North Africa. The sun falls fast. Minutes and it’s over, but the heat, the ghost of the sun, last long into the night. I remember the warmth in the tiles under my feet. The smell and grit of sand between my toes. Dust drifts in on the desert winds. My dad’s arms and face, tanned to black. Golfer’s tan gained by playing cricket on a ragged pitch in 40plus temperatures. Mad Englishmen. He sits outside with the radio on, beer at his side. Whiles away the evenings.
The balcony is a terrace that runs around the house. Below, the generator hums and insects clack and hum in the dark grass. The dog sleeps while the nightwatchman sips strong sweet tea on the makeshift bed . No need for canvas over his head. The night is never cold.
Crickets chirrup. Hard-winged bugs crack against the bulbs. I come outside. My dad leans back in his chair, feet up on the wall as the radio barks messages in spurts of noise from planes somewhere far overhead. No music. I touch the blue metal rail above the low wall. It doesn’t burn any more but still has a long way to go to cool. I’m eight years old. Maybe nine. My dad forty-four or forty-five.
I’m unhappy. Two weeks holiday evaporated to two days. Plane ride. School. Cold. England. They’re waiting. I don’t want to go back. In two days time, I will in fact try and get off the plane and be cajoled/forced/bullied back on by the pilot that I meet coming the other way on the steps. There will be a standoff for ten minutes. I will lose. Plane ride. School. Cold. England. But that’s the future. Two days away.
I’m wearing T-shirt and shorts. I crawl into my dad’s lap. He smells of beer and pipe tobacco and warmth and a trace of Old Spice or something similar. Most of all, he smells of safe. He talks to me about the radio. The airplanes. He explains how it works. I listen. I sip his beer. It has a bitter taste but I don’t care. I look up. The night is clear and the stars are bright. They hang low in the sky in Africa. Stars are always diamonds. To me. Cliche over-used but I don’t care. This time when I look they are like holes in the sheet of the night giving a glimpse to a brilliance beyond. Something forever out of reach. Something behind space.
Me and my dad, we don’t talk about school. We don’t talk about the ‘unhappy.’ Instead, we talk about the stars. The light. He tells me – and its the first time I’ve heard this and all the times I hear it after that I’m glad this was the first time – how what I’m looking at isn’t really there. He tells me, between sips of his beer, about the speed of light. About how what I’m looking at is time travel. Science fiction come to life. He tells me that if my eyes were strong enough then maybe I could see all the people on those planets living out their daily lives long after they were dead.
I stare at the sky for a long, long time, after that. I imagine the people and the creatures that I’m looking at even though I can’t see them. I wonder if any of the stars are really there at all. I talk in flurries, my childish imagination making up stories of places far away. My dad sips his beer and lights his pipe. I look at the stars with more respect. I like the story of light travel. It makes the stars magical. Fragile.
The years have evaporated, but on clear warm nights when I look at the stars, I still feel that dry air that has never known anything but heat. I hear the crickets chirping. I smell the ‘safe.’
I wonder if, one day, somewhere out there, someone so many millions of miles away will look through their telescope and see that moment long after my dad and me and this planet are just dust. The thought makes me smile.