HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

MARS

''Michael Marett-Crosby has worked as a priest and chaplain, most recently within the UK prison system, and has written several works of non-fiction. Since becoming a full-time writer he has published works of non-fiction, won several short story prizes and has recently completed a novel, Two Thirds Man. This book began when he saw an equation scrawled onto a prison cell wall, ⅔ man + (love-hate) = who I am. The book is based on the lives of the inmates and officers he has known. Michael divides his time between a family home in Jersey and Strathrusdale in Easter Ross. It is hard to imagine better places to write.''

MARS by Michael Marett-Crosby

This is Mars.
I saw clearly as the darkness fell. I am seeing now. This is Mars – these words make sense of stone and ash and dreadful desiccation. Everything is pale red, the colour of failed blood. Mars – I am so thirsty. Mars – so far from home. I want to cry but cannot, all the wetness sucked from me. Mars has few words. The ones I own don’t fit. Like stone – stone means stone-on-Earth, stone dappled, stone becoming ripples in a pond. I remember stones picked from the beach and taken home, a snatching of beauty but there was always more next time. But this, but this – it is not stone like that, not stone like anything. Everything is ground and dryness, a gathering of griefs. It is as if Earth’s unwatered misery has landed here.
Ground. Dry ground. Martian is a two word language, dry and ground. I try it, calling out, “Dry ground,” and also “Dry, ground!” this the command of Mars’ creation. Perhaps there is also ground-dry, the opposite of laundry – my clothes have been baked. There is a past tense ground dry, ground from the verb to grind. Ground dry is the action of Mars upon my tongue. I speak to myself as if with metal.

I have landed on Mars.
This is my conclusion. The evidence fits. I have always been a reasonable man. Also lucky, for Mars is not familiar. I was browsing web pictures, looking for a new desktop. Another planet, I had thought. Everything is just a click away.
Mars poignant. Mars with meaning. I had a word back then for what I was seeing and it was spirited, spirited after Spirit, the unlucky Mars rover. It had damaged one of its wheels. Its pictures showed a track of dust telling the story of its weakness.
Dust. Red rust. Was there not once something I called lust? No, mustn't, no lust on Mars. That was why I went there, only a click away.
It is one of my qualities – I am interested in many things. So yes, I knew of Mars, became a temporary hero for it in the Green Goose pub quiz team when, “Mine, I'll take that,” and I answered the tie-break question, Dudley Area Pubs League II, the last match of the season, “What are the names of the two moons of Mars?” “Phobos and Deimos,” I said. The others were impressed. Till then, I'd been a filler – I am perceptive about myself – the Green Goose needing five people for its team. But now, “He’s right!” the compère shouted, surprised and not unreasonably because until that point I hadn't shone. “He’s right!” meant that we Goosers had gained the victory. It made one body of men who’d been separate until then. We had not known each other, drinking on different days. Now we became a single creature, jubilant, and it was ‘Have one on me, good old... sorry, what was your name again?’ I told them, I didn’t mind, ‘Roy Glass, Glass as in glass,’ my pub joke. They plied me with pints.
Pints. Water.

Mars is dry.
I have to drink. A clagging syrup binds my mouth, a liquid not a liquid and it might be mercury. (Mercury, by the way, does not come from Mercury and is a liquid at room temperature, unlike metallic hydrogen which can only exist under the pressures of Jupiter and Saturn. These are among the many things I know.) But I cannot drink mercury. I cannot call for water with the words dry and ground. To survive I must expand my language. I must look around me. Dust is in the air. It does not fall, does not precipitate, a good word that. It reminds me of precipitation within sight, one of the solemn invocations of the Shipping Forecast. I like rain. On the morning I saw Mars, I woke early but let myself lie in through the sea areas, rising only with the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse, Butt like buttocks – no, do not think that. Mars is passionless. Start with what is nearest, Roy Glass. What are you lying on? Not a bed. A bed is somewhere that feels safe. This is – I need to re-baptise it – this is a wakery. The limits of the Mars vocabulary require that I create and yes, a wakery for there will be no sleeping here. Not when I know I will open my eyes and gaze on Mars.
One new word, so find some more. This, this might be a door.
Wrong. Doors have handles. Doors open. Doors without handles and openness are walls. Perhaps in Martian, door and wall are synonyms. That was the kind of answer I had hoped to give as a member (valued) of the Green Goose team, ‘What word describes two different words meaning the same thing?’ ‘Me, I know. Synonym.’ And supplementaries would flow from that, for I understand that the opposite of synonym is antonym and in between lies meronym. On Earth, door is a meronym of wall. But the few questions that strayed from popular culture (oxymoronic) concerned football and I have no team. I tell this to a quiz-colleague, a lad called Austin, strange name, Austin like the car. “You have no team?” he says. “What do you do instead?”
“Come around sometime and I will show you.”
Austin. Austin is a car but might as well have been a spaceship. Austin was how I came to land on Mars.
Focus, Roy Glass. (Focus is a car as well and so is Nova, which divided into the two Spanish words no and va means It doesn’t work.) Focus on Mars. Forget Austin and any other sort of car. Focus because the mercury bile is rising in my throat and I will choke if I do not drink soon. How far have I got? Yes, to the thought that on Mars doors without handles that never open are still doors. I can call this thing in front of me a door by way of metaphor, like a door but not a door. I used to teach Classics. I know my Homer well. Homer invented likenesses.
“Classics, what are they?” Austin is in my flat. I show him the line of Loebs along one shelf. The Penguin Classics underneath them have a beauty of their own, but Loeb has always been the sign of scholarship. Austin is 19, contemporary in his education, forced therefore into poverty of mind. Heu me, as Virgil might have said. Austin is like Achilles, that same dark fire, living in a tent but toys with stepping out from it, antiquity’s greatest striptease act. “A classics guy at the Green Goose,” Austin muses and might be a Muse; they were beautiful. “Who would have thought of it?”
Thirst. Remembering Austin cannot slake me. He could have done back then, when he had been in my flat and in the flesh, except I could not tempt him from his coy tent skirts. Thirst. Dry ground will give me nothing. There is only the like-a-door. What if I slammed my head against it, once, twice, many times? I try and it stirs a Martians from some rainless grave.

Men are from Mars.
This is widely known. I have not read the book. So I am not surprised when the Martian, to my eyes that are in search of metaphors, seems like a man. He is a man of the unwantable variety: big in all the wrong places, small of sight and too much body. He speaks an alien language, “What the fuck...?” he starts.
Austin is free of swear words; the Green Goose is in general mild. So when in the course of exploring he opens a cupboard in my flat, he lets fly no dirty word, only “You into women's clothes, then?”
Austin has a gentle glow where others possess a voice. He is Irish but has spent time on this side of the water, works with a lot of Polish builders who no doubt learn their English according to his musical way of speech. I like that; I like him too, the way he asks the question without judgement, without laughter.
I can only find a bond between Austin and the thing in front of me by way of ‘man’ in its most abstract form. They share a common essence. Austin is a lot closer to the ideal. Martians turn out to be dark black, blacker than hunger on the TV news, blacker than the Dudley night. This achromatism comes from Mars’ lack of atmosphere. I ponder this and wonder why we thought up little green men.
Meanwhile, “What the fuck...?” the Martian says again.
“You don't mind, do you?” Austin is not only young but also open. He has seen everything already by way of the screen so that the world holds no surprises for him. Everything is on one channel or another.
“What you do is yours,” he says.
And then the leap, the one I have had so little success in taking. “What do you do?” I ask him. In Earth years, I am 58. Martian time is longer. It is an age before I answer. And when I do croak out “Water, I need water,” the Martian mocks me, repeating water, water before his “Use the tap.”
He slams the door and I was right. It is much more a wall.
“Whatever you want,” says Austin.

There is no way back to Earth.
Not from Mars. Not from heaven either. Austin finds a way, though. He is showering by the time I wake up. The tap – it takes the time to find it, everything is slow here and I hurt, the whole of me – brings back the sound of Austin, the door open to the bathroom so that I see and do not see his body through the frosted shower box. I lounge in bed, remembering the ecstasy of our overnight coupling. Satisfied, I am content to look on shape and mystery.
“You want tea?” I do and I do now. There is a tap on Mars, except the liquid that comes out is bitter as if drawn through seams of gas. Austin's tea is sweet, by contrast, made with two sugars. He is charmingly of his own world.
“Nice laptop you have here,” he says.
Laptop. Top. Tap. The noun tap and its verb have separate derivations. They made useful additions to Martian. I tap the tap. I hear a sound. It travels. It escapes. I can’t.
“Leave it, Austin. Come back to bed.”
“Come on, Roy. Let me have a play.” Austin has a smile like sunrise. I relent. “Why not get yourself a shower? Then we might...”
Might.
The computer is my gateway to many worlds. Late have I loved technology (St Augustine, adapted.) But the computer, much like God, holds many mysteries. Whereas for Austin – it is the perfect picture of youth, Austin in boxers before the cyclops deity – all of it is absolutely obvious. He lives without the unknown, the sadness of his generation. Not that I mind his youth. “Of course, you play,” I say expansively, remembering the might, Austin’s promise. I add on my way through to the shower, “I will be back.”
Mars is complete. I circuit my planet many times, tapping whatever makes no sense and that is most of it. The door that is a wall responds with the dun sound of tin. But tin implies manufacture, therefore maker, therefore mind. Whereas Mars is reasonless, a point I make on my return from the shower.
“You're really sick,” says Austin.

Earth is far away.
Some things do not need explaining because they do not matter. That is not said in my defence. It is a statement of fact.
Take the awareness of other sounds. Mars is silent and therefore the noises that I hear can only be travelled echoes, lost, unwanted voices cast from the Earth. Mine has been like that – Mars might be the repository of my years of wasted speaking. As with Austin, when I say, “That is not sick. They are just pictures.”
“Pictures of kids.”
“Of the young.” A chance to teach him. “Ephebophilia has an interesting history. Consult the Greeks. Why, Germaine Greer has written on the subject of the boy’s body. Think of the pictures as icons in a shrine.”
But when I turn round with evidence, Austin has run away. Only his words linger, “You are a perv. Don't come near me.”

I am from Mars.
A light comes on. The Martian dawn is absolute. From a vast planet of dry ground, stone and lustless dust I am cast into a brick-red glare and now words come to me. It is as if they were hoarded in the sun, the sun that is a bare light bulb in a cage. These walls possess an excess of bright virtue that must be Victorian. They are so very proud of what they are. The door – it is a door – is metal with no handle. The wakery is a concrete bed. The tap is what it is.
This is a cell. My cell. Cells are the basic building blocks of life. First one divides and then another. They make four and four make eight and onwards towards humanity. My cell is at its solitary stage.
Good. That feels right. Solitary is safe. Austin told the Goosers what he had found on my machine. They talked.
I went back to the pub. I was not ashamed. I explained I had done nothing wrong. I cited precedents. But they threw beer at me, the glasses too. I saw hate in every eye. That was the night I looked online for places where I might belong. That was how I downloaded the Mars desktop.
And I was looking on it, Earth a click away, when mayhem came, hands ripping out my computer and scouring my shelves. They sent my Loebs into a heap. Those same sullied hands brought me to an interview room. There, with my computer set before me and their fingers on the keys, they set a slide show spinning. “You did not even try to hide it,” they accused me.
“Of course not.”
Maybe I was never like them. Different. Always from Mars.
The door that was a wall opens. I step out, needing no space suit. Others are leaving their cells. We are likenesses, expressions of the same model. Somebody feeds us, explains that the library opens at 10. This is called induction. I thank the gaoler for his time. He tells me that I am due in court and I need a defence. He thinks it likely I will get community punishment.

Do not take me away from Mars.
Please.

“It's a different world. The way you would feel if you landed on Mars. But when you meet the Martians, you feel better.” (An inmate at the Special Unit, HMP Barlinnie)