Martin was five. Every Saturday he would go with his parents to visit Nanna and Pa, his grandparents. While the rest of the family sat in the kitchen around an old laminated table, drinking tea, Pa would take Martin out to the backyard.
Ages ago Pa had cut some fish out of an old cardboard box and pushed a big nail through each one. He would scatter them all over the back lawn. He would then sit on the chopping block outside the old woodshed and Martin would sit on his knee and catch the fish with a fishing rod made of a long pole, string and a magnet. When all the fish were caught, they were scattered again, and once more, and just once more. Then they would go inside and eat scones with jam and cream. When it was time to go home, Pa would pick Martin up and give him a hug and a kiss on the cheek of the type only Pa ever gave.
Martin loved his Pa more than anyone in the world.
One day Martin’s family was holidaying in the mountains. Early one evening there was a phone call. Martin’s mother started to cry and the whole family packed everything up and drove to Nanna’s house that night.
Pa had died.
Martin didn’t understand properly, but he knew his Pa was gone and he was never going to see him again. He sat out in the backyard, on the old chopping block in front of the woodshed and cried.
Martin’s dad found him there and sat next to him on the old stump.
“Pa is gone.” Said Martin.
“Yes.” Said his father sadly. “He is gone.”
“He won’t come back, will he?” asked Martin.
“No.” his father answered.
“Where did he go?”
Martin’s dad sighed and smiled a small smile.
“See the stars up there Marty?”
“Your Pa is one of those. He’s up there, twinkling away and watching over you always ‘cause he still loves you and wants to see that you’re always okay.”
“Which one is he Dad?” Martin looked at all the stars in the sky, trying to see which one might be Pa.
“He’ll be the first one you see in the evenings.” His father told him.
“Where does he go in the day?”
“Oh, he’s still there. It’s just that the sun is too bright for you to see him. He can still see you though.”
They sat together on the old chopping block in front of Pa’s old woodshed for a while, looking at the stars and thinking their thoughts. Then they went inside and ate some of Nanna’s scones with jam and cream.
They didn’t taste the same though.
The next night, Martin looked for the first star of the evening. It appeared, brightly winking in the early night sky just as his father had said.
“Hello Pa.” Martin said to the star. There wasn’t much else to say, so Martin sat on the lawn and watched his Pa twinkle, remembering his face, his rough strong hands that were always warm, the smell of his old overalls, his funny kisses goodbye.
He didn’t always look for his Pa every night, but Martin always knew he was there, watching over him, even in the daytime when the sun was too bright to see him. It made him a little less sad about not being able to be with him anymore. Some days Martin would tell his parents “When I grow up, I am going to be an astronaut. Then I can fly into space and go visit Pa.” His dad would smile and say “You do that son.”
Over the years, Martin learned more about the world and the stars. He learned that stars were not the spirits of departed people watching over their loved ones. He learned that they were just balls of flaming gas burning in an impossibly vast universe, running on laws of chemistry and physics that humans were as subject to as beetles, trees and rocks.
“Pa is dead.” He said to himself one day, and he knew it to be true.
In fact, considering some of the things he had done and some of the things that had happened to him, he was sort of glad that his Pa was not still watching. He would not have wanted Pa to see those things at all.
“What star sign a you?” a pretty young girl asked Martin one day at university.
“Huh!” said Martin “I don’t believe any of that rubbish. As if flaming balls of gas and great lumps of rock hundreds of millions of miles away arrange themselves to tell us if we’re going to travel to Uzbekistan this month or not.” He sneered a little at such a naïve, childish belief.
“True,” said the girl, “but what star sign are you?”
“Aries.” Martin sighed. After all, she was very pretty, if childish and naïve…
“Hmmm, that means we are well suited.” Said the girl.
Martin smiled “Yes, I’m sure.” He answered.
Three years later Martin married Rebecca, but he knew that planets and stars had had nothing to do with it at all.
Years later again, Martin had a lovely wife, a beautiful little daughter who was four and a house with beehives in the back yard. Honey from his bees tasted better than any other honey. It was a good life Martin had. It worked.
Late one afternoon, Martin sat on an old stump in his backyard near his beehives. He had just smoked the bees and they had allowed him to take their honeycomb. He thought about them, going about their business in their homes every day. He wondered what they thought about him. He made their houses, but they probably did not know that. He grew plants near them that he knew helped them make the best honey. These bees never had to fly far to find their food. He was sure they had no idea he did that for them.
All they knew of him was that every so often he drugged them and nicked some of their honey. They didn’t seem to mind, but really, he couldn’t tell, not being one of them. If he did become one of them, how the heck would he explain tree-planting to a bunch of bees anyway?
Of course, he could never be a bee. That was against all the laws of physics and chemistry and so on that govern this vast, vast universe of things.
Martin sighed. Where was all the magic that used to be such a part of life when he was a kid? Why did everything go so… sensible…?
He gazed at the sky, now the pastel blues and pinks of just after sunset, and pondered the mundane…
The first star appeared. Martin smiled a small smile, remembering, for the first time in years, the tale his father had told him about Pa.
Then, in an unexpected rush, long lost memories of his grandfather flowed into his mind, warm and sweet like the honey he so loved. So vivid were they that for a time Martin could almost hear Pa’s voice saying “G’day Tiger.”, feel the rough, strong hands that were always warm, smell the old, grease-stained overalls. For a brief, wonderful moment he was sitting on Pa’s knee on the chopping block in front of the old woodshed, fishing for cardboard fish with a magnetic rod, knowing with a five year olds’ conviction that this is the way life is supposed to be forever…
The sound of the wire door banging snatched Martin back from his Pa’s knee. As he brushed a tear from his eye, a breeze caressed his face like a strange kiss…
Rebecca padded through the back yard and sat next to Martin on the old stump. He put an arm around her waist and pulled her a little closer. With his other arm he pointed.
“You see that star up there?”
“What, the only one?” said his wife, teasing.
“Yes. Dear.” He retorted, smiling. “That’s Pa.”
“Oh? And how do you know that?”
“Dad told me ages ago. He said when Pa died he became that star. I could tell because it would be the first one I saw in the evening. He watches over me ‘cause he loves me still. When I was a kid I always wanted to be an astronaut so I could fly into space and visit him.”
“And instead you became a Computer Technician…” Rebecca teased again.
“Oy! You don’t complain when the pay comes in, do you?”
“No.” Martin’s wife regarded the Pa star with eyes full of mischief “So, it is not just a flaming ball of gas hundreds of millions of miles away?” she asked.
“Yes,” answered Martin, a little excited at his new discovery “but it is also my Pa, watching over me always. In the daytime the sun is too bright for me to see him, but he is still there and he can still see me.”
“Oh?” Rebecca raised one eyebrow at him “So it is not because the Earth has turned and we’re facing in the opposite direction?”
“Yes,” answered Martin again “but it is also because the sun is too bright for me to see him, but he is still there and he can still see me.”
Rebecca kissed Martin on his cheek. After all the years they had been together, Martin still loved the feel of Becky’s lips on his cheek. He loved them lots of other places too, but he wasn’t thinking of them right now.
“You’re getting soft in your old age.” She said, but not too un-kindly.
They got up to go inside.
“Did you really believe that stuff about star signs and us being a good match way back when we first met?” Martin asked.
Rebecca laughed. “No!” she exclaimed. “Of course not! You were cute. I wanted to talk to you. The fact that the stars reckon we’re a good match is pure coincidence. Probably…”
“We are though, aren’t we?”
“Yes, my old, soft one. We are.”
Later that night, the young family sat around their kitchen table eating toast with honey that tastes like no other honey in the world. Four year-old Sophie was sitting on Martin’s knee. When he had finished his piece of toast, he pursed his lips tightly, pressed them on her cheek and blew, making a squeaky sort of noise and tickling his daughter’s face.
Sophie giggled and dug her cheek into her shoulder. “That’s silly Daddy.” She said, wiping where he’d kissed her with the back of her hand.
“Yep.” Said her daddy. “Very silly. Want another one?”
Overhead, the Pa star watched and twinkled. It was a flaming ball of gas a few hundred million miles away and Pa was long dead. Martin knew this to be true. But it was also Pa, living on still and watching over Martin and his family and loving what he saw. Martin knew this to be also true.
And the world seemed a lot better that way…
Written when I was coming close to settling in my own mind the question of gods, belief and so on…