At The Bottom Of The Garden

by Connard Wellingham

Tags: Ma/Fa, Romantic,

Desc: Romantic Story: An old man finds something very strange at the end of his garden. Is it a girl or something quite out of this world? A note to readers: this story is designed to be read aloud. Please imagine that as you read.

Yesterday I found a fairy at the bottom of my garden. Actually, that's not true; it wasn't a fairy at all but I've always wanted to say that. It wasn't a fairy but it was the next best thing, almost. I found a girl at the bottom of my garden. That doesn't have quite the same ring to it; much more prosaic than a fairy. There could be many reasons why one might discover a girl at the bottom of one's garden. She might be a neighbour who just popped over for a chat or a neighbour's daughter searching for a lost ball or she might be a complete stranger who had taken poorly in the street and entered my garden to sit down for a while. She might even be a runaway hiding out from her wicked step-mother; now that sounds more romantic. On the other hand she could be an armed and dangerous criminal on the run from the police and that would most definitely not be romantic.

To tell you the truth it wasn't a girl at all, at least not in the usual definition of a girl as being a human female from birth until the age at which she is considered an adult, or even the more common definition of a young woman. You see, she, and I call her that because she has the form we regard as female, and an exceptionally attractive one at that, isn't a human at all. She's... well, I'll come to that.

I see this isn't making much sense. That's the problem when you start with a catchy first line that isn't actually true. You end up with all sorts of complications which, as you try to resolve them, only lead to more complications which in turn... you get the point. Worse, my thoughts are not as lucid as they could be which is not surprising considering the circumstances. Perhaps I should start again more mundanely.

I had just returned from visiting my daughter. I don't like visiting my daughter. I've nothing against her; in truth I'm very fond of her, and she does appreciate my visits. The problem isn't so much with my daughter as with her children. No, again, that isn't fair. They're nice children; reasonably well behaved and polite and they, too, enjoy a visit from their Grandpa. No, the problem lies not with my grandchildren as people but the very fact that they exist at all. That doesn't sound right either. I would be very sad if they didn't exist. I'm not making much sense. I'll try again.

Since Connie died, I've lived alone. I'm quite content. I have my garden and the local book club and the walking club and the internet. A grand invention, the internet. What did we do without it? It was my son that set it up for me. He said that, as I was getting older and had no-one close by, it would be good if I had e-mail so I could keep in touch with him and Frances and they could send me pictures of the children and things. It sounded like a good idea so I went and had some lessons. I was quite tickled; an old codger like me going back to school. They taught us all about how to use our computers and word processing and spreadsheets and e-mail and things like that. They even taught us how to use the internet. I may not be quite as young as I was but I'm not senile, unlike some there who barely managed to switch the machine on by the end of the course.

The internet was a real eye-opener. Imagine, all that information from all over the world right at your fingertips. Beats going to the library once a week and arguing with old Mr Flintov. Right old curmudgeon he is and he seems to live in the library. Well, from the internet I learned about forums and message boards and on-line chat rooms. They were a revelation. I would never have believed you could actually talk live to someone in Australia or America or South Africa without the cost of an expensive telephone call. Now I have friends all over the world. It's just as well I need a bit less sleep than I used to for I confess I sometimes burn the candle a bit at both ends.

Where was I... ? Oh, yes, Frances' children; my grandchildren. The problem is not them or that they exist, the problem is that they're young and, being young, they're full of energy and enthusiasm. I suppose I must've been like that as a child though I don't remember being quite so... insistent. They're always wanting me to do this or look at that, and Frances... she thinks that, as I'm on holiday, I need to be doing things or I'll get bored. I keep trying to tell her that I never get bored but I like to do things at my own pace. Maybe I won't arrive as quickly as some but I will arrive and, I believe, have a more enriching experience as a result. Who enjoys a journey more, the man who takes the motorway from departure to destination or the man who takes the back roads? Quite possibly the latter will never arrive at all having discovered something wonderful and marvellous along the way that sets him off in an entirely unexpected direction. I like to take the back roads.

Frances always has an itinerary for me. A very organised woman is Frances. She was like that as a child, too. Always knew exactly where every one of her dolls was and lined them up on her bed in the morning with military precision. I know it's a terrible thing to do to one's own daughter but, occasionally, I would move one. She used to get very upset about it so I didn't do it very often. She had them organised according to some arcane strategy that only she understood. She tried to explain it to me once but I confess I didn't understand a word. She was happy and that was all that mattered. That's probably why she's so successful at her job. She's an accountant. She didn't particularly shine at maths at school so Connie and I were a bit surprised when she said she wanted to study Accountancy at university. I suspect what she lacked in mathematical ability, she more than made up for in organisational skills. I'm sure she wouldn't rest content until she had all these numbers exactly in line and could account for every single one of them. A good trait in an accountant, I would assume.

To be fair, Frances' itineraries are always well thought out. She knows what I like and organises things I can do with her and Robert, things I can do with the grandchildren and things we can do as a family. What she somehow always forgets to do is organise things I could do on my own. They have a very good art gallery where they live but I've yet to visit it. The library's excellent too, or so I've been told.

To cut a long story short, while I like visiting Frances and Robert, and Tom and Sam and little Connie... I have a special fondness for little Connie. Frances was pregnant when Connie, my Connie that is, died and she immediately changed her plans and named her daughter after her mother. She was a bit reluctant to tell me at first. Thought I might be upset or something. Far from it. I was honoured and I know Connie would have approved. Robert has always insisted that he was one hundred percent behind the change as he was very fond of his mother-in-law. He's a good lad, Robert, if a trifle loud and hearty for my tastes. Still, there's no doubt he's a good provider and a good husband to Frances and a good father to the children. As I'm not married to him it doesn't really matter if I take him to my bosom, figuratively speaking, or not.

It's the heartiness that gets to me. The whole family is like that. They talk loudly, they behave loudly, they even walk loudly. They're not noisy. They don't hold wild parties, at least not when I'm there, and they don't play music at excruciating volumes or have the TV turned up all the time or quarrel, again at least not when I'm there and I think I'd've seen some signs of marital discord if they were present. No, they're just loud people. Tom plays rugby. Well, his father played rugby when he was Tom's age... quite well, too, by all accounts, junior club level I'm told... so I suppose it's only natural that his son should follow in his father's footsteps. People who play rugby, I've noticed, tend to be a trifle more, er, dynamic than the rest of us. Whether it's that sort of person who is attracted to the game or the game which makes people who play it become like that, I don't know.

The essence of it all is that visiting them is tiring. I always feel like a soldier going off to war when I start out. As I step into the car, I sort of straighten my back and square my shoulders and mentally don my suit of armour. It's silly but, as I turn the key in the engine, I sometimes say things like, 'it's a tough job, men, but someone's got to do it'. The daft things you say to yourself sometimes! As I drive there I find I'm psyching myself up, as the Americans say. For all you might complain about our brothers across the Atlantic mangling our language, every so often they come out with a particularly pithy phrase that seem utterly a propos, and psyching oneself up is one such.

Visits to Frances and Robert are exciting, eventful, boisterous... and tiring, and I always return feeling in need of a good holiday. I know that's a terrible thing to say about one's daughter but it's true. A funny though has just occurred to me. When I was working, I would gird my loins and march off to the fray day in day out and look forward to two weeks of peace and relaxation during the holidays. Nowadays I gird my loins for a few weeks of strenuous effort while 'on holiday' and enjoy peace and tranquillity the rest of the year.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, to understand my problem, you need to know something about me and my circumstances. After all, if I was to simply say I found a fairy at the bottom of my garden you'd immediately conclude that senility had finally set in and phone for the doctor. I wouldn't blame you. Senility is one the things I dread. A physical condition is fine; even cancer. At least you know what it is and can make plans and they've all sorts of drugs these days to ease your final months. It's the idea of losing your mind that scares me. I've seen it happen and I pray it doesn't happen to me.

But I digress. Normally, when I return from one of my visits, the first thing I do is walk round the garden. My reason, should I ever be asked, would be that I like to check that there have been no disasters during my absence; that none of the trees have blown down, the dahlia's are still standing, the snails haven't managed to consume the entire bed of hostias, that sort of thing. The real reason is that my garden helps me wind down from the rigours of my visit

I have a large garden. Gardening is my hobby; my passion really. One of the things that attracted me to this house was the garden. It's quite an unusual garden in that it isn't really a garden at all, it's three gardens in one, not counting the bit at the front of the house which isn't, in my opinion, a proper garden, merely a piece of ground which separates the house from the road. I mean, you can't really grow anything there. For a start the hedge blocks a lot of light. The hedge, privet of course, is six feet seven inches tall. Quite why I made it precisely that height I can't remember but I do recall doing a lot of calculations and making a lot of drawings with the sun at different heights so it must have been to do with ensuring maximum privacy combined with maximum light. As well as the hedge there's the trees. They've grown quite tall now and the roots have naturally spread. This removes much of the goodness from the soil which no amount of artificial feeding can replace. So I basically just leave the front garden as a grassy area with some shade-tolerant plants. As I don't spend much time there, mostly just passing from the front gate to the front door or vice versa, it doesn't trouble me much.

No, it's the back garden that gets all my attention. As I've said, it's really three gardens in one. Nearest the back door, beyond the patio, which I laid myself with the help of a friend who was in the building trade, is the pretty bit as Connie used to call it. Here is where the lawn is and the herbaceous borders and the flowering shrubs. I specialise in dahlias; lovely plants but a lot of work. In the autumn you... but I mustn't get carried away about my dahlias. I'm told I can be a bit of a bore about them and, besides, they're not really relevant to the story.

Behind the 'pretty bit' is the working garden. Here is where I grow fruit and vegetables. I started it when the children were small. Connie and I, having grown up in the times of asperity after the War, believed that children should get a balanced diet. We thought it might encourage them to eat vegetables and things if they came from our garden. Then they could see them growing and even help raise and harvest them. Economy was another factor. We didn't have much money when the children were small and growing your own was so much cheaper than the greengrocer. Anyway, it seemed to work for both Edward and Frances grew up appreciating home-grown food. Nowadays, of course, with just me to feed, I have far too much and give most of it away. Oh, the working garden also contains the garden shed and the greenhouse.

Behind the working garden is the jungle. Technically it's a 'natural garden' but one of the children, Frances I think, christened it 'the jungle' and so it's been called ever since. It isn't really a jungle, of course, merely a part of the garden that has been left to grow on its own. There's a large chestnut tree and two oak trees that the children used to delight in climbing when they were young to the horror of their mother, a small birch copse and... well you get the idea. It's covered with rose bay willow herb and campion and shepherd's purse and dozens of other wild flowers. Sometimes, in summer, the air is so filled with floating seeds, fairies we used to call them when I was young, that you can't see one end from the other.

And that brings me back to the fairy at the bottom of the garden.

I didn't do my usual perambulation when I returned from Frances'. This visit had been particularly tiring and the weather was unseasonably inclement. All right, it was raining. The rain didn't let up for several days and it was a day after that before things had dried up enough for me to carry out my inspection. I was concerned about my dahlias. They don't like heavy rain and they particularly don't like heavy rain that persists for days. I spent some time with them hoping they wouldn't be permanently damaged and that we would now get a period of drier weather to allow them to recover. The dahlias were on my mind as I continued my inspection tour. I did notice there was a leak in the greenhouse and made a mental note to re-putty the glass before winter.

Other than that, things seemed to be fine. Oh, there was some bits of minor damage here and there but nothing serious. Nothing serious, that is, until I reached the jungle. Now I should explain that at the very back of garden is a steep bank rising about ten feet. It's covered in rhododendrons which a misguided previous occupant had planted. Rhododendrons are notoriously difficult to remove once established and I decided that, as long as they stayed where they were on the bank, I would live and let live. The rhododendrons seem to have accepted this agreement for, so far, I've had no trouble from them. Behind the rhododendrons is a patch of waste ground. It's just a triangular corner at the end of one of John Mitchell's fields which he doesn't bother to plough. Now it really is a jungle, an impenetrable patch of scrub oak, alder, birch, brambles and nettles.

What I noticed first was that someone appeared to have removed a chunk from the middle of the rhododendrons. To be truthful I didn't notice anything at first. As I've said the rhododendrons and I have come to an agreement so I generally don't pay much attention to them. You know how you get with familiar things that are in the background of your life; you're aware that they're there but don't really notice them until they're not there. Well, the rhododendrons were like that. I gave the jungle a cursory inspection and was about to leave when something tickled the back of my mind. I looked about more carefully but saw nothing amiss and it was only when I was turning away for the second time that I noticed the gap. I thought it a bit odd but it was only the rhododendrons and my mind was still pre-occupied with my dahlias, so I noted it and went back to the house for a cup of tea.

I like tea and I'm very particular how it's made. Whether it's leaves or bags, it must be made in a pot which has been heated and with water that's 'over the boil' as my mother used to say. The pot must be allowed to stand for five minutes before pouring. The milk should be added to the cup first and the sugar last. Mrs Pinkston, an otherwise admirable woman who hosts the book club, doesn't understand this and I confess the otherwise pleasurable evenings we spend discussing our latest literary discoveries are somewhat marred by the unpleasant pale brown liquid she serves under the guise of tea. Indeed I have been tempted to ask for a cup of coffee on a number of occasions and it's only the knowledge that I will be unable to sleep later that prevents me.

It was only later, after lunch, that the rhododendrons came back into my mind. What could have caused such a large chunk to have disappeared? And right in the middle, too. Deciding that sitting at the dining table wasn't going to answer the question... though it's remarkable how many people do. You know the sort, they sit in living rooms and bars and restaurants and cafes and speculate wildly about what could have caused the latest stock market flutter or that man in Wigan to murder his wife or the latest disaster in China. They have no facts, no information but they dream up all sorts of fanciful and amazing theories. It never seems to occur to them to go to the library or look up the internet and find out.

Anyway, I dug out my stoutest boots, sturdy gardening gloves and an old leather jacket and set off up the garden. You may think these unnecessary precautions but rhododendrons can be fearsome if not tackled correctly as I had found out to my cost in the past. I puffed my way up the bank through the bushes, receiving several pokes and scratches on the way despite my precautions and stood at the top where the missing foliage used to be. To my surprise the damage didn't seem to be limited to the rhododendrons. There was a small swathe of broken trees and bushes and flattened nettles, leading into the middle of the little wood, if I can dignify it by that term, though 'copse' would probably be more accurate. I scratched my head in bewilderment. What could have caused this? It didn't look natural. From the angles of the broken trees, it looked as if something had just ploughed its way through them like an out-of-control car; not that you'd expect a car to be travelling a dozen feet up in the air with enough velocity to cut a twenty-yard path through a copse; not outside a James Bond film at any rate.

I examined the nearest bushes. The branches hadn't been cleanly broken for the ends were splintered and jagged. Some branches had been completely removed and were strewn over the undergrowth beyond and some had been left dangling at impossible angles. The ground at my feet was littered with leaves. The swathe of damage had been cut at a slight angle to where I was standing so I risked life and limb to shuffle along the top of the bank to see if I could get a better view. It was either that or venture the brambles. I managed to find a spot and peered out. I could just see the end of the damaged path. Something appeared to be there and the something had a distinctly metallic gleam.

Now I was intrigued indeed but at least the mystery of the damaged rhododendrons was solved. Something had landed, or, more correctly, crash-landed in the copse. My first thought was that it was a light aeroplane but I soon dismissed this idea as a plane has wings and these would undoubtedly have been torn off by the impact. There would also surely have been more substantial damage and some wreckage. When you see reports of plane crashes on the TV news, the wreckage is always scatted for miles and there was no sign of that here. All there was here was a remarkably clean strip cut through the bushes and trees. I dismissed a helicopter for much the same reason.

Well, then, what did that leave... meteors and rockets or missiles. I don't know much about meteors but it is my understanding that they become very hot upon entering the earth's atmosphere. If it was a meteor, you'd expect signs of fire, or charring at least, even if it had been raining at the time but there was no sign of fire damage. The gleam of newly-exposed wood met my eye at every turn. So, the thing, whatever it was, must have been travelling relatively slowly when it landed.

Suddenly I laughed aloud. Here I was doing exactly the thing I despised so much in others, idly speculating without any facts. For heaven's sake, the damn thing, whatever it was, was no more than twenty yards from my feet. It shouldn't be beyond the wit of man to devise a method of reaching it. A few moments calculation indicated that, as the object was closer to the back of the copse, I would be better to brave the brambles.

I returned to the shed and dug out my machete. The rhododendrons and I may have come to an amicable agreement but the same could not be said of the brambles which would invade the garden and take it over with absolutely no compunction unless I maintained constant vigilance. There was no entente cordiale between the brambles and me; it was all out war. Any bramble that showed its face in my garden received no mercy. Consequently I quailed slightly at the idea of taking the war to their own territory, so to speak. But my curiosity was roused and if a man is not able to master a bramble, he has no right to call himself a man.

Judging what I thought to be the closest point to the intruder, I began hacking. Perhaps it was because of my steely determination or perhaps it was because the attack was unexpected but, whatever the reason, the brambles gave way easily enough. Before long I could see the thing. To say I was speechless would be a gross understatement and to say that I had never seen anything like it in my life would be nothing but the literal truth.

Perhaps a brief description is in order. The object that lay before my eyes was a cylinder about fifteen or so feet long and about five or six feet across. It was made of metal, at least it had the sort of sheen about it one associates with metal. One end was rounded, the front I presumed for that was the end that faced away from the swathe of destruction and lay partly buried in the soft ground and was covered in leaves and twigs and branches. The other end was sheer, like the bottom of a can of soup. Why the image of a can of soup should spring to mind, I don't know. I rarely buy cans of soup. I have no need for my garden keeps me well provided with fresh vegetables and making a stock is simplicity itself. However, it was a soup can that came to mind. Overall, the shape reminded me of nothing so much as a large, silvery bullet.

I stood for absolutely ages looking at it, just trying to come to terms with its alienness. You know how it is when you're confronted with something completely outside your experience. At first your mind refuses to accept it, then you try to explain it in terms of things you know and it's only when none of these work that you accept it for what it is, something new. I was like that with this... thing. The more I looked at it, the more alien it appeared. The metal, if metal it was, was silvery but it didn't look like silver, or aluminium or steel or any other metal I'd seen. I'm no metallurgist but I knew they could do marvellous things with metals these days, like merge carbon and steel. However I looked at it, though, my mind kept telling me it wasn't made on Earth. Another image popped into my head, that of these lurid science fiction magazines that were so popular when I was a boy and had titles like 'Astounding Tales' and 'Startling Stories'. The illustrators always seemed to portray space ships as bullet-shaped often with fins, though why one should need aerodynamic rockets for travelling through the vacuum of space I never understood.

The resemblance of the object to imaginary rockets was only superficial. My object had no markings, no wheels, no nozzles or vents or anything else that might suggest engines, and no antennae or knobs or other protrusions. Nothing marred the clean metallic surface. It didn't even seem to have been damaged by its passage through the trees; no scratches or dents. Neither did there appear to be any way of entering or leaving it, at least not on the part I could see, for it had no doors or hatches and no lines or indentations to suggest that it was anything other than solid. I had an intuition that, even if I was to examine every inch of it, all I would see would be clean metal.

I was also certain that it wasn't solid but it took me a while to work out why. If it was solid it would be heavy and, although it couldn't have been travelling very fast when it crashed through my rhododendrons, its very weight would have buried it more deeply into the soft ground. One of the reasons John Mitchell ignored this patch of land was that it was boggy. Water seemed to collect here and the soil was always damp, even in high summer. The impact of a solid fifteen by six cylinder would have dug a much larger hole that the one that was there.

Now I was in a quandary. I had solved the mystery of the rhododendrons but had uncovered a larger one. As I saw it I was faced with two questions, what was it and what should I do about it? Unfortunately, my normal trusty sources of information, the library and the internet, would be of no use to me. So far as I knew there wasn't a handy reference book entitled 'What To Do If An Alien Spaceship Lands In Your Garden'. As it had clearly been there for several days, I decided it would come to no harm if I left it overnight while I pondered the problem. As I left I pulled the brambles across the path I had cut. For some reason I didn't want anyone else stumbling across my discovery, not that that was likely as this was a very remote spot reachable only from my garden or across several of Mitchell's fields, but still...

It would be romantic to say that I lay tossing and turning in my bed as I struggled to come to terms with the strange invader. It would also be completely untrue. I went out like a light and didn't stir all night. Strangely, the plight of my dahlias didn't disturb me at all.

Things look different in the morning, they say. This I refute. Things didn't look any different in the morning. The alien object still lay just beyond the back of my garden and it was still entangled in the copse and I was still no nearer the answers to my two questions. The only conclusion I could come to was that perhaps the answer to the second one, what to do about it, might become clearer if I could answer the first one, what it was. And the only way to do that was to inspect it more closely. I set out again accompanied by my trusty machete, freshly resharpened, and a small bag of tools; a hammer, a hacksaw, a hand drill and a screwdriver. Quite what I could accomplish with these I had no idea but the idea of having them was oddly comforting. It suggested that I had some sort of strategy.

Edward is always amused by my collection of tools and gadgets. I don't deliberately set out to collect these but I do enjoy browsing around the local Saturday market... yes, we still have a Saturday market. It's not like it once was when the local farmers and artisans would have stalls upon which to display their wares and the travellers with their bolts of brightly-coloured cloth and home furnishings and jewellery and knick-knacks and cutlery would be there and, of course, there were always a smattering of locals eager to convert some of their lumber into cash. Connie and I took real pleasure in the sights and smells and sounds of the market. Still, it's a real Saturday market and people still come from miles around to patronise it.

Edward tells me I'm old-fashioned and I should ditch the lot and replace them with power tools. He has four; an electric drill, a jig saw, a circular saw and a sander. He claims he can do any job around the house with them. It's not very charitable, I know, but, how should I put it, his diy prowess don't quite match his business acumen. I would be quite ashamed to display some of his projects which are, not to put too fine a point on it, verging on the shoddy. Still, I smile and make complimentary noises when he proudly shows me what he's done to improve the bathroom or kitchen or whatever. My tools may be old-fashioned but I have the exact one for every job and it may take me longer to complete a job but, when it's done it's done as well as I can possibly do it. As I've said already, I like to go at my own pace.

As it was I needed none of them. I hacked away at the remaining undergrowth and managed to get right up to the object. Then, with no warning, when I was only a few feet away, there was a faint hiss and a panel near the front disappeared. I use the word 'disappear' deliberately. Although my concentration was on the undergrowth and not the object, I'm sure I would have noticed a door opening or a panel sliding or anything of that nature. I saw nothing. One minute there was a wall of solid metal and the next an opening.

I waited for a while to see if anything else would happen, you know, like three little green men to appear and say, 'Greetings, Earthman, ' or somesuch but having opened the panel, the object seemed to have lapsed back into quiescence. A crow took off from the field behind me with a loud 'Caw', making me jump with fright. I admit it, I was frightened. I was no more than three feet away from an alien spacecraft... I was convinced, by the way, that it was alien and that it was some sort of craft and who knows what surprises it might have in store. So I was more than a little concerned.

When several minutes had passed and nothing further happened; no little green men, no waving antennae, no alien probes, I summoned up my remaining courage and shuffled closer to peer into the opening. I don't know what I had been expecting to see; machinery, perhaps, or emptiness, or... I don't know. But nothing, nothing in the farthest reaches of my wildest imaginings could have prepared me for what I actually saw for I found myself looking down on the loveliest face I had ever seen. In my life I must have seen several hundred thousand faces; in the flesh, in paintings, in photographs, on TV. I have seen pretty faces and attractive faces and sexy faces and beautiful faces but I had never seen one quite as heart-stoppingly, achingly beautiful as the one I was now looking at. Even in repose, and she appeared to be asleep, her face combined all the myriad of qualities of aesthetic and sexual attractiveness that one could ever want.

I reeled back, my heart pounding and sagged against the side of the vehicle. I needed to be careful. If I wasn't, the 'heart-stoppingly' bit would become quite literally true. Too much excitement, my doctor had stressed, was bad for me. I was to avoid stressful situations as much as possible. I don't think he had this particular turn of events in mind when he said it.

'Be calm, ' I told myself. 'Long deep breaths, that's the idea. Let's look at this rationally. Okay, there's a girl in the spacecraft. Don't panic. She's either alive or dead. If she's dead, your course of action is simple; you phone the police and let them deal with it. If she's alive... Well, perhaps you'd better find out if she is alive. One step at a time. Keep calm and keep breathing.'

Talking to yourself is a trait in the elderly, I've noticed. Perhaps it's a sign of the onset of senility or perhaps it's because older people tend to be alone and the sound of the human voice is comforting even if it's your own or perhaps it's because older people become isolated. You slow down or the world speeds up... and I have noticed myself that the world seems to move at a faster pace than it did even twenty years ago. Cars, buses, trains, aeroplanes all go at speeds that would have been unimaginable in the past. We have fast food and instant e-mails and speedy delivery and instant access. Whether it makes the world a better place, I don't know, but it does mean that, because you slow down as you get older, your years of accumulated experience and wisdom tend to be regarded as irrelevant by the young. And hence the isolation.

I've even noticed that within my own family, whom you'd expect to be a bit more tolerant. When they were younger, just starting out in their journeys through life as adults, my advice was constantly sought. Connie's too. As they became more independent and confident, they sought us out less and less. Nowadays, they're more likely to advise me, whether or not I need or wish their advice, than the other way round. Perhaps that's the way it's meant to be; you guide them, teach them, train them when they're young then launch them out into the world like ships setting sail in search of the New World. Perhaps they'll find their Eldorado, perhaps not, but if they do, it'll be by their own efforts. All you can do is watch and hope.

I'm becoming maudlin, another failing of the old.

Taking several deep breaths, I peered back over the edge of the panel. The face was still there and still as wondrously lovely. I had a silly thought. Perhaps all there was was a head and nothing else, though why anyone would want to place a head, even one as beautiful as this, into a capsule and launch it into space was beyond me. Wait a moment, perhaps the idea wasn't so silly after all, perhaps this was a tomb, the unlikely survivor of a burial in space. Sailors did that sort of thing if someone died on board a ship, didn't they, and wouldn't a space ship be rather like a sea-going ship in many ways? Out of sight of safety and succour for weeks at a time, the sailors dependent on their own skills and abilities for survival?

All such speculation was blown from my mind like thistledown before a gale when her eyes opened and she smiled. If I had harboured any lingering doubts about her extra-terrestrial origin her eyes would have dispelled them. Human genetics could never have produced eyes so luminous or of that colour; a unique, startling combination of light blue, grey and violet. But it was her smile that did it for me. Her perfect lips, so full and lustrous, turned up at the edges to form almost dimples and parted just a fraction to reveal perfect white teeth. The corners of her eyes crinkled slightly. A description of the mechanics of muscle movement is rather like describing a great work of art in terms of pigments and brush strokes. Yes, they are important but they give no impression of the effect the painting has on the viewer. So it was with her smile. The muscles moved but the effect was indescribable. In her smile was the whole world of trust and love and desire and promise. Men would undertake feats of great daring to see that smile; climb mountains, swim seas, kill dragons. My days of mountain climbing and dragon slaying were well past but I knew I would give a lot to be certain that that smile was reserved exclusively for me. The man who captured that smile would be a fortunate man indeed.

Suddenly a great wave of sadness washed over me for this lovely girl a million miles from her home, family and loved ones. What terrible catastrophe could have caused her to be sealed up in this capsule and catapulted randomly out into space with no control over or knowledge of where she might end up? How frightening it must be to wake up under an alien sky and see an alien face staring down at you. I glanced down at her. She didn't seem to be frightened or upset or even concerned. The expression on her face was more one of... anticipation is the best I can do.

At this moment the capsule gave a low hum and, with another small hiss, the transparent covering over her head slid smoothly aside.

"Hello, Master," she said.

The voice matched the smile; a thrilling contralto that was at once girlish yet with a vibrant depth and warmth.

I felt my heart begin to pound again and I began to hyperventilate. It's difficult enough to cope with finding an alien space craft at the back of your garden but when that space craft contains a beautiful girl with a smile to rival that of Helen of Troy and, further, whose first words are 'Hello, Master'... I closed my eyes and leant my forehead against the cool metal surface of the capsule, willing my thundering heart into submission. When I had finally managed to regain some measure of control I looked up and my heart almost stopped completely. She had freed herself from whatever restraints were supporting her and was standing or kneeling half out of the hatch with a look of concern on her face. It wasn't the fact that she had freed herself so much as the fact that she was completely naked from the waist up that took my breath away again. I couldn't vouch for her lower half but I had no reason to assume that it was anything other than as naked as the part I could see.

"Are you all right, Master? You seem unwell

"My heart," I gasped. "The shock."

"I am shocking?" She appeared to be near to tears. "But I had thought..."

I waved a feeble hand. "No. You misunderstand. You are not shocking. It's just that I didn't expect to find... you inside that thing."

Her face cleared. "I am glad... not that you were shocked but that I was not the cause of it. May I assist?"

I managed a wry smile. "If you are as naked as you seem to be, I doubt it."

"Is my nakedness a problem?"

I forced myself not to notice her nakedness. Have you noticed that dress, or lack of it, is relative? A bikini, for example, and nowadays bikinis seem to be only one step removed from total nudity, that would go unnoticed on the beach would more than raise eyebrows in a town centre on a busy Saturday afternoon, or a black lounge suit that would go without remark at a dinner party would cause considerable embarrassment to both the wearer and observers if worn to muck out a byre. Her lack of clothing was of this nature. Because we were in a neglected copse at the corner of a field in the heart of the English countryside, she seemed, somehow, more naked than a simple lack of clothes would suggest.

"It will be if you step outside your capsule. There are brambles and nettles all around. You'll get painful cuts and stings. Don't you have any clothes?"

"They are not necessary."

"They are here. Give me a minute then I'll go back to the house and find something for you to wear. They won't be pretty but they'll keep you warm and protect your skin."

A small gust of wind rustled the tree tops and she shivered.

"Where am I?"

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Romantic /