Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Message on the Banner by Susmita Ramani

 It was the day of the Annual Derby at the newly reopened Folkestone Racecourse, and everyone was keyed-up with excitement. It wasn’t just for the ponies. At the Derby’s end, Folkestone’s Mayor, Jack Sedgwick, would fly his cherry-red airplane overhead, trailing a banner with the name of the town’s most beloved citizen of the year; everyone in town had voted the week before.

The buzz was that it would be one of the Jones septuplets, born and raised in Folkestone, who’d left, but returned to settle down. They were the nicest, prettiest, most accomplished ladies in Kent. All were blonde, but each possessed her own je ne sais quoi.

Alice was an architect, ambitious in her designs, which frequently appeared in magazines. She’d overseen the rebuilding of areas around town, and often pointed to random buildings and said, “That’s one of mine!”

Bethany, a banker, was all business. Because she was as benevolent as she was brilliant, she gave half her income to charity; she still had plenty left to bankroll her own bliss.

Charlotte, a chef, was charismatic and calm. After rising in the culinary ranks like a star, she now owned a wildly successful local cafe and pastry shop, with kitchen staff who did the baking and cooking.

Darcy, a doctor, was dynamic and determined. Whatever a patient’s ailment was, she’d research day and night until she figured out how to help.

Eleanor, an engineer, was encouraging to her coworkers, and energetic in her programming, which flowed from her fingers like 0111010 off a 0110’s back.

Florence was friendly and fearless. Finance was her game; she specialized in foreign investments and futures.

Gracie was as gracious and graceful as her name. A geophysicist, she studied physical aspects of the earth and atmosphere. Though she loved her work, her salary was meagre, and hence she was often stuck wearing hand-me-downs, particularly from Bethany’s polka dot phase. As for Gracie’s sisters, though they’d never have said so, they considered Gracie’s work less important than the rest of theirs, because no one really understood what she did, and she earned little.

But that day, Gracie had a surprise for everyone. Gracious though she generally was, she hadn’t been above playing dirty this once. She’d bought desserts (amusingly enough) from Charlotte’s pastry shop the day before, and brought them to Mayor Sedgwick as a bribe: a gypsy tart, a classic Kentish dessert of shortcrust pastry filled with whipped evaporated milk and muscovado sugar; and a heap of Isle of Wight doughnuts, some filled with currants and tied in a knot, and some filled with apples and shaped like turnovers. She’d set them on his desk and said, “Mayor Sedgwick, this is because you’re a nice guy. Enjoy! See you at the derby.” She felt the message she’d intended to convey had been clear: put my name on your banner. There was a secret secondary message, which was that she was sweet on him...but, as he was a man, she didn’t suppose he would’ve caught that part.

At the derby, the sisters sat together as usual. None of them particularly cared about the races; it was about seeing and being seen. After the winning horses were garlanded and led from the course, they heard the buzz of Mayor Sedgwick’s plane, and there it was, like a red bullet in the sky. They leaped up to see...and the banner read, “ALIEN INVASION, GO HOME.”

Alice, Bethany, and Charlotte laughed; they thought it must be some sort of joke that was both literally and figuratively over their heads. But as they looked around for someone to decode the message, their mirth turned to bewilderment. Perhaps more sensibly, Darcy, Eleanor, and Florence were straight-up stunned. Gracie was transfixed with horror.

They decided to go to their parents’ home, as they could be sure of getting a hot cup of tea there, which was sorely needed now. Their parents put the kettle on.

After Mayor Sedgwick landed his plane, he came around to talk to them.

“Ladies, all is lost.” He sank back on a sofa. “The aliens say they’ll make Folkestone their home base until they can find the ‘expert’ they need for their work in space. If I can’t talk them out of that, I’ll be in so much trouble with the Town Council.”

Bethany gasped. “How awful!”

He shook his head. “No, the really awful part is...they won’t take me with them. It was my childhood dream to be an astronaut. My father pushed me into politics. Their spacecraft is really tricked out, too. It’s got rooms where one can conjure up alternate realities with thought. But they don’t want me...because I’m a useless politician.” He sniffled.

“What sort of expert do they want?” asked Darcy. “Doctor?”

“Engineer?” asked Eleanor.

“Architect?” asked Alice.

He rolled his eyes. “If only. What they want is an expert in planetary minerals and atmospheres...if such a thing even exists.”

Bethany chewed her lip. “Why does that ring a bell?”

“Because that’s what I do,” said Gracie.

Mayor Sedgwick leaped to his feet. “What?”

Gracie smiled. “Let’s go talk to the aliens.”

...

Mayor Sedgwick and Gracie stood below the aliens’ spaceship, which hovered like an immense, pale bubble over Fordwich Gifts & Merchandise. He raised his hands over his head; she followed suit. A warm beam of light found them, lifted them, and carried them through the air into the spaceship.

They met with the aliens’ king, Vlort, who looked like a pocket dinosaur, but through whose translation device, they communicated easily. Vlort grilled Gracie on geophysics for three hours; Gracie found him surprisingly knowledgeable, and was intrigued. Finally, Vlort pronounced her sufficiently ‘expert.’ They decided that for two years (to be renewed if mutually agreeable), she would go with the aliens into space and help them with their work...provided that Mayor Sedgwick could tag along.

Afterwards, he beamed at her. “How can I ever thank you? And please, call me ‘Jack.’”

She laughed. “Jack...we’ll think of something.”

© Susmita Ramani

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