Not Falling but Flying

feather clouds

There is a suspicious amount of duct tape wrapped around the wing of the little Cessna. There is no door, just a gaping hole in the side of the plane. But at least I have a parachute.
Right, left, arch.
I am at Oribi airport, Pietermaritzburg Parachute Club, and it’s more than thirty degrees—I can feel a trickle of sweat run down my back under my bright orange flight suit. The air is incredibly dry. I’m thirsty but I don’t want to drink anything, don’t want there to be even a remote possibility that I might wet myself. I duck my head as I climb through the door of the plane.
‘So why do we have to wear a helmet?’ my friend Paul had asked the instructor earlier.
The four of us had joked about it in the car on the drive up from Durban—if your parachute doesn’t open, surely a helmet won’t make much difference?
‘You wear a helmet in case you hit you head on the door of the plane,’ the instructor had replied, with a grin.
Right, left, arch.
The pilot is a student and she has the only seat in the plane. Her instructor crouches behind the chair, shouting instructions into her ear. The rest of us sit on the floor in the back. As she taxis the Cessna out onto the runway one of the buttons on the control panel falls off and rolls along the floor. The instructor picks it up and screws it back on again.
Right, left, arch.
We take off. I have an altimeter attached to my pack, so I know exactly how high we are. It’s reassuring to watch the numbers climb—to have some measure of the anticipation growing inside me. It’s too noisy to chat. We smile at each other to prove that we’re not scared.
Right, left, arch.
I’ve been at the airport since the early morning, learning the theory, going through the safety procedures, practicing the ‘arch’ position—a stable position for freefalling—while suspended in a harness.
I will not be freefalling, well, not for long at least. For as long as it takes the static line to rip the parachute out of the pack on my back, for the canopy to unfold and inflate, for it to arrest my downward motion and save me from falling 3,500 feet to a horrible, mangled death.
Right, left, arch.
I have practiced tucking and rolling—like James Bond—in case I hit the ground hard. I have also practiced what to do if something goes wrong—if my parachute doesn’t inflate: 1. Pull the ring on the right strap to cut away the main chute. 2. Pull the ring on the left strap to deploy the reserve chute. 3. Assume the arch position.
Right, left, arch.
And then pray that the reserve chute opens.
My altimeter indicates that we’re nearly at 3,500 feet. The instructor motions that it’s time for us to get ready.
‘I’ll go first,’ I volunteer. I’m the only woman, I want to prove to my male friends that I’m just as brave…that I’m braver than them.
The instructor clips me on to the static line. ‘Now step out on to the strut,’ he tells me.
I know that the others are watching me. This is not the moment to hesitate.
Right, left, arch.
I don’t look at the ground. I look at the wing of the plane in front of the doorway. I focus on the wing. Gripping the doorway tightly with my left hand, I lean forward and grab the wing with my right hand…right, left, arch…and then I creep out of the plane on to the narrow strut. Right, left, arch.
‘3…2…1…’ the instructor shouts in my ear, ‘GO!’
I jump backwards, arching my back, flinging my arms wide.
Right, left, arch.
Right, left, arch.
Right, left, arch.

I open my eyes.
The plane has disappeared. I can’t even hear it anymore. There is utter silence.
I look up—my parachute has blossomed over my head. No need for the reserve.
And then I look down. The landscape is laid out: the brown mosaic of Pietermaritzburg directly below, the surrounding patchwork fields, the viridian hills and forests of the midlands, in the distance the escarpment and jagged peaks of the Drakensberg fading into the sky, and in the opposite direction—the ocean. I toggle the parachute controls and swoop to the right and then to the left. I’m not falling but flying—I’m a bird.
It’s so quiet. I am a feather, drifting down.
I want to stay here forever.

Rebecca Rouillard

About Rebecca Rouillard

Rebecca Rouillard was born in Oxford, grew up in Durban, South Africa and now lives in London. She’s had several short stories published and is currently working on a novel. She is the Managing Editor of the Birkbeck Writers’ Hub.

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