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.
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.