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People & Culture
Short story: Yuri Gagarin
It was the very hot April of 1961. I watched the moon from my bed, shining through the trees like a lantern guiding me through a forest. I felt I was swimming through the air towards it and yet I never got any closer. I fell asleep with the strong sensation of floating along very fast, a few feet above the ground, always just missing the branches that came at my face.
My sister Naomi was born at home amidst an atmosphere of chaotic serenity. The telephone kept ringing and my father kept going out in the car and returning with more bags. My mother cooked us pancakes while smoking a cigarette in that droopy way of hers and screwing up her eyes against the smoke. “Do you want lemony ones or honey?” she called from the kitchen.
We sat at the dining-room table, staring at the back of the Ricicles packet. “Honey!” Rebecca shouted back, and Toby and I copied her.
My mother brought in the pancakes which we rolled up into tubes to eat. Our shy au pair girl was on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, something I had never seen anyone doing before. My mother made her coffee, then they both sat at the kitchen table smoking. Drifts of blue smoke curled in through the doorway into the dining room.
After breakfast I didn’t see much of my parents. Rebecca went swimming for the day. Toby and I stayed up in our large, airy bedroom, where we’d been sent, playing with the Lego. A deep hush fell upon the house. For hours, it seemed, the only sound was the rattling of Lego bricks as we sifted through the pile. I longed to go upstairs and see what was happening.
It was mid-afternoon when my father came in and told us the baby had arrived. He led us up to see it in my parents’ bedroom. The baby had dark hair and was yawning; a fat midwife in a rustling blue dress shook a thermometer very fast in her hand and popped it into my mother’s mouth.
My mother smiled and we went up and kissed her on the cheek. “Hello dears,” she said quietly.
“Mummy needs to rest now,” said my father, leading us out immediately. I wanted to protest. She was already resting. On the way out, the midwife held the baby down to us and we touched its dimpled feet.
My father had fine hands of a light-brown colour, with well-cut nails. His toweling short-sleeved shirt was dry and warm as I pressed my cheek against it and fiddled with his hand, twisting one huge finger over another into a crab-like claw. He had Toby on his other knee and was making him writhe as he picked bogeys out of his tiny nostrils. He had taken us into his sunfilled study, which smelt of books and cigar smoke, and we were sitting in his armchair. When my turn came and I felt the sure hands round my face, pushing it this way and that, I gave in to a feeling of absolute trust.
“You must both be good boys while I’m away,” he said in a serious tone, “and look after Mummy. You know she’s very tired.”
“Why is she so tired?” I whined.
He bent closer and I could see one of his eyes magnified through the lens of his glasses. “That’s it,” he let me go and I sat myself up on his lap. “Well, you see, having a baby’s very exhausting. It’s like running round the garden a hundred times.”
“When will you come back?”
“In a week. In time to take you to your new school.”
Toby raised his sleepy-looking head with a frown. “Are you going away, Daddy?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m going on an aeroplane.” He paused. “Like the one I went on to France. Do you remember?”
We nodded. He leaned forward, opened the smaller of his cigar boxes and took out a cigar.
“Can I clip it?” I asked.
“It’s a little one. It doesn’t need clipping.” He showed me the cut end.
“Can I light it?”
“By all means.” He guided my hands carefully and they struck the match. “I’m going to Moscow,” he said. “In Russia.”
“Can we have presents?” Toby said.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he replied, and smiled, so that we became excited. “I’ll be in Russia when they send a spaceman up in a rocket,” he said, as if he were beginning a bedtime story. “Last time they sent two dogs up, but now they’re sending a man. The first man in space!”
“Has he got a parachute?”
“He can go to the moon,” I said.
“Not quite. This rocket goes round the earth in an orbit.”
“Does it have to?” I was disappointed.
“Well, it’s an experiment, but I’m sure they’ll put a man on the moon one day.”
“Man-in-the-moon!” Toby chimed.
“Toby, a rocket goes higher than the sky,” I explained, and I could see the silver rocket soaring through the inky blackness with a jet of flame behind. “So it just goes round the earth,” I repeated gloomily as the thought struck me again.
“It’s still in space,” my father assured me.
I was relieved, and now I saw the rocket approaching a bright crescent moon, having to avoid it, as if steering past a jagged white rock.
Dr Silberstein arrived and went straight upstairs. On his way out, he stopped to talk to my father. He cupped my cheek in his flaky hand while he spoke. I got bored and began chasing Toby in and out of my father’s legs.
“Ah, children are the future,” Dr Silberstein croaked as he inched his way out of the front door, his protruding stomach pulling him along after it. “How about going to play with George, while I drive the midwife home?” my father asked.
I told George the baby was born.
“What’s it called?” he wanted to know.
I realised I hadn’t considered it might need a name. We were drinking Jaffa Juice in his kitchen, gulping it down fast so we could go out and play.
“What did you say?” said George’s mother, in such a harsh voice it startled me. “It’s here?” She let out a piercing shriek.
I nodded meekly.
“How’s Mummy?” she yelled at me.
I didn’t know. “In bed,” I replied, “resting.”
George set down the long beaker. “Slowcoach. Come on.” I felt torn, sensing some duty I ought to perform.
George’s mother resolved it by saying, “Right, you two. Out! Go and play.” Then she smiled at me with extraordinary tenderness, her face radiant and her eyes clouded. “I’m just popping over to visit Mummy.”
The house was stirring. Through the open windows of our bedroom, warm air breezed onto my face pleasantly, lulling me, and the leaves hissed for a moment like a garden sprinkler, or like shingle dragged by the tide. I woke into this with a feeling of such delicious comfort that I lay on the bed without moving, as though I was floating on my back in the sea. I remembered that the house was full of guests. The Reddaways were here, and at the thought of it I stretched myself out even more luxuriously in the bed. The single blanket over the sheet moved easily, almost silkily, only with a perfectly satisfying weight to it. Toby was drowsing in the next bed.
The laughter from Rebecca’s room grew louder. There was screeching, thudding, and I smiled to myself, wondering what they were up to – having a pillow fight, perhaps. I wanted to rush in and join them, but knew it would be inappropriate. And the days ahead would all be like that. I was too young, a bore (to them), but I didn’t mind. I was happy to be near such hilarity, drawn to it irresistibly as to fireworks or a fair, completely fulfilled by association.
The morning of the drinks party to celebrate the baby, the girls were trying on old hats of my mother’s that they had rooted out from her wardrobe. Every few seconds they would poke their heads round the door to show us. My mother, guiding her fat brown nipple into the baby’s mouth, sat on the rocking chair and smiled, her eyes half-closed, while Liz Reddaway giggled.
Later Patrick Shine, Liz’s new husband, loped through the house in white trousers and white shirt, carrying a cricket bat, stumps and bails from out of his car. “Cricket in the garden!” he called. And while the other grownups milled about on the terrace with the babies, Patrick Shine played cricket with the children, leaping after the ball.
From the new-mown lawn rose a rich, spicy smell. Piles of cut grass lay everywhere, and it was moist and warm when you picked it up to throw into the air. Midges swarmed about our heads, and we clapped our hands to kill them, and scratched our hair. I waited for the ball to come rushing towards me. But it was Nicholas, Liz’s eight-year-old son, in bat and he kept sending the tennis ball flying way over our heads into the next-door garden. He was moody over the new marriage and when it came to his turn to bowl he did it as hard as he could and kept getting us out.
That strange afternoon stillness descended on the garden. The sounds of the cricket players cheering and of the adults guffawing on the terrace seemed to have dissolved and become a single, soft murmuring backdrop. The round-shouldered willow that leaned over from the next-door garden into ours nodded its bulk at me like a sad green elephant, and a glider hung motionless in the blue sky, unable to decide which way to turn. I felt as if the world had fallen asleep and all the colours and movements in the garden were its dreams, flickering and bright.
“… seven, six, five, four, three, two, one - zero!” the older ones shouted in chorus. Nicholas had run into the house and fetched the rocket Patrick had given him, while we waited for Toby to return with the ball through the hole in the hedge. I watched the plastic rocket reach its pinnacle and start to descend. I began to think about the numbers beyond ten. It gave me a panicky feeling. I couldn’t work out when you’d stop counting.
Suddenly, from a door in the side of the rocket, a red and white parachute unfurled, and the rocket came swaying down to earth beneath it. The rocket had four fins and a sharp point. I was speechless, fascinated by the door that let the parachute out. An intricate gadget like that made it more than a toy, and I had the idea that if you pulled the elastic band far enough, you could shoot the thing up out of sight and lose it in orbit.
Patrick’s thin forearm was straining, as if he wanted to fulfil my fantasy. The parachute didn’t open this time and one of the rocket’s fins broke off as it hit the ground. Nicholas started to cry and the cricket was abandoned. I felt responsible for comforting him, even though he was older than me. I kept thinking of my father. As Nicholas nursed the broken fin I crouched beside him and I could feel Patrick hovering behind us. Nicholas’s face crumpled inwards when he cried. And now Liz was coming down the steps of the terrace.
While Nicholas’s sobs were dying away, someone said the name Yuri Gagarin, and it made me laugh because gaga was our family name for faeces. The name immediately felt familiar to me. I could see him in my mind, no face, just a big round helmet with reflecting glass at the front, his spacesuit of cleanest white, and I was filled with joy. Everything was so new, so modern, like my father’s brand-new lab which also had great sheet-glass windows like the cosmonaut’s helmet. I pictured my father waving at Yuri Gagarin and Yuri Gagarin waving back out of a porthole as he blasted off. Patrick said we should be able to see the rocket passing over the garden later.
That evening, after supper, we all went and stood on the terrace. The night air was like a silk scarf caressing our faces and our bare legs, exuding the warm scent of the daytime, as if it had been wrapped around it. The stars were out, spread in a fine white dust over the heavens; one or two of them gleamed like grains of sugar caught in sunlight. Sometimes a movement would pass through the trees like a message being whispered from one to another.
My mother suddenly told us to look up, over the quince tree, pointing her arm at the sky. I tried to follow her finger, but there was nothing there.
“Yes, I can definitely see it,” she said.
“So can I,” said Liz.
“Where? Where?” the children shouted.
“Oh yes! There. Look! Over the tree.”
“Can you see it?”
“Yes, there it is.”
“Where?” I could feel myself being stranded. They could all see it but me. “Where? Where?” I cried. I bunched up my faced but still saw nothing at all.
“There, dear, look, over the quince tree.”
I lowered my gaze a fraction. A shape had materialised just above the tree. It was exactly like Nicholas’s rocket, only gigantic. It stretched across the whole garden and seemed to turn slowly in the breeze like a balloon. It was jet-black, and yet I could make out its form against the blackness of the sky, as if it had been cut out of thick black felt. It had a sharp point at the front and fins at the rear and made its way horizontally over the trees, very low.
“I can see it!” I said. “It’s a real rocket!” I assumed that everyone was seeing what I saw, until my mother told me to look higher up, and that the rocket looked like a twinkling star. I did as she told me and saw nothing. I looked for my spaceship but couldn’t see that either. “Didn’t you see the big one?” I said.
“What big one?” she asked.
“The rocket one. The rocket one.”
“You must have imagined it.”
“I didn’t!” But even as I spoke, it was dawning on me that perhaps I had made it up. No one else had seen that shape.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought they were probably right and that I had made a mistake in my excitement, what with Nicholas’s rocket in my mind. Nevertheless, the astonished feeling would not leave me. I didn’t care if it had been real or not. It was the possibility of it that I was elated by, the fact that it had hovered over our garden and that I had seen it with my own eyes.
As everyone turned to go indoors I ran up to the bedroom and began tugging wildly at the toy cupboards. We had two of them, one for Toby and one for me. Having emptied out the toys, I managed to lift one up onto the other, my strength suddenly enhanced by my desire to build a spaceship and sit at the controls. The cupboards slid into place, the one crosswise on top representing the fins. A chair on top of that again was the driving seat. And then I was aloft, high up in my room with a clear view out of the window in front of me. The lights from the house threw light onto the lawn below and I could see shadows moving on it as people moved about downstairs. The fins shuddered with the speed. I was riding through space, Rebecca, Toby and the baby riding behind me, balancing on the fuselage, and soon my father would come back from Moscow with presents for us all.