Of all the things to export...
|Back in the day, our village had three telephone booths. All were the traditional British Telecom tall, red box, three sides having small panes of glass, top to bottom, the fourth side hosting whatever the current form of public telephone is in use. The Top End phone box was the first to go. One day it was there, the next being carted off to some rich collector's garden. Oddly, the next victim was the one on the Village Green. I suppose because some numpty had kicked in all the panes and wrecked the money box. Which left us with the Bottom End box. Within a week, the line was disconnected.
It did not matter, not when everyone has a mobile phone. Except that the signal is patchy, at best. The Parish Council voted to keep the box itself and it became a donations library. Bring a book, leave a book. All free. And used more than the phone ever was. The telephone itself was never removed and Ol' Bob just fixed library shelves around it. Last Tuesday, I had several books to donate and was in need of a cracking good tale. Not the usual sickly romances, sauce-stained cookery books or motorcycle manuals. As I trekked from the Top End to the Bottom End it began to drizzle. By the time the box hove into view, it was raining. Just in time, I squeezed in and the heavens opened.
Was it for old times sake that I lifted the receiver to my ear? Nothing. No voice giving me a mission, should I decide to accept it. No foreign salespeople to con me out of my savings. No click or hum. Of course not. It had been disconnected. To pass the time as water sluiced out of the sky, I picked up a maintenance manual. For the Savarin Mark III. A flying saucer. Greg Peabody had been getting rid of his Sci-Fi books again.
When the phone rang, I dropped the book on my foot. Standing on the good one, I picked up the receiver.
'Salutations,' the mechanical voice paused, 'Greg Peabody.'
'Uhhhh, Greg's not here. Can I take a message?'
'I am expectorating the,' pause, 'Yolund Supercharger Manuel.' What? It had to be one of those practical jokes. Filmed and on TV a week later.
'Greg's not here.' Where was the camera? As I scanned for it I saw a slim book, 'Yolund Superchargers For Dorks.' Might as well go along with it. I read out the title. 'Is that the one you're spitting?'
'Additional. Plays send forthwith and notwithstanding.'
'What's the address?' I looked for a pen, almost as if I were about to scribble a label.
'Hive immersed it in vortex cabin.' It was the same voice that Dr Stephen Hawkings used. But at least he got the words right. 'Plays open cabin door and disposition Manuel.' The coin box under the phone had a round, shiny brass knob glued on it. In for a penny, in for a pound. With a grin at the hidden camera, I opened the cabin door. And slammed it shut.
There was a galaxy in there.
'Stars,' I managed a gasp. 'Space. And things.'
'Multiple appo-piggies.' It was worse than the predictive text on my phone. A sort of crackling fizz crept out from behind the whatever door. 'Vortex now octave. Plays down posit Manuel.' My fingers slipped on the knob. It needed a firm tug to prise it open. The galaxy had gone. Now there was a purple, swirling thing with little sparkles in it. 'Plays be putting Manuel in vortex.' The voice prompted. 'Payment is by returning.'
Feeding the manual into the vortex was fascinating. It ate the 'Yolund Superchargers' banner first. Then 'For', then 'Dorks.' No surprise there. Dorks are always the last to go. The last inch was sucked out of my fingers. I just managed to snatch my hand away before the door slammed shut.
'Reverberating vortex.' The voice announced smugly. Productive textile in full flow. 'Plays Labrador Mondays.' Labrador? Oh, yeah, retriever. I was getting the hang of this. Please retrieve moneys. When I opened the door once more, it was an ordinary, grey metal cabinet. But there was a bar of gold sitting in it. I stared at it. Then at where I had thought the hidden camera was. I picked up the metal.
And dropped it on my good foot. It was hot and heavy.
Outside, the rain flung one more bucketful over the telephone box and stopped. I lurched out into a fresh world of reflections and puddles. Down the lane, a figure was lolloping along, splashing through water-filled potholes, his wellington boots flapping. When he saw me, he stopped so fast that he wobbled.
'Salutations, Greg.' I held out the gold bar. I was still half convinced that it was painted lead. He ran a hand through hair that had been slicked flat by the rain. His navy overalls were drenched across his shoulders and over his paunch, straining the buttons over his middle. Just because he is - tubby - it did not mean he is a mental slouch. I could see lightning calculations going on behind those watery blue eyes.
'Ten percent.' He said. I weighed the ingot in my hand. That was a lot of cash.
'Fifty-fifty.' My counter offer was met with pursed lips. 'And I can nip down here twice a day.'
'Twenty percent. I have overheads. And the vortex only opens once a day.' I pondered this.
'Forty-sixty.' He was buying my silence too.
'I'll cut you in for thirty percent, but you have to take the orders and keep the books straight.' He held out his hand. 'The Galactic Tax Inspectors are due to audit next week.' We shook on it.
Did Earth export its culture? Its exotic merchandise? Its entertainment? No. It gave the galaxy the idea of taxation.
No wonder they do not talk to us.