Richard Seymour’s Designer Breakfast was called The Pilot’s Prayer. He spoke of the importance of seeking the truth, of using the power of the imagination. At the end of his talk casually mentioned that he had advised Danny Boyle on a film called Sunshine about a flight to the sun. Immediately, I knew that I would write a short story about flying to the sun. This story has some of Richard’s words and wisdom woven through it – including two of my favourite soundbites from him, ‘There are dark rooms full of people with red pens’ and ‘The further you step into the future, the more you realise it is behind you.’ Before writing, I reread one of my favourite books from childhood, ‘Le Petit Prince’, because it is about a pilot who lives on a planet that sometimes has as many as forty-four sunsets a day.
By Elen Lewis
I find Sasha measuring a sunbeam in the garden. She has a jam jar, a piece of string and a pair of scissors and is snipping the light into ribbons, wrapping it around her hands in honeyed skeins.
I watch her mouth. The way she counts the beams is like chanting. Once, we would have numbered them together and laughed and I would have woven the light through her hair and kissed her moving lips still. I want her to get it right. I want to help make it happen.
‘I love the sun,’ I say to Sasha. ‘Come with me, let’s fly to the sun. Together.’
Sasha sighs. She pulls the sunshine from her hands in a golden clump and spools it inside her jam jar.
‘See, the thing is,’ she says, eyeing the sun through glass. ‘It’s mine.’
She’s wrong of course. The sun belongs to nobody. He’s his own man, a pulsating, sparking, spitting ball of light. No one can capture the sun. I watch the light unfurl in her jam jar and roll out onto the grass. I like the way the sun moves. Big, buoyant bounces.
I believe in the sun. He is a triumph of the imagination. He believes he can shine, and then he just does it. There are dark rooms full of people with red pens, and then there’s the sun.
‘Sasha’, I say. ‘The sun is the star at the centre of the solar system. Its diameter is 109 times bigger than the Earth’s and its mass weighs 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System.’
‘We are made of stardust. Did you know that?’ she says over her shoulder, chasing the sunbeams around the garden. I follow, almost without thinking. ‘Stars are like people, they’re born, they live, they die’.
I want to fly Sasha to the sun like I’ve never wanted anything else in my life before. ‘I’m going to make this happen,’ I say clasping her hot hand. ‘If we don’t go we’ll never know the truth.’ The sun shines, warming the grass, sparkling like symphonies.
‘We need a pilot’s prayer,’ she says. ‘We need to take an oath if we’re going to soar into the sky.’
‘What does an oath look like?’ I’ll do anything to get her there. Say anything.
‘It sounds like a prayer,’ she folds a sunbeam over and over into a square until it fits into her pocket.
‘Repeat after me.’
‘Repeat after me.’
‘Be without fear in the face of your enemies
Be brave and upright, that your God may love thee
Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong
This is your oath.’
‘This is my oath.’
In my head we’re already in the plane, and I’m wondering how she’ll cope with the height, if it will make her dizzy. I’ll make her a cup of tea once we’re heaven bound, I think. I put the kettle, two mugs and some teabags in my rucksack. I realise that Sasha is looking at me.
‘I’ve got nothing to wear.’ She always thinks she has nothing to wear.
‘Wear yellow,’ I say.
‘Of course I will.’
‘It will be windy up there. Pack something warm.’ It’s unusual for me to know my mind so well, but today the sunshine has rinsed my thoughts clean.
After five billion years, the sun will swell into a red giant. It will puff up, like a pea in a swimming pool. A red pea. We need to leave soon. Sasha is taking ages getting changed. The problem is that she has seven yellow dresses. Yellow is her favourite colour.
Then she is standing beside me, a broken-yolked daffodil. I back away as she beams. I want to fill my eyes with the whole of her. I wait for my heartbeat to calm. She is so beautiful. ‘Nice dress,’ I say.
We stand a while in silence, watching the shadows of the poplar trees lengthen in the evening sun. Their shade stretches into old-fashioned, wooden ladders. If we were to climb the worn rungs, one by one, they would lead us to the sun. The upper steps would be burning hot, so we’d have to climb fast. She would need to put her shoes on. I don’t tell Sasha this because it would be better to travel by plane. She can fly barefoot.
The sun is perfection. A giant orange lozenge bobbing along the tree tops. But then he slides from view and all that is left is reddish flames through the sky like stretched embers. A bonfire over our heads. ‘Oh,’ says Sasha. ‘That happened too fast.’
I tell Sasha about The Chankillo Solar Calendar built in the Peruvian desert. The thirteen towers are 2500 years old. The sun rises and falls through their toothed horizon. I casually suggest we can fly through the ancient stones on the way to the sun. It’s a diversion, but I think it will be worth it, I say. She nods. When we get home I will build her one in the garden. It will help us keep track of time. It will be more than sifting sunlight through fingers.
I wish today was the day of the forty-four sunsets. I say this to Sasha. But she doesn’t reply. She shudders as if she might be crying but I can’t see her face. I think that I am very fond of sunsets. That I need to see another one soon, and then another. Together, me and Sasha and the sun are enclosed in a hush. The moment the sun slips away, the spell is broken.
‘Let’s go,’ she says, looking up at me and tugging my sleeve like a child.
‘Sasha,’ I say. ‘The further you step into the future, the more you realise it is behind you.’ The words spill from my mouth like morning sunlight on the bedroom floor. I have been reviewing my life. This is not something I normally do on weekdays. But today is Sunday. ‘Believe you can do it. And then do it,’ I say in my clearest voice.
Sasha squeezes my hand. We walk into the Mojave desert towards the plane. The first time I saw this plane it was trapped in pencil on lined paper. The desert is like the surface of the moon, grey dust whirls and mounds. There’s whole worlds in there.
‘Let’s peel back the blinding layers of the sun to reveal a star,’ she says. ‘It made our planets and it made us. Let’s fly so close that we can see its edges, dip our fingers into Gallileo’s sunspots, see the light unribbon like sunflower petals. We’ll be so close we’ll no longer be dazzled. We’ll look with our hearts not our eyes.’
We swoop into the deep seas of the sky, sailing through the clouds, our eyes fixed on the perfect golden disc of the sun. This is where we find the truth. I want to stay with Sasha like this forever. I think that I never want to go back home.