Seven Times Larger than Earth

Kate O'Grady

“Imagine that?” Henry says, excited and waving a newspaper cutting back and forth in front of me. Ninety-two, and his green eyes are full of wonder. He thrusts the cutting into my hand, and words pour from him: “boy”, “wolf”, “sky”, “planet”.

“Imagine that, Sophie?” he repeats. I am touched that he remembers my name. I have been a Saturday volunteer at the Sunshine Care Home for three weeks, and memory is in short supply around here. I fold the cutting and put it into the back pocket of my jeans.

We are in the large common room, and all of us - residents, staff and volunteers - are waiting for ‘the entertainment’ to arrive. Last week it was Marco the Magician, and today it’s an Elvis impersonator. “He’s all shook up,” I say to Henry when a chunky man wearing a black wig and a white sequinned jumpsuit blusters in. “He’s fat,” Henry says, and we both laugh.

Later, at home, trying not to call or think about the ex-boyfriend who is married and an estate agent, or my sister who is single and a teacher and whose trust I have broken, I retrieve the cutting from my pocket. A seventeen year old boy called Wolf, a summer intern at NASA, has recently discovered a planet seven times larger than earth. There is a photo of the boy in his bedroom. Wolf is a goofy looking kid with a toothy grin and a thick black unibrow that looks like a bird in flight. Behind him is a Star Wars poster and a telescope.

Henry is eating lunch in his room when I arrive the following Saturday. The beige Scandi furniture and worn carpet smack of sad B&B. I sit down opposite him while he works his way through mashed potatoes from a red plastic plate.

“Not interested in the entertainment this week?” I say.

“It’s that Marco fellow again,” Henry says.

“Again?” I say, then pull out the article about the boy called Wolf. Henry insists that we go to the window, and I help him from his seat. Peering up at the pigeon grey sky, we marvel at how many undiscovered planets might still be out there.

“I always wanted a telescope,” Henry says.

“Me too,” I say.

I think the staff would have liked me to have bonded with one of the female residents. On my first day I was introduced to Alice, a regal woman with electric blue eyes and a crazy stare. Her long white dress looked bridal. When I said it was nice to meet her, she stood up, wandered over to the window and clutched at one of the faded velvet curtains. The dress put me in mind of Miss Havisham and once I had this thought it was all over. My brain started flashing images of a burning mansion, a tattered wedding gown engulfed in flames, a woman screaming. Leaving Alice to her curtain clutching, I made a beeline for the nearest staff person, pointed at Henry and said, “I want to be his companion.”

My parents were killed in a hotel fire in Malta seven years ago when I was 18 and my sister Phoebe was 23. Everyone has a tragedy in their lives. In the face of grief and loss I unravelled and it became Phoebe’s job to look after me. The unravelling involved a lot of booze and a lot of men, and three months ago, at Phoebe’s 30th birthday party, I drank too much whisky and seduced her boyfriend. It wasn’t difficult and he didn’t put up much of a fight, and Phoebe found us in flagrante on a pile of coats in her spare room. She has not spoken to me since, and I do not blame her.

On Saturday, before my shift, I stop at Hamleys and buy two kaleidoscopes.

Henry is waiting for me in the reception area. This makes me smile and also wrings my heart. We skip ‘the entertainment’, local school kids singing show tunes, and instead sit side by side with our kaleidoscopes on a floral couch in the arts and crafts room.

“So many stars and planets,” I say as I peer into the toy and watch shifting pieces of coloured glass make spectacular ever-changing patterns.

“Magical,” Henry says.

The next morning I call Phoebe, and this time she picks up. I try on the sister who has seen the error of her ways and wants to be a better person ruse. “I’m volunteering at a local care home,” I say. Nothing. I try on glib. “It’s called Heartbreak Hotel,” I say. Silence. “It’s down at the end of Lonely Street.” More silence. I drop these tactics and get real. I tell her that I am sorry and that I know I have hurt her. I tell her I would do anything to take it back. I tell her she is the most important person in my life and that I love her. I tell her I know I have been a burden, and I tell her again how sorry I am. Then I stop talking and listen to her breathing at the other end of the line. The sound of it wrecks me.

NASA has named the planet that the boy called Wolf discovered TOI 1338b. Henry and I are astonished at NASA’s lack of imagination. “That’s just a number with some letters thrown in,” Henry says. We are in the large common room and Fat Elvis is about to perform.

Later in the afternoon the therapy dogs will visit. They will wander in and out of residents’ rooms, and we will all come undone by the love that they release in us. Before I finish my shift, Henry and I will eat our dinner together, and I will tell him how much I enjoy his company, and this will be the truth. Later still, I will sit at home and wait for the approach of my sister’s car.

Kate O’Grady lives in Stroud, Gloucestershire. She has been long listed/short listed or placed in Bath Flash Fiction Competition, Exeter Short Story Competition, Gloucester Writers Network competition, Stroud Book Festival Short Story competition, and published in Stroud Short Stories anthology.