So there I am, washing the dust from my throat in a roadhouse that clings to a strip of baking asphalt somewhere between Darwin and Alice Springs. A battered radio behind the bar buzzes and crackles as it pays out a succession of soft rock ballads and the occasional Beatles tune. A fruit machine tucked in a corner broadcasts ‘six ways to win’. Letter by letter it spells out ‘ACKPOT ’ - the ‘J ’ flickers briefly then gives up the ghost. Nobody’s put money in it since 1986.
There are half a dozen other people in here, but no one’s talking. The guy behind the bar is in no mood for conversation. Ruddy, rotund, with a whiskey nose, he’s draped over a stool like a discarded overcoat, reading the paper.
So I look out the window. There are a bunch of trucks and the occasional car parked outside, but my pick-up looks like it’s the only one that’s moved in a month. The road is empty, reaching in each direction towards a flat and featureless horizon. The desert offers nothing on either side - no landmarks, no life, no nothing - just the promise of a cool night as the shimmering disc of the crimson sun sinks slowly into the earth.
And then he appears: one tiny little figure in the distance. He comes from nowhere, from the wilderness; a black form flickering in the heat haze like a guttering candle. He draws closer, steadily coalescing into a recognisable shape, becoming more and more real with each step he takes. He’s dressed in just a t-shirt and jeans, dusty and parched, carrying no pack, no map, no water. He reaches the road and marches straight across, bounds up onto the porch and through the open door.
Nobody looks at him as he orders a drink and pays for it with the last few coins salvaged from the lining of his pocket. Nobody speaks to him, until he comes to sit near me.
“I’ve come from the meter,” he says, but all the while he keeps his eyes fixed on the glass in front of him. He takes a long pull on his beer, downing half of it in one go. He closes his eyes and lets out a gasp of sheer joy. Then he looks out of the window. “Out there,” he says. “Out in the desert.”
He takes another drink and drains his glass. I offer to buy him another, and when I return he accepts it thirstily. As he drinks, I look out into the desert. Daylight is just a thin band of purple on the horizon by now.
“So where did you say you’d come from?” I ask.
“From the meter,” he replies.
“The meter?” I ask.
He sets down his glass. He seems to have recovered some of his senses by now. “Of course,” he says. “You know nothing about it, do you?”
I shrug. “I know nothing about what?” I say, and he grins.
“Well exactly.” He looks around cautiously, as if he’s worried he’ll be overheard, but no one is listening. No one is interested. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll tell you all about it. It’s all been kept secret, of course, but I don’t suppose it really matters any more.”
Suddenly I’m being pulled in two directions. He’s got some story to tell me, and my curiosity is piqued. Who is this guy? Where has he come from? Where was he going? I had the promise of an answer to these questions. But what did he mean by ‘I don’t suppose it matters any more’? There was something uncomfortable in that.
“They’ve been here, you know,” he says to me. His pale green eyes are staring at me, challenging me to disbelieve him.
“Who?” I say. “Who have been here?”
He furrows his brow and points upwards. “They have,” he says in a low voice. His eyes dart almost imperceptibly from left to right, then he silently mouths the word ‘Aliens!’ complete with the exclamation mark.
So, here’s one question answered - this guy’s a fruitcake. But he’s deadly serious. And he did just walk in here out of nowhere. I’m compelled to listen further. “Aliens?” I respond, saying the dreaded word out loud. He quickly motions me to silence and glances around again, like he expects the all-seeing, all-knowing ‘powers-that-be’ to swoop in on him at any moment. I’m intrigued and I want him to tell me more. It’s like I’m probing an open wound - I know I should really leave it alone, but I’m possessed by a ghoulish curiosity.
I lean in towards him and in a low voice I ask, “When? When were these...” I run shy of using the word again. “When were ‘they’ here?”
He mimics my own posture. “Few years back,” he responds, quick as a flash. “They came in two ships. They landed in Sydney, slap-bang next to the Opera House. You remember they had that bomb scare?”
I sit back. “Bomb scare?” I reply, and I am genuinely trying to recall it. “I - I don’t remember,” I say.
“Sure you do,” he tells me. “It was on the news, in all the papers. Well, it was really just a cover story, you see. They didn’t want anyone to know about the saucers.”
“The saucers?” I repeat. I’m saying the words and in my head I’m laughing, but my voice is heavy with solemnity.
His eyes widen. “Oh yes, I’ve seen the pictures,” he informs me. “There’s video footage. They tried to suppress it, but I’ve seen it.” He nods knowingly. “You can see the two saucers - all gleaming silver with rows of tiny portholes. They were exactly like you’d expect to see in the movies.” He shrugs. “Maybe those people knew something we didn’t, hey?”
“Maybe,” I say. “Go on.”
He didn’t really need prompting. “So,” he says, “there was this big commotion, and the military arrived on the scene and made damn sure that everyone was kept well away. Meanwhile, the aliens were demanding to meet with the world’s leaders.”
“I see,” I say, nodding. “And these aliens: were they green?”
He suddenly suspects that I’m not taking him seriously, and he looks at me with contempt. “They were not green,” he says. And me, I suddenly feel very embarrassed. I thought I was treading the fine and uncertain line between humouring a madman and playing along with an elaborate joke. Now I’m not so sure.
“Please,” I say diplomatically, “continue.”
He does. “Over the twenty-four hours that followed,” he says, “leaders from around the world began to assemble at a specially built complex in Sydney - Presidents, Prime Ministers, the Secretary General of the United Nations. Even the Pope turned up to conduct a special service in the shadow of one of the saucers. And there were others too - specially invited celebrities and VIPs. Movie actors, pop stars - some people claim that Elvis showed up as well, but frankly those kind of ridiculous rumours only serve to make a mockery of the whole thing.”
At this point he stops and lifts his drink once more, draining it to the final third. I find myself irritated at the break in the narrative. I’m eager to hear more. Lunatic or not, he’s a compelling storyteller and I’m determined to make it to the end of his tale. He relinquishes his glass and looks up at me, green eyes sparkling. The bastard’s got me hooked, and he knows it.
“I suppose you want to know what the aliens wanted?” he asks me, and without waiting for my answer, he obliges. “There was much speculation at the time, and a great deal of anxiety. Were they here to warn us of imminent Armageddon? Did they come to bring peace and harmony to our troubled world? Did they want to suck our brains out, turn us into mindless zombie slaves and eat all our children? Well, no - it was none of these things. The aliens had come to read the meter.”
The meter? There he goes with this ‘meter’ thing again. What meter? “What meter?” I ask.
He nods, recognising my confusion. “All the world leaders were just as puzzled as you are,” he says. “What was this meter? What was it for? Well, as it turns out, it seems that it was for the sun.”
“Oh come off it!” I blurt out. Suddenly it’s got just a little bit too silly, and I can’t help my outburst.
“Straight up,” he tells me, without any trace of offence. “Not a word of a lie. The sun - which we’d all taken for granted - was on a meter, and these aliens had come to read it. What’s more, the last reading had been well over three thousand years ago and apparently we were considerably behind in our payments.”
Okay, so now his story has shifted from bizarre to downright ludicrous, but I can’t help feeling that he’s drawing me on to some inevitable conclusion. “Okay,” I say, a hint of a challenge in my voice. “So this meter…” I point out into the dark desert. “It’s out there?”
He smiles. “Took us ages to find it,” he says wryly . “We asked around, but no one could remember seeing it. Eminent scientists from all over the globe were snatched from their universities and corporate laboratories, sworn to secrecy and set to work on locating it. The aliens did their best to help - told us what to look for: a box about a mile wide with numbers on the front. They said that people usually kept it under the stairs. When the Secretary General explained that nobody on Earth had stairs that big, the aliens started to get antsy. They stated, in no uncertain terms, that it was an offence to deny them access to the meter, and could result in a hefty fine and the possible eradication of the entire planet.”
“That’s a bit rough,” I say, with a frown.
He nods. “Just a little,” he agrees. “Luckily, just when things were starting to get nasty, a weather satellite passing over northern Australia detected an oddly symmetrical square plateau in the Tanami Desert. Men and machinery began to pour into the area. After two months of painstaking ultrasonic surveys, detailed historical research and extensive excavation, a man with a spade struck something hard beneath the surface.”
“The meter,” he confirms. “It had been buried there for thousands of years, and no one had ever known anything about it. Well, almost no one. Ancient Aboriginal carvings found in the area have since been identified as a man in a peak cap, holding a clipboard. Bit of a giveaway.”
“Just a bit,” I agree.
He shuffles in his chair. “So, anyhow,” he says, “the aliens read the meter then retired to their spaceship. There was a lot of calculator work and eventually they emerged with the final demand, which they promptly handed over to the world leaders. Well, you know how these things work. They tried to divide up the bill, but couldn’t come to any agreement. Countries in cold climates thought they should pay less than those in warm climates, because they didn’t use the sun as much. Holiday resorts said that they should be able to impose a sun tax on foreign tourists. It all got very messy and complicated, and no one really wanted to take responsibility for it. You can imagine how the aliens felt about that?”
“Can I?” I say.
“Well they weren’t too happy,” he says.
“Oh well, of course,” I have to agree.
“The bill had to be paid, or we’d be in breach of contract - which, as it turned out, was an extensive document etched in fifteen-foot high letters on a cliff face in the Alps. We had thirty days to pay, they said - just thirty days. And if we didn’t cough up, they’d cut us off.”
With that nugget of wisdom, he drains the last of his drink, pushes back his chair and gets up to leave. Where he thinks he’s going is anyone’s guess, but I know I can’t let him end his story there.
“Hang on a minute,” I say. “What happened?”
“What happened?” he repeats.
“The bill?” I say. “When did this happen? How long have we got?”
He smiles. “Not long,” he says, with a half-hearted shrug. “Not long now.”
He thanks me for the drink and then he’s gone. I watch through the window as he crosses the road and strides out into the desert. His silhouette dissolves into the darkness and I’m left looking at the big black star-splattered sky.
“Not long,” I find myself murmuring to myself, and I wonder if I’ll ever see the sunrise. “Not long now.”