• A missing ring
  • Fear of spiders
  • A mysterious stranger

It is a privilege to be chosen, whether for First Contact or, as in my case, for Preparation. One does not just land on a strange planet in a distant galaxy expecting to be welcomed. One does not even expect to be recognised, for we do not look like the hominid or anything the hominid (with the exception of one particular hominid – see Wells, below) might expect a visiting life-form to look like. We are not, for example, Little Green Men.

We have been monitoring transmission from Via LacteaT71546, referred to by the hominid as Earth, since their invention of radio. More recently we have been able to intercept their World Wide Web and study in detail the myriad stories they tell, both of their everyday lives and of the lives of those of their number long since reintegrated into Earth’s biosphere. We have greatly enjoyed this quiet sharing in this electronic version of their innermost thoughts.

One story they tell on their Web is of ships arriving in the New World from Europe. Natives of the Americas, it seems, having no prior concept of ‘ship’, were unable to espy the white man’s ships on the horizon. So it is with the hominid. Their physical eyes register us but their brains fail to compute the reality of us. If seen at all we appear nothing more than harmless arachnids. But the hominid need have no fear. We seek and offer only fellowship in a desolate universe.

My own posting is a relatively humble one. I reside within and transmit reports from the hominid dwelling-cube known as Flat 2A Limegrove Villas, Morton Street, Manchester, United Kingdom, Via Lactea T71546. My subject is a hominid female of increasing years who usually, although not always, thinks of herself as MarjorieSaintAubyn. This, I have discovered is her ‘professional’ or ‘stage’ name since she is, or at one time was, a stage actress.

I should perhaps clarify some minor points. Firstly, not all arachnids are colleagues; many are exactly what they appear to be – small, eight-legged biological life forms. Secondly, those of us who are not – as we appear – are in fact temporarily miniaturised and specially-equipped version of our normal selves. Thankfully, the miniaturisation process is reversible. On my home planet and in my natural form I would be very large indeed; large enough to step over with ease the apartment building my miniature self currently inhabits. And this is another reason for a long and cautious Preparation. Earth author H G Wells, unfortunately and purely accidentally, did us a great disservice with his novel War of the Worlds. Those fearsome, stalking, metallic creatures, products of his vivid imagination, bear a strong resemblance to ourselves. As to my special equipment, more later. It is certainly enjoyable to be in possession of such ‘gadgets’. I feel like Mr 007 Bond, of whom I am a great fanatical.

MarjorieSaintAubyn will occasionally talk to me as she does the washing up. I spend most of my time above her kitchen sink – an excellent vantage point. She addresses me as Incy; I have not as yet discovered why this is, but the fact that she has named me at all is a bonus since the giving and receiving of names creates a psychic bond. My species are empaths, highly tuned to emotions of all kinds, in all species.  So, I hear the random utterances of MarjorieSaintAubyn, the mutterings, the snatches of old songs and the conversations she holds with herself and with others not in fact present in the room, scarcely conscious that she has spoken aloud. Simultaneously I am correlating her words with her emotions and her memory echoes. The other day, for example, she was singing an old Earth song:

  • Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do
  • I’m half crazy all for the love of you…

The man informs Daisy of his love and suggests they attend their forthcoming marriage ceremony on a twin-seat velocipede. Curious. The tune, I think, has overtones of sadness which are not reflected in the words. MarjorieSaintAubyn also has overtones of sadness. In the background of her thoughts I saw a man, on a stage, with her. They were singing together, wearing in costumes which match the song’s era (later Victorian). It was a performance. I sensed, through her, the presence of an audience.

MarjorieSaintAubyn will sometimes remind herself, and therefore myself, of her past glories. She is somewhat vain, it has to be said. Her mind tends to project a picture of her younger self, but this is a publicity photograph, carefully lit and shot through some kind of gauze, possibly also retouched. Where are her memories of the real MarjorieSaintAubyn? Sometimes she looks in the mirror over the sink, tugging at the baggy skin around her eyes as if trying to straighten it out, then she runs her middle finger around her lower lip as if removing invisible lipstick smudges. In her mind I see a different, square mirror, bordered with lights. On the surface in front of her are pots of cosmetics, brushes of different sizes and thicknesses and a pack of cotton wool.

The mirror over MarjorieSaintAubyn’s sink is spotted with age and streaked with washing-up liquid. She is older than she likes to admit and her sight is fading. The kitchen is not especially clean. Her background anxieties show me that she has little money with which to replace spotted mirrors, threadbare carpets or faded curtains. She no longer acts. Her mind informs her (and me) that one day soon her agent will call, that there is still time for a renaissance. Her mind also informs her (and me) that her agent has long since forgotten her name – may even have gone out of business – and that even if that role came along she would be incapable of retaining her lines.

I have detected a pattern. These instances of looking in the mirror over the sink become more frequent when she is about to Do a Silly Thing, as she calls it. The Doing a Silly Thing ritual entails making a telephone call to the police station to inform the policemen therein that burglars must have broken into her flat. Prior to the making of the phone call she takes pains to conceal an object of apparent value. This time it is to be the thin gold wedding ring – her mother’s, in fact, for MarjorieSaintAubyn is unmarried. She places the ring in the washing-up bowl, squirts in green liquid and runs the water. Hot steam rises, enveloping my observation point. Delicately, so as not to alert her, I move out of range of the hazard.

MarjorieSaintAubyn is lonely. It is when she is about to Do a Silly Thing that I feel this most strongly. Whilst making the phone call she pictures the young police officer who came before. So smart in his uniform. She always did like a man in uniform. So polite. So kind. So young. They are bound send him again this time.

And here is where my own web starts to vibrate. As you know, my colleagues and I possess the equivalent of the hominid World Wide Web, but considerably more sophisticated. I have made no specific request for information. A colleague within the police station happens to have been monitoring my subject’s call and a link has been generated without the instigation of either of us. It transmits the policemen’s impatience, and derision.

That Mad Old Bat again.

Nomenclature Old Bat is an addition to my lexicon, but I interpret it as pejorative. The auto-link transmits that the police station policemen will not send the nice young policeman this time, but intend instead to despatch their newest recruit, a girl employed via the Job Centre as a tea-dispenser. I receive that they do not greatly admire this young person’s facial appearance, are of the opinion that she is somewhat overweight and have a low collective opinion of her intelligence/ beverage-manufacturing abilities.

Remember to introduce yourself as our Community Liaison Officer. Got that? Sure? The Old Bat will never know.

The girl, whose name I receive as Ashley, is not as unintelligent as these unpleasant police officers suppose and is clearly sensitive to their mockery. She dislikes the idea of deceiving an elderly person but accepts that she has little choice in the matter. She also dislikes every one of the policeman and the process of beverage-manufacture, particularly the big metal urn of boiling water, which is hot and heavy, and which the policemen jocosely refer to as Ernie…

But wait. MarjorieSaintAubyn is again conversing with the spotted mirror.

I was dedicated to my art, you see, I had plenty of proposals when I was a girl…plenty…but I was just so…dedicated.

In the normal course of events she would fabricate her story in advance of making the phone call, but this time she has forgotten to do so and is becoming anxious.

What shall I tell the nice young officer when he gets here?

I believe I shall tell him that a mysterious stranger came to my door…when?…it was…yesterday afternoon. The stranger was… one of those Jehovahs*.

*Jehovahs: those of a religious persuasion who, as part of their religious practice process from house to house attempting to convert others to their beliefs. Originally referring specifically to the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation but now a generic term for any persistent, religiously-motivated caller, whether from that organisation or another of its ilk.

But why on earth did I invite the mysterious stranger in?

I felt sorry for him. Poor young man, he was all wet… from the rain. Was it raining yesterday? I can’t remember. Anyway, his coat was soaking wet. And his shoes… so I invited him in for… for a cup of tea. After all, what harm could it do? And if he wanted to tell me a bit about Jesus? I didn’t mind. I didn’t have to listen, after all.

But the ring? She is becoming very nervous now.

Simple. The ring was on the ring-tree on the kitchen shelf. I had taken it off to do the washing up. At one point he went out into my kitchen…

Why would a Jehovah go into your kitchen?

…to fetch the sugar bowl, which I had forgotten to put on the tray. To save my legs, he said. I told him it was on the shelf. But then when he was gone, I took the used cups out into the kitchen and… and the ring was gone from the shelf. He must have stolen it.

MarjorieSaintAubyn is applying cosmetics. She possesses only one lipstick nowadays, and that is an ancient stub. It appears too violent a hue for a woman of her years. The waxy substance strays into the folds around her mouth but because her eyesight is poor she does not notice this. She folds a piece of kitchen roll into a square, and presses it between her lips to blot them. Should she put on her earrings? Maybe the pearl choker? Would that be too much? Her hands tremble. I hear her questions, overlaid with fright and despair.

The bell rings. She opens the door. Oh! I espy the young woman standing in the hallway, and can confirm the accuracy of my colleague’s observation. She is indeed plain, and a little overweight although I surmise that this is mostly of the kind the hominids refer to as ‘puppy-fat’.

Can I come in, Miss St Aubyn? I’m Ashley Broadhead from the… I’m the… Community Liaison Officer.

I have taken advantage of my hominid’s distraction to relocate myself into her living room. I find such interactions fascinating and do not wish to miss any detail. My own race is a highly evolved and sociable one.  On my planet, MarjorieSaintAubyn, or Miss Marjorie St Aubyn as I now realise it should be, would never be left unvisited in her old age, in a one-bedroomed, fourth floor flat in a shabby area of town. Of course my planet has no towns; no fourth floor flats either, but I am sure you will take my meaning.

Luckily my hearing was adjusted before I embarked on my current assignment, at the same time as the translation module was fitted. This is as well because the scream that issues from the mouth AshleyBroadhead is of high pitch and extremely loud. Marjorie hominid gasps and puts both hands over her ears.

Spider! Spider! Aaaarghh! Spider! Or words to that effect.

The matter is now clear. AshleyBroadhead, in common with many of her fellow hominids, suffers from arachnophobia – a fear of spiders. For a moment I cannot think why she is pointing at me, screaming in my direction, then I realise that as far as she is concerned I am the spider. For a few minutes all is confusion. Marjorie disappears into the kitchen and comes out with a bright yellow tea-cup (the one that has no saucer, bought in a charity shop on a wet Monday because the colour cheered her) and a small segment of cardboard carton. The next moment I am plunged into darkness. I surmise the cup has been placed over me and, yes, now the small piece of cardboard carton (Cornflakes, a breakfast cereal) is being pushed underneath the rim, forcing me to step onto it or be squashed.

I have a horrible feeling I know what is going to happen next. There is some jiggling. With the help of my stabilisation modifications I succeed in remaining upright. I hear Marjorie raising the sash window in the kitchen with something of a struggle (the left-hand sash cord being non-operational) and yes, as anticipated I am in swift descent through the stuffy morning air. Traffic fumes and noise rise up to meet me. I catch an echo of regret from Marjorie as I fall. Sorry, Incy…

There appear to be no usable thermals – circulation presumably impeded by surrounding high-rise buildings. For the first time in my mission I shall be forced to deploy my new anti-gravity shield. I do hope it…

…yes, I am still here – a little ruffled, perhaps, but all eight legs are on terra firma. However, I now have a problem: how to get back up. Because I cannot simply leave Marjorie. I am assigned to her and unless she were to expire and be reintegrated am not permitted to abandon my assignation. You would think my superiors could have fitted me with an upward-propulsion device of some kind, the equivalent of what is known here on Earth as a jet pack, but unfortunately they did not think of this. It means climbing the drainpipe – outside, not inside. It is a myth that arachnids climb up the inside of drainpipes since the U-bend forms a potent physical barrier to any bath, sink or other household ingress. It is an undertaking that may take some time.

An hour and a half later I regain Marjorie hominid’s windowsill. Unfortunately a pigeon avian is now in residence, and has observed me. In haste, I press my ‘bird-deterrer’ button. This emits a range of ultrasonic vibrations only audible to avians on this planet. Pigeon fluffs its feathers and departs. The kitchen window remains closed. It is a stuffy day, and I am familiar with Marjorie’s habits. If her visitor had gone she would have at once reopened the window to let fresh air in. I peer through the unwashed glass. AshleyBroadhead hominid occupies one of the  armchairs in the living room, Marjorie hominid the other. Observing the number of unwashed mugs on the draining board I deduce that a fresh pot of tea has been manufactured during my absence. I also observe that the bubbles have disappeared from the washing-up bowl and the ‘missing’ ring is clearly visible, as AshleyBroadhead may have observed if, as I suspect, it was she who was responsible for the second pot of tea.

I do in fact possess a gadget for temporarily ‘melting’ glass. It works by loosening the bonds between the glass atoms to such an extent that a ‘hole’ forms and I can pass through. The window subsequently re-bonds. I am quite looking forward to experimenting with this little toy, but what I sense and see taking place in the living room persuades me of the advisability of remaining on the window ledge a while longer.

AshleyBroadhead and Marjorie are deep in conversation, a photograph album open before them. Marjorie is relaying her memories to AshleyBroadhead and both appear to be enjoying the conversation. I detect a relaxed and happy atmosphere. Marjorie has someone to talk to for the first time in several years – that is why she is happy. AshleyBroadhead has come to a decision – that is why she is happy. She has decided not to return to the police station. They can whistle is what I sense her thinking at this moment. They can whistle? And what is Stuffthelotofem? But no matter.

In short, this is by way of a request to the Interplanetary Council for reassignment to other duties. I can confidently predict further visits to Marjorie from the AshleyBroadhead hominid and, fascinating though my current assignment has proven to be, and fond as I have grown of the Marjorie hominid, I would prefer if at all possible to avoid repeats of today’s precipitate descent, and the adventures consequent thereupon.

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