The following day was uneventful. Tom took Siobhan to work then returned home. With Rob at university, the small house felt deceptively huge. His footsteps seemed to echo off the walls. Even the constant soundtrack of brain-atrophying daytime TV didn’t do anything to make him feel less alone. He felt disconnected from the stream of news reports, soaps, alien documentaries, dramas and re-runs. He tried reading, gaming, drawing… nothing helped. Even wasting an hour surfing the Internet for soft-core porn felt like a chore.
Just before four, when the last light of the afternoon had begun to fade away, he drove to Clare’s house. It was Penny’s birthday, and he’d planned to drop a card and present around. He thought it was a sad indictment of what his life had become lately, that delivering a card to a nine year old on her birthday was the highlight of his week. He’d planned virtually his whole bloody day around this one non-event.
When he arrived at Clare’s, there was no one there. He was on the verge of writing a note on the back of the envelope saying he was sorry he’d missed them and pushing it through the letter box, when Clare’s heap of a car pulled up. He recognised the distinctive rattle of its struggling engine. He was parked on the other side of the road and they didn’t notice him at first. He watched Penny race towards the house. She was her typical self – a bundle of effervescence and energy, cranked up to extreme levels because it was her birthday. Clare, by contrast, seemed subdued. She smiled at her daughter and said all the right things, but something clearly wasn’t right.
‘Clare?’ Tom said. She spun around.
‘Jesus, Tom. You scared the hell out of me.’
‘Not your fault. I was miles away. Bad day.’
‘Another one? Bloody hell, every time I see you you’re having a bad day.’
‘Yeah, well, that’s just how it is at the moment.’
‘Oh, the usual. Typical day at work, that’s all. I’m sure you remember how it is.’
He helped her unload a couple of bags of shopping from the back of the car and carried them over to the house.
‘We had a meeting at the end of my shift,’ Clare said as she unlocked the door and fumbled for the light switch. ‘There was all the usual bullshit – typical staff arguments and the like – and I lost my patience. They’re all going on and on about nothing and I’m just looking at the clock, trying to get out because I’ve got to get Penny from after-school club and it’s her birthday and so on and so on.’
‘You made it though.’
‘Walked out in the end. I left them talking about the aliens.’
‘What about them?’
‘Whether we should offer them a dental service in the time they’re here.’
‘Are they here long enough?’
‘Exactly. And if they can fly around the universe, I’m pretty bloody sure they can look after their teeth without our help.’
It wasn’t as ridiculous as it sounded – Tom had heard the issue of alien healthcare being discussed on more than one occasion on TV recently – but it sounded like Clare was right to be annoyed. Debating the issue in the staff room of a two-bit dental surgery in the backstreets of Drayton was never going to be a constructive use of anyone’s time, particularly not when Clare had far more important things to attend to at home.
Penny flew into the kitchen, arms loaded up with the presents she’d opened before leaving for school this morning. The house had been empty all day and it was uncomfortably cold, but she didn’t seem bothered.
‘I won’t stop long,’ Tom said. ‘I’ll be out of the way before everybody else turns up.’
Clare looked at him, then looked around. ‘Everybody else? This is it, Tom.’
He was surprised, and for a moment a little uncomfortable. Was he missing something? Should he have been there? Clare was in a strange mood, and he thought he might be intruding on their routine, impinging on their mother-daughter time together. And yet he didn’t sense she was trying to get rid of him. Did she need to talk? Did he want to listen?
‘So what’s really up?’ he asked, deciding to take the bull by the horns.
‘Nothing. I told you.’
‘Come on, Clare, you do this to me every time. It’s obvious there’s more going on. Do you want to talk, or should I just piss off home?’
‘Don’t have a go at me,’ she sniffed, unexpectedly close to tears. ‘Why does everybody always have a go at me all the time? It feels like it’s me against everyone else.’
‘I’m not having a go. I want to help.’
‘There’s nothing you can do.’
‘Unless you’re a hit-man on the quiet and you fancy taking someone out on the cheap.’
Aiden. No surprise. ‘So what’s he done this time?’
‘It’s what he hasn’t done that hurts,’ Clare explained, her voice cracking with emotion. Tom had never met her ex, knew nothing really about their relationship and why it had fallen apart other than what she’d told him, but he despised Aiden for the pain he’d caused and was clearly continuing to cause Clare. The fact it was Penny’s birthday was no doubt compounding the problem, whatever the problem was.
‘What do you mean? Tell me.’
‘Well you’ve made the effort to come and see Penny on her birthday, haven’t you.’
‘You’ve not seen him yet today?’
‘You’ve managed to get her a present and a card. That’s more than that fucker has.’
‘You can’t be serious,’ Tom said, genuinely appalled. ‘On his daughter’s birthday?’
‘There was a note scribbled on a bit of paper and a twenty pound note shoved through the letter box before we got up this morning.’ Clare wiped away a tear, making sure Penny hadn’t noticed. ‘That’s all she means to him, Tom. Christ, that bastard was outside the house and he couldn’t even be bothered to come in and see her.’
‘And that’s why I lost my rag at work just now. They’re all fawning over these bloody aliens when I can’t even get Penny’s dad to spend five minutes with her on her birthday. It’s like they’re all living in cloud-cuckoo land. I phoned Aiden a couple of days ago, you know. I swallowed my pride and kept down all the hate and anger for Penny’s sake, and I asked him if he was coming over on Monday. You know what he said?’
‘He asked me what for! Can you bloody believe it? The fucker hadn’t even remembered it was her birthday. I mean, he remembered as soon as I reminded him of the date, but he’s too busy sleeping around with slags to give a damn about anyone but himself.’
‘So how’s Penny taken it?’
Clare wiped her eyes and helped herself to an early glass of wine from a half-empty bottle in the fridge. ‘To be honest, she’s starting to get used to not having him around, and that’s probably a good thing. She doesn’t miss him like she used to, doesn’t expect anything from him. Call me stupid, though, but I don’t want it to be like this. I want her to have a decent relationship with her dad. I want her to be able to make her own mind up about what kind of a father he’s been when she’s older. No nine year-old child should have to discover their dad’s a cunt like this.’
Clare’s use of the word cunt caught Tom off-guard. He’d never heard her use it before. Change the subject, he thought, get her talking about something else before things get really heavy here.
‘So you’ve not got anyone else coming around tonight?’ he asked. Clare shook her head and sniffed back more tears. ‘Penny’s not having a party?’
‘We’re doing something on Saturday. You can’t get anybody to do anything on a Monday.’
‘So this is it? This is her birthday?’
‘Christ, Tom, don’t make me feel any worse than I already do. I asked some of the family around, tried to build a few bridges, but no one was interested. Even her grandparents on his side didn’t want to know. They’ve all got far more important things to be getting on with. But I tell you something, if that bloody alien friend of your brother’s was going to be here, they’d be queuing at the door to get in.’
‘So shall we do something?’ Tom asked, regretting the words the moment he’d said them. ‘Come on, this isn’t right. Regardless of everyone else, Penny can’t spend her birthday at home on her own. Let’s take her out or something. My treat. Just a quick burger in town or something like that?’
‘We can’t, honest. Thanks anyway, Tom.’
‘Why not? You’ve just been telling me you’re not doing anything else. Penny won’t care that it’s just you and me.’
‘I know, but you’ve probably got your own plans. I wouldn’t want to impose.’
‘It’s not imposing, and I don’t have any plans,’ he said and, right on cue, Penny walked into the room. ‘Hey, Pen, fancy going out for a burger?’
He’d barely finished speaking before she was gone. He heard her thumping up the stairs. ‘Got to get changed… down in a minute.’
‘That’s that then,’ Clare mumbled, clearly unimpressed. She wasn’t in the mood to go anywhere. Her daughter, on the other hand, obviously was.
Two long, loud hours later and it was done. Tom felt as out of place in the burger bar as the two aliens sitting diagonally opposite. At least they had the excuse of being tourists of sorts. He joked with Clare, wondering what they would have thought of the food. Regardless of his, Clare’s, or the aliens’ opinion, Penny clearly loved every second of being out. From the carbonated drinks filled with so much ice they diluted the taste to half-strength, to the quickly prepared but otherwise wholly unsatisfying burgers, to the cheap plastic toy which came free with her meal, she enjoyed every second of it. Tom and Clare sat opposite each other, bored stiff but doing everything in their power to hide it. Clare regularly thanked Tom for forcing her out, and seeing Penny happy made the bittersweet day a little more enjoyable, but there was no disguising the fact that she’d rather have been anywhere else. If she’d had the choice, being at home in front of the TV, wearing her pyjamas, watching a crappy movie and slowly getting pissed on cheap wine would have been the ideal way to spend the evening.
Tom again found himself staring at the aliens in the corner and wondering what they made of this place. All uncomfortable, plastic furniture and Day-Glo decoration, it was as artificial as the food on its menu. These people, he thought, had travelled millions of miles to be here, and must have seen such unimaginable sights along the way… and yet the two of them seemed perfectly content to while away their time in this bland, corporate shit-hole of a place.
Maybe they’re not so different, after all.