Mission to Mars Story by Olga Wojtas

I didn't care for his tone.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘is there some doubt about me going on this mission?’

Not at all, not at all, he said, which was worrying. You can't trust a word these psychologists say.

‘I hope not,’ I said. ‘Given the number of International Space Station missions I've been on, I've been psychometrically tested from here to Betelgeuse. So the sooner you sign this form, the quicker I can get back to training.’

It's just -  he said.

‘Just what?’ I said. ‘Don't you tell me there's been any complaints because I won't believe it. My shuttles and modules are the cleanest in the galaxy. You'll see from my records that I'm well used to picking up toothbrushes, empty crisp packets and other floating objects.’

Yes indeed, he said. It's most useful to have a cleaning lady.

‘A cleaning lady?’ I said. ‘Is that what it says on your form?’

I jabbed my finger at the papers in front of him. First ever extra terrestrial cleansing operative, endorsed by NASA and the British Space Programme. Resourceful, determined and very good at Sudoku.

No, it's just -  he said.

‘It's that Tim Peake, isn't it?’ I said. ‘I told him, Major Peake, I said, it's not all down to me. Did your mum never teach you how to clean a bathroom properly?’

No, it's just -

‘The cat?’ I said. ‘No need to worry. I know I said I couldn't go unless someone could look after the cat, but Mrs Campbell at number 7 says she'll be happy to.’

You must be very relieved, he said. But no, it's just -

‘It had better not be a problem with my wish list,’ I said. ‘I was informed I was allowed to bring three personal items with me. I've told you right from the start, I'm bringing my space pyjamas, a picture of the cat, and my Marigold gloves.’

I thought of what else I was planning to take on the trip, and how I hadn't actually told them about that. And I thought about the incident the last time I was on the International Space Station. So to stop myself thinking about it, I said: ‘The Marigold gloves are a deal breaker, by the way. The ones NASA give you are rubbish.’

Mrs H! he shouted and I gave him such a look. Only my astronauts get to call me that.

Sorry, he said. Doreen. It's just - these tests - we have to ensure you're emotionally and psychologically robust.

‘Look, son,’ I said, ‘you couldn't do my job if you weren't emotionally and psychologically robust. The state of those bathrooms!’

It's just -  he said.

I snatched his sheaf of papers and riffled through them until I found the results of my latest personal training assessment.

‘Nervous?’ I said. ‘I'm not nervous!’

It's okay, Doreen, he said. It's normal to be nervous.

Oh, they're sneaky, these psychologists. There I was, trapped. I was either nervous or I wasn't normal.

‘Of course I'm a wee bit nervous,’ I said. ‘Never seeing family or friends again. Or the cat. Although I'll have the photograph of the cat.’

He leaned forward. That's not it, is it? he said. It's nothing to do with family or friends. Or the cat. What's really bothering you?

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Apart from the usual. Dying horribly in an interstellar catastrophe. Twenty-one of the 43 unmanned missions to Mars have failed, so the odds of survival aren't very good.’

Doreen, he said.

‘No, that's it,’ I said. ‘I'm not bothered about anything else.’

Even as I spoke, I was trying to blot out those images from the International Space Station. I always went on my spacewalk at 8am sharp, picking up orbital debris, giving the observatory windows a good clean with my special vinegar solution. But I'd been delayed by a particularly elusive crisp packet. I was heading for the airlock when I saw the commander.

‘Morning, Commander,’ I said. ‘Turned out nice again.’

He didn't say anything. I recognised his expression. I'd seen it on the cat often enough.

‘Morning, Commander,’ I said.

He still didn't say anything, just gave me a sort of nod while keeping his head down.

‘I said: Morning, Commander,’ I said.

Again from my knowledge of cats, I could see he was trying to swallow something, so I grabbed him before he could float away. I already had my Marigolds on, and I seized hold of his nose and squeezed his nostrils shut.

‘Open your mouth,’ I said.

He struggled quite a bit but I hung on and finally he opened his mouth. A lump of green gelatine emerged. As it floated past me, I could just make out the word CLARET on it.

‘You bastard,’ I said. ‘You know the green ones are my favourite.’

I had always thought my secret stash was safe. But if I couldn't protect it on the space station, what chance did I have on Mars One?

And then I realised the psychologist was patting my hand.

Doreen, he said, this is about your wine gums, isn't it?

‘How do you know about my wine gums?’ I whispered and then I burst into tears.

He passed me a box of tissues. You wouldn't believe the amount of checking and double-checking that goes into this mission, he said.

And everybody knows about your wine gums, he added. Now don't you worry. We're going to give you a special container which only opens with retinal scanning. The others won't get your wine gums, I promise.

He retrieved the stack of papers from my side of the table, and signed the top page with a flourish.

This mission needs you, Doreen, he said. It's unimaginable, the strain it would put on the astronauts, eight months in a confined space that got cluttered and/or insanitary. We need a trained professional to guarantee standards.

I scrumpled the used tissues into a ball and stowed them neatly in the pocket on my apron.

‘I won't let you down,’ I said. ‘That dust they get on Mars, that blocks out the sun for months. You leave it to me. I'll have it all gone by the afternoon.’

About the Author

Olga Wojtas (photo by Rob McDougall)
Olga Wojtas is half-Scottish and half-Polish, a journalist by day and creative writer by night. She has spent most of her life in Edinburgh, but has also lived and worked in Aberdeen, Grenoble, Newcastle and Washington DC. Her first published short story, "Finlay's Battle," appeared in Cencrastus in 2003. Since then, she has had a number of short stories published in literary magazines and anthologies in the UK and USA, including Gutter, New Writing Scotland, New Writing Dundee and The Mayo Review. Much of her work veers towards the quirkily humorous. She is a member of the Edinburgh writing groups Words on Canvas and The Writing Room. She was an Edinburgh City of Literature Story Shop reader at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015. Twitter: @OlgaWojtas 


Image by Dominic Lockyer, Flickr Creative Commons