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Authors: Graham Swift

Out of This World

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FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, MARCH 1993

Copyright © 1988 by Graham Swift

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by the Penguin Group, London, in 1988. First published in the United States by Poseidon Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, in 1988.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. for permission to reprint an excerpt from the lyrics of “Summertime” by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. © 1935 (renewed 1962) George Gershwin Music and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund. All rights administered by Chappell & Co. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Swift, Graham, 1949-
Out of this world / Graham Swift.—Ist Vintage International ed. p. cm.

I. Title.
 [PR6069.W4709 1993]
823′ .94—dc20      92–56343

eISBN: 978-0-307-82982-5

v3.1

FOR CANDICE

Contents

What the eye sees not, the heart rues not.

April 1982
 
Harry
 

I remember, in ’69, three years before he died, when I was home for a brief while in the summer, how we sat up together all night watching those first moon-men take their first, shy steps on the moon. I didn’t think he’d care. Didn’t think he’d give a toss about that old dream come true. But he watched those pictures as if it were all some solemn duty he couldn’t neglect. He’d turned seventy that previous winter. Talked about ‘three score and ten’. And some time that night he leant across to chink his whisky glass against mine and said, without sarcasm, ‘I’ve lived to see men land on the moon.’ As if he truly found the fact momentous, as if he were proud that his life spanned the full, galloping gamut of the twentieth century.

We were close that night. We talked. We talked! He said it was time he was getting out. Getting out of Irving’s way. And he’d never said it like that before, as if it wasn’t just some tired, insincere prevarication but he really wanted his release. It wasn’t home any more, he said, it was headquarters. And it was true, he’d had barbed wire strung from angled posts all along the boundary wall, new alarms wired up. Though that was nothing to what Irving would have in three years’ time. To what Irving has now. And those jokes I used to make – the
‘Arsenal’, the ‘Fortress’ – they weren’t jokes I could make any more. Though I’d never exactly meant them to be funny.

Not home. ‘Headquarters’. He was going in less and less to the office. Getting ‘security-conscious’. After a whisky or two more he started to drop hints about how they were moving into serious stuff. Not just the regular old range but heavy systems. The word was ‘systems’ now. Missile components. Ground-to-air. Air-to-air. I said: So was there a scale in these things?

That year, like the one before, was all Vietnam. That spring I’d been at Dau Tieng and around Tay Ninh and in the A Shau, where the war had reached the inane pitch of being fought to prove that a war was being fought and so keep the Paris negotiators on their toes. And I was just back again, only three weeks, from Saigon, and nothing was real. The moon over English elm trees wasn’t real, and men walking on the moon was, in the language of those days, just far out, far out. But I was used to that feeling. Coming back to ‘normal’ places, ‘home’ even. Used to that feeling by then. Could bargain with it, parley with it, mollify it with whisky. That previous year, though I could scarcely believe it, I’d turned fifty. Fifty to his seventy. So we both had a big number to celebrate. A lean, stringy sort of fifty. Adrenalized and tensed. So the confused, angry kids, denimed and beaded, I photographed in Lincoln Park, Chicago, as inside the convention hall they sang ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’, didn’t even think of me as another generation. They said: That’s Harry Beech – he’s been
out there
. Some of them actually wanted my autograph.

And ‘out there’ I wasn’t old. (‘Hey man, did you say “fifty” – like
five-o
?’) Because out there everyone was old.

A gaunt, taut face in the mirror, which didn’t look like any age. With eyes that I knew stared more and blinked less than they should. And a neat white zip of a scar above my left jaw where a piece of flying something caught me in Stanleyville. My one, negligible wound in the cause of. I didn’t feel a thing.
Just the gush of blood in my mouth, and the thought: O my God, I’m coughing this
up
. Then the discovery I could poke my tongue through my cheek.

All Vietnam. And, of course, the Apollo missions. Which were the other side, the shiny side of the coin. The bright side of the moon. And maybe they weren’t so different, just part of the same programme, those moon-men, mission-controlled men in their absurd outfits, and the marines I photographed out on patrol, with their helmets and flak-jackets and grenades and antennae. M-16s, M-60s, M-79s. Just walking hardware too. Lunatic zones. ‘The World’, back home. The space-suits which didn’t show if there was a real man inside. The body-bags lined up for the choppers to come in.

We watched them clamber out of the module. There was Armstrong’s famous message to mankind. Which didn’t work, because you knew it was rehearsed and the cameras were on him, cameras that didn’t even have a human eye behind them. Then Nixon’s voice, crackling across space.

The first rule of photography: that you must catch things unawares. That the camera doesn’t manufacture. But that night was the first time perhaps that I thought: No, times have changed since then. The camera first, then the event. The whole world is waiting just to get turned into film. And not just the world but the goddam moon as well.

First Armstrong, then Aldrin, bobbing over the lunar dust. Just for one wild moment you thought: They are going to start jumping and bouncing for sheer joy. They are going to start leaping and cavorting, in that gravity-less freedom, in those clown suits, for sheer, delirious amazement that they are there on the surface of the moon.

They say that afterwards, after they got back to earth, some of those astronauts, some of those Apollo pioneers got religion. Those robot-men, clones of NASA technology, became crew-cut mystics, speaking at meetings about the View from Up
There. The irony of it. That we should have spent centuries shedding superstition and actually evolving the means that would get us up into Heaven. Only to discover that, all along,
He
was there first.

That was not part of the programme. Played down in the post-mission publicity. But the moon-dust, the rocks, the samples: people queued up for hours just to look at some dust and some rocks. And the pictures. The earth from the moon. The ultimate photo. All of it, the whole of it, everything. Hanging in the black velvet of space. I wish I could have taken that photo. Stopped there.

For some reason we were closer than we’d ever been. It was our closeness that mattered, more than the men on the distant moon. We stopped watching the TV. It gets boring after a while – moon-walking, rock collecting, puppets bouncing on dust. We opened the French windows and went out on to the terrace. I suppose all over the world people must have done that that night: left their TV sets and gone to stare at the sky. We stood on the terrace in the gathering light. There was an expression on his face as if he, too, didn’t know what was real or what wasn’t. I remember I took his arm. I mean, I was standing on his right side, his wrong side, and I put my hand on the arm that wasn’t his arm. On his artificial arm. And just a little while after that – it had taken him till he was seventy and I was fifty – he told me how it had happened.

Sophie
 
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