Here’s a word of advice to anyone over the age of ten or so. Don’t get ideas into your head about hiding in a closet. It doesn’t work unless your closet or wardrobe is of dimensions that would get you into Narnia, never mind get you out of avoiding the person who knows that embarrassing thing about you, or who wants you to see to the laundry – or out of Project Luna. And this is the voice of experience.
You have to try to find somewhere else to hide, or to secrete yourself in plain sight. Some little room where things are stored that have been forgotten about and gathering dust for years. Some garden shed mouldering away and long since replaced by an easy to clean and airy (as the adverts say) conservatory. Just high-backed couches, if in the right place, can serve to duck behind and cower.
Of course there are also the delaying tactics, the subtle or not so subtle changing of the subject, but no point to self-delusion, in essence they only delay or deflect talking about it, not doing it.
When my name was drawn out of that time-honoured, battered hat that has been in use for the last eighty years or more, when the Principal, Mr Bourne, announced in that rich, resonant voice of his that makes even asking for cream in his coffee sound like something of profound significance, “And this year’s student selected for Project Luna is Tabitha Delaney…..” I had that horrible feeling you get in a dream when you think you’ve falling, but a feeling that passes rapidly and mercifully when you jerk yourself awake. This time there was no jerking myself awake.
It is an unwritten rule here that the “winner” in the draw for the Project Luna mission is hailed with generous applause and pats on the back and no hint of jealousy and resentment. I doubt anyone has ever really believed that it is all necessarily genuine.
I didn’t know how well I had hidden my feelings from my fellow students – it was hard to judge. But let’s be honest, I know I was taking a calculated risk. I knew that one of the second year students at the Eastern Counties Astronomical University – nicknamed Echo for the way it sounded rather than the way it was spelt!- was chosen for Project Luna. But there were nearly a thousand students and I reckoned the odds were with me. Because I loved and – yes, though I say it myself – excelled at – everything to do with astronomy. Everything, that is, except the notion of actually going into space myself. Give me a distant star that most don’t even think that interesting to find, then I’ll sit up in the observatory for nights on end trying to find it and utterly engrossed. Give me a pile of figures and calculations that daunt my fellow-students, and I set upon them with relish and fascination. I love both the wonderful and the mundane aspects of my field of study, and knew what I wanted to do when I was still in kindergarten.
But as for the prospect of spending days in a little capsule with no way out – that’s another matter entirely. Just wearing a space helmet freaks me out. And you might think that my hiding away in small spaces could, in some ironic way, have begun to inure me to it, to quench the worst fires of my fears, but it hasn’t worked that way.
Perhaps I am just basically a coward. I lack even the courage to exempt myself from the mission by deliberately trapping my fingers in a door or eating some food I know to be off. I excuse myself by thinking that that, too, would merely be delaying. The student chosen is the student chosen, and this year’s Project Luna would simply be on hold until my hand or my stomach had healed.
I could, of course, simply refuse. But there is nothing simple about that. There is no evidence or historical record about what would happen to someone who refused; it is something that does not happen. Would I be arrested? I don’t know. I doubt it, but I’m not sure. I would certainly be expelled. People have been expelled from Echo for far less than that, and spent their lives in perpetual obscurity, not studying the infinite wonders of the universe at the best facilities in the world.
I can’t help thinking about those quaint old movies when they think the earth is threatened by an asteroid (luckily we know exactly what to do about that now) but for the first few weeks or even months after the warning all seems to go on more or less as normal, in a kind of state of denial. When I was a child I was always the one who left exam swatting to the last minute and, I recognise wholly unfairly, often did better than my more conscientious schoolmates.
But now it has reached the stage when the denial is telescoped into ever smaller periods of time. It is two days to lift-off. Tomorrow I will be given a ceremonial send-off from the Echo campus and taken to the launch pad. I have been asked to make sure “my affairs are in order”, but of course that is a mere technical formality (so I am assured) and as for the consent form, well, it’s less onerous than one you might sign for an operation on an ingrowing toenail.
Oh – Mr Bourne is striding his way towards me, as I sit here in a little corner of the campus grounds, on a bench surrounded by ill-tended bushes. That’s all I need!
“Do you mind if I join you, Ms Delaney?”
“Not at all, sir,” I lie. But I don’t bother to tell him that he will get moss stains on his pristine grey trousers as he sits down on the bench. I’m past bothering about such things.
“Thinking things over, eh? Don’t blame you. I wish more of my students were more contemplative in their nature. But I’m glad I’ve managed to find you for this little chat – one to one, so to say. I’ve noticed that you’re fond of your own company, Tabitha, and nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. Could be a positive advantage. I’ll let you into a secret, I rather like having some time by myself, too.” Then why not enjoy some now, I thought, my fear making me mean. “But I wanted a private chat, my dear. About this Project Luna business. You may think I live in this figurative ivory tower, but I notice things, and I know what makes my students tick.” All at once I wish I had warned him about the moss stains. “I don’t think you’re necessarily right for it, and perhaps we should find another student instead – nothing wrong with a break from tradition.” I hardly dare believe what I’m hearing. And his voice is kind, not scathing or dismissive.
“Nothing at all, sir,” I agree, all too eagerly.
“Well, we have decided that given your liking for being alone, and seemingly being quite able to cope with it, you would be entirely wasted on a short mission like Project Luna. Let me be the firs to tell you, my dear – we have decided that you will be the first of our students to participate in our new venture – Project Saturn!”