This story is by Corinne Harrison and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Maggie had closed her eyes only for a second, but it was enough to turn inwards and vault herself into the sky.
The space in the cockpit seemed to freeze in time, making her feel like the only being in the large world above land. She looked to the side and saw her reflection in the window plastered against the endless blue. Her young, round face was incandescent with joy.
Then someone called her, ‘Nana’, and she opened her eyes, realising she was back on the ground.
The first thing she saw were two familiar faces peering at her.
‘Sorry,’ Maggie said at the questioning glances from her grandchildren, who had paused in their business meeting. ‘The heat must be getting to me.’ She ignored the fact that, although that year’s July was as hot as a furnace, her own study was cool and crisp.
‘Are you sure you’re ok Nana?’ Maggie’s granddaughter asked.
‘Alison leave her alone, she’s fine,’ Miles said with slight irritation. He turned back to the prospective buyer to continue their conversation.
A noise reached them from outside and Maggie instinctively looked out of the window towards it. A large metallic body in the air, wings outstretched, nose parting the clouds, took over the small square of her window. From where she sat, it looked like a Boeing passenger plane. Maybe a Boeing 767.
Most people thought Maggie had been crazy to buy a house so close to Heathrow Airport. They warned of the constant noise, the air pollution, the highway traffic.
They didn’t understand. Flying was her first love.
Maggie felt her life had truly started in 1939, prompted by a tinny declaration bursting from the radio. After joining the Second World War, Britain had scrambled to requisition anything of use, including 20-year-old Maggie. Following weeks of training she was hired by the Air Transport Auxiliary to fly aircraft across the country between factories and airfields.
Maggie still remembered her first solo flight during the war. She could still feel the icy wind slap against her cheeks as she made her way onto the tarmac, could still feel the weight of her army boots as she lifted a foot to climb into the cockpit. She could still hear the click of the latch as the cockpit closed, the shaking of the whole metal bird as the propellers started to turn.
With gloved hands, Maggie had pushed both throttles and the plane shot forward. She continued to push the plane along, faster, faster, throwing details on the ground into insignificance. She felt the front wheels lift, followed by the back ones and with them, her heart rose in her chest.
There was nothing like feeling yourself leave the ground. It was a freedom that made every other experience in Maggie’s life shrink in comparison.
Upon take off, she had passed the fringes of the airfield. Then she passed the village next to it. Then she crossed over into the next county. Maggie had marvelled at the ease with which boundaries could be pushed aside by the simple push of a lever.
She transported planes for four years and then, without warning, it was over. There was a brief period of mourning, for neither she, nor any of her female colleagues had been allowed to continue to fly in post-war Britain.
‘Nana,’ Miles said. There was a bite of impatience in his voice. ‘I asked if that was ok with you?’
Maggie looked back at the meeting, realising that once again, she had completely missed what had been said. Alison leaned over to place a hand on Maggie’s arm. ‘If you’re feeling unwell Nana, we can take it from here. You don’t have to be involved if you don’t want to,’ she said under her breath.
‘No it’s fine,’ Maggie said smiling. She asked the buyer to repeat himself and he did. There was a pause as Maggie considered his response. She did not like what she heard.
Her grandchildren had first broached the idea of selling her company and she had eventually agreed. Now though, she felt as though she were willingly letting go of a part of herself. Since the death of her husband the year before, she was slowly losing fight and it seemed her grandchildren had other plans for a company they saw as their own.
Maggie thought again of her first flight, wondering if that had indeed been the pinnacle of her freedom.
‘Well, what do you think Nana?’ Miles said. He leaned forward, sweat beading his forehead.
‘I think,’ Maggie started. Mulling the buyer’s words over, feeling her concentration and energy slip from her, she felt the edges of powerlessness creep in. She dropped any pretence of trying to care. ‘I think, I need to lie down. We can pick this up tomorrow.’
‘But Nana,’ Miles insisted, ‘We’re so close. It’s just a yes or no.’
‘Miles,’ Alison snapped, eyes burning into her brother. ‘We’ll pick it up tomorrow. It’s fine.’ Miles waited for his sister to leave with the buyer and carried on.
‘Nana, I really think you should reconsider his offer. If you don’t want to negotiate today, you can leave it with me. I don’t think you quite know what you’re doing here.’
‘I know exactly what I’m doing Miles,’ Maggie said, losing the last of her patience. ‘You seem to forget that I built this company from the bottom up. I’ve been around a lot longer than you. I know what I’m doing.’
There was a charged pause and Miles, scowling, stormed out of the room. Maggie let out a deep sigh and rested her head on the back of her chair, closing her eyes once more.
That night, Maggie changed into her nightgown and started to make her way to bed. She caught herself in the mirror and took a moment to stare at her reflection. She could remember the day she first realised how old she really looked. Standing like this in front of the mirror, she had eyed her sagging chin, a few light patches of liver spots on her arms, the hair she had allowed to turn grey.
She had thought this image didn’t seem to match up with herself. But, as each passing day saw her sag lower, she begrudgingly felt that this woman was becoming less of a stranger.
The problem was that Maggie could still remember her own vitality, her own achievements throughout her life. The memory of it was so strong, she felt as though she could pluck her youth back up like a forgotten handbag and shoulder it again.
In Maggie’s dreams she would fly again, finally at one with herself once more. These days, climbing into a cockpit and taking control of a plane, sweeping off towards endless heights, seemed to be the only thing that allowed her to feel unfettered.
Then morning would come. Maggie would wake, only to stare at the solid walls enclosing her. The last few years it had been this way for nights on end. Plummeting from the sky in her memories, waking back in her body would become more and more unbearable.
As Maggie continued to look at herself, she imagined her curved back straightening, sunlight flooding back into her hair, her skin clearing and becoming smoother. The tiredness around her eyes receded and she lengthened out, becoming thinner, leaner. Suddenly Maggie’s twenty-year-old self filled the mirror. She had been a beautiful young woman but now, dressed in the navy blue of her pilot’s uniform, she looked imposing, unstoppable.
They stared at each other, past and future. As a pilot, both of them had been given the tools to burst their dams. With this same energy Maggie had learned, worked, and succeeded in life with an unstoppable force. It had led to a beautiful marriage, to a successful business, to a family.
Neither of them thought they would reach the point where they were left wondering if it had really happened.
‘It doesn’t have to end like this,’ the young woman in the mirror said to Maggie. ‘We can take it all back.’
The young woman smiled encouragingly, winked, and turned her back on Maggie. She marched away towards the open space of an airfield.
Maggie turned back too, climbing into bed as the woman in the mirror climbed into the cockpit of a two-seater plane.
Somewhere outside, the rumble of a car engine growled just as the mirror’s airplane engine sprang to life. Maggie watched as the woman in the mirror took off in her plane, climbing into the sky to disappear in a curtain of clouds.
Maggie closed her eyes. As she now did every night, she turned inwards and vaulted herself to the sky to join the young woman. They became one once again, and in that moment, they were both limitless.
This time however, the sky encased them in its grip and from then on, it was all they knew. For neither of them came back down.