There is a point, when you have been alone for a very long time, that you begin to look for company in anything. It begins with your own voice, speaking your thoughts out loud just to free them from the confines of your head, to know that, here at least, you have vibrated the air and made your presence felt. You may move on to personifying inanimate objects: naming your television, making the spatula squeal as you dip its head into boiling sauce, saying ‘I love you’ to your bed. From there, it’s just a matter of time until your inwardness expands outwards and begins to encompass the house, the street, the city, the sky. It is a paradox of loneliness that you can feel both small and unnoticed, and at the same time like the tender, beating heart of the universe.
All this is to say that I had been alone for a very long time when I decided to invite the planets to dinner.
It was a summer evening, more than a year into the crisis that had confined all of us to our houses, only able to see each other (and ourselves) through blurred boxes on screens. The doors to my balcony were open—a feeble attempt to freshen up my little one-room flat—but the air was apathetic, so I lay on the sofa, limbs soft, mind exhausted yet restless, watching the sky darken and the first stars blink into light.
It was after nine and I hadn’t eaten yet. There were ingredients in the fridge for a fairly elaborate meal, but I could not settle my mind enough to make my limbs do the work of preparing food. A nice meal. Another nice meal. Another pleasant evening at home. Another week of nothing to do, which in previous times I might have called ‘relaxing’ or ‘self-care’. Another, another, another. I pictured the contents of my fridge—red globes of tomatoes, the cratered surface of a wedge of cheese, onions with layers like planets—not six feet away, but as unreachable to me in my inertia as the stars.
There, beyond my balcony, was a real planet, visible against the still-pale summer sky. Venus, probably. Or Mars. A bright pinpoint, like a seed.
Eventually hunger won out. For half an hour I moved around my kitchen, pulling the ingredients together into a meal, imagining a breeze on my back. While my dinner simmered on the hob, I went to the little dining table and set out a plate, a knife and fork, a glass of water. It was what I had done on many evenings since I’d lived here, and every evening for the last year since the restaurants were closed—but tonight the table seemed emptier than usual, and I was struck by an urge to decorate it.
Decorating the dinner table—that’s something people do on special occasions, or when they’re expecting company. But why shouldn’t I do it for myself? Why shouldn’t I do something nice just because I’m the only person here? There’s no reason!
I was determined, but rustling up a table decoration when you haven’t planned one is difficult, especially when you don’t have the space to keep things that are purely decorative. I was picturing a white tablecloth with a runner of red fabric up the middle, three gold candlesticks, a cut-glass bowl with flowers floating in perfumed water. Scrabbling in my cupboards rewarded me with an old blue tablecloth and three tea-lights in shiny tinfoil casings. It was not the lavish scene I had imagined for myself.
I was just considering fetching the succulents from the bookshelf when the sky beyond my balcony caught my attention. It was properly dark now, and the few brightest stars were shining bravely through the streetlight haze. The planet, Venus or Mars, hovered like a firefly right in front of me.
The planets—now they would be a table decoration. Imagine them all, lined up like gems along my table. They would give me something beautiful to look at while I eat. And if I can’t go out underneath the sky, then the least I can do is bring it in to me.
And so, I decided. I went out onto the balcony and leaned over the railing as far as I could, pushing myself up onto my toes and stretching towards the pinprick of light in the sky. The railing dug into my stomach and made me feel a little sick; the five-floor fall yawned beneath me. But after a few seconds of reaching, my fingertips brushed cloud tops, and with one final effort I strained forward and plucked the planet out of the sky.
It was Venus. A smoky marble—pale yellow and slightly stinging to the touch. I rolled it around in my palm for a moment, watched the top layer of clouds swirl and eddy against my skin. Part of me wanted to lick it. My tongue poked out from between my lips; I imagined it would taste sour and sharp, like the sweets you eat as a child that make your lips pucker into a kiss. But I didn’t; I put it on the table instead, where it made a dark yellow smudge on the tablecloth.
I went back to the window and let my eyes rove around the sky again, until I found the reddish tint of Mars. This was easier to reach, closer, and when I had it in my hands it felt rough and cool. I rubbed my thumb over the summit of Olympus Mons, sank my fingernail into the trench of Valles Marineris. Then I placed Mars on my table too.
Jupiter came next—large and unwieldy, but not too heavy despite its size. Holding this planet was a joy; my fingers sank into the surface of it a little, and I twisted and turned it to catch the light. Pale blue aurorae rippled around its poles; the Great Red Spot, that enormous, three-hundred-year-old storm, raged near the base of my thumb. I had the same urge to taste Jupiter as I’d had with Venus—it would be creamy, fudgy, swirled like ice cream—but I felt this was too undignified a thing to do to a giant of the Solar System, so I set it down next to the bowl of peas.
I got hold of Saturn by pinching the outer edge of one of its rings and tugging until the planet came within reach. It was quite difficult to hold, encircled by that thin, tiger-striped band of rings, so I gripped it from underneath, my fingers tucked under the rings like an egg cup, with Saturn itself the egg. When I set it down on the table, it leaned over so that one edge of its rings touched the tablecloth, holding the planet at a jaunty angle.
Mercury was quite difficult to find, but when I finally pinched hold of it, it felt warm on one side and cold on the other, like a half-cooked pea. To reach Uranus and Neptune I had to fetch a barbecue skewer to poke them out of the sky, and I caught them in my big plastic mixing bowl. They looked delightful at the far end of my table—one deep sapphire blue, the other palest blue-green—but I put them the wrong way round to begin with and didn’t notice until I had dished up my dinner.
(I did think, for a moment, about digging out my extendable tape measure and trying for Pluto, but it felt unfair to include it on my table without bringing in all the other dwarf planets too, so I left it where it was.)
And so, my table decoration was complete. I stepped back to admire the colourful line of planets, sitting on my old blue tablecloth next to the plate of food, the glass of water. They were still and watchful, but even in their newfound smallness they had presence. They were giants made manageable, Titans spending the evening in my living room. When I finally sat down to eat, I felt like a god sitting down to feast on the universe.
When my meal was over, I pushed back my chair and looked at the food-stained plate, the crumpled napkin. Somehow the planets elevated even these; the table looked like the ruins of a bacchanalian feast, rather than the remnants of a dinner for one. But—unclaimable as they were—the planets were not mine to keep. It was time to return them to the sky.
I cleared away the dishes and brushed the crumbs off the tablecloth. Then I took hold of each corner of the cloth and pulled them together to make a bundle. The planets rolled inwards and jostled together, the great gulfs of space between them closed at last.
It took some effort to heave the bundle over the railing of my balcony, but when I finally managed it, I stood there for a few seconds, feeling the weight of the Solar System in my hands. Then I let go of two of the corners and at the same time pulled on the tablecloth so that it snapped in the air and flicked the planets skyward.
For a moment I worried they would fall. I imagined having to rush downstairs and scoop up broken planets from the car park, using shattered pieces of crust to scoop oozing mantle back inside their shells. But the planets did not fall—instead they hung in the air for a moment, shining under the summer moon, and then they tore off like comets, back to their places in the sky. After a few moments, I had lost most of them to view; only Venus hung before me, a little further along in its course than when I had pulled it out of the sky, a distant pinprick once more.
I gave the tablecloth a final shake and closed the window. My flat felt small again now, and quiet, but it was a different kind of quiet than earlier in the evening—not the scribbled silence of a worrying mind, but smooth and still, like ice. This kind of quiet—the comforting quiet of the void—could hold me for as long as I needed it to, rock me in its emptiness until there was a world, and other people’s arms, to return to.
The table, now bare, was not quite clean. A few grains had fallen from the rocky planets, worked their way through the weave of the tablecloth to the wooden surface. I swept up the tiny grains—so small they almost weren’t there—and held them in my hands.