Astronaut

I stay here on my back for a while, staring at the sun behind the muted black and gold glass of the helmet. My head feels like cotton wool, but when I find a way to focus enough, the only emotion I latch on to is a placid bemusement. Eventually I lift my arms, testing the weight of the bulky suit. Back in the hospital, I had struggled to pull the book up to my eyes, my muscles stretching taut as piano wires. Now, although I can’t see the state of my body beneath this suit, my arms rise without yielding to their own dull weight. What page had I been on with that book? I remember the way the solicitor had looked at it when I’d put it down to speak to her, the tattered bookmark wedged between the fat block of pages, a third in. The plot was heating up, but I couldn’t read fast enough, especially when solicitors kept coming in talking about wills. And the parade of family members; some I hadn’t even seen for a decade. What was it now? Had there been a detective? I drop my arms to my sides and fumble to prop myself up on the sand. The gloves are so thick that they feel more like paws, but they serve me well enough. With some effort, I struggle to my feet. Thinking it the polite thing to do, I pick up the surfboard that lay next to me and tuck it under my arm. I try not to think about it, nor question its garish colours. The heavy boots anchor me and the suit is so bulky that I bet there is no way I could fall over; it would just stand up on its own. It makes a change, I think, to the crunching quiver of my usual walk. When I could walk. I fumble at the visor of the helmet, but I can’t find a button to flip it open. Around me, a desert seems to go on for miles; a rusty colour, even through the visor’s tinted glass. I scrabble at the helmet again but it doesn’t budge. My chest tightens. My breathing is too close and quick. I smack at it. If Dad were here he would tell me to think of something big and open, but this desert is vast enough to swallow up a scream. I stab the surfboard into the sand and hold it tight, rooting myself. The thin hiss of oxygen swirls inside the helmet. There were times in the hospital when an oxygen mask was pressed hard to my face. The air was too pure: it pulled at my lungs and made me dizzy. At first, I had not been able to catch my breath. The nurse said it would help and, eventually, it did. But never as much as that book. When I feel that I can breathe again, I heave the surfboard up, up out of the ground, and kick at the sand to show it who’s boss. The particles are tiny and fade into a dust so fine that it seems to evaporate. Well, I think, I may as well head off. What else can be done? I walk with slow, stomping footsteps, at first. It is hard to push the suit forwards; it protests against bending at the knee. But then I get the hang of it. Soon enough, I’m picking up some speed and turn to look at my footprints behind me. ‘That’s one small step for man.’ I announce, tracking my way across the empty sands. My surfboard is heavier with each step, but in this suit I am strong. The sun blazes down from an empty blue sky, reflecting off the clinical white of the material. But I don’t feel it. I’m cool, the oxygen humming around me. I pass the time by trying to remember that book. There was a detective in it, I’m sure. And someone was chasing something, maybe. I kept turning the pages and these bodies kept coming up, the way that they do. It was no longer enough to have just a little bit of intrigue in a mystery anymore; nobody takes it seriously until the body count rockets. ‘You can’t read that, love. Why don’t you read something a little lighter?’ My mum had said when she arrived with the usual batch of sherbet lemons and cards. She wore enough perfume to make my eyes water; protection against the antiseptic stink of the room. ‘You know what I found in the attic the other day? The wind and the willows. You remember how you loved that? You used to dress up in your dad’s waistcoat and jump around between the sofas, saying you were Toad of Toad Hall, you know.’ There must have been no recognition in my eyes because her face pinched together before I could say anything. ‘You don’t remember? You were such a little character, leaping about all the time.’ Her voice cracked and she started to her feet. She suddenly needed the ladies. I didn’t want anything to do with The wind and the willows, but I said, ‘sure,’ to keep her happy, and did the polite thing of ignoring how red her eyes were when she came back. I had never felt so constrained by etiquette as I did on that ward, which was quite an odd thing when you’re peeing in a bag. In any case, I kept the murder-book. I just pushed it into a drawer when my mum came around. I had even put a napkin between the pages of The wind and the willows for her, moving it on a few pages every day. I tried to figure out how long I had left. It was not a long book and I wanted to show that I would finish it before things ended. But not too early. I was afraid what Mum would produce once I had. Mr Men books, probably. ‘You adored them as a child! They’re cheerful.’ I was sure she would say. Only, what she would mean was; ‘nice and short.’ The desert seems to go on forever in every direction. I look back at my footsteps, squinting, trying to work out if I’m still going in a straight line. I’m no sailor; I have no idea how to orientate myself by the sun. Or if it is it even moving. How long have I been here? I study the horizon and pick out a large rock to aim for. I point the surfboard out, lining it up, and follow its nose. In the book, the main character had a dog to do that sort of thing. It was a loyal mutt and it would sniff about the dark alleys. It was usually the dog that found the bodies, the detective—what was his name?—he just dealt with the aftermath and tried to figure out why. I try to think of the characters of each of the victims but draw a blank. I know what they were: The sultry coffee shop dame, the surly pawnbroker and, when I last placed the bookmark, the noble police officer, but I don’t really know who they were. They popped up when convenient, but, really, they were just tropes. I imagine myself slipped into that line-up: the patient. Maybe it was not even a very good book. But I’d read it like man drinks water in, well, a desert. As I walk, I am not hot—that makes sense. But neither am I thirsty and that frightens me. The horizon is impossibly flat, but that boulder sticks up in layered shards like a castle. I keep my eyes on it, willing my feet forwards, concentrating on the book. Things had been heating up; the detective and his dog had the trail. But I know how these things work, the big reveal wouldn’t come until the end. Up until then you had all these alibis and motivations and red herrings to unpick. Too clever for me. On Mum’s last visit I pulled out The wind and the willows, with the napkin on the last page; the pain had had a gnawing, cold feeling that day and I thought it was a safe bet. She had seen it, I was sure. I remember her hands on my face and her tears pressed against my cheeks and I was frightened to look her in the eyes. All I could think about was that other, fat book half-finished in the drawer. Why did the coffee shop dame, the pawnbroker and the policeman have to die? They didn’t know each other. They were strangers, all of them. They’d done nothing but short change a few people, get lusty on the side, maybe take a bribe that they regretted. Human stuff. But they were strangers. Badly written strangers in a plot I was out of time to solve. I kick my boot against the base of the rock and almost trip over, but I don’t feel anything. I look down. I lurch with vertigo and almost drop the surfboard as I grab for the boulder. The horizon isn’t a horizon, it’s an edge. In front of me there is a sheer drop, the desert just a coating before a plunge of straight black rock that drops away into a blue expanse. More sky? I tilt my head this way and that, trying to compensate for the shading on the visor. I can make out the tiny crests of waves, far below. Up here, I can’t hear anything but the hissing of the oxygen and yet I know that if I can just get close enough I will hear the ocean breathe. I stand up straight and try to keep my balance. That addictive little book of cardboard cut-outs would still be in the drawer now. Perhaps someone will find it, read it and the detective and his dog will finally solve the case. The murders would have a point. The coffee shop dame, the pawnbroker, the policeman and the patient. That’s how these stories work, even the badly written ones. I step out to the edge, brandishing the surfboard like a shield. I leap like Mr Toad.

Leanne Williams