I don’t remember looking at people on tube trains when I was a child. Instead my eyes followed the cabling in the tunnel alongside, which was sometimes purple, sometimes brown, but more often thick with dirt. Now I surreptitiously search every face for something I myself am unwilling to display.
I met with a fox. We stared each other out as the yellow moon rose over the one-time domain of the Surrey Union Hunt. Bored, the fox blinked first, then turned and pattered away. It obviously thought me a ridiculous, domesticated animal. I went home and put the rubbish out.
I admit that I was jealous of the absence of the wild slim alien’s memory. I wanted that blank slate – the chance to start all over again. Without the disappointment, the hurt, the trauma and the grief. Without the people who brought and left me here. For a sense of the experience to remain, but the actuality to have been wiped clean away. What a gift it would be, to be allowed to live again, free of my mistakes and those of others, but with knowledge enough never to repeat them. That wasn’t quite his situation, I knew, but in a way which balanced anticipation andshame and found the latter wanting, I was keen to help Bill scratch marks into the wax of his new existence. His new life was my new life – his resurrection would be mine too.
We went down to the beach together and tried to find the exact spot at which Bill woke up to his new life on earth, as if there would still be clues there about his past, alien or otherwise, after a fortnight of tides washing the slate of the sand clean. On the sand we tried to triangulate his prone position, using the crests of the dunes and the paths through them as our markers. After a while we thought we had it. Bill stood upon the spot and looked out to sea. Nothing but a far-out fishing boat nosing its way back into Porthleven. The tide was just on the turn and the sun was dropping beyond the headland to the west, casting long shadows and turning the tubes of the first rollers a translucent green. Bill lifted his gaze from the horizon, and cast his eyes to the skies above, craning back his neck so that the shaggy mane of hair fell away from his face.
He spent longer looking up than out. He genuinely believed he came from the sky and not from the sea. If his was a case of selective amnesia, perhaps we needed something that would loosen his mind. And his tongue.
‘Come on, let’s go for a drink.’ I took his arm, and looked up into his face, now curtained again by his hair. A flicker of assent in his aquamarine eyes. A flash of pity, or knowledge. Something that as far as I was concerned was unknowable, ungovernable. I shivered, and pulled him tighter to me as we began to walk.
A succession of concrete blocks resolved themselves into a café, a bar, the office-shop of a surf school, surf wear spilling out the door, and a store selling beach gear and toys. ‘The tat shop, I call it.’
Above the glass façade of the bar, a name was scrawled in as yet unlit green neon: ‘Sandy’s’. ‘Owned by a surf-mad Scot name of Alexander.’ We were the first customers of the evening, or the last drinkers of the afternoon.
‘Alright Cissy. The usual? Hello sir, I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Sandy.’
Sandy reached a hand across the bar to Bill, who looked at it as if he were being offered a glassy-eyed John Dory landed at Padstow that morning. Then, suddenly realising approximately how he was supposed to respond, he stretched out the wrong hand, seizing the back of Sandy’s. Sandy batted neither of the lids beneath his heathery eyebrows. Instead he asked my wild slim alien what he would like to drink, with just a hint of the extra solicitude he reserved for non-English speakers, the plain stupid, and English speakers having trouble with his accent.
‘I’ll have what Chan’s having.’
‘Give him a beer, Sandy.’ Now the Scot looked at me, puzzled. ‘Bill had an accident recently. Out on the surf. Probably best if we don’t start him back on the hard stuff just yet.’
Sandy turned to Bill, moving the recently released hand between bar and the glasses behind him in a gesture midway between inviting the drinker to make his own choice and finalising the transaction with me.
‘The same as Chan.’ Sandy nodded his assent, reached for another tumbler, squirted a shot into it and added the mixer.
‘How’s business, Cissy?’ He meant had I sold many pots and plates of late. I shrugged a so-so, and said that we were going to sit down and that I’d chat later.
We picked one of the window tables and watched the after-work surfers paddling out.
‘It’s my initials. Chanel Charlenny – CC – Cissy. It helps that I do something arty-farty for a living. Sandy is one of those people who hates calling anyone by their given name. He mints a nickname for all his regulars. Maybe he’ll sort you out with one before long.’
‘Perhaps I’ll remember my own name one of these days.’
We talked, and under the influence of the alcohol, I gently probed his memory, or his mind; or at least the part of his mind that wasn’t shut off from himself, or the world. He could not remember ever having surfed, though once he used terminology that would be second nature only to surfers. After the second drink, he said that he was Badezon. I thought this must be some obscure piece of antipodean surfing slang, but no, he meant that if I were human, then he was Badezon.
‘Hey Chan.’ A trio of Sandy’s regulars had taken the chairs behind me. I turned round to talk to them for a moment. When I turned back to introduce Bill, he was gone. So were our glasses. He was at the bar, with my purse, fetching us another drink, and talking to Sandy. That was okay. Regulars shared their secrets with Sandy. Oiled with medicinal fluid, the locks to those privae compartments yielded to the key which Sandy put in their minds merely by being a willing and patient listener. It helped that he had the discretion of a physician. So nothing Bill could say would be repeated other than perhaps to me, and nothing he might say would surprise Sandy or disturb his equilibrium, or his view of the world.
I wasn’t being entirely straight with Bill. The aliens were suggested by the nightmares I had following my miscarriages. Each successive plate, a foetus transformed into an alien with a greater degree of self-awareness.
You might think it some sick test of strength to hang such a sequence on the wall of my kitchen, a daily reminder of a deeply unhappy time. And at first you’d have been right. No-one goes through that experience without coming unstuck. Apart at the seams. Your glaze cracked.
But making them had been cathartic. I befriended the horror and created something new and wise and – a long time coming – comic from it. I’m a ceramic artist; that’s what I do. Though now it’s usually seascapes of the kind that the galleries and gift shops of Cornwall flog to the browsing tourist looking to chance upon a picture for the bedroom wall or porcelain for the mantelpiece. Mementos from a rare week in which they have had time to look for mementos. I guessed they wouldn’t be looking for foetal aliens and kept those back for myself.
I am beginning to forget how alone I was before the wild slim alien came. As lonely as the unforgiving space between planets; between plates. Bereaved too, with grief still a constant backdrop to my waking hours, I had become an explainer of unexplained deaths, a historian, a detective, a psychologist, a pathologist. My subject was my own body, my mind, and the would-be and actual people that lived and died in both of them.
My parents went when I was seventeen. An only child with no surviving relatives, I stayed with the family of a school friend to complete my A levels, into which I threw myself as a means of avoiding having to think about the past or the future. College alternately disguised and enhanced my loneliness. That’s when I started drinking. Cheap beer and cheap wine in the students’ union. Cheap spirits as a means to come by cheap spirit. Unions with students selected with alcoholic serendipity. Nothing serious, until the end of the second year. The beginnings of bouts of serious depression. Nothing serious, until the third year. Nothing that hollowed me right out, until the third relationship. We got through that early mental derailment and lived together for a decade. It was trying to bring a third party into the relationship that eventually led to me slamming myself into unbreakable clear acrylic. Instead of a being bearing both our characteristics the third party that finally entered our lives was a full-grown woman.
His father was a Henry VIII figure; he was more Elizabethan, but still struggled with an anachronistic belief in the divine right of kings. And like Elizabeth I, there were elements of character inherited from the paternal side. So the field was played. After the genuine consideration he showed, the awful helplessness he felt in the time following each miscarriage, he – or something in him that he was powerless to defeat – could take no more of me, of the pain. He left me.
He left me for a woman who already had a child. He left me for a woman who already had a child and then he had a child of his own with her.
He was sensitive enough to attempt to hide all of these facts from me as one by one the layers of their sedimentary pressure bore down on me, a grain of human sand in unbearable proximity with a million other grains.
When the pressure lifted enough that I could lift the telephone, I found myself reminded that my friends had lives so busy that they could barely find any time for me, let alone the time I needed. In any case I doubted that even the most considerate of them could cope with and manage the awfulness of my situation.
All the while I kept presenting my best face to the world. It wasn’t for him, or for other men. It was habit, or rather, ritual, without which the world could not be faced with confidence. But each time I face a mirror and apply my make-up, I think of those times, that succession of mornings whose grimness was too much for too long. No plate, no art can do worse to me than any mirror I look into with a gaze that is necessarily detached, appraising a being who is not me. If it were really me, if I really saw me, I could not bear to look.
Perhaps the only sensible thing you can do in such a state, short of throwing yourself in the sea, is to go and live by it. Only at the ends of the earth is it truly possible to lose yourself in something bigger than you. I was an artist, and the loss of self that creation involved had always come easily to me. Now I needed to mould that familiar sensibility to an unfamiliar place and make the effort to silence the ghosts demanding that I explain to them why they no longer existed; demanding the right to have their story told.
The plates hung on the wall as a means of rendering the experience they betokened over, finished, dead and gone to heaven.
The baby that never was crawls through the moss and needle floor of a pine forest, inexorable in its pursuit of me. If I panic and run on ahead, jumping dead branches, barely keeping my footing, I will have moments of respite, but only moments, for here it comes again, bearing down on me at a slow steady pace, comic of limb, overcoming all obstacles in its path with a baby’s complete indifference to risk, plunging into the undergrowth or through briar without pain or consequence. Its face uncertain but for a grin which shocks me afresh with its malice each time I see it. I should easily be able to leave it for dead, but my dream-state tricks me into dawdling, stopping to listen to bird song or gaze up at the sunlight slanting through the pines, and when I look back to the forest floor, there it is again, wobbling its too heavy head from side to side in time with its crawling motion. I scream at the lurching malevolence of its dirty smiling face, and wake myself up.
On waking, an unsettling thought occurs to me. Is the wild, slim alien the incarnation of the baby that never was? This is the first time I have had the nightmare while he has been under my roof. But if he were it, it were he, then the dream should come no more, for its haunting or prophetic work would be done, or the curse of it lifted, because cursed is how I feel. How I felt. I decide that there can be no connection between the two, but that unsettling grain of irritation won’t lift. From my bed, I hear the wild, slim alien – Bill – moving about below, the chink of plates being transferred from drip-rack to stack. All it took was one morning watching my choreographed steps about the kitchen, following what might be well-worn tread in the lino if lino could be microscopically examined, and he too could tidy away last night’s washing-up and assemble our breakfast. Why should I find this so surprising? If he is a human being – even a male of the species who might have been mothered well beyond his time – then his pre-surfing accident breakfast routines wouldn’t have varied much from mine or any other person exposed on a lifelong basis to the luxury of cereal adverts.
But if he really were extra-terrestrial (and I promise you at this stage I didn’t believe it for a moment) it would be unnerving that he could mimic me down to the length of time I leave a tea bag brewing on the basis of one morning’s observation.
To shake off the disturbance of the dream, I got out of bed, put on my dressing gown, went downstairs and sat at the kitchen table just as Bill set orange juice down for me on one of my op-art coasters.
Rationally I knew he was as human as my cheating not-husband. Emotionally he left me as agitated and confounded as my nightmares.
Since it appears that we are not at this stage going to get much out of Bill – or the wild, slim alien as I began to think of him – I suppose I could tell you something of my life, and how I come to be here, alone, in Cornwall. After all, one of you asked me about my nightmares, what they are, and why I have them. I will be sparing with the nightmares themselves, but much less so with their genesis.
I lived in a big city as many young people do when they are young. I studied then I worked. I had one relationship, another, which was itself followed by a third. This one stuck. He was not the marrying type, and I wasn’t sure that I was either, so we didn’t get married. I watched the years and the non-anniversaries stack up, amusing myself with possible markers in the absence of the dress, the cake, the barely contained hostility between close family members, the bridal suite, and the honeymoon. So was it the first time we saw each other, there on the landing of a shared house? Or when we first sat alone together in a room, my room, months later, after he had moved rather inconveniently and against the natural flow of the relationship to another city? Or should it be the day of the night we first made love, after our first shared meal together? Or to conclude the sequence, when two years later he responded to my ultimatum by moving into the flat I had bought in the sprawling suburbs of a third city?
You choose. I don’t care to think about it any more.
We were happy, certainly satisfied, and only occasionally dissatisfied with each other. The depression to which I had been subject since my teens visited less frequently, and we rolled along, merrily drinking with the few close friends either of us had, going out at other times to listen to music of his choosing, sometimes of mine. I worked hard, and he worked less hard, though he compensated for this with regular handling of the hoover and a degree of ability in the kitchen which sometimes even approached flair. He often used to speculate that being a vegetarian had held him back from his true vocation, that of chef.
After ten years of failing to celebrate whichever anniversary you want to go by, life seemed more or less the same, though each of us was earning more year on year and this coupled with increasingly discerning taste buds meant that we drank better wine and ate in restaurants which verged on fine dining; at least I no longer submitted to the greasy spoon he originally had a predilection for.
There was something missing, and my body told me – eventually begged me – that it was a new life form. I resisted the notion for a time, realising this was a point at which we might come unstuck. I waited until his cookery had brought off a particularly good meal and little was left in the bottle that accompanied it. He was his usual cautious self, warming only slowly to the idea, at pains not to appear negative, even though I knew he was coming to terms with the end of something and was finding it hard to contemplate quite what would be beginning in its stead.
‘Yes,’ he said finally, draining the dregs, ‘let’s.’
We went right to it. That was never the problem.
All the rest of that day, the first day, Bill slept. Periodically I checked on him, making sure that he was still breathing; and, I suppose, that he hadn’t vanished. Each time his life and my sanity was confirmed. The spare bedroom was of a size matched to his proportions, being long and narrow, except that the eaves had forced me to place the bed centrally across the width, so that there was barely any space to pass at its foot, and the room tapered off into the eaves to its left and right. The bed barely contained his length. He slept soundly, quietly. At twilight I put my ear to his face to catch the sound of his exhalation. It was barely perceptible. Only when I felt a warm, tickling sensation in the cup of my ear did I draw away.
The night was thick and the wind was up when he finally woke. I had just gone to bed myself. The door of my room was directly across the landing from his. I had left it ajar so as to be able to hear even a murmur from him. I needn’t have bothered, for my reading was disrupted by a scream not so much primal as out of this world, alien. That’s how it sounded, even before he told me what he was. I don’t think I’m projecting backwards in describing it so. No human could have made that noise with our given vocal chords. Serious digital manipulation would be required. And the range of the scream, from low to high – only a composite of creatures from the animal kingdom could have unleashed such a cry. It would have curdled any liquid exposed to it, blood, milk or hot chocolate.
I was paralysed with fear. Control over my own mobility had leached away in the instant of the scream’s echo. It took several minutes of strained listening to the subsequent silence before the terror-flight in my heart subsided and I was halfway sure that I had regained the potential use of my petrified limbs. I put on my dressing gown, steadying myself against the door jamb, then stepped across the landing. Its light gave me enough to see that he wasn’t in the bed. I turned on the bedside lamp and looked into the eaves. He was cowering on the landward side of the house, away from the window which overlooked the sea. I approached him softly, crouching down low so as not to bump my head. I might have been trying to make friends with a cat, or a fox. At first he tried to back away further, but unable to do so, he looked at me again, checking my progress. Then his face suddenly became more composed, as if he had awoken from a state of sleep, or there had been a moment of recognition. I could get no closer without actually lying down, so I started to reassure him that he was safe, that whatever had scared him could not hurt him. He was pale but there was no sweat on his brow, as I routinely had following my own regular nightmares.
‘I was falling from the sky into the sea – that’s how I must have come to be on the beach – I wasn’t surfing, I… fell.’
‘Fell from what?’
‘You fell overboard.’
‘No. No, there was no hull, no backdrop to my fall. I fell from a ship in the sky.’
‘You mean a plane.’
‘No, a ship. What you would call a space ship.’
‘What I would call a space ship. What would you call it?’
‘Chan. The reason I can’t remember anything before this morning is because I have no human memories. I am not human. I’m not from here. Earth, I mean. I’m from… somewhere else.’
‘You’re telling me you come from another planet.’
‘Yes. You don’t believe me.’
By now this was a whispered conversation. Unable to hold a crouching position, I had lain down on the floor opposite him. I could sense no trace of lightness in that hard again face. He was in earnest. I chose my words carefully.
‘I believe that you believe that you come from another planet, but I still think that you must have taken a knock to the head. Whether that’s because you fell from a surfboard or from some kind of boat, I don’t know. The fact is that your mind is a blank, and I don’t believe that the likeliest reason for this is that you aren’t a human being. Your sleeping mind was asking your dreams to invent a story that explained what has happened to you, and falling from the sky is pretty logical, all things considered.’
‘No, no, you don’t understand. I wasn’t dreaming. I’ve been awake since you last looked in, trying to remember. And then it came to me out of nowhere, and I was falling – falling again – and I screamed, just as I did when I fell. Then I lost consciousness and when I came to, I wasn’t in bed anymore. Here, feel my forehead – I’m as cold as was when you found me on the beach.’
I reached out my hand. He was right. Where there should have been bed warmth, pillow warmth, there was only skin colder to the touch than marble. Could shock lead to body temperature dropping so rapidly? Or was I really lying face to face with an alien – an alien with the unlikely name of Bill?
He sniffed the hot chocolate as if I’d dropped poison or a sleeping drug into it. Paranoid, presumably, without memory to cling to. Assuming he really didn’t have any memory of what came before he woke up on the beach.
My resolve faltered. Generally it wasn’t a good idea to pick confused and dazed blonde-headed Australians off the beach when you found them there prone and compound the offence by taking them home with you. So I dialled 999. As soon as I put the phone back on the stand, I regretted it. Even in his amnesiac state, he had a gentle air about him; a harmless giant. It seemed more troublesome to cancel the ambulance than to let the paramedics look him over. So I fretted, went back into the living room, and remembered too late as I came through the door that he was still likely to be peeling off his wet suit. He was standing there naked, looking down at his midriff as if he had turkey gizzards for genitals, absorbed enough not to be aware of my presence. By degrees I retreated, with time to take in the lean muscularity of his frame, proportions broken only by his buttocks, which were pale and curiously pronounced, as if that were where all the fat went. Perhaps when his memory returned, he would recall that he worked all day in an office, a sedentary life requiring a cushion for a backside, only emerging at the weekend to surf.
Those pale twin moons orbited my thoughts – elliptically, so that they would slide periodically in and out of view – as I sat on the stairs waiting for the door bell to ring.
I remembered something from my first year sociology class. Ethnomethodology. Goldstein or Goldfarb. Garfinkel, was it? Experiments in the disruption of every day life, so as to achieve a mechanistic breakdown and analysis of human interaction and social order. Hard to draw the line between this as a serious academic pursuit, and the humiliation meted out to gullible people on candid camera-type programmes. Involuntarily I looked up at the corners of the hallway to see whether spy cams were trained on me even as I sat there at the bottom of my own stairs. A quick mental scan of the small number of people I knew well told me none would have anything to do with such a programme. So for my Australian ethnomethodologist it was observation and notes in the field at worst. An artistic intervention, perhaps. That I could understand, though I wasn’t sure I would forgive him if this was what it turned out to be. I preferred being in control of art, not having it control me.
‘But you can call me Bill.’ A few moments before, he had been a total blank. Then he suddenly produced not only a name, but an informal, everyday and not especially Australian nickname. A strange barking noise broke from me as he said it, not one I recall making before, even when drunk. At that moment I could believe that he was playing me, and acting for the paramedics. If I hadn’t been worried that he – even as a freshly-revealed liar, a chillingly composed and convincing one at that – was still vulnerable in his current state, it might have been enough for me to show him the door directly after the ambulance men exited through it.
So it was with ice in the ventricles of my heart and barely melted fluid circulating in my veins that I heard him out. Because what he told me fell short of any logical explanation. And because before I could say a word, he spat an agitated question at me.
‘Why did you call them?’
There had been a promise implicit in my voice when I told him on the beach that he should come home with me, that I wasn’t taking him to a hospital, a promise I had broken by asking the hospital to come to him. Now he was making me feel guilty for that obviously sensible step.
‘You needed checking out. We still don’t know why you were lying there on the beach. I don’t think it was unreasonable to assume that you’d had a blow to your head. For all I know about head injuries, you could have lapsed into a coma as soon as you shut your eyes just now. In fact I thought you had, until the bell woke you. And then when the ambulance guys were quizzing you, you acted as if nothing had happened at all!’ I stopped abruptly, aware of how shrill I was sounding, and unwilling to admit out loud that he had made a fool of me.
‘I made it all up. On the spot. The name, Brisbane, London, the B&B in Newquay. I don’t know where I got it all from. Maybe from implanted memories, maybe somehow real ones. They would have taken me away if I told them the truth, or what little of it I know. They would have taken me away and – incarcerated me. Locked me up. Eventually, experiment on me. They might even kill me.’
It was the most he had said at one go, and it came out in twitchy, febrile gobbets. I crouched down by the armchair, in which he had rocked forward and back, and laid a hand on his arm, and spoke to him as soothingly as can someone who had deliberately starved herself of intimate contact for longer than was strictly necessary.
When he was calm, I placed my hand on his forehead, expecting heat. But it was still as cold as it had been on the beach. Bed, and a hot water bottle. After that we could see where we were.
‘It’s the name you reached for, whatever the reason. Until we know better, let’s call you Bill.’
His demeanour was unnerving, but I tried to remain composed in the face of it, reasoning that if my confidence faltered, this would disturb him and leave me all the more unnerved.
He was slim – not to the point of emaciation, or self-starvation, but blubberless, proportionally not quite perfect; overlong, though not a beanpole. His hair was wild from the sea, tangled both in itself and bits of seaweed. His face was blue-grey with the cold, as drained of warmth as the concrete beach defences in the pearly morning light. He was forbidding in every way – strange, unexpected, unpredictable. But when I asked him questions in the surest tone I could muster, he was so genuinely puzzled by his inability to answer that I no longer felt intimidated. The blue-grey face cracked, and through the cracks something vulnerable seeped out. Something human. Streaks of warmth began to colour the icy visage.
I picked the seaweed out of his hair as I felt his scalp for bumps or cuts. His head was a weird shape – in one place it was as though a slice had been taken across the sphere of his skull, as you might pare an apple of a bruise to its skin. But there was no blood.
He must have been knocked out by his board while surfing in the dark, a foolish practice that only someone who believed himself immortal would undertake. He was extremely lucky not to have drowned, and I told him so. By rights I should have found a body during my morning walk, and the consciousness that I had not turned my relief into exhilaration, as if it was I who had narrowly escaped death. And so I ended up offering help and taking temporary responsibility for this lost antipodean soul. How could I not? He was helpless with amnesia and I was the one who found him. I would at least get him to a hospital, despite his protestations that he didn’t need to go.
He was also a mystery and any that my life might once have possessed was long gone.
‘You’d better come with me.’
Tremors coursed across his face. A tic from the cold, or frayed nerves, or both.
‘Not to a hospital, just to my house. Have a cup of coffee and get yourself warm. Here, take my jacket.’
Whatever sense was left in that battered skull gradually came to him now. It barely fitted him, lending his frame a look of the scarecrow. He got the fleece on, after first inserting the wrong arms into each sleeve, straightjacket-style. I wasn’t sure if he would be able to walk, but I wasn’t going to risk having to support him all the way uphill or allow him to nuzzle me again. So I set off for the gap in the dunes, and he followed. Once we were on the narrow thread of sandy path, I checked again. He had lagged behind, but he was still coming, concentrating on the path as if it were a particularly abstruse line of philosophical argument. On the road up to the house I let him draw level.
‘You think I’m Australian?’ he said.