and where will the stars go?
Performed as part of It's Freezing In LA!'s solastalgia showcase at Wimbledon BookFest, Sunday 13th October 2019
Maybe I could talk to him about stars.
When do kids start learning about stars in school? Five? Six? Of course, this kid is imaginary, so it doesn’t matter. Still, I’ve always liked to keep my fantasies realistic.
I decide to test my hypothesis on my imaginary child. “Have you learned about stars at school yet, love?” I ask. His imaginary face looks up at me from his screen with an expression that falls somewhere between pitying and sardonic. My brain has helpfully recreated this from what I remember of my niece, whose face so often hinted at her clear conviction that all questions from adults were evidence that human intelligence declined with age.
“I know everything about stars,” he announces. “They’re big and they shine bright
because of gases. There are hundreds of them.” He mimes with his hands, as if to
hold all the hundreds between his palms. “Before all the clouds, we could see lots
of stars. Now we can’t see that many.” He looks up at me, as if struck by a thought.
“Did you ever see that many stars, Mummy?”
“They were like glitter,” I say, after a pause. “Like glitter. Covering the sky.”
“Glitter in the sky? That’s funny. Mummy, that’s funny!” He’d clutch his stomach and
roll around a little in exaggerated laughter. In these imaginings, he’s always a he.
I’ve always thought I would have had a son first, then a daughter. Perhaps I’d be
pregnant with her already, a warm weight newly knitting itself inside me, as my
six-year-old imaginary son pokes at my belly with his stubby fingers.
“It was beautiful. Imagine looking up at the sky and seeing it glitter!” I retort, feeling
the need to convince him out of his laughter into solemnity. “Most nights. Some
nights there was cloud. But the clouds weren’t so thick, like they are now. Clouds - ”
I pause again in my head, combing through words like driftwood. “Clouds were just made of water. Rainwater. Now the clouds that we see are also made of bad things. That’s why we can’t stay outside all day any more. When I was younger, we could. But people kept....putting bad things in the air.” Am I being patronising, I wonder? But there seems no better way to describe it, even from an adult’s perspective: dark, hidden, ancient things seeping like ghosts from the depths of the punctured planet and being burned and burned until they blanketed the sky like a shroud.
“Why?” He’d blink up at me, round Os of his eyes trusting and confused. Maybe I’d ruffle his hair. Or was that something people only did to children on TV? I didn’t know.
“There were lots of reasons. We couldn’t work out how to give everyone in the world the energy they needed,” I start, then stop again. I don’t want to lie to this child. Even if he is imaginary. Reverse; ruffle hair (tentatively); tell the truth.
“Nobody wanted to change,” I say. The words send the hot prick of tears unexpectedly to my eyes and throat, spilling over; here, in the real world, I scrub my face with the back of my hand. There was a time when I would have thought it bizarre, even embarrassing, to cry - to think of crying - over this; before the flooding, the lashing heatwaves, the smog; when everything was manageable, when clouds were followed by rain, and the rainwater could be cupped between your hands, and drunk; who would have known what to cry for, what would be lost? “People were making lots of money,” I add.
The child is silent. Through his voice, I have nothing to say to myself. The question had been a dead end, anyway.
I open my eyes. The tones of the room are bluer than I had expected, already shifting into shadows at their edges. There are no children in the room - how could I bring a child into this? Unwillingly, into a world of sealed windows and masks, where every breath is a risk? I think of my own childhood, of playing at the edges of lakes with water so clear you could see every stone you stood on; of watching for shooting stars at night, the air cold enough to suspend clouds of breath for long seconds before they dissolved. Outside the window, the perpetual layer of cloud hangs, unshifting.