I hate the storms, and the waiting too – the long clear nights when stars and planets puncture the darkness. I know each from the other now, but not how to navigate by them.
During the storms I stay indoors. I avoid superstitious rituals, crossing the fingers and such, and I avoid looking at the sky. What I like to do is google names, famous ones to get me going. Explorers mostly: Arctic and Antarctic, the Antipodes, the Americas – also mariners and merchants. Then if there’s a link I click through to the lesser-known names, like Susanna Fontanerossa, Alda de Mesquita, Grace Pace. I used to like a whisky and Coke while doing this, to take the edge off things. Hannah Weekes. Henrietta Gavan. Charlotte Strahlow.
Michael is more pragmatic. He watches the Mars Channel. He’ll be logged on to the space station too, for updates.
He was here by late morning and although he still has a key, he knocked. Usually he wears a button-down shirt but today he’s chosen something collarless in pale blue – for Joe, I suppose; he always loved the colour blue.
He’s brought tea, a malty blend from India. Assam, he announces, with a dash of something to lift it – a Darjeeling. He holds the packet up, with its clear cellulose window, so I can see the knot of curled leaves.
It’s not time to turn on yet, so he fills the kettle and goes up to Joe’s room, where I have hung a birthday banner.
‘Why is the monitor up here?’ he calls. He walks out onto the landing.
‘Because I put it there,’ I say.
‘But it’s not connected. How will we watch?’
I shrug. Even today I don’t want to watch.
Michael sighs. ‘I’ll bring it down and connect it up it,’ he says.
That’s just like him: studiously deciding not to see. It means he can get right up close to the things he ought to be afraid of.
He’s a fount of knowledge about Mars. At any opportunity he’ll talk about it: the axial tilt and the seasons – spring, summer, autumn, winter – like ours. And how the days are only slightly longer there, by 37 minutes and 22 seconds. That’s almost nothing, he says. But you can make up any story you like using numbers. You just shift new words around them and tell it a different way.
He carries the monitor down to the livingroom and positions it on the stand. I should make the tea while he does this but instead I hang about watching him.
When Joe was little you just plugged in the power and pressed the ‘on’ switch. Now it’s all cables and wires and connections. Michael locates the scart leads beneath the sofa. He checks them – yellow to yellow, so the monitor will play from the drive. For stereo sound he needs red and white, but there’s no white. He’ll be thinking I’ve hidden it.
I remember how when Joe was little he liked to be the one to switch on. At age four or so he was obsessed with a cartoon series. Michael called it his Messiah show. Joe would wake early and I’d come downstairs with him. I’d make his breakfast and fix myself a coffee. The programme was about a boy who could harness the power of the elements to fight for the power of good. Joe used to copy his hero’s gestures before he turned on the television: hands together, then an arc with his arms and leaning forward on one leg, aiming the remote control and, hey presto, there was the picture.
We’d sit close together on the sofa. Sometimes Joe would put a hand on my knee, an arm around my waist. During the ad breaks I’d make extra toast. Although I was tired – he still woke often in the night then – I looked forward to our ritual and I wasn’t bothered that Michael didn’t get up to help me. I was bereft when the series finished – something significant had come to an end – but I thought, I will always have the memory of this time.
I often think of this when I’m clicking on names. Hanna Sahlqvist. Sarah Nee Newman. Were their memories like mine?
‘White,’ Michael mutters, lifting the tangle of black leads and checking their ends. Then, ‘Ahhh,’ he says, lifting one free. ‘Now we will have full sound.’
It’s the sound I find most disturbing.
‘Will you make the tea?’ he asks. I’d prefer something stronger. I’d like a whisky and Coke. But it’s no longer good for my health, Michael says. And although I wonder what my health is good for, I won’t argue with him.
In the kitchen I spoon leaves into a pot and pour on boiling water. We like our tea the old-fashioned way.
Although Michael likes to talk as if Mars is just like Earth, even I’m well aware the tilt is more extreme. So the seasons are nearly twice as long. The year is almost twice as long as well. And because the days are longer, they don’t correspond to ours. Mars has an atmosphere, Michael will say. But it only supports weather, not people.
‘So why go there?’ I said to him once, and he looked at me strangely. Then he told me that pieces of Mars had fallen to Earth, meteorites, carrying traces of Martian atmosphere. They’ve taken millions of years to reach us, he said. And those traces inside are like questions. Can’t you see? We have to go there to find the answers.
I laughed. He was always good at making stupid things sound rational. I can tell you now that if Mars has anything, it has weather: dust storms that cover swathes of its surface for days, weeks, even months. The views from Cameras 5 to 11 become obscured until the lenses are completely coated. After that, the whole channel goes down and you see nothing until the storm is over.
You wonder whether the astronauts got back to their pods. What if the dust got into their helmets? Their eyes and ears? Their oxygen?
The first time there was a storm on MarsCam the whole world watched. It was all over the internet. People tuned in to the Space Channel until the cameras went down; after that, monitors everywhere were switched on and off again at regular intervals until at last the storm was over. Then, if you’d tuned in, you saw in the murky blankness, the ends of a brush: the lens being swept – and clarity, and the face of a man in a space helmet. Mars was back online.
The ‘Mars Four’: like superstars. Their images were everywhere: magazines and blogs, clips all over the news channels, on YouTube. Famous.
They’re still famous, I guess, but you can’t really be a superstar if you’re a one-way traveller. Not in the regular way. Those astronauts are more like priests, or monks. Pioneers.
Whenever there is a storm now I turn off, unable to watch or listen. Unable to sleep.
When it ends, Michael comes over and logs on so that I will see that everything is as it should be. So I can hear that sound I can’t bear: the triumph of life in a hostile world, the slow rasp of breath being fed from a tank.
After the leaves have steeped Michael fills two cups. I never tell him about my research. He wouldn’t understand. When he isn’t talking about Mars or Darjeeling tea we struggle to find things to say.
By the time we separated Joe was long gone. We were generous when dividing our possessions. Michael returned often to borrow things – a fish kettle, a pasta maker, software. We copied all our pictures of our son as if by doing this we could share the same memories.
By then there was no point in telling Joe. We wouldn’t see him again. But I was already schooled in the art of goodbyes. He will go away from you, I’d been told. Children do. At 13 he was embarrassed if I saw him on the street with his friends. He scoffed at me if I revealed my ignorance about anything. He closed the door of his room at all times.
I watched him one night, when I’d asked him to return a key to my friend. ‘She needs it,’ I told him, ‘to lock her door tonight. Will you run over the road with it?’
‘Alright,’ he said. He swiped the key from me.
‘Do you need a jacket?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m only going over the street.’
I stood at the window. He’d have seen me if he’d looked up. It was cold outside. The ground shone with the promise of frost. Joe crossed between the cars parked below. His steps were long and loping. He ran the way men do – the long strides, the slow deliberate swing of the arms, the balance not striven for, but intrinsic.
He has already left me, I thought.
Only then, under the goldish glow of the street lamp, he leapt into the air. He put his arm up, his fingertips extended, as if he wanted to touch the light.
This was a boy who had not yet left childish things behind. His hooded top was unzipped. His thin T-shirt flapped in the crisp night air and I worried that he might be cold. I wanted him to turn and see me worrying: I put my hand to the window as if it might catch his attention. But he didn’t notice.
He took two more steps, until he was out of the spotlight, and then jumped again, this time reaching into darkness. I thought, Soon he will be grown, but for now, in this moment, he can still be mine. My ribs felt tight. My throat seemed to close. I blinked and then he disappeared into the stairwell of my neighbour’s building.
Now I can only wait. I occupy myself with my list, filling it out with detail. I join up the names of the women with those of their sons, and I compare dates – births and deaths – seeking what? Alda de Mesquita and Ferdinand Magellan. Susanna Fontanerossa and Christopher Columbus. Where are the women who said goodbye?
Hannah Scott. Now, I like her. She didn’t allow her boy to go. But then she died and he went anyway.
We toast our son. We drink our tea. We count the years.
Today another storm on Mars has passed. There will be edited highlights and an astronaut, having survived the weather again, will clean the lenses of Cameras 5 to 11. Maybe it will be Joe.
It took my son eight months to reach Mars. Sometimes Michael tries to explain how he got there, the speed at which the capsule moved through space. Joe will have looked out at the solar system and the glow of the stars and the planets: like a king, a messiah, he has said, as if he could seduce me with the beauty of an idea I’ve never had. But I can only imagine a Purgatory where my son is now, a halfway world. I can’t speak to him there; I can’t reach him.
Before he left, when he was in Siberia, and then the American desert, and then Chile – I remember the echo of my voice on my mobile phone, the second or so delay from a landline. From Mars, my husband has explained, there is a 20-minute delay – that’s how far away it is. You can’t hold a live conversation. Distance makes it impossible. You have to let go.
So you see the storms, though frightening, are not the worst thing. And the waiting is only time, after all.
Tonight will be clear. Stars will prickle in a matte black sky. I know where to find the red planet now, whatever the time, whatever the season.
I remember my son under the streetlamp that night: leaping, hand extended, into the circle of light. On Mars, the gravitational pull is less, so he’ll be able to jump higher, while I click on names and navigate links. Annie Ridley. Sarah Morgan. Susannah Ward. Sarah Bate. On and on I’ll go, while pieces of Mars, millions of years old, containing tiny traces of Martian air, orbit the earth.
How I did it
Usually it takes me ages to write a story; I like to get the words on the page and then shift them around. I almost never like what I’ve written, not at first. I tend to put things away and then return to them, rewriting again and again. I start on the computer, but if I’m struggling with a sentence or a paragraph I’ll use pen and paper. I used to think that if I was any good then writing would be easy – I now know it’s supposed to be difficult.
This story was unusual in that I wrote it in just four weeks, at the kitchen table. From very early on I had the bones of it – the beginning, middle and end – I knew what it would be about. I’d been reading about the Mock Mars Mission in Russia where six astronauts were kept together in isolation for 520 days. There are several projects aiming to send humans to Mars. One plans a permanent settlement where the journey would be one-way. I went online and read about the weather on Mars and the storms. I wondered what it would be like if someone you loved went there; how you might be able to communicate, but not continue your relationship in any meaningful way. I grew up in Australia and I often think about the early explorers, and the convicts and emigrants who boarded boats knowing they’d never come home.
I was thinking about all this at the same time we were moving from the house where my two children had spent most of their lives – my oldest is now a teenager. I had such a strong sense of that separation, of things moving beyond me, my boys growing up – they inevitably grow away from you. I think that’s the heart of the story. The woman in it isn’t me, but there’s one image I poached from my life.
Having children made me focus on my writing – I began when my eldest was a toddler. I joined a writing group and did a correspondence course with the Open College of the Arts. I’ve done two Arvon courses and these were brilliant. I still exchange work with a friend in Norwich who I met on my second one, and with my friends in Edinburgh. They help me see what’s working and what isn’t.
Cherise Saywell has two school-age children and lives in Edinburgh. She grew up in Australia and has worked in media studies research, and in various admin jobs, producing annuals for UK football clubs and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Sterling University. Her two novels, Twitcher and Desert Fish, were published by Vintage in Australia. She writes every day, if only for half an hour, hot-desking in her flat, in libraries, while travelling – but works best very late at night.