Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Flash Fiction
One month into the pandemic, I bought a telescope.
It was my wife who suggested it. In the first few weeks she’d started running, practicing yoga, and joined a book club. None of those appealed to me, but I’d always liked space.
I spent a week researching the best telescope to buy. I read every beginner’s guide, pored over each review, and picked out the best position on our balcony. I invested nearly a thousand euros before I’d even tried it out.
The day it arrived I set it up like a soldier assembling his rifle. I fiddled with the keypad and wireless remote, and polished the lens with the lint cloth over and over. I watched the sunset from the balcony, and couldn’t wait to try it.
And, once I pointed it up, I never looked back down.
The burst of magnification when I looked into it caught me off-guard. The moon looked pockmarked and ominous. The stars were blurs of pinks and blues with misshapen halos. The sky, usually washed out with the lights of the city, felt alive. This plastic tube on spindly legs had the power to take me into space.
I spent six hours on it that first night.
I soon found a stargazing guide online and followed it fastidiously. I subscribed to YouTubers with hundreds of thousands of subscribers and watched every video. I added the major astronomical events to my calendar and read news articles as soon as I woke up.
Before long I could easily find the big names in the sky. Polaris, Ursa Minor, The Pleiades, and the swirling whirlpool of the Andromeda Galaxy all became frequent friends.
I’d spend hours out there every night, sweat on my brow, my neck sore and my backside uncomfortable.
Inevitably, I bought more stuff. A special ergonomic stool, binoculars, a clip-on-compass. I got more powerful lenses and more comfortable eyepieces. Another thousand euros came and went.
My wife didn’t mind about the money, mostly because she didn’t know the full cost, but also because ‘it was good to have hobbies’. She was always supportive, she listened when I talked about it, and bought me a new mount for my birthday. She said it was cute, that she was proud, and some evenings she sat outside with me, reading whilst I pointed out constellations.
But a few months later, as the lockdowns started to lift, and people started to return to cafes and terraces and bars and pubs, I still spent my evenings lost in the stars. I turned down invitations, blaming a lingering fear of Covid or my nerves. Finding more and more ‘rare’ space events that I couldn’t miss.
Even when she went out with our friends I stayed in, noting down the names of nebulas I hadn’t seen and taking photos of the planets. She was patient, and I promised that I’d cut back, that I’d book somewhere for dinner later in the week to make it up to her.
I’d remind her how much money I was saving by staying in, and how we could use it to move out of the city. Where we could raise our future kids and go for walks around the lakes. Where it’s more peaceful. Where the sky was a bit darker.
Then, on one of my quiet nights alone, sipping a beer and searching the stars, it happened.
I was examining the goddess, Cassiopeia, my favourite constellation, when I saw one of the stars disappear and reappear. A random blink on the middle peak of its distinctive W shape.
At first, I didn’t think anything of it, but it happened again. Twice more in rhythm. Blink. Blink.
I inspected the outside of the telescope for marks, and wiped the lens with the cloth. Nothing.
I rubbed my eyes, and zoomed in again to the same spot.
Three more times. Blink. Blink Blink. Sometimes with longer gaps between each one. The sequence repeated twice more.
“A pattern!” I shouted, out loud, to myself. Then it hit me.
This was morse code.
Despite the heat of the August night, goosebumps rippled across my arms.
I dived into my phone and found a translator online, I looked back up and found the star again.
Blink. Blink Blink. Blink.
I hurriedly noted down the dots and the dashes on the pad next to me. My heartbeat seemed to knock the telescope off course and I struggled to keep my one eye closed, my hand shook as I turned the dial to focus in on the star.
When I was sure I’d got the complete message, I stopped and went to my phone and typed the dashes and dots and slashes into the translator.
The touch screen failed as sweat dripped onto it. I wiped it on my jeans as the results came back.
–. . – / .- / .-……. -. –
GET / A / LIFT
Get a lift? Where? To space? Was this an invitation? Had they seen my commitment, my potential? Why me? Was it for someone else? I shouted my wife’s name, forgetting she was out. She wouldn’t believe this!
I checked the pattern again, to make sure I didn’t have anything wrong.
–. . – / .- / .- …….-. .
No! I did. The last symbol was a dot, not a dash!
Back to the translator, to see what I’d missed.
GET / A / LIFE
I looked up at the sky, empty without the help of the telescope. A black sea of nothing.
My heavy breath overlapped with the dull thump of a bass line from the bar ten floors below.
I looked at the rubber edge of the eyepiece, a layer of grime in the gap where it met the white of the telescope. I put the cap back on the lens and tucked the stool underneath.
I went to bed, looked up at the ceiling, and missed the feeling of being alone.
I pretended to be asleep when she crept back in smelling of cigarettes and wine. I threw the telescope away the next day.
Alex Cassidy is a journalist and marketer from south-west London. He has written for a variety of publications including the Guardian, Gridiron Magazine, and Vice. His first book, American Football’s Forgotten Kings: The Rise and Fall of the London Monarchs, was a nonfiction exploration into the professional American football team that existed in London in the 1990s, and was published in 2015. His second and third books tackle the subject of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in rugby and American football through a fictional and nonfictional lens respectively.
Original Art Supplied by Art Director Kita Das