The routine of living in the village frequently felt as predictable as Tom’s pre-Thatcham life had been. He’d just replaced strategy meetings, targets, brainstorming and the like with more convivial alternatives: long walks, runs, and regular Friday evening drinking sessions.
Siobhan arrived just before half-past seven. Tom watched her from the window. He thought her extraordinarily beautiful. She was just short of his height, with shoulder-length blonde hair, steely blue-grey eyes, and the kind of body he’d only dared fantasise about previously. He didn’t know what she saw in him.
She let herself in. ‘Hello, you,’ she said as she entered the living room. She walked towards him and kissed him gently on the lips, then hugged him. He kissed her neck, nudging away the strap of her top and nibbling her shoulder. ‘Easy tiger,’ she whispered. ‘You know what that does to me.’
‘That’s why I do it.’
He pulled her down onto the sofa with him, wrapping his legs around her so she couldn’t escape.
‘Bloody hell,’ Rob moaned as he walked past. ‘Get a room.’
‘This is my room,’ Tom reminded him. ‘Come to think of it, they’re all my rooms.’
Rob shook his head and switched the TV back on. It hadn’t long been off. Siobhan immediately disentangled herself from Tom and turned around to watch.
‘Anything happened?’ she asked.
‘What, apart from the alien invasion?’ Rob answered sarcastically.
‘You know what I mean. Anything happened since then?’
‘Not a lot as far I can see. I still can’t get my head around any of it. Did you see that thing…?’
‘I was at work. There was only me and Mona in the office. It was dark because of the storm, then it went even darker and I didn’t think much of it. Then Mo saw that everyone outside was looking up. We went out front and watched it fly over. Scary as hell. Amazing, though.’
‘I watched it from here. It was incredible. Your dickhead of a boyfriend was out running, weren’t you, Tom?’
Siobhan looked around when he didn’t reply. She thought he was watching TV, but he was staring at her, transfixed by the shape of her long legs, their shadows visible through her light summer dress.
‘Put your tongue away,’ she said. ‘Perv.’
The doorbell rang and Rob went to answer it. When Siobhan remained standing in front of the TV, Tom got up and walked over. He wrapped his arms around her from behind and felt her leaning back into him.
‘Love you, you know,’ he whispered.
She scowled and looked at him over her shoulder. ‘Why shouldn’t I be?’
‘All this going on,’ he said, gesturing at the TV.
‘Not a lot any of us can do about it, is there?’
‘No, but that’s not the point. Things have changed today, Siobhan. Can’t you feel it?’
‘Yes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it?’
‘Bloody hell, how many science-fiction movies have you sat here and watched with me? How many of them turned out well for mankind once the aliens arrived?’
‘You’re always looking on the downside,’ she said, turning around and looking at him with concern.
‘I’m not, I’m just—’
‘You are. How many of those films ended up with people winning against the odds?’
She had a point. ‘But aren’t you worried?’ he asked.
‘Of course I am. We all are. But what can we do? We can all spend the rest of our lives hiding under the kitchen table, or we can get on with things as normal and hope everything works out for the best.’
‘I know, but—’
‘But nothing. Lighten up, sweetheart. You’re always worrying about something. Stop!’
She toyed with a strand of his hair, then gently ran her fingers down the side of his face. She looked up when Rob returned.
‘Are you two coming? James is here.’
‘There in a second,’ Tom replied. He went to move but Siobhan kept hold of him a moment longer. She stared into his eyes, and he felt uncomfortable, foolish even.
‘Everything’s going to be all right. Believe me?’
‘I believe you.’
‘Good. Early night, tonight, okay? Just you and me.’
The Badger’s Sett was often busy on Friday evenings, particularly in summer, but never like this. The place was heaving with unfamiliar faces, and Tom had to fight just to get in through the door. It seemed that every tent-dwelling holidaymaker staying anywhere near the village had chosen the security of bricks and mortar and alcohol over their flimsy canvas walls tonight. The large-screen TVs dotted around the bar were clearly another factor. Groups of people were gathered around each of them, mouths hanging open, watching events unfold with continued disbelief.
John Tipper, running up and down behind the bar, looked exhausted – red faced and flustered but still grinning like a fool. He loved his pub, loved being the centre of attention, and more than anything, he loved the positive cash flow of a bumper night like this. His wife Betty had just shut the kitchen early, having run out of most of the dishes on her simple bar food menu.
John looked up as Tom and the others approached the bar, and nodded to let them know he’d clocked them. As Tom and the others were such reliable regulars, he often had their drinks waiting for them. Not tonight.
‘Bloody hell,’ James complained, ‘I’ve come out for some peace and quiet. This is a joke.’
‘Want to go somewhere else?’ Tom asked.
‘Like where? There is nowhere else.’
Siobhan noticed a family in the corner who’d just started collecting up their things. They were obviously holidaymakers – she could tell in an instant that they weren’t local. Living in Thatcham helped you develop a sixth sense when it came down to differentiating us from them. That thought stuck in her head as she made a beeline for the table to claim it before anyone else. Tonight the non-locals were no longer the only invaders. In fact, tonight they didn’t feel like outsiders at all.
James and Rob followed Siobhan, abandoning Tom at the bar. As he waited for John to serve him, Tom watched Siobhan collect the vacating family’s dirty glasses, plates and cutlery and take them through to the kitchen. She’d even been known to help out behind the bar before now, though she much preferred drinking to serving. There were aspects of village life Tom still struggled to get his head around. The concept of helping out and doing something for nothing for the benefit of someone else just wouldn’t have worked where he’d come from. He recalled a particularly offensive ex-colleague who used to regularly tell him: Don’t ever feed a beggar, they’ll eat your fucking arm. Things were different here in Thatcham. Stepping away from his old life had allowed Tom to appreciate just how intense and, ultimately, unimportant it had all been.
‘How the devil are you?’ John asked – his standard greeting – when he finally got around to serving Tom. He neatly rolled up the sleeves of his sweat-soaked check shirt, adjusted his glasses and smoothed back his thinning white hair.
‘Excellent, thanks,’ Tom said – his standard reply.
‘Glad to hear it. The usual?’
‘Of course. Bit busy tonight, John.’
‘Just a little. I’ll tell you something, Thomas, these aliens are more than welcome to drop in every Friday afternoon if they’re going to do this for my profits.’
‘Just as long as it’s not last orders for all of us, eh?’
John forced a grin at Tom’s pathetic comment. Then his face dropped. ‘You don’t think it will be, do you?’
‘Don’t know. Not sure yet,’ Tom replied, suddenly more serious. The moment reminded him of a scene from the beginning of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: Ford Prefect ordering six pints of bitter ‘and quickly please, the world’s about to end.’
‘You worried?’ John asked.
‘Likewise,’ he said, passing Tom the last of his drinks. ‘Glad to hear someone else keeping things in perspective.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Some folks seem to be getting carried away. You know Barry Yates from Kemberton Boats, him and his mates were talking about sailing out there.’
‘That’s what I said. I told him this is serious. Some people just don’t get it. They’ll get themselves killed.’
‘More fool them,’ Tom said as he handed John his cash. ‘I’ll reserve judgement until I’m sure we’re not being invaded or anything like that.’
John’s expression changed. Momentarily deep in thought, he’d allowed his permanently grinning landlord persona to drop. A shout for service from further up the bar brought him back to reality.
‘Got to get on,’ he said, handing Tom his change. ‘Punters to serve, profit to make.’
‘Something strong please, John,’ he heard Phil Yates, another local, say. Tom glanced back at the others and managed to catch James’ eye through the mass of people filling the pub. James came over to help with the drinks, weaving through the crowds.
‘Cheers mate,’ Tom said, handing him two pints. ‘Listen, I hope you don’t mind me saying, you look bloody terrible.’
‘I feel bloody terrible,’ he replied as they worked their way back to the table.
‘Baby keeping you awake?’
‘She’s keeping me awake, the rest of the kids awake, the missus awake…’
‘That bad, eh?’
‘That bad.’ James sighed as he sat down. ‘And now we’ve got bloody aliens to deal with as well. I tell you, mate, I’ve had enough.’
The pub was loud, too loud. The noise levels, coupled with a reluctance to give James opportunity to moan about the miseries of family life, meant there was little conversation. The afternoon’s events cast a dark cloud, but just being here helped. The familiar chaos of the place was strangely reassuring.
Tom looked up from his beer, noticing that both Rob and Siobhan were glued to the TV screen on the wall opposite. The same syndicated shot of the alien ship still dominated the news as it had all evening, only the lighting and the number of boats floating in its vast shadow seemed to have changed. As the sun had set, the sky on the horizon had turned a searing yellow-orange, making the ship look impossibly dark in contrast. It remained fixed in position: a featureless shadow which seemed almost to be sucking in the light from around it. Only occasional searchlights from the flotilla below disturbed the inky black, rippling across the hull and down the endless length of the titanic machine. The intense blue-white light at the back of the ship, Tom realised, had been extinguished. I guess that means they’re stopping, he thought.
‘Unbelievable, isn’t it,’ Rob said. No one answered, but he continued regardless. ‘Don’t know about you lot, but I’m still having trouble getting my head around all of this. We’ll be talking about this day for years to come. Everyone will remember where they were and what they were doing when the aliens came. I know I will.’
‘Me too,’ James agreed. ‘Christ, our little one will grow up never having known any different. Imagine that.’
Tom couldn’t. It still felt like too bizarre a concept. Were the occupants of that ship explorers or an invading force? His mind wandered back to history lessons he’d struggled through many years earlier at school. Sir Frances Drake, Christopher Columbus, Vasco De Gama… there were many more. History had never been his strongest subject; he remembered little more than the explorer’s names and the fact that the history books always seemed more sympathetic to the discoverer than the discovered. When he started to think about colonization, and the impact of these invading forces on the indigenous populations of hitherto unknown countries, he began to feel uneasy. You can dress it up however you like, he thought, but is there really any difference between an explorer and an invader?
Tom made himself focus on what everyone else was talking about, but that was inevitably the aliens too. He was beginning to wonder if they’d ever be able to talk about anything else.
The strange night evaporated with unexpected speed, faster even than their normal Friday sessions. It seemed that Siobhan had forgotten her offer of an early night. She was happy to stay where they were and to keep drinking until John called last orders and kicked them all out. Tom knew there was little chance of that happening. On nights like this – and whilst this was the first time aliens had been involved, there had been plenty of nights like this before – John tended to stay open as long as he was able. As long as there was no trouble or complaints, the local police were generally happy to turn a blind eye. In fact, Sergeant Phipps and several of his officers would no doubt be in here themselves before long, drinking with the rest.
After being wedged into the corner and trapped for much of the evening, Tom took advantage of Rob finally going to the bar to duck out for a quick toilet break. He wasn’t the only person in the small restroom. Ken Trentham was standing at the urinal furthest from the door, holding himself with one hand and leaning up the wall with the other, wearing the same dirty grey overcoat he wore every day from the hottest day of summer to the depths of winter. Tom slipped into the nearest cubicle and cringed as the door creaked shut, hoping he hadn’t been noticed. People generally avoided old Ken if they could help it.
Ken was still leaning against the wall and, judging by the noise, still pissing, when Tom emerged. Tom caught Ken’s eye in the mirror, nodded and then looked down again quickly as he washed his hands, hoping that would be the end of it. It wasn’t.
‘What’s all this about then?’ the older man asked. On the few occasions Tom had come across him before, Ken was usually shouting, spitting, or starting fights. He seemed unexpectedly lucid tonight, no sign of his usual volatility.
‘What?’ Tom replied
Ken shook his hands then ran his fingers through his greasy grey hair. He was blocking Tom’s way out. ‘These alien things, what they doing here?’
‘I don’t know. You’re better off asking someone else. I don’t know anything about them.’
‘That’s the thing though,’ Ken said, becoming animated and pointing his finger wildly, beginning to wind himself up. ‘No one knows anything. We’re all in the shit together, ain’t we.’
Tom tentatively moved forward, keen to get past but not wanting to piss Ken off and risk his notorious booze-addled wrath. Tonight, however, the old drunk simply moved to one side.
‘You okay?’ Tom asked, momentarily surprised, almost concerned.
‘Makes you think.’
‘All this business.’
‘Never known anything like it.’
‘None of us have.’
‘It is. Look, Ken, I need to get back to my—’
‘You think this is a good thing?’
Tom thought before answering. ‘I don’t know. I’m not sure yet. You?’
‘Me neither. Never trust nobody until I’ve looked into their eyes, I don’t.’
‘Good advice,’ Tom said, sliding past and holding his breath to avoid getting a nose-full of the stench of liquor, stale sweat and piss stains.
‘Remember the eyes,’ Ken warned.
When another unsuspecting punter crashed into the bathroom, Tom seized the opportunity to get out.
‘You took your time,’ Siobhan said when he finally returned to the table. ‘What were you doing in there?’
‘I’ve heard about blokes like you,’ Rob sniggered.
‘I got caught.’
‘Caught by what?’ Siobhan said. ‘Or shouldn’t I ask.’
‘Caught by Ken Trentham.’
‘Ken Trentham! That pickled old bastard. He wasn’t causing trouble again, was he?’
Tom shook his head. ‘No, he was fine. He was talking about the aliens, that’s all. Same as everyone else.’
‘He’s been talking about aliens for years,’ James said. ‘Remember that, Siobhan? That night he came in here ranting about being abducted.’
‘And John threatened to give him an anal probe with a pool cue!’
‘Maybe this is how it starts,’ Tom suggested. ‘Maybe he’s their first victim.’
‘What are you on about?’ asked Siobhan.
‘These aliens. You always have to watch out when people have sudden personality changes like Ken. It’s mind control, you know, just like in the films. They always start with the easiest people to manipulate, and since Ken’s only got half a mind—’
‘If that,’ James interrupted.
‘—then they wouldn’t have any problems controlling him.’
‘You think?’ Siobhan said, suddenly deadly serious.
Tom laughed. ‘Of course I don’t, you silly sod. He’s just scared like everyone else.’
‘I’m not scared.’
‘Uneasy, then. You know what I’m saying.’
There was a momentary pause in the conversation as each of them considered how they were feeling. Was it fear? James cleared his throat, the way he always did when he thought he had something important to say. ‘That Stephen Hawking, he said we’d all be fucked if any aliens turned up here.’
‘His language is appalling,’ Rob sighed.
James continued, unimpressed, ‘He says if they’ve managed to get here, then they’re obviously more intelligent than us, so they’ll inevitably end up wiping us out.’
‘Who rattled your cage?’ Tom asked.
‘Fuck me, Jim,’ Rob added, ‘most people get more stupid when they’re pissed. You’re the first person I’ve met who smartens up.’
‘Piss off,’ James said, hiding his embarrassment by drinking more beer, the bottom of his pint glass covering his face.
‘No disrespect, Jim,’ Tom continued, ‘but since when did you start following Stephen Hawking’s work?’
‘I don’t,’ he admitted. ‘Steph was watching this programme on TV when I got home, and they were talking about it. They were saying how we should all just keep calm and carry on.’
‘So let me get this straight,’ Tom said, ‘they’re asking people to keep calm and carry on, but at the same time just happening to mention that Stephen Hawking thinks we’re all screwed?’
‘I saw some of that programme,’ Siobhan said.
‘I thought you were at work?’ Tom sounded surprised.
‘I was, but do you think we took many phone calls after what happened this afternoon? The place was dead. Me and Mo were watching TV online to try and find the news. As usual Jim, you’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick. They were disputing what Stephen Hawking said, trying to put people at ease and not wind them up.’
‘Interesting though, isn’t it,’ Rob said, watching the ship on TV again. The sky was even darker now, and there seemed to be no let up in the levels of activity around the massive craft. Its vast underbelly was illuminated from below in places, but very little of the machine was visible now.
‘What’s interesting?’ Tom asked.
‘How it’s already changing everything. You know something’s up when you’ve got Jim quoting eminent scientists and an anti-social wino like Ken Trentham suddenly feeling the need to talk.’
‘So what are you saying?’ Siobhan wondered.
‘That the rules changed today, that’s all,’ Rob replied. ‘All the boundaries and demarcation lines we used to know were rubbed out and redrawn.’
‘I must be pissed,’ James sighed, ‘because I don’t have a bloody clue what you’re talking about now.’
‘There’s a new player in the game,’ Rob explained, ‘and that makes everyone else consider their own position differently.’
One of the most notable differences Tom had found since moving to Thatcham was the lack of ethnic diversity here. Like most of the country, Birmingham was a richly diverse place. Thatcham, in comparison, was not. Eddie Williams was the only black man in the village, and he was in the pub with a couple of friends, leaning up the wall next to Tom’s table.
‘Takes the pressure off you, don’t it, Ed?’ Tom heard one of Eddie’s frighteningly bigoted friends joke.
‘So what is it you’re studying?’ James asked Rob.
‘Social sciences and the adaptation of social policy in deprived urban areas, why?’
‘Because it sounds like a load of old bollocks to me, that’s why.’
‘It’s not,’ Rob replied, indignant. ‘Remember when Tom first bought the bungalow? Remember the grief he was getting from the neighbours? Remember all the crap Ray Mercer gave him when he cut down that tree?’
‘What about it?’
‘Well, he was the alien back then, wasn’t he? Just for a while, until someone else turned up to take the flack. As soon as the summer season started and hundreds of bloody tourists started filling the streets, all that was forgotten. He stopped being one of them and became one of us. Isn’t that right, Siobhan?’
‘It does sound like a load of old bollocks, Jim, I’ll give you that,’ she said, ‘but Rob is right.’
‘So are you saying these aliens are neighbours or tourists? And is this what you’d call a deprived area?’
Rob looked at James with despair. ‘I’m not saying Thatcham’s deprived, but if I’d just come halfway across the universe in a bloody huge spaceship like that, I think I’d be well within my rights to turn my nose up.’
‘Do you think they’ve got noses?’ Jim asked, confirming beyond doubt to the others that his earlier demonstration of intelligence had indeed been a fluke. No one bothered to answer.
‘They can’t be that intelligent,’ a shrill voice said from an adjacent table. Tom looked around. It was Wendy Grayson. She worked in Thatcham’s small supermarket, and she was a bloody gossip. When she realised how many people had heard her she continued talking, always happy to have an audience. ‘I mean, all that space… the whole of the bloody universe to choose from and those soft buggers end up here at the back-end of nowhere!’
‘Imagine the odds,’ Tom said to no one in particular. ‘Can you imagine what the chances of them ending up here were?’
None of them could, though each of them did find themselves thinking about the impossible scales and measures of the day now ending. Siobhan moved closer to Tom, and took hold of his hand under the table.
‘Hard to believe, isn’t it? The whole world’s watching this. Millions of people – billions, even – all watching what’s happening just a few miles from here.’
‘Most things that get this much news coverage only affect part of the world,’ Rob said, pausing to knock back the dregs of another pint. ‘This is different. This has implications for everybody.’
Tom gripped Siobhan’s hand even tighter. ‘I just want to know what they’re here for,’ he said. ‘I mean, I just want to know whether it’s ET or Independence Day, you know? Are they here because they want to be friends, or are they going to blow the shit out of us then…’
He let his words trail away, suddenly aware that the rest of the pub had fallen silent. He looked around and saw that every face was fixed on one of the various screens around the bar. Then he looked up himself, and felt his pulse start to quicken. Something was happening.
The pictures now being broadcast were coming from the same general location as the footage they’d already seen. As they watched, however, the camera panned right then zoomed into close-up on one particular section of the vessel’s endless underbelly, near the front of the ship. It was difficult to see at first, but Tom was eventually able to make out a long rectangular opening appearing, some kind of hatch. Siobhan nudged him as he continued to tighten his grip on her hand, hurting her. He let go and reached for his pint.
‘This is it,’ Rob whispered ominously. ‘Make or break. Handshake or heat-ray.’
Nothing happened for what felt like forever. No one moved. No one spoke. It was as if someone had pressed the pause button but rather than the pictures on the screen, everything else had frozen instead. And then, just when the first whispered conversations were on the verge of striking up again, an intense beam of searing white light spilled down through the opening in the ship’s belly.
There was something in the light. Tom squinted, unsure what he was seeing. Hard to distinguish at first, its movements were slow, graceful and precise. It drifted down until it was midway between the ship and the ocean, then it stopped and held its position with the same unnatural ease as the craft from which it had just emerged. No juddering. Not being blown by the wind. Completely motionless.
‘What the hell is that thing?’ James asked.
Tom could taste fear in the air now, a definite change. People had begun to relax throughout the course of the evening and now, almost instantly, their earlier anxiety had returned, amplified ten-fold. Still no one moved. No one reacted. The entire pub remained silent. The TV volume was up, but no one was saying anything.
The thing which had descended from the alien ship dropped down again, swooping towards the water. As its distance from the source of the light above increased, it became possible to make out more detail. It was a small, dart-shaped object, as black as its parent and similarly featureless. Without warning, the light from the first ship was shut off as the hatch closed.
The camera tracked the smaller machine as it came to rest in a space above the waves, surrounded by frigates and gunships of different nationalities, hovering a metre above the water.