• Joanna Seldon

  • A Capsule in Space

    Capsule in space

        Fanny Goldmann stood on the front step of her house in Brooklyn and blinked up at the moon.  It was a warm night, so she stood there fully fifteen minutes, feeling (a little backache aside) comforted and safe, even though she was staring at an object nearly two hundred and fifty thousand miles away.  She knew that; she’d checked it out when she made her reservation.  She knew also that the moon is a satellite, although most people – of course – would describe it as a planet or a star. 

        As she squinted up at the silver slice, trying to distinguish the slightest trace of a feature on its surface, she wondered about the waiting list.  It might all come to nothing.  On a night such as this, when the universe seemed balmy and kind, she longed for the day (or should it be night?) when she would make that journey.  The air would be clear when they set off, and the moon would perhaps be as it was tonight, a quarter of the way through its cycle.  Then, as they approached, she would watch it grow.  When they landed, it would be full – a great round gleaming harvest moon.  She had heard one of the Apollo 8 astronauts describe the moon’s surface, when they first glimpsed it, as colourless and plastic in appearance.  So much for sending on these missions men with no poetry in their souls.  Thank goodness it wasn’t that lot who eventually landed and walked there.  Fanny no longer believed in things dull and dutiful.

        And from its surface, she imagined, she would look down to see Earth, and now it would be Earth that was bright, Earth that was the magic jewel that glowed at the heart of the universe.  She would stand there, in a darkness far deeper than that in which she stood now, gazing at her home as she now gazed at the moon.

        Imagining all this, she felt very much at peace.  Tranquil.  On nights when the moon was full, she scanned its face, searching for the Sea of Tranquillity.  Shortly before he went away, her son Lewis had asked her what she’d like for her birthday, and she’d said – a pair of binoculars, so that she could examine the moon more closely.  That was when she let slip to him about her reservation.  He’d smiled as he heard her out, then abruptly clouded over: why in heaven’s name was she contemplating a trip like that?  It might sound very romantic, he’d said, but the moon was romantic only in love poetry.  The reality was very different, he assured her.  The Sea of Tranquillity?  A barren hole.  She’d have to wear a special space-suit, as gravity doesn’t operate on the moon.  How did she like the sound of that?

        She loved it, actually – and resented the way her son patronised her.  But then he didn’t know how much research she’d done.  On this particular subject, the young trailed way behind her.  The idea of weightlessness, of defying dull gravity, enthralled her.  That’s why she’d put herself whirling through space forever.  She hadn’t confessed that one to Lewis, of course.  She knew he’d scoff.  Not in heaven’s name, but in her own name she’d done it.  And from time to time, when the dreary pull of mundane things had dragged her spirits low, she would reach into her bedside drawer and take out the little scroll hidden beneath her sleeping pills and handkerchiefs.  Removing the pale blue ribbon and unrolling it, she would read:

        ‘This is to certify that the name of Fanny Goldmann has been inserted inside a capsule and sent into space, where it will orbit for eternity.’    

        Eternity.  That was a big thing.  But it didn’t frighten Fanny Goldmann.  For she would never wholly die.  She would be there forever, orbiting in space.  She folded her arms now, and gave the slice-shaped moon a little wink: even if she never made that dreamt-of landing, she might at least pass by on her way to eternity.                                                


        She was thinking still about her son.  Whenever her mind grappled with the idea of vast distances, it jammed on Lewis.  He must have picked up already the news about President Nixon.  Here was a day – so Fanny told herself – which stood out amongst the dull, unburnished moons that made up the cycle of her life.  Today, August 9th, the President had resigned.  Cousin Bernard (as she referred to him, though he wasn’t actually a cousin) had called her with the news – just in case she hadn’t heard it, he joked.  The realisation had come to her in an instant, like a lunge at her stomach, that this was not the real reason Bernard had called.  He’d picked up the telephone because, like her, he felt lonesome.  Nixon’s resignation was just an excuse.  Perhaps she might use it as an excuse also, and write a letter to her son.

        It was more than six months now since Lewis had left Brooklyn – left America, and gone to live in Amsterdam.  He was working in a bookshop; this is what he’d told her in a postcard she received recently.  The picture featured a night-time view of a canal.  Lamps shone on the water; the camera had clicked just as a barge slid towards the centre of the frame; narrow houses rose in the background; on the right-hand edge, you could make out the crescent of a bridge.  She wondered (but doubted) whether Lewis had thought carefully before choosing a night-time shot, one which invited her to fancy the moon hanging above it.  The lights on the water had the dazzle of electricity, brash in comparison with the cool silver of moonlight.  But Fanny could imagine the moon there, somewhere, perhaps just a thin crescent, like the paring from a fingernail, peeping between the clouds that floated between those narrow, gabled houses.

        The postcard had given little away.  Well, that was the point of postcards, she supposed.  She noticed that Lewis had managed to let her address take up maximum space, leaving little for the message itself.  The writing, naturally, was the usual careless scrawl.  But it had been good of him to do it.  A letter she would never have expected.    The electrified, moonless scene, houses huddling together to stay upright, streets melting into ominous back alleys, suggested the dark side of the city.  It made Fanny remember something else – some British band, with colour in its name: the album had reached number one in the U.S.A a few months before Lewis went away.  Yes, it had been a great favourite of his.  The record spun silent in her head.  No noise; no music.  But the title, of course, appealed to her.  The dark side of the moon. 

        Perhaps she’d show the card to cousin Bernard.  He might be interested.  And he was a man who’d travelled, so he might even have visited Holland.

        She knew little about Amsterdam – only that it seemed very fashionable with the young these days.  She’d heard of Rembrandt, and the Red Light District.  She tried hard not to think too much about its liberal reputation, nor about the dark alleys conjured up by Lewis’ postcard.  Everyone there rode around on bicycles and smoked pot.  Lewis, she imagined, had turned into a hippy and grown his hair long.  Closing her eyes for an instant, she managed to picture him in the bookshop.  In addition to long hair, he’d probably grown a beard.  The image strengthened inside her mind, his pale face with its new beard becoming sharper, more defined, as the moon grows brighter while darkness falls.  She fancied she could smell the musty recesses of the bookshop, the sudden waft of freshness as Lewis took a new book from a shelf and opened its pages.  She didn’t know what pot smelt like.  But that was in there somewhere, too.

        It was all part of his rebellion, of course.  To give him his due, never once had he specifically criticised her.  No, his rebellion was against his country – that country to which his grandparents had fled eighty years ago.  No matter that, for them, it had been the longed-for haven from the pogroms, the Cossacks, the forced conscription, the Tsar.  No matter that, for them, it was a reason to be forever grateful.  Lewis, he informed his mother, was ashamed of the United States these days.  He’d taken part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War, needless to say.  Lucky for him – unlike the grandfather and great uncle who’d crossed the ocean to avoid conscription into the Russian army, he hadn’t been drafted.  But friends of his had been.  He was particularly proud of Tad (real name Theodore), who’d appeared before a military board to explain why he was rejecting his draft papers.

        And then, of course, there was Watergate.  It was soon after the launch of the Senate investigation that Lewis, with a final, pessimistic sigh, had spun round from the land of the brave and free and headed back over the ocean that his ancestors had crossed, to explore the continent on which they had turned their backs forever.


        The irony of this state of affairs had been pointed out to Fanny earlier today when her friend Barbara called round for coffee.

        When Barbara pointed something out, you had to listen.  It was always done very literally, Fanny observed, the blood-red fingernail jabbing at you as she spoke.  Barbara was scrupulous about her nails.  They were never left naked.  Sometimes she painted them today’s deep red, sometimes coral pink.  Her careful pride extended along the fingertips, then all the way across the hands – and her friend couldn’t blame her.  For a woman in her mid seventies (she was a few years older than Fanny), those hands seemed free of the knots and claws of arthritis.  She claimed it was down to the spoonful of cod liver oil she had taken daily throughout her life.  Watching her now, as she clasped the coffee cup in those cherished hands, Fanny found herself wondering if she’d deliberately withheld the spoon from poor old Herb, her invalid husband of fifty years.  She doubted also that poor old Herb had ever felt the touch of her skin treatment – the expensive wrinkle-reducing face cream which Barbara stock-piled on her excursions to Abraham & Strauss, and the hand cream which blasted by magic the ugly brown freckling.

        “Feel my hands,” she’d say, and Fanny would be obliged to take the cool fingers in hers, give them an exploratory stroke and squeeze, as though she were a nurse carrying out some kind of health check, feel the strident finger-nails glide like fine, sharp skates over her own flesh, and admit,

        “They feel wonderful, Barbara.  You’d never guess…”

        And then she’d break off and sigh, trying not to think of the creeping pain in her own joints, the dry skin that started to fold over when touched, the thickening nails.  The only ornament was her wedding ring, gradually sinking into her flesh.  It hadn’t seemed worth getting her engagement ring adjusted; she could no longer drag it over the swollen joints; since Reuben died, she hadn’t worn it, but kept it in a box in her dressing-table drawer, in case Lewis ever married.

        Then Barbara would withdraw her hands, simpering and, perhaps, running them through her ageless auburn hair.  Fanny hadn’t bothered to colour her hair since Reuben died.  But she had enjoyed the freedom of slipping into pants and sneakers and feeling comfortable at last.  Reuben had insisted always on skirts and what he called “something decent on your feet”.  Well, he’d been a very devout man, in his way.  Very religious.  She’d let all that slide, too.

        Barbara wore pant suits in shades of turquoise, lime and olive green.  Her figure was very trim.  She went to exercise classes twice a week in a Seventh Day Adventist Church hall on Flatbush Avenue.  It was here that she’d met Betty Webber, who’d invited her to join her family history circle.  This supported its members in their genealogical researches and met fortnightly to discuss progress and compare notes.

        And so it was, this morning, that Barbara had pushed her coffee cup to one side, spread her hands over her friend’s tablecloth (a ruby and diamond cluster leaping out to snatch the light), and proclaimed,

        “You know, Fanny, you really ought to think about joining Family History Friends.  You’d love it.  Interesting, intelligent people – and such stories!  You wouldn’t believe it.   And the history of your family is sure to be wonderful.”  Sharply, she tapped the empty coffee cup with her blood-red talon.  “Don’t you want to know more about where your family came from?”

        Fanny considered this.  Her sister Lily had taken a holiday in Europe with her husband Sam, about a year before he passed away.  They’d visited relatives in England and Ireland; they’d travelled to Paris and Venice to see the sights; they’d thought about going to Poland.  Fanny remembered that quite clearly.  They’d come round for Shabbos dinner and, afterwards, the four of them (Reuben had been alive then, too) had sat around the table looking at an atlas and locating Lomza – not that far from Warsaw, she recalls.  It was from Lomza that their parents had emigrated at the turn of the century, and Sam had thought it would be interesting for Lily to make a pilgrimage.  Yes, he’d used that word, Fanny was certain, because the dissonance of such a brazenly Christian word had struck her forcibly at the time.  A pilgrimage to the home of her ancestors.

        But Lily had said no; it would be just too unbearable to see a place where their people had once flourished, where there had been shuls and yeshivot and all those Jewish businesses, and to find the old way of life utterly gone, destroyed, the cemeteries desecrated, the shtetl now over-run with Poles.  They’d always been the worst of anti-Semites.  And anyway, she’d argued – who wanted to go to some nightmare Soviet place?  If anti-Semitism wasn’t bad enough, you add Communism, and then what do you have?  A serious situation, that’s what.

        “Sammy, you and I, we’d find ourselves trapped there.  They wouldn’t let us out.  That’s what would happen.  They’d find our parents’ birth certificates – they’ve got everybody’s records, you know – and they’d make us stay in some Commie settlement.”

        “A gulag.” 

        This contribution of Reuben’s had not, Fanny felt at the time, been very helpful.  In her private opinion, the Poland idea was an exciting one, and it seemed a pity that her sister’s courage had collapsed in the face of something different and unknown.  But she hadn’t given her husband even the faintest flicker of a reprimand.  Her courage also had its limits.

        So Lily and Sam had never made it to Poland.  And it wasn’t long after their return from Europe that Sam had died, very suddenly, of a heart attack.  It had come as a terrible shock; he’d been less than seventy, and apparently in good health.  Not like Herb, the invalid.  Barbara’s husband was expected to die any day soon, but for years now he’d refused to oblige.  Sam had done it without fuss.  He’d made no fanfare when he was taken ill as he watched the New York Mets beat the Boston Red Sox.

        Shortly after Sam’s death, Lily announced to the rest of the family that she was emigrating to Israel.  The family, needless to say, was horrified.  What was a woman of nearly seventy thinking about, leaving her children and her brother and sister and all her friends and setting up home on the other side of the world in a strange land?

        But it’s not a strange land, she’d pointed out.  It’s the land of our people, the land flowing with milk and honey which God gave to us.  He intends for us to live there.  So, said Lily, I must do what God wants me to do.  God, if written down, she’d spell G-d, of course, being strictly orthodox (or superstitious, as Fanny considered it).  The ineffable Name can never, ever be pronounced in full.

        Fanny could still picture the scene – Lily standing in her hallway and holding out the little figurine of a rabbi holding a velvet-covered Torah scroll which she wanted to give to her sister as a keepsake.  And she’d looked at the miniature rabbi, tilting him up and down in time to her recitation:

        “ ‘Next Year in Jerusalem!’  That’s what we say, year in, year out, on Seder night.  Well, enough talking.  Let’s do it.  That’s where I’m going.”

        In the end, she hadn’t settled in Jerusalem, but in Tel Aviv, in a tiny apartment on Dizengoff Street.  Fanny had never visited her.  No, she’d never been to Israel.  Occasionally, Lily returned to the States to visit the family.  She seemed well – but had definitely shrunk still more every time Fanny set eyes on her.  In Tel Aviv, she was visited by her children and grandchildren.  Her eldest grandson, Howard, had even got engaged recently to her next-door neighbour’s daughter.

        Overall, as far as Fanny could make out, the immediate family had grown accustomed with remarkable speed to Lily’s absence.  It was rather useful, actually, to have a secure base in Israel when the grandchildren and great nieces and nephews went over with Young Judaea to spend the obligatory teenage summer there.

        Not, of course, that this had anything to do with Fanny.  She had no grandchildren.  Lewis had never married.  Barbara had warned her that he might take up with some blonde shiksah in Amsterdam.  Holland was full of them.  Fanny had tried to ignore her friend’s interference – and she was only half-listening now, as Barbara, still on the family history trail, observed,

        “Maybe, since Lewis is in Europe, you might as well make the most of it and ask him to do some research.  I mean, if he’s so eager to go back to the continent his grandparents were desperate to leave… well, why not?”

        She was inspecting her fingernails, pushing each digit to attention as she considered, apparently, the state of the paintwork.

        “It’s sort of crazy, isn’t it, the way he’s gone back to the world his family left behind?  Harder to understand, in my opinion, than your sister Lily deciding to make aliyah.”

        Barbara paused there, giving the nail of her pinkie a quick little rub.  Then she’d looked Fanny in the eye and observed, maybe trying to sound kind, but actually bringing it out like a gloat,

        “You must miss her.  You must all be really missing her.”

        But the truth was, thought Fanny, closing the front door behind her and leaving the moon outside, she was surprised by how well she had managed to cope without Lily.  It was as though the emigration of her older sister, several years ago now, had finally enabled her to grow up.  That, and the death of Reuben.

        No, said Fanny to herself, switching on the kitchen light and going over to boil the kettle for her bed-time drink, the person who really missed Lily was her brother-in-law, Bernard.  Cousin Bernard, brother of Lily’s husband Sam.  It had been kind of him to call earlier today.  And he’d suggested that they might get together, meet up some place.  She should have sounded more encouraging.  Yes, in the morning she would give him a call.


        Bernard was different from the others.  Maybe this was because he wasn’t, originally, from Brooklyn.  There was something mysterious about his past, which Fanny found faintly exciting and attractive.  Not that he was what you would call a conventionally attractive man in himself, though there was something about his generous jowl which, to her mind, made him seem pleasurably dependable, and his light grey eyes had about them always an amused look, as though everything he saw left its sparkle there.  It was surprising, really, that Bernard had never married, but the story went that his heart was broken in Texas.  That’s where he used to live.  He worked in real estate for some years, then set up a chain of diners in the Dallas area, was bought out, moved away some years before Kennedy was shot there, and travelled east, ending up on Long Island.  Fanny had never visited his house there, but Lily had assured her that it was “beautiful… absolutely gorgeous.”  Bernard, however, found it lonely there, and, to everyone’s amazement, moved in to Brooklyn to join his brother’s family.  He still owned the house on Long Island, which he rented out to wealthy city types who wanted to escape Manhattan.  But he never went there.  His summer breaks were spent in the Catskills.  He used to take Sam and Lily with him sometimes.  For the rest of the year, he seemed happy to be near to his Brooklyn relations and their circle. 

        It seemed sad to Fanny that he had never found a wife.  This was partly why she worried about Lewis and his refusal to settle down with a nice girl and be normal like other people.  He’d better watch out, or he’d end up like Bernard, lonesome in his old age.  Not quite like Bernard, of course, for Fanny doubted that her son would ever make money.

        Given his means, it had always come as something of a surprise to the family that Bernard had remained single.  It’s not, as her husband Reuben had once observed, that he preferred a bit of the other, for he clearly enjoyed being with the ladies.  No, with his humorous grey eyes, strong dependable frame and reputed wealth, he was always a hit with Fanny’s friends.  Barbara, for instance, adored him.  Naturally, Fanny felt protective.  Perhaps it was excess of Barbara over morning coffee that made Fanny decide she needed to contact Bernard.  It was not just to soothe his loneliness, she admitted.  For she too needed kindness, and that easy intimacy that you can find only with someone who is family.

        She allowed herself to dream a little on the sad part of Bernard’s story – that he had left Dallas because his heart was broken.  If there had been a lady in the picture (and Fanny couldn’t believe there hadn’t been), none of the family had ever met her, or knew her name.  With Lewis gone – and who knew when he would return? – and Barbara’s voice still nagging at the back of her mind about the importance of family history, she decided to explore Bernard’s possibilities.


        They met a few evenings later.  Bernard had suggested, when Fanny called him, that he take her out for dinner at his favourite restaurant – one where a former colleague had entertained him when he came east on business last year.  The restaurant was situated right under Brooklyn Bridge, and commanded a fabulous view of the Manhattan skyline.  Even now, Fanny found it hard to believe that she, Fanny Goldmann, widow, undistinguished in every way, found herself living just a few miles south of one of the most famous vistas in the world.  And, as they sat together and looked out at the scene, it hardly seemed real.  Hardly real either was the fact that she was sitting here with her absent sister’s brother-in-law, a quiet but charming man who had taken her out to dinner  and was now looking at her curiously, his grey eyes alight with amusement.

        “So Fanny, how d’you like it here?”

        “It’s wonderful.  Just wonderful.”

        She felt embarrassed to look back at him – bashful as a girl.  So instead she gazed out of the window once more, picking out the Empire State Building from amongst the clusters of high rises, admiring the pair of towers rearing up at the heart of the financial district, wondering whether, if she craned her neck, she might catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.

        Bernard’s eyes must be following hers.  “Have you visited the World Trade Center?”

        “I didn’t know it was allowed.”

        “But of course it is.  The first tenants moved in to the offices… oh… three or four years ago, I reckon.”  He paused, then added, his languid Texan voice slowing down as he intoned his wonder, “The two tallest buildings in the world.”

        As someone who used to work in real estate, Bernard was no doubt interested in these things.  But what impressed Fanny was not the height, so much as the magical beauty of it all.  And although it was so very different in style, this evening scene, the electric lights glinting on the water, made her think of the postcard Lewis had sent her from Amsterdam.

        Carefully, she scanned the cloud-free sky.  Darkness hadn’t yet fallen, though the lights had been switched on.  She might, nonetheless, be able to see the white of an evening moon.  No.  It wasn’t visible.  Since she last looked, a few nights back, the moon must have waned.  She really ought to keep a check on it.  She needed to be more alert to these things, if she was to go there one day.

        “So Fanny, share your thoughts.  What are you dreaming about?”
        Again, as she turned back to him, she felt bashful.  But the waiter arrived at that moment, to pour the wine Bernard had ordered.  He tasted it slowly, and nodded.  Fanny kept away from alcohol – apart from that nauseating Kiddush wine on Shabbos, and the compulsory four glasses (which she never ever finished – just pretending to sip along with everyone else) on Seder night.  But when Bernard raised his glass, clinking it gently against hers and uttering “L’chayim”, she felt suddenly excited to be drinking without the required Kiddush blessing, and to be drinking white wine at that – not the usual red stuff which, according to the Haggadah, denotes blood.  It always made her think of blood, too, when she tasted it, blood with iron in it.

        So she smiled at Bernard as they clinked glasses, and murmured her own “L’chayim”, rejoicing that it wasn’t a prayer, and that she was here sharing her evening with someone, sharing with him this great wide view as night began to fall. 

        The wine was deliciously cool.  Her tastebuds thrilled to the mixture of elements that spread over them and which experience was unable to define.  How wonderful, thought Fanny, as she took another sip – longer, this time – and then put down her glass, to come across something new in your life at the grand old age of seventy.

        “It’s good, isn’t it?”

        “Fabulous, Bernard.”  She liked using his name, laying stress on the long-drawn-out second syllable as she pronounced it.  And she loved to hear him speak, the Texan slowness of his voice, which made everything he said sound so careful and considered.

        “So now then, Fanny – like I was asking you: what were you thinking about just now?  You seemed a world away.”

        “I suppose I was.  Yes, I was a world away.  I was on the moon.”

        “How so?”  He rotated his glass on the table in front of him.  She imagined it growing warm beneath his fingers.  Then he leaned forward.  “How come you were on the moon?”

        It was not so difficult, with this relation who was not a blood relation, to speak of things which other people, she knew, found foolish.  But the shyness was still there, and she looked down into her glass as she spoke.  The wine was like light.  This, then, was the colour of her friendship with Bernard – not blood, but cool light that glowed.

        “Well, actually, Bernard, a few years back I made a reservation with Pan Am.  They’re going to be doing trips to the moon some day, you know.  I’ll be going to the moon, I hope, if I live long enough.”

        She glanced up now and smiled at him, a certain pride mingling with her bashfulness.  There was no need to worry.  Here, she was safe from her son’s scorn.  Even before she’d said it, she knew Bernard would understand.  He might even approve – for had he not also been searching for other places?

        The grey eyes smiled back at her.  “Hey Fanny, that’s a grand idea.  Of course you’ll live long enough.  It’s what? five years now since the moon landings.  They’ve sure as anything got to get commercial flights going soon.”

        He raised his glass.  “I’d like to propose a toast.  To Fanny Goldmann’s vacation on the moon.”

        Once more their glasses touched.

        “Thank you, Bernard.”

        “Thanks for what?  I’m telling you, I think I might make a reservation myself.”

        “Are you serious?”

        “Of course I’m serious.  You’re never too old for something different.  That’s what I say.”

        “And so do I.”  She felt strangely exhilarated now, and nervous.  The silver-faced moon had been a kind of companion all her life, but up until now – like that capsule bearing her name and whirling forever through space – it had been something Fanny knew was out there, yet beyond her grasp.

        She turned back to the window, letting her gaze rest on the dazzling buildings, and on the dark river as it made its way out to sea.  The sky showed no moon.  But somewhere, Fanny knew, it was out there.  Some day, she knew, she would reach it.

        She was aware of her companion’s eyes on her.  And she could pick up on a faint sadness.  He also had his longings, after all.    Now she was facing him.  Boldly, she took her largest sip yet.    “Let’s call Pan Am tomorrow about your reservation,” she said.