Beware the Delta X-Ray
Ah, summer bugs. They’re the closest we’ll ever get to seeing the start of the ever-impending zombie apocalypse. If only because germs make more sense in winter. They belong there, where the clocks have changed and afternoon becomes night before we can even finish work. It’s cold, it’s dark. We all get a streetlight tan and ice scraper’s wrist. We’re all rushing to some end of the year, family tradition that has to be as perfect as it can be. Especially when it stands no chance of living up to pictures on the front of the greetings cards. We can’t afford to be ill. Not when we’ve spent all that money on presents. We deny the germs for as long as we can. Until we have to wrap up warm and cling to our hot, lemon flavoured drinks. We stay in bed, cocooned in the sheets. We sit in front of the TV, jumpers and fleeces pulled over our normal clothes. Extra layers everywhere, even on our chosen brands of tissues. Occasionally we’ll end up fever bound and sweating when we should be shaking. It’s all, at the very least, aesthetically correct.
In summer, though, the germs come on like unwelcome squatters. They’re the travellers parked by the swings. The bass and squeak coming through the bedroom window either too early or too late in the day. They're the ants in the carpet. The slugs in the kitchen sink.
It’s too bright outside to be ill. The sunlight stinging the sour fog gathering behind your eyes. The bed cooking before your fever even starts. Offices and shops everywhere have their windows thrown open in the hope of finding some kind of breeze to call their own. Meanwhile, the pollen can trick you into thinking you’re okay really, that it’s all just an allergic reaction. That’s before the people around you start to drop, one by one.
You watch them crawl into work and wonder why they made an appearance. Until, one morning, you find yourself doing the same. You can’t quite wash the thirst out of your mouth with another glass of fridge cold water. You’re tired when all you did was sit down at your desk today. You try to tell yourself that you’re fine, that you don’t get bugs in the summer, as you sneeze your way through another box of tissues. You ferret through the cupboards for tablets and lozenges, but all you can find are virgin barbecue skewers and half squeezed sun cream. You catch people looking at you sideways as your sweat becomes tidal and your coughing fits start to rattle into one another like rushing buses, slipping past the rigour of their schedule. It’s never long before someone makes the tried and tested remark:
“You can keep that to yourself. I’m flying tomorrow.”
And so it spreads, as they pack the extra thick tissues next to their extra thin clothes. The bug takes the airports. It takes the affordable seats on the planes and the comfortable loungers on the beaches. It claims the bars, the restaurants and at least one end of a mid-luxury hotel. The snuffling dead are abroad. The dawn of the groggy sunbathers. The night of sneezing half drunk. It’s never pretty.
Yep, I’ve been ill this week. The damn germs bushwhacked me. I thought I’d dodged them. Or, at least, dealt with them over my weekend. What started off as a dry throat after talking to company all night on Saturday, became a sore throat on Sunday and a total lack of energy. The pressure built up in my head, but did nothing more than mass its forces at first. So, stupidly, I’d assumed I was fighting it back. Hell, I’d assumed I was fighting it off. I even got up to go to work one morning. I was washed, dressed and writing before I found myself staring at this very screen and wondering why nothing made sense. Although, of course, it was the sneezing and shivering in the heat that really tipped me off that I was still wasn’t right.
It’s been a long, strange week thanks to my now nearly departed germs. A lot of groggy TV watching. A lot of wondering if it was me or the afternoon who started sweating first. A lot of weird fever dreams, as well. There was one I still can’t shift. I’m fairly sure I only had it the once, although something about the fabric of it felt familiar.
It was the moon landing. The very first moon landing. I was dreaming it in black and white. The words fizzing with static. The image occasionally spiralling into the margins of weak, failing signal. The vertical hold letting loose. The image cascading down and over itself in some hideous, pre-digital Moebius strip.
I was there, on the capsule. Watching Armstrong and Aldrin draw regulation straws to see who was going to step out first. They’d been doing this since lift off. Game after game. Battleships. Snakes and ladders. Zero gravity twister. It had all come up as a draw. Nothing to choose between them. Buzz was still demanding that his name surely won him first dibs. After all, no space hero had ever been called Neil in the funny pages. This went on and on as Collins sat alone and watched them from his own capsule. He was glad of the peace as he slowly carved his name into all the dials with a compass. He’d started talking to his reflection like he’d known it all his life. Worse still, it had started correction his sloppy grammar. The poor man was only a few steps away from becoming a David Bowie song.
I watched Armstrong and Aldrin land. I watched that tricky moment where they were running out of space and fuel.
“I spy with my little eye…” Neil began.
“Not now, Armstrong!” Buzz growled. “The Moon is no place for that game.”
I saw Buzz bristle as Neil calmly almost killed them whilst trying to pick a parking spot. I watched him lean forward in his seat and growl something obscene as he finally brought them down with a thump and waited for a NASA approved high five that was never to be returned. Not even for the press back home.
They suited up at opposite ends of the tiny metal box, neither able to look the other in the eye before they held one final game of rock, paper, scissors to decide who went out first. Aldrin threw out scissors, so sure of himself. Until he found himself staring at Armstrong’s large, gloved fist.
“Moon rock, Baby.”
The interior lighting, dim and phoney and bleeding out gloom, painted Neil’s securely helmet bound grin in the same colour palette.
“You son of a bitch.”
“I think you mean ‘After you, Mr Armstrong.’”
Somewhere up in space Collins cackled as his reflection told him a dirty limerick and they slipped behind the dark side of the moon. He was truly sailing through the unwritten history of prog rock that day. He just had to remember to turn light at the court of The Crimson King.
And so it was that Aldrin got to be the first man ever to hold open the door and experience jealously on the Moon. Technically, also making him the first to multitask on an alien surface. Not that it mattered to him one jot as he watched Neil become the first man to use steps on the Moon. A far, far cooler first. If only because of where it led.
“It’s all downhill from here, Neil!” He called after him. Knowing full well that Armstrong couldn’t utter a word if he wanted his first words to sound historic. “Watch out for syringes you left in your pockets.”
The world was unaware of this percolating situation as they learnt forward in their seats to listen to the crackles in the static. The punctuation of space travel. Some had it on their TVs. Most had it on their radio. They smiled as if they were there. They all quietly claimed the assist. Humanity had never got to participate in exploration like this before. It had never been a spectator sport. Even the Queen of Spain had been forced to wait for a postcard from Mr Columbus after he’d borrowed her boat and set off to find the definite edge of the map for her.
Neil took those final rungs like a hero. Buzz calling his mother all sorts of names over the private channel. He landed with a dusty thud on the untouched surface for the first time in human experience. He was now related to the monkey who fell out of a tree and decided to make a civilisation out of one simple mistake. He was a spiritual brother to Captain Cook, who used to quickly race from gangplank to sandy beach and declare it for his country before any locals could appear and present their grievances with petitions and very sharp points. Armstrong was now a step cousin to the first men who forced a flag through frozen ground and then wondered exactly what a pole gave them beyond a case of the shivers that would trouble their dentists when they got home.
Neil was a pioneer. Maybe the last great pioneer of our age. He had ridden a bullet off the surface of the Earth and clung to the shrapnel in order to step down onto this grey desert. He took a break before he uttered those famous words that changed our history forever.
“Erm, Houston, I think there’s something moving under my boot.”
I won’t lie. I woke up with a cold sweat after that one.