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A Small Step
by Aubrey Malone




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 a solicitor.

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 tree.  

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 toast.

‘Tonight is the moon landing,’ he said.  

I couldn’t 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 mother’s operation go? What was my father going to do to earn money?

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, ‘She’s having her op in a few days. Don’t worry. She’ll be fine.’

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 didn’t know. I just wanted to let time pass. Sometimes doing nothing was the hardest thing to do.

After a minute I said I’d 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 I’d been looking at all my life and wouldn’t 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 Ward’s bicycle shop. We turned right into Garden Street at Fahy’s 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 hadn’t graduated.

Father Curry came towards us. His father had a butcher’s shop. We nicknamed him Butch for that reason.  

‘I’m glad you came down to see us,’ he said. He ruffled my hair.

‘Your father tells me you’re going to Belvedere College,’ he said, ‘It’s a great place. You’ll 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 didn’t want to disturb them. ‘They’ll be out in a while if you want to wait,’ he said, ‘or else I could bring you into the room.’ I didn’t want that. I hated the thought of everyone looking at me.

‘What do you want to do?’ Sean said.

‘I think we’ll go,’ I said.

Father Curry said he was sorry. He said he’d 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 you’d 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 Mammy’s operation go well,’ I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to add so I sat back in the seat.

Sean looked at me. He hadn’t said any prayer.

‘Are you ready?’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I said.

We started walking home. We passed my father’s 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 Moylett’s and up King Street. The wind died down. I opened the buttons on my coat.

‘Don’t catch a chill,’ Sean said, ‘You wouldn’t want to have a cold on your first day in Belvo.’

We went up Bury Street. We passed Tommy Burns’ guest house and Benny Walkin’s house with the bay windows and Doctor Igoe’s 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 Staunton’s 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, wasn’t it?’ he said, ‘We got a lot in.’

‘When you don’t have much time,’ I said, ‘You do a lot.’

After he finished his tea he told me he had to go out.

‘Where?’  I said.

‘I’m 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 didn’t know either of them.

‘I’ll 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 we’d slept in.

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 O’Kelly 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 O’Kelly 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 wasn’t 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 we’re waiting on is yourself.’

I asked him how Mammy was doing. He said he’d 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 we’d been down to the college and that we’d had chips.

‘You’re having the life of Reilly,’ he said.

Suddenly I didn’t 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 said.

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 surface.

‘That’s 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 didn’t. Maybe there was no wind on the moon just like there was no atmosphere.

Kevin O’Kelly was mesmerised. ‘John F Kennedy said he’d get a man there before the decade was out,’ he said, ‘and now he’s done it.’ It was a pity he wasn’t there to see it. He’d 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 television.

‘In 22 hours time,’ Kevin O’Kelly said, ‘Armstrong and Aldrin will go back to join Michael Collins. Until then he’ll 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 I’d 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.

‘Wasn’t 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 me.

‘The programme upset me,’ I said.

‘Upset you? Why?’

‘I don’t know.’  

‘Did you not think it was a great achievement?’ 

‘I just feel a bit strange.’

‘Don’t 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 that’s in it.’

I’d never drunk alcohol before. I took a sip. It made me feel dizzy.

 ‘Don’t you feel better now?’ he said.  I said I did.

Tomorrow, he said, I’d be a different person. My father would give me the new suit he’d bought me for Belvedere and I’d 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. He’d ask me what I’d studied in the college I was leaving in Ballina and what my grades had been like before my father retired and my mother got sick.

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 wouldn’t have to worry about being lost in space or making wills or a comet hitting me. I’d be living in a house that had lots of lovely furniture in it, not like the second-hand things he’d been selling in the Town Hall, things that were falling apart from years of abuse.

I’d be a city slicker before I knew it, he said, and my mother would be healthy again. I’d be able to cut off all the ties of my childhood as I embarked on my new life.




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