Chapter Three:


Being a Girl

"Love the hair, Selena!"

I stop and turn towards the speaker, feeling pleased.

"Do you like it?"

Rosemary cups my chin and turns my head this way and that.

"I love the pointy bits on your cheeks. Cheeky. Mischievous. Elfin."

I smile again with pleasure.

"There's not a great deal anyone can do with my hair," I say.

"Oh, I wouldn't say that. Look what Marianne has done this time."

"She hasn't really changed very much."

"No, but what she has changed makes all the difference. Honestly, it takes years off you. It's adorable!"

Pardip joins the two of us, and Rosemary steps back from inspecting me.

"It is adorable," Pardip agrees. "I'm going to Marianne tomorrow afternoon."

"Now I adore your hair, Pardip," I say. It‘s long and black, and it holds her perfectly formed face in a nest of luxuriant warmth and softness.

Marianne is an organic chemist with a key role in one of the colony's most important projects, but she’s also a keen hairdresser and has developed quite a business on the side. Most of us go to her regularly for an hour or two of unashamed femininity.

Which is a key role in itself, it seems to me.

Everything here is so very functional and utilitarian: the pods that the colony is built of, the equipment, the utensils, the furniture, the space suits, the standard issue work suits for wearing indoors: they all speak loudly and clearly of their origin. Designed by the Agency to function efficiently and safely, to keep us alive and healthy so that we can perform our tasks in this desolation, millions of miles from Earth. And to shield our children from the deadly threats that surround us.

Obviously that is a good thing.

But since being here, and it seems that most of the women here feel the same way, I have been experiencing a hunger, a craving, such that I don't remember ever feeling back on Earth, for femininity: for being a girl. For frills, and flowers, and flounces; for soft fabrics, pink and lilac, and seductive perfumes.

It's ironic how we are resolving into gender clichés. Here we are at the cutting edge of technological advance, and emotionally we’re stepping back into the nineteenth century.

Most of the men seem quite happy with the regulation issue kit. Mike never used to wear anything else unless I made him. Whenever there's a dinner party, or drinks, or some other gathering of grown-ups of both sexes, the women will make an effort to turn out in their finery, while the men will roll up in the same old work suits as ever: basically overalls with a zip at the front, usually half open to reveal a round neck sweatshirt underneath. They'll tell you how practical these are, because you can just step into a space suit without changing into anything else, and this is true; but what they don't mention is that most of us very rarely need to wear a space suit, because we hardly ever go outside.

Marianne isn't here this afternoon; she’s at work; but her two sons are, Tim and Gregory, and they’re running through the room now, dodging between the mothers, though they are supposed to be playing in the next room with the other children. Either Tim or Gregory, I can never tell the difference, squeezes between me and Pardip and clutches my legs as he jerks to the left and to the right to avoid his brother, before he runs away from him with a shriek and a laugh.

Chiara, I presume and hope, is playing demurely and obediently in that next room, where I deposited her earlier, having picked her up from nursery after work.

Somebody has collared the twins now and dragged them next door, and as they disappear the noise subsides and it's all grown-ups again, for the moment.

Gaynor steps into the middle of the room.

"Ladies," she says, "I have a little surprise for you all before we get down to business."

She is holding a remote control in her left hand and dims the lights. Along the length of the wall opposite the door to the hallway a reddish glow begins to appear, at first faint, then increasing in strength and warmth. People turn to face it, and fall back and away so that everyone can see.

Shapes begin to resolve themselves, and we realise that it’s a Martian landscape. I'm not sure where it is, but it clearly isn't inside our crater. Rocks lie scattered to the edge of sight; mountains and crater rims are visible in the distance; all is suffused in the same hues of red and brown, and all is at peace; or dead, depending on how you take it.

Now the field of vision moves and sweeps slowly around a semi-circle, and it becomes apparent that whoever was filming this was standing on the edge of our crater. The colony slides into view from the right hand side, and soon we are looking down upon it as it lies spread out in the basin of the crater with the pale sunlight from far, far away glinting off its pods. Still nothing is moving. I am just noticing one of the Martian moons gleaming low in the sky above the colony, when an opening appears in the side of one of the pods and a clutch of spacesuited figures emerges, most of them very small.

A hum rises from the assembled mothers, and we look knowingly at each other as we realise what is happening.

"Mrs Dalgleish," says Pardip, and so it is, indeed, striding out from the airlock opening at the head of a gaggle of children and their mothers.

A sound causes me to turn my head, and I see that some of the children are at the door, looking in at the show.

"Come in if you like," Gaynor whispers, "but be quiet!"

Soon the buggy is loaded up with the first batch of children and is bumping its way up the slope towards the camera. Watching at leisure like this, I notice how its jolting motion is different from the way it would be on Earth: after each jolt it sinks to the ground more slowly than it would at home, so that the film seems to be in slow motion, though the buggy is driving at normal speed.

For Chiara and the other children this will be the norm, of course. I wonder what it will be like for them to watch footage of vehicles on Earth. Will it seem like one of those speeded-up slapstick films from the early days of cinema?

In the flickering gloom a little hand slips into mine, and I feel a warm glow, even if it is a bit sticky. I look down and smile as she peers up at me.

We watch in silence. It turns out that the buggy actually went on a little way beyond the crater rim and gave the children a ride on the plain outside before bringing them back to where the camera was, where they climbed out and stood around for a while at first, apparently feeling a little shaken. Some of the boys started to wander down away from the crater, but the driver of the buggy wouldn't allow them to do that. So they began to climb down into the crater instead, and there they still were when the buggy began its descent again to fetch the next group.

We are now just getting highlights from that afternoon, and I’m getting the impression that whoever was operating the camera was making an effort to include everybody, but of course it’s difficult to see who everybody is in our space suits. I haven't seen Chiara and me yet.

Suddenly I do. There she is, running in a wide circle on the slope of the crater with Pamela close behind.

I crouch down.

"Do you know who that is?" I whisper.

"Is that me?" she asks with wide eyes.

"Mm hm."

The children in the room are starting to get restless now and, frankly, so are some of us. Gaynor steps back into the middle and brings the lights back up.

"I'll leave this running," she says, "but why don't we get started? Candy, do you want to show us what you brought today?"

"Sure," says Candy, who is standing next to her. "Ladies, do you want to find somewhere to sit?"

There are about ten mothers in this room, and there is a large sofa and plenty of chairs.

"Chiara, off you go into the other room, please."

"Can I stay with you, Mummy?"

I look at her.

"All right, but be quiet, and good. Sit on my lap, and let's listen quietly."

"OK," says Candy, who is now perched on the edge of an armchair and is leaning forwards into the group. "Following our last session, I took on board what people were saying about the kind of designs they'd like to see, and this is what I came up with in the meantime."

She has a pile of print-outs and begins to hand them round. They are embroidery charts, one of each for everybody, and they are for tablecloths.

I had never embroidered anything in my life before I came here, and it could hardly have been further from my thoughts that I would take it up after travelling all the way to Mars.

Candy is explaining the differences between the various designs she has created: not so much between the way they look; that we can see for ourselves; but the differences in carrying them out, the threads you need, how to organise them, all those practical questions that mean there is a clear progression or gradient between the designs, from the most straightforward to the most demanding.

Brandy, Pamela's mother, is in the seat next to mine. She and I are the dunces in this group, and it’s obvious which design both of us are going to choose.

All credit to Candy for her ingenuity, because it doesn't look like a design that is straightforward to execute. It’s a geometric pattern that runs around the tablecloth in a band about a third of the way in from the edge, with arms at regular intervals that spiral in on themselves a stitch at a time, vaguely reminiscent of one of those fractal Mandelbrot patterns, but of course much less complex. It’s all to be done in one colour, a dark blue, and stitched on to an off-white, linen-like material, and I can imagine that it will look very pleasing when done, in an understated but elegant way.

Assuming I can manage it.

Other patterns are much more ambitious. There’s a huge lion's head, filling the whole tablecloth, in various shades of yellow and brown; there’s a rather sentimental sunset over a tropical island; there’s a children's pattern of toadstools and pixies; and several more.

"Don't fancy getting ketchup out of this one," Brandy observes.

"Place mats," I say. "Don't do that, please, Chiara."

"Never foolproof," says Brandy.

"True. Accident waiting to happen, I suppose."

"Asking for trouble. This one, now," and she holds up the chart for our dark blue geometrical pattern: "much more practical."

"It's the wise choice. Chiara, you're going to crease it. Give it to Mummy, please."

Candy is starting to hand around samples of material.

"Chiara, give it to me, please. Thank you."

The samples all look pretty similar to me, but as I test them with my fingers I can feel a clear difference in texture.

Brandy leans towards me and whispers.

"Do you have any idea which one we're supposed to be using?"

Of course I haven't, and so we wait patiently while Candy does the round. In the meantime Chiara gets bored and scampers back to the next room, leaving me free to concentrate once Candy has selected the right material for us and shown us how to get started.

Gradually an atmosphere of studious diligence settles over the room. It’s a little bit like being at work, but intellectually much less taxing, though if you're Brandy or me it still demands a fair degree of focus; so people can gossip and joke if they feel like it, in subdued tones, or we can just stitch away in silence if we prefer; either way it feels as though we are part of a group, all busy on the same task, even if each of us is creating something for use in her own home.

Neither Brandy nor I get very far this afternoon. It would help if I didn't have to keep unpicking my stitches because all the care I take and all the assistance Candy gives don't make the pattern come out in quite the right shape. But slowly it does take form and grow under my hands, and it is indeed a satisfying feeling to be the cause of this happening. It's a feeling that I recognise from when I was a girl: not from embroidery, but from other kinds of handicraft, of an elementary nature; and I notice, a little surprised, that it feels in some way comforting, it gives me solace, somehow. Even if, as an objective matter, it’s completely unimportant whether I have an embroidered tablecloth in my apartment.

Children come and go, sometimes noisy, sometimes less so. Two girls and a boy watch, in some awe, as the lion's head takes shape, vast and richly coloured. Nobody seems impressed by the pixies and toadstools.

Finally it’s time to go home, and I pack my unfinished, that is my barely started tablecloth into my bag, being careful to roll it up as Candy had shown me so as not to disturb the threads. Children mill about as we all take our leave of each other. At home we'd be putting our coats on, but obviously that doesn't happen here.

Pamela hugs me before setting off with her mother in the opposite direction to Chiara and me. Which is very nice, and rather surprising, because she seldom does this.

*

A few days later, Chiara and I are walking through the central part of the colony. Chiara has been to the dentist and is relieved and lively now that this is over. She has never had any problems with her teeth and can't possibly associate a visit to the dentist with pain, but still it’s not an enjoyable experience, and I sympathise with her feelings.

High above us the dome of the central pod extends. This is the nearest thing to being outdoors that we get here. Of course it’s not really outdoors: we’re breathing the same processed, recycled air as everywhere in the colony, and it’s the same ambient temperature as everywhere else; but the high roof creates an illusion of open space, and the luxuriant vegetation masks the fact that we are still enclosed.

One of the objectives of the Agency's selection procedure was to ensure that the colonists would be drawn only from those who would be happy living in this artificial environment all the time. One of the questions, slightly bizarrely, was whether I preferred to sleep with a window open; but Mike had primed me and I was sure to give the right answer, though not the truthful one.

In one part of the central area is the children's playground, and several children are already there as we arrive. Chiara lets go of my hand as soon as she sees it and runs towards the nearest climbing frame.

This is where Mars's low gravity makes itself noticeable once again. In a word, you fall more slowly, and hit the ground with less of an impact. So the slides, for instance, are designed to be much steeper than on Earth, especially at the top, so that your child can pick up a reasonable speed from the start. When I first sat at the top of that slide with Chiara on my lap, I couldn't help feeling nervous, though intellectually, of course, I knew that the descent would be gentler than it looked; Chiara has never had a problem with throwing herself down that slope, feet first, head first or any other way. After the first couple of metres the slide becomes less steep and snakes around this way and that, and it’s a good deal longer, again, than you would expect on Earth, and yet your child shoots out at the bottom end with no greater or scarier a speed than you did when you were that age.

Swings, inevitably, are a disappointment compared to Earth. Here as on Earth you are in free fall as you descend, and there’s nothing one can do in designing the swing to speed its acceleration up, short of fitting the swing with a motor. The only way to allow the child to pick up a speed like that on Earth would be to start that much higher; but that would make the swing take up so much room on the ground, and ascend so high in either direction, that it would be impracticable. So we only have one swing, that looks very much like the swings at home, until you set it going, and only the very youngest of children can be bothered with it. Chiara has long outgrown it.

The climbing frame is where Mars really comes into its own, and Chiara loves it. She strides up a fretted ramp, holding on to the rope fitted at its top and its bottom and using it to pull herself up, and clambers up a structure like scaffolding to reach a platform high above the ground. She leans on the rail and waves down to me.

"Careful, darling!" I don't know why I say that; she’s highly unlikely to injure herself even if she does fall.

She stands there for a moment and surveys all that she can see: there are two girls climbing through a conical structure made of ropes that sag slightly beneath their weight; two smaller children are sitting in the sandpit and making hollows and mounds with the Martian sand; and there are two adults sitting on a bench at the edge of the playground, watching their little boy as he rocks by himself on what is clearly supposed to look like a space ship.

I make my way over to them, leaving Chiara to propel herself whooping down the tallest slide. It’s Mr and Mrs Sharma, and they switch to English as I approach, in that charming accent that reminds me of my time in England, before I met Mike.

I wish I could say I was researching at the Cavendish or at Jodrell Bank. In fact I was an au pair for a year at Ealing, though I did go to some lectures in my spare time, at Imperial College and the Royal Astronomical Society.

"How are you today, Mrs Hutchinson?"

"Thank you; we're both very well. We've just come from the dentist."

Mr Sharma makes a face.

"That is not an enjoyable activity!" he says, and we all laugh.

"I have been there with Rakesh last week," his wife adds, "and he was not liking it at all!"

Her son hears his name and looks up, and says something to his mother in their own language; she responds in the same language, which I think is Hindi, though to my shame I am not certain.

"Your daughter is very active," Mr Sharma observes. She is running across the playground to the rope structure, where she clambers up on to the lowest horizontal rope and commences to climb towards the other two girls, who are perched near the top, doing something that I can't make out.

I smile.

"She certainly is! She makes me tired just looking at her!"

He looks sympathetically at me, and I wonder fleetingly whether he realises that I am exaggerating for comic effect.

"Rakesh is a good boy," he tells me, "but he too has a lot of energy and will. It is necessary to provide a framework of discipline and guidance, for him to develop in a healthy direction."

I look at him, but am not sure what to say to that. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that Chiara has now reached the other girls and is sitting perched at the top with them.

Mrs Sharma is listening too.

"Chiara is a good girl too, isn't it?" she says.

"Oh yes," I answer, glad of a direct question. "She is such a sweet little girl. Obviously she can be a handful at times, what child isn't? But, as you say, with discipline and guidance -." I smile at Mr Sharma.

"How are you finding life in your new quarters, Mrs Hutchinson?"

Now I am startled, and I look at him again, speechless for the moment.

The colony really is a village. Everybody knows each other's business. Even the Indians know about me and Mike, it seems.

I should explain what I mean by that. The Agency is a UN operation, but it’s funded by three countries or regions: America, Europe and India; and it’s staffed by colonists from those places. The Chinese have their own space exploration programme, which doesn't currently involve Mars, as far as I know, though I am somewhat out of touch these days.

I am from Europe, but I came with the US team. The same goes for Mike. All the other people on that team are actually Americans: at any rate, those are who came when we did, with the first ship when the base became a colony.

My friend Brandy is Australian, originally, but she came with the European team, because she had been living in the UK for a long time. Pardip is from the UK, born and bred, though her grandparents came from India years ago.

But there is little difference between the US and the European teams: we intermix, we all speak English with each other, in a variety of accents, and in fact I don't even know in all cases which team someone originally came with.

The Indians, on the other hand, do form a community of their own within the colony, though the atmosphere between them and the rest of us is perfectly amicable and relaxed. While they can all speak English, they prefer to use their own languages amongst themselves, which I can sympathise with: sometimes I'd like to have someone I could talk to in Italian. And they seem to have their own interests and priorities in private life.

There are no Indian ladies in our embroidery group; but that may be because they and we don't know each other well enough for us all to feel comfortable with it. It is very plain that there are some keen and talented wielders of the needle among the Indians.

The only Indians that I really know at all well are the ones in my team at work.

But I have spoken to Mr and Mrs Sharma before, and they are very nice people. The playground brings people together, as it is doing now: those of us who have small children to care for, anyway.

All the children on Mars are small, for the present.

We chat away, making polite and friendly small talk. Mrs Sharma stands up and takes her son to a different part of the playground, where some more boys have now arrived. Plainly she would like him to play with them, and I'd do the same thing if I were his mother. Rakesh seems to be a solitary little boy; I don't think I recall ever seeing him play with another child.

I get up too, apologising to Mr Sharma, and walk around a clump of plants that obscures my view of the rest of the playground; I can't see Chiara, and I want to make sure I know what she is doing.

I see her sitting with the two other girls in a play house, in the upper storey, and something inside me relaxes. I'd like to go and join their tea party, or whatever it is they're playing, but I know I should leave them to it. Chiara is not eighteen months old any more; she doesn't need me to play with her all the time.

I sit down on a different bench, from which I can see the play house, and watch for a while, on my own. Two other children arrive and climb up the outside of the house; Chiara seems to make an attempt to involve them in the tea party, but they’re not interested and they exit down the slide that leads away from one end of the house.

I lean back on my bench, in what feels for all the world like the shade of a tree. The lighting in the dome above us creates the illusion of a sunny afternoon in the park in somewhere like Surrey or Massachusetts; one almost expects to see fallen leaves on the pathway and to hear the song of birds gathering for migration. In the background, covering the ubiquitous hum of electrical aggregates, I hear the splashing and rushing of a stream, and that really is genuine: some of the colony's water is sent down a chute and along a stream bed that bisects the park before disappearing into the wall to be used, presumably, for the normal purposes of the colony.

A grown-up appears, walking slowly along the main pathway. She pauses near the tallest climbing frame, watches the children climbing in it for a few moments, and then continues slowly along her way.

As she approaches, our eyes meet, and she makes her way purposefully to my bench.

"Hello, Selena. How are you?"

In the early days the English would make a joke of always talking about the weather, and thought it was terribly funny to tell each other what a fine day it was every time.

It palled in the end, even for them.

"Hi, Beate. We're very well," and I tell her too about the dentist.

Beate is that rarity here on Mars, a single woman.  She came here in the first place as a single woman, the colony's official psychologist, she is German and came with the European team, and everybody knows why she has never had a male partner. She is older than most of the women here, who are clearly of child-bearing age.

I'm actually not sure whether Beate could still bear a child; but obviously she is not going to.

She sits down next to me, leans back and crosses her legs.

"Is that Chiara in there? Who is she with? Is that Paula Meissner?"

"Yes, and the other girl is Libby Baxter."

"So she is," she says as Libby turns her head and we can see her face briefly.

The girls are still engrossed in their game, and Chiara, despite being the youngest of the three, is very much in charge, Miss Bossyboots.

"So, how is it going, Selena? How are the two of you managing?"

"I think we're managing just fine, thank you. We're nicely settled now in our new apartment. We only have one bedroom, which is not ideal, but it'll do for now."

"And what about your husband? Is he involved?"

"Well - he sees Chiara every few days, for a couple of hours."

"Does she ever stay with him?"

"She hasn't done that yet."

"So it really is just you, most of the time, responsible for Chiara on your own?"

"Yes; but that isn't really any different from the way it was before."

"Really?"

I pause to think about it, and cast my mind back to the time when all three of us were living in one household.

"Obviously Mike used to be around a lot of the time. But I wouldn't say he took any responsibility for Chiara. He didn't get her dressed, he didn't make sure she was ready for nursery, or arrange for her to do anything or go anywhere. He didn't organise her things. I don't think he actually knew what things she had."

Beate chuckles.

"That may well be true," she says. "And how do you think Chiara feels about it?"

I consider how to answer that, looking in front of me towards the play house, but not really seeing it.

"I think she feels happy that there's a relaxed atmosphere in our house. The only tension is when she and I argue about something, so it's something that we're responsible for ourselves. She doesn't have to deal with tensions between Mike and me."

"And what do you argue about?"

"Oh, you know. The usual child stuff. Going to bed. Getting dressed and not dawdling. Not being noisy when other people are around. Letting me have a conversation with another grown-up. That sort of thing."

"Yes, I see. And how does Chiara behave about seeing her father?"

Again I have to think about that.

"I have the feeling that I'm not sure she wants to go and see him. Do you know what I mean? It's not that she doesn't like seeing him. But it's a slice out of her day, and she would have been doing something else during that time: something she wanted to do. So I suppose it feels inconvenient to her. Like a tiresome obligation. Slightly tiresome."

"And when she's actually with him? When that wrench out of her normal routine has happened, you've taken her to see him, and there she is, with him?"

"Well - obviously I'm not there. I can't see how she behaves."

"No, but can you guess at it from other indications? From the atmosphere between the two of them when she comes back to you, for instance?"

"Honestly, I haven't really thought about it. It's only been a few times anyway."

I look away from her again and think back.

"I think they seem happy, actually," I say finally.

Beate looks thoughtfully at me.

"And what does Mike say?"

"We haven't talked."

"What, at all?"

"Only the bare minimum. Only what's necessary to arrange times. We certainly haven't discussed his relationship with Chiara."

There is a pause in the conversation.

"Do you think he misses her?" Beate asks.

I'm beginning to feel slightly irritated at being required to think about Mike's feelings.

"I don't know," I say. "He never used to engage with her much. I imagine his life hasn't really changed that much."

"That's what you said about your life."

"I suppose it is." Suddenly I laugh, briefly. "Okay, I suppose it's a bit weird to say that life hasn't changed for either of us. After Chiara and I have actually moved out."

"Does he think about you, do you think, when he's alone in your old home?"

"Me or us?"

"Either. Both."

I sit there and imagine him at home. Sitting at his computer. Sprawling on the sofa. Alone in bed. I assume, anyway.

Does he think about me?

I certainly don't think about him, or not very much, anyway; but I have Chiara to think about, all the time.

I daresay he misses my cooking. And my cleaning and tidying.

Actually he probably doesn't even notice the dirt and disorder. But I'm sure it's a relief to him not to be constantly reminded to put things away and clean up after himself.

I’d rather not know what the bathroom is like.

"I don't know," I say at last. "I'd say, probably not. He has his normal life to lead, same as ever. His mates to talk to. His computer games to play. His work, obviously."

I glance across at Beate.

"What do you think?" I ask.

"What do I think?"

"Yes. Does that sound reasonable? That he's just living his life the way he has always done, without thinking about us very much?"

"You tell me, Selena. You're married to him."

"I don't know," I say, "and I don't really want to think about it. I have my child to think about. Why are you interested in Mike, anyway? Have you seen him?"

"Yes, I have, actually. But I haven't discussed your relationship with him."

"Okay..."

"Would you object if I did?"

"I - I don't know."

Beate looks squarely at me.

"Selena, I'm not acting in a professional capacity here. Obviously we both know that I'm a psychologist, I'm the official psychologist to the colony, and I'm available to be involved in a professional capacity if either of you asks me. But that hasn't happened yet."

"I see."

"At the moment I'm talking to you as a private individual, as a friend, who cares about you. If you or Mike ask me to be your counsellor in my professional capacity, then I'm bound by confidentiality, and by the fact that I'm directly acting for one of you; and that limits how I can talk or interact with the other."

"I see."

"Unless you both ask me to mediate, in which case I'm not acting for either of you individually; I'm seeking a solution that's in the interest of both of you."

"All three of us."

"Yes, I apologise. All three of you."

I stare in front of me at the playground, that has filled up with more children and parents while we have been talking. Children are shouting cheerfully, and on the other side an irritated mother is trying to control her son who, I happen to know, was two last week.

"Where have you seen Mike?" I ask, out of the blue.

"At a party the other night."

I look at her, surprised.

"A party?"

"Yes. There was a party at Fabrice and Marie-France's the other night."

I feel my expression changing.

"It was Marie-France's birthday," she adds. She sees my face and says, "You didn't know about it?"

"No."

"Oh, Selena, I'm sorry. They must have - well -"

"Decided not to invite me."

But they invited Mike. What's going on? Marie-France is supposed to be my friend, not Mike's. Even if he does get on with Fabrice.

Beate touches my shoulder.

"It's the sad fate of the single woman in a world full of couples," she explains.

"But they invited you," I say. "Sorry, I don't mean - "

"It's fine, don't worry. I don't get invited to lots of things, and it's obviously because people want couples."

"I suppose so."

So why did Marie-France invite you this time, Beate, and not me? Why did she want you at her birthday party and not me?

Can I voice that thought? Probably not.

"Careful up there, Chiara!" I call. Chiara looks round, startled because she hadn't realised I was watching.

"I am being careful, Mummy!" she calls back. "Look!"

"Good girl!"

Beate is looking ahead of her during this interruption, with her hands clasped in her lap. I look across at her.

"Selena," she says. "If you'd like to talk to me, professionally, I'd be more than willing."

"Thank you."

"You probably know that every member of the colony is entitled to counselling free of charge."

"I suppose the Agency was worried about how we'd all cope out here."

"Well, yes," she confirms, "that is indeed the case. Something that happens every day on Earth, may not be commonplace at all here."

I probably look a little bewildered at that statement, because she starts to explain.

"The colony is an experiment in all sorts of ways, and one of those ways is the management and development of human relationships. By management I mean how people manage their own relationships, not how we manage them for them."

"Yes."

"There's never been a human settlement so far from home, or with so little prospect of return." I glance straight at her as she says that, but I don't say anything.

"We’re a small group of people here. Our numbers grow every time the ship arrives, but we’re still a small group, in which everybody knows everybody else; and we are stuck with each other."

"Yes."

"That means that, however our relationships develop, whatever courses they take, for the better or for the worse, we still have to live with each other and make it work. Nobody can move to a new town and start again, with a clean slate."

"No."

"And that's what I mean. Couples split up all the time on Earth; people move out, they live separately, they make their arrangements, they make new lives for themselves, meet new people, embark on new relationships - it's different here."

"I suppose so."

"I'd like to help you, Selena. If you'd like, if you think it might help, to talk to someone, someone who doesn't have an agenda, who doesn't want to push you in any particular direction, someone who just wants to listen and be there for you. Just let me know. Drop me a text and we'll make an appointment."

An appointment. Suddenly that sounds so - medical.

"Thank you. I might take you up on that."

"Please do."

She stands up and gives me her hand to shake; I take it, slightly startled.

"Goodbye, Selena. Hope to see you soon."

"Bye, Beate. Thanks for listening to me."

She smiles. "It was a pleasure."

I have now stood up too, while we were shaking hands; we let go, and Beate walks away in the direction in which she was going when she came.

And I stand there with my head full of thoughts, and walk slowly into the playground to collect Chiara and take her home.


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