Ford Prefect was not the most dedicated of researchers. Even in his employ under the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he regularly cut corners. He was there, after all, for adventure, alcohol, parties, and really wild things. What did it matter when he made social or cultural gaffes if half the time he were drunk and the rest of the time moving on to somewhere else?
Ford didn’t put much thought into his Earth name, which resulted in smart quips from the local ape descendants, and he didn’t put much thought into his Earth gender either. The latter he was starting to regret.
If Ford were to be entirely, unreservedly honest, which he preferred not to be, he would have to admit that he had not realised that earth inhabitants – at least those residing in the entirely unremarkable English towns he spent most of his time in – had gender at all. He had read some – perhaps dated – Earth literature, and came to the assumption that beings on Earth were called men, referred to with the words he or him, and this was the only option and entirely neutral.
Suddenly, struck with the realisation that he was absolutely, entirely, horrifically trapped on this tiny, petty planet, Ford admitted to himself that he might have skimped a little too much with his research.
By that time it was a decade into his stint on Earth, he had made one proper friend, and it felt like too much bother to acknowledge publicly the mistake on his part. In any case, the humans who found themselves in a situation where their given gender did not fit seemed to have a rough time of it. And the two options available did not fit Ford well either way. He was much happier abstaining from the thing altogether, but he thought the ape descendants would take offense to such an approach. He was trying to fit in, something that was already dull when it started and even more so now when it seemed like his entire life was destined to remain here in this miserable planet with close minded, short-lived people and one amusing, kind, if close minded and short-lived Arthur Dent. Fitting in was not an easy accomplishment for Ford Prefect, and not something he often sort for. It wasn’t all that much fun.
“Are you going to buy that, love?”
Ford looked up from the bottle of detergent. He’d been grasping it a little firmly, sure, and had been standing there for approximately seven minutes, but it seemed a little excessive for the shop attendant to approach him. They were smiling at him thinly, looking him up and down in a particular way he couldn’t interpret. Certainly, it wasn’t with lust.
“Of course,” Ford said, looking back at them. They didn’t return to their station behind the bench where humans bought things. There was an extended moment.
“Ah,” Ford approached the counter.
Leaving the corner store with a string bag of licorice, brandy, detergent and a single screwdriver, Ford tried to ignore his thoughts. They had become messier since coming to Earth; partially because Ford was used to a fast and action-filled lifestyle which pushed introspection out of the way, partially because he had never been in a situation like this before. Sure, there had been that time when Zaphod had ditched him for a sexy three legged person from Ymir. Or that awful month when Ford had misread the meeting place’s coordinates and almost missed his only way out of the wartorn planet of Azmoth. But those incidents had been relatively short, with a prospect of being saved.
Ford had never before lost hope like this before, though, or felt so incredibly isolated – unseen. Nobody on this entire planet knew his childhood language. They wouldn’t be able to say the sounds that made up the name Ford had used for most of his life. If he said well actually I’m from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, I’m not human at all, they’d probably not do anything drastic, but the weird looks he got already would substantially increase.
“Arthur.” Ford had almost run into the man in his distraction. The man was in his worn paisley shirt, and his pet dog was wagging its tail vigorously. Arthur liked to walk the dog, and the village they lived in was small enough that knocking into each other was usual enough.
“How are you doing?”
Unlike other humans, Ford was sometimes able to guess Arthur’s emotions from his face movements alone. Now, his mouth was curved upwards, and he was maintaining more eye contact than usual – this usually meant Arthur was feeling less miserable than usual.
“I’m okay, you?”
“I’m great! You wouldn’t believe this,” Ford probably would, in fact, believe it, “but I got a promotion!”
Ford couldn't muster much enthusiasm; the radio station where Arthur worked was small enough that a promotion wouldn't take him very far. Maybe he got a bigger desk? At least with the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a promotion meant you could do even more daringly dangerous and alcoholic stunts and trips and get paid for it.
“Oh really, man? That sounds …”
Arthur bulldozed over Ford’s unenthusiastic congratulations to talk about radio things. Ford pretended to listen. After a while, Arthur’s tone changed. He took on the strangled expression he used when discussing feelings. This look wasn't a human thing, it was an Arthur thing, so simultaneously endearing and aggravating.
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
“You’re looking a bit peaky.” Arthur’s eyes looked into Ford’s, the human blanched. “Let’s get you back to yours.”
“Sure,” Ford said, a little confused at the swift change in topic. The two walked together towards Ford’s flat, and when they got up there Arthur bustled around making a pot of tea. Ford set to putting away the things he’d purchased, and found Arthur looking at him in his very obvious “trying to be sneaky” way.
Ford felt the words almost physically within his chest – he wanted, suddenly, desperately, to confess his situation and identity to his friend. He needed to talk to someone, to tell his stories, be honest for the first time in over ten Earth years. He felt suddenly certain that there was no way out, no way to get back into space. This was it. He was never getting off this goddamn planet.
“Sugar?” Arthur asked.
Ford nodded his thanks, and said nothing at all.