by T.A. Barfield
She’d always been a very literal girl.
The street is clear, the neighbours having received advanced notice from her father’s polite, Banda-machined letters. The pavements are empty, but the half-lidded upstairs windows are watching, cheerful for the distraction.
She waits at the top of the hill. Her breathing is steady and her mind is focused. She is judging the light of the stars, replotting her flightpath. The moon hangs low before her. Her father, to her left, reminds her that the moon will exert a force of 0.16g, with the result that she will weigh only 16.6% of what she does in Sheffield. She’s light anyway, for a six year old. Her mother, to her right, has styled her hair for zero-gravity.
There are the final checks. The guidance system is put through its paces, the little glass wings from the defunct MG Rover folding and unfolding on command. There is a concern over a persistent minor yawing to the left, which might require a course correction. She can use the Cutler’s Hall as a waymarker, in case of windshear. The hot-water bottles are at full operational capacity, the water warming her little body gently against the cold chill of the interested evening. The city lies beneath them from this hill, splendid and dark and expectant with secrets.
Her mother adjusts her provisions in the red plastic lunchbox: a small cold supper and a tight roll of foreign banknotes, most now removed from circulation, curled up and sealed in a jiffy bag. No-one knows where she might return. Her father nurses his continual worry that she might not maintain aerostatic equilibrium.
Pressure is building. Without announcement, the street knows that the moment is come. Releasing their grips from her shoulders, the parents retract, locking their arms together at a safe distance. She seizes the rubber horns firmly, a solar voyager taking in those final breaths of her familiar world. She is alone.
The ascent begins.
He had a genius for finding those old-fashioned toys, out-dated and gauche from when even they were young: catapults frail with decaying elastic, Styrofoam planes to buzz like dying insects, small wooden boats which turned-turtle as soon as they scented water. And now this.
The smell of the rubber unnerved her, thick and flaking like a set pudding from a foil packet. It was an old smell, one that belonged with the chemical wash of lino at school, or her grandmother’s window-spray. It was its age that was frightening, like that smell of the rubber sheet she’d been placed on at the hospital. There’d been no plastic gossamer fabrics nor the clean, white synthetic fibres that you saw on the TV. There was just the rubber mat. She was their only child.
She’d taken against it as soon as he’d shown her, blinking and pleased. There was something obscene to the gift, both in the smell and its flaccid rotundity. It wore a face: two eyes and a gaping, foolish mouth, all misshapen from the lack of pressure – the look that you get when a person had been laid out: their features stay the same, but their face has somehow slipped away. Anyway, how on earth was she supposed to wrap something with that awkward shape?
She always thought it was some reflection on their having had her when they were, comparatively, elderly. It was as if they had skipped a decade somewhere, bringing up a child out of time and out of tune, playing with toys from a generation before, sharing fascinations that had faded on most bedroom walls, even dressing like the past. You bring up a child as you know how, she’d always thought. There’s no choice to when or why.
They hadn’t intended to have the child. But two bottles of Mateus Rosé won at a CARITAS anti-famine raffle at church had decided otherwise.
But she was free of at least part of it, their heavy age. Although she was wiser, more thoughtful than by right a child should be, she still had that desire to run, to break free, to explore. Youth had broken through the grey years of their poverty after all. Her mother couldn’t understand it. She had no desire to escape, no desire even to return to rooms in her own home that she’d seen but had no use for: the attic, the cellar, her husband’s shed in the backyard. She’d been clever as a schoolgirl, but somehow it hadn’t stuck. Her high marks and high green stockings had all been folded away when she was eighteen, never to be taken out again. Somewhere, something inside her had failed.
She must get it from him, this desire for exploration. And certainly, he responded, urged her on, supported and encouraged her. A blurred figure seen through plastic glass, he moved amongst the baize boards of his shed, diagrams and sketches coruscating across the square-lined paper he’d tacked to every wall. If his daughter wanted to voyage between the stars, he would make it so, hammering and borrowing and gluing and soldering a universe of iron stars for her. The six-year-old girl, holding her space vehicle still uninflated, would sit on his bench and plan with him.
She was so keen, she had to help.
And so, in preparation for spaceflight, her mother began to raise a series of key practical concerns that required consideration before launch.
What if she did not achieve escape velocity and returned to earth on one of the city’s six other hills? Could an appropriate landing protocol be agreed?
It would, her father averred, be preferable to launch from a more equatorial location, due to the nearer proximity to space. The Derbyshire Dales, suggested her mother, but then withdrew the idea, anxious that the child would not know the landmarks for navigation. She might also catch cold.
What about the cold? Three new hot bottles were purchased from a local corner-store at a reduced price. Their own hot water bottles were out of the question, according to her father, due to the increased febrility of the material following that cold snap in February. Any leak could prove catastrophic: just look at Challenger. Her mother reconciled herself to the expense with the thought that the water could function as emergency supplies, should aphelion take longer than expected.
Finally, there was the question of tracking, once the journey had begun. The roof of the backyard shed wouldn’t support a radar dome. Besides which, the child’s father was in the process of installing a roller-shutter skylight to accommodate the new telescope.
For once, it was her mother who found the answer: a swathe of brilliant sequined material from the decayed dance studio the road over, swapped for a black forest gateau she’d bought once and forgotten about in the freezer. This was quickly Singer-ed up into a dress that sparkled with the brilliance of a whole galaxy. The child turned and twisted before the mirror in delight, stars blooming and fading like the swift passage of the aeons. They would be able to track her by her light blazing across the zodiac.
It was two days prior to launch. The question of inflation became urgent. A bicycle pump, used up till now for the helpful engorgement of the neighbours’ footballs since they did not own a bike and, in any case, had no desire to go anywhere for pleasure, was deemed too weak for the task. From the man two doors up, he borrowed one of those emergency car tyre inflators. The man had no car in any case and was only keeping it against future use. Now it rattled away, plugged into the Vauxhall, walking up and down the cobbles and chattering to itself like an angry crab in a box.
And as it chattered, the globe swelled. She stood beside it, watching it bloom, testing its surface turgidity with a solemn hand. All would be well. Her father watched her composure with pride and a mounting sense of excitement. Her mother stood in the window, counting.
But wait. There was a last minute theoretical concern: magnetic interference. The crisis reigned for several hours and the child began to consider the possibility that her voyage would not begin that week. But her father was undefeated and set about the reconstruction of the guidance system; gone were the steel hinges from the old Mini Metro’s bonnet, replaced instead with the plastic hydraulic mechanism from the former greenhouse windows. Her mother undertook to remove the brass buckles from her duffelbag and to ensure the absence of kirby-grips in her hair. The clock ticked again.
With 24 hours to go, they held a small party in the kitchen. A celebratory lunch on the day itself had been ruled out in case it interfered with the delicate weight, mass and moment calculations necessary for take-off. Her mother, when she discovered the lost black forest gateau, had also found a microwavable set of Chinese appetisers, hiding under the ice. Under the kitchen light, they nibbled on defrosted vegetarian spring rolls and tiny slithers of Peking duck, already planning the next itinerary to Alpha Centauri. It was only the three of them. Her mother hadn’t been sure whether there was anyone else to invite.
Following the special Chinese meal, she helped her daughter get ready for bed and then, unusually for her, sat and read a bedtime story. She hadn’t done this for many months, the child, holding a generally literal attitude to life, preferring lists of useful facts and entries read out to her from the Children’s Everyday Encyclopaedia. At the end, hovering by the door, her mother could not bear to turn out the light.
The day dawned, splendid and awful. The street held its breath.
Bending her knees, she tests the response. The great vehicle shifts under her weight, pushing back, full of terrible, wonderful repressed power. It will serve her well. She tightens her hands again on the rubber horns. She is ready.
With her first bounce, she is only as high as the downstairs windowsill. With the second, she waves to the neighbours. With the third, she soars over the chimney pots. With the fourth, she leaves the street behind.
On she sails, beaming, triumphant. The interstellar voyager, venturing across distances unknown. The moon calls to her, its warm light beckoning, its cratered face smiling gently.
Her mother, screaming for her lost child, runs after her in the streets far below.