by Charlie Kite
Winner of the Spring 2021 ORB Short Fiction Competition, judged by Amit Chaudhuri.
There was no going back. It simply was as it was, you couldn’t stop it. It was like breathing while you were asleep. Her stomach fell through her knees, her heart tore itself into a thousand pieces, every hair on her body was electric and fine and wonderful.
Amanda hadn’t been looking for Venus specifically. No, that wasn’t true, she had, but she had been looking for it in the abstract, in a purely if not academic then intellectual capacity. But as it appeared, drifting across the vastness of night, unspeaking and soft and free in the vista of her little telescope, Amanda felt a great and terrible flood of love that could not be denied. She loved Venus. She coveted the planet, desired it. She wanted to buy it beautiful hats and tickets to plays. She wanted to hold it (not it, her, wanted to hold her) close to her chest, tight, within her embrace, within her arms. She wanted to make love to Venus, no practicalities, no reasonable thought, just to throw herself into the raw, heaving moment where she would be subsumed between her volcanic structures and bathed in hot lava and the close-by heat of a smiling Sun and to simply be in and within and on and of Venus.
She didn’t hide it from Gavin. From the moment she knew how she felt she went to him. Her husband of nigh-on forty years showed no surprise, no great confusion. Bemusement, possibly. But their relationship was built upon radical honesty, the longevity guaranteed by this commitment to never lying, never hiding. So he took her statement as fact. With a soft smile, he turned back to his book.
Harder to convince was their son David. Amanda simply had to tell him. It was a momentous thing, one’s mother falling in love, and it was almost obligatory somehow that she involve him. He came over at once. The minute he crossed the threshold he erupted with sudden barrage of questions, thoughts, interjections, complaints. He paced back and forth across the living room, rubbing his hand over his bald head.
‘But it… it doesn’t make any sense.’
‘No, I suppose not, but there we are.’
‘It’s a planet!’ He shuffled his feet, flapping his hands by his side, reminding Amanda of penguins at the zoo. ‘A planet! You can’t be in love with a planet!’
Amanda stared out the window at the azaleas and wondered what to make for dinner. The conversation was growing tiresome. To her mind there really wasn’t anything else to say about all this. It baffled her that David was unable to grasp the situation.
She shrugged as she said, ‘And yet… look, if I might be frank, really it’s your fault. You bought me the telescope in the first place.’
‘If I’d known you’d fall in love with a bloody planet …’
‘Venus, not a planet. She has a name.’
‘Oh, shut up.’ He vaguely kicked at the sofa in a kind of soft rage.
‘Don’t do that, darling, you’ll scuff the legs.’
When David turned to his father, a man he unreasonably assumed was wedded to logic and cool situational assessment, Gavin simply shrugged and said, ‘She’s sixty two. She had to fall in love at some point.’
So Gavin quietly picked up the chores which had (let’s be frank, very misogynistically) been the major work of the day for Amanda. Things steadily became more solid. He cooked, cleaned, tinkered, took up the mantle of homemaker. And he quickly discovered that he rather enjoyed his new role. Retirement had been a slow shuffle towards nothing and he found the sudden busyness pleasing. Cooking, especially, excited him, though he could have done without the washing up. Oh, but vacuuming! The hypnotic, meditative pleasure of running it around the house while he listened to music on his headphones (a surprisingly good Christmas present from David) was rather addictive.
Amanda, meanwhile, spent her days pouring over charts, thermodynamic papers and rocket plans. She had decided that the only recourse, of course, was to build a spaceship in the garden and go to Venus. Obviously Venus could not come to her, so she was inclined to go to that quiet corner of hot space herself. She would rise up on her rocket, a swan or a phoenix or some such, blast through the atmosphere and stratosphere, pull free from Earth’s oppressive gravity and spin through the black and blue until the little glowing ball turned into the great, wonderful, endless Venus.
As nights passed, turning into more nights, nights of months and eventually all the nights of a year, Amanda realised that the odds of constructing a rocket amongst the rose bushes was small, if nigh on impossible. For one thing, the spread of the thrusters’ flames would most likely set fire to the majority of the street and, given the proximity of a local stretch of woodland, half the county if unchecked. There would be issues accruing rocket-propelling fuel (even illegally, which she briefly contemplated) and the local vicar to whom she was personally close had expressed serious concerns about the general legality of building space-travelling vehicles without some sort of official license. She had called the council but the man on the other end simply couldn’t grasp what she was after. She blamed funding cuts.
And so every night became a frantic, purposeless search through the telescope for Amanda’s beloved Venus. Faithful to the last, the planet drifted by exactly as it should, creeping its way across the sky. She offered no solutions, no suggestions. She simply stared back at Amanda, quiet and serene. For hours Amanda would look up, wondering, hoping, a brewing frustration churning her spirit into paste. Nothing revealed itself.
So the nights would pass. As the birds began their calls before dawn, she would come to bed where Gavin would be, hunched up like a foetus beneath the sheets. She would undress in the dark and curl up beside him. As he felt her silently weep, Gavin, always awake, would roll onto his back and, carefully, so gently, slip the fingers of his left hand into the fingers of her right. They would cling to each other like this, tight and fierce.
‘My Venus,’ Amanda would sob into the blankets, ‘Oh my Venus.’
‘Shh love,’ Gavin always replied, the dim light of the lamp post shining through the blinds onto his face, ‘I know, my darling, I do know.’
CHARLIE KITE studies Creative Writing at Brasenose College. It's at times like this that he wishes he'd picked a cooler pen name.
Art by Fred Seddon