you could only hold it a little bit before your feet slapped down back to the ground, but if you caught it at the right point you could float forward for quite a while, and that was when you were like a hovercraft. He remembered seeing the stones in the tarmac passing beneath his shoes. You had to look down to do it, otherwise it wouldn’t work.

Lewis often dreamed he was floating, because you often do dream of things you like doing.

He couldn’t remember exactly when he had last done it. It was starting to seem like it might have been a long time ago and he hoped he hadn’t lost the ability. He saw that the last boys had left the logs and now there were only girls jumping around them, but instead of just jumping from log to log they were running around as well and brushing past him. It wouldn’t be possible if other people touched him. Miss Pearse rang the bell.

Lewis realized with horror that his friends were going to classroom nine in the middle hut. He’d completely forgotten this was a Thursday. Lewis could never remember what class he had at what time but it mostly didn’t matter, because they were nearly always in classroom seven anyway and he’d quickly figure out what the subject was. On Thursdays it was different—Mr. Durant came in, and Mr. Durant used classroom nine.

No one liked Mr. Durant. If there was a Mrs. Durant everyone was sure that even she wouldn’t like him. Mr. Durant had one role in life and one job in the school, and that was to be horrible. Unlike the other teachers he didn’t run tutor groups, didn’t patrol the playground, didn’t do sports or teach any particular subject, but for two hours every Thursday he would take Lewis’ group in classroom nine. And he would just talk at them. Horribly.

If you were ever going to be told off, it would be by Mr. Durant. If you were ever going to be told off for not even having done anything, it was by Mr. Durant. He just seemed to like doing it. The other teachers even seemed to feel sorry for the children going into Mr. Durant’s class. He definitely wasn’t with the other teachers; Robert had said he always went home straight after his class and a few weeks ago Lewis himself had seen him, getting into his car and driving off, with an hour of school left to go.

Lewis felt sick as he walked into the class, but so far had got away without punishment. Paul was crying after he couldn’t sit down because there were no chairs left and Mr. Durant had shouted at him for it. He had to stand. Everyone else was keeping it together, grim-faced. Mr. Durant had begun to talk. No one knew what he was talking about, he just seemed angry.

“Now, we’ve something different today,” he said. The children hadn’t noticed, but there was a metal roll clipped to the top of the blackboard, out of which Mr. Durant scrolled down a large map of the area and clipped it into position at the bottom of the blackboard.

“Now this,” he said, pointing at the map, “is where we live.”

Lewis knew this, he liked maps. He thought for a moment this might be okay, if they were going to start looking at maps.

“And this, he said, pointing again, “is RAF Chinholt.”

Again, Lewis knew this; you often couldn’t hear the TV when the jet fighters flew over.

“It’s only four miles away, you could walk it. It’s a key Soviet target, and when the Russians bomb us you will all be killed in an instant.”

Everyone was still, and the shock stopped Paul from crying just as it caused a couple of the girls to start. Mr. Durant carried on talking, but no one heard anything else he said. Lewis couldn’t believe how horrible he was. Because Mr. Durant didn’t like the Russians Lewis thought that they must be okay, and he hoped and hoped that the Russians would win.


It had rained a bit, and Lewis had stepped in a puddle by mistake and got his left sock wet. It was cold, but his mum had started lighting the fire and asked Lewis to hold the paper up against it to get it going while she went back to chatting with Uncle Derek in the kitchen. He had no idea who Uncle Derek was.

He held the paper tight against the fireplace to stop the draft getting in and blowing the fire out. Right in front of him, on the paper in coarse black and white print were a big pair of boobs. He couldn’t help looking at them. Before he knew it the growing fire had sucked the paper into the fireplace and set it alight—just a small part in the middle, but spreading, and heading for smiling Samantha and the boobs. He had no choice but to grab the poker and smash the paper into the fire so bits wouldn’t float out and add more burns to the carpet. He hit it and hit it and hit it until all bits of paper were safely in the grate, burning with the other wood and paper. He held the poker in place a while and watched as flake after flake of grey ash floated up the chimney. His mum called him.

“Lew, why don’t you go out and play in the garden for a bit?”

It seemed odd that she was calling him Lew in front of Uncle Derek, she never called him Lew, ever. He was embarrassed by it.

“Go up and climb your tree or something and I’ll call you when your dinner’s ready. We’ve just got some grown up things to do.”

Uncle Derek didn’t look at him but Lewis could see he was smiling. “Okay.” Lewis left them to it.

It was a great tree, easy to climb and taller than the top of the house. They were on the very edge of the town and he could look across most of it from the top. As the sky turned red and the birds flew back home to the trees at the back of the field behind him he noticed wisps of smoke come out the top of a couple chimneys on the next street and the street beyond. Dotted around the town as far as he could see, little strands of smoke began to rise up, more and more and getting thicker and thicker as the fires grew beneath them and the sky got darker—as another day came to an end, as the days before had come to an end.


Lewis’ tummy rumbled as he lay in bed the next morning. He tried to convince himself that discomfort was pain, and that the pain was enough to get him off school. His mum gave him some milk of magnesia—which he liked—and agreed he could stay off, but he would have to walk to the shop to buy her some cigarettes.

Because they lived so much on the edge of the town it was quite a long walk to the nearest shop, but not as far as when he had to walk to school when he couldn’t get a lift. There were five small roads he had to cross and two large roads, only the last of which had traffic lights, but he was a sensible boy and good at crossing roads. It wasn’t very busy anyway. He looked left, looked right and left again and then crossed.

His shoes still hurt. These were the only shoes he had at the moment and his mum said they’d get better the more he wore them, but they seemed to be getting worse. This would be a good time to float. Even if he couldn’t float he could do the next best thing, and he started doing extra-long strides so he’d have less far to walk. With each step he tried to make the stride longer until it was almost a jump; left and then right, his feet slapping down and sliding a little on the tarmac, stretching and pointing his tip toes out to land as far forward as possible. He began to get into a rhythm—one, two, step, one, two, step— and the awkward movement began to feel more natural and flowing.

Maybe, if he stretched really far and concentrated hard one of the little jumps would hold and he could glide forward just a bit. Maybe before his first foot started falling he could pull up the other one quickly and they could glide forward together, holding him just above the ground, perhaps until the next street. But every step landed heavily and awkwardly as before and he never could pull up his back foot quickly enough. He closed his eyes for the next step, trying at least to make it a bit longer. And it worked. Although it felt the same and he landed just as heavily, when he opened his eyes he was sure the step had carried him at least half as far again as the last one. Happy that he had achieved at least this much he continued walking normally again.

“Hello Lewis. Hang on, let me just serve this gentleman first, I know what you’re here for.”

Happy that he had achieved at least this much he continued walking normally again.

Lewis waited. It was a funny little shop, all black where other shops were white, and everything was stacked up high and all around the edge. It was too small to have all the things in it that it had, it was only the size of a room, except it had a counter halfway across in the middle. The old couple who ran it were also too old to be running a shop, Lewis thought it all just looked wrong. But they were friendly, so that was okay.

It wasn’t the old woman who came out of the door at the back with a new crate of tinned soup, but a young woman. Lewis wondered where the old woman was.

“Right Lewis,” said the man, “a packet of fags for your mum and a slice of luncheon meat for you, yes?” The old man sliced some luncheon meat before he could say anything and wrapped it in plastic. Lewis didn’t know if his mum had phoned ahead so he didn’t know if he was supposed to have the luncheon meat or not, but the price ended up the same as it usually was for cigarettes anyway, so he had enough money.

Perhaps cigarettes were cheaper this week. The young woman seemed unhappy though, and was staring at the man. Lewis said thank you, put the cigarettes in his pocket and took the luncheon meat in his left hand. He liked luncheon meat. He rolled the round slice of it into a tube and as he walked home he blew it like a whistle. As his spit made the end of it soft he’d bite that bit off so that the whistle got shorter and shorter until it was all gone.


“The law says no cigarettes to anyone under 16, not 10!” the young woman said to her grandfather.

“Oh, they’re not for him, I know he’s not going to smoke them. I don’t need to worry about the stupid law,” he said.

She carried on stacking while he stood there behind the counter, the shop now empty of customers. He thought he’d lighten the mood—”I went to the zoo the other day. There was just one dog there,” he said.

“Why do you always tell that joke when that boy’s been in?” she asked.

“Do I? Maybe his dad told it me.”

“Well, I’ve heard it anyway,” the young woman said, before stepping back out into the storeroom. He savored the silence and stillness for a moment, then for the sake of completion mumbled to himself, “it was a shih tzu,” while wiping the meat slicer clean.

He thought back to the boy’s dad, times when he’d come in the shop before he got ill, when Lewis was no more than three or four years old. Lewis’s dad was a nice fella and would often chat. He seemed to get on with everyone. He remembered sometimes seeing him and the manageress of the Safeway walking up the street together, chatting and laughing with each other, each holding Lewis’ hand and lifting him into the air as they walked, and Lewis looking at the ground pass beneath his feet without a care in the world.

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