By his second week in the village with the unpronounceable name, Dale had taken up with the old men fishing out beyond the rocks. The place was called the Blue Pool and people died there, he was told, freak waves being known to carry them away. Fierce tragic, as his new friends had it.
‘Saw a man plucked from the earth here once,’ Gerry McGovern said. ‘Looked off at a girl in a summer dress and then, well—’
‘Gone?’ asked Dale.
McGovern blessed himself.
Beside him, Bartley tapped his pipe upside-down against his hand. ‘Every one of your stories starts like that, Gerry. Every one.’
McGovern sneered. ‘Won’t be long now,’ he said to the American.
‘Hopefully,’ said Dale, who had been waiting ten days for the parish priest. ‘I should have called ahead, but… I wasn’t sure.’
‘Bad luck, surely,’ Bartley said. He cut thin strips of tobacco from a block with his penknife and rolled the tar curls between filthy palms until the nest was finely shredded. ‘Though you could hardly blame the Father,’ he said. ‘Tis the first holiday that man has taken since God-knows-when.’
‘Well his timing’s incredible,’ Dale said, ‘just incredible’. He followed the thread of his borrowed line down into the water and watched a tiny ripple stir around it. It was a fine morning on the coast of Ireland, cool beneath a naked sun. Dale felt like he’d been sitting there since he first trundled through the airport, catching nothing and talking about airplanes or weather. Every day he ate his breakfast in the B&B and every night he drank at a small bar in the centre of the village. He had yet to go into the grey stone hills which loomed above the crooked, multicoloured houses. There was just something about them, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
‘I wonder,’ Bartley said, ‘D’you think they’d ever have one of our lads up there?’ He plucked a pebble from the ground and placed it in the bowl of his pipe. ‘They’re fierce small, you know, because of our planes. They’d fit them tin cans of yours awful easy.’
Dale laughed. ‘Height really isn’t . . . ’ He looked around. ‘It doesn’t matter. The program’s shut down.’
‘Aye,’ Bartley said, serious all of a sudden. ‘Because of the crash?’
‘It wasn’t a crash.’
‘The accident then?’ He held a match towards his face and cupped both hands above the pipe.
‘Yeah,’ Dale said. ‘Because of the accident.’ He drank from the plastic bottle beside him and stared out across the water. As we set sail on this new ocean, he thought…
‘Terrible thing,’ Bartley was saying. ‘Terrible altogether. Did you know any of them boys, you did?’
‘I knew them all,’ Dale said. ‘Davis, O’Neil, Rodriguez . . . ’ He took a deep breath and looked up at the sky. It was two years later and the president’s speech still rang in his ears: ‘Aquarius is lost. There are no survivors.’
Ireland. The slide-rule rigidity of Houston had not prepared him for it. Dale was used to clean lines and order, but this little village was a bow-tie of crooked streets knotted where their paths crisscrossed with those of history and want. The first time Dale saw it he had thought it was a theme park. Even after fourteen days on the ground, its true arrangement continued to elude him. One wrong turn, what he thought might make a sensible shortcut, and Dale would find himself on the shoulder of the potted two-lane to another parish, would suddenly be in the company of dirty hens by a half-finished house on the edge of the arid countryside.
He had taken a room in the centre of the village, on what passed for the main drag. It was a rambling nook-and-cranny job, an anarchic spider-web of low doors and high ceilings rebuilt and renovated many times. Thomas and Catherine, the elderly couple who owned it, had gleefully explained the building’s history to him; how it had consumed outhouse after outhouse, how it had gone from farmhouse to townhouse, from boarding house to B&B, and Dale was sure his room had once been among the rafters of a forge or stable. Standing in the guesthouse doorway, one could go only left or right— to the pub or the sea— and still Dale always managed to get lost.
‘The streets all move around at night,’ Catherine told him one morning.
‘Nice try,’ Dale said.
‘It’s true,’ Thomas added, cocking his head towards the window. ‘The village used be up there, in the hills.’
Dale looked over his shoulder. It was as much limestone as he had ever seen. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said at last.
‘Oh yeah,’ Thomas winked at his wife. ‘Twas a deal made with the devil, you know? Sealed with a hoof. And pretty soon the whole lot of us are to be sucked right down the Blue Pool, like one of them black spots of yers.’
Dale thought for a moment. ‘A black hole?’
‘Aye, a black hole.’
The American laughed. At least the food was always good. ‘I appreciate the effort,’ he said, ‘but I’m not buying it.’
‘Then tell me this so,’ Thomas hunched over his plate, ‘did ye really go up there? To the Moon, like?’
‘Thomas,’ Dale said, ‘I’ll let you know.’ He excused himself as he always did, climbing the bare staircase back to his room where a copy of the county paper lay yellowing in the sun. “Spaceman Dale” had made page five, and he had cringed when he saw it, his life unspooled as lies and inexplicable exaggeration, the gross embellishment of an undistinguished record. To read it one would think him a Borman or a Conrad, if not the equal of Armstrong himself. Dale had not looked at it since Thomas first produced it one morning over breakfast.
‘I didn’t know you gave an interview’ the old man had teased at the time.
‘I didn’t,’ Dale had said, staring at the picture they had printed alongside the article, a publicity snap of him at the initial rollout of Aquarius, his arm around Rodriguez’s shoulder and both men grinning. He supposed it was easily sourced.
‘Twas a slow week,’ Thomas said.
‘Slow enough now,’ the old man went on. ‘Though Maggie Kelleher’s ewe drowned down by the shore last evening. That’s two now.’
‘I’m sorry, what?’
‘Two,’ he said. ‘Careless, that woman. Not like her husband, God bless him.’
‘God bless him,’ repeated Catherine, drifting through the room with a plate piled high with toasty strips of bacon.
Dale had watched this all with amusement. After breakfast he had asked Thomas for the paper though he didn’t know why. Vanity, probably, though when he went back to his room he refused to open it again, merely threw it on the dresser beside the tin flask he had brought across the ocean. It irked him, the usurpation of his life. He had never even met this reporter and yet her fanciful invention now defined him to everyone he met.
Catherine told him not to worry. Every morning after breakfast she would meet him at the bottom of the stairs, he with a satchel to see him through his fishing; she with a little foil package of sandwiches, moist, crustless feasts of dark bread and thick-cut meats painted heavily in relish. It was a peculiar, motherly gesture with which she earned Dale’s gratitude forever.
‘Sure, we have to keep you fed,’ she said.
Somewhere Thomas coughed violently. Dale smiled, and let himself out.
Down by the Blue Pool, the American explained his theory about his room having once been a forge, but McGovern only smirked.
‘Ah now,’ McGovern said, turning to Bartley.
Puffing his pipe, his cheeks an artful bellows, Bartley shook his head. ‘Didn’t they tell you, Dale?’ he asked. ‘Sure everybody knows, that part of Tom’s used be the undertakers.’
For years he had heard Rodriguez talk of coming here, of green hills and red-headed girls. It was a fantasy, colourful and wild, and by definition it bore scant resemblance to what met Dale as he rolled his battered hardside off the plane. Not a fertile field or a dancing lass in sight, instead a murky tonnage of dull cloud which weighted on the whole country like a fat palm pressed upon a chest. At customs, a sneering, grey-haired policeman stamped his passport without a word. At the car hire desk, a woman with food stains on her blouse went on and on about the foulness of the weather, about the worst summer in a generation and how the crops were rotting in the ground.
‘Twas far from the ground the likes of her were raised,’ Bartley said when Dale recounted him the story. Hell of an introduction, the American thought later. It was the first time they had met, the old man seemingly oblivious to the fact that it had indeed been raining steadily since Dale’s arrival, weather which had confined them all inside the gloomy local.
‘It was late,’ Dale said. ‘I’m sure she was just tired.’
‘No excuse for that kind of behaviour, and you a guest of this great little nation.’ Bartley daubed at the beige moustache left by his pint and leaned into his new acquaintance. ‘What was it you said you did again?’
Dale cleared his throat. ‘Aeronautics,’ he said warily.
‘No,’ Bartley said, squinting. ‘No, that’s not it… Too much bearing, too… clean cut.’ A ripple of laughter passed through the bar.
‘I’m sorry?’ Dale said. He hadn’t realised anyone was listening.
‘Not that you should have to be,’ the old man said, ‘but I appreciate it.’
Dale looked around, though no one met his eyes. He turned back to Bartley. ‘And what’s your line?’
‘When you’re ready, Pat,’ Bartley said, grinning at the barman and sinking a bony finger deep into his empty glass.
‘You’ll not get an answer out of him,’ the barman told Dale.
‘Yeah, I’m starting to see that.’
Beside him, Bartley cleared his throat. ‘So,’ he said, ‘is it a pilot or an engineer you are?’ he asked.
‘First one,’ Dale said, ‘and then the other.’ He was getting the hang of Bartley.
‘Test pilot?’ the old man said, narrowing his eyes. He was sharp.
Dale shook his head, sipped his drink and allowed himself a tiny smile.
‘He’s toying with me,’ Bartley announced.
The barman said nothing.
‘You really want to know?’ Dale asked at last.
‘I do,’ Bartley said.
‘He does,’ the barman echoed, elbows on the counter.
Dale sighed. ‘Alright.’ He tapped the little silver pin on his lapel. ‘Astronaut Corps.,’ he said.
‘Well now,’ Bartley said.
The barman whistled quietly.
Dale sipped his drink. ‘It’s a job like any other.’
‘A job like any other, he says.’ Bartley cocked his thumb in Dale’s direction. ‘Bring him another whiskey, will you, Pat?’
The American shifted his weight on the barstool. ‘Hospitality?’
‘Generosity of spirit,’ Bartley said, a gleam in his eye. He began on the fresh pint before him with a kind of practiced reverence.
‘Well then,’ Dale said, raising his own glass, ‘I believe I’m supposed to say sláinte.’
‘Aye,’ said Bartley, ‘you’ve got it, sláinte indeed’ and so their conversation drifted into trivialities, the price of stout and the state of county games, things which were the heartbeat of the local. Dale left when the bar was almost empty and the barman started to look restless. He had no better grasp on who Bartley was, the old man foxing him at every turn. He walked back to the B&B beneath a loaned umbrella, shaking the rain off out on the step.
‘Gallivanting, was it?’ Thomas asked, stirring from the shadows in the hallway.
‘Only as far as the bar’.
‘How’d you find it?’
‘Your directions were perfect.’
The old man smiled patiently. His teeth were crooked and yellow. ‘I mean,’ he said softly, ‘how was it?’
‘Ah… It was good. I enjoyed it. Met a man named Bartley, I’m sure you know him.’
‘Oh, Bartley’s a cute one alright. Wiley, like.’
Dale rubbed the side of his head. ‘I gathered that.’
‘Fierce interested in you now, I’d say.’
‘He was. Though less forthcoming about himself. I wonder, what is it he does exactly?’
‘His brother killed three Tans in that business with the British.’
‘Right. But Bartley?’
Thomas laughed as he began up the stairs, slapping Dale on the back. ‘Sure, isn’t he his brother’s keeper, Dale? His brother’s keeper.’
When the downpours finally ended the little village came into its own. Stone walls caught the new light and turned it back upon the darkest corners of the place. The streets began to glow, and, on their outskirts, brave flowers sprung from a frugal soil. Everywhere became warm and the sky assumed a welcome, almost Texan hue.
‘This is our summer now,’ Bartley announced in the bar that afternoon, wiping his hands on his thighs and standing up. His crooked frame drew nods of approval from the other patrons. It seemed an event of some importance.
‘You going somewhere?’ Dale asked. The half-full glass in front of Bartley was conspicuous.
‘The Blue Pool,’ the old man said, ‘Come on, if you like and we’ll stand you the line.’
That was how it started.
‘You seem awful content,’ Bartley said at the end of that first week’s fishing.
‘Must be the company.’
‘All the same,’ McGovern said, cocking his head towards the grey hills, ‘would you not see The Burren?’
‘I’ve no interest.’
‘Tis a place of beauty.’
‘So I’ve heard.’
‘You’re a strange man, Dale.’
‘I’ve been called worse.’
Their lines hung heavy in the water. Nothing was biting.
‘I heard once,’ Bartley said, ‘that spaceships were tiled, and that ‘twas Irish students working over there that glued them on.’
Dale smiled. ‘Sure, on the outside. Ceramics to survive re-entry, but I don’t know who glued them on.’
‘Pity,’ Bartley said. ‘Pity now.’
Beside him, McGovern shrugged.
‘Twould be nice,’ Bartley went on, ‘to think of the contribution, like.’
‘Twould a’course,’ said McGovern.
Dale looked at the two of them, this grizzled pair, then shook his head and smiled. He closed his eyes and raised his head towards the sun. So unremarkable, he thought, and still so great. Turning away, he opened his eyes and caught the ghost-face of the Moon in daylight peeking through the afternoon. He allowed himself a look of happiness.
‘What’s that now?’ Bartley asked. He never took his eyes off his line.
‘I remember he was on the radio,’ Dale said. ‘Loud and clear. His first words out of the lander were Man, that’s beautiful.’
‘Who was that, then?’
‘A friend of mine,’ Dale said. ‘Rodriguez. One of the men who died.’
Beside him, McGovern asked what it was like. He too was looking at the Moon now, the withered veins on his unshaven neck coaxed back to elasticity by the tilt of his blunt chin.
‘Rock,’ said Dale. ‘He went on and on about the rock, the mountains and the boulders and the dust.’
‘Rock?’ McGovern said. ‘Mountains and dust?’
‘Sure you could see that here,’ said Bartley.
Dale grinned. ‘Could you see the colours in the grey? The red and orange and the yellow tints from the sun?’ He laughed. ‘God, he wouldn’t shut up about that. We could hardly get him to carry out his orders.’
The two old Irishmen exchanged a look. Dale couldn’t read it.
‘You’d get the most of it here anyway,’ Bartley said. ‘The sun on the stone and all that. No knowing what you’d see.’
‘Sure isn’t it all they go on about above in them hills?’ McGovern added. ‘And they don’t need any of them helmets or big white suits to see it in.’
‘They’re lucky,’ Dale said.
‘Terrible lucky,’ Bartley nodded.
Dale smiled. ‘But can they see the Earth rising over the horizon the way the moon does here? That’s what Rodriguez saw. He said he was standing there, looking up at planet Earth, this great, blue oasis in the black velvet sky, and he said it was just too beautiful to have happened by accident…’
They were listening to him now, he saw, Bartley and McGovern with their grey heads cocked, though Dale didn’t know what else to tell them. Technical particulars and numbers and dry facts would only spoil it, and Rodriguez only shared so much that anyone would call poetic.
Instead, Dale reeled in his line and watched ripples echo all across the surface as his bait broke through from underneath. Earth, he mused, was covered mostly of water. A blue pool in the night of space. Its name was suddenly inadequate, powerless to convey its sheer, inexplicable abundance. Staring into the water, he found himself speaking without realizing.
‘Rodriguez was talking to us afterwards,’ he said, ‘when he was back aboard Aquarius, and he told me he’d seen the whole world, all of it, all at once. Imagine that, every human being in existence, everything we are, all of it a size that if he reached out he could have plucked it from the sky. I’ll never forget that,’ he said. ‘It was almost as good as being there.’
‘Almost.’ Dale laughed again. He wasn’t sure which one of them had said it, but it didn’t matter. ‘We’re explorers,’ he said. ‘Or at least we were; we should be. And no explorer ever knows exactly what he’s going to find when he gets to where he’s going, but every time we fly we add to what’s known. Rodriguez, he helped me to learn something, you understand? About the grand scheme of things. Perspective, that’s what I learned from him.’
‘Aye,’ McGovern said, licking his lips, ‘but what have you learned from us, I wonder?’
‘I’ve learnt,’ Dale said slowly, ‘that there aren’t any fish in this pond, are there?’ He looked from McGovern to Bartley and back again, but the two old men had already started laughing.
Blue skies and bright light. It was outdoors that Dale felt most at home in. All Irish people seemed to regard the world through doors and windows, he had noticed. Their view was blinkered, like the draw-horses in the etchings which hung on the walls of Catherine’s dining room. When people here spoke of the land they did not mean the country or the state, they meant the field, some small enclosure within which they were snared by circumstance or greed. Whole lives here were bounded by the whitewashed sovereignties of dated bungalows or played out in discontent behind the cobweb-covered lens of guilty window panes.
And yet Dale surprised himself with what he loved about them, their history, their rancour hardening around them into flakes or scales, of all things their certainty in what cannot be seen. For everyone he had met here, a palm’s rough lines were no less truthful than the dotted contours of a map. Myth and fact were interchangeable, reality a personal affliction.
‘What was it like,’ he asked McGovern, ‘growing up around here?’
They sat with Bartley by the Blue Pool, the sun baking all of them.
‘I suppose it was the same as anywhere,’ the old man said. ‘We chased girls and went to matches and swam in the sea.’
‘Aye,’ said Bartley, ‘going round with your tongue hanging out.’
‘We played hurling,’ McGovern added. ‘Fastest field game in the world.’
Dale squinted at him. ‘Is that a fact?’
‘Oh yeah. But don’t think we didn’t know what it was ye were up to.’
‘Oh, he’s been workin’ on this one,’ Bartley said.
‘Twas before my sister was married,’ McGovern began. ‘And she was still living with us, which is a long time ago now. I’d just started inside at Callaghan’s and I was driving in and out of the city every day.’
Dale turned to Bartley. ‘What’s he talking about?’
‘Your friends,’ the old man said, raising his eyebrows. ‘The men above.’
‘We’d to go to the neighbours,’ McGovern went on. ‘We’d still no TV ourselves.’
Dale smiled. ‘The Moon landings,’ he said, getting it.
‘Momentous!’ McGovern was in full flight now. ‘No thought of course to the risks involved. Just those two lads bouncing ‘round the place, like kangaroos the pair of them. The boys were all trying it at work the next day. I swear, old Roddy Callaghan himself, leppin’ around the yard…’ He looked at Dale.
‘I’m sorry,’ the American said. ‘I don’t know who that is.’
‘Ah,’ McGovern said sadly, ‘sure it doesn’t… Never mind.’
Between them, Bartley was shaking his head. ‘There was no television where I was. Had to see it in the papers next day. Yer lad Aldrin like the Michelin Man, setting up the flag as if he owned the damn place.’ He laughed. ‘I have to hand it to ye, that was a good one.’ He laid a hand on Dale’s arm and nodded. A livery of age adorned his skin. McGovern’s too, and Dale suddenly felt out of place.
‘Why is it,’ the American asked, ‘that everyone’s so old here?’
‘I mean,’ Dale said, ‘where are all the young people?’
‘Sure here’s one now,’ McGovern said, elbowing Dale gently in the ribs and indicating the path from the road where a meek spectre with a Methuselan gait tottered in their direction. It was Regan, a venal leprechaun of a man whom Dale had seen around the village.
‘Is it yourself?’ Bartley asked without looking away from the water.
‘It is,’ Regan said, standing above them as if in judgment. ‘And tell me, gentlemen, how’s the fishing?’
‘Could be worse,’ McGovern said beneath his breath. ‘Could be better too.’
Regan glowered at him. He stood crooked, with his weight resting on a walking stick. One eye, Dale saw, was perpetually narrower than the other. ‘We’ve never really had the chance to talk,’ he said to the American, ‘and I’ve been meaning to ask you, what was it like up there?’
Dale clinched his jaw. Someone must have told him. ‘I don’t know,’ he said at last.
Regan leaned closer. ‘Sure, how could you forget a thing like that?’
‘I was an alternate,’ he said. ‘A backup. I’ve never been up there.’
‘Some other lad went?’
‘Yeah, some other lad.’
Regan licked his lips. ‘So you never flew?’
‘I flew combat over Iraq. I flew experimental planes to the edge of space. I earned my wings.’
‘But not . . . up there?’
‘They told me,’ Regan said slowly, ‘you were an Astronaut.’
‘The criteria,’ Dale said, ‘is altitude.’ He held Regan’s stare.
‘Ah now,’ McGovern said, ‘would you ever leave the man alone.’
‘I’ll not be told what to do,’ the interloper snapped back.
‘The fish,’ Bartley said quietly, ‘are finally biting.’
Dale ignored him and turned to the newcomer. ‘And you are?’
‘He’s a Peace Commissioner,’ McGovern said, spitting the words. ‘It’s nothing what you think.’
‘The criteria,’ Regan said, ‘is good character’.
‘The criteria is arse-licking,’ McGovern said. ‘And no better man for it.’
‘I take offence to that.’
‘Tis a pity you won’t take it somewhere else.’
Twisted over his line, Bartley cackled quietly and Dale turned his gaze back out to sea. Regan drew himself away from three fishermen, as if to say well then, so be it.
‘I might see you later,’ he declared to no one in particular, and gradually he shuffled off until he disappeared into the middle distance.
McGovern shook his head. ‘Thinks he’s lord and master, that man does.’ He leaned in close to the American, ‘You should fight him.’
‘Fight him?’ It was Bartley, cackling so loud that the pipe nearly left his lips. ‘Tis not a movie, Gerry.’
McGovern folded his arms. ‘Twould still be right.’
‘I’m not here to start fights,’ Dale said.
‘Sure twas that begrudger started it.’ He raised an arm and pointed after Regan.
‘There’s guys like that all over,’ Dale said.
‘The Man on the Moon,’ Bartley said, rocking back and forth, and laughing to himself. He stabbed at the sky with his pipe.
‘Would you ever put that thing away?’ McGovern said.
The old man grinned at him through yellow teeth. ‘Sure, why would I?’ he asked. ‘Don’t I like my poison neat?’
Regan was a troublemaker, but there was no denying he was good at it. What he said had stuck in the American’s craw and the rest of the day hadn’t shaken it. To most of these people, Dale realised, he was just the astronaut— the astronaut— and he had gotten used to that even though it wasn’t true. To have had it called out unsettled him because Rodriguez had been the astronaut, a number one aviator with nothing ruffled but his hair. Beside him Dale was only competent, next on the rotation for sure, but not flying at anything like that altitude. Regan had shown him up, and Dale felt sick that it had taken someone like that to bring him back to Earth. He shook his head. Ego was a part of his job, but he had let it run amuck here. Where was his control, the better part of being a pilot?
When he walked back into the village he was angry, angry about Regan, angry about the priest’s continued absence; he was angry at himself by how quickly he had succumbed to his own tacit celebrity. He sat in the bar until it was dark outside and thought of that damn newspaper lying in his room. He resolved to burn it and called for another whiskey.
Regan, when he arrived hours later, quickly smelt his opportunity on the American’s breath. ‘Well now,’ he said, ‘we can finally have that chat.’
‘I’m not really in the mood.’
‘Ah, we’ll have none of that,’ Regan motioned to the bartender for a pint.
Dale sighed deeply. He hunkered over his drink and resigned himself to Regan’s company. Sometimes in flight you go into a spin; nothing to do but throttle down, flatten out your surfaces, turn your rudder the opposite way and hold. He readjusted himself to face the old man.
‘What do you want to know?’ he said.
‘Would you have gone?’
‘Yes sir, I would.’
‘If the other lad hadn’t flown, like?’
Dale drained his glass. ‘If Rodriguez had been pulled, I’d have taken his seat. If the programme had continued, I’d have had a flight of my own.’
‘And you’d have gone—’
‘Wham, bam, straight to the Moon. That’s where I was going. That’s where Rodriguez went.’
‘Jasus,’ Regan said. ‘Tis a quare thing.’ He returned his attention to the pint in front of him. ‘You tell it well though, you tell it well.’
Dale couldn’t figure out if he was being serious or not. He stared at the empty glass in his hand, how it caught the light. ‘Rodriguez,’ he said at last.
Regan looked at him. ‘What’s that now?’
‘Rodriguez was a better pilot than I was. Christ, he flew that bird the whole way down without a pair of wings to carry him.’
‘This was the crash, it was?’
‘Disintegration,’ Dale said. ‘Aquarius didn’t crash, it disintegrated mid-flight.’ Around him, the regulars had grown quiet. No one had gotten this much out of Dale before.
‘I thought they all died when it came apart,’ Regan said gently. ‘Tis what the papers said.’
‘They didn’t die until they hit the water,’ Dale said. ‘Everything else came apart, but the crew module retained integrity until it hit the ocean. Which is more than I can say for those penny-pinchers in Congress, those smooth-talking Washington slicks scurrying to avoid the blame. “Organisational causes,” they called it, “Poor technical decision-making.” and after all the times we tried to warn them. Ah,’ he said, ‘I don’t know.’ He slid his glass back to the bartender who looked quickly at Regan before refilling it.
‘I was the CAPCOM,’ Dale said. ‘You know, in the movies, when they say, Houston, we have a problem? Well I was the guy they’re talking to, I was Houston. They like to have the alternates wear that headset. The thinking is that we’re best trained to understand what’s going on up there.’
‘And what was?’ Regan whispered. ‘Going on up there, I mean?’
‘Rodriguez and the others were alive for two minutes, thirteen seconds,’ Dale said. ‘Thermal protection failure. Loss of RCS. He couldn’t alter his approach, couldn’t tip the capsule those vital few degrees. And all the while they knew exactly what was happening.’
‘What did they say?’
‘All Rodriguez said was uh-oh.’ Dale emptied his glass again. ‘The downlink went dead then and that was it,’ he said.
Dale looked Regan in his hooded eyes. ‘And that was it,’ he said again. ‘Aquarius suffered what they call “failure of vehicle with loss of human life.” I saw it myself, dozens of sources blossoming on the radar. I saw it again later on, laid out on the floor of a hanger at the Cape. Everything reduced to slag. We all understood the risks, but—’
‘But you thought it’d never happen to someone that you knew?’
Dale shook his head. ‘I never knew how I was going to feel when it happened. God,’ he said, ‘when I could think about it clearly, when I could process it, you know, I was relieved.’
‘I thought to myself, that could have been me up there.’ His head sunk deep between his shoulders.
‘Ole human beings are strange,’ Regan said.
Down the bar, a heavy, bovine man was listening intently. He nodded.
‘You can’t be expected to be rational,’ Regan went on. ‘Not with the likes of that going on around you.’
But Dale wasn’t paying any attention. ‘Rodriguez walked on the Moon,’ he said. ‘And he was alive the whole way down, I know it.’ He held up his glass to the bartender.
‘Go home,’ was the reply.
‘He’s right,’ Regan said. ‘You’ll pay no respects like this.’
‘Ah,’ said Dale, standing up. He missed Bartley and McGovern, and couldn’t imagine where they might have got to. He thought of them as crewmates, strapped in beside him in the nose of some heavy-lifting firecracker and bickering about the running of the parish or talking about the weather like it was a new event. He laughed at that to himself all the way to the B&B, his mood darkening then in the vagueness of the empty room.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he stared at the small black canister which stood upright on the dresser. ‘I bet you’ve got something smart to say,’ he muttered before he fell asleep.
Morning. Scraping birdsong and the hot, fierce lantern of a disappointed sun. A dull halo of the night before hung crooked on Dale’s skull when he woke, a liquordog, as Rodriguez would have said. It was not without cause that Dale seldom touched the hard stuff.
With great, unshaven indignity he presented himself for breakfast but by some small mercy it was quiet, his hosts tuned obsessively to the conditions of their guests. They had seen it all before, of course.
‘Fr. O’Grady’s back,’ Thomas said, nose deep in his newspaper.
‘Saw him last evening,’ Catherine said. ‘He’s looking forward to meeting you.’ There were no sandwiches from her this morning. It was as though she knew his days of fishing were at an end. ‘He should be out of mass within the hour,’ she added.
Outside a soft breeze rolled in from the Atlantic. Dale took his time walking through the village, stopping along the way to buy a bottle of water. When he reached the church he stood outside for almost twenty minutes. Clouds limped slowly through the sky and it felt wrong to go in so he walked on, circling around for many hours. Bartley and McGovern were nowhere to be found, not even by the shore.
At dusk, with a gold Moon shining overhead, he returned to the limestone church and stood in the doorway as a young man in black fussed around the altar.
‘Evening, Padre,’ Dale said.
O’Grady started at him as if trying to place the countenance. ‘Yes,’ he said at last. ‘You must be the spaceman.’ His eyes had the smallest pupils Dale had ever seen, mere pinpricks, though with a curious, inviting depth. ‘Strange visitor from another planet, eh?’ He waved the American inside. ‘Dale, isn’t it?’ He did not pause for a reply. ‘What can I do for you, Dale?’
‘It’s about Rodriguez,’ Dale said. ‘A friend of mine. He died in an accident.’
‘The, ah, the Aquarius pilot, yes?’
Dale nodded. He put his hands in his pockets. The air felt heavier in here. ‘This . . . ’ he said. ‘Well… This is where his people were from, I guess you’d say.’
O’Grady moved down among the pews. He smelt faintly of the sacristy. ‘Rodriguez,’ he said carefully. ‘Not really many of them this side of the Shannon.’
‘Fitzpatricks,’ said Dale, ‘on his mother’s side. Grandparents came out a long time ago. I don’t know when.’
‘Well, how about that,’ O’Grady said. ‘An Irish astronaut. Now isn’t that something?’
‘He was hardly Irish,’ said Dale.
‘If he could play for the soccer team he was Irish,’ the priest said firmly.
Dale couldn’t help but smile at the man’s excitement. ‘That’s not really the point.’
‘That’s always the point.’ He was back on the altar now, pottering around, adjusting the position of plates and candles and embroidery to suit his own baffling idiosyncrasies.
‘No,’ said Dale, following to the edge of the marble steps. ‘The point is… I brought him home. It’s what he wanted.’
The priest’s frantic motions ceased. His eyes drifted across the empty chapel and then back to Dale. ‘I didn’t know there was a body,’ he said.
Dale allowed himself sit down in the front pew. ‘Most of what was recovered was unidentifiable,’ he said. ‘The temperatures, the impact. The undifferentiated remains were interned in Arlington.’
‘And those that were . . . differentiated?’
Dale removed the small black canister from his jacket and stood it on the seat beside him. ‘Identified remains were returned to family,’ he said. ‘But Rodriguez didn’t have family.’
O’Grady looked at the small metal can. He very gently picked it up, surprised at its weight. ‘And this—’
‘The surviving remains of Commander Mike Rodriguez, USN. NASA Astronaut Group 19.’
The priest blessed himself.
‘We flew off the Truman together in the war,’ Dale said.
‘That’s what you do in a war, Padre. But wanting to go into space, that was different. We go in peace and all that?’
O’Grady was quiet for a long moment. ‘It occurs to me,’ he said at last, ‘that there’s something I should show you.’ Still holding the canister, he led Dale back into a dark corner of the church, through an old low door with a gothic arch.
‘Where are we going?’
‘You’ll see.’ The priest started on the tight spiral of the bell tower stairs and Dale trailed after him, his hand feeling the way along the undressed stone. It was dark and cold, the walls showing evidence of damp, and at the top was a cramped, shuttered room, the floor of which had been boarded out. There was no bell.
‘We replaced it,’ O’Grady said, as if reading Dale’s mind. He patted a fat loudspeaker affixed with brackets to the wall. ‘Bullhorn,’ he said, delighted with himself. ‘You’d never know the difference.’
‘Then what do you use this place for?’
‘Ah…’ O’Grady knelt by the far wall, beside a long bundle Dale had failed to notice. ‘I use it for this,’ the priest said, unwrapping the canvass and displaying its contents to the American.
‘You have a telescope?’
‘Help me set it up.’ He passed Dale the tripod and then the mount as he went about inspecting the reflector.
Dale stood the tripod in the centre of the floor and began locking it into place.
‘A little higher,’ the priest said. ‘Yes, there. Perfect.’ He handed Dale the telescope itself. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘You know how to do this?’
‘Great.’ He stood back and began to open up the wooden shutters.
The bright night streamed in, and beneath the colour of the Moon Dale could see the grey hills rolling off above the village. O’Grady caught him staring and took over assembly of the telescope.
‘The Burren,’ the priest said. ‘Bare stone for as far as you can see. No soil only in the cracks between the rocks, no rivers or lakes. Not enough water to drown a man, not enough wood to hang him—’
‘And not enough flat ground for him to land his aircraft.’ Dale shook his head and smiled. ‘Rock and mountains and boulders and dust.’
‘Something Rodriguez told me once.’
‘You know,’ O’Grady said quietly, ‘you can’t wear the armband forever.’
‘Copy that.’ Dale thought about the hearings, the investigation, the names cut into the granite wall at Kennedy. He thought about those pieces of Aquarius laid out across the hanger floor, little more than scrap and garbage. Rodriguez, the tone of his voice; no worry or no anger, just surprise. Uh-oh.
There was nothing anybody could have done.
‘Here,’ O’Grady said, stepping back from the telescope. The American took his place above the instrument, turned the focus slightly and watched another world jump sharply into view. The Moon, itself a great mirror bathing in the sun; its soft mountains rising off romantic maria, the Ocean of Storms, the Sea of Rains, the Lakes of Excellence and Perseverance…
‘Man,’ Dale said, ‘that’s beautiful.’
O’Grady took a turn and murmured his agreement while Dale stood back and looked up at the sky. Mark-one eyeball, they called it in flight school. Sometimes there’s just no substitute.
‘There,’ he said suddenly, raising his arm to the southern sky where a new star bloomed and flew in a short arc before fading back again into the darkness. ‘The Space Station,’ Dale said. ‘Will you look at that.’
The priest peered up just in time. ‘Impressive,’ he said.
Dale laughed. ‘I could have gone there once, you know.’
‘You can’t still go?’
‘I suppose. Take a ride with the Russians. Ah, but it wouldn’t be the same. I’m a pilot, an explorer. I’m not a hitchhiker.’
‘You know,’ Dale said, ‘I can still remember going to the Space Centre as a kid and asking my mom if I could stay up all night when they landed the first man on Mars.’ He laughed. ‘I really thought they’d do it too. Hell, I thought I’d get to do it once I joined the programme.’
‘Could happen yet.’
‘Maybe,’ said Dale, ‘but then again maybe it’s as well I’m out. Space is hungry, Padre. This business, it devours people. I’ve been devoured by it. It mightn’t hurt to take the time to…’ He trailed off. I don’t know.’
‘Yes you do.’
The astronaut smiled. ‘To consider it, I suppose. To get my head around it.’
O’Grady leaned back against the wall. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I’ll bury your friend here if you like. But are you sure that’s what he wanted?’
Dale stared at the canister where the priest had placed it on the floor and considered the sad strange journey which had brought it here, all the questions which surrounded it. He looked out through the open shutters, across the otherworldly hills. Nothing was certain anymore, nothing at all.
Rodriguez, if he could have seen him, would have laughed his ass off.
Soon after that he left O’Grady in the tower. There’d been a chaplain of the same mold aboard the Truman, he recalled; could get inside your head like nobody’s business. It was not a shock to find another here; priests were all of a kind, Dale thought, though even so there was something very likeable about O’Grady. Not the astronomy or even the rudimentary philosophy. No, it was completely separate. He dared to call it enthusiasm and immediately felt bad.
Making his way down the narrow stairs and out through the church, Dale found Bartley and McGovern waiting outside for him, the latter with the palm of his hand pressed firm against the wall.
‘Heard you’d finally gone to see the priest,’ McGovern said.
‘This one was worried for ya,’ Bartley added, shaking his head.
McGovern shrugged. ‘Civility never broke a man’s jaw’.
‘Clearly you’ve never been in a pilots’ ready room,’ Dale said. ‘But thank you, Gerry. I appreciate it.’
‘Come on now,’ said Bartley. ‘Tell us, is your business done?’
‘My business is done here,’ he said. ‘But I’ve got one more thing to do, if you want to join me…’
‘You’ll stand us the line?’ the old man asked with a wink.
Dale grinned, the keys to his rental car already in his hand. ‘Sure.’
Ten minutes later they were out of the village, crystal moonlight making everything unreal as they drove into The Burren. The pale-faced sky-child of earlier was gone, as was the golden hue of dusk, the Moon’s disc having slipped to a colder, sterner blue which cast long, chaotic shadows all round them. Hills squeezed the twisting road and each shape was another sculpture in a garden of demented stone where everything became reverent and cruel. In a field by the road with the light streaming through it, the silhouette of a horse stood proud on the hilltop. Dale thought he glimpsed an empty saddle on its back but couldn’t know for sure. They drove on.
He remembered, back in training, Rodriguez and himself; still young men, men who had fought together, who had chosen a most dangerous profession.
‘You’ll take me back to Houston?’ Dale had said.
‘If you take me back to County Clare.’
Beer-bottle necks had clinked at the arrangement, but Dale never thought he’d have to see it through, never once reckoned that he’d end up here with his friend in a metal can.
‘What’d’ya think,’ McGovern said. ‘Does this look good?’
Dale nodded, ‘Yeah.’ He pulled in from the road and stopped the engine. Everything was silent. Leaning over the steering wheel, he stared into the sky where the spirit of his friend flew free. The image of disintegration was burned into his mind. The whirling debris, the cloud of vapour when the remaining hydrogen and oxygen collapsed against each other. Aquarius, he thought; the water carrier.
The president had made a speech which came back to him from time to time. ‘The cause for which they died will go on,’ he’d said. ‘Our journey into space will continue.’ He quoted it to Bartley and McGovern.
‘Always liked him,’ Bartley said. ‘A good lad, now. A good lad.’
‘Yes,’ said Dale, who had met him once, a tall, sad man whose ambition had surpassed his reach. ‘I guess he always seemed to be.’ He picked up the canister and opened the door of the car. ‘Let’s go.’ He led them out onto the bare shoulder, through the stile and up into a steep, rocky field. There was no soil, or very little anyway, and it was odd, he thought, to recognise the kind of features he had been trained to see on lunar missions, erratics and stratigraphic markers. He picked up a stone from the rough surface and turned it over in his hand.
‘What’s that?’ McGovern asked.
‘The technical term is FLR. At least according to Rodriguez.’
‘Funny Looking Rock.’ He smiled as he dropped it to the ground. Rodriguez always said that levity was appropriate in a dangerous trade and he was right, Dale realized, as he picked his way through loose stones, careful not to lose his footing on the crumpled ground. One had to be able to laugh at one’s self, at the job, at the danger.
‘Woah,’ he said, catching his toe in one of the great, deep cracks which slithered everywhere.
Bartley sniggered. ‘You alright there, Dale?’
‘Yeah,’ the American said. ‘Thanks.’
They were on the true Burren now, a vast, wrinkled plain of undulating stone weathered into near oblivion. A kaleidoscope of grey, it spread on and on, beyond history, beyond the night, out of sight beyond Dale’s unrelenting dreams. Behind them, the few stray streetlights of the village sparkled in the distance, and, above, the wash of moonlight made it seem another world entirely.
It was, Dale decided, as good a place as any. ‘Here,’ he said.
Beside him Bartley nodded. ‘When they buried my brother it wasn’t like this,’ he said, ‘it was a fine spring day.’
Dale and McGovern both turned to look at him, startled by his openness.
‘He was a hero,’ Bartley went on. ‘Of the kind they name streets after, you know? Brought down a lot of them lot here at the time.’
‘The Tans,’ McGovern said. ‘The British.’
‘Aye,’ said Bartley. ‘And they’d men from his column there to see him away, draping the tricolour across his box, a few of them with rifles that they let off. The noise of it all,’ he said. ‘Twas a fierce honour.’
Dale cast him an unsure look. ‘You’re not… armed now, are you Bartley?’
The old man laughed, a booming ho-ho as loud as any shot. ‘Not at all. Not at all, a’course. I’m just saying, you know, the moment should be marked.’
‘And what had you in mind?’ McGovern asked.
Bartley grinned, and with great effort brought himself to his full height. He raised his right arm and bent his elbow, bringing his hand to his head in a salute. McGovern quickly did the same.
Dale nodded, and carefully he opened up the flask, tipping its cremated contents out onto the breeze. The cloud flattened out at once, dove towards the rocky pavement, and then took flight, specks of ash like busy stars exploding all around him while the world turned overhead. Dale straightened up and saluted too, the remains of Rodriguez taking wing into the night.
When it was over he brought his hand down and, behind him, his two friends mumbled something as they let their own arms fall, Bartley rubbing at his shoulder.
‘We should take a stroll now,’ McGovern said quietly.
‘What?’ Bartley said.
‘You know, as we’re here, we should give Dale the air of the place.’
‘Ah, will you not be—’
‘No,’ Dale said. He laid his hand on Bartley’s shoulder, ‘I’d like that.’ He was tired, that was true, it was late, and yet some new energy was coming to him. It compelled him to move, to walk, to see what he could find.
‘Well then,’ McGovern said, ‘come on so,’ and he led them out across the hillside.
They were at last, Dale thought, the crew he had imagined, ambling across this odd terrain with the strange, loping gait required to leap from one great limestone block to another. Step-by-step the three of them picked their way across the broken surface, away from the road, away from the lights of the village and everything that Dale had come to know. This was a separate place, severe and beautiful and altogether alien. There, in the stone, were red and orange tints which he could not explain. In the sky, the universe’s mechanism whirled while the three men drifted on, and, as the grey rock fell off toward the close horizon, they could have been walking on the moon.
Val Nolan lectures at National University of Ireland, Galway. His fiction has previously appeared on the ‘Futures’ page of Nature and in magazines and newspapers such as Cosmos, The Irish Times, and The Daily Telegraph. His academic publications include ‘Flann, Fantasy, and Science Fiction: O’Brien’s Surprising Synthesis’ (Review of Contemporary Fiction, Flann O’Brien special, 2011) and ‘If it was Just Th’ ol Book…: A History of the John McGahern Banning Controversy’ (Irish Studies Review, 2011). Forthcoming work includes ‘Break Free: Understanding, Reimagining, and Reclaiming Stories in Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory’ (Journal of Graphic Novels and Comic Books, 2014) and a chapter on Lost and Battlestar Galactica in Godly Heretics: Essays on Alternative Christianity in Literature and Popular Culture (McFarland, 2013). He is a regular literary critic for the Irish Examiner.
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