This is our most ambitious story about the “Wicked Uncle” – Uncle Jeff. Of course he’s not really wicked, merely irresponsible, and somewhat annoying to Mum and Dad. But the kids love him.
This story refers back to our summer story, “The Wicked Uncle by the Sea” when Uncle Jeff and the kids climbed aboard the yacht of a Russian billionaire and were held captive by the crew. By way of apology the billionaire now offers the family the trip of a lifetime – a holiday aboard his new space hotel.
We’ve mixed in some educational space background about space travel. For example, we mention Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and we explain about the astronauts who have to endure g-force as the rocket takes off.
Several real life companies are promising holidays in space and there are even plans to build a space hotel. Our description of the hotel and the robot butler is fantasy though. Needless to say none of the characters or businesses mentioned in the story have anything to do with real life ones.
The main aim of this story is try and convey some of the wonder of being in space and looking back at the Earth, and the marvel of creation and life which is so much part of Christmas.
It was November. Every shop window glittered with Christmas lights, inflatable Santas, Christmas trees, tinsel and glitz.
“Oh no,” said Mum as she pushed the trolley around the supermarket, “I’m bored with Christmas already. I’m simply not going to order a turkey this year. We’ll just have to get away for the holidays - as far away as we possibly can.”
But she could not quite work out how to win over Dad and the kids to her get-away-plan, because she knew just how much they loved every detail of Christmas at home, right down to the last bad joke in the crackers.
She was still brooding over the problem that evening when the phone rang. It was Uncle Jeff. She held the receiver about six inches from her ear because his voice was loud and grating.
“Have I got Christmas sorted for you and the kids this year, “ he announced, “It’s a surprise that’s, well, out of this world. That’s the only way to put it.”
“Like an all-inclusive luxury hotel in the Maldives out-of-this-world?” asked Mum hopefully.
“Not a bad guess. It is a Christmas get-away. But it’s less boring than a beach,” replied Jeff. In fact the news was so exciting that he had to come round and break it to the family in person.
An hour later, the wheels of Jeff’s Porsche crunched onto the drive. Mum felt a certain amount of dread as she wondered what his Christmas surprise would be. She imagined all the dangerous and irresponsible treats that he might, in his bachelor delusion, believe to be suitable for a family holiday: Big Game Hunting? Scuba Diving with Great White Sharks? Jumping out of helicopters with skis?
She watched her husband grimace as Jeff slapped him on the back and asked “How’s tricks my older bro?”
The kids were supposed to be in bed, but both were sitting in their pyjamas at the top of the stairs.
“Hi Uncle Jeff!” they chorused. And he gave them a wink and replied, “no listening in now, because what I’m going to say is so exciting that if you hear it, you won’t be able to sleep.”
So of course they both did listen at the living room door while Jeff unveiled his surprise to Mum and Dad.
“I bet,” said Jeremy, “that he knows a rock star or some mega famous actor who’s invited us to stay in a mansion.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” said Jemima. “I think Jeff knows business people mainly. Mum says he drives around in sports cars because most of his life is really rather boring.”
And when they both reapplied their ears to the door they heard that Uncle Jeff was indeed talking about a business person, but not a boring one:
“Back in the summer, when you came to stay at my place by the sea, there was a big yacht in the harbour belonging to a mega-rich Russian. Me and the kids ran into him by chance, and there was a little, shall we say, unpleasantness with his staff, for which he was incredibly sorry. And by way of apology, he wants the family – that’s you and the kids – to be the first to try out his life-changing – first of its kind, new frontier -travel service, all absolutely free, gratis, on the house. It will be the holiday of a lifetime.”
“And what sort of holiday would that be?” asked Dad.
“The name of the company is a bit of a giveaway. It’s called “Holidays in Space.”
“I don’t get it,” said Mum.
“Well,” said Uncle Jeff. “It does what it says in the tin. Here’s some literature.”
And he handed them some brochures.
“I still don’t get it,” said Mum. “What do all these pictures of space rockets mean?”
“Duh!” exclaimed Jeremy outside the door. “It’s pretty obvious isn’t it? We’re going to spend Christmas in space, courtesy of Uncle Jeff and his Russian billionaire friend.”
“Don’t be silly and keep your voice down,” hissed back his sister. They could hear that Mum was saying, “Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!”
And Jeremy pushed the door open and came flying into the room saying “Yes, yes yes! Thank you Uncle Jeff! That’s the most incredible idea ever!”
And Jemima was saying “Not me. You won’t catch me going up in rocket propelled bucket!”
Dad just sat looking amazed. Mum was pleading with him. “Explain to your brother why his idea is completely no-can-do, not-on-your-life.”
But Dad got up and hugged his brother.
“You see,” he said, “when we were both growing up, we both wanted to be astronauts. And now Jeff has made it possible. That’s so incredibly kind of him. Of course we must accept. Don’t you see? This is an amazing opportunity for the kids. It will change their whole view of the world. You wouldn’t want them to grow up saying that they had a chance to go into space, but their parents passed it by?“
And when Mum thought about it, she realised that she wouldn’t want her children saying a thing like that.
As soon as the school term finished, the family flew to Russia to begin training for their Christmas holiday. Three and a half hours after leaving London, they landed at Moscow airport. As they came through passport control , surly looking men in leather jackets called out “taxi! taxi!”
“Nyet, Nyet,” said Mum. It was the only Russian she knew. It means “No.”
“There’s our guide,” said Dad. And he tugged his suitcase on wheels in the direction of a tall blonde lady who was holding up a sign that said:
“HOLIDAYS IN SPACE.”
A car picked them up outside the airport and drove them along the ring road around Moscow. They looked out at the landscape of snow covered fields, silver birch trees, high-rised flats and signs in unfamiliar Russian letters – and quite frankly they felt that they were already out of this world.
Finally they checked into their hotel inside Star City, the training centre for all the Russian cosmonauts, as well as for space tourists like themselves. The rooms were rather small and poky, and Dad said it was part of the training, to get used to the cramped conditions of the space craft…
A little later, the family went downstairs to meet Uncle Jeff who had been in Moscow for a few days already: “Hey Kids. Welcome to Space City. Have you seen Yuri Gagarin yet?”
“Who’s he?” asked Jeremy.
“Why he’s my hero. The first man in space of course,” said Jeff. “Get your gloves and hats on, and we’ll go and pay homage. He’s just across the square.”
Yuri Gagarin was in fact a statue on the steps of the space museum – a sliver man flying through a hoop, more like a circus acrobat than a cosmonaut.
As Uncle Jeff explained, the real Yuri Gagarin had died when he crashed his Mig fighter jet. “But he got into space first, in 1961, ahead of the Americans,” he added.
“But the Americans got to the moon first,” said Jeremy.
“That’s true, I well remember watching the Apollo moon mission on a dim television screen when we were boys. The rocket standing on the launch pad in Cape Canaveral. Mission control counting down. And then a blast of fire. Lift off from 0 to 28,000 kilometers per hour, why that’s a bigger rush than my motorcycle can do! Ever since then, I’ve dreamed of a trip through space.”
“And now your dream is coming true Uncle Jeff” said Jemima.
“Uh-uh. No room for me. It’s going to be squished getting you four inside the space shuttle.”
And the kids realised just how generous Uncle Jeff had been to give up his chance of fulfilling his boyhood dream for them. Mum would have gladly given him her place in space, but she knew she would be more worried waiting on the ground than if she was actually in orbit with the family.
“We’re going to be the first family in space.. It will be like, historic.” said Jeremy.
“And great publicity for the travel company,” said Dad.
“Providing we all get back safely,” added mum.
In the morning, things started to get even more real when they met their space instructor, a former cosmonaut called Timor who had spent six months living in the International Space Station which orbits the Earth. He told the kids:
“When I was in space, I missed my family. There was nothing else on Earth that I felt the need for. So you are very fortunate to be going up with your Mom and Dad.”
Jemima hugged her mother and said how wonderful it was to be going into space together. Jeremy shuffled his feet.
Timor took them to the quartermaster to try on their space suits for the first time. All the suits had “Holidays in Space” written across the chests and helmets. Jeremy had a blue helmet and Jemima had a pink one, Dad had an extra large helmet, and Mum had a neat white one.
Uncle Jeff joined them for their training too – just so he could get a taste of what space travel would be like. He brought his own space helmet which he had ordered especially from NASA, the American space agency. It bore the inscription:
Buzz Lightyear. Space Ranger.
Mum said it only went to show that Uncle Jeff hadn’t grown up.
Their first space lesson was fun. It involved picking up toothbrushes while wearing big fat gloves, and sticking things to walls with velcro, because in space everything would be floating around. Then they learnt to operate the space toilet, which was a cross between a seat and a vacuum cleaner and had lots of different coloured buttons.
The next day things started to get tough. The hardest part of space travel is enduring the enormously powerful gravitational force – or g-force – when you pass out of, and then back into, the Earth’s Atmosphere. This force feels a bit like being on the biggest, fastest, scariest, and most sick-making fair ground ride – and so space training is a bit like going to the fun fair – only a lot worse.
They met Timor in a large empty room next to the gymnasium.
“Jeremy. Please sit on this chair and fasten the seat belt nice and tight,” said Timor. Jeremy did as he was told. The chair wasn’t particularly comfortable. He wondered what was going to happen. Was he about to drop through a trap door? Or shoot up through the ceiling at vast speed? No. Wrong on both counts. He started to spin round, fast at first, and then even faster, then even faster. It would have been fine, only he felt that his stomach and his head were both travelling at different speeds in different directions. He wished he had not eaten pancakes and honey for breakfast. “STOP!” he shouted. He span round a few dozen more times, but now more and more slowly, thankfully.
“Well done. You lasted 96 seconds before begging for mercy. Not bad.” said Timor.
Jeremy felt too sick to make any comment.
And then Jemima, Mum and Dad all had a go. Mum lasted the longest – two and a half minutes – perhaps that was because she had eaten the least breakfast.
Over the next couple of weeks, they did a lot of whizzing around in circles. And trained inside a giant water tank, to get used to floating, because that’s what you do in space.
At the end of their training, Timor presented each member of the family with a certificate that said:
Diploma of Moscow International Academy of Space Tourism.
Space Tourist. First Class.
And the next day they flew to the desert of Kazakhstan which, although it is a long way south of Moscow, is still cold and snowy in winter.
Jeremy and Jemima looked out of their hotel window towards the brand new space shuttle that stood on the launch pad pointing straight up to the grey clouds. It was the first of its kind, the jumbo-jet of space craft, especially designed to carry tourists out of the world’s atmosphere. The words “Holidays in Space” were written in English and Russian letters down its sides.
Jemima said. “I wish they hadn’t given us a room overlooking that thing. It makes me want to go home.”
And Jeremy said:
“I’m scared too. But we’ve got no choice. Dad’s determined to go.”
Upstairs Mum and Dad were also looking out of the window towards the shuttle. Dad was saying:
“It’s funny. I dreamt of this all my life. And now I see that space craft on the runway, I’m wondering, should I be taking this risk with the kids?”
And Mum said:
“We can’t pull out now. It would be too embarrassing.”
And on the top floor, Jeff was looking out at the spaceship, and saying to himself.
“Oh, oh my…. I hope that contraption is space-worthy and totally safe. If anything happens to them, I’ll never forgive myself.”
Just after dawn, a battered old bus took the family over the slushy runway to the shuttle. They wore their space suits and carried their helmets under their arms. Underneath their spacesuits they wore woolly vests and long johns, because it’s cold in space. And underneath those, they wore special diapers or nappies for space travellers because – well I won’t explain that – but let’s just say they had a long flight ahead before they reached the space hotel.
Uncle Jeff was waiting for them next to the steps up into the shuttle. He hugged each of his relatives in turn, giving his brother the last and longest hug:
“Hey kiddo,” he said. “May the force be with you!”
Sergei, the space travel tycoon, was there too. They all got a kiss on both cheeks from the billionaire. Apparently that was a Russian tradition.
The three crew members were the first to climb up the ladder to the door of the space craft, and the family followed. Jemima was last up, and she turned and waved to the television cameras and gave them a happy smile.
Inside, the space tourists lay down on their seats with their knees bent towards them, as they had been taught. The illuminated signs above their positions read:
“Fasten Seat Belts. Switch off Mobile Phones. No smoking.”
They slotted their safety buckles into place.
Jeremy looked at Jemima, and Jemima looked at Jeremy. Inside their helmets they could hear the chattering of voices from Mission Control, but they couldn’t understand a word because it was all in Russian. Jeremy and Jemima could talk to each other over the radio, but they had to compete with the background babble which was quite confusing. Jeremy said:
“Jeremy to Jemima. Thanks for being a good sister. I mean, if this space- doohickey blows up or something, I want you to know that you were okay really.”
“Jemima to Jeremy,” replied his sister. “It’s not going to blow up. But thanks for being a good brother – most of the time.”
The Countdown was in Russian and English.
At the end of the countdown there was stillness. The chattering in their ears ceased. It was like the whole world had stopped turning.
And then the rocket blasters pushed off. They were travelling at five miles a second straight up. They all felt their stomachs go heave-ho. “I’m not going to be sick. I’m not going to be sick,” said Jeremy. And he was glad that he hadn’t eaten pancakes for breakfast.
The ship shook and shuddered so much that Jeremy could hear his bones rattling – in fact the Wright brothers probably enjoyed a smoother flight when they took off in the first airplane in 1903.
The view through the window turned grey with cloud but soon the view became blue, then purple, and at last black. It had taken them six minutes to reach space.
The rockets stopped firing. The ship stopped shaking. There was silence. A deep, awesome, silence.
Jeremy was the first to see that the seatbelt sign had been turned off. He pressed the red button to release himself, and he cart-wheeled out of his seat. He flew straight into the wall, but it didn’t matter because it was covered with soft padding.
Dad followed him. They were both floating in total weightlessness. And then the oxygen sign came on which meant they could take their helmets off.
“Wow this amazing” exclaimed Jeremy as Jemima shot past him, flaying her arms around like a baby sea gull learning to fly.
Mum was floating on her back like she was resting on the warm calm sea that she had dreamt of for her holiday.
“I think,” said Mum, “that a baby must feel like this inside the mother’s womb.”
The most remarkable part was yet to come. “Hey look at this! “ called Jemima. She was pressing her face against one of the portholes.
She was looking at the top of the world. A translucent blue curve. And beyond it, all infinity. They were all quiet, lost for words, until Jeremy said:
“Hey, look there’s Santa.”
“Where?” asked Jemima.
“…… Caught you…. just kidding.”
And then they were silent again for a while, until Dad said:
“You wouldn’t think there were any problems down there. Like Mr. Jones is late for work and Johnny’s stuck on his home work.”
And the whole family knew that they would always have a special bond. Not just because they were family, but because they had shared this experience together, and had seen Planet Earth from the outside, and felt the harmony of the Universe.
The journey took another two days before they caught up with the space hotel in its orbit around Earth. Their shuttle docked with the larger ship on Christmas Eve. The family floated into their hotel through connecting hatches. There was music playing in the reception area. It was Jingle Bells.
The butler was a robot called Fred who wore a Santa Claus hat. He introduced them to the luxuries of their new home. Their floating sleeping bags were more comfortable than the best mattresses, and they would sleep like birds on the wing. The water in the shower floated upwards. The space toilet was a slightly different model from the one which they had trained on, but if they got confused they could consult the instruction manual. The refrigerator had every type of drink, but it didn’t matter if they wanted water or champaign, they still had to drink it through a straw. They should use the rowing machine every day, because your muscles can go flabby in space if you aren’t careful. For a special relaxation, the butler could give them a foot massage, or they could climb into the aromatherapy capsule. They could use the free wifi to check their emails, cruise the net or even watch tv.
But actually, the coolest thing you could do was to look out of the big window to stare into infinite space. Dad asked Fred to move the Christmas tree because it was blocking part of the view.
For Christmas lunch, they strapped themselves to the table so that they wouldn’t float up to the ceiling. Fred brought round the Turkey sandwiches and the Christmas pudding. They pulled Christmas crackers and read jokes like:
I only work when I’m fired, what am I?
What kind of astronaut can jump higher than a house?
Any kind. A house can’t jump.
And they laughed even more than they would have done at home.
And then they went up to the bridge to look out at the blue planet called Earth.
“Isn’t it just like a new born baby?” said Mum. “It’s so beautiful, so perfect, so fragile. It’s a miracle.”
And Dad said : “Happy Christmas Darling” and he kissed Mum.
And Jemima said:
“I wish we could take something back for Uncle Jeff. Like a piece of moon rock or something.”
And they all remembered how their Wicked Uncle had given them this amazing Christmas present, and Mum admitted:
“For the first time ever, I’m truly sorry that Jeff isn’t with us. It was so kind of him to give up his place on the shuttle for us.”
Their watches were still set to Greenwich Mean Time. Dad noticed that it was almost three o’clock in London.
“Come on” he said. “We can’t miss the Queen just because we’re 280 miles above the Buckingham Palace. Let’s fire up the internet.”
A few minutes later, they were all gathered around a screen watching the Queen, just as they watched her at home every Christmas Day.
Her Majesty wore reading spectacles and said: “At this time of peace and goodwill, our thoughts turn to children all over the world.”
“Hey, and don’t forget us kids up here in space!” said Jeremy.
When the Queen had finished her Christmas message, Dad wanted to take “a quick snoop at the headlines.” And he picked up the keyboard and switched the screen over to Google News.
“I wouldn’t bother. Nothing ever happens at Christmas,” advised Mum.
“You’re right,” said Dad. “It all looks reassuringly boring down there…. but that’s funny. There’s a news story here that says “Family Stuck in Space”…. Is there another family up here?”
“Here let me see that,” exclaimed Mum in a panicky voice.
The news story – and the 4032 other similar stories on Google News – was about the Crusoe family from Walton Upon Thames, England. There was only one Crusoe family in orbit around the Earth that Christmas. And they were that family. Mum read on.
The Crusoe Family may be spending rather longer in space than they bargained for. The shuttle that was due to bring them back to Earth has failed safety tests. Inspectors from the International Federation for Space Travel declared it unsafe to fly after a cleaner noticed that a vital life support system had been fastened to the outside of the craft with masking tape. A spokesman for the Russian Travel company, Holidays in Space, said:
“The Crusoes have enough dried food, water and oxygen to last them another year in orbit. Even if they are celebrating next year’s Christmas in space, they will be OK.”
Mr. Crusoe’s brother, Jeff Crusoe, who is currently in Moscow, said:
“I am working night and day to get the family back down to Earth where they belong.”
When she had finished reading the article Mum said:
“I should have trusted my first instinct. As soon as Jeff said he had got Christmas “sorted” I felt something terrible was going to happen. But I allowed your brother to sweet talk me into this insane space escapade.”
Dad didn’t say anything. He just stared at the Earth and wondered if they would ever see their house in Walton-upon-Thames close up again.
“Next Christmas….” said Jeremy. “That seems like an awfully long time before we get back home.”
“If we ever get down at all,” said Jemima, who looked more shocked than any of them.
Mum inspected the larder. She found powdered strawberry mousse, powdered milk, powdered chicken broth, powdered lamb curry, and powdered just about any food you could think of.
“It’s back to the 1970s,” said Dad. “That’s what Jeff and I lived on when we were growing up.”
“Don’t talk to me about Jeff,” said Mum.
The week between Christmas and New year passed quietly. Jemima drew maps of the constellations. Jeremy played computer games. Dad practiced virtual reality golf swings, and Mum read War and Peace, which she had always wanted to do, but had never found the time. In fact it would have been a deeply relaxing holiday – if it wasn’t for the fact that they all knew that they were Stuck in Space.
The news did not improve.
“Holiday Space Company Tottering on the Brink…” read Dad on the internet. The millionaires who had booked holidays in the space hotel were cancelling one after the other. The company was in danger of going bankrupt. And if that happened, the Crusoe Family might be stuck in space FOREVER!”
”Like, we’ll just go round the Earth until the End of Time….?” asked Jemima.
“We’ll have to get down to Earth sooner than that,” said Mum. “Because I’ve sworn a solemn oath to smack your Uncle Jeff around the chops. What was he thinking of, sending us up here? He’s the most irresponsible uncle in the entire world, sorry, in the entire Universe” she said with a gesture towards the Universe itself, stretched out just beyond the window.
And then she froze. “Oh my…” she said. “Oh my stars. I’m hallucinating. Or can you see what I can see?”
“I think I can,” said Jeremy.
“Well if you can see Uncle Jeff taking a space walk just outside our window, then you’re having the same hallucination that I’m having,” said Mum.
“I think we are,” said Dad.
Fifteen minutes later they heard a metallic clunk as the space shuttled docked with the hotel. First Uncle Jeff, and then Sergei, the owner of the travel company, floated into the reception area. Fred the Robot Butler said:
“Welcome to the Space Hotel. The management of Holidays in Space wishes you a happy and comfortable stay.”
“Hey kids, how do you like it up here?” boomed Uncle Jeff.
“Wicked,” said Jeremy. “But it would be nice to get down some time.”
“And very soon you shall,” said Jeff.
An hour later the family were strapped into their seats in the space shuttle. The descent to the desert of Kazakhstan took just thirty minutes, but the inside of the shuttle was as hot as a sauna on the way down. They landed on the runway with two or three bumps, but no real trouble.
When they climbed down the ladder onto the tarmac, Jeremy looked up at the sky and said:
“Uncle Jeff’s up there somewhere.”
“Yes,” said Jemima. “He got his space trip after all.”
You see, after all the millionaires cancelled their Holidays in Space, the only people confident enough to fly in the shuttle were Sergei and Uncle Jeff. According to Sergei, there was nothing much wrong with the shuttle from the safety point of view. It just needed some routine maintenance after its first trip. The story about the masking tape had been spread by a rival company and wasn’t true at all. But the only way to prove that it wasn’t true was to make the trip himself. And the only other person who had enough faith to go with him, was Uncle Jeff. And in one week’s time, the shuttle would return to pick them up again and bring them back to Earth.
And that’s the story of how Jeremy and Jemima, Mum and Dad, and Uncle Jeff spent their Christmas Holiday in space.