My husband walks in, a deadly sombre look covering his face.“The astronomer, he’s….well, he’s pretty serious. Eccentric, maybe. The telescopes are worth over a million dollars each!”
He shakes his head. “The kids…. I don’t know….”
Now he looks sad, disappointed.
My heart folds for him. He’d booked this trip for us as a big surprise. He’d been working away for the last two years, and striving to keep a closeness within our family had been all-consuming for that whole time. Now he’s back we want to relax, be normal, not fret about making every moment count. This trip is meant to be the fun stuff that normal families do – a holiday together. But I can see that right now all his expectations are being slowly and silently squashed.
I couldn’t let that happen. “They’ll be fine,” I assure him, feeling less than certain, and bundle him out the door of our little wooden Blue Mountains cottage.
As he goes about unpacking a years’ worth of stuff for our three day trip, I call the troops into the bedroom. “Now you guys, Dr Hassan is a very serious man,” I tell my four rowdy children who are busting with excitement that we’re on holiday.
“Mum, it’s ha-sin. As in, haha I sinned, as in sin, you know? D’ya geddit?” laughs my already smarter than me seven year old, jumping on the bed. His sister joins him.
“Ok ok, I geddit, thank you for clarifying – are you two kangaroo’s? No, sit down. So, Dr Ha-sin, he is a very serious man. He’s a very, very clever man. In fact, he is so clever, that that doesn’t leave much room for being funny and joking around. His brain is full of clever, but no room left for joking. So we have to be serious too. Do you understand?” They all look at me, smiles and giggling gone, nodding their heads, eyes sombre.
The eldest, standing tall and serious, hands clasped behind his back like a mini soldier, is nodding. Whilst invisibly grabbing a pillow which he thwacks over his brother’s head, and it’s on.
Maybe my husband’s right.
“Guys! Dr Hassan is waiting to meet you. Can you be serious? Because if you can’t you miss out on the moon. And icecream for desert.”
Suddenly they sit still. Like the perfect children.
I herd them outside, corralling them in between my arms.
His old jeans and flannel shirt are cinched in with a tan belt, half way between his nipples and belly button. He is twitching a bit. Later he will tell us he is 53 years old. His skin looks smoothed by an expensive face cream.
Our children dutifully shake his hand and stand quietly. After a suitable amount of time they melt away. I breathe a sigh of relief.
“Oh no,” says Hassan, eyes wide, hand over his mouth. “Did…I don’t know…Did Julian tell you….what ages are the children? The telescopes, they’re very expensive….sensitive, very sensitive…. children, they just want to touch it…”
“OLIVER DONT THROW THE BALL NEAR THE CAR IT’S BRAND NEW!!!” yells my husband as he catches the rugby ball millimetres before it smashes full pelt into Hassan’s front windscreen.
I scoop them swiftly back inside mumbling apology.
They sit silently inside on the lounge, looking at the ground, Molly looking worriedly at the freezer and icecream inside.
I return back outside to my husband to make a new plan.
“…My mother, she just had a stroke,” Hassan is telling my husband. “Such a proud woman. Dementia…. I think it is the worst way to go. She used to be impeccably made up every day, now…”
“Oh I’m sorry,” I say. “You didn’t have to come…”
He waves it off. “I’m very unorganised because of it,” he stutters, looking nervously around at the ground and buildings. “Just driven three hours…”
“Would you like a cup of tea?” automatically comes out of my mouth.
“Do we have any?” asks my logical husband. Of course we don’t. We’ve just come out of the car for three hours ourselves and I’d brought all the food the kids would need and forgotten the tea and coffee for us.
“Yes, yes I would. I will get my coffee,” he says suddenly clearly and assuredly.
I race inside ahead of him, picking up bras, hiding the wine bottles and closing the doors of rooms where the beds have been dismantled already by children. I stand in front of my meek children and glare at them, my finger to my lips as I hear Hassan enter.
He helps himself, seeming to know the kitchen better than we do. “I’m not allowed in here unless I’m invited which you did of course,” he says.
“What’s that?” says Molly, sticking her nose almost in his cafetier as 4 year-old curiosity gets the better of her.
“It’s Arab coffee, you can’t have it,” he says, whipping it away. “It’s not good for children.”
She goes back to her spot next to her brothers on the lounge.
“Children,” says Dr Hassan standing next to the bench. “Tonight we are going to look into some big telescopes to see the moon, and we might even see Saturn…”
“Saturn, wow!” says Oliver, who has just been learning about it in year three at school.
“But, children, the telescopes cost more than a house – more than a million dollars,” he says, his eyes twitching about everywhere but on the children.
“Make a toilet roll holder with your hands,” says, demonstrating. They all copy obediently.
I watch as they take him very seriously, while he describes to them how to place one eye into the toilet roll without using your hands. He describes how the toilet roll will show them something that is many light years away. “If I stood on the giant star Eta Carina and clapped, you wouldn’t see it for another 50 years.” It is the beginning of my own understanding, which will grow as the weekend passes, of many things that school could never make sink in.
I wonder if he has his own children, now I see this new side to him. No wedding ring.
“Are those glasses multifocal?” he says suddenly, squinting in close to Molly. “Oh no, uh oh, umm, yes, that’s not going to work…” he stutters again, looking at Molly’s feet.
“We’ll put different shoes on her,” says Phil, mouthing at me “the flashing lights on her shoes”.
“Umm, we don’t have any others,” I say, feeling like the dud mother. “She can go in her socks.”
“No, I’m not doing socks again, no, no socks,” says Dr Hassan, shaking his head as if I said she was going to take her cask wine up with her to look at his giant star. “No. Don’t worry, we’ll work it out. It’s just the light, your eyes won’t work with that flashing blue light, we can only have red light. Yes, red light. Oh,” he says flinching violently as they flash again, as if he’s been struck by a sword. “Oh dear, silly me, I’m going to have a fit… I have epilepsy…”
Again, I quickly sheppard my daughter away.
After while I hear Phil saying goodbye and the door close. “He said we might be able to see Saturn!” he says excitedly as he comes back in. “We have to be ready just after sunset.” His eyes are glowing with expectation. “I can’t wait for the boys to see it with us. It’s very small up there so we’ll probably need to go up a couple at a time.”
We busy ourselves with getting the kids down for a nap so they will be fine to stay up late. I squeeze in a glass of wine, looking out at the bushscape, trying to relax into our holiday as the warm sun seeps into my bones.
Half an hour later I’m racing us through dinner, and just as I plop the fourth child into the bath water there is a knock at the door.
“Come now, Saturn is visible.”
Molly and I wait, for twenty minutes. My leg is doing that nervous bouncing thing as I wonder how my boys are behaving. Is seven year old Benjamin being cheeky? I wonder if they can see Saturn, if it is everything Phil hoped it would be for us. If Dr Hassan is surviving.
Then, the door bursts open.
“We saw Saturn, we saw the rings, we saw the MOON! You should see the telescopes mum! I saw the lunar lander from the Apollo 11! It’s so awesome!” the three of them yell excitedly over one another, my husband suddenly 7 and 9 years old like his sons in his enthusiasm.
“Go, quick, I don’t want you to miss a thing!” he says, bundling Molly and I out the door.
We pick our way up the little path between the cottage and the observatory under the red light. We enter quiet as thieves through the observatory door and up the narrow, steep wooden staircase onto the rooftop. In the shadows I can see four enormous telescopes. They don’t even look like telescopes.
Dr Hassan covers Molly’s shoes with electrical tape to try and stop the flashing. And despite his flinching every time she flashes, he is a different person up here. Confident. Explaining things clearly to us, with passion – such passion!
Molly goes first.
“Wow! It’s so pretty! Wow!” she says, over and over again. Oh my heart, my little girl is seeing real magic.
Dr Hassan mumbles something, looking at her. I glance at him questioningly, intent that my daughter do nothing wrong so she can continue her experience.
“It means bless her, in Omani,” he says, smiling at her as I am.
Then it’s my turn. “No, you’re toilet rolling,” Dr Hassan says to me. “Can I help you?” I nod, and he ever-so gently adjusts my head into position. My eye focuses down the black tube, through the long tunnel of light years, and onto a small oval of the most brilliant light I’ve ever seen. No man could make such light. It has red and pink glinting around the outer edges, and I see the rings – I can see the rings of Saturn! This is unbelievable. I want to look at it forever, I try and come away a few times to give my little girl another go, but am drawn back to look at this magic again and again. “Wow!” I can hear repeatedly coming out of my mouth. There seems to be no other word for it.
“Ok, let’s see the moon now,” says Dr Hassan assuredly, finally managing to unglue me from the enchantment.
He flinches and grasps his back, as he moves the telescope eye piece into focus. “Oh, I have MS – a result of an accident when I was a Naval medical officer – big metal hatchet came down on my back,” he says, working away at the complex machinery in front of him. “Urgh, I need to up my pain relief.” He fiddles around at his waist in the dark.
“Can you lift…” he asks.
“Of course, please, don’t hurt yourself,” I implore. He seems so vulnerable.
I place Molly gently on the chair, trying not to make her shoes flash. She puts her eye perfectly up to the eye piece, and says again, “Wow! Mum, is this the moon?”
“Yes darling. What does it look like?”
“Mum, it’s so pretty, it’s got big holes in it, but it’s still so pretty. It doesn’t twinkle like the Satty. Wow.”
I’m itching to look too.
“Wow, mum,” she says, completely awestruck.
Finally, she gives me a turn.
And I find I got it wrong. There is a light more brilliant than Saturn, and that is our moon. It’s solidly luminous, the brightest, most radiant clear white you can imagine, more incandescent than the best quality diamond. I will never think of moonlight in the same way again. Now, it is super natural, a most amazing gift. I understand it is healing to this man who appears in so much pain; I know why his stutter and nervousness leaves when he is close with it like this.
After what feels like hours of looking at stars and nebula and globular clusters and learning so much about this amazing universe we reside minutely in, my Molly gets tired as she’s been up many hours past her normal bedtime. So I have to hand this experience of magic back over to my husband and older boys.
They are up there so long that I fall asleep myself waiting for them. It is a deep, peaceful sleep, unlike which I’ve had in a long time, my worries insignificant under the magnificence I’ve just experienced.
The next morning we all sit around our holiday croissant breakfast chattering over the top of each other excitedly about what we saw. And it continues for the rest of the day as we traipse all over the Blue Mountains.
But by the end of the day we have four miserably tired children on our hands.
“Hello, can I come and work on the television so we can do the live vision?” Dr Hassan has landed on our doorstep before we’re even out of the car.
Oh doom, I think, as I survey my grissling, fighting children. I’ll keep them trapped in the car til he’s gone.
“I’ll wait til you get the children out,” he says.
With gritted teeth we all go inside.
I placate the kids with milk and any other treats and promises I could dream up while my husband offers Dr Hassan a drink. “How is your mum today?” I ask.
He looks at me, still. Not saying anything. He shakes his head, tears welling in his eyes, then turns away.
I feel terrible I have asked and upset him.
But I will soon feel worse.
“What is he doing here anyway?” says Molly, looking at him grumpily, while Oliver lets off one of the loudest farts I’ve ever heard and Benjamin loses it because it was on his leg.
“She’s a wild one that one,” he says, looking at Molly.
He settles into the lounge to chat. I think he’s lonely. Phil asks him about who owns the telescopes. And he starts to talk. He explains that Nasa, the Sultan of Oman, and Julian, a cosmetic dentist who owns the cottage, own them. He tells us he travels all over the world, but he hates going back to Oman. He doesn’t agree with the treatment of women, and he feels very uncomfortable with all the attention he gets in Oman. “I don’t like being called Prince,” he mouths to us adults. Hi dying mother is a queen. She married an Englishman from Devon, and they lived in Australia. I make my own connection about his ideas on the treatment of women.
An hour passes and he has stopped stuttering, even though its daylight and we are nowhere near his confidence giving work. I start to relax myself, seeing that our kids seemed to have settled down after the earlier squawking.
He says he doesn’t like working with the Arabs who can afford telescopes. “It becomes all about P E N I S size, you know, mine is 16 inches, well mine is 27…” All the adults laugh together.
“I have to commend you on your children,” he says, suddenly serious again. “I never give as much of my time and experience usually. And your reaction,” he looks at my husband, “when you saw the Apollo 11… that has to be one of the highlights of my career,” he smiles at us, warmly, like an old friend. “But your children are just lovely.” He looks at each of them fondly. “I will remember them.”
I smile with love at my husband. Our first foray back into normal family life has been a resounding success.
Suddenly our 7 year old jumps bolt upright on the lounge, pointing at Dr Hassan: “PENIS!! He’s a PRINCE and he said PENIS!!!” he screams at the top of his voice.