With everyone else busy all the time, Tom didn’t dare admit to anyone that he was bored. He needed something to do with himself each day, something to focus on, but at the same time he didn’t feel like doing anything. One day last week, he was embarrassed to admit, he’d sat down in front of the TV first thing and had played Xbox for seven hours straight. What was he, a grown man or a geeky teenager? He tried to convince himself that it was okay because he could only play the games he liked when there was no one else around now. Siobhan and Rob didn’t approve. Shooting seven shades of shit out of an army of pixelated alien invaders wasn’t as socially acceptable as it used to be.
Siobhan continued to be overworked, the business benefitting from the “alien effect” and the unexpected extension to the summer season their arrival had caused. She spent most nights at her flat, close to Drayton. With their time together greatly reduced, and with her being exhausted most evenings, Siobhan and Tom took every opportunity to see each other they could. When a client cancelled an appointment at the last minute, she phoned Tom and arranged to meet him for lunch. He jumped at the chance to get out, and found himself heading back into Drayton again.
Lunch was pleasant, if a little rushed. Their pub meal was interrupted several times by Siobhan’s phone ringing and bleeping to let her know she had messages which, to Tom’s annoyance, she insisted on immediately replying to, even when he was in the middle of telling her something he thought was relatively important.
‘Sorry, love,’ she said, ‘I can’t even begin to tell you what it’s like right now. I’ve never known it this busy.’
He distracted himself with the rest of his food, resisting the temptation to tell her that he knew exactly what it was like, and that whatever temporary pressure she was feeling, he’d probably put up with far worse during his years in the city. The last thing he wanted was to start an argument.
Tom walked Siobhan back to her office, then spent a listless hour walking from shop to shop, just killing time. He didn’t want anything – he didn’t need anything – but it was good to be out. Although still busy, Drayton was back to its old self today.
Before going back to the car, Tom took a detour to Overmill Park, the place he’d seen on the TV news. It looked reassuringly familiar today, a few bags of rubbish stacked by each of the bins the only indication that there had been hordes of people crammed into this space not so long ago. He walked a circuit of the park, following the footpath which ran around its perimeter. He saw barely anyone else: workers were back in their shops and offices after lunch, and school children were in class. The late summer sun was warm and pleasant, and he slowed his pace, enjoying the silence and doing his best to think about as little as possible.
‘Excuse me,’ a voice said from behind him. He froze, not just because the unexpected voice had taken him by surprise, but also because there was something unusual about its tone and accent. He knew before he turned around that it was an alien.
Tom found himself face-to-face with one of the visitors. Just him and her and no one else. Except that, rather than being face-to-face, the height difference meant he was face-to-chest, and the fact he was staring at her slight bosoms just added to his sudden awkwardness. He looked up, but when he made contact with those eyes – those huge, piercing, otherworldly blue eyes – he immediately looked down again, lost. His mouth was dry, his legs weak with sudden nervousness.
‘I’m sorry if I disturbed you,’ the alien said, sounding almost as uncomfortable as Tom clearly was. ‘I’m lost.’
‘You come halfway across the universe, but then get lost trying to find your way around Drayton?’ Tom joked without thinking, regretting his words the moment he’d spoken them. He cringed, fearing for a second that the alien might not understand sarcasm, concerned he might have unwittingly sparked an intergalactic diplomatic incident. Fortunately the corners of her wide, thin-lipped mouth began to curl upwards. Please let that be an alien smile, he hoped, not a declaration of war.
‘It would seem that way,’ she said, and her smile widened.
Tom cleared his throat and asked the question he should have begun with: ‘Where are you trying to get to?’
‘Lime Street,’ she replied. ‘I’m supposed to be meeting a friend there.’
Again, Tom clammed up. His brain was struggling to comprehend the extremes of this conversation. There he was, being asked to give walking directions to an obviously intelligent being who had travelled billions of miles through space. Either picking up on his unease or feeling equally awkward herself, the alien explained further.
‘I’m a geologist,’ she said. ‘I can tell you anything about the geology of most of the planets and stars between here and home, but I’m useless at finding my way around Drayton.’
Her humility was touching.
‘Well I know absolutely nothing about the geology of this planet, never mind any others, but I can tell you how to get from one side of this place to the other. You’re a long way off, by the way. Lime Street’s right on the other side of town. It’s at least a half-hour walk.’
‘I’m more than a trillion miles off the mark, actually,’ she said. ‘A half-hour’s walk is nothing.’
Further along the footpath, nearer to the main entrance of the park, was a street map. Tom gestured for the alien to follow him. Was it too presumptuous of him to lead the visitor or walk alongside her? Should he hold back and let her go first? His mind was rapidly filling with all kinds of nerve-induced rubbish. He needed to calm down and get a grip.
There were two kids on bikes cycling across the park, probably bunking off school, Tom thought. He noticed that they’d stopped and were both staring at the alien. The alien had noticed too.
‘You must get sick of it,’ Tom said.
‘The novelty has worn off, yes.’
‘Give it a few more weeks and they’ll have forgotten about you,’ he continued. ‘In the nicest possible way, of course. We’re funny creatures. We’ll point and shout at something that looks a little different to us, then just accept it as normal when the next new thing comes along.’
‘So you think people will stop staring as soon as another ship full of aliens arrives?’
Tom looked at her for a moment. Was she joking or being serious? It was impossible to tell.
‘What I mean is,’ he said, trying to dig himself out of a hole, ‘it’s just the shock of the new. Give it a little longer and everyone will get used to you. It’ll get easier.’
‘I hope so,’ she admitted.
They’d stopped in front of the map. Tom showed her the park where they were standing, then slid his finger across towards Lime Street.
‘You take a right here,’ he explained, pointing along a pathway, then a road. ‘Carry on until you reach the high street then turn right again. Follow the high street until you reach the junction with Fordham Street, then it’s left, then left again. Okay?’
She scanned the map once more and then nodded. ‘Right, high street, right, Fordham Street, then left and left again.’
‘You got it.’
‘Do you want me to take you. I could…’
‘No, it’s fine, thank you anyway.’
She smiled and started to walk away. Tom watched her go, feeling strangely deflated. Was that it? His first conversation with an alien, and all he’d found to talk about was how to get from Overmill Park to Lime Street?
‘So how are you finding things here?’ he shouted after her. She stopped and turned back to face him.
‘I’m not,’ she replied. ‘That’s why I had to ask you.’
‘It was a figure of speech,’ he explained.
Her mouth curled again. ‘I know. What did you mean? How do I like the town or the planet?’
She sighed (or at least that was what he thought it was) and thought for a few seconds before answering. ‘I don’t know how to give you an honest answer without offending you.’
‘Then offend me.’
‘Your planet is fine, and the people here have been very, very kind to us, but… but it’s not home, is it?’
Her use of the word ‘fine’ to describe everything Planet Earth had to offer stung Tom somewhat. Perhaps she hadn’t intended to sound so glib.
‘Of course it’s not your home. I just meant—’
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ she said, ‘I like very much what I’ve seen here. Parts of your world are beautiful, very different to where I come from.’
‘Yes, but for every beauty spot, there are a hundred places like Drayton.’
‘And it’s exactly the same where I’m from, but that’s not what I’m trying to say. It wouldn’t matter if every square metre of this place was unspoilt and beautiful, it still wouldn’t be enough. I’d rather be home. You’d feel the same way, I’m sure.’
‘How long will it take you to get back?’
‘A year and a half, probably longer.’
‘And how does that make you feel?’
Her surprisingly expressive face changed. The definite smile had disappeared. Her brow furrowed and her willowy shoulders dropped. ‘Desperate,’ she replied. Despite the unnatural twang to her voice, the inhuman lilt, he could clearly hear the sadness in her voice. They stood and studied each other for a few seconds longer, perhaps both trying to work out what the other was thinking, then the alien spoke again. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘I have to go. My friend will be waiting. Thank you.’
Tom watched her leave.
‘What did she want, mate?’ one of the kids on bikes asked, finally plucking up courage to cycle over now the alien had gone.
‘She was lost, that’s all.’