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The return of the Moon Man

by E.L. Malpass

(from British Short Stories of Today edited by Esmor Jones, pages 103-108)


That was the year they brought the Electric to Pen-y-Craig Farm.

Wonderful it was, when Grandfather Griffiths pressed down the switch, and the great farm kitchen was flooded with light. There was Dai my father, and mother, blinking [1]and grinning [2]in the light, and Electric Plumber Williams, smug[3] as you please[4] , looking as though he had invented the Electric himself and sent it through the pipes. Only Gran was sad. Tears streaming down her face, she picked up the old paraffin lamp and carried it sadly into the scullery[5].

That was funny about Gran. She was progressive, and left to herself she would have filled the house with refrigerators and atomic cookers and washers. But Grandfather called these things devil's inventions, and would have none of them. And yet, when Grandfather at last agreed to the Electric, Gran was in tears. Reaction, Auntie Space-Ship-Repairs Jones said it was.

'Well,' roared[6] Grandfather. 'There's your Electric. But don't think that because you've talked me into[7] this you'll talk me into any more of these devil's inventions. Let no one mention the words space-ship in my presence ever again.'

That was intended for Gran. In her black clothes she was a rather pathetic-looking little woman, and no match for her fiery husband. But one thing she had always insisted that she wanted; a space-ship; and it had been a source of argument between them for years.

I tell you all this that you may know that we of Pen-y-Craig are not the backward savages that some people would have you believe.We are in touch with modern thought, even though we are apt[8] to cling to[9] the old ways. But what I really remember of those far-off[10], golden days of 2500 is of how the first Expedition to the Moon set off[11], and of how it landed in Ten Acre Field, and of the strange events that followed.

Men had been trying to set off for the Moon for years, perhaps for centuries. But you know how it is. Something always happened to stop them. The weather was bad, or someone's auntie died, or there was an eclipse. In the autumn of 2500, however, they were ready at last.

It was cold that evening, and we were sitting by the fire, enjoying the Electric. Grandfather was listening in; suddenly he jumps to his feet and shouts, 'Blasphemy'.

No one took much notice, for if the old man didn't jump up and shout 'Blasphemy' at least once of an evening Gran thought he was sickening[12] and gave him a purge.

So Gran said dutifully, 'What is it, Mortimer?'

'Flying to the Moon, they are' he cried. 'The space-ship has just left London. And they're dancing in the streets, and exploding fireworks in celebration. Sodom and-'

But at that moment there was a noise as of a great wind passing over, and then a terrible crash as though someone had picked up all our milk churns[13] and dropped them on the Dutch barn[14]. We ran outside, and there, in the Ten Acre Field, a Thing was glinting[15] in the frosty moonlight. Huge it was, like a great shining rocket.

Grandfather looked at it. 'Lost their way, maybe', he said with malicious satisfaction. Then he felt in his waistcoat pocket and took out a card and put it in my hand.

'Run you, Bronwen' he said, 'and give them the business card of Uncle Space-Ship-Repairs Jones.'

But I was frightened, being but a little girl then, and clung to my mother's skirts. So Dai, my father, started up the tractor without a word, and rode off to fetch Uncle Space-Ship-Repairs Jones.

Down to the farm came the Moon Men, as the newspapers called them, their helmets bright in the moonlight, and soon Dai my father arrived. My uncle was sitting on the tractor with him, clutching a great spanner[16] and grinning as pleased as Punch[17], and soon his banging and hammering came across the still air from Ten Acre.

One of the Moon Men took off his great helmet.

'Bit my tongue when we landed sudden,' he said.

'Nothing to what you will bite when you land on the Moon,' said my grandfather.

'That is what I am thinking' the man replied. 'And that is why I say they can have their old Moon. Back to Golders Green by the first train it is for me.'

The leader took off his helmet at that. 'Go to the Moon one short[18]?'he cried. 'That would never do.'

'I will go in his place,' said Dai my father quietly.

'You go? Never,' roared my grandfather. 'No son of mine shall go gallivanting[19] round among the planets.'

My father flushed angrily. But no one argued with Grandfather, and at that moment we heard Uncle Space-Ship-Repairs Jones holloaing[20] that the Moon-Ship was now as right as ninepence.

The Moon Men, all except the one who had bitten his tongue, set off for Ten-Acre.

'I will come and see you off[21],' said Grandfather, and we watched him walk up the hill with the men.

With a great roar, the Moon-Ship rose into the sky, and climbed among the stars. Soon we could see it no more.

'Supper now,' said Gran.

We got the meal ready, and then someone said, 'Where is Grandfather?'

All the grown-ups looked uneasy, and suddenly I was frightened and began to cry.

'Gone to talk to the old bull, maybe,' said Gran.

Silently my father picked up the lantern and went out into the fields. It was a long time before he came back.

'Gone,' he said. 'Clean as a whistle[22].'

No one said anything.

Grandfather did not come back all night.

Nor the next day.

Then, at dusk[23], Read-All-About-It Evans, instead of dropping[24] our evening papers from his helicopter as he flew past, landed. He marched into the house and thrust[25] the paper under my father's nose, and said, 'See you.'

'Octogenarian on Moon,' said big headlines. Then, below: 'Radio flash from Moon party says Mortimer Griffiths, elderly Welsh farmer, took place of member of crew injured in earth landing.'

'Well, there is sly[26] for you,' said my father. 'Going out for five minutes and finishing up on the Moon.'

Gran said nothing. But she went to the pegs[27] and got her coat and went out of the door.

'Go with her, Bronwen,' my father ordered me, but kindly.

When I got outside it was almost dark, but a big, full Moon was just swinging[28] clear of[29] the hill, and I could see Gran going along the path that leads up Break Back and past Ten Acre and brings you to the Little Mountain. Though I was only a child I knew where Gran was going, and why. At the top of Little Mountain she would be nearer to the Moon than anywhere. I also felt, child though I was, that she would want to be alone, so I followed quietly, at a short distance.

Sure enough, Gran kept on up the mountain, and at last we were on the top place where there is nothing but broken rocks, and holes of black water, and lonely old ghosts. And the Moon was well up now, and so near that you felt that if you stood on tiptoe[30] you could touch it like an apple on the tree.

Gran looked up at the Moon. And the Moon looked at Gran.

Now Grandfather was a big man, and I knew she was hoping to see him, perhaps putting up a little tent, or lighting a Primus. But there was no sign of anyone on the Moon's face. And at last, after a long time, Gran shivered[31] and sighed[32]. Then she muttered[33], 'Round at the back, maybe,' and she turned and came slowly down the mountain. And though she must have seen me she said no word.

The next night the same thing happened. At moonrise Gran set off for the mountain, and I followed. But this time the Moon was not quite round, and Gran looked at it for a long time. Then she said, 'Shrinking [34]it is,' and came home again.

This happened every night. The Moon grew thinner and thinner, and Gran went out later and later. Young though I was, they let me stay up till all hours to follow Gran up the mountain. But at last the Moon rose so late that Dai my father said, 'Bed for you tonight, my girl.'

But I awoke in the small hours, and looked out, and there was the Moon, a thin, silver sickle[35], and there was the yellow light of a lantern climbing the dark side of the sleeping mountain.

I put on my coat and ran out into the cold.

When I reached the top of the mountain Gran was there. To my surprise she spoke to me. Pointing to the thin crescent she said, 'Hanging on by his finger-nails now he will be,' and she took my hand and led me home.

The next evening she said to my father, 'What time does the Moon rise tonight, Dai?'

'There is no Moon tonight, Gran,' he said.

'No Moon,' repeated Gran in a voice of death. 'No Moon.' She rose, and hung a black cloth over the big picture of Grandfather at the Eisteddfod[36].

'Falling through the sky he will be now,' she said slowly, as though speaking to herself. 'Like a shooting star[37] he will fall, and like a shooting star he will cease to be.' She went back to her chair and sat down, her hands folded[38] in her lap[39].

'But the fact that you can't see the Moon doesn't mean it isn't there,' my father explained. 'It's just that the sun is shining on the other side of it.'

Gran gave him a look. 'Black midnight,' she cried. 'Black midnight, and you talk to me of sunshine. Open the door.' She pointed an ancient finger at it. 'And, if the sun is shining, run up Snowdon barefoot[40] I will, like the mad woman of Aberdaron.'

Dai my father gave up. There was a silence. Then Gran began talking again, almost to herself.

'He was a hard man,' she said. 'I didn't much care for him. Never would he buy me anything. A space-ship, only a little one, I asked him for, many times.'

' "No mention of space-ships in the Lives of the Great Saints," he says, smiling nasty[41], putting the tips of his fingers together, smug as you please.

' "No mention of indoor sanitation[42] either," I say, real angry now. "but that do not stop Rev Williams having a little room up at the Manse."

'But it was no good. There was no arguing[43] with Mortimer Griffiths.'

She rose, and went to bed. And the next day she left for Aberystwyth and married Llewellyn Time Machine.

They went to 1954 for their honeymoon[44]. And two days after they had gone Grandfather came back from the Moon.

'Finished the harvest[45]?' he asked.

'Yes,' said my father.

'Have you mended the fence in Ten Acre?'

'Never mind the fence in Ten Acre,' said my father. 'Gran has married Llewellyn Time Machine.'

That was a terrible moment. For a long time my grandfather stood stroking his beard.Then suddenly he shot out his long arm and grasped[46] a chopper[47].

'Where are they?' he roared. 'Where are they?'

My father, pale, said nothing.

Grandfather seized[48] him by the throat and shook[49] him.

'Where are they?' he repeated.

'In - in 1954,' gasped[50] my father.

Grandfather let him go. 'Get the tractor out' he ordered.

'Where are you going?'

'1954,' said Grandfather.

He was gone for nearly a week.

Then he came back, alone. He was in a good mood, quite talkative for him.

'Hired a Time Machine in Llandudno,' he said, beaming. 'Chased them right back to the Middle Ages. Llewellyn caught the Black Death[51]. And I smashed his Time Machine to pieces[52] with my little chopper.'

'And Gran?' asked my father.

'Stranded[53] in the Middle Ages, with no money, and no means of getting back,' said Grandfather with immense satisfaction. 'She was taking the veil[54] when I last saw her. Damp, the nunnery[55] looked. Damp[56] and cold.

'Teach her to go hankering [57]after space-ships,' said my grandfather.

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