Stella nuzzled her nose against the edge of my ear and stroked my neck. It prompted a tingling, six years together and we still excited each other with a touch. I rolled over, ran a finger over her cheek and slid the other hand onto her hip.
“Making demands on me again?”
She replied with a smile.
Our tongues touched and I shifted my body to slide between her legs, but she stiffened and the smile turned apologetic.
“Can you ….? You know, in the drawer.”
I hesitated, felt a moment of disappointment, then opened the drawer beside the bed and took out the condoms.
Twenty minutes later we were on our backs with our fingers curled together when I raised the subject again.
“I thought you were feeling better about it, ready to try.”
Stella let out a little sigh, somewhere between impatience and guilt.
“Sorry,” she said. “It’s the same as so many people. I just can’t get out of my head what might happen, if they come back.”
“It’s a bloody big ‘if’.”
“I know. But it’s …. everything. Is it right to have a baby when the whole world could be different in a couple of years?”
“Or ten,” I replied. “Or a hundred. Or a thousand. No-one knows.”
She sighed again. “I know. But it’s still in my head.”
We lay silently for a couple of minutes, then I said what had been on my mind for the previous couple of months.
“Maybe we should go to the place where they arrived.”
She turned her head towards mine.
“Do you think it would make a difference?”
“We’ll only know if we try it.”
It was two weeks later that we climbed off a train and joined the crowd making its way towards the beach a mile and a half away. We were less than half way when the procession slowed into a queue. People were funnelled between barriers, stewards on either side ensuring that nobody climbed over or slipped through a gap unless it was to use one of the portaloos that had been set up around halfway. We fell into a slow shuffle, shoulder to shoulder and toe to heel within the crowd, fighting a feeling of compression and the heat of thousands of bodies. It had been like this since the day the Army lifted the cordon around the area. Even though the aliens had disappeared, people had wanted to come down and stare at the spot, one of fifteen on Earth where a large sphere had hovered at a hundred feet and cast an amber light over the surface for eight days. They had brought the world to a halt, stirred up all kinds of excitement, fears and confusion, and made no effort to communicate until the last day. Stella and I glanced at each other and I could see that she shared my uncertainty, suspecting this was less likely to be revelation than a big waste of time. I could hear a voice from behind me.
“Why are we doing this? They all say there’s nothing to see.”
I asked myself the same question and came back with a silent answer. Because it might just make your wife feel better about trying for a baby.
A young man stopped in front of me and picked up a girl, about five years-old, who was whinging from fatigue.
“Not far,” said her father. The young woman at his side touched the girl’s shoulder and said: “Remember, this is a very special place.” I just wondered why they were dragging a kid of that age into such an uncomfortable crowd.
The movement of the queue became painfully slow. Stella and I looked at each other, already tiring, less excited and as baffled as the rest of humanity. It had been that short message from the aliens before they left, somehow transmitted onto every TV and computer screen in every language on Earth.
YOU ARE NOT READY.
A few hours later the spheres had disappeared. Then the world went into a frantic babble. Some said the aliens would be back within months, others that it would be hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Some said they wanted to learn from our culture. Others warned that they wanted to use our planet for a sinister experiment. Some said they were a benign force, waiting for the right time to share a knowledge that would make humanity better and stronger. Others screamed they were preparing an invasion, ready to drain the Earth of its resources and round up the human race as a source of food. Nobody knew, and whatever probes and messages the major powers sent into space none of them could even detect a sign of the aliens. Life resumed, but people were less sure that whatever they were doing was worth the effort. The good part had been that wars and civil unrest had fizzled out around the planet. The downers were that all the major economies slowed down, students dropped out of courses, hundreds of scientific research projects were put on hold and there was a growing sense that anything anyone could do was unimportant. People were too busy asking: “Do you think they’ll come back?”
Stella and I were part of another trend. The press had begun to report that fewer women were becoming pregnant, and it was obvious that a lot of people were locked into the questions that had filled her head. If the aliens came back, would children have a life worth living? Was there any point in bringing a new baby into the world? I thought yes, but it seemed that hundreds of millions of people were stuck in the same uncertainty as my wife. I touched her hand and we shared a gentle squeeze.
The queue moved onto a downward slope and I could see over some heads to the sea. We shuffled down to the walkway above the beach – the closest they were allowing people to the sea – and moved slowly around the curved coastline to the point where we could see the first buoy. It was about a hundred and fifty yards out, marking a corner of the area directly below where the sphere had hovered. The crowd compressed a little more, people sensing each other’s curiosity and tension as we moved closer to the designated viewing point. In front of us the little girl wriggled in her father’s hands and asked: “Are we going to see the aliens?”
Her father whispered to her. The queue moved slowly, around the curve to the point where we could see all five buoys and the path split into four platforms set at different levels with waist high barriers to give more people a clear view. Stewards stood a couple of feet back, ensuring the queue continued to move at a snail’s pace as they gazed towards the buoys. We took the third path, finding more space as it became almost single file, and kept our eyes on the sea.
There was nothing there, just water between the five buoys, its only significance being in what we had seen on TV. I felt disappointed. Stella’s expression conveyed it more strongly. I looked at her and said “Sorry”. She smiled and replied: “Never mind. That’s one off the bucket list.”
The family in front of us halted. The little girl had grabbed the rail and stopped her father moving forward.
“Where are the aliens?”
He glanced to us, a little embarrassed, then spoke to her gently.
“They’re not here today darling. They went away.”
“We don’t know.”
“Are they coming back? When are they coming back?”
Her father removed her hand from the rail and took a step sideways.
“One day darling. We’re not sure when.”
“I want to be here! I want to see the aliens! Can we come back?”
He glanced at us with a bemused smile. We laughed. The little girl looked at us with a big excited smile.
“I want to be the first one here when the aliens come back!”
A steward asked us to keep moving and we quickened our step, beyond the viewing point to where the platforms rejoined the path and it snaked back up the hill. A lot of the people gathered at the point where it opened up and some walked the road above the beach, wanting to look at the arrival point from a distance. I asked Stella if she wanted to hang around.
“No,” she replied. “I’m more interested in one of those pubs near the station.”
A few hours later I was sitting on the bed, wearing pyjama shorts and glad the day was over. Stella appeared at the bedroom door in her robe with a big smile.
“Come on,” I said, “I don’t look that bad.”
“It’s not you, I was thinking of that little girl by the beach.”
“The one who wanted to go back for the aliens?”
“She was sweet.”
“She might be disappointed.”
Stella dropped the robe. She was naked.
“Oh my!” I said. “Is it time for conjugal responsibilities.”
She leaned over me and slipped her hand into my shorts. I felt the tingling and pulled them off. We rolled around for a couple of minutes, tongues, lips and fingertips all over each other, then I felt her giving me a gentle tug. I adjusted my body then leaned across to open the drawer for the condoms. She took my arm.
“No,” she said. “We’ll do without those.”
I stared at her for a moment, noticing something different in her face. It was a gentle excitement.
“Do you mean you’re ready?”
“I’m ready,” she replied. “Maybe our kid will get to see the aliens.”
Image by Yuri Samoilov, CC BY 2.0 through flickr