Thievery: The Crumbling Stars
This month I’m doing a mentoring special to celebrate all the talented and diverse writers I’ve been lucky enough to work with through WoMentoring. Today we have an astrology-inspired elegy from Rebecca Harrison.
Every night, we wrote down the names of the stars which had gone. So we could watch the skies, Nora brushed the star ash from our window – our parents still called it snow. Sunset was ‘curtain close’ and then we weren’t meant to look out. So after we’d gone to bed, we lay awake listening for sleep sounds. The old space books were under our beds, but when we held them up to the window their pages had stopped matching the skies.
When the star ash first started falling, we were in school. It looked like cloud feathers. We didn’t know it wasn’t snow. The teacher shouted us away from the windows but we just heard the silence more: it was space-wide. The windows were behind us. Nora sat in front of me and didn’t turn round even when I nudged her chair. The classroom became cold. I sneaked peeks at the windows. The world was white wings.
In the playground, I ran until my legs were wobbles and everything felt like downhill. Nora grabbed my hand and we fell onto a drift – it was as soft as hushed mist. We lifted our hands in the falling snow but when we stared up through it, we could see the clouds weren’t there. By home time, the streets were wading-deep. The others raced off, but we lingered behind. The snow looked like it was falling on the wrong speed. When we finally got home, we shook it from our hair. Nora said it didn’t smell like ice or cold, and I opened the window to see. Outside, the air smelled like underground sounds.
When I was a child, I read about dying stars. I kept my space book by my bed: heavy, hardback, and the colour of night seas. I’d curl on my floor, turn the pages and follow star lives from red giants to white dwarfs until they were black. The next day, I’d read my book again. So the stars were always dying. When I watched sunsets, I tried to guess how many days were left in our own star. My dad told me the Sun would be here long after humans had died out. But I hated the thought of the Sun all alone. After that, I took to asking when King Arthur would return instead. Thatcher was on the throne, so it had to be soon.
I watched the skies. My dad told me where to look for planets. I carried my space book in a hug and read the solar system. I still remember the words ‘sweltering Venus is what our planet would have become if it had travelled closer to the Sun’. They felt like peril. I read the planets in order over and again. In the illustrations, Pluto was the colour of ice song, and although its landscapes were drawn empty, I remember those pictures filled with strange creatures that never were, eeking out life in the leftover light. When I was lonely, Pluto was my favourite planet. And it still is.
With friends, I waited for UFOs. My brother said they weren’t there. On summer nights that felt like found keyholes, I sat by windows in the dark. Other evenings, outside on climbing frames, we waited for skies to fly nearer. Becky’s garden backed onto the railway and the darkness there smelled of pathways to places we hadn’t seen. Later, in a corner of her house, we huddled wordless through power cuts away from the closed curtains. It seemed all the adults in the world were asleep. We just had to make it to the day, I thought; space and its creatures could only reach us at night.
From my room, I saw a shooting star fall in the fields. I drew a map. Kate and I followed it through a morning as grey as left-behind wind, our anoraks zipped against drizzle and nettles. We plotted wishes as bright as moon seas but we couldn’t find the star. I threw the map out. The fields were full of far away. I knew if you started walking from the right place you would reach forever. It had its own sky. In summers as long as oak shadows, Catie and I played games and built dens. We said we’d lie down in front of the diggers. But we never did.
I wrote wills. I hid them among my toys. I feared boats and planes: if I died in another land, my soul would wander forever trying to get home. My grandma told me this was the best place in the world. Vienna broke her heart, she said. What happened there could never happen here. I turned globes that sounded like stopped cogs and I looked at all the countries on the Earth. To me, Vienna always felt long ago. I thought if I ever visited I’d find the city still before the war, before my grandpa walked through the winter forests to escape the Nazis.
After the Brexit vote, I felt I couldn’t find the place which had saved my grandparents. I still can’t find it. My story ‘The Crumbling Stars’ is about two children watching dying stars long after everyone else has stopped looking out of their windows. All my feelings about my lost country became childhood nights reading space books and watching the skies.
‘The Crumbling Stars’ can be read in full at Maudlin House.