Chapter Eleven


Alone

Once more we are in the apartment, in my single bed, surrounded by the dusk and the obscure noises of the colony’s life, somewhere in its depths. Chiara is staying with her father again. Her bed is neat and clean, her pyjamas folded, and her soft toys are sitting on it along the wall, their faces turned towards us.

I am on top this time, kneeling, my legs on either side of Craig’s body, and I have lowered myself on to him. I can feel him inside me at an unfamiliar and very pleasurable angle. His hands are on my buttocks and he is looking up at me. He can see my face in the shadow, my little breasts, the gentle curve of my tummy down to the beginning of the neatly trimmed growth in the deeper shadows. I feel him all along the insides of my thighs. He moves, I move, in time; I love to push down as he pushes up, and I can feel him all across my bottom.

It feels a little detached somehow. We haven’t done this before. It feels free and it feels good: I’m not crushed, I can breathe and move as I like, though I know that my legs are going to start to feel cramped at some point. I feel more in control; we haven’t got to that point yet, but it will be me who decides when to disengage. There will be no sudden pulling out just because he is finished.

But it does feel detached at the same time. As if we are actors in a play; and I smile to think of the watchers on Chiara’s bed. I look down upon Craig and I wonder whether he feels it too.

Does he feel less close with me sitting up and looking down on him instead of being pressed up against him, or him being pressed up against me? I suppose that would require that he has felt closer the other times, and I don’t know whether he has.

I don’t know whether he has ever felt close to me.

I feel that he is moving a little more mechanically, and I notice that he is watching my face. He catches my eye.

“You’re looking very thoughtful today,” he says.

I smile, somewhat nonplussed, and I don’t say anything.

“Redecorating the apartment?” he says.

I stop still.

“What?”

“Is that what you’re thinking about?” He’s still moving beneath me, though I have stopped. “Or something about Chiara?”

“What are you talking about, Craig?”

“Don’t women only have half their minds on sex?”

Do we? I don’t think that’s true. Well, sometimes, I suppose.

I chuckle suddenly.

“Redecorating the apartment?” I repeat.

“Well, why not? You were clearly thinking about something. And it wasn’t me.”

Actually it was, Craig; but I don’t think I want to explain that I was wondering whether you felt as detached as I do.

“It wasn’t anything important,” I say.

He smiles to himself, his suspicions confirmed. A little grimly, perhaps. Though it’s hard to tell in the dark.

It was not a good idea to say that, I realise. I have just told him that I was distracted from focussing on our sex by something unimportant.

“Well, okay,” I say. “It is important. Just not new.”

“Oh yes?”

“Oh, Craig, you know what’s been preoccupying me.” I sigh and look ahead of me into the gloom. Underneath me Craig has stopped moving.

“Yeah, I know.”

“It feels as if everything is slipping away,” I say sadly. “I’ve been trying to get a permanent job. I’ve had interviews, discussions; but it’s not working. The last I heard, I was practically told to go back to Earth.”

“Really?”

“In so many words. For the sake of my career, she said. I couldn’t care less about my career.”

“You just want to be a mother.”

I think of Chiara, and I smile in the shadows.

“Yes.”

“You want babies.”

“I – what?” I’m jolted out of my thoughts and I stare down at him.

“It’s natural,” he says. “It’s biology. Preservation of the species. Instincts drive what we do.”

“What are you talking about, Craig?” I ask him for the second time.

“I’m talking about your body, Selena,” he answers. “You’re a healthy young woman of child-bearing age. You’re just the right age to be having babies. You should be having babies. That’s the way your body sees it.”

I feel as if I have suddenly joined a completely different conversation.

“Why are you talking about babies?” I ask him.

“Do you deny it?”

“Deny it? Is this a cross-examination?”

“Well, do you?” We are having this conversation with his erect penis inside my vagina.

“Really, having more babies is the last thing on my mind right now,” I tell him truthfully. If I take him out now, that will be a signal as to how I am feeling about him at this moment. Am I ready to send that signal?

“You must have thought about it,” he says. “Your biological clock is ticking.” He pushes up with his groin and lifts me, and he holds me there with his hands for a moment as he slides out of me before letting me sink down again. On to his now horizontal penis, which I can feel underneath me, somehow inappropriately, I can’t help feeling. “It’s biology. It’s normal.”

“So why does it feel as though you’re criticising me for it?”

“You tell me.”

I am silent for a moment.

“Craig, I have no idea why you are suddenly talking about babies. I have no idea why you’re talking about my biological clock. Believe me, I have other things to worry about right now than having babies.”

“Really?”

“What are you talking about? Of course, really. You know perfectly well –“

“I think it’s all part of the same thing.”

“Craig, I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Just tell me what you’re thinking in words that I can understand.”

“Oh, I think you know.”

I look at him with distaste.

“Tell me,” I say.

“I think you’ve never stopped making your plans,” he says. “You know what you want, and you’ve never stopped working to get it. If you can’t get it one way, you work to get it another way.”

“Words I can understand, I said. Come on, out with it, Craig. What are you accusing me of?”

“So there is something to accuse you of?”

“You tell me, Craig.”

“Fine. It’s obvious that you need a strategy to stay on Mars. The Agency is going to send you back to Earth if you can’t find a new role, and you can’t take your daughter back with you. You’ve clarified that with your lawyers. So you need a reason to make them keep you here.”

I gape at him.

“I’m not blaming you for it, Selena,” he goes on. “You’re acting in accordance with your biological imperative. We’re instinctive animals. We can’t help it.”

Still gaping.

“But it’s not my problem. I sympathise with your situation, and I understand your efforts and attempts to make it better. But I have my own life and my own situation, my own family and my own concerns. I don’t need to be drawn into resolving your problems.”

It’s intolerable to feel the sausage of his penis squashed against my intimate parts. I get off the bed and stand beside it, looking at him as he continues to lie there.

He raises himself on one elbow and sits on the side of the bed. I take a step back and face him, uncovered.

“So what are you telling me, Craig? What’s your conclusion?”

“My conclusion? That this is not going to go any further. We’ve had a good time, and we can still have a good time, but it’s not going to develop into anything more.”

“More.”

“Right.”

“You think I want more.”

“Selena, of course you want more. I’m just being fair with you and telling you how it is.”

I stand there and look at him as he looks up at me. My lip curls.

“You bastard,” I tell him. “You stupid bastard.”

His face hardens and he looks past me.

“You think I’ve been seeing you for that? You think I’m hoping for babies?”

“I didn’t say you were trying to get –“

“You think you’re my strategy for staying on Mars? You think I see you as my ticket to stay here?” My voice is rising, and I make a great effort to control it. The neighbours must not hear me. “You think I’ve been scheming to entrap you so that I can use you to stay here?”

“I wouldn’t put it quite like that.”

“Whose idea was this in the first place, Craig? Who pursued whom? Who sent texts? Whose eyes were following me around at work?”

“That’s irrelevant.”

“Irrelevant?”

“It’s not the point. I never suggested anything beyond what we’ve been doing. Yes, I was attracted to you, yes, I pursued you, if that’s the way you want to describe it. But I never talked about any kind of permanent relationship.”

“Well, Craig, in case you’ve forgotten: neither did I!”

“I know you didn’t. Not yet.”

“Oh, so now I’m to blame for what I was going to say? Are you a prophet, Craig? Or a mind-reader?”

“Selena, you’ve made it obvious what your thinking is. Listen, I told you I don’t blame you. It’s perfectly reasonable for you to make your plans. I just don’t want you to waste time hoping for something that’s not going to happen.”

“You’re an asshole, Craig.” But as angry as I feel, and as angrily as I am expressing myself, I know that I did once tell myself that I would be prepared to take a man away from his wife, if that was what it took to stay here with Chiara.

But that was purely theoretical. I had no idea of actually doing that.

“I’m sorry you’re taking it like this,” Craig says.

And when we started, that was at a time when I really thought I’d be able to stay in my own right. I was buoyed and optimistic from my interview with Marketa. I thought things were going really well for me.

“Listen, we should probably take a break for a while,” he says. “Let ourselves calm down.”

“Calm down,” I echo.

“Give ourselves some time to think about the things that have been said. Put them in perspective.”

“What is there to put in perspective, Craig?” I say. I feel savage. “You’ve been very clear what you think of me.”

“It’s not a judgment, Selena. I’m not judging you.”

“Oh really? You don’t think I’m a scheming bitch, then, who’s just been using you for her own purposes?”

“We all have our own purposes. Sometimes they chime with each other, sometimes they don’t.”

“Oh, don’t get philosophical with me, Craig. This is about you and me. It’s about what you think of me, in reality. In our individual, concrete reality.”

And though he says he is not passing judgment, and that may be true, I think I am judging myself, and I’m fighting myself to stop myself from doing that.

It’s intolerable to me that he might take the glistening I can feel appearing in my eyes as a mark of grief that he is breaking up with me.

It’s shame. Shame, that I really did, at one time, think of doing what he’s accusing me of, in the abstract.

But it’s different when it’s a real person. I never thought of using Craig that way.

(Or did I? Didn’t I look at our relationship, how it was developing and becoming firmer, and wonder where it would lead?

Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know any more.)

“I suppose you came here today with the intention of doing this,” I say. “That’s what you were thinking about as you were lying there, getting yourself serviced.”

He raises his eyebrows at that phrase.

“Not with that intention, no.”

“But you had thought about it.”

“It had crossed my mind.”

I laugh bitterly. “And you complain that women only have half their minds on sex.”

“I was thinking about us. By your own admission you weren’t.”

“Is this a contest now?”

He takes a deep breath. “Selena, this isn’t getting us anywhere. I think I’d better go.”

“Yes, why don’t you do that?”

He doesn’t reply to that. He gets up and commences dressing, and I do the same. I want him out of here now.

He can’t see his socks, and I point them out to him where they are lying on the floor. I’m dressed first, and I watch as he finishes too, wordlessly.

I am so glad, so glad, that we have kept this a secret. It would have been bad if people had known about this affair while it was going on. It would be unbearable if people knew now.

He follows me to the apartment door and I look out on to the passage. It’s empty, as usual.

“Selena,” he says, and I stop and turn to face him.

“Selena, whatever we’ve said to each other today, whatever hurtful things: we’ve had some good times together. Let’s not let today spoil it all.”

“Yeah. Just go, Craig.”

He doesn’t say any more, and he waits while I go to the end of the passage and peer around the corner on to the main corridor.

“Hi, Selena!”

I jump violently and turn round to see Candy behind me.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Selena, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“That’s okay, Candy, I don’t know why I’m so jittery! How are you?”

“I’m fine. I haven’t seen you for a while.”

“No, I’ve been – er – busy.”

She smiles. “Are you going to Wendy’s tomorrow?”

“Yes, I am. I’ll see you there.”

“Which way are you going now?” she asks, offering to walk with me if we are both going the same way.

“Oh – er – oh, sorry, I’ve just remembered I’ve forgotten something. I’m going to have to go back.”

She smiles again. “See you tomorrow, Selena. Bye!”

“Bye, Candy.”

I watch her as she continues on down the corridor, and then I glance down in the other direction and motion to Craig that the coast is clear.

This was the final occasion on which someone might have seen him leaving my apartment. That is one thing, at least, that can’t go wrong any longer.

And that thought gives me a certain sense of relief as I watch him walk away down the main thoroughfare and I am left to walk back alone to my apartment.

*

“Come on, Chiara. Let’s get a move on, please.” She’s laughing at me. She thinks it’s funny to wind me up by wasting time when we’re supposed to be at Wendy’s about now.

“Pamela, come along. At least you’re a good girl, aren’t you, Pamela?”

They exchange glances and snort. I seize Chiara’s hand and pull her along the corridor; she’s not exactly resisting, but she’s not making any contribution either, so that I have to pull her whole weight along, with a sack of clothes in my other arm. She’s laughing and thinks this is a great joke.

I don’t want to spoil the atmosphere by being this bad-tempered ogre yet again; but I have to be able to make her do as she‘s told. I can’t let her dictate what we do.

“I’m looking forward to seeing you dress up, Pamela,” I say. “Shall I tell you a secret? I heard that Ana’s mummy is sending a lion costume.”

“A lion?”

“I don’t want to be a lion,” Chiara says.

“Me neither,” Pamela agrees. Damn it, Chiara, what did you say that for?

“I wonder what else there’ll be,” I say. “I bet there’ll be a princess dress.”

“Mummy, there’s a princess dress in that sack,” Chiara points out.

“I know, but maybe there’ll be another one, that you haven’t seen before. A really pretty one.”

“A fairy princess?” asks Pamela.

“Could be,” I say.

“Mummy, there aren’t any fairies on Mars, are there?”

“No, darling.” Not just on Mars, but let’s not get into that.

“There’s just us?”

“That’s right. Just the people here in the colony.”

“I saw a fairy,” Pamela volunteers.

“No you didn’t,” Chiara says.

“Yes I did!”

“Where did you see a fairy, Pamela?” I ask, before an argument escalates.

“In my bedroom.”

Chiara and I digest this.

“Are you sure it was a fairy?” I ask.

“Yes, because my mummy said. And she looked like a fairy.”

I am going to have to ask Brandy.

“I wonder how it got here,” I say, hoping to provoke critical reflection, but reluctant to contradict her head-on.

“Maybe she came in the ship,” Chiara suggests.

The ship, yes. They have been talking about the ship at nursery, and they all know it’s due to arrive soon.

“Maybe,” I agree. I mustn’t let them see the pang this has sent through my heart. “I wonder why she was hiding in Pamela’s bedroom, though.”

Chiara looks at me and at Pamela, and sniggers. Surely she hasn’t had a salacious thought? She’s much too young. No, I think she just finds the idea of a fairy hiding in there funny.

“Perhaps she was hiding in the wardrobe,” I suggest.

“She was flying around,” Pamela tells us, quite excited at the memory.

“Really?” What on earth can she have seen? “Where was she flying?”

“On top of the wardrobe.”

I think about this as we continue along the passage.

“Was it your bedtime?”

“Yes.”

“And was it dark?”

“Quite dark. But I could see my mummy.”

“What did the fairy look like?”

“Like a light.”

Ah, I think I am getting there.

“Was she gone very quickly?”

“Yes,” says Pamela, a little sadly.

Probably there was some light reflected from outside, as somebody was passing by, or something. Brandy will tell me.

We’re approaching Wendy’s apartment, and Chiara lets go of my hand and runs with Pamela to the front door. I haven’t had to pull her since we got into this interesting conversation about fairies.

Balloons fastened on either side of the door signal a children’s party, and excited voices spill out into the passage.

I walk up and see Nancy just inside, who is helping Wendy to run the party. She is assigning tasks to several children who are clustered around her and need to get themselves ready somehow before they can take part properly. They are too excited to listen properly, but she makes sure they all know what they are supposed to do.

“Hello, Selena. Are your clothes in there?”

“Yes; where should I put them?”

“If you could just put them down in there, and you and I can go through them in a minute.” Her eyes fall on Pamela and Chiara, and she looks at me. “They should be wearing shorts.”

“Shorts?”

“So they can dress up on top of them.”

“Er – oh –“

The girls look up at her and at me, disconcerted.

“Never mind,” she says, “just stick to wearing long things and you’ll be all right.”

She gives me a look which I think is judgmental, and turns to the children again.

“Right, take your shoes off and put them in that room over there. When you’ve done that, you can come back out again and go into the living room over there, because that’s where the party is!” She says the last few words like an announcement by an animateur or a show compère, and Chiara jumps up and down before the two of them rush off to do as they have been told.

It doesn’t take me long to show Nancy what I have brought with me, in a room full of racks of clothes, sorted by theme. We put mine on hangers too and hang them in the appropriate places, and I am released. I can’t see the lion costume.

The apartment is filling up with children and parents, mostly mothers, and there is a lot of excitement and noise. It’s not just dressing up: there are games, and it seems the idea is to change outfits for each game. Wendy and Nancy and one other lady, Moira, are in charge and shepherd the children through the various stages of the afternoon; the rest of us are on the edge of events and our only real role is to make sure our own children behave. Which is more of an effort for some than for others.

Chiara is being good, for the moment, but she is very exuberant, and that can spell trouble later. I keep an eye on her from the side of the room, and intervene occasionally to calm her down. Pamela is following her lead, as she generally does, but she is less of a handful and easier to keep under control.

We mothers stand around in little groups, drinking the same soft drinks and eating the same snacks as the children have, and gossip idly. For all the noise and turbulence, this is a lot less stressful than being responsible for a single child all afternoon. The synergies are at work; and so, of course, are Wendy, Nancy and Moira.

One of the mothers has some news that makes me feel sober, and that is that Rajiv has been taken into the hospital with severe abdominal pains. And anything like that is always different and potentially more worrying than it would be on Earth.

Of course the colony has its doctors, and very good ones, and those doctors include surgeons, though they seldom need to practise that particular skill here. But there are only a few of them, to be responsible for all relevant areas of medicine, in theory, and very obviously they can’t between them cover all the specialisms that a major hospital on Earth would have access to. In addition they have to be specialists in low-gravity human biology, which is a wide field of science in its own right, and they are the ones who are principally developing that field, together with other biologists here and back home.

I imagine Rajiv in our hospital, lying on a stretcher with a grimace on his face as the pangs keep coming. They have technical support, state of the art: equipment to observe and measure, and to operate, and computer technology to analyse, recommend and guide. And they are linked to Earth, again in theory, with its far greater computing capability and data; but that, of course, is subject to the same restriction that governs all our interactions with Earth: signals from here to Earth and back again can’t travel faster than the speed of light.

Currently the Earth is well over half way to its furthest distance from Mars, and consequently a signal at the moment is taking the best part of half an hour for the return trip. Clearly you couldn’t have a surgeon on Earth operating here by remote link. Earth can help in diagnosing what is wrong with the patient, and in recommending what to do about it; but even that it can only do if there is time to wait half an hour at each stage of that process. For the surgery itself, the surgeons here are on their own.

I hope Rajiv will be all right.

Brandy sidles into my field of view, and my face lights up.

“Hi, Brandy! I didn’t see you arrive.”

“I’ve only just got here,” she says. “How has she been?”

“Just perfect,” I tell her. “Sweet and lovely as she always is.”

Brandy smiles, and we both look across the room to where the children are playing: a complicated game that involves counting and pacing, and not tripping over the hem of your dress. Chiara has a flushed and exalted look.

A boy dashes across the room in pursuit of another, and I’m not sure whether this is a part of the same game or a different one that is going on in parallel. He brushes into Pamela as he passes, and she teeters and steps on her dress, and loses her balance and is suddenly sitting on the floor. She looks up and around, a little surprised, seems to be considering whether to burst into tears, but decides against it.

My instinct, if Brandy had not been here yet, would have been to stride in, stand her up, and possibly give the boy a piece of my mind; Brandy smiles calmly at her daughter and turns towards Pardip, who is just approaching us. Pamela picks herself up and goes back to the group to wait for her turn to count and pace again.

Now Chiara is chasing another child across the room. Like Pamela, she’s wearing a long, frilly dress, pink and purple with embroidered hems; she’s lifting her skirts with both hands to avoid tripping, but she’s much too slow to catch the other child. She arrives at the other end and joins the group of children over there; she’s still laughing, but less uproariously, and she clearly feels a little disappointed and frustrated.

Next to me the conversation has moved on to pregnancies and those currently on show in the colony. The one that interests me most is Rashida’s, which I have been following for months. I see Rashida every day.

“She’s having a great pregnancy,” I tell the others, seeking to correct an impression that may have been emerging.

Pardip looks at me thoughtfully.

“Well, I was training with her yesterday,” she says. “She had to stop and take some time out.”

“Was she all right?” I ask, feeling concerned.

“Yes, she was fine. But she didn’t go back to those curls. Not that I blame her.”

“She’s well into her third trimester,” Brandy points out, and there is a moment of silence while we all remember what it was like in our third trimesters.

“Rashida’s very conscientious,” I say. “Maybe she should take it a bit easier with the training.”

“Mm. Has anyone seen Celia lately?”

I’m thinking about Rashida and I don’t join in for a moment, as the conversation moves on. Another lady has joined us, Alicia, whom I don’t know very well, and she knows some details to report on Celia, who came with the last ship and is now expecting twins. Apart from that number, this is like me a few years previously.

Suddenly there is a scuffle and a kerfuffle behind me, and a slap and a yell, and all our heads turn to the middle of the room. Chiara is standing there in her frilly dress, absolutely furious, glaring at a boy who is in tears and now wailing loudly. He turns to face his mother as she approaches, he opens his arms and lets himself be picked up and consoled. I go to Chiara and stand over her.

“Chiara, what’s going on? What did you do?”

“He was naughty, Mummy!”

“What did you do to him?” She is silent.

“Did you slap him, Chiara?” I look briefly around at the other grown-ups, slightly helplessly; wondering whether there had been witnesses, I suppose.

“Chiara, you do not slap other children!”

“He was naughty!” She is yelling at me.

I take a breath, and belatedly crouch down to her level.

“Chiara, you must not hit people. You know that perfectly well.”

She turns away, and I grasp her arms and hold her in place as she tries to twist away from me.

“And do not shout at me. We are guests here –”

“Poo-poo head!” She is in deadly earnest.

“Stop shouting at me, Chiara!” I must not shout myself.

“Stupid poo-poo head!”

“Listen to me, signorina: you do not –”

“I’m not signorina! Don’t call me that!” My mother used to call me that when she was telling me off. Obviously she would be speaking Italian at the time.

“I’m Chiara!”

“Yes, you are, and you’re a very naughty Chiara. If you don’t start to behave right now –”

“I hate you!”

I hear a gasp somewhere behind me.

How has this suddenly erupted, in a single moment? How do I contain it?

We are the centre of attention in this room.

“I want to live with Daddy!”

For a moment I am speechless. I straighten up. Brandy looks away.

Chiara is still shouting.

I circle her waist with my whole arm and pick her up, with her arms and legs flailing and her face yelling down at the floor. There is a film over my eyes. I carry her to the door and out of the apartment.

I imagine those judgmental faces watching our exit.

I continue on down the corridor, still carrying her like a parcel, still in that pink and purple dress. I’ll bring it back another time.

I see nobody as I retrace the way we came this afternoon. Nobody passes us, nobody takes any note. Her voice rings in the passageways at first, and she wriggles and struggles and kicks in my arm, but she grows tired of it and gradually she calms down. I am adamant and hold her firmly as I look straight in front of me and press on all the way home.