This story is by Paul Isaac and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
I’ve learned that crossing one’s legs to show a need for the toilet is in fact, a hardwired universal convention. A group of young men enter the small commuter waiting room en route to London and the man behind me in the queue folds a leg in warning. Most are basking outside on the sun beaten concrete beside the platform, only one urgent reason forcing them to roast inside. The heat has encouraged a funky smell from the gents but with plenty of time before the next train we’ve subconsciously agreed to pare down to single file, politely allocating two minutes grace between users. The females come and go unaffected.
A neatly shirted man exits the public lavatory and makes a visible snap judgement of my character based purely on which ‘rag’ I’m hiding behind as he walks back past me. The upcoming election is forcing a host of colourful behavioural slips I’m not usually privy to. It’s making my job easier. I’m not yet halfway to work and already closing in on my daily observational quota.
Two minutes pass. I fold the newspaper quickly, and place it on my seat. To dawdle now would be madness – I’m the centre of attention, the star of the show, though if you’d looked through the window at that moment you’d never have guessed it. I was so engrossed in the private performance I never even considered the freshly entered businessman a threat. The villain of the piece, he blustered past, swinging his briefcase in one arm and very deliberately checking his wrist clock on the other. I stood shock still, staring in disbelief as the door closed behind him.
Sensing the boiling blood of those around me, I gave the man in the queue behind me a woollen look. ‘What planet is that guy from?’ his mock-horror expression read, and he tutted on my behalf. I was caught in no man’s land – I’d already promised my body that release was imminent in the standing up. ‘When in Rome’ I thought bravely, though in truth I’ve never been quite certain of its application.
I heard somebody gasp as I marched toward the door. Actually gasp. I crossed my leg again upon arrival hoping to explain my raucous behaviour, and then compounded my embarrassment when I failed to open the door. Professional acumen dictated I return to my seat at this point, but I was too frustrated to care.
I forced it open, failing to register the green gloop that stretched and snapped in the frame as I pushed through, in favour of the man’s vacated face staring up at me from the tiled floor. A scream formed in my throat as I studied the empty skin, stretched out with nothing to pull around, and eyes that caved inward for the same reason. The scream escaped as I panned across from the shed fleshy, suited pile to lock eyes with its owner – a very startled looking blubbery slob of a naked Zarganoid (at least that what I presumed to name it) that drew a protective doughy limb across its sloped middle half to protect its modesty, splayed in cosmic fashion around the farthest urinal. Embarrassment, it appears is another convention shared across the far reaches of the galaxy.
‘Is everything alright in there?’ An alarmed voice called from outside. I heard a few scraped chair feet but nobody wanted to break the two minute grace without good reason. Zaggy raised a gelatinous mandible in my direction, the green gloop from the doorframe forming on the end of a digit in order to dictate my response.
‘Yes,’ I called back, ‘no problems,’ and felt immediately grateful for the reserved British policy of non-intervention.
The sound of water running through the pipes above reminded me of my need. I went out on my limb, crossing one leg in front of the other, and took a tentative step toward the closest urinal. Old Man Zarg slowly retracted his threat, but kept a casual focus on me as I awkwardly concluded my business.
Making sure not to step on his face on the way out, I tuned in to hear the wet schnick as he resealed the doorframe up double behind me. I smiled disarmingly at the searching faces and escaped with my newspaper onto the platform before any could find a voice.
As luck would have it, when the train arrived my queue neighbour settled down beside me in our two front two back row of seats. A colleague once told me that men who go to war together become brothers because of the blood spilled rather than the blood they share, and I figured an attack on common decency in a public waiting room, a shared victimisation, must account for much the same.
Zargary took the seat directly opposite, openly staring at me for the rest of the journey. I was a tad more discreet, examining him with stolen glances as I turned the page. His human suit had been hastily reattached and lay off centre, the droop it caused making him look nothing more than ugly in comparison to those around us. No one else could see the alien beneath the man, but what was I supposed to do? Scream?
No. When that Zarganoid finished compiling his dossier on human behaviour I wanted him to understand that stepping foot on Earth meant abiding by its conventions. After all, a chance interstellar encounter on neutral ground didn’t necessarily make us enemies, and I knew full well what a thankless job it could be at times. He might not have learned the intricacies of queuing yet, or that privacy here is relative, but I think by the time he left the train a couple of stops later, unexposed and free to carry on his reconnaissance, that he went some way to understanding the bigger picture. Back home they’d call it one thing, on Zargonia another. On this planet, you’d call it a professional courtesy.