To The Moon And Back
Photograph by Sian Davey, Story by Tom Connolly
Yesterday was Sunday, and in the afternoon after lunch, the seven of us watched the 50th anniversary film of the Moon Landing. My two-year old walked up to the screen and watched from inches away, his snow-white hair eclipsing the earth until I coaxed him back to my lap. Warm, delicious, custard skin. With four children over the age of ten, we thought that smell had left us. His eldest brother and sister don’t watch for long. They have strict limits on the stretch of time they can spend with us.
July 20th, 1969. I am two years old, standing with my snow-white hair beside my mother. We are cheek to cheek, watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. Hers is a lifetime of genuflection but on this day, she kneels before a different god, the TV that will fill her widowed evenings and that will mould my brother into the sullen legend that millions of you came to know.
My tiny hands rest on my mother’s shoulder. That’s how I dream it was. I turn to Mum and ask, “Happening Mummy?” the way my son says it now. I imagine that she squeezes me and whispers, “A man has flown to the moon, Davey.” I want a version of the world where there was once magic in her head. The thought that my son could one day be as indifferent to wonder, and me, as she is makes me shiver.
I call her mid-morning. “Did we watch the moon landing together, Mum?”
“You and me?”
“Yes, I’m using ‘we’ the traditional way.”
She performs one of her conversational hand brake turns. “Please promise me something David.”
These five words mean she has driven past Saltfields.
“Mum. I will never put you in a home.”
“I drove past Saltfields nursing home this morning and the thought of it makes me want to cry.”
“You will never go there.”
“You’ll look after me.”
“No, I’ll put a pillow over your face and count to a thousand.”
“I wish you would. Sometimes. Just seeing that place…”
“We’ve talked about this. You have a spare room. A carer will live in, someone nice. I’ll take care of everything.”
I once asked, during an argument, as she sucked the joy out of me long distance, “What the hell happened to you?” And the line went cold and quiet before she said, “My husband dropped dead when you were four years old and your brother killed seventeen people and himself in an afternoon.”
Mum has always referenced the time scale of my brother’s crime, as if spreading the slaughter over a few days would have been less inappropriate. Or, perhaps she’s angry that he rushed it.
I, too, acted quickly, changing my surname to my dad’s first name and moving to Canada. My Canadian wife is fully au fait with the above average murder rate in my family, so are our eldest two children. They considered me less uncool when they found out. I suspect they’ll return to it when they are older and ask me about it and be loving. I’ll be ready by then.
We watched the Moon Landing and Bea and I muttered to each other how extraordinary, how incredible, look at those haircuts, love those NASA shirts, they’re all smoking. Our third child asked what was the point? Our fourth said how ancient the footage looked and neither of them could believe I was alive then.
I was two. I was my youngest son. If you have a child late, with a fair chance of you dying when he is still finding his way in the world, it fills everything you do with him with a yearning to live forever. The impossible number of successful moments it takes to get a rocket to the moon and back is as improbable as raising a child and avoiding disaster. But it can happen.
“Mum, did we, maybe, watch the moon landing together? Because I have this picture in my head of us, like a photograph.”
“I came across a photograph last week of that picnic at Bennet’s, with your cousins. I took a snap of you all. Do you remember it? You were sixteen. I remember it like yesterday.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Do you even speak to your cousins?”
“Only the ones I slept with.”
She mutters “very funny” but it’s unkind of me because she will now wonder again if this did happen and she will worry. Mortal or venial? It will not worry me or Linda and Debbie, the two cousins who slept with me, and who I speak to all the time.
“So, what’s happening in the photo?”
“Nothing’s happening, it’s a photo. You’ve got your hand on your brother and you’re looking right at me. It’s meant to be a fun snap, but you’re staring at me, telling me you don’t have faith, saying ‘I don’t believe’ with your eyes.”
“Wow, some eyes!”
“Everyone else in the picture is so happy,” she says.
Everyone in that photo being one mass murderer and six out of eight cousins choosing to emigrate. Maybe not that happy. Only me becoming Pope would have made Mum happy.
“Mum, did we watch the moon landing together?”
“I’ve no idea.”
Bea finds me this evening watching the programme again. She lies with me on the sofa. Neil Armstrong broke the ignition switch of the ascent engine, leaving the crew stuck in space. Bea’s arm is draped across me, her fingers comb my hair. Armstrong couldn’t repair it. Aldrin put a felt-tip pen into a circuit-breaker, it held and that’s how they made it home.
“I like that,” Bea says, kissing my cheek. “You can’t fix everything.”
I want to wake my youngest son and bring him down to watch. Or is it me I want to get out of the cot? Do it all again better, rest my tiny hands on Mum’s shoulder, whisper ‘I love you’ a thousand times, fix everything.
Tom Connolly is a novelist, scriptwriter and photo-essayist. Before writing, he spent 20 years directing music videos, ads and charity films. He has written for Esquire, The Observer, The Guardian, The Independent and Radio 4. Follow him on Instagram @tomhcon
Sian Davey is a British photographer. Her work focuses on her family, community and self, and is informed by her background in psychology. Davey has published two books, 'Looking for Alice' (2015) and 'Martha' (2018). In 2017 she had a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London and was awarded the Royal Photographic Society's Hood Medal for 'Looking for Alice'. You can find more of Sian and her work here - www.siandavey.com