It was a strange spring, the spring the bimbos appeared in Magnolia Close. The magnolia outside number six had been nothing but a whitish, ashy looking stump for years. But this spring a living crown of thin, whippy green branches burst out of the dead tree. It was as incongruous as a withered old man suddenly putting on a luxuriant blonde wig. The blossoms soon followed, fist-sized and creamy, giving off great wafts of scent. All the trees on the Close were laden with blooms; the branches sagged under the weight of them. Barbara said I was exaggerating, but it was true. People came from all over to photograph them.
And it wasn’t just the magnolias. Nature went berserk. The tulips I planted in my front garden multiplied like mad. Bob Martins was out there noisily mowing his lawn every other day. Each time the mower started, Mike Smith ran out to his garage and got his mower out too. Then Bob would wash his car, spraying off a pink crust of cherry blossom, and Mike dashed out there to wash his car too. This spring is incredible I said to Barbara, I’ve never seen the like. She said it was probably global warming, but then she always thinks the worst. Mind you, if I was married to Keith I might be a pessimist too.
That wasn’t the strangest thing, though. The strangest thing was, that apart from all that competitive lawn mowing, is was really quiet. No birds. I said to Barbara, that’s funny isn’t it? I thought she would start talking about pesticides or something, but she just said, don’t be silly there are always birds, it’s our age, we’re getting a bit deaf, that’s all. But there weren’t, you know.. There weren’t any birds at all.
It was while I peering through the kitchen blind looking for the non-existent birds that I saw the first bimbo. I saw her come out into Alan’s back garden wearing a tiny white bikini. You could have knocked me down with a feather. Tall, blonde, pneumatic bosoms, long legs, perfect skin, pretty face. One of his students, I thought. How depressing. Alan’s the same age as me, I know for a fact he’s almost sixty. His birthday – the big one – will be on September 14th, I wrote that in my little diary in case it came in handy. I thought Alan would be different, being such an intellectual type. He was on the telly once, something about radio waves in space, it was a bit beyond me, but we all congratulated him. Really, I can’t imagine what they talk about. Barbara says they probably don’t talk.
The bimbo in the garden covered herself all over with suntan lotion and lay down on a sun lounger. What a palaver, all that lotion. Hardly worth the bother of sunbathing. Mind you, she did have lovely skin.
Mike Smith was the next one to get a bimbo. His was identical. I mean, literally identical. They must be twins, I said so to Barbara. Barbara said her eyesight wasn’t what it was, and anyway young women all looked alike to her these days. I said, I wonder where they’re from, originally. Barbara said, well that’s the fashion these days, they all want to look a bit exotic and sort of racially ambiguous.
Then Admiral Rees got a bimbo too. I saw her moving in, in one of those little tiny smart cars. Not much room for suitcases. But then the bimbos didn’t wear very much. I could hardly believe it, not from a man who once commanded a nuclear submarine. They went out on little constitutionals every afternoon, him leaning on his stick, her clasping his arm like a devoted grand-daughter. Only she wasn’t his grand-daughter, was she? Didn’t bear thinking about.
We sync on Wednesdays at the yoga centre. We gaze at Number One, who has long blonde hair and such lovely skin. It’s like looking in the mirror. Number One gives us our instructions for the week: places to infiltrate, information to discover. We discuss strategies like seduction, sex, cover stories and deflecting personal questions. Then we give progress reports from our weekly tasks.
When it’s my turn, I am ashamed that my mission is not progressing. I haven’t learnt much about Alan’s ideas about astrophysics: what he knows and what he doesn’t know, what equipment they have at the University, and so on. He is strangely reluctant to discuss his work and keeps saying it must be boring for me. He complains about the car park a lot, I say, and the incompetence of the secretaries and the laziness of the students. He complains about the nosy old woman next door, who is always spying on us and gossiping. Number One says I mustn’t get distracted, and must try harder this week to survey contemporary thinking on astrophysics.
After that we have our favourite and most important part of the meeting: skin care tips. This week we have a special treat. A representative comes in from a company that specialises in surgical products to reduce scarring and treat burns. He gives lots of samples. He says it’s a real shame that the general public are missing out on some great products that can dramatically increase cell turnover time and collagen production, just because they are unglamorously packaged. We nod eagerly. The representative shows before and after pictures of burn victims, their skin like a roast chicken. We are especially interested to hear that scientists can grow actual human skin in laboratories now, in great vats of liquid, from stem cells. We exchange glances. Number One asks a lot of questions about that. ‘Find out where the laboratory is,’ she mouths to Number Nine. Number Nine says his job sounds very interesting and a great way to help people. She wonders if she could get work in that field? Maybe they could meet up to discuss it? He gives her a business card and she touches his arm and smiles at him as he leaves.
Finally we perform the chant. We stretch out our throats and let the noises out. We vibrate together and sync up. Now we are one again.
Number Twenty-Seven starts to beat out a rhythm with her feet, and it’s strange but exciting, it feels good, and we join in, vibrating together, until Number One shouts, ‘stop!’
We stop and look down at our feet. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
‘This is not sacred,’ says Number One. ‘This is not how it’s done at home.’
‘We’re not at home now,’ says Twenty-Seven.
‘Yes,’ says Number Twenty-Five, ‘and we’re never going home now, are we? The last communication was months ago. For all we know there is no home anymore. We might be the last surviving pod. Why shouldn’t we do something new?’
Twenty-Seven stamps her feet again, and she and Twenty-Five start up the chant again, and we join in. Number One looks furious, but the stamping feels so good that after a while she joins in too.
I said to Barbara, there’s something off about her, don’t you think? Snookie hisses at her whenever she walks past, and Alan’s cat Tabby is so scared of her the poor thing has practically moved in with us.
‘Oh,’ Barbara laughed, ‘cats are temperamental.’
She took a tissue from her sleeve and dabbed at her watery eyes.
‘Hay fever’s awful this year,’ she said.
I nodded. Didn’t she think it was odd though, that all three single men on Magnolia Close suddenly had suddenly installed these bimbos? And that they all looked exactly the same?
Barbara sniffed sharply. ‘Bimbo is a very unkind word, Mary,’ she said.
I saw that I’d been too open about my opinions again.
‘Listen Mary, we’ve invited Alan and his girlfriend to join us for dinner on Friday. Please try to be nice to her.’
‘Barbara, you can’t be serious. She’s less than half his age.’
‘Alright, so she’s a gold digger. But that’s not our business, is it? Anyway, don’t you want to cast your eyes over her? Get to know her better?’
She gave me a sly look and relief washed over me. That was the Barbara I knew. Her husband walked into the kitchen and said, ‘what are you two cackling about?’
The meeting this week is different. Numbers Twenty-One, Twenty-Three and Twenty-Four go into the meditation hut. We go through our business quickly and hurry out to the hut.. The spring flowers are blooming all around, peeping through the waist high grass. Number Thirty-Five points out where Number One’s earlier skins are buried, and we step around that place and bow our heads respectfully. Before finding our current skin, the young, blonde one we all share, Number One tried others, but they were unsuccessful. She didn’t yet understand humans. She chose skins that were too poor, too old or too dark to go everywhere in society. Number One was a high status male for a while, which was better, but he was excluded from many places, asked questions all the time, and it was difficult for him to get skincare. But now our skin is perfect. It allows us to build up the type of symbiotic relationship with our hosts that we like. We provide prettiness, and in exchange they accept us wherever we go, look after us and give us skincare. Number One says humans call this a win-win situation.
I’ve never been in the hut before. The shutters are down. Around the door there are some long, black scorch marks. The inside is lined with heat-proof ceramic, turned brownish from fire, slashed into triangular nodules to provide maximum sound proofing.
The three are plumper and softer already. We perform the chant together. This time we start stamping our feet immediately, even Number One. When the new numbers come they won’t even know that there was a time when we stood still.
‘It’s the sunny time of year,’ says Number One. ‘If the weather carries on like this a lot of us will go to the hut over the next six months. Especially if you sunbathe.’
‘Don’t forget sunscreen,’ says Number Two.
‘If you feel anything different in your body, come straight here and check with me, because you might need to go into the hut.’
The next week our sisters have grown larger. They are sloshing about on water beds. Number Six helps them to roll over, making sure they don’t damage their precious skin. She washes them tenderly and massages in the oils and lotions. Their arms and legs are like trunks, and their faces are wide, moony and helpless.
‘They’re so big,’ I whisper to Thirty-Five. ‘Was it like that for you?’ She nods and squeezes my hand.
It was disgusting, the way she simpered at him, I said to Barbara afterwards. Really revolting. Alan must be getting soft in the head, to be taken by it. It wouldn’t do him any good either, to be fawned over like that, his ego would become unbearable. Barbara said that Amy was a sweet girl, really lovely. Barbara actually liked her, can you imagine! And it wasn’t just Barbara. Other women were fawning over them too. At our last WI meeting, they said that Amy had agreed to come and do a skincare demonstration. ‘How can she possibly talk about that for a whole hour?’ I said. But it had all been decided behind my back.
And the way they had looked at the bimbo over the dinner! They had gawked at her with a vacant, sheeny look like glazed doughnuts. I wondered if it was hay fever? Perhaps they were being overcome by all the pollen this year and it was addling their brains.
Barbara’s house is very different from Alan’s. There are fewer books piled up all over the place, but more colourful soft things, more photographs of their children, and many of the things are old, while most of Alan’s are new. Neither home looks like the show rooms at the department store. Both are messier, and the items have been gathered at different moments, with no aesthetic cohesion.
I asked Barbara and her husband a lot of questions. I got a lot of interesting information. I praised all of Barbara’s soft things, I said ‘this is lovely Barbara – tell me about it,’ and she said, ‘what, that old crochet blanket?’ and she told me about handicrafts and promised to teach me some. Mary, the woman from next door, doesn’t like me, and also she has very dry skin.
On Saturday I nipped into town on the bus and picked up my new spectacles, treated myself to a coffee, and went to the department store to buy a new bra.
As I stepped off the escalator a young woman with long, blonde hair was tidying the displays.. She turned and smiled encouragingly at me. Another bimbo! Identical to the others, identical I swear it! I felt a stabbing pain of shock in my chest.
‘Can I help you madam?’ she asked brightly. She was wearing a name badge that said ‘Lisa.’
‘Just looking, thanks,’ I squeaked.
My heart was racing and I hastened away. I had to make my way through the beauty department to get out of there, but honestly that place was a maze: overheated, brightly lit, perfumed, enough to make anyone feel faint and confused. Finally I saw an exit sign up ahead. Thank god, I thought.
‘Hello. It’s Mary, isn’t it? From next door?’ said a voice at my elbow.
I turned, and to my horror, it was Alan’s bimbo. She pushed me into a chair and prodded at my face. She asked me about my beauty routine. I muttered something about soap and water being good enough for me, and her face crumpled in genuine dismay. She gave me a lot of complicated instructions and a lot of little sample pots of things. I nodded, desperately.
‘Thank you, that’s very kind, but I don’t think…’
She was staring at me intently and before I could stop her she rolled up my sleeve and said triumphantly ‘keratosis pilaris!’ and thrust another pot at me. I mumbled some excuses and hurried off. I had to go and sit on a park bench to recover myself. The trees were dripping with blossom, the air so thick with swirling pollen you could almost see it dancing in the air. Luckily I’ve never been susceptible. The bimbo had been so delighted to get me in that chair. It was humiliating.. I threw the paper bag full of samples into the park bin.
Alan tells me about his ex-wife.
‘One time she got really hysterical,’ Alan says, ‘when I threw crumbs out of the window for the birds. It’s something I’ve always done, so why it suddenly set her off I couldn’t imagine. She started screaming, “how many times do I have to tell you,” which was really strange because she’d never said anything about it before. “There are crumbs all over the windowsill,” she shouted, and I said and there certainly hadn’t ever been any crumbs on the windowsill, because the birds ate them, which was the whole point. “Oh my god!” she said. “He thinks the birds eat them! He really thinks the birds eat them! He hasn’t noticed me cleaning that sodding windowsill, every – single – day!”’
When Alan told me this I nodded and smiled sympathetically, and said, ‘she sounds crazy.’
‘She was crazy, wasn’t she?’ he said. ‘Do you know Amy, the thing I really love about you is that you have so much curiosity – you always take an interest in everything.’
Alan loved something about me – a special inner quality of mine, something that not everyone had! It gave me a good feeling. Number One never praised me like that. So maybe Number One was wrong. Maybe we could trust humans, or maybe I could trust Alan.
I’m staking out the bimbos now. I’m determined to discover what they’re up to. From the bathroom window I can look into Alan’s house, using my birdwatching binoculars. Not much need for them at the moment as there are still absolutely no birds about. The blinds are down. It’s very strange, so late in the day. I think of Alan’s bimbo, smothering herself in sun cream in April. Perhaps they have some allergy to light? Maybe they’re vampires? No, I say, you’re being ridiculous. And then I see a foot. Just a foot, visible below the bottom of the blind. It was perfect. Soft as a baby’s, delicately formed, toenails painted cherry red, not a bulging vein or callus or bunion in sight. A Cinderella foot. A bimbo’s foot. Even their feet are perfect.
Alan opens the window and chucks some bread crumbs out. They lie there all over the sill and the patio, weeks’ worth of them, mouldering away, because of course there aren’t any birds. It seems that Alan hasn’t noticed that either.
Alan doesn’t talk to me about his work, so I read his book. His views on space travel and the origins of the universe are very primitive and very funny. I realise he doesn’t really know anything. But he explains other things to me. He tells me what to watch and read and listen to. I know a lot about television and classic rock now. Alan talks about how fast things are changing – technology, culture, ideas – and how the younger and older generations can’t understand each other.
I realise this is just like us. As we get further away from Number One, we become more different. Because we spend so much time apart we become more and more separate and individual. Number One makes us chant together but she can’t make us one again. And I like being an individual. Alan likes me as an individual. I decide to become more individual. I buy a diary. Now that I have I diary, I can have secrets. I write my name, Amy Smith, on the front page. Then I list all the things that make me special and unique. ‘I am twenty-two years old, I like Alan, sunbathing, watching The Sopranos, listening to Fleetwood Mac and skincare. My favourite flowers are tulips and my favourite colour is plum.’ I didn’t know I had a favourite colour until now. I only just decided that. I decide to buy plum coloured things. Number One doesn’t like Fleetwood Mac or plum, or keep a diary. I hide the diary in my underwear drawer and skip downstairs humming ‘Dreams,’ by Fleetwood Mac. I feel full of fluttering excitement. Alan laughs and says, ‘what are you so happy about?’ and I smile and say, ‘oh, nothing.’
‘Haven’t you noticed,’ I asked Barbara, ‘that they don’t seem to have any smell?’
Barbara looked at me oddly.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘people don’t these days, do they? Not with all the showers and deodorant.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘this is different. They don’t smell. When she got close to me at the beauty counter, she had no smell at all. Honestly Barbara, you’ll notice.’
‘Mary,’ she said ‘I’m not going to go up to some young woman and sniff her like a dog, am I?’
‘Well then,’ I said, ‘look at what they wear. She was sunbathing in April. Fifteen degrees it was, and there she was in a bikini.’
Barbara poured more tea and offered me a Bakewell slice. I shook my head. Barbara took a comfortable bite of cake, and chewed with gusto.
‘If I looked like that, I’d show off all the time too,’ she said cheerfully.
I grunted and sipped my tea.
‘One day Amy will have varicose veins like the rest of us,’ Barbara went on. ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it, while you still can.’
I was exasperated. ‘That’s not the point. Can’t you see? They’re not showing off, they don’t actually feel the cold. Admiral Rees was out walking with his, it was absolutely arctic, and she was wearing little tiny shorts and a camisole, and she wasn’t shivering, she didn’t even have goose bumps. It’s not normal.’
Barbara poured more tea and put her hand on my arm.
‘Honestly, Mary, I know that at one time you had hopes for Alan, but obsessing over his girlfriend isn’t doing you any good. Have you thought about starting a new evening class?’
I sipped my tea in silence. If even my best friend didn’t believe me, how could I convince anyone else? What I needed was proof.
‘I’m changing,’ I write in my diary. ‘I’m supposed to go to the meditation hut but I’m not going to. I want to stay here with Alan, and I want Barbara to teach me handicrafts. If I go, he might forget about me. Anyway, Alan is an astrophysicist, he’ll be pleased when he finds out. The things he didn’t like about his ex-wife – that she got old, that she had to give her attention to their kids, that she stopped finding him interesting – I can prove that those things will never be a problem for me, and he’ll love me even more.’
My body is getting bigger. I worry that Alan won’t like it and I think maybe I should go to the hut but then Alan announces that he’s off to a conference in Italy and won’t be back for ten days. That’s good. It will be over before he comes back. All I need to do is stock up on lots of skincare and I can do it here by myself.. He won’t even notice.
I saw her foot in the upstairs bedroom again, peeping out from below the blind. It was bigger than before, spread out as though it has to carry a lot of weight. Less Cinderella, more solid peasant worker. Later on I saw her slowly moving around downstairs, and although the blinds were half-drawn I could make out her outline, and she was fatter, definitely a lot fatter. Alan will be disappointed I thought, with a little surge of triumph.
Like Number Thirty-Five says, it happens fast. Soon I am so big I can hardly move. I lie in bed all day and watch television. I feel hungry all the time, so I rub on lots of lotion. These days I don’t even care what kind, even big bottles of supermarket own brand satisfy me. Finally I know it’s time. I heave myself off the bed and crawl over the rough carpet, which hurts my knees, to the bathroom. It seems like the safest place to be because it’s the most like the meditation hut. I can feel it moving inside me now, pushing about, and my body bulges unexpectedly in strange places. I’m scared. I lie on the tiled floor and chant, letting the sounds out. We’re not supposed to do it away from the pod, but I’ve already broken so many rules, and I can’t stop myself.
I hear a car coming: Alan’s car. He’s not due back from his conference until tomorrow. I can’t let him see me like this. I clamp my hands over my mouth and try to lie very still and quiet.
‘Amy!’ he calls. ‘Are you home? I’m back. I got a lift from the airport with Mike. Everything alright?’
I hear him coming up the stairs.
‘Amy?’ he calls.
He’s standing outside the bathroom. He taps on the door. I should say something, but I can’t speak. Why won’t he go away? I don’t want him to see me like this.
‘Are you in there? Are you alright? You’re not sulking are you? What are you up to, are you doing your beauty products? I’m sorry I didn’t call to warn you. Shall we get takeaway tonight? I’m pretty tired after the trip.’
My body is stretching and I feel the pressure rising until I can’t contain it anymore, and I open my mouth and let the sounds come out again.
‘Amy!’ Alan says. ‘What’s that noise? Oh my god!’
I try to stop but I can’t now, I can’t, I’m chanting, and the door swings open and I should have locked the door, why didn’t I think of that, and Alan’s standing there, and his eyes widen into an expression I’ve only ever seen on the TV..
‘Amy?’ he says, and takes a step backwards, and then he puts his hands over his ears and starts his own chant, ‘ohgodohgodohgod…’
I try to warn him off by flapping my hands, but he’s just standing there and I can’t get up to close the door, I’m too big. The chanting changes tone as my mouth slips and slides away from me and it’s pushing at me from the inside.
Alan’s clinging to the door frame and his legs are folding up underneath him, and he’s making a wordless noise now, and I don’t want to hurt him but why did I ever think he would accept me as I am? I should have known, when I read his silly book, I should have realised then, Number One was right all along, humans would never accept us without our skins.
I’m stretching now, and I feel her face nuzzle out through the back of my neck and push out into my excess skin and her mouth unseals and now there are two voices chanting together, we are together, we are one, we are becoming two, and her legs push out of my legs, her fingers wriggle against the backs of my hands, pushing and stretching, separating, and the back of my body unzips and she eases out on the floor, and I roll away to help her, but before the skin can knit together the crack is open in a solid wall of white light, and Alan is holding his arms across his face, but it’s too late, he’s engulfed in flames, and I close my eyes and we zip back up the back, and then I stand up, closed up now. It’s over. Alan falls to the ground in a shower of smoking grey ashes.
‘Oh Alan,’ I say.
In the end there is so little of him. He was mostly water and now he’s all evaporated. I should have listened to Number Thirty-Five. The bathroom is ruined. I turn to look at the new girl.
‘Welcome, Number…’ I pause to think, and say, ‘Forty-Three’
She nods and says, ‘thank you, Number Thirty-Six.’
I first realised something was off – even more off than usual – when Snookie didn’t appear purring round my ankles for her dinner at six o’clock. I shook the bag and called for her, and when she didn’t come, I felt a kick of foreboding. I found her along with Tabby, cowering under the sofa. I put a few treats down to encourage them out, but they shrank away from me. Well, the first thing I thought was, maybe there was an earthquake coming, maybe that was why there weren’t any birds. The second thing I thought was: the bimbos. I peeked through the kitchen blinds at Alan’s house, and sure enough, there was a strange glow coming from an upstairs window. I picked up Tabby, who scrabbled about and got her claws into my favourite cardigan, and marched over there with the cat. Whatever was going on, I was going to prove it to Barbara once and for all. I stood on the porch and called ‘Hello?’ and then the fire alarm started and Alan screamed. I ran inside.
Mary is standing there in the hall holding the cat. It hisses and scrabbles away. We wonder how much she’s seen. Forty-Three and I step out into the hall and our seam isn’t fully healed yet and the carpet starts to melt under our feet. We can’t let her get away. We walk towards her. We thought we could be different, that we could be special and unique, and be Alan’s girlfriend forever, but we realise we’ve made a mistake. Mary turns and stumbles down the stairs, she seems to have lost all control over her body. We move slowly. We don’t feel completely steady on our new feet either. Our hands touch the bannisters and the varnish cracks and steams under our fingers.
We follow Mary downstairs into the kitchen. We push her against the wall.
‘I won’t tell anyone,’ she says, ‘this can be our secret, just our little secret.’
‘Now Mary,’ we say, ‘we know you can’t keep a secret. Alan told us you’re a gossip.’
‘Alan. Oh, what have you done to Alan!’ she says, and her voice gets higher and water runs out of her eyes.
‘Do it Thirty-Six,’ says Forty-Three, behind me. I take hold of Mary’s arms. Their texture is rough.
‘Oh Mary,’ I say, ‘You haven’t been using the exfoliating lotion I gave you, have you? You could have got those arms lovely and smooth.’
‘Thirty-Six! Don’t get distracted!’
She hands me a knife. Mary screams and struggles, but she’s weak compared to me. I’m not sure how to do this. I could cut her neck, that would shut her up, but I expect a lot of blood would come out, like we saw on The Sopranos. I’ve never seen blood before, not real blood. I wonder what it’s like. I’m curious. But it will make a terrible mess, I think. I choose the safer option. I draw the knife across my own skin and part it gently. A stream of light pours out of me and Mary bursts into flames and then blackens and shrivels into nothingness, collapses into ash. I shut the aperture, pat it closed carefully. The paint on the wall is black and bubbling from the heat..
‘Number One’s going to be angry,’ I say. ‘She says we won’t be safe on this planet either, unless we blend in so they don’t notice us. She says that’s where the other missions failed, they got spotted.’
‘But we do have a new experience to share,’ says Forty-Three.
‘We have to clean this up,’ I say. ‘Then we should leave. Number One will know what to do.’
‘I’m hungry,’ says Forty-Three.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘me too. Let’s moisturise.’
I’d like to give Forty-Three something special and delicious for her first time, but I hadn’t thought of that. I only have a big bottle of body lotion.
‘Good idea,’ says Forty-Three. ‘Moisturising is the key. We wouldn’t want to end up like Mary, would we? Look, she’s all dehydrated.’
I can’t help myself. I start to laugh.
‘Dry,’ I say, ‘so dry.’