The Wilsons had first met the Solarians while catching some winter rays on Mercury. They’d initially been a little reticent about striking up a conversation – the Solarians seemed dauntingly exotic – but almost everyone else at the SunSplash had kids in tow, and after a couple of days the Wilsons found themselves running short of things to say to each other. There was only so much time that they could spend marveling at the big Sun’s changeable moods, or bathing in the warmth of the liquid-metal hot-tubs.
So after a few days they took their destinies in their hands and found themselves sharing a breakfast table with the Solarians; they progressed to supper, then after-dinner cocktails, in-jokes, confidences and ultimately telephone numbers. All these disclosures were made in the tacit understanding that the friendship would melt away as swiftly as it had been forged. Despite the raucous cross-armed vow they’d made on New Year’s Eve, Jeff and Mary were quietly confident that these not-so-auld acquaintances would quickly be forgot. (Mercury, after all, saw in a New Year once every eighty-eight Earth days, so it wasn’t as if the oath had been sworn on a particularly momentous occasion.)
So it came as a surprise when, one crisp September morning, the telephone rang brightly. It was the Solarians. Art and Cindy were making a stopover on Earth on their way to a wedding on Europa, and they’d just love to stop by! Perhaps the Wilsons could clue them into the sights to see, the places to be seen? And could they recommend a motel? Of course, the Wilsons wouldn’t hear of it. The Solarians (“what is that, Armenian?” Bill next door wondered loudly) must stay with them. It would be a hoot!
The Solarians duly arrived in a yellow cab a couple of weeks later, unloading a succession of suitcases, valises, toiletry bags, golf clubs and care packages for dear friends and distant relatives. All in all, there was quite a commotion. (Bill next door muttered darkly under his breath and retreated to his den.) The Solarians cast rainbows across the leaf-strewn lawn as they hauled their luggage up to the Wilson’s front door. But their grudging smiles failed to match the brilliance of the lightshow.
The Solarians seemed, to the Wilsons’ embarrassment, to be a little put out that there had been no welcome at the spaceport. “We weren’t sure how long we should wait for you,” said Cindy. Mary, sensitive to the unspoken accusation, insisted the Solarians should make themselves at home in the master bedroom. It would be more comfortable, she insisted over her guests’ protests, and she and Jeff would be fine on the foldout sofa for a couple of days. Jeff said nothing, but felt the small of his back ruefully: there’d be a price to pay for their hospitality.
Next morning, however, it was Mary’s turn to fret. The Solarians were late to rise, despite Art’s previous assurances that they were always up with the cockerel; and their tardiness threatened to upset her carefully planned tour of Terra’s highlights (and a few lesser-known gems of her own choosing). “Now be reasonable, dear,” said Jeff, “they’ve had a long journey. They’re probably just lagged and need to catch up on their sleep.” But the giggling Mary heard when she went to knock tentatively at the master bedroom suggested that their guests were otherwise occupied.
By the time Art and Cindy made their appearance, yawningly casting sunbeams around the living room, it was too late to make it to the Great Wall of China or the Great Barrier Reef, to say nothing of a number of lesser attractions. And by the time the Solarians had consumed a leisurely brunch – chatting up a storm from the breakfast nook as the Wilsons busied themselves with the cooking and clearing in the kitchen area – Macchu Picchu and the South Pole had been pushed off the agenda, too.
But Mary set to work, boom-tube timetable in one hand and pen in the other, nipping and tucking the schedule into a form that she was sure would delight her guests despite its abbreviation. But to her dismay, the Solarians seemed underwhelmed: by Red Square, by Mount Everest, by the Mona Lisa. After some cajoling, they were persuaded to pose for a photograph as the sun set over the Sahara: but the moment was spoiled by Cindy’s condescending aside that it “wasn’t bad, considering how far out in the sticks we are”.
Mary was at first struck dumb by the apparent rudeness of this remark; but in time she re-considered. She’d assumed the Solarians would be touched by this distant glimpse of home; but of course they weren’t impressed by the pale Sun of Earth! She’d make sure that tomorrow worked out better. An early start, and a day packed with the all the wonders the third rock from the Sun could offer: she was sure that’d take the Solarians’ breath away.
Come the morning, however, Art announced that he and Cindy would prefer to “just chill, maybe check out the neighbourhood”. Jeff’s aching back mitigated his natural courtesy: he mumbled something about having to pick up a package from the office and made his exit. Mary, still keen to please, stayed behind to keep their guests company.
Not wanting to waste the day he’d taken off work, Jeff sought refuge at the golf links, but his aching back put him off his stroke. And his mood did not improve when he discovered Art holed up at the nineteenth. The Solarian’s demeanour was sunny (of course!) and his knack for nifty light-of-hand had already won him friends.
“Great guy,” said one of the barflies to Jeff. “Not like the stuffed shirts you usually hang out with.”
“Hey, look me up when you next come down,” said another to Art, “and we’ll play a round.”
Next time? wondered Jeff. But he didn’t say anything.
Meanwhile, back at the apartment, Cindy had introduced Mary to the concept of the double-martini lunch. Mary marvelled at her daring: Cindy was obviously proficient at holding her booze. Or perhaps not, for the Solarian woman quickly became garrulous, prattling away on one subject before abruptly switching to another. Mary could hardly keep up, never mind squeeze a word in edgeways.
And even if Cindy’s verbal fusillade had let up for a moment, Mary wouldn’t have had anything to say anyway. Department stores and cocktail bars: Cindy was a native of the brightest of bright lights, and it showed as she sparkled along with her conversation. It was all a long way from Mary’s demure world of baking and birding. Still, she made a few sallies into the conversation, and began to gain confidence as Cindy laughed uproariously at her feeble jokes.
But as she fixed herself a fourth martini, Cindy started talking of bedroom matters. Durations, positions, liaisons: Mary just nodded in what she hoped was a sophisticated manner. After an excruciating discussion of size (Art had been blessed in that department, Mary learned reluctantly), Cindy seized her knee and leaned in so close that Mary feared that a Sapphic moment might be forthcoming.
But Cindy just slurred: “You and me, we’re going to be best of friends.”
Mary smiled weakly.
That evening, the Solarians were full of cheer; the Wilsons listened to their chatter as they silently chopped vegetables, shoulder to shoulder. (Cindy’s early promise to fix up some real Solarian home cooking remained as yet unfulfilled.) “This place looks sleepy, but I’ve gotta tell you I’m having a blast,” said Art, his halo glittering. “Those fellows down at the club are wild.” He paused. “Cindy and I were wondering: we don’t have to be on Europa until the weekend. Would you mind if we hung out here a few days longer? That’d be cool with you guys, right?”
“Well, I don’t know; we have a pretty busy schedule– ” began Jeff. But Mary cut him off. “That would be delightful,” she beamed, though the Solarians’ million-candlepower smiles easily out-shone hers. She couldn’t bear the tension that would follow a rebuff; and while Art and Cindy certainly had their faults, didn’t everyone? Mary prided herself on her hospitality. A frosty rebuttal would make a lie of the warm welcome they had already extended.
But over the next few days, the Solarians taxed the Wilsons’ hospitality to its limits. They didn’t help out with the cooking, or the tidying, or the cleaning – except when it came to cleaning out the liquor cabinet, of course. They casually tossed their laundry in with that of their hosts; Mary washed it all by hand for fear of tarnishing its radiance. They didn’t wash down the bath behind them, so the plughole was clogged with luminescent ichor. And they were in and out of the house at all hours; but rarely kept company with their hosts – except if dinner was being served.
Worst of all, they insisted on turning the heating up full blast and switching on every lamp in the house. Initially, it was just during the day, but then they started leaving them on at night, too. “Would you mind? I do feel the cold here,” said Cindy one evening, rotating the thermostat until it clicked to its upper limit. “And I miss the light from home. It’s so lovely and bright there.”
Perhaps you should go back, then, thought Jeff: but he didn’t say it.
The Wilsons, squashed together on the unforgiving sofa-bed, sweated sleeplessly by night and sweltered sadly by day. Grumpy and tired, they began to snap at each other. “If you’re so bothered, you tell them,” hissed Mary. “They’re your friends,” rejoined Jeff. “Why did you have to give them our number?” “I did no such thing,” retorted Mary, “that was your idea.” But even their arguments were suppressed, covert: they had become conspirators in their own home. “I’ve just about had enough of this,” raged Jeff. “It’s only a few more days,” reasoned Mary.
But the days just kept on coming.
One afternoon, the Wilsons returned from their days’ labours to discover that Art and Cindy had invited round a motley crew that appeared to include every lush from the golf club, a number of vaguely familiar faces from around the neighbourhood and and a larger number of unfamiliar ones. Nor, judging by appearances, would the Wilsons want to make their acquaintance: their unwelcome guests were split evenly between scruffy hippy types, greasy biker types and beefy frat-house types.
The air, practically shimmering with heat haze, was thick with cigarette smoke. And with something that wasn’t quite cigarette smoke.
Someone had spilled something dark and wet on the rug in front of the fireplace.
A couple were making out moistly in the breakfast nook.
And in the middle of all this were Art and Cindy, holding tipsy court on the large couch, glasses in hand, admiring hangers-on seated on the arms of the sofa and the floor in front of their feet. An iridescent glow sprang up around their figures, illuminating the room; rays of light parted the nicotinic fug like sunshine piercing clouds.
“Heyyyyy!” said Art. “It’s Jim and Mary! Come on in, get a drink, join the party!”
Jeff bristled. His face flushed with blood: he could feel its heat even through the Turkish-bath atmosphere of his living room. “My name is Jeff!” he bellowed, taking some small satisfaction from the shock his outburst prompted on the partygoers’ faces. “Now, Jeff,” started Mary, but he shrugged her off. “Out!” he spluttered. “Out! I want you out! ALL OF YOU! NOW!”
Art’s warm grin chilled and froze over as he realised that Jeff wasn’t kidding. Cindy gazed at Jeff’s red face coolly, assessing him silently for a moment. Then she drained her martini glass. “Well!” she said frostily. “I didn’t realise a little card game would cause such a fuss. But we shouldn’t wish to stay anywhere that we’re not welcome. Come along, Arthur.” And she swept out of the living room and into the bedroom.
Mary collapsed onto the now-vacant sofa, a hand over her face; Jeff, astounded by his own ferocity, stood rooted to the spot and fiddled impotently with his tie as the hushed partygoers filed obediently past him and out of the door. He was still there when the Solarians, suitcases in their hands and parcels under their arms, marched wordlessly back through the living room and out of the front door, which slammed decisively behind them.
A week later, the doorbell rang. “Now what?” said Jeff, rolling his eyes.
It was the Johansens, whom they had met while skiing on Pluto last year.
“Jeff!” cried Mr Johansen.
“Mary!” cried Mrs Johansen.
Jeff and Mary looked at each other.
It was going to be a long, hard winter. ##