Inside 14 Juniper Mews was a sight for which Gary Carlisle was wholly, utterly, mercilessly unprepared; even that time he’d found the body floating off Barington-on-Sea Pier - the one that later turned out to be a mannequin - even that he’d managed to take in his stride after a severe bout of vomiting, a mild panic attack, and a spot of light weeping. But this... This was something else.
Across the threshold he stept, into a pitch black hallway; opening the light switch he was serenaded from within and without by five girlish screams, a sound more normally heard of a Saturday night on the Barington-to-Brighton line than mid-day in Juniper Mews, it’s true, but under the circumstances he was oddly grateful it wasn’t five actual girls screaming but five grown men... Even if they were five grown, blue men.
Normally his natural timidity - the same quality his Deputy Inspector said made him the ideal police constable for modern Britain - would have had Gary Carlisle calling for back up long before now; only when the street looked like a carpark, with enough panda cars to hold a disco, would he deign to set foot in the yard. But not today... Today he removed his hat, tucked it under his arm, and forged ahead, into the unknown, regardless of what perils might lie ahead...
While without 14 Juniper Mews was distinct, even from its neighbours, within he was pleased to discover it was a house not unlike his own. Both of them, it seems, having been built at the same time by the same builders; despite being half a mile apart their floor plan was nearly identical, yet despite being nearly identical their decor couldn’t have differed more, at which discovery Gary Carlisle released a heavy sigh borne of not inconsiderable relief.
‘Thank you,’ said the alien, a heavy sigh of relief being the Andromedan word for ‘I admire the audacity of your decor’. This house in which he found himself was delightfully unencumbered by Axminster-ish carpets, heavy Victorian-esque furniture in dark wood adorned with dust-catching curlicues, and entirely, utterly, blissfully devoid of chintz to boot. In fact, the blank walls here and there adorned with sophisticated gadgetry, the sleek chrome and black leather furniture, and the delightful lack of cupids made for a very male environment indeed. Almost erotically so, in fact...
If he briefly felt ill-at-ease in the aliens’ home it was because it looked a little too much like a gay sauna he’d once seen on Graham Norton’s Christmas in Soho - which he’d only watched anyway so his wife wouldn’t think he was homophobic - than any house he’d ever been into in Barington; if anything it looked like the radiology department at St. Bartholomew’s in London where he’d had his ultrasound that time. The fact that the combined kitchen and dining room was, in relative terms, crawling with identical blue men of unknown provenance in the process of rapidly and precisely stowing the considerable contents of the lorry parked outside was less unsettling to him even than the idea that at any moment one of them might make a grab at his bollocks.
‘Come in friend,’ said a voice behind Gary Carlisle, which made him jump as much from the surprise of it as the image of his own surprisingly robust bottom - which he’d never even seen - an image which chose that moment of all moments to flash through his brain. ‘Who are you?’
‘My name is PC Gary Carlisle of the Barington Constabulary,” he offered, somewhat prosaically, even for him.
‘I’m well aware of that information from the various badges stitched upon your uniform,’ offered the alien in a maddeningly neutral albeit still posh tone, positioning himself to facilitate a face-to-face, if not quite a tete-a-tete. ‘What I meant was who are you?’
‘Oh, I see...’ said Gary Carlisle, even though he did not, and even though a moment later he not only did but did perfectly - just like he never had done in his entire life. ‘I’m just an ordinary middle-aged bloke trying to get through life without embarrassing myself too deeply at any one time, and hoping that my best days aren’t behind me but more afraid with each passing day after identical day that they are.’
To this day he had no idea why he said it, although to be fair, this was the same day and in fact the same minute in which he’d said it, so the realization hadn’t had much time to sink in yet, let alone given a more complex analysis time to percolate. Still, he’d been less forthcoming with his own wife during that hoary old courtship tradition of the five-hour-long phone call following the second date, for goodness’ sake.
‘You must be an Andromedan at heart,’ said the alien to whom he’d been speaking, who proffered a chair which 90 seconds earlier had been a box of chair parts accompanied by an Allen wrench. ‘Or at least at one of your hearts.’
Gary Carlisle sat in the chair, a little nervously, since he was familiar with the effects of DIYnot? furniture in the hands of the kinds of inexpert assemblers of it with whom he worked; the one into which he sat, to his relief, seemed more than adequately sturdy. ‘So, Andromeda... Is that where you’re from?’ he enquired, attempting a kind of nonchalance he’d been trained to use but had never had call to even attempt before this moment.
Before the alien could answer, though, there came a quiet rapping at the door; all within turned to face Jasbir, who was standing sheepishly in the entrance and all but reaching up into the front of his turban to tug at what promised to be a considerable forelock. ‘We’re all done boss,’ he said, with a grin only an NHS dentist could love.
‘Thank you again, kind sir,’ the alien said. ‘May the name Jasbir resonate throughout the ages, and may Great Britain forever remain a land of Grewals.’ At which point the alien made a sound not unlike a prolonged belch which, while being the Andromedan word for ‘thank you’, had a meaning understood everywhere in the universe there were males of a species, which was fewer places than you might care to know about - depending on what you’re into. The odd expression on the Indian’s face now was one neither the alien nor the policeman could comprehend, but would have clearly communicated the words ‘what a nutter’ to any random person on or indeed even from the Subcontinent. Still, before any further interpretation of it could be made his facial expression, like the man himself, was gone...
‘Nice chap,’ said the alien, his head turning jerkily and his body turning smoothly to allow him to alight on a chair of his own. ‘To answer your question,’ he said, the moment he’d sat down, ‘My colleagues and I are indeed from Andromeda.’
‘Used to be a series on telly called Andromeda,’ offered Gary Carlisle, for no other reason than the pressure to create small talk where none had ever been before, which was just one more English disease spread about the globe by their once-mighty Empire, and the only one worse than smallpox, although it was slightly better than overcooked Sunday lunch.
‘Did it concern a civilization paralyzed by boredom, where intellect is the favoured form of prowess, and diplomacy an athletic event?’
Gary Carlisle wracked his brain to remember the single episode of the show he’d seen a decade earlier during a baffling bout with insomnia. ‘No.’
‘Typical,’ said the alien, becoming jaded already having been on Earth a grand total of six hours. ‘Bloody television.’ At the rate he was going he’d be going on about the decline in values or the rise in prices in a moment.
By now three of the remaining four aliens were seated on their own chairs, while the fifth bustled around the ultra-modern cooker at the state of the art electric kettle and the pristine kitchen sink, oohing and awing this way and that at how delightfully primitive (and therefore quaint) it all was. Once again, the chatty alien spoke: ‘I am Marlak.’
‘Pleased t’meet cha Marlak,’ said Gary Carlisle in a folksy way that would not have been out of place in Wiltshire, although it was as far removed from the purview of his own vocabulary as it was from his distinctly Sussex-y geographical location. As if suddenly remembering his manners, he held out his hand; the three silent aliens sniggered, while the one preparing the tea said nothing since his back was still to them. Marlak remained stoic.
‘On my planet, this hand gesture is the word for ‘gynecologist’,’ Marlak said, at which Gary Carlisle pulled his hand away so fast it made a breeze. ‘If you wiggle the fingers, it means ‘popular gynecologist’,’ he felt compelled to add but needn’t have. More giggles from his friends encouraged him on. ‘If two of you do it at each other it means ‘lesbian gynecologist’!’ Gary Carlisle’s own giggles joined the chorus made by the others; just to give the bit a punchline, Gary Carlisle jumped up and proffered his hand, fingers wiggling, which motion Marlak mirrored, and which action made the house fairly reverberate with five-sixths alien and one-sixth human laughter, a hitherto unheard-of sound, albeit a not unpleasant one.
Recovering somewhat, Gary Carlisle offered to explain what a handshake was, and how one should go about performing one, even though most people on Earth had been shown this repeatedly throughout their lives and still did it improperly, which was one of his greatest pet peeves. (Not the bad handshakes - the inability or unwillingness or sheer bloody-minded cheek not to follow basic instructions.) Before he could begin, though, a melodious flute-like sound as unlike a ring-tone as possible emanated from the vast telly, at which all the aliens turned their heads and bodies in various combinations of jerkily and fluidly, and which would have reminded Gary Carlisle of the musical Cabaret, had he ever seen it; it was Marlak, though, who rose and glided over to the machine where it leant against the wall. Grasping the vast thing at either side with his impressive arm span and hanging it perfectly on the once-empty wall without a nail or a hook or anything, Marlak then touched the tiny red button at the bottom right corner of it; at which the button made the sound of a meerkat coughing, which was the Andromedan word for ‘on’. Even had Gary Carlisle known this, he still would have found it odd, since on Earth most consumer electronics neither answer back nor state their intentions in so many words, but just get on with it once their buttons were pushed - not unlike football hooligans. In fact, it was just one of the reasons he preferred machines to people.
Seconds later, the screen came alive as though its two-dimensional surface had melted from ice to water to gas at once, whereupon its surface reconstituted itself as an image so clear it better resembled an opening; at the centre of the image that next appeared was a pale young man with shoulder-length pure-white hair wearing what looked like long underwear. Both facially and bodily he resembled a statue of Apollo Gary Carlisle had seen while on a school outing to the British Museum, which was a not altogether unpleasant sight, even if he wasn’t into that sort of thing; the other thing he noticed was that, skin colour aside, this man looked exactly like the five aliens in the room with him.
Behind this man - who for some reason Gary Carlisle couldn’t take his eyes off - was a scene of unparallelled splendour. It looked to him as though the largest city he’d ever seen had been built inspired by the Parthenon, a jagged skyline of white marble as far as they eye could see, which, given the resolution of the telly and the startling lack of air pollution, was a very long way indeed. The figure made a grave V-sign, palm up, accompanied by an oddly dignified raspberry sound. ‘Greetings...’
All five aliens were now crowded ‘round the set like over-eager toddlers trying to get closer to Noddy, or Sooty, or La-La - whomever happened to be on - although they’d considerately left a view corridor up the middle for their guest to see through; for his part Gary Carlisle sat rooted to the chair he’d taken for fear that standing up might either finish loosening his bowels or else betray the spontaneous erection he’d gotten from the appearance of the man on the screen.
‘I see you have met a human,’ the man said, seeming to talk to his co-specieists while looking straight at Gary Carlisle, almost... He knew it was too odd to be true, but almost as though the man onscreen could see him.
Marlak turned, both head and body smoothly this time. ‘Say hello human.’ That was when Gary Carlisle noticed that Marlak had also ‘pitched a tent on his own common’. As had they all...
There followed an awkward pause in which the many forms of panic he was experiencing - chief among them that he’d just thrown a boner from looking at a bloke for the first time in his life, not knowing that a stiffy was the equivalent of a salute on Andromeda. ‘Can he see me?’ Gary Carlisle enquired, his already small voice having somehow gotten smaller.
‘Of course he can,’ said Marlak, as though that should have been obvious. ‘It is my pleasure to introduce you to our Emperor, Hngork.’
At least, that’s what Gary Carlisle thought he’d called him; for all the world (and who knows how many others as well) the name had sounded like the noise one makes to get phlegm off the back of one’s throat an hour after eating too much custard. ‘Um, um, um um,’ he stammered before regaining enough of his composure to say ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance, your Emperor-ship,’ - the mere sound of which made him cringe. At which sign of the utmost respect the heretofore grave monarch grinned like an Essex girl on a hen night (which, it scarcely needs to be said, did not even remotely mean what Gary Carlisle thought it meant; after all, how could it?). If he didn’t know a cringe meant ‘It’s an honour to meet you’, how could he possible know a maniacal grin meant ‘The pleasure is all mine’... Although, to be strictly honest, it had a similar meaning on Earth as well.
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