Since I am an advocate of spaceflight, people ask me if One Time on Earth is autobiographical. The answer to that is no, although like any other writer I have drawn on what I know. I was left awestruck by Apollo and the notion of mounting expeditions to the moon, at a very early age I did live in a rundown area of town and I am inspired by landscape which features in many of the novel’s passages. There however, similarities between me and the story’s lead actor cease; whereas I was enthralled by the moon landings, Henry Lothian, lives and breathes Apollo and thinks of nothing else but what the day will be like when human beings first steps out on to the surface of another world. For him this is the most significant day in history and humankind’s greatest achievement, and in his mind there is nothing more important than preparing for it so that he will remember every detail until the day he dies. Henry’s world is changing though. The slums around him are being cleared and his lifelong friends are under threat of having to move away. But not everyone agrees with Henry’s views on Apollo. His bad-tempered father, who struggles to save their pub while houses around them are reduced to rubble, is convinced that mounting missions to the moon is not only a waste of money but also a way for Americans to humiliate the Russians. Conflict between father and son is inevitable and eventually differences between them become too great, and without giving too much away, Henry then realises that there is only one way in which he can truly absorb the event he believes will change the world forever.
In writing One Time on Earth I have tried to transport the reader back to this unique period in history, a time when the human race was being drawn to that near mystical point in time when people left the Earth and journeyed to another place in the Universe. I have also tried emphasise that the time when we were able to do such things was a much different time to the one in which we live today.
It took three days of kicking a ball against walls before I ventured into Kevin’s old house.
For a while I stood in the front garden and stared at the windows and the distorted reflections of clouds held within them.
The house was silent, as if it had a peaceful resignation and waited for its own destruction. I pushed open the unlocked front door and walked in every room, often standing in the bare spaces with my hands in my back pockets, astounded at how painstakingly they had cleared their possessions, and how different the empty house sounded because they had. Knowingly or not, they had erased all clues about the people who once lived there. I was drawn to the lounge and I stood in a rectangular patch of colourless light and faced the tiled fireplace. I hadn’t intended to wallow in self-pity; I had wandered into the house out of curiosity only, but the moment I came to stand there, listening to the clicking noises the sunned building made, their voices and the memories of the things we did swam in my mind. I recalled the brutally cold night we crowded in that lounge and played Monopoly while Kevin’s mother served us warm Swiss Roll. I pictured the moment, when, for no reason at all, we were possessed by the need to collect frogs and pelted down to the walled footpath by the rec’. Then I recalled up-ending the aluminium bucket over Kevin’s cellar floor, and with so many frogs springing about, Major not knowing which way to turn. But most of all I recalled that snowy bonfire night, when we huddled by the popping and whistling fire, transfixed by the collapsing embers, vowing that when men walked upon the moon we would be together; and I recalled with absolute clarity the grim concentration on our faces while we ceremonially cut our thumbs with bottle glass to fortify this notion in our minds.
My face was wet with tears and my body trembled. I tried to stop myself and clenched my hands and pummelled my thighs with balled fists, but no matter how much I tried to distract myself from the memories, I couldn’t stop sobbing and ran for the door.
Seconds later I was running from the house down the short path into the street, driving myself faster and faster. At the street end I skidded to a stop, then as quickly as I had come to a halt, I found himself charging off again. I wanted to scream and shout, but no words came from me; so I focused all my energies into pumping my arms and driving my legs as violently as I could.
Adjacent to the track down the side of the row of terraced houses I came to a halt; heart pounding, chest heaving. I sprinted down the track, ducking beneath the over-arching privet and came to stand in the space at the back of the houses. I kicked at dirt and stones and lashed out at invisible foes, spinning and twirling. I growled and spat; all the ways I could think of to free my rage.
The garage was no distance away, so I charged across the gravel, and with fumbling fingers unfastened the latch. Running backwards, I dragged open the double doors. One of them caught on stones and fell to the ground, and a low cloud of dust rushed from beneath it. I didn’t care though. Squeezing down the side of the Vanguard I tried to yank open the driver’s door, but it wouldn’t budge, then leaning in through the open window, I pulled on the chrome lever until the door gave in, groaned and opened partially. I turned sideways and climbed inside. Immediately I calmed and put my hands through the thin steering wheel spokes. I pressed my back into the cold leather seat and let my head loll back so that I was staring at the car’s cloth ceiling. The smell of oil and petrol settled at the back of my throat, and for a while I sat like this until the knocking of my heart stopped. When it had, I looked over the dashboard and ran a hand over it, just feeling the textures beneath my finger. Then I played with the gear lever and depressed the clutch and listened to the clunking sounds this made. I tried turning the steering wheel, leaning out of the window to watch the wheel move from side to side, but the steering was so heavy it seemed to be locked in place. I looked around for other controls to try out. Set into the dashboard was a radio. At one end was a cream-coloured knob; so in a vain hope that from it sounds could be coaxed, I turned it. Nothing happened. At the other end was an identical knob. I turned this too and watched the crimson line on the tuner patrol from side to side. Nothing; and it was at this point that I became aware of a rustling and clanging sound behind me. I stopped what I was doing and became still, holding my breath. The sound was outside, scraping on the bodywork. My heart jerked and blood pulsed in my temples. I looked to the rear view mirror, but saw nothing. I looked down the car to the wing mirror mounted above the headlamp, and in the cobwebs crisscrossing it, saw a dark and shuffling figure.