Helen kicked off her shoes as soon as she came through the door, dumping the plastic shopping bags on the floor. All idea of a quiet cup of tea, of time, space to herself, evaporated with the sight of the kitchen table strewn with nut, bolts, small dials, pieces of metal and wood.
‘Can’t you do that somewhere else?’ Her voice carried all the irritation she felt.
Bruce didn’t look up. ‘Where?’ It was little more than a grunt.
‘The shed for instance.’
‘Light’s no good.’
He went on rubbing at a piece of metal with steel wool. Helen started packing the groceries away, slamming cupboard doors as she went.
‘Look, will you be long? I have to start getting tea soon.’
He didn’t respond, intent on reassembling whatever it was. She stood, her back against the sink, watching him. Physically he had changed little in the fifteen years she had known him, whereas she… It didn’t bear thinking about. He was so preoccupied these days, no time for any of them, wrapped up in his own selfish little world.
She scowled at him. ‘What the hell is that you’re playing with?’
‘A trans-interdimensional-portal machine!’ The small machine was nearly complete, three wooden lozenges lined up beside it.
‘Oh, for God’s sake, that stupid old game!’ She sneered, ‘I know, you can’t get the wood to fix it! Bruce, we’re not kids any more, we have children of our own, and a mortgage and responsibilities.’
Bruce ignored her, taking a large swallow from his half-empty stubbie of VB. He carefully attached the first piece of wood to the metal contraption. It fitted exactly. He sat back, smiling to himself. She wanted to slap him; it was worse than dealing with one of the kids.
‘If you’re not going to tell me what it is, you can at least tell me where you got it. I’ll be really peed off if you’ve wasted good money on another useless piece of mechanical crap.’
He looked at her straight . ‘Helen, there is no need to swear.’
‘Oh, don’t be such a bloody old woman, where the …’
He cut her short, ‘You really must exercise some control Helen. It is the thing I like least about you earthlings. I didn’t buy the machine; it has been in my family over 100 earth years. If you had been more observant you would have noticed it under the tarp at the back of the shed.’
Helen gritted her teeth at the formal speech pattern he had adopted. It had been fun when they were young, a harmless bit of fantasy, the earth woman teaching the alien man earthly ways.
‘Grow up will you?’
Bruce sat, arms crossed, gazing at the machine, a look of satisfaction on his face. He started twiddling the dials. ‘You know, I did find the wood. There’s a single tree growing behind the old dairy.’ He shook his head, ‘The whole world, and it’s been right under my nose all the time.’
Helen opened her mouth to reply but Bruce had disappeared in a haze of shimmering light.
This story was published in a short story magazine in 2005. It was my first experience of what happens when you sell your work for money and no longer have control over it. The title was changed so then ending came as no surprise and every single sentence had words cut from it.
This is the story in its original form. It was inspired by a longstanding family joke and a quote from Henry Crun of the Goon show -‘You can’t get the wood, you know.’