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BETTER A DISH OF ILLUSION

 

The first time he saw the strange creatures he took them for ordinary men. A trick of the low winter sunlight, perhaps, shining from behind them. Or perhaps his old eyes playing him up again.

Any company was welcome, though. There weren‘t many who came so far down the lane. Not at this time of year.

He put on his old reefer jacket, wincing at the rheumatic twinge in his shoulder, closed the cottage-door carefully behind him, and went out to see who it was. Peering before him and occasionally stumbling, he approached the two figures. One of them rose to his feet.

And then Sam stopped dead, swaying uncertainly. The creature came nearer. Two long feelers, projecting from its head, swung gently from side to side.

Antennae, thought Sam. Antennae. That‘s what they‘re called. He half-turned to flee, and knew at once that it would be futile. At his age, useless. The creature was a head taller than himself, and moved easily. It would run him down in a few yards.

The creature stopped, and stood with legs astride, looking down at him. It didn‘t seem hostile. Almost human, in fact. Nor did the other one, still seated on the bank a few yards away.

Sam peered again at the standing figure. He swallowed hard, trying to keep the fear out of his voice, and at last managed to speak.

‘Who – who are you ?‘

The answer came, hollow and unreal, from the monstrous head.

‘We are the Martian men ! Glad to know you !‘

Sam‘s mouth fell open, and his lips began to tremble. He felt behind him for the low wall, and sat down shakily.

‘The – the Martian men ? You – you mean – ?‘

The creature seemed for a moment to be confused by Sam‘s evident astonishment, and turned to its companion. Sam saw no signal pass between them, but the seated figure rose and came forward in its turn, green body stretching, green antennae swaying.

The first one addressed Sam again, speaking carefully as to a child.

‘There is no cause to be afraid ! We wish you no harm ! We come in peace\!‘

Then it seemed to smile as though amused at such a thought, and handed Sam a card. No, not a card exactly – Sam could see that at once. A small triangle of shiny, stiff, plastic sort of stuff. He lifted the card close to his eyes and read with difficulty the outlandish inscription.

‘We are the Martian Men ! We come bearing gifts !‘

Sam handed back the card, and struggled to his feet.

‘Do forgive me ! Most – most discourteous of me ! It was the – the shock, you know !‘

Then he drew himself as upright as he could, put out his hand, and spoke with all the dignity he could muster.

‘You – you are welcome ! Most welcome ! This is a – a great honour ! A great honour !‘

The creature took his hand briefly. Its touch was cold. Not icy, but not at all the feel of human flesh. Sam resisted the urge to rub his hand on his jacket.

‘It is – er, cold. Out here. Will you – will you come inside ?‘

The creature shook its head. The feelers swung again.

‘We must return ! At once ! To our ship. But tomorrow – yes ?‘

Then the figures turned and began to make their way back up the lane, before Sam could reply. He stood and watched them, straining his eyes, as they moved quickly out of the range of his elderly vision and their shapes grew blurred and grotesque and finally merged into the misty landscape. When he could distinguish them no longer, he turned shakily, and began to make his way indoors. His heart thumped wildly in his chest, his brain whirled as wildly in confusion.

Back in the warmth of the cottage, he lowered himself stiffly into his chair, and tried to marshal his thoughts. His eyes wandered round the room unseeing until they came to rest on the bookshelves with their rank upon rank of paperbacks. The sight of them brought him back to earth.

It‘s all in there, he thought. I‘ve been reading them for years. I‘ve read about such things, oh, hundreds of times. Creatures from other worlds and all that. They call it science fiction. But it‘s not. It‘s not. It‘s fact. They‘re here. Here. Outside this very cottage. He scrambled to his feet. He felt the need for a cup of tea or something.

At that moment there was a sharp rat-tat on the door. He stopped dead, his heart beginning to pound again. Perhaps they‘d come back. The Martians . . .

 

But no one could have looked less like a being from outer space than Alex Muirhead.

‘Now then, Sam. Good morning to you ! Come on now, let‘s have a look at you. Get your jacket and shirt off, there‘s a good chap. I‘ve not got all day, mind !‘

All the same, he seemed in no great hurry to complete his examination. When he finally folded the stethoscope back into his bag, the jocularity had gone.

‘Sam, what have you been up to, eh ?‘

The old man paused in his dressing, and looked at his feet. Muirhead poked him in the chest with a gentle finger.

‘Your old ticker‘s going like a trip-hammer. Now, you mind what I told you, d‘you hear ? You‘re to avoid excitement and exertion, or I‘ll not be responsible !‘

Then he patted Sam on the shoulder.

‘Stay indoors as much as you can. This weather, anyway. Read some of your science-fiction nonsense, if you must. And just you look after that heart of yours, and it‘ll do you for a few years yet !‘

 

A quarter of a mile away up the narrow lane, the Martian Men came to a halt, and the taller one sat heavily on the bank.

‘Suppose we ought to be getting on, really. Must be nearly one.‘

The other nodded. Bert went on,

‘Tell you what, Sid. I‘m fair sick o‘ this Martian outfit. Be glad when I can get the damn thing off and leave it off !‘

Sid stretched and yawned.

‘Yeah, sweaty, innit ? Still, only another couple o‘ weeks. Come on ! Let‘s get back to the van !‘

Bert rose to his feet and led the way. As the lane widened and opened out on to the village green, the van came in sight. On the side of it, fluorescent letters glowed through the mist.

‘The Martian Men are Here ! Free Gifts for all Users of Martian Household Products !‘

Sid turned to his companion.

‘Yer know, I can‘t think ‘ow I kept me face straight ! "We must return to our ship at once !" Silly old a‘porth. Fancy taking us for Martians !‘

Bert tried with little success to give an impression of modesty.

‘Yeah. Must be nearly as blind as a bat.‘

Then his eyes lit up,

‘Tell yer what, Sid. We could do ourselves a bit o‘ good with this ! Might even pick up a nice bonus.‘

Sid looked puzzled, and Bert hurried on.

‘I been thinkin‘ ! If we was to lay it on wi‘ the local rag. Yer know, get a reporter up here, an‘ a photographer. We‘d get some smashin‘ publicity for the firm.‘

Sid‘s brain did not work at quite the speed of his colleague‘s.

‘Lay what on, Bert ?‘

Bert explained. They would get hold of the local press, give them an idea, just enough to get ‘em interested, y‘understand. Then have the old man up to the van and then get a shot of the Earth man meeting the Martians. Sort of confrontation, Bert said. Then they‘d tell the silly old nonsense what it was all about, and just watch ‘is face, eh ?

Sid spotted a flaw in the scheme. When the old man saw the van, he‘d catch on right away.

But Bert had thought of that.

‘Garn ! ‘E‘s practically in ‘is second childhood. ‘E can ‘ardly see ‘is ‘and before ‘is face ! We‘ll convince him easy. Tell ‘im we ‘ad to camouflage it a bit.‘

Sid was still dubious.

‘Yer‘ll never get away with it !‘

Bert took up the challenge.

‘Put yer money where yer mouth is, Sidney boy ! A pound says I pull it off, eh ?‘

And the deal was concluded.

 

Later that afternoon, seated in Sam‘s cottage, Sid had to admit that Bert was putting on a convincing act. It was arranged that they should come down the the cottage the following morning and escort Sam up to the green where the ship would be waiting. But, of course, the old man must understand that absolute secrecy was the word ?

Sam agreed readily.

‘I feel – greatly honoured. To have been chosen, you know. I can‘t believe it ! I really will see your ship ?‘

Bert rose to leave, assuring him that indeed he would.

 

That night Sam found himself – like a child at Christmas – longing for the morrow and quite unable to make it come more quickly. His heart pounded until it was a physical pain, his head whirled with remembrances of the day.

Sleep was out of the question. He got up and made a drink. When the morning came at last, it found him dozing fitfully in his armchair. Excitement and lack of sleep had done their worst; he faced the great day sick and feverish, his heart bumping unevenly in his breast.

He took some of Alex Muirhead‘s potion, and washed it down with a cup of tea. Then he sat down to await the return of the Martians. By the time they arrived he was all but beside himself.

Sid at once noticed the hectic flush on the old man‘s cheek, and drew Bert aside.

‘Ere, I say, Bert ! ‘E don‘t look too well to me !‘

But Bert had no intention of backing out now.

‘Garn ! ‘E‘s all right. Bit excited, perhaps, but what d‘y‘expect ? ‘E‘s goin‘ to see his first space ship today, ain‘t ‘e ?‘

Sid continued to protest, until Bert grew angry.

‘Look, what the ‘ell‘s eatin‘ yer ? We‘ve spent the last coupla weeks takin’ the suckers for a ride wi‘ this Martian nonsense, ‘aven‘t we ? Suppose one of the suckers does take it serious – is that our fault ? The world‘s full of ‘em ! This one‘ll want ‘is rake-off when ‘e finds out what‘s cookin‘, I shouldn‘t wonder. Besides, we‘re not gonna ‘urt ‘im, are we ?‘

And then Sam was with them, and they were making their way up the lane. Just once the old man stumbled and would have fallen. Sid put out a restraining hand, and for a moment Sam turned and looked at him, with eyes shining like a child‘s, so that Sid all but gave the game away.

When they arrived at the green there was not another soul in sight. Bert had done his work well. First they had to get Sam into the van, yer see. Then the pressmen could come out of hiding and get their stuff. But it mustn‘t look like a put-up job, or the old fool might catch on.

Now Bert was pointing to the distant van and Sam was straining his eyes towards it. Sid noticed with a twinge of alarm that the old man seemed not to hear what Bert was saying. The flush on his cheek was brighter and he stumbled forward as though in a trance.

Sid dragged Bert back.

‘Look ‘ere, Bert – we got to pack it in ! The poor old devil‘s sick ! He‘s not even listenin‘ !‘

But Bert was unrepentant.

‘‘Look at ‘im ! ‘E don‘t need to ‘ear any more ! "E‘s makin‘ straight for the van !‘

They stood and watched until Sam reached the gaudy thing. Slowly and painfully he reached up, opened the door, and climbed shakily into the cab. The sound of the closing door was muted in the morning air.

Bert hurried off to round up the forces of the press. Sid hesitated for a moment, and then made his way to the van.

Sam was sitting bolt upright in the driving seat. In his eyes was the look of one who scans far horizons. Sid smiled indulgently and reached over to tap the old man on the shoulder.

The next moment he was scrambling from the van and running wildly towards the approaching group.

‘Bert ! Bert ! Get a doctor ! Quick !‘

 

When Alex Muirhead came at last, Sid hung about while the doctor carried out the last duties he would perform for his old friend and patient.

Some way off, the two pressmen were arguing with Bert that this was just as good a story, real human-interest stuff. Properly handled, of course. But Bert seemed no longer anxious to have their services. Wouldn‘t be good publicity for the firm, he said. But he seemed to have lost some of his old assurance.

Sid became aware of the heated discussion. With a sudden decision he began to strip off his ludicrous costume. He‘d had enough of this sort of illusion to last him the rest of his life.

Inside the van, Alex Muirhead reflected upon the curious and wayward kindnesses of providence. Then he snapped the catch of his bag, and looked down for the last time on his friend, the man who now beyond all pain and all illusion travelled the wide spaces of eternity.