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Authors: Mary-Ann Constantine

Star Shot

BOOK: Star Shot
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Contents

Title Page
Prelims
Star-Shot
Glossary of Welsh phrases
Acknowledgements
Copyright

I drigolion Tan-y-Castell, o dan ac uwchben y dŵr.

In names for nostoc (as supposed to be shed from the stars):
star-jelly, star-slime, star-slough, star-slubber, star-slutch: also star-fallen, star-falling
, and STAR-SHOT n.

(OED: sv STAR
n.
1
Compounds 8b.)

Some philosophers, not giving themselves time to examine into this phenomenon, imagined them to have been generated in the clouds, and showered on earth; but had they but traced them to the next pond, they would have found a better solution of the difficulty.

Thomas Pennant,
‘Frog', British Zoology, 1766.

Mary-Ann Constantine's short stories have appeared over a number of years in New Welsh Review and Planet. She has published two previous collections of stories,The Breathing (Planet, 2008) and All the Souls (Seren, 2013).

The Cardiff of this story is an unreal place; an out-of-kilter version of the real thing. All characters, institutions and situations are entirely fictional.

Words and phrases in Welsh are translated in the glossary.

1.

She has piled up her dark red hair with a clip, so the building can see the nape of her neck.
She puts her bag on the bench beside her and watches the students scattered across the neat grass in the unexpected February sun. They sit and they sprawl; their bodies relax. But she is taut and tense as a dancer, painfully self-aware. Behind her, masked by branches, are dark windows, thick white pillars: a civic, foursquare, symmetrical gaze. The sun brightens everything; it sharpens edges. She slowly loosens a soft cotton scarf from around her neck and sits resolutely facing the town centre, the traffic. She eats her lunch and pretends she cannot feel it. But today, she knows, she will go back to work content; she has its full attention. She hates being ignored.

Deep down Myra will admit she is still a little embarrassed, if not confused, by the whole thing. Not the pull of desire itself: a flame is a flame is a flame, she thinks, at least till it goes out. But the object, so massive, so important. She would have thought herself susceptible to quite other forms. Lost churches, empty warehouses, even some of the new stuff, the big projects, all curves and glass and national slate, blatant but beautiful, mobile pigeon-purples and greys. But early twentieth-century, Portland stone, with the power and glory of the nineteenth still running in its white veins? At least, she thinks defensively, at least it's not a multi-storey car park, or a shopping precinct, or a bank – my god, if it had been a bank. It's a public institution, civic-minded. It intends well.

She is also relieved to have grown out of the castle, not even a proper castle, and there is nothing romantic even about the proper ones if you stop for a moment to consider them. Barracks. An empty threat. She exempts the stone animals from her scorn, however. They are too much part of her childhood, and she can still recite them, walking from town, with her mum, towards the river. Their frightening eyes. Lions, lynx, lioness, bear, seal, apes. And the anteater, or is it an aardvark, she can never remember which.

The new spring sun is lovely on her face and neck. She has a vague sense of crocuses and a squirrel off to the left. Next time, she thinks, she might have to bring sun-cream. At last she checks her phone to see if her time is nearly up. It is. Tensing, she removes her sunglasses and rises from the bench, passing the bronze statue of the pensive little girl and walking out of the patch of park to meet the building's gaze. The shock of it will carry her most of the fifteen-minute walk through the traffic and the shoppers-under-glass, through the derelict patches and building sites, over the railway bridge, back to work.

2.

His legs take the pale steps with their usual loping energy, but he carries the plastic box in his hands like one of the three kings at a nativity play. Awkwardly, almost tenderly: Aur a thus a myrr. And then he is through the entrance and in the big cool hall with scores of people holding leaflets and children, moving in all directions around him. He cuts through without seeing them, makes for the enquiry desk, and tells them who he is, why he is there, giving them the name of the person he had spoken to the day before. And waits, patiently, while the woman phones through. He holds the box more closely into his body now, and lets the confusion of the crowd wash over him, so focused, so intent, he hardly hears it. She puts the phone down and asks him to sign the visitors' book, which he does without letting go of his plastic container; an illegible scrawl. Then again, printed, rather childishly: Theo Evans. She'll be here very soon, says the woman at the desk handing him a security tag, if you don't mind waiting there's a place over there you… I don't mind standing, he says. I don't mind at all. And he stands, tall, thin, pale-haired and crumpled-looking. His attitude, as always, is one of faint but benign surprise.

3.

The three-way device drives him mad; it refuses to click, and Teddy instinctively jerks his arms and legs so as to send the straps flying in all directions. A small arm gets free. Dan puts down the rucksack and, this time, crouching in front of the pushchair, gives the task his complete attention, ignoring his son's engaging talk. He aligns the two top pieces of plastic one over the other and fishes the third from underneath a wriggling leg. Then, very deliberately, he slides the pieces together. They click. Beautiful. Teddy is strapped in. He goes back into the house and stands in the kitchen blankly for a minute. Remembers the list. Remembers the envelope. Checks his pocket for his phone. Pulls the front door to and then checks the black bag hanging off the handles of the buggy. Nappies. Wipes. Beaker. Puffy corn snacks. Jar of cheating food, organic. Plastic spoon. Bib. Change of clothes. Ah; no. No change of clothes.

He feels in his jacket pocket for the house keys, opens the stiff blue door with a practised twist and a shove of his shoulder and goes up to Teddy's room where, by some miracle, he lays his hands immediately on what he needs. He glances through the window at the restless tree in the back yard and in spite of the sunshine adds a small red jumper to the bundle. He is halfway downstairs when he has a flash of revelation: the bottle, oh the bottle, the bottle. And then: is there a clean one? Or will I have to? He has been trying to leave the house for twenty-five minutes. He has been trying, and trying hard, to stay calm. The child begins to fuss and strain outside the front door. The bottle is clean; the bottle is sterilised.
Haleliwia
. Let us go then, you and I. Three bumps backwards down the steps to the gate. Good-bye, small terraced house with the dark-blue door. They turn into a street lit up with early spring, full of cats and blossom and postmen, bikes and crisp packets and all the things that make streets wonderful when one of you is very small. He starts to look forward to his coffee.

4.

Theo can now wander through the natural history galleries with his hands deep in his jacket pockets. His plastic box is with them somewhere in the depths, being taken care of. They will send a sample to the labs and they will get back to him, probably by email, in a fortnight to three weeks. But he thinks he might come back anyway, if he can get away. He enjoyed talking to the woman with the grey ponytail, he had quickly been able to make her laugh with his snippets of Morton and Pennant and Fort, all off pat by now, they go round in his head the whole time.
I shall here set down my Remarks, says Morton, upon the gelatinous Body call'd Star-gelly, Star-shot, or Star-fall'n, so named because vulgarly believ'd to fall from a Star
,
or to be the Recrement of the Meteor which is called the Falling or Shooting Star
. Which is nonsense, as everyone knows, because with his own eyes he, Morton,
saw a Coddymoddy
– that is, says Theo, a kind of gull –
shot down to the ground, that on her Fall
…
disgorg'd a heap of Half-Digested Earthworms, much resembling that Gelly called Star-shot
. And Mr Pennant, a little later, quite agrees.

BOOK: Star Shot
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