Friday, 30 November 2012

Rockets & The Gardens Of Happiness

My name is Annie and when I was nine I didn’t have too many friends except my Grandmother who always wanted to be an astronaut. 

She said that my Mother had come along and put an end to that dream, thank you very much for asking - but I hadn’t asked.

I didn’t quite understand how or why my Mother had stopped her being an astronaut but my Grandmother was not one to talk crazy like, so I went along with her story. It had something to do with my Granddad turning my Grandmother’s head with all that kissing nonsense and such like and her being in the family way, thank you very much. 

It didn’t stop me and her always talking about being astronauts and we would look at the maps of the sky and choose which of the planets we would visit first. My Grandmother was going to Jupiter and I was very definitely a Saturn girl.

When I was nine I used to think that my Grandmother smelt a bit funny which I thought was because she was in training and eating special astronaut food. 

One evening, when I was safely sitting on her knee and after she had put a large log on the fire, she told me how she had always dreamed of going to the stars. 
“One November afternoon my parents, your great Grandparents Annie, took my brother and me to see a film at a little tea room down Duchess Street, mind you that street’s all gone now, got bombed in the war and they had to pull the whole lot down.

“By day it sold the most wonderful cakes in the world but in the evening, well then it became a wonderland. Mister Guitolli would hang a white sheet on the wall and then show films from a projector which he turned by hand. He never charged anyone a farthing but at the interval Mrs Guitolli would sell some of that day’s stale cakes for a half penny each. 

“Sometimes, if he had had a hard day, he would turn the projector very slowly and every one would stamp their feet to get him to speed up. Sometimes he would just fall asleep and the film would stop, then smoke would start rising from the projector and people would run out of the cake shop, screaming. They knew it wasn’t a real fire but to us it was the only chance we ever got to scream in front of grown-ups.

“On the days that Mrs Guitolli was in a good mood and kissed Mister Guitolli on the cheek in front of everyone, well those were the days that the people in the films would move very fast as Mister Guitolli wanted to finish early. My Mother never did tell me why he was in so much of a hurry.” Then my Grandmother coughed, cleared her throat and continued.

“One day Annie I saw the most marvellous film, The Journey to The Moon, the one where the rocket lands right in the eye of the Moon’s face. Everyone was laughing but I felt sorry for the Moon and made up my mind that I would go there and apologise for what had happened to his eye.” 

Sadly nothing much happened to my Grandmother and her dream for many, many years, not until the very day of her fiftieth birthday on April the 12th, 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

My Grandmother decided two things that day: 1 – fifty was no age, no age at all, and fifty year old people could still go to the Moon and 2 – if anything happened to Granddad, God forbid, she would marry Yuri. There was a time when she more inclined to John Glenn, the first American in space than Yuri, but in the end the Russian won her heart. He was her first Cosmonaut and that was that.

My Grandmother said that every day she would check the newspapers looking for an advert that would state ‘Have you ever considered being an Astronaut or Cosmonaut? Then telephone the following number .....” but she never did find it, “Must have been on one of the days I didn’t buy a newspaper.”  she said.

She always wondered, considering the amount of people she had told about her dream, why the rocket folks hadn’t actually contacted her. “I mean”, she said “wouldn’t it be better having a really enthusiastic astronaut than a reluctant one?” 

She even wrote to the Russian Embassy who invited her to tea one afternoon and told her that the waiting list to be a cosmonaut was so long that she would be a hundred and twenty years old by the time they got to her. She had to agree that one hundred and twenty was a good age but mentioned that if her name did come up, then could they contact her anyway? The man said he’d put her name down on the list straight away and sent her home with a signed photo of Yuri that said ‘To my comrade’.

Apollo eight was the next big milestone in my Grandmother’s life and that was the one that got me interested.
In March of ’68 Yuri died in a tragic accident and my Grandmother went into a mild sort of mourning. Other people were twisting to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones but my Grandmother had all the heroes she needed in one man and now he was gone. My Grandfather used to be jealous of a person he had never met and would refer to him as ‘that bloody communist’ but after Yuri Gagarin’s death, and I’m ashamed to say it, my Grandfather started to whistle. It led me to wonder if he hadn’t had Yuri bumped off.  

My Grandmother gave me a poster of the crew of Apollo Eight to hang on my wall, I still remember their names: the commander was Frank F Borman the 2nd, James A Lovell Junior was the Command Module Pilot and William A Anders, the Lunar Module Pilot. 

I always wondered what happened to Frank Borman, the 1st and James Lovell Senior, were they lost in space somewhere?  

In those days, the launching of a rocket was the most important thing in the world – at least to me. Every television channel would cover it and very clever people with extremely large foreheads would discuss it for hours on end. We would sit with bowls of popcorn and devour every delicious second of the programmes and when the talking got boring, Grandmother would test me on all the people who had ever been in space. 

We had a happy Christmas and we made it extra so, because my Father was off to Singapore in the New Year to work for several months. My Mother and I moved in with Grandmother in order to provide company for us all and I was more than delighted. 

Apollo 9 was a bit of a strange one and never really went anywhere, there was lots of talk of trying out modules but to be really cross-my-heart-honest, I found it boring. 

The next trip was really exciting, the guys were going to go to the Moon and try everything except land. I thought it was a shame and so did my Grandmother “Why couldn’t they just let them land on the Moon for five minutes?” she said, but it wasn’t to be and they all had to come home again. 

In July 1969, me, my Mother and my Grandmother all went out to Singapore to see my Father and we had the best time ever. It was a truly amazing place and it was there we got to see Neil Armstrong on television, not just land on the Moon but actually walk on it. It was brilliant. 

My Grandmother and I sat there holding our breaths as Commander Neil put his foot on the Moon’s surface. My Father said he thought that his foot would go right through and he’d get stuck but then I caught him winking at my Mother - my Father, not Neil Armstrong. 

I remember the day I asked my Grandmother who the first man to walk on the Moon was and she said “where dear?” and I have to tell you, I thought that was a funny thing to say. “Too late” I said, “It was Neil Armstrong”.
“Who dear?” 

Then I heard she’d fallen down the stairs which I was sure was due to her Astronaut training. She was very hard on herself. 

She never did tell me she was going to Astronaut Training Camp, my Father did. I asked him whether my Grandmother had found the advert in the paper and he said that she had and that they had accepted her. So I was pleased but I really wished she had told me herself.

Then one day my Father looked really sad and told me that I had to be brave and I said I was. He said that his Mother, my Grandmother, had gone to live on the Moon and I said stop talking crazy like as Apollo Twelve wasn’t due to take off for some months. He told me that she had been sent on a secret mission and that I was to tell no one. I never did. 

When I was nine years of age my Grandmother went to the Moon and didn’t come back.

She will soon and I bet she’s building a rocket even now.


bobby stevenson 2012





THE GARDENS OF HAPPINESS

It was a blue-cold winter’s day and another poor soul was lying dead at the bottom of the Hungerford Stairs.

The boy was just standing there staring at the corpse. 

That was the first time I ever clapped eyes on the little urchin. He was surely no more than twelve years of age at the time and making him a year or so older than me.

I will always remember his eyes, for in those eyes was the story of a child who had been rattled by his life thus far. 

He became my friend and my companion and not a day went by in those glorious few months of the winter of 1824 into the spring of 1825 that I was not spending time in his company. We were the best of friends.

On that day that I write of, I had only, a few moments earlier, sneaked out of my kindly Uncle Bertie’s haberdashery store on Charing Cross Road. I had been instructed to ‘remove the snow from the entrance’ for the tenth time that particular day:
“And, Sam, for pity’s sake don’t bring upset to any of my customers” 

Perhaps I should introduce myself before we go further dear readers, my name is Sam Weller. I was born and raised in Bermondsey, London and due to my lack of schooling I was sent off with unnatural haste to work with my uncle. 

“Goodness knows young Sam Weller will never amount to much, but he must acquire a trade.” 

I was now in my second year of such an endeavour. I neither begged nor looked for sympathy because the way I considered it, it left an individual free to take upon everything that life had to offer. For surely not everyone in this life who reads a book is a gentleman? Just as not every uneducated child is an idiot. Because, dear reader, as you can appreciate, I had learned much in my short life. 

But I digress - such a disagreeable trait - but that is the making of my heart, I am afraid to say.

The poor man whose body lay at the bottom of the Hungerford steps had expired in the black of night having succumbed to the freezing air, one shouldn’t wonder. There were many similar finds in a winter of such magnitude. Each day the snow came faster and thicker and I would secrete myself to that part of the Thames hoping to discover some gruesome find. I was rarely disappointed. 

That day was the first I remember seeing Charlie. He stood at the top of the stairs promoting such an unhappy account of himself that I thought he too would expire at any moment. Happily for the world, it was not to be.
My inquisitiveness drove me to question the lad. Had he seen the man die? Did he know the man in question? Was he working in this part of the river? 

My final question did raise a look from the lad. Yes, he was indeed working next to the Hungerford steps at Warren’s blacking warehouse. The boy said those words with so much sadness that it was all I could do not to offer him a smile there and then.  

“My name is Charlie and I work at the blacking warehouse in order to free my father from the Marshalsea.”

“The debtor’s work house?” I clumsily enquired.

“Indeed.”

It seemed, from what I could glean from the lad, that his whole family was currently living in the Marshalsea with only the boy himself living outside the premises, in the area of Camden. 

I just knew there and then that we would become great friends and indeed it came to pass.
As the winter grew colder and sterner, Charlie and I would spend a few quiet minutes in the grounds behind my uncle’s haberdashery.

Although the gardens were only truly for the customers to gaze upon, it had been kept in the most wonderful of conditions by my aunt’s gardener, Mister Wilkins Micawber.  Both Charlie and he seemed to take to one another and would spend time discussing their interests in gardening. 

Charlie loved being in that place and when he was older, he wrote to me the most wonderful letter describing it as the ‘gardens of happiness in a woeful forest’.

His life was a miserable existence at that juncture and he much appreciated the merest time spent away from Fagin - the ogre who ruled over the warehouse with an iron fist.

My cousin David Copperfield joined us one day prior to Christmas and both he and Charlie laughed so hard that they made themselves cry.

I will always remember the man on the other side of the high garden wall, a Mister Pickwick. In all those weeks we never saw his face and yet he would entertain us with stories of derring-do, of adventures in battles and ghosts at Christmas.

Every shoe that Charlie blackened that winter was a step nearer the door and freedom for his dear papa. The little freedom of his own that he tasted in my company and in my uncle’s garden seemed to raise the gloom that sat so easily on his young shoulders.

When the winter melted away to spring so, sadly, did our friendship. 

I will always remember the boy who grew to become one of the world’s greatest writers and I am proud to say that he was my friend. When I read his Pickwick Papers and saw that the happiest character was named Sam Weller, after me, I shed a tear.

Just as I do today, all those years later. They buried my childhood friend this morning at Westminster Abbey in the quietness he would have wished for.

When a flower requires to grow from a seedling into a beautiful form, it needs the frosts and snows of winter and, in his way, so did Charles.

So do we all.


bobby stevenson 2012

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