By the time we arrive at our apartment she has stopped shouting. I am still carrying her the way I was. I’m not looking at her.
The door slides open, calmly and without fuss. I blunder in and make straight for the bedroom. The door is open and I set her down on her feet, inside the room, facing away from me. I close the door on her and go back into the kitchen. I sit down, put my elbows on the table and rest my head on my hands. My heart is pounding.
I don’t know what to do. Probably I’m doing everything wrong.
They’ll all be talking about me.
What am I going to say to her when she comes out? She has to come out.
I am seeing something that, obvious though it is, really hadn’t struck me before. There are two sides to everything. To every relationship. There are two sides to my relationship with Chiara; and I sit there at my little table and contemplate that fact, and what it means.
She has her own views and her own position, and she is entitled to them.
It’s not all about me.
I don’t know whether she meant what she said. It must mean something. It can’t have just come out of nothing.
All right. One thing I have decided. When we speak again, it’ll be her behaviour that she has to be sorry for. Not what she said. I’m not going to bring that up. Her shouting and her tantrum, that’s what it will be about.
I’ve no idea what she did to that boy, or what he did to deserve it, in her opinion. I’m not going to interrogate her about that. If she wants to tell me, she can.
I shouldn’t leave her to stew in there, letting her grievance fester. I wonder what she’s doing. I haven’t told her how long she has to stay there, or what she has to do to be allowed out.
It’s too early for her to go to bed. And she’ll need a meal, if she hasn’t spoiled her appetite for good on those snacks and sweets.
What am I going to do?
I get to my feet. I can’t keep sitting here. Too restless.
I stand there, uncertain, in my kitchen.
If I do go in, I don’t know what I’m going to say.
I can’t hear anything.
I go to the bedroom door and open it softly. She is playing quietly on the floor with Sandy and Sindy and her other play figures. The pink and purple dress is on a hanger on the handle of the wardrobe door. My little grown-up girl.
I walk inside and sit down on the floor with my back against the side of her bed. I don’t say anything.
Chiara continues playing, cool and collected, making the voices for her figures as the story unfolds. Once again they seem to be having an adventure out on the surface.
Two of them are searching for a third one, and Chiara makes them talk about their search: “Where is she?” “I don’t know.” “Maybe she’s over there.” “We’ve looked there already.” “Look, there she is.” Chiara turns them both to look towards a figure lying face down just underneath the bed close to where I am sitting. They start to make their way across the floor.
I reach over and roll the third figure over and make her sit up. Chiara catches my eye briefly and continues the game. “Look, she’s moving. I hope she’s all right.”
I make my figure wave to the other two.
They continue to approach. “Why isn’t she talking?” “Silly, the radio’s broken.” “Oh yes, I forgot.”
Aha. I shan’t make my figure say anything, then.
Why are her two able to communicate, if the radio is broken?
That’s a pedantic objection, which I am not going to raise.
Chiara is on her elbows and knees, inching towards me across the floor with her figures in her two hands.
I make mine try to get up, and raise her hand to her head. “Ow,” I say for her.
I haven’t spoken since we were at Wendy’s house, and my voice engages reluctantly. I clear my throat.
“I think she’s hurt herself,” says one of Chiara’s figures.
I give a little whine on behalf of my character. “I can’t walk,” I say to myself. “How am I going to get home?”
“The colony’s on your bed, Mummy,” Chiara informs me.
“Is there a buggy out searching?” I ask.
“We don’t know,” she says. “The radio doesn’t work.”
Her two figures approach slowly, and they reach mine as it sits waiting under the edge of her bed.
“Here she is! Let’s see if she’s hurt. Yes, she’s hurt her leg.” They coo and sympathise over my character, which I make spread its arms out to greet them.
This is where the logical contradiction becomes most obvious, that the radio appears to be working for two of them, but not the third. I wonder how she’ll resolve this.
She doesn’t appear to notice any problem.
She stops talking for her figures and looks up at my face.
“Are you still cross, Mummy?”
“Not if you say sorry, darling.”
I open my arms to give her a hug, because this is what we do, but she has already turned round and is crawling across the floor to her box of toys. She retrieves a Mars buggy from the box.
Is that it now? Have we now dealt with the issue of this afternoon?
Do I want to insist on a full and frank discussion of what happened and a thorough, itemised apology?
She’s said the word “Sorry”. She’s ticked the box. Gone through the procedure. She won’t understand it if I re-open the subject now. Flogging a dead horse.
I sit and watch her play. The buggy advances across the floor, searching for our three missing people to bring them back home.
I have no desire whatever to spoil the atmosphere at this stage.
It’s a superficial atmosphere. I can’t do anything about the way I feel inside.
It feels as though everything has changed.
“Chiara, I’m going to make dinner. I’m making broccoli soup.”
“Okay.” She doesn’t look up.
“With bread and butter.”
Cream of broccoli soup. Very yummy.
Am I taking it too seriously? I hope so.
In any case I have practical things to do. Everyday tasks that need to be dealt with. I pull myself together and go into the kitchen where I make sure that I have the soya cream that I think I remember, and then commence to chop up the broccoli. I’m beginning to feel quite hungry.
I’m still doing everyday tasks, different ones, when I roll up at work next morning.
I’m wearing a grey skirt and a matching jacket, understated and elegant, and underneath a pale pink top that feels like cashmere.
It may be superficial, but it’s always meant a lot to me that I can wear nice things on Mars. It’s not all space suits and overalls. It makes a big difference to the way I feel. Even now it feels comforting.
Rashida is wearing red slacks and a long top, long as a dress, of synthetic silk with an elaborate printed pattern that drapes over her belly. It’s very prominent these days.
She arrives at work just after I do, as I am standing at the side, running my daily espresso. She makes her way with evident difficulty to her work station. Her face is cheerful and friendly and she wishes us all a good morning.
Her features, always pretty, have taken on a kind of coarseness since she was pregnant this time. I feel a little sad because I think it is going to stay.
And because I don’t know whether I’ll still be here to see her baby. She’s due around the time the ship is here. It will be touch and go.
They’re letting Irfan, her husband, work fewer hours at the moment so that he can bear the brunt of taking care of their son after nursery. There are no grandparents or professional carers on Mars.
You can’t say the Agency doesn’t look after its people. As long as you still are its people.
I’m not hiding anything from Rashida any more, or anyone else; nothing in the present, anyway. I’m glad, and I feel that my relationship with her is easier as a result. More like the way it used to be.
Against that is the fact that I feel distant from everybody.
I know they are all judging me. With the possible, or probable, exception of Beate.
But that’s not even the main reason why I feel distant.
I feel that I am going through the motions. Functioning.
In a crisis the training takes over, the routine kicks in. Selena the professional, functioning efficiently in all the areas of her life, at work, at home and everywhere.
That’s not really it either. That is, it’s true; but it’s not at the bottom of how I feel.
I feel numb. As if I am touching the world through a layer of cotton-wool. Acting in a play. Doing things that don’t really matter. Re-arranging the deckchairs.
No, not that last one, so much. Acting in a play. That’s how it feels. Or a computer game.
I’m down to my last life, and then the game will be over.
All those lives that I collected, doing this and achieving that: one after the other they have been used up, and now the end is in sight.
Over to my right from where I sit is another lady who was at Wendy’s house yesterday. I only really know her from here, from work: she has boys, and came with a different ship from me, and she moves in different circles outside work.
What does she think of me now, after that revelation of my private life yesterday?
What are people saying about me, everywhere in this village?
Will they be relieved when I’m gone?
She catches my eye between our two screens, and she smiles.
“What a drama yesterday!” she says.
I’m not sure how to respond to that.
“I’m sure it was all Solon’s fault,” she goes on. Is that his name? “He’s such a crybaby.”
“And he’s not good at sharing.”
“I’ve even felt like slapping him myself, more than once. Not that I would ever do that.”
“No, of course not.”
I think about this.
“Did you see what happened?” I ask.
“No. I don’t think anybody did.”
Rashida is listening attentively. She evidently hasn’t heard about it yet.
“Selena, I think you handled it well. Only thing you could do, really, in the circumstances.”
“Well,” I say. “That’s a relief.” I feel a little prickling at the backs of my eyes.
“I mean it. Just remove them from the situation, that’s what I’ve learned. Only thing that helps, sometimes.”
Now Rashida wants to know what we are talking about, and while she is being told I scan through the messages that have come through for me overnight. Things that I need to look at, or do, or repair.
Every morning I am nervous that there will be one from Craig, and every morning I feel release when there isn’t.
I haven’t seen him since we broke up. I haven’t been to the lab where he sits.
It’s different with Chiara. There’s no point in making a dramatic exit with her, as a climax to an emotional and histrionic confrontation. I’m still her mother, still responsible for her, and that simply continues unbroken, however theatrical the moment.
But my last encounter with Craig really was that climactic dénouement, that end of an act, still hanging in the air while my life, and evidently his too, has continued, in parallel.
It can’t hang in the Martian air for ever, though. At some point we’re going to encounter each other again, at work or outside it, and I am going to have to find a way to behave around him.
Rashida has been looking at me as Vera has been recounting what happened at Wendy’s party. I transfer the last message on my screen into my calendar for later this morning, and I sit back and meet her eyes.
“How were things with her this morning?” she asks me. Vera hasn’t told her everything that Chiara had said.
“Oh, back to normal,” I reply. “You wouldn’t know anything had ever happened.”
“That’s children,” she says. “It’s the biggest drama in the world while it’s happening, and afterwards they’ve forgotten all about it.”
I haven’t, though.
“Yes, that’s right. It would be nice to be able to shake things off like that.”
There is a murmur of agreement, not just from Rashida and Vera. I see that everyone in this room is listening. I feel myself blushing.
Still, this is helping. I had been feeling that I had no friends at all, and wondering whether I had ever had any.
Time to stop moping, Selena. And time to start work. A couple more good-natured comments pass across the room, to which I listen with a smile, and then we all settle down to our various tasks.
Unexpectedly I bump into Mike coming out of the gym. I haven’t seen him for months without Chiara.
His face tenses slightly as he registers who it is, and then relaxes into a smile.
We stand, a little awkwardly. Do I pass on?
Mike breaks the silence first.
“Come in and have a drink,” he says.
My eyes widen, but I say, “Okay.”
Next to the entrance the gym has a relaxation area, with bar stools and tall round tables. There’s nobody there at the moment, but I can hear the sounds of people exercising in the main area, and from time to time someone passes across our line of vision on their way to another machine.
“What’s yours, Selena?”
“Oh – a water, please.”
“Really?” He looks at me quizzically, and I look back, suddenly a little uncertain.
“They do a very good fruit punch,” he points out. I don’t say anything, and he makes up his mind for me.
“I’ll get us both a fruit punch,” he says. “You’ll thank me, you’ll see.”
“Okay,” I say, and I wait on one of the stools as he draws two glasses of the punch from the dispenser. He sets them in front of us and takes a seat.
“I went to see Rajiv yesterday,” he tells me. I feel a leap of interest and concern.
“How is he?”
“Just fine,” he replies. “He was sitting up, fully dressed, and complaining that he wanted to get out, but the doctors wouldn’t let him.”
“Was it the appendix?”
“It was, and it’s gone now, and good riddance, says Rajiv.”
I smile, and my eyes look at nothing in particular as I think of him.
“I’m glad he’s all right,” I say.
Mike takes a mouthful of fruit punch and looks at me over his tumbler.
“How’s Chiara doing?”
I suppose he has heard about the party. Of course he has.
“She’s happy. She’s playing at Pamela’s house this afternoon.”
He listens to this and takes another sip.
“Did she tell you Pamela came round last time she was with me?”
“Did she? No, I didn’t know that.”
“Rob brought her. Her dad.”
“And you had a beer together.”
“Good guess,” he says.
“Not really a guess,” I reply. “Just as long as the pair of you didn’t forget about the children.”
“Now then, Selena.”
“I know. Sorry.”
“I mean it. I know how much you adore her.” And he really does.
“You just can’t stop worrying.”
I smile ruefully and say nothing.
Loving her isn’t enough. You have to be practical.
Has he any idea of what it means, in practice, to be really responsible for her, every moment of the day?
Has he got it in him, to take on that burden and live with it, as I do; as I have done ever since she was born?
We’ll find out soon enough, and so will Chiara, and there will be nothing that I can do about it. If I even know about it.
He’s watching my face. Once he would have offered me a penny for my thoughts.
Our eyes meet, and I pull myself together. I take a sip of fruit punch.
“She’s growing up,” I observe.
He cocks his head slightly and looks at me.
“I mean, more quickly than usual,” I add. “Noticeably.” Normally it’s almost imperceptible how she changes. “Don’t you agree?”
“I’m not sure,” he replies. “You see more of her than I do.”
“She’s becoming very independent-minded,” I say.
“Wasn’t she always?”
“Well, yes, she was. But it feels different.” I think about how I can explain this. “She’s started to realise how she can affect the way things happen. Make them happen, or make them happen differently. By being assertive. By defining her position on the issue, and asserting her views.”
“That sounds like growing up,” he agrees.
“Yes. And I don’t just mean with me. She does it in the wider world too.”
“Can’t say I’ve noticed that,” he says. “I suppose I don’t really see her in the wider world. Unless I’m the wider world.”
“No, I wouldn’t say that,” I murmur.
“Neither would I.”
He looks me in the eye. Have I said something wrong?
“I’m talking about social contexts,” I explain. “Other children. Their parents. That sort of thing.”
“Right. Well, that’s a good thing. She needs to be able to hold her own.”
“Depends,” I murmur. I notice his expression. “I mean, you’re right, of course. Yes, she has to be able to stand up for herself. But she also needs to consider other people. It’s that balance that’s so hard to get right.”
Not just for her.
He nods, and doesn’t comment on that.
“You’re not drinking,” he says. He’s nearly finished his.
“Sorry.” I take another sip. It seems such a lot. It is very nice, though, he was right about that.
“Don’t if you don’t want it.”
“Sorry,” I say again. I tip rather more down.
He leans back a little on his stool. We seem to have run out of things to say.
“Nice day today,” he says, and he catches my eye. I can’t help smiling.
“I haven’t heard that for years,” I say.
He finishes his drink and smiles to himself.
“Mike,” I say, “don’t be cross. I can’t finish this. It’s too much.”
“Don’t worry. It is a lot. And you are very tiny.”
“Compared to me.”
I regard him, silently.
“Chiara is going to be like you.”
“I can see it. Look at her feet.”
He smiles to himself again. I suppose that makes him feel pleased.
“She’s like you too, though,” he says. “In other ways.”
“Yeah.” I look into space.
“Are you off to pick her up now?” he asks. I nod.
“I’ll probably have a cup of tea with Brandy first. While she gets used to the idea of coming home.”
“Does she give you trouble?”
“Not trouble,” I say, trying not to feel defensive. “She likes to know what’s going on. It’s only fair to give her notice. So she has time to plan.”
“I know someone else who likes to plan,” says Mike.
“Well –” I begin. I’m not sure what to say to that. Why wouldn’t you want to plan?
He grips the table and stands up from his stool. I push my tumbler into the middle of the table and get down too.
“Oh well,” he says. “Enjoy the rest of your day. Say hello to Beate.”
“Beate?” I echo, and furrow my brow. “Why Beate?”
“Oh, someone said you were seeing a lot of each other.”
“Well, yes,” I say, puzzled. “She’s been counselling me!”
I suppose it’s true that we have built a rapport. Now that I think about it. I can imagine that we might even have been friends, if circumstances had been different. If our interactions weren’t governed by her professional role. Even though we are quite different, in age and in other ways.
“Not that that’s any concern of yours,” I add.
“No, I see that.”
She has certainly been very kind to me.
“Well, I’ll see you around,” he says. “In fact, tomorrow, when she comes to me.”
“Yes, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He stands aside to allow me to pass through the door. We step outside into the corridor and exchange a glance one last time before going our separate ways. I walk on down the corridor, still wondering.
And the black beast returns and settles on my soul every evening when I am alone in my silent kitchen.
No lights, no faces, no conversations; no bright, cheerful front; no activities, no duties or responsibilities; no distractions.
Just the abyss gaping in front of me, and the time that is creeping forward, whether I am watching it or not.
I should be planning my return to Earth. I’ll be travelling on the ship for well over a year, which gives me plenty of time to organise everything, including finding a job; but there’s no mirror of the internet on the ship, so it will be a great deal easier if I do as much as possible now, before I leave.
I look up the various universities and institutes where I know my field is represented, or used to be, at any rate. In America, in Italy, and in other countries too, though I’m not sure how good my chances really are there.
I have a look at the academic literature, to see what has been happening in my field since I’ve been away. It’s been over seven years since I submitted my PhD, and I’ve hardly given it a thought in all the time since then. I download a number of articles to read later.
On the face of it, it looks as though there might be some opportunities. Academia is always difficult: few positions, and lots of competition for them; but I have practical experience of space colonisation now, and that surely ought to help. Craig must be right.
I could try to go for something where that experience might be of some use. Something involving exoplanets, perhaps, planets that orbit stars other than our own, and are detected by the effects they have on the point of light that is all we can see from here of their star and its whole planetary system.
Or I could try to get back into my old line of work, investigating exotic stellar objects in very deep space, analysing what we can observe of them using all the ingenuity at our disposal, and trying to understand how they work.
Struggling to care about them, frankly. Struggling to care about quasars. Or about anything astrophysical.
Sitting there in my kitchen, night after night, staring at the screen of my tablet, not taking anything in.
Chiara asleep in the next room. Humming of machinery around me, at the edge of hearing. Muffled thumps and voices, unidentifiable, somewhere. A rattle from my fridge, sporadically. Among the last times I shall hear any of this.
Why didn’t I look for a proper job years ago? Why was I so stupid, so complacent; why did I just drift? Why was I so passive?
There might have been something, given more time to look. You never know.
I wish there was something else I could do, like Marianne with her hairdressing; something that the colony needs, that is independent of the Agency, but that the Agency will recognise.
There’s nothing I know how to do, except be a mother. And physics.
Maybe I could be Mars’s first prostitute.
I’m actually half serious. Why shouldn’t Mars have prostitutes?
Sadly the Agency is never going to let me stay if that is the rationale.
And I suppose they’d be right. What would that be like for Chiara?
I am a terrible mother. I send my child away to Brandy or Mike so that I can have sex with a rat like Craig Winterton.
I’m not sending her away any more. Every moment is precious. Even though I can’t help noticing that Chiara herself doesn’t want me to fuss around her and smother her.
I want to fuss and smother, because letting her go, even taking one step back, hurts so much.
But I have to. I have to let her be her own person. Her irritation shows me that it’s time to back off.
The days pass, and the nights too.
I’m talking to Brandy about it one afternoon, sitting on a bench by the playground.
“Will they charge you for the trip home, do you know?” she asks.
The question hits me like a physical blow.
“Oh my gosh,” I say. “I never thought of that.”
They didn’t charge us for coming here in the first place, but that was because the Agency was sending us here. Coming here was part of doing the jobs that we were hired for.
But going back?
Who knows what the Agency might think is appropriate.
“Probably not,” Brandy thinks. “But it would be worth finding out.”
“I suppose so.” I am aghast at the thought of finding out that I’m expected to pay a full fare.
How would they calculate the fare, anyway? There are no fares. Nobody comes here in a private capacity.
“So have you had the talk yet? About arrangements?”
“With the Agency? No, not yet.”
“Well, it’s going to have to happen soon. The ship is only a couple of weeks away.”
“They’re leaving it very late.” Brandy ponders, catches sight of Pamela leaning over the railing and swaying at the top of the climbing frame, nearly starts up to call to her, but thinks better of it and settles back down.
“I suppose technically you’re still employed on the journey back,” she goes on. “So there’s plenty of time to sort out all the financial aspects then.”
“Still weird that they haven’t spoken to you at all, though.”
“What about Chiara? How is she dealing with it?”
“Oh, Brandy,” I say. “I haven’t dared to talk to her about it. I can’t bear to.”
“She doesn’t know?”
I shake my head.
“Wow.” Brandy contemplates this.
“Brandy, all this time I was hoping to be able to stay. There was no point in worrying her while that was all still up in the air.”
“And you thought you might be able to take her with you.”
“What about following you, on the next ship?”
I take a breath.
“Obviously I’ve thought about that. Legally I might be able to compel them; that’s what the lawyers think. Once I’m settled on Earth, with a steady job and a home, then I might be able to persuade a court that Chiara ought to be with me.”
“There are Mike’s rights to consider too,” she says. “Though I suppose he might not oppose it.”
“It’s not about his rights,” I tell her. I have learned a lot about the law lately. “If I have custody, then I might have the right, under my employment contract, to compel the Agency to transport her to Earth. But whether I have custody or not in the first place is not about my rights or Mike’s rights, it’s about Chiara’s best interests.”
“Surely it’s in her best interests to be with her mum?”
I give her a bleak look.
“Look at the practicalities,” I say. “The next ship is in over two years’ time. Two years that she’ll have spent here on Mars without me. Adjusting to life without me. Then we’d be putting her on a ship for over a year without either of her parents, without any other children or anyone she knows, with just the crew for company. How could I do that to her?” Brandy looks at me, sobered. “And that’s without even considering whether her body will stand up to it.”
We are both silent for a while.
“I’ll be able to talk to her by video link,” I go on. “For a while. If she wants to. But the further we travel, the longer the time delays will become, and there’ll come a time when a conversation won’t be practical any more. Then all I’ll be able to do will be to record messages, and hope that she records some for me.” I already know what I’ll record for her birthday.
“And that will be –” She falls silent again.
“That will be it. Once I leave Mars, and she stays here, that’s it. Once that point comes, in a few weeks’ time, when she won’t have the patience to wait for me to reply: no more conversations.” No more hugs. No more getting dressed together in the morning. No more bathtimes. No more stories before she goes to sleep. “Once I leave for Earth –”. I can’t say any more.
“It’s goodbye for ever,” Brandy whispers.
I don’t say anything.
Brandy puts both of her arms around me. I close my eyes, and neither of us speaks.
It does help, to talk about it. Momentarily, it does help. But it’s like scratching a sore place. Afterwards it’s more inflamed and more tender than it was before. Because the sore place doesn’t go away. Sitting in my kitchen in the half-gloom, with those vague sounds from the depths of the colony surrounding me, it’s just as sore as ever. Just as hard to concentrate on what my device is bringing up for me. Just as futile.
What’s the use of anything?
I have made a colossal, catastrophic mistake in leaving Mike.
What are the chances of going back to him?
Why would he want me back? He doesn’t need me. He’s quite content on his own.
For Chiara’s sake, perhaps.
But does she need me? Would he think she needs me, that much? Enough to warrant getting back together? To risk getting back into that cycle all over again, of fighting and arguing and tension and anger?
Chiara hated that then, and she would hate it now.
There might be some sort of job that I could do while on the ship. Involving logging on to some astronomical data base on Earth and analysing some of it. There are far more data on these servers than have ever been looked at by a human being; in fact this is what graduate students in this field do, mainly. It’s certainly how I spent a lot of my time at Berkeley. It would be low-level stuff, but it would give me a way back into my area.
I start to compile a list of institutions that might be interested. No point in enrolling in a graduate programme: I already have a PhD; but there’s plenty to do in any capacity. It’s not about finding things for graduate students to do, it’s about using the grad students to help deal with the volume of data.
So I think about how to compose an email to the authorities at these places, enquiring about whether I might fit in. Paid or unpaid. As Brandy pointed out, the Agency hasn’t actually sacked me yet, so I suppose that I am still going to be paid until it does. Unless it retains my salary to pay for the fare.
I think it’s inconceivable that they would charge me for the journey, for returning me to Earth like an empty bottle. That would be outrageous. I think Brandy was being alarmist.
I hope I’m right.
So I might be accumulating cash throughout the trip, drawing my salary every month and with nothing to spend it on as long as I am on board.
Maybe I’ll have to pay support to Mike. That would be ironic.
I would never. I would never choose any of these opportunities over Chiara. I don’t care about a career in astrophysics.
I could go outside again. I might go along with one of the technicians the next time there is something to check or to repair with the equipment outside. There might be some sort of accident. Something about the space suit. It might not even hurt very much. It might all be over very quickly.
I could be Mars’s first corpse.
I have work to do here. I have lists to compile, and an email to finish. I have a CV to update. I have research to do.
Once again I pull myself together. Once again I sit up straight and focus on my screen. Just need to finish this day, and then I can sleep until the next one begins. Until my little girl wakes me, as she always does. Until the next day of the countdown commences, and there is one less sleep to go.