“Aliens just seem so unlikely, Mr Tempest.”
On waking that morning, aliens had been the furthest thing from Miss Emily Pettingill’s mind. Emily liked to garden. She liked to knit. She liked to look at pictures of friends’ grandchildren, to volunteer with St John’s Ambulance, to make pies for her neighbours with the sleepless newborn and to spend twenty minutes each night with a cup of cocoa, reading a novel from a literary prize shortlist before nodding gently to an undisturbed sleep.
She had no interest in aliens.
The morning had started out so well. Emily woke early and enjoyed the luxury of two cups of morning tea whilst she completed three sudoku puzzles. During her walk through the village to the tiny train station, she called a warm hello to several acquaintances; delighted a group of the Sunday school children with home-made biscuits conjured from capacious pockets; and petted the postmistress’ elderly dachshund, who, as she remarked on this as on many a former occasion, was a very good boy indeed.
The half-empty train to London nonetheless provided ample opportunity for people-watching. Emily played peekaboo with an overexcited toddler; nodded with appreciative knitters’ recognition at the woman making a complex bobble-jumper creation; and worried over the girl on the phone to her boyfriend who was delicately balancing on the precipice of tears.
The majority of her London errands were smoothly completed: lunch with an old schoolfriend, confirmation gift bought for the eldest of her beloved godchildren, and a bag of clean ironed clothes dropped off at the Salvation Army.
The day started to go wrong when Emily entered the office of Tempest and Octavian.
First impressions were reassuring. The dark wood furnishings and comfortably cushioned chairs brought fond memories of a past visit to a National Trust stately home. The walls were covered with glass-fronted bookcases holding beautifully bound volumes, and on Mr Tempest’s desk was a slowly rotating antique globe.
It was, when one considered the matter, a rather puzzling office for a pest control company.
Mr Tempest himself was also a rather puzzling personage. Round and jolly in a tartan waistcoat, velvet cravat and trousers that were almost knickerbockers, he was not at all Emily’s idea of an exterminator. It was also a little disconcerting – though Emily had been very well brought up and would of course not gape or stare – that his eyes were bright orange.
Despite his unconventional appearance, Mr Tempest was an extremely welcoming man. He swept Emily into the office in a flurry of “So good of you to come to us, my dear Miss Pettingill,” and “Let me offer you tea, what would would you like, ah, I can tell you’re a Ceylon lady, excellent taste,” and “What a marvellous scarf you are wearing, dear Miss Pettingill, and made by your own fair hands? What talent!”
In what seemed no time at all, Emily was sitting with a cup of excellent tea and a small plate of biscuits, with Mr Tempest beaming at her from across the desk. Casting a slight air of menace over the proceedings was Mr Tempest’s associate Octavian – whom Mr Tempest bewilderingly introduced as “Just Octavian, no surname, just as I myself, Miss Pettingill, am just Mr Tempest, no first name!” Octavian did not not sit, or speak. He had a long masklike face, towered over Mr Tempest at almost seven foot and was dressed like an undertaker. He hovered unnervingly behind his business partner, and spent most of his time looking at the floor. His eyes were also orange.
Emily was flustered, to say the least. The meeting, she could already tell, would not proceed as she had expected. But Emily was a churchwarden and a parish councillor and a member of the Women’s Institute. She was used to dealing with unexpected situations and last-minute emergencies. If she could encourage Mrs Patel to desist her snide remarks about Miss Kirkpatrick’s drinking, lead the urgent drive for jam jars during the WI’s summer of surplus chutney, and keep the Baldwins’ little one well-fed and warm for that week her mother was in the hospital, then surely she was more than equipped to talk to two eccentric gentlemen.
Mr Tempest encouraged her to speak, and so Emily began. “Well, it’s snails, you see.”
Octavian looked up from the floor to blink at her silently. Embarrassed for some reason, Emily continued in a rush, “Snails in the vicarage garden. Hundreds of them. Reverend Blenkinsop is ever so busy, and her husband isn’t any good in the garden, poor dear, and so I said to them when they moved in that I’d be very happy to lend a hand. It’s a very big garden, you see, and if you don’t look after it it becomes very overgrown and unsightly which, well, people will make remarks about always. They should do no such thing of course, but there we are, people are only human, aren’t they? Only I’d rather the Reverend didn’t have to worry about it. And I like gardening.”
“Very commendable, Miss Pettingill,” said Mr Tempest solemnly, as she paused to catch her breath.
“Oh I’m sorry I have run on, haven’t I?” Emily turned a little pink. “The problem is the snails. They’re absolutely over-running the place and nothing I’ve tried has worked at all. I’ve never seen anything like it. So I was trying to look at the internet – one of the lovely teenagers in the village has been very patient with me about it – for new ideas, and then, well, your firm came up. So I wondered…can you help?” She turned a hopeful look at Mr Tempest. “They’re such dear people, the Blenkinsops. It seems very silly I’m sure, but if I could fix this little problem for them I would be so pleased.”
“But of course, Miss Pettingill!” Mr Tempest turned to his partner. “What do you think, Octavian? Zabbering Venusians? Centaurese Swirls? A minor plague of Betelmark Floridaphids perhaps? Nothing too taxing I should think, but we should run a terrestri-scan over the area. Just in case.”
Octavian raised his head silently and, after a pause, nodded.
Emily was disconcerted. The situation had run away from her, somehow, and now she tried to feel her way back.
“My dear lady?”
“What….I do beg your pardon, but what on earth are you talking about?”
He beamed back at her, unperturbed.
“Why Miss Pettingill, nothing on earth at all.”