The barbeque the following evening was at Clare’s house, but the location wasn’t important – being in each other’s company was all that mattered. Every member of this close-knit group of friends benefited from these regular informal get-togethers. They were a chance to relax in private with some of the people most important to them; a chance to forget about everything else for a while and unwind. Clare was more than happy to play host. It didn’t involve any huge amount of effort or outlay on her part, and staying at home also had two very clear benefits: not only did it mean she didn’t have to leave the party early to get Penny to bed, but it also meant she could drink. And Christ, after this week full of work pressures, stupid ex-partners and bloody alien invasions, she really needed to drink.
The day had been pleasantly warm and bright, down a few degrees on yesterday, feeling almost like summer’s last fling. The atmosphere was peaceful, a stark contrast to last night’s crowds. Although she lived mid-terrace, Clare’s neighbours on either side were no trouble and the street was always relatively quiet. There were fields beyond the low fence at the end of her garden, which made the small square patio feel as if it was part of a much larger open space. There was a train line a couple of hundred metres out into the fields, running parallel with the row of houses, but the trains were infrequent and the noise low enough so as not to intrude.
The six adults – Tom, Siobhan, Rob, Clare, James and Stephanie – sat out on the patio by the light of a few scattered candles and the glowing embers of the long-abandoned barbeque. The children were indoors, ensconced in front of the TV.
‘It’s so good to be able to talk to someone over the age of eight for a change,’ Stephanie said. She cradled her sleeping baby Felicity on her lap.
‘I’m older than eight,’ James protested, still picking at the remains of the food despite everyone else having finished almost an hour ago.
‘Mental age or physical age?’ Rob asked, deliberately winding him up.
‘You don’t count, Jim,’ Steph said, ‘and you know what I mean. I’m talking about different faces. I spend all day, every day surrounded by the kids. Much as I love them, it’s damn hard work. It’s nice to have a break.’
‘Tell me about it,’ Clare said, finishing off her third large glass of wine. She watched Penny through the living room window. She was sitting wedged between Bethany and Mark, James and Stephanie’s older kids. ‘I know I’ve only got one child and I work, but I know exactly what you’re saying. I love Pen more than anything, but there are times I could scream.’
‘We haven’t been out anywhere together for months now, have we, Jim?’ Steph continued. ‘I mean, he’s been out and I’ve been out, but we haven’t been anywhere without the kids in tow for ages.’
‘We’ll sit for you one night, won’t we?’ Siobhan said, surprising Tom. She was lying next to him on a plastic sun-lounger. He almost choked on his beer.
‘We should sort something out,’ she continued, ignoring her boyfriend’s reticence.
‘I’ll drop Penny off as well, shall I?’ Clare joked.
‘Don’t push it!’
‘Think I’ll give it a few more years before I think about settling down,’ Rob said, stretching out on his deck chair. ‘Listening to you lot is enough to put anyone off.’
‘We’re not that bad, are we?’ Clare asked, concerned.
He shook his head. ‘Not really. I like my freedom too much, that’s all. It’s like last night. I stayed out for hours. Didn’t have to get back because anyone was waiting for me.’
‘Where were you last night then?’ James asked, scowling.
‘Out on the cliffs. The alien ship. Remember?’
‘Jim’s sulking because he didn’t get to go to the pub with you lot,’ Stephanie laughed.
‘No one went to the pub,’ Tom said.
‘So did you get to see it?’ Siobhan asked.
‘Oh, we saw it okay,’ Steph explained. ‘We watched the build-up on TV with the kids then took them out into the street and watched it fly over. Amazing, wasn’t it?’
‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ James agreed.
‘Me neither,’ said Rob. ‘Kind of humbling, wasn’t it?’
‘I was just lost for words,’ Siobhan said. ‘Can’t explain how it made me feel. It was the sheer size of it, you know? I just can’t get my head around how something so huge could travel so far and so fast.’
‘What about you, Clare?’ Rob asked. ‘Where were you last night?’
‘In bed! You’re kidding me… You didn’t see it?’
‘I told you, I’ve had a bitch of a week. Standing outside for hours just to watch something I could see on TV didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.’
‘What about Penny?’
‘Oh, she didn’t miss out. She was full of it. Jim and Eileen next door had their grandkids over and they went out into the fields to watch it and took Penny with them. Sorry if you think I’m a miserable bitch, I don’t mean to be. Fact is I lay down for a few minutes and fell asleep.’
‘So you didn’t see any of it?’
‘All the noise they were making out back woke me up. I thought they were in trouble so I went running out. I got there just as it flew over.’
‘Amazing, wasn’t it?’ said Steph.
‘It was big, I’ll give you that.’
‘We went right up onto the hills,’ Rob said, excitedly remembering the events of last night. ‘Got stuck next to a right boring bastard, didn’t we?’
‘He wasn’t that bad,’ Siobhan said. ‘Just don’t think he got out much.’
‘Anyway, don’t worry, Clare,’ Rob continued, ‘you’re not alone. Tom didn’t think the ship was all that impressive either.’
‘I never said that.’
‘He wanted more lasers and lights and special effects. You know, the full Close Encounters thing.’
‘That’s not true. You’re putting words into my mouth.’
‘You couldn’t wait to get away.’
‘I couldn’t wait to have a piss. We’d already been out there for hours. Anyway, I couldn’t see any point in staying once the ship had gone. There was a lot of hanging around for something that was over in just a few seconds.’
‘Well we stayed out a while longer,’ Siobhan explained. ‘There was a fantastic atmosphere out there. There were camera crews and everything. People started playing music and mucking about.’
‘See, Jim?’ Stephanie sighed. ‘Now that’s what I miss. A little freedom.’ Her back stiff, she sat upright and gestured for James to have the baby. Clare intercepted. She took the child and cradled her gently. Tom watched her. She was leaning forward, instinctively protecting the little girl, shielding her. She didn’t even know she was doing it.
‘Ever thought about having another?’ Stephanie asked.
Clare shook her head but didn’t look up from the baby’s face. ‘The time’s gone. I always said I wanted another, but Aiden didn’t. And as you know, shit happens.’
‘I think it’s the most amazing thing,’ James said, starting to sound like he’d had more than enough to drink.
‘She certainly is,’ Clare said quietly, still staring at Felicity. Perfect skin, all creases and folds as she frowned in her sleep, mouth moving constantly as she dreamed and chewed on nothing.
‘Sorry, Clare, I was talking about the aliens,’ he said. ‘But it is like when you have a kid. Them being here has changed everything.’
‘We were talking about this last night,’ Steph explained, hoping to make more sense than her half-drunk husband. ‘You’ll know this, Clare, it’s like when you have a baby. It’s the strangest thing. As soon as your child’s born and you get them home, you can’t remember what it was like without them. It catches me out every time, even when I’m expecting it.’ She looked into Fliss’ sleeping face. ‘It just feels so right when you’ve got them with you. So natural.’
Rob agreed. ‘I was saying something similar to you, wasn’t I, Siobhan? We’ve spent too long looking inwards, and now it feels like we’re ready to start broadening our horizons. We get so wrapped up in our own routines and problems that we miss the fact we’re part of a much bigger picture.’
Clare glanced up and saw that he was looking at her. Was he trying to make a point? ‘Life goes on though, doesn’t it, Rob. I can’t just drop everything because there are aliens on my doorstep.’
‘And I’m not suggesting you should. It’s going to be a gradual change, but I think things are going to be different from here on in. We’ve never been in a situation like this before. It’s like they’ve come from nowhere and handed us a hundred years of progress on a plate.’
‘Is that necessarily a good thing?’ Tom asked. ‘I’m not saying it isn’t, but isn’t the process of finding stuff out for yourself as important as getting the right answer?’
‘Fuck me,’ James slurred. ‘Who invited Einstein?’
‘Einstein?’ Rob protested. ‘What are you on about?’
‘He was a philosopher, wasn’t he?’
‘No, he was a scientist. Bloody hell, Jim.’
‘Just look at little Fliss,’ Tom continued, ignoring them both and gesturing at the baby still being cradled by Clare. ‘Imagine these aliens produce a pill which gives you fifteen years of schooling in a single dose. Would you want her to have it?’
‘Not sure…’ Steph admitted.
James was too drunk to answer.
Tom continued, regardless, ‘If it was my daughter, I wouldn’t want her to.’
‘Why not?’ asked Stephanie.
‘Because it just wouldn’t be right, would it? Going to school isn’t just about getting qualifications. Obviously a lot of it is, but what about the friendships? What about the other things you learn? Relationships… wearing a uniform… dealing with authority… taking knocks… all the practical stuff.’
‘This is all a bit rich coming from someone who does fuck-all for a living,’ James said, the booze making him sound more antagonistic than he actually meant. Tom didn’t think he merited a response. Was he jealous? Angry?
‘Anyway,’ Clare said, finally handing Fliss back to her mother, ‘it doesn’t matter what we think. The decisions are all out of our hands as usual. The aliens are here whether we like it or not, and nothing we say or do will change that. And now their ship’s gone, they’re here to stay.’
‘You make it sound like that’s a bad thing,’ Siobhan said.
‘Do I? I don’t mean to. To be honest, I genuinely don’t know what to think. I’m just too cynical. I’ve been disappointed too many times recently and I’m not about to roll over and let anyone else take advantage of me.’
‘You’ll probably feel different when you’ve got used to them,’ Rob said. ‘I’ll admit, when they first arrived I was scared shitless. I think we all were.’
‘And that’s half the problem,’ she continued. ‘I don’t think I want to know them. I just don’t care, that’s all. I’ve got enough to think about already. There’s no room for aliens in my life right now.’
‘Clare’s not saying “aliens go home”,’ Tom added. ‘She’s just—’
‘I’m just saying they’ll have to wait until I’m ready for them. Like you say, I’ll probably warm to them once I get used to the idea.’
‘Give it a few months and it’ll be like they were always here,’ Siobhan said.
‘Anyway,’ Rob said, ‘we’ll all have plenty of opportunity to get to know our new friends soon enough.’
‘Why’s that?’ Clare asked.
‘Haven’t you heard? They’re letting them out.’