My entry to The Writer's Cramp - story that BEGINS and ENDS with the phrase: How on earth
|“How on earth do you expect to get a boyfriend looking like that?” It was a familiar refrain, so Laura didn't even break in her stride across the kitchen. Her step-dad always had funny ideas about what she could and couldn't do, usually the exact opposite of her real dad's ideas.
Sam, the stepdad, was pretty conventional. After being married to Luca, Laura's real dad, for so long, her mum had probably been craving some stability. But there's stable, and there's just plain boring. Sam left for work at the home-aquarium factory each day at 8:38 precisely, always with three pens – red, blue and black – poking out of the top pocket of his perfectly-pressed shirt. In the evenings, he liked to practise with his little home putter, in an attempt to improve his golf game for the weekends.
Sam had made her mum different too. Once upon a time, Maria had been a free spirit like Luca, all long, flowing skirts, bad paintings, and funny-smelling cigarettes, which Laura had only just realised were probably joints. Until Luca's “little episode”, as the family insisted on calling it, she'd been happy. Really happy. The three of them had lived in a poky little two-bedroom bungalow, and to make ends meet, they'd all head to the care home down the road and clean, cook, garden or run errands for the wealthy retirees. It was a simple life, but Laura never minded the lack of brand names in their cupboards. She'd been proud of her individualistic parents, and had worn her weirdness like a badge of honour.
But Luca had taken it too far. At least, so Maria claimed. She'd been fine with the crystal healing and yoga, had no problems with traipsing around the country in search of positive ley lines, and had even been the one to discover I Ching. So long as the forces directing her life were invisible and ineffable, she was happy to follow all of Luca's attempts at understanding the world.
Eventually, Luca had exhausted every philosophy, theology and new-age scam he could find, but still found himself dissatisfied. He felt sure that some past life or repressed memory was holding him back from his true happiness. “How can I be a good father to Laura,” he insisted, “when I'm not happy myself?” Maria thought this sounded perfectly sensible, and it was actually she who booked a series of hypnotherapy sessions for Luca's 40th birthday. Laura had often thought that, if she could go back in time, the one thing she would do would be to stop her dad from going to those sessions.
After his first appointment, Luca was simply a little quieter than usual. Although it was strange for him to encounter a new technique without heavy enthusiasm, Maria and Laura kept quiet – perhaps this was the one that would finally work. They became a bit more dubious after the second session, when Luca completely withdrew, retreating to their damp, dank shed until his next session. When that one was over, then came the bomb: Aliens.
For all his new-age leanings, Luca wasn't an idiot, and he knew that his wife's credulity had its limits. To him, aliens were actually far more likely than anything else they'd explored. After all, surely there was intelligent life somewhere in the vast universe? But he knew Maria wouldn't see it that way; to her, aliens were the stuff of science-fiction, basically synonymous with skinny grey creatures boasting giant almond eyes.
Sensitive to his then-wife's feelings, Luca sat Maria and Laura down, and carefully and slowly took them through the experience. “Don't get me wrong,” he insisted, “my guide didn't suggest that I'd had an alien encounter or anything. She just, kind of, steered me towards the dark bits of my mind. The parts that I've always felt were... closed off to me somehow. And what I found there was aliens. Not aliens from any TV show, and I wasn't just seeing them, I was remembering. They didn't take me up to their ship, though they did give me an injection. I think I forgot them as soon as they left, but for weeks after that, I just kept feeling better and better, like I was getting a spring-clean from the inside out. When I felt the best I ever had, I coughed up this, kind of, silver ball. The aliens reappeared, claimed it, and vanished again, and that was the last I ever thought of them until now. Please, Maria, you must believe it, I remember it all, it really happened!”
But Maria would not believe. And not just in aliens. Soon, she had given up on every alternative therapy that had been a part of their lives. Amidst confusing fights and month-long trips to stay with her aunt, Laura found herself removed from her happy 'stimulating educational environment', and enrolled in a 'normal' school, full of bullies, lip gloss, and gossip about people she'd never heard of. Now here was her mum's new boyfriend questioning her yet again. It made her furious.
As Laura stormed out of the house, she reasoned: OK, so her dad might be a bit weird, but at least he only cared about the important things. He really wanted to live a better life, and not seem like he was living well. Without even thinking, Laura found herself walking to his place, flouncing into the living room, and announcing without any preamble: “Sam just asked me how on earth I'm going to get a boyfriend looking like this.”
Luca was standing with his back to her, gazing out into his tiny back garden. He had a strange smile as he turned to look at her, then gestured out of the window. The three figures looked almost human, save for a slightly feline quality to their brilliant green eyes, and the absurd smoothness of their muscular physiques.
“Indeed,” smiled Luca, “how on earth?”