Madeline Lee’s older brother Max disappeared from their teenage home 22 year’s ago, an unsolved family tragedy. Until now Madeline has kept secret the strange notebook Max kept in the days leading up to that night. We alternate extracts from the notebook with Madeline’s own recollections:
Madeline: I’d been happy, having Max back from uni for a bit. He was five years older and our lives were quite separate, but the house seemed empty without him. He was the first from our family to go to university. Scraped in just before the fees. As far as anyone knew he was doing OK. But he never made it back for spring term.
Max’s notebook: There is a constellation of glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling above my bed. When I was little and couldn’t sleep, I would look at them and imagine other stars, real stars, among them. Last night, after I’d turned out the light, I saw one again.
Madeline: Our house was a few doors up from a turning off a six-lane stretch of the North Circular. Max’s room was in the attic. For a while after, I took to sleeping up there. I’d never much noticed the sound of the cars – you don’t, living next to the road – but up in Max’s room at night I noticed the quiet spaces between them. The passing headlights would reach his window. I lay awake in the small hours, curtain-strips of light scanning back-and-forth across the ceiling.
It comes in the moment between waking and sleeping. A shining point, somewhere near the centre of the glow-in-the-dark stars. I can only see it out of the corner of my eye. If I try to look directly my eyes water, I blink, the other stars jitter in the dark and I lose it. But I’m certain of one thing. Each night the new star gets bigger.
I had heard there was a South Circular, too. In my mind it was a mirror image of my road, joining up in a perfect circle around the city. At night, wondering where the cars went, I imagined them orbiting London. I pictured another girl, in her house by the South Circular, listening to the same cars drive by, an hour after me, watching the same lights sweep across her ceiling. A slow, circular pulse in the night.
My star is not a star. Not a single point of light, but a cloud or a galaxy. It is now as big as the largest glow-in-the-dark one. There is a strange perspective to it. Sometimes it seems to be hanging below the ceiling, at other times it seems somewhere far beyond.
Max when he was little was really into space. He was going to be an astronomer. Once, he and Dad made a ‘solar-system’ map of London. The M25 marked the ‘inhospitable outer-reaches’. The North Circular was the asteroid belt, ‘the edge of the habitable zone’. Mum took Max more seriously. Trips to Greenwich, the planetarium, this crumbly old observatory in Hampstead. I guess Max lost interest through his teens. I don’t think he even did a science A-Level in the end.
The vision (I’ll call it that) is a spiral galaxy, now about the size of a pillow. Its ambiguous perspective gets stranger. It seems I could reach out and touch it – at the same time it is a million light years away. But the galaxy itself is mesmerising. Inky clouds and uncountable stars swirl around its intense golden-white centre. Sometimes I sense it rotating slowly, and a wonderful dizziness comes over me.
The glow-in-the-dark stars, according to Dad, were laid out by six-year-old Max in the shape of the constellation Andromeda, which is in that part of the night sky where the Andromeda galaxy (also known as M31) can be seen, appearing to the naked eye as a star. In four and a half billion years (I’m channelling little Max here, can you tell?) Andromeda will collide with our galaxy, the Milky Way.
I sense its arrival before seeing it. In fact, it only arrives if I am looking away. I lie on my back for hours, then just as I tire of waiting and turn to one side, letting sleep fill my body, something in the room changes. A kind of softness, an expanse. The room’s upper half is filled with light. With my head still turned, I see stars of all brightnesses span impossible distances beyond my bedroom wall.
There was a path along a thin stretch of grass between this manky little stream and the North Circular. Litter everywhere. I was on my way back from the Jewish bakery on Finchley Road, carrying a bag of bread with one hand, eating a sandwich with the other. Two crows followed me, hoping for scraps. They soared behind, circled, landed on the grass ahead. Kept it up until the path reached the roadside then they perched in a tree, watching me chuck the sandwich wrapper in a bin.
My room is more of a feeling than something tangible. The sense of a bed at my back. The idea of where the walls might be. There’s no ceiling. No crack of light in the doorway. And no sound. All around me is the galaxy, forever, its countless stars and beautiful nebulas; its infinite dark reaches. Myself, somewhere on its edge. I know that its outer-most stars would stretch far behind me, if I had the guts to turn around to see. Or the desire to tear my gaze from its bright burning heart.
After the crows I got to the footbridge and Max was there. He was leaning on the railing, watching the cars. I crept up on him, making him jump. To get me back he snatched the bread bag from my hand and tore a chunk from the fresh loaf. His fingers were grimy from the railing. Grey particles of dirt on the soft white bread. And that Max-grin shining back at me. One of the last times I saw him.
I feared it for the first time last night. Feared the galaxy. Or feared myself. For a while I have pushed at an invisible threshold. Each night the vision feels more real. Last night for the first time I could imagine crossing over.
Dad always says Max was happy. Optimistic about life. Mum tells a different story. She says there was something going on she could never get to the bottom of. I only remember how exciting and grown-up his life seemed to 14-year-old me. All my friends were a bit obsessed with Max.
The shock of a nameless yearning. My body full of promise. Like stepping off an underwater ledge into the weight of an ocean. Or like soap-water gently blown; surface tension, swirling with possibilities. To become something new and beautiful. Or collapse into nothing.
‘You don’t know you’re born’. That was Dad’s big joke about living on the North Circular. ‘They were the future once, these roads. When I was your age, a drive to a motorway restaurant was an outing’.
It struck me today that it is here that feels like the dream.
- Candidate: The Andromeda Room
- Type: Interstellar
- Status: Historic