He lay on his bed looking out of the window through the partly drawn curtains at the clear night sky. There, a little to the left, just above the window shutter, was the Belt of Orion, shining clearly and brightly as always; and further to the left by about one hundred light years was his own star system… and home. He knew one day he would return there, one day, but for now here he was amongst humans on their planet, living, breathing, toiling away just like them, and all because he wanted to. He had asked for this – no, pleaded in fact! But now, as he lay there looking out at the night sky, he knew that the decision to come down here was very much a wrong one.
He moved his head away from the window nauseated by the matter moving within this strange body. He would never get used to it. However, he would just have to put up with it. But they could have given him a better body, something less sickly. He recalled the words of one cadet who had tried the experience: ‘Being human is like living inside a vacuum for six months. It’s not nice, but the vast range of emotions at call can be exhilarating!’
Well… as far as he could tell the vast range of emotions was very much limited. It must be this body they chose for me, he thought. It just wasn’t compatible; and now he was stuck with it for six months. But maybe that was it? Maybe it was all deliberate – the sickly body, the frustrations, the boredom? After all it wasn’t meant to be all laid out for you. He knew that they never ever gave you a perfect physical vehicle – that was practically forbidden. The experiment called for the applicant to blend in, not stick out. In that way one could go about unnoticed, and at the same time hope to understand the complex range of emotions on offer. And yet, what had he achieved in one month? Very little indeed. The whole exercise had become boring, including his daily grind on the assembly line of a large electrical factory. The days dragged, the nights even more so. He yearned only for that moment when the mother ship would arrive and take him away from all of this drudgery. The experiment was a failure. Now all he could do, so to speak, was to bear it out… and wait.
He looked longingly up at the night sky again. Five more full moons, that’s all. Just five more full moons, and he wouldn’t have to put up with this wretched physical body again, the human boredom, the smell of their food. Fish! Oh, no! He winced, shutting his eyes as if to ward off the pungent smell coming from the kitchen. Fish! She was cooking fish again! It was the same almost every night – fish, fish, fish! He visualised her standing there in the kitchen over the stove cooking the damn thing, just like the time when he first met her. He was fiddling with the key to his room that day, the kitchen door wide open, the horrible stench of something unknown to him cooking on the stove. She smiled. It shook him. No human had ever smiled at him before! She was tall, dark-haired, pretty by human standards, but whatever it was she was cooking was almost enough to make him throw up! He quickly turned the key and retreated into his room, without a word, without a gesture. It was hardly the correct action from someone whose sole purpose was to understand the human condition.
He slowly got off the bed. She was humming to herself now, while all that smell wafted around her. Perhaps, he thought, there was an opportunity here regardless of the stench. He opened his bedroom door, the kitchen door as usual lay wide open.
‘Hi,’ she chirped smiling at him. At first he didn’t answer, his stomach churning from the smell.
‘Hello,’ he replied haltingly.
‘Come on in,’ she beckoned, waving her free hand, while the other held the saucepan.
He stepped into the kitchen. ‘My name is David,’ he said mechanically, then realising his folly by giving his name without being asked for it, said no more. He sat down at the table, his head turned towards the open window, desperately trying to ignore the smell from the stove.
‘Would you like some?’
‘Fish. Would you like some fish?’
‘No. No, thank you.’
‘Don’t you like fish?’
‘I don’t like fish… thank you.’
‘What? Don’t like fish? You must be the only Chinese in the world who doesn’t!’
He looked across at her not knowing what to say. It was only then that he noticed she was wearing a metal ring on her left nostril, and much larger ones on both ears. His eyes searched out her hands. It seemed – yes, every finger was adorned with a metal ring or two! She noticed him staring and said, ‘I’ve got one more – look.’ She pulled up her blouse, pointing to her belly-button. ‘I got this one done last week. What do you think?’ He took a closer look. Imbedded into her stomach was another metal ring!
‘Well… do you like it?’
He stared at her, lost for words.
‘You don’t say much, do you?’ she said, letting her blouse fall over her skirt. ‘What part of China are you from?’
‘Hong Kong. I’m a student here. Just temporary stay… that’s all.’
This was the line he used whenever people quizzed him. It usually shut them up.
‘And you don’t like fish.’
‘I don’t like fish… sorry.’
‘Well… I do, whether it’s baked, fried, grilled, steamed – you name it.’
She placed her supper on the table: two lightly fried fish, their heads pointing towards him, their tails overlapping the plate. He balked, the colour draining from his face. He rose from the table making haste for the kitchen sink.
‘Are you okay?’
‘I need some water!’ he gasped, turning on the tap.
‘I’m sorry… I didn’t realize fish had such an effect on you.’
He sighed, wiping the water away from his mouth. ‘I’m all right now.’
‘How do you feel about beef, lamb?’
‘How do I feel about beef, lamb?’ he asked back.
‘Do you like it? Eat it?’
‘No, I don’t eat meat.’
‘You don’t!’ She laughed out loud. ‘Gee, a vegetarian Chinese. You’re unique!’
‘I’m unique?’ Suddenly he felt alarmed at the thought that his identity might be in jeopardy.
‘Yeah, you are. Come on… sit down. By the way, name’s Poppy.’
‘I’d rather stand by the kitchen sink if you don’t mind… Poppy.’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘Suit yourself.’
He watched as she picked up one of the fish and bit into it, obviously enjoying the animal.
‘You do eat, don’t you?’ she asked sarcastically.
‘Yes, of course. I eat bread, rice, vegetables, fruit. I enjoy ice-cream very much.’
‘Then you should eat more of it… by the bucketful.’
‘Well, you’re terribly thin, you know, terribly delicate. Might fatten you up a bit.’
‘You eat rather quickly.’
‘Have to. There’s an old drunk who comes up here around about now. Don’t want to be here when he stumbles in – and neither do you.’
Downstairs a heated argument had broken out, with expletives flying thick and fast.
‘Here that? Missus Crossen, that damn landlady. What a bitch! Do you know what she did to my goldfish? She flushed him down the toilet! No pets allowed, she said. Can you believe that bitch? I told her I’d get even with her. Then she threatened me with eviction. Eviction! Look at the bloody place – it’s falling apart! Building should be condemned. But I’ll get her for what she did to my goldfish. Stick around and you’ll see what I mean.’
‘Do you cook goldfish?’
‘No!’ She laughed heartily. ‘It was a pet! Say, what are you doing tomorrow?’
‘Good. Then come with me to Luna Park. You’ll love it there. It’s magic! It’s like… have you ever been to the cinema and watched a thrilling movie, and when it was over you stepped outside again and everything looked, well… sort of dull and boring, compared to what you’ve just seen? You have been to the cinema, haven’t you?’
‘Yes, it’s a wonderful experience.’
‘Well, Luna Park’s like that! I love going there – you’ll love it too!’
‘All right, I will go—’
‘Shush! It’s him! The drunk… he’s climbing the stairs. You best go to your room. If he sees you he’ll pick a fight with you.’
‘Do you think he’ll come in here?’
‘Course! He has his supper with him – fish and chips.’
‘Well, it is Friday night, you know. Don’t worry, his won’t smell like mine – already cooked. Go now, and I’ll see you in the morning. Ten o’clock sharp.’
‘Ten o’clock exactly. Go!’
At ten o’clock next morning he was sitting in the kitchen waiting for her, when she waltzed in wearing a dress of outlandish design and colour.
‘Da-da!’ She whirled in front of him proudly showing off her eye-catching dress. ‘Well… what do you think? Made it myself from strips of coloured material I collected. Was fun sewing them all together. Do you like it?’
‘It’s different from what other females are wearing, and with your metal rings and those thick heavy boots, you should stand out amongst them.’
‘Thanks… but the boots aren’t for show. They’re steel capped, ready for action just in case somebody wants to get fresh.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Look, Sydney can be a rough place at the best of times¬ and a girl needs to be able to protect herself.’ She pointed to her boots. ‘I used them once on a male, you know. If I hadn’t… well, I probably wouldn’t be here telling you.’
‘You mean it’s a weapon?’ he asked surprised.
‘Can be. Well, are you ready?’
‘How much money you got?’
‘Hmm… not going to last long, but we’ll see how far it stretches. We’ll walk down to Circular Quay and get the ferry. Have you been on the harbour?’
‘Yes, it’s very nice… very enjoyable, thank you.’
‘Come on then.’
At Circular Quay she told him to sit down and wait while she bought the tokens for the ferry. He watched her as she hung around the ferry counter, waiting patiently until it was deserted of passengers before approaching the counter.
‘Got them,’ was all she said when she returned.
It was the same at Luna Park. He was told to sit and wait while she went to buy the entrance tickets, and once again she waited until nobody was around before she made her approach.
‘We can go in now,’ she said, handing him his ticket.
‘How much do I owe you?’
‘But what about the ferry ride, and this ticket. I must owe you something.’
‘You owe me nothing. I got them all free.’
‘Oh… a little trick my mum taught me.’
‘Your mother taught you how to cheat?’
‘Oh, David!’ She looked at him disappointedly. ‘Life’s a game. One big gigantic exciting game!’ She flung her arms outwards in gesture. ‘That’s why I love coming here… it’s a playground of fun! And you’re going to love it!’ She put her hand on his shoulder. ‘But don’t ask me how I do my little trick, ‘cause it doesn’t always come off. Wouldn’t want you to be caught trying it.’
‘Have you been caught?’
She giggled childishly. ‘I’m a very fast runner, David. Come on, let’s walk through the big open mouth.’
Luna Park was indeed a playground of fun, from the adrenaline rush of the rollercoaster, to the silliness of the Hall Of Mirrors. She screamed with delight, with fright, laughed, and he laughed with her. How strange humans were, he thought, coming to a venue like this just so that they could imitate life, or escape from it. She was right, life was a game, but was she conscious of that fact? Many humans said the same thing, not knowing how much of a game it really was. They didn’t seem to understand that they were here in a matter-based third-dimensional plane as spiritual beings, playing out a game of total separation from the Source; that they were multi-dimensional, awesome in a none physical sense, and yet oblivious to what was happening around them! That was why he was here… to glimpse at them in the field of play. He looked at her and smiled. She was no different from the rest of them, and yet she was. She dressed differently, behaved differently in a funny sort of way, and was the only human to make him laugh.
On the way home she again performed her little trick at the ferry (they had spent their last dollar at Luna Park) and once again she was successful. There were two males on the ferry who took offence at the sight of him in company with her.
‘Hey, chink! Ain’t yer own women good enough for ya?’ They manhandled him, grabbing him around the neck.
She came to his defence, smiling sweetly. ‘Boys, how would youse like to experience the biggest thrill of your lives?’
They released him. ‘Like what?’ one of them sneered.
‘Come outside and I’ll show you,’ she teased. At first they hesitated.
‘Youse do want to see what I’ve got under my dress, don’t you?’
She got up from her seat and walked seductively towards the sliding door. They followed, so did he, from a safe distance.
Out on deck she leaned lazily against the ferry rails, and purred, ‘Well?’
The first one moved forward grinning confidently. Without warning she flung out with her boot catching him squarely in the crutch. He screamed dropping to the ground, clutching his scrotum. The other, swearing loudly, rushed her. She dipped, grabbed him by the shirt front and flung him over her shoulder into the sea. Then calmly she walked inside calling out to the passengers, ‘Lout overboard! Inform the captain!’ David looked at her in shock. She smiled, winked, and walked out again, just in time to see the first male stagger to his feet. Without further ado she kicked him once again between the legs, and once again he fell moaning in agony. David and the passengers watched as she climbed over the railings, and dived into the choppy sea. They all rushed out on deck to see her swim strongly, towards the struggling drowning male.
Back at Circular Quay a police car and an ambulance were waiting. The passengers were quick to come to her defence, praising her for her courage in the face of two potential rapists, and then saving the life of one of them! It was a great story, even from a Police point of view.
Later that evening as they walked home, she looked down at her soggy boots and said, ‘Shit, should have taken the bloody things off before I jumped. They’ll never be the same again.’
‘But they’re still a good weapon though… yes?’
She laughed. ‘They’ll do. Hey, what are you doing tomorrow?’
‘I must go to work. Don’t you work?’
‘No, I’m on social benefits – dole, you know.’
‘So, what do you do with your time each day?’
‘Yeah, I go fishing each day. Always catch something. Can’t trust what you buy from the fish-market, you know. My mum always said: if you didn’t catch it yourself, don’t eat it. So, whatta you say about next Saturday? Will you come fishing?’
‘I suppose… should be a new experience for me.’
And so for the next five months that’s how he spent his weekends: fishing and visiting Luna Park. He finally got the hang of fishing, catching himself a flathead, which of course she ate. He was going to miss this girl, this girl who had shown him so much, who had helped him unconsciously to experience the joys, fears of everyday life on this wild unpredictable planet, and who would never know who he really was. He thought about whether or not he should reveal his identity to her but, what would her reaction be if he did? Giggle it off as nothing more than a concocted story? Or flare up at him in anger? With humans it was always hard to tell how they’d respond. Perhaps it was best not to say anything, and yet it only seemed fair that he should.
It was on the bus home from work one evening, only a day away from the rendezvous with the ship, that he decided he would tell her the truth about himself and why he was here. He alighted from the bus, happy, confident in his resolve, visualizing in his mind’s eye her utter surprise when he told her. She would probably gape in disbelief, refusing to believe him until she saw the ship for herself; and when he invited her aboard? Yes, she would think differently then.
He turned into the street where he lived. There was a crowd outside the boarding house, a police car and a television crew. Puzzled he pushed his way through the throng, explaining to anyone who would listen that he lived there, until the police intervened, barring him from entering the property. Mrs Crossen who was in the front garden giving an interview to a group of reporters noticed him and cried out: ‘Mister Lee!’ She hurried down to the front gate, the reporters trailing after her.
‘Oh, Mister Lee! You’ll never guess what happened here today!’
One of the policemen at the gate said, ‘Excuse me, madam, but does this person live here?’
‘Of course he does! He’s one of me best tenants so he is. Just because he’s Chinese doesn’t mean to say I wouldn’t have him as a tenant! I’m not racist, you know.’ Then she addressed him again. ‘Oh, Mister Lee… if only you saw it! If only you saw it!’
‘Saw what?’ he asked.
‘An alien, Mister Lee!’ she wailed, as the cameras and newsmen clustered round her. ‘A live one! Mister Curry saw it too, so did old Missus Roth!’
He froze in terror! Surely they hadn’t come looking for him? He still had one day left. So what did Mrs Crossen see, if indeed she saw anything. She was crying now, dabbing her eyes with her hanky, playing up to the cameras for what it was worth. Still confused, he asked warily, ‘What do you mean, Missus Crossen?’
‘Her! Her! She’s an alien! She changed shape on the stairs in front of us! Not human, Mister Lee! Not human! Half fish with scales and everything! They say she’s aqua or something—’
‘Aquatic,’ answered one of the newshounds.
Yeah, one of them things, Mister Lee. And she still owes me three weeks’ rent!’
‘Are you referring to the girl upstairs – the one with the ring in her nose?’ he asked.
‘Yeah! Her! She’s an alien I’m telling you! And to think that I should have the likes of that in my humble lodgings.’ She threw her hands up in despair. ‘My God! What have I done to deserve all this?’
‘Is she still here – on the property?’
‘Who knows! Who cares! But they do.’ She nodded at the reporters. ‘And now some Government people have confiscated the building – won’t let anybody live here, so you better get your things. Then they’re taking us all downtown to be interviewed.’
‘Well, they want to know more about her, don’t they? You were quite friendly with her, weren’t you?’
The policeman butted in and said, ‘Go get your things and report back here.’
A shiver of fear ran through him. He couldn’t let the authorities question him. They would sooner or later discover that there was no record of him having entered the country, after which it was only a matter of time before they reached a conclusion. Mrs Crossen was babbling away to the reporters again, just as she would babble endlessly to the authorities about Poppy, and his own close friendship with her. He walked past the two policemen at the front door and climbed the rickety stairs to his room. It was opened, just as every room in the place was. He dragged out from under his bed his small suitcase, and started packing his meagre belongings, his mind still reeling from the sensation that she – she was not human! That was when he found the letter shoved inside one of his socks. He opened it. It was from her.
By the time you read this you will know who I am and what I have done, but don’t be surprised… least of all you! Remember what I told you about life being a game, a big exciting action-packed game? Well, that’s why I regularly take human form – it’s never a dull moment living amongst the humans. Course I couldn’t leave without getting even with that damn landlady. I told you I would, didn’t I? Pity you didn’t see the fuss I made. No doubt they all believe that I’m some sort of horrible monster, but I’m not. I’m an earthling just like them. It just so happens that my kind favours to live under the sea rather than above it. Of course we all know who the real alien is, don’t we? It wasn’t hard to tell. You see, my species possess what the poor untrained humans refer to as the sixth sense – the ability to read thoughts.
Before I close, I just want to say it was a sheer delight meeting you, and knowing that you leave tomorrow, I wish you a much-needed rest… and a safe bon voyage!
Your friend, K’or takh (alias, Poppy).
He smiled and thought of the times they spent together fishing, Luna Park, the incident on the ferry. She had shown him so much, given him so much. He folded the letter. If there was one thing that he might keep as a reminder of his sojourn on this planet, it would be her letter. He grabbed his suitcase, took a last look around the room, and left.
His interview with the authorities went quite smoothly. He answered all their questions politely, showing a clear sense of innocence about the whole matter. They asked him to return the following day – he didn’t.
In a deserted field on the outskirts of Sydney, he watched the star-filled sky, and the mother ship descend from it. It was good to be returning, to be amongst your own kind once again with a wealth of experiences and a story that had to be told. Who knows, he thought, perhaps she was already telling hers.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.