Scotland's First Astronaut

by Andrew Crumey

From Sputnik Caledonia (2008)


For a long time Robbie Coyle used to wet the bed. On school days he'd be summoned from sleep almost without noticing what he'd done, but at weekends he'd slowly wake to find himself wrapped in soothing clammy moistness. At last his exasperated mother decided they should see the doctor.

In the waiting room you had to take a wee wooden token whose number told you when it was your turn, and whose colour indicated which doctor to go to. Robbie was due to be seen by someone named Dr. Muir, who he didn't like the sound of. He read the comic his mum had given him until at last his name was called.

Dr. Muir was old and bald, and listened patiently while Robbie's mother explained the problem. "Very good Mrs. Coyle," he said, as if pleased by her son's condition, then spoke to Robbie. "Do you have bad dreams?"

"Sometimes," Robbie admitted.

"Do you play sport?"

Robbie said he liked running around playing at space ships. He wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up.

"What sort of things do you read? Stories, comics? You don't read these awful American things do you?"

Robbie didn't know quite what the doctor had in mind, so he showed him his Look And Learn and this was declared healthy enough. The doctor addressed Mrs. Coyle again.

"Young Robert here strikes me as a nervous lad, though not excessively so. But he's bright for a nine year old, and that's the real problem. He's got a vivid imagination, and frets too much. What he needs is fresh air, an interest, good reading. Have you ever heard of Sir Walter Scott?" he said, turning to Robbie who shook his head solemnly. "Try Ivanhoe, that's a fine story. I read it when I was your age."

They left the surgery and went straight to the public library where Robbie was registered with the same silent formality that had marked his induction into the care of the local health authority. Mrs Coyle then hunted among shelves as crammed as a chemist's drugs counter while Robbie wandered off and pulled down something called Rocket to the Stars.

Mrs Coyle couldn't find Ivanhoe. Robbie, sitting on the floor with musty books towering over him, peered round the end of the bookcase and saw her go to the desk.

"I can put it on order for you," said the assistant.

"Actually," said Mrs Coyle, "I just want something that'll stop him wetting the bed."

"Oh," said the assistant. "Well, you could try Kidnapped, I suppose."

As soon as they got home Robbie started reading Kidnapped and found it the most boring thing in the universe. There weren't even any pictures. Rocket to the Stars had a V2 painted like a chequerboard, and a monkey in a space suit, and loads of other things. But his mother and the assistant had both agreed that if anything was going to make him wee the bed it was stuff like that. Instead he was allowed The Boys' Book Of Facts. Next morning his bed was wet again.

The following Sunday, while the Coyles took their customary walk, the sky exploded. "What was that?" Robbie asked fearfully, looking upwards.

"They're testing a new aeroplane called Concorde," his father explained.

"Why are they testing it over Scotland?"

"In case it crashes."

A boat moving swiftly through water, Mr Coyle began to explain, kicks up a wave that forms the vessel's wake; supersonic aircraft do likewise, and the resulting shockwave was what they'd heard as an impressively reverberating thunderclap. Robbie's father left school at fourteen, worked in a factory in Clydebank and was never to be seen reading anything except a newspaper or a magazine, but he knew how to talk like an expert.

Mrs Coyle and Robbie's sister Janet were several paces ahead. Mrs Coyle turned and said, "I wish they'd do all their sonic booming over the sea instead of over us. Did you not hear about Mrs Farrell's window cracking?"

Mr Coyle agreed the choice of test area was another example of England's contempt for the Scots, but felt sure that supersonic air travel was the thing of the future. None of the Coyles had ever actually been in an aeroplane, but the thought that one could fly so fast was very comforting all the same.

Robbie had stopped shaking and was hoping they'd hear another bang since he'd be ready for it this time. He said, "If Concorde goes faster than sound, does that mean when the pilot talks his voice gets left behind and nobody in the plane can hear him?"

"No," Mr Coyle reassured him, "it doesn't work like that." Then Mr Coyle asked Robbie to imagine a plane that could fly at the speed of a bullet. On board, a hijacker sits patiently waiting in seat 13C, gazing out at white clouds which roll like cauliflower beneath him. At a carefully chosen moment he will stand up, bring out the pistol he carries concealed within his clothing, and point it at an air hostess called Barbara Perkins who happens to be travelling on her very first flight and will subsequently describe the tragic events which follow to the world's press and television reporters.

Mrs Coyle turned round again, "And Elsie Lang says her daughter's pet cat died of fright after one of those sonic booms."

The hijacker sees the second hand of his watch reach twelve; he stands, brings out a sleek, black and wholly persuasive firearm and declares, "Nobody move. Nobody panic."

Everyone panics. There are screams, tears, and doubtless a prayer or two. An old lady in seat 10B faints, her neighbour thinks she's had a heart attack, and the recently-trained Barbara Perkins instinctively responds to the pressing of the overhead button whose bleeping summons her assistance.

"I said nobody move!" The hijacker's gun is pointed at the crisp firm breast of Barbara Perkins, immobilised by fear yet still heroically motivated by the sense of duty which she would subsequently explain as being just part of her job as she goes to receive an award for exceptional bravery wearing a smart pink outfit bought specially for the occasion.

"This lady needs help," Barbara Perkins calmly explains. "I think she may have had a heart attack."

"And there are cracks in our close too," said Mrs Coyle. "I'm sure they weren't there before all this sonic booming started."

Far below, the hijacker's three revolutionary accomplices enter the private office of the French ambassador, sitting at his desk while his secretary, her tanned legs crossed beneath his ruminating gaze, carefully takes notes. Three guns are suddenly aimed at them; one at him, one at her, and a third that's spare and moves indifferently between the ambassador's broad chest and the slimmer frame of the secretary. There's a noise at the door, someone has followed them; an armed guard enters and shots are about to be fired.

Barbara Perkins is moving in a parabolic arc towards the unconscious lady, who will subsequently be found only to have fainted after all. A male passenger in seat 16D - married with two children, the director of a haulage company, and with a keen interest in rugby - gets out of his seat some distance behind the hijacker who hears what's coming, turns and faces his assailant with gun raised.

The French ambassador is about to receive a shot to the head issuing accidentally from the weapon belonging to the guard, who is himself collinear with the barrel of another gun in the room, and whose arm has been grabbed as two men struggle to subdue him. The secretary will take a shot to the stomach from which she will die two days later; her funeral in the small village from which she comes will be a scene of national grief. One hostage-taker, stumbling backwards, has his gaze directed towards the ceiling of the ambassador's office, whose elaborate plaster mouldings now take the form of clouds, blue sky, and a newly developed airliner on its maiden flight, in which the director of a haulage company is about to be united in death with a 26-year-old secretary on the ground.

"What the devil are you two on about back there?" asked Mrs Coyle.

"I was just going to explain something," said her husband. "Suppose an aeroplane could fly as fast as a bullet," he told Robbie. "There's a man with a gun on board, about to shoot someone nearer the back of the plane. What would the path of the bullet look like from the ground?"

Slowly, a round is entering the perspiring head of the French ambassador; the secretary is taking within herself a projectile of equal calibre; and far above, a third identical bullet is completely stationary. The hostage-taker, gazing through the cauliflower-like plaster mouldings of the ceiling, sees the bullet wait, hovering, while the barrel of a gun slides past to leave it apparently suspended in mid-air; yet the hostage-taker, in the last sweet moment of his life, knows this to be an impossibility. The bullet must surely be falling towards him, though in this final mortal instant it will descend no further than all the other bullets within this very room, even the one now parting the flesh of the French ambassador's forehead. In the aeroplane, the bullet must descend with an acceleration which is universal and incontrovertible, while the body of a married father of two is carried towards it like a sacred offering. This is the last thing the hostage-taker sees; all subsequent acts of heroism, in which two more armed guards reach the ambassador's office, and Barbara Perkins immobilises the hijacker with the assistance of most of the passengers between seat rows 12 and 17, belong to a world which none of the terrorists survive to contemplate.

"So you see, Robert, it's all quite simple. If you stand in a flat place and fire one bullet from a gun while simultaneously dropping another from your hand, then both bullets hit the ground at the same time."

That was all very well, but Robbie still hoped they'd hear another boom. As they walked behind Mrs Coyle and Janet, Robbie asked, "Dad, if you were on an aeroplane and there was a hijack, what would you do?"

Mr Coyle looked bewildered. "What do you mean? What made you think about hijackings?"

Robbie had been remembering something he saw on TV. A man waving a gun around. A shot.

"If anyone threatened me with a gun I'd let them do whatever they wanted," said Mr Coyle. "What's the point in being a hero if you're dead?"

"Even if it was to save me or Janet?"

"That's different," said Mr. Coyle. "I'd gladly give my life for you or your sister. That's the duty of any parent."

"Why?" Robbie asked, and Mr Coyle explained that the biological purpose of every creature is to reproduce; though this didn't really answer the question, of course.

Janet and Mrs Coyle had reached the old memorial beside the river, a granite obelisk against whose mute support they were having a rest. "I'm fair jiggered," she declared. This was one of Mrs Coyle's customary sayings; Robbie's mother had many, and Robbie assumed such habits to be a general maternal phenomenon. Every night, for instance, she would send Robbie off to bed with a formula inspired by whatever he happened to be doing at the time:

"You can just Spirograph off to bed now, Robbie."

Or:

"Time to Action Man upstairs."

Once, after the end of a film, he was told he'd better Gregory Peck into his pyjamas; and for the rest of his life would associate the great actor with his tank- and soldier-embellished night attire at the time. On another occasion, following a gruesome documentary which Mr Coyle had insisted the whole family should watch as a solemn warning, Robbie was cheerfully instructed by his mother to "Belsen off to bed", so that the word acquired a warm domestic glow which was not at all what Mr Coyle or the film-makers had intended. Over the years he was asked to Moon to bed, Florence Nightingale to bed, Cabbage to bed, Election to bed, Acne to bed. Never just "go" to bed, presumably because that would have been too easy.

Mrs Coyle and Janet were leaning against the memorial as Robbie and his father joined them. "Have you ever read what it says on this thing?" Mr Coyle asked his wife, who stood away in order that the whole family could follow the inscription:

On 31st December 1860, during severe flooding, James Deuchar, 20, a divinity student at Glasgow University, leapt into the river near this spot in an attempt to rescue George Laidlaw, 5, and Mary Laidlaw, 7, who had fallen in after climbing on the bridge. Having saved the younger child, Mr. Deuchar returned to search for the girl, who was washed up alive further downstream. Mr. Deuchar however perished in his noble endeavour. This monument to his heroism was erected by public subscription, 3rd January 1863.

"Poor lad," said Mrs. Coyle,

"They'd all be dead by now anyway," said Mr Coyle. "You see, Robbie? What difference does it make in the end whether or not he decided to be a hero?"

"That's a terrible thing to say," Mrs Coyle declared, and Janet agreed.

Mr Coyle shrugged. "It may be terrible, but who can deny it? Unless he's up there now on a cloud looking down at us, it makes no odds what he did."

Mr Coyle had on many occasions invited God to strike him down for his blasphemies, but had so far survived. His own experiences as a child, he'd told his offspring, had been enough to convince him that the Catholic church in which he was raised was only another way to control people's minds, along with capitalism, television and golf, the latter being one of Mr Coyle's pet hates.

"If God's up there, why doesn't he send down a thunderbolt right now?" Mr Coyle had told a pair of earnest, neatly-dressed Christians standing at the front door one evening while Janet and Robbie lay on the floor watching Mission Impossible. Robbie wanted to go to the door to get a look at the brave souls who dared challenge Mr Coyle's unarguable logic, but was sent back to the living room for his own protection. "At least he was a good socialist, I'll say that much for Jesus," was the comment Robbie overheard from his father. "It's these people who want to bow down and worship him that I can't abide."

Standing beside the memorial, Robbie now said to Mr Coyle, "Don't you think it was a good thing that man done, jumping in after those children?"

"No," said his father, "I think it was daft. It meant a grown man died instead of a boy, that's all. And where were the children's parents? What were they playing at, letting them fall in like that?"

Janet and Robbie were lying on their tummies on the floor watching Mission Impossible. A newly-developed super-fast airliner was flying high above the clouds, and in seat 13C a man of dangerously foreign appearance was preparing to bring out a gun. Some rows ahead, an elderly actress recently seen in a hospital drama enjoyed by Mr and Mrs Coyle got ready to faint.

"How can you prove to me there's a God?" Mr Coyle was saying to the two neatly-dressed Christians at the door.

Then the elderly actress swooned theatrically, and the one playing Barbara Perkins went to give assistance but found the sleek barrel of an imitation gun pointed at her crisp firm breast.

Far below, a hostage-taker was falling backwards, his gaze directed through the plaster mouldings of the ceiling to the silver dot in the sky where a bullet, he felt sure, really was held completely stationary in mid-air, in complete contravention of the laws of physics, so that he immediately learned the appalling truth of his situation. Everything around him, he realised, must be an illusion. He had joined the People's Liberation Army after the gunning down of his brother during a demonstration intended to be peaceful; he had volunteered to participate in capturing the French ambassador in the full knowledge that he might die, yet his sacrifice would not be in vain, and this morning he had recited his prayers with a feeling of lightness and ecstasy. But now, in his final moment, he suddenly understood that every passenger in the aeroplane was an actor; so too were the French ambassador and his secretary, who would later remove capsules of fake blood and shake hands with the guards whose blank rounds had been so convincing. The hostage-taker watched his life become a tiny dot in the sky and knew his death to be futile; so too, therefore, had been his very existence. He was no more than an incidental character in a story he'd been unaware of; and in the final credits - his epitaph - he would be known only as "Terrorist #2".

"Galileo stood at the top of the Leaning Tower Of Pisa," Mr Coyle explained once the family left the monument to continue their Sunday walk. "He dropped a cannonball and a wee marble; both hit the ground at exactly the same time. The cannonball was bigger and heavier, which meant gravity was pulling it more strongly; but it was also harder to budge. The two effects cancel out; everything falls at the same rate."

"What about a feather?" Robbie asked.

"Air resistance slows it down."

Aristotle believed a feather floats slowly because its natural realm is the sky; a stone hurries to return to the ground where it belongs. Everything has its proper station in the world.

"But that's rubbish," said Mr Coyle. "Like the idea that people should know their place. We're all equal, Robbie; you and me, we're as good as anybody."

"What are you telling the boy now?" Mrs Coyle intervened, turning to examine the pair walking behind her.

"Just teaching him what's what," her husband replied.

Mr Coyle originally came from a part of Glasgow called the Gorbals; a name that filled Robbie with unease since it closely resembled Goebbels, a nasty man who had figured significantly in the documentary after which Robbie had been told to "Belsen off to bed". The Gorbals was a ghetto for Glasgow's poor, though Mr Coyle always spoke warmly of it, insisting it was never as bad as people made out. There had been sensational books about razor gangs, films showing criminals and drunks, but that was only because the ruling class are afraid of poverty and live in constant fear of revolution.

When they got home Mr Coyle positioned himself behind the raised pages of a camera magazine while Mrs Coyle decided to Paxo off to the kitchen. Robbie and Janet watched a film on television in which harsh-voiced German soldiers were killed in a variety of ways.

Robbie was troubled. James Deuchar must surely have been a good man; yet what scale or balance might measure and prove it? How to demonstrate, just as Galileo had shown the equivalent descent of all falling bodies, that a man who gives his life for a just cause is worth more than a uniformed actor blown up in an imagined spectacle?

"Dad," said Robbie. "Why would you save me and Janet if we fell off a bridge, but not somebody else's children?"

The glossy cover of Photographer's Weekly showed a heavily made-up woman on a couch who now descended to reveal the face of Mr Coyle. "It's every parent's natural duty to protect their own children."

"Is that all?" Robbie asked. "Just something you've got to do, like going to work?"

The magazine sank lower still, onto Mr Coyle's lap. "No, I'd want to save you because I love you."

The words had the ominous finality of a judicial sentence.

Robbie said "Can't you love somebody else's children too?"

"Not the same way," said his father. "It's instinct. It's how we've evolved. It's why you're here."

Mr Coyle then spoke about giraffes, saying they all used to look like horses until one day a giraffe was born whose neck was half an inch longer than usual, so it could reach leaves half an inch higher up the trees. There was a bad year, not much to eat, and most of the regular giraffes starved to death, but not the one who could nibble that extra half-inch. It grew up and had lots of baby giraffes, similarly blessed. That was evolution.

Robbie liked this story. All you had to do was keep repeating it over the generations, and you could see why giraffes ended up with long necks. Except that he couldn't see why the same thing hadn't happened to horses.

"Dad," he said. "Why didn't the giraffes just get big long noses like elephants, then they could still reach up into the trees?"

"Because the special giraffe that got born one day had a neck that was half an inch longer than usual, not a nose."

"But surely another giraffe could have been born with a long nose?"

"No," said Mr Coyle. "Otherwise giraffes would look like elephants now, but they don't, so it never happened."

It was fairly plain to Robbie that people could be born with long noses - Mr Connor two doors along being a prime example - so he couldn't see why the same wasn't true for giraffes. Come to that, why hadn't humans evolved giraffe necks, or elephant trunks? Was Mr Connor the advance guard of a new master race? But his father had explained evolution, and there was no more to be said about it.

"So do you only love me and Janet because that's the way you've evolved?"

"I suppose so," said Mr Coyle, as the reclining woman on Photographer's Weekly began once more to ascend.

"If I was bad, would you still love me?"

"Of course, even if you killed someone. Even if you were Hitler. It's my parental duty."

An infernal cycle presented itself to Robbie's imagination, in which successive generations follow a script laid down for them millions of years previously. On a wild and fierce night in 1860, a man departed from the script by doing something for which there could be no logical explanation, no justification other than pure goodness. James Deuchar defied the gravitational pull of death; therein lay the kernel of his immortality.

Next morning Robbie's bed was wet again. He sincerely hoped his condition would improve before he grew up because he was sure it would count against him when he applied to be an astronaut. The Boys' Book of Facts included a section on "careers" in which necessary qualifications and personal attributes were itemised for every occupation a young man might care to undertake: plumber, soldier, engine driver. Astronauts, the book declared, would need excellent powers of concentration and a cool head. Peeing the bed wasn't specified as a cause of automatic disqualification, and Robbie would of course point out to the selection panel that a small bag within an astronaut's pressurised suit is there to collect every weightless drop of urine passed while waking or asleep; nevertheless he knew it made him look like someone whose head was far from cool, since in all his comics not a single hero has ever woken to find his mattress soaked through every intervening layer of bedsheet and folded towel, all because he had a drink after seven o'clock the night before.

The problem was that he had a vivid imagination. His mum said this meant he spent too long in his own thoughts instead of going out and playing. The word sounded like a cross between "livid", which meant very angry, and "Vivian", who worked in City Bakers and was very fat and always telling jokes. Vivid was a state that lay somewhere in between, though since Robbie was unsure quite where, his condition appeared insoluble.

A man on television gave advice to children wanting to go into space, saying they must first work as US Air Force test pilots. Robbie told his dad; Mr Coyle lowered his newspaper, looked disapprovingly at his son and said, "You'd only end up getting sent to Vietnam."

In that case, Robbie countered, he'd be a Soviet cosmonaut.

"You don't speak Russian."

"I'll learn."

He persuaded his mum to take him back to the library, where Mrs Coyle, her faith in medical science having been shattered by the failure of Dr Muir's prescription, now allowed Robbie to exchange Kidnapped and The Boys' Book Of Facts for Russian In One Month and Rocket to the Stars. The woman at the desk eyed him with some incredulity as he checked them out. "He's going to be an astronaut," Mrs. Coyle explained.