When I moved to Thatcham I made a real and very conscious effort to try and keep myself to myself. It wasn't that I didn't want to be with anyone else, rather I didn't want to be drawn into communal life. I didn't want to become just one of the crowd or part of the fixtures and fittings. I wanted some space and some distance from the rest of the world around me. Unfortunately it didn't work.
Drink was my problem.
I was developing a real taste for beer, and it was fast becoming part of the regular routine that I'd vowed never to have. Siobhan, a few friends and myself had got into the habit of going into The Badger's Sett pub every Friday night for a few drinks. I hadn't realised that it had become so routine until, last Friday, I'd walked in there and found my drink waiting on the bar for me. Ray Mercer - the landlord - had poured it ready.
This Friday most people needed a drink more than usual.
Siobhan called at the house just before eight. I watched her arrive from the bedroom window and followed her every step as she walked up the short garden path and let herself in. There was no getting away from the fact that she was absolutely bloody beautiful. The intense buzz of excitement when I saw her was as strong today as it had always been. A clich - perhaps but true nonetheless - she was an inspiration to me. There had been some dark days recently - perhaps the darkest days - and she'd been the single beacon of light that had guided me safely through it all.
She was standing in front of the TV when I walked into the living room. I didn't say anything. I just crept up behind her, wrapped my arms around her and held her tight.
'You okay?' I asked, whispering softly into her ear.
She pushed herself away slightly and turned around so that she could look into my face. She smiled and nodded and we kissed with the kind of passion normally reserved for lovers who have been separated for days or weeks. It had only been a few hours since we'd last been together.
'I'm fine,' she replied, still close and with her gentle breath ticking my face. 'Are you?'
She sat down on the sofa. Like the rest of the population Siobhan was transfixed by the activity out over the ocean and she stared at the television screen in the corner of the room. I, on the other hand, continued to stare at her. Of course I was interested and anxious to know what was happening out at sea, but staring at Siobhan was infinitely preferable. She looked incredible in a short summer dress which left little to the imagination. That wasn't a problem, because there wasn't any aspect of her perfect body which my vivid imagination hadn't already explored a thousand times or more. The clouds had lifted outside and brilliant orange sunlight flooded into the room, blinding her momentarily and obscuring her view of the TV screen. I took advantage of the distraction.
'You look fantastic,' I said as I sat down next to her and pushed my head close to hers. She wrapped her arms (and then her long legs) around me and pulled me close.
'Only fantastic?' she teased, her voice deliberately low and sultry. 'No,' I replied, shuffling closer to her (and shuffling to get comfortable because my trousers were tight and were becoming tighter by the second), 'you look fucking fantastic.'
I wanted her and she knew it. She was playing with me, and she was driving me wild.
'Fancy me?' she asked. She knew the obvious answer. Something about the way I was literally drooling over her must have given my less than subtle interest away.
'You know I do,' I answered, my breathing suddenly shallow.
She stretched her legs further round until they held me tight. She pulled me down until the hard bulge in my jeans was pressed tight against her.
'That's a stupid question...'
Robert walked into the room.
'Christ, give it a rest will you?' he sighed. I rolled over and sat down next to Siobhan, instantly deflated. Out of my brother's view she rested her hand on my crotch and squeezed.
'Later,' she whispered. 'I promise.'
'Can't you leave each other alone for a few minutes,' Rob whined sarcastically.
We sat and waited for James Marchant, a friend of ours, to arrive. He eventually turned up at twenty past eight (fifty minutes later than planned - something of an improvement for James) and made no apology. James was a hardworking man (he still worked for the firm I recently resigned from) and, a couple of months ago, his wife had given birth to their forth child. If anyone had a valid excuse for being late, it was James.
The four of us were uncharacteristically quiet as we walked through the village to the pub. With everything that had happened today we had plenty to talk about but I guessed that each of us needed time to individually come to terms with the unexpected events of the day. Once we were ready, I decided, then the alien arrival would no doubt become the mainstay of virtually every conversation for weeks to come.
The Badger's Sett was packed. Drinkers had overflowed outside and were sitting on the grass in front of the building, on the low stone wall surrounding it, on the bonnets of their cars in the car park - anywhere that they could find a space. Once inside I pushed my way through to the bar while the other three looked for a table. Ray Mercer acknowledged me from a distance. By the time I'd fought my way through to him he was already in the middle of pouring our usual round of drinks.
'Bloody hell, Ray,' I yelled, struggling to make myself heard over the dull roar of conversation and thumping music. 'Busy, aren't you?'
'Been like it all afternoon, Tom,' he shouted as he took my money. 'Not complaining though. Bloody aliens can come here every Friday if it's going to do this to me profits!'
'You must have the whole village in here!' 'I think everyone needs a drink after today...'
Ray disappeared to serve another customer and I began the precarious journey across the room to find the others.
'It's heaving in here,' Rob said, stating the obvious as I reached the small table they'd found in a hidden corner.
'We could go back to mine later,' I suggested. 'I can hardly hear myself think.'
The atmosphere was hot and dry. I picked up my pint and knocked half of it back with a couple of long, thirsty gulps.
'So,' I said, wiping my lips, 'what are we going to talk about?' The others laughed - the answer was obvious.
'The weather?' offered Siobhan.
'Football?' tried James.
'Alien invasions?' said Rob, unable to think of anything else to say.
And that was it. For the next two hours we talked about nothing else. Each one of us recounted exactly where we'd been and what we were doing when the alien ship had arrived. We shared our questions, fears, concerns and anything else that came into our minds over far too many pints of beer.
It was a strange night. Nowhere near as strange as the afternoon that had preceded it mind, but still strange nonetheless.
Locked in constant, fierce competition with The Sun (the pub across the road), The Badger's Sett was a warm, comfortable and welcoming place. The drink was always good, there was always hot and cold food available and there wasn't a single video game machine in sight. It was a traditional British pub - the traditional heart of a traditional British village - and not really the kind of place where you'd expect to find yourself debating mankind's position in the universe. But at that moment it seemed as good a place as any.
By ten o'clock our usually relaxing surroundings had become even more crowded and was filled with even more smoke and noise. The day's events, our long conversation and the effect of copious alcohol combined to leave the four of us sitting round the table feeling suddenly quiet, insular and reflective. For a time the conversation between us was sparse, forced and sporadic.
My eyes were becoming heavy and the smoke hanging in the air was beginning to make them sting. I excused myself and stood up and went outside to get some air. When I returned (only a few minutes later) I noticed that Ray had dragged an old television set out of one of the pub's back rooms and had set it up at the far end of the bar. Without warning Ken Trentham - by habit one of Thatcham's most miserable and reclusive inhabitants - grabbed hold of my arm and stopped me as I made my way back to my friends.
'What's going on?' he mumbled. 'What d'you think they're doing here?'
'No idea, Ken,' I answered abruptly, keen to get away. 'I've never known anything like it,' he whispered dramatically.
'None of us have,' I replied as I tried to push past him and get back to the others.
'Nothing good'll come of this,' he hissed, leaning towards me secretively. 'You mark my words.'
'Whatever,' I mumbled, trying hard not to breathe in. The old man stank - an acute and repugnant combination of stale alcohol and halitosis. He stared into my face with cloudy, bloodshot eyes.
Trentham turned away for a second to pick up his pint and I seized on the chance to get away.
'Bloody hell,' I gasped as I sat down heavily on my hard wooden chair.
'Christ, was that Ken Trentham you were speaking to?' Siobhan asked incredulously.
'Well, it was more a case of him speaking to me,' I smiled, 'but yes, it was Trentham.'
'I didn't know you knew that dirty old bugger,' James said. 'I've lived round here for almost twenty years and I've only ever seen him talk to his dog before now...'
'I don't know him,' I said defensively.
'It's not like him to be so sociable...'
'Fucking hell,' laughed Rob, 'he must be their first victim!'
'What are you talking about?' asked Siobhan, confused.
'The aliens,' he grinned. 'Can't you see what they're doing? They've only been here for a few hours and already they're screwing up the minds of normally upstanding members of the community! Before you know it we'll all...'
'Bullshit!' I snapped.
Rob shrugged his shoulders.
'Of course it is.'
'People are acting differently though,' Siobhan whispered.
'What do you mean?' asked James.
She shrugged her shoulders.
'Well just look at this place,' she said, 'it's packed. It's like a show of unity, isn't it?'
'Yes. It's the old Dunkirk spirit rearing its head again.' A little uncertain, she paused and looked around the table. 'The rules changed today, didn't they?'
'You're right. There's a new player in the game,' Rob agreed. 'None of us know who they are or what they're going to do and it's making us feel nervous. I don't suppose anyone here knows they're doing it.' 'Doing what?' interrupted James who seemed to be missing the point.
'Bonding together,' I explained. 'Like with like, can't you see it? This ship has arrived and it's different, and suddenly it doesn't matter what race you are, what religion you are, we're all the same.'
'Well, less different than we were this morning...'
I stopped speaking. The pub had suddenly become silent.
The jukebox had been switched off.
No-one at the bar was being served.
A brief blast of static and white-noise filled the air as Ray struggled to force an aerial lead into the back of the television set.
Then more hissing. More static.
A flickering picture appeared on the screen, disappeared and then reappeared seconds later.
'Got it!' yelled Ray.
A perfect picture (from where we were sitting) and clear sound.
I struggled for a second or two to focus through the smoky haze. The television showed more pictures of the alien ship hovering over the ocean. The scene was darker, of course, and a hundred dancing spotlights now ran continually along the smooth underbelly of the vast machine, but generally nothing seemed to have changed.
'Silly beggars,' Mrs Grayson, the lady who worked in the newsagent's said. Her voice was so loud and shrill that everyone could hear her. We used to joke that when she spoke her squeal was so high-pitched that it made the dogs in the street stop and run to her whenever she opened her mouth. 'The whole of the bloody universe to chose from and those daft sods wind up here at the back-end of nowhere!'
'Bloody hell,' Rob whispered, 'can you imagine what the odds against them turning up here must have been?'
He was right. The chances of the aliens finding our planet must have been slim enough, but to have stumbled upon our village? It defied all comprehension.
Rob got up and went to fetch more drinks.
I shuffled my seat round so that I had a better view of the television screen, taking care to stay close to Siobhan. Her hand was resting on my knee. Her touch was more comforting and reassuring than usual tonight.
'It's hard to believe that the rest of the world is watching us here,' she said under her breath. 'Just think, millions of people round the world are watching the same pictures as we are, and we're only a few miles away from where it's all happening.'
'Makes you nervous, doesn't it?' I said, suddenly feeling brave enough to be honest about my emotions. 'I just want to know what they're here for.'
Robert returned to the table and put down another round of drinks. He spilled half of my pint - he couldn't cope with handing round the beers and watching the television at the same time. I tried to mop up the spilt drink with an already soggy beer mat and, as I did so, I became aware that the pub had fallen silent again. I looked up, instantly unnerved.
Every face was angled towards the television set, and every last face bore an expression of bewildered fascination and uncertainty. I rubbed my tired eyes and stared into the flickering screen.
The pictures being broadcast were still coming from a position similar to that from which the footage we had seen earlier in the day had been shot. The dark and featureless alien ship was silhouetted against the clear, star-filled sky and it's immense belly was gently illuminated by lights from the countless ships floating on the rolling ocean below. As I watched, a large rectangular section of the vessel's metal skin began to slowly slide back in on itself leaving a wide, black hole in the machine's otherwise featureless undercarriage. I swallowed hard (my mouth was dry) and watched as a soft light began to shine out from the insides of the ship. A sleek, bright and smooth, streamlined object (a missile perhaps?) drifted down into the space between the ship and the surface of the ocean and then stopped. It just hung there, completely motionless.
'What the fucking hell is that?' Robert croaked, his voice also dry with nerves. 'You don't think that...' He stopped himself from completing his half-finished sentence.
The pictures on the television screen continued although I feared that, if it was some kind of alien weapon which had just appeared, the live transmission might be cut at any second. In the dark haze on the screen I could just about make out countless shifting shapes scurrying to and fro on the decks of the cruisers and battleships that had gathered there in the past few hours. Within a minute of the mysterious new object appearing the sky had filled with swarms of jets, helicopters and surveillance aircraft. Every last weapon on the deck of every last one of the floating war machines was primed and trained skywards, all aimed towards the awesome creation hanging soundless and motionless in the turbulent night air.
A brilliant electric-blue light began to shine out from the back of the second, smaller alien ship and then, as I held my breath along with the rest of the planet, it gracefully swooped down towards the surface of the water. Instinctively I squeezed Siobhan's hand and she pulled me closer to her. Like a glider drifting back down to land, the second ship soared silently through the night, eventually stopping perfectly still just a few feet above the rolling waves.
Every single available spotlight was fixed on the new machine. And every face in the room continued to stare at the television set on the bar.
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