An old story, for no other reason than I felt like it, and I smiled at my favourite constellation out the kitchen tonight. The air is boots-on-snow crispy. I’m still trying to move this piece chaotically through time, and perhaps it blathers about a bit too much. And I should be working on my novel…
Stars blur the glass. Fat balls of rainwater, about to blink, headlights making my Honda windscreen look like the heavens. I brake for the crossing, a specky kid on an orange bike. Comedic with protective gear. A helmet with a miner’s torch, a yellow slicker like he moonlights on some construction site after P.E. I watch the wheels arc, two reflectors spinning crescent moons. Exhaust-smoke mists over the boy, his yellow disinfecting the Constable-gloom.
‘I think we should name a star after him,’ mum says on the phone.
I imagine her, drink in hand, luxuriating in a real cigarette. Not the electric ones they gnawed on around me.
‘But I don’t know if it’s legit. I mean how do you know you get an actual star? And nobody else has the same one? You wouldn’t want someone else’s star, would you?’
I flick a lever, the wiper bleats and the stars clear. The ’56 is just ribbons of wet-black. I sing a song which carries the reflection of an emotion I used to burn to, where all I was trying to exceed were men who loved like hammers. You’d said, it’s okay not be loved like that. Why not get a cat?
‘What do doctors know really?’ I say. ‘How can they know? How can they predict time?’ You’re at that point where you’re Jesus Christ. You’re Mother Teresa. We are the nodding Churchill dogs, the MP back-benchers you so despise. That’s what’s wrong with this country. The lemming mentality, you’d say, under an electric blanket, the fire banked, while we’re all shining in t-shirts. The suspicion I’ve always had, that I am invisible, is spreading.
The Rosetta probe has landed this month. I remember you’d said you always thought you’d see – but I have forgotten what you’d thought. I am always only ever half-listening, day dreaming of to-be-dones.
‘Surely it’s an estimate based on statistics that are widely variable.’ Even I think I sound solid.
You’re nodding while googling about goji berries and other pointless ways to save your own life; I try not to let my guilt leak because I cannot believe in it. I have seen the blood. I have cleaned the blood. It splashes fire behind my eyes every time I try to sleep. Fear climbs into my throat and lays across it, a hammock.
I gear through jobs. I smile and nod and I am perfectly pleasant. I’m sorry to hear your dog has an abscess. Of course, you must be quite upset. Why not go home early? Until I can come to the place you now call home. It’s not the place we stamped on bike pedals – ‘you’re going so slow you may as well be dead!’ – ‘tortoise!’ – ‘tortoise wins the race’ – breath shocked away by speed and danger.
Me and you, and the wheelchair go to the movies. We watch Interstellar with half a cluster of other people pegging the seats behind. I think of a game we used to play that I was never good at and which my slow brain can’t name. You’re wearing that bobble hat that makes you look like a garden gnome. Your pushed up specs, your throat-clearing-tic.
I roll my eyes. The clever-dick astronaut explaining black holes to the hick pilot. Basic. But I only know because you’ve taught me. You’d drawn a Christmas tree on a red serviette for point A. Point B is a puppy’s face. The pen had pointed at me. You’d said, Fido is desperate for a piss on the Christmas tree. All the other trees in the forest won’t work for him. Show me the quickest way Fido can feel relief. I’d drawn a straight line. You’d folded the paper and pierced it the same way the astronaut does on the film.
On screen, two men twist in a physical and metaphorical fight for life. My stomach creases. I sob secretly, without breathing; the same thing in another galaxy playing out over us. Your real face is a ghost around the one you’ve got now, the one that wasn’t thin, that you’d used to speak and compell me with the knowledge, the fire. You’d said, but I want to live. The memory knuckles. I’d held your hand. I’d said I’d never let go.
By the time Matt Damon is dead my face is salted, like when we’d been to Formby as children, hurtling towards a receding shore, daring each other to stare at the sun because we knew we shouldn’t.
In the loos, my phone wakes up. New guy. Recorded as Jamie Thingy.
Is it going ok? I just want to be supportive, take you dancing? Sack it all off and stay in and watch a movie.
It’s the things the last one said too, before the sadness of it all made them look another way. When we’d kissed, I’d felt sick. His tongue had tasted of somebody else.
I take you back. I head home, the hours slip under my wheels. Inside, I take another shower; the water lets me think. You gave me a letter. Scrawled across mine, Only to be opened when I’m worm food – but I know what you’re like. But I’ve been good. The letter is stored as carefully as I store anything, in a bed of bills and half-hearted payslips. (I think I know what it will say. Pick a good man, which I will never do – because how can I, if you will never meet him? Have a niece, have a nephew, look after mum. I will lose the letter the fourth time I move house. I will cry like it’s the end of the world and curse my own chaos. I will never get to read your words). I place a palm on the tiles. I breathe. Steady.
I attempt to think of witty responses to Jamie Thingy. I eat six fig rolls as I’m thinking.
Our family is an asteroid belt. Stretched out over the miles. Thinning. Sometimes, I blackmail mum into putting the video on when she can manage Skype. She is square and stone, sometimes mascara webs her cheeks like it is mapping her. I don’t mention it. I don’t want her to know I’ve seen beyond her make-up.
Would you be okay if we left it this weekend?
When you die, I’m not there.
The last time you call, we talk about Star Trek and the relative attractiveness of the various captains. You are bald, you say, your whispery-deep voice, your body already failing, already leaving, like the gradual dissipation of sunspots behind my eyelids.
You clear your throat. ‘People say I look like Picard now.’
‘Dashing,’ I say, even though I’d always thought Picard was overrated.
We listen to each other’s silence. It could stretch forever. I see the reflectors on that boy’s bike, spinning safety, on a trajectory home. There are only so many ways to protect these children.
I had been driving to pick up my cat, whose name is Janeway and who is as ugly as a Klingon. I tickle her unfortunate face and she twinkles, eyes grinning tiny. I hear downstairs fighting. This is the move where I lost the letter. Janeway sleeps in the ‘C’ of my body. Purrs bubble through her chest and into mine. Through bamboo blinds, I see a light waking in an opposite house, the breath from outlet pipes pouring into the night, silhouettes in dappled windows as someone runs a bath. It feels like a future. When I close my eyes I see stars, the stain of reflected light. At least we saw the sun.