Authors: James Goss
Tags: #Fiction - Science Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Space Opera, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Harkness; Jack (Fictitious character), #Science Fiction - Space Opera, #Sagas, #Human-alien encounters - Wales - Cardiff, #Cardiff (Wales), #Intelligence officers - Wales - Cardiff, #Radio and television novels
I don’t know. Would he be the same?
Look, I am bending over backwards for you, sweet cheeks. You’ve got the best-looking fella in the room, and he’s desperate for you. Look, if he’s not a keeper, we can at least get you a shag out of him
Oh, cheers, Cheryl.
Someone has got very choosy of late
Of course! I’m nearly perfect, aren’t I?
Gwen watched as the guy sat down. Ponytail, (too) skinny jeans, black T-shirt with a skull design made 3-D by his beer belly. Too much jewellery. And, oh yes, a mobile phone in a holster. He gave her a big grin, and she just thought, ‘Spots? In your thirties? Oh bless.’
‘Gavin,’ he said, and laughed nervously. ‘This is all right, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah,’ said Gwen. ‘I suppose. I’m Gwen.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said. ‘So, are you into modelling?’ Gwen giggled, despite herself. ‘Bless you! No! God, no! When I was twenty and a twiglet, maybe. But no, not now!’
‘Shame,’ the man sighed, genuinely disappointed. ‘I paint orcs myself.’
‘Right. Uh.’ Gwen fingered her glass. How do people do this? ‘Any other hobbies?’
‘I love going to the cinema. And gaming. MonstaQuest. And do you play Warcraft?’
‘Dear god, no! My friend Owen used to, all the time.’
‘Really? What’s his username?’
‘Oh, he doesn’t play much any more,’ admitted Gwen, tightly.
‘Pity. I hate it when someone leaves their Guild,’ the man looked genuinely sad. ‘Still, I bet I’ve whipped him a few times.’
‘Are you sure? I think he was pretty good.’
Gavin managed a surprisingly roguish grin. ‘I think I’m better.’
‘OK.’ Gwen thought hard and mustered an interest. What was it the Gavins of the world loved? She tried to remember what the staff were talking about whenever she went to dig Rhys out of Spillers Records. ‘So, what about the cinema – I’m guessing films with a high body count and a big space bang at the end?’
He shrugged. ‘Actually, I’m more into my visceral horror – you know, torture porn? Love that stuff!’
‘Really? I’ve always been a bit squeamish, me,’ said Gwen. ‘Never could stand the sight of blood.’ She looked long and hard at Gavin. Do I really have to talk to this moron for a whole five minutes?
‘Shame,’ continued Gavin. ‘There used to be a few clubs in Cardiff, you know…’ He leaned forward, conspiratorially, his breath catching Gwen like a force field. ‘Tales of all sorts of horrors. Like fight club – but with beasts.’
‘What kind of beasts?’ Gwen was genuinely intrigued.
‘Well, you see, people said it was aliens. Aliens fighting humans. But I don’t believe all that. There’s a lot of conspiracy theories – you know how it is with all the stuff that’s been going on in the last couple of years.’
‘Yeah,’ said Gwen, almost impossibly slowly.
‘But lots of it’s nuts. I mean – all this talk of alien visits, and ships in the sky and so on. But it’s all “a friend of a friend”, isn’t it? Have you ever met anyone who’s actually met an alien? Talked to one? No? I thought not.’ Gavin smiled in a satisfied way.
‘No. Not me. I’ve always lived a quiet life,’ said Gwen.
‘Oh, don’t get me wrong – it’s not all blood and gore for Mr Gavin. Sometimes, I like nothing better than to chill at home with a pizza and some boxsets. That can be dead romantic, can’t it?’
‘Oh god, can it?’ sighed Gwen.
One thing that should have alerted Gwen to the nearby presence of an alien device is the fact that this conversation had only taken ten seconds. She had another four minutes and fifty seconds of speed-dating with Gavin to go. And nothing more to say to him.
Emma was talking to some poor kid. He was babbling away about how awful his flat was. ‘See, this bloke moved back to help his folks run a cinema. He let it out dead cheap, and I thought I had a bargain. Real impressive it is – at the back of an old warehouse. The square footage is amazing, although the bathroom leaks.’
Emma was nodding quietly, trying to imagine him with better skin, or a clean T-shirt, maybe, or a bit Scottish, or blond or something.
‘Thing is, it really is an old warehouse. If I meet a girl out and she comes home, she thinks I’m like a serial killer or something. Honestly, before I even start unbolting the hangar door they’re phoning a cab…’
‘And, actually, at the moment, I’m really into World Music.’
PATRICK MATTHEWS IS VERY
MUCH STILL ALIVE
Patrick lifted the rubbish out onto the dumpster. He spun when he heard the footsteps behind him.
‘God!’ he breathed. ‘Ianto! You nearly scared me to death.’ The girl looked genuinely alarmed. ‘Really? Oh, I hope not. I really hope not. Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.’
Patrick smiled. ‘You didn’t, eh? Then what you doing creeping up on me in a dark alley?’
Ianto looked bemused. ‘I’m surprisingly used to alleys.’
‘Is that so?’ He smiled again, and leaned closer. ‘So you really checking up on me, or just trying for a quick snog without Bren noticing?’
Up close, Patrick smelt of fresh hot oil and vinegar. Ianto realised he was breathing quickly. ‘Er,’ he said.
‘Yes?’ Patrick smiled, really amused.
‘Everything been all right? In the shop, and all?’ Oh god, I’m babbling, thought Ianto.
‘Yes. Fine. Couple of boys decided to kick off tonight, but I soon cleared them out. I’m so glad I played a lot of rugby at school.’
‘Yeah, always comes in handy,’ said Ianto. ‘Um. Girl’s rugby. Obviously.’
‘Obviously, yeah,’ Patrick smirked, and started to undo his apron strings. ‘So, is that it?’
Ianto nodded, eagerly. ‘Honestly, genuinely, just checking up on you. You’re alive, tick, good. Carry on.’
‘And?’ Patrick leaned back against the wall, smirking.
Ianto looked round, and slumped with defeat. ‘Oh all right, but just a quick snog.’
GWEN HAS HAD BETTER
Gwen sat down and scowled at the man opposite her.
‘Hello, I’m Gwen,’ she said flatly.
‘Hello, ugly, I’m Rhys,’ the man said back to her. He was grinning like a smug cat.
‘And what do you do for a living?’
‘Aw, I break hearts, I do, darling. How about you?’
Gwen shrugged. ‘I work for a top-secret organisation that protects Cardiff from alien invasion. I like to think I’m bloody good at it. What about you? Moved any vans around in a timely fashion recently?’
Rhys grinned broadly. ‘Oh, a few. So. Single are you?’
‘Oh yes,’ nodded Gwen. ‘Well, more widowed, really.’
‘Is that so? Tragic.’ Rhys tutted. ‘What killed him? Was it your cooking?’
‘Noooo,’ Gwen assured him, brightly. ‘One day, he spent so much time on the sofa that it ate him.’ She swilled down the dregs of the third complimentary Bellini she’d managed to grab from the bar. She was getting a bit giggly. Probably from all the small talk.
‘You know,’ said Rhys, smiling back at her, ‘you remind me of my last girlfriend. Only she had less split ends, you know.’
‘When this is over…’
‘We’re getting chips?’
Gwen shrugged. ‘Maybe, maybe not. I’m being unpredictable. I’ve heard it adds spice to a relationship. Now – seen any psychos?’
Rhys shook his head. ‘Apart from my wife, no. Everyone’s been very sweet, actually. You?’
Gwen shook her head. ‘Let’s just say I’ve discovered I could do worse.’
‘That’s charming, that is,’ said Rhys.
‘Do you want chips on the way home or not?’
Helena tinkled a little bell, signalling time to change partners. ‘Aw, and I was having such a laugh,’ Rhys stood up. ‘So do you want to see me again?’
‘Not as long as I live,’ said Gwen.
Rhys left Gwen, grinning. It hadn’t, to be truthful, been a great night for the Williams ego. Not that he’d let Gwen know. No, as far as she was concerned, it had been all honey and roses. But it had also been a nasty reminder of what the world outside his little nest was like.
True, there were times when all he remembered was the fun of being single, that mad prehistoric time before he met Gwen. Those rare golden nights when it was way past booze o’clock, somewhere in between kebab and the last pint sinking like lead… that lovely, carefree moment when a girl would look at you across the Walkabout and her eyes would stay on you for a bit long, and Lottery Clive would nudge you on the shoulder and say ‘Wahey – you’re in there.’ And you’d pretend not to notice, but you’d look back, and she’d look back, and then…
Oh, the fun of it all.
As far as he could remember.
Compared to all those evenings in, waiting for Gwen not to turn up. Feeling a bit like his mum, waiting up for his dad to get back from a late shift, and trying not to flinch when he breathed beer over her while she laid out the tea things and straightened down the tablecloth.
Or those cold evenings alone in the flat, when Daveo was out, and Banana Boat was off on one of his Grail quests, and it was just Rhys and the TV guide, suddenly it all felt a bit wrong. So empty. So lonely. And then, eventually, normally a bottle of beer too late, the key would turn in the lock, and there would be Gwen, all big smiles and hurried apologies and bright, bright enthusiasm for whatever he could salvage from the risotto. And it would be like they were on stage, in a play. The Gwen and Rhys Show. Was it a comedy, or a tragedy?
And they’d lie in bed together later, and he’d notice that she no longer clung to him while she slept, and he’d kiss her sleeping shoulder gently and he’d think, ‘Is this as good as it’s ever going to get?’
And, now, here he was, discovering that for all those quiet nights in and all those times when they talked at each other – what they had was better. What they had was so much better.
Rhys stared down at the table for just a second before looking into the eyes of Date #12. He didn’t want to see the expression. He just didn’t. He’d seen four different versions of naked, fearful desperation. He’d heard six different nervous, self-deprecating laughs. One girl whose first word had been sorry. Then a woman who’d not even blinked, but just spoken in a dull, weary tone – not just bored, but despairing – both of Rhys and herself – without hope. And three women who gave it the full ’tude – all Valley pouts and aye-aye body language and bosoms which heaved above their dresses like whales on an ice floe.
After a tide of all it – all of that like me, hate me, ignore me but please want me, Rhys just felt psychologically battered. No one, not even Gwen, would have rushed to describe Rhys as sensitive, but if asked to point out the serial killer among the women, his response would have been ‘narrow it down, love.’
Frankly, though, what he’d seen of the men had dispirited him. There were a few nice, normal blokes. Bit on the sweaty side, mind, but tidy enough. A couple of nice chaps who were a bit pie-friendly, sure, and one guy who looked lost away from his computer (ponytail and a mobile phone on a hip holster. Nice). And then, frankly, it all got a bit oh dear. Rhys gazed into the bottom of the barrel, and the bottom of the barrel gazed back at him. Nylon shirts, Simpsons ties, comb-overs, dandruff and Simon Cowell trousers. It was all here and it was all mad. No wonder someone out there was wiping out the single men of Cardiff. They were probably mercy killings.
And so, with that peace made, Rhys stepped forward and sat down.
‘Oh. Hi, I’m Rhys,’ he said, trying not to boggle.
‘And I’m Emma,’ said the woman of his dreams.
Rhys didn’t know what to say next, but she leant over. He could smell her perfume, which was subtle and expensive. He loved how she was dressed – classy dress without being showy, sexy without being revealing. Great hair, a lovely smile, and just the sense that she’d stepped off a movie set. That smile – and the laugh in her eyes. It put him at ease, made him want her to like him.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said, like she was letting him in on the joke. ‘No one knows what to say at these things.’
He shrugged. ‘“Hi, I’m Rhys. I work in haulage.” That usually about does it for me,’ Rhys admitted.
Oddly, she didn’t seem to be listening for a moment – but then her eyes lit up. ‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘I got distracted by the music they play in here. I swear it’s the
Rhys paused, impressed. ‘Good call. You’re right.’
‘Musical genius, me,’ she admitted. ‘I can name that crap in three notes or less.’
‘That’s quite a skill,’
‘Yeah – utterly useless, but it impresses the boys.’
‘It certainly does.’ Rhys suddenly, genuinely liked her. She seemed relaxed about the whole thing. She was dating and flirting and didn’t remind him at all of a slightly dusty Garfield clinging to a rear windscreen.
‘So what’s on your iPod?’ she asked.
‘Oh, that’s not fair.’ Rhys was stumped. ‘You know I’m going to try and give you a cool answer.’
She shook her head. ‘Absolutely not. I want to know what you listened to when you came here through the rain. I bet you nodded your head.’
‘Actually, er…’ Oh, I’d make such a bad spy. ‘Well, I walked.’
‘And didn’t listen to any music?’
‘Yes, well, er, that is…’ Now Rhys, don’t start this with a lie.
‘Well, actually, I walked down with someone.’
‘Someone?’ Emma, amused, held up her hands and made quote marks.
‘My ex, Gwen. She’s not very happy about me moving on.’
She stroked his hand, just slightly, and Rhys suddenly felt like he’d discovered a new flavour of ice cream. ‘I’m sorry about that, Rhys,’ she said.
‘Oh, it’s not so bad, really. She just can’t accept that it’s over. I’m trying to be gentle, but we weren’t working. It was her job – she saw more of it than she did me, and one day I just got tired of waiting for her to come home.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ she said. ‘Work’s just work, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah,’ said Rhys, warming to the subject, ‘but she didn’t get that – not until I’d moved out. And now she wants me back. But I am saying no.’
‘Good for you.’ Again, a light touch, just a little bit higher up his arm.
‘Thing is, she says she’ll change. Says she’ll be different, you know, just to please me. And that’s not what I want. I’m just me. And work is part of what she is. She shouldn’t try and be what she’s not just to make me happy. I never will.’