"Can we have breakfast now, Mummy?"
I open my eyes and smile, invisibly, at the shadowy figure standing by my bed.
Grey light filters into the bedroom. This is, of course, an artificial effect: we can't see the sunlight from here. But it really is morning outside, and so it’s morning here inside, too.
"Of course we can, cara. What would you like this morning?"
"Pancakes!" she shouts, and jumps on the spot.
Thought so. I roll back the cover, sit on the side of the bed for a moment while I get used to the idea of being awake, and then I stand up and walk into the kitchen, yawning.
By the time the pancakes are made, Chiara is playing on the floor in the bedroom.
"Come on, Chiara, your breakfast's ready."
"Mummy, I'm busy."
Where has she heard that? Do I say that?
"Chiara, you can play later. Come to the table, please, and eat your breakfast."
She says nothing, and continues her play with a resolute air.
"Chiara, your pancakes are getting cold. Come and have your breakfast now, please."
I watch for a moment, and then change my tactics. I squat next to her.
"Look, Sandy and Sindy are hungry. Come on, Sandy and Sindy, let's have some breakfast."
I pick up two of her play figures to carry them to the table, but Chiara's face contorts.
"No! No, Mummy!"
"But we're hungry, Chiara," I say in a Sandy voice. "Let's go and have some pancakes."
"No, Mummy! That's all wrong! Put them down!"
I do put them back where they were, to calm her down, but I stick to my guns.
"We're hungry, Chiara. Where's breakfast?"
"No, Mummy! They're not hungry! They're in a crater, and they've got lost, and the buggy is coming, but it can't find them, and they're frightened."
Okay, I can see her point now. I suppose pancakes are a little inappropriate in that scenario.
I stand up.
"All right, Chiara. But your breakfast is ready, and it's getting cold." She says nothing. "Maybe, when the buggy arrives, it can take them back to the colony, and the colony is in the kitchen, and then they can all have breakfast?"
She glances up at me with a thoughtful expression.
"All right, I'm going into the bathroom now. When I come out, I want those pancakes inside your tummy."
I leave the bathroom door open as I get ready. I hear her moving into the kitchen, and I smile to myself in the mirror.
But when I re-emerge minutes later, those pancakes are still uneaten. Chiara's play figures are set up on the floor underneath the table, and she is sitting among them, making their voices.
"Chiara! Get up and eat your breakfast! Now!"
She knows she is being naughty. She gets up slowly and moves towards her chair.
Without getting on to her chair, she reaches for a pancake and takes a bite.
"Good. Now get up on to your chair and eat properly."
I take another gulp of the tea that I made when I was cooking the pancakes, and I go to the bedroom.
"Hurry up, Chiara! You're going to be late for nursery, and Mummy will be late for work."
In the bedroom I take Chiara's clothes for the day out of the wardrobe and lay them out on her bed, and then finish getting dressed myself.
"Come into the bedroom, please, and get dressed," I call as I pull my top over my head.
I put my head through the doorway and see what she is doing.
"Chiara! Come here right now!"
She’s under the table again and looks up at me. I take a step towards her and make as if to grab her. She gets up hurriedly and comes towards the bedroom.
"Now take off your pyjamas and put on those clothes."
I look at the table.
"You've hardly eaten anything, Chiara. You're going to be hungry at nursery, and then what will you do?"
"Mummy, I'll eat my snack."
I look at her.
"But you can't eat your snack until break, and you'll be hungry before break." Ha! Get out of that one if you can!
She looks at me thoughtfully, and comes back to the table and takes another bite.
I walk past her to the bathroom because I want to primp and preen, just a little bit, in front of the mirror.
"Hurry up, Chiara! Why are those pyjama bottoms still on?"
"I'm going to take them off in a minute, Mummy."
"No, you're going to take them off now. Hurry up!"
I peer at myself in the mirror, and I can hear her moving in the kitchen. I put my head out through the doorway with half finished lips.
"Chiara! I'm going to count to three, and then I'm going to get really cross. One!"
"I'm getting dressed, Mummy!"
"Good. Don't stop."
She's not really being naughty, to be fair. She’s perfectly willing to get ready properly and go to nursery. She enjoys nursery, anyway. But she doesn't understand the concept of hard deadlines.
The nursery's eight o'clock start is really optional. No one will care if she turns up at half past. But my eight o'clock start at work is most certainly not optional.
That triggers some distress.
"Mummy, I'm getting dressed! Stop counting!"
I'm going to time the "Three" so that she finishes exactly on time. She hasn't worked out yet that this is what I do.
I look out and am pleased to see that she really is hurrying now, by her standards.
"Now go into the bathroom," I tell her as she pulls on her shoes, "and do a wee and clean your teeth."
On Earth I would never go into the bathroom wearing shoes. In fact I very rarely do that here either, myself; but inside the colony it's harder to justify logically, and so I don't insist that Chiara goes there first before she puts on her shoes. The shoes we wear here are like the slippers we might wear at home: they are both never worn outside. The real outside.
I stand by the counter in the kitchen and get Chiara's snack ready. I put a little more into her box than I usually do, since she still hasn't really eaten very much this morning.
I give her teeth a last once-over with the brush to make sure they’re done properly; she protests as usual, but I’m in no mood for a discussion, and Chiara acquiesces for once.
Finally we’re ready. I put on my jacket, a rather stylish grey number with which I am quite pleased, I pick up Chiara's snack box and out we go.
There’s no sign of the neighbours, which is a relief. I see them from time to time, but I haven't yet dared to ask whether they can hear me when I raise my voice with Chiara. I hope they can't, but suspect that they can.
As I close the door, I notice that Chiara is carrying two of her play figures, not Sandy and Sindy, from her game just now, and I make a mental note to check that she has them with her when I collect her this afternoon.
This morning we have enough time for Chiara to walk with me to the nursery, rather than me having to carry her. We come out of the little gangway that leads to our apartment and come on to one of the main thoroughfares of the colony, where several people are already walking. Ahead of us I can see another nursery child with her mother, and I glance down at Chiara, thinking that she might want to speed up and catch her; but apparently not. We proceed in an orderly fashion and arrive at the nursery a few moments later.
Like everywhere else here, the entrance to the nursery is just a door in the wall of a corridor, but that wall has been adorned with bright colours and cheerful shapes, so that this is very obviously not a place like any other. The door is wide open, and excited cries from within can be heard some way down the corridor.
Markus is standing at the entrance, one of the nursery's personnel, and he greets Chiara as we approach. He has a son in the nursery, a little younger than Chiara, and another child on the way. His wife is still working, on one of the chemistry projects, but it won't be long now until she takes her next maternity leave. I don't know whether Markus will then work full-time for a while till his wife goes back to work. At the moment he works part-time, as I do, and looks after his son during the afternoons; the difference is, of course, that he sees his son in the mornings too.
I say hello to Markus and step in after Chiara, who is surveying the scene and deciding where she wants to go. The room is already fairly full, though there are more children to come. Most of the staff seem to have arrived too and they are occupying themselves with groups of small children in different parts of the room, except for Mrs Dalgleish herself, who I imagine is in her office.
I put Chiara's snack box into her pigeonhole above her peg, a large blue spherical affair in a line of similar pegs of various colours near the kitchen area. There’s no need for coats inside the colony, obviously, but she will probably want to take off her jumper when she has been running around for a while, and that is where it’s supposed to go.
I notice that Chiara is not carrying her play figures any more, but fortunately I can see where she has put them, and I go to pick them up, stepping over two tussling boys, and put them in her pigeonhole too. Behind me I can hear one of the grown-ups separating those boys.
Now I really need to leave if I am to be on time for work. Chiara is busy with two other girls and a dolls' house; no chance of saying goodbye. In any case she doesn't really do farewells. I wave to Markus, who has now come inside, and I step out, avoiding two more children coming in, continue down the corridor, round a corner, across a segment of the central area and down another gangway towards the office. I say good morning to Rashida and the others, sling my bag over the back of my chair, notice that it is just coming up to eight o'clock, and I move to the side of the room to get myself the one coffee that I allow myself every day.
I wait and watch as the coffee runs into the little cup. Strong, black and sweet.
I think I should just ignore Craig's text. Pretend it had never happened, the next time I see him.
Impossible to discuss it with him.
I feel again my surprise when I read the text yesterday. Craig Winterton, of all people.
I hardly know Craig. I have hardly interacted with him, at work or anywhere else. I know he’s married, because I’ve seen Mrs Winterton, around in the colony. I’m sure they have no children here.
I had no idea that Craig had been secretly admiring me. How long has this been going on?
If I were going to have an affair with a work colleague, Raj is a lot better looking. He is actually quite cute, with his jet black hair. And much nearer to my own age.
Craig seems like a typical, middle-aged, middle-class, professional, white American male. I see him wearing flannel shirts and jeans back on Earth, with cowboy boots, and a suit and tie when he’s at work. I can see him taking the family to an ice hockey match or a football game at the weekend, and having slightly too many beers with the other dads, leaving the mothers to corral the kids and make sure they all get home safely. I bet he has a den at home. Had. Not on Mars, obviously.
What could I possibly have in common with Craig Winterton?
I notice that Rashida is watching me. I smile at her, pick up my coffee and carry it back to my desk.
Does anyone else know that I have an admirer?
Oh, I hope not.
I cast my mind back to see whether anything in Craig's behaviour may have given some clues to anyone watching, but I can't actually remember any of his behaviour.
I would be mortified if Rashida knew. Or anyone, really.
Keep all contact with him to a minimum, that's probably the best strategy. Completely professional at work, and nothing else; and hope that that will be the end of it.
Fortunately I only have to see him when I go to the team in person. I'll try to do as much as possible remotely and on the phone for the time being. Including if Craig wants IT support. Especially if Craig wants IT support.
But it's time to stop thinking about this now. I have a job to do, and a team that depends on me. I straighten my headset and study my screen to find out what crises, real or imagined, I am going to have to resolve today. Selena the consummate professional is at the ready.
I’m walking once again past the playground in the central area. Some children are playing there, but Chiara is not among them; she is with her friend, Paula Meissner, at their house, where I understand one or two more girls are expected this afternoon.
I would really like to have prepared mentally for this interview, but I just haven't had the time and the peace to sit down and think about the whole situation. I’m hoping that the questions I am put will structure my thoughts, and some coherency and sense will emerge as we talk.
I turn down a side corridor and around another corner, and make my way towards my destination. I’ve never been down here before.
Beate opens the door and smiles at me.
"Hello, Selena. Come in."
Her office is different from anyone else's that I have seen here. There is a desk, with a terminal on it and with the usual office accoutrements, and a swivel chair behind it for Beate to sit on when she is doing that sort of work; but there are also two armchairs, really quite comfortable, even cosy: much too cosy for an office, or even a doctor's waiting room.
Beate motions me toward the one further away from the desk. Beside it is a low table with a box of tissues. I wonder how often they are needed.
Beate sits down in the other armchair, crosses her legs and arches her fingers.
"How are you, Selena?"
I presume this is a question that expects a properly considered reply, not just an easy "Fine, thanks".
"I'm coping, Beate. We have a routine; we're settled and organised; Chiara knows what to expect every day. And it works. She's happy at nursery, the staff say she’s making good progress, and I think that she is. I'm doing fine at work. Chiara sees her father regularly, and she has her friends, in nursery and outside."
"So everything is perfect?"
"It sounded like that, didn't it? No, not perfect. But, in the circumstances, things are good. Things are going well."
"You're satisfied with the way everything is?"
I frown slightly and look at nothing in particular as I answer.
"I'm satisfied that we have a good routine for dealing with every day as it comes. It's all organised, all catered for. There are no surprises that cause a crisis in our day."
No surprises? Well, let's not think about Craig Winterton for the moment.
Beate listens, and says,
"Well, you're right. That is a good reason to feel satisfied."
"Yes, I think so."
"We need to be on top of our responsibilities, and discharge them properly. It's a bad thing if we fail to do that."
"But there's more to life than responsibility, isn't there, Selena? Even when one is responsible for a child. Which is a very serious responsibility, there's no doubt about that. But even then: life consists of more than being responsible."
"Well - yes, of course."
"So tell me what else is going on in your life."
I sit in that armchair and think.
I could say there isn't much else going on in my life, because there's no time for it; and at one level that's true. My days are filled with work and looking after Chiara.
But my mind has other things in it.
Where to start? There are so many things I could begin to talk about, all swirling about in my head at once, and I don't know which one to pick, which strand to take up and follow, but somehow I just blurt out,
I feel a bit surprised at my own words, and I glance across at Beate, who is listening quietly.
"I feel that I haven't got any friends." She watches and listens, but doesn't say anything. I look ahead of me again, into space.
"I feel that they're not my friends any more,"
I suddenly realise that she doesn't know about the thoughts I was having recently, in my kitchen. I try to explain.
"It feels as though people don't trust me around their husbands." I look at her again. "Is that ridiculous?"
"Ridiculous of you to think that?"
"Well, I don't know what these women actually are thinking, as a matter of fact. But one can, in general, often observe that married women are mistrustful of single women - or, rather, they are mistrustful of their husbands, and often want to keep them out of temptation."
I actually hadn't thought of it that way round.
I'm not sure that makes me feel any better about it, though.
"So I'm a temptress?" I say. "Surely that is utterly ridiculous."
"I don't think that necessarily follows," Beate replies. "'Temptress' implies that you’re deliberately tempting someone, trying to seduce them; and I absolutely believe you if you tell me that you’re not doing that."
"Well, of course I'm not."
"Of course? Why of course?"
"Er –" I’m not sure how to respond to that.
"Do you mean you wouldn't expect anybody to do that; or some people might, but you never would; or you might in other circumstances, but you're not doing it now?"
I’m still speechless.
"'Tempting' is, of course, a pejorative term," she continues. "Let's put it more neutrally. If you found someone attractive, and you wanted to be with them, wouldn't you try to make yourself attractive to them?"
"Depends who it was," I reply. "Not if it was my friend's husband, for instance."
She regards me for a moment.
"Most people would say that," she says. "I actually believe that you really mean it."
"But even you, Selena, might be tempted, don't you think?"
"Yes, that word!" She smiles. "But might you not be? Don't you think? If somebody made you feel really good?"
"You wouldn't be the first."
"I suppose not." I look across at her. "What, here? Here in the colony?"
"Well, yes, here in the colony. You wouldn't be the first, here in the colony."
"Well, I –" I had no idea. I suppose Beate sees a lot that I don’t see, in her line of work.
She is looking at me, slightly sardonically, I think.
"You don't really listen to gossip, do you?" she asks.
I think about this.
"I don't think I actually realised that there was this kind of gossip to listen to," I say finally. "I suppose I'm just too wrapped up in my own affairs."
"That's probably true," she says, "and I also think that you are an honest and conscientious person with high integrity and sense of fairness, and it would go against the grain for you to be malicious behind people's backs."
"Thank you for saying that."
"It's true. But not all gossip is malicious. People take an interest in each other's lives, they are innocently curious, and they share information that they have received and find interesting."
"So when you say that I wouldn't be the first, is that based on – information shared?"
"On gossip? Not solely, no. On experience."
I glance at her briefly, but I don’t respond to that. I know she can't betray any confidences.
I can feel her watching me as I stare in front of me, without really seeing anything.
"What are you thinking about, Selena?"
I take a breath and meet her eyes again.
"I'm wondering about Mike, actually."
"Yes," I say, and I tell her about the afternoon that Chiara spent with him recently.
"It's so unlike him," I conclude. "I'd never expect him to have a plant at home, and care for it to the point of blooming."
"And what does that make you wonder?"
"Well – whether it was his idea at all. Or is he seeing someone, and she’s making changes like that."
"The way you used to when you were together?"
"Is there another explanation?"
"Probably," I say, and I smile at her. I consider. "The cake doesn’t really suggest a woman's hand, I suppose. Adding water to a mix, and sticking the lot into the oven. It's just the fact that he had the idea at all, really."
"And Chiara was enthusiastic?"
"Oh yes," I say, and I smile at the memory. "And about the flower. She was so excited to tell me about it."
I’m remembering her on the bathmat, and smiling.
"Okay, I can see what you're getting at," I say. "You mean he got the plant and the cake mix for Chiara's sake."
"What if that is the explanation?"
"Well – that's very much in his favour, if it is."
"He even suggested that she could stay overnight in a couple of weeks," I tell her.
"She has still never done that before?"
"Why hasn't she, in fact?"
I am taken aback by that question, and realise that I haven't really got an answer.
"Who decides whether Chiara stays with him?" Beate asks.
Obviously I do, I think, but as I think that I wonder whether it’s necessarily all that obvious to everyone.
"Is Mike a bit scared of you, Selena?"
My mouth drops open, and I give a short, incredulous laugh.
I remember that silly girl back at Berkeley, so eager to please, so bowled over by her luck in being Mike's girlfriend.
I’ve wondered, at times, whether it was my fault, in a way, that Mike would make those thoughtless comments and jokes. Whether I encouraged him to think that it wasn't necessary to consider my feelings – that I would always accept his view on things, and laugh along with him, no matter how inconsiderate his comments might be.
I try to explain this to Beate: that, far from Mike being scared of me, it was I who used to accept far too much from him.
"So when did that change, Selena?"
I don't even need to think about that, though I have never thought about it before: it’s obvious.
"When Chiara was born," I say, and Beate looks at me knowingly.
I feel really quite shocked at what I am suddenly seeing. Suddenly I’m looking at my relationship with Mike in a way that I have never seen it before, and at myself and how I have changed, and at how Mike has changed too, over time, from the carefree young grad student that he was at Berkeley to the, apparently, concerned father and ex-husband that he is now.
And later as I walk back through the park in the central area I am thinking: Wow. That is not what I was expecting.
In fact I’m not sure what I was expecting from this appointment with Beate; but I’m sure that I have more to think about than I had thought I would.
I sit down on a secluded bench to gather my thoughts before going to pick Chiara up again and immersing myself in my hectic routine once more.
Have I turned into some kind of she-bear, defending my cub and asserting my prerogative with an imperious paw?
Is this what was going on as Mike and I were growing apart?
At a later stage during that session just now, Beate asked me why we never had a second child after Chiara was born. "You are able to have another child?" Indeed, yes, I am. There were complications, involving a cyst, which made my third trimester utterly miserable, but there were no lasting effects, and if anything the experience made me determined not to be defeated by anything that my body threw at me. The cyst is now gone.
Once Chiara arrived, I was at once so exhausted by all that pain, and so enthralled and enchanted by my magical little darling, that becoming pregnant again was the last thing on my mind. Then I went back to work and had to deal with half-days at the office as well as my baby; and Chiara has always been very alert and interested, from birth, really, and consequently she has always been quite demanding in terms of the time I need to devote to her. Finally, by the time both she and I were settled in the routine that we have now, of work, nursery and afternoons together, the atmosphere between Mike and me was no longer one that made me want to give him another child.
So Chiara is an only child. I hope she won’t lose out as a result.
I’m beginning to take my surroundings in again as I sit on that bench. Birdsong, that really is what is missing in this park. And squirrels. And people walking their dogs.
I stand up and start to walk again. Over on the other side of the central area I can see that the playground is filling up with children, but my route doesn’t take me that way. I turn down a main corridor and walk on down to where Paula lives and where I expect a cup of tea and a bit of a chat before I take Chiara home.