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A Magazine for Sheffield

Alien Summer: Aliens Trying To Be People

I’m having a recurring dream. I’m in an exclusive, futuristic health spa, inside a very tall building with a very fast lift, but no windows. The changing rooms are suitably shiny, the circulation spaces a careful balance of clinical and chic. No doubt such a place exists, and its fees would be well beyond my reach, but the oddest thing is, a few dozen women actually live in here. They’re all at the young end of middle age, floating through their 40s in a yogic, macrobiotic bubble, their teachers and therapists their only source of human contact. They barely speak to each other, and certainly not to me, and they never leave the building. I’m not sure why they’re here, how they afford it, or if they plan to ever leave. Other than inside my head, where is this? Is it in a sci-fi book I’ve read and almost forgotten? It is in the future? I leave the building and trip over an accordion-playing busker, sitting on the damp pavement. I recognise him as an eye surgeon who operated on me once. What happened? Did he blow the whistle on a backhand deal that sold off his hospital? Some future. Now I’m on Division Street. I see a humanoid alien, about 6’8’’, thin and bald, with a pigeon chest that wriggles under a tight, tailored shirt. Under his arm is a vinyl copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night, the album Brian Eno should have called ‘music by aliens trying to be people’, so that’s a dead giveaway. With a startled, fixed expression he darts from one shop to the next, knowing what he’s looking for but not sure where it has gone. Thinking he might actually be Mick Fleetwood, I follow him from a discreet distance, until he eventually disappears into an unremarkable door marked ‘Smoking Cessation’. The cardinal sin for the humanoids is to be noticed as not human, but you can spot them because they blend in too hard. They wear fashionable outfits to extremes, are seen too often in the trendy bars, take too many selfies. Anything that humans do in moderation, the aliens are hopelessly addicted to. And just like the rest of us, they’re also addicted to quitting. When we say we’re giving something up, people rarely ask the all important question: 'What are you taking up instead?' For the aliens, quitting is all about starting something else, while the distant women in the futuristic spa are just giving up more and more, surrendering. We’ve come to something when it’s the aliens who are having the fun. But what of the bedraggled busker? I go and talk to him. Yes, he was an eye surgeon, but he was a workaholic, and it cost him his marriage and his wife kept the kids. So he jacked it all in. He’s a very good accordion player and he’s in a good folk band, but he always looks forward to summer weekends when he can entertain in the street. Happier passersby are more generous. In summer, Sheffield hangs up its serious clothes, puts on a floaty dress and some big shades and starts lazing around in parks and squares. In recent years it’s given up being all quiet and boring over the holiday season and has cunningly assimilated the activities we used to have to go away for: the seaside, a big music festival, outdoor theatres, cocktails. Sheffield has become very good at doing all this. It’s part of what we talk about and plan for all year, and it actually puts us off going away during July and August. It feeds our addiction to the city, and simultaneously provides its own rehab. My dream has somehow inhabited my waking hours. I’ve started alien-spotting in the vintage shops, and I’m expecting to find that health spa lurking inside the old Hallam Towers Hotel on Manchester Road. Dereliction would be a good disguise. It’s left me hooked on the idea of the city as poison and antidote rolled into one. I’m desperate for a holiday, but I seem able to convince myself I could have one if I stayed right here. )

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