Alexei Lenovsky spent his final years in a hostel for burnt out alcoholics at the arse end of Fitzpatrick street in Adelaide.
Adelaide is a sun struck city of about a million hidden away at the edge of the desert and the sea in Australia, and has plentiful alcoholics. Alexei, incidentally, had never been one of them, although he had been the first man in space.
The neighborhood in which Lenovsky rented the filthy room where he was patiently waiting to die of old age had seen better days. During his time there it was all bus station grime, tangled electricity wires and faded Cyrillic signage on empty shops. The place was a small, stagnant ghetto of Russian refugees who had fled their homeland and found themselves unable to fit into the country that had taken them.
Sometimes the Aussies said that these Russians should try harder to adapt, to show a little gratitude- but for many of them immigration had made their already difficult lives into a bad dream in a foreign language, and it left them lacking the fight to avoid being pushed into the part of the city where the pimps and the junkies were.
As a lost cosmonaut Alexei was, of course, different. The pension he got off the Chinese, whose prisoner he had been for many decades after his space capsule careened into a potato field near Shanghai, was by no means lavish, but it was enough that he could have done better. The thing was that he liked this neighbourhood. Among these people from his homeland he felt safe, and in the winter, when it occasionally rained, he was able to imagine he was back in Odessa.
Before they had taken him to the airport to put him on the plane to Adelaide, after he had been their prisoner for forty two years, the Chinese told Alexei that it would be better if he didn't talk about his time in the gulag and being a lost cosmonaut and all that.
Alexei was so patient that even after his decades of digging potatoes out of the mud on the prison farm and having lost all his toes to frostbite he didn't have anything particularly against the Chinese, but he was proud of having been the first man in space, and he didn't see why he should have to hide it.
Instead, from the moment he arrived in Australia, he made it his mission to tell everyone about who he was, regardless of whether or not they were willing to listen.
He really didn't mind that no one believed him. As he was fond of explaining to people, his near miraculous ability to calmly cope with whatever life threw at him was one of the reasons he'd been selected for cosmonaut school in the first place.
As part of the course, Alexei had been subjected to a type of endurance training that involved being locked into a sealed lightless box for two days. Alexei had been surprised to find that none of the other space cadets could deal with it. They said it felt like they were being suffocated or buried or drowned or baked, and Alexei agreed with them- it was just that somehow he didn't mind.
It puzzled people.
"How do you do it?" they'd ask him, and they never believed he was serious when he gave his answer.
"Don't you know", he would say, “that in the end everything works out fine?"
"Would you believe" he would tell anyone who came within earshot, almost fifty years later as he shuffled along the sea front in Adelaide, startling the sun bathers with his tangled beard and frank stale urine stench, "that I was the first man in space"?
One of the reasons why no one understood what Alexei said is that he didn't speak English, just Mandarin and Russian, which although it was his native language had become so garbled through misuse that not even the Russians he lived among really understood him.
In his last years he discovered a factory not far from his house where not quite legal immigrants could find employment soldering together computer keyboards. The carcinogenic plastic fumes, even the diluted essence of them that wafted through to the foyer, was almost exactly the same one that had filled his space capsule. It was very nostalgic for him. He liked to sit there and let the memories come flooding back.
"I was actually in space before Gagarin you know?" he would mention, conversationally, to the security guard as he was manhandled out onto the street.
All in all Alexei wasn't unhappy with the way his life had turned out, although there were times, like when he was on the pavement after being booted out of the plastics factory again with that delicious, toxic space pod smell still clinging to the hairs of his old nostrils, that he did think about how different things might have been if he had have landed safely back in Russia the way he was supposed to.
This was the thing, in 1959, when Alexei became the first man in space, no one had given much thought to the difficulties of retrieving him from up there. Everyone knew that the Americans were trying to beat them, and the truth is that in the rush to get him into orbit corners were cut. Just getting him up there without incinerating him had seemed like an achievement, and outside of Moscow, at mission control, the technicians whose job it was to guide him home were a little distracted with self congratulations.
Skimming the edge of the atmosphere at speeds previously achieved only in the imagination of physicists Alexei knew that he would be a hero on his return, and was aware of the irony of that. The space pod he was riding in was almost exactly the same model that had previously been used to send monkeys into orbit. Almost the sole concession that had been made to Alexei's status as an elite test pilot and not a monkey had been the addition of a small port hole, through which it would be his privilege and duty to take mankind's first glimpse down at the Earth from above.
Peering out, his orbit over and his superheated return begun, it was clear to Alexei that something had gone wrong. Although his decent should have begun above the Atlantic, he could clearly see he was already directly over the Ukraine and slipping further hundreds of kilometers further east with every second.
On the ground, it seemed, someone had slipped up. Now, sealed in a sphere designed for a space monkey, there was nothing he could do.
Alexei figured that it was possible he might land somewhere on the coast of China but that it was more likely he would splash down into the Pacific where the hastily designed pod would sink straight to the bottom.
Plunging Earthwards Alexei looked through the porthole at the Himalayas below. From above the Earth was an imperfect space fruit, a swirling ball of blue and white and green and yellow- brighter and more alive than anything he had thought possible. When the view from the window was replaced by a pulsing red glow he thought a little of tuberculosis and car accidents, and it seemed to him that things could have been worse. In his last minutes he'd looked down on the living blue ribbon that was the river he'd lived by as a child.
"It's OK" he said, and under his space suit he shrugged his shoulders. On Earth, in the mountains of the Karakom and the deserts of Xinjiang, people pointed at the sky and thought they were seeing a meteor.
Above them Alexei waited.
The farmer whose field Alexei landed in was napping under a tree when it happened. On being retrieved by the fire brigade what he had really wanted to do was explain to the poor man that the Soviet government would compensate him for the damage to his potatoes, but instead he was dragged off to the police station and enveloped by a crowd of people who all seemed to be shouting at once in Chinese.
He thought that even if his return to Earth had been bungled the fact the Soviet Union had put him into space was still pretty impressive. He didn't see why it had to be such a big secret.
But someone did.
Alexei was surprisingly at peace with his place on the mountain prison farm they sent him to. He didn't even think of it as a prison, there was a beautiful view of the glaciers, and despite the fleas and frequent hunger, he liked being close to the soil. There was no barbed wire or anything like that, although anyone who tried to run away was more or less assured of freezing to death or being eaten by wolves.
Why they decided to let him go after forty two years was also a mystery to him.
The leaders of the new Russia were not in any way pleased when they were informed that Alexei Lenovsky was miraculously still alive. By then half the high schools in their country had been named after Yuri Gagarin and their generation had grown up with his picture pasted on their bedroom wall. There would be nothing simple about the task of having to rename everything and rethink the meaning of some of their fondest childhood myths. It was just easier for him to remain dead.
The Russians and the Chinese, as it happens, had been the best of friends almost up until 1959, and if Alexei had have arrived just a year earlier there would have been no secrecy. Old Chairman Mao himself would have donated his private train to ship him back home, and his flight would have been touted as a symbol of the superiority of the system they claimed to share.
By 1959 however they no longer claimed to share the same system, instead accusing each other of having forsaken the path to Communism and gone across to the dark side. The Chinese were uneasy with what the Russians had done with the legacy of their former dictator, Stalin. After his death in 1953 they had all but disowned him, whilst in China he went on being revered as a visionary archangel.
The Chinese felt this proved that the Russians were in fact hegemonic revisionists, whatever that meant.
The Russians responded by claiming that the Chinese version of Marxism, which put peasants not industrial workers at the heart of the revolution, was simple minded, and called them cabbage patch communists.
On this pretext, on both sides, men with slide rules took time off from their fraught attempts to retrieve people like Alexei from space to plot mutual nuclear annihilation.
It was all nonsense, of course. The Chinese were continually showing that they were anything but simple minded. Forty two years later, they showed it by seeing that the ghetto at the arse end of Fitzpatrick Street in Adelaide was perhaps the only place in the world they could send a decrepit old Slav with a weird accent and stories of life as a lost Cosmonaut to die without attracting any attention at all.
Each week, on Tuesday evening, the nephew of the slumlord who owned the building where Alexei lived came to collect the rent.
Alexei never needed any invitation to talk when he came. Far from sullenly handing over a fist full of crumpled notes like most of them, he came right out onto the top floor landing where he stood slowly counting out his rent from an enormous brick of crash he always carried, steadily prattling the whole time.
The rent collector tried to tell him to just shut up and hand over the money, but of course he could speak neither Russian or Mandarin, so it didn't do any good.
Annoyed, but a little awed at the articulate sound of the old man’s words, he was reduced to awkwardly standing on the top step impatiently tapping his foot. Alexei didn't seem to notice.
The reason for this is that he was deeply into a discourse on how, before joining the air force, he had almost become an engineer. He had a place at the university in Leningrad and everything, but gave it away so he could stay close to his Mother after his Father died in the war.
He told the rent collector that although he didn't hold anything against the people who had made the mistakes that had flung his space pod and his life so far off course, he had for a long time felt that he could have done a better job himself. He explained how he believed that even without access to specialist materials and government sponsorship, anyone could build themselves a basic little launch vehicle.
Alexei stopped talking at this stage and used a scabby elbow to point through his open door.
"Look", he said, "if you don't believe me just peek in there and look for yourself“. He referring to the inside of his flat where every surface available was covered by coils of the type of paper usually used for wrapping up meat, although over the past few years Alexei had used it for the unconventional purpose of laying out the blueprints for a home brewed spacecraft.
If the rent collector cared enough to look things might have worked out differently. The paper was covered with finely traced lines and the sort of numbers that represent thrust to weight ratios, metal fatigue projections and other things which rocket scientists know about. Even he would have seen it was something amazing.
But he didn't look.
He didn’t grunt thanks when he received the rent money. He counted the notes Alexei had given him with this thumb, looked at his watch, and trotted off down the stairs.
Alexei was no fool, but at age of 85 his ability to read people was getting a little rusty.
"Don't be like that" he called out, there was a slight treble of something like surprised disappointment in his voice. As sometimes happened on the rare occasions he got upset or excited his rusty Russian had given way to the Mandarin he'd spent the past four decades practicing. "Don't get me wrong young fella. It's not that I'm bitter. I’m glad Yuri got the recognition, God bless his soul."
His voice didn't echo in the stair-well but got smothered by the other sounds seeping from behind the closed doors. Television, a running bath, someone coughing their lungs out.
"It's not even that I want to go back into space" Alexei went on, now alone on the landing and no longer shouting because he knew the rent collector couldn't hear him, "I just enjoy putting things together, that's all".