The world was not as big as it used to be. What made it smaller, he thought, was that there was so much more stuff in it now. There were all kinds of things that didn’t even exist when he was boy, smaller and faster machines and devices doing things that, until they were invented, he never knew needed to be done. Making stuff smaller and faster was what people called progress but he remembered a time when bigger was better, when to be confronted by something on a massive scale provoked a sense of jaw-dropping wonder. Back then, there was space enough for a rocket and the whole of the moon, even in his small corner of the world.
It was fifteen years since he, Jenna and Mouse had met Captain Paul and he’d been waiting ever since to see another spaceman. Sure, he’d seen a few on television, on the news, but it wasn’t the same as meeting one face to face, in your own back yard. He never told anyone about it except maybe once he mentioned it to a girl he wanted to go out with. He thought it would impress her. Not a bit of it. She thought it was all a big conspiracy. She knew a website which proved how Nixon had NASA fake the whole thing to take people’s minds off Vietnam. It was all done in a Hollywood film studio with actors and fake sets. Nobody went to the moon, she insisted. You believe that, she said, and you might as well believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. She had a point, he figured. Those guys got squeezed out years ago, along with a whole lot of other stuff he used to believe in. But Freddie couldn’t help wondering sometimes, in this smaller, faster, better world of ours, what it was that replaced them? And thinking about where they might have gone, got him to wondering where Jenna and Mouse and Captain Paul were right now and to dream about being in that place. He just knew it had to be a whole lot bigger than here.
The spaceman came to Rhossili in the summer of 1994. Freddie almost didn’t get to meet him because he lied to his best friend about a girl. He was twelve years old and his mind had not yet adjusted to the growth spurt that had caught him napping over the winter. More recently, and more importantly, he’d started becoming intensely aware of girls in ways that made him awkward and stupid around them, even around Jenna. Though they had only known her a little over four months, Mouse said it was like they’d always known her, like she’d always been their friend. What Freddie didn’t have the heart to tell him was that he fancied Jenna and was hoping she felt the same about him.
Mouse was waiting for him one afternoon when he got home from school, a week or so before the summer break. He slid down from the garden wall as Freddie approached. “What’s happening, Mouse?” Freddie said, as his friend fell into step beside him.
Mouse was excited. “I’ve got something cool to tell you.” He always had cool or amazing things to tell – it came naturally to him, like his smallness or the quietness of his voice. That’s why people called him Mouse instead of Carwyn, which was his real name. Adults thought him shy, which he wasn’t particularly, while other kids thought him odd and secretive, both of which he was, and which made it difficult for him to make friends. He was smart though, and he knew all kinds of peculiar things that older kids didn’t know, and that made him a lot of fun to be with, certainly more fun than any other boys Freddie knew in the village. For a serial daydreamer, listening to one of Mouse’s stories or joining in some game he’d concocted, was like stepping into another world. “But we have to get Jenna,” he went on.
He was two years younger than Freddie with a year still to go in primary school. He had no friends his own age but this had never appeared to bother him. He seemed to always be content within himself, untroubled by solitariness. He had no siblings, which was why, Freddie suspected, Mrs Price, didn’t mind him hanging out with an older boy. He guessed that she looked on him as a sort of older brother for Mouse, figured he’d keep Mouse out of harm’s way.
But that afternoon Freddie had other plans which didn’t involve Mouse. “She won’t be home,” he said. “She’s gone to town with her mum.”
“Dammit!” Mouse said, voicing his new favourite swear word as they entered the kitchen. “She should see this.”
Mouse pushed the straggly blond hair from his eyes and scanned the room, as if checking for the presence of unwanted listeners. He always did it when he had something he considered really important to tell. “I found a spaceman on the Worm,” he confided, voice even quieter than usual.
“Oh yeah,” Freddie muttered, distracted. He was thinking about Jenna, waiting for him by the church. “How’d you know it was a spaceman?”
“How do you think?”
“His suit, you idiot. A space suit.”
“So c’mon, let’s go.”
“I can’t, not this afternoon.”
Mouse looked a little crestfallen. “Why not?”
“I got schoolwork, Mouse,” Freddie lied. “They have exams every summer at comp. Mum freaked on me last night ‘cos I haven’t done any revision, said I have to stay in and work.”
“Tough. What about tomorrow?”
“Right. I’ll see you then.” Mouse started to leave but stopped by the door. “I nearly forgot. The spaceman said something good was going to happen.”
“Great, you be ready for it, Mouse.”
Jenna was waiting by the church wall. On the bus from school they’d arranged to go and explore the ruins of the World War Two radar station up on Rhossili Down. They followed the track from behind the church out on to the open moor, to where it began to climb steeply to the beacon six hundred feet above the sea. They raced up the last hundred yards, past thick clumps of yellow-flowered gorse, then collapsed beneath the beacon, laughing and gasping for breath. Worm’s Head stretched out west into the sea at the southern end of the bay. He wondered if Mouse had gone out there to see his spaceman and felt a small quiver of guilt at having lied to him.
Jenna stood up. “Gimme a minute,” Freddie cried. “I’m not ready.”
“Suit yourself.” She set off running and he watched her go, trying to rehearse what he wanted to say. He was desperate to tell her how he felt but he wasn’t sure how. He’d never had a girlfriend before, never even considered it. He would have asked his brother James for advice, but he was away at university. Ellen, his sister, seemed to be going through a phase of hating the world in general and boys in particular, a condition he figured to be natural to most seventeen year old girls. A classmate, Gareth Lewis, said he’d been out with loads of girls and that Tracey Jones in 7D had let him feel her tits. That wasn’t much use to Freddie as he wasn’t at all sure whether Jenna even had breasts yet. All he wanted to know was whether she’d be his girlfriend and not just a friend, like she was with Mouse.
When she disappeared around a bend in the track he got up and followed. Taking a short cut behind a stretch of gorse, he dropped into the dense bracken that bordered the trail and crawled through it to the edge of the track. A minute passed with no sign of her. Two more minutes rolled by and he began to get anxious. Finally, after another thirty seconds he rose and was about to call her name when she sprang up out of the ferns on the other side of the track, startling him. “Got you!” she said, before sinking to her knees, laughing. “I knew you were going to try that.”
He felt stupid and mildly embarrassed but her laughter was infectious and soon he was laughing right along with her. She sprang up and ran then, and he chased after her as she dodged in and out of the ferns and along thin winding paths through vast expanses of richly scented heather. Soon, they came in sight of the radar station. There wasn’t much left apart from concrete foundations, the stumps of brick walls and further down the hill, great slabs of broken, upheaved masonry.
“It feels strange here,” she said, clambering up on the raised foundations, to stare out at the sea. “Like the ruins have secrets they don’t want us to know.”
He hadn’t known Jenna that long, although she’d lived just outside the village for almost a year. Her parents were chefs and had moved to Rhossili from Brighton after buying a guest house and restaurant. They’d sent her to a private school in England but she’d hated it. She told him she’d deliberately set out to get excluded and had finally managed it when she’d caused half a dozen of her classmates to have nightmares by pretending to be possessed. That was just before Christmas. First morning back after the break she was waiting at the bus stop for Bishopston Comprehensive. She made a point of not talking to anyone and in school she acted like she didn’t give a toss about anything. Like everyone else, Freddie had thought she was a stuck up cow and after his initial curiosity had worn off he didn’t pay her much attention.
It was through Mouse that they became friends.
One Saturday near the end of February they were down at Fall Bay picking through the flotsam washed up by a recent storm. You’d be surprised at what the sea washes up on those shores. One time he found a twisted metal frame Mouse said was the ruins of a shark cage but which his dad said was a hang-glider’s frame. He preferred Mouse’s interpretation. Another time, Mouse had found an oddly shaped blue bottle with a cork in the neck. He told Freddie the bottle had drifted all the way from South America and that it contained a coded message for help from a boy who’d been kidnapped and held for ransom twenty years ago. Freddie never saw the message but he liked the idea of it.
A group of surfers out in the bay had caught Freddie’s attention and he was daydreaming about riding twenty footers when he’d heard Mouse shouting his name. He looked and saw him at the edge of the rocks, beckoning. There was someone with him and as Freddie ran over he recognised the new girl from school. She was crouching over something at the base of the rocks.
“What is it Mouse?” Freddie asked, wondering why the girl was there.
“Look at this,” Mouse said, pointing at a clump of seaweed.
The girl lifted one strand of the seaweed and then another, uncovering a long, dark brown creature. “What d’you reckon it is Freddie?” Mouse said.
“I’ll tell you what it is,” the girl said. “It’s a mermaid.”
“It’s not a mermaid,” Freddie said, sure of himself.
She looked up at him, squinting. “Oh yeah? Then what is it?”
“Some kind of fish,” he ventured.
“It’s not a fish. Who ever saw a fish like this?” She lifted another frond of seaweed, exposing a sleek, earless and whiskered face with large, dark eyes.
“It’s a seal,” he said. “A dead seal.”
“No,” she said, touching the face. “It was a mermaid. They turn into seals when they die so that when their bodies are washed up we won’t know the truth. Otherwise people would hunt them. You know, like they did with unicorns and trolls.”
Freddie looked at Mouse. The younger boy was entranced. “We should bury it,” Freddie said.
“No.” The girl stood up. She was an inch or two taller than Freddie, with short, tomboyish black hair and lightly freckled cheeks. “We have to do it properly.”
He stared at her, confused. Her mouth seemed to be on the verge of laughing though he had no idea at what. Her eyes danced with defiance and after a moment he stared down at the seal. “Do what?”
“We have to build a funeral pyre. She deserves it.”
Mouse grinned. “Yeah. That’s exactly what we have to do.”
Freddie knew it was a just a seal but he was impressed with the ease with which she’d won Mouse over. Not many kids could do that. Maybe she’s like him, he thought, always on the lookout for the strange and peculiar, never satisfied to take the world at face value. For his sake he let her take charge, following her instructions to help Mouse build a small pyre of driftwood while she went home to get matches. She returned thirty minutes later with a box and a plastic bottle full of petrol she’d taken from her dad’s garden shed. They laid the seal on top of the pyre, and she doused it with petrol and struck a match to the driftwood. It went up with a sudden whoosh and the three of them stood a few feet back, feeling the heat of the flames on their faces. Hearing a voice to his left Freddie turned and saw that the girl was reciting a prayer. Mouse joined in, and after a moment, so did he.
“What would you want that secret to be?” he said, watching her, remembering how she’d wept as the seal burned on the pyre.
“Something out of this world.” Her voice was soft and distant. She was quiet a moment, then turning to him she said, “You think the Germans bombed this station? Maybe there are ghosts here.”
“Probably. It was the war so I guess some people must’ve been killed.”
She jumped down off the wall. “I wish we could see them.”
“Let’s look around,” he said. They spent twenty minutes wandering through the foundations and the concrete trenches that had connected the different buildings. Jenna talked about the people she imagined had lived there, young soldiers, nervous and lonely, spooked by glimpses of ghost ships on moonlit nights. Some would sleep on their watch dreaming of their families far away, pining for home. Others would take out letters from their girlfriends, read them, and kiss the pages. As she spoke Freddie watched her, entranced by her narrative. He thought she was beautiful and wondered what it would be like to kiss her. They had come to the ruins of an outbuilding below the station. She sat down on the low, shattered wall and fell silent, and her eyes seemed to glisten with tears. “What’s wrong?’ he said, sitting beside her.
“That it’s just stories. That none of this is real.”
He understood what she meant though he couldn’t articulate it. Remembering Mouse’s spaceman, he said, “You want to know a secret that’s really out of this world.”
“Mouse found a spaceman. He wanted to show me this afternoon.”
“A spaceman. Wow, cool. Why didn’t you go with him?”
He shrugged. “I wanted to come up here with you.”
She laughed and he felt his cheeks redden. “That’s really sweet, Freddie, though if it was me I’d have gone to see the spaceman.”
“You would?” He laughed to hide his disappointment.
“A spaceman, Jesus.” Her eyes glittered in the early evening sun. “I want to see him, Freddie. You think Mouse will mind?”
“Why would he? He said the spaceman told him something good was going to happen. Maybe he meant us going to see him.”
“Or maybe he meant this,” Jenna said, leaning in close to him and pressing her lips against his. He felt his heart stutter and his head spin even as she sprang away with a laugh.
“Hey, wait!” he called.
“Catch me,” she shouted. “If you can’t I’ll be gone forever.”
He hesitated a moment then sped after her.
The next day they discovered that Mouse knew all about the lie. He’d phoned Jenna’s after leaving Freddie and her mum had told him who she was with. Freddie felt bad about lying to him. Mouse was easily hurt, particularly since the terrible discovery he’d made the previous year. His parents had told him they’d adopted him when he was two. As far as he was concerned, that meant his real parents had abandoned him. For a while he’d hated them, not able to comprehend why they had done that. Soon though, he began to take pride in his status as someone who didn’t quite belong. He sensed strange possibilities in the fact that he wasn’t who he’d always thought he was, as if this uncertain identity offered him a new kind of freedom.
Freddie tried to play on that freedom by suggesting that he didn’t have to be mad at them; that he should see himself as smarter for having figured it out.
“I didn’t,” he said. “He told me.”
“The spaceman – he knew you were together. He wanted to know why you were up there and not with me.”
“How could he know where we were?”
“Up there.” Mouse pointed towards Rhossili Down. “At the radar station.”
Before Freddie could say anything else, Jenna spoke up. “He was right, Mouse – we should’ve gone with you. Only Freddie wasn’t ready yet to believe.”
Freddie wasn’t sure what she was suggesting, but she’d caught Mouse’s attention. “Believe in what?” he said.
“In something good happening. Isn’t that what the spaceman told you?”
Mouse nodded, glancing at Freddie.
“Well something good did happen – I kissed Freddie.”
Freddie felt awful for a moment, anticipating Mouse’s hurt, but then he saw a smile break across his face as Jenna went on. “And now it’s only fair that I do this.” She leaned over, grabbed Mouse’s face and kissed him on the mouth. He was as startled as Freddie. His face crimsoned and he spluttered, but it was with laughter.
“Oh my God,” he said, “what was that for?”
“Because you’re my friend, Mouse. You’re the two best friends I have in the whole world and I think that’s what the spaceman meant – that we’d understand this and we’d promise that we always would be best friends.”
Well of course that settled it for Mouse. He insisted that they each swear a solemn oath of everlasting friendship. Freddie was a little troubled by this and – truth to tell – a little jealous at the implication that Jenna would care as much about Mouse as she did him. Yet he comforted himself with the knowledge that while they were both her best friends, only he was her boyfriend.
Having confirmed their everlasting allegiance in the proper manner they set off to see the spaceman, cycling out to the Reserve Centre on the cliffs above Worm’s Head. The Worm is really a mile long tidal island made up of three limestone humps connected by rocky causeways. Legend had it that the long, thin island was the petrified remains of a giant sea serpent, with the outer, tallest point being the serpent’s head rising up out of the sea. People laughed at the story but Mouse liked to embellish it with his own vivid imaginings.
The afternoon was hot, the distant horizon a blur of shimmering haze. The three kids scrambled down the cliff path to the sand and crossed onto the causeway that formed the Worm’s tail. Mouse led the way, keeping up a running commentary on the sea serpent and how it had been turned to stone by Queen Victoria’s chief wizard because of all the ships it had wrecked around the Gower coast.
All kids make-believe but most outgrow the habit by the time they’re seven or eight. Mouse was different. When he first got to know Mouse, Freddie was shy and prone to daydreaming as a way of combating his loneliness. He was eight and the family had just moved to Rhossili from Bristol. James and Ellen were already in comp, which meant he went straight into primary school on his own among kids who seemed to already have all the friends they needed. Seeing Mouse playing alone in the schoolyard, seemingly absorbed in his own private game, he thought he had found a kindred spirit. But for Mouse solitariness was a spur, the thing that drove him to develop and refine his imagination, allowing him to create an inner life that more than compensated for whatever loneliness he might have felt. It seemed to Freddie that this make-believe life was as meaningful to Mouse as anything in the real world. After a certain age, most kids begin to see things for what they are, not what they could be. They lose that willingness to let themselves go, to look sideways at the world and see weirdness and wonder in the ordinary. Maybe Mouse thought Freddie had something of that ability. Clearly he saw the same thing in Jenna, and watching her as she listened to his story, allowing herself to be caught up in his imaginings, Freddie reckoned that Mouse was right.
After thirty minutes they crossed Devil’s Bridge, a strip of rock over the middle head beneath which the sea had carved a passage. Soon they were on the outer head, standing at the base of the steep, foreboding crag that gave the island its name. There was an odd tension in the air, and as Freddie stared up towards the summit, he felt a sense of hesitation and doubt. Perhaps it was Jenna’s presence, a fear that it would be impossible for them both to witness Mouse’s fantasy at the same time, and yet the excitement in her eyes made it obvious she didn’t share his anxiety.
Following Mouse they clambered up the steep slope to the top of the crag and found it empty. Freddie turned a full circle to confirm what his eyes already knew. “Mouse,” he said.
A shadow moved across the cushion of grass. He heard Jenna gasp, “No way!”
He spun round and saw, rising up over the seaward edge of the crag, the spaceman. Hanging motionless in the air, a big white hulk of a thing, more alien than man, he thought, with his great domed head and the sunlight gleaming off the place where his face should have been. “Jesus God,” Freddie whispered, stumbling back into Mouse.
“I told you, Freddie, I bloody told you,” Mouse said, as he stepped forward. “’Lo Mr Spaceman,” he said, small and insignificant against the enormity of the spaceman’s suit.
The air crackled with static and then a voice that sounded as if it came from a badly tuned radio station. “Hey, Mouse. You brought your friends.”
“Are you real?” Jenna said, alongside Mouse.
The spaceman hovered closer. “I sure hope so. What about you?”
Jenna looked at Mouse who said, “They’re real. This is Jenna and that’s Freddie.”
The spaceman held out a massive hand towards Jenna. Freddie felt a surge of panic as she took his hand, afraid he might fly off with her. Instead there came a crackling sound that might have been laughter. “Well, I’m pleased as pie to meet you Jenna,” he said, letting go her hand and reaching towards Freddie. “And you too, Fred.”
Half-afraid, but not wanting to show it, Freddie stepped forward and shook his hand then stared up at the dark visor that hid the spaceman’s face. “What’s your name?” he asked, his voice barely audible in the still air.
“Captain Paul,” the spaceman said.
“You’re American.” Freddie pointed to the small flag stitched to the spacesuit.
“Yes. I was. I am.”
“How did you get here?”
“In a rocket, I bet,” Jenna said. “That’s how spacemen travel, right?”
The spaceman was silent a moment, as if thinking. He turned slightly in the air, his legs hanging like the thick pale roots of a strange tree. “A rocket, yes. A Saturn Five, a real beaut.”
“Can we see it?” Jenna said.
“Sure. Why not?” He moved out over the edge of the crag, then raised an arm, pointing towards the haze on the horizon. “Keep your eyes peeled.”
The kids moved closer to the edge. Freddie felt Jenna’s fingers touch his and close around them. He peered intently at the blur of shimmering heat, his gaze shifting first to the left, towards the North Devon coast, then right towards Carmarthen Bay. The sea lay below them like the surface of a vast mirror, reflecting an unbelievably blue but empty sky. There has to be something, he told himself. Something to show that this is real. Jenna’s grip tightened around his fist and Mouse cried out, “There!”
He followed Mouse’s finger and even before he saw it he heard Jenna exclaim, “Oh my God!”
Something climbed up out of the haze, leaving a long white tail in its wake. At first, the distant jet-stream was all they could see but as they watched it grew larger and they began to make out a slim column of fire ahead of the white stream. Freddie’s breath caught as he realised it was arcing towards the Head. Over the next few minutes he began to make out a structure atop the pillar of flame. White and tall, its edges sharply defined as it cut like a knife through the fabric of the sky. Its distant roar a drawn out peel of thunder as it sped towards them. At its nearest, they could make out the main body of the rocket and a long thin needle shape thrusting out from it. Just as he thought it was going to pass right over them it banked to the left and began to climb steeply, almost vertically into the sky. Freddie called out but his words were lost in the hurricane roar of its powerful engines. He stared after it, watching it diminish and fade in the upper atmosphere. For a long time he stood watching the silent, empty sky, until he heard a voice calling his name.
“Freddie.” It was Mouse, tugging at his arm. “He’s gone.”
Turning, he saw Jenna sitting on the grass. She looked as lost and bewildered as he felt. The sun was low over the sea, throwing red patterns across its surface. He wondered how much time had passed.
“We gotta go,” Mouse said. “The tide.”
“What happened?” Freddie wanted to know. “Where did he go?”
Mouse shrugged. “I dunno. He does that.”
Freddie spoke to Jenna. “Are you all right?”
“You saw it?” she said, subdued. “It was real?”
“I guess. We have to go now.”
She got to her feet. “Where’s he gone, Mouse? Will he come back?”
“Yeah. If we come, I think he will. ”
“Why’s he here?”
Mouse shrugged. “I think he’s lost.”
Freddie didn’t sleep much that night. He couldn’t get the spaceman out of his head. He knew that what he had seen was impossible, totally unreal and yet, Jenna had seen it too. This confused him even more than if she hadn’t been there, made it harder to accept. He felt that some rule had been broken, as if her presence there, her witnessing what he had seen, had severed the link to reality that had always allowed him to enter into Mouse’s hidden world. What would it mean if that connection were no longer there?
He kept going over what had happened, trying to find something wrong, some false note to suggest that maybe he had dreamed it all. Yet it remained vivid and real in his mind, as strong then as it had been that afternoon out on the Worm. Like the best dream you could ever have, one from which you’d never want to wake.
The next day dragged by. He couldn’t pay attention in class. His mind spun with thoughts of the spaceman and he knew that as much as Mouse or Jenna, he wanted Captain Paul to be real. He wondered why he had come to Rhossili and what his mission was, and he tried to picture the inside of his rocket and what it would be like to travel through outer space. At lunch break he went searching for Jenna. She’d dreamed about the spaceman too, that she was with him on the moon. This troubled Freddie, brought all his doubts back to the surface.
“So did I,” he said. “Maybe that’s what it was.”
Jenna frowned. “What do you mean?”
“We both dreamed about him. Maybe that’s all it was.”
“You were there, Freddie. We touched him.”
“Right,” he said, not sure how this confirmation made him feel.
Mouse was waiting at his front gate when he got home. He changed quickly and they called for Jenna. The sky began to cloud over and the afternoon grew chill. They hurried down the rocks, across to the island, each of them lost in their own thoughts. How cool it would be, Freddie thought, if Captain Paul really did exist, yet he remained wary, uncertain as to what that would mean. His excitement grew as they crossed over Devil’s Bridge and Jenna raced eagerly ahead. They chased after her and clambered breathlessly up the rocky crag to the grass-covered summit. Jenna lay stretched out on the grass, staring up at the grey, swollen clouds. Freddie and Mouse plopped down either side of her and they waited for Captain Paul to show.
Minutes passed. Freddie sat up and looked around the summit. Nothing had changed. The sky was still the same ordinary Welsh sky hanging gloomily over the sea. Feeling restless, he stood up. “Where is he, Mouse?”
“He’ll come,” Mouse said. He got up and walked to the edge of the Head and scanned the rocks below. “He’s got a mission,” he said, half to himself. “He needs our help.”
“Help with what?” Freddie asked.
Jenna continued to look up at the sky as if searching for a sign in the clouds. “Maybe he’s lost,” she suggested. “I mean, rockets go to the moon or to Mars, not to Wales. Maybe he’s searching for something.”
“That’s it,” Mouse said, excited. “And he needs us to help him. That’s why he came here.”
“Well.” Freddie was doubtful. “Not much help we can give if he’s not here.” He still wanted the spaceman to show but was already resigning himself to the impossibility of it all.
Mouse started calling out and Jenna joined in, while Freddie stood by, awkward and confused. “Captain Paul, Captain Paul,” they cried out, their voices shrill and desperate in the grey sultry afternoon. Nothing changed – he didn’t appear. After a while, they both sank to the ground, despondent.
“He’s not coming,” Freddie said, bluntly, trying to hide his own disappointment.
“Damn!” Mouse said, gazing at the horizon. “He will come.” “You didn’t help, Freddie,” Jenna said, with a look that suggested he’d let her down. “You act like you don’t want him to come back.”
“Course I do,” he said, crushed by the accusation. He turned away, cupped his hands around his mouth and called out, “Come back, Mr Spaceman, we need you.” Even to his own ears it sounded false, too full of doubt.
They stayed another hour, until a light rain started to fall. The spaceman didn’t show. They climbed down from the Head in silence and made their way back along the island to the mainland. They parted in silence and as he walked home the rain grew heavier, soaking Freddie. He didn’t care. He felt horrible and empty, like someone had reached inside him and pulled out all his contented workings.
They returned to Worm’s Head the next evening but Captain Paul didn’t appear. They searched all over the island and found nothing at all to show that he’d ever been there. That night as Freddie lay in bed, he couldn’t stop from thinking about what Jenna had made of it all. When it had been just himself and Mouse, it had never mattered how much he let himself get sucked into his fantasies. But Jenna’s presence changed everything. He felt angry and exposed, as if he had revealed a younger, more childish part of himself that he should, by then, have outgrown. That was it, he decided – he would never again put his faith in things that couldn’t be. He just hoped that Jenna wouldn’t think him half the fool he felt. Except that when he told her the next day of his intentions she accused him of betrayal, of being afraid. For what he had forgot to take into account, was that whatever he had decided, Jenna still believed.
He saw afterwards that it was their belief that brought Captain Paul back. It was Sunday before he saw Mouse again. He was painting the garden shed for his dad when Mouse came racing along on his bike. He stopped at the wall and called Freddie over. Freddie wasn’t sure how he felt about seeing him. Jenna had stopped speaking to him since he’d abandoned the search for the spaceman and he blamed Mouse for it. “What’s up?” he said, feigning indifference.
“We found him,” Mouse said.
“Oh yeah? Well, I don’t give a shit.” He wanted to make it clear to his friend that he didn’t want to anymore to do with his games but Mouse ignored his stubbornness.
“Jenna said to fetch you.” His eyes burned with excitement. “She’s waiting up there with him. Freddie listen, we were looking in the wrong place. He’s up at the beacon now but he needs our help.”
Freddie’s resolve weakened. Jenna was up there. She hadn’t spoken to him in three days but she’d asked Mouse to get him. “All right, I’ll come.”
On the way up to the beacon he considered the possibility that the spaceman’s mission was to bring him and Jenna together. I should have been stronger, he thought. Had more faith. Maybe then she’d kiss him again.
She was kneeling in front of the spaceman when they arrived at the beacon. He sat with his back against the white, stone pillar, not moving. “There’s something wrong with him.”
Freddie crouched beside her. “How do you know?”
“He hasn’t moved since Mouse went.”
“Is he sick?” Freddie leaned forward to peer through the visor. It gleamed blackly, reflecting his own face. He spread his fingers over the cool, hard surface. “You think he’s dead?”
“Not dead, Freddie,” Captain Paul’s voice crackled faintly from the helmet. “Just tired.”
“Help me up,” he said. They gathered round him, holding his arms as he struggled to his feet. “Thanks. Power’s low. I need to tell you about them.”
“His crew,” Mouse said. “They’re lost in space.”
“This isn’t space,” Freddie reminded them. “This is Rhossili.”
“Don’t be a moron,” Jenna said. “Tell him, Captain.”
Through the static his voice came, cracked and broken. “We were designated Apollo twenty. I was the command module pilot. Stayed in … lunar orbit while the commander and Jack touched down at the Tycho Crater. We were a J mission … seventy-five hours on the surface. It was …” The static grew worse. Captain Paul took a step forward, maybe hoping for a clearer transmission. “It was on … I think … my fifteenth, sixteenth orbit when … I lost their transmission. Coming round from the dark side of the moon I couldn’t raise them. Something wrong … I thought … with communication system.”
He looked up at the sky. “I wish I knew. Look there, at the moon.” He pointed west towards the horizon but Freddie could see nothing out there. He glanced at Mouse and Jenna, saw them looking where captain Paul pointed, squinting into the sun. Then Jenna’s expression changed. Her eyes widened and a huge smile broke across her face.
Freddie turned and saw the pale rim of a swollen moon rise above the horizon. It dragged itself up from the ocean, expanding slowly to fill the sky like a desolate continent of grey rock. His heart raced as the outline of a huge crater came into view, and right in middle of it a mountain, as clear as if he was looking down on it from the window of a jet plane. “Jesus. What’s happening?”
“Look closer, Freddie,” the spaceman said, pointing. “There.”
Freddie made out a small cone shape moving through the sky, its shadow following it across the moon’s rough surface. It was Captain Paul’s rocket, he realised, except it was smaller than before, like it had lost part of itself. As he watched a smaller craft emerged from the rocket and began drifting slowly away from it. The smaller craft had what looked like four legs sticking out from each corner, like some kind of mechanised insect. “What is it?” he whispered.
“That’s the lunar module,” the spaceman hissed. “For landing.”
As the larger section continued its orbit around the moon, the lunar module began to descend towards the surface. Freddie followed it all the way, tracking it as it dropped below the mountain range that formed the high rim of the enormous crater. For a while nothing happened but he kept watching in case he missed something. After some time a suited figure emerged from the body of the craft and began to climb slowly down a ladder on the side of the craft, jumping, or rather floating gently down the last five or six feet. A second astronaut followed the first and when they were both on the ground they set off along the crater floor.
The moon shifted out of focus, its features blurring in a swirl of black and grey. When the image solidified again there was no sign of the lunar module. A sudden burst of static came through the air, then Captain Paul’s voice. “This is command module Artemis calling Raven. Update me on your status, over.” It came not from the suited figure beside Freddie but from the craft that continued its orbit around the moon.
“Raven, do you read? This is Artemis, over.” The fizz and crack of white noise. “Come in Raven.” Even through the static Freddie could hear the note of desperation in Captain Paul’s voice.
Mouth dry and palms sweaty, Freddie said, “What’s happening?”
The spaceman stood there, motionless, staring at the empty moon. His voice came again across the countless miles. “Commander, let’s get a status report, over.” He was answered with another prolonged burst of static. “Stu – this is Paul; do you read? Jack, what’s going on down there?”
Freddie peered at the dark, pockmarked surface.
“Where are they?” Jenna whispered.
“Raven, do you read? Where the hell are you?”
Freddie grabbed Captain Paul’s arm. “What happened to them?”
He turned, the dome of his helmet staring down at Freddie. His voice crackled distantly. “December fifteen, nineteen seventy-two, Command Module Artemis lost contact with Lunar Module Raven. I called it in to Houston but no acknowledgement came back. I waited another forty-eight hours in lunar orbit but mission control failed to respond. I had had no word from Commander Roosa or Jack so I did what I had to do. I tried to find them.”
“Nineteen seventy-two,” Freddie said, figuring it out. “You’ve been searching for twenty-two years? That’s impossible, you’d be …” He didn’t finish the sentence.
“Sometime I dream about Suzanne. I wonder what she looks like now, and the kids …” Captain Paul’s voice trailed away for a moment as he became lost in his own memories. “And then I hear Stu or Jack’s voice,” he went on. “At least I think it’s them. Random transmissions, like echoes, always asking the same thing, why I abandoned them. I’ve followed them all this time.”
“You think they’re here?” Jenna said, excited. Freddie watched her gaze sweeping across the Down, as if searching for his crew. “We can help you find them.”
“How?” Freddie asked. “This isn’t outer bloody space.”
Captain Paul moved back towards the beacon. “It’s been a long time,” he said. “I think I got lost too, somewhere along the way.”
“And you have to find them, right? Before you can go home?” Jenna said. They turned to hear his response but he was no longer there.
“This is mad,” Freddie said.
“Jenna’s right,” Mouse said. “We have to help him. He can’t go back without them.”
“How? What can we do?”
“There must be a way,” Jenna insisted. “Why’d he come here if there wasn’t? We have to find out all we can about his mission. There’ll be old newspaper reports, it’ll be in history books. Maybe the Americans are still looking for them. If we find out what happened, then we’ll know what to do.”
Freddie shook his head, unable to hide his doubts.
“Please, Freddie,” Mouse said, his voice quiet and desperate, as if the world depended on his decision. “We need you.”
Jenna took his hand and squeezed. “You have to believe,” she said. “When you believe, good things happen, remember?” Freddie forced a smile. She put her arms around his neck and hugged him. He melted in her embrace, and told himself he would believe whatever she wanted him to believe. Maybe that was what being in love was all about, he thought, believing in impossible things.
When they were both not much older than he was now, they told Freddie, his parents had watched on TV as the first man had landed on the moon. His name was Neil Armstrong and his rocket was Apollo Eleven. Right before he stepped down onto the moon he said something about it being a small step for a man and a giant one for the human race. Freddie wondered what Captain Paul would have said if he’d got the chance. Neither of his parents remembered much about any other Apollo missions but they both believed nobody had gone to the moon for fifteen years or so.
On Monday in school he asked Mr Thomas, his history teacher, about the Apollo missions. Impressed with his ‘thirst for knowledge’, as he called it, he took Freddie to the school library during lunch break and helped him research the Apollo Programme. It was all pretty fascinating, but when Freddie discovered that Apollo Seventeen was the last American mission to the moon and that a man by the name of Eugene Cernan was the last one to walk on it’s surface, he suddenly lost his enthusiasm for research. “Why did they stop going?” he asked.
Mr Thomas frowned and shook his head. “Money. It always comes down to money, Freddie. Other things take precedence. The important thing was to be the first to get there. See, the Moon was a symbol and the whole point was to put one over on the Soviets. After that, I guess the moon diminished in value.”
Freddie sat next to Jenna at the back of the school-bus He’d spent most of the afternoon trying to figure out how to break it to her. There was no easy way so finally, as gently as he could, he told her that there was no Apollo twenty.
“The last rocket to the moon was number seventeen.”
“That’s crap, Freddie.”
“It took off on the seventh of December 1972, came back on the nineteenth.”
“That’s when Captain Paul’s mission was.”
He nodded, seeing her disbelief. “It’s true,” he said. “Mr Thomas helped me look it up. There were only six missions to the moon, starting with number eleven. Number thirteen had some kind of accident and never got there.”
“You’re wrong. Mr Thomas is wrong.”
“I saw it. There were books, and it was on computer. They don’t make up stuff like that.”
“No Freddie – you saw him. You talked to him, touched him, saw his rocket.”
“It wasn’t real, Jenna. It was a game.”
Anger flared in her eyes. “How can you say that?” She thumped his arm. “It’s a lie,” she said, punching him repeatedly. “It’s a filthy bloody lie.”
“Jesus, Jenna – why would I lie? There was no mission, there’s no Captain Paul. It’s just something Mouse made up and we wanted to believe.”
“You’re wrong. I hate you.”
“Don’t be stupid.“
She lashed out and raked her nails across his cheek. He flinched and grabbed her hand, stunned. “Let me go, you prick,” she said, twisting out of his grip. She rose from the seat. “We don’t need you,” she said, before storming off to the front of the bus.
Freddie dabbed at the blood on his cheek as the bus rolled along the winding Gower road. He felt angry and humiliated, and his mind spun from trying to figure out what had just happened. Why didn’t she believe him? He’d told her the truth. He loved her. She couldn’t hate him.
He walked home from the bus stop in a daze. He changed out of his uniform then called Mouse. Mrs Price answered. She said he’d already gone out, most probably on his way to see him or Jenna. Freddie went down through the village to meet him. Passing the church he saw Mouse’s bike resting against the wall of the churchyard. He figured Mouse had gone to the beacon and decided to follow him. As he passed along the lane below the small graveyard he heard a soft, familiar voice. He peered over the wall and saw Mouse moving among the headstones, talking to himself. Not that that was in any way out of the ordinary for Mouse, but it struck him that he was actually talking to someone else, someone he couldn’t see. He crept further along the wall, trying to get closer. Mouse was reading aloud the names on the headstones and making up a history for the occupant of each grave.
“Sarah Davies, born 1853, died 1897. Killed after being caught out in a meteor shower. Arwel Morgan, 1892, 1916, lost his life fighting for his country in the Martian wars. In Memory of the twins, Catherine and Owen Harris, born 1868, abducted by aliens, presumed dead, 1878.” Mouse paused and looked over his left shoulder and gestured, as if calling someone closer. “Look at this,” he said, excitedly. “Sidney Albert Roosa. Fighter pilot, killed in action over France, 1918. You think that’s him?”
Freddie supposed Mouse was talking to Captain Paul and wondered why he couldn’t see him. Sadness welled inside Freddie as he watched his friend, trying to understand what he was seeing. He felt as if he had lost something, though he didn’t yet know what it was. He’d wanted the spaceman to be real, wanted it as much as either Mouse or Jenna, but something had stopped him, some fear or reluctance to let go. It struck him then why he couldn’t see the spaceman: Mouse was unaware of his presence. He had to know someone was there in order to make him or her see what he was seeing. His stories, his stupid stories, Freddie thought, angry with himself. Mouse is still a child. You’re older, you know what’s real and what isn’t. So does Jenna. We don’t need to cut ourselves off from the world the way he does. He climbed up over the wall and called his name.
Mouse looked up, startled. “Who’s there?”
“Oh.” He seemed disconcerted and a little guilty, as if caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing.
“Who were you talking to, Mouse? Just then?”
“I heard you. Who was it?”
“I know what you’re going to say,” he said, staring at the dirt.
“What am I going to say?” Freddie moved closer and Mouse sat down on the stone plinth bordering a grave. “Tell me what you think I’m going to say.”
“He is real, Freddie, no matter what you say.” He turned his face up towards him. There were tears in his eyes.
“Well,” Freddie said, sweeping an arm around the graveyard. “I’m looking all over but I don’t see him. If he’s here, then why can’t I see him?”
“He’s gone now,” Mouse said, quietly. “You scared him.”
“Yeah, right. I scared Captain Paul. How can I scare someone who doesn’t exist, Mouse? Someone who’s not bloody real?”
“You saw him. We all did.”
“You have to stop making this crap up. It’ll get you in trouble.”
“I never made it up.”
“For God’s sake, Mouse, it was a game. We let ourselves see what you wanted us to see. I guess we wanted it too, but it wasn’t real. It was never real.”
Mouse jumped up and shoved him in the chest. “Stuff you,” he said. “He was here. He got another transmission. He needs to go back out to Worm’s Head. That’s where he has to take off from, to find his crew.”
“It’s in your head, Mouse,” Freddie sneered, wanting to hurt him. “Your own fairy tale. It was only real so long as we played along. But not anymore. It’s time to grow up.”
“Jenna still believes. She’s going to help. But we need you too, Freddie. We can’t do it without your help.”
“Bollocks to you,” Freddie snapped, turning away.
Mouse flew at him, fists flailing. Without thinking, Freddie turned and hit him as hard as he could in the face. Mouse cried out, stumbled and fell back. He clutched his mouth and blood seeped through his fingers. For a moment Freddie stood there, shocked at what he had done. Then, as if through a fog, he heard Mouse screaming at him, telling him to go away.
Freddie kept to himself that evening, hurrying his dinner so he could get back up to his room to brood. Alone, he listened to Blur, trying to lose himself in Parklife. It didn’t work. He had made a mess of everything, his friendship with Mouse, any chance he’d had with Jenna. He sat on his bed staring at the one photograph he had of her. It showed the three of them together, down by the skeletal remains of the Helvetia in Rhossili Bay. Mouse was in the middle, all that was left of the old ship’s prow rising over his head. He and Jenna crouched on either side of him, their arms linked over his shoulders. Half smiling, head cocked at an angle, she seemed to be gazing at him over Mouse’s head. He felt a crushing sense of hopelessness, trying to remember when he had first begun to feel differently towards her. A couple of weeks, he thought. But no, it had been longer than that, a month at least since he had started daydreaming about her, imagining asking her to be his girlfriend and her saying yes. A month during which he had found it almost impossible to get through a single lesson without finding himself distracted by thoughts of being with her, of holding and kissing her. Nobody had ever told him that being in love could be so hard, could make you feel so shitty and helpless.
Well, it was over now, he knew. Unless he had the courage of his convictions and acted decisively. He hurried downstairs to the phone and dialled Jenna’s number. Her father answered. He told Freddie to wait. When he came back on the line he said she didn’t want to talk to him. So much for decisive action, he thought, feeling even worse than he had before. He hated writing letters but he knew that for the moment there was no other way of getting through to her. He returned to his room and wrote down what he wanted to say.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to call you stupid. I don’t know what I was saying. My face is okay. It doesn’t hurt much and I understand why you did it. I hope you didn’t mean what you said about hating me. I really don’t want to lose you as a friend or as maybe more than that. I think you know what I mean. About Captain Paul, I don’t know what to think
anymore. I did believe in him and I wish I still could but I don’t think I can anymore. Not after what I saw this afternoon. It’s about Mouse. Please call me as soon as you read this and I will tell you. I don’t know how to say this so I will just say it. I think I love you.
He put the letter in an envelope, wrote Jenna’s name on the front and cycled the half mile to her house. He hung round the front for five minutes hoping she’d come out but she didn’t. There was nothing else for it but to knock on the door. Her mum answered. She took the letter and Freddie went home, back up to his room to wait for her call. He tried to read but couldn’t concentrate. He watched TV, flicking listlessly through the channels. She would call, he kept telling himself. By ten she still hadn’t. What did it mean, he wondered. Did it mean what he thought it did? And what of Mouse? He felt bad about hitting him. He’d have to make things right. He couldn’t afford to lose his two best friends on the same day. He crawled into bed, willing sleep to come. But two hours passed and he was still awake, watching the clock slip past midnight, feeling struck down by a sickness with no cure.
Freddie was disappointed the next morning when Jenna wasn’t on the school bus. He wondered if she’d read his letter. More likely, he thought, she’d thrown it away, unopened. At morning break he asked Lucy Harris in her form if she’d seen her. Lucy said Jenna wasn’t in school.
The day dragged by like a double science lesson. It was torture, not knowing if she’d read the letter, or what she had made of it. He couldn’t bear the thought of her hating him. He should have come straight out and told her in the letter about Mouse, about him having to be aware of their presence in order for them to see what he saw. How it explained everything and how it was him they should be helping, not some imaginary spaceman.
All the time he kept trying to convince himself she was ill or she’d had to go to the dentist. Or her parents needed her to help out at home. That could be it – Summer was a busy time for a guest house. Such imaginings were little comfort but even so, he didn’t want to consider the real reason for her absence.
When the last lesson of the day was over he decided to call her when he got home. He’d tell her what he’d seen, and think of some way to show her what was really happening. As soon as he was in the door he grabbed the phone. “I’m sorry, Freddie, she’s not home yet,” Mrs Gray said. “I gave her your letter. Maybe she’ll call you when she gets in.”
He hung up and dialled Mouse’s number. Mrs Price came on the line. No, she said, Mouse wasn’t home yet. “He said this morning he was going straight round to a friend’s house. I presumed he meant you.” Even as she spoke, Freddie felt sick with anxiety as he realised where Mouse and Jenna had gone
He left the house, grabbed his bike and cycled full tilt down to the cliff path. He raced along the path, pedalling as hard as he could. Their bikes were leaning against the wall of the Reserve Centre. He stared out at Worm’s Head. Fat, grey clouds rolled up from the south-west. The air felt hot and clammy and his head ached the way it always did before a storm. The tide was out but it had turned. He had ninety minutes at most.
The path was dry and crumbling as he scrambled down to Kitchen’s Corner then clambered up onto the causeway. He felt panicky as he raced up over the inner Head, trying not to think about what could be happening. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and as he stood there he saw lights flashing above the outer Head. He didn’t know what they meant but the sight of them spurred him on. Down onto the next stretch of causeway he ran, trying to pick out the fastest route. Out in the bay to the north, the sea had become still and grey, like the heavy clouds that loomed overhead. Both water and sky, and the air itself were poised, as if waiting for something.
He kept running, up the long rise of the middle Head, not able to see the outer Head for the moment. Twice he slipped and cut his right knee on the rocks, but both times he managed to pick himself up and go on. A sudden boom shook the air, startling him. Small, fretful waves appeared on the surface of the sea. As he sped across Devil’s Bridge more lights flashed around the outer Head. It wasn’t lightning. His heart raced madly as he found the strength to keep going. He tried not to think about what was happening. Mouse and Jenna with the spaceman, helping him to go … where? Nowhere, he told himself, not yet, not until you’re there. Lightning split the sky, a huge, jagged fork stabbing into Rhossili Down, followed two second later by an ear-splitting bang and a long, clattering rumble. He staggered beneath the blast, afraid but desperate. Thick, dark clouds closed in over the bay like a spreading bruise. More lightning flashed away to the north but his gaze was fixed on the outer Head as a strange, glowing mist billowed up around it, and he knew then there was no more time.
“Jenna,” he shouted. “Mouse! Wait!” The mist glowed orange and red and something fizzed inside there. There was an explosion then a spume of water and steam shooting out of the blow hole on top of the Head. He screamed for them to wait, but it was no use. Still more than fifty yards from the base of the Head he slipped and fell while something roared in the mist and the ground shook. “Please!” he cried. “Jenna. Wait for me!”
The mist was torn and scattered by the force of whatever was rising out of it. He lay on the thick, soft grass and as it cleared he saw the tip of a rocket – Apollo Twenty – rising up beyond the Head. His eyes stung and his vision blurred, and so he may just have imagined the two faces staring out from a porthole in the command module as it climbed slowly at first, then faster and faster into the sky. He stood and scrambled up onto the summit of the Head, watching as the rocket punched a hole through the clouds, blasting its way out of the world. He watched them go, waving forlornly, feeling abandoned. Yet he smiled too because Mouse had done it, escaped the world that caged him. They both had. He was too weak but their faith had made it happen.
Slowly the clouds closed like a healing wound and the rocket disappeared from view. He pictured the two of them at the controls, listening to Captain Paul’s orders as they set out to find his lost crew. Rain began to fall. Within seconds it was crashing down like despair.
Freddie clambered back across the outer causeway and found shelter among the rocks of the middle Head. The storm raged for most of the night. At dawn, cold and wet, he struggled back to the mainland. The coastguard had been out looking for them. They searched for two days for Jenna and Mouse but their bodies were never found. The police questioned Freddie about what had happened and he told them the truth they wanted to hear. Then they let him go home to his family. His parents took him to a counsellor, someone he could speak to about grief and loss and he went along with it, played his part and after a few months they said he had come to terms with the tragedy. It was an awful thing, everybody said, which, maybe for their parents it was, but not for Jenna and Mouse, he thought. Not at all for them. They were out there somewhere, tearing across the Solar System and maybe beyond, finding new worlds to explore in an ever-expanding universe while he was stuck there in a world that, though he didn’t know it then, was getting ever smaller.
He still thinks about them almost every day, even though it’s been fifteen years. He doesn’t ever talk about it, except sometimes when he’s drunk or trying to impress a girl. But they never believe, not like he does. He knows if he keeps believing, if he believes strongly enough, then they’ll come back for him, one day.
The Spaceman was first published in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction June/July 2009, and was reprinted in The Dream Operator (Undertow), in 2017.