Thursday, February 21, 2013

Strange Encounters of the Third Kind

Last Sunday I spoke at Birmingham’s Tell Me on a Sunday storytelling event at the Ikon Gallery. Eight speakers, 120-odd in the audience and Cat Weatherill specifying only that we had to tell a story, that it had to be a true one, and that it had to be a true story about a Strange Encounter.

I had such a good night. I wish you’d been there. Well, I do now: I was so nervous before it that I specifically wished you wouldn’t. But now it’s done and it went so well, I’m burning to tell you my tale.

Are you sitting down? Do you have a biscuit?

William Gallagher speaking at Tell Me on a Sunday, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
Photo by Joanne Penn, Writing West Midlands


I need to tell you about a Strange Encounter... of the Third Kind. My true story has aliens in it. It’s the story of a night that has stayed with me – well, it would, wouldn’t it? It has aliens in it.

I was 16 years old in 1981. I don’t think that when you’re 16 you actually make choices but it’s that time in your life when choices come together so if you’re going to be a sporting person, you are, you will be then. If you’re going to go Goth, there’s no better time. In 1981, there weren’t a lot of choices. I rejected sport, rejected Goth, considered New Romantic. What I went for, what I chose to be was... a fan of science fiction.

It wasn’t the most fashionable thing at the time.

But what we had here in 1981, we had the Birmingham Science Fiction Group. Actually, it’s still running. It’s big now, websites, conventions I think, and even when I was there it had been going ten years and it was very serious, very respectable. And it used to have meetings in the Ivy Bush pub on Hagley Road.

Now, there’s one thing you have to allow me some licence with. I am a journalist and I have got to be accurate but I’ve not been back in that pub since this night and while I promise you this is a true story, the one thing I can’t quite hold in my head is the geography of this pub. It’s a small corner one, I remember it feeling bigger on the inside. I just can’t remember and if you know that it’s smaller than I make it sound, just keep in mind that to a 16-year-old it was very daunting.

A black, icy-cold winter’s evening. Stepping into the very warm, very busy pub. So many people. All sitting in groups. And I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me until then but I had no idea what anybody from the Birmingham Science Fiction Group looked like. You wouldn’t. No websites, no Google image search. I think I’d written them a letter. Maybe they’d written back. Maybe I phoned one of them. But all I knew was the time and the pub.

This is one specific lesson I learnt that night: if you don’t know something, ask. I realise that sounds obvious, but an awful lot of men never learn it.

So I went right up to the nearest table. I was so young, I can feel the nervousness, but, really, what were they going to do?

“Excuse me," I said. "Are you the Birmingham Science Fiction Group?”

They raised their glasses to me and as one said “Sod off, geek.”


Next table.

And this one, thank god, this one said “Yes”.

They budged up too, eight men at this table squeezed me on at the end. I can see every face to this day. They seemed so old. Looking at them now, closing my eyes and going round that table, I know there was nobody there over 19.

But they seemed so old, it seemed so serious and big. The world is a very different place now but then, 1981, being in a pub felt very adult. I’m in a pub meeting and I feel very big. Also worried that I’ll have to buy a round when I haven’t much money.

Lenny was talking. He wasn’t like a leader of the group but he was in the middle of telling them all a story.

No, actually, that’s the wrong word. He wasn’t telling them science fiction, he wasn’t telling them fiction at all. He was recounting something that actually happened to him the night before.

The night before. When he met aliens.

You were wondering when the aliens would come in to this. In 1981, I was wondering why aliens came into this.

But all these people, all these old men, whatever Lenny had said to them before I got there – whatever he’d shown them, maybe – they were sold. They believed. This was real. They were leaning in really intensely. So I leant in, really intensely.

And Lenny really quickly gave me a catch-up, a Previously. The night before, he’d left work  –

– Lenny had a job! I was so impressed –

He’d left work and driven –

– Lenny had a car!

He’d left work and driven up to the top of the Clent Hills

– I wasn’t that fussed about the Clent Hills

He’d left work and driven up to the top of the Clent Hills with his girlfriend.

– wow.

And they’d gone to do something. I wasn’t really clear what. But at some point during the... er... proceedings... the Earth moved.

The Earth moved and the car shook and where it had been a pitch-black, ice-cold winter evening, suddenly it was as if it were warm daylight.

They got out of the car. And overhead, over the Clent Hills, was this shining, glowing disc. It was spinning slightly and Lenny said that as it span you could feel it somehow. Feel it running through you. It felt like alien engines working to keep that spinning disc completely still and level right there in the very bottom of Earth’s gravity well.

– Lenny knew words like gravity well. This was so real.

He and his girlfriend held hands. And after a moment, she starts tugging at him, she wants to run away. You can’t run away from this, he’s thinking, why would you leave this? He angrily shakes her hand free. But she wasn’t trying to pull him away.

She was holding on to him as something was pulling her up.

And when he let go, she started zooming up into the air.

He should have grabbed her hand.

Her waist.

Her ankle.

He should have done something. But he let his girlfriend be abducted.

And I think he deserved the fact that she had the car keys.

So he’s got no choice now, he’s got to run. Now, I don’t know if you know the Clent Hills but they’re not very steep, at the top there it’s quite a gentle long slope. But it’s not as if he’s running, it’s more as if he’s falling forward, scrabbling, tumbling and he’s going down faster and faster when – whump. There’s a fist-sized punch in the centre of his back.

It should have sent him flying. But instead it held him. Grabbed him. And began pulling him back.

He’s reaching out for branches to grab onto but this is the roadway, there are no branches.  Nothing to hold on to. He’s trying to scrabble in the dirt and all the little stones are being kicked up – until suddenly they’re not. His feet aren’t connecting with the ground at all. He’s been picked up into the air and he’s being pulled back up the hill.

As he gets back up there, tugged back to the very top of the hill, this thing, this thing that had grabbed him, wrenches his body around so that he’s facing the glowing, floating alien ship. Where a small black square opened.

Now, the next night in the pub, he’s trying to explain what that was and the best he can tell us is that it was like it was a speaker. But it wasn’t making sound, that wasn’t where the sound was coming from. Somehow the sound was coming out of him. Alien voices were coming out of him. Trying to come out of him. It was as if aliens had read all about vocal chords and the larynx but it was their first time trying to use them. Lenny said blood came out alongside the rasp of words.

Sitting in the pub, he’s gone pale, he’s started to sweat. Forget all the other groups in the Ivy Bush that night, every single person in that crowded pub was listening to Lenny. Riveted.

His hand went to his throat as he described the feeling of it being used, being taken over by alien forces.

And Lenny started to rise.

Right there in the pub, right there in front of us, he starts to rise.

And suddenly his eyes roll back in his head.

This isn’t Lenny anymore.

This was alien.

And it spoke.

It spoke.

That rasping, horrible, agonising voice.

It spoke to us.

And it said.

“William. You’re at the wrong table. The geeks are over there.”

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