The Letters

When I was eight years old, I was obsessed with space. The first thing I ever I wanted to be was an astronaut (I still do, deep down). Well actually the first thing I ever wanted to be was a duck, but being an astronaut seemed to be more feasible in the immediate future.

I had glow-in-the-dark star stickers on my ceiling. I would lie in bed in those nights which seemed very very dark, and gaze up at them. If you focused your eyes on one, it would seem to disappear, and the others clustered around it would come into sharp relief. Flick your eyes across, and the whole configuration would change, until your eyelids became heavy and you drifted off to a star-studded sleep.

One of the best days I ever had was a visit to the London Planetarium, a little girl in a big chair cosied down in the warm dark, neck craned up to take in the lights flickering across the magnificent dome.

What was it about space that held such an appeal? As an only child, I was used to my own company, so the loneliness did not dissuade me- if anything, it was part of the excitement of it. Floating alone in the endless blackness, relying on nothing but your wits (or so I thought at that age, before I learned about the extensive support system that keeps space missions afloat). Something in the sound of the whirring instruments and bleeping machines created an atmosphere of profound immensity that I wanted to experience.

One day, I was speaking to my Oma in Holland, and she told me I had a great-uncle who was an astronomer. He lived over in America, in the desert, in Arizona. His name was Tom- I later found out my father was named after him. She gave me his address and I wrote him a letter.

I wrote lots of letters as a child, to anyone I admired or wanted to talk to. A particular family memory is of writing precociously to then Prime Minister Tony Blair with my concerns about my grandma being poor in her old age. In his hand-signed reply he assured me that wouldn’t be a problem, and explained in very child-friendly terms why. I wrote to writers that I loved, and more often than not I got a response.

Two weeks later or thereabouts, I received a letter in a battered air-mail envelope, bordered with blue and red dashes, covered in stamps and postmarks I had never seen before. Inside was a letter from great-uncle Tom, answering the questions I had written to him.

Over the following year, we wrote back and forth to each other, and he became something of a pen-pal across the ocean. He seemed to me like one of the most interesting people in the world- I could understand nothing about his life of observing the stars in gigantic telescopes perched atop mountains. I no longer remember what I wrote to him about, but it must have been trivial set against the asteroids, comets and stars that occupied his attention. Nonetheless he always responded, and always seemed interested, and always asked questions back.

Eventually, the frequency of our letters dwindled, and our correspondence ended. We never met. I always meant to write to him again, but I never did. In 2011, I heard through my Oma that he had died.

So, in a way, this is what this project is about- writing the letters I never made the time to when he was alive. Sending something out into the ether, in the hope that it might reach someone, somewhere, in some time.