Almost three weeks passed before Tom finally reneged and agreed to take Siobhan to where he’d lived before breaking away and settling down in Thatcham. She’d taken a day off mid-week, her first day’s holiday since the end of summer. It was autumn now. All the greens had turned to reds and browns.
Siobhan seemed genuinely excited. ‘I’ve never been to Birmingham before.’
‘Hope you’re not disappointed.’
‘Oh, I won’t be. I’m easily pleased.’
The journey took the best part of two hours. They talked intermittently, but neither felt the need to chatter constantly. Tom thought that was a good thing. He remembered his mum telling him it was a sign of being relaxed in someone’s company not to have to fill every moment of silence with unnecessary noise. Being close to someone didn’t just mean talking to them, she used to say. He thought that was ironic, because Dad used to complain that she never shut up.
The traffic on the motorway increased in volume and decreased in speed as they approached the city. Tom felt a strange fluttering in his stomach, an unexpected attack of nerves. He didn’t know what he had to be scared about; they were only going to be here for a few hours, if that, and these were all places he’d been to countless times before. It had been more than six months since he’d last been here. He’d rather have left it a little longer before coming back.
They drove right into the city centre. The amount of traffic took Tom by surprise initially. It seemed busier than he remembered, but he accepted that was probably because he’d had half a year living in a village where, until the aliens had arrived, it had been unusual to see more than a handful of cars at any one time.
They parked at the Bullring, a large, distinctive-looking shopping mall. At one end of the development, the bulbous, futuristic-looking building nestled up alongside St Martin’s Church, a place with roots traceable back hundreds of years. Even now it was a startling contrast of old meets new. Siobhan’s small-town upbringing was immediately apparent.
‘Wow,’ she said, mouth hanging open. ‘Fancy, isn’t it?’
‘Didn’t think you’d be that impressed. You’ve seen aliens now. Your imagination knows no earthly bounds.’
‘Don’t take the piss,’ she grumbled as they disappeared down into the underground car park.
‘Funny how it’s just like all the other malls inside, isn’t it?’ Siobhan said as they wandered through the crowded shopping centre. She was right, of course. No matter how visually striking the building appeared from the outside, once you were in it looked much the same as every other shopping centre built in the last fifteen years. The same shops, the same décor, the same layout to an extent, all of it carefully designed either to maximise the experience for the shopper or generate the most profit, depending on your perspective.
‘Any shops you want to go to?’
‘Nothing in particular,’ she replied, ‘but you know me and shops.’
Tom wasn’t one for stereotyping, but as far as shopping was concerned, he thought it amusing how men and women all too easily slipped into their expected roles. When he needed something, he’d go to a shop he knew sold the item, and then buy it. Even better, he’d get it online. Siobhan, on the other hand, liked to browse and compare endlessly before spending a single penny.
She started down the familiar route, spending an age looking at shoes she didn’t really need, before checking herself and remembering why they’d come here.
‘Sorry, Tom,’ she said unexpectedly. ‘This is your day. We’re not here to go shopping.’
‘It’s okay,’ he replied. ‘We’ve got plenty of time.’
She smiled. ‘You’ll regret saying that! Mind if I just have a look here?’ She gestured towards another boutique. ‘Last one, I promise.’
‘You carry on,’ he said. ‘Mind if I don’t come in? I’ll meet you out here somewhere.’
She tenderly squeezed his hand, then disappeared into the shop. He looked around for inspiration, wondering if there was something nearby which might distract him for a while and stop him thinking about where he was and why he was here. There were a few stores he used, but nothing which really grabbed him. He didn’t want any clothes, wasn’t in the mood for watching films, hadn’t read any books for a while, had all but given up on games… He ambled a short distance further into the mall, cutting through the early lunchtime crowds, thinking about finding somewhere to eat once Siobhan had finished shopping. It was then that he noticed the crowd up ahead, in a space near the middle of the mall usually reserved for promotional displays. Semi-interested, Tom walked towards it. He’d seen all kinds of crap here in the years he’d worked in the city, from Barbie to Mario and everything in between – underpaid students in fancy dress costumes, doing all they could to attract the attention of passing kids, demonstrating the latest game, console, or whatever the current trend was.
But this was different.
As he approached, he saw an alien standing on a plinth. It was such a damn good likeness, that it was only when he’d got to within a couple of metres that he realised it was a dummy. It looked like Jall, perfectly proportioned and uncannily life-like.
‘Anything I can help you with,’ a smartly-dressed woman said, taking him by surprise.
‘No. No, thanks, I’m fine.’
She smiled and offered him a brochure which he took without thinking. He walked further into the crowded area, and followed the general flow of the people around him. There was a number of large display units, some of them with screens built in, all of them providing information on certain aspects of the aliens. More specifically, he realised, it was information about getting along with aliens and the finer points of alien-human etiquette. It was strangely fascinating and, he had to admit, very well put together. The details were genuinely useful, if a little unnecessary in his opinion. He glanced at the brochure he’d been given which was similarly comprehensive.
‘Here you are,’ Siobhan said, grabbing his arm. ‘Couldn’t find you. What’s all this?’
He gave her the brochure. ‘I forget, most people here probably haven’t seen an alien close-up.’
‘I was thinking that earlier. Goes to show how lucky we are in comparison, living in Thatcham. Bloody hell, Tom, your brother’s best friend is one of them!’
‘Bit over the top though, isn’t it?’
‘Do you think? Personally, I think it’s fantastic. The more information that’s available, the better. It’s when we stop educating people about all of this that we’ll start hitting problems.’
‘I still think it’s a bit much.’
Siobhan frowned at him. ‘We’ve talked about this, Tom. You’ve got to ease up on the anti-alien sentiment.’
‘And I keep telling you, I’m not anti-alien, I just—’
‘I know what you keep telling me, but you’re saying one thing and doing another. People will get the wrong impression.’
They left the Bullring after another hour. Tom saw an old work colleague in the crowds, and decided that enough was enough. He wanted out before he was recognised.
They walked the streets for a while. A comic book shop, where Tom and Rob had spent far too many hours in their younger days, hiding from their parents and the rest of the world by escaping into magnificently drawn fantasies, looked very different today. Siobhan didn’t pick up on it – she wouldn’t have – but to Tom it was obvious. The window of the store was filled with posters and pictures of the aliens. A scale model of their ship dominated the main display. There were action figures, magazines, play sets, mugs and T-shirts…
‘Do you want any of this stuff?’ Siobhan asked. ‘Can’t see the appeal myself.’
‘No thanks,’ he replied. ‘I preferred it when it was all make believe.’
Like many parts of Birmingham, this green and leafy suburb was a mix of the old and the new, the affluent and the not so. Tower blocks rubbed shoulders with large, detached homes. A new hospital (which looked like something the aliens might have built) dominated the skyline.
Siobhan watched Tom intently as they drove down quiet streets. It was much of a muchness to her, really, nothing special. A nice place to live, but nothing to write home about. But for Tom this was home. At least it had been. From age six until the end of last year, this place had been where he’d spent much of his time.
The narrow roads were filled with cars. There was barely any space, residents and office workers jostling for limited positions. Tom gave up trying to get parked. He drove around and around, then stopped in the middle of one street which Siobhan was sure they’d been down several times already.
He was looking out of his window, face turned away from her, hiding the tears.
‘We could go in.’
‘Someone else lives there now.’
‘They wouldn’t mind.’
‘I would if I was them.’
‘It’s a nice place.’
‘Things change, Tom.’
‘Feels like everything’s changed.’
‘You should go in. Seriously. Leave the car with me.’
‘I’m not going in. What would that achieve?’ he snapped at her angrily. He glanced across and saw that he’d hurt her, then looked away again. ‘Sorry.’
‘I just want…’ he started to say then stopped.
‘I just want you to be happy,’ Siobhan said, finishing the sentence for him. ‘I love you, Tom. I hate seeing you like this.’
‘So full of hurt. So angry with the rest of the world. You’ve got to let it go. You’ve got to deal with it. It’s eating you up.’
Tom wanted to tell her she was right, but he didn’t think he could. The words felt trapped at the back of his throat. He put the car into gear and pulled away.