Orbit

John Kinsella

Two-stage rocket with capsule equals: two forty-four gallon drums, the side of a packing case, fencing wire, switches from an old country telephone exchange, wooden fruit boxes and a pram seat. A gantry made from fence pickets and nails, looking like a ladder but being so much more, and a blast area of grey sand with tufts of wild oats (green), with mission control (manned by a cardboard box, pineapple-tin-legged robot with red globes for eyes and two batteries series-circuited together for innards) the great brick and concrete shed his father used for servicing cars and trucks.

Launch time was straight after breakfast Saturday. Preparations had been over a couple of weeks, though no one had noticed. His dad was away, maybe forever, and his mum had the baby to worry about.

He’d acquired a roll of tinfoil. Where is that foil? his mother had asked herself, not even glancing in his direction. Then the baby cried because it had ‘done a nappy’. He needed the foil to protect him from the rays. Deflection. He went to his dad’s ‘rag bag’ in the shed and took as many as he thought he could get away with: insulation.

He knew the risks he was taking, but he was prepared. He’d given his mum an extra-big hug after his porridge, and she looked surprised. But there was no reason a cosmonaut couldn’t show affection to his mother. It made him no less brave. He even tickled the baby under the chin and felt warm when it laughed. Irritating thing. But it was, after all, kin. His dad, well, he’d shake hands with him on his return, if either of them made it back. No point making a song and dance before something was done. When his father had injured his back in his fourth big-time league football match he’d said to his son, See, if I’d made a song and dance about getting in the team, I’d look ridiculous now. I’ll never play again, son, never. I am washed up before I’ve begun. But at least I didn’t humiliate myself. His father had squeezed his hand so hard when he said this, the boy almost cried. He would never cry, not even if he started burning up on re-entry. After all, the pain and fear wouldn’t last long. It’d be over in an instant. What you don’t know about won’t hurt you. Don’t cry over spilled milk. You’ve got to be in it to win it. The mantras followed him all the way to the launch site.

Scaling the gantry, he thought of the apricots just about ripen on the tree by the hedge. Don’t eat too many of them, or you’ll get collywobbles. He risked taking three or four. He also had a glass bottle in the capsule, in case he needed to take a piss. His pockets were sticky with winegums he’d saved from his afterschool Friday treat. Spacefood.

He stepped into the capsule and pushed the gantry away. There’d be no going back. The countdown was at T-minus five and counting. He closed the hatch with tinfoil and wedged some rag in around the gap between his seat and the foil. He stored his supplies. Settling into the seat, he drew a strap across his waist. He pushed the motorbike helmet (cracked—a gift from an uncle after a near-fatal accident) over his head. He flicked the toggle switches in front of him, and ran through his checklist. There was a dodgy reading in the port thruster so he tapped a gauge. It came right. The Soviet space program had to make do with what they could dig up, but it usually came through. Solid, he reassured himself.

Then there was a moment of genuine alarm. A red light. A bell sounding. What was it? He pulled off his helmet to listen. It was his mother calling him from the back step. Gee, she was loud. He could hear her over the brooding engines. Once they ignited in a few minutes, tens of thousands of pounds of thrust would eviscerate the surrounding area. His mum could be irritating, and she was always crying or yelling, or cuddling him, but she was one of the reasons he was doing this. She needed to know that at least one of her men could make good, would leave and return a better person. She would be proud of him. She was calling, Come to the phone, your cousins want to know if you’d like to go for a swim. Where are you?

And then she was gone. He was always vanishing. He was always wandering down to the beach. He wasn’t allowed to swim on his own, but he was allowed to pick up shells and make sandcastles and wander the shore. He liked that. They were only a stone’s throw away. And he’d learned to swim early. He was the best swimmer in the world for his age. He could swim the entire Indian Ocean if need be. He could rescue a full-grown man from the breakers which smashed incessantly on the beach, filling his ears and his bedroom endlessly. He looked forward to the silence of space. The vacuum. His mother had been a swimming teacher and though she lived by the sea she was always saying to his dad, I wish we had a pool, I could give lessons. Don’t be daft, woman, he’d say, we’ve got half the world’s water on our doorstep. You can’t teach lessons in surf, she’d say.

The ocean was central to his plan. After re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, he’d splash down just beyond the breakers and surf his way in. The beach was deserted at this time of year so he wouldn’t get busted or land on anyone. True, there’d be no witnesses, other than the gulls and the dolphins, but he’d know, and his mother would believe him. She always believed him. And she’d tell Dad, and if he didn’t believe, Mum would insist and he’d either believe or leave again. How many times had he left? This time, though, he said, I’ll be fucked if I am coming back! Don’t swear in front of the boy, she’d cried. But the boy knew every swear word. The boy knew every word that’d ever been written or said. He knew why he was on earth. He had a purpose. He had a mission.

Helmet back on, he continued the check. T-minus two and counting. The engines were hotting up and the whole launch vehicle began shaking. Just for a second, he wondered if it’d hold together, if he hadn’t been a little hasty joining the two stages. He was briefly concerned for the integrity of the vehicle. But it was too late for doubts.

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