The Politics of Space: 1 The Last Astronaut
After months of searching, Kneale had finally tracked down the last astronaut in Britain. Leaving his car parked in a small lay-by overhung with dark green trees, he set off across the fields. Escape from the endless rounds of lost dummies and wet nappies that would soon turn into demands for MP3 players and Playstations felt good. His delicate pale coffee babies and his beautiful wife Nadia receded as he travelled further away from the road and deeper into the countryside. Sometimes waist deep in thick grass and poppies, others struggling through trees and briars, the sun measured his progress.
He'd uncovered the astronaut's whereabouts from a retired military man. Meeting him at the boys' school where he taught, the military man had nervously rubbed his greying moustache, his clipped voice betraying equally empire and combat, competing with the shouts of football and the echoes of laughter in cloisters.
"He lives in a house surrounded by trees. You'll not find it on any map and you can't reach it by any road. Gazing out over bright green playing fields the military man warned he was making ripples. "There's not many left of us now. Don't think that no one knows you're talking to me. News travels fast. Rapid.
Kneale had begun to think that the military man had led him astray when he rounded the end of a small hill and entered a woodland. Although he didn't have any details, he was sure that he would know the astronaut's house if he found it. He'd trained himself to spot the footprints of astronauts and others like them on the landscape, revealing themselves like ruins of a forgotten civilisation. Throughout the zones where suburbs procreated with industrial estates, spawning ever-growing tentacles of road and motorway he'd spot relics of these people. Strange towers bristling with antennae overlooking primary schools. Great sculptures of pipe and steel nestling forgotten by railway lines. Buildings of thick concrete visible in the distance through rotting chain link fences and remote outposts plastered with danger signs. It was as if two worlds had coexisted, sharing the same space, as if, after the war the country had been briefly colonised by a benign and superior invader. Pointing them out to Nadia only made her laugh. Like trying to describe a dream on waking, he could never convey to her just what these things meant, what they represented. To him, since he had begun his investigations, the English landscape was overflowing with latent meaning.
Walking quietly, a fox stopped to look at him with wise eyes. A group of rabbits crossed his path, pausing to observe him before going on their way. A red squirrel on a branch watched him dispassionately he stepped into the bright golden sunlight of a clearing and almost into the last astronaut's house.
Constructed from white concrete rectangles and raised on stilts above the forest floor, most of the side facing Kneale was glass. Inside he could see the impression of an old man, tall and moving towards the door at the top of a small flight of steps. Kneale stopped dead and stayed within the periphery of the trees, watching.
For a man as old as the last astronaut, his voice had a thick theatrical timbre and an impressive depth. "Boy, come out of the trees, there's a fella. I've been expecting you.
Inside, the house was immaculate. Integrated storage seamlessly lined the walls. Stylish nineteen fifties furniture filled the place as if stored for posterity in a London museum. Sunlight came through a huge skylight, overhanging trees dappling the last astronaut as he sat in a comfortable winged chair.
"Do sit, there's a boy.
The last astronaut, Troon, offered Kneale a cigarette from a heavy box of exotic looking metal. Kneale declined, looking on as Troon lit up and began coughing deep wet coughs.
Settling back on his chair, Kneale felt a tremor of excitement run through him. If anyone knew what had happened to his father, it would be Troon.
"I've come about my Father.
"Of course you have, why else would you come to see an old myth like me? Troon giggled and coughed again, his face still giving the ghost of the strong and vital man he must once have been. "I'm sure that it must have been your mother that put you on the trail?
Kneale hadn't expected Troon to be so sharp. He expected him to be old and forgetful, like the country, surrounded by new machines to keep him alive and take the pain away, slipping into a second childhood.
"A wonderful woman your mother, never given her due of course.
Kneale felt his mother's resentment boil inside him, a part of her he carried with him. His father had left them one misty spring morning, waving goodbye to them as his car pulled out of the driveway into the ordered and leafy lanes of the new town that they lived in. His mother, a brilliant scientist in her own right, standing dutifully on the threshold of their semi, uncomfortable in the frilled apron tied around her elegant frame, lifted him up to wave over the privet hedge. He remembered the black trilby on his father's head as the car travelled into the distance. Neither of them saw him again.
"Your mother was quite the equal of your father. In many ways, she was more. " Troon shifted in his seat, looking upward into the sunlight, revealing milky blue pupils. "She was a wonderfully human woman. Your father had the outward urge, same as all of us in those days. But in him, it burned like a beacon. Nothing stood in his way.
"We were the first. The Russians and the Yanks got all the press, but we got there first. The government figured there wasn't room for three players in the Space Race, so we stood back and let the Yanks take all the glory. Look where trying to be a superpower is getting us now. But then, all the time, in the background, we were working; making advances with tiny amounts of money and resources.
Kneale had heard stories like these in the months it had taken him to track Troon down. It was like there was a web tying together obscure people and places in a way that suggested a different and divergent history of post war Britain. He'd heard them from a drunken and dapper old man with a bowler hat drowsing himself in gin in a country club bar, telling of failed nuclear tests and robots, who insisted on showing him dog-eared photos from his wallet of young women in cat suits being tied up and tortured. He'd heard them from an intense man with a knitted brow who insisted on meeting him in the middle of a vast expanse of coastal sand at low tide for fear of surveillance, constantly looking about him as if ready to be captured at any minute. He'd even heard it from a lonely old women with a clipped BBC voice made rough by sadness who told of the day that her husband destroyed himself and a classroom full of children with a suitcase bomb.
"The first one was a disaster, two men gone and one¦ My god, poor Victor. I knew him before he¦ Troon carefully stubbed out his cigarette before lighting a fresh one. "Your father was there, realised that poor Victor met something up there in that cold blackness that made him more than a man and much less too. When he changed, your father put him down like a diseased animal.
"Before they had time to collect what remained of Victor he was beginning again, forever rushing forward into the future. It's not quiet you know, space. The only people who know what goes on there are the people who've been. Your father knew that, that's what spurred him on, the fact that he would never see it." Troon coughed again. "Like one of those johnnies with their pictures of nudey ladies hidden away from the wife, obsessed with seeing more and more because they know that they'll never see it in real life. Through explosion and riots he kept on, barrelling forwards, trying to hurl himself into the future¦
Troon smiled what must once have been a devastating smile. "Britain could have been great again, everything on a rational footing, everything planned by men of ethics and logic.
Putting his hand up, slicing through the cigarette smoke in the still air, Kneale had begun to speak before he fully knew what he was going to say.
"Troon, how did my father die?
Troon giggled again before launching into a coughing fit that seemed to last forever. Clearing his throat, he fixed Kneale with his pale-misted eyes.
"Die? Why my dear boy, I thought you must have realised, your father's not dead.
Fighting his way back to the car, retracing his steps, he thought of his mother and the endless final months in the cancer hospice with the long windows, waiting, constantly thumbing the button of the tiny box next to her that sent an electrical charge to nullify the pain. Laughing bitterly, she called the black knot eating her from inside her his father's final gift. Ground down by famines, crimes and wars on the wall bracketed television opposite her bed that she couldn't stop watching, she cursed his father for failing, sobbing and grabbing her sheets with hands that looked the knotted roots of an exotic plant. Other times she berated him for succeeding, watching footage of soldiers deploying new technologies in foreign countries. Kneale had tried to keep notes, piecing together what remained of the world that his mother and father had occupied.
In the last days, she slipped in and out of consciousness increasingly talking elliptically as if the past and the present had folded together. The last time she spoke, she'd looked directly at him. "How can a man care for the world when he doesn't care for his family? Her eyes were clear and sharp, her voice strong and full. "I believed in him, in progress and rationality. There were to be no mysteries, no intrigues. Your father sacrificed me to the future and I don't think it was worth it.
It was dusk by the time he reached the car; a warm, balmy evening peppered by the last few trills of birdsong. Nothing had changed but everything was different. His father was alive. The stories were true. Putting the key into the door, the punch caught him completely by surprise, throwing him into the moist fecundity of a ditch that seemed to move like the deck of a ship at sea.
Tasting coppery blood in his mouth, Kneale noticed the second car now, an absurd 1930's roadster with running boards and a canvas roof. Leaning into an open window, a tall figure, skinny legged and pointed shoed wearing a red ceremonial military jacket with gold braid. The opening chords of 'Foxy Lady' by Jimi Hendrix echoed across the deserted fields. Nadia and the children seemed very far away.
"Hello I'm Jerry, said the figure, "and I'm probably going to kill you.
To be continued...