On Saturday evening Siobhan, Rob and I along with James, his wife Stephanie and their four children, all gathered by invitation at Clare and Penny's house. Clare had told me many times during the last few weeks and months that she hated spending her evenings alone and these informal get-togethers had recently become a regular event. A chance for us all to relax in the company of our closest friends.
Fortunately the late summer evening was warm and bright and we were able to send the children outside to play - out of sight and out of earshot. Once they had disappeared we were, for a short time, able to relax without interruption. I lay back on Clare's comfortable sofa with Siobhan's head resting on my chest. Music played quietly in the background and long orange shadows filled the room.
'See the ship leave last night, Clare?' Rob asked. James was close to Stephanie (with their baby asleep in her arms) and Siobhan and I were most definitely sitting together. As one of the two single adults in the room, Rob seemed to feel duty bound to try and strike up a conversation with Clare. Often it was harder to stop a conversation with her, but tonight she seemed tired and reticent.
'No,' she sighed, shaking her head. 'Couldn't be bothered. Penny watched some of the pictures on the television this morning.'
'We walked over to the hills and watched it. Got stuck next to a really boring bastard, didn't we, Tom?'
I grunted and nodded. I looked across at Clare who was staring lazily into space. At the mention of the alien ship, however, the others immediately became more interested.
'We saw it leave,' James said enthusiastically. 'We watched it from home. Bloody amazing, wasn't it?'
'I've never seen anything like it,' Stephanie added as she passed her sleeping baby to Clare to hold. 'It seemed to fly right over the house.'
'Tom didn't think it was very impressive,' Rob whined.
'That's not what I said,' I protested. 'I just said that...' 'You wanted more flashing lights and lasers and special effects.'
'No I didn't. I just thought that when you consider the size and power of that ship you would have expected a little more. We were sat on the side of that hill for bloody hours and it was over in seconds.'
'Doesn't really matter now, does it?' Clare whispered quietly from her seat in the corner of the room. I turned to look at her and watched as she gently rocked the baby in her arms, her body haunched forward protectively over the tiny child. 'It doesn't matter how big their space ship was or how loud or quiet it was, the only important thing to remember is that they're here now, and they're not going anywhere.'
The hushed tone of her voice conveyed a deadly seriousness and concern.
'Does that worry you?' Stephanie asked, surprised.
'Yes it does,' she replied simply. Her opinion seemed to have changed since we'd spoken last week. Back then she'd seemed unconcerned and uninterested by the arrival of the aliens. Today, however, the tone of her voice made it sound as if she wanted them forced off the face of our planet altogether.
'But why?' Siobhan asked. She had been quiet for a while but was suddenly more animated and involved. 'Why does it bother you?'
Clare shrugged her shoulders, taking care not to disturb the sleeping baby cradled in her arms.
'Don't know really,' she admitted. 'It's probably nothing. I'm probably just wary because I don't know anything about them yet. When I get to learn a little more then things might change.'
'It might not be long before you get a chance to do that,' Rob said suddenly.
'Why?' I asked.
'Haven't you heard?' said James.
'They're letting them out.'
'Letting them out?' gasped Clare. 'They can't do that, surely?'
'Why not?' questioned Rob. 'Once they've been quarantined for a while and we're sure they don't pose a risk to our health, why should they be locked away? There won't be any reason to keep them separated, will there?'
'No, but...' Clare stammered.
'Will they want to mix with us?' I wondered.
'Of course they will,' Stephanie said. 'Why shouldn't they?'
'Well there are bound to be differences between us, aren't there? They're going to have completely different needs. They'll probably eat different food and they're going to have their own religions and etiquette, aren't they? Bloody hell, you shake someone's hand here and you're letting them know that you're pleased to meet them and you don't pose a threat. Shaking an alien's hand might mean something completely different to them. It might be their way of telling each other to fuck off!'
'He's got a point,' Clare said, quickly jumping to my defence.
'But come on,' James sighed, 'they're only going to be here for a few months, aren't they? And they don't want to be here, do they? Surely we can make an effort to accommodate them and their needs until they can get home again.'
'Do we really want to make an effort?' Clare asked.
'Of course,' Stephanie snapped. 'Well I do, anyway.' She seemed surprised and almost annoyed by Clare's apparent refusal to be flexible and by her uncompromising attitude towards the aliens. 'Christ, these people have travelled millions and millions of miles from their homes and now they can't get back. It's not their fault they're stuck here, is it?'
'No,' Clare agreed, 'but it's not my fault either. I'm sorry, Steph. I just don't seem to be able to get into the spirit of interplanetary co-operation as easily as you have. Not just yet, anyway.'
There followed a long and unexpectedly awkward silence in the conversation.
'This reminds me of something I was working on at university last term,' Rob said suddenly.
For some inexplicable reason best known to himself, my younger brother had decided to study towards a degree in twentieth century English history. Personally I couldn't see the point. I had always considered any historical study to be a complete waste of time. Where was the sense in continually looking backwards? My philosophy was simple - if you spend all your time looking backwards, you're going to walk into something eventually.
'So what were you studying?' James asked, sounding only half-interested.
'We were looking at the increase in immigrants who set up home here after the end of the Second World War.'
'What's that got to do with the aliens?' Siobhan asked.
'Just think about it,' Rob continued, adopting a pretentious tone of educated seriousness. 'When those people first arrived here back then the indigenous population were paranoid. The newcomers were different, and because they were different people were afraid of them.'
'I'm not frightened of anyone,' Clare snapped.
'I didn't say you were. That's not the point I'm making at all...'
'So what are you saying?'
He took a deep breath before trying to explain, obviously choosing his words carefully.
'In the forties and fifties, many of the people born in this country were convinced that the immigrants were here to take their jobs, families and homes from them.'
'What's your point?' I wondered.
Rob cleared his throat and ran his fingers through his hair. He looked around the room, paying particular attention to Clare and I.
'Those people were frightened because of their ignorance and their short-sightedness. I'm just trying to make you see that you've got a fear of the unknown and as soon as you learn more about these people, I'm sure you'll be more than willing to share the planet with them.'
'You're a patronising bastard,' I sighed. 'You make it sound as if we don't want anything to do with the aliens.'
I shrugged my shoulders.
'I don't know yet.'
'I'm just not interested,' she said, very definitely.
'You should both just give it time.'
'But it's not just about time, is it?'
'Come on,' James interrupted. 'I can't believe that we're even having to talk like this. Regardless of what you might think about the aliens, you've got to admit that there is a hell of a lot we stand to gain from having them here with us. You've got to be able to see it?'
'Whatever,' I mumbled.
The children returned to the room, bringing a welcome distraction from the increasingly heavy conversation. Their noisy, muddy arrival came as something of a relief.
I really hadn't intended to sound anti-alien. I knew that their arrival here was of monumental importance to every single person on the surface of the planet.
But there was still something that bothered me. Something that didn't quite ring true.
All caution was being thrown to the wind. In an age when the person who reads your gas meter needs full identification, we were being asked to embrace these visitors from the other side of the universe with open arms.
I wanted to accept them, I really did. But I needed to be able to trust them first.
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