The Half Life of Stars
For I. Our little piece of stardust.
Ignition Obviously a Major Malfunction Bad Choice of Boots Countdown The Pastry Chef No Earth Tones Me and Julio Born Free The Snow Queen Pussy Talk Jin Itchi The Other End of the Telescope Return To Sender The Girl Who Fell in Love With Otoro It Helps to Have a Plan Cinderella Standing on the Dock at Southampton The Lady and the Tramp Blast off If I Were Ever in a Coma There’s No One Quite Like Huey God’s Waiting Room The World Has Turned Late One Evening in a Car Killing Harvey Weinstein Columbia Is Lost, There Are No Survivors Pretty Woman The Blue Hotel The Rose Room Action Replay Call Me Madam A Nice Polite Fella The Weather Forecast I’m Not In Love Guess Who That Party Was For? Portuguese Man-of-War I Said I’d Be There. I’ll Be There. Nowhere to Run Lost in Space Foreign Bodies That’s Some Going
Your Huey Is Out There Somewhere Like Father Like Son The Operation Cat On A Hot Tin Roof Highway 61 Revisited A Light As Sharp as Lemons The Best We Can Do Promises, Promises Re-entry The Meteorologist The Best Pancakes You Ever Tasted in Your Life About the Author Other Books by Louise Wener Credits Copyright About the Publisher
Obviously a Major Malfunction
As Daniel yawned and climbed into his father’s car that morning, he saw a poodle being dressedin a red knitted coat. Huffs of hot dog-breath sprang from the animal’s mouth–white, steamyand most likely malodorous–while its owner tightened straps and fastened collars, and swaddledits shivering belly in a layer of cloth. The animal appeared resolutely unimpressed, yelpingand digging its paws into the wind-whipped sand while its master tugged patiently at its neck.Even with the benefit of outdoor clothing, it still seemed unwilling to get going.
It was January in Florida and a deep, rare chill had swept the sunshine state from coast tocoast. Palm trees swayed uneasily beneath a stiff crust of frost and beaches the length of theSpace Coast looked like they’d been newly dusted with sugar. The freeze extended as far southas Miami and the Keys, and the crisp cold air, loaded with the prospect of rain, remindedDaniel of winters back home. In the hours before dawn only the intrepid and the insomniacs andthe crazies were out on the streets and Daniel wished–like the dog–that he could have slunkback to the warmth of his bed.
It might not have brought him much comfort. Even safe in their houses, buried beneath theirquilts, Floridians were having trouble sleeping. Old men lay awake worrying about their pets.Fruit growers worried about their oranges. Cuban émigrés worried about their relatives makinglandfall in the sub-zero cold and hoteliers fretted about lost business. And some way to thenorth, in the depths of a government building, the seven loneliest people in all the worldtossed and turned and called out in their sleep, their minds alive with unwelcome nightmares.
As they hit the start of the turnpike, Daniel’s father extinguished his breakfast cigarette.He gave an empty belch like a small cry for help and felt around in the glove compartment for ahalf-eaten box of Rennies. Lately he’d been guzzling antacids like a newborn baby guzzlesmilk, and the early start had set off a vigorous bout of indigestion. So profuse were hisfather’s digestive juices that Daniel sometimes imagined his stomach to be awash with them:gallons of fizzing acid; pools of yellow bile; creeping up the narrow tunnel of his oesophagusuntil they burnt a hole right through his chest.
‘Excited?’ said his father, stuffing squares of chalk into his mouth. ‘It’s going to bepretty exciting, if it goes.’
‘Long drive again, though. Four hours at least. Should we stop off for pancakes, are youhungry?’
Daniel shook his head.
‘I could eat some dry toast. Maybe we’ll stop for some toast.’
Daniel knew his father wouldn’t stop. The same way he hadn’t stopped the day before. He’dspeed without a break all the way to Titusville, then he’d buy them both a hamburger at adrive-through McDonald’s. They’d eat in the car with the radio on while his father muddledhimself with directions and map-books, and complained about the illogic of American road signs.They’d been living in Florida for close to a year now, but the exit signs still managed toconfuse him.
‘Hey, you awake? We’re almost there.’
Daniel had slept most of the way. He stirred as he felt the car’s engine cut out beneath himand his body snapped easily back to life. These days it took his father a full hour to escapethe bounds of sleep, but Daniel was whole in mere seconds. His father examined him carefully,his pride hiding a brief spike of envy. His son the athlete: the daredevil; the championshipsprinter. His son the malcontent: the back-talker; the monosyllabic mood machine.
‘How’s your burger?’
‘Is it good, you like it?’
‘Your coffee warm? Sometimes they give you a cold coffee.’
‘It’s OK, Dad. Stop asking me.’
Daniel’s father screwed up his serviette and pointed his car eastward towards the Cape. Whenhad his son started drinking coffee? When exactly had he made the switch from Coca-Cola? Whenhad he decided he knew everything about the world when he really knew nothing at all?
‘You think it’s going to go this time? You think that teacher lady’s going to make it allthe way up to Mars?’
‘They’re not going to Mars, Dad.’
‘Yeah, I know. Just testing. Just trying to put a smile on your face.’
Daniel turned to stare out of the window, embarrassed by his father’s attempt at humour. Howhad their relationship deteriorated this far? He’d expected to be an embarrassment to histeenage son–wasn’t that the fate of all fathers–but he hadn’t expected to disgust him.This, then, was the purpose of their trip. Daniel’s mother and sisters had stayed put in MiamiBeach while the two of them drove north to repair their bonds. Already, it was turning outbadly. This was the second time in two days he’d made the long drive up to Cape Canaveral andhe was fighting exhaustion as well as his son’s contempt. Yesterday they’d left Dade Countyeven earlier and stood for hours in the bitter wind with the other sightseers at Jetty Park,while they’d waited for the rocket to go. His son had sneered at him when he’d called it arocket. But what else was it? It was a rocket that came home again; big deal, it was still arocket.
They’d called off that first launch just past noon. And for what? Some jammed door bolt thatwouldn’t loosen. They’d had to fetch up a portable drill to break it open, but when they’dfound one its battery was dead. A billion dollars of the most sophisticated technology known toman, an entire space centre crammed with NASA’s sharpest minds. And still they couldn’t getthe damn thing off the ground: for the want of a lousy pack of Duracell.
But he had to show willing. His son was enamoured by space. When he wasn’t training or runningor moping around the house he was combing the universe with his telescope. He wondered what hisson was looking for. Black holes? Aliens? Some meaning? What was the point? There was enough tobe confused about right here.
Recharged with food and wrapped up in heavy coats they braced themselves for another long wait.The crowd was larger than it had been the day before but the same rumours, whispers and half-baked theories circled the width of the park. It was too cold for the shuttle, too windy; therewere icicles hanging from its wings. Daniel’s father rubbed at his eyelids. He hated delays atthe best of times and this constant indecision, this permanent state of flux, left him feelingdistracted and sleepy. He tried to stay alert through the announcements–it was going, then itwasn’t, then it was again–but he just wished they’d make up their mind. He wondered whypeople could never do that–take a decision and stick to it. And then, out of nowhere, came thego-ahead. They were positive now, it was certain. The damn fool rocket would go.
By eleven o’clock with the wind dropped to a whisper, the tedium was accelerating to an end.Daniel had a pair of binoculars glued to his eyes and all around him shone the glow ofexpectation. Children knelt up on their parents’ shoulders, teenagers balanced on the roofs ofcars; couples held tight to one another waving flags and freshly painted banners in theirhands. Everyone had their radios tuned to the same frequency and the launch commentary spilledout, lubricating the crowd, from a thousand different directions.
At fifteen minutes to lift-off, the air filled with great whoops and cheers and Daniel’s facedrenched pink with excitement. Goose bumps spread out like a rash along his arms and he couldbarely stand still any longer. His father allowed himself a smile. He could drink all the
coffee he wanted, be as surly as he liked, but this boy was little more than a child. As hewatched him fidget in those minutes and chew nervously on his lips, he was reminded just howyoung his son still was. Young enough to judge him: not nearly old enough, yet, to forgive him.
‘Look at it, Dad. Can you see? Here, take these. Take a look.’
Daniel’s father took the binoculars and trained his eyes on the launch pad. Christ, what abird it was up close. A wild white Moby Dick of a machine, rearing up out of the ground. Thatgigantic silo that it clung to, framed with rocket boosters fourteen storeys high; each juicedup with five hundred tons of rocket fuel, burning ten tons of the stuff for every second thatit flew. What were they thinking of, those crazy astronauts? What was going through theirheads, right now? Seven lonely souls locked into a cockpit the size of a saloon car, strappedto the back of the world’s largest firework.
‘How fast is she going to go?’ He said, lowering the binoculars. ‘How fast will she go,after lift-off?’
Daniel squinted at his father, wondering if he might risk the chance to swear.
‘Pretty fucking fast. Close to 2000 miles an hour.’
‘Don’t swear, Daniel, I told you…Jesus Christ. Are you sure?’
How could that be? How could that possibly feel? To tear through the earth’s gravitationalfield, to fly like a bullet and be free. It had crept up on him, this feeling of astonishment,risen up inside of him without him even noticing. His pulse began to race, his chest began toheave and Jesus, what a show. What a show. They could see a bed of steam rising up off the
launch pad, a billowing cloud of smoky white. It was vapour, Daniel told him. An avalanche ofwater sluiced out onto the launch site to cushion the violence of the acoustic shock. The soundwaves generated by lift-off were so ferocious that they could shake the shuttle apart where itstood.
A thousand radio announcers interrupted them in unison at that point, blared out the sameclarion call: T minus ten seconds and counting–go for main engine start. The crowd began to
count and Daniel and his father, caught up in the excitement, began to count along with them.So this was it. After two days of waiting and twelve hours of driving back and forth, it reallywas about to go. All around them hungry faces strained upwards and outwards, away from theirown fears and confusions towards the heady recesses of space. What hopes they levied on thisfearsome machine, what great expectations it carried. What a thrill it was, just to witness it:to see it break through the boundaries of earth.
They felt the vibrations all at once and together; a faint low groan that rumbled up theirbones and spread out like a tremor beneath their feet. Then came the flames, a wildly vividfluorescent orange glow, that seemed to swallow up the base of the launch pad. And then themonster began to move. It began so carefully, so slowly, like it mightn’t make it at all. Theycould sense how heavy it was in the air, feel every inch of the effort it was making. Andeveryone standing with them felt it too, and used their collective influence to will itforward.
‘There she goes, Daniel. Will you look at that. Jesus, look, there she goes.’
Suddenly she was airborne. Slicing through the sky–as clear now and blue as a Glacier Mint–ona raging catapult of flame. The roar of lift-off thundered towards them, engulfing them wherethey stood like a living thing. Daniel and his father braced themselves, their troubles all butforgotten. What a vision this was. What optimism linked them at that moment.
It lasted just over a minute, just long enough for a father to relax and exhale and squeeze hisson’s shoulder. And was this true? Did he turn and mouth something to him in those finalseconds? Don’t worry? I’m sorry? I love you? Daniel wasn’t sure. He couldn’t quiteremember. Because somewhere overhead, in the depths of the machinery the edifice was startingto crumble. An aching joint had sighed open, allowing a snap of rocket fuel to break lose. Thegiant rubber O-ring designed to guard this vital seal was splitting apart like a yell. The sub-
zero temperatures had killed it; made it rigid, taut and inflexible. And though it strained andfought and battled to do its job, it became clear–all too late–that it couldn’t.
?’fuck‘What the fuck is that? What the
The bird had stopped dead in its tracks; it simply wasn’t there any more. The skies above theocean filled with debris and a vast spreading cloud ripped sideways like a storm, in the shapeof a scorpion’s tail. They stood in silence for a lifetime. Was it even possible? That thisbeautiful, brutal machine could all but vanish from the sky?
It was the radio announcer who gathered up their thoughts, who held out a hand to every one ofthem. In a soothing, respectful voice–one that he had practised at home in front of the mirrorin preparation for calamitous occasions–he spoke directly to the nation. It seemed certainthat the shuttle had indeed exploded. Recovery boats were in the field. The parachutes theycould see unfurling over the ocean were likely to be paramedics, not astronauts. His voicebegan to slip at that point, crumbling through the speaker like sand. There was a break in thetransmission while he took the time to compose himself and new voice–projected from a Tannoyin the park–appealed for the crowd to keep calm.
And what were they thinking, those silent onlookers? Amid the shock and the grief theoverriding emotion, Daniel thought, was one of intense betrayal. They had invested in thismachine, a part of them had travelled with it. For the brief seconds that it flew they had feltless mortal, less earthbound, less dreary; less bowed by their day-to-day lives. Now the crowdwere in free fall; decelerating from hope at an alarming speed, crashing headlong into thegrind. It left them feeling dazed and vulnerable. Some began to cry, some began to swear andthump the side of their cars. Most continued to gaze open mouthed at the sky, convinced that ifthey stared upwards long enough and hard enough, the lost white bird would reappear.
And Daniel stared along with them. He knew those seven astronauts hadn’t made it, but still hecouldn’t tear his eyes away. He felt like he’d be deserting them if he lowered his gaze, thathe’d be insulting them the second he turned away. It took a while for him to notice that hisfather was tugging fiercely at his arm. His face was white with exhaustion, his palms feltgooey with sweat.
‘What a shame,’ he said, breathlessly, as he dragged his son through the crowd. ‘Jesus, whata god-awful shame.’