Category Archives: Flotsam Jetsam

Things can only get better…

If you’d asked me I’d have said it felt like things were ending and not beginning. They were difficult, uncertain times. I was spending my days distracted, worrying about Trump and whether the Korean Peninsula was going to ignite. Or watching Davis and Bernier butt heads in Brussels; as mismatched as Mayweather and McGregor but with even more money at stake. Trucks on Las Ramblas, crossbow bolts on cricket pitches, Neo Nazis marching in small town America. Stuff I couldn’t do much about beyond post disapproving links to my own personal echo chamber on social media. I think everyone switched off from those sort of posts after the referendum anyway. Some kind of political fatigue. I imagine if the English Civil War had played out on Facebook then Charles may well have kept his head and his crown; all that simmering New Model Army agitation dissipating, threads about Leveller demands for suffrage lost in a sea of cat videos and personality quizzes. Burford might have trended on Twitter for a couple of hours. Hashtag Thompson, Perkins and Church. Everyone left to get back to checking out the Daily Mail’s pap shots of a bikini clad Henrietta Maria on the beach in France with England’s exiled monarch. I know, I know. There were no long lenses in the seventeenth century. Or cameras. Or bikinis. But you get the idea: nobody’s changing anyone’s mind on social.

Driving home that day I took the detour I’d been taking all summer, the one that passed the fields blanketed in sunflowers. Their heads were bowed slightly now as Autumn approached. There was something strangely somber, dignified, in their quiet genuflection. It was only poignant, I guess, if you’d seen them in the weeks before, rows upon rows of bright beaming faces raised in praise of the sun. Who am I kidding? We see reflected back what’s already inside us. Maybe you’d have just seen a field of nice flowers without all the attendant pathos. I saw some metaphorical expression of my state of mind. Wilting. Still straining for the sun but wilting nonetheless. I make it sound more melodramatic than it merited but I think I was in my Poundshop Shelley phase. Or CostCo Keats. Pick the discount retailer and romantic poet combination that works best for you. Woolworth’s Wordsworth. I wandered through the pick n’ mix lonely as a cloud. The important part, looking back, is that I was still straining for the sun. It’s not like I’d passed by a field of rotten, broken stalks, dead headed beyond recognition, and thought: hey, that’s me. By my standards it was a pretty optimistic outlook but, as I say, if you’d asked it didn’t feel like the beginning of anything.

It was round about the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death. I mention it only as it seems relevant as a kind of cultural sign post, everyone looking back at how we all reacted then and what it said about us all. Apparently it was the event that broke the great British reserve and prefaced our now seemingly endless embrace of public displays of grief. All magnified on social but let’s not go there again (I’m betting if Charles had been beheaded in our alternatively imagined Civil War then the outpouring of dislikes and crying emoji’s would have brought down the Facebook servers). I say ‘apparently’ because that’s not how I remember it. I woke up with a hangover that day that probably just about makes my Greatest Hangover Hits (middle of side 1: not a real face melter that you’d start the album with or one of the really brutal slow burners that you’d stick on the end of side 2) but it was twenty years ago – back when you’d shake that shit off before the first coffee and half a bacon sandwich was done. Not like now when drinking punishes you for days, a crime that always delivers a custodial sentence instead of the slap-on-the-wrist community service order you used to enjoy. To blow away the cobwebs I’d wandered down to the local newsagents to pick up the Sunday rags and had made it all the way back to the flat before noticing the front page: I used to read the sports first. Things had evidently been in the balance at whatever point the papers went to print over night as the headlines described the crash and her condition as precarious. I was staying with a couple of friends who didn’t have a TV so we flicked on the radio. Yes, we were that bohemian (well, I wasn’t, I had a 32 inch monstrosity that took up half of my living room but they were always a little more sophisticated than me). All stations were playing quiet classical music and so we knew long before a very BBC Home Counties voice gently intoned that “out of respect” all regular programming had been suspended. It’s the voice they will roll out in the event of nuclear armageddon: regretfully we are all about to be annihilated in a fiery radioactive inferno so we have suspended Pete Tong and bring you, instead, this piece by Vivaldi. The Archers will continue as usual. So we knew that she’d died. And you know what? I don’t mean to sound callous about it but it meant literally nothing to us: nothing then and, looking back, it means even less to me now. To paraphrase Morrissey: she said nothing to us about our life. I think someone cracked an entirely inappropriate, coal black gag and we got on with the day. It was only in the weeks that followed as I tiptoed through the bizarre and extraordinary public grief that it felt like it mattered to me at all – and it only mattered in that it was maybe the first time that I felt completely out of step with the public mood. Then again I never was good at picking sides. I voted remain. I had a job interview the day of her funeral, driving past abandoned flowers on the M1.

Maybe it was Brian Cox that sparked the beginning. My own personal, if unlikely, Higgs Bosun. Maybe he kicked it all off. When I made it home I’d eaten dinner with my daughter and we’d turned to chatting about astronomy. She wanted to know whether there were any famous astronomers and, mistakenly figuring she wouldn’t know the difference, I offered up the former D: Ream keyboard wizard and booted up a lecture he’d delivered on Youtube. Straight away she called me out on the fact that he was a physicist and not an astronomer. She’s nine. I took comfort that she’d spotted it and more comfort that when I explained that there weren’t really any famous astronomers she thought that was another good reason to pursue it as potential career. She also offered up Edwin Hubble as an example of a famous astronomer which gave me a reassuring insight into her frame of reference for what should constitute fame. We didn’t make it that far through Cox’s lecture if I’m honest. I’m not going to pretend that me and the pre-tween were scribbling out e=mc squared and back solving calculus on the kitchen blackboard long into the evening. She returned to watching Sam & Kat on Netflix and I opened a bottle of wine. But we did make it far enough to hear him describe the number of galaxies in the universe that they’d observed through Hubble in a patch of sky that you could cover with a five pence piece if you held it twenty metres away from your eye. Ten thousand.

Ten thousand galaxies under a five pence piece. I think that was when I felt a tingle of wonder return. Felt the possibilities. I think that was maybe the beginning.

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Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring ennui, Lorde, solutions architecture, and puns about hats

“Did you get it?”

“Not only did I not get it but they didn’t even talk to me about it.”

“But you threw your hat in the ring, right?”

“Yeah, of course but it looks like there wasn’t really a ring to throw my hat into. Or I didn’t have a very good hat. Or the ring was already full with a much better hat. Is that too much now on the hat stuff?”

“No way. I can’t believe they didn’t speak to you. You’ve got a top hat-”

“Really? A ‘top hat’?” interrupted Pete. “That’s the best you’ve got?”

“Unintentional punnery, I promise,” protested Jen. “I would con-fez if it’d been a deliberate hat joke.”

“Good lord. Remind me why I call you again when I’ve got bad news? There’s a…,” Pete paused for emphasis, “…flat cap on my career prospects and by way of commiserations you’re doing bad gags about millinery.”

“Sorry, let’s draw a veil over the whole thing…” said Jen.

“That’s not a hat, is it?”

“It’s kind of head gear. Close enough to count as another feather in my-”

“No more. Enough.” Pete cut off the last pun but she could hear him barely suppressing his laughter.

“Okay. Seriously though, I can’t believe they didn’t speak to you. I know I don’t really know much about that thing you do… what is that thing you do again? Actually, don’t bother, I didn’t really understand it last time. I don’t know much about it but I thought you were getting on really well.”

“So did I. And it’s Solutions Architecture in IT,” said Pete.

“Yeah, let’s not try and have that conversation again.”

“Agreed as long as you don’t try and explain PR to me again.”

“Like I said. It’s dead easy.” Jen let out an exaggerated sigh with a flourish. “I try to get journalists to write nice things about the company, or, technically get them to reproduce the nice things I’ve already written about the company for them,”

“Except…”

“Except when I think they might be about to write nasty things about the company and then I try to stop them. That’s basically it.”

“Doesn’t it ever strike you as, I don’t know, utterly futile?” asked Pete.

“Maybe. No more so than translating a bunch of user requirements into what’s basically just a rough idea for a piece of software design that you then give to some actual developers to go and build.”

“Touche. And I thought you didn’t understand it?”

“PR darling,” mocked Jen. “Knowledge for us is a mile wide and an inch deep. Don’t ask me what any of those things actually mean.”

“Depressing, isn’t it? I can’t decide if I’m genuinely sad about not getting the job or about the fact that I thought I might have even wanted it in the first place. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, was it? Me and Georgie used to talk about it. How we’d carve out our niches doing the things we loved and it wouldn’t matter too much if we never really got paid that well. I was going to write software, not ‘solutionise’ it or ‘architect’ it or any of those other pieces of jargon we invent to legitimise all this nonsense. She was going to get her club night off the ground, try and get into promoting stuff.”

“What happened?” nudged Jen quietly.

“I don’t know. It seemed temporary and that made it seem okay. Do the big corporate IT job while she got herself set up – I used to run out flyers for her from work on the company printers – and there’d always be time to get back to the other stuff later. Always later. You get used to the money I guess and then… since the accident, since she’s been gone, I’ve just stuck at it. On some level I think I understand it as hanging on to something constant as everything else changed. Even if it was hanging on to something that was a bit crap it was still… still better than everything else.”

“What does your grief counsellor say?”

“That I’m intentionally hanging on to something constant because everything else changed. You don’t think I came up with that phrase on my own, do you? I think what I said to her was that work was utter shit but I preferred sinking knee deep into it every day for the chance to briefly pretend everything else was normal rather than quit and face up to getting on with my life on my own.”

“I prefer your version. Hers sounds a bit like solution architecture. Do you worry we’re getting too old now to change?”

“I don’t know if it’s age or a mindset or what it is. You heard the Lorde record?” asked Pete.

“Of course,” said Jen.

“What do you mean ‘of course’? We’re not 19 anymore, it’d be not that surprising if it had passed us by. I really like it. Like, really like it. More than someone in their 30s should maybe. That last track…”

“Perfect Places?”

“Yeah, Perfect Places. It’s like my experience of being 19 wrapped up in three minutes. All that ennui and that weird mix of thinking you’re having the time of your life but already wondering whether you’re looking in the wrong places for the wrong things. I just listen to it and wonder how it would have sounded to me when I was 19. How she’s nailed that down in the moment rather than ten years later, looking back, I just don’t know.”

“This is a little off topic but do you want to know something funny?” said Jen.

“Go on…”

“I always used to think ennui was pronounced ‘enn-you-eye’. Had no idea that last syllable was like ‘we’.”

“Really? After you gave me such a hard time about Choux pastry? It’s a French word, isn’t it? So it’s pronounced more like ‘oui’. There’s just not a decent English equivalent for that particular brand of boredom and dissatisfaction.”

“Weltschmerz,” declared Jen.

“Bless you,” Pete retorted. “Or gesundheit I guess would be more appropriate.”

“Very funny. Weltschmerz. It’s like the German equivalent of ennui, isn’t it? Or near enough. Wonder why the Europeans got all the good words for a yearning, world weary sadness?”

“Make the most of them. We probably won’t be allowed to use them post Brexit.”

“Why are you thinking about being 19 again? Apart from the Lorde record I mean.” Jen’s voice dropped as realisation struck. “Didn’t you meet Georgie when you were about that age?”

“Yeah, yeah I did. She was the right thing I found, I guess…” Pete trailed off and the line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past five months.

“I’m sorry Pete but I’ve gotta go now, early start again tomorrow. Are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.

“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow.”

The line went dead and Pete whispered to himself: “What the fuck are perfect places anyway?”

 

360

I can tell you what it said. I’ll give you the short version rather than the Peter Jackson version. Don’t misunderstand, there were no hobbits or dragons or songs about gold in my three sixty feedback. Definitely nothing about gold. There was the slight inference that my career was heading inexorably towards Mount Doom though and a number of comments suggested that I might as well have been invisible for the past three years. And all without the benefit of a magic ring. What was the point of that ring, anyway? All it did was make you invisible and, over prolonged exposure, go a bit mad. So, in that respect, I guess, pretty similar to my job. But that’s not worth ripping up Middle Earth for, surely? There was that stuff about it ruling over all the other rings, one ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. All that. I think it gave the wearer the power over the will of men. It wouldn’t have to work too hard on mine: I’m losing more of it everyday.

I digress. This is what it said. I’m paraphrasing but you’ll get the general idea. My peers all said I was anonymous and lack presence. They all said, on such a consistent basis that I have to be suspicious that they didn’t agree it beforehand, that I had reached the limit of my potential. Hit my own personal ceiling. What the hell is a ‘personal ceiling’? That’s actually what one of them put in the open ended comments. Standing on the top rung of my own career ladder and, should I try to climb higher it’d inevitably end with me on the floor in a heap. That was another one. They had definitely been comparing notes. I think my favourite, if I can put it like that, was: “he reminds me of Ringo Starr: he’s the least talented amongst us and the best he can hope for if he steps away from the protection we give him as a group is to read stories for kids about steam trains.” Well, I’ve got news for you, Thomas The Tank Engine’s worth a billion pounds a year. And he was the best drummer in the Beatles. So, I take your Ringo slur and I wear it with pride.

Those fuckers were never going to write anything nice to be honest. Straight self-interest. There’s a finite number of jobs above us and we’re all in for them so why put anything down in writing that might inadvertently give a rival a leg up? Even if it just boosts their confidence a fraction, enough to tip them over the edge in a tense interview or some made up presentation task. Tell us about a time you disagreed with someone and how did you change their mind? All that. What’s your biggest weakness? Drink and the musical theatre of Barbra Streisand. Ha, and indeed, ha. Is there anyone who doesn’t say… ‘well, I guess my biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist’ or ‘well, I do find I’m so committed to my work that I sometimes work too hard’ to that question? I made the mistake of answering it honestly once. I thought they’d acknowledge my self-awareness. Turns out they weren’t looking for someone who got bored easily and had a tendency to procrastinate for hours wondering whether he’d made a catastrophic series of decisions from his A levels onwards. Live and learn.

I was disappointed in the responses from the people in the grade above. Disappointed that there weren’t any. I guess, on some level, I was aware that I wasn’t a huge blip on their radar but I thought I might have registered a little. Or at all. There are billions of pounds and dollars and yen being spent on developing stealth technology around the world to fit out planes that are invisible to enemy defence systems. Billions. And here I am with, seemingly, in built stealth DNA. I should be able to make a fortune letting them replicate my genome to smear across wings and fuselage and, why stop there, tanks and aircraft carriers and bombers. Instant invisibility. Utterly undetectable to anything or anyone with decision making power.

I had consoled myself that the fact that my immediate peers hated me and my seniors were completely oblivious was because I was a man of the people. The real people. Good, honest (and, talking of being honest, not well paid) workers. They would recognise my common touch and my empathy with their concerns. Sure, they never invited me for after work drinks but I guess that was because they didn’t want me to feel awkward. I understood. Or I thought I’d understood: turns out they took the anonymous opportunity afforded by the online ‘personal development’ survey to give me a right kicking as well. It is not true to say that I relentlessly talk about young bands and the latest gig I’ve been to as a way to try and appear like I’ve still ‘got it’. I genuinely like Stormzy and that whole grime thing. Not knowing the song titles doesn’t mean anything. It’s about how it makes you feel, isn’t it? Middle management can feel urban rage and alienation as much as anyone else. I put their comments down to some kind of reverse snobbery. And that stuff about me lying about having a tattoo really hurt. It’s not like I’m going to get that out in the office to prove it, is it?

Bloody HR. I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to it. Three hundred and sixty degrees of feedback and no degree of restraint or discretion. At least they’re making everyone do it. I will have my revenge.

Stage fright

He stood with his arm on the mic stand, elbow jutting out, as if it might prop him up like a crutch. He clutched the microphone in his other hand, head bowed to meet it. Hunched and bunched. Words swam in his mind but not the ones he’d sat up, late nights and early mornings, scribbling, scrawling in endless notebooks. Rhymes taunted him. Hunched and bunched. Clutch and crutch. He couldn’t see them out there in the darkness but he could hear patience running thin, the scrape of chair legs, glasses on tables, voices that began in whispers growing in volume. He stood framed and still in the spotlight. Hiding in plain sight. Light and sight. Clutch and crutch. Hunched and bunched. Words and rhymes, just not the right ones.

Come on, man. Give up the stage, buddy, let someone else speak. We wanna hear some verse.

The restlessness in the room has a shape now, an edge. It’s been given voice and all he can hear is chatter and disappointment and a room full of wasted Friday nights. There’s a hand on his arm and the compere is leaning into his ear, urging him to speak or sit down. He’s seen this before and there’s a note of understanding but the grip on his arm is getting tighter and he can feel a distinct tug away from the microphone. Some people just can’t do it up here. It’s all in their head and all on the page but not here, not here where there’s nowhere to hide.

He closes his eyes. Whatever he wrote in all those dripping minutes and sweeping hours has gone. Now or never. He speaks.

 

Life writes faster than I can write:

 

If I really – really – committed and held myself to the words,

A thousand words, every day,

Two thousand, three thousand, four,

I’d be too slow and too far behind the curve, the swerve.

Even if I lost some of my reflexive reserve I just don’t have that kind of verve

And maybe I don’t have the nerve.

 

Maybe I’m not ready to bleed.

This ain’t no magic trick, there’s nothing up my sleeve,

No facade or screen or Wizard of Oz behind the scenes and

No filter between you and me: you ready to hear my dreams?

My screams?

My brain and guts and heart and all the viscera in between?

 

‘Cos you might have met me tonight, or any night, any day

And all that stuff we learn to protect ourselves with would have been in the way,

All those masks, those crutches that keep me from your clutches, that suit of armour I lug around,

Each step heavier than the last as it drags me down.

Hunched and bunched and scrunched and out to lunched.

Gut punched.

And all the stuff would have been in the way and would have done its job.

Its fobbing off job: it would have said I’m okay.

 

But I’m not okay.

Not tonight, or any night, any day.

I learned too much of that stuff to protect myself with and it gets in the way.

I got to learn to bleed.

I got to learn to write faster than life.

 

‘Cos lately life’s been writing faster than I can write and faster than I can stand to live.

 

Later, when they buy him a drink, they tell him there was applause. Later, when he puts that armour back on, it feels a little different. A little lighter.

OK Not OK

Ext: a hill overlooking a festival field at dusk. Glastonbury. Two friends, O and K, early 40s, are sitting and looking down towards the Pyramid Stage, at a myriad of winking lights from phones and torches and sparks from lighters and cigarettes. At an armada of tents, like inverted boats spread across the hillside. At flags and banners. At thousands and thousands of people, walking and laughing and dancing. They have not sat here for many years.

O: “What strikes me is how little has changed despite how much has changed.”

K: “I’m not sure I follow.”

O: “Do you think people really change? Their essential character, I mean. The core of them.”

K: “I don’t know. I’d like to think we don’t get set for life at a particular point. It’s not like jelly in a mould. It’s…”

O: “Wobbly ?”

K: “Maybe that wasn’t the best analogy.”

O: “Maybe it was the perfect one. We get set in the mould but then we’re still a bit wobbly even after we get turned out.”

K: “And then, of course, if someone pours boiling hot water over us then we disintegrate and dissolve.”

O: “Remind me not to let you make the tea tomorrow morning…”

K: “No danger of that, my camping skills haven’t changed since last time we were here. I’m surprised you didn’t notice when we were putting the tent up.”

O: “I did. It seemed impolite to mention it.”

K: “You have changed. See, we’re not set. You’ve acquired a bit of discretion and diplomacy in your middle age…”

O: “Whereas you haven’t acquired any useful festival skills at all in the past twenty years.”

K: “But I have grown in so many other ways.”

O: “You’re not wrong there. Now we’re back to things being wobbly again.”

K leans back and reaches inside an adjacent tent, pulls out an acoustic guitar. Strums opening bars to Radiohead’s “Karma Police”. O sings the first line tunelessly. It is hard to say whether it is intentional. They laugh. K stops playing.

K: “If they fail to show later then we can offer to step in.”

O: “How long do you think we’d last before we got bottled off?”

K: “Well they’re more experimental these days. Maybe no-one would notice.”

O: “You remember last time? When was it? ’96? ’97?”

K: “God, yeah. It was ’97. Best performance I ever saw. I know some of it was timing, don’t get me wrong. Listening to them play a bunch of songs about a sense of dislocation and anxiety and unease. It was like Thom Yorke nicked my diary and set it to music.”

O: “Presumably he left out all the bits about why women wouldn’t sleep with you?”

K: “That was The Bends, I think…”

O: “If it’s anything close to ’97 then it’ll be pretty special tonight. Maybe they’ll still do Karma Police. You can check you’re playing it right.”

K: “I think I am. For the longest time though I couldn’t play along to that song. Don’t laugh, it’ll sound stupid but there’s an e-minor in the chord sequence and in the shorthand, on the tab, it’s always written as Em.”

O: “You couldn’t play it because it had your ex-girlfriend’s name written on the music?”

K: “You said you wouldn’t laugh.”

O: “No, I didn’t. You asked me not to and then told me something so funny that it was impossible to stop myself.”

K: “Luckily there aren’t many names you can make out of chord annotations.”

O: “I knew a guy once called A Sharp.”

K: “Of course you did.”

O: “Used to call him B Flat just to annoy him.”

K: “I was expecting a better pay off in that gag.”

O: “Well, that’s half your trouble, isn’t it? You keep setting your life expectations too high and end up being disappointed.”

K: “Perhaps I did then. Not so much now. Experience takes it out of you after a while.”

O: “I guess it does. So does sitting on the ground like this to be honest. My back’s killing me.”

K: “Want to head down?”

O: “Hang out with the kids? Pretend we still got it?”

K: “Whatever we had, we still got. Don’t worry about that.”

O: “Alright then. Let’s show them how it’s done. You okay ?”

K: “Some of me’s not okay. The same stuff that wasn’t okay then, it’s not okay now. And I don’t think that’s going to change. But, yeah, I’m okay.”

O: “You haven’t really changed. And you know what? That’s more than okay.”

 

America/Idea

I fell in love with an idea of America.

Desert roads, haze on the horizon, white lines on grey tarmac disappearing to the vanishing point in the impossible distance.

Art Deco towers in chrome and steel, visions of the future from the 30s.

Open skies above endless plains.

Wrought iron fire escape stairs unwinding down concrete buildings.

John Ford vistas in Monument Valley. Woody and Diane on a bench in Central Park, Springsteen ripping up the Jersey shore, Marvin and Tammi radiating love and colour through black and white TV sets, and Bob and Jeff in the Village, decades apart, holding coffee shops with just a guitar and poetry. Joni in Laurel Canyon.

Sane crazy dreamers on Haight Asbury, daisy chain strings in their hair, tuning in, turning on, dropping out. Pushing furthur on the bus with Kesey and the Pranksters. Chasing the ghost of Gram Parsons in the scrub of Joshua Tree.

Pedal steels and heartbreak.

Adidas trainers, laces pulled out, tapping on caged courts cracked under the sun.

Shore to shore, coast to coast, highways criss crossing State lines and states of mind.

I fell in love. And my idea of America remains.

Arrivals

I didn’t remember it like this. On the out leg I’d shaken off stasis in a few minutes, rinsed out the last of the fog in my brain under a cold shower, and gotten on with running diagnostics. There were rumours they put a little extra in the wake up shot for the arrival on Mercury. Just some adrenaline to give you a head start, get you over the shock of the hellish, sun baked rock you got to call home for the next six months. Whatever it was it wasn’t like this. I felt like I was in a waking dream, asleep but not asleep. I should be more alive than this. The capsule was a cacophony, ablaze with angry red lights and the flight AI repeating “destination reached, destination unknown, destination reached, destination unknown” over and over until I flicked audio to mute. The words still ran in endless sequence across the heads up display in front of me. Reached. Unknown. Reached. Unknown. Maybe it was shock. I’d logged enough time in cryo to know that the process can still throw your body out. Every time a little different. People aren’t supposed to be asleep that long until they’re dead.

The lights and the warning should have had me on edge but I just felt numb. Dislocated. Shaking my head like I was trying to dislodge water from my ear I unstrapped and requested the capsule opening sequence to start. You have reached your destination. Destination unknown. Capsule release commenced. Stand by. Two minutes. Stand by.

I closed my eyes and tried to understand if I was still locked away, frozen in sleep, experiencing one of those stasis nightmares that some of the older crew used to warn us about. We figured it was just scare the rookie stuff. Standard bullshit from guys ground down by the cycle. And it was enough to grind you down: six months off, six months travel, six months on, six months back. Two years all in. I’d run three cycles. There were some guys pushing ten and looking like they’d never break out. With my eyes shut the white light and red flashing from inside the capsule receded to an echo dancing across the inside of my lids. Just colours and shapes. I thought of you. We’d promised this time. Both of us. It was always this place, you always met me here each cycle, and it was always this time. You always met me at arrivals, never saw me depart. We promised this time, didn’t we Dawn? It’d be the last. Break the cycle.

Capsule release confirm. Stand by. You have reached your destination. Destination unknown. Capsule release confirmed. Caution advised. Repeat. Caution advised.

I opened my eyes and saw that I’d arrived. The metal lid on my world for the last six months prised open and the familiar platform was waiting in front of me, ready to carry me to de-con, then debrief, and then arrivals. And then you. It was all familiar but fundamentally different. It was silent. There were no voices over the com, no instructions to step out onto the platform – sometimes gentle, sometimes more urgent depending on how phased they thought you were coming out of the sleep. Nothing. Stepping on to the platform and looking down there were no engineers. No one running checks. No one shouting up at what you missed in the last six months: usually a blow by blow account of who was sleeping with who, whether the Red Sox had won the World Series, or the state of the solar reserves. That last update was always the same. Depleted. Need another cycle.

I rode the platform down, rubbed at my legs as they bore my weight again. The stims and auto-toners had done their job but there was still always something different about those first few paces. Jamieson used to tell me one real step’s worth a thousand muscle simulated ones back when I ran my first couple of cycles with him. That was before they made the flights solo so they could rotate the crew and keep Mercury One manned all the time. Gave us all a loneliness supplement. A couple of guys quit but most of us stuck it out. What else was there? I figured the extra pay would let me break the cycle quicker, bring me two years closer to you.

I cleared the deserted decontamination room and didn’t stop in debrief. There was nobody to debrief to. Nothing much to report anyway. It had been a routine trip, lost a couple of weeks when a solar flare blew out a kilometre of panels, and I had to divert some of the mech resource to assess the damage, but otherwise all by the book. Arrivals is empty save for the ghosts. Not real ghosts, not powdery figures you might see in the old films, the ones they’d show in class to teach the kids about how we used to live, before the shortages, before we had to build the sun farms. Ghosts of the imagination. Passengers arriving from the colonies: a couple connecting, their long distance relationship brought up close; a child clutching a balloon waiting for her mother, her father kneeling next to her, scanning the exit; a man in a suit, phone pressed to his ear, looking for someone holding a sign bearing his name.

But there are no arrivals here except me. And there is no one here to greet me. No one. No Dawn.