Two hundred million miles away

I submitted a short story to the Royal Academy Pindrop competition – see and received the rejection email this last weekend, so rather than waste what I think is a good story, here it is:

Two hundred million miles away

You might wonder why I’m sitting on this rock in the almost dark. It’s been one of those weekends that seems to last forever. I came here to think about my future, about all of my future.

I can’t quite believe that I got the job, after so much form filling, interviews and tests they chose me. Me yes me, Sally Brown has made it. I’m off on a life-time adventure. I needed to tell someone, I knew that person would be Rob, had to be, he’s my twin brother. We’re twenty five years old, me the first born. He’s an artist and I’m a scientist. We’re both fair skinned but he’s fairer than me, we both slide through life easily and we come up grinning mostly.

I’ve kept this job application a secret from Robert for months, often wanting to tell. I’ve always told him my secrets, always. Our ways of being, us two together in the family, at school, with friends, all will stop in 2025. There’s no pretence between us, just a deep knowing me of him, and he of me. Until now.

So on Friday night I went over to his place. When I arrived he was busy cooking, hardly looked up from the task in hand. He told me about his new girlfriend, a sax player and so cool. I interrupted to remind him I had something important to discuss. But he carried on regardless, she’s coming over next Friday and hence he’s testing out a new recipe on me. I told him she’d love him for himself and not for what he could cook but he didn’t believe me. He’s so funny when he cooks. A vibrant red bubble burst from the pan, landed on the apron I bought him for our 18th birthday – there’s a larger than life cockerel on the front, he calls it his big cock apron.

So I try again to get a word in edgeways but I can’t shout this thing out, I need his full attention and that is clearly on his sax playing girlfriend not me. He’s going on about love and how it feels like the real thing this time – I’ve heard it all before. He ducked into the lower cupboard, half crawled inside – what an arse – he clattered about, most of the contents falling out, comes up grinning, colander in hand. So just as I usually do, as his faithful assistant, I got down and crammed everything back into the cupboard.

Dear old Rob, he’ll never change. He poured some Chilean red into a glass and I think I’ll just have to wait, choose the right time. I sat watching his performance, cooking for Robert doesn’t come easily. There’s a string of F-words that punctuate the tricky job of straining pasta and dousing it with the glorious tomato, basil and chorizo sauce. Why he doesn’t just choose recipes without last minute dramatics I don’t know. His girl isn’t going to be impressed with all those F-words.

Finally, we sat facing each other at the kitchen table and I can start to tell him, but no. He was already loading his fork, totally focussed on the damn pasta. He told me to savour the first mouthful. It was a good taste, rich enough, peppery enough, sauce not too sloppy. I hope she’s not on a diet I said and he said that I shouldn’t worry about weight, that I’m too thin these days. At last my opening….

Well, there’s a reason for that Rob I said. I’m on a health and fitness programme for a job I want. Then his mobile beeped, a text from his girl, apparently she’s calling off their next date. That sends him into a spin, what could it mean? What’s the girl perspective? He’s just so needy but when I’m faced with making a momentous decision, it all seems banal, I continued to eat and said nothing. After another few forkfuls he looked up and says he’s sorry.

The thing is I said, I’ve been offered a new job, it takes ten years to train and then his mobile rings, that’s when I lost it. I snatched his phone and threw it at the wall, surprisingly it didn’t shatter and it continued to ring, so I picked it up and switched the damn thing off.

Rob finally focussed on me and so I told him that I’ve been chosen to go on the Mission Mars Forever programme, one of the first four astronauts to go.

Say that again he commanded and I did. He was horror struck, lost for words.
He pushed his food away and I knew that he was thinking really really hard what to say, what FIRST thing to say. In the end we just hugged. I only have the weekend to decide I say.
He said, what if the mission fails, you get killed?
And I said, what if it succeeds, and I think if only?
But it’s forever, what if you don’t like it? he said.
It was like having a discussion with myself. Rob knew that all these questions had been turned over time and time again in my own head.

I told him about the unmanned missions to deliver our living quarters and systems onto Mars – what we plan to eat, even taking an insect farm with us, probably our main source of protein. For once he shuts up and listens. Mars is 200 million miles away and it will take us 6 months to get there. He just listened, I was off-loading big time – I was relieved to tell him at last.

When I’m done explaining he just asked if I’m sure I really want to accept the job and yes I am pretty sure I said.

He said I’d miss out, that there would be foods I’d never get to taste again, books I’d never get to read, gigs I’d never go to. He thinks it’s just like being a nun but in space. I turn this idea over in my head, and yes it will be a bit like being a nun, giving up stuff but without the God bit. But hey if this planet Earth of ours does get fucked up, which most scientists say it will, then I would have done something amazing.

I guess up to this point I’m fine with how this conversation is going with Rob and in some ways it’s helping me be more sure. Then he asked if I’ll have the Internet and that freaks me a bit. Rob had started to consider this as a real possibility, he’d turned from what I would not have towards what I would have. He even suggested we could have our birthday on Facebook – that felt belittling – I mean who cares about Facebook. He was grappling with the small stuff so he could start to understand the big stuff.

I told him how I’d miss not seeing his kids – my future nieces and nephews and he fell about laughing at the possibility of him getting married, being responsible, a parent. I asked him to hurry along, get married before 2025. The seriousness, the endlessness of the mission settled in him, and me more than it had before. I’d just asked him to accelerate his life to help me out, what am I like?

I’m thinking I need to avoid falling in love with anyone but what if I do? What if I get married before the mission, what if we have a kid? What if we get pets? Or maybe I’ll get so focussed on the training, then normal stuff will become unimportant, maybe that’s it.

We ignore the mess in the kitchen and I throw myself onto the sofa. Rob sat on the floor next to me. I closed my eyes, tried to shut out the voices in my head. The more I told Rob about how it would be, the more certain it all seemed, but then in a flash I’m reduced to panic again. I’m scared, I’m unsure and there’s no-one who can help me.

Rob nudged me to make a space for him on the sofa and so I rested my head on his chest and our legs became a muddle. He started over again, why did you start this thing, why even apply, he asked.
And so I told him how it began as an idle whim that just grew. I became immersed in the comradeship of other space freaks and now we’re like a family, all in it together. He asked what I hoped he wouldn’t, how I kept it secret from him. I didn’t answer him, instead told him how I get to go on the International Space Station for a six month stint very soon.

Imagine orbiting the Earth over and over, getting to know our planet from space. Imagine the silence, seeing rivers and mountains, oceans from the perspective of space. Imagine seeing night-time Earth covered in tiny spots of light, gathered in cities with strings of motorways joining it all up. Rob bless him, thinks that would be awesome and I wish he could come with me.

I think it’s a test. I mean if you see the Earth from that perspective, then you might feel even more connected to it . Of course I’d be imagining Rob as a little speck going about his everyday life, part of the whole, the tiniest cog in the biggest wheel, making his contribution day-by-day, minute-by-minute. If I felt all that, then would I still want to go to Mars forever?

Then he said that if he died before me, I wouldn’t be at his funeral. That hit me in the gut, the thought of Rob dying. A void opens up, the opposite of us in the womb together. In death, there’s an everywhere so vast, it has no edges, I get lost, forever searching for him and he is nowhere.

To a lesser extent I’d thought I would lose Rob another way, when he gets married, and so that’s what I said next. He said the nicest thing, which doesn’t help me but still it’s awesome to know. He said we choose who to marry, there’s a hopeful permanence but you can change your mind, with us being twins, we just are and always will be.

All the thinking and saying was exhausting. Rob shifted his weight bringing us back to our bodies. I listened to the rise and fall of his lungs, blood pumping, skin sweating on my skin, breath just audible.

I imagined how it would be if I took up a life on the other side of the world instead, we’d still be apart. We’d disconnect, perhaps a more gradual process. Rob, he is bound with cares that are not my cares, I love him, but I have my own life, my own choices to make.

If I married and had kids, got weighed down in the minutiae of nappies, school work, affording to buy a car and a house, emotional rollercoasters of love and betrayal, I would be immersed in family life. Stuck, repeating the stories told over and over by every person who will ever be. I’m becoming certain that’s not for me. But what is? I am afraid, I can’t put into words how panic rips through me, heart beating, I sweat, I can’t open my eyes and I can’t close my eyes – I don’t want to see or know the difficult stuff ahead but I have to decide and in that one moment when I sign the blasted contract – there’s no going back.

I went home, slept fitfully and early today, before I came to be sitting on this rock, Rob rang me.

He asked me if I was only joking and I said no. He asked me what Mum and Dad will think and I reply that perpetual holidays came to my mind. He didn’t laugh. He thinks I’m heartless and that Mum will be devastated. So I asked him if he’d give up his dream because of the weight of care. He didn’t get it. So I asked him outright ‘What would YOU do Rob?’

It all spilled out, how he wouldn’t have applied in the first place, how could I have done such a thing. And he says I’m selfish, that his life will be miserable. His actual words burnt into my thoughts ‘Mum and Dad will just have me and I’ll be a disappointment. You – out there – on another bloody planet, you’ll be the one they’ll think about all the time, just ALL the bloody time.’

My stomach flipped and I felt sick, I had nothing to say.
He said he was sorry, that he’d come over and talk it through some more. I said no. As much as I wanted the comfort of Rob, I need to be alone, to get a clearer sense of making the right decision.

He was right about one thing, I should tell Mum and Dad. So I ring them, Mum answers, I told her about the new job but her mind was obviously elsewhere, busy packing for a holiday, too busy to chat she said. She promised to catch up when they get back and put the phone down on me. Can you believe that?

So there I was sitting in my own very comfortable bed this morning thinking I have 48 hours before I say yes, or even no. I think I’m certain about going to Mars forever. Am I? This weekend, what’s left of it, if I stay home, I reasoned, Robert will hound me, he’ll come over if I don’t answer my phone. A remote cottage on the Cornish coast, that should do it.

It’s a long train trip from London to Cornwall. When I travel I’m in an in-between space, practice for the six months of being between Earth and Mars, hardly the same. I like leaving my cares behind, expectant that getting away will be good. Will I find my authentic self, whatever that is?

I am on a Cornish cliff-top, in the early evening sunshine seemingly without a care in the world when I see a small figure sitting on a rock about 200 yards back from the cliff path. I stand and gaze and he or she stares back at me or maybe through me. I start to walk over and the figure adjusts position on the rock, making a space for me to sit down.

I start to say hello and he shushes me.
‘Just be still, let yourself become connected, rooted to the Earth. Just be.’
I smile, that’s just what I don’t want to be – rooted.
He’s a youngish man with dreadlocks, his soft dark clothes fall in folds.
I do as he says, shifting my limbs until I settle. I steal a glance at him, undisturbed by me, just peaceful – he smiles back and looks away again.

I follow his gaze. The sea is no colour and every colour, I can say it’s slightly darker than the sky, it is as mute and still as the sky. Which do I prefer? They’re partners sky and sea, one showing off, the other non-plussed. The sun slowly dips and the sea shines like fire, the sky darkens.

Just be, he said. How do I do that? And why would I? Enlightenment on a Cornish cliff-top – an experience to savour when I’m 200 million miles away.
I reach for my phone to take a selfie of me and the hippy, he slowly shakes his head.
‘Just be,’ he says again.
And so I sit and stare, the sun slipping into the ocean, the light changing from pale to dark grey. Sea and sky boundary muzzy. I hear the sea, drawing itself in and letting go, drawing itself in and letting go – a timeless rhythm. I can imagine if I stand at the ebb of the tide, between the coming and going, the giving and receiving, I would lose balance and the tide would take me. For a while I’m not here or there, I am the ebb and the flow.

Maybe half an hour passes, the sky is almost dark.
I have a decision to make I say.
Yes, we all do he replies.
This is a huge decision, no going back stuff I say.
Quietness settles between us and after a few minutes he asks ‘Do you need to know it all, how it will happen and how you will feel?’

I look up at the sky, Venus, beautiful Venus. Mars isn’t visible, it’s slower orbit around the Sun means that Earth has left it behind. A different rhythm on a massive scale.

It’s unbearable to know it all I say.
The hippy smiles and says ‘You just made a step, momentum will carry you now.’ And he stands up to leave. I watch him slip away into the darkness.

Today, this hour, this minute is a gift.
This moment I will remember,
When clarity was present
Just take one step, begin
Beginning is enough.


Hippie Trippy Left Eye

I took an Art and Poetry course in September last year and from time to time the poems flow. I’ve had trouble with my left eye for some time now, I am resigned and thankful and mostly okay about the outcomes to date and those to come but anyway this emerged….

Accused of being lazy
A 5 year-old left eye indignant
Right eye
Being so perfect, why compare, just why?

Many years pass
Eyes perfectly isolated
Not compared with others
Fine, just fine.

Damn, stupid human goes back to study
Discovers us eyes are sub-normal
We get shielded with spectacles
So she can see the bus coming
Read the town clock from fifty paces.

Wheel on another couple of decades
We, well especially left eye
Grows so very lazy
Laid back, muscles disengage from lens
Human is not amused.

We’re okay though, being so chilled
Human struggles
Misses the obvious in front of her nose
Waits in waiting rooms, no deal.

But then, the attack on left eye
Two hours of struggle
Blood fills and recedes
Light shines in minute crevices
They try and try and finally

New bits in place
Essence of eye discarded
Lost in hospital waste.
Our human can see
It’s only a matter of time
Right eye beware.

Now we eyes get
Tested, scanned
Blue circles hover
Lights flash
Drops, 3 times, 5 times, 2 times
Every day, every day.

Let’s call it
Revenge of the eyes
We lose some cells just casually
Human gets rainbow haloes
Pretty haloes surround
Every light.

That’s night time havoc
Increasingly daytime too.
Our human diminishes
A bit
Another onslaught

Daylight is unbearable
Sunlight, electric light
Any light unbearable.

More tests
Nothing can be done.
We hippie rainbow eyes
Tripping out
Preferring dusky shadow light
We won.

Jumping Through Hoops no more

IMG_0951Life holds less constraints I’m finding as I age. I’d imagined boundaries that I had to stay in but they keep falling away. I’ve re-applied for my usual contracts and have a 50/50 chance of getting them. Last night after a sleepless night I can see new opportunities will flow through if I don’t get the contracts. I shall have time to finally finish the major editing process on my Amy novel.

I have another 10 years of working life and for the first time in ages, time enough to be more adventurous, allowing in more uncertainty.

I find inspiration from Matthew 10 v39. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. We were talking about prayer after our Quaker meeting last week, and it was said that prayer is a process of aligning desires and anxieties towards the perspective that God has.

So here’s to being on the of brink positive change. Time to notice, time to immerse, time to turn to creative and inspiring work.

Margaret Cameron and the Tennysons

Us Ventnor writers started a new project yesterday with a visit to Dimbola Lodge – the home of Margaret Cameron who is known nowadays as an innovative photographer in her time – Tennyson’s time – his family lived next door at Farringford.

So after a talk and looking around the gallery of her work, this poem about Emily Tennyson and Margaret when the Camerons prepared to return to Ceylon.

I gave her a grand piano
She gave me a pink rose
I shall hear exquisite music in my mind’s eye
Transitory, a pink rose.

There’s something about giving and receiving
that I love.
There’s never too much of either.
A pink rose, this one unique
fresh at its peak of beauty
prickly to grasp
petals soft to touch, sweet to smell.

Make way for adventures to come
with backdrop of Freshwater ever present
Ceylon tea in English tea cups
hot dampness in place of fresh gales
rustling tea plants versus distant crash of waves.

Where is home?
My sons, my husband, my beginnings shall be my end.

Stealing stuff to make a poem

Tomorrow the British Science Festival starts in Birmingham and the titles of some of the talks and workshops are amazingly curious so I’ve stolen some of them, jiggled them about a bit and it’s a poem of sorts another kind of voices of the Earth – science style:

How old are you really?
Sound of stars
Can you walk on custard?
Medical Mystery tour of a beautiful brain
The carbon conundrum
Robot turtle to Raspberry Pi.
Being green can stop you feeling blue.
Of crafty crows and space shuttles
Your astonishing liver
What have bubbles ever done for your (I made this one up).
Why don’t you have teeth in your eyeballs.
Forests of the future.
Mind-brain mythology
The incredible unlikedness of BEING.

[Reference: British Science Festival Programme 2014).

One minute

Another exercise in listening and speed poetry – 60 seconds – 57 words (one for each of my years!!!)

Wave after wave, rhythmic bumping
Rubber on tarmac
Sounds merge after a while
One continuous hum
It comforts
– another way of being
Coming and going
– and going and coming.

Brummie continuous limo on the Bristol Road.

Do the birds hear the same?
Oblivious perhaps?
He cheeps, they twitter, she chirrups, he squeaks.

Ambulance siren.
Another parallel universe.

Voices of the Earth

Whilst I was thinking about what to choose to observe and write about I constructed a little sculpture out of twigs – certainly a change from my urban focus.

Then I found my ‘thing’

Some life in a dark and dying space
Some life in a dark and dying space

And closer still:


And the poem:

A possibility
on a breath of wind
not quite a birth
dark secret place
and if
I do
I am formed
Past giants dwarfed
pale, curvy
cream smooth, finest feathering
Still – silent growth
Am I edible, I hope not
Formed out of decay
I don’t relish
My own.

On a poetry workshop at Woodbrooke

I haven’t posted for an age and was reminded that this would be a good use of my blog whilst I’m away on holiday at the Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham. Hopefully it will mean that all the amazing creativity that I’m hoping for won’t get forgotten in the weeks to come.

So this is the first evening of ‘Voices of the Earth’ – messing about with arty stuff to get inspiration in different ways. I headed out into the walled garden and by the lake in the sunshine on arrival – beautiful.

World Book Night

Ventnor Library hosted a World Book Night and as ever, an enjoyable evening. I picked Confessions of a GP, a light-hearted volume of short observations of the ways of the world (well patients) by Dr Benjamin Daniels.

We did some reading and swopping. I read from Stoner – a Vintage Classic – by John Williams, a piece from fairly early in the story when Stoner is asked to voice an opinion on a Shakespeare sonnet, and he’s physically so overwhelmed he can hardly speak. Seemed fitting since 23rd April is taken as Shakespeare’s birthday I’m told.

Someone read from Roger Deakin’s Waterlog and I have that now on my list to acquire or quite possibly borrow from Ventnor library. It’s fantastic to be read too and to discover another novelist that I’ve not come across before.

I’ve also been given The Help by Kathryn Stockett to read.

So all in all a superb evening.

Bus travel and writing

After a bit of an internal struggle in coming to terms with not being able to drive, I can see the positive aspects now. Main one is on my writing, what an opportunity to hear and see, to be in a moment and to share a bit of yourself with others and they with you. I feel a poem coming on, still germinating and will have to remain in that state until my marking mountain subsides……

Eyesight is a precious thing, not enough eyesight is a different precious thing.

Writings and scribblings about and from my published fiction and chit chat about literature.