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Learning to fly

by Elizabeth Ingrams

He had been looking for someone to commit suicide with for a long time. Now that he had found the right person, Ken had traveled half the way around the world in order to carry out his plan. He was nevertheless surprised to find himself standing on a familiar-looking train platform with his hands tucked in to his coat looking at the passing trains, which were gray with dirt.

This was a grimy country, he thought. The dirt seemed to get everywhere, and no one appeared to clean it up.

The things that had happened since he had been here had occurred without irregularity — he couldn’t complain about that. He had stayed in two hotels, one by the airport and one opposite the train station he had set out from this morning. Both had been comfortable.

Before leaving for this town in Hampshire where he had arranged to meet her, he had written up this detail in his Internet blog report. He felt that fellow suiciders might benefit in the future from this tip about where to find comfortable spots to set out from before committing the final act.

He clutched the return part of his airplane ticket in his pocket. It crossed his mind that if Wanda didn’t turn up for some reason, he might even use it to get home. In any case, it would be a useful method of identification for whoever found him (he was not going to cause anyone else unnecessary trouble in this), and also proof to his mother that he had died having fulfilled his destiny.

He hadn’t told his mother that he was going abroad, but he had written her address on the back of the plane ticket with the necessary postage for them to send it to her so she would know the lengths to which he had gone. As far back within his collective family memory as he could recall, there were legends of people escaping his country in order to go abroad, and of some of them even being put to death after being caught in the attempt. At least he had succeeded in getting out.

He had to remember the most important thing.

What was the most important thing? There were a lot.

It seemed like, when you went away, all the experiences in your life were vertically stacked up instead of being strung out over days, weeks, years — stacked in such a way that you couldn’t quite separate the memories. At the moment he felt threatened, as though riffling through memories could distract him from the most important thing. Living no longer appealed to him. Experiences were piled high, like so much rubbish.

Talking of which, there was something metallic in his pocket underneath his ticket, but touching it now, he couldn’t remember what it was. In fact he had put it in there earlier, before coming to England, but now he found it vaguely repulsive. He was looking out at fields and views that he had never seen before and would not see again. He was content, he told himself. His life would be completed and that was OK — there was not much more to be done with it. Every line had a beginning and an ending.

There were some minor details that he may have overlooked.

Who could he think of? There was a teacher at high school who had recently given him a lot of good marks. His other teachers and his parents always told him he needed to work harder, that he didn’t deserve to get into university, so this praise was unusual for him.

Now he wanted to go back and ask the teacher whether the praise was simply the result of unfulfilled homosexual urges as he had suspected. He wouldn’t have minded. He was free of all of that.

Now that he thought about it, he was free of the desire to touch as well — it seemed unnecessary. More than anything he wanted to feel weightless. That was what he and the girl would do together he thought — just like the star-crossed lovers doomed to live forever on opposite sides of the Milky Way, but allowed to meet once a year in July on the day of the Tanabata matsuri.

There were still one or two things left that he would like to have done. He would like to have made love once, to know what it felt like. What else? He would like to have cooked a meal. He had never done so because his mother had always cooked, leaving the meals outside the door for him.

He noticed something move in the reflective glass. He had put his hand down on the train table and in the window of the train. He caught sight of his furrowed brow. He couldn’t remember whether he had actually slept earlier on in the journey or not.

Time moved differently here — not slower or faster, just differently — he was aware that the passengers looked to be in more of a rush than they usually did back home. They glanced at their watches and frowned. Everyone seemed impatient. What was the use, when they weren’t in control of their destinies?

He was hoping, when he at last met Wanda, his virgin suicide partner, that he would be able to briefly discuss such cultural differences before they died together. Maybe he should have mentioned this desire of his to her before he left his country to come here.

They had met through an international site dedicated to virgin suicides. He had started practicing his English a lot in order to be able to communicate by e-mail with his dream human being — the person he was going to be with in person for just an hour or two before they died together.

“Do you want to learn tobu with me?”

“To bu?”

He creased his eyes up with anguish at his mistake — he had used the Japanese word.

“Sorry, I mean ‘to fly.’ ”

“I can show you. I am learning trapeze at school.”

“I have always wanted to fly before I die.”

“Where do you want to commit suicide?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t want my family to be hurt by it. You?”

“I would like to be in your arms. That’s all.”

He blushed even recalling the exchange. How could she talk like that, they had only just met online, and she didn’t sound as though she was a yariman.

He’d also asked her how she pictured the scene.

“There will be a lake. We will first see each other across the lake. You will have just arrived off your plane and I will be sleeping in the forest.”

“We have a place here called Lake Biwa, a place that most people spend half their lives dreaming of visiting,” he’d told her. “But I think in Europe you have Inisfree, something like that?”

“How do you think that your parents will feel about this?” she asked one time.

“My parents and I don’t speak.”

There had been a pause. He’d almost thought of asking her a question, but his mind went blank.

“Are you very lonely?”

He didn’t answer, he let her do the work.

“How do you know geography so well? You never leave your room.”

“I have the Web in my room.”

She’d told him that she had a whole world mapped out on the floor in her bedroom — dungeons, dragons, castles, maidens. She would spend hours in there without moving. They agreed that living in one’s own room was, in the end, preferable to traveling the world — but there were only a few people who realized the true beauty of sacrificing their lives to perfect love, so they would have to make special efforts .

“Why did you want to travel all the way here to England?”

“Because I want my last hours with you.”

“But aren’t you afraid you will be disappointed by me?”

“I must find out.”

As he stepped out of the small train station, he saw a little white town in front of his eyes. Behind it was a big dark-green forest. It was like a fairy tale from one of his picture books. He couldn’t unpeel his eyes from the expanse of green. He started to shiver — it was a shiver that ran through his whole body starting in his right foot and finishing in his left.

The forest reminded him of something back home: Ai no Ki; the Forest of Love. He remembered the slogan on the Web: “A virgin forest and a favorite spot for suicides in Japan.”

There was a figure on the platform opposite, with blonde hair. He hunched his shoulders up underneath his coat like a turtle, climbed the stairs and crossed the footbridge over to the other side of the station. As he did so the figure grew in size.

‘Ken?”

“So.”

The girl was just like the images that had been pushing themselves at him from manga cartoons and anime on screen ever since he was very young. In fact, she was identikit: the wispy way her hair landed on her shoulders was exactly like his ideal heroine. So he wasn’t surprised when she had told him that he was only allowed three questions before they committed their final act together, although she was allowed as many as she liked. He was at her command.

“Are you scared of heights?”

He couldn’t answer well, he lacked the words in English.

“Yes.”

She looked confused for a moment.

“Do you like amusement parks?” was her next question.

“Ah yes,” he answered.

After that, they walked through the neat little town together as though they were walking on the moon, without talking, and he suddenly felt inadequate, as though he still had to prove himself in some way. He really wanted to be able to discuss life issues with her, in a way that he had never wanted to before. But the language he had learned from the Web seemed to have evaporated.

It was Monday afternoon and the amusement park was empty. They went on small rides; chased ducks; ate candyfloss. Occasionally there was a seagull overhead, excited by the pink sticks. He called it “kyandi” — candy.

She asked him whether he had family — brothers and sisters.

“No.”

Why didn’t he speak to his parents?

“They live in the same house but they do not come into my room. My room is my castle,” he said with glee. She looked at him weirdly, as though she wanted to say something more, but she stuck to straight questions.

He started to push her on a swing, gently at first and then faster and suddenly she stood up and did tricks on the swing, swiveling herself around and over and through the chains. He got overexcited and started to push faster and faster.

“Do you want to watch me fly, so you can learn too?” Now she was asking, the question was so ridiculous they both giggled. He stopped the swing and she got down.

‘Let’s go into the forest now,” she said with a flourish and, without even waiting for an answer, she turned down a side road that became a lane and then a rough track.

She guessed that he would be concerned about arrangements for the suicide. She showed him the car that was parked near the edge of the forest. It still had a license number for a taxi on it, which worried him slightly. There was a pipe leading from the exhaust into the window. The windows had been jammed and sealed up from the inside with black plastic. He admired the handiwork. It fitted the instructions on the Internet perfectly.

“OK. Will you follow me now?” She had just reached in to get a rope from the back seat of the car, a rope with a three-pronged hook tied to one end. He didn’t understand what she was doing, but of course he would follow her. He had been thinking about her since he was 5 years old, and here she was walking in front of him, unblemished, adorable.

Very soon she reached the first rank of trees. So far. So cute. He was glad that of all the people whose eyes he might look in to at the end, it would be the eyes of this intrepid girl. But then it dawned on him that she was not in a cartoon and that perhaps she was about to ruin everything.

“Look at me. I am going to do what you asked me to,” she said, tying the loose end of the rope around her waist.

She made a little jump, grabbed a branch and hauled herself up. Soon she was standing way above his head strapping the rope around the trunk. He was transfixed, he suddenly didn’t want her to risk her life without him being there beside her.

He tried to think about following her to put a stop to it, but he was scared of heights.

He watched mesmerized as she undid her hair. As he was looking up through the canopy, dust motes danced in the sun’s rays so he couldn’t see clearly. He wanted to tell her that he had never meant what he had asked her to do; that he didn’t want her to risk her life.

Then, thwack, she threw the hook across to a tree opposite, where it flew over a branch and fell in among those below. And suddenly she was sailing like Jane across the virgin forest — ai no ki.

“You are so beautiful, why do you want to kill yourself?” He heard his voice echoing back at him from the depths of the forest as he lurched forward with the shock of asking the one question he had wanted to ask her all along.

Just then, mid-flight, she started falling, and as she did so the rope came down with her.

The ground seemed as soft as a baby’s cradle, and although her body was limp, she could feel a hand underneath her back. There was a voice that sounded as though it was coming from under the sea: “All right? You hurt?” The two questions came in rapid succession and even though it was dark and she couldn’t see anything, she rolled over and stared straight at the questioner, reaching her hand out in reply.