It was July 20th, 1969. I was about to leave my home
in County Mayo. My parents were already in Dublin. I was in the house with
Sean, a friend of ours. He was an auctioneer.
My mother had something wrong with her breast. She
was going to have an operation for it. My father was retiring after 34 years as
Most of our furniture had been put up for sale in an
auction the night before - our tables and chairs, the kitchen cabinet, the
piano my mother played, the radio with the screen that lit up like a Christmas
Sun streamed in through the window. I dressed
myself. My clothes were on a chair because the wardrobe was gone.
I went down the stairs and into the kitchen. Sean
looked pleased with himself. He stuck a slice of bread onto a fork to make
Tonight is the moon landing, he said.
I couldnt really think about it. I was
wondering what was in store for me in Dublin. What was school going to be like?
How would my mothers operation go? What was my father going to do to earn
Sean phoned him. He was in the place we were
going to be living from now on, in Shandon Drive.
The auction went well, Sean told him,
I had to let some of the stuff go cheap.
After a few minutes he put me on.
How is Mammy? I asked him.
I got her into the hospital, he said,
Shes having her op in a few days. Dont worry. Shell be
I handed the phone back to Sean. He talked some more
about the auction. Then he hung up.
Well, he said, What do you want to
do with the rest of the day?
I didnt know. I just wanted to let time pass.
Sometimes doing nothing was the hardest thing to do.
After a minute I said Id like to go down to
the college. Sean said that sounded like a good idea.
We got our coats and went out. It was a cold
day. I looked around me at everything on the street, things Id been
looking at all my life and wouldnt see again after tomorrow: the
orchard next door, the old school with the broken rocks all around it, the
cinema across the road with an old poster of Carole Lombard.
We walked past Tommy Wards bicycle shop. We
turned right into Garden Street at Fahys corner, going down the hill past
the Market Square and across the bridge to the college.
It was strange being there without my schoolbag,
strange not to have to worry about missing my lessons or being hit for
misbehaving. Or being hit for nothing. I was free of all that now. I was an
ex-pupil, a graduate who hadnt graduated.
Father Curry came towards us. His father had a
butchers shop. We nicknamed him Butch for that reason.
Im glad you came down to see us,
he said. He ruffled my hair.
Your father tells me youre going to
Belvedere College, he said, Its a great place. Youll be
too good for us yet.
I wanted to say goodbye to all the people I knew but
they were in the middle of a class. He didnt want to disturb them.
Theyll be out in a while if you want to wait, he said,
or else I could bring you into the room. I didnt want that. I
hated the thought of everyone looking at me.
What do you want to do? Sean said.
I think well go, I said.
Father Curry said he was sorry. He said hed
tell everyone I was asking for them. He ruffled my hair again.
We went out. There was rain in the sky. I buttoned
my coat against the wind. Suddenly I felt empty.
We were passing the church so we decided to go in.
It was like an automatic place to go after the college. They were the two best
known buildings in the town.
Maybe youd like to say a prayer for your
mother, Sean said.
It was quiet inside. I knelt down. The bench always
creaked when you did that. I started to pray. Please God make
Mammys operation go well, I said. I couldnt think of anything
else to add so I sat back in the seat.
Sean looked at me. He hadnt said any prayer.
Are you ready? he said.
Yes, I said.
We started walking home. We passed my fathers
office, the one he used to have before it burned down, before he started
working from home. You could still see some charring on the walls.
Do you miss it? Sean said.
Sometimes, I said.
We went past Moyletts and up King Street. The
wind died down. I opened the buttons on my coat.
Dont catch a chill, Sean said,
You wouldnt want to have a cold on your first day in Belvo.
We went up Bury Street. We passed Tommy Burns
guest house and Benny Walkins house with the bay windows and Doctor
Igoes with the car port. When we got to the font we turned right into
Arthur Street. That was where we lived. I wondered if it would be my last time
making that turn.
At Dr Stauntons house I ran my fingers along
the enamel outside his door. I always did that when I passed it.
We got to Norfolk. That was our house. Sean turned
the key in the door. We went down the corridor and into the kitchen. The
kettle was on the Rayburn. He put some water in it. We had tea.
That was a good walk, wasnt it? he
said, We got a lot in.
When you dont have much time, I
said, You do a lot.
After he finished his tea he told me he had to go
Where? I said.
Im arranging that car to pick you up
tomorrow, he said.
Joseph Mulligan was going to be driving me to
Dublin. There would be two other people in the car. I didnt know either
Ill try to be back to see your man
landing on the moon, he said. It was due to happen in a few hours.
The house felt quiet after he left. I went upstairs
to get my case. All the bedrooms were empty except for the one wed slept
I checked my case to see if everything was in it. My
clothes were already in Dublin. Joseph Mulligan had taken them with him when he
drove my father up the week before.
The television was on the floor. I put it onto a
chair and turned it on.
A picture of the moon appeared. A man called
Kevin OKelly was talking about the landing. He said he was proud to be
alive at this momentous time in history.
Neil Armstrong was the name of the main astronaut.
Kevin OKelly said he had to make his will before he signed up for the
mission. That was in case the capsule exploded or he got lost in space or a
comet hit him.
Another astronaut was with him. His name was Buzz
Aldrin. There was a third one as well but he wasnt going to be landing on
the moon. He had to stay in the mothership while the other two men were on it.
His name was Michael Collins.
The night got dark. I looked at the moon on the
television and then the real one outside the window. We were soon going to find
out if there was a man on it or if it was made of green cheese.
The phone rang. It was my father. Everything
is in Shandon Drive now, he said, All were waiting on is
I asked him how Mammy was doing. He said hed
been in to see her and that she was fine.
Is Sean taking care of you? he said,
Is he feeding you? I told him wed been down to the college
and that wed had chips.
Youre having the life of Reilly,
Suddenly I didnt know what to say. I felt that
empty feeling again. It was as if my stomach was falling out of my body.
Are you watching the television? he
said. I said I was. The whole country is glued to it, he
The landing happened almost as soon as I hung up.
The module touched down on The Sea of Tranquillity. Neil Armstrong walked out
of it. He went down a little ladder. A few moments later he stood on the lunar
Thats one small step for a man, he
said, and one giant leap for mankind.
Buzz Aldrin followed him out. They walked around for
a while. Then they planted a flag. I expected it to blow but it didnt.
Maybe there was no wind on the moon just like there was no atmosphere.
Kevin OKelly was mesmerised. John F
Kennedy said hed get a man there before the decade was out, he
said, and now hes done it. It was a pity he wasnt there
to see it. Hed been assassinated some years before.
I was excited but also disappointed. The moon was
just rocks and craters. It looked much nicer in the sky than on the
In 22 hours time, Kevin OKelly
said, Armstrong and Aldrin will go back to join Michael Collins. Until
then hell be all on his own. He described him as the loneliest man
in the world.
I was feeling lonely too. I thought about all the
things I was leaving, the things Id been seeing every day of my life for
the past sixteen years and would never see again.
The programme ended. I turned off the television.
Everything was quiet. I wondered if I should go to bed. I looked out at
the moon again, the real one in the sky. It was hard to believe Neil Armstrong
was still up there.
Sean came back after a while.
Wasnt it great? he said, My
God, can you believe it? A small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.
People will be talking about it for centuries.
How are you feeling? he asked
The programme upset me, I said.
Upset you? Why?
I dont know.
Did you not think it was a great
I just feel a bit strange.
Dont worry about it.
He took a Babypower of whiskey out of his pocket. He
handed it to me.
Take a swig, he said, for the
night thats in it.
Id never drunk alcohol before. I took a sip.
It made me feel dizzy.
Dont you feel better now? he
said. I said I did.
Tomorrow, he said, Id be a different person.
My father would give me the new suit hed bought me for Belvedere and
Id go in and see Father McGowran. Father McGowran would tell me what
would be expected of me in Rhetoric A, the class I was registered for.
Hed ask me what Id studied in the college I was leaving in Ballina
and what my grades had been like before my father retired and my mother got
It would be like my own small step, Sean said, my
own giant leap. Except it would be on earth instead of on the moon. I
wouldnt have to worry about being lost in space or making wills or a
comet hitting me. Id be living in a house that had lots of lovely
furniture in it, not like the second-hand things hed been selling in the
Town Hall, things that were falling apart from years of abuse.
Id be a city slicker before I knew it, he
said, and my mother would be healthy again. Id be able to cut off all the
ties of my childhood as I embarked on my new life.