How to Build a Space Rocket by Roisín O’Donnell

The An Post Irish Book Awards Short Story of the Year for 2018


You will need:

Matches with red tips
A paper clip (colour doesn’t matter but red ones would be better)
The tin foil from x5 days of sandwiches
Some scissors

Step 1: Understand what your rocket needs to do

If you want to build a space rocket, you’re going to need some matches. You could sneak them from beside the cake at Ishayu’s Annaprashana when the mums and dads aren’t looking. Your mummy and Séan’s mam are standing next to the cake with their arms folded, and if you stand very close and very still, they won’t notice you’re there.

Wind scatters pale pink snow from the tree by the fence. It blows your fringe over your glasses and flattens your shorts against your legs. Mummy’s gold sari billows and catches on the sleeve of Séan’s mam’s Dublin jersey. ‘Desperate,’ Séan’s mam is saying, ‘about that child killed on that trampoline.’

The two mums frown at your trampoline, which has been folded with its sharp metal legs wrapped in Tesco shopping bags. Sanjeev and Séan and the Polish girl from down the street are circling the trampoline, their eyes sad. Séan’s little sister Molly is bawling and snotty in her dad’s arms. ‘But - I - want… but - I - want…’

Mummy strikes the first match. ‘You know, Bimal wanted to leave it up. The trampoline. After what we’d seen on RTÉ last night. I felt sick.’

’Shocking.’ Séan’s mam lights a match. ‘Men just don’t appreciate danger.’

The two mums’ fingers dip between candles, and they flick each dead black match onto the lawn.

’I’m telling you, Martina,’ mummy fixes the pleats of her pallu over her shoulder, ‘he’s driving me insane. Soon as I finish paying for this plot of land in India… Kids! Cake!’

You can grab the matches in the kerfuffle of kids rushing across the garden. Mums and dads smile behind smartphones. ‘Cheese! Say cheese! Where’s Bimal? Let’s get a family snap.’

‘I’ve no idea,’ mummy smiles and grips Ishayu to her chest. With her white-white smile, you know Mummy will look beautiful in the photos. ‘I’ve no notion where he is.’ Mummy smiles tightly, and you realise you haven’t seen Pappy since the restaurant, when he held Ishayu’s head and helped him eat his first spoonful of rice.

‘One - two - three!’

All the kids blow and the candles smoke.

‘Good job!’ The mums and dads clap.

’Here.’ Mummy shoves Ishayu at one of the aunties. ‘Let’s slice this thing.’

Séan’s mum laughs, ‘Aren’t we going to sing?’

’Sing what?’ Mummy fixes her pallu again. ‘It’s not his bloody birthday. Let’s get this day over with.’

Step 2: Establish Mission Parameters

If you managed to sneak the matches into your pocket, you’d better quickly hide them somewhere safe.

Run across the daisy covered lawn, down the side passage and into the house. The bright day has made blue dots dance inside your eyelids. In the kitchen, you’re greeted by laughter, music and cooking smells. Aunties are taking foil off steaming bowls of bhuna and chickpea masala. They’re unwrapping plates of tuna sandwiches and tipping packets of Tayto crisps into bowls. On paper plates, rows of sardines stare at you with spice-encrusted eyes.

Matches rattle in your pocket. Jangle, jangle, jangle. It’s as if your skeleton has come lose. Knee bone’s connected to the hip bone, you sang at assembly last Halloween, when you were dressed as an astronaut made out of tinfoil. Up the stairs, across the landing and –

’Keshika?’ Pappy is praying before Lord Krishna’s smiling blue picture. ‘What are you rushing around the place for?’

There are white lines threaded through Pappy’s black hair. Push up your glasses and clamber between his crossed legs. ‘Uff, you’re getting heavy,’ he says.

’Molly was crying because she couldn’t go on the trampoline,’ you tell him, ‘and Séan and Sanjeev were sad and then we had cake.’

’Is that so?’ Pappy says, and then he says, ‘Hey… Baba, what’s this?’

Pappy’s legs have been jabbed by the corner of the match box. He pulls it from your pocket. ‘Keshika… Don’t you know it’s dangerous to play with matches?’

’But Pappy, how does it work?’

He tips open the box and takes out a match. ‘See this here? This is red phosphorous. When you strike it like this, it gets changed into white phosphorous. The teeniest bit of that ignites. Then the heat catches on the potassium chlorate and the match bursts into flames. Like this… See?’

’Playing with matches?’ Mummy is standing in the doorway, her lips freshly lipsticked to an angry red. ‘You really think that’s suitable for a seven year old girl, Bimal?’ Mummy clasps you by the wrist and hauls you to your feet. ‘Outside, Keshika.’

Pappy is still holding the blown-out match that looks like a confused question mark. Mummy switches into Hindi and all you understand is FIRE, DANGER and TRAMPOLINE.

Step 3: Seek out the Experts

Yuri Gagarin was the first human in space. He was a cosmonaut and his space rocket was called the Vostok and it went round the world and back again. The flight lasted one-hundred-and-eight minutes, but Yuri Gagarin didn’t land in his spaceship. Instead, he jumped out with his parachute and floated back down to Earth, which took longer but was probably more fun.

Forgetting the matches, you’re going to need some other components. When you’re at the bank with Mummy and she lets you play on her phone, search on YouTube how to build a space rocket. The rocket in the video will say whooosshhhh and Mummy will say, ‘Keshika. Do you have to watch something so noisy?’

’Mrs Subramani?’ The bank man in the purple shirt pronounces Mummy’s name carefully. ‘Good to see you. Sure come this way. Can I give you a hand with that?’

’It’s okay.’ Mummy maneuverers Ishayu’s buggy into the tiny room with the big poster of the happy family holding their pink piggy bank. Ishayu isn’t crying, but he looks as if he might be seriously thinking about starting.

…aluminium foil and a skewer…

‘Keshika! Turn that down.’

’So, Mrs Subramani, you were wanting to talk about a withdrawal?’

’Yes, I want to make an international transfer from this account to an account in India.’

…cut off the match head as easily as this…

’Let’s have a look. Right, I see… and this account is in a different name from your joint account?’

…tape the template to the back of a cereal box…

’Yes. My maiden name. Is that a problem?’

…light as a feather but surprisingly stable in flight…

’No, no, of course not, I just wanted to check… and the Indian account? Is that…?’

’In my name also.’

’I see… let me just bring up the right page…’

…hot enough to burn and leave scorch marks…

Just as the rocket is about to launch, the screen buzzes. A tiny envelope floats onscreen, making the video pause. You bash it with your thumb and a message opens.

’Mummy? What does s -e - x - y spell?’

Mummy laughs and the bank man in the purple shirt also laughs and looks at his paperclips.

‘She’s learning to spell,’ Mummy says, snatching the phone off you. And Ishayu decides this is a pretty good moment to start crying after all. While Mummy is distracted, trying to calm Ishayu down, it’s time for you to be brave.

Push your fringe back from your glasses. ‘Can I please have one of those, please?’

’What’s that, dear?’ the man in the purple shirt says, ‘A paperclip?’

Step 4: Start creating rocket designs

That night Mummy washes Ishayu’s sleepsuits and hangs them on the radiator in the kitchen to dry. The sleepsuits dangle their white legs and steam up the dark window.

’See here Baba,’ Pappy’s tired finger guides you back to Question Three. ‘How can we make the question?’

Cád is anam ________?

Mummy walks in. ‘You’re such a control freak, Bimal’ she says. ‘Checking my mobile! Who the hell does that?’

’Well, if you’re getting messages like that, Latika.’ Pappy stands up.

’From colleagues! Funny messages from colleagues in Mumbai! You’d understand that if you had a sense of humour.’

’Colleagues, is it? And your colleagues in the HSE send you messages like this?’

When the door bangs and they go out into the hallway, you can take the tinfoil from your lunchbox. This will be an important component of your rocket, so you should hide it under the sofa. Above the mirror, there is a photo of Mummy and Pappy in hot candlelight with dark pink flowers round their necks. Pappy is looking at Mummy without any lines in his hair, and mummy is giving her white-white smile to the camera.

Step 5: Design the best rocket for the mission

Construction is the most important phase. The best time to do this is when Mummy is on the phone to India (‘I’m phoning India,’ she shouts a Pappy, ‘so could you please keep those two quiet for ten bloody minutes?’). Sitting on the top stair, take out one of your tinfoil meteorites and smooth it against your knee. Then wrap it, without ripping, around the match stick. This is tricky, but putting your tongue out in concentration will help.

While you’re busy with rocket construction, listen carefully. You won’t understand many of the Hindi words Mummy is saying, but that’s okay. Just her voice, happy and excited and lilting and lifting, will be enough. And somewhere across the dark, India is listening.

Step 6: Understand your Rocketology

When something burns, it doesn’t disappear. It turns into vapour. That’s how rockets work. They burn solid material really fast, and the gas shoots out and pushes the rocket in the opposite direction.

Mummy presses her fingers together and looks out at the sea. She likes Bundoran because it reminds her of India. Noise and crowds. Garbage and grease. Candyfloss and slot machines. She’s been smiling while you and Pappy have been riding the dodgem cars, and while you eat fish and chips sitting on a bench. Even Ishayu tries a chip, and he screws his face up as if it’s the worst thing he’s ever tasted. Everyone seems happy on the way back to the car. The grey water carries zig-zag reflections of trees.

And then on the way home, Mummy tries to jump out of the car while it’s still moving.

There’s been fighting ever since Bundoran. Fighting that even the patter of the rain, the wheeze of the wipers and the mumble of Sligo-versus-Cavan on the radio cannot disguise. Ishayu’s crying has slowed to tearless gasps. You’re swallowing the sick taste in your mouth and you’re drawing a diagram of a hydroelectric helicopter on the back of your colouring pad. Hindi ricochets around the Fiesta, pinging off seatbelt hooks and door handles, so fast that the words are mashed up and you can’t understand any of them. Pappy’s hands lift off the steering wheel to make angry swipes through the stuffy air. And then, out of nowhere, there’s the road. The road is here. Mummy has flung open her door and the rain comes grating in, and when the N12 is going that fast, it becomes smooth as space. No pebbles or gravel or road markings. Like how, if you travel at light speed, you can’t see any stars.

Mummy is wrestling to un-do her seatbelt, and Pappy tries to grab her but she shrieks and shakes her head so her hair covers her face. And Ishayu hiccups brand new tears, and the vomit you’ve been holding in your throat comes rocketing out all over your helicopter diagram and purple runners, and Pappy manages to swerve the Fiesta to a stop.

Slam-suck-slam say the car doors.

The shape made by the wipers is a rainbow with no colours. On the embankment, bushes with yellow flowers. On a bridge overhead, a queue of black and white cows.

Pappy gets out of the car and lifts you into the cool of the rain. It’s just the two of you, standing with the rain making a mist in your hair, with blown-out dandelion clocks on the embankment and cows walking overhead. Pappy kisses your forehead. ‘Keshika, love.’

You know that things are going to be okay when people switch into English.

Roisín O’Donnell
Roisín O’Donnell

Step 7: Choose the most sustainable option for your shuttle system

In space, it’s very cold and there’s no air. That’s why astronauts must wear special pressure suits which are very uncomfortable on Earth. A space rocket has three parts which are locked together tightly, so it can’t break, even if it’s sucked into a black hole.

’Are you listening Keshika?’ Mummy says. ‘Your dad and I are taking a break.’

Like small break in school. You imagine Mummy and Pappy chasing each other across a yard with no fences. You want to ask Mummy if this is big break or small break or what kind of break is it?

’Keshika, are you listening. Stop doing that,’ Mummy jogs your arm and you exhale, spluttering. ‘Jesus, Keshika, are you okay? God, why are you always doing that? Holding your breath like that? You’ll hurt yourself, so you will.’

’I’m practising for when I’m an astronaut in space.’

’Right well, very nice, but just… Just be a good girl for me, okay? When we go to India next month… I’m going to need you to be brave.’

Nod your head and think about how hot it is in India. The kind of hot that wets your forehead and trickles down your back. No one there watches Dublin versus Kerry. They don’t have Tayto crisps or Club Orange. When you went to Bangalore last summer, after one day you asked your Pappy, ‘when are we going home please?’ And he laughed and said, ‘you are home Baba. This is your home.’ And you thought ‘how can home be somewhere you’ve never even been before?’

Mummy is folding Ishayu’s sleepsuits into a suitcase. ‘Keshika run and fetch me your shorts from the bottom drawer.’

From your bedroom window, you can see cubes of houses the colour of cereal boxes turned inside-out. In the garden, Pappy is sitting on the edge of the trampoline, which he has put back together so Mummy can take a photo to post on e-Bay. Pappy looks as if he hasn’t been picked for the soccer team. You tap the window with your pinky finger, but Pappy can’t hear you. Black birds lift from the rooftop, like broken pieces from a Halloween bonfire.

Step 9: Begin your journey to the launch pad

The most important factor affecting human physical wellbeing in space is weightlessness. Being weightless makes your heart beat slower and causes your organs to get up and move around your body.

Tiptoe downstairs slowly. Lord Ganesh is watching from outside the downstairs toilet. Your slippers whisper secretly across the tiles. The fridge humms and the kitchen smells of Ishayu’s drying sleepsuits and tonight’s fish fingers and baked beans.

Sneak the box of matches from the drawer beside the sink.

Open the back door slowly.

Outside, it’s so dark that you can hear it. You can’t see the dew, but you can feel it soaking through your blue Frozen slippers, and the stars look very close. Trees make shaggy shadows along the garden fence, and daisies purse their pink lips for the night. The first thing you need to do is find a flat place from which to launch your rocket, but Pappy hasn’t mowed the lawn in ages, so it’s bumpy with clover and dandelion clocks. In the middle of all this, the trampoline glows flat and perfect.

Séan’s mam once said you were bendy as a wee lizard. You can wriggle up onto the trampoline in no time at all. Springs moan beneath your weight, and you can feel the metal legs sliding about on the wet grass. Kneel down in the centre of the trampoline and kick off your slippers. Angle your rocket against the side of the matchbox, like how you saw on YouTube. Strike the match firmly, but be careful not to break it. Touch the end of the burning match to the base of your rocket and then wait.

Ignition makes you jump back.

There’s a puff of match smoke. A tiny whizz. And then it’s over. A thin ripple of bluish smoke disappears into the night air. Everything is quiet.

Flop back onto the trampoline.

The sky above Golan Mews is grainy orange. You remember when you were on the plane going to India last summer, you saw stars like spilt salt, filling every space of the sky. We’re taking a break Mummy said, and suddenly you imagine the grainy sky over Golan Mews is cracking and showing the darkness of space beyond, and you imagine a gleaming space rocket (the biggest and best one ever) pointing into that darkness, ready for take off.

You are a space rocket.

Get to your feet. Bend your knees, shout ‘IGNITION!’ and count down ‘FIVE… FOUR… THREE… TWO… ONE… BLAST OFF!’

You are a space rocket, jumping,



flying up towards the stars.

Your feet are the jets.

Your fingers make a nozzle.

‘WHOOSH!’ you shout as the space shuttle detaches, and the legs of the trampoline squeak and squeal against the grass.

Curtains fly open in Mummy and Pappy’s bedroom, making a rectangle of light, like a space shuttle window. First Mummy’s face is in the window and then Pappy’s. And in the seconds before they pull the curtains wider and come running, there’s a moment when they almost bump into each other. Before all the shouting and the other windows of the house lighting up like a slot machine, for a second, Mummy and Pappy are just standing face-to-face. From the darkness of the garden, you can’t hear them over the wheezing of the trampoline springs, but you can see their lips moving, so you can imagine them saying I love you - I love you - I love you, over and over.

How to Build a Space Rocket won the Short Story of the Year award at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018. Roisín O’Donnell’s debut short story collection, Wild Quiet, was published by New Island Books. In 2020 she was awarded a literature bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland to complete her debut novel. A new story will feature in Spoken Stories, a series on RTÉ Radio One in spring 2021

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