This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Mental health issues
There is green tinsel above my mother’s open door, and as I knock she looks up and sees me, and smiles lightly, almost instantly. She smiles at everyone, my mother.
I lean inwards and kiss her on her cheek, and now her smile broadens, into something deep and genuine that creases up her whole face.
“How lovely to see you,” she says, as she squeezes my hand. “Please come in, sit down, sit down here next to me. It’s so good of you to come. I haven’t seen you for …”—she only pauses for a slim moment, you wouldn’t even notice it if you weren’t looking for it—“too long.”
“Not since Sunday,” I say, a little unkindly.
“Sunday is too long ago,” she says, perfectly charmingly. She used to have these amazing dinner parties, my mother. There is an art to small talk and she has it in spades. I don’t. She tells me later that red suits me (which it does), and that my hair looks lovely (which it doesn’t).
“You always did like bold colours,” she says fondly. It’s true, but she’s only guessing. She admires the detail on the silver clasp holding my hair back and touches it lightly. She gave me that hair clip on my sixteenth birthday. It has a filigree tracery that twines itself into the shape of a curled dragon. I adored it the instant I saw it. Its delicacy was a contrast to my usual attire back then of loose T-shirts and jeans, but the dragon was what got me. It felt like an acknowledgement of my real self—that my mother had looked at her bookish, socially awkward, gangly teenage daughter and recognised her dreams and inner world. It’s likely that my mother was only wanting to give me something pretty, and girly, and at the same time to get me to keep my hair out of my face as she was always telling me to do. But that dragon, it spoke to me and softened me, it curled itself up and bedded down in my heart. It still adorns my wiry, rapidly greying hair most every day.
“It’s nearly Christmas,” my mother says as I am leaving. Her eyes are on the tinsel that someone, probably one of the nurses, has strung up over the doorway, perhaps a little prematurely; there is over a month to go. She clutches one of my hands and her expression loses its sunniness like she’s gone behind a cloud. “You will come, for Christmas, won’t you? Promise me, promise me you’ll come.” There is an uncertainty and tremulousness in her voice that I am not used to.
“Of course,” I say. “Of course I’ll be here for Christmas.” And she nods and smiles like everything is okay then.
I am almost certain that my mother does not know who I am.
The alien on the screen flickers, and I can’t help the instinctive feeling that we have bad reception, but I know that even coming from low Earth orbit, the connection is usually very clear and that it is the alien itself that flickers.
Everyone calls them Iffers, although the word they have for themselves has a lot more of an L sound and the F sound is not quite right either. I’ve been talking to them for nearly two months now and I’m still not used to it. Marcelle has been talking to them for almost the whole four months they’ve been here.
The Iffers have an impressive ability with English for beings that have been learning it for only a little over four months. They can also speak Chinese and French because of the other astronauts on the space station. They somehow are getting more than what we are saying, more than what we are teaching them. Or their capacity for learning is amazingly good, and they are really just smarter than us at everything.
That’s a familiar feeling to me though, something I am well used to—having someone be smarter than me at everything. After all Alex is my younger brother.
“Lia,” the Iffer we call Shiver says, and then talks around the questions I’ve asked them about navigation that the astrophysicists have briefed us on, giving me long, winding strings of information but being elusive when it comes to actually answering the question.
My name sounds different when they say it, like it’s slanted somehow, although it’s not really an accent the Iffers have. It’s like an echo maybe. The feeling of distance behind the vowels and consonants, a pausing in strange places, the elongation of certain beats. It’s accompanied by the gentle waves and undulations of their upper radial limbs. Not so much like they are gesturing or adding emphasis, but more like they are underwater, and moved by the ebb and flow of currents.
We only ever see three of the Iffers. Their names over time have abbreviated to Shiver, Verse, and Ziggy. Their names sound a little like that, although not all that much, they are longer and rounder and more convoluted, but they seem to like the nicknames and respond to them with the slightly increased tempo to their flickering we’ve come to associate with pleasure.
“Lia,” I’d said to them, that first time. Tapping my chest in that classic Linguistics 101 move. “My name is Lia Anna Giannini.” I’d felt somewhat self-conscious about it, giving my name in full, as my mother used to a long time ago when she was reprimanding me for something; but feeling like my first name was so small and diminutive and lonely compared to the Iffers’ long, rolling syllables.
“Lia,” they’d said, and it had felt like a gift they were giving back to me. And I’d gone home very, very late that night, fizzy like uncorked champagne, because an alien knew my name.
As we sign off and the screen returns to its default green, Marcelle looks at me and runs her hand through her short hair. She’s dyed it dark again, but the roots are completely grey. She’s tired and frustrated. “That’s not really the same answer Shiver gave last time,” she says.
We are pretty sure the Iffers are lying to us.
Things I haven’t told the person I love: There are aliens at the International Space Station, in low Earth orbit. They’ve been there for over four months, while we try and work out what they want. We know what they say they want. But we don’t know if these two things are the same.
It is late, again, when I arrive home. Maya has left rice on the stove for me, but I am not really hungry, my head is too full of the Iffers and the delicate, contradictory stories they tell us, so I make a cup of tea and sit in the darkness.
“Come to bed,” Maya calls sleepily from the bedroom. And I will, in just a moment. My tea is still too hot to drink, but I sip at it anyway, and burn the tip of my tongue, like always.
It is nearly an hour later that I undress in the dark and slide in beside her.
“You’re late,” she rouses enough to say. There’s something in her voice that might be resignation or peevishness, or maybe she is just sleepy.
“I got caught up at work,” I tell her, although she’s not really listening, her breathing deepening, receding from me into sleep.
I’m lying to the person I love.
I did get caught up at work of course, I always do. But I am lying by omission. Maya knows that I have security clearances. She knows that I am not allowed to talk about aspects of my work. But there are some lines you cross that are like oceans. You end up far away from where you were.
I spoke to an alien this evening. And Maya sleeps, unknowing, on another shore. And the ocean between us rolls and crashes in the darkness.
My mother is talking about Christmas again. Her sentences all sound … reasonable on the surface. She’s pulling any immediate clues from the environment, from my expression, from words that knit well together, to cover the gaping wound which is her mind. She peers at me from across the chasm, my mother’s ghost.
I don’t know when it was I lost my mother. When she dies one day, everyone will say how sorry they are for my loss, but so much of it has already happened. Most of her has already gone, but it may be many years before I get to mourn properly, officially. Before the rest of the world is sorry for my loss.
“Are the children looking forward to Christmas?” she says, her eyes dark and lively; you’d swear there was the light of intelligence behind them.
“No,” I say, “I don’t have any children.”
“Oh,” she says, her eyes holding mine, and she looks so sad that out of nowhere I feel absurdly like weeping. I never got to have a child. Probably I wouldn’t have had the patience for it anyway. But all those years, both with my ex-husband and afterwards, trying, wanting. My chest tightens, but this is not pain, just the memory of pain.
“I never had any children either,” says my mother.
Marcelle is brilliant. I’ve known her for well over a decade now, as a supervisor and teacher, then mentor and colleague and friend. She brought me onto the Iffers project, and that is only the last and best thing in a long line of all that I owe her. She took my career under her wing in many ways—and it makes sense that Marcelle would have wings—small and birdlike, she is all darting motion and piercing insight.
When she calls me and tells me that the government want her to go up to the space station, but that she has said no, and suggested to them that I go in her place, I am stilled and stunned, like I am gaping at her across a chasm of my own.
Why should it, how could it be me? It is an echo of what I have felt my whole professional life, except condensed and compressed into a smaller, denser space now, a neutron star of imposter syndrome, flaring brighter and hotter than ever before. I have done well, in my career, in my study, in my PhD. But it has usually felt surprising and unexpected that it should be so. I’ve always felt undeserving, and unworthy somehow. I look at my resume and it reads impressively—and I really have done and achieved these things, I have not lied or exaggerated, and yet, and but … I feel like the person on those pages is not the person they get. I am surrounded by experts and ferociously clever people, and I am sticking words together and hoping I sound like I know what I’m talking about, nodding and smiling, just wanting to please. Like my mother.
“But why not you? Why wouldn’t you go?” I finally say.
“You know I don’t like heights,” Marcelle says lightly. “And I’d get motion sickness like fuck.”
And she tells me. “It came back.”
I don’t have to ask what came back.
The Iffers want to come down to our planet. Our atmosphere and biosphere are compatible with theirs, and they want to live here. There are only eight thousand of them, if you trust what they say. They are patiently waiting for us to make up our minds.
And they will bring us gifts. They have been vague and nebulous about the exact nature of the gifts. I think about the small presents I have already wrapped for Maya, ready to go under the little fake tree we will decorate and put on the table next to our bed. The Iffers have promised that they will give us spaceflight—secrets of gravity and of light. What else? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh perhaps. After all it is nearly Christmas.
Is it so terrible to have a tiny unreasonable hope that the Iffers can bring us solutions to our problems? Fix global warming? Stop the next pandemic? Bring medical advancements and cures for all those things we haven’t been able to crack yet, with all our technological prowess?
But if there was anything I learnt from those days with my ex-husband, trying for a baby, it was that hope is not helpful. And hope is not kind. Hope is the thing that smashes you, in the end.
And so I am in space for Christmas. We were allowed one small personal pack, and inside mine are a picture of Maya and my dragon pin.
When we are launching I am not thinking of Maya, and her artfully blank expression when she heard how long I would be gone for, the way I couldn’t hear her say goodbye over the roaring of the ocean between us. And I am not thinking of my mother, and the promise to her that I am breaking, even though she won't remember it. Or even of Marcelle, and the battles ahead of her on earth.
It’s my brother instead I think of. My little brother—not so little now, off in Portugal with his partner and two little girls. The brother I have not seen for more than four years, with the travel restrictions, and how busy we both are, all of the time.
My little brother Alex excelled at … well, he just excelled. My mother had him tested by a psychologist once he was five, and it turned out he was profoundly gifted. He was not quite four years younger than me, but it was like he caught up to me and surpassed what I could do in no time at all. When he was three he used to hide under my bed and read all of my books. When he was seven he used to turn up his nose at how easy my maths homework was, and I was usually doing extension work myself.
Once we’ve hit orbit I talk to the other scientists and try and sound knowledgeable, and I wonder if Alex is the reason I feel like I am playing catch-up all the time, like I am never good enough, why I don’t truly believe in any of my successes. And I wonder if I have caught up to him now, here. Or whether it doesn’t matter, and never did.
And I think of how my mother has forgotten him too, and that gives me a pain near the top of my breastbone.
And I realise I have not been letting myself think of the Iffers, because I am about to meet them, and my mind keeps sliding away from that—it is both too immense and too slippery a thought. Because they have already changed me, just the idea of them. What will meeting them in person do to me?
When we enter the special docking capsule that has been established with the Iffer ship, the other scientists are quiet and shaken—Vesna is pale and her lips are trembling. Jacobs looks like he might throw up. And I … I feel lit up with a fine thread of exhilaration. Shiny, switched on. This is exactly where I want to be. I am not scared or apprehensive at all. I am glad of it, I who have been afraid of so many things. Perhaps my sleeping dragon is waking up.
I meet Shiver first. It is nothing at all like seeing the Iffers on a screen. Subtle changes of colouring flow over them like waves, and your eye for an instant is tricked into thinking they are not there at all, which makes them flicker.
We wear protective suits, but the Iffers do not, and face us in their skins, unafraid. I don’t know that they will recognise me all garbed up like this but …
“Lia,” Shiver says.
After my third or fourth time with the Iffers, the shock of strangeness is not as abrupt and my eye is starting to find beauty in their shimmers and slow-moving, pendulous grace. Our conversations are as elusive and shifting as when I’d been on Earth, but it’s different than it was when we were speaking remotely. I am curiously relaxed, with a strange ease and sense of rightness. And something else that feels strongly familiar when I’m with them—they are so many things I do not know or cannot fathom, but they are so very, very eager to please.
And now, and here, for maybe the first time in my life, I am brave.
So I say to Shiver, who has given me two conflicting accounts of the journey here, and from where they’ve come: “That was not the same as you said before. We do not know how to believe you when your stories change. Can you tell me why it is you do not tell us the truth?”
And Shiver flickers, and then one of their upper radial limbs reaches towards me, so slowly, and wraps and coils around my arm encased in my suit. The other scientists shift beside me, but I have no attention to spare for them. Shiver seems to disappear for a long moment, and then is back, still holding my arm. And all is hushed. All is calm, all is bright.
“I don’t remember,” says Shiver.
I don’t remember. It is not something my mother ever says. She always has an answer, or an excuse, or a diversion, for any situation. It isn’t that she is pretending, because I don’t think she is, just that she is desperately seeking, chasing herself through the darkness and the spaces in between all of the things she used to know.
When I was at university I would often cram for exams, reading the whole book in one night and holding it all, all of it, in my mind perfectly for the examination (which I would ace), before all of it was jettisoned, like the trunk section of our shuttle will be before reentry. Perhaps this, too, fed into my imposter syndrome, the way that I didn’t quite trust that all of my results, all of my experience and achievements meant anything really. Because sometimes I felt like I was starting from first principles again, every time.
Shiver does not remember. Neither do any of the Iffers. Our conversations shift and deepen, and I understand, I get it, a truth that is somehow underneath the words we are exchanging. The Iffers want so terribly to be our friends, to impress us. But they have a loose, wavy connection to the past. They don’t know where they’ve come from. They have travelled a long way, and these are not the same Iffers that built their ship. They are incredibly good at learning and developing whatever it is they need in the present, but once that is done, that knowledge just … drifts away from them.
And yet. Where facts and history dissipate, a certain deep level of core insight remains. Could it even be possible to pass on the very direction of a species, its goals and understanding of how the universe works, epigenetically perhaps? There is so much we don’t know about Iffer physiology, about how they grew a spacefaring culture despite not recording what they’d done. I wonder what they will think of our history books, of our sentimental attachments to the past, of our genealogy studies, of the way we collect antiques. The Iffers are always looking forward, always new.
And I wonder if I want them to come down to our planet because I am fascinated and want to learn more about them, or because I think they will help advance humanity, or just because … I like them.
The Iffers have no gifts for us, not yet. They don’t know and can’t remember. They have themselves, themselves only, and I am beginning to think that is enough.
When I am not with the Iffers I spend my time looking out of the window-viewers and thinking of Maya. Thinking of how I will tell her of this, even before or whether or not I am allowed to. I will whisper to her of it in the night, and I will trust her not to tell. I will bring her with me to this new shore.
And I look down at the Earth, shining in space. Our sleeping, unaware Earth. I think of having one last Christmas just for us, like the Christmas you have before your younger sibling is born and everything changes. The younger sibling that might just be better than you at everything. And that might be good. But it would be different. It would never go back to the way it was.
“Merry Christmas,” I say to my mother, passing her a present. The nurse hasn’t taken the tinsel down, even though it is late January.
“Is it Christmas?” she says, smiling up at me.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s Christmas.” And I wonder, if I wish it hard enough, if I can believe it too. I want to have Christmas with her, like I promised. I want, in fact, to have Christmas with the mother I used to have, but that is impossible and this is what I’ve got.
And so I lie and I pretend, because the truth is not always necessary, and not always the most important thing.
And I think of the Iffers lying to us, and I wonder if they just wanted to make everything okay.
I lie to cover up the holes all around us, and to cast connections, fine as spiderweb, over the spaces between us. I lie because I just want everything to be okay.
“I love Christmas,” my mother says.
“Yes,” I say, “I do too.”