Hanging in the Stars
’The stars, like dust, encircle me
In living mists of light;
And all of space I seem to see
In one vast burst of sight’
(Isaac Asimov, The Stars, Like Dust)
His window on the world offered strictly limited opportunities for stargazing. It could have been worse. At least it didn’t point towards that patch of sky that was lit by unremitting regularity by Polaris, the pole star. Restricted though his view was, at least it offered him a regular change of scenery through the year. He was still limited by what he could see with the naked eye - in theory, stars of magnitude 6.5 or above - but the light pollution in his neighbourhood, plus the reduced perspicacity of his aging eyes, meant that this was a completely unachievable ideal. On many nights, dense clouds would thwart any hope he might have of seeing even one star; but on other nights it might be possible to see nebulae, star clusters, even very occasionally Mars or Venus in transit. And - once in a very rare while - a meteor. A shooting star.
But the time for wishing upon the stars was most assuredly past.
I: Trailing Trojans
‘Langrangian points. Who can give me a definition?’
Dr Joel Montague, head of science at Theodore Roosevelt High School, looked out across the class at his sophomore students, and sighed. It was the final period on Friday afternoon, at the end of the first week of the new academic year, and already most of his students looked as bored as he felt. After fifteen years teaching physics and astronomy in the same sleepy Iowa farm town, his lecturing style had stultified into a pedestrian, uninspiring routine of questions and answers, punctuated with the tedious litanies of facts and figures he had culled from ponderous textbooks. The sheer delight that had once been his at contemplating the wonders of the cosmos - Carl Sagan-style - had long since been buried beneath the weight of exam board meetings, the tedium of SAT score reviews, and the relentless slog of marking his students’ mostly unremarkable offerings.
A hand belonging to someone sitting in the back row of the class shot up. Joel squinted: he’d forgotten to collect his new spectacles the previous day, and was still struggling with his old pair with their out-of-date prescription. The hand belonged to a student he didn’t recognise: a slim girl with plaited red hair.
‘Yes? Miss, err– ?’
‘Weinbecker. The Langrangian points are the five equilibrium points, first posited by the French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange in 1772 as a solution to the three-body problem. Only two of the points are significant, at least in astronomical terms: L4 and L5, to give them their mathematical designations. These are the points where a third, smaller object, could settle into a stable orbit.’
Joel chuckled. ‘A textbook answer, Miss Weinbecker. I’m sorry, I don’t believe I’ve seen you in my class before. Are you new to the school?’
‘My family only moved into Verona a few days ago, Dr Montague. There was a last-minute hitch with the house purchase. Unfortunately, I missed the start of this trimester. Today’s my first day.’
‘Ah. I see.’ An uncomfortable silence settled, punctuated by a few giggles. ‘Could you come to the board and show us precisely where these two most important points are found?’ He gestured towards the class whiteboard, where he had drawn the orbit of a planet around its sun.
The new arrival came forward, and took the marker pen that he offered her, smiling as she did so. He stood back and watched her carefully as she marked two points on the board. Now that she was closer to him, he could see that she had a most pleasing and shapely figure. For an adolescent, she had surprisingly clear skin; and her hazel eyes were startling. Slightly embarrassed, he looked away from her pert breasts, but there was no avoiding the subtle perfume that clung to her body. Joel found the delicate odour strangely and unexpectedly arousing.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘Sixty degrees ahead of and sixty degrees behind the path of a secondary object around its primary. The Lagrangian points: sometimes called the Trojan points, after the asteroids that fill these locations in the orbit of Jupiter.’
‘Precisely, Miss Weinbecker. Well done. You may return to your seat.’ As the girl made her way back to her place, Joel was conscious all the while of the stares she was receiving, and the whispers that she had seemingly triggered. He glanced at the clock over the door. He was out of time. ‘Right, assignments for next Friday. 1,500 words, please, on any astronomical body within our Solar System. Your choice. But no tiresome jokes about Uranus, please.’ The class tittered, and the school bell sounded. ‘Class dismissed! Have a good weekend.’
She hung back for a few minutes, as he packed away his teaching aids, and wiped the whiteboard. Only once all the other students had left, did she step forward again.
‘That was very impressive. Where did your family move from?’
‘New Jersey. My father is a civil engineer. He builds bridges.’
‘Hmm. Not so many of those out here in Iowa as in New Jersey. Settling in?’ The girl shrugged her shoulders, but said nothing. ‘Well, welcome to “Teddy High”. I hope you quickly catch up with the work you’ve missed thus far, Miss Weinbecker. Though it’s only a few days worth, I suppose: something tells me you’ll cope with that easily enough. What’s your first name?’
Joel looked at her quizzically. Not Capulet? She’s radiant, for certain, with that flaming red hair of hers. And those unsettling eyes. Still…I wouldn’t quite describe her as “a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear”.
‘Julia.’ He liked the feel of that name upon his tongue. ‘A noble name. Well, I hope you’ll continue to contribute so impressively to my classes.’
She beamed at him. ‘Oh, I will!’
He was filled with a sudden impulse: to grab the young girl and pull her into his embrace. Shocked at himself, he looked away, and gazed out of the classroom window, across the playing fields, as if contemplating some distant point. ‘Yes, well. See you next Tuesday. I look forward to reading your first assignment for me in due course, Miss Weinbecker.’ He didn’t dare look towards where she had been standing until several minutes had passed, the trail left by her perfume had fully dissipated, and he was quite sure she was gone.
II: Eye of Jupiter
’Soft breathes the air
Mild, and meadowy, as we mount further
Where rippled radiance rolls about us
Moved with music–measureless the waves’
Joy and jubilee. It is JOVE’S orbit,
Filled and festal, faster turning
With arc ampler. From the Isles of Tin
Tyrian traders, in trouble steering
Come with his cargoes; the Cornish treasure
That his ray ripens. Of wrath ended
And woes mended, of winter passed
And guilt forgiven, and good fortune
Jove is master.’
Julia stopped speaking, and lowered her paper. She had barely glanced at it.
Throughout her delivery, she had been directing her attention towards the grey-haired, fifty-three-year-old man, in the tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbows, who had been sitting, perched on his desk, at the front of the classroom. Dr Joel Montague had been quietly tapping a pencil on his knee throughout all the time she had been talking, seemingly staring fixedly into the far corner of the classroom as he did so. Only when she had finished did he lay the pencil aside, and turn his gaze towards her. He smiled encouragingly.
‘A magnificent poetic flourish with which to end your assignment, Miss Weinbecker. Your own composition?’
She shook her head. ‘No, Dr Montague. It was written by C. S. Lewis: a part of his poem The Planets.’
‘Lewis?’ he frowned. ‘The English children’s story writer?’
‘Irish, actually, Sir. But yes - he’s most famous for his Narnia fantasy stories. But it’s his Space Trilogy, starting with Out of the Silent Planet, that I particularly admire.’
‘Interesting.’ More interesting, he thought, was the way she had looked at him as she had spoken of mounting further - he had been carefully watching her out of the corner of his eye, despite the appearance that he had given of looking elsewhere. There had been something about the way she had spoken those particular words that made him feel…uneasy. And yet, at the same time, curious. There was something fascinating about this teenage girl. Girl. Yes, remember that, Montague, he said to himself sternly. She was just fifteen. He’d checked with the school office. Her sixteenth birthday was a month away. Even then, she’d still be very much a minor. A high school sophomore. A girl. Not a woman.
He’d been drifting. Scrabbling desperately for something to say, Joel’s mind alighted on a point the girl had made towards the beginning of her presentation. ‘I’m intrigued by your comment about the Great Red Spot - your assertion that it might not be a permanent feature. Where did you get that idea from?’
‘It was in a journal published last year,’ replied Julia. ‘Actually, it’s been speculated for a long time that the Red Spot might not be permanent - but there have been quite a few recent observations, suggesting that it’s shrinking in size. One astronomer thinks it may disappear altogether in about forty year’s time.’
Well, I’ll probably be dead by then. ‘A little alarmist, surely?’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘It’s too early to say. But in any case, we’ve only got three and a half centuries worth of observations to go on.’
‘Not even that,’ Joel countered. ‘There were no observations between 1713 and 1831, so we can’t be one hundred percent certain that the storm first observed in 1665 actually is the same phenomenon as the one we’ve had under view from the nineteenth century.’ He paused. ‘Nothing lasts forever, of course.’
She nodded in agreement. ‘Not even the Eye of Jupiter.’
Joel was startled. He was vaguely aware of someone sniggering - Sal Bischoff, predictably - but he ignored it. ‘I’ve not heard it called that before,’ he said, slowly.
Julia smiled, as if at some private joke. ‘Jupiter is commonly identified with Zeus - the head of the pantheon of Olympus - yes? But he’s also sometimes equated with Odin, the chief Norse god. One-eyed Odin, the Wanderer. He sacrificed his other eye in exchange for prophetic wisdom. So, in that case - wouldn’t it make sense if the Great Red Spot was seen to be the Eye of Jupiter?’
‘It would indeed. Thank you, once again, for a refreshingly original assignment, Miss Weinbecker. Who’s next?’ He looked across the room, then fastened his gaze upon the fidgeting figure in the furthest corner. ‘Mr Bischoff. What do you have to offer us this afternoon?’
Sal Bischoff smirked. ‘I chose the seventh planet, Sir.’ Joel groaned inwardly: he should have known better. All despite his strict admonitions the previous week…
Must I really listen to Sal Bischoff’s take on Uranus?
III: Conjunction - Mars and Venus
The bell had sounded, and once again, at the end of another Friday afternoon, Joel found himself alone with his new star student.
It was time.
‘There’s a conjunction of Mars and Venus this weekend - tomorrow night, actually. A particularly close one. They’ll be just a quarter of a degree apart at their nearest.’ He tried to sound nonchalant, but his heart was beating faster.
She nodded. ‘Yes, I know. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.’
He looked away from her. Damn, why was she making this so difficult? He shuffled his papers together. The next thing he was about to say…
Just do it.
‘I happen to have a secluded cabin in the woods, about five miles out of town. I’ve converted it into an observatory. Nothing fancy, but I have a twelve inch reflector there.’
‘Twelve inches? Impressive.’
Joel winced. The smutty innuendo was clear, even if it was shocking from the lips of a fifteen-year-old girl. He decided to ignore it. ‘Well, it’s half an inch smaller than Sir Patrick Moore’s instrument at Selsey - but it’s pretty good. You’ve heard of Patrick Moore?’
‘Of course. England’s eccentric grandfather of amateur astronomy. Supposedly, the only person to have met Orville Wright, Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. Something of a misogynist, though.’
‘Yes. Well. Anyway, I was wondering - would you care to join me for the conjunction? The weather forecast for tomorrow evening is pretty good; a clear sky all night, actually. There’s not much light pollution near the cabin, and the moon will be a day past new, so it should be ideal. It would just be for a little while: I could get you back home by half past nine. But, if you think it’s not a good idea, then– ?’
He paused. Had he completely misread the signs? But Julia was looking back at him, holding her textbooks in a tight embrace, and smiling.
‘Sure. Why not? But I don’t think picking me up from home is a good idea. How about meeting at Morton Cross, by the gas station?’
‘Would seven o’clock be okay?’
The next night, at ten minutes to seven, he was parked up outside the gas station, waiting for her. He was nervous as hell. He’d not been with anyone for the last three years, not since Barbara had walked out on him on his fiftieth birthday, let alone…
He gulped, and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. This was madness - what was he thinking? He needed something to calm himself down. Fumbling in the glove compartment, he found a bottle of bourbon, and took a swig. Better.
The sun was just setting. A glorious claret-red sky. It was magnificent.
‘Been waiting long?’
There she was, looking as radiant as the heavens, in a colourful low-cut paisley pattern dress. Her hair looked freshly-styled, and was no longer tied up in her customary school girl plaits; somehow, it made her look several years older. She was wearing mascara, bright red lipstick, and hooped earrings, each bearing what appeared to be contrasting astronomical symbols upon them. He raised a quizzical eyebrow. Were they– ?
Julia looked at his perplexed face, and tittered. ‘Yes, Dr Montague. Venus in my left earlobe, and Mars in the right. I found them in a market this morning. Aren’t they delightful?’ Without waiting for a reply, she slipped into the passenger seat next to him, leaned across, and kissed him lightly on the cheek. ‘Shall we go?’
‘Of course.’ His nervousness returning, he fumbled with the stick-shift, grinding the gears as he did so, and cursing under his breath as a customer at the gas station looked across from where he was filling the tank of his vintage Oldsmobile. It was Damian Donahue, the flamboyant head of history at Teddy High. Shit. Has he seen us?
‘It’s okay,’ whispered Julia. ‘He’s banging one of the football jocks from the 12th grade. Charlotte Faber told me. He won’t say anything, even if he’s seen us.’
‘Nonsense. He’s married.’ And every member of staff knows not to trust anything Charlotte Faber says.
‘So? Mom thinks I’m on a sleepover, by the way. Mind if I take a sip of that bourbon?’
‘We’d best be going.’ Before Damian Donahue wanders over, and wonders what I’m doing in a car with a fifteen-year-old student on a Saturday night.
Four hours later, after they had made love for a second time, she asked him: ‘Am I the first girl you’ve brought to your observatory in the woods?’
‘Yes. Do I look like the kind of person who habitually seduces his students?’
Julia smiled. ‘No, Dr Montague. You don’t.’ She reached up her hand, to take off the spectacles he’d insisted on wearing throughout, but he grabbed her wrist.
‘No. I prefer to keep them on - I’m very short-sighted. And please, don’t call me Dr Montague - it reminds me that we shouldn’t be doing this. Call me Joel.’
She laughed. ‘Joel? Really? And there was me wondering if it would be Romeo, after all.’
‘What, with your name being Julia? And both of us finding ourselves living in a town called Verona? That would have been far too much in the way of coincidence, surely?’
‘Coincidence - or fate?’
He snorted. ‘You’re being ridiculous. You’ll be wanting to know my star-sign next.’
For a moment, she said nothing. He wondered if he’d offended her. He was about to apologise, when she opened her mouth, and said, slowly: ‘Joel. You don’t look much like an Old Testament prophet.’
‘My mother always hoped, I think, I’d become a preacher. She never understood my interest in science. Even when I got my doctorate, I was something of a disappointment to her.’
‘And your father?’
‘I never knew him,’ Joel replied. He pushed himself upright on the sofa-bed, and ran his fingers through his rumpled hair. It was something he often did when troubled in thought. ‘My mother, for all her pious pretensions, wasn’t exactly virtuous. She had a number of relationships in her youth. None of them lasted more than a few years. I ended up in care for a time. Anyway, she’s been dead for ten years now. Cancer.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Julia said. ‘My mother’s pretty religious too - she’s from Georgia. Goes with the territory - or, rather, the state - I guess. She never liked it in New Jersey. I think she wants to go back down South someday - Dad has promised that they will, eventually. Iowa was a compromise, of sorts.’
‘Is your father religious?’
‘God, no!’ she laughed. ‘He’s got no time for all that. Not now. He used to be - but he lost his faith when my elder brother died. He was five. He drowned in the neighbour’s swimming pool. We were still in Georgia then. I was only three. I don’t really remember Freddy. All I can remember is the howling. Not my mother - she was very calm. Stoical. It was my father: his crying - he was inconsolable. It was just about my first memory. He’s tried his best to love me, but I learnt at an early age that I’d never quite be good enough. I would never replace what he had lost. He tries not to show it, but…’ she shrugged. ‘Soon after that we moved to New Jersey.’
‘I’m surprised,’ said Joel carefully, ‘Given what happened with your brother - they’re not more…protective? This story you’ve concocted - of sleeping over tonight with your friend, Veronica Dawes - you’re sure they won’t question it?’
‘She’s not really a friend. It’s a double-cover, actually. She’s with a boy tonight, and has told her parents she’s over at my place. And no, I doubt they’ll question it. I’m nearly sixteen, after all. Dad’s out of town for a few days - some conference or other - he’s often away from home. Mom is very trusting. I’ve done it before - not here, but in New Jersey. You’re not the first.’ He must have looked shocked. ‘Sorry, Joel. I mean - this has been great - but…well, I like older men. Proper men. And they like me.’ She leaned over, and kissed him. ‘Shall we have a look through that telescope again?’
‘If you want. We’re well past the closest point of the conjunction now, though. Or perhaps you want to look at something else?’
But, much to his disappointment (and contrary to the weather forecast), most of the sky was now obscured by clouds. He tutted and sighed; but then felt her hand upon his. He turned away from the eyepiece, and looked into her startling hazel eyes.
‘I’m sorry, but–’
She kissed him fully on his lips, then murmured. ‘It’s okay, darling. The heavens can wait. Mars and Venus will be hanging in the stars long after we’re gone. Let’s try for another conjunction of our own, shall we?’
IV: Pillars of Creation
At the moment of his climax, he cried out:
For what seemed like an age, they lay together, in silence. When perhaps five minutes had passed, she looked at him.
‘Why did you say that?’
‘Why did you say that?’ she repeated.
‘Oh.’ He met her questioning gaze. ‘An image. It came to me, as I– ’ He paused, embarrassed.
‘As you came.’ She giggled, and gave him a peck on the cheek. ‘It’s okay, Joel. My mouth is filthy enough for the two of us. What image?’
‘Do you know the Eagle Nebula? Also known as the Star Queen Nebula? M16?’
‘I think so. In the constellation Serpens, right?’
‘Yes. There’s a wonderful photographic image that Hubble took back in 1995, I think. The Pillars of Creation. This amazing formation of gas and dust, all in the process of creating new stars. There’s a famous preacher, called Charles Spurgeon. Heard of him?’ She shook her head. ‘Remarkable. There are some gaps in your knowledge after all, it seems.’
‘Stop teasing. What about this preacher?’
‘My mother - I told you, she wanted me to be a preacher - she was the one who first introduced me to Spurgeon. Anyway, he once delivered a very famous sermon on the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. My mother made me learn it - well, parts of it. Let me see.’ He closed his eyes, concentrating. ‘I think - yes - it went something like this– ’
‘And now wonder, ye angels; the Infinite has become an infant; he, upon whose shoulders the universe doth hang, hangs at his mother's breast; He who created all things, and bears up the pillars of creation, hath now become so weak, that He must be carried by a woman!’
‘That’s rather beautiful,’ opined Julia.
‘Whoever thought to apply that phrase to the stellar birthing pool in the Eagle Nebula clearly thought so too. It’s probably my favourite Hubble photograph. As I said, it just,’ - he chuckled - ‘came to me.’
‘Do you want to see what else will come to you, if we try that again?’ she quipped.
‘In a moment. God, you’re insatiable.’
‘Only our second weekend together, and already I’m proving too much for your pillar of creation, it seems.’
‘Ha!’ Joel threw a pillow at her. ‘We’ll soon see about that.’
V: Leading Trojans
‘They made a mistake with the nomenclature, you know,’ said Joel. ‘When they made the first discoveries.’
‘Oh? What do you mean?’
They were back in the cabin in the woods again, their third successive Saturday night together. Another bout of fierce love-making had been concluded. Now they were drinking wine together; and talking once again about the Jovian Lagrange points.
‘Max Wolf from Heidelberg University. Back in 1906 he discovered the first Trojan asteroid in the L4 Lagrangian point of the Sun–Jupiter System. He named it Achilles. 83 miles in diameter. Not the largest, but still in the top ten of Trojans.’
Julia took a sip of her Chablis. She didn’t particularly care for it - far too dry for her taste - but she didn’t want to offend Joel, who had clearly impressed on her earlier what a particularly good vintage this particular wine was. She was already getting the impression that he was something of a wine snob. ‘What was the mistake?’
The second one to be found was discovered by Wolf’s colleague, August Kopff, eight months later. He spotted it in Jupiter’s L5 point, the trailing Lagrangian point. It was named Patroclus, after Achilles’ friend and lover.’
‘I still don’t understand what the mistake was.’
‘Patience, dear. The mistake only became evident with the naming of each newly discovered asteroid. You see, the decision was taken to name the leading Trojans after members of the Greek camp - so as well as Achilles, we have Nestor, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax, and so on. Whereas the trailing Trojans were named for members of the Trojan camp proper - Priamus, Äneas, Troilus, etcetera, etcetera. Perfectly logical, yes?’
‘I guess so.’ She frowned. ‘But in that case, why– ?’
‘Why was Patroclus in the Trojan camp? Precisely. The International Astronomical Union hadn’t been founded when the first Trojans were discovered, and therefore hadn’t devised their elegant division of Jovian asteroids into Greek and Trojan camps, depending upon which Lagrangian point they were in. So poor Patroclus ends up separated from his lover Achilles. Even worse, guess where they placed Hektor, Achilles’ great rival and opposite number - the man who was responsible for Patroclus’ death?’
‘From your tone it’s pretty obvious,’ replied Julia. ‘In the Greek camp at the L4 point, I presume?’
‘Yes. Hektor turned out to be the largest of all the Trojan asteroids, and only the third to be discovered. And it’s found in the Greek camp. Both camps have their spies and interlopers, it would seem.’
‘And thus Priam is separated from his beloved eldest son, forever unable to carry out the funeral rites required by the gods,’ Julia mused. ‘How tragic!’ There was no trace of irony in her voice.
Joel grimaced. ‘They’re just chunks of rock and ice. It’s a curious quirk of naming - nothing more. I thought you’d find it interesting - but there’s no need to get all misty-eyed about it.’
‘I’m not!’ she exclaimed. ‘You can be an insufferable, self-righteous prick sometimes, Joel Montague. Have you ever actually read the Iliad?’
‘No. I’ve told you before - I’m not that well-versed in classical literature. Except for Shakespeare: I am fond of the Bard. And I’m sorry - I didn’t mean to offend you. You can be so’ - he paused, searching for the right word - ‘Fiery. You know, I really should know better. But I can’t help myself.’ I’m like the moth, drawn to a bright, naked flame, he reflected. And if I’m not careful…
She kissed him lightly. ‘Afraid you’ll get burnt? It’s okay. I will “handle with care”. I promise.’
Hmm. A mind reader, too, then? Perhaps the Trojan figure she resembles most is Cassandra. A name which hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, been allocated to any Trojan asteroid, as yet. ‘Well, just so long we’re not in different camps.’ Joel glanced at his watch. ‘Are you sure you can’t stay tonight?’
She shook her head. ‘Can’t. The sleepover ploy won’t work every time. Anyway, Dad’s home for the long weekend - it’s Columbus Day on Monday, remember? I was lucky to be able to escape for a few hours tonight. Maybe next week.’ Sensing his disappointment, she put down her glass. ‘We can bring our Trojans together one more time before you run me home, though. Who is going to lead this time - and who’ll trail?’
VI: Pluto & Eris
‘How many planets do you reckon there are in the Solar System?’
Joel chuckled. ‘Given the IAU’s decision two months ago, that’s a rather controversial question, isn’t it?’ He shivered momentarily: the nights were definitely getting colder now. He’d have to bring his kerosene heater from home to the cabin next time they met up there. He slipped on the dressing gown that was hanging from a hook on the back of the cabin door, and tightened its belt. ‘Do you want a coffee?’ He’d sensed the previous Saturday that Julia wasn’t a fan of wine. Perhaps he’d be on firmer ground with coffee. ‘I’ve got a decent grinder in the kitchenette. I can rustle up a decent cup for you in five minutes.’
Julia yawned. ‘I don’t drink coffee. Or anything with caffeine, actually.’
‘Oh.’ He frowned. ‘What, um, do you like, in the way of drinks?’
Julia tittered. ‘Milkshakes. And bourbon. Though not together. Not very sophisticated, I guess. It’s cold. Mind if I slip on your sweater, darling?’ He shook his head, and she pulled his thick dark blue jersey over her head. ‘That’s better.’ She looked up at him. ‘But you still haven’t answered my question.’
Joel bent down, and rummaged around in the bottom draw of a filing cabinet. He drew out a bottle of Jim Beam, and two glasses. ‘I can’t offer you a milkshake. Will this do?’ She smiled, and nodded her acceptance. He poured two decent-sized measures, and gave one to Julia. ‘A toast, then,’ he said, raising his glass. ‘To the late lamented ninth planet of the Solar System. To Pluto!’ They drank together solemnly. Then Julia giggled again.
‘I was going to tell you, what got me interesting in astronomy, remember?’ He nodded. ‘Well, it was Pluto. I can remember asking Dad why there was a planet named after a dog. I honestly thought it was named after the Disney character. I must have been - what - six years old? My father bought me my first telescope the following Christmas. A 40mm refractor.’
‘Bah. Not even two inches.’ They both laughed. ‘But size isn’t everything. Unless you're a dwarf planet. Poor Pluto. But the writing was on the wall - or in the stars, anyhow - as soon as Eris was discovered last year. A trans-Neptunian object with a greater mass than Pluto, and a highly eccentric orbit? The IAU had no choice, really.’
‘They could have just declared Eris to be the tenth planet,’ mused Julia.
‘That was the original proposal,’ said Joel. ‘And it was even suggested that they uplift Ceres to the status of planet too. Can you imagine? Utter nonsense. All because they were afraid of the public reaction to reducing the sacred number back down to eight. And actually, that turned out to be a not-entirely-unjustified fear. The guy who discovered Eris received death threats. So your six-year-old self was right. It was Uncle Walt’s fault after all.’
Julia smirked, and poured herself another glass of bourbon. ‘Eris. The Greek goddess of strife and discord. Considering all the controversy she’s caused, that’s quite an appropriate name. I wonder how many dwarf planets are out there, in the Kuiper belt?’
‘Who knows? We’ve found a number of smaller candidates already, just these past few years. The idea of just designating Eris as the tenth planet was always going to be far too neat. And actually, I disagree with you. I don’t like the name at all. If there was to have been a tenth planet - it should have been named Persephone. That was what Arthur C. Clarke suggested, in several of his novels. A much more appropriate choice.’
‘Ah, the wife of Pluto - the original Pluto, not the Disney dog.’
Joel nodded. ‘Yes. I might not know as much about classical literature as you, my bright young thing - but I am aware of the story of Pluto, lord of the underworld, and Persephone, the embodiment of spring and agriculture. And the pact that she agreed to; to spend six months of the year in the underworld as Pluto’s consort, during the winter months; followed by six months above ground, overseeing the seasons of agricultural growth and abundance.’ He paused. Should I tell her? Perhaps I should. ‘I was once married.’
‘Oh?’ Julia eyed him carefully, with her bright hazel eyes. ‘What happened?’
He shrugged. ‘Nothing much. We got divorced. Three years ago. No children. Just a trail of unhappy memories. Barbara’s nickname for me was Pluto. Naturally, I retaliated in kind. She was my Persephone. God, how we hated each other by the end.’ He drained his glass. ‘Give me that bottle. You’re sure I’m not driving you home tonight?’
‘Not unless you want me to go. Poor Joel. Am I your first in three years?’
‘Trust you to reduce it down to sex. Yes, as a matter of fact.’ And longer than three years, he thought ruefully. There hadn’t been much going on in Montague marital bed for a fair few years before the divorce. Not that it’s anyone’s business.
‘I’m not reducing it down to sex. But if it’ll make you feel better…’ She took the bottle out of his grasp. ‘Drink up. We’ve both had enough whiskey tonight. But I wouldn’t say no to another milkshake. Come on, darling. I’m sure you can manage.’ She kissed him, and as she did so, she reached down with her hand. She giggled, and looked at him coquettishly. ‘Pluto or not - that doesn’t feel like what I’d expect from a dwarf.’
‘You cheeky little…’ Her lips stopped him from completing the sentence, whilst her fingers fumbled with the belt of his dressing gown. There goes my Kuiper Belt. Ah well. Welcome Eris - goddess of discord. May you be a better companion for me than Persephone.
‘Did you hear about what Lydia Fortescue saw on Saturday night?’
‘Was it Benny Hoffman’s dick?’
‘Noooo! Where HAVE you been? She dumped him two weeks ago! She’s dating Scott Pettier now. Thinks she’s better than us all, now she’s netted herself a Senior from the football team. Anyway, they were on their way to the Oakland County Drive-in, and Scott pulled into the gas station on Morton Cross. And guess who they saw picking up that new girl, Julia Weinbecker?’
‘Yes way! She swore to me - on the life of her dear grandmother - that she wasn’t making it up. Lydia may be a bitch, but you know how doe-eyed she gets whenever anyone mentions her demented ol’ grandma.’
‘Well I’ll be damned! Have you told Hallie and Jennifer yet?’
‘Of course not. I wanted to tell you first. You know you’re my bestie.’
‘Aww, you’re so sweet! But - back to Lydia - how DID her date with Scott Pettier go? Because I’ve heard a thing or two about him, and his best friend Hugo, from Charlotte Faber. Like that time when…’
The Messenger of the gods speeds his way through the heavens.
VIII: Argo Navis
‘Okay, class. We’ve reached the end of the chapter, with five minutes to spare. So, quick fire questions. Favourite constellations: what and why. Just one sentence. Eighty-eight to choose from. No repeats. Who’s first up?’
Immediately, a forest of hands. They’re more engaged these days - especially on Tuesdays. But then, so am I.
‘Yes, Mr Jefferson.’
‘The Great Bear. The Big Dipper. It was the first constellation my Dad taught me to find in the night sky.’
‘Ursa Major. A good choice. Thank you, Mr Jefferson. Miss Greenwalt. Don’t be shy.’
Jennifer Greenwalt giggled nervously. She always did whenever called upon to speak. ‘Cassiopeia, Dr Montague. The butterfly of the heavens.’
‘Well, the mythological Cassiopeia may have been a beauty, but her vanity nearly spelled ruin for her people. But yes - an easy star grouping to find in the sky because of its similarity to a butterfly. Next– ’ Joel groaned inwardly, but he had put his hand up, after all. Let’s get it over with. ‘Mister Bisschoff,’ he enunciated, with heavy emphasis upon the ‘mister’ - as if to impress upon the class joker that a more serious attitude would be welcome.
‘Andromeda, Sir. Home to M31, the Andromeda Nebula, the largest galaxy in our Local Group of galaxies. It’s two and half million light years away. Named after the daughter of Cassiopeia.’
Joel blinked with surprise. ‘Thank you, Sal. An interesting, and informative choice.’ Wonders never cease. When even Sal Bisschoff is paying attention in class…
Joel worked his way quickly through the raised hands. Pegasus. Leo. The Pleiades (‘Not strictly a constellation, Miss Jennings. The Seven Sisters are part of Taurus. But thank you, nevertheless’). Canis Major. Crux - the Southern Cross (‘Ah, Mr MacQueen - you used to live in Australia, didn’t you? Sadly, we never get to see Crux in the Iowan skies.’). Orion. Ursa Minor. Cygnus. Most of the students had put their hands up - most had volunteered a constellation. But Julia had just sat there, staring out of the class window, listless and disengaged. She’d been unusually quiet all through the lesson. Joel glanced at the class clock. A minute to go to the lunchtime bell.
‘Miss Weinbecker. Nothing to volunteer?’
Joel was displeased. What was wrong with her? ‘Not a valid choice, Miss Weinbecker. You know full well that Argo Navis was declared defunct– ’
‘By the IAU in 1930, and broken up - like some vast vessel sent to a ship breaking yard - into the modern-day constellations of Carina, Puppis and Vela: the keel, the poop deck and the sails. Too unwieldy, too impractical, they said. But they had no imagination, no romance, no sense of adventure. Jason and his Argo, the voyage in search of the golden fleece, all consigned to oblivion. It was a fucked-up decision, Sir.’ She glared defiantly at him, as if daring him to come back at her.
A shocked silence fell across the classroom. The effervescent excitement of a few minutes before had completely dissipated. Joel didn’t know what to say.
‘Miss Weinbecker– ’
The bell sounded. ‘Class dismissed. Stay a moment, if you please, Miss Weinbecker.’
The students filed out, many of them glancing over their shoulders, murmuring as they went. When they were alone, Joel crossed the room to the classroom door, and closed it firmly. He turned towards Julia. She hadn’t moved an inch.
‘We’re going to end up like Argo Navis, aren’t we? Broken up. Defunct.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing lasts forever. You said it yourself.’
‘Yes. The Great Red Spot. The dying Eye of Jupiter. It’s all just so much…’ She paused, then started sobbing. ‘Shit.’
Joel felt cold. He glanced towards the door of the classroom, checking that it was indeed securely closed. ‘Julia, this isn’t the time or place. You’re overwrought. And you know that’s not true.’
Julia was dabbing at his eyes with a tissue, ‘Isn’t it? It’s alright, darling - I’m just not feeling myself today - but I’ll be fine in a moment or two. I’m sorry. You were having a good lesson today, weren’t you? Now I’ve gone and spoiled it.’
‘Listen, Julia,’ he said earnestly. ‘I’ve something special planned for this coming Saturday.’
‘Anything to do with the Orionids?’ She smiled, despite herself.
‘Well, yes. They reach their peak this weekend. I thought we could watch them. Together.’
She sniffled, and blew her nose with her tissue. ‘I’d love to, but I can’t. Not this weekend. It’s my birthday on Saturday. Mom and Dad are throwing a party for me.’
‘Ah.’ Drat, he’d forgotten. ‘That’s a shame. By the following weekend, they’ll be almost over. We should still see a few, but…’ He shook his head. ‘Never mind. It was just an idea. Come here.’
She came. He placed a hand on her chin, raised her face towards his, and studied it. Her mascara had run. Girls weren’t supposed to wear it to school, but most did. He smiled.
‘Well, you do look a mess, Miss Weinbecker. I think you’ll need to pay a visit to the restroom. It really doesn’t matter about this Saturday. There’ll be other meteor showers. The Leonids next month, for starters. You only turn sixteen once, after all. You’ll have a great birthday.’ He bent down towards her. If anyone were to walk in now… He kissed her, twice, first on the brow of her forehead, and then on her lips. ‘Don’t worry, Julia. The IAU might be an unromantic lot. But the Argo is sailing forever in our hearts, hmm?’
‘How many days does it take for the Moon to orbit the Earth?’
After the events of last Tuesday, Joel was pleased to see that Julia was participating in his class, in regular fashion. From the whispered conversations going on across the room, it was clear that the other students hadn’t forgotten Julia’s outburst - but she herself seemed determined to put it behind her, thankfully.
Nevertheless, although Julia’s hand was shooting up with its customary regularity once more, Joel was careful to avoid choosing her to answer his questions too frequently this time. In fact, only once did he find himself calling out Yes, Miss Weinbecker? this afternoon.
As usual, the answer given was always far more detailed than he would expect from any of his other students.
‘It depends whether you’re referring to its sidereal period or its synodic period.’
‘Correct. Could you explain the difference for the benefit of the rest of the class?’
She did. At some considerable length.
They were alone once again. It struck Joel, it must by now look rather obvious to the other students that Julia would always be hanging back at the end of his lessons after they had gone.
‘We should probably stop talking like this. Perhaps we should just text each other, as necessary, from now on.’
She shrugged her shoulders. He found her frequent habit of doing that somewhat disagreeable. ‘Fair enough. You ignored my hand most of the time this afternoon.’
‘The one time I didn’t, you gave an answer that took up the best part of ten minutes.’
‘Only because you made me repeat it, with diagrams, several times over, such that even Sal Bischoff could understand.’
‘That’s rather unkind. Sal has come on in leaps and bounds lately. His scatalogical obsessions are waning too.’ She smiled. Seizing upon this glimmer of good humour, Joel continued: ‘I’ve got something for you. A birthday present. I hope I’ve got the size right.’ He drew out a package from underneath his desk. ‘I’m just sorry you won’t be able to wear it to the party. That would raise too many questions, alas. Perhaps next time you stay over at the cabin?’
Her eyes shining, Julia took the package from him. ‘Oh, thank you!’ She went to hug him, but checked herself as he frowned and put out his hands as a barrier between them. She understood. There could be no repeat of last Tuesday’s intimate embrace - the risks were too great.
‘It’s my pleasure. Actually,’ he continued, ‘perhaps wearing it in two weekends would be better. That’s near enough the full moon. It will look particularly stunning on you then, I guarantee.’
Julia looked crestfallen. ‘The phases of the moon run like clockwork, don’t they? Twenty-nine and a half days, almost exactly. No variation, from one month to the next. Perfectly dependable. Never early, never late.’ She bit her lip. ‘If only humans were the same,’ she whispered, looking down at her feet.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Joel, anxiously. Something’s troubling her again.
She shook her head. ‘It’s nothing.’
There was a knock on the door. Joel looked across the room. Standing in the doorway was Damian Donahue.
‘Oh, sorry, Joel. I hadn’t realised you’d be with–’. He stopped.
Now what, thought Joel. He looks like he’s seen a ghost. Wait - did he see her in my car that weekend of the Conjunction, after all? Act normal.
‘Hello, Damian. What can I do for you?’
But the head of history was already retreating back into the corridor. ‘It doesn’t matter. Nothing important. I’ll give you a ring sometime. Bye, Joel.’ Then, he was gone.
They looked at each other. ‘That was odd,’ said Joel. Then, together, they burst out laughing, Julia’s moodiness of a few moments before forgotten.
‘Perhaps he got lost, and mistook your classroom for the football locker room,’ said Julia. Joel looked at her, shocked - and then found himself roaring with laughter. Now what if someone happened to pass by the open doorway…
‘Fie! Fie! Over the moon, and away with thee!’ he cried, wiping a tear from his eye. ‘Don’t forget that parcel. Have a good party, and look out for the Orionids, if you can. Off you go, Miss Weinbecker.’
‘Blow out the candles, and make a wish, dear,’ urged Marjorie Weinbecker. She smiled, pensively, and glanced around the room. Were they all enjoying themselves? Oh, she so hoped they were all enjoying themselves!
‘It’s okay, mother,’ said Julia. ‘I have done this before, you know.’ She looked at the cake, and grimaced. She had told them she didn’t want anything with an astronomical theme this year. She knew that most of her new ‘acquaintances’ in Verona - she didn’t really have ‘friends’ - were already well aware of her passion for astronomy. She also had the feeling one or two or them had noticed her passion for Joel Montague too. She could do without anything that drew attention, in any way, to either of those things. Yet here it was - a birthday cake covered in stars, and topped with an intricately-crafted model in sugar icing of a radio telescope. It was impressive, to be sure, and it was certainly better than the ponies and unicorns that still graced the birthday cakes of many of her contemporaries. But still…out of the corner of her eye, she could see Jennifer Greenwalt and Hallie Summers whispering, pointing at the cake, and giving each other knowing looks.
‘Thanks Mom. Thanks Dad. Here goes.’ She closed her eyes, and blew.
’Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are…’
‘Julia, it’s bedtime. You should be going to sleep.’
Thomas Weinbecker stood in the doorway of his seven-year-old daughter’s bedroom. She was sitting up in bed, singing to herself, whilst turning over the pages of a picture-book that was filled with colourful illustrations of the planets, stars and other objects from the night skies.
‘Daddy, did you know the Sun is made up of lots of different gases, hydragin, and helium, and other stuff? And it’s really really hot - like 10,000 degrees hot - at the surface, and even hotter inside?’
Thomas smiled, amused at his daughter’s enthusiasm. She would be so delighted with what he had bought her for Christmas: her very own telescope. ‘Yes, I did know that. And it’s hydrogen, sweetpea.’
Julia looked puzzled. ‘That’s what I said.’
‘Well, just remember - what must we never do when it comes to the Sun?’ Important to drum this home, again and again, before Christmas comes.
‘Look at directly - and never ever ever with binoculars or a telescope. I know Daddy. The Sun is very pretty, and we all need it, but it’s dangerous too. Like poor Icarus found out, with his wings of wax. He didn’t listen to his Daddy, did he?’
‘No, he didn’t.’ Thomas stopped smiling. Mention of the fateful journey of father and son, Daedalus and Icarus, reminded him of his own gaping loss. Freddy. A son who, like Icarus, had plunged into the waters, and breathed his last. ‘Lights off, Julia. Now.’
The change in his tone was sharp. Without knowing why, Julia sensed she’d somehow offended him. It was best to obey, without question, in such moments. She reached over and turned off her bedside lamp. ‘Goodnight, Daddy,’ she said. But he didn’t acknowledge her. Instead he shut her bedroom door, abruptly leaving her in the dark.
But she wasn’t afraid of the dark. The stars would always comfort her. Even when her father wouldn’t.
She’d opened all her other birthday cards and gifts, and now there was just her present from her parents. Thomas Weinbecker held out an envelope, and glanced across at his wife anxiously. Hope we’ve got this right, said the look.
‘It’s only a small thing, honey. But we hope you like it. Happy Birthday.’
Julia opened the envelope. Inside, a card bearing a rocket-ship on the cover; and a pair of tickets to an astronomy convention in Texas, in November, on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The guest of honour was…
Julia gasped. ‘No really? Buzz Aldrin? The Buzz Aldrin?’
Thomas chuckled. ‘Yup. The one and only. Sorry it’s not Neil - the second Man on the Moon will have to do, sweetpea.’
‘That’s okay, Dad. Everyone knows Neil Armstrong’s pretty much a recluse these days. This is awesome.’ She looked again at the tickets. ‘Two tickets, Dad? Who’s the second one for?’
‘Whoever you want, Julia. It’s your birthday treat. One of your friends, perhaps?’
Thomas looked around the gathering of girls - with a few boys - whom Julia had invited to her party. They’d only been in Verona for a few weeks. It was impossible to tell which, if any, of these kids she was close to. Thomas wasn’t too sure it was any of them, really.
‘Can I ask Phoebe?’ I really should call Phoebe, she thought. She might know what I should do about…No, I’m not thinking about that now. Not tonight.
Involuntarily, Julia’s father winced. Phoebe was her best friend from New Jersey. Her corrosive influence (in his view) upon Julia was one of the reasons for them moving to Iowa. Drugs, unsuitable boyfriends, trouble with the cops - he looked at Marjorie, and saw her shake her head decisively. Yes, best to avoid all that again.
‘Perhaps not Phoebe,’ he said gingerly. ‘But we’ll talk about that later. Do you like the present?’
Julia was frowning. ‘Why not– ?’ She stopped. Another thought had come to her. ‘Yes, Dad. Of course I like it. I LOVE it. Thanks Dad, thanks Mom.’ She threw her arms around him, and smiled over his shoulders at her mother. In a lower voice, she said to her father: ‘Can I go into the garden? I want to do a bit of star-gazing. The Orionids are at peak tonight. The light pollution sucks here, but I should be able to spot some meteors.’
‘What about your guests? Isn’t that a bit rude?’
‘Phooey. Everyone’s chatting, look. No-one’ll be left out. Just for twenty minutes. Please, Dad?’
Thomas sighed. ‘Okay. Ten minutes, no more. Anyway, I want to have a word with Bernie.’ He nodded in the direction of a middle-aged man with a goatee beard wearing a particularly lurid Hawaiian shirt, strumming a guitar in the corner of the room. ‘He’s recently come back from the Love Parade in Berlin. Full of enthusiasm for some new-fangled microblogging service that was launched there that he claims is going to be the next big thing. Twitter, I think he said it’s called.’
Julia rolled her eyes. ‘Whatever. Honestly, Dad, this is meant to be my party, not a chance for you to reconnect with all your old college chums.’
He grinned. ‘Bernie and Max? Two chums is hardly all. And you’ve always been fond of Uncle Bernie and Uncle Max. At least your mother didn’t insist on inviting any of her nutty religious relatives - we were both spared that. Ten minutes. Then you can come back in here and try to be a little more sociable yourself.’
The hourly rate of the Orionid peak this year was particularly impressive, thought Joel. He was pretty certain he’d observed 53 meteors in the past hour - close to one a minute. What a shame Julia couldn’t join him.
He was sitting outside his cabin in the back garden, wearing a fleece, scarf, and fingerless mittens, with his reflector telescope to the left: but he wasn’t using his instrument to track the meteor storm - meteors moved far too fast to make that possible. To his right was a small round table, on which rested his notebook, his mobile phone and a bottle of Merlot. It was only October, after all. Come the winter it would be a thermos flask of hot chocolate that would be required, not wine.
The screen on his BlackBerry lit up, catching his attention. Someone had texted him. For a moment he considered ignoring it - afraid he’d miss a meteor. But then, sighing, he picked up the phone.
CAN I RING YOU? J
Joel smiled. He’d thought it might be her. He texted back:
A few moments later, the phone rang. His ringtone consisted of a few bars from the first movement from Pelléas et Mélisande, ’At the Castle Gate' by Sibelius - the theme music for the famous long running BBC astronomy programme The Sky at Night. Such was his liking for this music that he always let the phone ring for a few seconds longer than he ought. Far too many missed calls was the result. This time was no different.
When he felt ready, he answered. Holding the phone to his ear, he continued to look upward all the while, scouring the sky above for fresh shooting stars.
‘Are you searching the skies?’
‘You took your time answering.’ She sounded irritated. ‘But, yes, I am.’
‘Sorry, but I love Sibelius.’
‘Never mind. How is your birthday going?’
‘Pretty dull, to be honest. Mom and Dad insisted that I invite my friends from school. I said to them: What friends? Apart from Charlotte Faber, and Veronica Dawes, I don’t really have any friends, and even those two…’ Silence down the line. ‘I’d much rather just be there with you.’
‘Well, I did offer. Oh gosh, did you see that? Three, in very rapid succession: BOOM BOOM BOOM.’
‘Yes, I did. Listen - I’ve got some exciting news. My birthday present from my parents, you’ll never guess!’
‘A fourteen inch reflector?’ he teased.
‘No, silly. A pair of tickets to an astronomy convention in Texas. And the guest speaker is Buzz Aldrin. Do you want to be my plus one?’
‘Congratulations. You can’t be serious.’
‘Why not? They’ve said I can take anyone. Why shouldn’t it be you? And I could wear the dress you bought for me. It’s wonderful, Joel. And it fits perfectly. Thank you!’
You really want me to tell you why a dirty weekend in Texas is a bad idea? he thought. ‘I’m glad you like it. But you should get back to your party.’
‘Yeah. Dad said I could come outside to look at the Orionids - but only for a short time. I am missing you, darling.’
‘And I you. But you know, it’s very hard to concentrate on sky-watching and talking to you at the same time. I’m sure to have missed a meteor or two.’
‘Serve you right if you get a stiff neck.’ He could imagine her poking her tongue out down the phone at him.
‘The bane of all astronomers. Put your tongue away, Miss Weinbecker.’
‘How did you…?’ There was a pause, followed by the sound of a very loud raspberry being blown. ‘Joel Montague, you’re a rotter, and a scoundrel, and I really shouldn’t love you - but I do. I must go, before Dad comes. See you at school. Kisses.’ Squelching noises came down the phone line.
‘Happy birthday, once again. Wish upon a falling star. Bye, Julia.’
The line went dead, and Joel carefully placed the phone back on the table. Keeping his gaze upwards all the while, he fumbled along until he found his glass of wine. Good. He raised it to his lips. That’s the first time she’s actually said ‘I love you’ to me. Perhaps I’m the one who needs to make a wish, with the next meteor I see. What does the Blue Fairy say? ‘If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme.’ Somehow, I don’t think Uncle Walt had in mind a fifty-three-year-old guy with the hots for a sixteen-year-old girl. But perhaps I can at least wish that…There. It’s done. Silly. A flash of light in the sky, and a flash of desire in the mind. Happy birthday, Julia. I can, at least, drink to that.
Joel wasn’t due to start teaching until 10.00am on Monday morning. Normally he’d spend the first part of the morning in the staff room in leisurely fashion, reading science journals and enjoying coffee brewed from the rather superior machine he’d been instrumental in securing for the staff room three years ago.
But this Monday was different. This Monday he had made his way to the office of the Principal’s Secretary, Mrs Freeman, by 8.50am. She smiled at him as he entered.
‘Ah, Dr Montague. Principal Delaney is expecting you this morning, yes?’
He nodded. ‘I received an email from him yesterday.’ A damn perplexing email at that.
‘He asked if I could meet with him today. At 9.01am.’
‘Well, we all know how precise the Principal is with his diary. Would you like a coffee while you wait? There’s time. Though I can’t offer you one as good as the one you could make for yourself in the staff room, mind.’
‘Thank you, but no. I’ll just wait here until he’s ready for me.’
The next few minutes passed in near-silence, broken only by the tap-tap of Mrs Freeman’s computer keyboard. Then, at 9.00am precisely, the overlapping noise of several different clock chimes could be heard emanating from the Principal’s office next door. At last count, Joel believed, there were eleven different timepieces to be found in Delaney’s inner sanctum. He wasn’t nicknamed ‘Old Father Time’ for nothing.
Joel’s BlackBerry vibrated in his pocket. He fished the phone out and looked at the screen in irritation. Damian Donahue. What does he want?
The intercom buzzer on Mrs Freeman’s desk sounded.
‘Yes, Principal Delaney?’
‘Is Dr Montague there?’
‘He is, Principal Delaney.’
‘Send him through.’
Joel slipped his phone back into his pocket, the test message unread. Donahue could wait.
Joel settled himself on the long sofa facing the Principal’s desk. He looked around the meticulously-ordered, neatly arrayed room. Yes, the eleven clocks he remembered from his last visit all seemed to be there - wait - there was a new addition. A rather grand one, at that…
‘Observant of you, Montague. A nineteenth century French ormolu timepiece, with the figures of Jupiter on one side of the clock face, and Saturn on the other. Charming, wouldn’t you say? And like all my clocks, I’m pleased to say it keeps good time.’
Principal Augustus R. Delaney looked like a relic from the nineteenth century himself, with his slightly baggy three-piece suit, cravat, pocket watch and chain, sideburns and whiskers. All he really needs to complete the effect is a box of snuff and a monocle, thought Joel.
‘It’s exquisite craftsmanship, Sir.’
‘Hmm. Well, I haven’t asked you here to talk about clocks. I received a report of a very disturbing nature late last Friday afternoon, Montague. Very disturbing indeed.’
The grip of Joel’s left hand on the arm of the sofa tightened. He had a sudden impulse to run the fingers of his right hand through his hair, but he resisted it. ‘Oh?’ he said, with the merest quiver in his voice. ‘What news?’
‘It concerns an allegation of illicit relationship between one of the school staff and a member of the student body.’
‘Sir, I think– ’ began Joel, desperately.
‘Quiet, Montague,’ growled the Principal. ‘Let me finish. The reason I’m taking you into my confidence at this point is because this particular member of staff is well-known to you. In fact, if memory serves, I believe it was you who first recommended him to the appointments panel. Understand, I don’t hold that against you. You had worked together previously. I’m referring, of course, to our head of history.’
‘Damian Donahue?’ Relief. It’s not me he’s after, after all.
Delaney pursed his lips. ‘Yes. Damian Donahue. It’s all rather - distasteful.’ He paused, as if reluctant to go into further details. Then: ‘It seems he’s been buggering the Senior football team’s star quarterback. Hugo Deakins. The board of governors is meeting later this morning. Donahue will be summoned. If the truth of this allegation is confirmed - and I have no doubt it will be - then he will be dismissed before the end of the day. The boy’s parents have already been contacted: there’ll be no difficulty there. I’m convening a meeting of the school staff at 4.05pm. You will, of course, be in attendance. I shall expect your full support. This will be a testing time for the school. An extremely testing time. Hold fast, Montague, hold fast. You’ve been with us a long time.’
‘Of course, Sir.’
‘There’s a further matter. We had been thinking of inviting Donahue to join the senior management team. He’s not been here as long as you, of course, but in that relatively-short time he had proved himself very capable. Now, I’m not saying that you’re not, but…’ Yes you are, you pompous, sanctimonious prig. ‘Well, anyway. I’ve had a very positive report recently from the Vice-Principal. She popped into one of your lessons, a couple of weeks ago, you may recall.’
Joel nodded. He remembered. Thankfully, not the one where Julia lost her shit about Argo Navis.
‘She was impressed by how much - how shall I put this - more much more engaging your rapport with the students seems to be at present. Rather more so, perhaps, than has been evident for a while. We’ve both come to the conclusion that you’ve been passed over in the past, perhaps unfairly so. We’re going to recommend to the board that you be appointed to fill the senior management vacancy. Fortunately - very fortunately - we hadn’t yet announced that Donahue was going to take on that role. Narrow escape, that. Anyway - what do you say?’
‘I don’t know what to say,’ said Joel slowly.
Delaney scowled, his craggy features becoming even more evident than usual. ‘You could start by saying “Thank you”. The remuneration you’ll receive for the extra responsibilities should be more than adequate.’
‘I’m sorry, I’m just a little stunned. It’s not what I was expecting this morning. Thank you, Sir. I’m more than happy to accept.’
‘One last thing. Should Damian Donahue make any attempt to contact you today, you are to say nothing whatsoever to him. Is that clear?’
Joel thought about the text he had received just minutes before, and the agitated appearance of his former colleague the previous Friday. It all made sense now. ‘Yes, Principal Delaney.’
The old man sniffed, pulled out his pocket watch, and looked at the time. A ridiculous action considering he could have obtained the same result from looking at any one of the eleven - no, twelve - timepieces scattered around the room. He looked up at Joel, and gave him a thin, wintry smile.
‘9.09. I’ve another meeting due in precisely two minutes. Thank you for your understanding, Joel.’ For the first time that he ever could recall, Old Father Time had used his first name. ‘That will be all.’
XII: Uranus & Neptune
What a day, thought Joel, exhausted. The rain hasn’t let up all day either. How appropriate. He finished lowering the blinds, and sat down again, whiskey in hand. He picked up the remote control of his DVD player and resumed play. The clamour of rainfall from without was immediately hidden by the relentless crescendo of noise that now filled his sitting room. He was listening to The Planet Suite. Holst’s orchestral suite was his ‘go to’ piece of music whenever he felt stressed. He’d been playing it a lot lately.
For the second day in succession, he’d come home late. Yesterday, the school day had concluded with that difficult staff meeting, at which Old Father Time had broken the news of Damian Donahue’s dismissal to the stunned teaching staff. Joel closed his eyes. Despite the din emanating from the speakers of his sound system, he could recall Delaney’s stentorian tones instantly. Yes, the parents of the boy concerned are deeply distressed. No, they have decided not to press charges. Yes, the boy has been removed from the school for his own safety, and everything possible will be done to ensure his character is not besmirched in any way. No blame is to be attached to him. Yes, Coach Wilkerson, I do appreciate that losing our star quarterback like this is “an unfortunate blow”, to say the least. No, the board of governors will not be commenting on the details of any financial settlement that might, or might not, have been reached with the boy’s parents. What was that about the press? All press inquiries are to be referred to the board of governors. Concerned parents? Same for them - the governors will deal with all that. All the staff have to do now is to rally around. Remember the school motto: Cum una operamur, praevalemus - ‘When we work as one, we prevail’.
And then, he’d had to get through today. The heavy silence in the staff room, punctuated only by the noises emanating from the coffee machine. The clusters of students huddled in corridors and hallways, falling silent as any member of staff approached. The sullen, halfhearted responses they had given in his lectures. And above all, the fraught three-hours-long joint meeting of the board of governors with the senior staff of the school, at which he had barely spoken; weighed down not so much by the burden of his new school responsibilities as by the hidden knowledge that he had had a narrow escape. Donahue’s fate could have been his. It could still be his - unless he ended it now. Quickly.
He’d dreaded his Grade 10 physics and astronomy class that morning. But Julia hadn’t been there. He had passed by the school office at the end of the day - just before the three hour marathon had begun - and enquired, as nonchalantly as possible, if Miss Weinbecker had been in school that day. ‘No, Dr Montague. Her mother called in sick on her behalf yesterday. She’s not been in for the past two days.’
The relentless ostinato of Mars had culminated in its dreadful discordant climax. Now - in the words of Imogen, Gustav Holst’s daughter - Venus ‘has to try and bring the right answer to Mars’. Can she bring a little peace to my troubled mind too? Wait–what’s that?
His BlackBerry was buzzing. He wouldn’t have heard it a minute earlier, whilst Mars was playing, but now…It was another text. Probably Donahue again. Four times yesterday, twice already today. Couldn’t the man take a hint?
But when Joel examined the screen, he saw that it wasn’t the erstwhile head of history at Teddy High who was messaging him.
WE NEED TO TALK. CAN YOU PICK ME UP AT THE USUAL PLACE? HALF EIGHT.
Joel was tired, and hungry. He really couldn’t face seeing Julia tonight. He needed a bit more time to think. He texted back:
NO. I’M WHACKED. CAN’T IT WAIT TILL TOMORROW?
The reply was insistent.
A moment later, the phone started ringing. It was her.
‘What’s the urgency?’
‘Can you be at the gas station? In thirty minutes?’
‘No, Julia. Look, err– ’
‘I’ve GOT to see you.’
Joel thought, quickly. ‘Very well. But not Morton Cross. I don’t think it’s safe meeting you there any more.’
‘Outside the drug store at the junction between Fourth Avenue and Dawson then. Eight thirty.’ She rang off, before he could say anything else.
The storm rumbled on overhead. So much for the Bringer of Peace.
She was there, waiting for him, standing beneath the neon light of the drug store, shivering in a yellow raincoat. He wound down the window, and shouted across at her.
‘Get in. You’re drenched.’ He looked at her. ‘It’s too late to go out to the cabin. There’s a diner I know, a few minutes drive from here. The food’s awful - no one ever goes there. And it always has the most appalling music blaring out. Which means no one would overhear us, anyhow. Will that do?’ She nodded her assent.
Fifteen minutes later, they were sitting inside a dismal diner with the unfortunate name Joyboy’s. A more joyless environment was hard to imagine. There were no other customers, only a bored attendant in a soiled apron who was slouched at a corner table. She’d taken their orders - one flat white, one milkshake - without any display of interest, and was now puffing away at a cigarette, reading a lifestyle magazine.
Considering the urgency of her request to meet, she hasn’t said anything since we got here, thought Joel. Perhaps I should start. God, this thrash metal music really is fucking dreadful!
‘You’ve not been in school the past couple of days. Are you unwell?’
She shook her head. ‘Nothing serious. Have I missed much?’
‘Hmm.’ She’s not heard, then. ‘My lecture this morning, most importantly. Let’s see if I can enlighten you.’ He stared thoughtfully at the streaks of rain cascading down the window, then began quoting from his lecture notes. ‘Sometimes, we think something is true, even when it’s not. Sometimes we have a working hypothesis that seems to fit all the available data - even though we don’t understand why. We think we’ve gleaned a little bit more understanding of the vast, unfathomable universe. And then something comes along that completely wrecks our assumptions.’
She smiled. ‘A planet-sized wrecking ball, perhaps. Like Neptune.’
‘Precisely. Bode’s Law.’
‘You mean the Titius–Bode Law. I thought you believed in precision.’
He chucked, despite himself. ‘Fair enough. I do indeed mean the Titius–Bode law. Bode himself was always quick to insist that he hadn’t originated the Law, but was merely refining it.’
‘It was still bogus. A misguided attempt to come up with a mathematical formula explaining the position of each planet around the Sun.’
‘Yet it worked, for a while. The gap between Mars and Jupiter was a puzzle. Bode insisted that the Law predicted something had to be there. Then, on New Year’s Day 1801 the new century began with Giuseppe Piazzi’s discovery of Ceres. A new planet, exactly where Bode had said it would be. Eureka! Except it turned out to be too small. Instead, it was the first of many to be found in that cosmic trash heap we call the asteroid belt.’
‘But for a long time they believed the asteroid belt consisted of the remnants of a broken-up planet. One that had drifted too close to Jupiter perhaps, only to be torn apart by gravitational forces. What did they call it?’ Julia stared at her milkshake. She hadn’t touched it. ‘I ought to know.’
Joel stirred his coffee. He hadn’t touched his drink either. ‘It’s not like you to forget a mythological tale. Phaeton was the name Bode proposed for this hypothetical planet. After the son of the sun god Helios– ’
‘Whose chariot he stole for a day, with disastrous results. Zeus was displeased, and struck him down with a lightning bolt. Damn it. I did know.’
‘And it all makes sense, doesn’t it? Except there never was a planet Phaeton. Bode was grasping at straws - or asteroids, rather.’
‘Uranus’ discovery by Herschel in 1781 had fitted the theory, though. Bode was happy enough about that, wasn’t he?’ Julia started sipping her milkshake, then pulled a face.
Joel didn’t notice. He was staring down at his flat white, still stirring it. ‘But he never lived to see the discovery of Neptune, in the wrong orbit, the cosmic wrecking ball that debunked his “Law” once and for all. What Bode had theorised wasn’t, in the end, compatible with reality.’ Joel stopped stirring. He looked up at Julia. ‘Just like us. That’s what you wanted to say, isn’t it?’
She looked at him, incredulous. ‘No! That’s not what I– ’ She stopped speaking, and clutched at her stomach. She stood up, and raced for the door.
‘Julia?’ She’d run outside; but through the window, obscured though the view was by the rain, Joel could see her, doubled-up, retching, spewing the contents of her stomach onto the ground. He wanted to go out to her - but he couldn’t. A terrifying, nagging thought had entered his head.
She came back inside, wiping her mouth. He caught a whiff of her vomit.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘The milkshake was a bad idea. I started feeling sick on Sunday morning. I thought it was something from the birthday party the night before. Mom had prepared a salmon mousse.’ She smiled weakly. ‘Isn’t that meant to be social death - poisoning at a party?’
‘In Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, it really was the salmon mousse that did it. I don’t suppose you’ve seen it.’
The thought was worming away incessantly now. He had to know.
‘Julia,’ he said, hesitantly. ‘Are you– ?’
‘Pregnant? Yes. I took the test this morning.’
‘But - but how?’
She laughed, bitterly. ‘How? How d’you think, science teacher?’ Silence. ‘Okay. Facts and figures. You like those, Joel. I was on the pill, just as I’d said. At least - I thought I was. I have a friend, Phoebe, in New Jersey. She was the one who first introduced me to men - but that’s by-the-by. She used to supply me with pills too. Except the last batch - they were fakes. They contained a drug called sulfamethoxazole.’
‘That’s an antibiotic.’
‘Yeah. Phoebe swears she didn’t know. Anyway - counting back the weeks - your Pillars of Creation moment. That was the night I conceived. And then two weeks later - I missed my period. It’s sometimes a couple of days late. I didn’t worry, at first. But then– ’
‘You said: “The phases of the moon run like clockwork. No variation, from one month to the next. Perfectly dependable. Never early, never late. If only humans were the same.” You knew then, didn’t you?’
‘That I’d missed my period, yes. But I was still in denial. I’d been using protection. I tried phoning Phoebe, late last Saturday, once the party was over. She was out of it, stoned, as high as a kite. Then on Sunday morning, I threw up. Felt dreadful yesterday. Really couldn’t face school. Finally got some sense out of Phoebe, and found out about the pills. Then this morning, I sneaked out of the house, got myself a test kit, took the test. Bingo.’ She looked up at him. ‘So what happens next?’
Joel just stared back. He was still struggling to process all she had said. A baby. The very word was unfamiliar to him. He and Barbara had never wanted kids. Absolutely never. It was about the only thing they had ever agreed upon.
‘That’s up to you, isn’t it?’ he found himself saying. Instantly, he knew he’d said the wrong thing.
‘Up to me?’ she hissed, incredulously. ‘What about your part in this? And what was all that crap earlier, about Bode’s Law being incompatible with reality? What were you trying to say? That we were finished? “Nothing lasts forever”, once again?’
‘I don’t think this can work - that we can make it work,’ pleaded Joel. He ran his hand through his hair. ‘Just hear me out. It’s like Neptune and Triton. Triton’s retrograde orbit, going in the opposite direction to Neptune’s rotation. It’s all mixed up.’
‘Yet it works,’ said Julia.
‘But it can’t for us. I’m fifty-three, you’re sixteen. Christ, haven’t you heard what’s happened to Damian Donahue? Seems Charlotte Faber was right, for once. He’s been fired. But in his case the lad was a Senior. He was eighteen. Bad enough. Whereas you…’ he trailed off. And Damian Donahue hadn’t knocked up Hugo Deakins either.
‘Then what do you want me to do?’
He looked away. He couldn’t bear to look at her any more. ‘That’s obvious. You get rid of it. I’ll pay for what’s needed. But you get rid of it. And then you get out of my life. It’s over.’
The music had stopped. The only two sounds that could be heard was the snoring of the waitress, who was slumped at her corner table, fast asleep; and the patter of rain on the tin roof of the diner. Julia stood up. She walked to the door, and opened it.
She looked back at Joel, her hazel eyes burning bright, and said with as much venom as she could muster:
‘Sal Bischoff had it right all along, didn’t he? Uranus. You are an arsehole.’
He never saw her again.
An eidetic memory could be both blessing and curse.
In some Christian traditions, devotees were encouraged to say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.
Three times a day, Joel Montague spoke his mantra. Out loud, wherever possible. In the silence of his heart otherwise. On Sunday’s, in chapel, whilst his fellows ritualistically intoned the Lord’s Prayer, he inwardly recited the contents of that last letter.
It had been addressed to him. The first time he had heard it was as it was read to him during his first interview, the evening after his arrest.
‘Miss Weinbecker’s parents found this letter on their daughter’s bedside table, shortly after they discovered the body, at approximately 7.20am this morning, Thursday October the 26th. The letter itself is undated, but we believe it was written shortly before Miss Weinbecker took her own life. It’s addressed to “Joel”. That would be you, I would imagine Dr Montague, yes?’
He nodded. Once again, he tried - and failed - to blot the image out of his eyes, of Julia hanging from the beam of her bedroom. Wearing - as he’d been shown in the forensic photographs - the dress of shimmering black silk, its cross-stitch bodice studded with sparkling faceted pearls, that had been his birthday gift to her.
‘Once again, Dr Montague, for the record, may I remind you we need a verbal response. Should I ask the question again?’
‘No, that won’t be necessary. Yes, the letter was addressed to me.’
‘Do you have any idea as to its contents, Dr Montague?’
‘No, I don’t. I’ve never seen it before.’
‘Then let me enlighten you.’
When we first spoke to each other, it was about Lagrangian Points. It seems like a long time ago now. Was it really less than seven weeks ago? On a cosmic scale, not even the blink of a pulsar.
I imagine it was Jupiter’s Lagrangian Points we had in mind, mostly, then and since.
They’re the famous ones, after all. The interesting ones. Most of those points in the orbits of the other planets are empty. Including Earth’s.
But you know, of course, that this probably wasn’t always so. I read a really interesting paper recently about the Theia hypothesis. A Mars-sized planet orbiting the Sun, located in one of the proto-Earth’s Lagrangian points. It gets perturbed away from that relationship, probably by the gravitational influence of Venus, or Jupiter, spirals towards the Earth, and collides with it. Most of Theia ends up swallowed by the Earth, but a disc of material from both Theia and the proto-Earth, thrown out by the impact, eventually accretes together, forming the Moon. The offspring of both Earth and Theia. Which is why the composition of the Moon is so similar to that of the Earth. Earth’s the big Daddy. But Mom is no more. Theia is destroyed. Earth survives, and eventually hosts life. The Moon - their joint legacy - remains, tidally-locked, one side forever facing the Earth. A perpetual reminder of a cataclysmic cosmic event, billions of years before. Utterly devoid of life, the Moon remains, its scarred surface a stark contrast to that of the Blue Planet.
I loved you, Joel. I really did. I thought - maybe - we could have a life together - that maybe you’d accept what had happened. A child. A family. But that isn’t to be, is it?
I feel trapped. You want me to kill our child - and then carry on as if nothing had happened. As if we never happened. All you can think of is your reputation - not ending up like Damian Donahue. And if I carry on with the pregnancy - and you refuse to help - Mom and Dad won’t support me, I’m sure. They’d throw me out. And don’t think you’d escape, even then - Dad would find out about you. They’re probably all going to find out, anyway. There have been rumours in school for weeks now about us. You might not have heard them, but I have. Now that Donahue’s been exposed - how long do you think your precious reputation is going to stay intact?
It doesn’t matter. None of it matters anyway. You’ve broken my heart. And it was always going to end this way. I know that now. ‘My mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars,’ said Romeo Montague. But you couldn’t see it, could you? Till it was too late. All that talk of Achilles and Patrolus, eternally separated. Neptune and Triton, spinning in opposite directions. But we’re not the only casualties, are we? And now you’re the one who’ll be left behind to live with the consequences. Theia gone, and a dead Moon. Ponder that, every time, Earth-bound, you look to the stars.
I hate you.
He had wished upon a star - the night Julia had told him that she loved him - that that love would never become hate. That she would never become Persephone to his Pluto, as had happened with Barbara. Even as he had made the wish - somehow, he’d known it would be in vain.
The letter had been read out many times in his hearing since that first time. It was read out at the inquest into Julia’s death. It was read out at his trial, charged with sexual relations with a minor. He’d received the stiffest sentence permitted under the Iowan criminal statutes - and the judge, in his sentencing, had left Joel Montague in no doubt whatsoever that he wished he could have been tried and sentenced for homicide.
Three times a day, he called to mind the letter. He would repeat her final words to him, again and again. It was his penance. One day, perhaps - if he didn’t die whilst still incarcerated (he was hardly young, after all) he would walk free. He would look up into the heavens, and each night - save for when the Moon was new, or mercifully hidden - he would be reminded of the child he had rejected, the girl whose love he had betrayed, and the possibility of a future happiness for all three of them, however unlikely, that he had allowed to slip away.
But perhaps he might also permit himself to remember - from time to time - another conversation. Words they had spoken to one another on their second weekend together, in that now-demolished cabin in the woods. The same evening they had made love, and he had spoken to her immediately after about the Pillars of Creation.
The senior landing officer on the prison wing had called ‘lights out’. Joel allowed the comforting darkness to envelop him. In the distance, he could hear someone sobbing - each night, there was always some distressed soul, crying out in pain, in grief or in remorse. He’d learnt how to blank out the mournful orisons of others, their mea culpas and misereres. In time, they, like him, would realise that it was far too late now to Shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh.
He closed his eyes. In a little while, he would get, wander over to the barred window of his prison cell, and commence his regular ritual of studying the night sky - or the very small part of it he could ever hope to see on any given night. But not just yet. For now, once again, he was lying with her, in the woodland sanctuary where they could observe the universe, and know a few fleeting moments of happiness.
‘How did you get into astronomy?’
‘Oh, that was down to Uncle Walt.’
‘Oh? Your father’s brother? Or your mother’s?’
Was he being serious? She looked at him, and saw the twinkle in his eye. ‘You are silly. Just for that - I’ll explain another time. How about you?’
‘Hmm. Well you can blame Carl Sagan. The abiding proof that scientists could also be poets.’
‘Can you offer an example?’
‘Okay. Give me a moment.’ He paused. Then–
‘The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. Our bodies are made of star-stuff. There are pieces of star within us all. We are a way for the universe to know itself.’
‘Wow indeed. Enough questions for one night. Go to sleep now, Julia. Class dismissed.’
To my sister, pregnant at sixteen thanks to a Uranus almost as great as Joel Montague. Thankfully, she made the right choice. I’m proud of her and all three of her daughters.
The events of this tale take place over the course of seven weeks in the Fall of 2006. All the astronomical events alluded to take place more or less as described (e.g. the various historical scientific discoveries mentioned; the Hubble photograph of the Pillars of Creation in 1995; the discovery of Eris in 2005, soon followed by the IAU General Assembly in August 2006 that downgraded the status of Pluto; the Theia hypothesis; the Orionid meteor shower; even the phases of the moon, as mentioned in the story). Only the particular Mars-Venus conjunction that is referenced is invented.
As usual, I’ve quoted from or alluded to a number of authors, including Shakespeare (Romeo & Juliet), Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (two of the 20th century giants of science fiction), C.S. Lewis, and Carl Sagan, one of the greatest science communicators and champions of modern times. About the only thing I couldn’t work into the narrative that I wanted to was the ‘fact’ that Captain James T. Kirk (of Star Trek fame) will one day, allegedly, be born in Iowa! Ah, well - you can’t have everything.
As a British writer, I have made no attempt to use American spelling conventions, and readily confess to any shortcomings because of my unfamiliarity with American idioms, conventions and cultural peculiarities (including my limited knowledge of the American high school system). My faults lie in the stars.