by Neil Williamson
When Colin raised the window to replenish the living room's baked air, he noticed the first specks of water on the pane. It was a fine rain, the kind that effervesces, prickles your skin. He watched the tiny droplets coalesce, gain enough mass to overcome the surface tension and stream down the glass. Each little river scintillated, distinctly pale amber in colour. An unnatural shade—even for Glasgow. Even in a time like now.
Of course, it was only a trick of the light. The city's atmosphere was never that toxic. Inevitably, after so many days of unrelenting heat, a foundry of cloud had massed over the city, compressing the evening's remaining sunlight to the weak radiance of cooling ingots. Soon those foundry walls would break open, flash-firing the city with summer lightning, and cooling its inhabitants with such a deluge that the pavements would steam.
Down in the street a woman was crossing the road. Colin only saw her for a moment before she darted between two vans, but there was something about her. Her hair was different, the style of her clothing—a strappy blue summer dress—unfamiliar, and it had been, what, eight months? He almost didn't recognise her, but he was sure that it was Paddy.
When the door entry rasped he almost ran to let her in.
Paddy was soaked through, and immediately headed to the bathroom to dry off. To give himself something to do, Colin slipped a few slices of cheese on toast under the grill. He remembered to be liberal with the Tabasco.
"Smells good," Paddy said, sitting at the table. She had found his old black jumper. It had always suited her, the way it framed the old Goth-chic cosmetic pallor she had favoured back then. She looked good in it now too—but in a different way. She'd allowed her hair to grow, washed out the wacky colours. Now it coiled loose around her face, strands clumped with some residual dampness she'd failed to towel out. Her face too—minus the habitual heavy application of eyeliner and the glittering encrustations of those once beloved piercings, she looked somehow both older and childish. At any rate, life appeared to be treating her well. The pallor gone, her skin radiated health. A sheen of perspiration anointed her brow, nose, cheeks.
"What?" she said.
Caught staring, Colin switched off the grill, and slipped the contents of the pan on to a plate which he placed in the centre of the table. "It's just a surprise to see you." He sat opposite her. "A nice one," he added, nudging the plate towards her.
She took a slice, chewed off a corner, trailing filaments of melted cheese. "Thanks, Col," she said at length, watching him pour two mugs of treacle-coloured tea.
"Thanks for what?" he said.
"I dunno—" she stalled, brow creasing as she searched for the right words. Steam from her mug rose into her face.
"I think I expected you to tell me where to go. But I should have known you wouldn't. You always were too nice by half." Paddy closed her eyes, inhaled the vapour. "It's so difficult now—to know about people," she said, opened her eyes, offered a tiny smile. "Thanks for still being you."
Colin shrugged, returned the smile. As if still being himself was nothing, had required no effort to reconstitute his personality from the mess she'd left behind. As if still being himself could possibly have any kind of meaning. After five years with her, as a single entity—sharing a life, a home, a tight band of friends. Then four months of slick, almost invisible unravelling. One splintered evening of mutual abuse, the subject of which: an itemised mobile phone bill and one particular friend. Alan. Half an hour walking the streets to cool off, mentally drafting plans of conciliation. Then coming home to Life Without Paddy.
Colin was surprised to find that the anger he thought he had been saving up had somehow leaked away. He wasn't even interested any more in how the Paddy and Alan thing had panned out. There was no longer any resonance of the fury and frustration. In recent months, his flat had become a place he came back to only to sleep, or more often not sleep. It had been too long since anyone but himself had as much as spoken aloud in these rooms. He was just glad she was here.
"So, can I stay?" Her voice cracked.
"Reading my mind again?" An old shared joke.
"Yeah, and it's about as entertaining as that paper you work for," she rejoined. A spark of the Paddy he used to know. Funny how suddenly the flat felt a little like a home again.
The way it had felt when they were together.
Before the aliens came.
Colin watched television while Paddy took a bath. A political discussion show murmured away on turned-down volume. He was tired of hearing the protracted post-mortems caused by the Prime Minister's resignation the previous month. On one side it had become a blustering defence from the loyal elements within his own party—John MacDougall, they claimed, was ill, his unexpected resignation made under severe stress. At the same time, the opposition parties had launched into a feeding frenzy at the political opportunity, clamouring for a general election. Both sides continued to make nervous denials that, despite the recent claims of the country's erstwhile leader, the UK was not currently, nor indeed ever had been, host to agencies of extra terrestrial origin.
Colin flipped channels. Question Time was replaced by recent footage of the man himself. MacDougall looked haggard, spoke with uncharacteristic hesitancy, but Colin could see neither duplicity nor delusion in the man's face as he mouthed the words that had become his last sound bite.
And, "No, I can't explain."
And, "There's nothing we can do."
Colin muted the television entirely, but the screen continued to sheet blue lightning around the room.
Eventually, back along the hall, the bathroom door opened. Colin waited a few minutes, switched off the set and followed Paddy through to the bedroom. She was lying on her side, facing away from the window, into darkness.
He lay down behind her. Not too close, but close enough to smell apple-scented bath-soak, and the dampness of her hair. He couldn't tell if she was asleep, but then she reached round and pulled his arm around her. He drifted off trying to listen to her breathing, but could hear only the rattle of rain against the window.
The only difference between Holyrood and Westminster was in the accents of the squabbling. The paper had sent Colin over to Edinburgh to photograph Hibernian's new French striker down at Easter Road. Afterwards, he'd taken the opportunity to drop in at the Scottish Parliament where the Education Minster was unveiling a new pay deal for teachers.
Colin watched from the gallery as the minister tried stoically to deliver her speech over the heckles of the Scottish Nationalists. He sighted her through the viewfinder of his SLR, focused the telephoto lens on the tension in her neck, around her eyes. A wayward strand of hair slipped across her face. He snapped her flicking it away.
"Does any of this matter any more?" A skinny, middle-aged man in denims farther along in the public gallery. He looked like he'd neither slept nor washed for days. The minister stammered to a halt, looking up at him, able to continue only when he had been removed by security. Colin framed a quick shot of the two uniforms huckling the guy away. That would fit nicely into the paper's Out The Aliens campaign—the most public face of a pressure group aimed at getting the government to back the ex-Prime Minister's story, and come clean about what was happening. A typically tabloid effort, but it was having an effect.
It didn't matter if MacDougall was lying, or mad, or, against all odds, actually telling the truth. Half the country believed him—half the world, it seemed, and many had also had, if not similar, then analogous experiences. Reports came in daily, everyone had a story, knew someone, who knew someone, whose husband, mother, next door neighbour had had an experience of some sort. Aliens in My Watering Can, Aliens in The Television, Aliens in the Little Chef off the M74, My Grandfather is a Grey, My Teacher is a Pod Person, I was Seduced on Rohypnol by TV's Lieutenant Worf—and I was saving myself for Mr Spock. The stories flooded in from Glasgow and Edinburgh, the remote reaches of the Highlands, all throughout Britain, Europe, the planet. From Finland to Portugal, Argentina to Canada, and oh, by God, yes, all over the States. Only, there was no evidence. No pictures. No recordings. Just stories. Few of the details were wholly consistent.
The media were loving it. Even if the world wasn't being visited, it was gripped by the idea of such an invasion. A quiet, nervous paralysis. Markets were down, investments delayed, everyone waiting. The politicians tried to keep things ticking along, but since they could neither officially prove nor disprove the stories it could only look like they were covering something up. The editors played the uncertainty like expert anglers.
When he returned to the flat it was so still that Colin assumed immediately that Paddy was gone. He had spent all day mulling over their strange, edgy encounter the previous evening, and had half convinced himself he'd dreamt the whole thing. He stooped to retrieve the mail from behind the door, placing the envelopes unopened on top of the pile of bills and circulars and invitations to take out new credit cards, and wondered what it took to upset things enough to bring society finally to a halt. If it was true that aliens were among them, how could it be that he could still buy fresh pesto in Safeway? How could any credit card company seriously offer him a free couple of grand and trust that he'd pay it back, plus interest? How did the buses run, and new movies open at the cinema? If the world was so overrun with extraterrestrials, surely it would all stop. And everyone would know. For sure. There would be photographs in the papers, amateur video footage, pictures of grey humanoids, shadowy space ships, something; interviews with astronomers, global summits, vigilantes, public unrest, martial law.
And because people would know, they'd recognise that they needed one another.
And Paddy would still be there.
For the second time in two days she surprised him. On the kitchen table Colin found two supermarket bags. Their contents: one bottle of Merlot, one packet of fresh cappelletti, one jar of pesto, mushrooms, capsicums, and a bag of salad leaves, with a bottle of Caesar dressing. Snap. His own bags contained the same—minus the dressing. Paddy had been a selective food lover. She knew what she liked, and if she liked it, she loved it. She'd hated Caesar dressing.
He found her in the bathroom. Colin hovered at the door, despite having seen her naked countless times before. From there he could see one leg arched above the rim of the bath. The leg glistened pale and pink under the stark bathroom light, and he could just make out part of what looked like a tattoo—a recent one, raw and scabbed—as the leg oscillated gently from side to side. The rhythmic lapping of water counterpointed their conversation.
"Thanks for getting the food in," Colin said. "And for remembering that I like that Caesar dressing. But you should have got something we both like."
"It's only food, Col. It doesn't matter to me. I don't have much of an appetite these days." Her voice sounded strange. Perhaps it was the acoustics that made it sound so distant. For a moment Colin wondered if she were on something. The thought was as absurd as the idea of Paddy having no appetite—she didn't even smoke. But then people changed, didn't they?
True to her word, when they had prepared the food, Paddy did little more than push it around her plate. Colin fared little better, the kitchen's humidity whittling his hunger to a vague discomfort. They made up for it, though, with the wine. They drank so they wouldn't have to talk, then took the second bottle into the bedroom to watch the now spectacularly torrential rain. It hissed onto the pavement outside, streamed down the drains, flared amber on the window glass as the streetlights stuttered to life.
Paddy turned away from the window, moved her palm from the pane to his face. Her hand was cool and clammy. There was something in her expression. Some kind of need. Colin remembered that she didn't articulate her feelings well, often needing help in finding the words.
"Paddy, what's this all about?" he began.
"Shh." She stopped his words with her fingers, and then as if they might leak through between them, with her lips, ensuring whatever he said was swallowed down inside her.
When they made love, skin to skin on white sheets rucked beneath them like time-frozen waves, Colin noticed that her skin was damp with sweat from the outset, and for the first time he wondered if she might be ill. Perhaps a flu virus of which she was unaware; maybe something more serious. The need he had sensed in her was obvious now in the hunger of her mouth, the clutch of her hands on his back, the strength and urgency of her legs, pulling him deep into her, where she boiled around him with a scalding liquidity. It was as if her entire body were deliquescing from the inside out. And yet, even locked in her embrace, Colin felt external to the process. There had always been an element of this with Paddy. She was so contained. It was her way, when she allowed herself to be fucked, to keep her pleasures to herself, internalised. Eyes closed, focussing on whatever was going on inside her, acknowledging nothing else. When she came, her breath sounded like steam.
While Paddy slept immediately, twisted around with ropes of sheet, Colin found rest harder to come by. He was staring at the wedge of light fanning across her thigh, illuminating the tattoo. He could see now that it was a swallow—so unoriginal that it could have been picked at random from a tattoo parlour wall. The mundanity of it disappointed him. Outside he heard the occasional surf of cars passing along the rain-slicked street.
He was still awake when Paddy's sleeping body coiled itself tight and foetal and, shaking with tension, she uttered a sequence of throaty moans of such sexual intensity that he became immediately aroused, although he knew that her pleasure had nothing to do with him. Whatever caused Paddy such passion in her dreaming had more effect on her than he ever had. In a few minutes the shaking had subsided, her body relaxed, and the moans faded into the regular breathing of sleep.
It surprised Colin that Paddy persisted in hanging around. It was what he wanted, of course, but that he might get what he wanted did not seem right. She was waiting for him the next evening when he returned from a brass-monkey shift outside the Glasgow Sheriff Court where a prominent local mobster had been been convicted of several major drugs offences. Two frozen hours for a blanket-over-the-head shot at best.
Paddy was dressed for an evening out. Obviously she remembered that his Tuesday nights were habitually spent at the Carnarvon. This Tuesday Colin wasn't sure if he wanted to go, but Paddy persuaded him.
"It's good to keep these routines going, isn't it?" she said.
Colin didn't know what routines Paddy kept going. As far as he could tell she hadn't left his flat in two days.
The Carnarvon, A fair trek up to St Georges Road at the periphery of the West End, was all cigarette-burned leatherette and chipped Formica. They'd settled on it because the beer was cheap, there was no karaoke or covers band like the ear-splitting Young Neils, who 'rocked the free world' at the nearby Wintersgills at unpredictable intervals, and most of all because it had no more than a dozen other regulars. On Tuesdays they practically had the place to themselves.
That night, however, the pub was packed. They found Colin's friends crushed around a single table. Longer standing acquaintances raised eyebrows when they recognised Paddy. Colin looked around the assembly. Here were virtually all the people he might count as friends. A few: Dave, Archie, Ewan and Shell, were core Tuesday-nighters. Others were occasional attendees, partners or friends of friends. One or two faces he hadn't seen in years.
"The gang's all here," he said.
"Aye, and they're thirsty," replied Deepak, waving a half-full pint glass in his direction.
Glasses were filled and drained often during the evening, resulting in an unsteady megalith of towering glass on the table. Colin made the effort to keep the conversation varied, but inevitably it found its way back to the subject they were all trying to avoid. Ewan was forced to expend a deal of energy defending the numerous television science fiction series of which he was a fan. Their anthro-centric, American aliens, he argued, could not be expected to prepare the world for the real thing. It was only entertainment after all. Nevertheless, Dave said, the images these shows presented, along with certain block buster movies, formed the basis of public expectation when it came to the extraterrestrial, and this—what ever this was that was currently being experienced—was just too strange to comprehend. It was so subtle, so tangential. "It's almost as if nothing is happening at all," he said.
"Maybe that's it," said Ewan. "And this is all some kind of mass delusion."
"A delusion so convincing that it fills the churches, and the B&Bs in Bonnybridge, and the morgue slabs with the ones who can't cope with it?" Shell replied quietly.
"Isn't that one definition of a religion?" someone else said. Colin couldn't see who. "Just what we need on this planet is a new religion." Two or three people laughed darkly.
"Religions usually require a measure of blind faith," Dave mused. "This is different. People are reacting to personal experiences here. Private raptures."
"Well, not me," said Ewan. "I've not seen a thing. And neither has my family, or to my knowledge anyone I know."
"Same here," said Dave, and a number of others chorused their agreement. Shell and Deepak looked into their drinks and said nothing. There was a dangerous moment then, that Colin saw with uncomfortable clarity. During that moment any one of them could have pursued the experiences of the group's tacit dissenters, but that would have turned the theoretical into the practical, and, in doing so, crowbarred open the carefully maintained consensus normality that persisted around the table. No-one did. The moment passed and the talk reverted to teasing Ewan about his choices of entertainment.
Shortly after, Paddy touched Colin's arm and asked to go home. He handed her the keys, not wishing to leave this island of camaraderie just yet. In the event, the talkers strove to keep going a little longer but the spirit of the gathering had been undermined, and people started to drift off into the night. Besides, he found himself worrying about Paddy.
When he got home he went straight to the bathroom. By the flaccid way she lay in the cooling water, only her nostrils and mouth breaking the surface, he thought that she had drowned. The way her hair floated like weed. The way her white skin, apart from the dark blot of the tattoo, goose-fleshed. The way her eyes stared, oblivious. Only the rapid puffs of breath steaming the air told him she was alive. That, and the mottled rashes chasing each other across her skin like the shadows of clouds. At first he hoped this effect was a trick of the water and light, but saw that it was too regular. The shifting shapes began at her sternum, and radiated outwards across her breasts and belly, sweeping down her arms and legs to her extremities, and then smoothly back again to the centre. Her face was a confusion of overlapping flushes. Colin burned with questions about this illness—it was clear now that's what it was—but he could not talk to her like this.
Twenty minutes later Paddy came into the back room where he was leafing through some binders of old work. The blue towelling robe she wore was damp at the collar.
"Can I shoot you?" he asked. "Please."
She was crying, but nodded. "Over here?"
"Yes, the chair's good." He handed her the binder to look at while he set up his gear. "You've changed," he said, noticing that she had slipped a contact sheet out of its plastic pocket.
"I look so young in these," Paddy said with a small laugh. "Look at my hair. And all that make up. What was I like?"
"You were beautiful," Colin said, tightening the locks on his tripod. "But that's not what I'm talking about. You're like a completely different person to the Paddy that—" He hadn't meant to bring it up, but she already knew what was coming. "That left," he finished.
"Well, that's how it happens," he heard her say, as he reached behind the reflectors to flick the lights on. There was a defensive edge to her voice. "Sometimes people appear unrecognisable after a relationship has ended. Like you never knew the real person all that time, or they shed the personality you knew like an unwanted skin." She sounded like she meant it. If it hadn't been for her illness he might even have been convinced.
"That's not what I'm talking about either," he said, sighting through the viewfinder. "It's more subtle than that." He hadn't intended for her to take the robe off, but now it lay on the floor beside the chair he knew that he needed her to be as open to him as possible. The indirect lighting made the sheen on her skin luminescent. The tattoo glistened as if freshly inked. He focussed tight on the tattoo, squeezed off a shot. Tracked up the s-curve of her hip and waist to the well of her navel, took a second.
Paddy sighed. "You always did pay too much attention to the details," she said.
"What do you mean?" A curve of breast obscured by an arm. The hairs at the crook of the elbow sleek with moisture.
"Nothing," she said. "It's just you. The way you look at the world, noticing the tiny things, but never quite aware of the whole picture."
Was that how he came across? Myopic and obsessed with minutiae? He didn't think that was true, it was just that he knew the world at large would roll on whether he noticed it or not—so why bother? But this was straying from the point. This wasn't about him.
"I want to know what it's like," he said. The corner of her mouth twitched with conflicting emotions. He photographed that too.
"I can't tell you," she said. "You wouldn't—"
"I wouldn't understand?" he interrupted.
"I can't explain it. It's like a new kind of weather, or a new note squeezed into the scale, or like a colour no-one's ever seen before. How can you explain something like that?" A bright eye, hazel iris on pure white. Pupil wide and depthless. If he could focus tight enough, Colin thought he might be able to see it inside her, looking out. Whatever this thing was that caused her illness.
"Please try," he said. "What do they look like?"
"I don't know," she said. "I never saw anything. One minute I was talking on the phone to my mum, and then—"
"I need to know," he persisted.
"Col," she said. "It's no use. I think it's different for everybody. Maybe some people do see little green men, and maybe some see God, and some Yogi-fucking-Bear. But not me. I think whatever it is—whatever they are—looks into people and finds something that no-one else has, perhaps the single element that makes them an individual, and then they tweak it to see what happens." There was a weariness in her voice now. He wondered if this illness was killing her.
"I don't know if they are aliens or not," she said, "but I do know they weren't here a month ago—none of this weird shit was happening a month ago—so it's likely isn't it? Whoever they are, I think they are simply curious about humans. They're just giving us a prod and a poke."
He put the camera down. "I envy you," he said.
"Do you? I'm scared. I don't think I'm even human any more."
In the night, when they held each other, the warmth of skin, the strength of muscle and bone, the vitality of two pulses, Colin thought he was convinced that Paddy was still human. What else could she be?
Later when she slept he got out of bed and took a long bath. Eventually the water cooled and his skin wrinkled. When he started to shiver he climbed out, dried off and returned to bed.
In the morning Paddy was gone. Really gone this time. He knew it from the moment he woke in an empty bed, but he checked the back room, the living room, the kitchen. In the bathroom the towels were lying in the bath where he had left them the previous night.
Even knowing she was gone he went out to look. His street deserted, he instinctively headed towards Great Western Road, despite the fact that at rush hour on a Thursday morning it would be so busy that anyone could vanish instantly amid the traffic and crowd. Except it too was deserted. No cars in motion, no trucks rumbling, no people bustling, shouting, chatting. It was as if the world had been emptied in the night, save for himself. This was what an alien invasion was supposed to be like. Of course, it was just an impression caused by arriving at exactly the wrong moment, and it only lasted an instant or two. Then, as if a hidden switch were thrown, or all the world's traffic lights turned green, a butcher's shop door opened and a young mother emerged with a push chair, quickly followed by others from other shops, doorways and side streets, and two surges of traffic filled the empty road. In seconds the moment had passed, and the world, as far as Colin could tell, was as it always had been.
There was no doubt now that Paddy was gone.
When the first drops of rain arced out of the sky, Colin leaned against the frontage of the newsagent and watched. There was something odd. He looked more closely. These drops, disobeying the usual dynamics of falling liquids, were perfect spheres. In fact they reminded him of nothing less than miniature versions of the glass marbles he had owned as a kid.
He held out a palm. The globes of rain landed in his hand, intact for an instant before bursting and seeping away. Cementing the likeness to marbles in his mind, was the writhing twist of life colouring the centre of each.
Colin wondered if anyone else in the world had noticed that the rain was amber, or if he were the only one touched by the invisible aliens to be allowed to see them.
Story Copyright © 2002 by Neil Williamson. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Neil's first story was published in Territories magazine in 1993. Subsequent stories have been published in magazines like The Third Alternative, Interzone and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. His collection, The Ephemera, is published by Elastic Press. Neil is from Glasgow and also does a wee bit of music too.