Cynthia Ryman left her house through the back door. The front door was unusable because it had burned down the night before and been replaced with all she could find in the garage; a large manikin which she dressed in as many layers as her entire wardrobe would allow. It was as if her front entrance was being guarded by a massive drag queen.
Cynthia left in a hurry. She crossed the footbridge over the A45, walked along the riverside and up through the slippery tufty mound that blocked almost all visibility from her office and which concealed her building from the river. That day it was frosty with a dull wind that could barely be bothered; little more than an occasional, bored, sigh. Another day, another trudge through false workie friendships. A pitiful buffet lunch and a cold walk home in the dark, back to a semi-detached house in Billericay, guarded by a giant drag queen.
The door burned down because doors do burn down when someone goes around burning them down. Such a person, a phantom of sorts, had hit the streets and estates of the Essex town, again and again. The neighbourhood watchers had gone berserk. The police were doing door-to-burned-down-door enquiries and so far nobody had seen anything. Not that any of this bothered Cynthia. She just wanted her frigging door back—I mean once a door-burner strikes, the door is gone and he can’t burn it down again, unless of course he goes for the back door which up to now had not happened. He was a front-door man… or woman, for, as Cynthia had overheard an IT technician saying in the canteen, we can’t rule out that it could be a woman, to which a blockhead from sales had proclaimed that most women would not know how to burn down a door. How hard can it be? thought Cynthia. But then, although it is easy to douse something in petrol and put a match to it, to do it in such a way that the fire didn’t spread, by adding just the right amount of fire-retarding humectant around the edges of the door frame so that fire slowed to its spluttering end just before real damage took hold; well, that took someone skilled in pyrotechnics and there were few females in that field. So said Mr IT.
Need it necessarily be a man? thought Cynthia. In fact, need it necessarily be a human? Had anyone given any thought at all to the possibility that this door burning issue could be the work of an alien race? There was a bright flash in the night sky the night it happened, just before the smell of burning. Could it be that the door had been ‘shot’ by a beam? But why? Her logical mind would not suffer any outlandish ideas without something resembling plausibility popping out on the conclusion end of the thought-pipe.
Cynthia raked through a pile of paperwork, sighing at the sight of each typo and badly considered grammar. It was all a monumental imposition, this work, a robbery of personal spontaneity and a hijacking of her natural flow of attention. What’s more, Cynthia simply failed to connect with many of her fellows. Some of the girls were okay, but the dull, petty, suppressed atmosphere of the office was just crippling. Her boss was an acidic dribble of a man, never happy and never content to leave others happy. She was also daily pestered by creepy little Giordi in finance and Ben the floppy sales guy, both forever weighing her down with their mournful wanty-wanty looks and leaving foppish notes in her in-tray. Ben even called her directly after tracing her details one night and uhmed and ahhed his way to a flop-necked invitation. No thanks.
All the usual hassle and stress of work I suppose. It left her exhausted every day, empty. If you had asked Cynthia what would be the greatest thing that could happen to her, she would have said to be abducted by aliens, and this was no glib whim. She had even researched the supposed variety of ET races and reckoned on being whisked away by a Nordic alien. Perhaps with this idea alive in her fantasies the idea that the door-burner was a pale, intense — slightly feral — humanoid alien was an attractive one. However, Cynthia was not the only proponent of the space-people theory. Mr Sedge, a chirpy neighbour from a couple of burnt doors away, also reported the bright light like a blow torch and also postulated the theory of an encounter with an alien race. Although his chirpless wife kept rebutting this with an unmovable, nasal and irritable… but why Alan?
So when Cynthia left the office and slid down the mound, her mind was awash with petty annoyances from work, theories about aliens, Ben’s floppy poems and the odd dread of having to face the giant drag queen again.
Once home the phone rang. It was the carpenter Mr Sedge had recommended to say that he could fit come a new door the following evening and that he preferred cash. Then later, during a supper of salad niçoise, the phone rang again. It was Mr Sedge to say the phantom door-burner had struck; again. The 48th door in Billericay burnt to a black husk. Holy hell! She turned on the teevee. It was national news now. Horror, confusion, morbid fascination written across the presenters’ faces. The police would be upping their efforts to find the culprit. They had invited a forensic psychologist on the news to give his opinion about the profile of the perpetrator and his likely motives. The psychologist too was convinced that it was a male, probably in his forties, perhaps with ties to the world of special FX, the movies. As for his motive, he was probably a working class loner with a grudge against modern society, not a killer, just an anarchic mischief maker who took great pride in the precision of his work.
Cynthia sat stubbornly, wantonly unconvinced. It was a team of Nordic aliens and this was their calling card. One day they would come for her and she was open to whatever they might have in mind for her. Anything would be better than eking out this ridiculous life on this ridiculous planet.
Cynthia climbed the mound the next day, slid and slipped around and then flapped into her office for a tedious morning of proof-reading. A new client wanted a 500 page manual on contract law translated into French. At lunch-time she walked halfway back home to her Pilates gym where she changed into a navy blue jogging suit and began her class with a motley group of fatties. Self-effacing joviality was the order of the day, but not for Cynthia. She faked a few smiles and said just enough to remain within the border of approachability. As the class began and everyone had jogged ‘it’ out a stunning, blinding white light phosphoresced at the window, then the fire alarm rang. They all piled out through the back door fire exit. After a few minutes the gruff grey caretaker came to join them with the news that ‘some bloody fool’s going to be on Jankers: the front door’s been burnt down’.
Yes! Cynthia was rapt with a new feeling, a juicy mix of curiosity, delight and expectation. The door-burner had hit two of the dwellings in which she had been. A coincidence? I don’t think so! She had always felt special, as if she belonged to another tribe from which she had inadvertently roamed. She wondered what the Nordics had in mind for her. Perhaps it would be a straightforward breeding issue. That had selected her for her plump dark beauty and no-nonsense sexuality and they wanted to make a hybrid. That’s was fine with her.
Back in the office her mind wandered away from French legal terms and onto a possible future on another planet. Her boss called her in for ‘little catch-up’. This turned out to be a carefully crafted introduction to the idea of imminent redundancies. The firm was losing money and could no longer afford to retain the talents of those who were not entirely committed to their work. It had been noticed that she always arrived no earlier than 9am. Yes, of course she was not contractually required to arrive before but to never arrive early showed that she was not calculating risk. What if the park through which she walked was flooded as occasionally happened? She would then have to take a longer route. In which case she would need an extra ten minutes. It was maverick, this on-time-ness. Suspect.
Cynthia virtually yawned through this slippery justification-fest and finished the meeting by gracefully offering to have her name put on the redundancy list. What difference did it make? There was a new life awaiting her on a new planet soon, and she had to buy new underwear.
That night the carpenter — a hard, brown ball of a man — fitted a new door and the giant drag queen was taken off guard duty. After dinner Cynthia started studying a Google map of the local area, planning her galactic rendezvous. She marked a black cross on each house or building that had been struck, searching for a pattern. If she connected the crosses no recognisable order emerged, just a mess of red lines. She Googled ‘door-burner’ and learned that some five years ago in Paris there had been a similar spate of door-burning. They had caught the fiend, who turned out to be a mad artist type. It was all art, he said. And why the front door? Because, he claimed, a man’s house is a metaphor of his secrets. This is the domain he keeps hidden from the world, except from the chosen few. By striking down the front door the stench of his sordid secrets escapes into the atmosphere to diffuse with everybody else’s, and the sweet breezes of compassion and humanity blow into his house.
Yeah? Really? Could such a man have come to the UK to continue his campaign? Apparently not. According to Wikipedia he was now in a mental hospital outside of Lyon. Good, she thought. That took her back to the only plausible explanation left: The mighty, ethereal, lynx-like Nordics were coming. There were coming for the beautiful; they were coming for the disenchanted; they were coming for the unexpectedly spontaneous. They could sniff her out, and her forthcoming redundancy was merely another signpost to her destiny. They’d find her, she knew it.
She awoke early the next day full of excitement. In her dream she had seen herself aboard a spaceship, flying through galaxies of endless wonders, all spangly day-glo colours and bloblike forms. It was all so enticing: the mysterious light of distant nebulas, the sense of ultimate freedom speeding into the void, the superintense zero-gravity sex acts. Today would be the day. She was sure of it. She would find them, or they would come for her.
She printed off her Google map, threw open the front door (natural hardwood, fireproof — very nice, actually) and charged into a world bright with new possibilities. She took the same path at the same time and bollocks to arriving ten minutes early. High above the mound she thought she saw a bright light. Was it a flash of the rising winter sun on the glass building or was it them? Had they arrived at her office? Obviously, the aliens expected her to be ten minutes early as well! Nevermind. They would wait for her.
She hurried along the path, walking as fast as a short tight skirt would allow. As always the mound was slippery, except made more so by melting frost. She skidded forwards, sliding further than usual and tripped over, inelegantly rolling down the hillock like a drunkard. The map left her hands for a moment but floated neatly back to her side where her sodden body had come to a rest. This time it was upside down and she could clearly see that red lines which joined up the houses on the map spelled an English word…
(by William Barker and Darren Allen)