Old age is like a wasteland.
A life, once so busy, fallen into uselessness, strewn about with pieces of broken memory.
I don’t mind being old. I have lived the fullest life, but I mind the wasteland; you never know what you might find.
Once I found something on the wasteland.
The land behind our house where the factories once stood, and where our granddads had once worked. Land that had become ‘brownfield’ and up for development when our mum’s were in infant school. Where an industrial estate sprouted and briefly flourished before becoming down-market and eventually dying.
When my brother’s gang had first pushed their way through the rotting fence the barn-like buildings had still stood. But, by the time I was superseded as ‘baby’ by a pair of snotty twins and permitted to wander, the buildings had been recycled by bulldozers and cranes and carried off in dumper trucks.
I liked bulldozers, cranes and dumper trucks and was sad to see them go. Creeping into the void they had left like a small criminal, I turned over the remnants and collected oddments. I had a stash of stuff in an old freezer unit in a hollow by the fence.
I also had a place where I collected the turds that I made when I couldn’t be bothered to return to the house to the toilet. I poked them into lines with a stick and compared them as they steadily returned to the soil.
I was invariably alone. A misfit. Saved from much indignity and pestering by having an older brother in a key position in an influential gang, I also benefitted from appearing too small-fry to be bothered with. There were boys of my own age but I was not allowed out the front and they had to keep to their gardens so our paths never crossed. Not, that is, until we all went to school and by then the die had cast me as a loner.
I was five when I went to school. My mother failed to notice that she should have enrolled me till the welfare woman came round and reminded her. After that I attended, turning up late, scruffy and under-fed but regular as clockwork. I would have gone at the weekends too, if that were allowed, just out of habit and the luxury of not having to think. I ticked my way through primary school, like some small, un-noticed bomb. I don’t believe I learnt a thing, save to keep out of trouble. My stash grew. My turd collection waxed and waned and I watched the wasteland change again.
It happened very slowly. The first seeds to blow by, the first water to turn greenish began the steady pioneering creep of life. Plants followed by animals; a veritable recreation of Genesis had I then known it. But I remained sorely ignorant, despite my so-called education, and it was just weeds and critters to me. Nevertheless, I loved to worry the newts and frogs and relished in the goat willow and birch saplings that screened me from the other wasteland users.
For there were others. My regimentally ordered shit kept them away from my stash hollow and earned me the title of ‘disgusting’, lumping me into a category along with old women’s tits, warm lager, and the bits of birds that the cat left behind. But I never minded the price of peace, the almost certainty of non-molestation.
It was only ever an almost certainty though. Sometimes they decided to involve themselves with me, those other users. Like the snoggers who sent me on errands to buy fags. In those days, before the government had poked its nose into every aspect of our lives, anyone could buy cigarettes that had the money. Anyone could smoke cigarettes who had their own money. I had to give them up, of course, to the purchasers and think myself lucky to get a heady drag for my trouble. The girl snoggers usually said, “thank you”.
“Now fuck off out of it.”
I was happy to oblige.
Other wasteland users were less genial. When they wanted something of me, they wanted more than errands and verbal abuse. They wanted someone to hone their torture skills upon. Someone who wouldn’t squeal or tell tales. Someone too thick to care. Too thick to get screwed up. Mostly I kept out of the way.
The general opinion of me, beyond that I was disgusting, was that I was thick. Looking back, I see that I never did anything to dispel this idea. By the time I had found the thing, I was eleven years old and had transferred to the local secondary school. I couldn’t read; I’d never seen the point. I couldn’t do maths. I was streamed in ‘remedial’; next stop the special school, if I didn’t buck my ideas up.
I find it hard to explain how passive I was back then. Maybe you have to be there to know just how bad things were. There was the wasteland and my stinky hollow. There was school, which seemed like more wasteland, but without my stinky hollow. I wandered through school life picking up some things and keeping them and dropping others. Sometimes teachers asked me questions and sometimes I answered correctly, and other times I didn’t.
Home was the place at the other edge of the wasteland to my hollow, beyond the fence. There lived my mother. I had a father once, for an afternoon, he took me to the pictures. I can’t remember what we saw. He was quite nice.
My brushes with the outside world had taught me that some children were loved and wanted and nurtured and well fed but these things didn’t happen to me. When the fancy took her, my mum might say that I was a ‘good kid’ at heart, indicating, as I already knew, that I was otherwise unsatisfactory.
Certainly I looked it. I was lank, hungry, grimy with sunken eyes, sticking out ears and see-through skin. I was taller than on my first day at school but otherwise un-improved.
My twin sisters had grown and in turn been replaced in their babyhood by a string of others who also had fathers for a day or two. They meant nothing to me. My brother liked the babies and the sisters feigned motherliness and made a fuss but I never engaged on a family level. Call me retarded.
The day that I found the thing that I found in the wasteland, I’d been lobbing things.
Occasionally I lobbed things. Things I didn’t much want from the stash or things of so little value they never made it there. Didn’t matter anyhow if I lobbed something good. Chances were I could pick it up again after. Not many other kids collected things. I liked lobbing. The day that I found the thing that I found in the wasteland, I’d got into a humdinger of a lobbing battle with a band of marauders from the other estate. There were four of them and one of me but I had more ammo.
But as fast as I chucked it out they chucked it back and one of them was deadly accurate and clipped my ear with a welly and came too close for comfort with a piece of old iron, even with me being a moving target. The hollow was becoming too hot, so I left by one of my rabbit tunnels up the back slope by the fence and skirted round behind the gang. I had a mind to slope off home and be done with them, when I found it.
It was a shiny goldish colour, which was in itself unusual in the wasteland where most things were knocked about and tarnished. Cylindrical, about a foot long and pointed on one end like a great big bullet or a tiny spaceship. It was smooth yet patterned at the same time, like the pattern was formed in the making, not added afterwards. I clearly remember thinking, “this is not of this world” which is very strange because I don’t clearly remember thinking anything at all before that. Ever.
Then a fairly large piece of metal hit me on the head.
“What you got, Retard?” called the deadly accurate marauder. Even at a distance he could see it was more than junk.
“A bit of a spaceship.” I answered.
“Don’t be a prat and give it here.”
The other three appeared around me, creeping in for the kill.
“I found it.” I said.
“We only want to look. You can have it back.”
I hugged it to myself, not believing them.
They came forward, tightening their knot around me.
“Give it here.”
There was a scuffle and a scream and what-ever-it-was was snatched from me and I was knocked, or fell, to the ground. Some foot kicked me in passing, deliberate but not brutal. Then the thing fell beside me, dropped, like a hot potato.
“It fucking burned me.” said one of them.
“Don’t be a prat, how could it.”
“Well you pick it up then…”
No one seemed to want to.
I got to my feet.
“He was holding it alright.”
They turned on me. What right had I to hold it if they could not.
Then they were looking at me. Starring. Gobsmacked.
They had seen what I was just seeing. My hands. My fingers and my palms were glowing; with a goldish glow just the same colour as the thing. Like some of the paint had rubbed off.
I rubbed my hands. Together. Then on my sweater. The glow did not come off.
I held up my hands. Glowing palms.
I stood there, a small piece of space-rubbish at my feet.
I picked it up and took it home. This was too precious to leave in the hollow. I hid it in the garage under some old newspapers.
I watched some television and had some tea.
I kept my hands in my pockets as much as I could and palms down. Luckily, as every one was used to ignoring me, they didn’t notice.
I checked the thing from time to time, and in between times I found it hard to settle to anything. I felt like it was calling me. I took to sitting in the garage with it on my knee.
It called other people too. Strangers in white vans. Vans with U.A.S.S. sign-written on the side. Strangely dressed strangers, in gauzes and veils like beekeepers. Like nothing we had ever seem before on our estate. It caused a stir.
Caused crowds to gather and gossip, to eddy around the estate. Talk. Rocking in my garage, I heard the name ‘You-ass’ and felt less and less inclined to leave. It would have felt wanton to have wandered in the wasteland. Let the stash go hang; the turds turn to dust. Needs must.
And so it was they found me. Homing in street by street on some silent signal. My brother shouted, “You silly fucker, what you playing at?” as the tape and the cordons went up across our drive.
Please understand that I had very little expectation of the people who should have cared for me, so when the strangers stood in their veiled suits at the garage door talking on their radio for ‘someone to deal with the child’, the eyes I turned on my mother were empty of hope.
She stood with a fag on her lip and a babe on her hip. She had always known I’d come to no good and so accepted the assurances that what was to be was for the best, that I couldn’t stay…
It took them five, maybe ten minutes to find a woman police officer. Five, maybe ten minutes sitting in the garage with the thing on my lap wishing for something I had never had and could not name. They would take it I knew; but I felt that someone ought to prevent them taking me. A tiny nugget of knowledge nagged at me. A sense of self, which had lain dormant within me, woke up and looked around and was unimpressed by what it saw.
The woman who called herself my mother should have protested.
“Come on, deary,” the police woman put her arm around me, “give that to the nice man. There, that’s better. Now, you just come along with me.”
She was a pro. Seen it all. She didn’t shy from my shiny hands but my mum gasped and swore and one of the U.A.S.S. men said, “Be careful!” and stayed her hand from touching mine.
“Can you pack him some things?” the policewoman asked of my mother. “He needs to go for a check-up. Will a family member be coming with him?”
“Oh no!” said the man, “best not.”
“But he’s only a child…”
The policewoman, who was clearly someone’s mother, protested to no effect. They took me, alone, but for a co-op carrier of spare pants, a tee shirt and my unwashed pyjamas. My mother forgot my toothbrush. They had my piece of spaceship, if that was what it was.
They took me in an ambulance. It had no windows. I sat on the side of the bed and looked at my hands.
“You assholes. You assholes. You assholes.” I repeated beneath my breath slowing and slurring to “You are souls. You are souls. You are souls,” as the sedative set in.
A nurse relieved the policewoman.
“Zzzu‘re souls. Zzzu‘re souls. Zzzu‘re souls.”
I lay on a bed in what they called the ‘unit’.
I had dreams where I looked down upon my bed at the skinny lump in the over-washed cotton blankets that was me. They lay me with my palms uppermost by my side. They came and went. They talked in calm voices as they monitored the lump that was me, like I was a machine.
I had dreams where I looked down on another bed at the over-skinny, over-long lump beneath the cotton blankets. It lay with its palms uppermost by its side and the same calm gowned figures came and went. Its skin was green. Its eyes were closed but their slanted slits flickered sometimes. In my dreams.
They made my mind like jelly with their drugs. Worm jelly. Slug jelly. Drug jelly.
Sometimes they would bring me round to the brink of lucidity and ask questions. The same questions over and over again.
“Where did you find the object?”
“How long have you had it in your possession?”
“Did you show it to anyone?”
“Why do you think you could hold it when the other boys couldn’t?”
“Did you ever hear it make a noise? No! Yet you say it called to you?”
I answer those questions truthfully.
Although when they played me a recording of hisses and blips…
“Can you understand this?” they demanded.
“No, course not, it’s rubbish,” I lied.
“Don’t tell them anymore,” it said to me. “They know enough. Don’t tell them anymore.”
One night I woke and my mind was clear.
Zzzu‘re souls, you are souls, you assholes, you ass. U.A.S.S.
Never been so clear before. Sitting up. I felt spacey and incomplete. Standing up even more so. Moving risky.
Hindered by a drip-needle feeding into me, I watched my forearm for some seconds before removing the catheter cleanly. The hole oozed and bled but there was tissue to mop with.
Un-limited now. I did not feel like me, yet who else could I be?
I had a wish to get into the next room. It did not feel like my wish, yet who else’s could it be? The doors were not locked and the corridor was empty. There was a figure in the bed in the next room. It too was awake, its mind was clear.
Later in my life, I would see for sale, blow-up aliens with elongated bodies and triangular heads and I would know their inspiration. I would know that the Un-identified Alien Search and Secrecy department were taking the piss.
When I looked into the clear slanting eyes of the alien in the bed, clocked the snake-slit nostrils and small lipless mouth and listened to the completely comprehensible hiss of space-speak, I knew I could never be the same person again.
Gone was the little git with the shit and the stash of worthless flotsam. Gone.
I went back to bed. I wondered if the nurse who forgot my sedative would be in trouble when they found my trailing drip pumping saline onto the floor. I lay back against my pillows and arranged my hands palm up. They glowed gently in the pseudo-blackness of my room and I thought of the alien in next bed. He too glowed.
They tried to make me forget but brainwashing doesn’t work when your hands glow; they serve as a constant reminder. In the end they had to let me go.
They put me in a car with darkened glass windows and drove for hours. Round and round for all I knew. They had given me back my own clothes. Un-recognisably clean, they hung on my wasted frame and chaffed my skin. My underwear and pyjamas I never saw again but they did supply me with a toothbrush.
Later, when I was ‘well to do’ and frequented hotels, I always liked to be supplied with a toothbrush. Though of course I had my own, still, there was comfort in a packaged, brand new toothbrush on the glass, bathroom shelf. Gratis.
They left me at a police station close to my mother’s house. The police took me home, like a stray dog.
My brother’s friend was asleep where I had slept. “How were we to know?” my brother shouted at my grief.
“You sleep on the settee for tonight, boy.” Said my mother, “We’ll work something out in the morning.”
Lacking assurance that she would, I slept in the garage, beneath the very paper that had covered my spaceship. I slept very well.
I had passed a whole season in that institutional bed. The leaves on the wasteland trees whispered of autumn now when they had sung of spring, and the frogs were gregarious, having no cares, spawning over and winter still a distant idea in their little froggy heads. School had reopened and I was not on roll. Everything, everyone had forgotten me during that summer.
My mother shrugged when I asked how she had so easily let me go, “leave it she told me; you’re back aren’t you,” and my brother shouted with exponential anger, “how the fuck were we to know?”
And I knew then the meaning of powerless because… how the fuck was the world to know that a small green alien lay in a bed in the ‘unit’. A small green alien who’s only crime was smallness and green-ness which gave the Un-identified Alien Search and Secrecy department licence to imprison it, drug it, poke it, prod it, cut it, record its sounds and rhythms. But I knew, and I knew that its people knew and that no brother’s friend slept in its vacant bed.
And I used words like gregarious and exponential. It was Christmas come early in my cerebellum; gifts galore abounded. A whole alien language full of beautiful words made of hisses and blips instantly translatable into my mother tongue. Words never before uttered by a brat of my station suffused me and, like an avalanche of Lego, constructed a new world in my head.
I could never be the same person again. I had numbers too. Tens to the power of infinity dancing; and theology, philosophy, every ‘ology and ‘osophy of possibility.
Yet outwardly I was the same little gormless shit with sticking-out ears. Raised in the gutter, weaned on wiliness and now touched by an alien. I collected two hatreds (one for my mother and one for UASS, an international body with secrecy in its name) and stored them in a stash-hollow in my soul.
I lay beneath a blanket of the ‘News of the World’ in the oily, dull morning of the garage and made plans.
Plans that I soon concluded could not be realised with my paltry level of education. My alien induction had gifted me with vocabulary but no literacy. After all, my words were translated from a hiss. Ideas but no strategy, no framework of understanding on which to pin my new knowledge. So to school I went.
Re-enrolling was routine but when I knocked on the staff room door and asked to speak to the science master I was beheld with incredulity.
He passed me a text. “Read it.” I couldn’t.
“Well come back when you can.”
With stoic resolution I streamed back to ‘remedial’ and bucked my ideas up. Within a week I returned to the staff room, a stolen New Scientist tucked in the crook of my arm and read. When he had got over it, he said.
“Period five, room 38. You’ll have to start with the first years.”
I was really quite impressed by his composure.
Needless to say, my renaissance caused excitement, teachers nudged other teachers and pupils jeered and pointed but I chose to ignore them, not allowing myself to be led or goaded into the verbosity and posturing of celebrity, although the UASS business of earlier in the year and my ‘arrest’ and the weirdness of my shiny hands were all briefly public property again until I was relegated to ‘boring nerd’. Which, naturally, I preferred to ‘disgusting retard’ and equally afforded me the anonymity I desired.
Then came the day that my heart told me that the little green alien had died. I was at school at the time but did not remain and went to the wasteland for the first, and only, time since my return. I stood on the spot where I had first found the thing. It rained unrelentingly and I cried, and cried, and cried. After that day the glow on my palms dulled until it was completely unremarkable.
Apart from that afternoon spent in the rain, I didn’t allow myself to become distracted by the alien’s death, although it took some considerable focus and restraint. Though nor did I try to quell the waves of hatred and anger that burnt hot beneath my heartless skin at the knowledge of the alien’s murder, but rather let the feelings marinade and mature, so better to revenge.
Meanwhile I had discovered the library. I had a large information void to fill. A capacious, vivacious hunger for the stuff and matter of society; that which makes us who we are as a people. I found much of it wanting in morality and depth, but then I was comparing against a society that was light years ahead… and I realised the unfairness of comparison.
All my classes moved too slowly. I was shifted from stream to stream and onward up the school in a time span measured in weeks not terms or years. And hence, I remained a curiosity but still I doggedly resisted the fame they tried to push upon me.
Maths, it seems, is a truly Universal language for I found that I needed no tutoring at all beyond the tools the alien had passed to me. Then one day, I discovered computers whose simple little minds laid out the whole of human knowledge like cherries for the picking.
There was some kerfuffle, the police visited and talked of ‘hacking’ into sensitive sites. N.A.S.A. U.A.S.S., Number 10 but nobody really believed it could have originated from our noisome, sink-comprehensive; it was just a clever illusion of some real mastermind. The Nation remained on high alert until I worked out how to hack and leave no trace.
By the time I was fourteen I began to accumulate qualifications. I often got 100% in exams, partly because I was very clever and very knowledgeable but also because I thought it prudent to use my digital talents to read the exam papers from the exam board computer network a few days before and hence be properly prepared.
None of this endeared me to my family, although I continued to reside in their garage during my time at school. Interaction with my mother rarely went beyond signing permission slips and my siblings didn’t seem to like the new me any better than they had the old. I fed myself by selling homework solutions and stock essays to my thick or lazy peers and I don’t think I had a hot meal outside school until I went to Cambridge.
I went up when I was seventeen to read politics. You might have thought I would have veered towards the sciences, or computer studies but I believed then that politics would open the most doors, and I think I was right.
It was in Cambridge that I allowed myself to shine, but not before I had re-modelled myself by careful mimicry and re-written my personal history so as to obscure my beginnings. I was careful with dressing, careful with my language, my vowel sounds and aitches, my guttural stops.
They were cold years at first. Not meteorologically of course, but my world was a cold, methodical chronology of knowledge acquisition, attention to detail and long term planning. Exactly what I planned for, I didn’t then know. It would have an element of retribution, I knew that much, but I doubted, even whilst I fermented my enmities, that it would be ruthless. No, it had to be about power; my power and hence the powerlessness of others.
I kept an association with my brother. This was a loose affiliation with a ‘may come in useful’ theme working both ways. My brother still had a group of testosterone fuelled brutes with knives and threats in their pockets, who drove shiny motors with love-handled, foul mouthed tarts in their passenger seats. He still called them his gang. Needless to say I detested them and they detested me. They insulted my student status with a verve that was fed by jealousy and ignorance and it occurred to me more than once to cut my links with them, but a gut feeling, that some thugs in low places might, in time, serve me equally well as some friends in high places, stayed my hand.
The thawing of the cold years came gradually as I became confident in my invented self. Student life was a reasonable leveller. There were the toffs and the public school kids, but connections and the advantages of family money were waning in the ‘Oxbridge varsities’ as they strove to prove their street cred. to a governmental funding system, increasingly at pains to demonstrate its own correctness. So with grant and loan funding, and a little moonlighting, for the first time in my life I walked an economic even footing with my generation.
I joined the NUS. Became a ‘bit of a mover’ but not enough to draw media attention; nothing that might lead anyone to connect me with the ‘golden hands boy’. I worked on the University newspaper and played in the footlights. My involvement bought me friendships and a popularity that felt rosy, though unfamiliar, and I basked in the local notoriety whilst careful not to overstep, keeping just a little overshadowed by those who more readily courted stardom.
Through these extra curricular exploits my personality budded and slowly blossomed. I had been so dreadfully retarded as a child, like an ill-drawn character in a poor fiction and even after the alien encounter I was a mere sponge for knowledge and culture; scorched earth hungry for moisture. But now, quenched and refreshed, the seeds of a pioneering persona that was uniquely me, rather than a sum of my poverties, germinated.
And steadily grew.
And attracted the attentions and flatteries of some females which precipitated a bit of accelerated learning in the practicalities and realities of the girl/boy thing that had previously passed me by. I am frankly embarrassed, even now, to recall some of my early blunders in the coital field, I had my ego singed by several belles who found me wanting. But I was used to knocks and my ever eager ‘friend in my trousers’ was convinced that ‘practice makes perfect’, and though modesty prevents my claiming perfection, a degree of competence was swiftly achieved.
I met Stella at a June Ball. Lured by her smile and a perceived approachability, that might have had something to do with the Pimms, I was determined to charm her. She looked like Titania veiled by the milk parsley and the meadowsweet that grew by the curl of the river as it passed through the college garden. Whether she was drugged by some love charm I know or care not but as we strolled on the water meadows on that long summer night it felt as much a renaissance as the night I talked with the alien. Although the contrast with the water meadow, alive with a diverse cacophony of buzzing, bleating, quacking things, and the silent, sterility of the ‘unit’ was almost beyond bearing, I felt I could’ never be the same person again’.
In truth I never have been. Never, from that moment have I been alone. My first life-changing event left me alien words in my head and a mainline to some distant galaxy, which only served to reinforce the loneliness that I had felt since birth. The second cured me of insularity and taught me the meaning of love. There was never a doubt in my mind that this was my soul mate; my love mate; my life’s mate. She has reflected my certainty and my love. Now, sixty years on, even as she sets my tea down beside me as I type these words, I feel her love.
What bliss it is to be loved so. More so for a ‘little shit’ or a ‘nerdy git’; I don’t know? Maybe so little love at my beginning makes me more grateful; I don’t know.
We were married, after graduation, from her parent’s house. They thought it strange that I had so little family, just a brother who didn’t quite fit the mould, but they are polite people who made no fuss, my father-in-law joked that it kept down the bill, “Fewer guests you know”. On my last night of bachelorhood, as I lay alone on her mother’s insistence, feeling the quaintness of it all, I received a message from outer space saying they were pleased for me. From the Home Counties to the crab nebula; I nearly astral planed into insanity. Pulling myself back to the gorgeous reality of my future life, I settled my head on the crisp, Egyptian cotton of her mother’s sheets and slept, dreaming wondrous dreams.
I had secured an internship in Brussels with the EU, which was planned to lead to a doctoral thesis. She was planning to teach TEFL. We talked about having a family. Once, because I had to know, I asked her if she would ever let a child of hers be taken by men in white coats?
Well I didn’t phrase it quite like that, I give it hypothetical context, but the result was incredulity. “No one would let that happen to a child!”
I said no more. I did not burst her bubble. In her world children were wanted, loved, nurtured, bought safely to adulthood and released, with the greatest reluctance, to fly the nest. That was the world I wanted too for our children. I said no more.
Fiction talks of parallel universes, yet little do they know the light years that separate the haves from the have-nots; the love-children from the children that are just sexual by products. The universe of my childhood lies so close to the leafy suburbs of her universe. Separated by an ‘A’ road; light years wide. I was inwardly battling to locate the wasteland, the real wasteland, the land of waste, littered with the corpses of ideas, animals, aliens and babes who failed to survive our immoral curiosity, acceptance of inequality and down-right neglect. For even in my in-laws’ genial ignorance there was neglect, built into our survival was neglect. The human brain is just too small to care about everything. “I’m alright Jack.”
So between the crisp cotton sheets of my pre-nuptial bed I devise my philosophy, the platform on which I will campaign and win elections to the corridors of power. A manifesto to ‘Build a Moral Society; One Step at a Time’.
And because I am not trapped in my just too small human brain, I did not neglect my wife and growing family, but had it all, and did it all…
Some plans look so beautiful in the planning, an intertwining of possibilities that all go ’textbook’, smoothly avoiding the thorns on the stems to bloom in clean, powdery cream like the roses in Stella’s wedding bouquet and her smile as she came down the aisle. I turned to watch her, I could not resist. Like a digital image imprinted in the software of my mind I recall, even now, how the church was bourgeoning on her side and seemingly void on mine, save for the brother I cannot call ‘best’ and the whole of the unknown universe gunning for me.
At that time, the serendipitous coalition of all that could be good in my life and my world hung like ripe fruit and I was acutely aware, so acutely aware of the possibility of failure and the height of the stakes. Less confident in my success than any time since I set out alone on my alien tutored quest for… for what? What seemed like revenge then, now unfolded in more magnanimous emotions. Covert philanthropy seemed a harder flag to fly than moral outrage. Harder to fight to stop the other guys winning than on my own account, but the beauty of the vision still held me and my luck held. The beautiful plans never lost their lustre, the twining strands never snagged or lost direction. My luck held.
My career developed like an escalator ride, carrying me, seemingly effortlessly, upwards and onwards. Brussels, Paris, London, Berlin, a stint in New York. Attaché, Aid, Advisor. Always shadowing a front man, back-seat driving.
Of course no gravity-defying feat is effortless and I put in the work. The hours crammed into crowded commuter trains beneath international cities, inverting umbrellas and leaking brogues in the winter, sweltering summers and rude cab drivers were the same for me as any other suited city gent. Missing my child’s first steps and making love by telephone from a hotel bed were problems that I juggled like many a working father. Superiors bent on curbing my ambition, and inferiors too to think of it, were niggling thorns in my flank, but there was so much made easy for me by my alien mind which translated any language like a native speaker and spoke to hard-drives like old friends.
And the constant anchor of rightness of my track held me steadfast. Everything was checked against the ethical morality of a higher than human order and made me, quite possibly, incorruptible. Although I sound my own trumpet, I did get it right, and I did do right by my loved ones; and I did improve the lot of many in the have not half of the universe; and I did not salve my own ego, nor take more than what was owed to me. My family lived comfortably though my riches went to charity.
Oh God! I sound like such a goody goody.
There was much more heart to it than that. Stella and I had such good times, loving times, simple pleasures of candlelight dining and Internet shopping for household items. We took walks in the highlands, skinny-dipped in cold rivers, graced diplomatic functions in cocktail dresses, well Stella that is. We made babies and bolognaise with equal passion and love for each other, and life.
And Hey! I was listed in ‘Heat’ mag’s top one hundred sexiest men. Coming in at 94 wasn’t bad for a ‘nerdy git’ such as I, though I think they were scraping the barrel quite honestly. By the nineties just looking like you could get it up was surely enough, judging by the others. Stella got a laugh from it, and possibly our third child from the frivolous sacking that followed.
That third child, a third boy child because not everything goes to plan, gave me another pivotal moment, when the work of life is balancing on a tight rope of emotion.
We were in Berlin. I had work with the consulate constructing aid criteria to second world families. It was at the tail end of winter when the thaw had begun to attack the beauty of the snow, but the skies remained leaden leaking hope like melt water. Her labour was long, the babe ill-presented. German care too perfunctory for our mood at that time, we felt too far from home. The little fellow they finally dragged from her body was listless and suckless and while Stella phoned home to her mother and cried, I stood by the window watching the street sweepers start work in the first morning light, holding my waxen baby, swaddled in my arms as long abandoned loneliness engulfed me again.
There was no fag in the corner of her mouth, no telly blaring, no smell of old curries and beer, yet something in my wife’s consuming fatigue reminded me of my mother and for the first time ever, I consciously saw mother love as a two way thing. Sexual love I had always seen that way, always known it to be a sum of two parts, even when I was too amateur at my part to pass muster, I had never assumed that I could only take.
Yet, had I ever loved my mother? More so had I ever been loveable? Stella, who had bounced into glowing motherhood with the births of our two first children, had responded to their gusto, their verve for the oxygen of life, turned now to the stronger link with her own mother when faced with this unlovable child. Of course, it was time made of tiredness, confusion and pain. Of course she rallied, dried her tears and took back our son. Of course she made me feel wanted, gesturing me back to her bedside, but not before I had seen enough to offer me some explanation of why my mother had never loved me. I had just not been loveable.
So when Stella slipped into sleep I took my son and held him till my palms glowed gold with the love I gave him. Then he slept before waking his mother with vivacious, hungry cries.
That night I told her about my childhood. That night we understood.
Of course I made it to Westminster.
In a funny way, that realisation in the Berlin maternity ward cured me, at last, of the need for vengeance both against my mother and, strangely, U.A.S.S. It was gorgeously liberating. Knowing too that I had no secrets anymore from my wife allowed me to step from the shadowland of spin-doctor and strategist and take my place as the front-runner. Exposure as the ‘Golden Hands Boy’ held no fear for me now.
We campaigned on the ‘One step at a Time’ manifesto, and won.
At the same time I began to hack into the U.A.S.S. mainframe again. I didn’t have to hack into No. 10 as I could just walk through the door.
At the same time I set up a correspondence with U.A.S.S. All up front, nothing hidden. I wasn’t greatly surprised when they asked me to become their patron. I accepted with no guilt: one step at a time, remember.
At much the same time I recruited some bodyguards. Well, every one else had them and I had been being nagged about it for sometime. Thugs in low places. Remember?
Now ‘One Step at a Time’ is not just political rhetoric, but a real movement for social change. The spirit level at work. The fact that I was moonlighting with U.A.S.S. didn’t mean I had lost the plot. Far from it, this was a sub plot.
Stella and I returned to my childhood home on a sight seeing tour. The wasteland had been born-again as a business park. On the site of my stash hollow was a landscaped bank planted with small maples. I had told Stella every detail of my collecting, even the turds, which she had thought funny. None of it computed with the ‘me ‘ she knew: it was just a funny story. We cruised around in our too smart car, drove past my house though did not linger. Saw the primary school, now with a new wing, fashioned in wood and recycled materials, with a sloping roof angled towards the sun, bedecked with solar panels and painted panels with murals of happy multi-ethnic children. The old school still sulked behind the facelift of the new, but the hall had gone. I wondered what had happened to the parquet flooring, thinking of my bare knees, chilly in the draft of morning assembly as I sat and traced the rectangular blocks with my finger. Funny what you remember.
The comp. was now an academy. Not my doing, the regime before. Though I did feel a sense of pride at the signs for the youth club, the breakfast club, theatre club, O.A.P.s aerobics, signs of a social network not made of electrons. That seems a success I would be proud to claim, like the latter-day Robin Hood of re-distribution politics, that is I.
I did visit my mother, though not with Stella and the babes in tow. She’s tough is Stella, broad minded, but I couldn’t see her clearing a space between the empties to perch on the edge of the filthy settee, nor settling the baby on the carpet of fag butts to cruise around the coffee table exploring crack-wrappers and Rizlas. My return coincided with the loss of the T.V. remote and was somewhat overshadowed by the tragedy of that event. I did not linger. Verbal abuse ranging from curious through levels of hostility showered me from my mother and resident siblings and the jaws of my nieces and nephews hung loose, with hunger or awe I did not choose to consider? She wanted nothing from me and my schmancy politics, “Never had and never would”. I concluded that, in her eyes, I remained unlovable.
Making free with U.A.S.S.s hyperspace informed me that the remnants of a small dead alien still lay in a freezer in a basement labelled specimen 401/11AA.
Making free with U.A.S.S.s eagerness the court the interest of a man in my position confirmed this. Of course they weren’t surprised at my interest; they were fascinated and gleefully shared their data. Clearly, there were far too many rats in that place for anyone to smell a new one.
The countdown began then. I did fear for my psyche during the next years as the sub plot unfolded. Whilst outwardly remaining the solid patriarch to both family and country, another family began to make their needs clear. The aliens wanted their child back, wanted what I understood then as the chance to keen last rites over his dead body according to their customs. They wanted me to get him for them. They were planning a visit.
I struggled again with the feelings of unwantedness that the alien’s parents’ devotion to their child created within me. I did battle with that demon but have never won. It is a sadness that I will take to my grave. I often court the idea that it should have been I that died, but I know that I was the less interesting specimen. I know, from the records I had hacked, that they concluded that I had ‘incidental contamination’ and was of no further interest.
Into this melting pot of unrewarding feelings I had now to let my brother. My bodyguard and henchman, that uncouth and un-trainable Rottweiler had now to be brought to heel, to bend his undoubted talents for lawlessness to the requirements of intergalactic espionage. In short we were become body snatchers; traceless, print-less, soundless, ripple-less body snatchers. I would control the airwaves, create an information curtain but the sneak thief work could not be mine, nor his in fact, but “Brother mine, I know a man who can…”
A ratty little man to penetrate the nest of rats that is U.A.S.S. But, not yet a while, we run too fast. There are yet more steps to climb.
As I said, when U.A.S.S. invited me to be a patron I was not surprised. I had, in fact, suggested myself, but they were not to know that. “It’s a shame you’re not a crim,” said Bro one morning over a plotters fag and coffee, “you’re a fucking mastermind! You have it all summed-up!”
“Not quite,” I remind him. There is one more coup I have to clinch; one more cat to bag.
There is always one person, in every administration, whose task it is to talk to aliens. It is always a bit of a joke to all and sundry, those whose neck is not on the line should security fail and we wake one morning subservient to eight legged creatures with assumed mining rights.
Paragraph 24.1.a of the International Security Protocol dictates that there should be one appointed spokesperson ready to step up should the little green men come to call.
Not written but generally known is that the person, no! Let’s call him a man, for they always have been men… The man should be relatively unassuming, well spoken, not a threat. He should be average height and average build, Caucasian (though we dare not write that), Christian, possibly? Trustworthy too? Trustworthy on the outside.
Trustworthy enough to appear to the man in the street a worthy ambassador, yet to know well enough where his allegiance ought to lie, to sell out a life form to U.A.S.S.
So not trustworthy at all actually.
This is my last cat. I need to be the man who talks to aliens and I don’t quite meet the person spec. I need to deal a little dodgier. A little wining and dining with men in white coats; dope the moggy?
When that last piece fell into place. We were ready to boogie. I took a long distance call from the alien’s parents and invited them to send their calling card. Small worries of the grave robber haunted me, like what would happen when are quarry thawed? But alien mama and papa said, “no big deal. “ They would hold him a state of suspended animation, or that is what I understood it to translate to or more literally ‘little death’ and I began to wonder… if I had understood correctly about their customs and their rites, what to sing the song of little death might mean?
Then things began to happen. Stella and I and the big Bro followed the action on the telly with the kids, and other developments on the laptop where we filled in the voids of public information and filled in the gaps of political need to know. The aliens were coming…
As our rat chewed his way into the U.A.S.S. basement, the Met, the Government, M.I.5, the S.I.S. and the S.A.S. were preparing a landing pad, the red carpet, our reception committee, the laser barriers, the snipers on high buildings. In short, a trap and we three, in conference, planned to spring the trap.
Of course outwardly I had to appear normal, to get on with the business of government, to take my briefing, learn my cues.
By Alien Encounter minus 20 hours, we had a corpse in our spare room, thawing.
By Alien Encounter minus 15 hours, we had a corpse in our spare room, dripping.
We had thugs on tall buildings waiting to take out snipers, electricians and others ready to pull plugs, slip red carpets from under our feet, short out lasers, let hell loose.
By Alien Encounter minus 10 hours, the alien in our spare room started breathing and Mama and Papa alien’s ambiguities finally made sense to me. My hands began to glow oh so slightly. I sent out for gloves.
There were sound tests and lighting tests, make-up and dressers. I slipped back as often as I could, always the family man.
By Alien Encounter minus 5 hours, the alien in our spare room asked for something to eat.
Alien Encounter minus 4 hours forty saw the alien eating avocados in front of our telly. Stella and the children were enthralled. I sent out for more avocados.
Minus 3 hours, Big Bro slips out the back and the plan has changed. My youngest son is mortified, Stella enraged. An Aid texts me, ‘time 2 go’.
Minus 2 hours fifty and I leave the house by the front steps amidst the flashes and clicking of cameras and three boys leave by the back. They are dressed in black hoodies and jeans. Inside the house Stella and my youngest son watch the telly. I only have three children. The boys rendezvous with big Bro on a corner as planned. Big Bro has greased some palms and his purse (my purse) is somewhat lighter.
The waiting was outwardly boring, standing on ceremony in the threatening rain. More galling though for those condemned to follow the inane commentary of the television coverage, I felt for Stella. I watched for the three hooded figures in the crowd and spotted them to the left of me. I gave them a wave.
The commentator noticed my action, as I knew he would. “Look, there are the Minister’s sons. Can’t see the small one properly but that is definitely them.” Camera pans. “I wonder if he is going to introduce them to the aliens?” Guffaw.
A bodyguard to my right gave me a nod.
And an excited little voice inside my head clicked feverishly, “mummy’s coming, mummy’s coming”. It was the cutest thing! I caught myself smiling.
They were early! Suddenly the sky lit up and a glowing shape descended. “It’s just like Chicken Little,” said some guy on my flank. It was going to be so much more like Chicken Little than he could know.
There was noise we couldn’t hear but only feel, a smell of a fuel we didn’t recognise, a light we couldn’t find the source of. “Everything feels alien, like it is not of this world! Oh, which of course it isn’t!” blabbed the commentator stupidly. “Mummy’s coming, mummy’s coming,” clicked and blipped inside my head.
“You alright Sir?” said an Aid as I held my hands to my head, forgetting briefly my public countenance. I felt a doorway open on the craft. This is it… a meeting of old friends, a family reunion, a trap. “We know,” said a softer blip, “but we had to come, you’ll do your best, we are not defenceless.”
We met as old friends with blips and clicks and hugs (for the record they felt warm, thin skinned and a bit like I might imagine a Naked Mole Rat to feel) and around us all hell, almost, let loose. “What is going on? What has got into the Minister? Has he gone crazy? That’s not in the script?”
I held up my gloved hands to still the crowds. “Ladies and gentlemen, these are my good friends (HEADLINE: MINISTER MADNESS!) whom I have known since child hood (HEADLINE: MINISTER DELUDED). They are family people and are looking for their lost child (HEADLINE: THEY ARE FAMILY PEOPLE SAYS MINISTER) I would like to introduce them to my children…”
I gesture to the children, across the line of the crowd-containing boundary. They wait for the inevitable nods and shrugs and opening of the barrier, and unseen the switching off of the laser trap, before they step up. The smallest one is still hooded held by both hands between the others. He squirms and jumps squeaking crazily and escapes them, as his hood falls back…
Quite suddenly the enemy smell the rat and all hell does let loose.
In the darkness of the shorted lights, my brother grabs my children and they run, he felling an S.A.S. officer with a deft blow to the chin as he passes. The aliens grab their child and they… (move fast?) taking out the few who tried to stop them in a manner that defies description. The magic of their family reunion is lost in the madness (MINISTER DOUBLE CROSSES U.A.S.S.).
I take off my gloves.
The light from my hands stills everything. I hold them out, palms facing out, like some Jesus figure in renaissance gilt and by their light we watch the alien’s departure. No one can stop them. No one can act against my compelling hands.
My sons creep back. It seems the light will let them in. Together we watch the alien ship fade. Then the sound we can only feel is gone, though a smell of fuel still lingers. Loudspeakers blare instructions, walkie-talkies and swift glances transfer meaning…
“You were great Dad,” said my eldest child, gripping my arm as they pull me away and into a blacked-out car. Big Bro steps up to claim the children. I accept my son’s rare praise and my Rottweiler’s faithfulness, knowing them both to be true.
There would be hell to pay…
But I am great! Let them bundle me.
“Cameras stay trained”.
In press rooms all over the world… “Find that old copy about the Golden Hands Boy!”
It was very minor hell. I was arrested briefly, but on what pretext? I had done no wrong. The right thinking world could see that, and years of my right thinking politics meant that there was more right thinking in the world, right?
The worst were the endless interviews and questioning, both, latterly, from the media and also the S.I.S. The secret intelligence bloodhounds got me first and tried to run tests on me, but happily I am no longer an unwanted child from a sink estate so they didn’t get away with it. They tried too to make my life an official secret, but I would not let that wash. They wanted to push me around, get their own way like the usually did, but they couldn’t not treat me with deference. At some level they were scared of me. Was it my international statesmanship, my day-glo hands or my mainline to an alien consciousness that freaked them out? Uncharitable though it is, I loved watching them squirm. In the end we hatched an unhappy compromise that my life was mine, but U.A.S.S.’s part in it was a secret. I went with that. It was a pile of shit, but I went with that.
The media machine then processed us. It transpired that Stella had photographed the kids with the alien so her photos were front page global. The boys enjoyed their brief fame, which lasted till Bangladesh got flooded again. Sorry to make light of that, but frankly it was a relief. I salved my conscience with a significant donation to the Disasters Emergency Committee.
I lost my job over it. Got a golden handshake! Get it!! Golden Hand Shake! I didn’t mind at all, that job had lost its purpose now, I didn’t need power and influence; I had celebrity and that opened enough doors for a middle-aged do-gooder. Stella and I joked that I might make it into ‘Heat’ magazine’s top twenty, but I think not. Glowing hands are just creepy, not sexy. “Hey, let me be the judge of that!” said Stella.
We travelled widely, lectured widely, made a lot of money on film and book rights. We gave a lot of money to good causes. Became good friends with big Bro. Saw our boys through Uni, heading out on their own trajectories and received Christmas cards from outer space.
When my mother died. Stella and I went together to her funeral. Big Bro introduced us to our family. It was okay.
We have grandchildren now. Sleek, well cared-for, bright children with a zest for life. They like me to help them with their homework; coz Granddad is so clever! I don’t even charge then in crisps and pasties like I used to, to get by. Though I’m partial to an apple, if they’re feeling grateful!
We have finally embraced my wider family too. My sibling’s children are less sleek and well cared for, but bright children and quite rewarding company for an old man. I tell them tales about aliens and they almost believe me.
So we have slipped together into old age. A wasteland, strewn about with beautiful memories.