‘We should go out,’ Rob called from the living room. Tom groaned and looked up at the kitchen ceiling.
‘I don’t want to go anywhere.’
‘Well you should.’
‘Why? I’m happy staying home.’
‘No you’re not. You’re not happy anywhere at the moment. You’ve been a miserable bastard recently and you’re spending far too much time shut away in this house on your own. Christ, the universe is opening up out there, but your world’s getting smaller.’
‘Maybe that’s the way I like it.’
‘Well I’m going,’ Rob said, and he turned up the TV volume. Tom wasn’t even sure what it was he was watching. He walked through to the other room and saw that it was just the local news. He immediately recognised the place on screen as being Drayton, although it looked much busier than normal – more like a busy weekday than a Sunday afternoon. He also recognised the reporter. He didn’t like her. Too false. She smiled too much for his liking. Sometimes it seemed that the worse the news, the broader her sneer. He imagined her rubbing her hands together with glee when particularly bad things happened, constantly looking for the scoop which might get her promoted from the locals to national reporting. Her usual reports covered all manner of subjects from potholes in the road to pensioners dying in poorly maintained care-homes, all delivered with the same deadpan seriousness and a wholly unconvincing intent.
‘I don’t like her,’ he said.
‘I know. You tell me that every time you see her.’
‘What’s she on about anyway? Looks busy.’
‘It was kind of a given that something like this was going to happen sooner or later,’ Rob said. ‘Couldn’t be avoided, really.’
‘It’s the aliens. First public appearances and all that. Looks like there’s a few of them out and about in Drayton, and everyone wants to be the first person to shake their hand.’
‘Okay,’ he sighed, ‘everyone but you.’
Tom’s reaction was instinctive, said more for effect than for any other reason. He sat next to Rob and watched the TV, genuinely interested but trying not to let it show. The reporter he disliked was still talking to camera – some pretentious bollocks about the dawning of a new age which he paid little attention to – but what was happening behind her was far more interesting: Overmill Park, a large, popular and well-tended public space in the middle of Drayton, was filled with people. And there, right in the centre of it all, he could see several aliens. For a few seconds his mind was occupied with needless trivialities: what was the correct name for a group of aliens? A tribe? A herd? A gaggle, pride, pod or clutch? But then he regained his focus, and the importance of what he was seeing began to sink in. Beings from another world were mixing freely with the local population, and everything appeared to be relaxed and good-natured. The broadcast cut to footage taken earlier in the day – the same aliens surrounded by different people in a different part of town, mingling with the locals. Some even stood and posed for pictures. Then the image changed again and an alien’s face filled the screen, the strangest regional news talking head Tom had ever seen.
‘It’s an honour and a privilege to be here in Drayton,’ the alien said. ‘The people have been so quick to accept us, so gracious.’
Gracious, thought Tom. In his experience the people of Drayton were lots of things, but gracious was most definitely not one of them.
‘Amazing, eh?’ Rob grinned.
‘Everyone here has made us feel so welcome,’ another alien continued, his otherworldly inflexion and strangely laboured breathing occasionally audible. ‘Much as we’d all like to be home, we’re looking forward to our time here. We couldn’t have picked a better place to be stranded.’
‘Was that sarcasm?’ Tom asked.
They seemed confident, not at all fazed at having a camera shoved in their faces by a local TV news crew on a world millions of miles away from home. The alien still talking sounded relaxed and spontaneous, making a genuine effort to engage. It was only when the reporter asked him what he was most looking forward to doing during his stay in Drayton that he paused. Tom was quick to seize on his hesitation: ‘He can’t answer ‘cause there’s fuck all to do there.’
Rob got up and left the room, reappearing moments later, pulling on a jacket.
‘Where? I told you I didn’t want to go out.’
‘And I said you need to get out more. Come on, mate, let’s go find ourselves some aliens!’
There were three hundred and sixty-eight alien visitors in total. Many of them had been dispatched elsewhere – the diplomats, spokespeople, chief scientists and the like. Others elected to travel the globe, keen to see as much of the world as they could while they were stranded here. Some decided to stay put and, somewhat surprisingly, a relatively large contingent remained in the area around Thatcham. It seemed they’d developed a strange affinity for the place. Perhaps, bizarrely, it had begun to feel like a home away from home. They were under strict instructions to integrate, not separate. The last thing anyone wanted was an isolated alien community springing up. Barriers were to be broken down and overcome. Less District 9, more Alien Nation, was how Rob had described the policy.
There were at least twenty of them in Drayton, Rob had heard. He was desperate to see just one. Watching them on TV was one thing, and witnessing the alien ship’s unexpected arrival and premature departure had been something he knew would stay with him until his dying day, but since the visitors had first come to Earth he, like everyone else, had harboured a burning desire to see one of them with his own eyes. It felt like a kind of holy grail, a badge of honour, almost. He wanted to be the first so he could brag to his colleagues at the university next week.
The small town was packed, the traffic heaving. It was six o’clock on Sunday evening, but there seemed to be more motorists trying to get in and out of the place than there normally would have been first thing on a typical Monday morning. Tom couldn’t stand being stuck in queues like this. He’d always had a short temper in traffic jams, but since divorcing himself from the rest of the world, he’d grown to hate delays with a vengeance. Strange how the less he had to be late for, the more it bothered him. ‘Bloody stupid idea, this,’ he grumbled. ‘We’ll never get parked.’
‘Give it time. Just be patient.’
‘I don’t want to be patient, I want to go home. Don’t know why I agreed to this.’
‘Because you want to see an alien close-up, same as me.’
Tom had no argument. His brother was right. Tom was feeling increasingly out of kilter with everyone else and he hoped seeing one of them would help him make the same kind of connection with the visitors that everyone else seemed to have.
‘Your problem,’ Rob said, ‘is you’re too cynical.’
‘And your problem,’ Tom quickly replied, ‘is that you never shut up. Anyway, what are you on about? I don’t have a problem.’
‘Yes you do. You need to lighten up. You need to stop standing still and go with the flow. You’re going to get left behind if you don’t. The world’s changing, Tom, and you have to change with it. Embrace it!’
‘I don’t have to change. I don’t want to change.’
‘Well maybe you should. This isn’t science-fiction, you know. These aliens, they’re just people like you and me.’
‘Well, sort of.’
‘They’ve been dealt a bad hand, that’s all.’
‘We can both identify with that, can’t we.’
Rob shook his head sadly. ‘It’s not a competition, mate. You don’t get a medal because you’ve been hardest done by. I know we lost Mum and Dad, but look at all the stuff we still have. You’ve got Siobhan and you’ve got the kind of lifestyle half the population would kill for. Look at the aliens. They’re millions of miles from home and it’s going to take them years to get back, that’s if they ever get back at all. Their losses might prove to be a thousand times worse than yours and mine.’
The sudden seriousness in Rob’s voice took Tom by surprise. Tired of driving, he was relieved when he spotted a car reversing out of a gap in a small gravel car park a short distance ahead. Fortunately, no one else seemed to have noticed. Tom drove the wrong way up a one way street, then pulled into the space the moment it was vacant.
The two brothers walked aimlessly towards the centre of town. ‘So where do we go?’ Tom asked.
‘I don’t know. Just follow the crowds, I guess.’
‘It’s all crowds.’
‘You’re a real ray of sunshine, aren’t you.’
‘Sorry, I just think we might be wasting our time. It’s getting dark. They might have gone back to wherever it is they’re keeping them. Where is that, by the way?’
‘I don’t know. Jesus, Tom, have a little respect. These are intelligent beings we’re talking about here. You make it sound like they’re animals in the zoo.’
Tom ignored his brother and turned left into a long alleyway which ran between two buildings then emerged out onto the main pedestrianised shopping area, perhaps two-thirds of the way down the high street. Most of the shops had closed up for the night, but a huge number of people remained. That damn TV reporter was still here, Tom noticed. She was standing on a corner with her crew, scanning the scene vulture-like for her next potential story angle.
‘I need something to eat,’ Rob said. ‘Did you bring any money with you?’
‘I’ve got a few quid. Forget your wallet again, did you? Funny how that keeps happening.’
‘Sorry. Honest, mate, I didn’t mean to. I was so made up with the thought of coming out here and seeing the aliens, I didn’t even think to pick it up.’
Tom tugged Rob’s arm and pulled him across the road towards a burger bar. ‘This is my limit,’ he said.
It hadn’t seemed particularly dark on their way into Drayton, but the bright lights of the fast-food joint made the rest of the world look unexpectedly dull in comparison. They joined the end of a snaking queue which led halfway back to the entrance door.
‘Busy in here,’ Rob said.
‘Busy everywhere,’ Tom grumbled.
It took far longer than it should have to reach the counter, and when they got there they wondered whether it had been worth the effort. The few remaining members of staff of duty were run ragged, and half the items on the menu were unavailable. They left with a little food – a couple of plain burgers, some fries, and Rob’s third and Tom’s second choice drinks – then found themselves a place to sit on a low wall outside, every seat inside the restaurant already taken.
‘You enjoying yourself?’ Tom asked, wiping his greasy hands on his trousers as they’d both forgotten to pick up napkins.
‘Yep,’ Rob quickly replied. ‘You?’
‘Can’t get over how busy it still is.’
‘Well that’s because every bloody idiot is here trying to do the same as us. I tell you, if the aliens stood on a podium in the middle of town and let us all walk past and pay our respects, we could get this over and done with in half the time.’
‘Give it a rest. Seriously, quit moaning and try and enjoy it, you miserable shit. There’s a really good atmosphere here.’
Tom reluctantly had to agree. Despite the crowds, he’d seen no indication of there being any trouble, no hostility. It was rapidly becoming an over-used cliché, but it felt like carnival day had come around again. He glanced back over his shoulder at the main road in the distance; four solid lines of traffic clogging up the main route into town. Not much of a parade, he thought.
‘So, do you think we’re going to see one?’ Rob asked.
‘We’d better. I’m not going home ‘til I have.’
‘Bloody hell, grow up. You sound like a little kid.’
‘I’m excited, that’s all,’ Rob continued to enthuse. ‘Hey, do you think they have anything even remotely like this place on their planet?’
‘What, a shit-hole like Drayton? I doubt it. Their cities are all futuristic and clean, aren’t they. I bet this place is their worst nightmare. Remember when we were little and Mum and Dad dragged us around that living museum place in Dudley?’
‘All those traditional shops and the trams and canals and all that. Bloody horrible day out, that was.’
‘I liked it. You had a face like thunder all day. Dad kept taking pictures of you, remember? Really wound you up.’
‘Anyway, I bet this is like that for them,’ Tom said. ‘Like stepping back into the history books.’
‘You might be right. They’re going to show more on TV soon, apparently.’
‘Can’t wait,’ he mumbled sarcastically.
‘Yeah, apparently they’ve got loads of new footage coming. You can’t help wondering what it’s going to be like.’
‘No, seriously, I bet it’ll all be white and sterile like in the movies. All Star Trek, you know. They’ll have everything there at the flick of a switch. They probably don’t even need to flick switches, just think about whatever it is they’re after and it’ll be there.’
‘You reckon? Don’t forget they turned up in that bloody big black ship. There was nothing sleek and sterile about that.’
‘It was a mining ship, remember?’
‘That’s as maybe. And it broke down, don’t forget. They might—’
‘Seriously, though,’ Rob interrupted, cutting across him, ‘I’ve been wondering how close their technology is to our science-fiction. I mean, do you think we got anything right, or were all our books and movies completely off the mark? Serious question, Tom, do you think we…’
Rob’s voice trailed away. He stood up and threw away the rest of his burger.
‘You okay, mate?’ Tom asked, concerned. Rob started walking away, then he broke into a run. Almost as an afterthought, he turned back and gestured for his brother to follow.
‘What is it?’
‘What do you think it is?’
Tom stood up and saw that a great mass of people was coming down the street towards them. The TV reporter and her team suddenly burst into life. Still finishing his food, he ran after Rob.
‘Fucking hell,’ Rob gasped excitedly. ‘This is it!’
He wound his way through the furthest advanced members of the crowd, but it was already obvious they were going to struggle to see anything.
‘Climb up,’ Tom suggested, and he signalled towards a couple of recycling bins left in a particularly dank-looking corner. He scrambled onto the top of one, using a grubby drainpipe to haul himself up, then reached back down for Rob, helping him onto the lid of the bin next-door. They stood holding onto each other for balance as the heaving mass of people swept along the footpath.
The sun had all but completely disappeared now, leaving only the limited illumination of shop windows and streetlamps. Tom searched through what he could see of the crowd, looking for something different amongst the mass of heads. And then he saw them. Right in the middle of the gathering were two aliens. They were protected (yes, Tom thought, protected) by a respectful bubble of space on all sides. The crowd was well-ordered, with little squabbling or jostling for position.
From up on the bins, Tom had a clear view. But he’d still have been able to see enough had he remained at ground level. The visitors had a clear height advantage. Tom had noticed it before, but their size was even more marked in person. They stood a full alien head height above everyone else, and were able to look down and around and across at each other without any obvious distraction. He wished his eyes were sharper so he could better make out the expressions on their faces, and he wondered what they were thinking. Was this as incredible an experience for them as it clearly was for the people surrounding them? Of course not, he decided, they’d already had weeks of this kind of adulation – if that was the right word.
Both of the aliens had a sheen of silver hair, one slightly darker than the other. Their bodies were willowy and gangly, their limbs slight and long, and yet they walked with definite poise and confidence, apparently unfazed. Tom didn’t know how they were managing to put up with it and remain so calm. He’d have cracked long before now had their positions been reversed.
When the bulk of the crowd, and the aliens themselves, had just drawn level with the bins, a man appeared. Neither Tom nor Rob noticed him at first. He looked, to all intents and purposes, like just another gawping face, here to get his fix of one-to-one alien contact, but it was immediately clear that there was something different about him. As the rest of the horde continued to move, he stood his ground. Several people knocked into him, excusing themselves and side-stepping him, but he refused to shift. They channelled past on either side as if he was a rock wedged in the middle of a stream. And as the mass of people continued to surge forward, he eventually found himself standing inside the pocket of space which still surrounded the aliens. He was blocking their way forward, and they were forced to stop. Everyone else stopped too, and the crowd fell silent. The sudden lack of movement and noise was stark. For a moment the only sound came from the traffic in the near distance.
‘I want to ask a question,’ the man said. Tom saw the two aliens glance at each other anxiously.
‘Ask,’ one of them said in a medium-pitched, somewhat monotone voice.
‘I want to know why you’re really here.’
‘You know why we’re here.’
‘I know what you’re telling us, but I want to know the truth.’
‘Come on, mate, give it a rest,’ someone said from just behind the lone protester. They grabbed his arm and tried to pull him out of the way but he was having none of it. He shook them off and returned his full attention to the two aliens.
‘What do you really want?’
The second alien moved forward slightly. Its movements went unnoticed by most of the crowd, but Tom saw it push out its chest and lift its head, giving it an additional few inches of height advantage. The first alien held out his arm in front of his companion, clearly trying to diffuse the palpable tension.
‘You know what we want,’ the first alien said, the lack of emotion in his voice making him sound remarkably calm, ‘and you know why we’re here. You should also know by now that none of us would be here if we had any choice at all. We’re grateful for your hospitality, and we’re overwhelmed by the reception you’ve given us, but we’d much rather have needed none of it. Personally, all I want is to go home. I’d give everything I own, the clothes on my back even, just to see my family again.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ the man said.
‘Leave them alone, you stupid fucker,’ someone shouted at him. Someone else tried to shift him out of the way and he tripped. He almost fell, but the first alien caught him and helped him back to his feet.
‘I promise you,’ he said, his voice loud enough for all to hear, ‘all I want is to leave here and go home.’
A middle-aged woman rushed out and grabbed hold of the alien, hugging him over-enthusiastically. He thanked her and gently pushed her back towards her family in the crowd. He then took the protesting man’s hand in his own and shook it firmly.
‘Take a look around you,’ he said to him. The man did as he was told, looking from left to right at the tightly packed sea of faces which all glared back at him. ‘Do you see anyone else objecting to us being here? I’m sorry if you’re not happy, but there’s nothing any of us can do about it right now. We’ll agree to keep a respectful distance from each other, if that’s what you wish. Now please go home and spend time with the people who matter most to you. Don’t waste your energy here. We really don’t want any trouble.’
He shook the man’s hand again, then carried on. Tom watched as the crowd continued on through the town, but as the mass of people disappeared, his eyes remained focussed on the protester in the street. He was largely being ignored, save for a few choice words and insults which were hurled in his general direction by stragglers.
Tom had seen enough. ‘Let’s go,’ he said as he jumped down from the recycling bin.
‘Why? It’s still early.’
‘You’ve got what you wanted, haven’t you? You’ve seen your aliens. I want to go home now.’
‘You’re kidding me. I’m not going anywhere. Come on, Tom.’
‘Look, I’m tired and this place is too busy, that’s all.’
Rob considered his options. ‘I’m going to stay a bit longer.’
‘How are you going to get back? I’m not coming to pick you up.’
‘I’ll get a taxi or something. I’ll walk if it comes to it.’
‘Haven’t you got work in the morning?’
‘I don’t have to be there until eleven. Sure you won’t stay a bit longer?’
‘No,’ Tom replied. ‘I’m going home.’
Tom knew Rob would be okay. He’d walked the few miles back from Drayton before, frequently half-pissed. It was a straight road. He watched his brother run after the crowd following the aliens, before heading back to his car.
A couple with a young child walked just ahead of him and their conversation was carried on the light evening breeze. Tom couldn’t help overhearing. They had their little girl between them, holding one hand each, playfully swinging her.
‘Was it as good as you expected?’ the woman asked her partner.
‘Better,’ he replied. ‘It’s just… oh, I don’t know. It’s hard to put into words how it makes you feel, you know? When you think how far they’ve travelled to get here, and how lucky we are to be around at the right time… Meg will never forget this, will you, Meg?’
Both parents looked down at their daughter. She looked up and grinned at them.
‘Makes you think, though, doesn’t it?’ the man said.
‘Seeing them up close like that. All that distance between us, yet they’re so much like us. Their faces, their body shape, the way they talk…’
‘I’ll tell you something, it makes me feel more optimistic. Remember how we felt that first night they arrived? When we didn’t know whether we should have been celebrating or panicking? That all seems like years ago now. I don’t know… you see the mess they’re in and how they’re dealing with it, and it makes everything else look trivial, doesn’t it? Having them here puts things into perspective.’
Tom stopped at his car and watched the family walk away, thinking how increasingly out-of-step with the rest of the world he felt.