Short Fiction ~ Susmita Bhattacharya
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
The cabin was compact – like the capsule she’d been living in for the last six months. The blue and white linen and beige bulkheads were not the same as the insulated sleeping bag she tucked into at the end of the workday, attaching herself to a post so that she didn’t float around the station like a ghost ship untethered from its navigational route. It was ironic she was feeling seasick and claustrophobic right now. The Channel was a bit choppy and the boat pitched and rolled like a theme park ride – the egg cup rides she went on with her dad as a kid. It felt strange to be back on her feet, not floating away at will, gliding in the air like it was the most normal everything thing to do.
Shona stumbled out to the deck and inhaled deeply. The fresh, salty air filled her lungs and she greedily sucked in more air. Breathing recycled air for six months was one thing she did not miss. She still heard the ticks and whirs of the machines in her head, and sometimes turned towards a gurgling sound, nervously looking for a fault. But no, it was all in her mind, just like she kept hearing her cat mewing, whimpering, crying - long after she had been buried in the garden.
It was a clear night. Stars covered the expanse of the sky and Shona spotted the International Space Station speeding round the space highway. She smiled as she imagined what her colleagues were doing at this very moment. Would they feel her eyes on them? She watched at some of the passengers also on the deck, eyes glued to their phones, missing the beauty of the night sky. She heard someone say they’d return to watch the sunrise, as they made their way inside. Shona smiled. What if she told them she was used to seeing sixteen sunrises in a day? Would their eyes widen with envy or maybe disbelief? What if she told them she spent the last Christmas up there? Christmas up in space with a much of scientists, no family and no tree– was that a desirable experience?
Last year, there was a delivery of fresh food for them at the station by a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship. Turkey, corn-bread stuffing, gingerbread biscuits and hot chocolate. There had been singing – a lot of singing- and a Santa hat making competition, which she had won. She had saved her waffle ice-cream cones and a baked bean tin and put them to good use. She smiled at the memory. The five of them, so far away from home and yet that was home. They’d then sat together, sucking on eggnog flavoured sweets, looking down on the Earth – the swirling blue swathes with wisps of white, like the marbled-effect gift paper she’d wrapped her father’s last Christmas present in. The greens and the browns appeared as they revolved around the planet, looking somewhat like a Christmas jumper, much like the ones they had on.
Shona watched the coastline as it came nearer. The sulphuric harbour lights lined the shore like a string of golden beads. She felt the knot in her stomach grow tighter. She was getting closer to home. Families crowded around her. Santa hats and tinsel, Christmas jumpers and scarves, the energy of their excitement washed over her, leaving her feeling empty. There was no one to come home to. It was going to be a lonely holiday. As she moved towards the lower deck, she took one last look up to the sky. The pink and orange bled slowly into the inky darkness. One by one the stars disappeared into the morning glow. She ached to see the bright spot racing around the Earth – the one which was no star at all. In fact, that was the place she could be her true self. That was the place she called home.
Susmita Bhattacharya is an Indian-born British writer. She won the Winchester Writers’ Festival Memoir Prize in 2016 and her novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian/Bee Books) was longlisted for the Words to Screen Prize at the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI) festival in India. She has been shortlisted for, and won, numerous prizes and awards and her work has been commissioned by magazines and for BBC Radio 4. Her most recent collection of short stories, Table Manners, was published by Dahlia Books (2018). It won the Saboteur Short Story Collection Prize in 2019, was finalist for the DLF Hall & Woodhouse Literary Prize and will be serialised for BBC Radio 4 Extra in January 2020. She lectures at Winchester University, facilitates the Mayflower Young Writers workshops in Southampton (An ACE funded ArtfulScribe project), and is a mentor supporting BAME writers for the Middle Way Mentoring project. Currently, she is working on her second novel.