The café was nearly deserted, resting between early morning workers and the lunch time blitz of tired shoppers. It was my time, those few hours where a quiet table could be had and I could linger over a cup or two, watching the world float by without the waitresses shuffling me along for better paying customers. The barista was less rushed, more attentive, able to be cajoled with smile or kindly word into a better, richer brew, although the constant change in faces meant new connections, new people, new cajoling. These lazy pleasant mornings had become cultivated habit, and in particular I looked forward to Tuesdays. Tuesday was Keith mail day.
Keith and I had been friends for more years than I cared to remember, from sharing a flat at uni through children and relationships to our now approaching later years, only distance separating us. I had always thought of him as the brother I never had. A strange brother it is true, singular with many arcane and peculiar habits. Although no luddite he considered email as the lowest form of communication, a convenient substitute for real thought and what he termed ‘the beauty and prose of the English language’. It was not a position he had come to recently, but rather one bound to him when I first met him.
“Josh,” he once announced to me many years ago as I sat hunched over keyboard, “just when will you realise how impersonal and dehumanising email is?”
I tapped send then looked up. ”Huh? What are you on about?”
He looked back condescendingly. “Anyone can hammer out a note on a keyboard, so what? If you really do value someone you’d make the effort to write, to spend the time with ink and paper like me.”
“Yes, like me,” waving his fountain pen towards me “like I do to people I really value. If you get email from me it means I don’t really care, you’re just one of uneducated masses.”
True to his word, year in year out he had written to me regularly, pen and paper, paper in post, and I had responded in kind. I had learned that even if he received an email he would respond in writing if he deigned the sender worthy. If the reply was in an email well, the recipient hardly figured in Keith’s universe.
So, every second Tuesday I would receive Keith’s latest letter, a few sheets of tight but immaculate scrawl on his favourite bond, and sitting with my coffee read, reminisce and reply. One small ritual in a life built on small rituals, as are all lives. Keith had begun to wax lyrical in his latest letters, emptying the contents of his mind on paper, so this Tuesday the slightly bulged envelope was no surprise. Once he had disposed with the usual pleasantries of family, kith and kin he continued.
It has taken longer than I thought. It all started out as a bit of a mind game, something safely Quixotic only to have it translate to possible then probable then in some strange trick of osmosis or transmutation here it is, solid in front of me. I’ve been working sporadically on this particular problem for well-nigh 30 years now and it’s only recently that the final pieces have fallen into place. They have played their game well but they don’t understand how our minds work, or what true, soul consuming obsession is. That is of course not their fault, in fact they could even be working on it now and I wouldn’t know.
The seeds were planted when I was very young, fuelled by that old standby, television. Dad’s pass time was 1950s/60s science fiction and at that age I didn’t do too much reading, but the regular and sustained diet of cable TV did exactly what cable TV is designed to do, get me hooked. From a bedroom decorated with plastic rockets, Godzilla posters and Star Wars sheets through to calling my dog Adama I was hugely and irrevocably addicted, even to the point where when I should have been chasing skirt I was chasing the latest resin War of the Worlds model kits.
It was a science class and an introduction to Drake’s equation that set me off. Here was a way to work out the probability they were out there my barely teenage brain thought, and I willingly whiled away my time running through numbers and assumptions of ever increasing complexity, concluding that the exact odds were anyone’s guess or, more correctly, anyone’s assumption. Too much slack in the variables, too much room in the assumptions and too much space time in space time I thought. So, unable to assign a number to it all I decided to do the next best thing, find them. And there you have it, me knowing and accepting it was impossible but then blithely setting out to do it. Just like Winston’s double-think without Victory Gin. Or room 101.
He moved on to other things leaving me hanging yet again in mid-air in his typical, irritating habit of going part way then halting, opening the door a crack but refusing to fling it open in one movement.
* * *
Which left me both intrigued and in suspense over the following fortnight, all of which was made the worse by yet another change in barista. Again the gentle nudges to be given about my table, my coffee, and the usual interminable questions about me and my life. Sadly, I wondered how any of them managed to finish barista school. I stood up and took my coffee back.
“Excuse me Miss,” to the slight figure across the countertop “the coffee’s not right. I ordered an espresso not a long black, and the coffee is too weak.”
She regarded me curiously, as if criticism of any kind was out of her experience. It was gone in a flash, replaced by a courteous, if off the shelf, smile.
“I’m sorry, I’m just getting used to the machine.” She reached across taking my cup away. “I’ll make you a fresh one, won’t be too long.”
She had a strange accent, one I couldn’t place. I leant across a little, staring at her name badge. “Thank you Caramelitta. Where are you from?”
Her smile softened, head tilting to one side. “It’s actually Carmella,” tapping the badge “they’ve spelt it wrong. I’m from Belgium, only been here a month now,” moving to the coffee machine “studying and doing this to pay the bills.”
I smiled back. “Belgium. You must like your beers then?”
She kept facing away, watching the coffee filter through. “Beer? Can’t say I’ve ever met any of them.”
It was a curious thing I mused, settling back with my replacement coffee. A Belgian uninterested in beer, but if the coffee improved what did I care? And after a week or so Carmella and her coffees settled down and my routine re-established itself.
* * *
Again, another Tuesday, another letter from Keith.
So why would they be here? I settled on three possibilities, conquest, trade or curiosity. All three seem reasonable, the only question was which one? Conquest was simple, and on the assumption that if you could cross a few million light years you could easily wipe out a lesser civilisation, I figured we would not stand a chance. A bit like the Incas vs the Spanish, and the Spanish with nukes. And not sitting in a pile of radioactive dust I guessed it had not happened, so I dismissed it from my mind.
Trade was harder, having more potential than the first. There are myriad different ways to trade and its possible to do it and not be seen. It was a real possibility and for a while I could not see past it if – and I had no reason to think otherwise – trade was a universal activity. Even if it was done in collusion with government, or hidden from public view, why not? Although possible I did think it unlikely as we probably did not have anything to trade. What could we have that they would need, and even as the question was asked I knew it was flawed. I couldn’t know what they would need, after all value is a matter of perspective, so trade remained an open option.
Although this sounded OK for a while, there was a problem – scale. They are not likely to flip across multiple light years for a single bag of rocks, or for even one cargo load. To make sense of the time and distance – not to mention the considerable capital cost, I mean think of it, it’s not a Dodge Ram that’s being hauled across space – you would need to think in hundreds or thousands of shipments. You couldn’t keep that under wraps, worse yet if they just happened to want iron ore or coal or some other bulk commodity. So not having noticed a stream of large, silver metallic cigars loading up on bananas or petrol, trade went the way of conquest.
I was left with curiosity. Were they curious? How the heck would I know? But it was the last option, the residual left to me. If I had a choice between a war, greed or curiosity driven stellar neighbourhood I’d go curious each time.
The rest of the letter contained the usual family updates. I’d noticed that his writing was more compressed, less structured, not as neat as usual. Overwork or possibly excitement had perhaps got the better of him.
* * *
Tuesday week I came back to the café, Keith’s latest letter in hand. A bit thin this time I felt, holding it in one and pulling my chair out with the other, maybe he’s busier than usual. I had hardly sat down when a smiling Carmella appeared with my espresso.
“Hello Josh, how are you this morning?” It had taken me a month but she was working out fine, only a few rough edges left.
“I’m fine thank you. Nice day outside.”
“Yes, warm and dry.” She pointed to the letter. “From your friend again? A greeting card from holidays?”
I knew she wasn’t being rude or stupid, but was simply curious. For a young, smart, connected person – as this generation liked to market itself – she had some gaping holes in her general knowledge.
“No, not a card, a letter.”
“Letter? What is that?”
“Seriously?” Even from her this seemed a bit much. Could she honestly not know what a letter was? How long had email been around, fifty, sixty odd years? Ok, maybe it’s possible, maybe she’s never seen a letter, never written one. I sighed.
“A letter, Carmella, is a message from one person to another, put on paper, then physically delivered to that person. Like a hard copy of an email.”
“Sounds very slow, something maybe only old people do?”
Her manners were, I knew, the next focus of my training. But not now, I needed my coffee.
“Perhaps. Maybe yes. I’m not totally sure. Thank you.” bowing my head dismissively.
I took a quick sip and opened the envelope. This time there were barely two pages, seemingly hurriedly scrawled and jammed carelessly into the envelope.
This may have all started as a mind game, a teenage boy’s hobby playing with assumptions and probabilities, but it hasn’t finished that way. Now it is more, so much more.
It’s taken until yesterday but I think I now have the answer to the critical question – where. I tried to imagine myself as them, curious and different. What would I do? With advanced technology I could sit and watch, monitor, learn, but it’s like learning about home from what’s on CBS or Facebook, a distorted picture. They’d have to be here, on the ground, in the thick of it. If they are totally unlike us, or can’t make themselves look like us, then it’s not possible. They might rely on spies, maybe advanced robots, whatever, but in that case they would not be here.
But what if they can? What if they appear human, or close enough not to be noticed? Would they come down for a look, to observe, to study us? Of course! After crossing those stupendous distances why stumble at the last hurdle? So given this, given their desire and knowing nearly nothing of the society they are are observing and none of the nuance and subtlety of human interaction, how could they live amongst us anonymously and learn?
They would need to appear normal, maybe middle class, maybe migrants to cover their awkwardness. Just staying at home or in one place would never do, they would be itinerant or at least highly mobile. They must work to get broader contact with more people, more variety, more types, different attitudes. Jobs where they get to listen or ask, jobs where no one asks them too much, pries, or they have to study. Not too menial so they can pursue their main goal; not too isolated so they have people around; not too deep or meaningful so they can’t be discovered, the human shell they adopt being shown hollow. Something where coming and going is normal, rapid turnover, but is in the heart of society. Invisible perhaps, maybe part of the wallpaper, able to disappear unnoticed and traceless if suspected.
Now I know where they are. And I know who they are. And this afternoon my friend I will find out. I will find them.
The letter was postmarked Monday morning. I laughed, imagining Keith accosting some poor builders-labourer or cleaning lady with accusations of nefarious extra-terrestrial activity. Even on his high horse Keith was not threatening, merely amusing in a Daffy Duck-ish manner. Still chuckling an hour later I headed for the door, leaving my coins on the table. Carmella gave me a quizzical, questioning look then turned away before making a sound.
* * *
Wednesday morning was my work morning. Laptop in hand I sat down at my usual table, the café seemingly deserted and unusually quiet. I was the only customer for which I was thankful.
“Buenos dias señor. ¿Que te gustaria?”
“Café. Espresso y agua por favour.” I replied, slipping back unconsciously into high school Spanish. I looked up into a young, tanned face bearing the beginnings of a sparse and ill-trimmed moustache.
“You’re new here?”
“Yes. I am Heraldo. Forgive my using Spanish, I am only one week in your country.”
“You are from,” and I hesitated, “Mexico?”
“Oh no” laughing, “from Madrid.”
I smiled. “Ah, the coffee should be excellent then.” Perhaps, depending on how much training I had to give him. “Tell me, Carmella, is it her day off?”
He shook his head, shrugged. “I do not know this person but I am only here now so perhaps later?” He started away from the table, pausing briefly. “Keith is no writing you today, yes?”
“No” I replied absent mindedly, “it’s not Tuesday.” Something inside my head clicked but was cut off by the chime from my laptop. I lowered my eyes to the screen. An email from Adele, Keith’s partner.
Don’t want to worry you but if Keith gets in contact let me know asap. I can’t raise his mobile, he usually lets me know but he’s been preoccupied lately, very distracted.
He’s been gone since Monday lunchtime, had an appointment I think at the Café Royale downtown.
I sat frozen, fixed on the last line. He must have finished the letter to me, gone out and posted it before going to the café … to find them.
I felt a chill set in, a coldness from the base of my spine growing up and out. My laptop flickered and died, and in front of me the cafés storm shutters started to close. I turned around. Walking slowly, deliberately towards me, faces fixed and unsmiling, were the beings I knew as Heraldo and Carmella.
I closed my eyes, waiting. I too had found them.
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