Reaching for the moon

            “Come in, sit down” he said, in a tone that betrayed a familiarity with both giving and receiving orders. He ushered me into a small, unexpectedly humble room, with a low ceiling and subdued drapes and - with a precise jab of his right index finger - indicated one of a pair of low couches. I duly perched on the edge of the softly padded ‘chaise-longue’. Such was his bearing that I almost found myself sitting ‘to attention’. He certainly knew how to make a man nervous…

             “Is it... er, alright if...” I hesitated, and cleared my throat before adding, “can I start my recorder?”

“Sure - no problems” he replied. He sat heavily on the other couch and ran his hands through his grey hair, full but cropped in a short military cut. “Best to get this down while you have the chance, I suppose.” He said with a thin smile.

“Thanks.” I then added in a clear voice “Begin, please” and heard the recorder start up.

            “So,” I ventured, “what was it like to be the first person ever to do what you have done: to… what was it called? To make that ‘giant leap’ for mankind?”

            He smiled “Well it wasn’t so much a leap as an act of desperation... I almost fell, you know!” The smile started to fade, becoming almost a scowl. He seemed to consider his next words for a while before continuing.

“I realise that my actions have always been portrayed in a dramatic – perhaps overly dramatic way… for the press mostly. And the top brass, well: they always try to make everything seem more than it is… More than it was...” he paused and looked down at the hem of his tunic. “They wanted me to look good so they could bask in ‘reflected glory’, I suppose. But really, I was just doing my job. After all,” he added, looking up again, “I’d been in the services for a number of years and I was used to taking orders... taking risks. So when you get the orders you just follow them, like we did in the war. I was just earning my pay.”

He began to smile again as he added “You must know that things like this are rarely as glamorous as they are portrayed to the folks back home! The world needs to make heroes out of people, even if they don’t much deserve it”.

I’d heard he was notoriously self-effacing. Before I’d met him I thought it might have been false modesty but – even after this short time in conversation with him – I was pretty sure he was someone who was being honest when he said that he said he was just doing his job.

Still: I needed to ask my questions, for those same ‘folks back home’.

            “But surely,” I asked “to leave the known world, as you did; to stamp your boot print into that harsh, alien soil. That must have been thrilling!”

            He settled back into his seat, beginning to relax a little, perhaps. But then he seemed to do a ‘double take’: he glanced to his left - noticing the recorder sitting at the desk, as if for the first time - and he stiffened slightly. He turned back and forth between myself and the recorder, almost like an old warrior caught at bay… But when he finally turned to me again he seemed to settle down and – with an almost ‘gallic’ shrug – he relaxed somewhat, though not quite completely: it looked as though he was making a real effort to ignore the recording process.

            “Listen,” he said after a few moments, “I’d been in the services since that Asian nonsense. I had several kills to my name - and in one-to-one combat, moreover. So - to be completely honest – the whole venture was, when it started… well: it seemed to be all ‘much of a muchness’ to me...” he paused. “... but, yes: I can’t pretend that - as time went by - that I did come to realise that it was something else as well. To leave the circles of our world... to leave it all behind and to be washed up on that ‘alien shore’, as it were. Yes,” he added, raising his chin slightly and fixing me with hard, grey eyes: “Yes it was sort of special, I guess.”

                      There was a pause in our question and answer session while we both ordered drinks from an attendant. I consulted my notes and asked my next question: one that I had been ‘saving up’ for a while.

“Can I ask then... did you think - after that first trip and the landings made the following year...”

            “Not by me, though.” he interjected, moving quickly to the edge of his seat and stiffening, becoming visibly animated. “Never by me... I never had a chance to go back, you know.” His face had become hard again: all angles caught in the shadows of the desk lamp that sat on the desk next to the recorder.

“It was the ‘Top brass’ again, you see? It just wasn’t the military mindset that I was used to, you have to understand, but bigger issues were in play. The political focus came to have a bearing on my actions and my ‘future options’, for want of a better phrase. I was, it transpired, too valuable - as a ‘standard bearer’ - to be risked on another voyage. So I never went again.” He added the last phrase with a mournful expression and his shoulders slumped as he sat back on the couch.

“Ah... I didn’t realise that...” I paused, glanced again at my notes and then looked up at him once more.

“But, even with your lack of involvement in the subsequent missions,” I continued, “did you ever think, as you stood there in that harsh sun light, its heat building up in your helmet as you gazed out over the sandy dunes...,” I was quoting directly from my prepared notes at this point, I have to say, “did it cross your mind that - after the landings of the following year - it would be forty years later and yet still no one has returned? Despite the initial enthusiasm for the project, we have no forward base, like we were promised. Certainly no colonisation - actual or even planned. Not even any more landings by ships. Nothing.”

I looked at his steely eyes, which now seemed quite vacant and very hard to read. His expression seemed ‘far away’; looking, perhaps, in reverie, at his own, distant memories: his own past - or passed glories. For the first time since we met, I suddenly became aware of his age: Seventy? Older? I wasn’t sure.

There was a long silence. He seemed to be struggling to articulate what he felt.

“No, to be honest, I didn’t think that it would go down like this.” He added, quietly. As he spoke, he dropped his gaze down to the tiled, mosaic floor. He seemed reluctant to carry on the interview.

“Some people say that we will return – that, even now, the Senate have passed a motion and agreed a plan to go back” I ventured, after a few seconds: I was trying to sound ‘up tempo’ and was anxious to fill the silence and not let the interview just trail off. I checked the recorder was still working: he nodded at me as he changed to a new sheet. I continued...

“I’ve heard it said that - with this new plan and budget in place - within twenty years we’ll be back: to stake a new claim. What do you think of that?” He glanced up at me at this point and I hit him the real question – the one I’d been wanting to ask; the one I’d been planning for in all of my months of preparation for this interview:

“If they offered it to you – for you to return - would you go?”

“In a heartbeat” he affirmed. “Or... well someone’s got to! Anyway, we ought to do something to explore these new frontiers... unless we want the Chinese to do it all ahead of us. Or the Persians. But it needs two things: the political will and shit loads of money.” He settled himself into what I guessed was a well used argument: probably one he’d recounted to anyone who’d listen in a thousand drinking establishments from here to Luxor.

“The chances are,” he continued, finding his pace, “that it’ll take another man of vision - like Julius was - before we make another landing on the new frontier. But when the time is right, when there’s enough glory to be won - and enough money to be made - then the right man will lead another expedition, I expect. Trouble is, when will that be?” he added, his face crumpling to sadness, “Five’ll get you ten I wont be there. There’s so few of us old original explorers left now. Just a handful of that first crew, and soon there’ll be none. If it is twenty years from now… I’ll be long gone”.

“There’s less than nine of you left, by my calculations.” I interjected.

“Exactly!” he became agitated - almost angry - at that point. “We’ve lost so much time already. Why, the mineral wealth alone, from the surveys that we had done, showed that the place is worth a fortune if it’s mined properly. What on earth were our politicians thinking? What are they doing with the wealth of our empire? They’ve pissed it away, that’s what they’ve done, along with our lead and our technological advantage!” He added “Such a waste…” in a quiet mutter as he reached for his drink.

 I looked at him as he downed the contents of the goblet in one. At that point – but at no other time during out interview - he appeared to be a beaten, old man and I felt genuinely sorry for him, I have to say. We spent the hour or so covering a number of only semi-related topics: his war record and what he’d done since his return (short answer: businessman – result: failure). His marriages. Even his legendary drinking… I then sought to finish the talk on a ‘fun’ note that I knew my readers would like. 

“I have two more questions, then before we end this talk” I tried to sound up-tempo again. “Firstly: Mars. Any plans?”

“I prayed to the lot: still do.” was his short reply. “We all did in the Tenth: just to be on the safe side, so – even though I was a soldier - Mars got no special treatment from me. What else?” His abrupt manner suggested that – whether I liked it or not, this was the last question of our interview.

“Well, the last question I have to ask is this: I’ve met a hundred people who said that, frankly, it was all a hoax – that you never landed and that it was all a publicity stunt cooked up to bolster the political needs of a Senator with delusions of god-hood. A fantasy: like flying to the moon. What’s your answer to that?”

He looked visibly shaken. “What!?!” He shouted! His voice rose in power but was pitched low and gruff, like a bull’s roar, or a lion’s, like the pelt he had worn over his armour: he was angry but composed himself before he spoke again.

“Well,” he continued after a moment or two, “you can tell anyone who asks you that you’ve met me. What’s more I can show you what we brought back – what I personally came home with. I can show you the pebbles I took from the beach and…” he stood up and lifted his tunic “I can show you the scars I picked up fighting their cursed warriors in the surf on that first day.” There were white lines, rimmed with pink even after all these years, across his right chest where a spear had penetrated under his segmented armour.

“And I can show you this!” he pulled a long bronze dagger with a leaf shaped blade, quite unlike a standard issue pugil, from the top of his boot. “I took this from a chieftain of the Britons after I cut his head clean off!” He stabbed the dagger downwards into the table that the recorder was working at. The man almost jumped out of his seat and his wax tablets slid to the floor. He looked towards me, slightly panic stricken, and delivered an oath under his breath in his native Greek.

“Let me tell you – so you can repeat this to them as asks,” he concluded, “that we did land! We did go to Britain forty years ago and the other ships went again the following year and whether it’s tomorrow or fifty years from now, we’ll go again. To make it our own! When Caesar and the gods will it!”

 The old standard bearer sat down heavily, pulling his trophy dagger from the now scarred wooden table.

 Do you know, I believed him!

 John Treadaway © 2006

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