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new fiction by Christopher Branson

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The Astronaut

by Christopher Branson

 

 

6th December 1999

 

As I sit here writing at my desk it will shortly be midnight. The halls are deadly quiet and the quad is still. No sounds come from the window, only the twitch of my curtain in the sharp winter air. It is now three hours since I returned from my uncanny encounter, three hours of tobacco-fuelled meditation and self-interrogation, and I have resolved at last to set down with unfailing accuracy the weird events of the evening just gone. It is true perhaps that I am tottering on the brink of inebriation, but let it be said that drunkenness might yet prove propitious, and not simply for the good of my nerves. I mean that it might serve the truth of this telling, too. A sober mind would likely prove a hindrance when trying to recount the full irreality of my meeting with that shaman.

To provide a context for the future reader, curious of mind: today was a harsh crisp cold December day. I emerged sleepless from the fog of my room at eighteen past eleven in the morning, a freshly-printed essay in my bag and with barely sufficient time remaining to land at my destination, on the other side of Jesus Green. Noon was the deadline, the arbitrary cut-off, past which my labours would risk casual dismissal. Through the awkward letterbox of my awkward supervisor’s flat the script had to go, and thus to that place I was compelled to go, and in haste. What it argued, this essay, through which I’d agonised the night, I presently forget. All I can tell is that it had been assembled from the words of arcane secondary texts, texts that I barely understood, and that the whole thing stank of a final-year student in search of vindication.

But worry not, dear reader, for that was then, and this is now. Upon submitting the script I succeeded in disposing of all of my academic neuroses, along with what little interest I’d briefly aroused towards the History and Philosophy of Science. And, most significant and joyous of all, by dispensing with that terrible essay I managed to liberate myself for a few dear hours of all concern and care about my dreadfully impending future.

I sidled into a favoured tavern just as the streetlights were flickering on, the essay out of sight and bloody blessed mind, a successful book browse behind me and an overpriced hotdog from a street vendor resting in my gut. Dismissing the cruel world with a cheery ‘Fuck off!’ under my breath, I headed straight on into the back of the pub, into the warmth, the candlelight.

Oh, it was a welcoming old abode, this streetside boozer, all unpolished wood and candlewax and a thick and prohibitive smokiness to the air and no awful jukebox to ruin the mood. Reporting to the bar of this smoky paradise, I acquired a glass of the darkest stuff they had and retired to a table, where I rolled a cigarette, lit it luxuriously, and presently opened my brand-new second-hand book. And then, with my three forms of nutrition to hand – serving body, mind and lung – I reclined along the bench seat, my God did I recline, I was bare degrees from the horizontal. I may as well have been decked out in a silk lounge suit, a gentleman supine in a backstreet opium den in some far corner of the Orient. I daresay a few other aspects of the experience contributed to this fantasy, which now strikes me as increasingly vivid and true: the redolent, premature candlelit darkness of the room, placing it already in the realm of dream; the poetry of the magnificent smoke, a ceaseless hypnotic motion like Chinese dragons dancing; and finally, and above all, my sleep-deprived, thoroughgoing exhaustion, which was nigh-metaphysical in stature. In sum, I felt perfectly stoned, as though a chasm had been woven around me into which perspective could not penetrate, and as I lay there on my bench in this warm womb of a room I daresay I wore a very milky smile.

It was from out of this narcotic dream haze that he then emerged: suddenly, forcefully, not at all like a ghost. ‘Excuse me son,’ he said, ‘I see that you’re reading, would you mind if I sat here?’

I looked up from behind the pane of glass that had formed on the surface of my face and I beheld a giant, a corpulent monster clad in wax jacket and flat cap, who stood there poised, across the table, to react to my response. I scanned the room, registering that all but one table were presently unoccupied, and I looked at him again and replayed his words in my mind. It was striking, was it not, the incongruity between, on the one hand, his acknowledgement that I was busy with my reading – that I was engaged in a rewarding private ritual, one that would benefit greatly from remaining private and undisturbed – and, on the other hand, his request to impose himself on my table? When he had at his disposal no fewer than four other free and ample resting spots from which to select? And when I was almost guaranteed to deny the request, to dismiss him with incredulous refusal? And yet it was precisely this same fabulous incongruity, I suspect, and perhaps this alone, that caused me instead to drop my feet to the floor, wearily push my ailing frame upright – so that while I continued to slouch I was now approachable at least – and to lift my hand from my book and wearily beckon him to sit down, ‘Please,’ thereby breaking a long-ingrained habit of avoiding interaction with strangers at all cost.

Now, I should make clear that my immediate feeling was that this man had chosen me. That this messenger had specifically been seeking my table, and no other, through the strange, dilated time-fog of the room. That he wished to make contact. As I replay it now, I cannot find words to explain or justify why this intuition had stolen upon me with such clarity, but it is integral to my purpose that it is noted here in its chronological place.

Now, it was a large round table that I’d acquired and he sat down opposite, so that he was still two yards away from me, still out of my space: unreal. For some perverse reason it felt to me like a game of some sort, and I made a secret decision to entertain his every conversational whim.

And already I was enjoying the reflection that here I was, about to join the ranks of pint-supping men who talk to other pint-supping men, those proficient in conversing with other men of similar ilk, irrespective of familiarity and free from all prejudice, and not only that but I was presently engaged to do so with a companion of highly eccentric manner and quite gigantic proportion. I smiled and took a better look at him. His head was the size of a large watermelon and he was ruddy of face, but with huge sad eyes beneath his farmer’s cap. I became temporarily fixated on the size of that massive head and on how much it must weigh, and this thought discomforted me to the extent that I was compelled to look away, so that I noticed the half pint of ale that was gripped helplessly in his giant fist like a thimble inside a boxing glove, and I gulped and instead looked back at the massive head and took a nervous draught of stout.

‘John,’ he said, extending a massive arm, and I replied with my own name, though it did occur to me to do otherwise. I unfolded my limb and tensed it as contact with his outrageous paw drew near. He was gentle with me, though, I could tell, even if I could still sense the power in that monstrous appendage.

‘What do you do?’ he now enquired.

‘Student,’ I replied, and he nodded.

He cocked his head to one side, craning his neck, and cast his eyes at the cover of my book. ‘Graham Greene.’

‘Brighton Rock,’ I confirmed.

‘Haven’t read it,’ and he leaned back and took a tiny sip from his tiny glass.

I’d read it once before, at school, but refrained from disclosing this. Nor did I mention what had animated this impulsive new purchase: the fact I’d recently see the film and had been left terrified by Richard Attenborough’s face.

‘My wife’s read it,’ he said, breaking what was swiftly becoming a challenging silence. ‘My wife’s read everything.’

Something in his tone or bearing caused me to glance at his ring finger, which was unadorned, and I smiled and sat up straighter still and said, ‘Really?’ and he nodded.

‘I read non-fiction,’ he said. ‘Facts,’ and then he was possessed by a grave mood, and he leaned in with wild eyes, his voice conspiratorial. ‘I can remember everything, Chris. Everything!’ He raised his fist from the table. ‘People say it’s a gift, but it’s not.’ My eyes widened. ‘It’s a curse!’ And he thumped down his fist and leaned back with his declamation still resounding in the haunted space between us.

I didn’t know what to say, not least when I noticed the tortured expression he was affecting, as if the mere mention of his affliction had unleashed a plague of memories upon his tortured mind. I shuddered at the strain on his enormous brain.

Still he was awaiting a reaction, though. Despite summoning all of my faculties in response to his plethora, all I could manage was, ‘Really?’ and he nodded once, apparently meaning business.

‘Ask me something,’ he said, ‘anything. Something I wouldn’t know.’

By way, perhaps, of my recent studies, the first such question that appeared to mind concerned the year of publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, a successful book, all told.

My companion nodded and leaned back. His thick fingers pressed against the tufts of hair that protruded from his cap around the temples. He strained his face for several moments, turned a shade of red, and then began to mutter a strange incantation, a chant of what I can only assume were related facts: mental hooks for the elusive date that was drifting through his infinite mind. I was captivated. When eventually he located the answer he delivered it with confidence, setting out first the question, and then the vital year that had been requested. Unperturbed by my astonishment, he proceeded to detail of what the treatise comprised, where it had been written, how old the author had been upon publication, and finally with which Cambridge college he had been affiliated, and he then concluded his performance with a great wag of the head and a fold of the arms, and I do not exaggerate when I tell you I was agog. Absolutely everything he said had been wrong. Coming to terms with the stature of the man, several moments passed before I was able to speak.

‘But wasn’t he a fellow of Trinity?’ I said.

‘No,’ John confirmed, ‘he was not.’

And with this firm rebuttal I decided not to provoke his wrath any further, instead fleeing this danger by changing the subject. I asked him how he made his living. To what end did he exert his extraordinary powers? As a spy, perhaps? An inventor? A quizmaster? No, alas. I was disappointed to learn that he was in fact a businessman. He assured me that his wealth was significant, but that he had struggled for every penny. And with a shake of his finger he now changed the subject again, a tactic that left me dizzy.

I reflected: I’d never before met such an astounding liar. So serious was he that he may well have believed every word of his ridiculous spiel, and I saw no human reason to challenge this fanciful faith.

His discourse now turned to space, and it was clear that the possibilities of the vast black nothing had him rapt. He told me of wild inventions he had read about, and I sought to explain why I didn’t think they were possible, given my errant grasp of physics. This failed to diminish his interest in these matters, however, since he was a firm believer in alien technology far superior to our own. He carried on in real wonder, his outlandish descriptions punctuated by pauses of intense cogitation as he stared at a candle that was flickering to my left. ‘A man told me…of this ship…that can go so fast…’

His performance to this point had excited me so wildly that my patience was now rudely diminished, and I quickly tired of these science fiction fables. I wished to hear him speak again of human matters. Fortuitous thus was I that his huge jukebox of a mind then skipped to the matter of government conspiracies and I had the quite remarkable wisdom to ask him about the assassination of JFK. I was certain that of all men John would know what really went on, and I was glad when he agreed that Oswald could not possibly have done it by himself. His reasons for thinking so, however, were entirely his own. As he unfurled his explanation I waited silently, both attracted and repelled by the possibility of what I was about to hear.

‘You see, Chris, for Oswald to have made those shots…well, he would have had to be superhuman. Back then, when was it, 1969? There were only two people on the planet who could have made them…and me and my brother were on this side of the pond,’ and this time he didn’t even bother to acknowledge my incredulous reaction, just folded his upper body into a shooting stance, his muzzle pointing towards the window, and fired off shot after shot. ‘Paoww. Paoww.’

As if caressed by this reassuring memory of childhood he began to settle down again, and we then conversed in relaxed demeanour about his family, and about his working life and wealth, the source of which I could not quite discern. He had felt the bite of poverty, though, he assured me and no doubt, once owing twenty thousand pounds. He’d lost his house, his car, everything, but, he told me, this didn’t matter. ‘It’s only money. Doesn’t mean anything,’ and once more he gave me a testing stare from his great sagging eyes, but this time with grit in his cheeks, and I swear for a moment he looked like a genius.

I felt compelled to affirm the values he’d set forth and so complied: ‘No, I try not to worry about wealth,’ I said, and he nodded, satisfied with my answer. At which point the face of a lunatic returned.

‘I’ve dug the earth, Chris.’

I need not add that his ability to confound and unease was that of an expert. I stared back, slightly manic of a sudden, a confused smile playing at the edge of my mouth.

‘That,’ he said, ‘is hard … I’ve earned the right to my money,’ and he looked indignant as he said it.

‘Yes,’ I answered: that much was clear. ‘I worked in a warehouse last summer,’ I offered in return, eager to exploit my sole contact with working class life. ‘I was picking grocery orders and shifting crates…It wasn’t too bad for a few weeks, but then I didn’t have to support a family like most of the other men,’ and I shook my head to convey my respectful awe at the stoicism of the working chap. And then I noticed a dreadnought shadow swallowing over my glass and I looked up and saw him looming there over me, his arm thrust forth, massive, his girth seeming to encapsulate my entire field of vision. The surface of his appearance wobbled like a candle-flame, flickering occasionally. I couldn’t define his boundaries. I saw sunspots. His eyes focused on mine.

‘Feel it.’

I became crudely conspicuous of myself: my torso was pressed against the back of the bench, my arms flung behind it, and sweat was stinging my eyes. I reached out, trembling, trying to maintain a smile as I closed my hand upon the mighty wrist he held out for me, which looked like a leg of lamb in a farmer’s jacket. It was by far the largest arm I’ve ever encountered, three times the greater of mine. I was convinced even before I’d felt it that this man had dug the earth. I tried not to press too hard on the wax cloth. He was satisfied by my limp grip, however, and he returned oddly to his seat, grinning triumphantly, taking his time, as though hoping that others would note his prowess.

At this moment I fidgeted awkwardly because three unfriendly-seeming men at the bar were now staring at us with suspicious eyes, causing me to look down and notice that my glass was empty, an observation that was marked by John.

‘What are you drinking?’ my stout companion swiftly enquired.

‘Stout,’ I said, and smiled.

His features lifted, rampant with incredulity. ‘That,’ he spluttered, ‘is what my mother drinks! It’s shit! You should drink the real ale, my son.’

Now, I honestly did not know how to respond to this and therefore did not, and fumbled instead for a cigarette. He ignored my discomfort and lurched erratically to the bar, telling the barman loudly that I drank an old woman’s drink. He ordered in accord with my wishes, nonetheless. He took another half for himself, despite his own glass still sitting an inch from full, a level it had not deviated from since the moment he’d sat down.

As he made his order the three regulars at the bar observed him from their perches. He seemed to amuse them, which made me smile. Then he turned to them, his head wobbling and sporting its most affable lunatic smile. ‘Now, can I buy you gents a drink? Anyone? Anyone?’ With barely concealed amusement the three declined the offer. John, however, was particularly insistent, which to my great distress prompted the synchronised draining of the men’s glasses, a coordinated action that was frankly uncalled for and which surely had humiliation at the base of its design.

‘Time to go, lads,’ the eldest of the three said, and they all left presently, the last of them looking over at me with an expression that I inferred to mean something like, ‘Get out while you can, he’s a fucking fruit.’

John was quite aware of what had happened, and perhaps was even as sentient as I to the likelihood that these drinkers had walked directly to the next pub, three doors along. I caught his eye as he looked across at me, forlorn, and I mustered all of my resources and smiled vacantly back at him. This, remarkably, seemed to do the trick of reassurance, spurring him to turn sharply about. ‘Do you know,’ he informed the sympathetic barman, ‘I think I’ll have your largest cigar,’ and he patted his belly opulently and the barman smiled. I lit a roll-up, eyes glued to the drama, and pulled greedily on it. ‘Chris,’ he called, ‘do you want a large cigar?’ and I shook my head, exhaling my smoke in a controlled fashion and holding my device aloft. ‘Or are you managing with what you’ve…’ he continued unnecessarily, his voice trailing off. He paid up and wandered pack, the cigar in his pocket, and he set down the glasses exactly. Then he lit the mock-Cuban at length and puff-puff-puffed. His composure returned.

‘Do you want to see a magic trick?’ He wagged his head at me, leaning back in his chair and raising his eyebrows enthusiastically. I looked at him blankly, the fresh stout lapping at my lip. ‘I,’ he whispered, ‘can levitate.’

I put down my drink. ‘Really?’

‘My brother showed me how.’

Dispensing with his cigar, he seemingly floated to the centre of the empty room and stopped. His feet moved daintily on the sticky pub floor, arranging themselves with esoteric precision. He took many deep breaths and looked up. As vital as composure, it seemed, was posture: he gripped his jacket like a nobleman, as though clutching two imaginary lapels between thumb and fist.

I expected him to do it.

Then, daintily as a ballerina, he lifted his entire body up such that the foot closest to me now hovered a full inch above the ground. The ball of the other foot, upon which he had assuredly transferred all of his weight, was cunningly obscured from view. He paused for a moment in mid-air, and then drifted calmly back to earth. As he returned to his chair he looked distinctly smug. ‘It’s good, isn’t it?’ He puffed on his cigar, spluttered, and returned it to the ashtray.

I couldn’t speak straight away, and I cannot swear that a spot of dribble didn’t fall from my lip as I stared, taking him in. ‘You didn’t … actually, though … did you?’ I shrugged, smiling apologetically, and then right away regretted my words, realising that the only noble course of action was to have roared in approval at his sleight of foot. He fell silent, and looked straight into me. A candle flickered.

‘Well no…I mean, of course I didn’t…but it’s clever, isn’t it? It is what is known as,’ he added, ‘an optical illusion. Do you want me to show you again?’ My urge to politely decline this offer was immediate and overwhelming, yet was nevertheless too late in arriving. Before I’d had a chance to draw breath and select a negative word or two he’d already positioned himself in the centre of the room, arranging his feet, breathing calmly, all eyes in the bar now fixed on him, then…’Ah-ah!’…and he victoriously returned to his seat. ‘Now,’ he winked, ‘did you work out how I did it this time?’ I looked down and noticed that the glass in his hand was full. To the left of his fleshy paw was a now-empty half pint jar, and I hadn’t seen a thing. I looked up, nodded nervously, and drew deeply from my glass.

A silence then passed that would have suffocated the hope of many a man, but John possessed fortitude like no other. He simply sat and concocted his next move. The tension was unbearable. I closed my eyes and braced myself.

‘Do you know…Chrissy,’ he started of a sudden, wagging his head with visible glee, ‘what I wanted to be when I was a boy?’

‘No,’ I answered confidently.

‘…’

‘…’

‘No…well, of course you don’t know,’ he conceded. ‘But guess!’ His tongue stroked the inside of his cheek as you would a cat. He waited with raised eyebrows, tapping his cigar. The relief that only moments before had surged through me now drained ominously away. I bowed my head in concentration.

‘A magician?’

‘No.’

‘A soldier?’

No.

‘A racing driver?’

‘Nope’

‘Bus driver.’

‘Nor that. Not a driver.’

‘An actor, then?’

‘Nope.’

It occurred to me to facetiously suggest ‘A businessman,’ but instead I simply said, ‘I give up.’

‘Do you give up?’ he demanded. I was unsure whether he was seeking the pleasure of forcing me to repeat my concession, or if he was simply operating a few seconds behind reality.

‘Yes,’ I confirmed, and awaited the revelation.

‘An explorer!’ he whispered ever so loudly, his eyes lighting like fireworks at the sound of the word. ‘Marching across the South Pole! There, son,’ he confirmed, ‘you’d really be alone.’

This last detail skittled my thoughts, which initially had conjured public school types with groomed blonde moustaches, nasal voices and army-issue backpacks, leading a legion of men into unknown territory in the name of the Queen. And now of a sudden something entirely different had been brought to mind, a vision that provoked in me an immediate suffering and which haunts me still as I sit here in the Witching Hour writing at my desk: the image of little boy John, awake at night and shivering under his sheets, praying to God for the solitude, the intense cold, the emptiness of the South Pole.

‘Why would you wish to be alone like that?’ I asked him, my voice uneasy, the vision of the schoolboy’s prayer already fixed in my mind.

‘Because that,’ he said, ‘is what makes the explorer the best of men. Forget success or fame, I’m talking about glory. An explorer is the bravest of them all. You do it all on your own … walking on land where no man else has trod. There’s no one there to help you. That,’ he nodded, ‘is a strong man. When you’re truly on your own, forging a path in the world, that’s when have to be strong.’

He fell quiet. His incredible elastic features had subdued and the notion came to me that he was now recalling every occasion in his life when he’d relied on another, that he was reliving shame about his every moment of weakness. And all of a sudden I was possessed by an acute feeling of guilt, for was I not now an accessory to this repeated suffering of his? He’d sought my company, after all. But then I looked him in the eye and I felt certain that despite the pain it might cause him, he wanted me to stay. He was seeking a moment’s respite from his life’s burden, I believe: sympathy, perhaps, or just a little understanding. In any case, he’d be alone again soon enough. I decided to let him take all the time he needed. It was not long, however, before he spoke again.

‘What are you going to do,’ he coughed, ‘when you finish your studies?’

‘I haven’t a clue,’ I blushed.

‘You’ll be rich,’ he said. ‘No doubt about it. With your degree you’ll walk into a career. Mark my words, Chrissy, you’ll do well.’

Now it was my turn to evoke discomfort. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to do a job just for the money,’ and I avoided meeting his eye, quite aware of the privileged position my place at this institution afforded me.

He smirked back at me, no less aware. ‘What do you want to do, then?’

‘I don’t know,’ I repeated, and I smiled frankly at him and reached for my tobacco. It was hardly an inquisition, and in any case I felt I owed him something, but on this particular topic I truly had nothing more to give. ‘I’m actually a bit worried about it,’ I mumbled, a cigarette filter obstructing my speech.

As I licked the paper and sealed my roll-up my eyes flicked up at him and I realised that my confession of anxiety had caused him pain. He sat up and his speech became uncomfortably sincere: ‘Chrissy…look at me, Chrissy…You are the…strongest, most intelligent person I’ve ever met.’ I felt he was pleading with me, as though he’d seen into my future and witnessed a terrible fate. ‘You’re going to do fine,’ he said, his thick voice quivering at its edges, ‘Fine. Nothing to worry about.’

I gulped. I didn’t understand what had occurred. Had he truly looked into my soul? Or was his speech nothing other than heartfelt nonsense? Had his artifice really fallen apart? And all of a sudden I saw him standing there naked, squirming in the candle flame that flickered in the huge, dark pool at the centre of his eye.

‘What have you got to worry about?’ he persisted. ‘Money?’ His frustration was clear. He still appeared to believe, despite all protestation, that I’d allowed myself to be subjugated by material worry. ‘Chrissy, if you’re ever short of cash I’ll lend it you.’ He laughed and looked at the cigar in his hand, which was clearly not to his taste. ‘What do I need money for? A few thousand, no interest. Don’t you worry…Heck! What am I saying? A good friend like you? You can have it!’ As embarrassed as I was by this crazy offer, I was relieved that my companion had regained his form. ‘When do you want it? Any time! A few thou, you just say the word, Chrissy! You can’t worry about money, you know!’ He was excited and truly serious: about the point, if not the offer.

I thanked him, told him money wasn’t really a problem. I simply wanted him to change the subject. He had no need to impress me. I’d felt uncomfortable enough when he asked for that ridiculous cigar. I don’t think he realised how much I took for granted over this table, and even if he did, I’d lost all desire to pick away at his ridiculous façade.

‘Have it your way,’ he said, ‘but the offer’s there,’ and I said nothing. I then feared that once more a frightful silence was about to descend on us, only for him to burst with an irreverent chuckle and I looked and could see that he’d managed to relight the flare behind his face.

‘What, then,’ he said, ‘did you want to be when you were a boy?’ He twiddled his cigar, which was now proving a helpful prop, if nothing else. ‘Don’t be shy!’

Now, I must explain at this point that I’d anticipated the question. He was doing his best to disorientate me, of course, by changing topic erratically, such was his genius, but the revelation of his dark desire to be an explorer had lingered nevertheless. It seemed to stand out as a clue to the meaning of his visit: a flag in the snow, cracking in the wind, beckoning me towards it. I tried to recall my own childhood dreams, to unearth something of similar character, but my mind remained a blank. I remembered our home and how I used to climb trees in the woods; playing on the Down’s Banks, the Plot, the Mudleys, the Mole-Hole. I’m not sure I wanted for anything in those sweet, carefree days. I’m not sure I ever much imagined growing up, and honestly I can’t remember wanting to be anything particular when I did. And now, years later, fully grown, I still struggle to imagine growing up, and still don’t want to be anything particular when I do, the only difference being that these days, unlike in my childhood, I feel like I’m permanently wanting for something.

For the last few years I’d been set on training as a physicist, but that had blown up spectacularly. It turned out that those scientific studies were not conducive to my wellbeing, they did not nourish my soul. And since abandoning that straightforward and decided course, something in my life had been lacking. Meaning, direction, purpose: call it what you will. It is the void that drives my father’s relentless questioning on our weekly call: ‘What are you going to do with yourself after you graduate?’ he demands. ‘What are you going to do? What?’ I had no present desire to go over all of that again. At least my about-turn meant I didn’t have to tell John that I wished to be something as urbane as a man in a white coat. That wouldn’t have done at all. Not after what he’d shared.

Then the thought occurred. I saw it coming to me in slow-motion, dancing through the fog of the room. An image from a film; a sequence that had captured my mind. The slow, graceful waltz of a little craft as it slowly floats inside a majestic, turning space wheel: how they corkscrew together in perfect harmony.

‘I wanted to be an astronaut,’ I told him.

He was ecstatic. ‘Well, you can be an astronaut! You’re clever, you’re strong: that’s all they want!’

I shrugged and watched his face as it frowned in concentration.

‘When I was a boy, Chrissy, I always thought I’d be the first man on Mars. The red planet. Have you seen Mars?…It’s amazing!’ He looked at me now with that same boy’s wonder. ‘It’s bright red, of course, and it’s got canyons hundreds of miles deep. That’s where they are, if they exist.’

‘If who exist?’ I knew what he meant, of course, but I hoped I was wrong.

‘Tell me, Chrissy,’ he asked as he stroked his lip, his eyes gazing at the ceiling and perhaps envisioning the infinity beyond, ‘do you believe there could be life on Mars?’

I stifled a grin and replied soberly, quoting at length a few scientific explanations as to why it was highly unlikely: mostly bits of chemistry and biology I’d picked up here and there. Sadness descended on me as I spoke, not from quelling his Martian hopes, but from the belief that the profundity of our encounter may well have run its course, that this turn of conversation signalled that his interest had reverted to speculative themes. Reflecting on it now, I suppose my reaction reveals just how acutely and ambiguously I’d already come to depend on the man. I’m no mystic, dear reader, but more than once this evening has the word ‘supernatural’ visited itself upon my mind. But anyway, as a way of concluding this digression, I note that my fears proved in fact without foundation, that he had no intention of divorcing our debate from his profound discourse on the human condition.

‘It doesn’t matter of course,’ he said, ‘whether they exist or not. The first man on Mars will be the greatest explorer of all time, aliens or none. The first of our species to set foot on another planet…but we’re a few years off that yet.’ He looked up reflectively. ‘Otherwise I’d go.’

I laughed. ‘No offence, John, but I think they’d send someone younger than you. A scientist, perhaps?’

‘No, no, no,’ he said. ‘That may be the case when you’re talking about the moon, Chrissy, but this is Mars. What is it? Three years away in a fast ship?’

I shrugged. I had no idea and didn’t care. I wanted only to hear what he had to say.

‘You’d come back from the moon soon enough. They can send who they like for that.’

‘But you’d come back from Mars!’ I exclaimed. ‘Eventually! There’s no reason why not!’

He bowed his head so that now I was faced by the checked surface of his flat cap. It seemed to dissolve before my eyes and smile. I looked at his hand, which gripped the diminutive glass of ale, as ever an inch from full.   I sensed that beneath his cap he was grinning, but when he raised his face it had been wiped of all discernible emotion. I stared at him and awaited his judgement with trepidation. And then finally he shook his head, slowly and at length, and a chuckle broke from his cheeks, a chuckle at the innocence of my youth.

‘You wouldn’t come back,’ he said. ‘Not from Mars.’ And he looked at me with intent once more, netting me in those huge sincere eyes. Their sadness haunted me, haunts me still. His countenance had come to possess a futile quality, and through his recumbent jowls I could trace twitches that betrayed a clenching of teeth. At one point I thought I saw those great eyes of his well up, but I cannot be sure as no drops fell. I stared, unblinking, as he spoke.

‘You have to understand, Chrissy…Space…it’s cold…It’s cold and you won’t come back, and when you’re up there you’re on your own.’ He looked down at his drink. ‘They wouldn’t send you, Chrissy. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. But me? It doesn’t matter about some old sod like me.’

‘But what about your wife, your children?’ I demanded, my voice cracking. People were looking. I would have shaken him by the shoulders if only I’d possessed the courage to make a scene.

‘They’d understand,’ he said, now cupping his miniature glass inside both giant paws. He looked up. ‘But it’ll be too late for me. You’ll be my age before they’re ready to go to Mars. And that’s why you’ll be the one to go.’

I couldn’t believe my ears. My hands gripped the edge of the bench.

‘Your wife will understand what you have to do; your kids will be proud of their old man. The strongest man in the human race.’ He lowered his head once more and I smiled, unsure of what to say.

‘John, you were born too soon,’ I tried, suddenly feeling as though I was in a soap opera. Yet a hint of a smile on the injured face suggested I was on the right track and I was spurred to persevere. ‘You can’t choose the time you live in,’ I said. ‘All you can do is make sure that you’re ready, if ever they need you. And you would have been ready, John. You would have been ready if you’d got the call.’

He held his smile for a moment, and then the corners of his mouth fell down, sliding those great cheeks across the vast flanks of his face, and with this sage expression he nodded slowly into space and raised his glass. ‘To you, Chrissy. Thank you.’

And for a long time we sat at one with our silence, both rocking our heads in that same wise rhythm, our eyes exchanging through the magical fog the final sentiments of our meeting. Outside now the darkness was pitch, and at some point the candles inside had been bolstered by dull electric lighting, though in all the time we’d been there the illumination in the room seemed not to have deviated from that single dark shade of ochre. I sank the dregs from my glass and pocketed my tobacco, got into my coat and slung my bag over my shoulder.

I went to shake his hand. ‘Thanks for the drink, John.’ He took my hand in his giant mitt and stood up. Before I could react he’d embraced me, enfolding my tired torso in cold wax cloth. Into my ear he spoke:

‘Good luck, Chrissy. You’re the strongest, nicest bloke I ever met. You’ll go to Mars. Be ready.’ And he pulled back to look me in the eye a final time, to check I’d understood. For a moment I thought he was going to perform a salute. ‘Remember that only the strongest can go.’ And again he clasped me, too hard this time, and I felt a terrible urgent need to leave, to remove myself from this unhinging of emotion.

‘It was good to meet you, John,’ I said.

When he released me I thanked him again but by then I was already walking away, overcome by the desire to escape his world, and now I did not look back. In the front room I caught a gust of chill evening air as I broke into a trot. The barman, collecting glasses, looked at me quirkily as I passed by and asked, ‘Do you know that guy?’

‘Fuck no!’ I laughed, suddenly red with embarrassment, and as I turned up the street my laughter continued, it continued all the way up the hill and back to college, in fact; and it was no longer laughter of embarrassment, I think, but from some other, blacker well of anxiety and joy that the strange events of the evening had sprung. And, as the hours passed subsequently in my room, as I paced and smoked and drank and continued to spasm with involuntary nervous chuckles, I attempted to grasp just what precisely was at the root of this disturbing levity. Yet try as I might I could not find my way around the edges of the problem, could not remove myself from it, so to speak, and consider it from a distance. And at the end of much strained cogitation I conceded that the meaning of John’s visit was likely for now to remain a mystery to me, no less than the shape of my future self must remain a mystery to the present chap.

And so, defeated by the problem, I determined at the very least to set down the tale in pure honest detail, to set it down here as you have just encountered it, unabridged, full and fresh from the mind, such that one day hereafter some other enquirer, perhaps even my own grown-up self, might review this strange encounter afresh. And considering it in light of the subsequent twists and turns of my life, my successes and failures, it is sincerely hoped that the investigator might thereby come to some conclusion as to what truly passed inside my soul this odd December evening.

 

 

BIO

christopher bransonChristopher Branson was shortlisted for the 2016 Impress Prize for New Writers and has recently been published in The Ham. He is close to completing a comic novel about a young man trying to recover from a profound love affair that never happened. Prior to focusing on fiction he wrote a doctoral thesis on Nietzsche. He lives in London, England. @tarkovskysdog

 

 

 

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