It was the scene where Richard Dreyfuss sees the aliens for the first time as they half-float out of the spaceship that’s landed behind Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. Everyone in the cinema was in a hushed awe-filled silence. Everyone, that is, except my mother, who was snoring. I nudged her gently in the ribs with my elbow, to my immediate regret, because it caused her to wake up with a loud truncated honk. Then, looking blearily up at the dwarfish light-filled spacelings filling the screen, exclaimed, “Good god!” I was 14 years old. I was mortified.
As she spun us out of the multi-storey car park, making dangerously close calls with the concrete divider (my mother was a famously bad driver), she complained that the film wasn’t “realistic” because “people wouldn’t really act that way.” Clutching the door handle as she took us up onto a curb on the way out of the exit, I protested and contended that aliens arriving from another planet is a pretty big deal. “Why is it such a big deal?” she said. Exasperated, I shot back with, “Well, what would you do if aliens landed their spaceship in your back garden?”
My mother thought for a moment and then replied matter-of-factly, “I would invite them in for tea.”
At the time, I’d imagined it as a dismissive retort to a question that she’d sensed was borne more from frustration than genuine curiosity. But later, much later, I realized that her answer was exactly, precisely—her.
The only times I ever saw my mother express anything resembling fear was when one of her four daughters fell out of a tree, hit a diving board with our head, or (in my case) broke a leg in a motorbike crash. It was as if fear was a muscle that had never developed in her, or had simply atrophied from lack of use. Her reaction to danger, or things that others perceived as dangerous, was hijacked by a potent mixture of obstinacy and inquisitiveness long before anything resembling fear could get a foot in the door. But with this refusal to fear also came a resistance to anything resembling awe. My mother’s generation viewed awe as a superfluous and even potentially dangerous emotion.
Hitler announced his plans to invade Britain on July 16th 1940, but the fact was that the German military had been expecting Britain to surrender, particularly since the resounding defeat of British forces in Europe in the first few months of the war. In an attempt to soften up the Brits to make an invasion easier, the Luftwaffe began strategic air attacks on British cities. Londoners were bombed for seventy-six consecutive nights, bringing down over a million homes and taking over 40,000 lives. But these attacks neither demoralized the British into surrender nor put much of a dent in their war economy. Significantly un-awed, they simply carried on. In fact, an unknown clerk at the Ministry of Information came up with a motto to encourage national morale in the event of a German invasion – KEEP CALM & CARRY ON. It was never used at the time (though now is printed in tee-shirts and fridge magnets the world over). People like my mum just naturally did that anyway. They couldn’t imagine what else anyone could do. Panic wasn’t an option. It was also unseemly.
There were times when this attitude infuriated me. When she came to visit me in Los Angeles, my mother would wander off to the 7/11 by herself at all hours, impervious to the dangers of inner-city gangs, armed with her M&S handbag and 76 years of stubbornness. I gave her a mobile phone that she refused to answer or use. More than once she walked through the front door with the phone still ringing from inside her bag. When she insisted that I teach her to drive in America because she wanted her independence, she resolutely refused to acknowledge that she was weaving out of her lane. When other drivers began gesticulating, honking and cursing—my mum simply ignored them, as if they were the ones who should be chastised for not being hospitable enough to accommodate an elderly English lady and her eccentric motoring ways. In her mind, the fact that we might have been killed had little bearing on the matter. For my mother, death had nothing on making a point.
But back to my mum’s close encounter. Nowadays, I have found my myself in virtual attendance at the tea party with her and the unsuspecting aliens. It goes something like this….
My mother gestures to the three aliens who emerge from the spaceship to come inside the house. At the threshold, she imparts in pantomime the request that they first wipe their feet, (or their equivalent ambulatory devices) on the mat, and merrily leads them into to the living room where they settle awkwardly into the velveteen armchairs.
After a brief respite to the kitchen she re-emerges with a tea set and a plate of digestive biscuits, and asks them whether or not they take sugar. “Shoo-gaaaar” she repeats slowly and loudly, and they glance at one another while the slime from their epidermises begins to glob onto the cream-colored shag carpet.
One of them attempts to cover up the stain the slime is beginning to make with one of his many cephalopodic sucker-like appendages, while my mum gets comfortable and begins the interview that she always happily mistook for conversation. “Do you get colds on your planet?” “Do you keep bees?” “How long is your gestation period?”
Inevitably, the subject of my mother’s probing turns to romance. Annapavlova, the youngest of the three, gets a severe eyeballing from the other two for admitting that he has fallen for a girl from Shirleymarinus and that his parents have not approved the match. Not only that, but she is from a far better family and more highly educated, having the equivalent of 12 earth PhD’s.
My mother loads and fires questions that leave no room for bashfulness or error (she never saw the point in tact, much the same way that drivers in the American south feel about turn signals). After a particularly pointed question about the mechanics of alien sex, Annapavlova begins to turn from racing green to cherry red, a transition that causes my mum to exclaim, “Oh, aliens blush! I never knew that!” (As if it were something that every self-respecting Englishwoman should know.) After an awkward slime-sucking pause, my mother turns her attention to Drobrovolsky with a “And what do you do?” He explains that he is a space-time quantum engineer, to which my mum replies without a hint of irony, “Is that interesting?”
Taking the opportunity of my mother suddenly being called to a ringing telephone from the neighboring room, the aliens hold a hurried pow wow to plan their exit strategy. They are interrupted by my mother’s re-entrance and her announcement (with a surety that the information would take a paramount seat in their concerns) that someone called ‘Emily’ is on her way over, because she “always stops in on her way back from the colonic,” to which Annapavlova asks, “What’s a colonic?” even while his senior, Dobrovolsky, is shaking his head and staring searchingly into his tea like a mariner into a sea fog.
After my mother has delivered a description of a colonic thorough enough to make even sailors blush, Emily arrives at the front door. She gives a weak squeal of surprise at the presence of three slime-drenched alien life-forms slurping out of china cups in my mother’s living room. Finding it all a “bit much”, soon rushes off to get supper ready for her husband and three young boys, who are momentarily distracted from their ipods by a series of outbursts from their uncharacteristically effusive mother that all end with “you wouldn’t believe it!”
Back at my house, while my mother is offering to give a reflexology session to Annapavlova who has been complaining of lower back pain, and telling him not to worry as true love will always win out in the end, Khvorostovsky, the senior ranking alien who has so far remained taciturn, suddenly exclaims that he has forgotten a very “important appointment” on planet Solzhenitsyn (minor planet 4915).
“Isn’t that a writer?” my mother inquires, to which Khvorostovsky explains that many of the minor planets in the galaxy have been named by inhabitants of the former USSR, since the Russians were dominant in the earlier days of astronomy.
“You may have wondered why we all have Russian sounding names,” he ventures. To which my mother responds, that no, actually she hadn’t, which is the God’s own truth.
“Shirleymarinus isn’t a Russian name”, of course, Khvorostovsky continues, as someone used to discourse built on logical progressions, “and in fact, planetary nomenclature is a particular field of study of ours in understanding nation-based earth-space power thresholds.”
Now, it’s not that my mother had anything against earth-space power thresholds or the understanding thereof, but the fact was that time was getting on, and the final of Master Chef was about to start on the telly (It was down to a chubby 20 year old Indian telemarketer and a single mum and part-time stripper from Dorking, My mother was rooting for the stripper). I imagine Khvorostovsky politely taking his leave, making a mental note to ban all tea drinking from the rituals of inter-stellar diplomacy, while my mother says how nice it was to meet them all.
In the hallway, Annapavlova, who is missing home is gripped by a sudden desire to stay the night and watch Master Chef with my mum. He gives her a gift—a black diamond formed in the heart of a supernova. My mother accepts it gracefully and he returns her smile, though she can’t really tell through the grill of seaweed-like tentacles that dangle in front of his mouth orifice. ‘You can come over any time you like,” she reassures him. “Now off you go.”
If someone had asked her, weren’t you afraid of alien life forms invading your house, she would have answered truthfully, that yes, she did wonder if she’d ever get the stains out of the carpet.
That—was my mum.