January 1st, 2020
“You’re through to Mars division, how can I help?”
“Oh, hello. I’d like to apply for the program.”
“Great, I’ll just pull up an application form. What’s your name?”
“And why would you like to apply for the program, Mr Stevens?”
“You’re looking for people to die, right?”
February 2nd, 2020
So this is what the inside of NASA looks like. I suppose all their money must go towards space-ships and not interior design.
I sit down. A woman enters the room and sits opposite, lays her clipboard on the table and looks up at me. “Mr Stevens?”
“I’m Doctor Brown, I’m here to do your psychological evaluation.”
“How are you feeling today?”
“If you’re feeling fine, why are you volunteering?”
I laugh. “It’s not that simple.”
“So explain it to me.”
“I don’t want to.”
“What do you know about the program?”
“I know enough.”
“Stop avoiding my questions, Mr Stevens, it doesn’t look good in a report.”
She’s too sharp for me. My mind is slow these days. “I know that myself and a few other volunteers will be put in a spaceship and –”
“Rocket,” she interrupts.
“You’ll be put in a rocket. Spaceship is a bit science-fiction.”
“Right. So, we get into space and head towards Mars to test the new rocket and see if it can sustain humans for that long. There’s a ninety-nine percent chance it will be unsuccessful. But it’ll make for some good data.”
“So if you know all this, why are you volunteering?”
I shake my head. “It’s a long story.”
March 23rd, 2019
Harry puts me on another group project at the office. This is my third in a month. I don’t know why he thinks I’m so good at them.
I’ll be working with Carlos and the new girl. She got here last week, can’t even use the photocopier. I think her name is Lisa, I don’t know, I haven’t actually met her yet.
I walk into the conference room and they’re already sitting down, having a chat, Carlos with his romantic wavy hair tucked behind his ears, Lisa with a ponytail. She looks up at me as I walk in and smiles.
“You must be Lisa,” I say. I sit down next to her. “I’m Frank.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you, Frank,” she tells me. “You’re apparently quite a legend at group projects.”
“Well, I’m the only one who knows how to use Excel.”
“I can use Excel,” Carlos says. This is a lie. I’ve seen him use Excel. The only thing he knows how to do is make the cells different colours.
“Shall we get started?” Lisa asks me. “The presentation is in a week, after all.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” I say.
“Me too,” says Carlos.
March 30th, 2019
I catch up with Lisa outside the conference room after the presentation. We had successfully, with the use of many pie charts that Carlos did not help with, advised the company on the most fiscally sound ways to market a new type of soap.
“That went well, I think,” Lisa says when I approach her. She has her hair in a ponytail again, like she does every day, long and brown and straight, swishing from side to side with the slightest movement of her head. We walk towards the water cooler.
“You were great,” I say.
“So were you.” She grins at me. “I think they were impressed by the pie charts.”
“Well, as a group project legend, and a proficient Excel user” – she starts laughing before I’ve even finished – “I know that pie charts bring the house down most of the time.”
“Most of the time? I don’t quite understand that statistic when you put it like that. Do you think you could make a pie chart for me?”
“Yes. I think I could manage that.”
“Maybe you could give it to me later.”
“At the pub down the road after work.”
“Oh, we’re going to the pub after work, are we?”
She shakes her head, ponytail landing on her left shoulder. “No, I think he’s too busy reading.”
Lisa points to Carlos, reading Microsoft Excel for Dummies under his desk. I laugh so hard that water comes out my nose. Lisa takes a picture of it.
After three drinks I tell her, “I love your ponytail.”
“Thank you,” she says, smiling hazily like people do when they’re tipsy.
“No, I mean it.”
“I didn’t think you didn’t mean it.”
“I mean it! I have a thing for girls with ponytails. I don’t know why.”
“Maybe you fancy horses?”
“Stop making jokes. You’ll make my beer come out of my nose.”
“I refuse to stop. We could make a collection. ‘Drinks Coming Out of Frank’s Nose.’ Open a gallery, make a fortune.”
“You think snobby art critics will like close up photos of my nostrils?”
“We could say it’s modern art. The tragedy of being a grown up means you never laugh. Here is a man recapturing his youth.”
“Through his nostrils.”
“Alright then. Make me laugh.”
I take a sip of my beer, keeping my eyes locked with Lisa’s. Pale brown, crinkled with her smile and laughter lines. She lifts her arm to her mouth and blows a raspberry. I laugh harder than I have in years, because I’m tipsy and it’s childish and I’ve finally found a woman I’m excited about being with.
June 14th, 2019
“Happy birthday!” Someone is standing behind me with their hands over my eyes.
“Who is it?”
I feel their body press against my back, feel kisses on my neck.
She snorts right next to my ear, so loudly that I start laughing too. Lisa takes her hands off my eyes and turns me around so she can kiss me.
“Did you get me a birthday present?”
“I thought I could just have sex with you. Save myself some money.”
She opens her bag and pulls out a box covered in wrapping paper. “Here. Happy twenty-fifth, you old man.”
“You’re twenty-five in a year,” I tell her as I tear the present open.
She shakes her head. “No. I’m going to be young and beautiful forever. Open your present.”
It’s a toy spaceship.
“Ah, I see. You’re telling me to go back to my home planet because I’m such a horrendous boyfriend I must be an alien.”
“No! It’s to recapture your youth. I feel like that’s a theme in our relationship. Don’t you feel like that’s a theme in our relationship?”
“I thought the theme in our relationship was love.”
“I love you too, then.”
August 30th, 2019
I put the spaceship on the mantelpiece in our new flat. Lisa pays for the pizza and we sit on the floor and watch Netflix because the sofa and the TV are still in storage.
“I’ve never rented anywhere before,” she says, having just moved out of her parents’ house. “Can you paint the walls?”
“Depends whether the landlord likes the colour.”
“We should paint the walls. They’re too beige.”
“Red and green. The colours of the first pie chart we made together.”
I snort and push her shoulder with my foot. She pushes back. We wrestle and make love on the carpet.
October 4th, 2019
“How was your first day?” I ask Lisa when she gets home from her new job, assistant to some prolific journalist. She doesn’t want to work in soap marketing forever, after all.
“Good. Sofia, the woman I’m working for, she’s lovely. She was nice to me when I messed up her coffee order. That’s Marcus’ job now.”
“Her other assistant.”
“Why does this woman need two assistants?”
“She’s very busy and important.”
“I can’t imagine being too busy and important to make my own coffee.”
Lisa rolls her eyes.
October 20th, 2019
“I looked in the newspaper for computing jobs.”
“Looking to change careers?”
“Don’t look at me like that. You have a first in computer science, you shouldn’t be stuck making pie charts.”
“Pie charts are what brought us together.”
“Well, we’re together now, so you can stop. There’s a job going on the floor above mine, some tech support company. Do you want me to ask if they’ll give you an interview?”
October 25th, 2019
“How did it go?”
“I didn’t get it.”
“That’s okay. I’m kind of relieved. I like where I am, you know? I like the people I work with.”
“You never stop complaining about them.”
“I stop sometimes. Anyway, how was your day?”
“Good. Got put on a group project with Marcus.” Her hair falls in her face. I can’t see her expression.
November 11th, 2019
“There’s a Christmas party at the office next week. Do you want to go?”
“God, no. I don’t want to see any of those people again.”
“It might be fun. We could make fun of Carlos again. He’s trying to master Publisher now, won’t stop putting Word Art on things.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I’m working that night, anyway.”
December 1st, 2019
“Do you want to do anything for New Year’s?” I ask Lisa while we read in bed.
“Get drunk,” she says.
She doesn’t answer.
“There’s a party at my office.”
“Oh, okay. We’ll go to that then. It’ll be nice to meet some of these people you talk about all the time. What’s that guy’s name – Marky?”
“Yeah. It’ll be nice to meet the guy who’s spending so much time with my girlfriend.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She turns off the lamp and we are plunged into darkness.
December 5th, 2019
I find a receipt for a suitcase in the bin. Lisa hasn’t expressed a desire to go on holiday. I want to ask her about it, but I forget.
December 7th, 2019
I get home from the Christmas party at 11pm. I told everyone I had to leave early because I didn’t want to leave Lisa alone. But she’s not back yet.
December 10th, 2019
“Now Simon, how many volunteers are you looking for and what things should they consider before applying?”
“Well, Nick, we’re looking for about six volunteers in total. Over twenty-one, in good health, with some kind of scientific degree, computing or physics. Applicants should be aware of the risks of the program – to be blunt, if you are chosen for this mission, you probably won’t return.”
I turn the radio off.
December 21st, 2019
“Are you going home for Christmas?”
“No, why would you ask me that?”
“I found a suitcase under the bed.”
“You didn’t have a suitcase before.”
“Leave it, Frank.”
December 25th, 2019
I wake up on Christmas morning. I’ve been looking forwards to this for weeks, my first Christmas with Lisa. I got her a Lego set, one that builds this huge spaceship. I thought it would be funny, fill in the serious silences that are becoming common.
I turn over to her side of the bed and find nothing but an envelope with my name on it.
December 31st, 2019
I know where Lisa is right now. With Marcus at her office. Getting ready to kiss him when the countdown reaches zero, because Marcus has ambition. Me? I haven’t changed in the nine months we’ve been dating. She heard from the floor above that I’d not shown up to the interview. She’d found her Christmas present under some coats in the wardrobe and started crying because I wanted to stay exactly where I was forever and she wanted to grow and change.
I finish off the bottle of wine and make my New Year’s resolution.
‘New Year’ was published in 2016 as part of the UEA Undergraduate Creative Writing Anthology, Undertow.