In stark contrast to the previous morning, the next day I hid myself away in bed for as long as I could. I lay on my back with my head buried under the covers, almost too afraid to look out. What the hell was happening to my world? It seemed to be falling apart at the seams and I had no idea why. I began to think that I must have been the cause of all the grief. I was, after all, the common denominator. In less than forty-eight hours my girlfriend had accused me of having an affair, an old family friend had turned against me for no reason and, now, my best friend's little girl seemed to be beginning to self-destruct. Normally I would have confided in Rob and asked him his opinion. Nowadays, however, everything I told him seemed to be freely shared with his alien friend. I much preferred to keep my mounting problems to myself. Yet again I had spent a sleepless night staring at the walls and ceiling of my bedroom for what had felt like an eternity. The bed had seemed huge, cold and empty without Siobhan. In the darkness I managed to convince myself that it really was me who was to blame. It had to be. The sudden change in the behaviour of many other people around me was inexplicable. The idea that I was losing my mind seemed much more probable than the bizarre alternative - that Siobhan, Penny and Joe Porter had somehow all lost their collective grip on reality.
Just after seven I had heard the front door slam shut. That had been Rob leaving. I was seeing less and less of him each day, not that that was a problem. But he always seemed to have that fucking alien in tow. There were only three hundred and sixty-odd aliens as oppose to Christ knows how many millions of humans in the country. So why did that one in particular want to spend all his time with my brother?
Eight o'clock slowly passed, as did nine and then ten. I watched the figures on my alarm clock as they marched on mercilessly towards eleven. Minutes before the hour I finally forced myself to get up, more because I desperately needed to go to the toilet than for any other reason. As soon as I was up I felt dangerously vulnerable, tiptoeing through the house in my underwear, bracing myself against the bitter autumn cold. The central heating had long since gone off. Had I got up earlier I would have been warm, but that was the price I paid for my laziness. The thought of going back to bed again was dangerously tempting. There was nothing stopping me spending a day hiding behind the soft armour plating of my duvet and sheets.
The kitchen cupboards were bare. I didn't even have enough milk for a cup of tea and I quickly reached the inevitable conclusion that I was going to have to go down to the shops. The thought filled me with dread. The last thing I wanted to do was speak to people. The prospect of traipsing along the cold, wet and miserable streets of Thatcham was far from appealing. Dejected, I showered and dressed.
Outside was as grey and unpleasant as I had expected. I stepped out into the bitter late morning air, locked the door behind me and then turned round to face the world. My breath condensed around my face in cool, billowing clouds and I shoved my hands deep into my jacket pockets in a vain attempt to keep warm. The streets below looked fairly quiet. The entire scene looked lifeless and drained of colour - almost monochrome. The once lush green hillside upon which my house stood was now covered in spiky, brittle-branched trees. Their spiteful, spindly wooden bodies seemed to climb, twist and claw their way up into the ominously overcast sky as if they were trying to escape.
I met Tony Wilson halfway down the cobbled footpath which ran past the front of my house and down into the centre of Thatcham. Tony was a member of the local coast guard. He was walking towards me, coming back up the hill and away from the village. He had made eye-contact at a hundred yards. Although I wanted to keep myself to myself at all costs, I knew that I had no option but to acknowledge him.
'Morning, Tony,' I said when he was only a short distance away.
Tony said nothing.
Perhaps he hadn't heard me. I tried again.
'Morning,' I said again, this time a little louder.
Wilson lowered his head and quickened his pace. The footpath was narrow and he barged past me, pushing me to one side. I turned and watched him disappear around the corner.
'Ignorant bastard,' I hissed under my breath as I began to trudge towards the centre of the village. Ken Trentham, the old drunk who I often ignored in The Badger's Sett, was standing perfectly still at the side of the main road. He was leaning heavily against a lamppost with his head resting against the metal and his arms hanging down at his sides. His yappy little dog was sat at his feet, barking incessantly. True to form, Ken, I thought. Pissed again.
The main shopping area of Thatcham was in reality little more than a glorified high street lined with a motley collection of small gift shops, offices, banks, charity shops and a single medium-sized supermarket. I hoped that I would be able to get everything I needed from that one shop. For the sake of my sanity and my temper I needed to get in and get out as quickly as possible.
I walked inside through the clattering automatic doors and picked up a battered wire basket for my shopping.
'Morning, Tom,' a familiar voice suddenly said from behind, startling me for a second. I turned and saw that it was Ray Mercer, the landlord of The Badger's Sett.
'Morning, Ray,' I replied. 'How you doing?'
I suddenly felt a little more positive. I had finally found someone who was actually willing to speak to me and who was still civil, friendly and rational.
'I'm okay,' Ray sighed sadly. 'Not too bad considering.'
'Considering what?' I asked instinctively.
He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
'Nothing,' he mumbled. 'You know what they're like.'
'Women,' he whispered secretively.
'Tell me about it,' I agreed, understanding more than he knew.
'I just don't know what's going on from one day to the next,' he continued. 'She was all right yesterday. Don't know what I've done to upset her today...'
'Married for thirty-two years and hardly ever a cross word. This morning she can't even bring herself to talk to me.'
'I left the kitchen window open.'
He shrugged his shoulders again.
'That's the only reason I can think of. Stupid, isn't it?'
'What's she said then?' 'Not a lot. She's screamed at me quite a bit - like a bloody banshee she was - but she hasn't actually said a fat lot that I've been able to understand. Bloody hell, Tom, you'd have thought she'd caught me with another woman the way she's been acting today.'
Ray's words immediately struck an uncomfortably familiar chord with me. His rift with Brenda was as unexpected as mine with Siobhan. The pair of them had been inseparable in the time that I'd known them both. Their warmth and friendliness was the main reason why their pub was always the busiest pub in the village. Okay, so Brenda liked a drink (rumour had it she drank gin with her breakfast) but she lived in a pub - it was part of the job. I could tell from the empty sadness and confusion on Ray's face that what he'd seen this morning had absolutely nothing to do with alcohol.
'I know just how you feel, mate,' I quietly admitted, allowing myself to speak without thinking.
'Do you?' he said, obviously not believing me.
I couldn't avoid telling him about my problems with Siobhan. I guessed that it might have helped him to know that he wasn't alone.
'Same thing happened with me and Siobhan,' I said. 'Everything's fine one minute, then she went off on one like your Brenda.'
'Sorry to hear it,' he sighed. He was obviously preoccupied with his own problems but still sounded genuinely concerned.
The conversation dried up. Ray looked up and down the shelf next to him and picked up a box of cornflakes. He put the box into his basket and then began to trundle down the aisle. His body seemed haunched forward and heavy. It was almost as if he had the weight of the world resting on his unwilling shoulders.
'See you later,' he mumbled, 'I'd better get back. Don't want to upset our Brenda any more than I already have done.'
'All right, take care then Ray,' I said as I watched him shuffle off. I felt sorry for him. Normally jolly and effervescent, today he was a shell of a man. It looked like it was all he could do just to keep going.
He turned back momentarily.
'See you on Friday night, Tom?' he asked hopefully.
'Probably,' I smiled, remaining as noncommittal as I could.
He nodded and went on his way. I turned my attention to getting my shopping done, getting out and getting home.
'I had it first, you bastard,' I heard a gruff, croaking voice say from the next aisle. The mass of shoppers crammed into the building seemed to stop what they were doing in unison to watch what was happening. I peered round the end of the display rack and saw two old men, face to face, each one trying to wrestle a bottle of whiskey off the other.
'Get another bottle,' one of the men hissed. 'Fuck off and get yourself another bottle.'
'There's no more of these. This one's mine. You get another bottle.'
For a moment the two men stood motionless, each one glaring into the other's glasses, locked in a fierce (but ultimately pointless and pathetic) conflict. They looked bizarre - all braces, tweed jackets, flat caps, slip on shoes and absolute hate and contempt for each other.
Then it happened. It a single sudden and unexpected moment of movement, the smaller of the men yanked the bottle from the other's hand and threw it into a display of bottles of wine. He then punched his adversary in the face, sending him sprawling to the ground like a rag doll.
'That was mine,' he hissed, leaning over the body on the linoleum. Without saying another word he then turned and walked out of the shop.
A few seconds later, with a cold disregard for the unconscious old man on the ground, the rest of the shoppers turned their backs on the scene, forgot what had just happened and went about their business.
It took me another twenty minutes to get out of the shop.
There must have been something seriously wrong with the elderly population of Thatcham, I thought as I crossed the high street. I could see an old lady sitting on a bench. Her coat was open. Underneath her long grey mackintosh she was completely naked.
I stopped at James' house in the way home. I hadn't seen anything of him or Stephanie for a couple of weeks. I hoped that Stephanie would be in. She was a good friend of Siobhan's and they often spoke on the phone. Maybe she'd be able to tell me what it was that I was supposed to have done to offend her.
James answered the door. He shouldn't have been there. He should have been at work.
'All right, Jim?' I asked cautiously.
My friend looked strangely distant but at least he didn't curse me, ignore me, punch me or slam the door in my face. In fact he didn't do anything. He just stood there, swaying slightly from side to side as if he was drunk. But it was far too early in the day for that.
He slowly lifted his head and looked at me. His bleary eyes began to focus.
'What?' he mumbled.
'I said are you all right?'
He then turned around (bumping into the half-open door as he did) and stumbled back inside the house. Unsure, I followed him in and found Stephanie sitting on the living room floor, barely dressed. She looked up as James walked back into the room, then looked at me, then looked down again. The expression on her face was just as confused and directionless as that of her husband.
'Okay, Stephanie?' I asked softly.
She looked up again, then looked down again. She muttered something. It might have been a word or two, but her speech was so blurred and indistinct that I couldn't be sure.
James collapsed into the nearest chair. 'What's up with you two?' I asked. No response. 'Are you ill, Jim?' I tried. 'Why aren't you at work?'
James said nothing. He just listlessly stared into the space in front of him.
'Do you want me to get a doctor? Do you want me to...?'
'Hello,' the couple's eldest child - Jessica - said suddenly. She was standing next to me. I hadn't noticed her come into the room.
'Hello, you,' I whispered, crouching down so that we were on the same level and I could speak to her quietly. 'You okay?'
She nodded. Her eyes were wide and unblinking.
'So what's up with your mummy and daddy today?' I asked.
Jessica shrugged. Two of her three younger sisters peered around the kitchen door and then crept into the room when they recognised me. Although she was the oldest, Jessica was just under eight years of age. She obviously understood little about what was happening around her. Unfortunately neither did I.
'They're acting strange, aren't they?' she said, looking down at her mother sprawled haphazardly across the living room floor.
'Were they like this yesterday?'
'No,' she said quietly.
'When you went to bed last night,' I asked, 'were they like this then?'
She shook her head.
'No they were different.'
James and Stephanie remained virtually motionless. Occasionally one of them would move, but it would only be to scratch the side of their face or shuffle their weight slightly. As I stared at them both I began to feel a desperate, claustrophobic fear building up inside me. The realisation that this was not just some freak coincidence - that there was something happening to the people around me that was wrong and unnatural. Just about everyone I had seen so far this morning had been either filled with seemingly unjustified anger and hate or, like these two, zombie-like and morose.
A sudden movement on the sofa behind Stephanie caught my eye. I leant over and saw that the couple's youngest child was lying in amongst a bundle of dirty linen. The helpless baby didn't have any clothes on, just a nappy which seemed fit to burst. It hadn't been changed for some time. Disturbed by my sudden movement, the baby began to cry and wail and wave its tiny arms and legs frantically. Feeling desperately inexperienced I scooped her up and held her close to my chest. She was freezing cold. She squirmed and kicked with fear.
'Stephanie!' I hissed. 'Stephanie, will you get up off your backside and see to this baby?' No response.
I looked up and saw that James was watching me.
'For Christ's sake, James, will you do something?'
I didn't know what to do. With Jessica's help I managed to change the child's nappy, find it some clothes and get it some milk. The other children played happily in their bedrooms, oblivious to whatever it was that was happening around them. I knew there was nothing I could do for their parents. I shook them, shouted at them and I even hit them. Nothing.
The irrational behaviour which I had already seen in some of my closest friends seemed to be sweeping through Thatcham like a plague. Completely unbelievable but painfully true, the people around me were beginning to systematically self-destruct. It seemed to me - although I couldn't be sure - that there was a pattern. They first seemed to become violent and unpredictable before slipping into the withdrawn, catatonic state that I had found James and his wife in.
I had to get out of the house. I could feel the panic beginning to rise inside me. I didn't know where to go but I knew that I had to get away. I phoned James' brother (who lived a couple of streets away) but there was no reply. In desperation I knocked on the front door of James' neighbour's house. Mrs Simpson - the old widow who had lived alone there for years - seemed as reassuringly calm, lucid and unflustered as she always did. I did my best to explain the bizarre situation to her and, although she didn't seem to believe a word of what I told her, she did at least agree to sit with the children until I managed to get hold of someone to look after them or their parents managed to snap out of their unnatural state - whichever happened first.
In the midst of the sudden confusion and disorientation I managed to salvage and hold on tightly to a single positive thought. Now that I had seen this irrational behaviour from other people who were unconnected to me, I could safely assume (if anything could be safely assumed any more) that I was not the cause of the problem.
I ran back home to get my car.
I needed to find Siobhan next.
I needed to know that she was all right.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com