SO LONG, AND THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH
"April showers I hate especially."
However noncommittally Arthur grunted, the man seemed determined to talk to him. He wondered if he should get up and move to another table, but there didn't seem to be one free in the whole cafeteria. He stirred his coffee fiercely.
"Bloody April showers. Hate, hate, hate."
Arthur stared, frowning, out the window. A light, sunny spray of rain hung over the motorway. Two months he'd been back now. Slipping back into his old life had in fact been laughably easy. People had such extraordinarily short memories, including him. Eight years of crazed wanderings round the Galaxy now seemed to him not so much like a bad dream as like a film he had videotaped off television and now kept in the back of a cupboard without bothering to watch.
One effect that still lingered, though, was his joy at being back. Now that the Earth's atmosphere had closed over his head for good, he thought wrongly, everything within it gave him extraordinary pleasure. Looking at he silvery sparkle of the raindrops he felt he had to protest.
"Well, I like them," he said suddenly, "and for all the obvious reasons. They're light and refreshing. They sparkle and make you feel good."
The man snorted derisively.
"That's what they all say," he said, and glowered darkly from his corner seat.
He was a lorry driver. Arthur knew this because his opening, unprovoked remark had been, "I'm a lorry driver. I hate driving in the rain. Ironic, isn't it? Bloody ironic."
If there was a sequitur hidden in this remark, Arthur had not been able to divine it and had merely given a little grunt, affable but not encouraging.
But the man had not been deterred then, and was not deterred now. "They all say that about bloody April showers," he said, "so bloody nice, so bloody refreshing, such charming bloody weather."
He leaned forward, screwing his face up as if he was going to say something extraordinary about the government.
"What I want to know is this," he said, "if it's going to be nice weather, why," he almost spat, "can't it be nice without bloody raining?"
Arthur gave up. He decided to leave his coffee, which was too hot to drink quickly and too nasty to drink cold.
"Well, there you go," he said, and instead got up himself. "Bye."
He stopped off at the service station shop, then walked back through the parking lot, making a point of enjoying the fine play of rain in his face. There was even, he noticed, a faint rainbow glistening over the Devon hills. He enjoyed that, too.
He climbed into his battered but adored old black VW Rabbit, squealed the tires, and headed out past the islands of gas pumps and along the slip road to the motorway.
He was wrong in thinking that the atmosphere of the Earth had closed finally and forever above his head.
He was wrong to think that it would ever be possible to put behind him the tangled web of irresolutions into which his galactic travels had dragged him.
He was wrong to think he could now forget that the big, hard, oily, dirty, rainbow-hung Earth on which he lived was a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot lost in the unimaginable infinity of the Universe.
He drove on, humming, being wrong about all these things.
The reason he was wrong was standing by the slip road under a small umbrella.
His jaw sagged. He sprained his ankle against the brake pedal and skidded so hard he very nearly turned the car over.
"Fenny!" he shouted.
Having narrowly avoided hitting her with the actual car, he hit her instead with the car door as he leaned across and flung it open.
It caught her hand and knocked away the umbrella from it, which then bowled wildly away across the road.
"Shit!" yelled Arthur as helpfully as he could, leaped out of his own door, narrowly avoided being run down by McKenna's All-Weather Haulage, and watched in horror as it ran down Fenny's umbrella instead. The lorry swept along the motorway and away.
The umbrella lay like a recently swatted daddy longlegs, expiring sadly on the ground. Tiny gusts of wind made it twitch a little.
He picked it up.
"Er," he said. There didn't seem to be a lot of point in offering the thing back to her.
"How did you know my name?" she said.
"Er, well," he said, "look, I'll get you another one."
He looked at her and tailed off.
She was tallish with dark hair which fell in waves around a pale and serious face. Standing still, alone, she seemed almost somber, like a statue to some important but unpopular virtue in a formal garden. She seemed to be looking at something other than what she looked as if she was looking at.
But when she smiled, as she did now, suddenly, it was as if she had just arrived from somewhere. Warmth and life flooded into her face, and impossibly graceful movement into her body. The effect was very disconcerting, and it disconcerted Arthur like hell.
She grinned, tossed her bag into the back, and swiveled herself into the front seat.
"Don't worry about the umbrella," she said to him as she climbed in, "it was my brother's and he can't have liked it or he wouldn't have given it to me." She laughed and pulled on her seat belt. "You're not a friend of my brother's, are you?"
Her voice was the only part of her which didn't say "Good."
Her physical presence there in the car, his car, was quite extraordinary to Arthur. He felt, as he let the car pull slowly away, that he could hardly think or breathe, and hoped that neither of these functions was vital to his driving or they were in trouble.
So what he had experienced in the other car, her brother's car, the night he had returned exhausted and bewildered from his nightmare years in the stars had not been the unbalance of the moment or, if it had been, he was at least twice as unbalanced now, and quite liable to falloff whatever it is that well-balanced people are supposed to be balancing on.
"So ..." he said, hoping to kick the conversation off to an exciting start.
"'He was supposed to pick me up -- my brother -- but phoned to say he couldn't make it. I asked about buses but the man started to look at a calendar rather than a timetable, so I decided to hitch. So."
"So here I am. And what I would like to know, is how you know my name."
"Perhaps we ought to first sort out," said Arthur, looking back over his shoulder as he eased his car into the motorway traffic, "where I'm taking you."
Very close, he hoped, or a long way. Close would mean she lived near him, a long way would mean he could drive her there.
"I'd like to go to Taunton," she said, "please. If that's all right. It's not far. You can drop me at --"
"You live in Taunton?" he said, hoping that he'd managed to sound merely curious rather than ecstatic. Taunton was wonderfully close to him. He could ...
"No, London," she said, "there's a train in just under an hour."
It was the worst thing possible. Taunton was only minutes away up the motorway. He wondered what to do, and while he was wondering heard himself, with horror, saying, "Oh, I can take you to London. Let me take you to London ..."
Bungling idiot. Why on earth had he said "let" in that stupid way? He was behaving like a twelve-year-old.
She looked at him severely.
"Are you going to London?" she asked.
"Yes," he didn't say.
"And I've got to step on it," he failed to add, omitting to glance at his watch.
"I wasn't," he said, "but ..." Bungling idiot.
"It's very kind of you," she said, "but really no. I like to go by train." And suddenly she was gone. Or rather, that part of her which brought her to life was gone. She looked rather distantly out the window and hummed lightly to herself.
He couldn't believe it.
Thirty seconds into the conversation, and already he'd blown it.
Grown men, he told himself, in flat contradiction of centuries of accumulated evidence about the way grown men behave, do not behave like this.
Taunton 5 miles, said the signpost.
He gripped the steering wheel so tightly the car wobbled.
He was going to have to do something dramatic.
"Fenny," he said.
She glanced round sharply at him. "You still haven't told me how --"
"Listen," said Arthur, "I will tell you, though the story is rather strange. Very strange."
She was still looking at him, but said nothing.
"You said that."
"Did I? Oh. There are things I must talk to you about, and things I must tell you ... a story I must tell you which would ..." He was thrashing about. He wanted something along the lines of "Thy knotted and combined locks to part, / And each particular hair to stand on end, / like quills upon the fretful porcupine" but didn't think he could carry it off and didn't like the hedgehog reference.
"... which would take more than five miles," he settled for in the end, rather lamely, he was afraid.
"Just supposing," he said, "just supposing" -- he didn't know what was coming next, so he thought he'd just sit back and listen -- "that there was some extraordinary way in which you were very important to me, and that, though you didn't know it, I was very important to you, but it all went for nothing because we only had five miles and I was a stupid idiot at knowing how to say something very important to someone I've only just met and not crash into lorries at the same time, what would you say ..." He paused, helplessly, and looked at her.
" ... I should do?"
"Watch the road!" she yelped.
He narrowly avoided careening into the side of a hundred Italian washing machines in a German lorry.
"I think," she said, with a momentary sigh of relief, "you should buy me a drink before my train goes."
There is, for some reason, something especially grim about pubs near stations, a very particular kind of grubbiness, a special kind of pallor to the pork pies.
Worse than the pork pies, though, are the sandwiches. There is a feeling which persists in England that making a sandwich interesting, attractive, or in any way pleasant to eat is something sinful that only foreigners do.
"Make 'em dry" is the instruction buried somewhere in the collective national consciousness, "make 'em rubbery. If you have to keep the buggers fresh, do it by washing 'em once a week."
It is by eating sandwiches in pubs at Saturday lunchtime that the British seek to atone for whatever their national sins have been. They're not altogether clear what those sins are, and don't want to know either. Sins are not the sort of things one wants to know about. But whatever sins there are are amply atoned for by the sandwiches they make themselves eat.
If there is anything worse than the sandwiches, it is the sausages which sit next to them. Joyless tubes, full of gristle, floating in a sea of something hot and sad, stuck with a plastic pin in the shape of a chefs hat: a memorial, one feels, for some chef who hated the world, and died, forgotten and alone among his cats on a back stair in Stepney.
The sausages are for the ones who know what their sins are and wish to atone for something specific.
"There must be somewhere better," said Arthur.
"No time," said Fenny, glancing at her watch, "my train leaves in half an hour."
They sat at a small wobbly table. On it were some dirty glasses, and some soggy beer mats with jokes printed on them. Arthur got Fenny a tomato juice, and himself a pint of yellow water with gas in it. And a couple of sausages, he didn't know why. He bought them for something to do while the gas settled in his glass.
The barman dunked Arthur's change in a pool of beer on the bar, for which Arthur thanked him.
"All right," said Fenny, glancing at her watch, "tell me what it is you have to tell me."
She sounded, as well she might, extremely skeptical, and Arthur's heart sank. Hardly, he felt, the most conducive setting to try to explain to her as she sat there, suddenly cool and defensive, that in a sort of out-of-body dream he had had a telepathic sense that the mental breakdown she had suffered had been connected with the fact that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the Earth had been demolished to make way for a new hyperspace bypass, something which he alone on Earth knew anything about, having virtually witnessed it from a Vogon spaceship, and that furthermore both his body and soul ached for her unbearably and he needed deeply to go to bed with her as soon as was humanly possible.
"Fenny," he started.
"I wonder if you'd like to buy some tickets for our raffle? It's just a little one."
He glanced up sharply.
"To raise money for Anjie, who's retiring."
"And needs a kidney machine."
He was being leaned over by a rather stiffly slim, middle-aged woman with a prim knitted suit and a prim little perm, and a prim little smile that probably got licked by prim little dogs a lot.
She was holding out a small book of cloakroom tickets and a collecting tin.
"Only ten pence each," she said, "so you could probably even buy two. Without breaking the bank!" She gave a tinkly little laugh and then a curiously long sigh. Saying "without breaking the bank" had obviously given her more pleasure than anything since some G.I.s had been billeted on her in the war.
"Er, yes, all right," said Arthur, hurriedly digging in his pocket and producing a couple of coins.
With infuriating slowness, and prim theatricality, if there was such a thing, the woman tore off two tickets and handed them to Arthur.
"I do hope you win," she said with a smile that suddenly snapped together like a piece of advanced origami, "the prizes are so nice."
"Yes, thank you," said Arthur, pocketing the tickets rather brusquely and glancing at his watch.
He turned toward Fenny.
So did the woman with the raffle tickets.
"And what about you, young lady?" she said. "It's for Anjie's kidney machine. She's retiring, you see. Yes?" She hoisted the little smile even farther up her face. She would have to stop and let it go soon or the skin would surely split.
"Er, look, here you are," said Arthur, and pushed a fifty-pence piece at her in the hope that that would see her off.
"Oh, we are in the money, aren't we?" said the woman, with a long smiling sigh. "Down from London, are we?"
Arthur wished she wouldn't talk so slowly.
"No, that's all right, really," he said with a wave of his hand, as she started with an awful deliberation to peel off five tickets, one by one.
"Oh, but you must have your tickets," insisted the woman, "or you won't be able to claim your prize. They're very nice prizes, you know. Very suitable."
Arthur snatched the tickets, and said thank you as sharply as he could.
The woman turned to Fenny once again.
"And now, what about --"
"No!" Arthur nearly yelled. "These are for her," he explained, brandishing the five new tickets.
"Oh, I see! How nice!"
She smiled sickeningly at both of them.
"Well, I do hope you --"
"Yes," snapped Arthur, "thank you."
The woman finally departed to the table next to theirs. Arthur turned desperately to Fenny, and was relieved to see that she was rocking with silent laughter.
He sighed and smiled.
"Where were we?"
"You were calling me Fenny, and I was about to ask you not to."
"What do you mean?"
She twirled the little wooden cocktail stick in her tomato juice.
"It's why I asked if you were a friend of my brother's. Or half-brother really. He's the only one who calls me Fenny, and I'm not fond of him for it."
"So, what's ...?"
She looked at him sternly.
"Yes," she said, "and I'm watching you like a lynx to see if you're going to ask the same silly question that everyone asks me till I want to scream. I shall be cross and disappointed if you do. Plus I shall scream. So watch it."
She smiled, shook her hair a little forward over her face and peered at him from behind it.
"Oh," he said, "that's a little unfair, isn't it?"
"All right," she said with a laugh, "you can ask me. Might as well get it over with. Better than having you call me Fenny all the time."
"Presumably ..." said Arthur.
"We've only got two tickets left, you see, and since you were so generous when I spoke to you before --"
"What?" snapped Arthur.
The woman with the perm and the smile and the now nearly empty book of cloakroom tickets was waving the two last ones under his nose.
"I thought I'd give the opportunity to you, because the prizes are so nice."
She wrinkled up her nose a little confidentially.
"Very tasteful. I know you'll like them. And it is for Anjie's retirement present, you see. We want to give her --"
"A kidney machine, yes," said Arthur, "here."
He held out two more ten-pence pieces to her, and took the tickets.
A thought seemed to strike the woman. It struck her very slowly. You could watch it coming in like a long wave on a sandy beach.
"Oh dear," she said, "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
She peered anxiously at both of them.
"No, it's fine," said Arthur, "everything that could possibly be fine," he insisted, "is fine.
"Thank you," he added.
"I say," she said, in a delighted ecstasy of worry, "you're not ... in love, are you?"
"It's very hard to say," said Arthur. "We haven't had a chance to talk yet."
He glanced at Fenchurch. She was grinning.
The woman nodded with knowing confidentiality.
"I'll let you see the prizes in a minute," she said, and left.
Arthur turned, with a sigh, back to the girl that he found it hard to say whether he was in love with.
"You were about to ask me," she said, "a question."
"Yes," said Arthur.
"We can do it together if you like," said Fenchurch. "Was I found ..."
" ... in a handbag," joined in Arthur.
" ... in the Left Luggage office," they said together.
" ... at Fenchurch Street Station," they finished.
"And the answer," said Fenchurch, "is no."
"Fine," said Arthur.
"I was conceived there."
"I was con --"
"In the Left Luggage office?" hooted Arthur.
"No, of course not. Don't be silly. What would my parents be doing in the Left Luggage office?" she said, rather taken aback by the suggestion.
"Well, I don't know," sputtered Arthur, "or rather --"
"It was in the ticket queue."
"The ticket queue. Or so they claim. They refuse to elaborate. They only say you wouldn't believe how bored it is possible to get in the ticket queue at Fenchurch Street Station."
She sipped demurely at her tomato juice and looked at her watch.
Arthur continued to gurgle chirpily for a moment or two.
"I'm going to have to go in a minute or two," said Fenchurch, "and you haven't begun to tell me whatever this terrifically extraordinary thing is that you were so keen to get off your chest."
"Why don't you let me drive you to London?" said Arthur. "It's Saturday, I've got nothing particular to do, I'd --"
"No," said Fenchurch, "thank you, it's sweet of you, but no. I need to be by myself for a couple of days." She smiled and shrugged.
"You can tell me another time. I'll give you my number."
Arthur's heart went boom boom churn churn as she scribbled seven figures in pencil on a scrap of paper and handed it to him.
"Now we can relax," she said with a slow smile which filled Arthur till he thought he would burst.
"Fenchurch," he said, enjoying the name as he said it, "I --"
"A box," said a trailing voice, "of cherry liqueurs, and also, and I know you'll like this, a gramophone record of Scottish bagpipe music --
"Yes, thank you, very nice," insisted Arthur.
" I just thought I'd let you have a look at them," said the permed woman, "as you're down from London ..."
She was holding them out proudly for Arthur to see. He could see that they were indeed a box of cherry brandy liqueurs and a record of bagpipe music. That was what they were.
"I'll let you have your drink in peace now," she said, patting Arthur lightly on his seething shoulder, "but I knew you'd like to see."
Arthur reengaged his eyes with Fenchurch's once again, and suddenly was at a loss for something to say. A moment had come and gone between the two of them, but the whole rhythm of it had been wrecked by that stupid, blasted woman.
"Don't worry," said Fenchurch, looking at him steadily from over the top of her glass, "we will talk again." She took a sip.
"Perhaps," she added, "it wouldn't have gone so well if it wasn't for her." She gave a wry smile and dropped her hair forward over her face again.
It was perfectly true.
He had to admit it was perfectly true.
That night, at home, as he was prancing round the house pretending to be tripping through cornfields in slow motion and continually exploding with sudden laughter, Arthur thought he could even bear to listen to the album of bagpipe music he had won. It was eight o'clock and he decided he would make himself, force himself, to listen to the whole record before he phoned her. Maybe he should even leave it till tomorrow. That would be the cool thing to do. Or next week sometime.
No. No games. He wanted her and didn't care who knew it. He definitely and absolutely wanted her, adored her, longed for her, wanted to do more things than there were names for with her.
He actually caught himself saying things like "Yippee," as he pranced ridiculously round the house. Her eyes, her hair, her voice, everything ...
He would put on the record of bagpipe music. Then he would call her.
Would he, perhaps, call her first?
No. What he would do was this. He would put on the record of bagpipe music. He would listen to it, every last banshee wail of it. Then he would call her. That was the correct order. That was what he would do.
He was worried about touching things in case they blew up when he did so.
He picked up the record. It failed to blow up. He slipped it out of its cover. He opened the record player, he turned on the amp. They both survived. He giggled foolishly as he lowered the stylus onto the disk.
He sat and listened solemnly to "A Scottish Soldier."
He listened to "Amazing Grace."
He listened to something about some glen or other.
He thought about his miraculous lunchtime.
They had just been on the point of leaving when they were distracted by an awful outbreak of "yoo-hooing." The appallingly permed woman was waving to them across the room like some stupid bird with a broken wing. Everyone in the pub turned to them and seemed to be expecting some sort of response.
They hadn't listened to the bit about how pleased and happy Anjie was going to be about the £4.30 everyone had helped to raise toward the cost of her kidney machine, had been vaguely aware that someone from the next table had won a box of cherry brandy liqueurs, and took a moment or two to cotton on to the fact that the yoo-hooing lady was trying to ask them if they had ticket number 37.
Arthur discovered that he had. He glanced angrily at his watch.
Fenchurch gave him a push.
"Go on," she said, "go and get it. Don't be bad-tempered. Give them a nice speech about how pleased you are and you can give me a call and tell me how it went. I'll want to hear the record. Go on."
She flicked his arm and left.
The regulars thought his acceptance speech a little overeffusive. It was, after all, merely an album of bagpipe music.
Arthur thought about it, and listened to the music, and kept on breaking into laughter.
"Hello, yes? Yes, that's right. Yes. You'll 'ave to speak up, there's an awful lot of noise in 'ere. What?
"No, I only do the bar in the evenings. It's Yvonne who does lunch, and Jim he's the landlord. No, I wasn't on. What?
"You'll have to speak up.
"What? No, don't know nothing about no raffle. What?
"No, don't know nothing about it. 'Old on, I'll call Jim."
The barmaid put her hand over the receiver and called over the noisy bar.
"'Ere, Jim, bloke on the phone says something about he's won a raffle. He keeps on saying it's ticket 37 and he's won."
"No. there was a guy in the pub here won," shouted back the barman.
"He says 'ave we got the ticket."
"Well, how can he think he's won if he hasn't even got a ticket?"
"Jim says 'ow can you think you've won if you 'aven't even got the ticket. What?"
She put her hand over the receiver again.
"Jim, 'e keeps effing at me. Says there's a number on the ticket."
"'Course there was a number on the ticket, it was a bloody raffle ticket, wasn't it?"
"'E says 'e means it's a telephone number on the ticket."
"Put the phone down and serve the bloody customers, will you?"
Eight hours west sat a man alone on a beach mourning an inexplicable loss. He could only think of his loss in little packets of grief at a time, because the whole thing was too great to be borne.
He watched the long slow Pacific waves come in along the sand, and waited and waited for the nothing that he knew was about to happen. As the time came for it not to happen, it duly didn't happen and so the afternoon wore itself away and the sun dropped beneath the long line of the sea, and the day was gone.
The beach was a beach we shall not name, because his private house was there, but it was a small sandy stretch somewhere along the hundreds of miles of coastline that runs west from Los Angeles, which is described in the new edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in one entry as "Junky, wunky, lunky, stunky, and what's that other word, and all kinds of bad stuff, woo," and in another, written only hours later as "being like several thousand square miles of American Express junk mail, but without the same sense of moral depth. Plus the air is, for some reason, yellow. "
The coastline runs west, and then turns north up to the misty bay of San Francisco, which the Guide describes as a "good place to go. It's very easy to believe that everyone you meet there also is a space traveler. Starting a new religion for you is just their way of saying 'hi.' Until you've settled in and got the hang of the place it is best to say 'no' to three questions out of any given four that anyone may ask you, because there are some very strange things going on there, some of which an unsuspecting alien could die of. The hundreds of curling miles of cliffs and sand, palm trees, breakers, and sunsets are described in the Guide as "boffo. A good one."
And somewhere on this good boffo stretch of coastline lay the house of this inconsolable man, a man whom many regarded as being insane. But this was only, as he would tell people, because he was.
One of the many many reasons why people thought him insane was the peculiarness of his house which, even in a land where most people's houses were peculiar in one way or another, was quite extreme in its peculiarness.
His house was called The Outside of the Asylum.
His name was simply John Watson, though he preferred to be called -- and some of his friends had now reluctantly agreed to do this -- Wonko the Sane.
In his house were a number of strange things, including a gray glass bowl with eight words engraved upon it.
We can talk of him much later on. This is just an interlude to watch the sun go down and to say that he was there watching it.
He had lost everything he cared for, and was now simply waiting for the end of the world -- little realizing that it had already been and gone.