I would have thought that the strangest night of my life would have some foreshadowing, but that’s not how it was.
I slept too late, skipped breakfast and hurried to work. Danny had the car up on the rig. We got the suspension sorted eventually. He went out for a while to drop something off with his wife. I texted Jess but she didn’t text me back. I resisted the urge to throw my phone across the garage. I hung around, feeling idle and smoking way too many cigarettes. I watched the kids outside the game shop across the road, eating chicken wings, playing music on their phones and swearing amicably at each other.
The only weird thing about it was that I felt far more upset about Jess than I thought I would. Night fell before Danny returned. We packed up and I tried to persuade him to come to the pub with me, but he was off to meet his wife again. They were taking the baby to see her mum, he told me. He rolled his eyes like it was a burden, but I could see that he was happy. I didn’t begrudge him that happiness. Nina was a nice girl, and their kid was cute as hell.
So I was at the pub alone, on a stool by the bar because I wanted to be near other people. It was a Thursday night so it was decent but not packed. I knew I still smelled of oil and grease but I’d shower when I got home. Normally Delia talked to me while she worked, and always found time to pull my pints. Sometimes she even flirted with me. I think she actually liked my company, but she knew I had a girlfriend. Delia barely seemed to notice me. She offered a quick smile and a ‘hi’, but then went around busying herself with swiping down the bar and collecting glasses. I stared into my Carlsberg and thought about texting Jess again.
That’s when I noticed him. He was sitting only a few feet away, just around the L-shape of the bar. A guy in a rumpled suit, maybe mid-thirties, dark hair. He had a notebook open on the bar and was sketching something as he occasionally sipped his pint. I was intrigued so I watched him for a little while, trying to study his face, his eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of what it was he was drawing. The angle was too shallow and he didn’t move his notebook, so I couldn’t tell. The pub wasn’t that noisy but I was still surprised when he glanced up at me with a wry smile and said, “Want to see?”
I felt a little embarrassed that he’d obviously sensed me watching him so I tried my own wry smile and said, “Sure.”
He lifted the notebook. It was a very detailed drawing of St Paul’s Cathedral. I squinted at it. In fact, it was so good that it almost looked like a photocopy of a snapshot. My first thought was that he’d copied it from a photo that he had with him on the bar, but I didn’t see one.
“Wow, mate...did you paint that thing from memory?”
“Yeah. Went down there a few days ago.”
“That’s pretty impressive, seriously.” I took a long sip of my beer so as not to appear too friendly, but I was genuinely impressed. “You a professional artist, then?”
He laughed and shook his head. I could hear sadness in his laugh. “No, I’m a student. Studying literature.”
There was something odd about this guy, I realised then, but I had no fucking clue what it might be. I was tired and a little pissed off, and suddenly I didn’t care about the guy at the bar. I nodded and continued drinking quietly.
“I want to go home,” the guy said. I glanced up from my pint and saw he was staring directly at me. There were tears in his eyes. And I thought, Oh, ok, he’s a mental. And he’s gonna break down in front of me. Just great.
I sighed and tried for some compassion. “Where’s home?”
“A long way away. This isn’t my home. I’m not a man.”
I frowned at his words and the intensity of his gaze. “What are you then?”
“I’m an alien.”
I could tell that the guy meant it literally. I smiled at him and nodded. He was harmless, I realised – seriously mental, but harmless. Fuck it; I had nowhere better to be.
“What planet are you from?”
There wasn’t a trace of humour in his eyes. “I’m telling you the truth.”
“Well, I’m a mechanic, but I like to read, and I know a bit about science...so tell me where you come from.”
They guy laughed and took a sip of his pint. “Ok. I come from a place that’s kind of very far from here. It’s not a planet, exactly. It’s complicated.”
I nodded. “That’s ok. I like complicated.”
He stared at me for a long time, and despite myself I was quite unnerved. “We call it the Locked Community. Or at least, that’s an adequate translation. Do you even really care?”
I raised my pint to him, trying to ignore the strangeness I was feeling. “Sure I care. ‘The Locked Community’. Sounds nice.”
He glanced away at my sarcasm and said, “I’m a fucking idiot. And I’m drunk. And tired. I should go home and go to bed.”
For no apparent reason, a serious chill went through me. Yet it wasn’t a chill. It was more like a feeling of inertia during the plunge of an aircraft. I found myself murmuring the word, “Whoa...”
I had the strangest feeling of unknowing and knowing at the same time, and also denying what I suddenly knew or didn’t know. “Holy shit,” I said to myself.
“Do you have a name?” I found myself asking.
“Is that your...I mean, is that an assumed name?”
“Do you have a name...where you come from?”
“Yeah.” He chuckled and glanced at me like I was kind of sweet. “Everything has a name. Usually things have more than one. I guess my name would be something like ‘Forms of the Quiet Beach’. Or ‘Images of the Calm Shore’. Something like that.” He took a long swallow of his pint, and added, “Do you smoke? I wish we could still smoke in pubs.”
The creep-out sensation had gripped me now, and I knew that if I continued to sit there it would only intensify. I tried to look away from the guy and stare directly at the feeling, to lessen it. But it only got stronger.
“Holy shit,” I said again.
“What’s your name?” he asked me.
The guy laughed. “Infinity of El? Power of God? I’m talking to the power of God. Who knew?” That wry look was in his eyes again, as well as the sadness.
I tried to open my mouth, to speak, but everything seemed trite. Eventually I managed, “How long have you been here?”
“On Earth, you mean? Seventeen years. Feels like a hundred.”
“Is this what you really look like?”
“No. I made this body up.”
“What do you mean?”
“I imagined it. Like, with my mind. It’s complicated.”
The L-shaped bar didn’t feel real anymore. Neither did the pub itself. It was like someone has turned down the volume on everything except the sound of our voices. Everything was soft-focus, except this guy in a rumpled suit sitting a few feet away from me, drinking sadly and drawing in a notebook like it was the most normal thing in the world.
“How the fuck...I mean, how the fuck did you even get here? What are you...?”
The guy shrugged. “I told you what I am.”
“What do you really...look like, if not like this?”
He turned a page in his notebook and drew a knot of careless scribble. He showed me the scribble. “Like that. Not literally like that, but you get the idea.”
“You’re not a physical being...?”
“Before this, no, not really. Not anymore. The Locked Community tells all different kinds of stories, and I’m not sure which of them I believe. Sometimes I believe parts of many of them. We were properly physical once, though. At least that’s our working assumption. We can become physical if we want though.” He gestured at himself. “But like I say, it’s complicated.”
“Why are you...here?” I asked. My own voice sounded so loud in my ears.
“To study literature, to hang out and meet people. To fall in love. Hasn’t really panned out the way I’d planned. Once you get here, everything changes.”
“Are there others here?”
“Sure, loads. From all over the place, but it’s not like you might think. There are some groups here who really don’t like you, but they tolerate you because you’re useful.” He laughed suddenly. “Not you, personally, Mike. I mean humanity in general.”
I nodded like I understood, and the feeling of almost understanding wasn’t disingenuous.
“You have a girlfriend, Mike?”
I blinked wide-eyed at the guy and tried not to cry. “Jess. She’s great, but I’m a selfish asshole sometimes and...she’s getting bored with me.”
“I’ve read that can happen,” he said, and that smile was there again.
For some reason I felt like he was comforting me, and that I should be glad of this little intimacy in the midst of this strangeness, but the tears forced their way into my eyes.
“She’s gonna leave me, eventually.”
“Not if you change though, right? I watch a lot of movies. And in the movies a character has to change for themselves, not the person they claim to love. When they can change for themselves, that’s when they get some semblance of a happy ending. I bet it’s kind of true in real life too.”
I stared at the weird guy at the bar. There was no pub, no other customers, no world around us – just him and me and our sadness. I felt like my mind and heart should be bursting with a billion questions, but the truth was I didn’t know what the hell to say. He took a sip of his pint and I took a sip of mine.
“I could go back, Mike. I’m not stuck here or anything. But, my exams are next year and I promised myself that I’d stay the course, so to speak. But I miss my friends, my family. I miss the magic of my world. I used to frown on that kind of freedom, you know. Now I just think about how much I miss it. Seventeen years is a long time to be encased in this flesh. I want to feel the numinous howling in my mind again.”
I didn’t know what to say to ‘Ethan’. All I knew was that I wasn’t asleep at that strange moment, and that I was deeply sad.
Hesitantly I asked him, “Do we come...from the stars? Humans, I mean.”
He looked tired and confused, but not as sad as before. “Everything comes from the stars. We’re all related somehow.” His gaze became stern. “Don’t you forget it, Mike. Don’t let people feed you a lot of bullshit. That’s where they’ll twist the knife, in your misunderstandings. We’re all fucking related.”
He downed the last of his pint and tore a page out of his notebook. “St Paul’s Cathedral, for you.” He folded the page and slid it across the bar towards me.
“Thank you,” I muttered and didn’t expect that he would hear me.
“You’re welcome.” He smiled at me again. “I don’t usually share with people. But it was kind of fun to let it out. I need some sleep, so...take it easy, Michael.”
The words sounded so banal in my mouth and yet there was nothing more authentic to say. “Take it easy, Ethan.”
He got up from his stool and wandered away. I waited for the volume on everything to rise back into normalcy. I waited for the soft-focus to become hard-edged definition. It took a long time. I never saw him again. It was the strangest night of my life. I only fully regained my senses when my phone started bleeping. I remember mechanically pulling it from my jacket pocket and checking the Caller ID. Jess was texting me. The text read, Miss U xxx.