I was back in Dreighton by half-past eleven on Friday morning.
I woke up and found myself alone again. Siobhan was working early and Robert had decided to spend yet another day away with his friends from university. With nothing better to do I ended up back at Porter Farm. Joe Porter was as pleased to see me as he normally was (I was, after all, free labour for him). He reeled off enough jobs to fill four days, never mind the four or five hours that I had originally intended to stay. Just after ten I was standing knee deep in manure, cleaning out a barn that had been used as a temporary shelter for Joe's cattle while repairs had been made to another building. Joe interrupted my work to ask me if I would take him into Dreighton to pick up a piece of machinery that he'd ordered last week. There wasn't much of a choice really - stay and shovel shit or get out into the sunshine for a while. Within ten minutes I was washed, changed and ready.
Most of the conversation between Joe and I on the way to Dreighton was as sparse and monosyllabic as ever. I didn't mind - that was Joe's way. He only ever got excited about a couple of things (usually rugby and cattle) and as I had little interest in either subject I hadn't expected to talk much. Nevertheless, my instinctive reaction to the silence in the car was to keep trying to say something anyway...
'Rob and I were in Dreighton on Wednesday night,' I said.
'Oh,' grunted Joe.
'He was on at me all day to go and see one of the aliens. Wouldn't shut up about it until I agreed.'
'Oh,' he grunted again.
'We got to see one though. Saw two actually. You know the pub opposite the garage on the high street?'
Joe looked blank.
'Next to Mathesons?'
'Two doors down from the bank?'
'By the Doctors?'
He nodded and grunted.
'We were sitting outside having a drink when this bloody big crowd starts coming towards us. The whole town was packed out anyway but this crowd was huge. We knew straight away that it had to be aliens. I climbed up on a table and Rob shinned his way up a lamppost.'
I glanced to my left to check that Joe was still there.
'Oh yes,' he mumbled, prompted to say something by my silence.
'Anyway, right in the middle of this crowd were two aliens. I couldn't believe it. They were just walking along the street like you or I would, except we wouldn't be surrounded by hundreds of people, would we?'
'Then some bloke started giving them grief, didn't he? He just stood there in the middle of the pavement and started asking them why they were here and what they wanted and telling them that he didn't trust them and...'
'There's no need for that, is there?' Joe interrupted unexpectedly. 'It's not their fault they're here, is it? Bloody hell, how would you feel if you was stuck somewhere a million miles from home?'
'I know, but...'
'No, that's not on. They ain't done anything wrong.'
'Didn't think you'd be that bothered, Joe,' I said, surprised by the strength of his reaction.
'Course I'm bothered,' he said. 'Came here to see them myself.'
'I was here Wednesday morning. Had to see the doctor about me back so I thought I'd come early and try and see one of them.'
'And did you see one?'
'Saw a few. Wanted to be one of the first.'
The fact that Joe was interested amazed me and for a couple of seconds I couldn't think of very much to say.
'How is your back?' I eventually asked. 'What did the doctor say?'
He shrugged his shoulders.
'Didn't go in the end. I see Dr Ellis every month, didn't think it would hurt if I missed one appointment. And anyway, he was out there with me. I saw him and the nurse in the crowds.'
I drove along the high street (which was still busier than usual), turned left onto the road that goes to Yarnell and then pulled up in the car park (which was still fuller than usual) outside the warehouse that Joe wanted.
'Back in a minute,' he grunted as he got out of the car.
I watched him disappear into the warehouse and sat and waited.
It was a glorious late summer's day and even with the windows and sunroof open, the heat inside the car was rapidly becoming unbearable. I got out and sat down on a narrow grass verge which sloped down between the edge of the pavement and the tarmac of the car park. The temperature was adding to my mounting frustration. I wouldn't have minded if Joe had said he'd be back in three hours - what bothered me was sitting there wasting my time not knowing whether he was going to be out in the next five minutes or whether he'd be talking to his mates in the warehouse for another hour. I could have got up and gone inside to see what was going on but, if I was completely honest, I just couldn't be bothered to move. I didn't have anything else to do and, anyway, it was too hot...
'Excuse me,' an unexpected voice suddenly said from somewhere behind me. There was something about the tone and the accent of the voice that was unusual. I knew before I'd turned around that it was an alien.
I stood up and tried to reply but I felt inexplicably nervous and my mouth was dry. The alien (which was a good six inches taller than my five foot eleven height) attempted something resembling a smile and shuffled awkwardly on its feet. I knew I was staring but there was nothing I could do to stop myself.
'I'm sorry if I disturbed you,' the visitor said gently. 'I'm lost.'
What kind of a species can travel halfway across the universe and then get lost in Dreighton I found myself wondering silently? I didn't dare say anything even remotely facetious.
'Where are you trying to get to?' I asked instead.
'I'm looking for Lime Street ,' the alien replied politely. 'I'm supposed to be meeting a friend there.'
Again I found myself staring at the creature in front of me. It had obviously seen many more humans than I had aliens and I sensed that I was of little reciprocal interest. Its baby-blue eyes quickly scanned my face and the thin lips of its small, delicate mouth gently curled at the corners again. I'd heard that the aliens had two separate sexes in much the same way we do and I guessed that this one was female. There was something about its movements and mannerisms that was innately feminine.
'You're a long way off,' I said, eventually remembering to reply. 'Lime Street 's on the other side of town.'
'Oh,' she said quietly.
'When I say you're a long way off,' I continued, blabbering like an idiot, 'I'm talking relatively. It's only half a mile away.'
I was talking before thinking. A bad mistake that was making me look like an idiot. What kind of ambassador was I for my species?
'I don't understand,' the alien said. 'I don't know what you mean.'
There I was, talking to a visitor from the other side of the galaxy who had been speaking English for just a few weeks and who was speaking it like an expert. I, on the other hand, had been using the language for more than twenty years and yet I was still having trouble making myself understood.
'What I meant to say,' I explained sheepishly, 'was that the distance to Lime Street is nothing compared to the distance you've travelled to end up here.'
She nodded. No smile this time.
There followed a long, awkward and humourless silence.
'So can you tell me how to get there?' the alien asked hopefully.
'What? Oh, yes,' I stammered, feeling my face redden. 'Sorry, it's just that I wasn't expecting to...'
I didn't know what to say. Instead I began to direct the alien across town.
'Take a right, follow the high street until you reach the junction with the road to Fordham. Turn left and Lime Street is the second road on your right.' 'Thank you,' she said and she turned and began to walk away.
'So how are you finding it here?' I asked, shouting after her. I instinctively wanted her to stay a little longer. I would have been disappointed if my first conversation with an alien had ended as completely unrewarding and embarrassing as it had begun.
She turned back and smiled again.
'When you say here,' she began, 'are you talking about the town or the planet?'
'Either,' I replied. 'Both.'
She sighed and thought for a moment before answering.
'I don't know how to answer honestly without offending you...' she said.
'Just offend me then,' I interrupted.
'Your planet is fine, but it's not what I'm used to. It's not my home, is it?'
Although her use of the word 'fine' annoyed me because it made my planet sound nondescript and barely adequate, I understood what she was trying to say.
'Of course it isn't,' I agreed.
'Don't get me wrong, I like what I've seen here,' she continued, 'but I'd rather be back home.'
'How long will it be before you get back?'
'A year and a half, maybe longer.'
'And how does that make you feel?'
'Desperate,' she replied, before turning and walking away again.
I watched the alien disappear and thought about her constantly until Joe finally emerged from the warehouse.
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