We're delighted to present Terraforming, a short story extracted from In White Ink, the acclaimed new collection by Elske Rahill.

Motherhood, nurture and violence – these are the themes of Elske Rahill’s remarkable first collection. Rahill brings to life the psychological and physical reality of mothering, pregnancy and childbirth in ways that few others writers have attempted. Here is a biting realism, in the relations between men and women and in the expectations and failures of their assigned roles.


Terraforming

A group of men applauds the landing, their claps and whistles drowning the grumble of the Earth as it passes beneath. Caitriona lifts her face out of the cup of her palm. Wet. There is drool down her neck, drying to a tight crust along her jaw. Beyond the window, only a syrupy yellow mist. She wipes her hand on her leggings and uses the end of her sleeve to rub at her neck and face. She knows there must be marks on her; chalky tide lines mapping the shapes where the saliva has dried.

The plane sighs to a halt, but over the speaker comes an announcement that the doors can’t be opened yet and phones are to be kept off. Some of the passengers come out into the aisles, removing bags from the overhead lockers, pulling coats out from under haunches and feet.

It’s been years since she was in London. She remembers only the dark veins of the underground, deceptive landmarks made by cafe chains, brisk men who did not offer to help with bags. She stayed a night – no, two – with her sister, before either of them was married. They shopped for clothes and Boots cosmetics, saw a musical, ate chocolate cereal in their hotel room and talked in a way they hadn’t done since.

The man next to her leans into the aisle, trying to tug some-thing out of the overhead locker. In the twist and stretch of the effort, his T-shirt rises over the khaki canvas belt. Billow of flesh; oblong navel; neat thatch of hair that cleaves the belly in two as it runs from umbilicus down to the neon blue band of his trunks.

Caitriona looks away. She does not want to glimpse the knot that once tied the stranger to his beginnings. While she dozed on the flight, she was thinking about her son: the delicious creases at the back of his neck, his incongruence with the adult world of airport lounges and foreign currency.

‘Sir, please remain in your seat until the seatbelt light goes off!’ It is the air hostess who tore their boarding passes at the gate. She has turquoise eyelids and big crunchy hair. When they boarded she was calm and smiling, but now a dangerous shade of red is rising from beneath her powder complexion.

The man produces a long rucksack with many straps and flaps. He turns to the air hostess.

‘There now,’ he says.

She snatches the bag from him with two hands and pushes it back into the overhead locker.

‘Wait for the seatbelt light to go off!’

The man sits down, muttering. He shakes his head, turning towards Caitriona, his palm flat on the empty seat between them, but Caitriona keeps her face towards the window. Her hand luggage is at her feet, and she has the directions written out clearly on a piece of paper. A bus, one Tube stop and a three-minute walk. She will find a bathroom and remove the signs of dried drool from her face. Then she will go straight to the hotel and check in. She has packed a sandwich. There will be no need to leave the room until morning.

It was after her father’s death that the dreams began. They arched up like a nest of waking cats, all purr and acid hiss. They licked at her ears, tongues at once gentle and scouring, and with their claws they tore deep stars into her night.

She has followed them here to this compact hotel room, clean and cool with a bed hemmed by a wall at the head and foot. There is a flat television, a row of green and red lights glowering up its side. The screen shows a picture of stones on a beach and a bubble with the words ‘Welcome Ms C. Dawson. We hope you enjoy your stay’ moving about the screen like a wandering buoy. She should have used a different name. There is a small desk with a block of Post-its, a pen, a phone and a card with the numbers for Reception and Emergency and Room Service. Fixed to the wall, a monitor shows her how much energy she has used, and how much water. A green smiley face says she has been energy efficient so far. Caitriona has never been in a room like this before.

She sits on the side of the bed, takes her mobile from her handbag, and squeezes the power button until it blinks to life. She has to wait through a series of texts as the phone acclimatizes to the new location. Then it settles down and she can call. As the ringing begins she can feel her eyelids twitch; a kick of panic when she hears his voice.

‘You made it?’

She smiles and nods as she speaks, because she read once that people can hear the expression on your face. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Eleanor picked me up. Flight was fine, you know, as you’d expect. Get what you pay for . . . But anyway there you go. Is my little man all right? We’re going for a bite to eat now . . . God, yeah – so good to see her . . . A girly night, yeah. But listen babe, I’m on my mobile . . . they don’t have a landline, no. No, don’t upset him . . . I’ll be back before he notices. Don’t forget the eczema cream when you’re getting him into his jammies. Yeah.’K. I’ll phone you tomorrow . . .’

Afterwards she takes a shower, and the monitor on the wall becomes an orange face with a straight mouth. Then she sits at the desk and unwraps her ham sandwich. Not hungry. She wakes in a gaspful of sand to the low whirr of churning air. Red and green prickle the dark. She couldn’t turn off the air conditioning. It has dried her skin taut to the bone, and her lips taste of blood. There is an en suite, but on the mirror a sticker saying not to drink the tap water, and the message: ‘Did you know? All our toilets flush with greywater!’ She knows there is Coke and mineral water in the little lobby at the end of the hall. She saw the vending machine on her way to the room, but she was too keen to get in and shut the door. She will nip out quickly. A cardigan over her pyjama top. Remember the key card. Round white sensor lights click on one by one overhead. The hallway is painted a clean shade of eggshell. There is a charcoal carpet underfoot, and along the walls, tall sprigs of straw in slate-black, pyramid-shaped vases. Her feet are bare. No slippers, and no clean socks for tomorrow either.

There they are. Too late to turn around. Two of them sitting right there on a black wicker couch beside the machine. Deep in conversation, they dip their heads together like a pair of swans. Caitriona recognizes the girl from the cover of the bright magazine that comes with the Sunday paper – an oval face set in a perfect bob. In the picture she wore a red jumpsuit, metallic powder shimmering on her cheekbones, a space helmet under her arm. Her hair looked set in plastic; peroxide white and mortis stiff. In real life she is smaller, her colouring muted, her hair alive with a haze of frizz and a stubborn cow’s lick. Her feet are folded up beneath her, and one of the couch’s silver cushions is nestled on her lap. Caitriona doesn’t recognize the girl’s companion – a narrow-chested man with a vague beard – but he is one too. She knows from the T-shirt, red with black letters: MISSION MARS – Let’s Get This Future Started.

The two lift their eyes as she passes. Fat sag of pyjama bottoms. Naked feet. The vending machine is a big old beast with lots of empty metal swirls where packets of sweets and chocolate bars once were. It glows coolly, illuminating its stock: lots of water; aloe vera juice; only a few bottles of Coke.

She reaches into her cardigan pocket. No money. Key card and no money. She presses a selection all the same. The two candidates resume their conversation. ‘The training will be hard,’ says the girl, her speech quiet and moist, the confident, winding vowels of fluent second-language English. ‘We can remember it is ten years away. There is much that can be learned in ten years. We will not be sent unless we are capable. We will not be chosen unless we are right.’

‘The radiation,’ says the man. He is English. ‘I want to be sure there is medicine with us up there – painkillers. I don’t mind dying up there, but it’s being without access to the right medicine. Euthanasia, even. If it comes to it. I mean, it’ll be new laws there, won’t it? Or space law?’

‘Space code,’ says the girl, ‘strict space code.’

Caitriona pushes her hand into the vending machine flap, then into her cardigan pocket, hoping to conceal the absence of any bottle. She shuffles away quickly and this time they do not pause as she passes.

‘Somehow I’m not scared,’ says the girl, leaning in close. ‘It’s like it’s my destiny, you know? It feels right. I have told them already I want to be the first mother on Mars. Mother of the first Martian. It will happen. I know it.’

‘They’ll send you in one of the later groups, then. Not the first group anyway . . . There’s bound to be teething problems. And who knows what the radiation will do to our fertility?’ The corridor is still lit. It takes three swipes before the key card opens the door. In the dark, she puts her mouth under the bathroom tap.

*

Settled into oblivion in some cave of her mind, bypassed for years by the circuits and synapses that keep things going, is a pool of facts that her father left for her:

Mars is a wandering planet.

Jupiter is a ball of gas dense as water. Pluto – Pluto, which was once her favourite planet, a pretty little orb out there at the end of the sequence,

Pluto is all ice and rock, a cool marble mottled blue and yellow like a bruise, and it orbits the sun, spinning faster and slower as the aeons pass in a cycle that takes millions of years.

‘Imagine all the lives that pass in one cycle,’ her father said. ‘Imagine all the work that goes into each of those lives. All the harvesting and skimping and counting to make ends meet and keep food in mouths and coats on backs, and bring babies to adulthood. You can’t imagine it, can you? Me neither. You would have to be God.’

There are infinite possibilities, life on Earth is all a coincidence of gases and heat and time that could as easily never have been.

They were rare moments when her father would sit with her and point out all the planets in a large, coloured hardback. He had bought it with the help of tokens saved from Blue Moon biscuit packets. It stayed in the small good room with the Reader’s Digests and the grand china doll that her mother had been given as a child. Her father drove a bread van and when he wasn’t doing that he cleaned the gutters or windows of wealthier houses. He resoled his children’s hand-me-down shoes with strips of leather he had soaked overnight, teeth clenched while he worked, lips drawing back to pull tight the stitches. Then, with his tongue between his lips, he positioned the glue and firmed down strips of old tyres for grip.

Ashamed of living in a council estate, he wanted to own a house. When Caitriona was fourteen he had managed it.

‘You can do anything, Trinny,’ he told Caitriona. ‘My Trinny can do anything. Don’t let anyone do you down. Not for being a girl or a bit heavy – don’t mind that. Hold your head high.’

It was her sister who was with him when he died. She phoned from the hospital, voice like a paper bag tossed hollow in the wind. Caitriona said, ‘Okay,’ as though consenting, and got off the phone as quickly as she could. She was surprised at how little she minded. While she waited for her husband to get in, she finished the washing up and checked on the baby and made a cup of tea to sip on the couch and wait. As soon as she sat it reached up from her gut, a small, sore cry. She thought of the empty house and all the carefully shelved Reader’s Digests with the slippery pages and wondered if there was a way to make them mean something.

That night sleep came easy. She slid into the gas planet; surface as thick as liquid; nothing hard to kick at. She recognized the feeling – a place where contact is impossible because nothing is divided. All yield and push; her self dispersed into all matter and all of it in her. She woke in a sweat, ears and toes rippling with a queer nostalgia. She knew she must have dreamt it before.

Jupiter is the god of everything.

Sometimes she is on the red planet itself. Blood-tinted sky and the heat pressing like flesh against her face. Wind and sand ahead, wind and sand behind, and no way of knowing which way to go. Stretch of dark. Blind hand looking for touch. Spear puncturing the surface and she feels the hurt of it in her breast somehow. A little flag but with what name on it?

She made the audition tape alone on her laptop. It felt strange to declare her name. ‘I am Caitriona Dawson. I dream of exploring space.’ She must have expected to be chosen, some blessing from the dead, perhaps, because when she received the email she wasn’t too surprised. She knew she would pass the Skype interview. ‘There’ll be plenty of interest in you,’ said her liaison officer. ‘Out of one hundred chosen candidates across the globe, you are the only mother. You’ll get a lot of coverage.’

‘After the next round,’ she told him. ‘If I get to the next round, then okay. Then I’ll tell my family and I’ll do all the interviews and stuff then . . .’

There were qualities they saw in her, the liaison said, qualities that a new world would need; the honesty and the compassion and the fire that they were looking for.

She knew then that yes, this was what she was for. She could do anything, and no one was to do her down.

When morning comes she discovers that there is a way to unplug the television, by reaching in behind. It is a relief to see the little lights blink away. The sliding door by the desk, which she thought was a wardrobe, in fact conceals a second sink, with a sticker saying Potable Water. Beside it there is a small kettle, and two black teacups, a black wicker basket with teabags, sachets of instant coffee, individually packaged biscuits and thimble-sized portions of UHT and soya milk.

She makes a cup of tea, the wrong colour, and pours a second dose of milk in after the first slides to the bottom. She eats two counterfeit Jammie Dodgers, sitting at the desk, dipping them in the tea while it cools. As it turns out, the tea is not too bad. The cups are rather shallow and the conference is not for another two hours, so she makes a second cup. She had an outfit picked for today. She bought it specially – a smart blouse and a waistcoat – but she knows now that she cannot wear it. It is a costume for a circus master. She will blush all through the day, squirming the clothes to comic crookedness. She brought a grey jumper dress for the flight home. The dress she wore on the way over is better – a quiet green colour and a way of cinching the waist – but she won’t be able to remove the smell of plane and her own frowsy sleep from it. The jumper dress then. She sponges the stains from her leggings. There is nothing to be done about the socks.

According to the website the first talk is called ‘Why It’s Time to Go’. The event page showed a picture of Earth with patches of blue and red and black, the surface blistered and peeling like scorched skin – something about the ozone layer. She tried to read about it at work, but she was so afraid of being caught that the blood started to pump too quickly behind her eyes and she couldn’t string the shapes into letters. She knew how they would all laugh at her; the open-mouthed guffaws of her manager, the stiff snorts of the front-of-house girls.

The e-vite said to come early for a chance to chat with experts and meet the other candidates. The front entrance opens into a round room with many doors in its curved walls. Slim women with ponytails meander slowly through the crowd, offering something hot from large silver pots. There are more people than she expected. Some are talking in tentative pairs, but most are standing apart, flicking through pages in red pocket folders, trying to avoid the terrible quietness of the place. There is a pillar in the centre and all around it a ledge where miniature bagels, and miniature Danish pastries, and bites of marmalade-glazed toast the size of postage stamps are presented on silver platters. The walls are lined with information stands displaying bits of rock and large glossy photographs of the galaxy.

‘Excuse me,’ a man no older than twenty with very yellow hair touches her elbow, ‘you need to register before you can enter.’

‘Oh . . .’ Caitriona says.

‘Are you here for the conference?’

He points to a banner reading Mission Mars Orientation and Registration. Below it, a second young man with an identical hairstyle is sitting at a long table. He is a little broader than his colleague, but he has the same look: disconcertingly symmetrical features set stiffly in an unlined face. They are both dressed impeccably: black suit, black tie, wound-red shirt and, on the lapel, a red enamel disc ringed with gold.

‘Welcome to the first European Mission Mars Candidate Conference,’ says the broader man.

‘Can I see your ID?’

A machine no bigger than her phone prints her name onto a rectangular sticker. He peels it off and hands it to her on one fingertip. The other man hands her a red pocket folder fat with stapled papers, a Mars One pen, and, wrapped in a clear envelope, a pin like theirs, the sharp gold point poking hopefully at the packaging. The object has a pleasing, tight weight to it, like the smooth old bullet her father kept in a tobacco box over the bookshelf. Caitriona hooks it into the fine-knit dress, worrying immediately that she has placed it exactly where her nipple is and that people will notice it jiggling stupidly. Too late. The two men open their palms in tandem towards the room. ‘The conference will begin in two minutes,’ says the slimmer one. ‘Good luck, Caitriona.’

The first half of the day is made up of a series of lectures that Caitriona struggles to follow. There is quite a lot of science, but the lecturers repeat that candidates mustn’t worry; they don’t have to understand it all yet. A big projection shows the houses they will live in – a row of silver domes on a crimson terrain. There is one lecture called ‘Our Galaxy; Our Neighbourhood’, where they are given brief summaries of the other planets in the solar system.

Someone puts their hand up. Caitriona can’t hear the question but the lecturer repeats it through his microphone. ‘This lady is asking about Pluto, about why it is no longer a planet . . .’ He explains that it never really was, but it is a good question because soon they – the men who do these things – will send a probe to take measurements and photos and find out more about Pluto. So there might be some hope for Pluto after all, thinks Caitriona, to have a place in the galaxy; to be remembered again. A colour picture of Pluto is projected onto the wall. The lady murmurs again, and the speaker repeats her question for the audience: ‘Would it be possible for them to find something that would make Pluto a planet again?’ He laughs. ‘No, sorry, that’s not how it works, I’m afraid. Right, any more questions before we wrap up for lunch? . . . No? Okay, chosen candidates go with Pearse. Make sure you have your ID. All other stake-holders please come with me.’

Pearse is a tall man with a whey complexion and long, blueish fingers. He stands at the front of the hall while the candidates form a flock. He counts the heads: twenty-five. Then he leads them out into the main auditorium and off down a corridor to a smaller, cooler room with a whiteboard and collapsible chairs pushed back against the walls.

There are three cardboard boxes on a desk, and a water dispenser sitting awkwardly in the middle of the room. Pearse stands by the boxes and congratulates them all on being chosen. He warns that this is only the beginning of a long and harrowing quest for a new world. The boxes contain their lunch – a selection of protein bars. These are samples of what they will be living on for the seven-month voyage. Pearse says there are three flavours – strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla. All three are the same muddy colour and wrapped in the same red greaseproof paper. They smell like rotting wood, but the taste is inoffensive.

‘Some people find they taste like pineapple,’ says Pearse. While the candidates eat, a nutritionist called Camilla explains that the bars are made from tiny green sea vegetables and contain a full spectrum of vitamins, proteins, and trace minerals. They will need to take fat supplements on board too, and lots of water.

After lunch the water cooler is wheeled into the adjoining room, and they are asked to help fold the chairs properly and stack them in a corner. Then they are told to form a circle. One by one they must announce their names and tell the group something about themselves. ‘I am Caitriona Dawson,’ she announces, ‘and I work in hospitality.’ She can feel the heat in her face and she can’t figure out what to do with her hands, so she fiddles with the Mars pin, taking the back off and pinching the little wings to open the hole and put it back on. She has an urge to push the point into her palm. Her response isn’t the worst, though. One woman tugs fiercely at her cuticles with her teeth and when it comes her turn she says, ‘I am Delia, and I have three cats and six goldfish.’

Somebody sniggers and Pearse says, ‘No laughing at other candidates please. Anything at all about yourself. Thank you, Delia.’

Next they are organized into groups of four. Caitriona is asked to choose a group name and she says ‘Pluto,’ before she has time to think. They are each given a big round blue sticker and they write their name on it, and the name of their team: Caitriona Dawson – Pluto. There is one man in the group, a skinny fellow from London who says he works in a hospital but doesn’t disclose his role there. She noticed him earlier because he has been wearing the black version of the Mission Mars cap all through the day. The more merchandise you buy, the more Mars points you get. You get points, too, for blogging, more if you give interviews to journalists, and there will be a documentary with the chosen candidates. They explained all this in the interview. They need publicity for funding, they said; the mission depends on it.

Also in her group are the oval-faced girl from last night, and an older lady from Scotland with big jewellery, very small hands, and an enormous bosom. The lady touches Caitriona’s elbow and winks warmly. ‘Good name,’ she says. ‘I’ve always had a soft spot for Pluto.’ Pearse sits on a high swivel chair at the top of the room; one foot tucked in his crotch and one dangling. He rotates slowly from side to side, making the hinge yelp. Their first task is to explain to each other why they are volunteering. ‘Be completely honest,’ Pearse says. ‘This is only amongst ourselves.’

Caitriona huddles into her group. The hospital worker says his name is Eric and that he will speak first. He removes his cap to reveal a slick of thinning hair. Then he flips open a sleek black wallet to show a photo of his son, a round-eyed child with a frightened mouth.

‘This is Howard,’ he says, ‘my son.’

He slides the picture out and passes it around his three teammates. There is a pause while they each take a moment to look at Eric’s son. ‘How sweet,’ says the Scottish lady, and Eric nods sadly. He takes a deep breath and returns the cap to his head. Then he begins to speak very fast, eyes pecking at the faces of his audience. His ex is a psycho, he says. She is always cutting access, always trying to make him do all the running around. Now the courts have ordered him to pay her maintenance. ‘I’m going to show them all I am a dad to be proud of. He’ll be able to say "My dad is a spaceman," and then she’ll be sorry. Boys love rockets.’ When he is finished speaking Eric looks exhausted. There is a silence into which the Scottish lady sighs, ‘Well I might as well go next . . .’ Then she gives a deep, sad chuckle. While she speaks Eric lowers his head, but his eyes still dart about as though he wasn’t quite finished. The woman rocks on her heels, hands clasped at her belly. She punctuates each utterance with a little laugh, like relief after pain. ‘I just want to be remembered. That’s all. That’s all really. To make a mark.’

The white-haired girl quickly takes over. She makes Caitriona nervous. She says she is an astrophysics student and she lives in Stockholm. She began her studies in marine biology, she says, but she soon decided that the answers were not on this earth. She is either mad or extremely clever, with lots of words that Caitriona has never heard before, spoken with strange authority in that alien accent. ‘The next war will be the end of life on Earth,’ she says. ‘Someone has to find a new planet or human life is finished.’

Caitriona doesn’t know what she will say but then the words come very quickly. ‘My dad died last year. He wanted me to do something extraordinary but I never knew what it should be. So . . . yep. That’s why I’m here.’

The groups are assigned tasks; a number of computer-simulated crises which they will have to manage together. At first Eric has a lot of opinions – ‘Look girls, what we need here is to think outside the box. Who’s to say plants can’t pull the water from the atmosphere?’ – but he soon lets the astrophysics student lead.

*

On the e-vite it said the conference would finish at six, but when six comes, Pearse asks them to follow him. They arrive in a dimly lit room where there is a scattering of fine black dust under a long glass case. The case is in the centre of the room and they are allowed to walk around the exhibit and peer in through the viewing panels on the side. This, he says, gesturing with both hands to the stretch of glass, is a new metal that copies itself over and over, and when it copies itself it creates a gas. One of the purposes of the mission is to take this substance up to Mars. Once it begins, the stuff will keep copying itself until, after millions of years, it has created an ozone layer around the planet. Then they will start filling the atmosphere with air. This is called ‘terraforming’. ‘Imagine all the lives that pass in those millions of years,’ her father once told her – but did he? Or are these the things she is inventing now, to make him real, to remember a person about whom there is very little to say?

After they have looked for a while at the metal, Caitriona expects that they will finish up, but instead Pearse says that each group has half an hour to come up with a presentation on the best way to multiply the metal on Mars.

She waits until seven before slipping out of her workshop group. ‘Sorry Pearse,’ she says, ‘I’ll have to excuse myself . . .’

For a moment Pearse’s face loses all expression. He keeps his eyes on her while his voice goes up like a siren. ‘Excuse me everyone. I need your attention for a moment!’ The room falls silent. They are all looking at her now, with pity or disdain, perhaps. She doesn’t know. She keeps her gaze focused on Pearse. She will not lower her head. ‘A candidate . . .’ he peers at her badge, ‘. . . Catreeownna . . . has just told me that she needs to leave to catch a flight. That leaves her team down one member. For this mission you need to be dedicated. You need to be able to deal with the unexpected . . . Well. Let’s all say goodbye and get on with our work.’

Dark, despite pipes of light running cool as drains over-head. The air is thickened by the earth that must be muffling against the concrete, dulling the faraway chirrup of the trains. Cram of bodies teeming down and up the stairs and keeping to one side for the sake of order. Which side is it she should be on? She keeps veering to the wrong side. She needs to find a bin to stuff the conference pack in. Her badge, too. Remember to take off the badge.

If she misses the flight it means using the credit card.

It means inventing some excuse. Already she will have to explain the conference fee. As a chosen candidate, she was given a special rate, but it was enough to make a dent. Barry will notice it and ask and she still doesn’t know what she’ll say. When she squeezes between the sliding doors she is still holding the red folder.

‘Mind the gap.’

So many people. Blank faces but she can tell their types by the way they dress and the things they have; a tall woman in an awkward blouse knitting with purple acrylic amongst the crush of passengers; a bearded young man with a checked scarf, hugging a rolled canvas.

Wobbling at his mother’s knees, hand squelched tight in hers, is a little boy in a camouflage jacket with a crest saying Army Man. He looks like the child in the hospital worker’s photo. Huge eyes and mouth shut small until it opens wide and lets out a shriek. ‘Look Mummy!’ He is pointing at the floor. Some of the conference pack contents have slid out, Caitriona sees; they are sprawled down amongst the feet.

‘Look! SPACE, Mummy! SPACE!’

The mother’s face is flattened with a thick layer of dust-dull make-up. She rubs her son’s head, pulls it to her hip. ‘Shhhh . . .’

There is no use trying to squat and pick them up. She will only drop other things if she tries. Panic starts in her lungs. What is it that they are breathing in and out down here? What is keeping them all standing, making the blood move through, and how long will it sustain them? She clutches at a loop overhead to steady herself, jiggles to the pulse of the carriage. Only one Tube stop and a bus. Then the plane and then her little boy’s face slotting into her neck, ears like the singing tunnels of seashells, fragrant scalp, the rippling cable of his spine. She tries to tidy the papers a little with her feet: the pictures of the galaxy and of the machine that will make the oxygen, and the strings of words she could not understand. She should have thrown them out right there in the conference centre. She has probably failed anyway. Of course she has.

The child is on the floor now, trying to pick up one of the pictures he has seen – the solar system, which is not a sequence of eight as she once believed, but a blur of stars and planets too vast for her mind to map. Fat sticky hands like her boy; her boy who exploded from a tiny nook; a surge of blood thrusting her body into a new space and then his birth that threw open her sky. But she will close it up neatly again, as she suspects all mothers do. She will grow away from him over the ten years it will take to train for Mars, and that is right of course. A curling beat inside her and then a cord.

A breast and then a head in her neck; a hand in hers and then no hand because that’s how it is with time and space. Wider and wider the distance; the journey that began in her, and who will he be out there with no touch left between them?

The door slides open.

‘Mind the gap.’

She pours with the shoal of passengers out onto the platform and the crowd is gone, moving blind as maggots on the steps. At the top there is only a dull light; it is evening now. She has almost reached the open.

‘Hello lady.’ The child has grabbed the end of Caitriona’s dress. A little shut mouth again, a little chin. Big bug eyes.

‘Shhh,’ the mother says, ‘sorry about that.’

‘Oh no,’ says Caitriona. ‘No, I have a little one myself . . .’

‘So you know how it is?’

And the woman’s smile is like the swell of a dying star, the disappointed climax and the heavy joy, and the relief because Caitriona knows it too – the awesome detail of accidental being.

The child is thrusting a bundle of papers towards her: three sheets stapled together and on the front the picture of the home on Mars – a row of huts like silver polyps on the rust sand.

‘You keep that,’ she says, but the child shakes his head. The pin then. She pinches the back and pulls it from her chest.

‘Look,’ she says, ‘do you know what that is?’

‘Space,’ the boy says.

‘You keep that, okay?’

*

On the plane she allows herself a sigh of relief. The smells she carries are of packed bodies and recycled air, a sweet, fruity broth of panic – but she has made it, and the evidence has been disposed of. The only thing she has kept is the big blue sticker: an innocuous thing, the kind of thing they might give out in playgroups for children’s names. But that too should go. She folds it into a half moon, sticky sides together, and then into smaller and smaller wedges, before tucking it into the pocket in front of her with the onboard shopping magazine. No one will ever open it to see what is written there: Caitriona Dawson – Pluto.

‘Oh yes, Pluto. That used to be a planet, didn’t it?’ Barry touched the hand-painted mobile, making it wobble clumsily above their sleeping child. The mobile was a gift from her sister. It has a sun and an Earth and seven other planets, but no Pluto. She didn’t notice until the day she returned from maternity hospital.

Pluto was the precious livid piece in her solar system jigsaw, and she always slotted it in last. Today she saw the planet projected huge against the white parchment. It was exactly like the jigsaw; an unfathomable full stop spinning out in space, its surface blotched brightly like the skin of an unburied corpse.

In White Ink by Elske Rahill (published by Head Of Zeus) is out now.

About The Author: Elske Rahill grew up in Dublin and lives in Burgundy, France with her partner and three children. Her first novel, Between Dog and Wolf, was published by The Lilliput Press in 2013.

Photo: Hartwig Klappert