It was Sunday morning, Ed Morgan’s favourite time of the week. Free of the tyranny of the alarm clock, he drifted on gentle currents in those restful waters that lie between sleep and wakefulness. Mary, his wife, brought him a cup of tea.
Ed reluctantly sat up and took the cup from her. He remembered to show his gratitude with a smile.
‘There’s a dead astronaut on the lawn,’ she said.
Ed sighed. ‘Not another one.’
‘I’ll ring the council, shall I?’
‘On a Sunday?’
‘We can’t just leave it there. What will the neighbours think?’
Hang the neighbours, thought Ed. Bloody snobs, the lot of them.
Out loud, he said: ‘I’ll take it to the dump after I’ve dead-headed the roses and cut the grass.’
‘How can you cut the grass when there’s an astronaut on it?’
‘Fine. I’ll dead-head the roses, dispose of the astronaut and then cut the grass. Happy?’
‘No need to take that tone with me, Edward Morgan.’
‘I’m sorry, love. It’s just that it’s never-ending. First there’s the greenfly infestation. I get rid of that and what happens? My roses get black spot. I vanquish the black spot and now I’m plagued by dead astronauts. It’s enough to make a man despair.’
‘Can’t you do something to keep them off the lawn?’
‘What do you suggest? A bird net?’
‘Now you’re being sarcastic.’
‘If only I knew where they were coming from.’
‘Outer space would be my guess,’ said Mary, throwing open the curtains. ‘Breakfast in ten minutes.’
Ed was still in his pyjamas and halfway through his corn flakes when the doorbell rang. As always, he was content to let Mary answer it. But she took one look through the peephole and ran upstairs.
‘Bloody Lacey,’ Ed muttered throwing down his spoon in disgust before stomping out to the hallway. That’s all he needed – yet another visit from the neighbourhood busybody. He tightened the belt on his dressing gown and opened the door. ‘Oh Mr Lacey. What a pleasant surprise.’
Mr Lacey’s brow furrowed. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he might have detected a hint of sarcasm. ‘I don’t mean to pry into your business, old chap, but there seems to be a dead astronaut on your lawn.’
‘I’m well aware of that, Mr Lacey.’
‘That’s the sixth one, isn’t it?’
‘Now it’s not for me to dictate what a chap should or should not have in his garden and I’m all for individuality, but don’t you think you’re rather letting the side down?’
‘And what side would that be?’
‘The neighbourhood. Acacia Avenue is what estate agents call aspirational. In other words, people aspire to live here. Which is what keeps the property prices high and the riff-raff out. You get my drift?’
‘Couldn’t you at least cover it up or disguise it in some way?’
‘I was thinking about turning it into a water feature. Would that do?’
Mr Lacey smiled. ‘Splendid idea! Everybody likes a water feature.’
‘Well, I’m glad we’ve got that sorted.’
‘Always best to get these things out in the open.’
Ed closed the door and went back to his corn flakes.
‘Hi, Uncle Ed!’
‘Can we play with the dead astronaut?’
‘Can we? Can we?’
There was something about the Poulson twins that made Ed want to puke. He’d repeatedly told Mary not to allow them in his back garden and here they were again, scabby-kneed and gap-toothed in their matching gingham dresses.
‘Sure,’ said Ed, removing a withered rosebud with his secateurs. ‘Knock yourselves out.’
The two seven year olds frowned identical frowns and cast identical looks at each other.
‘How?’ mouthed Miranda who being nine minutes younger than Esmerelda naturally deferred to her older sister.
Esmerelda shrugged. ‘I don’t think he meant what he said,’ she whispered. ‘It’s like when mummy tells daddy to go hang himself.’
‘So we don’t have to knock ourselves out?’
‘Oh good. Because I think that might hurt a bit.’
With all thoughts of rendering themselves unconscious removed from their minds, the Poulson twins turned their attention to the dead astronaut. He was lying on his back in the middle of Uncle Ed’s lawn, arms and legs akimbo. Like all the others, this one had a blue star on the right sleeve of his spacesuit with a name beneath it.
The girls sat on the grass.
Esmerelda pointed to the first letter of the name. ‘That’s a letter C,’ she said.
Miranda nodded in affirmation. ‘And the next one’s a z.’
‘And that’s a y.’
‘And n and o and k.’
The twins had a little think. They bared their lower teeth because that’s what daddy did when he was thinking, and they scratched their heads.
Esmerelda had the first stab. ‘Kizzernook!’
Miranda shook her head. ‘That’s not it. I think it’s more like Kerzeenoky.’
‘Let’s ask Uncle Ed!’
You’d better not, thought Ed. He noted how the sun glinted off the blades of his secateurs and how sharp those blades were. And how pale the twins were and how easy it would be to find their jugular veins.
Mary appeared from the kitchen carrying a trayful of goodies. ‘Who’s for lemonade and biscuits?’
‘Me!’ cried the twins in unison. They ran to the patio table where Mary set down the tray.
‘What does C-z-y-r-n-o-k spell?’
‘That’s a funny name.’
‘Must be foreign,’ said Miranda. ‘All Uncle Ed’s spacemen have been foreign.’
‘Except for Smith,’ said Esmerelda. ‘I don’t think Smith’s a foreign name.’
Leaving the girls to natter inanely as they helped themselves to lemonade and biscuits, Mary Morgan wandered over to the dead astronaut. So they had names, had they? These young man who kept falling from the sky.
She stared at the darkened visor of the astronaut’s helmet and saw reflected in it a panorama that took in the sky, the house and the garden. Welcome to my world, Starman, she thought. To the life of Mrs. Bored Suburban Housewife pacing in frantic circles like a polar bear in a zoo.
Mary Morgan was two weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday. Her children had flown the nest. She and her husband had long ago become people she barely recognised. What happened, she wondered, to that young boy and girl who celebrated their engagement by motor biking through the Swiss Alps? The ones who smoked pot under the stars while listening to The Clash on Radio Luxembourg and who swore never to become like their parents?
Suburbia is littered with tragic imagos like us – beautiful caterpillars who grew up to become colourless butterflies.
Kneeling down, she pressed her face to the visor. Through the glass darkly, she could make out Asiatic features – possibly Mongolian or Nepalese.
If only I’d married someone like you, she thought. Someone dashing and brave and not afraid to reach for the stars.
And then she realised she had married such a person but he had never been given the chance to ride in a rocket ship and die before falling back to Earth. If this spaceman had lived, what would he have become in thirty years time? Another Ed Morgan? Another senior accountant dead-heading roses in a suburban back garden?
‘Mary? Are you all right?’
She looked up to find Ed standing over her, secateurs in hand. ‘I’m fine, dear. I just wanted to see his face.’
‘Bit ghoulish, isn’t it?’ said the man who used to collect animal skulls. ‘I’ve finished with the roses but I’m going to leave the lawn until after lunch. The hydrangeas are crying out for my attention.’
Lunch was served on the patio table. Thankfully, by the time Ed sat down to tuck into cold meats and baguettes, the Poulson twins had gone off to annoy some other luckless denizen of Acacia Avenue.
The dead astronaut now wore a skirt improvised from a tablecloth. The twins had used lipstick to draw a smiling face on its visor. According to Mary, they’d been playing doctors and nurses.
As Ed busied himself cramming ham and pickle into a baguette, the doorbell rang and Mary went to answer it. She returned with a short, bowler-hatted man in tow.
‘Brady,’ he said by way of introduction, placing his briefcase on the table. ‘Sanitation Department.’
‘He’s from the council,’ said Mary.
‘It’s been brought to my attention, Mr Morgan, that you’ve been putting your rubbish out in a manner not in accordance with council regulations.’
Ed’s back stiffened. To have some stuffed shirt march into his garden on a Sunday and accuse him of transgressing the local byelaws was a bit strong to say the least.
‘I’m going to let you off with a warning this time,’ said Brady. ‘But in future please see to it that all rubbish is placed in the correct bin.’
This littlest of Little Hitlers opened his briefcase. It was crammed full of leaflets. He selected and pulled out one headed Your Rubbish and You. ‘Please take time to study this, Mr Morgan. The red bin is for glass. The blue bin is for plastic. White for paper and cardboard. Green for organic waste. And yellow for everything else.’
‘And you’re telling me this because…?’
‘Last week a dead astronaut was found in your green bin.’
‘And is an astronaut not organic?’
‘The suit should have been removed and placed in the yellow bin.’
‘And that’s why my green bin wasn’t emptied?’
‘Our sanitation engineers have strict instructions not to empty a dustbin if they can’t shut the lid. You may recall that your spaceman’s legs protruded from your green bin, thus rendering it unclosable.’ Brady extracted another leaflet from his briefcase. He placed it on the table next to the first one. ‘This leaflet tells you how to dispose of bulky items. If you ring the Bulky Items Helpline, we can arrange a special collection for anything that does not fit into a regulation council bin.’
‘For a price.’
‘A very reasonable one.’
Although outwardly calm, Ed was fighting an urge to do to Mr Brady what he had done to his roses. ‘According to the last bit of unsolicited junk mail the council sent me, a sizeable portion of my council tax goes towards paying for the removal of my rubbish. I don’t see why I should have to cough up an extra fifty pounds every time a dead astronaut lands on my lawn.’
‘I have to warn you that any further breeches of protocol with regards to rubbish removal will be treated as a criminal offence.’
‘Criminal!’ hissed Ed. ‘When did it become criminal for an Englishman to put rubbish in his own rubbish bin?’
Mr Brady from the Sanitation Department knew from experience that now was the optimum time to leave. He had informed Mr Morgan of his transgression and given him two leaflets to further clarify matters. Duty done. The fuse, as he was fond of telling trainees, is lit. No point hanging around to see the fireworks.
‘Goodbye, Mr Morgan. Mrs. Morgan. I hope you’ve found our little chat instructive.’ Brady closed his briefcase and squinted myopically at the dead astronaut. He doffed his hat. ‘Pleasure to meet you, madam.’
And then he marched off to ruin someone else’s Sunday.
Ed Morgan’s lawn did not get cut that day. His hydrangeas were left to their own devices and the crocuses he’d been planning to plant stayed in the potting shed.
Mr Brady’s visit had shattered the tranquillity of Ed’s Sunday in a way that even the Poulson twins couldn’t come close to matching.
Enough was enough. It was time to take action.
If you’ve never had to manhandle the corpse of a fully-suited astronaut into the back of a station wagon, you’ve no idea how difficult it is. Quite apart from the fact that a spacesuit weighs in excess of eighty pounds, it’s quite a bulky item. Throw in an uncooperative cadaver and you’ve got yourself a handful.
It took Ed the best part of a sweaty, back-breaking half hour to get the spaceman into the back of his Volvo and sitting upright. There was a streak of chloroform on the helmet which Mary insisted on wiping away with Windolene.
‘He’s somebody child,’ she said in answer to Ed’s objections. ‘How would you feel if one of our kids got buried with a grass stain on their helmet?’
‘It’s not getting buried. It’s going to the rubbish dump.’
Feeling like she’d done something to make the world a better place, Mary returned to the house and embarked upon an unscheduled bout of house cleaning.
Ed checked that the dead astronaut’s seat belt was securely fastened. ‘You’ll have to excuse my wife,’ he said, speaking to the smiley face that remained lipsticked on the spaceman’s visor. ‘She’s missing our kids, is all.’
After checking that the glove compartment was furnished with enough Werther’s Originals to last the journey, Ed set off for the council’s recycling facility.
Jimmy Boyd was a pubescent cliché, the sort of character a lazy writer might invent for comic effect. An acne-ridden wretch with a voice prone to modulating across three octaves in a single sentence, he had yet to kiss a girl let alone do any of those nasty things he’d seen on the Internet. In short, Jimmy was a battleground where Catholic guilt locked horns with the dictates of teenage hormones.
‘Sir!’ he squawked. ‘You can’t put that in there.’
Ed was about to deposit his dead astronaut in a large skip marked ORGANIC WASTE. Flies buzzed around his head. The stench of decomposing matter hung in the air.
The heart of the recycling facility was a large hole in the ground that had started off as a World War II bomb crater and was now filled with skips the size of a bungalow. A road ran round the crater. People from all over the borough were throwing televisions, furniture and other casualties of built-in obsolescence into the skips. For many it was a family day out.
Ed dropped his astronaut on the tarmac. ‘I’m not going to argue with you,’ he told the mess of hormones that was Jimmy Boyd. ‘I’ve done my civic duty. From here on in, this is your problem.’
And with that, he hopped into his Volvo and drove off.
Jimmy turned towards the wooden hut wherein his boss spent his days drinking cups of milky tea. ‘Mr Saville!’ he squeaked. ‘We have another one!’
Ed Morgan drove to a shopping mall. He bought six digital cameras, two video cams, a four inch telescope, three microphones, eight motion detectors, a night vision scope, binoculars and a load of other electronic stuff that might or might not serve his purpose.
Mary Morgan was not used to having the bed to herself. She missed the warmth of her husband’s body, his breath on her neck and even the odd noises he made in his sleep.
It was just after one in the morning. Every tick of the alarm clock was a dig in the ribs. Somewhere in the house, a tap was dripping. Electricity hummed in hidden wires. Water whispered as it crept through the pipes.
Giving up on sleep, Mary rolled out of bed and slipped into her husband’s dressing gown. Then she went downstairs, made some sandwiches, filled a thermos with hot coffee and put on her wellies.
Outside, she paused on the patio to look up at the stars and was astonished to see so many. It took her back to her courting days when she would hop on the back of Ed’s motorbike and they’d ride out of town to marvel at the Milky Way. She recalled a conversation they’d had holding hands on top of Box Hill one night. Ed claimed that within twenty years people would be living on the moon.
‘Butlins will open a holiday camp there,’ he told her. ‘Probably in the Sea of Tranquillity. It’ll be the perfect place to spend our silver wedding anniversary.’
It was the first time he’d ever mentioned marriage. Between then and dawn, they unknowingly conceived their eldest child and promised each other they would fly to the stars as soon as science made it possible.
And now here she was, knocking on fifty with no prospect of ever getting to the moon let alone the stars.
With sandwich box in one hand and thermos in the other, Mary skirted the lawn and made her way to the potting shed. She opened the door gently in case her husband had fallen asleep.
He was in a lawn chair gazing at a laptop sitting on a table amid a jungle of potted crocuses. If he was surprised to see his wife, he didn’t show it.
‘Do you mind if I join you?’ Mary asked. ‘I’ve brought some refreshments.’
‘I’ll be glad of the company,’ he said.
The inside of the potting shed was illuminated by the laptop and a couple of portable televisions linked to the video cameras Ed had bought on his way back from the dump. Both vid-cams were mounted on top of the shed. One showed a view of the lawn ringed with digital cameras and motion detectors; the other looked up at the stars.
Mary unfolded a chair and sat next to Ed. ‘What are you looking at?’ she asked.
‘A website with a list of all recent rocket launches. I was hoping they’d tie in with the arrival of our dead astronauts.’
‘And I take it they don’t.’
‘These are all satellite launches. No one’s put a man in space since the last shuttle mission and that was over three months ago.’
‘Isn’t there a space station up there? Perhaps that’s where they’re coming from.’
‘You could be right. But how do you fall out of a space station?’
‘Maybe they’re being thrown out. I mean, the station’s manned by both Russians and Americans and they don’t always get along. Suppose they’re having some sort of blood feud and their governments are hushing it up for diplomatic reasons?’
‘It’s possible,’ Ed conceded. ‘We’ll find out when the next dead astronaut turns up. I’ll be able to plot its trajectory and work out which part of the sky it fell from. Then I’ll check the Internet to see if the International Space Station was in the vicinity.’
Mary opened the thermos and poured her husband a cup of coffee which he accepted with a grateful smile. She rested her head on his shoulder.
‘This is kind of fun,’ she said.
‘Isn’t it just?’
‘Reminds me of when we first met.’
Ed chuckled fondly. ‘All those nights making love beneath the stars.’
‘And talking. We used to talk a lot back then.’
‘We still do.’
‘Only about sensible stuff like bills and gardening and getting the walls repointed. When we were courting, we used to talk about everything and nothing. We told each other all our silly secrets – stuff we couldn’t tell anyone else because they’d laugh at us.’
‘I promised to take you to the moon on our silver wedding anniversary.’
‘You remember that?’
‘Like it was yesterday.’
Mary felt warm and glowy. ‘I’ve an idea,’ she said. ‘But you might not like it.’
‘Let’s grab a blanket and make love on the lawn.’
‘But the neighbours…’
‘Hang the neighbours. Bloody snobs, the lot of them.’
Ed laughed. ‘Mary Morgan, I’ve suddenly remembered why I love you.’
When the sun next rose over Acacia Avenue, it found Ed and Mary Morgan huddled naked on a blanket in the middle of their lawn. They were both dreaming the same dream of a holiday camp on the moon.
A few doors down, Mr Lacey drew back the curtains in his bedroom and almost exploded. ‘What the blithering blue blazes!’
Mrs. Lacey sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes. ‘What is it, dear?’
‘There! In the back garden!’
‘A dead astronaut. And it’s crushed my carnations!’