The Man on the Moon
She would glance at the clock every few minutes and also found herself constantly leaving the dinner preparations to go and look out of the window in the lounge.
“What’re you looking for, Mummy?” either Lizzie or Miranda would say wherever they noticed Sandy at the window. They were sitting on the floor in front of the television. The noise of their cartoons wasn’t helping to steady Sandy’s nerves.
“Turn that down.”
“What’re you looking for?”
“Nothing. I’m just waiting for Daddy to come home.”
She bit at her nails, thinking about the bottle of champagne cooling in the freezer, wondering if it had been a mistake to buy it. She’d been dreading this day for years, secretly hoping it would never arrive. If Franklin came back with a yes, what would she say to him? Should she say anything? Prepare him somehow? And if it was a no, would she be able to console him whilst at the same time masking her relief?
In some small way she couldn’t help but be angered by it all. As much as she loved Franklin, if she’d known what she was getting into when she married him maybe she would have thought twice. She was constantly amazed that a man considered to be so brilliant could be at the same time so naive. It was his mother — Elaine’s—fault anyway. Wasn’t she the one who’d lied to him, all those years ago? Wasn’t she the one who’d started all this? Sandy glanced at her own children, sitting rapt in front of the TV screen. Hadn’t she lied herself on occasion to protect them? Hadn’t she told Miranda her cat Princess had run away from home when in fact it had been run over by their neighbour, Major Donaldson? Didn’t she humour Lizzie when she claimed she’d marry a prince one day and become Queen of England? But it wasn’t the same. It couldn’t be the same. She didn’t expect Lizzie to go on wanting to be Queen of England when she was thirty-two years old.
Franklin’s determination had astonished them all. The odds of him even becoming an astronaut had seemed slim. Very slim. And yet to Sandy’s amazement he kept on building towards that dream he’d been harbouring since he was six years old, since the day his mother lied to him about his father. In the past few months he’d submitted himself to all kinds of tests and examinations so that now the only thing that stood between him and a trip to the moon was an interview with the director general of the European Space Agency.
That’s where he’ll fail, Sandy thought. That’s where they’ll catch him out. Maybe he’ll let slip about his real reason for wanting to go to the moon and they’ll see that there’s something about him that’s…not quite right.
Please God, she thought, even though she didn’t believe in God and not believing in God and heaven and all that nonsense was what had got them into this mess in the first place, wasn’t it?
She caught her breath and felt her heart trip over on sight of Franklin arriving at the garden gate.
“Girls,” she said, catching the note of panic in her own voice. “Girls. Daddy’s here.”
She watched from the window as he opened the gate and strode up the garden path. His face was expressionless. Nothing in his manner gave a clue to what kind of answer he’d received. She had no time to prepare herself.
Lizzie and Miranda leapt up when they heard his key in the door and went running out into the hall. Sandy remained by the window, her head bowed, her stomach turning over, listening to the girls greet their father with cries and laughter. She turned at the sound of footsteps. Frank stood in the lounge doorway with a daughter in each arm. He was smiling. Did that mean…?
“Well?” Franklin said.
“Well?” Sandy said again, almost in anger this time. “What did they say?”
“They said…” Franklin began, his face breaking out into a grin, so that Sandy thought Oh no! “They said that I can go to the moon.”
The children shrieked and cheered.
“Really?” Sandy reached out and held onto the sofa back. “Really? You passed? You…?”
The girls cheered again and Miranda said, “Daddy’s going to the moon!”
“That’s right,” Franklin said. “I am.”
“That’s wonderful,” Sandy managed at last. She forced herself to smile despite feeling suddenly close to tears. Perhaps, after all, this was what he needed. Perhaps this was what he needed to finally see the truth.
Setting the children down, Franklin walked across the lounge and took hold of his wife’s hands. She forced herself to meet his gaze despite worrying over what he might read in her expression.
“You’re really going?”
She saw that he’d lost control of his grin. He didn’t look himself. He was normally so serious. Now his whole faced beamed. So happy. It was like looking into the face of a little boy.
“What will I say to him, Sandy?” he said. “What will I say to him after all these years?”
Sandy opened her mouth and closed it again. She swallowed and said nothing.
Neither of them could sleep. They lay in bed side by side, staring at the ceiling, locked in their own private thoughts. Sandy listened to the trucks which rolled in and out of the base night and day. Even time a truck passed their house its headlights would glint into the room since in her flustered state Sandy had not closed the blinds fully.
“I used to have these dreams when I was a boy,” Franklin said, just when Sandy had finally started to nod off. “I dreamt that Dad and I were walking together on the moon. We both wore spacesuits. He held my hand and led me over the dunes. He talked to me about the maps he was making. His work, you know. I looked over the crest of a dune and I saw the earth, half in shadow. It looked like that bubblegum ice cream the kids like, kind of a blue and white swirl. Every time I see them eating that it reminds me. Anyway, I stood at the crest of that dune holding onto my Dad’s hand and I looked at the Earth. And, standing there, I knew that what Mum had told me was true. He was watching over me, always. Watching all of us.”
“Franklin…” Sandy said. He turned his face to her just as the headlights of a passing truck filled the room with momentary light. Once again she noticed how much he looked like a little boy when he grinned. She found that she couldn’t finish her sentence.
“Do you think it will be like that? You know, when I get there?”
“Franklin, you’re not a child anymore.”
He laughed, and she knew that he’d misunderstood her meaning. “You’re right. I’m not a kid anymore. He’s not going to take me by the hand and show me around the moon. I know that. But he’ll be happy to see me after all these years. Right?”
Sandy didn’t answer. She had closed her eyes and hoped he’d think she’d fallen asleep.
“When I was ten,” she heard him say, in a murmur as if he were talking to himself. “I built a rocket in the garden out of cardboard boxes and various bits and pieces from an old kit-car of my uncle’s that we kept in the garage. I told everyone I was going to see my dad.”
Sandy held her breath, waiting for what would come next. Finally it did.
“I cried for days when I realised it wouldn’t fly.”
It took a year, but the day came when Sandy found herself standing with Elaine —Franklin’s mother — and a crowd of other people on the ESA concourse. On a grey platform beyond some trees in the distance the rocket stood. It didn’t look how Sandy had imagined it might. It was a long rust-colour tube with two thinner rockets attached to either side. There was a hum of conversation surrounding her; and above all this an amplified voice from inside the control tower. The general hum seemed to echo what Sandy felt inside, a jangle, a buzz of nerves. A countdown began, and Sandy felt the vibrations within herself pick up. She moved her arms, not knowing how to hold them, how to stand. After biting her lip so hard it hurt, she turned to look at Elaine.
“Now what do we do?”
“What do you mean?” Elaine said, without looking at Sandy.
“This is your fault. You know that, right?”
Now Elaine swivelled her head around. Her eyes were unreadable behind huge sunglasses. “My fault?”
“When Franklin’s father died, why couldn’t you have just told him the truth? Why that silly fantasy? Gone to do top secret work mapping the moon. What sort of a mother tells her son his father’s gone to live on the moon, for God’s sake?”
“I didn’t want to hurt him. He was so close to his father. And it was so sudden…the accident. I didn’t want to feed Franklin all that crap about God and heaven.”
“And you think this is better?”
“I’m proud of my son.”
“He thinks his Dad’s up there waiting for him.”
Elaine shrugged. “Kids are supposed to grown out of things. Eventually, they all stop believing in Santa Claus, right? How was I supposed to know he’d take it so far?”
“It’ll crush him when he realises.”
Smoke and fire began erupting from underneath the rocket.
“It’ll all work out for the best,” Elaine said. “You’ll see.”
The countdown had almost reached its end. 3…2…1…A cloud of white smoke erupted around the base of the rocket as it began at first to wobble a little, then lift away from the platform. The roar of the engines rendered conversation impossible. Flame erupted from the rocket’s base and poured across the surrounding landscape as the rocket darted off into the sky. Sandy held her breath. All she could see in her mind was Franklin’s face. She imagined him sitting strapped to his seat with the rest of the crew. She saw him wearing that big boyish grin under his helmet as he thought about all the things he was going to say to the father he hadn’t seen in twenty-five years.
“It’ll crush him,” she said again, her voice drowned by the thunder of the rocket blasting off into the sky. There was now a tower of smoke and the rocket was somewhere at the pinnacle of it, a flash of red against the blue.
When it happened all Sandy could think was how glad she was that Miranda and Lizzie weren’t present. Franklin had wanted them to come to the launch, but Sandy had convinced him that they shouldn’t miss school. They could watch it later on the TV, she told him. She didn’t know why she’d insisted on this. Maybe she’d had some kind of premonition. Well, Miranda and Lizzie wouldn’t watch it now. They wouldn’t watch this.
The crowd had fallen silent but the amplified voice went on talking in a flat, robotic tone as if unmoved by what they had all just witnessed. The sky was full fireballs and white plumes, trailing off in various directions. Sandy looked around. Every head was craned upwards.
“My boy,” Sandy heard Elaine say, with a sob.
Once she got over the shock and horror of that day, Sandy took some solace in the thought that Franklin was with his father now. And hadn’t that — in fact — been what he’d wanted all along? On clear nights she stood by the window in the bedroom, the one place in the house where she felt Franklin’s absence most profoundly, and she would look at the moon. She would imagine Franklin and his father standing on the moon looking back at her. She pictured them stood hand in hand on the crest of a dune, in a silvery landscape surrounded by blackness, wearing their space suits, and looking back at the Earth. Thinking this made her smile.
But whenever Lizzie or Miranda asked about their father, she would tell them straight, “Your father’s dead.”