Johnny America


Tea Eti­quette in Ze­ro G


Illustration of wind chimes in outer space.

There’s no wind in space. Ex­cept for so­lar wind, of course. That goes with­out say­ing. But there’s no ac­tu­al wind wind, no breeze, no weath­er, no at­mos­phere, noth­ing like that. And what this means is that there are no wind chimes in space. Or at least, that’s the per­ceived wis­dom, and it’s just as well as I hate wind chimes. I hate the noise they make and I hate the way that peo­ple put out these wind chimes like they’re so god­damn spe­cial, like they want to find just a lit­tle bit of mag­ic in the world, well let me tell you buster there’s noth­ing mag­ic about wind chimes. I thought space would be one of the places where I’d be safe from wind chimes. How wrong I would turn out to be.

When Wayne ar­rived in the cap­sule, Aus­tralian Wayne with his doc­tor­ate in as­tro­physics, when the cap­sule docked and the air­lock opened and Wayne came through all smiles and high fives, the first thing he said was, “Fel­las, I’ve brought some wind chimes with me, I hope you don’t mind,” and every­one slapped him on the back and there were more high fives and that’s when I point­ed out to him that there was no wind in space.

“So­lar wind,” he point­ed out.

Smug bas­tard.

The sta­tion com­man­der, as a good­will wel­come ges­ture, hung the wind chimes in the ac­cess tun­nel be­tween sci­ence pod B and the main ac­com­mo­da­tion cap­sule, and what with the lack of grav­i­ty, they just kind of hang there point­ing in four dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions like the hand of an arthrit­ic ro­bot, and every time some­one pass­es through the ac­cess tun­nel, those tin­kly bas­tard wind chimes ring out around the space sta­tion, and I just want to throw them out of the air­lock, and then jump up and down on what­ev­er ex­per­i­ment Wayne has been assigned.

“Re­minds me of home,” Wayne told us, af­ter Com­man­der Stacey had hung them in place.

“Do you live some­where par­tic­u­lar­ly windy?” Stacey had asked.

“Not par­tic­u­lar­ly,” Wayne had replied. “In fact, the cli­mate is very set­tled out there in the out­back. Hard­ly a breath of wind at all. Which makes it all the more aus­pi­cious when the wind chimes chime. You’ll have to for­give me if I get a bit emo­tion­al every now and then.”

I looked out the win­dow at plan­et Earth. We were just pass­ing over the Pa­cif­ic Ocean. It seemed that we were al­ways just pass­ing over the Pa­cif­ic Ocean, but then the Pa­cif­ic Ocean does take up quite a bit of space on the plan­et. And I was float­ing near the draw­ers in which we kept the ex­per­i­ments sent in by school chil­dren. We were sup­posed to mon­i­tor these ex­per­i­ments, more as a good­will ges­ture than any­thing else, as the ex­per­i­ments had hard­ly any ac­tu­al sci­en­tif­ic worth, but it was more of a case of out of sight, out of mind. I hadn’t opened the draw­ers in a long time, and the ex­per­i­ments that I had done had bored me senseless.

“Say,” Wayne said. “Do you guys get homesick?”

Grow up, I thought. But I got home­sick all the time. I didn’t want to tell him this. Or any of the oth­ers. I missed my wife and my kids as much as the next per­son. I cer­tain­ly didn’t miss the wind chimes. It was all a nat­ur­al part of the sit­u­a­tion we had found our­selves in and we would all have to find ways of deal­ing with it.

Dis­cor­dant tune­less tinkles.

“You see, that’s the one thing that they can’t re­al­ly pre­pare you for,” Wayne continued.

Per­haps, I thought, I re­al­ly should open the draw­ers con­tain­ing the ex­per­i­ments sent to us by the schools. It would take my mind off so many things, wouldn’t it?

When I told Debs that I would be spend­ing al­most a year on the space sta­tion, she did not re­act with the sad­ness that I’d been an­tic­i­pat­ing. In­deed, she had seemed some­what glee­ful, and that af­ter­noon I’d caught her danc­ing in the back­yard of our sub­ur­ban Tex­an home. It was the most beau­ti­ful and hyp­not­ic dance I’d ever seen. Her hands per­formed cir­cu­lar move­ments around each oth­er and around her lithe body in much the same man­ner as the var­i­ous moons around the plan­et Jupiter.

“Aren’t you con­cerned about miss­ing our five-year an­niver­sary?” I’d asked.

“Oh, I didn’t re­al­ize it was com­ing up.”

That night we’d sat in the hot tub. I lay my head back and I looked up at the stars. I con­cen­trat­ed on the satel­lites, those mov­ing dots of light whose mys­te­ri­ous mech­a­nized or­bits are known on­ly by com­put­ers, and I said some­thing like, “Oh, Debs, pret­ty soon I’ll just be one of those dots of mov­ing light, steady and sure and man-made and re­flect­ing the sun’s light back to this low­ly sub­ur­ban back­yard, and every time I pass, I swear it, every sin­gle time I pass over, I’ll say a lit­tle prayer, and of­fer a lit­tle wish,” and she’d replied, “I might re­dec­o­rate the lounge.”

A few weeks lat­er as we pre­pared to blast off from the launch pad, ground con­trol had patched through mes­sages from our loved ones to the three-man crew. Chil­dren, wives, lovers, part­ners. It was a serene and touch­ing episode. Deb’s voice had been ac­com­pa­nied by shop­ping mall Muzak and she told me that she was look­ing at car­pet sam­ples. Her last words to me were, “You can’t go wrong with beige.”

And now here I was, or­bit­ing the plan­et sev­er­al times a day, eat­ing din­ner from a tooth­paste tube and try­ing not to throw some wind chimes out in­to the inky depths of space.

Wayne ap­par­ent­ly was an ex­pert in tor­tois­es. Quite why an as­tro­physi­cist should be an ex­pert in tor­tois­es is anyone’s guess. But he would get very ex­cit­ed every time we passed over the Galá­pa­gos Islands.

“Galá­pa­gos!” he’d say, “I salute you, sir!”

It was not like the Galá­pa­gos could re­spond, either.

“Did you spend time there?” I asked.

“No, but I have an affin­i­ty with the place. And do you know why?” he asked.

“Go on.”

He leant to­wards me.

“The tor­tois­es,” he said.

Due to the va­garies and tra­jec­to­ry of the space sta­tion’s or­bit, it wasn’t al­ways guar­an­teed to fly over the Galá­pa­gos Is­lands, but every time that it did, Wayne would blurt out, “Galá­pa­gos! I salute you, sir!”

I knew all about Dar­win and the tor­tois­es. Wayne didn’t have to of­fer any ex­pla­na­tion, and as, os­ten­si­bly, we were all sci­en­tists on this mis­sion, he shouldn’t have felt it necessary.

“I re­mem­ber one long hot sum­mer,” he said, lean­ing back as best he could. “The heat was in­tense. Do you know what that’s like? Not a breath of wind, ei­ther. I was down by the well with Greg — that’s my broth­er, I’ll have to show you some pho­tographs— and we were just dis­cussing the like­li­hood of a drought and what this would mean to the live­stock. Did I men­tion we kept live­stock? And I re­mem­ber look­ing up at the sky, this per­fect blue sky, with the sun sit­ting there high in the mid­dle of it, and I saw the sun right then and there as what it ac­tu­al­ly was, an in­ter­plan­e­tary body whose grav­i­ty and ra­di­a­tion led to life on this very plan­et. And it was at that mo­ment that I de­cid­ed, that ex­act mo­ment, that I would train to join the space agency, that I might do my part to make sure that these droughts nev­er hap­pen again, and I tell you what hap­pened, I’ll tell you, right? That’s when the wind chimes chimed. That ex­act mo­ment. The first sub­tle breeze in weeks. The wind chimes chimed and it was as if I could taste the fu­ture on my tongue. I saw it as an omen. Greg saw it too. Greg heard it. Like an idea made mag­i­cal, a sound­track to the fu­ture it­self. Those steel tubes jin­gling to­geth­er, ever so slight­ly. My life has nev­er been the same since.”

He then looked out of the port­hole window.

“Galá­pa­gos! I salute you, sir!”

“That’s the Isle of Wight.”

Com­man­der Stacey float­ed in a non­cha­lant man­ner and told us this anec­dote about when she was a kid, and it was a hot night, and she just couldn’t sleep be­cause it was so stuffy and un­com­fort­able, when she came up with the idea of pre­tend­ing that her neigh­bors had been kid­napped. She would phone the po­lice and im­i­tate them beg­ging for help, plead­ing with the po­lice to come to their ad­dress im­me­di­ate­ly, know­ing that the po­lice were bound to send one of their he­li­copters and that she could open her win­dows and cool her­self in the down­draught from its ro­tors. We all laughed, of course, and then Wayne re­galed us with the sto­ry of a friend of his who worked at the lo­cal zoo, and each night he had to shoo away one of the neighbor’s cats. There were two rea­sons for this, he had ex­plained, the first be­ing that the cat would saunter around the zoo and up­set all of the oth­er an­i­mals there, the sec­ond rea­son be­ing that it had some­how found its way in­to the red panda’s en­clo­sure and go to sleep, and when they opened the zoo every morn­ing, the pub­lic just thought that it was a re­al­ly naff zoo ex­hib­it and that the zoo had run out of ideas.

I could not think of a sim­i­lar anec­dote with which to en­ter­tain them. I have lived a life con­di­tioned to the ig­no­rance of the su­per­flu­ous. Though I re­peat­ed my sto­ry that I was on­ly on the mis­sion at all as a re­place­ment to Cap­tain Jake McGuire. Oh, Cap­tain Jake McGuire, hero­ic test pi­lot and grin­ning poster boy of rock­et sci­ence, who had been thrown off the mis­sion af­ter he’d de­vel­oped a par­tic­u­lar­ly nasty case of dan­druff. Dan­druff, you see, floats off the scalp in every di­rec­tion at once in ze­ro G and gets in­to the con­trols and the vents and the fans and the wiring looms of the space sta­tion, there­by po­ten­tial­ly caus­ing short cir­cuits, fires, mal­func­tion­ing equip­ment. At once brave Cap­tain Jack McGuire was nick­named Flaky Jake and his as­tro­naut ca­reer was done. This is why so many of the top as­tro­nauts are slapheads.

“Do you miss your wife?” Wayne asked, “And kids?”

Of course I did, but I didn’t want him to know this. Frag­ile mas­culin­i­ty is mas­culin­i­ty all the same, and they’d all be wait­ing for me when I got home. In­stead, Wayne start­ed talk­ing about a friend of his whose bizarre fetish in the bed­room was to shrug on a beekeeper’s out­fit, and it was at this mo­ment that ground con­trol re­mind­ed us that what we were say­ing was be­ing live-streamed to 158 schools across the world.

Bore­dom in­sist­ed it­self up­on me to such an ex­tent that I de­cid­ed to open the draw­ers of ex­per­i­ments that the schools had sent to us. We were not oblig­ed to com­plete any of them, but it did won­ders, ap­par­ent­ly, for pub­lic re­la­tions if we at least were to make the ef­fort. With­in twen­ty min­utes I had an­swered quite a few burn­ing ques­tions sent in by var­i­ous ed­u­ca­tion establishments.

Yes, sting­ing net­tles still stung in space.

No, the blue­ber­ry muf­fin had not re­tained any of its fresh­ness in ze­ro G.

No, it was not pos­si­ble to play tid­dly­winks in space.

Sad­ly, the mouse had died.

No, Fe­lic­i­ty Beck­ett from Port­land, Ore­gon, I can­not hear you play­ing your flute from space. Not even if I concentrate.

Us­ing a tis­sue and a comb to play a tune still worked in space.

The mois­ture con­tent and nu­tri­ents of the sam­ple of tum­ble dry­er fluff had not lost any of their chem­i­cal composition.

And so on.

I de­cid­ed to do one last ex­per­i­ment of the day, and that was an in­trigu­ing box de­liv­ered by a school some­where in West Sus­sex, who won­dered whether it was still pos­si­ble to ad­here to the un­writ­ten rules of tea eti­quette in an en­vi­ron­ment where there was no con­ceiv­able mea­sure of up or down. In­deed, the ex­per­i­ment was set out as more a so­ci­o­log­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion than a phys­i­cal or sci­en­tif­ic en­deav­or, and as such, three teacups, a teapot, a milk jug, a sug­ar bowl and a tray had all been provided.

My first im­pulse was to re­ply with a very for­mal and pre­scrip­tive re­sponse point­ing out that the phys­i­cal im­ped­i­ments to a for­mal tea par­ty on the space sta­tion pre­clud­ed a strict ad­her­ence to the un­writ­ten rules of tea eti­quette, but then the pro­fes­sion­al side of my train­ing took over and I de­cid­ed that I would at least give it a go.

“For­give my ig­no­rance,” Wayne said, “But what are the un­writ­ten rules of tea etiquette?”

He had float­ed over in a quizzi­cal man­ner, hav­ing been cal­i­brat­ing some piece of im­por­tant space hard­ware when he had seen me open the box which con­tained the teapot.

“I’m not sure.”

I read from the piece of pa­per which the school in West Sus­sex had in­clud­ed in the ex­per­i­ment box.

The nap­kin must be fold­ed and placed to the left of the saucer. On­ly the host of the tea par­ty should pour the tea. When the tea pot is left on the ta­ble, it is po­lite that the spout faces the host. One must leave the saucer on the ta­ble sur­face and raise the cup in­de­pen­dent­ly of the saucer. One must on­ly look in­to the cup when sip­ping. Tea must be stroked by the spoon, and not stirred, nor should the spoon touch the sides of the cup. One must not ex­tend one’s lit­tle fin­ger.”

We both float­ed there for a while, look­ing at the tea paraphernalia.

“Sounds like too much ef­fort,” Wayne said. “The whole pro­ce­dure is some­what tortoise-like.”

“In that case, then I should think it would be just your kind of thing.”

The teapot was pleas­ant­ly con­struct­ed in chi­na with a blue and green flo­ral pat­tern around its mid­sec­tion. The three cups were of a fine bone chi­na and al­so car­ried the same flo­ral pat­tern, with jaun­ty han­dles which had been ar­chi­tec­tural­ly con­struct­ed with a small flour­ish where the low­er part of the han­dle joined the side of the cup. The sug­ar bowl and milk jug were sim­i­lar­ly patterned. 

“I might put all of this back in its box,” I said.

“Sen­si­ble ad­vice, and… Galá­pa­gos! I salute you, Sir!… And I wouldn’t blame you for tak­ing such a step.”

And yet… And yet the two of us just float­ed there, look­ing at the tea mak­ing equipment.

“Stacey!” Wayne yelled, “Pop the ket­tle on!”

Stacey was in the sec­ond sci­ence module.

“We haven’t got a ket­tle!” she yelled.

So­ci­ety is noth­ing with­out rules, and the same goes for sport, com­merce, sci­ence, and any kind of en­deav­or in which the re­sult ben­e­fits ei­ther in­di­vid­u­als, cus­tomers, stake­hold­ers, or the com­mon good. Re­mind­ed of this by the pro­posed tea eti­quette ex­per­i­ment, I spent the evening pon­der­ing on Debs and the kids, won­der­ing if at any mo­ment dur­ing our re­la­tion­ship I had trans­gressed, or gone against the as­sumed rules of our en­gage­ment. Cer­tain­ly, there have been times dur­ing which I’d been keen to share what­ev­er tri­umph I’d ac­com­plished dur­ing my years as a test pi­lot in the Air Force, but maybe even to do this was a trans­gres­sion of sorts, a sud­den and un­called for con­cen­tra­tion on the self.

Maybe I’d have come home, and ex­plained in breath­less de­tail just how much skill I’d em­ployed in tak­ing an ex­per­i­men­tal jet to the fringes of the at­mos­phere to per­form ma­neu­vers which had tak­en the craft al­most to the point of de­struc­tion, maybe this is what I’d come home and ex­plained, when it wasn’t re­al­ly my part to go in­to such de­tail, about how the me­chan­ics and the tech­ni­cians back at the air­field had praised my air­man­ship and tech­niques, maybe I’d come home and ex­plained all of this and she had had a pret­ty rough day, or replied with some­thing mun­dane like, “Yes, but you left the re­frig­er­a­tor door open all night.” Or that time that she told me she was preg­nant and the first thing I did was com­plain that now I’d have to go to the lawyer and change my will. She’d hurled her shoe at me.

“You seem some­what de­ject­ed,” Com­man­der Stacey point­ed out, lat­er on that evening.

The first of the un­writ­ten rules of tea eti­quette was that the nap­kin should be fold­ed and placed to the left of the saucer. The nap­kin, I re­al­ized, stood for one’s hopes and dreams and achieve­ments, while the saucer was the safe­ty re­cep­ta­cle that was the space sta­tion it­self. Or my mar­riage, one or the oth­er. One must there­fore ig­nore one’s pri­vate hopes and dreams and achieve­ments, fold them, place them on the saucer of the cup of life.

“I’m fine,” I replied.

“Are you sure? As com­man­der, I have cer­tain re­spon­si­bil­i­ties when it comes to the well-be­ing of my staff…”

“Such things should not be dis­cussed,” I tell them. “There are cer­tain tenets of ex­pect­ed be­hav­ior which ben­e­fit or main­tain the prop­er so­bri­ety nec­es­sary for the ex­e­cu­tion of our tasks.”

“If you say so.”

For is this mis­sion of ours on the space sta­tion noth­ing but a mean­ing­less cer­e­mo­ny, a set of traits and ex­pec­ta­tions which are un­der­tak­en with no clear writ­ten rules, but the as­sumed stric­tures of what has come before?

“But if there is any­thing which is both­er­ing you, then you will come and talk to me, won’t you?”

“Things are fine,” I told them.

“You know, it’s on­ly nat­ur­al that one should think about one’s loved ones, for ex­am­ple, or the pres­sures of the job…”

“Things are fine,” I repeated.

The nap­kin was se­cure­ly fold­ed next to the cup and I would pre­tend that I would nev­er need it.

Com­man­der Stacey float­ed away with a back­ward glance.

Be­cause Com­man­der Stacey was the host of this ex­pe­di­tion. I un­der­stood that, and I un­der­stood that be­cause of this, there were cer­tain du­ties which on­ly they had cause to wor­ry about. They were be­ing paid much more than I was, for a start. They had the rank and the train­ing and the re­spon­si­bil­i­ty. The same way that the host of a tea par­ty has a cer­tain re­spon­si­bil­i­ty to dis­pense tea. The sec­ond un­writ­ten rule of tea eti­quette was a two-part clause which I reread just to make sure that I un­der­stood it. On­ly the host of the tea par­ty should pour the tea. When the tea pot is left on the ta­ble, it is po­lite that the spout faces the host. On­ly they should bear the brunt of what­ev­er un­pleas­ant­ness might im­pinge it­self up­on our cer­e­mo­ny, whether that be the im­plied psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ment of one of their guests, or mere­ly a view of the teapot spout.

In the mid­dle of the ac­com­mo­da­tion cap­sule there was a large vent, con­nect­ed to var­i­ous pieces of equip­ment by a long tube, the same con­sis­ten­cy and con­certi­na de­sign as that which one might at­tach to the rear of a tum­ble dry­er. In the ear­ly hours of the morn­ing, while my oth­er as­tro­nauts were slum­ber­ing in their sleep bags which were an­chored to their usu­al places on the walls of the space sta­tion, I set to work mov­ing this vent so that it faced Com­man­der Stacey’s po­si­tion. In such a way, should they wake at any mo­ment and stare straight ahead, they might see the vent fac­ing them and be the on­ly per­son in that room in­con­ve­nienced by its ex­is­tence, should they ever have cause to wor­ry about such things.

The vent pumped in cool air, man­u­fac­tured by one of the many life sup­port ma­chines. If they con­cen­trat­ed hard enough, they might feel a slight breeze, pre­sum­ably cool­ing and re­fresh­ing, the same way that the host of the tea par­ty might, (de­pend­ing on the di­men­sions of the ta­ble), be sub­ject to the steam ris­ing ever so sub­tly from the spout of the teapot.

“What are you do­ing?” Wayne asked.

I looked up and saw that he was awake, watch­ing me in­tent­ly as I worked.

“I couldn’t sleep,” I told him. “So I thought I’d do some light maintenance.”

“Did Com­man­der Stacey ask you to do that?”

“It need­ed do­ing,” I replied.

But Wayne was half asleep and as he drift­ed back off in­to slum­ber, he mouthed the word, tor­toise, and then he was gone.

I float­ed down to the ob­ser­va­tion dome and I sat there for a while look­ing at the plan­et’s sur­face as it passed be­neath us. We were fly­ing over the Pa­cif­ic, as nor­mal. The sun was re­flect­ed back from the blue sur­face of the ocean, the same sun which would soon wrap its way around the earth and wake my wife and kids, and wel­come them with a new day. I won­dered, not for the first time, how the dec­o­rat­ing was get­ting on in the liv­ing room.

Be­cause my fam­i­ly, did they not sup­port me at all times? Were they not al­ways there, catch­ing me when I dripped splash­es of hot, sweet­ened fragili­ty, could I not rest up­on them the same way that a cup rests on a saucer? We fit­ted ex­act­ly, my saucer fam­i­ly and me. We were made by the same man­u­fac­tur­er of chi­na ce­ram­ics, po­et­ry, porce­lain, the same dain­ty pat­tern of in­ter­lock­ing hearts, the saucer de­signed specif­i­cal­ly to ac­com­mo­date the cup, the cup de­signed specif­i­cal­ly to fit in­to the saucer. Yet they were down there on the plan­et, the same way that the saucer stays on the ta­ble dur­ing a tea par­ty. And in such a way I was, I now glee­ful­ly re­al­ized, ad­her­ing to the third un­writ­ten rule of tea eti­quette. One must leave the saucer on the ta­ble sur­face and raise the cup in­de­pen­dent­ly of the saucer. And that was the key word, in­de­pen­dent­ly.

One must look on­ly in­to the cup when sip­ping, be­cause sip­ping is the ac­knowl­edge­ment of those struc­tures of life to which we must all ap­ply our­selves. In oth­er words, con­cen­trate on the in­te­ri­or, and be­come, if not al­ready, deeply introspective.

The next morn­ing, I was tasked with the al­lo­ca­tion of our break­fast ra­tions, plas­tic tubes con­tain­ing a sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-con­coct­ed ap­prox­i­ma­tion of food. The Full Eng­lish is a par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­gust­ing mush. But one must on­ly look in­to the cup when sip­ping, so once I’d opened the re­frig­er­at­ed box in which our sup­plies were kept, I fished out on­ly the one tube, and had it all to myself.

“Noth­ing for us, then?” Wayne asked.

The oth­er as­sump­tion that one must take from the rule is that it is rude to re­move one’s fo­cus from the task at hand. So it wasn’t un­til I’d fin­ished the tube of break­fast mush and sat for a while in a qui­et, con­tem­pla­tive si­lence, that I replied to his comment.


Dur­ing my months of train­ing at the space cen­ter, we had been taught to be as con­sid­ered and aca­d­e­m­ic in our re­spons­es and gen­er­al out­look as one might ex­pect from any pro­fes­sion­al. Lan­guage had to be con­cise, in­for­ma­tive, pre­cise. We were taught not to rush in to snap judg­ments or opin­ions, to keep the emo­tion to a min­i­mum, and to treat the spo­ken word as a con­duit for facts.

This is what made Wayne’s re­sult­ing ex­plo­sion of pent-up rage all the more sur­pris­ing. He went ape shit. He flew across the ac­com­mo­da­tion cap­sule with his arms out­stretched, like a re­al­ly naff Su­per­man, and the next thing I knew was that he had his fin­gers wrapped around my throat. It was on­ly when Com­man­der Stacey whacked him over the head with a sink plunger, that he fi­nal­ly relented.

And all he could say, as he rubbed his head, was, “Why the hell have we got a sink plunger?” (Ap­par­ent­ly the suc­tion it cre­ates mim­ics the vac­u­um of space).

Her face was bare­ly vis­i­ble on the lap­top screen. But even so, I was try­ing to peer around her, to see what col­or she had cho­sen for the walls of the lounge.

“How are the kids?” I asked.

“Kids are kids.”

“Do they miss their Daddy?”

“They haven’t men­tioned it.”

She smiled, and she moved a strand of hair be­hind her ear. 

“The dec­o­rat­ing is al­most finished.”

“Can I have a look? Move the cam­era, so that I can have a look.”

“It will be a nice sur­prise for when you get back.”

“But I want to see it now.”

She let out a sigh and moved her lap­top. The pic­ture went a bit fuzzy and when it cleared, I could see our lounge. The walls were mag­no­lia. It was nighttime.

“It looks the same.”

“Yes, I just re­paint­ed them the same col­or as they were before.”

“You didn’t change anything?”

“There’s noth­ing wrong with magnolia.”

“I thought you were set on us­ing beige?”

“Yes, but then when I got to the hard­ware shop, I looked at the mag­no­lia and I thought, well, if you’re aim­ing for beige, then you might as well go the full dis­tance and have magnolia.”

“You can’t go wrong with beige. That’s what you said.”

“Well, it turns out that you can.”

“Tonight is our five-year an­niver­sary,” I said.

“That was last night. Lis­ten…” She low­ered her voice. “Are you near anyone?”

I looked around. Nei­ther of the oth­er crew were nearby.

“You’re safe.”

“I had a phone call from Ground Con­trol. From a psy­chol­o­gist. They said it was just a rou­tine call, but…”

“But what?”

“They were ask­ing all kinds of questions.”

“Like what?”

“They were ask­ing if you were all right.”

I laughed.

“Nev­er been better.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve been drink­ing a lot of very calm­ing tea.”

“Mag­no­lia tea?” she asked.

“I didn’t re­al­ize there was such a thing.”

“Any­way… It feels like they’re wor­ried about you. And that makes me wor­ry about you, too.”

Nei­ther of us said any­thing for a long time.

“I quite like tea. Have I ever told you that be­fore? You know, a nice cup of tea can be very refreshing.”

“You’re ac­tu­al­ly drink­ing tea up there?”

“No. But I’m… pre­tend­ing to.”


“Al­so, I know it sounds sil­ly, but when I get home, I want to get some wind chimes.”

“I thought you hat­ed wind chimes?”

“And then we can sit in the back­yard on those hot, hu­mid nights, drink­ing tea and lis­ten­ing to the wind chimes.”

Debs laughed. 

“OK, “she said. “I’ll go out to­mor­row and I’ll get us some wind chimes. If that’s what will make you hap­py. Wind chimes and a teapot.”

It was at this mo­ment that the sig­nal cut out. I stared at the blank screen for a while. I had been sure that tonight was our five-year an­niver­sary. But it’s dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out the time zones.

Tea must be stroked by the spoon, and not stirred, nor should the spoon touch the sides of the cup.

Which is an easy one, be­cause as in­hab­i­tants of the space sta­tion, we’d learned how to fly from cap­sule to cap­sule with­out touch­ing the frag­ile sides of the vehicle.

But it meant more than that, didn’t it? It meant that we had to go through life with­out caus­ing any up­set or un­due ag­i­ta­tion, ei­ther clock­wise or anticlockwise.

I’d once worked with a Ger­man la­dy called Ida, and of all the words she taught me in Ger­man, the one that I re­mem­bered most was Kreis­be­we­gung, which meant cir­cu­lar mo­tion. And you would­n’t be­lieve how many times dur­ing a day I’d find my­self us­ing the Ger­man word Kreis­be­we­gung. I’d be clean­ing the win­dow of my car, for ex­am­ple, on the in­side, with a duster, my hand go­ing around and around, and I’d say to my­self, Kreis­be­we­gung. Or I’d be in the lounge, pol­ish­ing the cof­fee ta­ble, and I’d look at my hand and I’d say to my­self, Kreis­be­we­gung. Or at the space cen­ter, I’d be on the cen­trifu­gal force ma­chine go­ing around and around and around and around, feel­ing the G‑force and bare­ly able to turn my head, and I’d shout out at the top of my lungs, “Kreis­be­we­gung!” and they’d stop the ma­chine and open the cap­sule and they’d say, “What was that?” and I’d re­ply, “Cir­cu­lar motion.”

In fact, it was prob­a­bly at that mo­ment that they de­cid­ed to go with Flaky Jake for this mis­sion, un­til his ill-fat­ed date with the dermatologist.

“I’m so sor­ry I up­set you the oth­er day,” I said to Wayne, stroking his arm.

He looked at me and he smiled.

“I see in you,” he said, “the for­ti­tude and the com­pas­sion of the hum­ble tortoise.”

“Well,” I replied, “you’ve got to stick your neck out.”

Which I knew didn’t make any sense.

“Please stop stroking my arm,” he said.

“It’s more of a massage.”

“That’s not a mas­sage. A mas­sage is con­duct­ed, usu­al­ly, in a cir­cu­lar motion.”

“Kreis­be­we­gung,” I said.

“Galá­pa­gos! I salute you, sir!” he replied.

Com­man­der Stacey was mea­sur­ing the neu­tri­nos they’d cap­tured overnight in a very sci­en­tif­ic neu­tri­no trap.

“How many?” I asked.

“Six,” they replied.

The neu­tri­nos looked like the tea leaves left at the bot­tom of a cup.

“Did you use a strain­er?” I asked.

“Ex­cuse me?”

“Check the strainer.”

“I’m wor­ried about you,” they said.

I be­gan to stroke Com­man­der Stacey’s arm.

“Is this in­ap­pro­pri­ate behavior?”

“Ac­tu­al­ly,” they said, “that’s quite nice.”

And nei­ther of us said any­thing for a while, and the space sta­tion just kind of hummed and clicked like it al­ways did. That af­ter­noon the re-en­try craft would be ar­riv­ing bring­ing with it a fresh crew and it would be tak­ing me back home. For some rea­son, Ground Con­trol had de­cid­ed to short­en the length of my mis­sion by a few weeks, and I knew that once it docked with us, things would nev­er be the same again.

I left Com­man­der Stacey and I went to the store cap­sule, shrugged my­self in­to my space suit. I would need it for the re­turn jour­ney, but there was noth­ing bet­ter than be­ing pre­pared, even though I had a few hours. When I came back, my head knocked against the wind chimes, and I made a bee­line for the draw­er full of ex­per­i­ments that I’d been work­ing on.

I wrote some notes.

Yes, it is pos­si­ble to fol­low the as­sumed rules of tea eti­quette in ze­ro G.

Which was not strict­ly true, be­cause I hadn’t fin­ished the ex­per­i­ment yet. There was one left, one vi­tal rule which I had not yet ful­ly ex­plored. One must not ex­tend one’s lit­tle fin­ger. Now this, I un­der­stood, was not as sly­ly sex­u­al as one might imag­ine, rather a more cod­ed ref­er­ence to phys­i­cal­ly in­sert­ing your­self in sit­u­a­tions which might oth­er­wise cause of­fence, wor­ry or harm.

“Where are you go­ing with that?” Wayne asked, as I lift­ed the box con­tain­ing the tea-mak­ing para­pher­na­lia out of the ex­per­i­ments drawer.

“Out,” I replied.

“Good day for it,” he observed.

I placed the teapot, the cup, the saucer, the milk jug, the sug­ar bowl, the strain­er and the spoon on the tray, filled the pot with hot wa­ter from the pro­tein mush prepa­ra­tion urn, and then in a very grace­ful man­ner, I flew across the ac­com­mo­da­tion cap­sule to the air­lock. Amaz­ing­ly, the var­i­ous pieces which made up the tea set re­mained in their po­si­tions and were not overt­ly af­fect­ed by ze­ro grav­i­ty. I placed the tray on my lap and pulled the heavy door closed, locked it, and then opened the oth­er, un­til there was just my­self and the vast ex­panse of space.

It didn’t take much of an ef­fort to push my­self away from the air­lock and out in­to space. I prob­a­bly had enough oxy­gen for half an hour or so, but then, how long does it take to have a cup­pa? Five min­utes at the most. I turned around and looked at the space sta­tion, not­ing how it looked, in the ris­ing sun, like the in­nards and di­ges­tive sys­tem of a ro­bot, then turned and faced the earth it­self in all its blue and green sub­lim­i­ty. The tray still on my lap, I let out a sigh, and then bus­ied my­self pour­ing the stewed brown liq­uid from the spout in­to a cup. Nat­u­ral­ly, most of it flew off in­to space, so I had to put my hand over the cup in a man­ner which sure­ly would have of­fend­ed even the most lib­er­al tea eti­quette ex­pert. Once sat­is­fied that the tea would stay in the ce­ram­ic cup, I put down the teapot, left the saucer on the tray, lift­ed the cup and…

Clink, against the glass face of my space helmet.

“Bug­ger,” I whispered.

The life sup­port hose led back to the air­lock where Com­man­der Stacey and Wayne were now pulling me back. And to my left, I could see the re-en­try craft approaching.

I tried to sip the tea again.


One par­tic­u­lar­ly hard yank, and the tray tum­bled from my lap, the tea pot, the saucer, the strain­er, the milk jug, the sug­ar bowl, all of them drift­ed off in­to or­bit around plan­et earth with all the oth­er pieces of space junk.

Back­wards, I was be­ing pulled. Back­wards, back­wards, back to the air­lock and the space station.

Filed under Fiction on June 14th, 2024

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