Jessie Greengrass

A Lone Astronaut Watches the World End


Years ago – a lecture hall in summer. Heat. Light. A fly buzzing against a window, the sound of a lawnmower coming in through a window. I sit, chin propped on palm, side by side with others on one of many long benches, listening to a woman in a space authority uniform say: There are many kinds of loneliness. You must learn them, and you must learn to tolerate them. She says: It is a matter of practice. She says: You can’t pretend that it won’t happen, the feeling that you can’t bear another moment, that you would tear yourself apart to escape being so alone, but you must learn to live inside it. You must learn to let it rise and fall –
…….I thought that I had learned. I thought I knew its shades, its swell. First, I learned the loneliness of hotel rooms. I learned how the sound of voices in the corridor, the sound of laughter, of joy seeping through a wall, is the tearing of a wound. Next, there were the matched lonelinesses of absence and distance. I learned the loneliness of leaving, and that of having left. I learned how, at times, the thought of everything that is out of reach, or that is lost, or will be lost, will knock the breath from you and make you feel that you are drowning in the gap between one second and the next – and then at last I learned the loneliness of orbit. I learned that this final loneliness is the loneliness of endless silence and the emptiness of time, of space, and I thought that my inhabitation of it was a kind of conquering – but now I know what lies beyond it. My solitude always had an end before. I swam towards it. I swam through each second and through each minute, through the turning of the days and nights – swimming towards home. Now there is no more swimming, and no more home.

…….Today, as every other day, I watch the stars, and I watch the Earth, which turns and turns and will go on turning when we are gone – when I am gone, when my lungs have ceased to open and close and this whole vast stretch of space has become nothing more than rock, and rock, and the shapes of rock. It rises towards me, the Earth, and it is blue and green and swathed in weather, and I press my face against the glass of the window and tell myself that if only I could press hard enough then I would see them. If they are still there. My wife and daughters.

…….In the lecture hall heat stupefies and the woman says: you must find beauty in it, because it will be there. It will surprise you and remind you that you are still a person, that you are alive, and that your isolation is a precious thing, a gift –
…….the beauty of the stars outside the window is a flaying. Up here, now, I feel I am as naked as I have ever been, or could ever be, floating in this shuttle, spinning, and I think of being touched. I think of fingertips, and how I could not bear them.

…….While I am in the lecture hall – while the woman speaks, the fly buzzes – my first child is born. I finish up my studies and go home; and this is how I see them first – through a window, lit from behind: my wife Magdalen, and in her arms my nameless daughter. They are so still, so beautiful. Love, like leaves, unfurls. If we could stay this way forever, I think – if we could always be so much in balance, then what could we ever know of loss –
Inside the house there is the smell of milk. The baby starts to cry. Magdalen hands her to me and I take her, but she is so small, so inconsolable. Her body is a knot I do not know how to unpick, and I give her back, go into another room. Behind me, Magdalen starts to sing –
…….I would have stayed, if she had asked me to. I always would have stayed. She didn’t ask, and so I told myself I wasn’t needed.

…….Our second child is born in winter. I stand to one side while the surgeon cuts her free. Outside, it snows. My footsteps, when I walk home across the park, are the only marks in all the fresh white fall.

…….They are a weight, the three of them, which holds me to my course – their gravity a countermand to my momentum, so that I trace an orbit, and they are at the centre of it; and all along I thought that this was love, or anyway a version of it.

Two weeks ago: Magdalen’s face on a screen, saying sorry – as though it is I, up here, who am let down – or as though I might, by dint of distance, or by division, be able to offer up forgiveness. As though I am less to blame than all those who I have left behind. She says,
…….I’m sorry,
and then the screen goes black. It is too late to offer comfort. She will, by the time I see her message, be already elsewhere, ushered along the corridors of the emptying building, pushing apart the glass doors, running across the burning asphalt of the carpark to her car.

How quickly things change. I think of the day two months ago when Magdalen and I stood, side by side, looking out of our bedroom window at the great empty blackness that would soon surround me. She said,
…….I’ll miss you,
and I thought how easy it would be, from space, to yearn towards her. I thought of the days when I would hurt from wanting her. I thought of how, on that future day, which would be my last day before returning, my pulse would race, and my mouth would go dry, and I would laugh and laugh and laugh with joy.

And I think of a different summer, of lying in the long grass while my children hid from me, of seeing the twitch of leaves, the hands and feet they had overlooked, exposed between the branches of their hiding place, and how I pretended that I couldn’t see them, spinning the game out because it made them laugh, and then spinning it out further because I wanted the peace. I think of how, at last, bored of waiting to be found, they burst out, and how the youngest one tripped, falling onto gravel and skinning her knees, her arms, her chin – and how then, instead of picking her up, I turned away, running up towards the house to find Magdalen.
I think of the day the big one got a tick stuck fast to the skin of her leg – her summer skin, soft and brown – and how I bent over it so that I couldn’t see her face when I removed it, and told her over and over how it would be all right, so that I didn’t have to hear her cry.

I think of the Christmas both children got chickenpox and I said to Magdalen that after all it would be better if I used the time to work, because if I didn’t do it now then I would have to do it later, when they would be well and we could have our own Christmas, put the tree up, roast a ham, wear silly hats – but I knew that really I wanted to be somewhere else so that I didn’t any longer have to look at the children’s blistered cheeks, their chests like dot to dots, the way their fingers hovered, waiting until our backs were turned to pick and itch.

I think: it wasn’t because I didn’t love them. It was only how sharp their pain was, and how I couldn’t take it away.

The earth turns and my home rushes up out of the dark to meet me, and I try and feel them, to see if they are still there, and I think: is this what it was like for them, each time I left?

And when I dream, I dream of cities, I dream of streets. I dream of supermarkets. I dream of long aisles lined with tins down which my children run, away from me, and how the sight of their hair swinging behind them swells my heart. I dream of rain. I dream of things that fall. I dream of walking down a hillside in the dark towards the lights spread out below me, and knowing that I am nearly home, and I dream of how perfect anticipation is – how love, like gravity, pulls me in – but I do not dream of arrival, or of the opening of doors. I don’t dream of their faces, but only their half-turned heads, seen in the distance; and I dream of their fingers, and the sound of their voices, somewhere in the bushes, hiding. I have always loved best from above. From up here, even a dying planet looks pristine.

I like to think that, if there could be some world beyond in which I would be asked whether, had I known what was coming, I would have chosen differently, then I would answer: of course, this is not what I would have chosen. I would answer: I would have chosen to be down there. I would have chosen to be with them, to sit with them through each moment, to watch their fears, their understanding, to know what was coming and endure it, and I would have chosen the unbounded agony of being unable to save them. I would have chosen to keep my eyes on them, and I would have let it all engulf me, the grief, the loss, and still I would have kept on watching –
…….If I could be asked, then I like to think that I would say: what is a father, if not a witness – but I will not be asked. There will be no afterwards; and, besides, I fear those answers would be lies.

And if I could see my wife again – if that blank screen flickered into life – then I would tell her that she has nothing to be sorry for. I would tell her that it is I who am sorry. I have learned, now, what loneliness is. I have learned that those who do not comfort will have no comforter – and it is a sad, an empty lesson, that there is no one left to teach.

Jessie Greengrass was born in 1982. Her short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw it, won the Edge Hill prize in 2016. Her first novel, Sight, was published in 2017 and has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize.

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