This is another Authonomy cast-off. I’m currently in the process of sorting through my short stories with a view to publishing a small anthology in October (something which has been forced on me by my preferred laptop dying and creating a need for me to trawl through my emails looking for back-up copies I’ve sent myself; this is one that probably won’t make the final cut but I don’t have the heart to consign it to obscurity.
The tour-guide, clearly a PHD student earning pin money, obviously fancies himself another Brian Cox. Trouble is, with his jowls and paunch, he looks more like the actor than the media physicist. You could imagine him playing Hannibal Lector, too, presumably forced into his idiosyncratic diet by the pretentious and over cooked concoctions on sale at the Jodrell Bank Visitors’ Centre. I’d give it a wide berth myself if my sister didn’t work there.
“Today,” he announces in an affected Rochdale accent that doesn’t suit him, “We celebrate an anniversary.” He pauses, inviting questions but the audience, mainly bored families and mismatched couples on penultimate dates, remains silent. Unperturbed, he continues, “Five years ago today, mankind made First Contact with extra terrestrial intelligence.”
A middle class mum leans over to her son, making exaggerated noises of interest, but he’s having none of it and goes back to playing Candy Crush on his iPhone. Truth is, no one’s interested in aliens anymore.
“Rubbish,” says a teenager from the audience, “Roswell was back in 1947.” The guide scoffs but doesn’t speak. The youth continues. “There’ve been aliens living amongst us ever since. Watching.” The crowd shuffles. The guide doesn’t know how to respond. My sister says they don’t get many hecklers or cranks here; the entrance fee prices them out. There’s coughing from the audience but no one speaks. I decide to help out. “What happened?” I ask.
There’s gratitude in the Cox wannabe’s eyes as he speaks.
“Well,” he smiles, pointing at the Lovell telescope, “have you any idea how hard it is to keep one of these babies in good working order?” There’s a shaking of heads within the audience but nothing that can be reply. “It’s not easy. We need to paint it annually and replace the rivets every five years.”
“Ouch,” says a fat dad from the crowd. His daughter looks on, embarassed.
The guide goes on, pointing at an overalled figure straddling one of the metal beams, “We’re having the work done again now, as it happens. Last time we did it, five years ago,we had a workman by the name of Thomas Ockerford. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever done any rivitting,” at this Fat Dad nods, “But it’s dull work. Thomas brought a radio to pass the time, starting drumming along on the panels.”
“Slacking off,” one of the crowd mutters.
“Three weeks later, we get a message back from the Andromeda galaxy.”
“Where does this Ockerford chap fit in?” Asks Posh Mum.
“It turned out he’d been inadvertently communicating with extra-terrestrials in morse code.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time a builder’s done a lot of work you haven’t asked for and stuck it on the invoice,” Interrupts Fat Dad. Posh Mum smiles politely.
The guide continues,”It took a rivitter on his downtime to make a breakthrough that had eluded science for decades.”
“What’d the message from Andromeda say?” Asks a teenager from the audience?
“‘Stop stereotyping us in your TV shows'” suggests Fat Dad. He looks over at Posh Mum to see if she’s laughing, but she isn’t.
The guide ignores him, “It took our finest cryptographers months to work it out. In the end, it translated as something like, ‘We mean you no harm.'”
The audience, presumably hoping for something more stimulating, shrug. I relax a little.
The finest cryptographers got it wrong. What I actually said was that if Ockerford kept shouting vulgar comments at my sister, I’d be coming down from Andromeda to sort him out. I look up at the workmen. It’s taken me years to get here but it’s reassuring to see that he’s back.