Whether it was because of his hangover, the constant barrage of news overload, or his brother’s endless conjecture, Tom felt like he needed a change of scenery. The chance to visit Clare Austin, a good friend, presented him with an opportunity to return to the welcome normality of life for a while and shut off from all the talk of aliens and new horizons and the like. He didn’t know anyone who was more grounded and down-to-earth than Clare, and that was probably why he liked her so much. A spade was a spade to Clare. It wouldn’t have mattered if the aliens had touched down in her back garden instead of just flying over it, he knew she wouldn’t have given a damn.
As was often the case, Clare needed Tom’s help. She was perfectly capable, she just didn’t have time to waste, and that was something Tom had in abundance. A recently-separated single mum with a young daughter, she felt like she had to work twice as hard as everyone else just to keep standing still. Her partner had walked out on her and their daughter, Penny, at the end of last year, leaving behind little more than bad memories and a heap of jointly-held debts. There was no disputing the fact that Aiden had been a selfish, inconsiderate shit (any of his many girlfriends would agree), and Clare knew it was for the best.
Tom had been helping Clare out with odd jobs for almost as long as he’d been living in Thatcham. They’d been introduced to each other by James, and they’d immediately got on. It was a purely platonic relationship. Tom sometimes got bored. There was only so much daytime TV and video games he could take. His lack of motivation was becoming a serious concern, and putting up a shelf or painting a wall for Clare often provided him with a welcome kick up the backside and gave him the impetus to do something constructive. Today he hoped that fixing her computer would bring some purpose to this incredibly strange day.
The traffic in and around the village remained heavy, the single carriageway which wound along the length of Thatcham far busier than Tom would have typically expected, even at the peak of the season at this time on a Saturday afternoon, when one lot of tourists left for home and the next moved in to take their place. He sat at a junction waiting to turn right to get out of the village, watching the chaos deeper in the heart of Thatcham. The place was, in reality, little more than a meandering line of shops, cafés, takeaways and houses, most of which looked out over the ocean or, more accurately now, over the recently bolstered sea defences. The council had spent a small fortune dropping tons of boulders at strategic points along the coast to reduce the risk of the village flooding, as had happened in previous years. Parking space along the main road was severely limited at the best of times, with residents claiming those spots where there were no markings or warning signs. Today, however, all such warnings were being ignored.
An unexpected gap in the traffic (Tom might have been wrong, but he thought he heard Ken Trentham screaming at a hapless motorist) allowed him to nudge forward, then finally make the turn and start heading out of the village. He accelerated as he broke free from the congestion, and with his windows down, his music playing and the smell of the sea hanging in the air, for a few seconds everything was reassuringly familiar again. No sooner had he got up speed, though, than he was forced to slow once more as he joined the back end of another queue of traffic waiting for a large truck to reverse into the car park of one of the many campsites dotted around the village. He thought it strange, and not a little surreal, when he saw the truck pull up alongside several more of a similar size. Some had satellite dishes and huge aerials bolted to their roofs, and they all belonged to various media companies: BBC, ITV, SKY, and a few more he hadn’t heard of besides. The campsite itself resembled something from the outskirts of a music festival: a sea of wildly coloured canvas roofs with barely a scrap of space between them. Still, he thought, this sudden media influx was by no means the strangest thing which had happened in Thatcham recently, and his mind wandered back to this time yesterday when he’d been out on the hills…
The road ahead was clear again now, Tom put his foot down and continued out towards Clare’s. He passed a lone house about a mile further down the lane, the people who lived there enjoying a barbeque in the sun. He caught the sound of their laughter on the breeze, their relaxed noise making him realise how uncertain he still felt. Maybe Rob’s right, he thought. Maybe I just need to lighten up and stop overanalysing everything. He couldn’t help himself, though. Everything looked the same today as it always had done, but somehow it all felt different.
Clare’s house was near Welbeck, a small village on the way to Drayton, the largest town in the area. Even with today’s traffic it didn’t take Tom long to get there. He pulled up outside her terraced cottage, behind the heap of a car her ex-in-laws had given her to appease their guilt over their son’s behaviour. The house door was open before he’d even rung the bell. Penny stood in the hallway, grinning at him.
‘What did your mum say to you about opening the door to strangers?’
‘She said don’t do it. But you’re not a stranger, are you.’
‘Let Tom in, Pen,’ Clare shouted from inside the house. ‘I’m in the kitchen.’
‘Mummy’s been swearing at the computer again,’ Penny explained.
Tom shut the door then side-stepped the little girl to get through. Clare was ironing, and dinner was cooking on the stove.
‘You were quick,’ she said.
‘Not a lot else to do,’ he replied without thinking.
‘It’s all right for some,’ she grumbled, semi-seriously. ‘Bloody hell, Tom, it’s a sad state of affairs when you’ve got nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon than come here.’
‘There’s nothing happening at home. Siobhan’s at work and Rob’s still half-drunk from last night. He was asleep when I left him, actually.’
‘How the other half live, eh?’ she said as she hung a pair of trousers on a hanger then picked a crumpled shirt out of the washing basket. Tom remained in the doorway, feeling redundant and slightly awkward. He was glad of the distraction when Penny reappeared.
‘So how are you, mate?’ he asked her.
‘Been up to much since I last saw you?’
‘Enjoying the holidays?’
‘They’re all right.’
‘Only all right? You live near the seaside and you don’t have to go back to school for another week, how can it only be all right?’
‘I was in day club most days. Some days Mum and me had chips on the beach when she finished her work.’
‘Sounds great. Were the chips good?’
‘Chips are always good.’
With that she was gone again. End of conversation. She caught a glimpse of her ever-elusive cat out of the corner of her eye and went chasing after it with predatory speed. Clare shouted after her to slow down but her warning had little effect. Tom watched as Penny chased the cat down the length of their short back garden, then saw it slip through a hole in the wire-mesh fence and run out into the fields beyond.
Clare watched her daughter from behind the ironing board, standing on tiptoe to make sure she was okay before returning her attention to the laundry. Again Tom felt awkward, and a little sad too. Clare never seemed to relax, never switched off. He’d only come into her life at the tail-end of her relationship problems, but he knew the break-up had taken its toll. He hadn’t had it easy himself since the death of his parents, but there was a major difference in their relative situations: he had no one to think about but himself. If Tom wanted to cry, he could cry. If he wanted to get drunk and smash something up, he’d do it. If he wanted to stay in bed all day and not say a damn thing to anyone, then that was what he did. Clare, on the other hand, had to keep everything bottled up and hidden away for her daughter’s sake. He could see the strain etched on her face.
‘So how are you doing?’ he asked, slightly cautiously, treading a fine line between caring and patronising.
‘Okay,’ she said as she folded up the ironing board. ‘Been better, been worse.’
‘Work all right?’
‘I’m a dental nurse, Tom. I spend my days sterilizing instruments, checking notes and looking into people’s mouths. Work’s as all right as can be expected.’
‘Well that’s something, I guess,’ he said, and she managed a subdued grin as she passed him the ironing board to put away. She immediately turned her attention to the oven, and served up Penny’s dinner then called her inside.
‘If you’re having one,’ Tom replied.
‘I am. Hot or cold?’
‘Juice or beer?’
Clare grinned again. ‘Typical bloody man, couldn’t make a decision if your life depended on it.’
‘Juice then,’ he answered quickly. ‘I’m driving.’
‘That’s better,’ she said, deliberately patronizing.
‘You’re not going all feminist on me are you, Clare?’
‘What if I am? What’s wrong with that?’ she asked as she led him through to her over-cluttered but comfortable living room.
‘Nothing,’ he replied, backpedalling furiously. ‘It’s just that—’
‘I’ve had enough of men,’ she said. ‘You’re more trouble than you’re worth, you lot. That guy next door, Jim Franks, he’s such a bloody chauvinist. Him and his wife are both in their eighties, and I can’t believe how he talks to her. You can hear him out in the garden, shouting for her to get him something to eat. And she puts up with it too, silly cow. Has done for years’
‘But they’re ancient. It’s probably just a generational thing.’
‘That’s no excuse. Honestly, she’s scared to do anything without checking with him first. Spends her entire life cleaning up and fussing around him. You try talking to her and it’s pitiful. She’s got no conversation, absolutely nothing to say for herself. Christ, I think she has to check with Jim before she goes to the toilet.’
‘Bloody hell, Clare, who rattled your cage?’
She sighed and shook her head. ‘Sorry, bad week.’
Tom sensed he shouldn’t pry. ‘Want to show me what the problem with the computer is? Let this useless bloke try and fix it for you?’
‘I could probably do it myself if I tried. I just don’t have the time.’
‘No worries. You said something about it not connecting?’
‘Yes, bloody thing,’ she said as she led him upstairs. The computer was in her cramped bedroom, set up on a dressing table littered with loose cables, CDs and data sticks, unused user guides, and a layer of dust. Tom sat down and turned it on. Clare cleared her throat. ‘Sorry.’
‘For going off on one just now. For ranting.’
‘It’s water off a duck’s back. Honest, it doesn’t bother me.’
‘You’re a good punch bag at times, Thomas Winter.’
‘I aim to please.’
‘No, seriously, you’re a half-decent bloke. Best of a bad bunch. I didn’t mean to lump you in with the rest of the shysters.’
Tom watched the computer beginning to boot up. Should he say anything else or just let it go? He didn’t want to, but decided he probably should. ‘So what’s he done now?’
‘He’s messing me around, that’s all.’
‘More than usual?’
‘Not really. I just get fed up of it, you know? Everything’s a battle with Aiden. He’s a spineless, selfish bastard.’
‘Bloody hell, don’t hold back.’
Clare had no intention of doing so. ‘I mean, just look at the way he left here. No hint there was anything wrong until he told me he was going. No discussions. No negotiations. Right before Christmas too. Bastard. Now I look back I feel like such an idiot. I should have seen it coming. The warning signs were there. All those bloody business trips. And he never wanted to get married either. It’s obvious why now. It would have been harder for him to walk out if we’d been married.’
Tom seized on a pause in her rant to try and divert the conversation elsewhere. ‘You said you were having trouble getting online…’
‘It gets this far,’ she explained, ‘then it freezes up. See?’
‘Ahh… I think I can fix this. You installed anything new recently?’
‘No idea. Aiden probably emailed me a virus or something stupid.’
‘He wouldn’t do that, would he?’
‘I don’t think he’d have the intelligence. He’s such a shit, Tom. You know, I don’t think he gives a damn about Penny. He keeps making excuses for not seeing her. She hasn’t seen him for over a month. It’s Pen I feel sorry for. She’s the one who’s suffering most in all of this, but she’s too young to express how she’s—’
‘We got any more ketchup, Mum?’ Penny asked from the doorway. Neither Tom or Clare had heard her creep upstairs. Clare smiled at her daughter, hoping she hadn’t overheard.
‘There’s some in the cupboard. I’ll come down and get it for you in a sec, okay?’ Clare replied quickly, her voice overly bright. With that Penny disappeared back down to her dinner. Tom looked over his shoulder and saw Clare staring into the space where her daughter had just been.
‘I’ve got this,’ he said. ‘Shouldn’t take long.’
Clare nodded and went downstairs.
The computer problem turned out to be a relatively simple one to fix, which was a relief because Tom definitely wasn’t an expert. He’d picked up a fair amount of knowledge from his time working in the city, but until he’d moved to Thatcham he’d always had the support of an IT helpdesk to fall back on whenever he hit trouble. But he had a logical mind, and he managed to work his way back through the problem by adjusting and readjusting various settings until something happened, removing a couple of redundant programs, and turning the whole thing off and on again several times.
‘Done,’ he announced triumphantly as he returned downstairs. Clare looked up from where she was sitting on the sofa, watching TV with Penny.
‘Brilliant. Thanks, Tom.’
‘What was the problem?’
He tried to fob her off with some bullshit or other – a string of words he’d seen but didn’t quite understand – but she could see straight through him. ‘Not sure really,’ he admitted. ‘I just kept messing with it until it started working.’
‘Thank you, anyway. You’ve got to let me give you something for your time.’
‘Another drink will be enough.’
Clare got up and disappeared into the kitchen. Tom sat down next to Penny on the sofa. The programme she’d been watching finished, and she grabbed a handful of remote controls. With remarkable speed and dexterity, she switched off the DVD player and surfed through several of her favourite channels.
‘You’re faster than me with those things,’ Tom said, genuinely impressed.
‘I use them a lot,’ she answered. ‘There, I like that programme,’ she said, pointing at the screen as the channel numbers and programme names flashed past.
‘What, the news?’ Tom asked, surprised. The TV had stopped on one of the many channels still broadcasting footage of the alien arrival.
‘No, not that. After the news. It’s on next.’
Clare called for Penny who got up and scrambled away, leaving Tom alone in the living room. He struggled to find the right button on the right remote control, but eventually managed to increase the volume slightly. A cursory glance at the headlines running across the screen revealed that nothing much seemed to have changed in the few hours since he’d last checked. He was relieved. He felt like he’d taken his eye off the ball coming here. Anything could have happened.
Clare passed him his drink and sat down next to him.
‘So what do you think about all of this?’ he asked.
‘Not a lot.’
‘You’re not excited? Intrigued?’
‘Plenty of other folks seem to be. Thatcham’s rammed.’
‘I know. Drayton’s the same. I tried to do a bit of shopping first thing this morning but I ended up turning back and coming home.’
‘Still doesn’t seem real, does it? I mean, actual confirmed contact with another form of intelligent life.’
‘Another intelligent life-form? What, you think mankind’s intelligent? Jesus…’
Tom sensed another anti-male, anti-Aiden rant coming, and he moved fast to head it off. ‘Let’s just hope some good comes of it, eh? You’d think with that kind of technology they might be able to help us make a few advances and—’
‘The only kind of advances I’m interested in,’ she quickly interrupted, ‘are advances on my salary so I can afford to pay the bills and keep a roof over our head. Do you have any idea how much Penny’s childcare fees have been this summer? I couldn’t give a damn about bloody spaceships and the like.’
‘I don’t want to piss on anyone’s parade,’ she continued, fired-up again, ‘but I’ll be honest with you, Tom, because I always am. I don’t give a shit what’s happening next door, never mind the next town, the next country, or the next bloody galaxy. All I’m concerned about is making sure my little girl is safe and happy and that she has everything she needs. I have to put her first, because no one else gives a flying fuck. And if everyone’s now going to spend their time looking up at the stars, thinking about buggering off into space, then there’s less chance than ever of me getting any help.’
Tom had touched a raw nerve, and he immediately regretted saying anything. But Christ, all he’d done was mention what was on TV. ‘Look, I’m sorry,’ he said, not entirely sure what he was apologising for. ‘You know I’m here if you need anything.’
She smiled and gently squeezed his hand. ‘I know. Look, I’m sorry I’m such a bitch at the moment. Like I said, it’s been a bad week. I know I can rely on you, but…’
A moment’s silence.
‘But it’s not the same, is it? I don’t want to offend you, Tom, so please don’t take this the wrong way, but you’ve got Siobhan and your brother, and you don’t owe me or Penny anything. By rights we should be at the very bottom of your list of priorities.’
‘Thing is, I don’t have much in the way of priorities right now.’
‘I understand that. I’m being clumsy here… I guess what I’m trying to say is we’re not your responsibility. Aiden’s the one who should be providing right now, and no matter what he’s done, for Penny’s sake I can’t shut him out of her life completely. All I want to do is punch the fucker in the face or worse when I see him, but I can’t. I have to stay positive and keep trying, even if it kills me.’
‘I’m not trying to take anyone’s place, I’m just—’
‘As much as I hate him right now,’ Clare interrupted, not listening, ‘and I do hate him, he’s still Penny’s dad.’
Tom resolved to keep his mouth shut and was relieved when a change on the TV brought a welcome distraction. Breaking News, a gaudy graphic announced.
‘Mind if I…?’ Tom asked, picking up the remote control again. He turned up the volume as yet another stuffed suit took up position behind another UN plinth. Tom’s mouth was dry and he felt uncomfortable, half-expecting the diplomat to be about to announce the beginning of hostilities or something similar.
‘I bet it’s all gone belly-up,’ Clare said, and it made Tom feel slightly better knowing he wasn’t the only person left who was still looking at glasses which were half-empty rather than half-full.
‘Further to the information we shared with you earlier today,’ the spokesman began, ‘we can now provide you with an important update.’
‘They’ve brought space germs with them and we’re all fucked,’ Clare said. ‘I saw a film like that once.’
‘Either that or we’re all being ordered to report to processing centres first thing Monday morning so they can turn us into mindless drones.’
‘I think they’ve already started. Have you been into Drayton recently?’
‘A thorough inspection of the alien vessel has been carried out by their technicians,’ the man on the screen continued. ‘They have reached the conclusion that the ship is damaged beyond repair. Contact has been made with their home-world, and we’ve been advised that a rescue mission is already being prepared for launch. Current estimates are that it should arrive by May next year.’
‘Next year?’ Tom exclaimed. ‘Bloody hell.’
‘They managed to get in touch quick enough, though.’
‘Ten months,’ he repeated. ‘At the speed that thing moves? Why’s it going to take so long?’
‘Can’t say I’m surprised. Ten months is plenty long enough for them to get themselves well and truly settled. We’re never going to be able to get rid of them now, are we?’
‘We don’t know that.’
‘Let’s be honest, Tom, we don’t really know anything yet.’
He didn’t bother trying to argue with her logic. On the screen the UN spokesman was still in full flow.
‘By unanimous agreement we have today passed a United Nations resolution which permits these travellers – our guests – asylum here until such a time as they are able to leave. It is hoped that both the visitors and ourselves will be able to take advantage of our time together in order to learn about each other’s planets, cultures and technologies. This is a tremendously exciting time for all of us.’
‘Bollocks,’ Clare interrupted. ‘Who are they kidding? Does anyone really believe they’re going to learn anything from us? Bloody hell, look at the state of their spaceship. Do you honestly think we’ll be able to tell them anything they don’t already know?’
‘You’re right,’ Tom agreed. ‘They’ve got halfway across the universe. We can’t even get a bloody unmanned probe to Mars without fucking it up.’
‘This is all spin,’ Clare said, ‘no substance. It’s all so bloody vague. I used to have the same problem with Aiden. He could talk the talk and he was full of big ideas, but when you looked deeper, there was nothing there.’
Tom glanced across at her. She picked up a magazine and started flicking through the pages, her limited interest in the aliens clearly exhausted. It was obvious from her tone that, to Clare, the sudden arrival of these visitors was just another unnecessary complication to her already unnecessarily complicated life.
The man on screen still had more to say.
‘We have been informed that there is a slight danger of a leak from the ship’s engines. Having fully considered the information provided to us by the visitors, the Security Council has agreed that the most sensible course of action available is for the aliens to destroy their ship. Arrangements are being made to launch the vessel away from Earth on a course which will guide it directly into the sun. We are assured by our solar experts that this will have no detrimental side-effects and that it is the safest and easiest way of avoiding potential dangers. Furthermore, when the—’
Tom didn’t get to hear anything else. Clare snatched up the remote and switched the TV off.
‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I’ve heard enough for one day.’
Tom looked across at her again, concerned. She caught his eye momentarily, then looked away.
‘Listen, I’m only going to ask you this one more time. Are you sure you’re okay?’
She paused, and she seemed about to say something before deciding at the last possible second that she shouldn’t. ‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry I’m such a miserable bitch.’
‘You’re not,’ he said instinctively.
‘Okay, you are. But I understand. You don’t have to apologise.’
‘I’m probably just hormonal.’
‘Too much detail.’
She smiled. ‘It’s just that sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe, you know? It’s not Penny’s fault, and I feel like a bad mum just for saying this, but I’d just like a break. I’d like to go out and get pissed. I want to pick up my studying again and try and finish my degree. I want to be more than just a mum and an employee. Does that make any sense, or am I just being selfish?’
‘It makes complete sense.’
‘I just want to have a little control back, you know? It’s like every minute of every day I’m doing stuff for other people, and there’s never any time left for me. I think that’s why I’m not interested in these bloody aliens. I’ve already got too much to think about.’
There was nothing Tom could do or say. He waited a few seconds longer before making his excuses. ‘I should go…’
‘I don’t blame you. I would if I was you.’ She smiled. ‘Thanks for your help with the computer, Tom.’
‘No worries. If you need anything else…’