Looking back, I feel privileged. I was present when my friend Ralph Curzon met the first and only love of his life.
Not that you’d have paid attention if you’d been there. We were just a couple of adolescent boys browsing through a stack of science fiction magazines in a musty old bookshop. We’d become pals, in fact, through our mutual enthusiasm for sci-fi. It was the 1960s: our classmates were into the Beatles and the Stones, but we preferred Isaac Asimov and HG Wells.
“Wow” Ralph exclaimed suddenly. “Look!” He pointed to what seemed at first a typical cover. They were almost always illustrated with rockets, space travellers, aliens. In those non-PC days, one favourite subject was a scantily-clad woman, often being rescued from the clutches of some outer-space monster by a clean-jawed hero.
The woman on this cover looked pretty self-reliant, but maybe she could have used some help. Sword in hand, she was battling against a green-skinned, multi-limbed creature that was dripping venom from its huge fangs. Two suns blazed in a purple sky. The woman was, predictably, semi-naked, in a kind of metallic brassiere, a swordbelt, and a short skirt made from strips of metal-studded leather. With her coppery-red skin and waist-length black hair, she might have passed for a native American, except for the diamond-shaped, brilliant turquoise eyes, and her ears, which were of the long pointed kind so favoured by fantasy artists. She was clearly as extraterrestrial as her adversary.
“I’ve got to buy it,” Ralph breathed, pulling coins from his pocket. “She’s beautiful.”
“Hang on,” I told him. “Sneak a look at the stories inside first.“ “They might not be much –“
“Who cares about the stories?” He was already taking the magazine up to the counter.
Ralph and I kept in touch after leaving school, meeting up for a drink now and then. I started work for the Civil Service, at a low grade; I had never been considered university material. Ralph at one time had been, but from the age of about fourteen – about the time he bought that magazine, in fact – his schoolwork had declined.
Eventually, our jobs took us to different parts of the country, but we stayed in contact, albeit sporadically, by phone. Over the years, I told him about my steady if unspectacular progress up the career ladder, about my marriage and becoming a family man. When I come to think about it, the information was nearly all one-way. I had the impression, not that he was being secretive, but that life was passing him by. Ironic, because if you’d seen those two kids in the bookshop, you’d have guessed that I was the one doomed to be an outsider: short, podgy, bespectacled, while he was taller and athletically built. By his late teens, he could have been a model for the muscular heroes of those sci fi magazines. Not that I’d read any for years.
We were in our forties when he phoned for what proved to be the last time. “Paul? Ralph here…I’m …not going to be around in the near future. I just wanted to say thanks for being pals, and goodbye.”
I panicked. “What is it? You’re not ill, are you?”
“No, I’ve never felt better. But I’m…Let’s say I’m moving abroad.”
“Where?” I asked. “Spain?” It was a popular destination for expatriate Brits. “They have phones in Spain, you know!”
He laughed ruefully. “A bit further than that. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I tried to make light of it. “I bet there’s a woman involved, you sly old dog!”
He said rather awkwardly: “There is, and she’s very special. But it’s difficult to explain. Anyway, you take care, Paul.”
About 3 weeks later, I had a phone message from Randolph’s next of kin, a nephew. Ralph had disappeared. He had sometimes mentioned me, in fact I seemed to have been about the only friend he had. Foul play was not suspected, but the local police would like a chat with me, and the nephew also wanted me to tell him anything I thought might be of significance.
So, a few days later, after a three-hour train journey, I found myself in Ralph’s rather shabby rented flat. The police had interviewed me and assured me that I was not under suspicion of any kind.
“It’s good of you to talk to me,” said the nephew, an earnest man in his early twenties.
I shrugged. “There’s really nothing much I can tell you. I hadn’t actually set eyes on your uncle for years. We talked by phone, not very often at that. The last time, he said some…odd things.”
He nodded. “It figures. He was a strange one, uncle Ralph. That thing on the wall, for instance. Why couldn’t he have a print like anyone else?”
He pointed to a picture frame. I looked closer. There was indeed no reproduction print behind the glass, but a magazine cover. A copper-skinned woman, an alien landscape, a green monster. I had last seen it over 30 years earlier, forgotten it completely, but I remembered it now.
No trace of Ralph was ever found. I suppose his nephew inherited that cover, along with the rest of Ralph’s few belongings, and I guess he threw it away. And yes, I know that thousands of people go missing every year. And what I thought then – and still think – would make me insane in many people’s opinion.
But I was no fantasist; I was a stolid civil servant. And I know what I saw behind that glass. The cover was different, the many-limbed horror dead in the foreground, a couple of swords rammed deep into its chest. There was a third figure, a man, locked in a passionate embrace with the alien woman. His face was partially obscured by her hair, but I could see enough of the features to recognise my friend, Ralph Curzon.
Retired from a career in healthcare, Dave Whippman writes poetry, stories, and articles.