A UFO story by
The roads were busy with revellers heading into town to celebrate, noisy groups of party-goers filling the evening with their shrieks of laughter and the once pristine snow covering the carpark when he arrived three days ago was now little more than a thin covering of slush spattering the windscreen with clods of brown half-rotted ice.
Straker flicked the radio on, more in the hope of erasing the aching silence and to him help stay awake than any desire to listen to music. He had not expected to hear children singing, not at this time of the evening, although he should have known. It was Christmas Eve after all. The carol ceased and he reached out to change stations but drew back as one boy began a solo. ‘Once in Royal David’s City…. ‘ John had sung that carol. Not a solo performance, but with a group of other boys in the school Christmas concert. It had been John’s his last concert, his last ever Christmas.
He remembered it as if it was yesterday, his son standing there on the front row looking small and casting around to see whether his dad was in the audience. It was standing room only and Straker, arriving late after a long day and a frantic drive out to the school, struggled to find space at the back, ending up half-hidden behind other tardy parents. John had seen him and given a huge smile of recognition and then a tiny wave, nothing more than a flick of his wrist.
Their teacher played one note on the piano and the boys began singing. The room hushed instantly as clean and light and pure voices, reaching high notes, filled the hall, and after the last notes died away the audience demanded an encore. Standing there at the back, his eyes blurred with more than just exhaustion, Straker watched and listened with quiet pride, thankful that on this occasion for once he had managed to get away from work.
That was in the past. Straker hadn’t listened to carols at Christmas since. He blinked, rubbing tired eyes with a knuckle, trying to concentrate on the road ahead, the slutch accumulating at the edges of the windscreen before dropping off into the darkness. The hiss of tyres, the swish of wipers, the choir boys continuing the anthem. ‘…Mary was that mother mild…..’ He turned the radio off, his fingers gripping the steering wheel.
Tomorrow was the first day of the Christmas holidays, not that one day counted as much of a holiday, and he would go into Headquarters at some stage just to check on things. Always had done on those rare occasions when he had not scheduled himself for duty. He’d stayed on too late today as it was more out of an excuse not to go home than any need to oversee the control room or complete the relentless and unending piles of work.
Christmas would soon be over. It was just another empty day, like Sundays. A day most people spent with family. He’d thought about putting a tree up this year with tinsel and the usual decorations; in fact he had even gone as far as getting the boxes down from the attic but as soon as he opened the smallest of them, forgetting what it contained, he’d known that it was a mistake. The Christmas tradition. A new bauble every year for John. Eight of them.
When he pulled it out, he noticed how shabby the box looked, the lettering faded, not by sunlight, but from time. Faded like his memories and his hopes for the future. He’d brushed away the dust before opening the box, then in a sudden blur of activity closed the lid and packed it away again at the back of the attic behind the miserable detritus that cluttered up the small loft: suitcases from his past travels, bundles of old newspapers, mouldering offcuts of carpet left behind by a previous owner, a roll of unused wallpaper, hideous in its garish stripes. The box was too painful to keep in sight, yet far too precious to discard.
The house had no decorations this year. He’d intended to buy some new ones: a fake tree, a few lengths of tinsel, some lights. No more than a passing nod to the season in some respects. It would be something to brighten the place when he returned late, something to welcome him for a change. But in all the rush of work it never happened. The last three days were a blur of work and worry, a constant battle against the enemy, giving him not even time to go home and sleep let alone put up decorations or prepare for Christmas. The presents were unwrapped, cards unwritten and unopened. He always left things to the last minute, each year promising to be more organised next time.
Yet every year was the same; work taking over his life. And once the enemy had retreated, and it looked as if SHADO might have a quiet Christmas Day, he’d spent a few hours clearing the most urgent files off his desk and then left, creeping away before anyone could notice his absence. The usual after-shift Christmas party was getting underway as he walked out into the dark, but he was too tired and grubby to join in the celebrations. And he really didn’t feel in the mood for singing carols and dancing. That was best left to the couples. He would only stand there on the fringe looking… alone as usual.
The gritters had been busy and the main roads were free of slush. He turned the wipers to intermittent, accelerating into the darkness, not out of any eagerness to get home but because he was duty bound to get at least some sleep before the morning. And a shower. And a shave. He felt jaded. Too many hours spent searching for the enemy, and now he was fighting not only the recalcitrant weather but also exhaustion. And hunger. He hit the steering wheel with one leather-clad hand. He’d not had the chance to take the joint out of the freezer. Not that it mattered. He wasn’t cooking a meal tomorrow for a change.
There was an open invitation at Alec’s for Christmas Day this year and several of the staff were going, as well as Alec’s current girlfriend from the Medical Department, all of them couples including a couple of newer recruits who were from other countries and had no family here. He’d declined the invite, telling Alec that the staff wouldn’t feel able to let their hair down if the boss was there. Not the real reason and both of them knew it. When it came down to it, the truth was that he couldn’t face the thought of sitting there watching couples holding hands, sharing presents and secret looks and kisses under the mistletoe. Those quick glances of pity.
He’d told Alec he was going to have a quiet day and enjoy the peace and quiet for once. He was still was unsure whether Alec’s frown was annoyance or concern, and the Colonel’s sharp comments about Ebenezer Straker and the ghosts of Christmas were a little close to the bone, but the matter was dropped. Not mentioned again until earlier when Alec came into the office as he was putting on his overcoat to leave. Alec had muttered a few words about getting into the spirit of Christmas, raised an eyebrow and shrugged. Straker had walked past him in silence.
He turned the heating up in the car. It was too late to do anything about food tonight. He’d find something tomorrow, no point in making a special effort for just one person, was there? He would drop into Headquarters for a brief visit, and maybe have something to eat at the staff buffet at lunch time, but that might be intrusive and anyway he’d made enough unpopular decisions over the last few months to warrant some cutting sobriquet or other.
He didn’t want to think about it. Better to stay away and let everyone enjoy themselves without having to be on their best behaviour. They didn’t want him standing around, not the boss. And it would look pathetic anyway. As if he had no one waiting for him at home. His breath caught in his throat and his hands tightened on the wheel.
He pulled the car to a halt, heedless of the cold now, of other cars passing him by. A horn blared, lights flashed as a vehicle sped past, and with a guilty flush he switched on the hazard lights, their monotonous clicking chasing away the silence, tapping away the seconds. No one at home. It was then that it hit him; Christmas. Alone in an empty and undecorated house. He knew enough not to think of it as his home. The word was a token gesture, a convenience and nothing more. Home to Straker meant warmth and lights and family. Home meant love and friendship, parcels under a tree laden with bright lights, the fragrance of cinnamon and cloves and orange slices. And he had not had those for more years than he wanted to recall.
He turned on the ignition, pushed the gear stick into first, then second and on, driving the car forward, the revs increasing as he strained the engine. Faster, the darkness welcoming him, the car’s headlights not powerful enough to break through the blackness ahead or the blackness within. He no longer cared. And that was the worst thing of all. There was a sense of resignation in his actions. Acceptance that, should this journey end in tragedy, in death – his death – then no one would really mourn his passing. No need for careful driving now, whatever happened – happened. An end to it all? It was out of his hands.
The car sped on, charging up inclines and leaping over gentle summits, cornering with casual disregard and crushing speed limits in its wake. He had no idea where he was heading, and that was of no importance now. There was no one waiting for him, no anxious wife, no child pleading for just one more bedtime story and a goodnight kiss on this most special of evenings.
He raced down dark slopes into those empty spaces hidden by shadows, nothing slowing his headlong rush, no traffic lights or roundabouts to make him ease up on the pedal or bring the car to a sensible speed. He was unaware that the speedometer was creeping upwards and touching 80 at times, not that it would have made any difference. Nothing mattered here. Not life, or SHADO or such frivolities as the studio. He was blinded to everything apart from the knowledge that he had…… nothing.
He wiped tears away with a curt brush of his hand, before reaching in his pocket for a handkerchief to stem the sobs that burst from deep within and threatened to blind him beyond any ability to drive. What was the point in carrying on? He had done his best, and it had not been enough. He had given everything and SHADO wanted more and more. Never satisfied. There was nothing left for him to give. Nothing. His son, his wife, his friends. All sacrificed to SHADO. And tomorrow, on the one day of the year that friends and family gathered together in sharing, what did he have?
Nothing. He said the word aloud, shouting it, whispering it, the answering silence mocking him with its indifference.
The car was now speeding through the night, unhindered by speed restrictions or perhaps uncaring. After all, he had sufficient clearance to evade any speeding ticket. But the police were busy with late night drunks and he was left alone to push the car to its limits, not in any attempt to test its abilities but rather in a desperate plea. Someone to care, someone to know he was here. But no one came and, gulping back a sob, he knew his life was pointless, without worth. And he wished that he had never been born. He said the words aloud, but there was no comfort, no one in the car to reassure him.
If, by some miracle, he had never existed, then he could not be here facing a solitary Christmas. Would not have suffered the loss of John or Mary. He drove on, tears blinding him at times but his sense of right refused to take the easy route of closing his eyes and letting the car drive on unguided until something brought its journey to an abrupt end. Brought his life to a welcome end.
In the end it was not the police who stopped him, or road works, or even something as mundane as traffic lights.
She was standing on the other side of the road under a flickering street light. He caught one brief glimpse as the car raced past. For a moment he thought it was his imagination, but a glance in the rear-view mirror showed an ethereal figure, pale under the harsh glare of the sodium light. Not his fevered imagination then. He slowed down without realising what he was doing. It took him less than a minute to turn the car around and drive back to where she was still waiting. He noticed, when he saw her again, that she had blonde hair.
Stupid; hitching a lift out here. You could never tell who was out there waiting in the dark, hidden in the night. He’d seen the aftermath enough times. Humans left shredded and torn, destroyed beyond all hope of survival. He pulled up, not next to her but close enough so that she could see him behind the wheel. He sat there feeling foolish and asking himself what he was doing. She didn’t move.
In the end, he got out of the car and walked towards her, moving with caution, fearful she might run away from him if he got too close. Arms away from his sides, hands open and palms facing her, trying not to be intimidating. He did not want to scare her, just see if she needed help. She watched him in silence and he wondered if she was lost or drunk, perhaps on drugs, and yet somehow there wasn’t that look about her.
He stopped, a few yards away, waiting for a response. Her legs were bare and she was wearing flat, gold coloured pumps and a thin dress. No coat, and the thought flashed through his mind that this was a set-up, a means to trick him, maybe car-jacking. A solitary driver, an easy target this late at night in the dark on a quiet road. For a moment he considered getting his gun, but it was tucked deep beneath his heavy winter coat.
He shrugged his shoulders. What did it matter anyway? It was not as if there was anyone at home worrying about him. If she wanted the car she could have it. He looked around for an accomplice. There was no one. But there wouldn’t be. They would be hiding somewhere out of sight, ready to act when he was at his most vulnerable.
There was no point in standing there on the pavement. She had not moved, not even acknowledged his presence apart from the fact that he knew her eyes were watching him. He was half-way between her and the car now. There was enough time for him to make it back to the safety of the vehicle. Although… And then he knew. He knew with a sickening clarity that if someone burst from the undergrowth and threatened him, he would not fight back. Whatever they threatened.
The knowledge frightened him. Did he really welcome death that much? Was his mind deliberately seeking a way to end it all? A ludicrous thought leapt into his mind, treacherous and frightening in its calm acceptance of what was going to happen next: I don’t care anymore. Just let it be quick. Let it be over soon. He closed his eyes. He could hear the car engine thrumming behind him, the sounds of vehicles in the far distance, and he waited, if not at peace, then with endurance. He had no other options and at least the girl was not an alien. Even in his despair he would never have submitted to them.
The gentle touch on his arm was … breath-taking. Literally. He gasped, opening his eyes and pulling back from her in a reflex action of shock. She was in front of him, one hand light on his wrist, her head tilted as she regarded his face, her blonde hair falling in a thick fringe over huge eyes. He stumbled back, away from her, unsure now of what was happening here. He could not have said how old she was, late teens maybe, or early twenties.
‘You were in a hurry.’ Her voice was dark and low. A rich voice, sounding older than she appeared.
‘No.. Not …’ He faltered. He wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, and yet he had been pushing the car to its limits in the hope that…. ‘I.. ‘ He took another breath.
‘I saw you drive past just a minute ago. You were going far too fast you know.’ There was recrimination in her voice.
He shrugged. There was no answer to that. ‘Can I help you at all? I mean….’ He was still expecting several accomplices stepping forward and demanding his wallet and keys, maybe even someone driving off with the car and leaving him at the mercy of whoever was there, hiding in the darkness, waiting to act. He turned round. No. The car was still there, keys in the ignition, the engine idling with a soft purr.
‘I was waiting for someone.’
‘Oh. Right.’ He was making a fool of himself. ‘I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to bother …’
‘No. I’m glad you stopped. Can I sit in your car? It’s too cold out here.’
What the hell. If she had designs on him she was going to be disappointed. He stepped back and waved a hand. ‘Sure.’
She got in the passenger side. He closed the door and walked around to slide behind the steering wheel. He glanced over at her. Slender hands folded in her lap, silk dress covering her knees, bare shoulders and arms pale with cold. He turned on the heaters and waited, hands on the wheel where she could see them. This was not what he anticipated. But there again, ten minutes ago he had not expected to be sitting here in the dark with a young woman in his car.
‘Nice car. Is it …?’ She stroked the dashboard with one hand, glanced across at him, her eyebrows raised in an unfinished question.
‘Must be fun, being wealthy enough to own one of these.’ She didn’t look at him again, her fingers busy tracing the neat leather stitching around the edge of the seat.
‘Fun? I wouldn’t exactly call it fun.’ As if his work could ever be described as enjoyable. The daily grind of fighting aliens or arguing with producers. The car was warm enough now and he turned the heating down a notch. The dashboard clock said 20.43, later than he realised. ‘How long will you have to wait for your friend?’
‘Friend?’ The look she gave him was amused. ‘I was waiting for a man. Not a friend. Work stuff. You know.’ She smiled.
‘Oh.’ That explained the skimpy clothes. He reddened. A prostitute. The potential to be very embarrassing. He could imagine the headlines. ‘Studio Boss in Christmas Eve Assignation’. A great way to celebrate Christmas. That would be the icing on the cake, giving Henderson and the IAC the perfect opportunity to make his life hell. He should have known better than to stop, to allow himself to get caught up in such a compromising position as this. But she had seemed so fragile and alone and … lonely. He knew that feeling only too well. ‘I hope he arrives soon.’
‘Oh it doesn’t matter.’ Her fingers caressed the round knob of the gearstick. ‘You’re here now.’
Straker looked at her. ‘I think you may have …’
‘Misunderstood you? No. I don’t think so. I know exactly what you want.’ She fastened the seat belt before he could protest. ‘You can drop me back here when we’ve finished, if that’s okay?’
‘No. I’m sorry, but I don’t.-‘
Laughter interrupted him. ‘So, why were you driving so fast? Tell me the truth and I promise I’ll get out of the car.’ She smiled at him. ‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’
‘Get out.’ He stared straight ahead, fingers tapping with impatience on the steering wheel. ‘I have no intention of giving you anything. Do I have to call the police?’ He looked at her with contempt.
‘I know. I mean, I know what you want.’ She put her hand on his wrist again. A tender touch of affection and understanding, and for a frightening moment he believed her. It took all his strength, all his will-power not to admit the truth to her. A prostitute. And he had picked her up at the side of the road like some sad individual desperate for sex. Not love. Just sex. Animal lust. Bodies slotting together. Exchange of fluids. That was all. No thought of love or tenderness. He shuddered with revulsion.
‘Please.’ He tried to remain calm, unthreatening. He leaned across her and opened the passenger door aware of her fragrance, the closeness of her body, his arm brushing across her. ‘I’ll call you a taxi, give you the fare. Whatever you want.’ Damn, now he was pleading like some pathetic beggar. All he wanted was to leave, to drive off into the night and maybe… just maybe, get through the next couple of days.
She sighed and turned to him. ‘Look. It’s simple. I want to show you something, that’s all. It won’t take long, I promise.’ She pulled the door closed and leaned back, crossing her arms in a gesture that was more child-like than petulant. ‘Nothing …. Trust me. Please?’
There was little else he could do apart from drag her from the vehicle and he was not going to even attempt that. And anyway, he had nothing else planned for this evening. He looked at his watch. ‘I’ll give you until nine o’clock.’ He fastened his seat belt, watching her from the corner of his eye. Fifteen minutes. That might be enough to placate her and then he could find somewhere safe to drop her off.
‘Perfect.’ Her enthusiasm was worrying, but he followed her instructions and drove off, keeping to the speed limits now and wary of the twisting bends of the road, the need to be alert behind the wheel. They came to a crossroads. ‘Left.’ She directed him for several more miles, the once familiar roads now behind him, an alien land here and the road a mere blur beneath the wheels. He concentrated on driving, switching the lights to high beam on the winding country lanes. ‘Pull up just ahead.’ She was unfastening her seat belt before the car had stopped.
‘Where are we?’ Enough. He refused to play her game. He would wait until she got out and then he would drive off. Leave her here in the dark. Alone. He peered through the windscreen. ‘What the..’
‘Come on. Trust me.’ She was outside the car now, holding the door open and leaning in to peer at him. ‘It’s fine. Honestly. You have to believe me.’ A gust of cold air made him shiver. He couldn’t drive off now, she might get dragged under the car. He surrendered. She waited until he was standing beside her then she took the key from his hand and hurried away into the darkness. There was nothing he could do now but follow her, even if it was a trap.