Bill has held onto his memory of seeing a UFO for thirty years, but there are those who want him to forget about it.
Bill signed the letter, folded it and forced it into an envelope. But as he lifted the flap to his tongue he stopped, drew the letter out again and read it one more time.
The Minister of Defence
I am sure my name is familiar to you as I have written you and your predecessors many letters over the years. Unfortunately, every approach I have made to your department has been met with stonewalling and denial. However, now that thirty years have transpired since the UFO sighting to which I was a witness, it is time that the records relating to the event be released and justice be done.
Therefore I am applying through Freedom of Information for copies of the relevant documents. Those documents will prove not only that the sighting did occur (and therefore that I am not deluded) but also that you sent military personnel to my home to intimidate and silence me. I intend to use those documents as a basis for a claim of compensation for the psychological damage your department has caused me.
I am well aware that your department will, in their usual way, try to deny me access to the documents, so I warn you in advance that if the documents are not forthcoming, I will contact all the newspapers and inform them that you are attempting to cover up a story of international importance. I will cause such a scandal that you and your cronies will be toppled from government forthwith.
Do not attempt to intimidate me any further. I assure you I am no longer afraid of you as I have nothing left to lose.
Yours in all sincerity,
William S Marshall.
He wondered if those last two sentences had been a wise addition. But it was true, and it was the best leverage he had. Up until now, the threat of his losing his job had been enough to silence him. He had never been merely concerned about losing his salary. He was single and his wants were few. And besides, he was a capable man. He could have got any job he set his mind to. But he had loved teaching. Those kids had been his life. Now that he had been forced into early retirement, he had nothing left.
But perhaps he was going too far. He did not want to give them any more ammunition to use against him. Too many people already believed he was dangerously insane.
Bill refolded the letter but as he took it in both hands, ready to tear it in two, his eye alighted on the lever arch file sitting open on the table beside him. A copy of the letter he held in his hands lay neatly filed on top of thirty years’ worth of fruitless letters and bland replies. It might be a bit extreme, but perhaps that was where he had erred in the past: being too reasonable. They could not ignore this letter.
He loosened his grip on the page and smoothed it out, put it back in the envelope, sealed it and stuck on a stamp. That settled the matter. He would never tear up the letter now and waste the stamp. After lunch he would walk down to the letterbox on the corner.
He closed the file and took it back to the bookshelf. A scrap book had fallen across the place the file usually occupied. Bill took it down and opened it. On the first page was a yellowing cutting from the local paper, dated thirty years earlier. The photo showed a fresh-faced schoolteacher on a hilltop overlooking a wooded gully. On the next four pages were cuttings from the daily newspapers with screaming headlines about UFO sightings. The rest of the pages were blank. The story had been a sensation for a few days and then had just disappeared.
The story had been a big sensation at the school, too. No one had been able to talk about anything else for those first few days, but by the following week everyone had lost interest and no one would admit to having seen anything out of the ordinary. He was the only one who continued to maintain that something otherworldly had happened. As time passed he stopped talking about it in the staffroom, but it was already too late. His reputation as an eccentric had been established and was passed down from generation to generation until he had become a universal figure of fun and fear.
At first he could not understand what had happened, but although nothing was said, he soon realised that everyone else involved had most likely received the same visitors he had.
It was that fresh-faced young teacher who opened the door of his flat to the two strangers that Sunday morning, a few days after the sighting. They were wearing blue uniforms with peaked caps and mirror sunglasses which they never took off, even indoors. Bill had assumed they were from the RAAF at first, but they wore insignia he was later never able to identify and he detected a slight accent that might have been American.
‘Mr William Marshall? Is this your picture in the newspaper?’
‘Yes, that’s me.’
‘May we have a word? Inside.’
‘Come in, come in. Call me Bill. Only the kids call me Mr Marshall.’
The officers came in, but did not smile at his pleasantry.
‘I was expecting a visit from you boys. You take an interest in this sort of thing, don’t you? UFOs and all that.’
‘We’re not sure it was a UFO, are we, Mr Marshall?’
‘Well, it hasn’t been identified yet, has it? So I guess strictly speaking it is.’ Bill chuckled, but still neither man smiled. ‘Sit down, please. Can I get you something? A cup of tea, or coffee?’
They sat down next to each other on the couch. ‘No thank you, Mr Marshall. We’re here on official business.’ Only one of them spoke. The other seemed never to take his eyes off Bill, as far as he could tell through those impenetrable glasses.
‘Well then,’ Bill said, settling down on an armchair facing them, ‘how can I help you?’
‘Can you tell us what you saw on Wednesday afternoon.’
‘Why, yes of course.’ Bill expected the silent one to get out a notebook, but they both sat unmoving, holding their peaked caps in their hands.
‘Well, I had the Form Ones for science that afternoon and since it was such a nice day, and they were pretty restless, I thought I might take them out for a bit of Nature Study. There’s this creek running through the bush reserve down behind the school. It’s always good for a few tadpoles and dragonflies.
‘It was about three o’clock and we were heading back to school when we heard this strange whirring sound behind us. We turned around and coming at us was this… this really weird aircraft. I can’t tell you how fast it was going, but it shot right past us, over the creek into the reserve. It just seemed to hover for a split second and then it dropped straight down and disappeared from sight.
‘The kids got so excited. They were jumping up and down and yelling that it was a flying saucer. And you know that’s exactly what it looked like. I mean, in the distance it looked flat, but when it flew over us it was round. It was shiny, you know, metallic. Silver with a sort of green sheen to it.
‘And then after a couple of minutes we saw about half a dozen light planes coming from the same direction. I think they were looking for it because they flew way past the reserve and then doubled back and went around in circles. The kids were waving their arms about, trying to tell them where to look, but they took no notice. After a while the planes went back the way they came.
‘I was trying to calm the kids down and get them back to school when the flying saucer suddenly appeared again over the reserve and flew away.
‘I tell you what, it was a hard job keeping those kids together and getting them back to school. We were so late back the Principal was about to call the police. Boy, was he dark on me.’
Bill looked for some kind of reaction to this amazing story, but his two visitors were stony-faced.
‘Whatever you may have thought at the time, Mr Marshall, it is most likely that all you saw was a runaway weather balloon.’
‘No, this was no weather balloon. You could see it was big and solid and, like I said, it was shiny and metallic. And it wasn’t moving like a balloon either. It was going fast, really fast. Much faster than the light breeze we had that day.’
‘Where was the sun, Mr Marshall?’
‘When you were looking at the object, in which direction was the sun?’
Bill paused to think. When he had been walking his shadow had been ahead of him. When he turned around, he had been facing into the sun. ‘Behind it. Behind the object.’
‘So you were looking into the sun? Do you think maybe you were dazzled by the sun and that’s why the object looked shiny?’
‘But not when it flew over us. Not when it was over the reserve.’
‘But your eyes would still have been affected by the sun. Maybe it was sunspots in your eyes you were seeing, not that the object was shining.’
Bill felt a momentary stab of doubt. Had it been sunspots? Could his eyes have been deceived? No, with sunspots you usually saw several of them and you could still see them when you closed your eyes. He knew what sunspots looked like. ‘No, Captain whoever you are, I was not seeing sunspots.’ He spoke slowly and deliberately. ‘I saw a flying saucer. And I wasn’t the only one. Twenty-eight kids saw it, too.’
The officer leaned forward. ‘I’d be careful what I said, if I were you, Mr Marshall. You do want to keep your job, don’t you? You don’t want to be accused of unduly influencing those children.’
‘Influencing them? They told me it was a flying saucer.’
‘Children are highly suggestible, but they know the difference between fantasy and reality. I think you’ll find that by the time they come back to school tomorrow they’ll have forgotten all about flying saucers.’
Bill’s stomach churned with a brief sliver of fear, but he met the officer’s blind look head on. ‘Children are easily distracted, but I think you’ll find I’m not.’
‘Mr Marshall, do you want to be known for harbouring a delusion? How long will you keep your job then?’
‘Are you threatening me?’
‘Just pointing out a few facts.’
‘This conversation hasn’t had much to do with facts so far.’
‘Mr Marshall, you should let the people who have all the information determine the facts. There is a lot going on in the world that is not known to the man in the street. There are secrets that must be kept in order to maintain this country’s freedom and security. Those who betray those secrets are betraying their country. Do I make myself clear, Mr Marshall?’
A shiver of terror went down Bill’s spine. He let it pass then stiffened his back. ‘I think, sir, you will find that it is the truth and not secrets that sets one free.’ He stood up, surprised at a sudden light-headedness. He clasped the mantelpiece beside him to keep his balance. ‘I think we’ve both said everything we had to say. You may go now.’
The two men stood, turned their blank glasses at him for a moment then turned and left. Bill breathed a sigh of relief and went to the window to see them off the premises. He watched them go down the stairs and get into an unmarked car.
‘You went in a bit hard,’ the hitherto silent one said as he turned on the ignition.
‘I didn’t have much choice. What kind of a reading did you get on him?’
‘I don’t know. He was a hard one to reach. Stronger than the others.’
‘Well, let’s hope my methods worked if yours didn’t.’ The speaker took off his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes.
‘What are you doing?’ the other gasped.
‘This sun. I’ll never get used to it. Look at them. They’re going green, aren’t they?’
He turned his long, narrow, solid silver eyes to his companion.
‘They look all right to me. Now put your glasses back on before someone sees you. We’ve got a few more calls to make.’
© Pauline Montagna 2013