Alien

A short story by Bruce Barnes. From The View From the Edge, a 1977 anthology of stories from a workshop with George Turner, Vonda McIntyre, and Christopher Priest

Twinkle

Dear Alister and Co.,

I am still at home, sitting in what is laughingly known as "the back yard". I am sitting in the yard because I cannot leave. Seriously! I can't leave my back yard!

I packed my car this morning, ready to put it on the ferry, checked I hadn't left anything important inside the house, and walked around the outside to make sure there was nothing there either.

I got as far as the back yard, and couldn't go any further. It was really weird. I mean I just could not go around the corner to the south face of the house, and when I went back the way I had come, I couldn't turn the north corner either. When I say I can't go around the corner, I mean I can't go around it for the same reason you can't grab your shirt collar and lift yourself up ten metres in the air. I just can't do it. As far as I can work out, I have a subconscious block against leaving Tasmania for good – although why my subconscious stuck me in the back yard, I don't know. I can think of better places to maroon myself.

It is now 8.30pm. I have missed my flight, my car has missed the boat, and I am fed up with this whole stupid business.

It is now 10.15, and I'm starting to get the creepy-crawlies. I've well and truly missed any way of getting to Melbourne today, and I'm still stuck in a narrow area between house and back fence that measures exactly twelve and quarter by two paces. Subconscious, hell! Something is keeping me here. I was looking at the stars a while ago, and somehow I know that the whatever-it-is is here.

I can see perfectly well to write this – there's a street lamp on the other side of the fence. I was able to lean in through my bedroom window (I forgot to lock it) and grab some paper and a pencil from my writing desk, but I Can't climb in through the window. (Note the capital "C".) I can't even begin to try to get in through the back door because, through a masterpiece of architecture, it is around in the car-port by the front door.

The phone is ringing again. It's probably you, wondering why I wasn't at the airport.

There are four windows I Can't break. I can hum, sing or talk to myself, but not if I hear somebody walking by on the other side of that oversize back fence I helped Dad put up when I moved in here. I can't yell for help, or even write notes to throw over the fence. I can write a letter I see no way of posting. In short I ca–

Now I really have the willies. My father was just here. He must have seen my car. I heard his ute drive up; I heard him call me, open doors, and go through the house turning all the lights on. For the past few hours I've been imagining some amorphous "something" inside the house, peering out at me through the windows from the shelter of the dark. There isn't!

But the thing is, Dad walked around the house, AND WALKED RIGHT PAST ME WITHOUT EVEN SEEING ME.

2 a.m. The police were just here. All over the place. They walked past me too, while I stood silently and watched.

The thing is here with me. It's hiding itself perfectly. Am I just "not seeing" it the way Dad and the fuzz didn't see me? Or is it something I'm looking directly at? Something I don't know is really something else?

That clothesline outside my bedroom window? Something on the clothesline, like a peg? Something hiding in the concrete path, in one of the cracks? Those pipes from the bathroom, there's one porcelain one, and a plastic one. I've never noticed that plastic pipe before! Northwards from level with the bathroom is grass, which turns the corner to become the side and front lawn. Ahead, it becomes the unmowed vacant lot next door. Is there something in the long grass, motionless, watching me? Or even something small enough to be in the grass at my feet? There are some pipes leading under the fence, to keep the yard from turning into a lake when it rains. Something about snake-size could be in one of those, peering out at me. I can feel being watched!

Dad was always bugged by the concrete posts of the back fence being broken, as if by some immense pressure. (Emphasis mine.) Before, we thought it was caused by boys from the school across the road, straining the posts by short-cutting over the fence and across the vacant lot to school and back. That sounds kind of ridiculous, now. I have a kind of mental picture of something big and gargoyle-like sitting on the fence day after day, peering into the house, watching me, being noticed by nobody.

Nobody noticed when the boards were pulled off the fence, either. They're bolted on, not nailed, and it must make a terrific racket to rip one off. In eighteen months, I've never heard a thing – nor have either of the people I've shared the place with.

Supposing the thing is there now? Beaklike jaws a few inches from the back of my head?

Or am I on the wrong track entirely? Supposing the boards really are being pulled off by juvenile –

Maybe it's my imagination, but I think the clothesline just moved. The shadows seemed to ripple. It could all be in my mind. Then again, maybe not. No dammit, it can't all be my imagination. I'm genuinely stuck behind the house while something ... is examining me very closely, taking in every detail. By whatever way it is watching me, I am getting impressions from it. It's studying me, cell by cell. It feels ... I can't describe the feeling – but it isn't good. Not for me.

The shadows on that rectangular clothesline seem to be crawling, but I can't pin down a perceptible movement. Not quite. I'm sitting down-hill from it, as far north as I can go, on the grass, watching. I'm not even blinking, not even looking at this paper as I write. Hope it isn't a used piece.

Alister, Beth, Chuck – if you see me in Melbourne tomorrow, it isn't going to be me! The thing is getting ready to change its form, now. Into me! I'm getting better . . . almost reading its thoughts the same way I know it is reading mine. I don't think it is that damned clothesline; I've been fancying movement all along, but I know it hasn't budged. My mind is playing tricks. If it isn't the clothesline, where

THE GRASS IS

 

Dear Alister and co.,

Sorry missed flight yesterday comma car trouble stop. Landing Tullamarine 3pm thisarvo stop. See you all then stop. Have big plans for you all.

Ewen

 

 

Editor's Note (by George Turner, from View From the Edge):
This story - and a couple of others you will come upon later - originated in a piece of bastardry devised by myself.

Simply because for fifty years the bulk of science fiction has been produced in America, American ideas and idioms tend to dominate young writers trying to break into the field. Both Vonda and Chris agreed that we must try to cultivate the individual 'voice', to encourage the writers to use their own vision, vocabulary and idiom. (We did not mean an Australia-oriented style, but a personally oriented style.)

To this end I asked the workshop to write a commonplace science fiction confrontation, a meeting with an alien, but to place it in their own back yards. Not in imaginary back yards which could be technicoloured into fantasy, but the actual unromantic back yards of their own homes. Some description of the yard had to be integral to the action – and that's where the subversiveness lay. You simply can't describe your own everyday surroundings in any but your own personal terms without faking - and the fakery will be immediately detectable by all others with back yards of their own.

The workshoppers didn't like it much. Clipping their imaginative wings, I was! Unfair! But they went manfully at it.

Bruce, who wrote the story you have just read, complained bitterly that his place has no back yard. I know that block of flats, and his outcry was almost the truth, but I put on my unrelenting look – and lo, Bruce went to work with the imagination whose wings had just been unfairly clipped and used every damned item in that negligible space between back wall and back fence to produce his story. I had suggested that they might use the epistolary form (another cunning device to loosen up some of the too-formal prose which bedevils beginners) and he even managed to use that as part of his plot.

Which, of course, brings us to one of the great truths about imaginative fiction: some of the most striking effects are obtained by the revelation of strangeness in familiar things.

If you care to think back, you will realise that most of the really memorable science fiction has succeeded not in flights of fantasy but in casual distortion, subtle re-aligning or outright upsetting of our comfortable scenes of everyday.

-– George Turner –-

 

 

Author's note:
I did not like the title of this story, and was irritated that I had not been given the chance to give it one I approved of. Then came the Ridley Scott movie of the same name. Suddenly, I liked the title.

George Turner later chided me for not sticking as closely to reality as he intended with this exercise, that for one thing I had fiddled with geography by moving a school in for the sake of a story element. He thought I had been writing about the area behind the flats I had just moved in to. Not so. Despite similarities of description, I had been writing about the place I had just moved out of, not what I had moved into. The reason being that the workshop had come so soon after my move from Tasmania, I had not had time to see what my new abode had out back. Which was a pity, as there was an old laundry I could have done things with. The place described above is slavishly similar to a real place the other side of the Bass Strait. Which leads to a question that still bugs me. What was happening with those concrete posts and fence boards?

-– Bruce Barnes –-


Return to: The Bruce Barnes Home Page              Return to: Writing and Me

Go to:

    
People finding nothing helpful between here and the above "Go To" have browsers with javascript problems of one kind or another, and should go here.

(This Australian page -- http://home.connexus.net.au/~bruce42/alien.html -- is echoed at http://www.geocities.com/twin_spires/alien.html in the USA)