July 1969. Everyone’s making rockets. Kev’s made one, Bobby’s made one, Nick Cruikshank has made one. Kev’s is a Fairy Liquid bottle covered with white sticky-back plastic and the words Apollo XI written in permanent marker along the side, like he’s seen Val make on Blue Peter, with wooden forks, the kind you get at the chip shop, glued low-down to make it aerodynamic. Bobby’s is an Airfix kit he bought at the model shop on Fisherton Street, with transfers of the American flag and NASA up near the snout, while Nick Cruikshank’s is a fab one, built with Meccano, complete with a launching gantry on wheels. They’re going to have a competition in the park on Saturday afternoon, to see which one’s best. Kev asks if I’m going to bring a rocket too: I nod and race home.
I’ve already got an empty Cornflakes box, some crow’s feathers from the garden, a square of corrugated cardboard and some cocktail sticks in my bedroom drawer – they might be useful for it. I ask Mum if I can have the washing-up liquid bottle, and she says I can when it’s empty, but it’s still half-full so won’t be ready in time – I’ll have to think of something else for the body of the rocket.
By teatime, I haven’t come up with anything. By bathtime, nothing too.
I mull over the options in the bath, water-reflections shimmering and blinking on the ceiling, the net curtain waving like a jellyfish in the breeze, the sky blue as a whale through the frosted glass.
‘Davy: hurry up in there,’ Mum calls through the door. ‘It’s nearly half-nine. Bedtime.’
I soap my knees, thinking. Nick Cruikshank says he’s going to be an astronaut when he grows up, and because he always comes top at everything at school and is really good at maths and science, no-one laughs at him. I want to be an astronaut, too. When I asked Dad last week what qualifications I’d need, he scratched his chin, the anchor tattoo on his arm rippling like something underwater, and said, ‘Well, I think you’ve got to be American, son. And, on top of that, I think you’ve got to be in the Armed Forces, like Neil Armstrong and that Aldrin bloke. You should join the Royal Navy like I did; see where that gets you. It’s a good life.’ Dad was in the Navy for ten years, until Mum said she was fed-up with him being away from home so much. Now he’s a milkman and goes to bed before everyone, to be up in time for the early shift. Dad’s always plugging the Navy, saying I have it in my blood and daft things like that.
‘Davy: hurry up. I won’t tell you again.’ Mum sounds vexed.
I pull the plug and watch a vortex form, sucking the water away. Putting my toes over the plughole, I feel the tug on them. There was a programme on telly about training astronauts: they’re put in a closed room and strapped to a carousel that spins round and round very fast, making their cheeks wobble and their eyes water, and if they don’t throw up when they get off, they’re allowed to be astronauts.
I went on the cyclones and the waltzers last year at the fair, and wasn’t sick even though Kev was, and we ate the same amount of frankfurters and candyfloss and toffee apples beforehand, so I’d probably be all right in outer space and Kev wouldn’t. Kev gets sick even in his dad’s Morris Minor and has to sit with a bucket between his knees. I’ll mention the waltzers when I write to NASA, and hopefully they won’t know I’m not American till too late.
Grabbing a towel and getting out of the bath, I see the Vosene bottle, half-an-inch of evil-smelling forest-green goo still at the bottom. I pick the bottle up and examine it. It isn’t quite the right shape – too thin, not round-bodied like a Fairy Liquid bottle: it’d be a squeeze to fit men inside. Then I see the deep-sea blue of the bleach bottle under the sink: that’ll do. That bottle’s a better shape. The nozzle isn’t pointed, but I can stick a cocktail stick in it to give it an antenna like real rockets have. I can take the wrapping with the word Domestos off, and glue the crow’s feathers along the side, like flights on a dart, to make it air-worthy, stick bits of corrugated cardboard on as fuel relays and circuits, paint the Cornflakes box black and use it as a launching frame – it’d fit.
I pick up the bleach bottle and shake it. Only a bit left – Mum won’t miss it. I empty it down the toilet and smuggle the bottle to my bedroom under the towel. I stuff a blanket along the bottom of my bedroom door so Mum won’t see my light’s still on when she goes to bed.
The rocket is finished at one in the morning. It’s beautiful – it really looks like it could make it into orbit.
I climb into bed and dream of floating weightlessly, arms and legs out like a spacey starfish, eyes bulging and breath held big as a balloon inside my ribs, with nothing to see but blue and more blue and, far off, glittering lights, unreachable.
It’s a hot day and there are lots of people and kids and dogs and ducks using the park. Kev’s waiting for me under the chestnut tree by the gates. He eyes my rocket and I eye his. My Domestos bottle is bigger than his Fairy Liquid bottle, anyway. We walk towards the pond where Bobby and Nick Cruikshank are.
‘What’s that?’ Bobby asks, looking at my rocket, a laugh in his voice and maybe a bit of a sneer, too.
I keep it close to my chest and hold my face stiff. I hadn’t been able to use the crow’s feathers after all – they wouldn’t stick on right – but I’ve made fins out of paper plates and stuck them to the base of the rocket. When I woke this morning, I liked the look of my rocket, but now, in the park, looking at the others, I’m not so sure.
‘Come on,’ says Kev. ‘Let’s see whose is best.’
He stands his rocket upright on the grass and lays down in front of it, resting his chin on his hands and closing one eye to beef up the perspective. ‘Apollo XI, this is Houston,’ he says in an American accent, holding his nose with his fingers to make it sound like it’s coming over a radio. ‘Do you read me? Countdown to launch to proceed in two minutes.’
Bobby kneels beside Kev, and then Nick Cruikshank and I kneel too, each with our rocket ship in front of us, all in a row. My black Cornflakes box keeps falling down, so I hold the edges on the grass with fingers and thumbs.
‘So how are we going to decide which is best?’ says Bobby, his rocket startlingly white in the afternoon sunshine, the pond behind it winking and glittering like stars. Bobby’s is the smallest and most accurate-looking, but he bought it in the model shop and didn’t really make it, only put it together from component parts.
Nick Cruikshank wheels his rocket on its Meccano launch pad right round the other rockets and back to its place. ‘Well, what’s the criteria?’ he asks. ‘Maybe we should see whose has the most working parts?’ He levers his rocket into launch position with a handle fixed at the side of the gantry.
‘Or whose looks best?’ counters Bobby, his eyes never leaving his rocket.
Me and Kev look at those rockets and then at our own, thinking the same thoughts.
‘You two didn’t make yours from scratch,’ says Kev, ‘Not like me and Davy did. So Nick’s has the most moving parts and Bobby’s looks best, but which of our two is best?’
Kev’s question has tentacles like an octopus which squeeze me so tight I can’t easily breathe. Any minute now, the others will say: Yours, Kev. Yours is best, because it’s white and says Apollo XI on the side so you can tell what it is, and it isn’t a rubbishy old Domestos bottle with paper plate scallops stuck to the bottom and a cocktail stick in the top and corrugated cardboard shapes painted silver and stuck to the sides pretending to be electronic panels. And when they say that, I won’t really mind coming last, because there are only four of us and it’s not like at school where, if you come last, you’re last out of twenty-seven, even below the girls, even below Helen Scarf who smells like wee and has matted hair and nits.
But I do mind that Kev, my best friend Kev who I tell secrets to, who I showed that magazine with the women’s t_ts in that I found on the bus, who rode his Chopper bike to the quarry with me last week and swam with me in the reservoir, I mind that Kev’s trying to humiliate me in front of Bobby, and in front of Nick Cruikshank who always comes top at everything because his dad’s a doctor and probably helps him with his homework and who had a holiday in Tunisia last year and sent a postcard to the class to prove it. I mind that Kev wants to get in with Bobby and Nick Cruikshank so much that he’s willing to cast me away, even thought we’ve been friends since primary school, and are going to be in the same class at grammar school when the new term starts in September. Any minute now, Bobby and Nick Cruikshank will make up their minds and declare Kev’s better, and I’ll hang around for a bit and then go off home and put my rocket under the bed and find another best friend. Probably Helen Scarf.
‘I think yours is best out of the two, Kev,’ says Bobby. ‘But Davy’s can kill 99% of all known germs dead!’
Bobby and Kev laugh exaggeratedly. Kev stands up, just so he can bend over double as if his sides are splitting, and Bobby pats him on the back twice, overdramatically like a mime act, his head lolling in mirth. My insides feel like they’re being gnawed by little fishes. I know my cheeks are going red. I wish I’d never tried.
Nick Cruikshank watches me and his face kind of kinks. Then he frowns and looks down, as if thinking very hard. ‘All right,’ he says, ‘So mine has the most working parts and Bobby’s looks most accurate, but let’s see which of the other two flies best, shall we?’
That stops the laughing. Kev chews his lower lip, unsure. Bobby says, ‘Go on, Kev,’ so Kev says he’ll give it a try. Nick Cruikshank lifts his eyebrows at me, wanting an answer. Not trusting my voice, I nod. Things are going from bad to worse, as Dad would say.
Kev goes first. He gets down on one knee and flings his rocket hard as a javelin. It rises in a high trajectory, arcs, dips, then bumps its nose on the ground a few feet short of the pond. ‘Houston, we have pulled free of Earth’s atmosphere,’ Kev intones, running and picking up his rocket, ‘And are orbiting the Moon.’ He looks back at me, smug.
‘Your turn,’ says Nick Cruikshank. He seems deadly serious, and all of a sudden, I can see him as an astronaut, getting through all the training and everything, wearing a white jumpsuit and being called ‘sir’.
I kneel and hold the Domestos bottle in the black-painted cornflakes launcher high above my right shoulder, ready to fling it.
‘Hang on a minute.’ Nick Cruikshank kneels beside me. ‘If we hold it between us – like this – then we can throw it together on a count of three. It’ll fly better that way.’
‘That’s cheating,’ protests Kev. ‘He’s supposed to do it on his own.’
‘Who says?’ says Nick Cruikshank calmly. ‘Do you know how many people it takes to launch a real rocket? Hundreds.’ We hold the box between us. ‘On a count of three. One – two – three – go.’
Together, we lift the launching bay and fling the rocket off into space. It sails through the sky and over the duck pond. It almost reaches the other side – almost – but falls a foot or so short, belly-flopping in the water and scattering the ducks.
Nick Cruikshank and I race around the pond. Kev and Bobby follow. As we get to the rocket ship, bubbles rise from the cocktail-stick-sized hole in the nose-piece. The rocket fills with water and slowly sinks beneath the surface.
‘You made a submarine, not a rocket!’ says Bobby, laughing.
Kev’s holding both his own rocket and Bobby’s. ‘Let’s go down the chippy, Bobby,’ he says, ‘I’m starving. You coming, Nick?’
‘We’ll meet you there.’ Nick waves them away.
I kneel at the edge of the pond and stare down at the blinking lights in the water around the rocket ship nestled deep in the blue, rocking and tilting a little with the swell. Nick Cruikshank claps me on the shoulder. ‘That wasn’t bad,’ he says. ‘Teamwork. It really flew.’
I don’t lift my eyes until the hot sting has gone from them, until I’ve swallowed hard several times. Finally, I look up. Nick Cruikshank stands above me, the sun behind his shoulder obscuring his face, making of it a golden blur, setting his hair alight like fired filaments. The sun shines on my face and makes me squint. I shield my eyes with my palm like a visor and, in that moment, in that sunlight, Nick Cruikshank seems to have grown huge, taller than a tree, bigger than a giant, taller and bigger and more real than anyone I’d ever seen before or will ever see again, so big that he fills the sky.
About the Author
Julie Hayman is a short story and novel writer living in the west of England. Her stories have won and been highly placed in several national competitions. Her work is published in anthologies and online. She works as a university lecturer.
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