DISTINGUISHING FEATURES - Clare Weze
Seaweed. Brine. The smells that had accompanied our sighting were just faint traces, but those scents obsess me still. We saw it together, my brother and I. Its residue raked through our family home, changing everything, explaining nothing.
It happened a couple of weeks after he turned twenty-five. I was twenty-eight and home for the weekend to lick my wounds. I hadn’t expected him to be doing the same thing. Cobbcote, our childhood home in Kent, was an old farmhouse with part-converted-but-mostly-dilapidated farm buildings set around a courtyard. I arrived there off the Friday-night train to find my brother Charlie holding the first of a series of artisan beers in the kitchen – beers that would later weaken our testimony.
‘Didn’t know you were coming,’ I said, without bothering to dress up my tone or expression. My lip may even have curled.
He looked past me, expecting to see my boyfriend, Matt. ‘I’m only here to eat and kip,’ he said, exaggerating a yawn. ‘This week’s been a new kind of crazy. Several new kinds. You wouldn’t believe it.’
I didn’t come fully into the room, but hovered with half my foot on the hall’s flagstone and half on the kitchen floorboards, an uneven position I’d been doing all my life in that house. It wasn’t too late to back up and cancel the weekend. ‘Where are they?’
‘Mum’s at the shop, Dad’s upstairs.’
Mum would be buying some unnecessary finishing touch for the prodigal’s feast: Charlie rarely came home. A rush of water surged through the pipes somewhere close, Dad’s footsteps creaked above my head, and that was enough. I succumbed to the thought of sleeping in my old bed again, and my old bedroom itself with its view of the fields and wallpaper that stayed put, in contrast to the peeling version in my crummy Tulse Hill flat-share. I flopped my bag on the floor and took up my old place at the kitchen table without even changing out of my office things.
That house. There’s nowhere like home, but even taking that as a given, Cobbcote was special. Low ceilings, recessed spaces for cupboards to sink into, the permanence radiated by ancient balding velvet sofas and that dozy, dreamy smell of old wood and coffee. When it rained, black raindrops fell into the fireplace; they always had, and mending the leak would have ruined it.
Charlie swigged his beer. ‘Where’s Matt?’
There was a little silence, then I said, ‘Matt is no more.’
‘Evie! No way! When?’
‘Last week.’ The words clogged my throat. The breakup was nowhere near through my whole system yet.
‘Wow. Mum didn’t say. How long was that?’
He whistled. I watched him deciding how to proceed. Curiosity won. ‘So … why?’
I told him how Matt came home one midweek night and told me he ‘wasn’t feeling it any more’ and ‘hadn’t for some time’, as if the time lag between not feeling ‘it’ and dumping me was a generous favour. ‘He moved out that night. Obviously, it was planned. I was just the last link to break in a chain, then he’d be free, rejuvenated, re-mojoed. He practically bounced out of the flat.’
‘Harsh. Still, what choice did the dude have? Stay with you anyway? You wouldn’t have thanked him for that.’
‘Well, thanks. I needed that.’
I racked my brain for something more devastating but Dad came downstairs, then Mum returned from the shop, all smiles and galloping chatter. Dangerous to hug Mum and breathe in the Mum smell of her while feeling the loss. Even through the kisses and her discreet attempts to find out how I really was, Charlie’s voice grated. His location work in Berlin. His signing of another non-disclosure agreement for a top-drawer drama. His endless gobs of production team anecdote designed to let us know how brilliantly his swanky life was going.
‘Sounds wonderful,’ I said. ‘Amazed you tore yourself away for a whole weekend.’
Mum fussed and stirred things, and the rest of us milled around the table waiting for the shepherd’s pie. Dad bounced around the kitchen like a spindly but thrilled giraffe, fetching things we didn’t need. Mum was still teaching at the FE college back then. Dad was one twitchy year into retirement from his estate agent partnership and had just started poking his tongue down the sides of his cheeks like an old person. ‘Terrible ringing in my ear,’ he said. ‘Chronic. Can’t get rid.’
Charlie laid his roll-up paraphernalia out on the table with finger-flick gestures of studied cool. ‘That’s your brain trying to work something out and failing,’ he said.
I rolled my eyes. ‘You’ve been telling us that for about ten years and it’s still a load of rubbish.’
‘One year of a flunked biology degree does not, I think, give you the final say on all things medical.’
We bickered on like that until Mum glanced at Dad, smiled a beatific smile at everyone and said, ‘Why don’t you two go to the barn and find me a plug from the glory hole? I need one for a lamp.’
Blatant, even for her.
Charlie slipped on the cobbles, righted himself, and flicked two fingers at me when I laughed.
‘Yeah, really, after two bottles,’ he said.
It was only September, but the vegetation was already beginning to mat down around the cobnut trees next to the barn. Their familiar smell soothed some of my irritation. I took a deep breath of home while Charlie undid the padlock and put his shoulder to the sliding door.
The barn smelled nicely of damp earthy minerals, but the boxes and trunks were fairly dry. Mum’s strangely beautiful clutter was just as tidy as everything indoors, which seemed ludicrous considering the dust and mildew covering it all, and the weeds poking through cracks in the stone floor. Charlie kicked the base of a dead sewing machine, and its cover shuddered. I started out excited to be rooting around, turning over membranous photos and doll’s outfits and thready baby clothes sealed in plastic envelopes. Then part of a fly came away from a fat stack of primary-school books, and I slowed down.
Charlie unearthed a sharp-edged glass box with diagonal cracks on the lid. ‘Woah, my miniature medievals. God. Why do they keep all this stuff? Imagine what’s going to happen if they move house.’
‘I once heard her tell someone they’ll never move because the house holds all our memories. They’ll be here till the end.’
He pretended to gag.
I smiled. ‘Remember when you told Mum she’d pead herself when she tipped the dish of peas into her lap? You spelt it out and everything. You thought it was so hilarious.’
We unravelled the trapeze that still hung from a beam above the trunks and swung it between us, loosening up, remembering what the barn used to be for. It was the place to get over boredom or work off a temper at a time when it was emptier of clutter, when Dad stored wood projects in here, and Mum stored nothing.
‘Very trusting and un-health-and-safetyish in those days, weren’t they?’ Charlie said. ‘Trapeze? Concrete floor? Crazy, much?’
‘We had a mattress.’
‘Even so.’ He kept the trapeze and walked his fingertips along its rope, dislodging little puffs of dust. ‘Arghhh, shit. Wish I could stay here for about a month. Or even a year.’
I homed in on his tone. ‘Not in a hurry to get back?’
‘That. Exactly that. I’ve got a ton of hoops to jump through before I even start in the mornings, and I’ve ballsed up. Something irretrievable. And my line manager’s a tosser.’
‘Aren’t all line managers? It’ll blow over, won’t it? What did you do?’
He shrugged and said nothing. Ten minutes ago he might have told me I wouldn’t understand. Ten minutes ago, I’d have pressed him.
‘You will insist on working with such awful people,’ I said. ‘Remember when I came to the set that day?’ The crew had totally ignored me.
‘They’re artists. They don’t always—’
We both laughed, but my laughter bubbled out in a violent snort that took me by surprise, and that led to a giggling session that left us weak and happy. Which had, I suppose, been Mum’s intention.
We emptied out a box of Mother’s and Father’s Day cards and shuffled through our handwriting changes and smiley-face blobs. The air was heavy with childhood and lifetimes, fascinating and cringey, like reading old diaries, but also comforting and trippy.
The shepherd’s pie was forgotten. We must have gone very quiet.
Then something walked across the open doorway. Charlie and I saw it at the same moment, and in that second, it realised its mistake and froze to the spot. Its gait hadn’t been too confident anyway, but seeing us finished it. I can still see it now. Round face covered in a close dark-grey pelt. Two eyes, a nose, a mouth, ears, two legs and two arms. A biped. But not a human one.
We froze, just breathing. The trapeze hung a few inches from my face. I could smell its ancient, oily must. My heart banged so hard in my chest that it was easy to believe it was sending all those dust motes spinning into the rafters.
It was about my height and dressed in clothes that we later struggled to describe: linoleum is the closest texture I’ve since come up with, but thinner, more flexible, in shades of muddy green. It carried something like an army kitbag around its middle (it doesn’t seem right to use the word ‘waist’) with equal amounts in front and behind, but none at the sides. The eyes, of course, were the main thing. There was fear in them, and something like pleading (although Charlie disagrees). A little bulgy. Watery, or perhaps filmy. Not really reptilian or fish-like – just not human. Not even mammalian. Not like any type of eye you’ve seen before.
Near its feet lay a box of Dad’s plugs, cut from dead kettles and lamps over at least twenty-five years. Charlie must have dumped it there.
The whole encounter couldn’t have taken more than three seconds, and the hairs at the back of my neck had risen instantly. Neither of us moved. It turned and disappeared – retraced its steps – and while we’d been more shocked than scared before, now we were terrified. Where before, the unreality of the incident had been the dominant feeling, now, without looking at each other or communicating in any way, Charlie and I both agreed afterwards that we thought the same thing: if we followed, would it be waiting for us with a weapon? Which is odd, because while face-to-face, I’d perceived no threat or malice.
The sound of the main road one small field away felt improbably distant. Unreachable. I’ve never longed so much to be in a car on that road, innocently bored. It was almost twilight now. Soon it would be dark, and having no street-lighting, Cobbcote was the darkest place I knew.
Charlie whispered, ‘Where’s your phone?’
My mouth was totally dry, but I whispered back, ‘Kitchen table.’
The doorway gaped in front of us. Its emptiness felt like a trap. Out in the rectangle of courtyard visible from our position, nettles nodded in the breeze.
We took a step out of the doorway. No sign, but I could smell the sea. The scent was very faint, but as we shunted across the courtyard – which seemed huge now – I got seaweed and brine.
The yard was empty. My heart still hammered. Like a nightmare, those last few seconds before entering the house seemed to take forever. Time perception stretched. My brain was absorbing every detail in case any of it was vital for survival, so Charlie and I seemed to reach for the door together in balletic, synchronous slow-mo. Our clammy hands collided on the handle.
Charlie bolted the door, then rushed to do the same to the other two doors on the ground floor. The atmosphere in the kitchen changed completely, even before we told them. They saw our faces and reacted as quickly as if we’d staggered in bleeding. Charlie’s garbled There’s something in the yard and my dramatic Not human saturated the air with confusion and panic. We could see the way Dad’s mind was working and both Charlie and I leapt together to physically restrain him when he started unbolting the door to get outside.
In the end, it was Mum who phoned the police. ‘Apart from anything else, it’s the only responsible thing to do,’ she said. ‘We’d have had to report a stranger on the premises anyway, wouldn’t we?’
Dad said, ‘They’re bound to get more reports of sightings. Here, stick the news on.’
A gentle patter of rain began, like fingernails against the windows.
Mum gripped Dad’s arm. ‘You’re sure there was only one?’
Officers Rudd and Hervey had introduced themselves to Dad and Charlie in the yard while Mum and I waited inside. I didn’t care if they thought me spineless – I had no intention of leaving the house again, although all my senses were still trained out there, charged and stretched taut.
Perhaps because of that, their names rolled over my head, and I couldn’t match them to the correct man with any certainty.
It was raining heavily by now. Both had stepped into the kitchen carefully, but little puddles were forming on the floor. Mum ushered them to the table, apologising for the cooking smells from our abandoned supper on the hob. All six of us sat as if we were about to eat. The four sets of cutlery didn’t match up with who would be eating and who wouldn’t – one of the officers had a set, but I didn’t – and this seemed to emphasise the wrongness in the universe.
One of them asked us to run through the height, weight and build of the person we saw. I’ll call him PC Hervey. His thick, claggy voice caught on the word build. I could hear the wet tunnels it travelled through and wanted to clear his throat for him. My own mouth was still dry.
Charlie started on the height but struggled with the rest. ‘Sort of smallish, weight-wise,’ he said, ‘but build and stuff isn’t really the point – the main thing being the lack of humanity.’
DC Rudd gave Charlie a flat, tolerant little smile, but PC Hervey kept even the glint of any reaction out of his eyes. I wondered how he managed it. My mind flitted to the criminals he must deal with every day in just this way.
‘Right,’ said DC Rudd. ‘How many eyes?’
‘Two,’ I said quickly.
‘The usual number.’ I looked down at my own thighs, which now seemed as unreal as drawings. DC Rudd smiled and said nothing for a moment – and he wouldn’t have done that if he’d been dealing with a burglary.
Charlie went into the pelt and the clothes, but stumbled over the hands, and I did no better. I’d only got an impression of them in the few seconds we had, but there was something off about them, and it seemed an important detail, even a vital one. Were some digits fused? Were there too many? Not enough? Too thick?
‘Any other memorable facial features?’
‘All of them,’ I said. My saliva was back but felt very gluey.
Charlie’s mouth clicked when he spoke. ‘Mouth and nose close together, like a hare,’ he said, and looked at me. I nodded.
Charlie shook his head. ‘Weird.’
I thought of the nose. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Lots to it. Substantial. Weird nostrils… the flabby nostrils of an elephant, but nothing like an elephant. It’s hard.’ There had been more landscape to it than a human nose, with the bumps and shadows of complex scaffolding behind, as though it undertook more than breathing and sensing. ‘It was a different kind of organ altogether…’ Something about that nose, and the overall shape of the face, made me think of mud, or at least some semi-aquatic place. I might have been extrapolating, but not wildly. And of course, there was the scent of the sea, that briny smell…
I looked at Charlie. ‘Small,’ I said, ‘almost hidden in the pelt, but there were folds… fold upon fold, like a rosette.’ I suddenly realised what it was the ears had reminded me of: they were like the embryonic clefts I’d last seen in histology books in the first year of my scrapped biology degree. The aquatic sense I’d had would fit with that.
‘Inside lots of folds too,’ I said, ‘and something really weird about it.’ I turned to Charlie again. ‘Can’t remember. Can’t describe it.’
The mouth had shaken me up the most. It was too embedded in the facial creases to distinguish easily, but Charlie and I agreed later that there might have been a membrane just behind the lips, which were slightly parted, but we didn’t think of that in time to tell the police. I call them lips – edges might be more accurate. And the pelt was folded such a lot around that mouth.
‘And the eyes are impossible to describe, too. Not human,’ I said. ‘Just not human. Not anything.’ A whole new file on eyes had opened up in my head in that barn, and once seen, it seemed inevitable that there could be more possibilities.
PC Hervey sighed and shook his head as though amazed, but that tolerant air remained. ‘So, this wrinkled aspect,’ he said. ‘Saggy? Like an elderly person?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘The pelt was just folded near the mouth, like the skin on a hairless cat.’ I scratched my own cheek, looked at Charlie. ‘Wasn’t it?’ He nodded.
I was beginning to feel something that would only grow as time went on: amazement that our cheeks, our hair, the totality of our physiology is as it is, and not some other way, out of all the possible ways.
Charlie said, ‘There was some kind of covering obscuring the top of the head.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but not exactly a hat.’
‘No. It looked like clay. I think it was semi-attached.’
I nodded. ‘Like the head had been covered in some sort of grey goo, which had then set.’
There was a silence.
PC Hervey looked at Charlie too, no doubt registering his build, height and mannerisms. ‘Have you consumed any alcohol or drugs in the last forty-eight hours?’
Charlie was completely still. Dad interjected: ‘He isn’t drunk.’
‘A couple of beers,’ Charlie said. ‘No more.’ He was sitting close enough to see the notebook, and murmured to me, ‘He’s written “bald cat”.’
‘Someone dressing up, perhaps, Miss?’ PC Hervey said. ‘Because a pelt suggests no clothes would be needed.’
‘Not if it was a very fine pelt,’ Mum said. ‘It was very fine, wasn’t it, Evie?’
I nodded. My face was hot. Pelt. The word seemed awful, but it had been beautiful. Dark grey underneath with an ivory sheen, like the blue-purple-black of starling wings. I said none of this. The kitchen clock still ticked, and that seemed surprising. Forty-five minutes had passed since we saw it. Time was draining out of the event.
Charlie cleared his throat. ‘Look, there was even a skin of ice where it was standing.’
I frowned and Charlie and I turned to each other. ‘You didn’t see that?’
I shook my head.
‘I showed them the spot outside,’ Charlie said, ‘but there was nothing left of it.’
PC Hervey said, ‘Must have been a pretty cold person to leave ice footprints. We found no sign of—’
‘Surely the whole area should be sampled,’ Dad said. He was on the verge.
‘It might not even be ice, could be frozen methane, or something,’ Charlie said. ‘A protective skin. For travelling. I don’t know! We’re just telling you what we saw.’
The officers didn’t look at each other – they were better than that. But PC Hervey stopped writing, and they both looked at us with the same expression.
I remembered something else. ‘The part of the skull near the eyes was wider than ours,’ I said. ‘Much wider.’
Charlie nodded. Everyone was quiet. They didn’t really know what to do with us. And they weren’t really investigating any more. They were breathing in wafts of Mum’s shepherd’s pie and placating a family of loonies. Look! I wanted to shout. This is really happening. It’s happened. What the hell are we going to do? All of us? What is the human race going to do? Charlie’s face was blotchy, his shoulders tense.
‘Did this person make any sound?’ DC Rudd asked.
We didn’t answer straight away. We looked at each other. Then Charlie said, ‘I didn’t hear anything. Did you?’
‘No,’ I said.
Nobody spoke for a moment. The fridge hummed, and the chest freezer, further away in the utility room, joined in on a higher note. They’d be away in a second, probably already planning what they’d say back at the station. Yoda and Jar Jar Binks would feature. What protocol was being followed? How could this be a two-man decision?
DC Rudd said, ‘It’s possible that it was just a particularly rumpled rough sleeper.’
I felt Charlie’s astonishment. We were like two halves of a split orange. We should go out somewhere and get properly drunk, I thought, then pictured coming home through the pitch black yard and knew it would be impossible. It was completely dark by now. The wet window made the yard outside indistinct and threatening. A strange, inside-sounding dripping also came from above, and everyone ignored it.
‘You have a lot of belongings in your barn, which gives such people plenty of cover, I’m afraid.’ DC Rudd’s hand was flat on the table, right in the sticky patch left by one of Charlie’s earlier bottles, and a second later, both officers stood up. ‘And it’s very common for our imaginations to do funny things when we’ve only caught a glimpse. You’d be surprised.’
Imagination is your enemy in a situation like this, I thought. Not that there’s ever been a situation like it – even now, I don’t subscribe to alien abduction theories. But I just said, ‘It was more than a glimpse,’ and at the same time, Dad said, ‘We keep the barn padlocked.’
Mum kept undoing and redoing the top button of her blouse. ‘I hope you’re not going to leave it at that,’ she said, ‘because my heart is ticking like a maniac. I can’t settle with that thing ranging around out there, whatever it is.’
My heart too, and not only because of the shock of what we’d seen. Charlie and I were now in a strange and risible kind of club. And coming up alongside that was the realisation that Matt hardly mattered any more. I hadn’t given him a thought since Before.
‘But people need to know,’ Mum said. ‘How are you going to spread the word?’
‘We’ll do what’s necessary, Mrs Myers.’ PC Hervey said.
Mum blinked rapidly, as if struggling to understand hard algebra. She teetered on the edge of full flap mode, and Dad came to the rescue. ‘I’m sure there will be other sightings,’ he said. ‘When you get reports of those, perhaps you could get back to us.’
There never were reports of any other sightings. We lived on the brink of it for months – the brink of what we were sure must be an invasion. But apart from Cobbcote going on the market, nothing happened. Month after month, we accumulated disbelief. Friends, excited and horrified at first, slipped into embarrassed bemusement as time passed and nothing exploded onto the news.
Like me, Charlie brought it up at work, but those who didn’t laugh just confirmed his supposition that it was a non-starter. Nobody believes stories of alien sightings, especially from anyone who’s had a drink beforehand. We contacted SETI, and appropriate university departments, and there was polite interest. Our testimony was recorded, but as we brought no physical evidence, there was no further movement.
Without Cobbcote, going home for the weekend changed for ever. Mum and Dad had to sell; Mum never settled properly in the house again. They’d have needed to uproot the whole place and plant it elsewhere; she wouldn’t be left alone in it. That courtyard held on to the imprint of something she hadn’t even seen.
I don’t talk about it in person any more. I go on exobiology websites, where morphology is discussed, and there are the most amazing ideas. They talk of organs carried outside the body in sacs, Ood-like. That type of poster finds my account of what Charlie and I saw too simplistic, so even here, I have no true allies, but I write elsewhere, in forms that give me a freer rein. Stories, poems, essays. I write about testimony and the nature of belief. I write and write over again, getting something of it into the public domain.
It’s been six years, and I still struggle with the word ‘alien’. The movie connotations vex the hell out of me. ‘Creature’ doesn’t work properly either. Because – and Charlie puts this best – laying aside all the special effects and terror of Hollywood’s finest, and facing the reality of who we accidentally met that night, it was actually a person. A traveller. And when he said that, I realised I’d forgotten the annoying, hipster phase that had seemed to obliterate the real Charlie. The encounter locked us back into the way we used to be when we were really little, before we started fighting.
After the first anniversary, there was a feeling of: is that it? Such a momentous historical event should have had a massive fanfare, should have left a permanent mark. But there wasn’t a trace. Charlie messaged, The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack, and I messaged back a thumbs-up. And when he replied, from Antony & Cleopatra, in case I didn’t know, it hardly irritated me at all. I found it pretty apt.
Clare Weze is a Bridport Prize shortlistee and a Northern Writers’ Award-winner. Her work has been published by Aesthetica, Ad Hoc Fiction, Bare Fiction, Best Microfiction 2019, Bridge House, Commonword, The Conglomerate, Reflex Fiction, Riptide (forthcoming), The Lascaux Review (forthcoming) and Wonderbox. Her background is in science (plus a little bit of hairdressing from an earlier life), and she is represented by The Good Literary Agency. clareweze.com @ClareWeze