Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Telescopes -- Ian Smith

The night sky was clear and I was sure I’d be able to see everything through my brand new telescope straight out of the box—the craters on the moon, Saturn’s rings, every detail. I assembled the parts in my bedroom and started by training the telescope on a distant house.

It wasn’t easy scanning up and down and I could only locate a fuzzy wall. Then I clapped eyes on a man looking at me. He smiled and waved both arms as though he was trying to attract the attention of a passing airliner.

I thought nothing of it and he disappeared from view. I pointed my new telescope in the direction of the moon. I kept seeing the moon pass back and forth but I couldn’t lock onto it. Every time I tightened the thumbscrew the view changed and I was left staring into empty space.

Then there was a knock at the door.

It was late so I ran downstairs and flung the door open as though sheer bravado might make a burglar think twice about bashing my head in.

“What?” I snapped.

“Just checking up,” said the man I’d seen through the telescope.

“No, look, I’m terribly sorry,” I said, my hands outstretched. “I was only—”

“I’m just checking up,” he interrupted. “Is it a Celestron Nexstar? Looks like a Celestron Nexstar 130 SLT with fully computerised mount to me.”

“I really don’t know,” I said.

“Don’t know!” he said. “Well I’d better come in and ‘ave a proper look.”

He walked straight past me, galumphing upstairs taking several steps at a time, his huge shoes raking each riser. I closed the front door and followed him warily. He went into my bedroom and thumped down on my bed occupying all of it. He looked through my telescope, his fingers working overtime.

“As I thought,” he said. “The Celestron Nexstar 130.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “This is my bedroom and I—”

But he was engrossed in the telescope.

“You’re ‘aving a spot of bother,” he interrupted. “Because the Starfinder Pointerscope isn’t calibrated correctly, ey?”

“Well, actually—”

His fingers were a blur, “Geoffrey’s the name,” he said. “Geoffrey Halibut, as in the fish. Pleased to meet you. And you are—”

“Look,” I said. “It is rather late and—”

But Geoffrey suddenly went rigid, the bed springs cracking beneath him, “Oooh, what a beauty!” he exclaimed. “The Corona Borealis.”

“I only wanted to see the moon,” I said pitifully. “Before having an early night.”

“Oh aye,” said Geoffrey. “But you can see the moon through binoculars. In total there are eighty-eight constellations. You want to ‘ave a look, ey?”

But before I could answer, Geoffrey put his finger to his lips,"Shhhhhhhuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuussssssssshhh!” he said.

“I’m sorry?”


I stood by the bedroom door.

“Now look, Geoffrey,” I said pointing down the stairs. “It is very late and this is my bedroom and I—”

Shhhhhhhuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuussssssssshhh!” he said putting his hand to his ear. “Can you hear it?”

He pressed the side of his head above his ear as though he had a persistent headache. Then he shook his head violently from side to side as though he was trying to remove water after swimming.

“Now look,” I said.

“The shushing,” said Geoffrey. “Drives you mad, ey?”

I took a deep breath and sat down on the corner of the bed not occupied by Geoffrey.

“Geoffrey?” I asked putting my hands together. “Have you considered seeing a doctor?”

“Seeing a doctor?” he replied shuffling towards me. “I ‘ave a fixed routine you know. How can I see a doctor?”

“Please,” I said putting my head in my hands. “I just wanted an early night.”

“Don’t mind me,” he said thumping the bed. “Lie down here if you want to.”

“No,” I said. “I don’t want to.”

“Off you go,” he insisted. “Lie here and watch me search the heavens.”

“No it’s okay thank you,” I said. “I’ll sit here.”

“Right you are.”

Geoffrey unscrewed a tiny lens, blew on it and replaced it. He loosened the locking arm and turned the handle gently. Each movement was coordinated with his breathing so he wouldn’t disturb the viewfinder. Geoffrey’s precise movements rocked the bed gently and I could hear my wrist watch ticking. Occasionally, he uttered a whispered, “Great stuff!”

“I’ll be in the spare room,” I said standing. “If you need anything.”

“Just one thing,” said Geoffrey. “Be a gem and switch the light off. Better in the dark, you see.”

I put out the bedroom light, crossed the landing and climbed into the spare room bed. I lay awake listening. Every now and then there was a crack of bed springs as Geoffrey discovered yet another distant constellation.


Next day, I was woken by Geoffrey holding a cup of black coffee in front of me, “Couldn’t find a tea-bag,” he said. “And someone not a million miles away left the milk out so I made coffee.”

“Well thank you, Geoffrey,” I said scrambling to sit up.

Geoffrey plonked onto the edge of the bed.

“Found five constellations,” he said. “Your Celestron Nexstar beats my old thing. Tonight I’m going to find the Sextans Triangulam Australis, ey?”

"Are you?" I said wearily.

I took a sip of coffee and looked at Geoffrey. His hands were shaking. I drained the coffee cup and handed the empty cup back to Geoffrey.

“Well thank you for the coffee, Geoffrey,” I said. “But I need to get to work now.”

Geoffrey jumped up. The coffee cup landed on the floor. He flipped his head from side to side, “Stay here!” he shouted. “Don’t go!”

I watched the dregs of coffee soak into the carpet, “Geoffrey,” I said looking up at him. “I really must get on.” I pulled the duvet off, stood up and stretched. Geoffrey stepped back. I pushed past him and walked across the landing into the bathroom. I closed the door and climbed into the shower pulling the curtain round. The water drummed my head and I leaned against the tiles wondering what I was going to do about Geoffrey. After all he was quite a big man. I switched off the shower and climbed out. I stood on a bath towel and saw myself in the mirror naked in the steam.

“I can still hear it,” said Geoffrey.

“D’you mind?” I shouted grabbing a towel and wrapping it round myself. “For Christ—Look, I need a few minutes here.”

“Sorry,” he said.

I could hear the rush hour traffic, but that wasn’t what Geoffrey was hearing. He was crouching against the radiator, his knees under his chin, his hands over his ears.

“Look," I said. "I have an idea.”

I turned the shower full on and maneuvered Geoffrey to the edge of the bath.

“Careful,” said Geoffrey. “Hang about.”

I held Geoffrey’s head under the shower, turning it so the warm water soaked into his ears, as though it might wash away the shushing noise. I felt the soft hairs on the back of his flabby neck. I switched off the shower, sat Geoffrey upright and towel dried his wet hair.

“Well?” I said.

Geoffrey opened his eyes and spat out a stream of water, “Shushhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

There was no hope. I closed everything off and left Geoffrey dripping on the bathroom floor. I pushed a deodorant stick under my arms and dressed. But the doorbell rang. I gave up any idea of being early for work and ran downstairs pulling open the front door.

“Hello,” said a woman. “And how are we today?”

“Late,” I snapped buttoning my cuffs.

“Good," she said. "I was wondering whether you could help me. I’m asking all residents in the area if they’ve seen a man what’s calling himself a Mr. Geoffrey Halibut?”

She tried to look over my shoulder. I folded my arms making myself bigger in the doorway.


“And I’m his mother,” she said. “And I want to speak to the little bleeder. Not right in the ‘ead you see.”

“Well, I’m terribly sorry, Mrs Halibut—”

“I’m not an ‘Alibut,” she growled tapping her head. “He makes up these names. ‘Alibut, Ostrich, Anchovy. You wanna watch it, mister. He’s deranged in the ‘ead.”

“Well, thank you,” I said trying to close the door. “I’ll keep an eye out for Mr. Ostrich, or Mr. Anchovy.”

“Make sure you do that, mister.”

“Thank you. I will.”

I shut the door and went back upstairs. I unwound the towel on Geoffrey’s head. His hair was flat and shiny like seaweed abandoned by the tide.

“I have an appointment,” he said looking up at me. “With Dr Grappa.”


Dr Grappa’s receptionist was talking on the phone at the back of reception when we arrived. She saw us and propelled her chair towards a computer.

“D’you have an appointment?” she asked shaking the computer from its slumber.

“It’s about Geoffrey,” I said.

“Geoffrey who?”

“Halibut,” said Geoffrey. “Geoffrey Halibut.”

“An ‘Alibut?” she snapped slamming the mouse down. “Take a seat would yer.”

Dr Grappa was jabbing and clicking a computer mouse when we entered, his mouth slightly open as though he was sucking the information off the screen.

“Take a seat,” said Dr Grappa.

We sat down.

“I keep ‘earing this noise all the time,” said Geoffrey. “A rushing sort of shushing noise and—”

The doctor held up a finger to silence Geoffrey and then did a little Cossack dance to wheel his chair over, “Look at my finger please,” said the doctor putting his finger in Geoffrey’s face.

Geoffrey stared at the doctor’s finger. The doctor looked into Geoffrey’s eyes and then catapulted himself back to the computer. He typed with his mouth open like a goldfish.

“Good,” said Dr Grappa. “Now, do you have a problem staggering or leaning to one side?”

Geoffrey blinked, “Do I?” he replied beaming.

The doctor looked up and smiled, “Maybe we can try something different,” he said.

“I’m all ears,” said Geoffrey.

“Please stand heel to toe,” said the doctor. “With one foot in front of the other.”

Geoffrey stood in place as instructed, “Right you are,” he said throwing his arms out like a tightrope walker.

“Now keep walking,” said the doctor. “One foot in front of the other, heel to toe, eyes straight ahead.”

Geoffrey approached the wall with his arms outstretched.

“Concentrate please,” said the doctor. “And look up for me. That’s good. Now step in place if you would.”

Geoffrey stepped in place like a toy soldier, not an easy task for a big man. I wished the doctor would stop the test before Geoffrey fell over, but Geoffrey kept marching.

“Keep going,” said the doctor checking his watch.

Geoffrey nodded and continued marching on the spot, “Aye,” he said. “Hard work this is.”

“Knees higher,” said the doctor. “Left, right, left, right!”

Geoffrey drew in his stomach and pushed out his chest.

“Good,” said the doctor. “Swing those arms. Left, right, left, right!”

Geoffrey did what the doctor asked, his arms lifting higher, his expression growing more serious with each step as though he was in my bedroom travelling through space, ticking off each constellation with a huge jerk of his body, driving himself to some distant place.

Sweat formed on his reddening cheeks and his pale lips smacked together. A noise in his head no one else could hear sizzled and cracked. Dr Grappa announced there was no cure. He advised Geoffrey to learn to "step outside himself, outside of the noise".

Geoffrey chose not to return to his mother that night and stayed in the dark recesses of my bedroom, gazing out through my telescope while I lay on the spare bed staring at the ceiling and twitching violently as I drifted into sleep thinking of distant constellations.

Photo Credit: computerhotline at Flickr.

About The Author: Ian Smith has an MA in Creative Writing, Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing credits are vast and varied, including poetry and two plays.