“The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan is a science fiction novelette. In 2047, a first manned mission to Mars ended in tragedy. Thirty years later, a second expedition is preparing to launch. As housekeeper of the hotel where two of the astronauts will give their final press statements, Emily finds the mission intruding upon her thoughts more and more. Emily’s mother, Moolie, has a message to give her, but Moolie’s memories are fading. As the astronauts’ visit draws closer, the unearthing of a more personal history is about to alter Emily’s world forever.
Magic spells are chains of words, nothing more. Words that help you imagine a different future and create a shape for it, that help you see what it might be like, and so make it happen. Sometimes when I read about our struggle to land people on Mars, that’s how the words seem to me—like an ancient incantation, and as deeply unfathomable, a set of mystical words, placed carefully in order and then repeated as a magical chant to bring about a future we have yet to imagine.
The Edison Star Heathrow has sixteen floors, 382 bedrooms, twenty private penthouse apartments, and one presidential suite. It is situated on the northern stretch of the airport perimeter road, and operates its own private shuttle bus to ferry patrons to and from the five terminals. We have a press lounge and a flight lounge and conference facilities. As head of housekeeping, it’s my job to make sure things run smoothly behind the scenes. My job is hard work but I enjoy it, by and large. Some days are more demanding than others.
It was all just rumours at first, but last week it became official: Zhanna Sorokina and Vinnie Cameron will be spending a night here at the hotel before flying out to join the rest of the Mars crew in China. Suddenly the Edison Star is the place to be. The public bar and the flight lounge have been jammed ever since the announcement. There’s still a fortnight to go before the astronauts arrive, but that doesn’t seem to be putting the punters off one little bit. It’s cool to be seen here, apparently. Which is ironic, given that we weren’t even the mission sponsors’ first choice of hotel. That was the Marriott International, only it turned out that Vinnie Cameron had his eighteenth here, or his graduation party or something. He wanted to stay at the Edison Star and so that’s what’s happening.
I guess they thought it would be churlish to deny him, considering.
The first result of the change of plan is that the Marriott hates us. The second is that Benny’s on meltdown twenty-four hours a day now instead of the usual sixteen. I can’t imagine how he’s going to cope when the big guns arrive.
“Perhaps he’ll just explode,” says Ludmilla Khan—she’s the third-floor super. A dreamy expression comes into her eyes, as if she’s picturing the scene in her mind and kind of liking it. “Spontaneous combustion, like you see in the movies. The rest of us running around him flapping like headless chickens.”
She makes me laugh, Ludmilla, which is a good thing. I think there’s every chance that Benny would drive me over the edge if I didn’t see the funny side. Benny’s a great boss, don’t get me wrong—we get on fine most of the time. I just wish he wasn’t getting so uptight about the bloody astronauts. I mean, Jesus, it’s only the one night and then they’ll be gone. Fourteen hours of media frenzy and then we’re last week’s news.
Probably I’m being mean, though. This is Benny’s big moment, after all, when he gets to show off the Edison Star to the world at large and himself as the big guvnor man at the heart of it all. There’s something a bit sad about Benny underneath all his bullshit. I don’t mean sad in the sense of pathetic, I mean genuinely sad, sorrowful and bemused at the same time, as if he’d been kidnapped out of one life and set to work in another. And it’s not as if he doesn’t work hard. He’s beginning to show his age now, just a little. He’s balding on top, and his suits are getting too tight for him. He wears beautiful suits, Benny does, well cut and modern and just that teeny bit more expensive than he can really afford. Benny might be manager of the Edison Star, but you can tell by his suits that he still wishes he owned it. You can see it every time he steps out of the lift and into the lobby. That swagger, and then the small hesitation.
It’s as if he’s remembering where he came from, how far there is to fall, and feeling scared.
My mother, Moolie, claims to know Benny Conway from way back, from the time he first came to this country as a student, jetting in from Freetown or Yaoundé, one of those African cities to the west that still make it reasonably easy for ordinary civilians to fly in and out.
“He had a cardboard suitcase and an army surplus rucksack. He was wearing fake Levis and a gold watch. He sold the watch for rent money the first day he was here. He still called himself Benyamin then, Benyamin Kwame.”
When I ask Moolie how she can know this, she clams up, or changes her story, or claims she doesn’t know who I’m talking about. I don’t think it’s even Benny she’s remembering, it can’t be, or not the Benny Conway who’s my boss, anyway. She’s confusing the names, probably, getting one memory mixed up with another the way she so often does now.
Either that, or she just made it up.
Benny slips me extra money sometimes. I know I shouldn’t accept it but I do, mainly because he insists the money is for Moolie, to help me look after her. “It must be tough, having to care for her all by yourself,” Benny says, just before he forces the folded-over banknotes on me, scrunching them into my hands like so many dead leaves. How he came to know about Moolie in the first place, I have no idea. There’s a chance Ludmilla Khan told him, I suppose, or Antony Ghosh, the guy who oversees our linen contract. Both of them are friends of mine, but you can imagine the temptation to gossip in a fish tank like this. I take the money because I tell myself I’ve earned it and I can’t afford not to, also because maybe Benny really is just sorry for Moolie and this is his way of saying so, even though I’ve told him enough times that it’s not so much a question of looking after Moolie as looking out for her. Making sure she remembers to eat, stuff like that. It’s the ordinary stuff she forgets, you see. During her bad patches her short-term memory becomes so unreliable that every day for her is like the beginning of a whole new lifetime.
It’s not always like that, though. She can look after herself perfectly well most of the time, she just gets a bit vague. She can’t do her work anymore, but she’s still interested in the world, still fascinated by what makes things tick, by aeroplanes and rivers and metals, the rudiments of creation. Those are her words, not mine—the rudiments of creation. Moolie used to be a physicist. Now she sounds more like one of those telly evangelists you see on the late-night news channels, all mystery and prophecy and lights in the sky. But when it comes down to it, she’s interested in the same things she’s always been interested in—who we are and how we came here and where the bloody hell we think we’re going.
If you didn’t know her how she was before, you wouldn’t necessarily spot that there’s anything wrong with her.
It’s all still inside, I know it—everything she was, everything she knows, still packed tight inside her head like old newspapers packed into the eaves of an old house. Yellowing and crumpled, yes, but still telling their stories.
For me, Moolie is a wonder and a nightmare, a sadness deep down in my gut like a splinter of bone. Always there, and always worrying away at the living flesh of me.
The doctors say there’s nothing to stop her living out a normal lifespan but I think that’s bollocks and I think the doctors know it’s bollocks, too. Moolie was fifty-two last birthday, but sometimes she’s bent double with back pain, as bad as a woman of eighty or even worse. Other times she burbles away to herself in a made-up language like a child of four. Her whole system is riddled with wrongness of every kind. The doctors won’t admit it, though, because they’re being paid not to. No one wants to be liable for the compensation. That’s why you won’t find any mention of the Galaxy air crash in Moolie’s medical file, or the sixteen lethal substances that were eventually identified at the crash site, substances that Moolie was hired to isolate and analyse.
There were theories about a dirty bomb, and it’s pretty much common knowledge now that some of the shit that came out of that plane was radioactive. But ten years on and the report Moolie helped to compile still hasn’t been made public. The authorities say the material is too sensitive, and they’re not kidding.
The medics have given Moolie a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. If you believe that then I guess, well, you know how it goes.
When Moolie dies I’ll be free. Free to move away from the airport, free to look for another job, free to buy a one-way ticket to Australia and make a new life there. I lie awake at night sometimes, scheming and dreaming about these things, but in the morning I wonder how I’ll manage. Moolie is like a part of me, and I can’t imagine how the world will feel without her in it.
When she goes, all her stories will go with her, the ones she makes up as well as the ones that happen to be true.
Once she’s gone, I’ll never discover which were which.
I think about the astronauts a lot. Not the way Benny would like me to be thinking of them, I bet—with Benny it’s all about scanning the rooms for bugging devices, checking the kitchens for deadly pathogens, making sure the PA system in the press lounge hasn’t blown a gasket.
I know these things are important. If we cock up it won’t just be Benny who looks an idiot, and the last thing I want to see is some kid in the catering department getting fired because someone forgot to tell them to stock up on mixers. I check and recheck, not for Benny’s sake but because it’s my job, and my job is something I care about and want to do well. But every now and then I catch myself thinking how crazy it is really, all this preparation, all this fussing over things that don’t actually matter a damn. When you think about what Zhanna Sorokina and Vinnie Cameron and the rest of them are actually doing, everything else seems juvenile and pointless by comparison.
They’re going to Mars, and they won’t be coming back.
I wonder if they know they’re going to die. I mean, I know they know, but I wonder if they think about it, that every one of them is bound to cop it much sooner than they would have done otherwise, and probably in a horrible way. It’s inevitable, isn’t it, when you consider the facts? There’s no natural air on Mars, no water, no nothing. There’s a good chance the whole crew will wind up dead before they can even set up a base there, or a sealed habitat, or whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing when they arrive.
How do they cope with knowing that? How does anyone begin to come to terms with something that frightening? I can’t imagine it myself, and I have to admit I don’t try all that hard, because even the thought of it scares me, let alone the reality.
In interviews and articles I’ve read online, they say that learning to cope with high-risk situations is all part of the training, that anyone with insufficient mental stamina is weeded out of the selection process more or less straightaway. I’m still not sure I understand, though. Why would anyone volunteer for something like that in the first place?
Ludmilla Khan is especially upset because one of the women astronauts is a mother. We all know her name—Jocelyn Tooker. Her kids are five and three. They’ve gone to live in Atlanta, with their grandmother.
“How can she bear it? Knowing she’ll never see them grow up, that she’ll never hear their voices again, even?”
“I don’t know,” I say to Ludmilla. “Perhaps she thinks they’ll be proud of her.” The way Ludmilla talks, you’d think Jocelyn Tooker had murdered both her kids and chucked their bodies down a well. One of the male crew, Ken Toh, has an eight-year-old son, but people don’t go on about that nearly as much as they do about Jocelyn Tooker.
Ludmilla has two little ones of her own, Leila and Mehmet, so I can see how Jocelyn Tooker’s decision might weigh on her mind. I’ve thought about it over and over, and the only thing I can come up with that makes sense of it is that the crew of the Second Wind look upon going to Mars not as a one-way ticket to an early exit but as a way of cheating death altogether. I mean, everyone aboard that spacecraft is going to live forever—in our hearts and minds, in our books and stories and films, and in thousands of hours of news clips and documentaries. Even if they crash and burn like the crew of the New Dawn, we’ll never stop talking about them, and speculating, and remembering.
If you look at it that way it’s a straight trade: fifty years or so of real life now against immortality. I can see why some people might think that’s not such a bad deal.
In a way, the men and women who go into space are our superheroes. Ten years from now, some journalist will be asking Jocelyn Tooker’s children what it feels like to have a superhero for a mum.
Who is Ludmilla Khan, or me or anyone else for that matter, to try and guess at how those kids will judge her, or what they’ll say?
My name is Emily Clarah Starr. The Starr is just a coincidence. Clarah is for my grandmother, whom I can’t remember because she died when I was three There’s a photo of us, Moolie and Clarah and me, out by the King George VI Reservoir before it was officially declared to be toxic and cordoned off. Moolie has me in one of those front-loading carry-pouch things—all you can see is the top of my head, a bunch of black curls. Grandma Clarah is wearing a hideous knitted blue bobble hat and a silver puffer jacket, even though it’s May in the photo and the sun is shining, reflecting itself off the oily water like electric light.
“Your grandma never got used to the climate,” Moolie told me once. “She always felt cold here, even though she came over with her aunts from Abuja when she was six.”
Moolie in the photograph is tall and thin, elegant and rather aloof, unrecognisable. She seems full of an inner purpose I cannot divine. She says it was my father who chose the name Emily for me. I don’t know if I should believe that story or not.
I have no idea who my father is, and Moolie’s account varies. I went through a phase of pestering her about him when I was younger, but she refused to tell me anything, or at least not anything I could rely on.
“Why should it matter who your dad is? What did fathers ever do for the world in any case, except saddle unsuspecting women with unwanted children?”
“Unwanted?” I gaped at her. The idea that Moolie might not have wanted me had never occurred to me. I simply was, an established fact, quod erat demonstrandum. But that’s the ego for you—an internalized life support system, and pretty much indestructible.
“Oh, Emily, of course I wanted you. You were a bit of a shock to the system, though, that’s all I’m saying.”
“What did Dad say, when he found out?”
“Don’t call him Dad, he doesn’t deserve it.”
“My father, then. And if the guy was such an arsehole why did you shag him?”
I was about fourteen then, and going through a stroppy phase. When rudeness didn’t get me anywhere I started hitting Moolie with psychological claptrap instead—all this stuff about how I had a right to know, that it would damage my self-esteem if she kept it from me. You know, the kind of rubbish you read in magazines. The situation stood at stalemate for a while, then finally we had this massive row, a real window-shaker. It went on for hours. When we’d been round in circles one time too many, Moolie burst into tears and said the reason she wouldn’t tell me anything was that she didn’t know. She’d had several boyfriends back then. Any one of them could be my father.
“We can do a ring-round, if you want,” she said, still sniffing. “Drop a few bombshells? Destroy a few households? What do you reckon?”
What I reckoned was that it was time I shut up. For the first time in my life I was feeling another person’s pain like it was my own. For the first time ever I was seeing Moolie as a person in her own right, someone whose life could have taken a whole different path if little Emily hadn’t come along to mess things up.
It was a shock, to put it mildly. But it was good, too, in the long run, because it brought Moolie and me together and made us real friends. I stopped caring about who my dad was, for a long time. Then when Moolie started getting ill I didn’t want to make things worse by dragging it all up again.
Then Moolie said what she said about the book, and everything changed.
The book is called The Art of Space Travel by Victoria Segal. I remember the book from when I was a little kid because of the star maps. The maps fold out from between the normal pages in long, concertina-like strips. They’re printed in colour—dark blue and yellow—on smooth, glossy paper that squeaks slightly when you run your finger across it. I always thought the star maps were beautiful. Moolie would let me look at the book if I asked but she would never leave me alone with it—I suppose she thought I might accidentally damage it.
As I grew older I had a go at reading it every once in a while, but I always gave up after a chapter or two because it was way over my head, all the stuff about quasars and dark matter and the true speed of light. I would soldier on for a couple of pages, then realise I hadn’t actually understood a word of it.
As well as the star maps, the book is filled with beautiful and intricate diagrams, complicated line drawings of planetary orbits, and the trajectories of imaginary spacecraft, rockets that never existed but one day might. I always loved the thought of that, that they one day might.
The book’s shiny yellow cover is torn in three places.
The day Moolie drops the bombshell is a Tuesday. I don’t know why I remember that, but I do. I come in from work to find Moolie looking sheepish, the look she gets now when she’s lost something or broken something or forgotten who she is, just for the moment. I’ve learned it’s best not to question her when she gets like that because it makes her clam up, whereas if you leave her alone for a while she can’t resist sharing. So I pretend I haven’t noticed anything and we have supper as usual. Once we’ve finished eating, Moolie goes into the front room to watch TV and I go upstairs to do some stuff on my computer.
After about half an hour, Moolie appears in the doorway. She’s holding The Art of Space Travel, clasping it to her chest with both arms as if she’s afraid it might try to get away from her. Then she dumps it down on my bed like a brick. It makes a soft, plump sound as it hits the duvet. A small puff of air comes up.
“This belonged to your father,” Moolie says. “He left it here when he went.”
“When he went where?” I say. I’m trying to keep my voice low and steady, as if we’re just having a normal conversation about nothing in particular.
My heart is thumping like a road drill, like it wants to escape me. It’s almost painful, like the stitch in your side you get from running too far and too fast.
“Your dad was an astronaut,” Moolie says. “He was part of the New Dawn mission.”
My hands are shaking, just a bit, but I’m trying to ignore that. “Moolie,” I say to her. Moolie is what I called her when I was first learning to talk, apparently. It made her and Grandma Clarah laugh so much they never tried to correct me. Moolie’s actual name is Della—Della Starr. She was once one of the most highly qualified metallurgists in the British aerospace industry. “What on Earth are you talking about?”
“He knew I was pregnant,” Moolie says. “He wanted to be involved—to be a father to you—but I said no. I didn’t want to be tied to him, or to anyone. Not then. I’ve never been able to make up my mind if I did the right thing or not.”
She nods at me, as if she’s satisfied with herself for having said something clever, and then she leaves the room. I stay where I am, sitting at my desk and staring at the open doorway Moolie just walked out of, wondering if I should go after her and what I’m going to say to her if I do.
When I finally go downstairs, I find Moolie back in the living room, curled up on the sofa, watching one of her soaps. When I ask her if she was telling the truth about my dad being an astronaut she looks at me as if she thinks I’ve gone insane.
“Your father wasted his dreams, Emily,” she says. “He gave up too soon. That’s one of the reasons I told him to go. Life’s hard enough as it is. The last thing you want is to be tied to someone who’s always wishing he’d chosen a different path.”
When a couple of days later I ask her again about The Art of Space Travel, she says she doesn’t have a clue where it came from. “It was here in the house when we moved in, I think,” she says. “I found it in the built-in wardrobe in your bedroom, covered in dust.”
I’ve been through the book perhaps a thousand times, searching for a sign of my father—a name on the flyleaf, a careless note, scribbled comments in the margin, underlinings in the text, even. There’s nothing, though, not even a random inkblot. Aside from being yellowed and a bit musty-smelling, the pages are clean. There’s nothing to show who owned the book, who brought it to this house, that it was ever even opened before we had it.
I want to find Dad. I tell myself it’s because Moolie is dying, that whoever the man is and whatever he’s done, he has a right to know the facts of his own life. I know it’s more than that, though, if I’m honest. I want to find him because I’m curious, because I’ve always been curious, and because I’m afraid that once Moolie is gone I’ll have nobody else.
Our house is on Sipson Lane, in the borough of Hillingdon. It was built in the 1970s, almost a hundred years ago now to the year. It’s a shoddy little place, one of a row of twenty-two identical boxes flung up to generate maximum profit for the developer with a minimum of outlay. It’s a wonder it’s lasted this long, actually. Some of the other houses in the row are in a terrible state—the metal window frames rusted and buckling, the lower floors patchy with mildew. The previous owner put in replacement windows and a new damp-proof course, so ours isn’t as bad as some. It’s dry inside, at least, and I used some of the extra cash from Benny to put up solar panels, which means we can afford to keep the central heating on all the time.
Moolie’s like Clarah now—she can’t stand the cold.
Sipson is a weird place. Five hundred years ago it was a tiny hamlet, surrounded by farmland. Since then it’s evolved into a scruffy housing estate less than half a mile from the end of the second runway at Heathrow Airport. Moolie bought the Sipson Lane house because it was cheap and because it was close to her job, and the best thing about it is that it’s close to my job too, now. It takes me less than half an hour to walk into work, which not only cuts down on expenses, it also means I can get home quickly if there’s an emergency.
The traffic on the perimeter road is a constant nightmare. In the summer, the petrol and diesel fumes settle over the airport like a heavy tarpaulin, a yellowish blanket of chemical effluent that is like heat haze, only thicker, and a lot more smelly.
When you walk home in the evenings, though, or on those very rare winter mornings when there’s still a hard frost, you could take the turning into Sipson Lane and mistake it for the entrance to another world: The quiet street, with its rustling plane trees, the long grass sprouting between the kerbstones at the side of the road. The drawn curtains of the houses, like gently closed eyelids, the soft glow behind. Someone riding past on a bicycle. The red pillar box opposite the Sipson Arms. You’d barely know the airport even existed.
It’s like an oasis in time, if there is such a thing. If you stand still and listen to the sound of the blackbirds singing, high up in the dusty branches of those plane trees, you might almost imagine you’re in a universe where the Galaxy air crash never happened.
They had planes flying in and out of here again within the hour, of course. The airport authorities, backed by the government, insisted the main damage was economic and mostly short term. They claimed the rumours of ground contamination and depleted uranium were just so much scaremongering, that the whole area within the emergency cordon had been repeatedly tested and repeatedly found safe.
A decade on they say that even if the toxicity levels were a bit on the high side in the first year or so after the crash, they’re well within the accepted safety limits now.
The first question I have to ask myself is this: Is there any possibility at all that it’s true? What Moolie told me about my father and the New Dawn mission, I mean?
My first instinct is to dismiss it as just another fraction of Moolie craziness. One of the features of Moolie’s illness is that it’s often hard to know whether she’s talking about stuff that really happened to her or stuff she’s dreamed or read about or seen on TV. Her mind can’t tell the difference now, or not all the time. Just seeing the Mars team on television might be enough to land her with a complete fantasy scenario, indistinguishable from her life as she’s actually lived it.
But the thing is—and I can hardly believe I’m saying this—there is a very small chance that her story might turn out to be real. The dates fit, for a start. I was born in March 2047, just three months before the New Dawn was launched on its mission to Mars. And before you roll your eyes and say, Yes, but so were about three hundred thousand other kids, just consider this: Moolie did a lot of specialist placements early on in her career. One of them was in Hamburg, at the University of the European Space Programme, where she spent the better part of 2046 helping to run strength tests on prototypes of some of the equipment designed to be used aboard the New Dawn. Some of the Mars team were in residency in Hamburg at around the same time, eight of them in all, five women and three men. Moolie would have come into direct contact with every one of them.
I know, because I’ve looked up the details. I even have a file now, stuff I’ve found online and printed off. If you think that’s creepy, just try having an unknown dad who might have died in an exploding rocket and see how you get on. See how long it takes before you start a file on him.
Toby Soyinka was second communications officer aboard the New Dawn, the one who just happened to be outside the vehicle when the disaster occurred. His body was thrown clear of the wreckage, and was recovered three months later by an unmanned retrieval pod launched by the crew of the Hoffnung 3 space station. Toby’s body was shipped back to Earth at enormous expense, not so much for the sake of his family as to be subjected to a year-long post mortem.
The mission scientists wanted to know if Toby was still alive when he floated free, and if so then for how long. Knowing that would tell them all kinds of things, apparently—important information about the last moments of the New Dawn and why she failed.
According to the official reports, Toby Soyinka was killed in the primary explosion, the same as the rest of the crew. As you might expect, the conspiracy theorists went bonkers. Why would Soyinka be dead if his suit was undamaged? How come only a short section of the official post mortem has ever been released into the public sphere?
There are people who claim that Toby was alive up there for at least three hours after the rocket exploded—depending on individual physiology, his suit’s oxygen tanks would have contained enough air for between three and four hours.
Toby’s suit was also fitted with a radio communicator, but it was short-range only, suitable for talking with his colleagues back on board the New Dawn but not powerful enough to let him speak with Mission Control.
Would he have wanted to, though, even if he could have? Knowing that he was going to die, and everyone on the ground knowing there was fuck all they could do about it?
I mean, what could one side of that equation possibly have to say to the other?
Well, I guess this is it, Tobes. Sorry, old chap. Hey, did anyone remember to send out for muffin
I think about that, and I think of Toby Soyinka thinking about that, and after the terror what comes through to me most strongly is simple embarrassment.
If it had been me in that floating spacesuit I reckon I’d have switched my radio off and waited in silence. Listed my favourite movies in order from one to a hundred and gazed out at the stars.
At least Toby died knowing he’d done something extraordinary, that he’d seen sights few human beings will ever see.
And Toby Soyinka is a hero now, don’t forget that. Perhaps that’s what the crew of the Second Wind are telling themselves, even now.
In the movies when something goes wrong and one of the crew is left floating in space with no hope of rescue, the scene almost always ends with the doomed one taking off his or her helmet, making a quick and noble end of it rather than facing a slow and humiliating death by asphyxiation.
Would anyone really have the guts to do that, though? I don’t think I would.
Toby Soyinka was born in Nottingham. Toby’s dad was a civil engineer—he helped design the New Trent shopping village—and his mum was a dentist. Toby studied physics and IT at Nottingham Uni, then went on to do postgraduate work at the UESP in Hamburg, where he would have met Moolie. Most of the photos online show Toby at the age of twenty-eight, the same age he was when he died, and when he and the rest of the crew were all over the media. He looks skinny and hopeful and nervous, all at once. Sometimes when I look at pictures of Toby I can’t help thinking he seems out of his depth, as if he’s wondering what he signed up for exactly, although that’s probably just my imagination.
Once, when I was browsing through some stuff about Toby online, Moolie came into the room and sneaked up behind me.
“What are you looking at?” she said. I hadn’t heard her come in. I jumped a mile.
“Nothing much,” I said. I hurried to close the window but it was too late, the photos of Toby were staring her in the face. I looked at her looking, curious to see what her reaction would be, but Moolie’s eyes slid over his features without even a single glimmer of recognition. He might have been a tree or a gatepost, for all the effect he had on her.
Was she only pretending not to recognise him? I don’t think so. I always know when Moolie’s hiding something, even if I don’t know what it is she’s hiding.
I don’t believe that Toby Soyinka was my father. It would be too much like a tragic fairy tale, too pat.
“How’s your mum?” Benny says to me this morning.
“She’s fine, Benny,” I reply. “She’s getting excited about the mission, same as you.” I grin at him and wink, firstly because I can never resist taking the piss out of Benny, just a little bit, and secondly because it’s true. Moolie has barely been out of the living room this past week. She has the television on all day and most of the night, permanently tuned to the twenty-four-hour news feed that’s supposed to be the official mouthpiece of the mission’s sponsors. The actual news content is pretty limited but since when has that ever been a deterrent in situations like this? They squeeze every last ounce of juice out of what they have—then they go back to playing the old documentaries, home video footage, endlessly repetitive Q&As with scientists and school friends.
Moolie watches it all with equal attention, drinking it down like liquid nutrient through a straw. She doesn’t get to bed till gone three, some nights, and when I ask her if she’s had anything to eat she doesn’t remember. I make up batches of sandwiches and leave them in the fridge for her. Sometimes she scoffs the lot, sometimes I go down in the morning and find them untouched.
She’s immersed in the Mars thing so deeply that sometimes it seems like Moolie herself is no longer there.
What is it that fascinates her so much? When she first started watching I felt convinced it had to do with my father, that all the talk of the Second Wind was bringing back memories of what happened to the New Dawn. I’m less sure of that now—why should everything have to be about me and my father? Moolie is—was—a scientist, and the Mars mission is just about the most exciting scientific experiment to be launched in more than a decade, perhaps ever. Of course she’d be interested in it. You could argue that her obsession with the news feed is the best evidence I have that she is still herself.
She seems so engaged, so invigorated, so happy that I don’t want to question it. I want her to stay like this for as long as she can.
“Well, tell her I asked after her,” Benny says. I glance at him curiously, wondering if he’s serious. I’ve always found it strange, this spasmodic concern of his for a person he’s never met. At the same time, though, it’s just so Benny. It’s no wonder he’s never made it to the top. To make it to the top you need to be a heartless bastard, pretty much. On the heartless bastard scale, Benny Conway has never figured very high up.
I nod briskly. “I will,” I say. I never feel comfortable talking with him about Moolie—it’s all too close to home. I’d rather stick to work, any day. “What’s on today?”
Benny immediately looks shifty. A moment later I understand why. “There’s another news crew dropping by,” he says. “They want to do an interview. With you.”
“With me? What the hell for? Oh, for God’s sake, Benny, what are they expecting me to say?”
“You’re head of housekeeping at the Edison Star, Emily. That’s an important and responsible position. They just want to ask you what it’s been like, preparing for such an important occasion. There’s nothing for you to be anxious about, I promise you. They’ve said it shouldn’t take more than ten minutes, fifteen at the most.”
“I’m not anxious, I’m pissed off,” I say. “You could at least have asked me first.” Benny looks hurt and just a little bit surprised. I know I’ve overstepped the mark and I wouldn’t normally be so rude but just for the moment I feel like killing him. It’s all right for Benny—he loves all this shit. Benny’s great with the press, actually, he’s what you might call a people person. Put him in front of a camera and he’s away.
Me? I just want to be left alone to get on with my job. The idea of being on TV leaves me cold. There’s Moolie to be considered, too—seeing me up on the screen like that, it might warp her sense of reality more than ever.
It’s done now, though, isn’t it? There’s not much sense in kicking off about it. Best to get the whole thing over and done with and then forget it.
I guess it’s mainly because of Benny that I’m still here. Working at the hotel, I mean. I certainly never planned on staying forever. It was supposed to be a holiday job, something to bring in some money while I went through college. I started out studying for a degree in natural sciences, following in Moolie’s footsteps, I suppose, which was madness. I failed my first-year exams twice. It should have been obvious to anyone that I wasn’t cut out for it.
“You’re such a dreamer, Emily,” Moolie said to me once. “Head in the stars.” She cracked a kind of half-smile, then sighed. She was paying for extra tutorials for me at the time, trying to give me a better shot at the re-sits. It must have felt like flushing money down the toilet. When I told her I’d been offered a permanent job at the Edison Star and had decided to take it she gave me such an odd look, like I’d announced I was running away to join the circus or something. But she never questioned it or gave me a hard time, or tried to talk me out of it the way a lot of parents would have.
It was a relief to her, most likely, that I’d finally found something I could do, that I was good at, even. It also meant I stayed close to home. First of all because it was convenient, and then later, with Moolie’s illness, because it became necessary. I’ve never regretted it. I regret some of the things that might have been, but the regret has always taken second place to the desire not to have things change. I don’t think it’s just because of Moolie, either. Sometimes I believe it’s the airport itself, and Sipson, both the kind of non-places that keep you addicted to transience, the restless half-life of the perpetual traveller who never goes anywhere.
The idea of settling for anything too concrete begins to seem like death, so you settle for nothing.
Benny Conway’s never married, which probably seems strange to you, given that he’s such a people person, but I can imagine that being with him day in and day out would drive anyone nuts.
Beneath the confidence and sunny bravado, Benny’s actually quite needy and insecure. One of the downsides of working in a close environment is that you often get to know more about the people you work with than you strictly want to.
I spend the morning checking the inventories and trying not to get too worked up about the stupid interview. At 1:30 I go down to the lobby. What passes for the news crew is already there—a camera guy and a college kid, sent along by some backroom satellite outfit most likely, one of the countless pirate stations that don’t have the clout to get themselves an invite for what Ludmilla and I have snarkily begun to call the Day of Judgement.
These two have to make do with me instead. I begin to feel sorry for them.
The student who interviews me is called Laura—I never learn her surname—a tiny thing dressed in a black pantsuit and with her copper-red hair cut close to her head. She reminds me of Pinocchio, or one of those Pierrot dolls that my school friends were so crazy about when I was a kid. I like her immediately—she seems so earnest!—and so I find myself relaxing into the process and even enjoying it. I’m expecting the questions Laura asks me to be work-related—what will the astronauts be having for supper, how do you keep the hotel running normally and still maintain security, that kind of thing. Some of her actual questions catch me off guard.
“It’s thirty years since the crew of the New Dawn lost their lives,” Laura says. “Do you think it’s right that we should risk another Mars mission?”
“I think in a way we’re doing it for them,” I say. “The astronauts who died, I mean.” I’m stumbling over my words, because I haven’t planned this. It’s strange to hear myself saying these things, thoughts I never really knew I was thinking until now. “I think we should ask ourselves what they would have wanted. Would they have wanted us to try again? I think they would have. So I think we should, too. I believe we have to try again, for their sakes.”
Laura looks delighted and surprised, as if what I said in reply to her question was the kind of answer she wanted but didn’t expect. Not from the likes of me, anyway. She wraps up the interview soon after—she wants to quit while she’s ahead, most likely.
“That was great,” she says to me, off-camera. She exchanges a couple of words with the camera guy, who’s preoccupied with packing away his equipment. After a moment Laura turns back to me. She’s smiling, and I think she’s about to say goodbye. But then her expression becomes serious again and she asks me another question. “Your mum was here when the Galaxy flight came down, wasn’t she?”
I’m so surprised I can’t answer at first. I glance across at the camera guy, wondering if he’s somehow still filming this, but he’s moved away from us slightly, towards the reception desk. I see him checking his mobile. “She was working here, yes,” I say. My throat feels dry and I swallow. What’s this about? “She was part of the forensic investigation team that went out to the crash site. She was an expert in metal fatigue.”
Laura has moved to stand in front of me, blocking my view of the rest of the lobby and clearly expecting me to say more, but I’m not sure what I should say, whether I should say anything, even.
I can’t imagine why she’s asking me this question now, when the camera is off. It has nothing to do with the astronauts or with the hotel, and I’m asking myself what it does have to do with, exactly. Is this the question Laura wanted to ask me all along? And if so, why?
“There was an awful smell,” I say, and then suddenly I’m remembering that smell, jet fuel thickened by dust, ignited by anguish, and the way it hung over the airport and over our village for weeks, or so it seemed, longer even than that, so long that in the end you understood it was all in your mind, it had to be, that no real smell lingers that long. Even the stench of combusted bodies fades eventually.
I haven’t thought of these things in years, not like this, not precisely enough to bring back that smell.
But can I tell Laura any of this? She would have been about ten when it happened; she might not even remember it as a real event. Children don’t take much notice of the news unless it affects them directly. Everything she knows about the crash will come from old TV footage, the slew of documentaries and real-time amateur video that followed after.
Everything from the acknowledged facts to the certifiably crazy.
What would she say if I told her that Moolie worked alongside the black box recovery unit and the token medics and the loss adjusters? That she was out there for almost three weeks, picking over what was essentially radioactive trash, trying to come up with a reasonable theory of what had happened and who was responsible?
Of that original forensic team, two are still working and seem in good health, three have died of various cancers, and four are like Moolie.
There is an ongoing legal enquiry, but the way things are going the remaining witnesses will all be dead before any decision is made on liability.
I bet that’s what the authorities are hoping, anyway.
“Here’s my number,” Laura says. She delves into her jacket pocket and then hands me a card, a glossy white oblong printed with an email address and cell number in cool grey capitals.
Quaint, I think, and rather classy, if you’re into retro.
“Give me a call, if you feel like talking about it. I’d really like to do a story on your mother, if you think she’d be up for it.” Laura hesitates, uncertain suddenly, a precocious child in front of an audience of hostile strangers. “Think about it, anyway.”
“I will,” I say, and slip the card into my pocket. Later, after Laura is gone, I try to imagine her with Moolie, asking her questions.
Does Moolie remember the Galaxy, even?
Some days, probably.
The whole idea of her doing an interview is insane.
Of the three male astronauts Moolie had dealings with at the UESP in Hamburg, only Toby Soyinka actually went on to get picked as flight crew. The two other guys involved with the New Dawn mission ended up working on the ground in IT and comms. Angelo Chavez was born in Queens, New York City. His exceptional talent for mathematics was spotted in nursery school. At the age of six he won a place at a specialist academy for gifted children. Angelo did well, and seemed well adjusted, until his father began an affair with a work colleague and buggered off. Angelo’s mother relocated with Angelo to Chicago to be closer to family.
Angelo was bullied at his new school. He began truanting, then moved on to shoplifting and dealing cannabis on high school premises. By the time he turned fourteen he was regularly in trouble with the police. It was a youth worker at a juvenile detention centre who helped get Angelo back on track by asking him to help out with the centre’s computer system. Later, when Angelo applied for a place at MIT, the man acted as his sponsor and referee. Angelo achieved perfect scores in three out of his five first-year assignments. He graduated with one of the highest averages of that decade.
After graduation, he began working as a games designer for a Tokyo-based franchise, and landed a junior post at NASA just eighteen months later. Three years after joining NASA, Angelo went to Hamburg for six months to work as a visiting lecturer at the UESP. While he was there, he met and fell in love with the Dutch astrophysicist Johan Wedekin. They became civil partners in July 2048.
They’ve been together now for almost thirty years. I suppose it’s possible that Angelo was shagging Moolie in Hamburg as well as Johan, but I think it’s unlikely.
Marlon Habila was born in Lagos, the son of two teachers. He speaks six languages fluently, and has a solid working knowledge of eight others. He wrote his postgraduate thesis on the acquisition of language in bilingual children. He was initially employed by the UESP to help develop a more straightforward method for teaching Mandarin to trainee astronauts, and became interested in the New Dawn mission while he was there. After a number of years in Hamburg, Marlon was headhunted by NASA as a senior communications technician and relocated to Austin, Texas, where he still lives today.
He was in Hamburg at the same time as Moolie, though, no doubt about it.
When I look at photographs of Marlon Habila, it’s like looking into a mirror.
I once showed Moolie a photo of Marlon and asked if she remembered him. She was in one of her lucid patches at the time, so I thought there might be a chance I’d get something resembling a straight answer out of her. I reckoned it was worth a try, anyway. You never know with Moolie, how she’s going to react. Sometimes during her good phases you can chat with her and it’ll feel almost like the old times.
On the other hand, it’s often during these good times that she’s at her most evasive. Ask Moolie her own name then and there’s no guarantee you’ll get the answer you were expecting.
When I showed her the picture of Marlon, her eyes filled with tears. Then she snatched it out of my hands and tore it in two.
“Don’t talk to me about that boy,” she hissed at me. “I’ve told you before.”
“No you haven’t,” I persisted. “Can you tell me anything about him? Do you know what he’s called?”
She gave me a look, boiling over with impatience, as if I’d asked her if the world was flat or round.
“You know damn well what he’s called,” she said. “Stop trying to trick me. I’m not brain-dead yet, you know.” She stomped out of the room, one foot dragging slightly because of the muscle wastage that had already begun to affect her left side. I stared stupidly down at the two torn pieces of the photograph she had thrown on the floor, then picked them up and put them in the waste bin. An hour or so later I went upstairs to check on Moolie and she was fine again, completely calm, sitting up in bed and reading softly aloud to herself from J. G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands.
I asked her if she wanted anything to eat or drink and she shook her head. The next time I looked in on her she was sound asleep.
Do I really believe that Marlon Habila is my dad? Some days I feel so certain it’s like knowing for sure. Other days I think it’s all bullshit, just some story I’ve constructed for myself so the world doesn’t feel so crazy and out of control. It’s a well known fact that kids who grow up not knowing who their parents are—or who one parent is—always like to imagine they’re really a princess, or the son of a Polar explorer who died bravely in tragic circumstances, or some such junk. No one wants to be told their daddy is really a dustman who got banged up for petty thieving and who never gave a shit.
“Daddy was a spaceman” sounds so much better.
The thing is, even if I knew for an absolute certainty that Marlon Habila was my birth father, it’s still not obvious what—if anything—I should do about it.
I found contact details for Marlon online—it wasn’t difficult—and I’ve lost count of the number of emails I’ve started to write and then deleted. Dear Marlon, Dear Dr Habila, Dear Marlon again. You don’t know me, but I think I might be your daughter.
Just like in those old TV miniseries Moolie enjoys so much, those overblown three-part dramas about twins separated at birth, or men of God who fall illicitly in love, or lost survivors of the Titanic, stories that unfold in a series of unlikely coincidences, all tied together with a swooning orchestral soundtrack. They’re pretty naff, those stories, but they do draw you in. When Moolie’s going through one of her bad times she’ll watch them all day long, five of the things in a row, back to back.
I suppose the reason people like stories like that is that no matter how confused the plot seems at the start, things always work out. By the time the film’s over you always understand what happened, and why. There’s always a proper ending, with people hugging each other and crying, if you see what I mean.
In the case of Marlon Habila, the proper ending is that he moved to Texas. A year after the New Dawn tragedy he married Melissa Sanberg, one of the senior operatives working on what they call the shop floor of Mission Control. They have two sons and one daughter—Aaron, Willard, and little Esther. Eighteen, sixteen, and nine.
In the photos they look happy. I mean, really happy. I have to ask myself what might happen to that happiness if I sent my email.
I can’t help thinking about what Moolie said that time, about dropping bombshells.
In a way it would be easier if my father turned out to be Toby Soyinka after all. Dead is safe, nothing would change, and hey, at least I would know my dad was a hero. People would look at me with sympathy, and fascination. It would make a good miniseries, actually. You can imagine the ending—me and Toby’s relatives hugging and crying as we hand round the old photographs for the umpteenth time and saying, If only he knew in choked-up voices. I’d watch it, anyway, I wouldn’t be able to help myself. I’d blub at the end too, probably. Another Saturday night in with Moolie, a supply of tissues and a box of chocolates on the sofa between us.
Who doesn’t want a story that makes sense?
I’ve made up my mind that if the Second Wind launches safely I’m going to send that email.
The biggest headache with having astronauts staying at the Edison Star is the incessant press coverage. Sorokina and Cameron themselves are the least of our worries—they’re just two extra guests; to put it bluntly, they’re hardly going to send us into a tailspin no matter how picky they might be about their food or the ambient room temperature. We’ve had to take on extra security just for that week, but aside from that it’ll be business pretty much as usual. The problem is that it will be business under intense scrutiny, and until the astronauts actually arrive, the press hounds have nothing to do except sit and bitch. You can bet your life that if one of them happens to spot a rat in the garbage store it’ll be headlining as a major news story within the hour.
You’re never more than six feet from a rat: Getting up close and personal with the Edison Star’s new temp staff.
It’s enough to give Benny a coronary. Which means no rats, no undercooked turkey, no tide marks on the bathtubs, no financial mismanagement, no corporate bribery, no spree killings.
Not until this astronaut business is safely behind us, at any rate.
What it mostly means for me is a lot of overtime, but I don’t mind. I’m enjoying myself quite a bit, to tell the truth. I know how this place works, you see, I’ve even grown to love it over the years. The only problem is winding down, switching off. Even when I’m at home I’m constantly running through mental checklists, trying to head cock-ups off at the pass before they happen. Sometimes I find myself lying awake into the small hours. If I’m not careful I’m going to end up like Moolie.
Will there be children born on Mars, I wonder? Martian children, who think of the planet Mars as their one true home?
It is strange to think of, and rather wonderful, too, that we might come to that. What will our Earth seem like to them, our built-in atmosphere and water on tap, our border controls and health and safety laws, our wars over patches of land that we like to call countries?
Will we seem like kings to them, or tyrants, or simply fools?
I have brought The Art of Space Travel into work with me this morning. I wrapped it inside a supermarket carrier bag for protection, then stuffed it into the back of my locker with the trainers I wear for walking in and my rucksack and my spare cardigan. I have this silly idea, that when Zhanna Sorokina and Vinnie Cameron arrive I’ll get them both to sign it. I know the book was written long before they were born, that it has no connection with them, but I would like to have something of theirs, all the same, something of theirs joined with something of mine. Something to keep once they are gone, that will remind me that although they’re Martians now, they started out from here.
It will be a way of keeping them safe, maybe. I know how crazy that sounds.
It’s strange, but each time I think of something happening to them it’s not the New Dawn I think of but the Galaxy, that doomed aeroplane, fireballing out of the sky over Heathrow.
I was in school when it happened, almost ten miles away, but all of us heard the crash, even from there.
When the call comes through, I’m in the middle of signing off the bulk orders for cleaning supplies—Dettox, Ajax, Glasene, Pledge—we get through tens of gallons of each on a monthly basis. I prefer staff to keep their mobiles switched off while they’re on shift because they’re so distracting, but I have to keep mine by me because of Moolie. Weeks and sometimes months go by without it ever ringing but you never know. When I see her number flashing onscreen I pick up at once.
I speak her name, only it’s not her on the line after all, it’s our neighbour, Allison Roberts, from next door.
“She was out the front, just lying there,” Allison says. Moolie’s phone was lying there too, apparently, which I suppose was lucky.
I can’t remember the last time Moolie went outside by herself.
I call Benny on his private line, the one that never gets diverted. I know he’s chairing a meeting but I don’t care, I don’t give a shit suddenly, and Benny must realise it’s urgent because he knows I wouldn’t disturb him otherwise, and so he picks up immediately.
“I have to go,” I gasp. I explain what’s happened the best I can and he says okay. I’m running for the lifts by then. I need to get to the basement, where the staff lockers are. When I reach the lockers I can’t get my key card to work, and then when it finally does everything comes pouring out in a tidal wave. My clobber’s everywhere, suddenly. It’s the last thing I need. My chest is so high and tight I feel like screaming.
“For fuck’s sake!” I’m seconds away from bursting into tears. I’m still trying to scoop everything together when Benny appears. I realise he must have left his meeting to come down, which is so bloody unlike him that all I can think is that he’s here to give me a bollocking.
He doesn’t, though.
“Don’t worry about this,” he says. “Just take what you need and get going. I’ve called a taxi for you—it’ll be out the front in five minutes. I’ll take care of your things.” He makes a gesture towards the stuff on the floor, and of course I can’t help thinking how downright weird all this is, but I don’t have time to dwell on it. I need to get moving.
Allison said that Moolie was having difficulty breathing when she found her. The paramedics soon got her stabilized but it’s still very worrying.
“Are you sure about this?” I say to Benny. “I’m really sorry.”
“Quite sure,” Benny says. “Call me if you need me, okay?”
I take a moment to wonder if Benny is losing it, if the strain is finally getting to him, but I know that now is not the time to go looking for answers to that question.
“I will,” I say. “Thanks.” I grab my rucksack and shove on my trainers and then I’m gone.
Most of the things that are wrong with Moolie—the decreasing short-term memory and loss of appetite, the insomnia, the restlessness—none of these are life-threatening. Not in and of themselves, anyway. But every now and then she’ll have an attack of apnoea, and these are much more frightening. What apnoea means, basically, is that Moolie can’t breathe. The first time she had an attack, the doctors kept asking me if she smoked. Each time I said no they looked at me with doubt. It was obvious they thought I was lying.
In fact the apnoea is caused by the thousands of microscopic mushroom-like growths that have colonized the lining of Moolie’s lungs. Most of the time these growths remain inactive and appear to do no harm, but periodically they flare up or inflate or expand or whatever—hence the apnoea.
“It’s definitely not cancer,” the medics insist. There’s a real sense of triumph in their voices as they say this, as if the growths’ non-cancerous nature is something they’ve seen to personally. But when I ask them what it is if it’s not cancer they never seem to give me a direct answer and I don’t think they have one. I don’t think anyone really knows what it is, to be honest. It’s a whole new disease.
Whatever it is, it seems to have the advantage of being slow-growing. Moolie might die of old age before the growths clutter up her bronchial tubes, or fill her lungs with spores, or find some other, quicker way of preventing her from breathing entirely. In the meantime, the doctors stave off the attacks by giving Moolie a shot of adrenaline and then supplementing her oxygen for an hour or so. The enriched oxygen seems to kill the mushroom things off, or make the growths subside, or something. Whatever it does it works, and surprisingly quickly. By the time I come on to the ward, Moolie is sitting up in bed with a cup of tea.
“What are you doing here?” she says to me.
“I might ask you the same question.” I can’t tell yet if she’s being sarcastic or if she’s genuinely confused. Sometimes when she comes round after an attack she’s delusional, or delirious, whatever you want to call it when the brain gets starved of oxygen for any length of time.
Moolie seems okay, though—this time, anyway. She’s sipping her tea as if she’s actually enjoying it. There’s a biscuit in the saucer, too, with a bite taken out of it—Moolie eating something without being reminded is always a good sign.
I notice that one of the nurses has brushed her hair. She looks—very nearly—the way she does in that old photograph, her and me and Grandma Clarah out by the reservoir.
“I’m fine, Emily,” she says, neatly sidestepping my actual question, which is so typical of her that I am tempted to believe her. “There was no need for you to leave work early. I know Benny needs you more than I do at the moment.” She takes another sip of tea. “You could have come in afterwards, if you wanted to. They say I can probably go home tomorrow, in any case.”
She’s peeping at me over the rim of her teacup, grinning like a naughty schoolgirl—See what I did. Trying to boss me about like any normal mother. She can be like this after the treatments—it’s as if the rarefied oxygen cleans out her brain, or something. I know it won’t last, but it makes me feel like crying, nonetheless.
Just to have her back again.
Sometimes I forget how much I miss her.
I sit down on the plastic chair at the side of the bed. “I’m here now,” I say. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily.” I reach for her free hand across the bedcovers and she lets me take it. After a couple of minutes one of the ward staff brings me a cup of tea of my own. It’s good just to sit, to not feel responsibility or the need for action. The mechanics of this place are unknown to me, and therefore the urge to do, to change, to control is entirely absent.
Moolie begins telling me about the TV programme she was watching before she had her turn. Yet another documentary about the Mars mission—no surprises there. I’d rather she told me what it was that made her go outside by herself, but she waves my question away like an importunate fly.
“That girl,” she says instead. “That girl, Zhanna. She’s twenty-six tomorrow, did you know that? She says she doesn’t want children, that her work is enough for her. She’ll be dead before she’s forty, more than likely. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
“You were younger than she is when you had me, Mum,” I say. “Did you know what you were doing?”
Moolie shakes her head slowly and deliberately from side to side. “No, I didn’t,” she says. “I didn’t have a clue.”
Then she says something strange.
“I won’t always get better, Emily. The day will come when I don’t come home. You should have a talk with Benny, before that day comes. There’s no point in us pretending. Not anymore.”
The mug of tea is still warm between my hands but in spite of this I suddenly feel cold all over. When I ask Moolie what she’s talking about she refuses to answer.
By the time I leave the hospital my shift has been over for ages. I decide to go back to the hotel anyway, just in case anything cropped up after I left. I check in with housekeeping and when I’ve satisfied myself that no major disasters have occurred in my absence I go in search of Benny. I find him in his office. There’s a semicircle of empty chairs in front of his desk, the ghost of a meeting. Benny is alone, sitting very still in his chair, reading something—a book?—by the light of his desk lamp. He seems miles away, absent in a manner that is most unlike him.
When he realises I’m there he jerks upright, and there’s an expression on his face—panic, almost—as if I’ve caught him out in a secret. He slams the book shut, making a slapping sound.
It’s pointless him trying to hide it, though. I’d know the book anywhere, because it belongs to us, to Moolie and me. It’s The Art of Space Travel.
“Emily,” Benny says. He’s watching my face for signs of disaster and at the same time he still looks guilty. It’s a weird combination, almost funny. “I wasn’t expecting you back. How’s your mother?”
“Moolie’s fine,” I say. “They’re letting her out tomorrow. What are you doing with that?”
I am talking about the book, of course, which I can’t stop staring at, the way Benny is holding it to him, like a shield. All of a sudden there’s this noise in my ears, a kind of roaring sound, and I’m thinking of Moolie and Moolie telling me that I should talk to Benny.
I’m thinking of the way Benny is always asking after Moolie, and what Moolie said before, such a long time ago, about Benny arriving in this country with a cardboard suitcase and fake Levis, and a gold watch that he had to sell to get the money to rent a room.
“Emily,” Benny says again, and the way he says my name—like he’s apologising for something—makes me feel even weirder. He unfolds the book again across his lap, opening it to the centre, where I know there’s a double-page colour spread of the Milky Way, with its billions of stars, all buzzing and fusing together, cloudy and luminous, like the mist as it rises from the surface of the George VI Reservoir.
Benny runs his fingers gently across the paper. It makes a faint squeaking sound. I know exactly how that paper feels: soft to the touch, slightly furry with impacted dust, old.
Benny is touching the book as if it is his.
My stomach does a lurch, as if the world is travelling too fast suddenly, spinning out of control across the blackly infinite backdrop of the whole of space.
“One of my schoolteachers gave me this book,” Benny says. “His name was Otto Okora. His parents brought him here to London when he was six years old. They never returned to Africa, but Otto did. He came back to teach high school in Freetown and that’s where he stayed. He said that England was too cold and too crowded, and that the sky here was never black enough to see the stars. He had this thing about Africa being closer to outer space than any other continent. ‘We never lost our sense of life’s mysteries,’ was what he used to say. Otto was crazy about outer space. He would sit us down in the long hot afternoons and tell us stories about the first moon landings and the first space stations, the first attempts to map the surface of Mars. It was like poetry to me, Emily, and I could never get enough of it. I learned the names of the constellations and how to see them. I knew by heart the mass and volume and composition of each of the planets in our solar system. I even learned to draw my own star maps—impossible journeys to distant planets that no one in a thousand of our lifetimes will ever see. I saw them, though. I saw them at night, when I couldn’t sleep. Instead of counting chickens I would count stars, picking them out from my memory one by one, like diamonds from a black silk handkerchief.”
Like diamonds from a black silk handkerchief.
I want to hug him. Even in the midst of my confusion I want to hug him and tell him that I feel the same, that I have always felt the same, that we are alike.
That we are alike, of course we are.
The truth has been here in front of me, all the time. How stupid am I?
There’s a kind of book called a grimoire, which is a book of spells. I’ve never seen one—I don’t know if such a thing really exists, even—but The Art of Space Travel has always felt to me like it had magic trapped in it. Like you could open its pages and accidentally end up somewhere else. All those dazzling ropes of stars, all those thousands of possible futures, and futures’ futures.
All those enchanted luminous pathways, blinking up at us through the darkness, like the lights of a runway.
I clear my throat with a little cough. I haven’t a single clue what I ought to say.
“Your mother did her nut when you first got a job here,” Benny says quietly. “She called me on the phone, tore me off a strip. She said I wasn’t to breathe a word, under pain of death. That was the first time we’d spoken to one another in ten years.”
“I was supposed to study medicine,” Benny says to me later. “My heart was never in it, though. I didn’t know what I wanted, only that I wanted to find a bigger world than the world I came from. I remember it as if it was yesterday, standing there on the tarmac and looking up at this hotel and just liking the name of it. I gazed up at the big lit-up star logo and it was as if I could hear Otto Okora saying, You go for it, Benny boy, that’s a good omen. I liked the people and I liked the bustle and I liked the lights at night. All the taking off and landing, the enigma of arrival. There’s a book with that name—your mother gave me a copy right back at the beginning, when she still believed in me and things were good between us. I never got round to reading it, but I loved that title. I loved it that I’d finally discovered something I was good at.
“Would she mind very much, do you think?” Benny says. “If I went to see her?”
“It’s your funeral,” I say, and shrug. I try and picture it as it might happen on TV, Benny pressing Moolie’s skinny hand to his lips while she smiles weakly up from the pillows and whispers his name. You see how funny that is, right? “Only don’t go blaming me if she bites your head off.”
Zhanna Sorokina is shorter than she appears on television. She has short mouse-brown hair, and piercing blue eyes. She looks like a school kid.
When I ask her if she’ll sign The Art of Space Travel she looks confused. “But I did not write this,” she says.
“I know that,” I say. “But it’s a book about space. My dad gave it to me. It would mean a lot to me if you would sign it. As a souvenir.”
She uses the pen I give her, a blue Bic, to sign the title page. She writes her name twice, first in the sweeping Cyrillic script she would have learned at school and then again underneath in spiky Latin capitals.
“Is this okay?” she asks.
“Very,” I reply. “Thank you.”
Sorokina smiles, very briefly, and then I see her awareness of me leak from her eyes as she moves away towards the lift that will take her up to the tenth-floor news suite and the waiting cameras, the media frenzy that will surround her for the remainder of her time here on Earth. Her bodyguard moves in to shield her.
It’s the last and only time I will see her close to.
In leaving this world, she makes me feel more properly a part of it.
I wish I had a child I could one day tell about this moment. I’ve never felt like this before, but suddenly I do.
Benny would kill me if he knew I was down here. I’m supposed to be upstairs, in the news suite, making sure they’re up and running with the drinks trolleys. That there are three different kinds of bottled beer, instead of the two that would be usual for these kinds of occasions.
“The Art of Space Travel” copyright © 2016 by Nina Allan
Art copyright © 2016 by Linda Yan