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Excerpt for Little Old Lady by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Little Old Lady

Sue Bates

Copyright 2019 Sue Bates

Published by The Bothy Publishing at Smashwords

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cover design by Judy Bullard/ www.customebookcovers.com

1

Sometimes, Florence felt she knew less now, at the advanced age of eighty three, than she did when she was only fourteen years old. But, at other times, she was more or less convinced she'd learned some useful things over the years and, at last, knew all she needed to know.

Like the necessity of getting out of bed in the morning. On the face of it, an inconsequential event – in reality, a real challenge – a feat of self discipline – because, invariably, you opened your eyes and thought, I can't get up – because you knew that once you were up that would be it – you'd have to do things.

And it went on like this all your life. There was always some kind of work or other that needed to be done, when all you really wanted was to doze in a quiet grassy meadow with a warm sun chasing away fears and worries...mind empty, body relaxed.

But it was no use – no use thinking like that at all – in the end you just had to get up and get on with it. It was one of the conditions of life and so you rolled out of bed and the day began.

But that wasn’t the end of it, no, not by any means, the getting out of bed was just the first stage, there then followed a series of minor skirmishes with the forces of inertia so, for the rest of the day, making a start at anything – anything at all – was always difficult and required real emotional grit – it could be making a start at something practical, like the washing up (it had been lying in wait, since yesterday) or when she was trying to write the opening paragraph of a Space Odyssey (which she was trying to do at this very moment).

The only consoling part in all this struggle was that, once you’d taken the plunge, one action followed another and you got to the end, somehow.

She'd recently decided on Space as her new frontier because, in her opinion, it was the most fitting subject for her age group, along with insulting Very Important People, staying up all night drinking champagne and other equally satisfying pastimes – such as demanding to see the manager of the supermarket and then complaining loudly about the lack of sprouts (she'd done exactly that at Christmas).

But to get back to the matter in hand, how was she to begin this excursion into Space? Of course, the best way to begin any story is to start writing, to let the pencil touch the paper (even a few indecipherable squiggles will do). So, she put pencil to paper (she much preferred to write with a pencil – a pencil was softer to the touch, you could chew the end of it, rub out what you’d written, as often as you liked, and sharpen it – a pleasure in itself).

1st Day

"Why Day? To have a day, you have to have a dawn and a sunset, don't you? Deep space doesn't have either."

"Call it nostalgia. Call it comforting."

"It reminds us of Earth, you mean?"

"And keeps us on track. We're used to getting up and going to bed and working in between. The rhythm of life on

Earth"

"But we're not on Earth."

"I know."

"How do you feel?"

"Did you hear me? How do you feel?"

"Sick. Sick to the stomach. Sad and sick. I feel sad and sick. And you should too. Don't you realise we're leaving Earth for good! For good!"

"I know. I know. I feel it too. But look on the bright side. We're adventurers. We're explorers. We're discoverers."

"But what if we don't discover a new Earth...and...and we run out of supplies, there are no fields of rice floating about in Space or regular deliveries of food. In case you hadn't noticed."

"No need to get tetchy."

"I'm just saying there are no guarantees."

"There are no guarantees. There weren't any on Earth, either."

"That's it! I'm exhausted. I'm going to cry myself to sleep."

"Suit yourself."

Day 2

"Feeling any better?"

"No. I miss Earth. It was a mess but I loved it. It was my birthplace, my home – and it was your home too and whatever we are – everything we are – was given to us by that planet. We're its product, its children and we're leaving it behind. Forever."

"You should have been a poet. You think too much. There's no time for thinking. We've got to survive. We'll find a new Earth, don't you worry. Let's go and have breakfast. There's cake on the menu."

"Cake that's all you think about."

"Not quite all."

Day 3

"How many ships have been lost so far?"

"We'll never know. Space is a big place. They might be out there, living the high life on a fecund planet."

"It could happen. I suppose."

"I'm depending on it. And, anyway, this ship is like a planet, isn't it? We've got food supplies and grown-your-own systems and complete recycling and doctors...need I go on?"

"No, it's getting boring."

Florence caught her thoughts before they floated away, like dandelion clocks on the breeze, and she began to feel hopeful that a story could, somehow, emerge from her scribbled sentences.

The early summer sun now filled the overgrown garden – she could already feel its light touch on her bare head. She grew sleepy and lazy, as the warmth seeped into her old bones. Finally, she gave in and put down her pencil (her story could wait for a while – she had made a start at it – it was safe now) and rested her head against the rough wood of the garden seat. The colours and scents of the garden comforted her but, then, annoyingly, her thoughts returned to familiar themes – her age – and her determination to show them just what someone of her age could do.

Of course, most people didn't realise she was as old as she was. Sometimes, she told them her exact age and even, on occasions, boasted about her eighty three years but, most of the time, she kept the subject quietly to herself, mulling things over, hoping for some solution to the passing of time.

There wasn’t any solution, of course, and it was this certain knowledge that often surfaced, without warning, in the form of a blinding terror. (She could be sitting alone, as now, in the garden, or in the middle of reading a story to one of her grandchildren, or she would awaken alert in the middle of the night).

It was a terror brought on by the sudden realisation that she’d be lucky if she had five years left. It made her heart race, her head pound and she had to exert tremendous self control to stop herself from running round and round, or even from banging her head, repeatedly, against one of her walls (the surprising thing was that, even when she was in the grip of this abject fear, she noticed and appreciated the blue colour she’d painted them).

She knew that, at her age, she shouldn’t be such a coward and should’ve reconciled herself to the inevitability of death, which was, after all, at the heart of life – you just couldn't have one without the other – that was the deal nature had made in order to progress and improve – and it made sense – out with the old, in with the new. And here she was again – thinking – thinking – thinking – wasting time – getting nowhere fast. She had to get on. She had to do things.

There was certainly no time to lose. But she needed some sustenance – a cup of coffee and a piece of toast would definitely help matters. After all, the brain needed a constant supply of glucose, that's what the scientists said, anyway – and, even if they were proved wrong later, it gave her an excuse to eat toast and biscuits at regular intervals.

Before long she was back – sitting on her garden seat, eating toast, drinking coffee, scribbling away, her head bent over her notebook. She could see herself clearly. Her next door neighbour – she'd always disliked him – had also seen her before the hedge had grown high enough to block his view. Once, she'd caught sight of him out of the corner of her eye – he was watching her and shaking his head in disapproval. She’d pretended not to have noticed him and had scribbled even more furiously in her notebook, all the while repeating loudly to herself, 'Space is the place to be. Space is the place to be. Space is the place to be...'

Day 4

"If you ask me, they've packed too many people on board. There are at least one hundred. At least."

"There are exactly one hundred."

"And, when spaceship fever breaks out, we're supposed to keep them all from tearing each other's guts out. It's a tall order."

"But it's not just us the two of us. There are ten of us in Positions of Authority."

"Positions of Authority?"

"Yes, whether you like it or not, we are designated leaders but we probably won't even have to get involved in any trouble. Remember, Iain's had plenty of experience. He was the diplomat when those riots broke out after that benighted politician decided to ban all foreigners from Europe. He sorted that. His good looks helped...gave him natural authority."

"You've got to be serious!"

"Well, his sense of humour helped too and the fact he's a good person. How old is he, anyway."

"Around forty. Why? He's matched with Huan, you know."

"I know. I know. But they're opposites. He's tall and black and has a sense of humour and she's chubby and freckly

white and quiet...and she wrote the Compatibility Program so..."

"Are you suggesting she cheated and matched herself with Iain just because she liked him?"

"It happens and, anyway, I prefer Len."

"Well Len's younger, I suppose, about thirty."

"And he's got black, intense eyes and rich brown skin and..."

"OK, OK, so you think he's sexy. You needn't go on and, for your information, he's already matched with Rema and I doubt he'll object. Rema's very attractive."

"Are we going to record all these conversations?"

"Sure are. It's easier than writing."

"But most diaries are written down. Diaries aren't supposed to be recordings of trivial conversations. And aren't we supposed to be "eliciting as many views, opinions and insights, as is reasonably possible". Isn't that what the Guidelines said? By the way, where are the Guidelines?"

"Here. Listen to this, 'The diary is a subjective private account of one or two people and will be viewed as such by future generations. It is therefore of little consequence if the diary contradicts the technical and factual details held in the ship’s computers. It should be noted that the ship’s computers will always hold the factual truth and several copies of these factual files.'– doesn't say anything about writing a diary."

"No and they seem to think we'll include all sorts of fabrications and flights of fancy!"

"They could be right about that."

Huan had come from somewhere in China, Florence remembered her from all those years ago – she was a tiny, quiet, conscientious person. What was she doing now? Had she made a success of her life? Huan had been one of her foreign students, and now her name and the names of some of the other students had popped up in her story. But she would make sure their names were attached to descriptions in a random fashion – it helped to counter stereotypes. Racism, sexism, sectarianism and lots of other excuses to gain power lurked everywhere – you just couldn't be too careful.

(She lives in a world of her own – her neighbour told everyone he met – he was an interfering busybody.)

After naming her characters, she'd have to consider their prospects. What could they reasonably expect from life? What was life, after all? For her own part, she'd reached some conclusions. It was obvious to her that there were two contradictory factors at work. – Permanence was one – and permanence was what humans sought in a world where everything was, in fact, a transitory illusion (that was the second factor). There was no denying it – when it came down to it, life was as fragile and as momentary as a shimmering drop of water on a spider's web.

There were no doubts in her mind about the miraculous nature of the illusion – it was all very convincing – but she just wished it wasn't an illusion and she could keep hold of it. Forever.

But now she was old and now, more than ever before, she had to admit defeat – she could not be and never could have been permanent.

But that just wasn't the deal you'd thought you'd made. When you were born, you thought (well from the age of about five maybe) that that was it. You were alive. You had a life. It was a done deal. It was yours unless you got a terrible disease, or knocked over by a bus, or

stuck in the middle of a religious war or...well the list was endless...but, if you were lucky enough to survive these, then life was yours for keeps. And you had some control over it and then one day, years later – maybe in the middle of a long winter's night about three in the morning – you woke yourself up screaming and knew for an absolute, certain fact that at some point you wouldn't be here at all. Our little life is rounded with a sleep. Shakespeare knew.

All that talk of, only passing through; of only borrowing things; of having to give it all up in the end... all that talk was actually true! And you'd made the mistake of never really listening before. Stupidly, you'd lived your life as if it was yours for keeps! You hadn't realised how completely you'd been duped into believing it was real, forever and a day.

Get a life the wise woman said and by that Florence supposed the wise woman meant do something useful. Stop people getting a terrible disease; instruct bus drivers in the tricky art of missing meandering pedestrians; support peace between warring religions. And forget. That was the key, the forgetting. You had to forget that life was a cruel joke. Forget and get on with things. Invent alternatives.

Day 5

"I'm going to write a description of you and me so our future readers..."

"And listeners."

"So our future readers and listeners can judge for themselves whether to believe us or not – the story tellers' characters are important."

"If you say so."

My name is Daisy – I'm a psychologist (I've decided to use first names only and give the briefest of descriptions because full names, detailed life stories and genetic lineages of all the crew can easily be found in the ship’s records. I don't want to repeat all that information.) I'm twenty-five years old, light brown hair, white skin, green eyes, medium height, skinny.

The Compatibility Program has matched me with Chinua. He's twenty three years old, brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes and he's tall and muscular but his arms are too short for his body.

"This is nothing about our characters and my arms are definitely not too short!"

"If you say so."

The trouble with characters was that they always got out of control – two of them were already talking far too much – and there were too many of them on her spaceship and they would all have a part to play. It could get very messy, especially since they'd all have to get through the process of living – the falling in love – the having of children – middle age – old age – death.

There it was again. Death haunting her thoughts and making it increasingly necessary to accept that it would definitely happen to her and there could be no reprieve brought about by ascertaining that she hadn't done half the things she'd set out to do – that it was unreasonable that you were allotted such a short spell – or by simply yelling to any gods who might be listening, GIVE ME ANOTHER CHANCE. It wasn't like that – time didn't wait around – the end came and ZAP that was you. Annihilated. That particular unique combination of characteristics that was yourself, lost. Forever.

Day 6

My name is Chinua (and, just for the record, my arms are not too short) I'm one of the ten leaders. We were the cream of Earth's policy makers, responsible for technical expertise, organisational policy (who should leave, in what order and when) and for management of the people left behind. The work was exceptionally challenging.

"You're boasting and I thought you resented being a designated leader and we weren't exactly the cream. The best people are staying there and making the most of things and the worst people got places on the first ships. We were glad to be rid of them."

"OK, so I exaggerated a little...do you think they were glad to be rid of us too?"

"Probably."

Florence was pleased she'd actually managed to write something and could see some of her space travellers now and was even becoming a little interested in them. But, she would have to leave them because she had to feed, Gem, her dog (who sat close, looking up at her with pleading brown eyes). – And then there was the washing up to do and the garden to weed. Although she didn't often weed the garden, she was nevertheless interested in it, loving its colours and its enclosing privacy.

She decided to ignore the weeding. She'd feed Gem, then cut some sweet peas and, finally, perhaps, do the washing up. She went into the house and found some dog biscuits in the cupboard and left over chicken in the fridge. She mixed up the chicken with the biscuits and hardly had time to scrape the mixture into the bowl before Gem gobbled it up.

She searched for a pair of scissors to cut the sweet peas and pondered the eating habits of dogs and their caste iron digestive systems.

She couldn't find the scissors. How much time did she waste looking for things? – more things went missing the older you got – this was true of scissors, reading glasses, keys...and the list just carried on getting longer.

At last, she found the scissors and went outside.

The more she cut the sweet peas the more they flowered – it was their desperate attempt to produce seeds, but, so far, not one flower had even got to the stage of producing a seed pod before she’d cut it and added it to one of the many vases now full of the fragrant blooms. Sometimes, she felt it was unfair to keep cutting them, but they smelt so sweet and their delicate colours – there were only a few deep purples – always reminded her of being in love. These pleasant thoughts of flowers and love were interrupted by a twinge of pain coming from her foot.

Earlier, on her way into the house, her bare foot had hardly noticed the sharp stone pierce the skin. She'd seen a streak of blood, had checked for any pieces of debris that might have lodged under the skin (there were none) and had then continued. But now her foot was sore and throbbing and an area of fiery redness had appeared.

Her foot was infected. She began to panic – it was probably infected with deadly tetanus, and death would overtake her without her even realising! Here one minute and gone the next. And where does that leave our precious human consciousness? Answer. Just as another environmental adaptation, evolved over millions of years, but which, in its manifestation in the individual person, could just as easily be eradicated as an arm or a leg – or, for that matter, a right foot. At this particular moment, she realised she should be worrying less about her consciousness and more about her right foot – which was a useful adaptation in its own right and definitely one she was unwilling to do without.

Perhaps she should go to the doctor's. The Health Centre was in the next village only a short drive away. Her doctor was a young woman with admirable qualities – she was patient, she listened, she even realised that she too would get old, and yet she wasn't afraid. In short, the young doctor was wise.

Why was this surprising in one so young? Florence asked herself. She shouldn't be surprised because she knew, as well as anybody, that youth was no barrier to wisdom, just as old age was no guarantee you'd ever be wise. The surprise probably came from the contrast between the fresh smooth skin of the young doctor – she could be no more than twenty seven years old – and the depth of her understanding.

Surely, there had to be some compensation for the wrinkled face and loss of teeth (actually Florence had only lost two teeth so far – she was rather proud of that). She suspected that she was jealous of this young woman who, seemingly effortlessly, had everything and, also, still had a long time to live. Whereas, she'd spent eighty three years getting her life sorted out and only now, at the very last moment, was she beginning to get round to achieving a resolution. Perhaps, after all, if you weren't born wise, it was best to get killed off in your prime, before you had to face – without the necessary emotional and mental equipment – the problem of getting older and older.

But all this thinking wasn't solving the immediate problem of her foot. It was no doubt best, at her age, to go to the doctor's. In her youth, her body would have shrugged off this infection in a few hours, but not now. Now, she had to be sensible. So she set off for the Health Centre and, in case she had to wait a long time, she took her notebook with her – she had no time to waste.

The drive to the Centre was difficult because of the pain in her foot but she got there and successfully parked her car – a stroke of luck – struggled across the car park then through the door, which was stiff and heavy to open, and finally arrived, exhausted, at the Reception desk.

The middle aged receptionist who sat at the desk was one of those people who could easily be recruited into the Royal Family without anyone noticing because she had that natural ability to create a cold distance between you and her. It was an air of class superiority – tone of voice; slow, deliberate words; and a loud, very loud, posh accent, carefully evolved over generations. I would give her the sack immediately, Florence thought, without conscience, as she explained her plight to the impassive face across the desk.

"You'll have to wait."

"For long?"

"Oh, I should think about one hour…at least."

"Fine, I'll wait", Florence spoke in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice, to prove that she was the one in charge here.

The receptionist was unmoved – she'd seen it all before. This old lady thought she was special, well, she wasn't, she was just like all the other old people and she – hadn't she worked here (efficiently, competently) for five years (overtime – unpaid – as well), was due respect and recognition from these ageing people who turned up day after day with their illnesses.

I would most definitely sack her, Florence thought again as she glanced at the distasteful expression on the receptionist's face.

The Health Centre was like many others that had sprung up in recent years. It was a single storey brick building with many wide windows and a solid, varnished, wooden door that gave out an air of the past, in contrast to the modern look of the rest of the building.

There were six people including a small child in the Waiting Room. They sat quietly on the upholstered seats arranged along the sides of the room. The usual collection of outdated magazines were piled on a low table in the centre of the room. In one corner, there was the hint of a suggestion that the British might be beginning to recognise that children were valuable and wholesome – a small collection of toys were jumbled into a box. There was, however, no evidence that the small child (about three years old, she guessed – her youngest grandchild was now five years old and she'd already forgotten the details of younger children) would be encouraged to play with them. The mother spoke to

the child in discrete whispers, fitted for this Health Centre, situated in the countryside and frequented by the controlled middle classes.

Florence felt hypocritical – she was, in fact, pleased that the child was quiet and controlled – she was glad, at this moment, that the British believed deep down that children should be seen and not heard. She, selfishly, wanted peace and quiet so that she could get on with her writing. Didn't she deserve it? Hadn't she brought up her own three children (albeit, unsuccessfully, for half the time) and also helped in the raising of her grandchildren? Wasn't it time, then, for her to indulge in her own selfish pursuits?

She got out her notebook and pencil and began to write and tried to forget the throbbing pain in her foot and the fear gnawing at her stomach...

Day 7

There are two medical experts on board...

"Actually there are three. Cybel, Ben and Ahmad. Cybel and Ben have been matched by Huan's Compatibility Program. I've got doubts about that match too..."

"Is there any match you agree with?"

"It's just that I don't think it's a good idea to match people with the same jobs... it could become very tedious. Maybe, Cybel agrees with me. Have you seen the way she looks at Ben? Disinterested."

"I'd say Ben is happy with the match."

"Well, Cybel's very pretty."

"Have you finished interrupting?"

"Yes, for the moment. And, congratulations, you're actually writing."

There are three medical experts on board. Cybel, Ben and Ahmad. If there's a medical emergency (and it's bound to happen at some point) Cybel, Ben and Ahmad will be there in minutes with all the latest life saving equipment. This is very reassuring – it's good to know you're in safe hands.

As you've already heard, Cybel is very pretty. She's matched with Ben who is a small, ordinary looking man with light brown skin. He may look ordinary but he's a bit odd...obsessing over the tiniest detail which can be annoying. His memory is pretty amazing though and could come in useful if...

"Ahmad and Saba. Now that's match I agree with. Saba's an Astrophysicist..."

"That's it! You can do the writing."

Ok! I will!"

It's me, Daisy, writing this now...

We are not primarily concerned with whether or not we've been matched with the right person. Survival is now our aim and it dominates our thoughts as we travel deeper into Space. It's almost as if we've been plunged back in time and become like our primitive ancestors in Earth's distant past. Like them we battle to survive against the elements.

Every day, we face the threat of extinction in the alien environment of Deep Space. Perhaps, we'll become unthinking in our simplicity of purpose...like starving peoples walking one hundred miles to the next feeding station, whose thoughts become their enemy taking away the will to put one foot in front of the other...

Our survival strategy has four clear directives: to ensure that the ship's systems run successfully; to build a thriving community on board; to seek out habitable planets; and to notify the people back on Earth of the exact position in our Galaxy of any habitable planets we find on our way.

To achieve the first directive, we have to master the day to day practical issues of the ship’s maintenance. Our ship is a complex culmination of years of technological and scientific discoveries. But, although the ship's systems are advanced, they may not be adequate for the journey ahead.

We travel across the Galaxy utilising the gravitational pull of planets and stars, so that the forces and strains on our ship are enormous. We're always on the lookout for danger and use all our combined skills to maintain the ship's systems and ensure any faults are dealt with immediately.

The meticulous loving care we take of our ship is essential to our survival – this ship is now our world and for all we know we may live out our lives in it. We're like the Amazonian Indians who dwelt in Earth's forests; we understand the delicate balance between our human needs and the needs of the environment supporting us.

As for our search for habitable planets, a part of each day is spent analysing the incoming data streaming in and telling us of the location of meteorites, moons, planets, stars...

"What d'you think?"

"Well it's not entirely accurate. It's overly dramatic, for one thing. Most of the time I don't think about survival at all."

"Well you wouldn't. Would you."

Day 14

The ship has run smoothly since we left Earth's orbit. Routine has set in and we feel safely enclosed in our little world. It has all become a bit everyday and uneventful.

Me and Chinua spend our free time in the Conference Room. First, we check if anyone's in there and, if it's empty, we go in. It's our favourite place. The room is circular with flowers and plants growing all round the central area. The flowers have exquisite scents, which I love, and the green of the leaves has a calming effect on me. We've been told that the room was designed to encourage communication.

Light comes from the domed ceiling and, when you enter the room, you can change the colour of the light. Sometimes, I request colour changes – yellow fading to white...white changing to pink...

A large round conference table stands in the middle. The table is a translucent blue; tough and resilient, but it feels soft to the touch. The chairs are made of the same material. When

you sit in them they feel soft too. Chinua often falls asleep when he sits down. So the person who designed the room to encourage communication would be very disappointed.

Sometimes, I come to this room by myself and sit quietly thinking. The translucent blue of the table and chairs reminds me of the cloudy blue of Earth's skies

Between the table and chairs and the encircling plants there's a spacious area – wide enough for the whole crew to pace up and down or gather in small discussion groups. This area is tiled with large square tiles – each tile depicts a culture that exists or existed on Earth. At a glance, the tiled area is a chaos of colour and text, but, if you look carefully, you'll see that every tile tells a detailed story.

"To remind us of our successes."

"More like to warn us of our mistakes."

Day 366

It's been so long since we last wrote or recorded anything at all. Our excuse is that nothing really interesting has happened. But now we've entered an unexplored zone of the Galaxy and the mood on board has livened up and we're feeling very hopeful.

We really are discoverers now and overlook nothing – any sign of potential (a whiff of oxygen is enough) is a cause for celebration. If a planet has 0.05% oxygen in its atmosphere, it's considered a major find – there are always ways of introducing plant life to increase oxygen content...that's what Chinua says anyway...he's a botanist so...

That's a call coming through...got to go to the conference room...

Day 378

We've discovered a planet with oxygen in its atmosphere and that's not all – there's life down there! Maybe not life as we know it – as the old saying goes – but definitely life.

Daisy is as excited as I am. There was a very lively meeting in the Conference room to discuss what we should do next.

Florence shifted her foot to a more comfortable position. Whilst she'd managed to get her space travellers to the point of planet discovery, the doctor had managed to see two patients. On consideration, this put the doctor in the lead for efficiency because, although writing about space travel could be difficult, it wouldn't be fair to compare the minor difficulties she faced with those of being a doctor.

Sometimes, Florence had to leave gaps in her stories and, later, check up on the technical details with her grandchildren, which often resulted in extended discussions (over the phone or sitting at her vast kitchen table eating scones) about whether parts of her stories were even remotely feasible and in line with what they'd been taught in Physics or were studying at University or with what might conceivably happen in the future.

Sometimes, when she was bored, she invented a problem in her story so that she could have a conversation with them about the wonders of the Universe.

She wished the doctor would hurry up – her foot seemed to have grown in size and the throbbing was getting worse. Perhaps, she should have gone to the hospital in the first place – perhaps it was a real emergency – perhaps she had only hours to live.

She looked at the face of the receptionist with its stern, don't expect me to help you look and wondered if she should challenge the women to do her job properly by asking her how much longer there was to wait and if it was advisable to go to the hospital instead. But her

ability to fight for her rights was less than usual – the persistent pain had reduced her to an acceptance of the receptionist's hostility. She decided to wait with all the others.

It might be the death of me, she thought ruefully.

Day 379

"You can't just leave it at that. It was a turning point...a momentous occasion. You should have described it more. What people said...how excited we were...the colour of our drinks. Stuff like that. Details!"

"I was busy, in case you hadn't noticed. Anyway, I'm better at talking...''

"Are you suggesting I'm not busy? We're all busy...or pretend to be. Are you going to write the diary or not?"

"Not. I'll tell the listeners about it. That's if anyone bothers to listen...

...Some of us were early for the meeting. I was there first, already sitting at the Conference table, drinking a long cool drink of water while I waited for the others...and then you came in..."

"Can I add a descriptive detail here...I'd just like to add that, while we waited, we could hear the voices of the others as they rushed down the long passageway leading to the Conference room...the passageway carries cadences of sound along it – like a wave carrying surfers to the shore..."

"Were you a good surfer, back on Earth?"

"Not really....As I was saying..."

"I thought you were just adding a detail."

"But I hadn't finished."

"Ok, ok...please continue."

"We heard the others and, instead of low voices discussing problems with the ship's maintenance – the usual topic of conversation – instead, this time, they were shouting and we heard the word discovery more than once.

And then Len came striding in and switched the lights on full, 'to keep us alert', he said, 'because we've got to make a quick decision before we've gone right past the planet and missed our chance. We can't waste time doing U turns.' He's a very assertive person."

"Bordering on aggressive."

"You're just jealous of his good looks...

Where was I...Oh yes...I was about to say that, as a psychologist, I was interested in our choice of drinks. Len's drink was bright red and full of bubbles which told me something about his state of mind..."

"Aggressive and domineeering."

"Actually, it told me he was assertive and had leadership qualities. Saba's drink was pale blue which meant she was feeling hopeful and Huan's drink was deep orange – joy mixed with concern at the discovery of a planet, perhaps?"

"Well, I was drinking clear water. What does that tell you about me? Don't answer that. The colour of our drinks isn't important. I'll take over from here."

"Ben was late. Ben's always late so we started without him. It was Huan's turn to keep the meeting on track and sum up at the end. She opened the meeting by asking for opinions. Len jumped in immediately and demanded we send an exploratory mini-ship to the planet. He said something like, 'We can’t, ever, pass by a chance – however slim – of finding a habitable planet – we have to face the facts – we may never get a chance like this again!' He was repeating what he'd said earlier and jabbing his finger in the air when he said it and staring at us. He was daring us to challenge him – which just goes to prove my point – he's aggressive and domineering."

"You really don't like him, do you?"

"He's one of those people who likes to be in control which means he is the last person who should be in control."

"Well it's no use being wishy-washy at a time like this."

"You mean me? I'll take that as a compliment...

...Ben burst into the Conference room, 'There's life down there!' he shouted.

Pandemonium broke out. We leapt from our seats and hugged each other and we did a lot of laughing too..."

"It's wonderful. We know that life exists in millions of places in our Galaxy but this is our planet...we discovered it. I'll always remember this time. Even if we discover lots of other planets, it won't be the same as this first discovery. It's like the feeling a young mother has when she holds her first-born..."

"How do you know what a young mother feels like?"

"I don't...just guessing."

"I bet you were pleased when you and Len were chosen to make the exploratory visit to the planet."

Day 401

Our ship will be orbiting the planet soon. Me and Len have prepared ourselves and our mini-ship down to the tiniest detail...we've packed everything we need, and more – oxygen, water, food, special clothing, excavation tools...

We've been so busy, we haven't had time to think about the dangers but today fear crept in...not that Len admitted to any, but he was pacing about a lot and laughing a bit too loudly. We set off in a few hours.

Day 402

Daisy and Len are heading for the planet. They said goodbye to everyone. When Daisy gave me a hug she said something like, 'just in case anything bad should happen – no one is promised tomorrow'.

No one is promised tomorrow. That applies to me too, Florence thought, self pityingly, as she continued to try to ignore the throbbing pain coming from her foot...

Day 422

"The gravity is something else down there. If you lived there you'd have to develop mega muscles just to walk."

"Start at the beginning."

"Well flying through the planet's atmosphere seemed to take a long time but it was probably only a few minutes. We thought we might get pulled in so fast our mini-ship would break up and there was a danger of burn up too. So we were holding our breaths."

"You mean you were scared to death."

"If you want to put it like that, yes, we were. Anyway, we made it through the atmosphere and then we flew below the clouds so that we could get a good look and photograph the surface and send lots of data back to you lot.

You knew as much about the planet's surface as we did. I actually resented this a bit. Surely real explorers go alone and face dangers alone and, when they return, they have the pleasure of telling everyone about how they managed to survive against the odds and what they discovered..."

"So you were looking for glory and celebrity. Being with Len has rubbed off on you."

"We worked well together, if you must know.

The next problem we faced was finding a place to land. Most of the surface was covered with dense plant life and the few open spaces were highly radioactive. Landing on a hot spot seemed very risky, but landing on the plant life would destroy some of the plants, and, as you know, this is a contravention of the Exploration Code."

"The Code says something about preserving life-forms and not doing any damage unless it's an emergency?"

"Yes. I'm impressed."

"I'm not a totally adverse to the boring details of regulations, especially where plants are concerned. Some of those regulations actually make sense..."

"That's why, in the end, we decided to land on a hotspot and hope our suits would protect us."

Florence was burning up. She feared the worst – the infection had spread from her foot and was rampaging through her whole body and now she had a raging temperature. But, at last, there was only one other person to be seen before her. There was no point in panicking – she could hang on for a few more minutes.

Day 423

"I landed lots of mini-ships when I was practising back on Earth."

"So why did you skid when you landed? We saw it all, you know."

"I know! I know! I was a bit too confident and came in a little too fast but there was no damage done. We were safely down. As soon as we'd come to a standstill, we put on our most radioactive resistant spacesuits and the new space helmets we were testing out. The helmets let in scents as well as sounds and filter out toxic compounds."

"In theory, you can sniff the atmosphere without getting poisoned."

"That's the general idea. So we were ready for whatever the planet could throw at us and very excited. Len wanted to be the first to step foot on the planet..."

"Selfish as well as aggressive and domineering."

"I didn't mind. Not really. Anyway, I was right behind him and we were soon standing on the planet's surface together and almost blinded by the intensity of colour coming from the flower-like forms. These flowers completely surrounded the clearing and there was something threatening about them even though their colours were stunning. You couldn't look straight at them without half closing your eyes. Remember when we were children and dared each other to look up at Earth's sun? Well, it was like that. That's how bright those flowers were. We were overwhelmed by the colours and not only by the colours – but by the fact that we were the first humans ever to see them up close. It was our first experience of another planet and I was very emotional. This encounter with a new world became a magnet for everything that had happened to me up to that point in my life. All previous thoughts, feelings, experiences, seemed to cling to that moment and I began to cry."

"I bet Len didn't cry.. Aggressive, domineering, selfish, and insensitive."

"I don't know if he cried or not. I was too wrapped up in my own thoughts. I felt sad because we'd found a new world but ruined our own planet. The grief of losing Earth still haunts me."

"We were watching you on screen but the signal kept cutting out. We tried to get a message to you."

"We heard someone..."

"We were trying to warn you and tell you we'd seen large creatures flying towards you."

"We only heard the bit at the end when someone shouted something about a 'death trap'. That got us going. We had to collect as many specimens as we could in a very short time..."

"Florence Young!" her name was being shouted out.

She was taken by surprise. She put the pencil in her bag with clumsy, shaking hands and struggled to her feet. Her notebook slipped to the floor and she swore under her breath.

"I'll get that for you. Do you want me to put it in your bag?" The young mother had jumped up and now stood smiling with the notebook in her hand.

"Thanks. I carry it," Florence said, as she took hold of it, not feeling as grateful as she should have. It was the presumption of her helplessness that she resented.

But did she really detect this in the young woman's voice? Or was the young woman just being kind and would have done the same for anybody, whatever their age? That was another disadvantage of old age, you just never knew if you were being paranoid.

"Florence Young!"

She smiled at the young woman and hobbled off down the corridor with the notebook held tightly to her chest.


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