Hands, holding my waist, pressing into my flesh, holding me in place where I stand. Large hands, the fingers nearly meeting behind my back. Squeezing my waist, warming my skin.

His chest and his tummy, moving up close to me. My back against the wall of my kitchen. No retreat. No playing for position.

Hands, moving up inside my top, touching my sides, jangling the nerves in my skin. A man, breathing heavily, aroused, wanting me. Hands, moving up, bunching up the material of my top, exposing my waist and my tummy and the small of my back, and now the bottom of my bra.

My arms are above my head, swaying a little, my hands touching near the thumbs. I gasp as he reaches the flesh of my breasts. I want him to touch me. I want him.

His hands move from my sides and my back to my chest, and they cover my breasts, each hand cupped over one little dome. His palms are touching my nipples through my bra, and I bring my hands down to hold the backs of his hands and press them on to my breasts. I press his hands so that they press me, in a circular motion, kneading me. Needing. Move your fingers too, Craig. Stroke me, caress me all over my chest. Press me. Move your palms slowly over my nipples. Squeeze my breasts. Ah, not too hard. Not too hard, Craig. But not too soft either, Craig. Press me, squeeze my breasts. Touch me. Let your palms pass over my nipples, again and again, never stopping. Let my breasts feel the heat of your hands.

His hands are moving away, towards my back, gathering me, and his head bends down to kiss me. I don't really want to kiss him. But his scratchy cheeks and chin against my face arouse me. His great hand on the small of my back lifts me towards him, my arms are around his head, his other hand is on my side, touching my left breast, his fingers touching my back, holding me against him.

I let him kiss me, and then I break off and bury my face in his jumper. He squeezes me to him, my forehead against his neck, our bodies pressed against each other. I really want him to touch my breasts again; but he has other ideas, and he steps back, looking around. His hand slips round from my side to my back, and he impels me towards the working-top.

"Bend over," he whispers, hoarsely, and I prop myself with my elbows on the counter, my head below the cupboard with the crockery. His hands hold my hips, and he presses urgently against me. I can feel his arousal, unmistakably, against my bottom, my legs slightly apart.

His hands move forward around my waist and fumble with the fastening of my trousers, but he obviously doesn't really know what to do, and I take over, opening my belt and the top button and the zip. He pulls my trousers down to my knees, revealing my black nylon knickers, clean on, and hopefully a pair of stimulating buttocks. He kneels down behind me and presses his face against my bottom, his hands still holding my thighs, caressing them gently, his thumbs moving back and forth. There we stay, in this tableau, for a little while, as he squashes his nose into my buttocks, and then he stands up, and I wait as he fumbles with his own trousers.

This is all going too quickly, really. I know we haven't much time. Only minutes.

He pulls down my pants, and I feel his penis moving into the space between my legs, horizontally, and pressing up against my crotch because it really wants to flip back upright. It moves backwards and forwards, and I wonder vaguely whether this is really what he wants to do, or whether he doesn't know how to find the opening.

I reach down with one hand, take his penis, adjust the angle and guide it toward my lips. They are still a little dry, but I think I'll be moist enough inside, once he gets there. I place the tip between my lips, and he starts to thrust; it slips out and forward, and I put it back, and hold it there as he starts to thrust again, a little more circumspectly. It is a little uncomfortable for me, but it doesn't seem to be for him. Not too long and he is inside, up to half of his shaft, I’m guessing, and with every thrust he pierces a little deeper inside, moving into that dark place where no man has been for a long time.

His hands move upwards from my hips, up my flanks and around my body, and at last he is touching my breasts again. He’s not caressing me this time so much as simply holding on while he rides me; but I need him to hold me, and again I cover the backs of his hands with my hands and press them against my breasts. I’m holding my upper body up, but my elbows are pointing downwards in case I need to support myself on the counter again. His hands move down and he tries to slide them under my bra, but he’s pinching my flesh between his fingers and the strap at the lower edge.

"Undo my bra," I whisper.

"What's that, honey?" he says, and he leans forward so that his head is next to mine. I repeat the instruction:

"Unfasten my bra. At the back."

He leans away and seems to be inspecting my back and trying to work out how to do this. Craig, it's just two sets of clips that you have to pull apart. I’m wondering how long it has been for him.

He manages it. He has a little trouble with the second clip, and the two halves of the bra hang at an angle off each other for a moment, but at last they are apart and my bra is hanging loosely off my shoulders and can easily be pushed away from my breasts. Now the warm palms of his hands, slightly callused, are pressing directly on the flesh of my breasts; which I know are very small, and I have always been embarrassed at how small they are; but right now I don't care. I am loving the feeling of his hands where they are; in fact I would like him to stroke my nipples with his fingers, one finger to each nipple, bend them a little to the side in a circular motion, pass over their tips with the tips of his fingers; but you can't have everything, and I'm sure I can teach him that another time, and in the meantime I am loving the sensation of warmth and pressure and a little roughness on my little maidenly breasts, and inside I am relaxing and loosening and running with moisture, and that feeling starts to spread.

And at that moment he jerks and grunts, and jerks again, and he pushes inside me as hard as he can a couple of times, squeezing my breasts so that it hurts a bit, and then he slides out of me and the cold air wafts around my crotch.

Not now, Craig! Don't stop now! Craig!

My nerves are jangling, I’m panting, there’s a film in front of my eyes, my head is humming and my vagina is so frustrated that it hurts; but he is already pulling his trousers up and straightening his clothing.

"That was really great, honey," he says.

I rest on my elbows with my face in my hands and my eyes closed as I gradually calm down, and I don't say anything.

He is standing behind me in the kitchen.

"Honey," he says. I know. We discussed this. I pull up my knickers and my trousers, wishing fleetingly that I dared reach into my handbag and insert my cup in front of him, and I am ready to go. I'll deal with the bra later.

I open my front door and look out. There is no one along the entire length of the passageway that leads to my apartment. I step back in, and he takes me in his arms and hugs me briefly.

"Thanks, honey," he says. "It really was great."

I smile at him and give him a peck on the cheek. He follows me out of the apartment and down the passageway to the thoroughfare on to which it issues. I peep round the corner, to the right and to the left. There are two people walking away from us, but nobody looking towards us. I gesture to him, and he steps smartly out of the passageway and walks down after those two people, looking as if he had been walking that way all this time. I look after him for a moment and then return to my apartment.

I go into the bathroom and sit on the lavatory. I might have a shower in a minute. Very quickly, because I have to collect Chiara soon.

I seem to be in a funny mood. I'm not sure whether I want to cry, or touch myself and finish the job on my own. Even though the moment has definitely passed. I put my hand between my legs and cover myself, but I don't do anything. I just hold myself and wait to feel normal.

Then I stand up, step very briefly under the shower, dry myself and get dressed; I add a few touches to my face and swinging my bag over my shoulder I am out of the door and off to fetch Chiara.

*

Limbs, stretched out under the cover and piled on top of each other.

Craig is lying naked on top of me in my single bed. No clothes to fumble with this time. I can feel his flesh and his weight along the full length of my body. Mike was very heavy too.

His legs are hairy and big-boned and they weigh on my scrawny, newly depilated legs, safely out of view now. I can feel with my hands, and I can see it in my mind’s eye, how his legs continue up to his thighs and his buttocks, no boundary, just gradually becoming that private area, his loins, that I would otherwise never see. I’m remembering Mike in the same situation, his body on mine, passing my hands up the back of his legs and on to his buttocks, so interestingly different from mine, as he would lie on me with his penis pressing on the softness of my stomach.

Craig’s buttocks are not shaped like that; he has more weight on him, and his bottom is bigger and rounder. His stomach too, which is the most noticeable part of his body when he is up close to me. His tummy is squashed between us and places the rest of him a little above me, apart, so that his upper body is leaning downwards towards my chest and my face.

He moves down to kiss me, and I let it happen, in fact I respond and kiss him back, and we kiss long and languidly, with tongues and lips. It’s almost the only thing I can do, as most of my body is immobilised under his weight; only my arms move up around him, under his shoulders as his forearms take some of his weight, and my hands caress his back and his shoulders and the short, wiry hair on the back of his head, and they stay on his head as he leaves off kissing me and his face nestles in the space between my cheek and the pillow.

He moves one hand down my body and slips his fingers below my thigh, and he takes his weight off that leg; I move my leg a little to the side, parting my thighs some more, and a little up, and his hand helps, and suddenly I have somehow swung my whole leg past his body in a semi-circle so that my ankle and my foot are above my head, and my vulva is exposed to view.

His penis is probing vaguely in that area as he lies down again and puts his weight on my leg, pressing it against my chest as a sport masseur might; but I think this will work better with some more symmetry, so I lift my other leg in the same way, nudging him to move aside and let me do that, so that both my feet are pointing past my head and my face is enclosed between my shins. It’s a good thing that I am young and supple.

Is the sex that Craig wants revealing of what he knows, or of what he would like but doesn’t get? Probably a bit of both. I can’t really imagine Mrs Winterton in this position. Maybe when she was younger.

In this constellation he finds my opening without any help, though I was ready to guide him with my hand if necessary. He slides inside me and lays all his weight on my legs, stretching my crotch and making it hard for me to breathe properly. At least there’s a little more room for his belly like this. I think he would like to kiss me again, but we can’t really reach each other, and I watch his face above me, framed by my shins as mine is for him. He’s not meeting my eyes, and he has a rather distant look. I wonder what he’s thinking about. Is he concentrating on what his penis is doing, down there out of sight, or is he thinking of something else altogether?

I move my legs, restlessly, and he realises that I want something and lifts himself a little. I take the chance and wheel my legs back down past his body until they are pointing down the bed again, with his legs between them. His penis can penetrate me more easily this way, and he now slides all the way in. I find that my busy thoughts are fading; that warm, wordless, melting sensation is rising and welling up in me, and I feel that I am giving myself up to it. I hold his body with my arms and I feel tender and generous towards him. My hand finds the cover that slipped off us a long time ago, and I pull it up over his back. He joins in, and together we adjust it until it’s covering both of us, and we are lying together in bed, in the warmth, with him deep inside me and his face resting on the pillow above and to one side of my head. My arms hold him, and I have finally given myself up to this warm, peaceful sensation.

Soon he begins to move again; in fact he has never really stopped moving, but gradually his hips are moving further back before they push forward again, and I feel the whole length of his shaft sliding back and forth. I start to move too, in the same rhythm, nice and slow for the moment. We are very close.

And it is in this position that he reaches his climax. He shudders, and he presses my whole body very hard; he buries his face in my hair on the top of my head, he shudders again and gives a kind of sigh, and he is finished. I hold him, with one hand on his head and one on his back, feeling so glad and so affectionate.

I sense that he might be preparing to come out, and I put my hand on his bottom, holding him in place.

“Stay,” I whisper, and he does. He lies there on top of me, his body now relaxed and still, his breathing becoming slower and deeper and his penis that is lying inside me gradually shrinking again. I don’t mind. My vagina closes around him, and I bask in this feeling, this warmth and this fulfilment and contentment. I have as much time as I could possibly want tonight, because this is the night of Chiara’s sleepover with her father. I don’t know how much time Craig has. I don’t know what he has told his wife. I don’t want to know.

His penis really is disappearing now, and he clearly feels that he might as well take it out. I don’t stop him. I’m glad that he’s still lying here, on top of me, warming my body. I love the feel of his skin on my skin. I love this. It has been so long.

At last he moves off my body and I take a deep breath as his weight is lifted from my chest. I lie on my back and look at him sitting on my bed and looking down at me. He strokes my cheek, and I stroke his back. We don’t say anything, and the moment extends.

Then he gets to his feet and starts to put his clothes back on. I lie and watch for a moment, rolled over on to one side; but then I get up too and pull on some trousers and a top.

As I go to the door of the apartment I have a sudden, devil-may-care impulse and nearly don’t put on my shoes; but my wiser self prevails, and I pull them on. If anyone were to see us, I don’t want to make it completely obvious what we have been doing.

But no one does, and in a moment I am back in my apartment, alone, feeling very differently this time. It is still very early to be going back to bed; but I do it anyway, telling myself that this is sensible because I am getting up so early in the morning. The bed is still warm from our bodies, and I slip into it, naked, nestling into the cover and remembering his body in here with me. This will be the first night that I’ll have spent in a room without someone else in it since I don’t know when. It’s certainly the first time on Mars.

And there I lie, in that warmth, as the evening grows older and the light fades, and vague, muffled sounds come to me from elsewhere, unidentifiably, in this pod. My slender, boyish body stretches out beneath the cover; I am not at all a fan of my body, I’m very critical of it, but right now I feel reconciled with it, content. I feel that it’s my friend. And though I didn’t really think I was sleepy, I find myself drifting off, as my body relaxes and my mind lets go and feels that, really, there is nothing that I need to think or worry or be concerned about.

*

It’s still night time. We are gathering in the room before the airlock, where Chiara and I waited weeks ago. We are all grown ups, men and women, wearing space suits and carrying our helmets, and hardly speaking.

I yawn deeply, and shudder as I reach the end of my yawn. It feels as though it ought to be cold, but of course it’s not, here inside. It’s very early morning.

People are still arriving, and the room is growing fuller. Greetings are exchanged in subdued voices, and then those who have arrived move to somewhere in the room where they are as far apart from other people as possible, and stand there, silent with their thoughts.

Some kind of signal seems to have been given at the other end of the room, because people are starting to put on their helmets. I don my own and move with the crowd as we mill slowly into the airlock. As we pass, a technician offers to check our helmets, and I submit to the procedure. He pats my back to confirm that all is in order, and in I go. In the airlock we crowd close together, waiting until everyone is in and the inner door is closed.

Outside a garish light illuminates the rocky ground and dazzles us as we pass out of the building. There are lights fixed to the side of the colony building above us and lighting the way. It feels like a factory whose shifts are changing in the night.

We file away from the colony and walk where the light is showing us, towards the edge of the crater, rising black ahead of us. Looking away from the lamps my eyes grow accustomed to the dark and they see the sky, filled with myriads of stars. They are the same stars as on Earth, in the same constellations, though whether they are the ones you are used to depends upon where on Earth you are from. Most of us here are from the northern hemisphere.

We walk. It’s steep in parts, but not very strenuous: our space suits are light, the Martian gravity is low anyway, and we are all very fit because of the regular exercise that we are obliged to take. But it’s a long way to walk in the early hours of the morning. I can’t be the only one who is thinking of the warm cosiness of the bed she has just left.

We file up the steepest part of the slope, still plunged in deepest night, and emerge one by one at the top of the crater. We move away from the top and spread out in the plain, still keeping fairly close together, but so that each of us has an unobstructed view of our surroundings.

Above us and all around the heavens spread out. The stars are breathtaking. Far clearer than you could ever see them on Earth, whose atmosphere filters and dims their light, even in its darkest and most deserted regions. Wisps of cloud reflect the starlight; the Martian atmosphere is thin, but it exists and it has clouds. Before us the rocky plain extends, very dark, but not completely black: its contours are visible too in the starlight, the rocks that are strewn over its surface, the mountains that line the horizon, black and sharp against the splendour of the stars.

As we stand and watch in silence the music starts. Voices, unaccompanied, in slowly shifting harmonies, each chord sliding into the next, which already contains the seeds of the next one after that. Over to one side I can see the choir standing, their eyes fixed on their conductor; but the sound is in our helmets, of course, and has no direction.

The wisps of cloud above the horizon are gradually becoming lighter. Nothing else is changing: the sky itself is as black as ever, the stars set in it are as brilliant, the mountains below it just as black. The music continues. Music that is half a thousand years old, from my own country, as I happen to know, sung in a language that was also spoken in my country, but much longer ago.

Another piece begins, and another. The clouds are reddening, very slightly, very gradually. I’m not sure whether the ground is becoming more visible.

A tenor voice intones something, as in a church, and the choir follows, singing the chords in a speaking rhythm. Then one solitary soprano, clear and bright like starlight, seeming to be at the top of her range, and then my heart stops as she soars far higher and finishes her phrase with descending notes like drops of mercury that ravish my soul before the tenor begins his intonation once again and the disc of the Sun itself begins to emerge from behind the horizon and the light grows in earnest.

When that music was composed, and for centuries afterwards, people were inspired by it to have religious thoughts and feelings.

The words are clearly religious. Taken from church liturgy or the holy scriptures, speaking clearly of the beliefs of the time, though in a language that nobody here understands.

The words come to us from a time when the universe was small, tiny, as far as anyone knew: the Earth below, the heavens above, and the Creator sustaining it all and receiving adulation from his creatures.

The point of light where those ideas grew is just visible with the naked eye from here, during our night. Not at the moment, because it‘s below the horizon, but it won't be when night falls again today.

Are we here part of the heavens above the Earth? Or is the Earth part of the heavens above us?

Neither, obviously. Both are planets in orbit around the Sun, which is in orbit around our galaxy, completing one circuit every two hundred million years; and the galaxy is part of the Local Group, which is part of the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies, a hundred billion times the size of our galaxy, and that is – in space, doing whatever a cluster of galaxies does.

The heavens are all around us. Space is all around us. There is no above or below.

I suspect that the emotions this music is able to call up in us are very similar to those in its audience all those years ago: gathered in a cathedral, its vaults and columns lofty above them, the music rising and echoing and surrounding them: feeling uplifted and transported, and feeling that they have a place in a divine order.

There’s nothing divine about the Agency's arrangements for us here; but I am feeling that I have a place in them.

I’m beginning to feel at last that I am in control of my life, or beginning to regain control of it.

I’m sure that I am going to find a proper job, well in advance of the ship's next arrival; though I haven't heard back from Marketa yet, it’s early days, and I know that interview went well. I think there is a compelling case for taking me on in that team, and I think she should be able to persuade her boss of that.

I’m going to be able to make my own way here: justify my place here, earn the space and the resources that I consume.

I'll move into a larger place with Chiara, once I have a larger income. She'll have a room of her own, and we'll have a sitting room, or at least a larger kitchen, where I can seat visitors.

We'll have space for toys, and clothes, and other things, and there'll be room for Chiara to play with other children and even for them to sleep over, if they want.

I’m smiling at myself; at how my enthusiasm is running away. Unlaid eggs, as I heard somebody say recently, I can't remember who. I suppose it means the same as counting my chickens before they hatch.

There is one way in which I have taken control already. I have a lover. He is no unhatched chicken. He is reality.

I am maintaining a relationship with a man, and not because I need it, or him, not because I can’t deal with my life if I haven't got a man, but because I am in control of my life, I make my own decisions, and I choose to have a man.

I can choose not to have a man any time I like. I can stop seeing him any time I like, or I can carry on seeing him and enjoying what we do. I am in control.

My thoughts have moved on not a little since those feelings of exaltation and sublimity as the Sun appeared.

The music is still filling my helmet as the world grows lighter and redder. To my right and to my left the others are standing, featureless in their space suits, listening. Maybe they are still transported by the same emotions, numinous, quasi-religious, like mediaeval people in a cathedral, or Stone Age people chanting in a cave, with flickering torches and with paintings of bison, strangely alive, on the cave walls. I can't tell.

I am thinking of sex. Not even sex with Craig, particularly. My body is remembering the feeling of having sex. That melting feeling, sweet and warm and dark. That feeling of opening up and being taken, and letting someone in, and holding him inside me and beside me and around me. That electric feeling of skin on skin. Probing, controlling hands. Large hands, covering me, passing across me, lifting me, pressing me, taking me.

I’m glad of my helmet, because nobody looking at my face now could be in any doubt about what I am thinking. I feel that my cheeks are flushed, though I may be imagining that, and I can feel my pulse in my ears.

As the music comes to an end I realise that I haven’t been listening to it for several minutes. Day has finally broken now; light is flooding across the plain, the sky is light, the stars banished from it and its blackness gone. Red is all around.

The choir leads and the rest of us follow, filing down the slope back into our crater, looking down on the colony spread out in the sun. I feel satisfied and fulfilled, and rather hungry.

Once the airlock has opened on the inside we crowd through, taking off our helmets and chattering noisily: very different from this morning before dawn. In the crowd I spot Beate, and I make my way over to her.

"Good morning, Selena," she says, and she smiles. "How are you?"

"Hello, Beate: I didn't see you before. How did you like it?"

"We have some fine voices in the colony," she replies, and we start to walk down the corridor together.

"We certainly have," I agree. "The soprano soloist in the Allegri!"

"Do you know who that was?" I shake my head. "It was Marketa Neumannová."

"Really?" I’m dumbfounded.

"Yes. If you'll believe it, she’s only taken up singing since she has been on Mars, and she started singing with the choir a few months ago."

"Where does she sing the rest of the time, then?"

"She’s been having private lessons with Benno." Benno is the leader of the choir and has a fine voice himself.

"Really?" I’m repeating myself out of sheer astonishment.

"Benno sang the tenor solo in the same piece."

That is interesting, because of course he had to conduct the choir as well. But I remember that in this piece the soloists alternate with the choir, so that he could easily finish his own intonation before turning to conduct the others again.

"How do you know all this, Beate?" I ask. "Do you know people in the choir?"

"Well, yes, I do," she replies. "And so do you."

"I know. Fabrice and Marie-France, for instance. And Gloria Boswell."

"But mainly I know because I am in the choir myself!"

"Really?" I’m starting to annoy myself now.

"Nothing special. Just one of the voices who fill the choir. In the altos, in my case."

"I had no idea."

"Well, we hadn't really talked very much until recently, had we, Selena?"

"That's true. There's probably a lot I don't know about you."

"Probably," she agrees, and smiles.

"You know pretty much everything about me by now." Not everything. Not about Craig.

She makes no comment on that, and we continue a few paces without saying anything.

"You know," she says, "we only sang excerpts from the last piece, and one of the parts we didn't sing has the words: 'It's no good for you to get up before dawn.' Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere."

We exchange a glance and a smile, but I’m not sure what to say to that.

We have reached a junction, and Beate stands still.

"I think this is where our ways part," she says. "I'm off home for a good breakfast. What about you?"

"I'll go home too," I reply, "but I'll need to leave again very soon to go to work. I might have a bite to eat when I get there."

"Eating at your desk?"

"I know," I say, ruefully. "But it's an exception. And it was worth it."

"I'm glad to hear it." She extends a hand, which I take. "Goodbye, Selena! Have a nice day."

"You too, Beate. Bye!"

And I move off down the corridor and feel that I am stepping back into my normal life. I just have to shed this space suit and put on something more professional, more office-like, and my daily routine can resume. No, there’s no time for a cup of tea at home. Only for a quick flourish with my lipstick and then out of the door.

Chapter Seven


Twilight