There was once an appallingly nasty old man who had many children. ‘I don’t think much of that,’ he would say to each of them. ‘That’s not what I call amounting to much in life,’ and ‘I hope you don’t think you’re going out looking like that,’ were his favourite sentences. Although you would think, from the way he spoke to them, that he did not like his children very much, the nastiest thing he said to them was this: ‘I hope you’re not going to go away and leave me all on my own.’
For years, his children went nowhere when they tried to leave home. They kept on living just by their horrible old father. ‘You don’t have the energy to go anywhere,’ he would say. ‘You can’t do anything for yourself. What’s wrong with you?’ Anyone who passed by saw the repulsive old man moaning and berating, and they would sometimes ask what was wrong. ‘Sick of ’em all,’ the dreadful old man would say. The passers-by would hurry away, not always hearing correctly. Because naturally nobody wants to spend time with a vile old man, full of complaints about his own children, unless they absolutely have to.
One day, the old man saw that one of his children was fashioning an apparatus of some sort. He could not quite remember what this son was called, so he said ‘Hey. You. What are you up to now?’ He looked more closely. About and above the son’s head was a pair of broad wings, green and translucent, stretching upwards like a head-dress. Had he made them himself? What had he made them out of?
‘What’s that supposed to be?’ the unpleasant old man said. ‘Call those a pair of wings?’ That was unfair, because this son had not called them anything in particular.
‘I’m going to jump out of the top window of your house,’ the son said. ‘And my wings are going to carry me as far away from you as possible. Then I’ll never have to see you again, you repulsive bully.’
‘That’s nice,’ the horrible old idiot said. ‘After everything I’ve done for you. But they won’t work. Do you think someone like you could ever build something that would work? I’ve had hundreds and thousands of children over the years, and they’ve all been a total disappointment to me. I don’t know why I ever bothered. So you needn’t think that you’re going to be anything other than a disappointment to me, either.’
The son nodded curtly; he shook his head; he smiled at his brothers and sisters, who had gathered together to watch; and then he looked out at the land far below, and jumped. Everyone could see that the son’s flying apparatus was working first time, spinning and floating. A warm breeze lifted him, and on forest odours of pinewood and thyme and fern and warm wet earth, it carried him far away.
‘O,’ the brothers and sisters said in unison. Then they looked at their repellent old father, who was glaring into the forest with a curl on his upper lip and a shake of his shaggy head. ‘We don’t have to stay here,’ one of the smallest children said to another. ‘We could fly away too.’
But the nasty old man was not listening. He had never really listened to his children. ‘Who do you think you are?’ he shouted out into the forest after his son, the one with wings. ‘Leonardo da bleeding Vinci? It’ll never work, you mark my words.’
And in the forest, nobody at all heard him, and those who heard him didn’t really listen.