Sunday morning. Cold, dull and uneventful. With Siobhan working I drove across town to see Clare. It was Penny's birthday and I had a card and present for her.
In stark contrast to the summer just ended, the village now appeared almost deserted. The vast invading armies of tourists and journalists had all but disappeared as the holiday season had finally ended and also as the aliens had begun to travel outwards and the phenomenon of their arrival had no longer been restricted to my home village and the few towns surrounding.
I found Penny and Clare together at their home. I had expected to see other people there as it was Penny's birthday but the house was strangely quiet. As I stood at the door all that I could hear was the distant crash of rolling waves hitting the rocky shore. The smell of the sea hung heavily in the grey air.
Much as she tried to hide it from Penny, it was obvious as soon as I was inside that Clare was upset. Selfishly I thought about truncating my visit and quickly heading back home but my conscience got the better of me. I could sense that my friend needed to talk. She stood there in silence at first, just watching her daughter happily playing with her birthday presents. Whatever it was that was troubling Clare, she had obviously done all that she could to keep her feelings hidden from Penny.
'So what's up?' I asked as I sat down on the sofa next to her.
She shrugged her shoulders and looked away.
Here we go again, same old bullshit, I thought.
'Come on,' I sighed. 'You do this to me every time. It's bloody obvious you're upset. So are you going to talk to me about it or should I just piss off back home now...?'
'Don't have a go at me,' she sniffed. 'I'm not. I'm trying to help, that's all...'
'But there's nothing you can do.'
'Try me,' I said again.
'It's impossible. You can't be a dad for Penny, can you?'
I had guessed that whatever was wrong would have been connected to Bill, Clare's estranged husband. That man (in the loosest possible sense of the word) deserved nothing more than to have seven shades of shit beaten out of him. And I would happily have done it for doing what he did to Clare and Penny. No matter what his reasons were I couldn't forgive him. I had never seen anyone suffer as much as my precious friend had during those first few days, weeks and months since the bastard had walked out on her.
'So what's he done now,' I asked dutifully.
'It's what he hasn't done,' she replied, her voice beginning to waver with emotion.
'What d'you mean?'
'You've made the effort to come and see Penny on her birthday, haven't you?'
'You've brought a present and a card...'
'Yes,' I said again.
'Well that's more than that fucker has.'
'You can't be serious,' I said, genuinely appalled. 'For Christ's sake, she's his only child. You'd have thought he'd...'
I didn't bother to finish my sentence. The desperate, empty look on Clare's face said it all.
'I know...' she sighed. She took a deep, unsteady breath and I watched as her tired eyes filled with heavy tears. She tried to nonchalantly and discreetly brush them away but it was too late.
'Have you heard anything from him?'
'I phoned him up last week to ask him what time he was going to come over and see her...'
'And do you know what the bastard said?' she sobbed.
'He asked me what he needed to come round for. I told him it was Penny's birthday and he started to backtrack and apologise and...' 'It's okay,' I said softly, passing her a tissue.
She cleared her throat and continued.
'He said that he had something on and that he wouldn't be able to come over. He said he'd try and make it at Christmas.'
'So what did you say?'
'I told him that if he was too busy to come and see her on her birthday then he could fuck off at Christmas.'
'And what did he say to that?'
'Don't know. I hung up.'
'And you haven't heard anything from him?'
'I found this this morning.'
She reached down and picked up a ragged brown envelope from where it lay discarded on her low coffee table. There was a typewritten name and address on the front which had been scribbled out with a biro. 'Penny' had been scrawled just above the address.
'What was in it?'
'A card and a ten pound note,' she replied.
'And how's Penny taken it?'
Clare shrugged her shoulders and wiped her eyes again.
'As well as she could do, all things considered. She's got used to not having him around now but it still hurts. I tell you, Tom, I sat there this morning and watched her looking out of the window for over an hour waiting for him to turn up. She thought he'd be coming back to see her...'
'Bastard,' I muttered under my breath.
In the days, weeks and months since the aliens had arrived virtually everyone's lives had been affected to some degree. Everything seemed to have somehow changed now that the boundaries that had previously restricted us had suddenly disappeared. But Clare's life hadn't changed at all. Before the aliens had arrived her sole aim in life had been looking after her little girl and providing for her. Today that aim remained exactly the same. My other close friends like James (and Rob and Siobhan to an extent) along with, it seemed, pretty much everyone else, had let themselves be carried away on the crest of a wave of euphoria and excitement. I was beginning to wonder where I stood in the newly defined overall scheme of things.
The atmosphere in the room was as cold and grey as the miserable day outside. I had two choices; do something about it or leave. Much as leaving seemed to be the easier option, I owed it to Penny and Clare to stay.
'Right then,' I said, standing up and stretching. 'Pizza, burger or chips?'
'What?' Clare mumbled. 'Burger and chips!' Penny yelped.
Clare stared at me quizzically.
'I can't leave you two ladies trapped inside on a day like today now, can I? You need to get out, and you need to get out now.'
She obviously wasn't in the mood to go anywhere. Penny, on the other hand, obviously was.
Three long hours later it was over.
Three long, loud hours sat in a Day-Glo burger bar on the sea front watching the rain drip down the windows.
Penny loved it. Clare and I hated it.
As far as I was concerned our trip out had the desired effect. It took Clare away from her home and distracted her from her painful thoughts and memories for a while. Penny remained in blissful ignorance of her mother's pain and that was all that Clare had wanted.
It had been an unexpected and somewhat surreal Sunday afternoon. Greasy junk food, plastic cutlery and Styrofoam packages were the order of the day and Penny wouldn't have had it any other way. I didn't know what they made of it (either the ritual of the takeaway or the nutrition-free food itself) but four aliens sat at a table nearby eating quietly. They had travelled billions of miles and, surely, they had witnessed countless incredible sights and experiences along the way. What they thought of sitting in a burger bar in Thatcham on a wet Sunday afternoon I could not even begin to imagine.
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