Frank Cottrell Boyce: Getting to Know Sputnik

Frank Cottrell Boyce: Getting to Know Sputnik

I was driving past the big Tesco on the Formby bypass when this idea jumped into my car like a big friendly dog. I was taking my daughter to her swimming lesson at the time. When we stopped at the lights, I told her all about it. She said, “Not bad. You should do that.” It’s the only time in my whole life that an idea has ever pounced on me like that. While she was at her lesson, I went for a walk and this idea followed me around, just like a stray dog. I started to ask it questions.

“Where are you from?”

“Not from earth. Obviously.”

“Where then?”

“Think about it. What was the first Earth creature to go to space?”

“Laika. The soviet space dog.”

“Exactly. Now say you’re an alien and you find a little space ship with a dog inside – what are you going to think? You’re going to think the dog built the space ship aren’t you? You’re going to think dogs are engineers and space explorers. You’re going to think dogs are the dominant species on planet Earth. So … if you come to Earth in disguise, what will you be disguised as?”

“A dog. But surely you’d notice that people were the dominant species really.”

“Would you? People would bring you food and water. They’d brush your hair. Take you for walks. They’d CLEAN YOUR POOH UP FOR YOU!! I think you would be forced to conclude that dogs ruled the Earth and that they had enslaved the whole human race!”

“You’re right aren’t you.”

“I am the Sputnik. I’m always right.”

“Sputnik – that’s a good name. I love that word.”

I looked it up. It’s the name of the first space craft but it’s also Russian for “companion” – oh there’s poetry in that name isn’t there?

By this time I’d walked all the way back to the Tesco. I was planning what to cook for lunch. But by now I was seeing the whole World through the eyes of Sputnik – the loud-mouthed, wide-eyed space-dog

“I bet you’re fond of your food,” I said.

“But I’m new on Earth so I don’t know what’s food and what isn’t. So I’m going to start by taking a bite of everything and see what I like. I’ll probably bite a car – I mean cars look tasty don’t they? They’re the same colour as Haribo.”

A girl in a party dress went by.

“See that pink? That looks tasty too. I’d definitely chew a party dress. And a cow. Cows look juicy.”

“That’s twice you’ve mentioned colours. What’s your favourite colour?”

A little boy with a toy Yoda light sabre went by.

“That’s my favourite colour.”

“Green?”

“No no. Light sabre. Is Light Sabre a colour? I love light sabres.”

I was getting excited but I knew I had to calm down and think through the serious questions. Like how did Sputnik get here? What kind of technology did he use to travel across space.

“It’s not really technology. It’s just a knack. Some people have a knack for remembering names. I’ve got a knack for travelling just a little bit faster than the speed of light.”

“Fair enough. So you don’t have any technology? No space ships? No weapons.”

“No weapons. I hate weapons. I’ve got the opposite of weapons.”

“What’s the opposite of weapons?”

“Reverse dynamite. Instead of blowing things apart, it blows them back together again. I could totally blow Hadrian’s Wall back together.”

“How do you know about Hadrian’s Wall?”

“I’m a dog. We love walls. We love to pee on them. Peeing on walls is how we express ourselves. If I had a wall the size of Hadrian’s wall I could pee a masterpiece.”

For weeks everywhere we went I could hear in the back of my mind Sputnik trying to make sense of life on Earth. One day we went for a walk along the Galloway coast – near Kirkcudbright and found what we thought was a huge, romantically ruined church. We climbed over the wall to get a better look and discovered it wasn’t a church at all. It was a ridiculously glamorous cow shed. Hogwarts for cows. I knew that Sputnik would love that place.

We stayed looking around it too long and it was getting dark when we got back to the car. Everyone sank happily into their seats as I started up the engine.

“What’s your favourite form of transport?” I wondered.

It turned out I had asked the question out loud. It wasn’t Sputnik who answered, it was my daughter. She said this amazing thing. “My favourite form of transport is planet Earth. I love the way it spins round and round as it whizzes through space and yet all that water doesn’t fall off. Amazing.”

For a few weeks when I first started this book Sputnik had lent me his eyes his ears his nose. It was like I was seeing the Earth for the first time, seeing it for what it really is – the fastest, wildest, most beautiful thrill ride in the entire universe. Thank you, Sputnik. Good good boy.