Come Home, Son
by Donal Moloney
A selection by guest editor Madeleine D'Arcy. To receive a PDF version of this story to read offline / export to Kindle, please email longstoryshortjournal(AT)gmail(DOT)com
With these paintings, it’s vital that I don’t go on autopilot. Either they are imagined stroke for stroke or they are bogus gestures. This morning I set up the fruit and the lights, I mixed the paints, but soon my mind wandered.
So I put down the brush and went out to the gutter to collect my newspapers. The drone that delivers the papers has got the coordinates of our house slightly wrong and drops its load on the pitched roof. Sometimes the parcel tumbles down onto the ground, but usually it slides into the gutter. Climbing up a ladder in the morning to collect my newspapers is not ideal, but it’s still better than the old days, when I used to drive two miles to the nearest shop to collect broadsheets which the owner had grudgingly ordered and put away for me.
Of course, I could get my news online, but I like seeing the cartoons and photos in print. Whenever I see a particularly interesting image, I cut it out and put it in a scrapbook.
Anyway, this morning: I tore open the thick plastic wrapping, poured a coffee into my NASA mug, and sat down to read every scrap of astronomy news in three different newspapers. After that, I studied the reproductions of Spanish still lifes I’ve pinned up all over my studio.
For the next few hours, I worked on my barn project. This is something I’ve been doing for the past month. My wife Susie hates it. She calls it a perverse, indulgent, spiteful work. On balance, I tend to agree. And yet it’s nothing more offensive than a representation of the night sky painted in minute detail on the huge wooden ceiling of our barn.
When we bought this place, the idea was to use the barn as an atelier. The space and the light were irresistibly appealing. We couldn’t afford a studio in Dublin, and our flat was hopelessly cluttered. The barn didn’t need much conversion either. We had the roof repaired and skylights fitted and that was pretty much it. In the back of my mind was the notion that I might do some landscape painting. Despite being drawn to landscapes all my life, I’d never had a clue as to how I might render them in a modern, personal idiom. All my previous attempts had been insipid and derivative. But I thought that if I stared at hills for long enough, the inspiration would come.
It wasn’t entirely fanciful thinking. Before that point, I’d had my biggest success with large-format works. Indeed, those early boom-time Dublin streetscapes had earned the money to buy our farmhouse acres. They were snapped up, those busy pictures teeming with little figures shopping, driving, snogging, fighting and striking allusive poses.
The composition of each painting in the series was based on a different Hendrick Avercamp work. I’d loved Avercamp’s bustling winter scenes ever since I saw a couple of his paintings at the National Gallery in London. It was an instinctual sympathy – the way Avercamp ordered his figures and objects spoke to some ideal sense of structure embedded in my brain. In recent months, I’ve often thought of Hendrick, the Mute of Kampen, and imagined him making his way in the world. In particular, a description of him in his mother’s will, where she refers to her unmarried adult son as ‘mute and miserable’, has disturbed my peace of mind.
Around the time my streetscapes were beginning to draw some attention, I made an offhand remark to an interviewer, comparing the ebullience of Celtic Tiger Dublin to the Dutch Golden Age. Seized upon, stripped of its ironic context and widely reported, it struck a chord with the buyers of art, chimed with their overweening confidence. Shortly afterwards, I did a picture of Grafton Street in the snow at Christmas. Featuring festive shop window displays with graphic depictions of starving nineteenth-century Irish peasants stabbing each other and engaging in beastly sexual acts amongst the baubles and the tinsel, it was bought by one of the country’s leading banks.
Anyway, when the barn was completed – the artist’s dream of space and light realised – my imagination recoiled. Not only did it refuse to engage with landscapes, it actually turned away from large formats and natural light. After six miserable weeks in the barn and standing around in damp fields, I brought some of my gear inside the house. The first painting I did in my new country home was a long, low view of two skirting boards converging, and with a wicker chair, seen from below, in the middle ground for balance. I tried out all kinds of natural and artificial lighting for that picture, but none of them satisfied me.
Over the following weeks, I moved all my stuff inside. From then on, I used the barn for storing canvases. It’s been useful enough for that purpose: I don’t ever stop painting and the work piles up fast. When I was younger, I painted over a lot of good pictures because I had nowhere to store them.
Part of the deal when we moved to the country was that Susie would have the house to herself during the day. She’s an architect and had decided to strike out as a freelancer. She didn’t want to work downstairs and listen to me tramping around and dragging easels across the floor all day. Under the terms of the deal, she would get the bright spacious attic, where she would install a big desk and drafting table. So when I made the shameful move inside, I worked in a spare bedroom and was as quiet as possible, especially when she had client meetings, which she held in our dining room. This dynamic remained unchanged until very recently. I would ghost through the house in slippers while outside the skylit barn mocked me.
Now I’m actually doing something in the barn after all these years. When I said above that I was painting a representation of the night sky on the ceiling, the key word was ‘a’. Although my picture portrays the northern-hemisphere sky, I’ve included the Magellanic Clouds. The familiar northern constellations are there, but skewed and misaligned. Moreover, I’ve scattered the five bright planets either side of the zodiac – not outside the band by much, but still enough to trouble the eye.
Seen from the ground, my moon has the flaky appearance of the real moon as seen through a telescope. Using thick impasto, I’ve modelled an alternative lunar cartography with fictional mountains, valleys and craters. It’s a shame no one will ever see the lavish miniature detail on my moon, although I’ve already begun to dream of enterprising, goggle-eyed art historians swinging from harnesses.
In the same profligate vein, I’ve painted hundreds of elaborately detailed miniature galaxies. For this, I need a magnifying glass, which I mount on my obligingly large nose via a self-made contraption of wires and cotton wool. The galaxies are painted in lurid colours that parody astronomical art, but such that they resemble faint glittering nebulae when seen from the floor of the barn.
A thick beam running along the centre of the barn breaks the picture in two. My plan is to map each object on one side of the barn ceiling exactly onto the other side, and then to add in loads of tiny discrepancies. If I had money to burn, I’d fit the glass of the skylights with a magnifying lens that projected a changing section of the actual night sky onto the plane of my artwork. I could then insert tinted transparent plastic sheets to match the colour of the real starlight to that of my specially mixed white paint. If I did it right, the viewer wouldn’t be able to tell at first what was reality and what was artifice. But that would all be insanely expensive, so I guess I’ll just cover the skylights with black paper and paint over them instead.
In any case, the whole idea is to create a superficially realistic picture whose wrongness creeps up on the viewer. It started off as a jokey project, something I could do when I was too tired for still lifes. Although it continues to occupy this subsidiary status, professional pride has kicked in and I’ve begun to take it seriously. If I’m going to be up on scaffolding for several hours a day giving myself a neckache, then the work may as well be good.
That said, because it will be unsellable – and painting is my only income – I try to rein in my enthusiasm. Yet … yet I can’t help feeling that this warped night sky is genuine self-expression. I could spend months on it, years. People can find it when I’m dead. I want to make the picture striking and subtly beautiful, so that even a philistine would hesitate before painting it over. Goya has been a lifelong influence – his grotesques especially. Well, this ceiling will be my Black Painting.
My son Peter left home yesterday. I was in the barn when the time came for him to go. Susie was driving him to town. He is starting his first job on Monday, and the idea was to give him two days to settle into his room beforehand. As he said goodbye to me, his face twitched so badly I was afraid he would get a seizure. Susie insisted it was just nerves, entirely understandable. She recounted the story about her last night at home before she left for college, and how she sleepwalked into the parental bed and snuggled up against her mother. I’ve heard the story many times over the past few months. Of course, Susie may be right: it could have been nerves and nothing more. But maybe it was stress. Maybe Peter was distressed at being forced from his home.
When I’ve devoured the newspapers, I often go online for more. I start out on a popular astronomy website and follow the links from there. Hours later, I might find myself immersed in a scientific paper about the local Hubble flow. I’ve subscribed to live feeds from NASA and the ESA.
I could sense it was big right away. When the discovery of the galaxies was announced, there was a whiff of chagrin in the response from experts, coupled with a reticence to draw the obvious conclusion from the data. For the first twelve hours, there was a strange holding of breath that was general but for the most garrulous corners of the internet. I was too much of an amateur to draw the conclusion for myself, but I sensed that intake of breath.
The James Webb Space Telescope – or the JWST as even laypeople like me have come to know it – had discovered seven new galaxies in the local universe, all of which seemed to be saying the same surprising thing. They were all low-surface-brightness galaxies, which is why they had escaped detection before the JWST captured them in the infrared. They were all isolated dwarf galaxies located in different parts of the sky from each other. And – although this was contested by some near-field specialists – they were all thought to be outside the Local Group of galaxies. Spectroscopic analyses had revealed that the faint light they emitted was shifted to the blue end of the spectrum. For none of the seven galaxies could this blueshift be explained by proper motion caused by local gravitational effects.
As the implications were discussed – and fiercely debated – in the days that followed, I began to feel exhilarated. It’s hard to know why. Lots of people have been unsettled by the news. To know why it’s been so thrilling to me – and I’ve been buzzing – would require self-knowledge, and I don’t believe that stuff’s accessible to me. But in broad terms, I think my exhilaration must mean that I secretly hated the universe – or the universe as it was understood at least.
This was not an attitude I realised I had. I mean, over the past fifteen years I’ve spent hundreds of nights out in the cold and the dark, gazing at planets, stars and nebulae through increasingly expensive telescopes. Using star charts and astronomical guides, I’ve familiarised myself with the night skies. And all the while – in my dogged, innumerate way – I have learned about the universe, its history and the physical laws that govern it. At no point during those fifteen years did I detect even the slightest flash of animosity in my soul. On the contrary, stargazing and reading pop cosmology books soothed my mind, especially after an intense day’s work.
It may have been the piecemeal way I learned about the universe that disguised my hatred from myself. Stargazing was only ever a hobby, and I thought about space as a distraction from thinking about art and life. Moreover, I felt – quite reasonably – that I didn’t need a personal attitude to the cosmos. If anything, contemplating the cosmos seemed an exercise in impersonality. But there it was nonetheless, my secret passion revealed by the JWST: hatred of the standard-model universe.
My feelings are incredible to me. Discovering that the universe has changed in such a fundamental and unexpected way – and that’s what most experts now agree has happened – and seeing so many cosmological principles being called into question … it has unleashed strange hopes in me. If the analogy is not too tasteless, the turbulence I’m feeling must be something like what a modest, unreflecting citizen of a dictatorship feels when there is a sudden chain of events – boom, boom, boom – and before you know it the tyrant’s statue is being toppled in main squares and unsuspected freedoms are shooting up all over the land.
When Peter was small, we lived in Dublin and had lots of neighbours. At Halloween I’d bring him round door to door. People would dote over him and give him fistfuls of sweets. It didn’t take long before his orange plastic bucket was full, and I carried a shopping bag with me to take the overflow.
Over the following weeks, we’d ration out his swag, allowing him two items a day. I’d spill the goodies out on the floor so that he could see the full range he had to choose from. His hand would hover over various sweets, but he couldn’t bring himself to decide. So I’d pick something up and hold it out to him. If he pushed my hand away, I’d gather up all the sweets of that kind and throw them back in the bag. By a process of elimination, we’d eventually arrive at the two sweets he wanted most. I tell you this not to illustrate the utility of a via negativa, but to imply that we all need an outside agency – whether a father’s hand or the JWST – to reveal what we really want.
Why couldn’t Peter stay here? What’s wrong with being an artist’s assistant? What’s wrong with working for your dad? He’s been happy mixing paints and washing brushes, tidying the studio and keeping me company. I like having him around all day. There’s more than enough room for three adults in our renovated farmhouse.
Does everyone need to be independent? I think he’ll be lonely and too brave to admit it. Susie has fed him so much talk of autonomy, he won’t dare tell her if he wants to come home. What if he’s lying on his bed right now and crying? Today was his first day at work. What if something has upset him?
Susie has always spoken of him leading an independent life one day. She’s been rolling that snowball for so long that she can’t see around it. And it wasn’t just Susie either. I’d always assumed he’d move out one day too. I knew he’d be well able for a job when the day arrived. But that was before he became my assistant. And before the woman from the agency came over and started making concrete plans. The woman from the agency rubbed me up the wrong way; God, she annoyed me. When I showed her one of Peter’s watercolours – a brilliant one he did of a wheelbarrow on its side – she smiled as if it was nothing, as if she was indulging my vanity.
I’m not sure Susie understands what Peter and I have together. During all the arguments over Peter moving to town and starting his training, she only ever spoke about Peter’s separation from us in positive terms – personal growth, autonomy, self-confidence, resourcefulness. But doesn’t Peter have a fulfilling role here as our son, my assistant, the centre of our lives? He’s only twenty-two.
On Friday I dropped my brush mid-stroke and went over to him. He was wrapping up canvases in plastic for me. I told him I wanted him to stay, but that I had no choice. This was a sly betrayal of Susie, undermining her project. But I wanted Peter to know that there was a way back, that I would be happy if he came back. In a very concrete way, I wanted him to know that if he called and wanted to come home, I would drive in to collect him with a big smile of welcome on my face.
Saying that to Peter made me feel better. I can’t keep anything in anyway. No, I couldn’t keep quiet and pretend to agree with Susie, even though I knew she’d prevail in the end. That wouldn’t have been me. I had to fight her. Now she’s won and they’ve gone. For the first couple of weeks, she’s going to stay in town with a friend so that she’s close by while Peter settles in. I’ve been instructed not to visit, as seeing me might upset him. I can see the logic in that. But it’s lonely here all the same, with just the night sky and chickens for company.
It’s been a heady month in the history of the universe. Today the Pan-STARRS observatory in Hawaii announced the results of its collaboration with the Euclid spacecraft. Hastily redeploying their instruments and hardware, the two facilities mapped the space around the seven newly discovered galaxies, independently measured their distances and blueshifts, and estimated their peculiar motions. The very fact that these resources have been redeployed shows how seriously the whole business is now being taken.
The results corroborated the JWST’s initial findings. All seven of the new discoveries are isolated field galaxies with no signs of hidden gravitational perturbations. In each case, the blueshift exceeds what would be expected from proper motion. The distance measurements put them at between five and six million light-years away.
In other words, it seems that the universe is shrinking; it was expanding until about five or six million years ago and then it began to contract.
These findings have triggered an even bigger international collaboration that will run this week. It will include observations from all major ground-based and space telescopes, including NASA’s WFIRST observatory, and its results will be a quasi-official statement on the contracting universe hypothesis.
The project will try to determine with as much certainty as possible if the field galaxies are located in the regular Hubble flow. It will also analyse all known galaxies outside the Local Group out to a distance of twelve million light-years, re-measure their distances from us, and see if their cosmological motions could fit the model of a universe that had been expanding and then began to contract about five or six million years ago.
Because the project had been all set up and ready to go if the Pan-STARRS-Euclid collaboration confirmed the JWST’s findings, the results are due out as early as this Friday. Very few experts now expect them to contradict recent data. One tabloid newspaper has already run the front-page headline: Universe in Major U-turn.
Last night I slept terribly. I’m not used to sleeping alone. I miss not having Peter in the room with me. It’s hardly surprising: we’ve been roommates for over twenty years. Susie sleeps in the marital bed on her own.
The arrangement came about gradually. For the first eighteen months after Peter’s birth, Susie suffered from severe post-natal depression, which was deepened by the suicide of her brother and exacerbated by sleeplessness. She’s always been a light sleeper, and if she’s woken in the night she can’t get back to sleep for hours. There were concerns about Peter’s breathing when he was small, so there was no question of him sleeping alone. The solution we arrived at was for me to share a bed with Peter.
When Peter turned five, we felt he was ready to sleep in his own bed. He hadn’t had any breathing incidents in two years and was sleeping well through the night. I was all ready to move back in with Susie. But when the moment came, I realised I didn’t want to. I think that hurt Susie, although she was also glad enough to have her own space. Her half-hearted protests were those of someone who feels they should perhaps claim an entitlement they don’t actually need. Anyway, after that Peter and I slept in separate beds in the same room.
This morning I woke up with a fuzzy sensation in the back of my head. Sometimes I get the beginnings of ideas first thing, and it takes a few hours for them to crystallise. I decided to hold off work for a while to let the idea form.
I texted Susie to ask if she’d called into the canteen. This was sure to annoy her, but I needed to hear that Peter was OK. Originally I’d wanted to visit the canteen every day to make sure that Peter’s boss knew he was being watched. Susie only managed to dissuade me by promising to do it herself.
Twenty minutes later, she texted back to say that Peter had been praised by his boss. ‘A cool head’ was the exact compliment. That sounded right. I could picture Peter gliding through the lunchtime clamour, calmly wiping and clearing tables.
I went up the ladder and retrieved the newspapers. For two hours I lost myself in the latest astronomy news and speculation. The sensation in my head was stronger now, though still diffuse. I decided to work on my latest still life. This involves some preparations that have become pleasantly ritualistic. First I take a bowl of fruit from the fridge and bring it up to my studio. I place the bowl on the low desk and switch on the LEDs I’ve rigged up around it. Next, I shut the door to the room and carefully close the blackout curtains. Finally, I switch on a pen torch, rest it on a stack of old art magazines and point it at my canvas.
Through lots of experimentation, I’ve created an array of coloured LEDs that gives off a thin, uneven illumination. The light falls diagonally over the pile of roughly hacked little pieces of orange and grape. I focus in on a small, interesting section of the heap and paint, in minute close-up, what I see.
I’ve been exploring this method for over three years, and I’m far from finished with it. It’s incredible how different one painting is from the next. There are delicious contrasts between skin and flesh and veins, between one fruit and the next, between one kind of light and another. The first series of these paintings was well received when exhibited in Dublin last year. They were all of fruit surfaces with their intact skins on. I misleadingly titled them Scape 1, Scape 2, etc. As far as I know, no one suspected they were still lifes. Most people assumed they were of deserts or alien worlds. One reviewer thought he was seeing close-ups of buttocks. My most loyal collector bought the passion fruit one for two grand. ‘The desolate moonscape’ was how he described it to my gallerist.
For an hour, my work on the painting went very well. I was completely absorbed in the oranges and grapes and their image on the canvas. All the while, the sensation in the back of my head consolidated into pain and sent sharper and sharper signals, until eventually I was forced to acknowledge that it was toothache. I dropped everything and rang the dentist in town to ask, if it was at all possible, for an appointment later that day. The best they could give me was at eleven o’clock the following morning. When I went back to the painting, my concentration was shot.
Anxious to get more work done before pain took over, I went straight to the barn. It doesn’t take much concentration to paint black patches of sky. I worked on the ceiling for four hours, breaking only for sandwiches and paracetamol. When I almost fell off the scaffolding, I took it as a sign to stop. I put on a high-vis jacket and walked the mile to the village pub.
Sean and Jim were sitting at the bar, and I joined them. They were talking about silage. There is an unspoken arrangement between me and the local men: they don’t pretend to be interested in art and I don’t pretend to be interested in farming. When we talk – and there are whole evenings when I say virtually nothing – it is about current affairs. Occasionally we talk about our families.
Susie has been in the pub only once. That was a few weeks after we had moved into the house. Her sister, who was visiting for a few days, was babysitting Peter. The bar was out of wine and had a miserly selection of spirits. There was a lot of awkwardness before Susie settled on a glass of Bulmers. We sat at a table in the corner and whispered to each other. At the bar, there were also a few farmers – probably Sean and Jim were among them – whispering to each other. The loudest noise in the room was the ticking of the grandfather clock.
Susie was wearing a summer dress and the gold necklace I had given her for our first wedding anniversary. The dress was a beautiful shade of pale pink and had a pattern of entwined forget-me-nots and tormentils. It was a present from her sister, who’s a clothes designer. Susie’s thick brown hair sprawled over her cheekbones and deep-set eyes. She kept crossing and uncrossing her long, bare legs and shifting her bottom on the hard bench.
She had finished her work on our house for the moment – it had kept her busy for a good six months – but her new life as a freelancer had been discouraging. Aside from a few bitty jobs on house extensions, business had been very slow. We talked about Peter. At the end of the summer, he was starting school in town, where they had a part-time special needs assistant.
Susie got up to go to the ladies’. As she walked across the floor, the soles of her canvas shoes made squelching, ripping noises. She came back a few seconds later and reported that the toilet was unusable. We left, and walked home through the hot summer evening, Susie sobbing beside me all the way.
Whenever we went out since then, it was always for a meal in town. In fact, Susie turned her whole attention away from the village and towards the town. And every time she drove with Peter to the town, part of me was afraid they wouldn’t come back.
‘How’s Peter getting on down at the college?’ asked Sean.
‘Very well, I hear. The boss called him “a cool head” apparently.’
‘Good man himself. Lonely, isn’t it, when they go?’
There was a storm during the night. The wind whistled at the windows and rattled the corrugated iron roof of the shed. In the morning, I had a quick look round outside for damage. There was none that I could see, but when I got into the car to drive to the dentist’s, I noticed that the wire fence of the chicken run had collapsed on one side. I got out of the car and walked over nervously. Since we’d built the run, we’d got out of the habit of locking the door to the coop overnight. If any foxes had been around since the fence collapsed, there would be carnage in there.
I’d got lucky: the chickens were spooked but unharmed. I did a quick head count, and all eighteen were there. However, the back window of the coop had been blown off one of its hinges and was hanging down outside by the other.
This required some quick thinking, which was a big ask for my aching head. There was no way I could repair the fence and the window frame and still make my appointment. As a temporary solution, I built a tunnel out of canvases, connecting the chicken run to the open back door of the house. With much shooing, I eventually got all the chickens inside the house and locked the door behind them.
I’d already driven ten miles towards town when it occurred to me that I should at least have shut the doors to the bedrooms. Not that I was too bothered: by that stage all I could think about was getting the anaesthetic.
Five miles outside town, there was a tree lying across the road. I got out of the car and looked at it from every angle, but there was no way past. That meant a detour of about twenty minutes. When I arrived at the dentist’s, I was half an hour late.
The receptionist was a middle-aged woman I had once rebuked for skipping the queue at the butcher’s. She told me that the next free slot was at nine o’clock the following morning. I pleaded with her, but she insisted that Dr Lynch had a family function to attend later in the day. Growing desperate, I asked to see Dr Lynch, just for a second. When that failed, I tried to bribe her. ‘Fifty quid just to speak to him,’ I said, placing the note on the desk in front of her. Feigning moral disgust, she chided me in terms that echoed those I had spoken in the butcher’s. I lay my head down on her desk and started to cry. ‘There, there,’ she said, patting my head with one hand and typing into the computer with the other.
The detour home took me by the institute of technology. Disregarding my strict assurances to Susie, I turned into the car park and found a space opposite the canteen. From the car, I had an oblique view through the main window. It was fifteen minutes before I spotted Peter. He walked over to a group of four young lads and lifted their empty plates and glasses onto a tray. As he wiped the table, one of the lads said something to him. Peter smiled and said something back. The lads laughed, and one of them gave Peter a thumbs-up.
Further down the road, I stopped at an off-licence and bought a bottle of whiskey. What else was I going to do with my pain? On the way home, I also had to stop at a charge point because I’d forgotten to plug the car in all week. Driving up the lane to our house, I saw that the poplars had been well shaken in the storm, and the car rolled over a thick carpet of leaves. Living at the end of an avenue of poplars: of course that had been a big attraction when buying the house. I mean, it must have been, although I couldn’t say when it had wormed its way into my dreams.
Before daring to peek inside the house, I drank some whiskey from the bottle, got my tools and set about repairing the fence and the coop window. At one point, I looked over at the kitchen window and saw a chicken up on the sill, pecking at a pot of basil. Another time I heard a huge crash followed by squawking and the frenzied beating of wings.
When the repairs were done, I went into the house and chased the chickens out with a broom. They had made their way into every single room, leaving feathers and droppings everywhere. Pretty much everything that had lain on a ledge or mantelpiece had been knocked to the floor, much of it smashing in the process. The fowl had also confused the hell out of our smart home system, and the dishwasher and washing machine were bleeping furiously, the heating was on full blast, and the blinds in the sitting room were racing up and down like the clappers.
Is there any creature on Earth more disorderly than a chicken? What an incredible fuss to fly just a few yards. And then there’s the bobbing, hobbling gait. How does a creature with two healthy legs manage to hobble?
It would make a good subject for a series of paintings. Actually, I’m surprised I haven’t thought of it before. I don’t mean chickens running wild in a house, though there’s potential in that too. No, I mean a close-up of four or five chickens running and flapping in all directions; something that captured the untidiness of their motion. If Susie thinks my night sky is repellent, wait till she sees what I can do with chickens.
Once I’d got all the chickens safely into the chicken run and closed the gate, I brought the canvases back to the barn and went inside for lunch. During their brief reign of madness, one or more of the chickens had got inside the bread bin and left craters in my walnut loaf. By careful carving, I rescued what I could and made a cheese sandwich.
Once I’d finished eating, I climbed up and got the newspapers. A long article titled A Brake on the Immoderateness of Hubble’s Universe caught my eye. Written by a historian of science, it discussed how the recently measured cosmological blueshifts were the first reining-in of the universe since Edwin Hubble had discovered that it was unthinkably vaster than anyone had suspected, unthinkably vast and expanding.
In terms of human knowledge, the author argued, these blueshifts – if confirmed to be due to the contraction of the universe – marked the end of an era where every step forward in our knowledge made the universe recede ever further. It was an era, she continued, that culminated in the 1990s with the discovery that the rate of expansion of the universe was increasing; or perhaps in 2016 when the Hubble Space Telescope discovered that the universe was expanding faster than was previously thought.
Back then nobody suspected that this accelerating expansion was merely historical. No, it was an era of intellectual giddiness that had engendered notions of multiple universes and infinite numbers of universes. Not that a shrinking universe disproved these things, but if this universe has reached its limit – now, already – then the human mind was perhaps suddenly standing on the top of Everest with a clear view in all directions. If the universe has turned the corner, then our knowledge is moving out to meet a universe that is coming in, that has been coming in since a time when our ape-like ancestors were just beginning to walk upright. In a very real sense, we will have the measure of things.
Heady times, as I said before: these are heady times. So what was Hubble’s universe? I had often tried and failed to imagine it. Maybe now was a good time for me to finally wrap my head around the universe? What else was I going to do today?
Grabbing a pen, a notepad and the bottle of whiskey, I marched down the drive. It was several hundred yards long, our poplar avenue, and pretty much every inch of it was covered in leaves. Every autumn, I was struck by the incredible amount of leaves each tree produced. I’d had plenty of time to reflect on their abundance as I swept them up and burned them.
Standing beneath a tree, I estimated the number of leaves it had shed. It took me a while to figure out a way of doing this. Basically, my solution involved counting the number of leaves on a square foot beneath the tree, actually picking them up in my hands and counting them one by one. Next, I multiplied that number by the total area covered by the leaves fallen from the tree. This was easy enough to ascertain, as the ground beneath each tree was ringed by a fairly well defined circle of leaves. Then I calculated a fifth of this number and added it to the total to account for leaves that had been carried away in the storm.
As the tree had shed approximately half its leaves, all I had to do now was multiply my total by two to get the number of leaves the tree had in summer – or a very rough estimate of it. Having filled two pages of my notepad with scrawled sums, the number I came up with was 200,000.
Now, I knew that we had 58 poplars in our avenue. 200,000 multiplied by 58 equals 11,600,000. Fleetingly I felt an absurd puff of pride at owning 11,600,000 leaves. I walked down the avenue, kicking leaves as I went, my mind whirring away. If the universe had a star for every leaf in my drive, wouldn’t that be very many?
So how many stars were there in the observable universe? Well, there were about 200 billion stars in our galaxy. That was the figure I had memorised. Now I wanted to understand it – concretely, in relation to the leaves all around me. 200 billion was a much bigger number than 11,600,000. Because the sums were about to get serious, I took out my phone and opened the calculator. 200 billion divided by 11,600,000 equals 17,241. I walked up and down the entire length of the avenue, imagining that every leaf was a star – every single poplar leaf heaped up on the ground and trembling in the trees and strewn over the adjacent fields – and then imagining that for every such star, there were more than 17,000 others in the Milky Way.
Right, that would be the Milky Way. And how many galaxies were there in the universe? Two trillion was the figure in my head; another number that was easy to memorise and hard to comprehend. So, there were 11,600,000 leaves in my avenue. There were 17,241 times that number of stars in the Milky Way. And – if we assume that the numbers of stars in giant galaxies and dwarf galaxies balance each other out, leaving the Milky Way as the average – there were two trillion times that number again in the universe. 11,600,000 multiplied by 17,241 multiplied by 2,000,000,000,000. It was ridiculous, obscene.
Clearly the amount of leaves in my avenue had proved to be an inadequate comparison. So how many leaves were there on Earth? I looked online and found a study that claimed there were three trillion trees worldwide. Off the top of my head, I reckoned there were two broadleaf trees for every conifer, which left me with two trillion broadleaf trees. (So there was the same number of galaxies in the universe as broadleaf trees in the world!) Then I assumed – for convenience – that there were 200,000 leaves to every tree, which gave me a figure of 400,000 trillion leaves on Earth. Surely that at least was bigger than the number of stars in the universe?
But no – and now it was time for a scientific calculator: 200 billion (stars in Milky Way) multiplied by 2 trillion (galaxies in universe) equals 400 billion trillion stars in the universe. That’s 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
So, finally: 400 billion trillion (stars in universe) divided by 400,000 trillion (leaves on Earth) equals 1,000,000. By my very rough calculations, there were 1 million stars in the observable universe for every leaf on the planet. Is it any wonder that a shrinking universe would be some comfort?
I’ve given you a summary of my calculations. Looking back over my notebook, I see that the process was far longer and messier. When I’d finished it was late in the evening. The exercise had gotten me through the day.
I went inside and made an omelette for dinner. When I’d eaten, I brought my telescope outside. It was a beautifully clear night. I had a great view of Jupiter and its moons. Next, I located the Sombrero Galaxy and gazed at it for a long time. About 30 million light-years from Earth, it was far out beyond the seven newly discovered galaxies that were causing all the fuss. Picturing all the intervening space, and in a spirit of idle fancy, I watched out for a judder about five or six million light-years away, as the universe changed direction.
Round and round my thoughts went: Peter, Susie, my raging gums, the outrageous universe; Peter, Susie, my raging gums, the outrageous universe. As I write these lines beneath our porch light, showers of moths crash into the lit globe of my bald head.
My eyelids were like sandbags as I slouched on a bench outside the dentist’s. I had arrived a full hour before the surgery opened. The night had been awful. In fact, I hadn’t had one decent night’s sleep since Peter left. ‘You poor man,’ said Dr Lynch spontaneously when he saw me.
He examined my mouth, calling out the technical details to his assistant. Two molars in the lower jaw were rotten, he explained. An X-ray confirmed this diagnosis. He said that if I took a course of antibiotics he might be able to save one of the teeth. I told him to give me the anaesthetic and pull out as many teeth as it took to make the pain stop.
When he’d extracted the teeth, he took out a model of the human mouth. With the aid of a toothbrush, he demonstrated how to brush one’s teeth effectively. I almost protested that I was an adult, a successful professional, the owner of 11,600,000 leaves. But then if he asked me what I did, I’d have to say that I was an artist. And that was as good as admitting to being impractical.
Speaking of which, I needed to do a huge amount of work very quickly if Susie and Peter weren’t to come home to chaos and squalor. On the way back, I stopped at the Supervalu in town and got the ingredients for spaghetti Bolognese, Peter’s favourite dish. I also stocked up on cleaning agents, cloths and sponges.
It was eleven o’clock when I got back to the house. That gave me six hours before Susie and Peter were due home. I sprang into action, washing and drying bedclothes and scrubbing every surface in the house. In this frenzy of cleaning was mixed the joy and nervousness of anticipation. It was easily the best I’d felt all week.
I broke only for lunch, which I ate in front of the computer. The results of the international astronomical collaboration had been announced in a press conference. It had been determined to a high degree of probability that the seven newly discovered field galaxies were located in the regular Hubble flow. In other words, they were outside the Local Group and, once their proper motions had been factored in, their blueshifts were to be understood as caused by the contraction of the universe.
Equally, having studied all known galaxies outside the Local Group out to a distance of twelve million light-years and re-measured their distances and redshifts, the scientists had concluded that the data was consistent with the shrinking universe hypothesis, although other interpretations of the data could not yet be ruled out with certainty.
Provisionally, said the spokeswoman, it was reasonable to conclude that we live in a shrinking universe and that the contraction began around five-and-a-half million years ago.
There it was again, flashing in my mind: the image of the dictator’s statue being pulled down. I left the browser open, intending to come back and read more, but I ran out of time. I was dressing Susie’s bed – my final task in the great tidy-up – when I heard the car horn outside. Blasting the horn was an uncharacteristic gesture from Susie, and it delighted me. If this moment didn’t deserve a fanfare, what did?
I jogged down the stairs and out the front door. The car had stopped halfway up the lane and Peter had gotten out. He was looking all round him, taking it all in. My heart galloped all over my chest. ‘It’s your home,’ I thought. ‘Of course you’d get out and look.’
They got back into the car and drove up to the house. Peter climbed out first. He took my hand and gave it a firm, affectionate squeeze. When Susie got out, I saw that she had a tight new hairstyle that accentuated her cheekbones and her big brown eyes. She had a broad smile on her face.
I brought in the suitcases and made the Bolognese sauce. Susie peppered Peter with questions about his work, which were all for my benefit. Even allowing for the leading questions, it was clear from the way he spoke that Peter liked his job. He mentioned the name Gary a lot, so I asked him if Gary worked there too. ‘Yes, he’s a chef,’ said Peter. ‘He calls me “captain”.’
When the sauce was almost ready, I cooked the pasta and served it with garlic bread. We had ice-cream for dessert. My mouth was still a bit numb and I found it hard to eat. I also slurred my words. Susie and Peter had fun pretending not to understand me. After the meal, Peter stood up and cleared the table. Susie beamed at me triumphantly as Peter proceeded to wash and dry up very efficiently and with a definite swagger.
When he’d finished, he went to his room – our room – to unpack his things for the weekend. I asked Susie how her week had been. ‘Busy,’ she said.
‘I didn’t think you were working this week.’
‘I’ve been doing other stuff.’ The smile reappeared and her eyes gleamed. ‘I’ve had a notion for a while now, but I needed to see if it was viable first.’
‘What kind of notion?’
‘It’s early days, so I don’t want you to panic. Just hear me out … sweetheart, I want to open an office in town. I haven’t mentioned anything before, because I wanted to see how possible it was first. I went scouting for sites on Main Street this week and met the manager of the AIB. He was positive about it – once he saw my client roster and the testimonials. Bagging that big housing development up on Pinewood, that’s changed everything for me. You should have seen his face when I let the builder’s name drop. Of course I’d need to do up a business plan. And we’d have to raise some capital. But I sold it to him, you understand? I believed in it and I convinced him.’
I chewed on that for a minute. ‘Sell this place and raise some capital, is that the idea?’
‘Yes, if you agree. It depends on your consent of course. We’d be near Peter, you see. We could get a house near Peter. I’ve seen a couple of places for sale with potential. Peter could come see us as often as he liked. He’s been doing great, Peter, but I’m sure he’ll have stumbles along the way too, it’s only normal. But you’d be there for him – in town, on hand – when the time comes. In the new place, you can have the brightest room for work, and we’d get a big shed for your stuff. You and Peter could build it.’
‘But this has been Peter’s home for almost all his life. He’s just getting used to his job and then he’ll be hit with this.’
‘You’re right,’ said Susie. She stood up, walked over to me and sat down on my lap. ‘I’ve thought of that. Maybe we could keep this place for six months to ease the transition, and in the meantime I’ll start laying the groundwork for everything. It’ll take a while to find a buyer anyway. It’ll be complicated. We’ll need to get all our ducks in a row before making our move. But I can look after all that – I’m on top of it.’
‘Is the town big enough for an architect’s office?’ I asked.
‘Loads big, and if I can get established I’ll draw in work from all over the place. I’m only 48. I can make it a success. I’ve so many ideas for it. And I want to hire people – well, one person first; baby steps. I want to have people around me all day – meetings, lunches, business trips. You can still paint, don’t worry. I promise. And stargaze. The light pollution in town is nothing really, a few lamps. It’s hardly Los Angeles.’
‘Six months,’ I said. ‘Can you promise me six months?’ My mind was racing ahead. I was thinking of my barn ceiling. Six months would be enough to finish it. I could maybe document it before selling the house and use the photos and videos in an exhibition. Or I could present the work as an installation, a happening – invite all my friends and contacts, drum up publicity, call in favours, bring people out to see this work for one night only before it was destroyed, wring some drama out of it.
‘Do you believe in me, sweetheart?’ asked Susie, stroking my face.
As a business venture, I wasn’t at all sure about it. But did I believe in Susie? Yes, I believed in her.
Before I could reply, Peter came in and asked what he had missed while he was away. I told him about the fence collapsing and the window of the coop. He wanted to see the repairs, so I switched on the porch light and the two of us went out to inspect my handiwork.
If Peter noticed, he was too polite to say so, but I’d done a terrible job. I must have been drunker than I thought.
‘Tomorrow I’m your assistant,’ said Peter. ‘I want to.’
‘Great,’ I said. ‘We’ll do some serious work.’
It was a cool, clear night and the big slash of the Milky Way gaped over us.
‘It won’t affect us,’ said Peter.
It took me a moment to realise he was talking about the shrinking of the universe.
‘No, it won’t make a blind bit of difference to life on Earth. They’re different timescales.’
‘That’s the word Gary used, timescales. He explained the whole thing to me.’
‘He seems like a nice guy.’
‘He’s my friend.’
‘Good stuff. Can you find the Andromeda Galaxy for me?’
Peter switched off the porch light and we let our eyes adjust to the dark for a minute. Then he pointed up at Cassiopeia and traced his finger across the sky to a pale grey smudge.
‘That’s the nearest big galaxy to us,’ I said. ‘And that was moving towards us anyway. For us nothing’s really changed.’
Tired after his week’s work, Peter went up to bed early. I followed soon afterwards. Before I went, I demanded from Susie that I be allowed to visit Peter in town the following week. In view of the bigger stakes at play, she readily agreed.
Following the old routine, I got changed in the studio and tiptoed into the bedroom. I bent over Peter’s bed and gazed at his blonde hair and handsome face. His shoulders rose and fell with his breathing. I crossed the room and got into my bed, luxuriating in the presence of my child and the certainty of sound sleep. How many weekend days were contained in six months? I worked it out and got the number 52, which was quite a big number when you thought about it. Yes, 52 wasn’t too mean at all.
The author would like to thank Professor Chris Lintott, who generously advised on a key cosmological concept in this story.
Donal Moloney grew up in Waterford and lives in Cork City. His stories have appeared in The Irish Times (New Irish Writing); The Moth; Verge 2015; The Galway Review 4; Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails (Stinging Fly); Boyne Berries; and Census. A recipient of an Arts Council literature bursary for 2017, he is currently completing a collection of short stories.