I submitted a short story to the Royal Academy Pindrop competition – see https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/event/ra-and-pin-drop-short-story-award 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.
END OF STORY