When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging
alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. (Yuri
I often think about Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the earth;
floating alone in a tiny capsule, and for almost two hours, the centre of the
world. No wonder he turned to drink and craved the attention of other
people, once he was back down on earth, to convince himself that he was real,
or that they were. Over and over again I have watched interviews with
him, as he calmly and politely is asked the same questions by presenters from
London to Moscow, but behind that eager to please smile, there was the
face, of a man who seemed baffled and was trying to understand what had
happened to him out there in space, alone and in the dark.
So, I dont really exist? he asked.
Perhaps in theory; but when you are out teaching the piano, or
going to the shops, then no, no you dont.
So according to you it is only when I am here, in front of you
that I am real?
I thought about it for a moment, yes; I know it sounds odd, but
when you are not with me, then you are nowhere.
He pinched himself, ever the clown.
I feel real.
But that is because you are with me. Perhaps try it when I am not
He looked at me oddly, not sure whether to take me seriously or not. We
continued to walk around Warwick castle, but in silence, he a little ahead of
me and clearly sulking, he painstakingly read the various notices in all the
rooms and only roused himself when we had lunch at the rather expensive
café. As we sat together eating cheese and tomato toasties, and he
enjoyed a beer, he tried to resume the conversation.
You are a strange girl, I cannot tell when you are joking or
serious. He laughed, having got me categorised.
Thats what all my men say. I responded, which ensured
he said nothing more for another hour or two.
That night, as he pushed himself into me, he groaned, Am I real
now? Can you feel me now? Do I exist?
And for those few moments as he intruded himself upon me, he was there,
but when I awoke the next morning to an empty bed he had faded away, as when he
had come out of my body the previous night. And I lay in my bed, it became the
centre of everything; my dressing table, my wardrobe, this room
I suppose that it is egotistical to think that everything revolves
around me, that I cause it to be; this man, my lover standing in front of me
talking nonsense, the radio, the kitchen, the house. Even people and objects I
glimpse when I am out and about in Manchester; the woman I glance at standing
by the window of her house stroking her cat, a brief, overheard conversation
between two men, as they hurry past me; will they disappear as soon as I pass
them by? It is difficult to believe that they will continue to have a separate
existence once I have walked on; that the woman stroking the cat, will go out
to do some shopping, meet a friend for lunch, that she has her own interior
life; her own worries and ambitions. I see her as an actor on a stage,
who has said her lines, and now heads to her dressing room, unneeded for the
rest of the play?
On Friday evening, we sat and drank wine.
All we do is drink I told him.
Well lets have sex then.
But cant we talk, or perhaps we could read? When was the
last time you read a book?
But we are watching television.
Are we? I stopped following it ages ago, it is just background
Im watching it?
What is about then?
He sighed and poured himself more of the wine we had bought from Aldi
that afternoon. When we first met we used to drink once a week at most;
Saturday evenings if we werent going out, or if we had a guest, but now
we never have guests, and we rarely out, and we drink most evenings. His pupils
must smell it on him, as they turn up bleary eyed to go through the pieces that
he has set them to learn.
I am serious, we drink every evening.
He laughed, and took my hand and then undid my blouse, and we ended up
naked on the sofa. As I kissed him I could smell the alcohol on his
tongue and body, and afterwards as I fell asleep wedged into the back of the
settee, I felt disgusted with him but most of all disgusted with me.
My parents saw Yuri Gagarin when he visited Manchester shortly after he
returned to earth. It was a muggy July day in 1961, and later in the afternoon
the heavy sun gave way to rain, but it did not stop my parents gathering to
watch as Yuri Gagarin drove in an open top car smiling and wet, waving happily
at the crowds who had turned out in their thousands to see him.
They had only been married about eight months, and I would be born just
over a year later, I being their first and, as it turned out, only child. I
imagine them waiting patiently, amidst the smell of damp and cheap perfume, for
this man who had done something that nobody had ever done before; my mum
looking thin and fragile, my father strong and tough, but it was him who would
not survive the decade (dead of cancer shortly after his twenty-sixth birthday)
but she seems just the same and still walks the same Manchester streets she did
all those years ago, but her mind clouded by senility and sadness.
He seemed very happy my mum told me, a smile for
everyone, even though he must have been soaking wet.
Did he talk to you? I had asked her, we were sitting in the
kitchen, as we so often did; I must have been eleven and she a widow, in
retrospect still young.
No, we were just part of the crowd, and were only close to him
for a few moments. Your father said that he smiled at him.
I have seen photographs of his visit to Manchester; including one that
my father had taken, when the crowd had broken slightly so he got a good
picture. But by the time that mum told me all about it, Gagarin was dead in an
aeroplane crash at the age of thirty-four, and my father was a couple of
photographs on the sideboard, and someone my mother talked about when she was
feeling lonely, and all she had was a little girl for company.
Your boyfriend is a pianist Martha tells me. I nod in
agreement, difficult not to, as I often mentioned this to people I knew, it
kept him real, and his profession reflected well on me I thought; making me
seem bohemian and creative.
We have got this concert in a couple of months, for the
Samaritans, would he be able to play something for us?
Martha is my friend; I cannot remember how we met or when;
perhaps she just arrived labelled friend. But we often go to the
theatre together or meet for lunch during the week and reminisce (about what?)
over panini and cake in the Italian café/ deli in Manchester city
centre, near Piccadilly.
I can ask him.
It would be nothing taxing, but we could do with something a bit.
If he could just play one of the classics, you know Beethoven, or one of
I clearly did not meet her at anything musical.
I will let you know I tell her, breathing in the smell of
the café; mostly tomatoes and bread, and I drank down my iced lemon
drink and prepared to make my way back to work.
Sometimes I wonder if things will happen without me there to control
them; it is a leap of faith expecting things to sort themselves out when I am
not there. As I sat waiting in the over-heated hall for my boyfriend to play,
chewing on a peppermint to ease my nerves, I wondered if he would appear,
perhaps he was there already behind the scenes talking to Martha or practicing
in an alcove somewhere, or maybe having a quick drink. He was to play the last
piece of the first half; an Impromptu by Schubert, which I had heard him
running through this morning as I ate my breakfast.
Quite often people let me down; my father dying, my mother slowly
losing her mind. And as I sat there in the bleak hall, filled mostly with the
young, and a few worthy looking older people, their copies of The Guardian
ostentatiously visible like a rather large ticket, I began to feel dread, I had
worried about this ever since Martha asked me, the possibility of being
humiliated more than I could bear. I had already sat through various pieces;
comic songs that made me sad, sad songs that made me giggle and sketches that
lasted too long. Between performances I could see Martha behind the scenes;
popping out from behind the curtain at the back of the stage, to make sure the
audience were still there and appeared happy. She did not seem to notice
me, but then there seemed to be so many there she knew.
A rather battered looking piano was rolled out onto the stage, and sat
there portentously whilst I became acutely aware of the sound of shuffling
bottoms and whispered comments from all around me. I could feel sweat dripping
down my spine causing me try and rub it against the back of my chair, whilst
the piano sat there, waiting to be made use of.
I wondered if I could leave; grab my bag from the floor and push myself
past the people next to; I began to brace myself to get up and apologise, but
then it didnt matter, as he strode onto the stage with a smile;
well-dressed and confident, because of course he had done this sort of thing
time and time again and he was always going to turn up and save me from
I exhaled deeply, having held my breath for several seconds, without
realising it. I could see him look for me, and then once he caught my eye, he
gave me a grin and sat down and after a moment of thought began to play. I did
not really listen to his music; it could have been the Beatles or nursery
rhymes for all the attention I paid it, I was just so relieved that he had
turned up, but when he finished I applauded long and hard, and to my relief so
did the audience around me a couple even stood up to clap, and I heard a
couple of bravos - and then after another swift glance in my
direction he gave another smile and disappeared off stage.
I found him and Martha at the interval.
Where did you find him she said smilingly he is
lovely, and so talented
. You are lucky.
We chatted for a few moments, and I felt like a normal person, real
amongst other three-dimensional people, and with a boyfriend who had a separate
life, and who I could be proud of. And then Martha was called away, and we
decided to miss the rest of the concert and go home.
And then that night I took him inside me to thank him for turning up,
for actually existing, and confirming something, although I was not sure of
what. Shall I be let to sleep, now that this perpetual morning shares my
I love you I said, and he returned my kiss; he tasted of
peppermint which almost overwhelmed my mouth, and I cuddled close to him to
stop him disappearing into a puff of smoke,
But as I lay there, I was remembering sitting in the church hall, the
smell of deodorant and perfume choking me, knowing that he would not turn
up. Watching the piano rolled on stage, the seat pulled out ready for
him, and when it became clear he was not going to appear, a cross looking
Martha appearing on stage, apologising and suggesting we go and have
refreshments, and then giving me the most hurt of looks.
I fled, out into the rain, as wet as when Yuri Gagarin visited this
city all those years ago, and soon my jacket was saturated and my hair a mess.
I could not face a bus, and so walked all the way through the streets of the
city until I reached my house, cold and empty, with my piano in the music room
where I taught schoolchildren and bored housewives, and I sank down onto my bed
and pulled my duvet over my body, that smelt of nothing but me.
And then as I slept, I was rising above it all; the bed where I lay
alone, the house where I lived, the terrace of which it was a part, my home
city of Manchester; and they slipped farther and farther away below me, so that
I could no longer distinguish even my own country. As I continued to
float upwards, I could see at my feet, planet earth; a blue globe, with
swirling white clouds; a football, which I could kick, and do with as I