Luke and I were great friends. We studied documentary filmmaking together and after we graduated we had a fling. When he told me that he was not interested in a relationship, I pretended to be fine with it, while secretly plotting to change his mind.
We were both film grads with nothing to do, so we regularly drove to various parts of Australia looking for the perfect documentary subject (and regularly sharing a room and a bed). My side project was making him realise that I was the perfect girlfriend, and his side project was flirting with other women through Facebook and then forgetting to log out, so I was often privy to his romantic progress. Whenever I made this sort of discovery, I’d feel a rush of nausea and I’d push it back down again with a big optimistic breath that said ‘He’ll change his mind’. I pretended I never saw anything.
Soon after we graduated we found ourselves at the end of a three-day UFO conference in Brisbane, which, not unlike the Oscars, was finishing with the presentation of a lifetime achievement award. It went to an old guy called Max Gregory. From the award-presenter, we learnt that Max was celebrating his fiftieth year as a ufologist, and that he had been one of the most dedicated workers in the field, not only observing UFOs and extraterrestrials, but also doing important scientific research into yowies, underground military operations and lost civilisations. Max stepped onto the stage and received his award. ‘Well, my gosh,’ he said in a nasal voice. Entranced, he watched the applauding audience. He turned to his wife, clapping in the front row and gave her a ‘Can you believe this?’ look. He steadied himself on the podium and started to speak.
‘My whole life, people have made fun of me for who I am.’ He was fighting tears. ‘People have told me I’m crazy. I don’t think you understand how much this means to me,’ he said, holding his little award up in front of him. Luke and I glanced at each other. Was this our guy? For the three days of the UFO conference, we’d been going from workshop to presentation, looking for a documentary subject that excited us. On the first day, I’d used my conference program (with its headshots) to pick people out of the morning tea crowd. I was taken by a sugar cane farmer whose property was visited by UFOs between the 1960s and 1980s. His bio simply said: ‘Albert has spent many hours waiting in the darkness near Horseshoe Lagoon for the next event.’ But after his presentation, which was dominated by boring digressions regarding farm machinery, we’d crossed him off as a dud.
My other pick from the program had been Damon, who stood out because he was only nineteen (the rest of the crowd were baby boomers and older) and his bio stated he was an alien-abductee-turned-artist. We went to his lecture.
‘Between the ages of ten and twelve, I was repeatedly abducted by aliens and anally probed.’ Damon kicked off his lecture thus. As he presented his drawings of a ravaged child, he explained that he couldn’t talk at all about the spaceship he was probed in or the aliens themselves, as the beings who had penetrated him had wiped his memory. So he just focused on the rape part, which he remembered in detail. I looked around to see if anyone else, like me, thought that this disturbing presentation had nothing to do with aliens but the fantasy of someone who was either the victim, perpetrator or would-be-perpetrator of a crime. In any case, Luke and I made the decision to not get involved with Damon. ‘I thought these presentations might be a little more evidence based,’ Luke said, as we walked out of the room, traumatised. ‘Is that too much to ask from an international UFO conference?’
Luke was disappointed by the whole thing. He was one of those people who’d been obsessed with aliens as a kid and was always on the lookout for evidence of ET life. This was day three of the conference and we’d heard one too many stories of cameras malfunctioning when the UFO money-shot appears, of memories being wiped, of government cover-ups. For Luke, unlike Damon, the anal probe was the final straw. Luckily, there was only one more event: the awards ceremony, then we could go home and think of another film to make.
But here was our last hope, on stage, coddling a lifetime achievement award. We stared as Max shifted from foot to foot, his eyes full of tears. He was a small man with sparse hair, wearing shorts, his socks pulled up high on his slightly feminine, hairless old legs.
‘I’ve worked so hard. We—Rachel and I—have published sixteen books on our research into extraterrestrials and fossils. And no-one’s ever acknowledged it, until now.’ He sobbed. ‘It’s all been worthwhile.’ He looked at the award again, bowed, tried to get off stage, went too fast, dropped some papers and then took his seat beside Rachel, letting her hold his award. She was large in a lilac dress, and, sitting giddily beside her, he looked like a boy. Max was the perfect documentary subject: someone who performed internal monologues out loud, whose emotions were written on his face. Luke squeezed my arm. Max was our guy.
‘He’s great,’ Luke said later, all his enthusiasm back. He imagined Max as an autodidact, hidden from the world for fifty years with his unconventional science projects. ‘Sure, he’s a bit weird, but so was Newton, all unusual thinkers are. Perhaps he’s a secret genius who’s been quietly compiling evidence on incredible things,’ Luke said as we drank a bottle of wine and ate cheese in our motel room.
Excited, we imagined our film. A portrait of Max: the hidden gem of the Blue Mountains, working to solve the world’s mysteries. We’d make a sensitive character study like the ones our documentary hero Errol Morris did. Together we dreamed about awards, Max’s happy tears when a cinema full of people gave a standing ovation to the film about him. It’s our job to tell this story, we agreed.
We bought tickets for the ‘gala dinner’ that was set to conclude the conference. This was the last chance for attendees to make contact with their human peers, before returning to their deserted properties around Australia, to look up at the sky and wait. Word had got out that Luke and I were journalists and people wanted to give us their ‘scoops’. We were seated with A.J. Gaevard, the Brazilian UFO-superstar, who had been flown over for the conference, with his long wavy hair and his stories of ET action in the Amazon. AJ wanted to tell us about ‘the Brazilian Roswell’ and the related government cover-up but Luke and I had eyes only for Max, who was sitting at another table, slowly chewing each mouthful of roast chicken. I went to congratulate Max on his award. When he heard Luke and I made films, his eyes lit up. He looked over to Rachel, but she was focused on a tough bit of meat and didn’t look up.
‘I have something incredible to share with you. It has to do with fossils,’ Max said in a low voice. ‘It will … probably … change the world.’
A week later we drove the nine hours to get to Max’s place. Everything looked peaceful and green. Yet apparently this was a UFO hot spot. ‘How come you see UFOs all the time, and people who don’t believe in them don’t?’ I’d asked a woman at the conference who reported several UFOs a year near her South Australian home. ‘Because other people don’t open their eyes.’ I thought about this as I looked out the window. Among the lush green plants there were tiny animals, birds, insects, so much to see if you opened your eyes. I looked at Luke and thought how, if only he looked closely, he would see something beyond the attractive women who distracted him, beyond the film project that preoccupied him—he’d discover the love hidden in the passenger seat beside him, and grab it with both hands. He looked over at me, beamed and squeezed my hand. ‘What are you thinking about?’ I said.
‘Imagine if we do see something in the sky tonight and we don’t have a camera,’ he said. Max had promised that after taking us through his research, he would show us the night sky, where he viewed UFOs on a semi-regular basis.
When we arrived at Max and Rachel’s place, Max was standing in the front yard, waiting. ‘You’re here!’ He announced that he had prepared some pretty amazing things for us to see. Max and Rachel’s house was small, unaired and messy. Maps, magazines and newspapers from decades ago were stacked to the ceiling. I noticed what looked like a child’s picture of a dinosaur, and wondered whether a stack of fallen newspapers could kill a kid, but then saw that the drawing was signed not by a child but © Max Gregory. I felt oppressed by this dense, smelly little house, and Max’s voice, which gave a running commentary. I was overwhelmed with a desire to get him a scanner, throw all the old papers out, open the windows, go to IKEA and get a functional couch, a kooky rug, a lamp. I could see Rachel in the kitchen. She looked at us and nodded a half-hearted greeting as she slowly poured water from the kettle into cups. I wondered if she was ever overcome with the urge to get rid of all the junk. Meanwhile, Max was talking about Homo erectus, the missing link between when we were apes and when we became Neanderthals. ‘I am personally responsible for finding evidence of Homo erectus in Australia,’ he said.
We were in his study now. Luke and I sat on two kitchen chairs Max had set up, drinking the tea Rachel had wordlessly delivered.
‘Now.’ Max closed the door so we wouldn’t be disturbed. He sat at his desk with a box beside him. This box contained the fossils that would change the world. We stared at its tantalisingly closed lid.
‘I discovered the fossil you are about to see in 2005, near my property, in the mud.’
Luke was entranced—his eyes flicking from the box to Max. What is in the box? his face said; Max’s childlike excitement had taken hold of him.
‘I’ve been begging the scientific community to look at it. But they won’t. You know why they won’t look at it?’
Max was going to make a great interview subject: he waved his arms dramatically as his voice became louder and more excited. ‘Because it proves that an old guy living in the Blue Mountains has discovered something that they’ve overlooked. I’m very excited to show you this, you know … you’re the first media people I’ve ever shown! Anyway, let’s get on with it. I believe you will be quite impressed when I …’
Rachel walked in with biscuits, interrupting Max’s climax. Max glared at her until she left, leaving the door ajar. She wandered around the hallway from then on, casting a shadow every now and then.
‘Anyway,’ Max sighed, as Rachel’s figure flitted by. ‘This speaks for itself.’
He reached into the box and took out a lump, wrapped in newspapers. He carefully peeled away layers, like a game of pass the parcel for one. Luke and I stared. Max announced: ‘This is a fossilised skull of a Homo erectus individual. I believe it to be about two million years old.’ He handed it to Luke. Luke turned it over gently in his hands. The object was so shapeless that it surprised me Max had managed to identify it among the rocks surrounding his property, which looked pretty much exactly the same as this.
‘The bone itself deteriorated, of course, so you are holding an internal cast formed by sediment filling the skull interior. The skull had suffered various degrees of geological distortion,’ he said. ‘The identification has been arrived at through reconstruction.’
Luke kept turning the skull over in his hands, inspecting it carefully from every possible angle. Max kept talking as Luke and I looked at the object as it turned and turned. Then suddenly, Luke held it still and frowned at it. The realisation struck him at the same moment I realised: this was a rock.
He kept staring, as if trying his hardest to find something, anything, that resembled a skull. Or maybe he kept looking at it so he wouldn’t make eye contact with me and have me confirm that I was thinking precisely what he was: that Max was mad.
‘That’s one of the eye sockets,’ Max said, pointing to an indentation that in no way resembled an eye socket. ‘And the teeth, here,’ he said, gently indicating some flakes of mud.
As Luke handed the rock back, I noticed Rachel standing at the door now, looking at us through the crack, tight-lipped.
Max pulled out another ‘specimen’. This was also clearly a rock, about the size of a fist. ‘It’s got pygmy qualities, of course, that’s why it’s so small. But this is not a humanoid pygmy. You may be interested to know …’ He paused for effect. ‘It is an extraterrestrial.’
It was my turn to have a hold. ‘Wow,’ I said, holding the rock that was not an alien skull. ‘Wow,’ I said again, as I didn’t know what to say.
Luke and I had reached an unspoken consensus. We needed to get out of there. But Max had not stopped talking. From the moment we walked in until now, he’d kept going. It occurred to me that Max had never even asked our names. Max was mad. But why had we not seen this back at the UFO conference, when we heard about his work with yowies and hidden military bases? Why had we chosen to ignore the telltale signs, including the brontosaurus drawings on the way in? ‘How come you see UFOs all the time, and people who don’t believe in them don’t?’ I’d asked that woman. ‘Because they don’t open their eyes.’ We’d closed our eyes to Max’s insanity and now it was being served to us in full swing.
Max kept coming out with rock after rock. Some of these ‘skulls’ belonged to Homo erectus individuals, others to extraterrestrial life forms. Most of them found by Max himself, in the vicinity of his home.
‘Well, you’ve given us a lot to think about here, Max. I guess we’d best get back to the hotel and … um, write up our notes,’ Luke said, but Max behaved as if Luke hadn’t said anything at all. He had guests, for the first time in God knows how long, and he stalled us by saying we couldn’t go without seeing his cinema, which he’d built out the back of his home.
Max reminded me of my little cousin, who was so excited to hold some newborn chicks that he’d hugged them to the point of suffocation, killing four of them when the adults were not watching. I remembered the dead chicks, lined up ‘sleeping’, and found myself identifying with them as Max continued to asphyxiate us with his relentless talk.
We agreed to see the cinema, figuring that outside was closer to the car. In the back yard I noticed several more ‘skulls’ that Max would no doubt discover next time he did some gardening. ‘And after the cinema, we’ll wait for dark and then go UFO-watching.’
‘Oh, Max, I really think we have to go back to our hotel now,’ I said. I lied that we would come back later, when it was dark.
Max had converted a shed into a wood-panelled cinema, with twenty comfy seats. There were movie posters all around and a large projector. He’d put so much work into this. Then, as Max was setting up a Laurel and Hardy clip to play, I noticed something bizarre. It was a poster for the famous anti-Semitic film The Eternal Jew. I tapped the poster casually to get Luke’s attention, but he was looking at the dozens of film prints, momentarily impressed by Max again. After the Laurel and Hardy, during which Max laughed far louder than a sane person would, I asked about The Eternal Jew.
‘You like this film?’
‘Oh, it’s terrific.’ Max said. ‘And very accurate.’
What with all the talk of lost civilisations, alien abductions and alien pygmies, I hadn’t expected Max to be a connoisseur of anti-Semitic Third Reich propaganda films.
Luke put his arm on my back and pushed: ‘Just keep walking or we’ll never get out.’ Max was trying to lead us back to the house, no doubt to show us more research, but we were heading down the side path, back to our car. He changed his course and somehow got in front of me, walking backwards very slowly, impeding our progress.
‘You’ll love the UFO watching tonight. You’ll see that we’re not alone,’ Max said, glancing up at the sky.
We managed to get to the front of the house and the sight of the car gave us strength to start speed-walking. Max was surprisingly fast for an old guy and he leapt ahead. Luke jogged round to the driver’s side and Max held the door open for me, but then held on to it. Rachel was watching from the door. I wondered how many times she’d watched this scene.
I pulled the door out of Max’s grasp and shut it, but then couldn’t bear to be so abrupt, so found myself rolling the window down, to an annoyed sigh from Luke. Max put his hands on the car’s roof, and continued talking about marsupial panthers, his head and torso coming in through my window. Luke put the car gently into reverse and began sliding the car away, in a futile attempt to encourage Max to let go of the moving vehicle. I kept waving as Max talked and hung on to the side of our car.
‘Anyway, I’ll see you around seven o’clock! Back here at seven o’clock!’ he said, jogging along beside us as we picked up speed. For a terrifying moment I thought he would chase us down the mountain, but he eventually let go, and we saw him in the rear-view mirror, waving.
On the free open road, Luke and I didn’t say anything for a while. We knew we couldn’t make a documentary on Max. Announcing his madness to the world would be cruel.
As we drove away from Max, I kept running over something in my mind, and surprisingly it was not the alien skulls, the Nazi propaganda or the marsupial panthers. It was Rachel’s strange silent glances. They’d stayed in my periphery, but now they kept coming back to me.
When Max was showing us the fossils, Rachel had left the door open on purpose. Like a mother in a schoolyard, she was watching us with Max. I thought about Rachel at the side of the stage when Max got his award, Rachel making us tea, walking into the room as Max kept rambling, spying on us through that door. She had been looking out for him the whole time. Max had spent his whole life pursuing his side projects (Neanderthals, aliens, Nazi propaganda) yet, seemingly unconsciously, he managed to make a relationship work. He had found a one-in-a-million person, who was willing to love him for who he was. My own side project, of securing love, was to continue for some time, much less successfully.
Luke called Max from our hotel room.
‘Sorry mate. Sof’s got food poisoning. We can’t come and see the UFOs with you.’
‘Oh …’ I heard Max’s voice on the other end. ‘Oh. I was really looking forward to that.’
As we ate a quiet pub dinner, I thought about a story AJ the Brazilian had told at the conference. AJ had travelled down the Amazon, talking to isolated tribes. One tribe claimed that hundreds of years ago, a man came from the sky. He wore a strange suit and he had a stick with which he could zap people. He stayed near the river, eventually married one of the women from the tribe and had a couple of kids. After a while a spaceship came for the skyman and his family. To this day the villagers believe he is their ancestor. They dress like the skyman and wait for him to come in a ship and take them to their real home. They have a saying: ‘One man’s Earth is another man’s sky.’ They think the sky is their home.
As we ate dinner, a woman’s name flashed across Luke’s phone screen and I pretended not to see it, pushing my nausea down with my optimistic intake of breath.
It was seven o’clock, the time we were supposed to arrive at Rachel and Max’s place. I imagined Max sitting in his study, alone with his skulls. Luke and I had cancelled on him, we’d turned out to be just like the scientists who’d always laughed at him. Then I pictured Rachel, coming into the room: ‘Oh, who cares about those people? We’ll go, Max. The two of us will go and look at the UFOs.’
This wasn’t the story we’d been looking for: two old people, arm-in-arm, looking for their home in the sky. This wasn’t at all what we were after. We were looking for evidence of extraterrestrial life, and we’d stumbled upon a love story instead. As we drove home the next day, I stared out the window thinking about Max and Rachel. Luke said something I didn’t quite hear, but it wasn’t ‘I love you.’ Maybe tomorrow he’ll say it, I thought, and Luke looked ahead, thinking about new projects to pursue.