It became almost impossible not to keep learning about the aliens. The media’s fascination with them and the public’s appetite for news remained undiminished. If anything, the demand for new information continued to increase virtually by the day. Even the long-standing stalwarts of the TV schedules – the soap operas, the endless reality TV and talentless talent shows – were soon forced to give way to coverage of the visitors. Those people living in and around Drayton were fortunate to have an unusually large number of aliens on their doorstep. Most other places had to make do with the TV and with hastily arranged travelling road-shows and public appearances. It was almost as if some of the visitors had gone on tour, such was the demand to see them.
Sitting alone in his living room, watching yet another documentary as he waited for a film to start, Tom felt like he was learning about the aliens by osmosis. He had only a passing interest in them compared to most people, and yet he seemed to find out more and more each day without even trying. It was the contrast between their world and ours which intrigued him more than the aliens themselves.
Tom couldn’t match the rabid curiosity some people showed, but being out of step with the majority was something he was becoming used to. He never could understand religion, for example. Billions of people around the world prayed regularly to whichever particular deity they chose to put their faith in, and yet to him it was all little more than unfounded superstition, as ridiculous as looking for fairies at the bottom of the garden or not walking under ladders.
He’d first become aware of this gulf between him and everyone else earlier in the year, and at the time it had threatened to bring his fledgling relationship with Siobhan to an abrupt end. They’d driven to Cardiff to see a band. He’d paid a fortune for tickets, and the venue had been some soulless, warehouse-like place originally designed for trade exhibitions and sporting events, not the mass consumption of music. He’d hated every second of the concert, and yet everyone else – Siobhan included – had been in raptures. Tens of thousands of people were on their feet, cheering, singing and applauding, lifted by the atmosphere and the music. And then there was Tom. Sitting down. Bored shitless. Wishing he was anywhere else.
Siobhan had given him hell when they’d got back to Thatcham. But what would have been worse, he’d argued at the time, pretending to enjoy myself and not being honest? I can’t lie, he’d said. I can’t pretend to be something I’m not. You could have at least tried, she’d told him.
That particular argument, he remembered, had been over pretty quickly. Regardless of how he’d behaved, Siobhan had still enjoyed herself, and the fact they’d been able to deal with their disagreements actually left them both feeling surprisingly reassured about the strength of their relationship. He remembered another night, even earlier in their romance, when another mistake had had unexpectedly positive results. They’d only been out together a few times, and both were unsure as to how things were going to work out. Tom pulled out all the stops, arranging to pick Siobhan up and take her to The Black Swan, the most expensive restaurant within a hundred miles; a Michelin-starred gastropub with spectacular ocean views. He’d gone the whole hog – flowers, new suit, keeping his plans secret… he’d thought of every detail. Except one. In all his restaurant research, he’d only checked reviews, not news, and after booking the table several weeks in advance, he’d managed to completely miss the fact that the restaurant had been gutted in a fire the weekend before their date. He hadn’t known anything until he’d pulled up outside the burned out shell of a place.
Tom had been devastated. Siobhan just laughed. ‘When we’re out together, what are you thinking about?’ she asked him.
‘You,’ he said, side-stepping the most obvious answer, because they hadn’t yet made love.
‘I’m the same. I’m thinking about you. So it wouldn’t matter if we were at the best restaurant in the country or some greasy spoon café where half the customers walk away with food poisoning, it’s you I’m interested in, not the dinner.’
They’d made love in the car, there and then in the deserted car park of the restaurant, their first time together, and had followed it up with a quick drive to Drayton and a visit to McDonalds.
Happy accidents. A lack of planning. Chaos. Life was never completely prescriptive, and that was part of the issue Tom had with what he’d learned about the aliens’ culture. Much of their lives, it seemed, were pre-planned to a frightening extent.
The programme on TV was recapping the basics, yet again.
‘Alien families,’ the narrator intoned over stock footage, ‘are considerably larger than an average human’s. Multiple generations live together under the same roof, siblings raising their own children alongside each other’s, all under the collective auspices of parents, grandparents and, frequently, great-grandparents.’
The very idea of that made Tom feel stifled. He still missed his parents desperately, but even if they’d still been alive, there was no way he’d want to live with them. Siobhan felt much the same about her folks, not that she saw very much of them.
The aliens had two sexes (he hadn’t needed a TV programme to tell him that – it was obvious). Promiscuity was unheard of. Aliens were free to choose a partner of either sex and from any background. Once the relationship had been given the blessing of the eldest member of both families, they were married. Perhaps the most bizarre fact Tom had discovered, was that whenever the aliens bred, there was a two-way exchange of genetic material. The upshot of this biological quirk was that, over time, both partners would gradually assume some of the physical characteristics of the other. There remained subtle differences (otherwise they’d long ago have become a race of clones), and yet it had resulted in there being a lack of any strong physical variation throughout the entire race. There were no ‘black’ or ‘white’ aliens, just ‘aliens’.
Tom found another aspect of their lifestyles particularly disturbing, and yet it appeared eminently sensible too. The TV programme explained that once their preliminary schooling had been completed, the aliens were genetically assessed. Their anticipated potential strengths, weaknesses and intelligence levels were matched against the predicted future social, moral and educational needs to decide their ideal vocation. In essence, therefore, it was their biological and emotional profile which dictated the path their lives would take, not any personal choice on the part of the individual. Tom found that idea abhorrent. The TV presenter continued to enthuse. But it was the next thing he said which disturbed Tom the most.
‘Having developed an incredible understanding of the minutia of how their minds and bodies develop,’ he explained, ‘the aliens are, incredibly, able to calculate their approximate date of death.’
All the future-planning in the world wouldn’t have helped Mum and Dad, he thought as the presenter droned on. Some things are beyond anyone’s control.