Just after four o'clock that afternoon the telephone rang. It was Clare Austin, another one of the few close friends that I had made at the office where I used to work who I bothered to keep in touch with and who bothered to keep in touch with me. She made me laugh. In spite of all that had happened in the last twenty-four hours, Clare sounded as down-to-earth as ever. She was the one person I'd spoken to who seemed still firmly anchored to the harsh realities of everyday life and who was unfazed and unconcerned by the alien arrival to the point of ignorance.
Now that I had been freed from the shackles of a regular job and a daily routine, my life had changed and I frequently found myself doing things which, a year ago, I wouldn't even have considered. When it came to Clare I had become a janitor of sorts. She lived alone with her daughter, Penny and I often helped her out by doing odd-jobs around her home for her. I'd change a plug, cut the hedge, fix a lock or, as she'd asked me this afternoon, put up a shelf. It wasn't that she couldn't do it, it was more just an excuse for us to get together. Today I welcomed the interruption. Sitting at home in front of the television I had nothing much to do except try and get over my lingering hangover. A visit to Clare's house would, I hoped, bring some life and purpose into a strange day that was badly in need of a kick-start.
After taking the call from Clare and getting my tools together I was out of the house in minutes. It was a bright, warm and pleasant late-summer day and I drove slowly along the part of the main street which ran parallel to the grey stone sea wall. Countless holiday makers drifted aimlessly across the road in front of me, dragging behind them their bucket-and-spade carrying, ice-cream licking kids. Although they were a pain in the backside to the locals throughout the summer months, the tourists contributed so much to the economy of the village that Thatcham would struggle to survive without them. They were a nuisance that we had to bear.
Today felt somehow different to most other days. There was a light and happy, almost carnival atmosphere in town and it felt more like the start of the summer season than the end. Everything felt almost, but not quite, normal and it was only when I glanced to my left and looked out over the sea wall that thoughts of yesterday's bizarre encounter returned. The ocean was calm, cool, deep, blue-grey and as reassuringly familiar as ever and yet, somewhere out there, an immense alien ship was hovering over the water. The road slowly curved away to the right and entered the centre of the village proper and I concentrated on driving again.
Clare's house was only a few miles away and I was there in no time. I knocked at the door and it was quickly answered by Penny. Her mum appeared in the hallway behind her.
'Hello,' I smiled. 'All right?'
Clare nodded and walked towards me.
'You were quick,' she said.
I went into the house and pulled the door closed behind me.
'I know. I had nothing else to do so I thought that...'
'Haven't you got a life anymore?' she laughed, interrupting me. 'It's a sad state of affairs when all you've got to do on a Saturday afternoon is come round here and put shelves up for me!'
'Siobhan's at work and Rob's still half-drunk from last night,' I explained.
Clare said nothing. She just shook her head and walked towards the kitchen.
Penny hovered at my side. I looked down and she flashed a toothy smile back at me.
'How are you, mate?' I asked, ruffling her already untidy hair.
'All right,' she mumbled before turning and running away from me as quickly as she could. I didn't take it personally. She was often awkward and embarrassed for the first few minutes whenever I visited. Once she'd got used to me being around I couldn't get rid of her.
I followed Clare deeper into the house.
'Want a drink?' she asked. I stood in the kitchen doorway and watched her.
'Something cold, please,' I replied.
'Juice or a beer?'
Clare glanced across at me and then took a glass from the draining board and poured my drink. She looked tired but relaxed, a million miles from the smartly-dressed professional career-minded woman I'd first worked with at the office. Although we had worked well together from day one, it was only recently (since I'd actually left work) that our friendship had blossomed. She and James were the only two people from the company that I'd bothered to keep in touch with since leaving. Coincidentally, they were the only two people who had bothered to keep in touch with me.
I took my drink from Clare and followed her into the living room.
'How's work?' I asked for no real reason as I sat down on the sofa.
She looked at me with an expression that spoke volumes. She knew that I wasn't really interested and that I had asked more out of courtesy than for any other reason.
'Shit,' she replied bluntly. 'Remember how it was when you left?' I nodded. 'Well it's worse now. A damn site worse.'
I said nothing. For a few long seconds I remembered my time at the office and then immediately did my best to blank them from my mind. The months and years that I had spent there had without doubt been the most unrewarding period of my life so far.
Penny distracted me from my daydreams by slamming the door of a nearby cabinet shut. She stomped heavily across the room (with all the grace of someone fifty times her weight) and slammed a video cassette into the machine beneath the television. She sat cross-legged in front of the screen and waited impatiently for her film to start.
'So how are you two getting on?' I asked.
Clare was sitting on the arm at the other end of the sofa to me. She sighed and shrugged her shoulders and I noticed that her face had dropped slightly. She was obviously trying to keep her change in expression hidden from me but it wasn't working.
'We're okay,' she replied softly.
'Sure?' I pressed. I knew her well enough to be able to risk probing a little further. She shrugged her shoulders again.
'Honestly, we're fine.'
I wasn't convinced, but I could tell that she didn't want to talk. Times had been tough for Clare recently and I knew that she would confide in me if and when she needed to. Until then I knew that I should just back-off and give her space. Upsetting or offending my friend was the last thing I wanted to do and I didn't want her to misread my intentions. She was in the middle of a messy divorce from her husband and it didn't take much to upset her at the moment. He had walked out on her just before last Christmas and although he continued to support Penny financially, he had no other interest in the daughter he had abandoned. Sitting there watching her sitting in front of the TV I found it hard to believe that anyone could be so hard and callous. A perfect, innocent and helpless little girl whose life had been turned upside down by the adults she had trusted more than anyone else in the world. Clare's husband had casually announced that he was leaving over dinner. As they had eaten their evening meal together one night he had told her that he'd met someone else and that he was leaving. And that was it. By the morning he had gone with no explanation and no more discussion. He'd left without looking back.
I was conscious that there was suddenly a heavy, almost oppressive silence in the room.
'Shall I show you where I want the shelf?' Clare asked.
I nodded and got up to fetch my tools from the car.
The shelf (which was in Penny's room) took less than half an hour to put up. The job had been so quick and easy that I'd even had time to sand down the woodwork and give it a coat of varnish. Once I'd finished and tidied up I went outside to the back garden where Penny was playing and Clare was relaxing in the warm orange rays of the late afternoon sun.
'All done,' I announced as I stepped out of the shadows of the house and into the sunlight.
'Brilliant,' Clare said, shielding her eyes.
'You'll need to give it another coat of varnish in a couple of hours. I've slapped some on but...'
'Do I owe you anything? Did you have to buy anything to...'
I shook my head.
'Don't be stupid,' I sighed. 'It was a pleasure. And anyway, you wouldn't be able to afford me if I charged!'
'Cheeky sod!' she snapped, hurling a discarded teddy bear at me. 'I feel terrible though, you've given up your Saturday afternoon and...'
'Doesn't matter,' I interrupted. 'Saturday afternoons are the same as Monday afternoons these days. There's no difference to me anymore.'
'But nothing,' I insisted. 'I really don't mind. But if you're insisting on giving me something for my trouble then make it another drink will you?'
Clare smiled and brushed past me as she disappeared into the house.
Back in the cool of the living room I found myself drawn to the incredible pictures that were still being broadcast from out over the ocean. Penny's half-watched video had finished and the tape had automatically stopped, rewound and ejected itself from the player.
'So what do you think about all of this?' I asked Clare as she passed me my drink and sat down.
'Not a lot,' she replied abruptly. It was clear that her nonchalance was honest and heartfelt.
'You've got to be excited by it?' 'Have I?'
'Christ, yes. Bloody hell, for the first time we've made contact with another intelligent life form. This could open up so many possibilities for us...'
'What do you mean, another intelligent life form? You think mankind's intelligent? Jesus.'
'But there's going to be so much we can learn from them, Clare. We don't know what kind of advances they might be able to...'
'The only advances I'm interested in,' she interrupted, 'are advances on my salary so that I can afford to pay the mortgage and keep a roof over our heads. What's it matter to me if they show us how to build spaceships or...?'
'It might not matter now, but what about the future?'
'What about the future?' she sighed. 'Look, I don't want to rain on your parade, Tom, but I'll be honest with you because I always am. I really don't give a shit what's happening in the next street, the next town, the next country or even the next bloody galaxy. All that I'm concerned about is making sure that my little girl has what she needs and that she's happy. I've got to put her first because no-one else ever will, will they? No one gives a flying fuck about her but me.'
I had obviously touched a nerve. I hadn't meant to upset her - it had been the last thing I'd wanted to do. It didn't take a genius to see that she was still smarting from what her husband had done to her and Penny. She hadn't deserved any of it. No-one deserved that kind of treatment.
'You know that I'm here if you need anything, don't you?' I said, struggling to find something constructive to say without overemphasising my concern or embarrassing my friend. 'I'll be around if you want me.'
'I know,' she sighed. 'I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offload at you. I know you're here for both of us but...'
A moment's silence.
'But what?' I asked cautiously.
'But it's not the same, is it?'
'How do you mean?'
'I don't want to offend you, Tom, but...' It was obvious that she was struggling to express her feelings.
'Doesn't matter,' I said, trying to save her the effort (and myself the hurt).
'Please don't take this the wrong way,' she continued, 'but you can't take the place of the man I married. No matter what he's done he's still Penny's dad and there's still a place for him here...'
'I'm not trying to take anyone's place,' I began pointlessly. 'I just want you to know that...'
I let my words trail away into an awkward silence. To my relief a change in the picture on the television screen brought a welcome distraction. It was another United Nations press conference. I picked up the remote control and turned up the volume so that I could hear the news.
An extremely ordinary looking official stepped up to a plinth to deliver more extraordinary news. He cleared his throat and shuffled his papers.
'Further to the facts that were released earlier this morning,' he began, 'we're now able to bring you an update on the present situation. A thorough inspection and examination of the alien ship has been undertaken during the last few hours. The visitors have now concluded that the damage to the ship is beyond repair. To this end contact has been made with the alien home world today and a rescue mission has been dispatched. It is estimated that this will arrive within the next ten months.'
The official paused for a second and the gap in his delivery was seized upon by the hordes of media representatives gathered around. He held up his hands to try and calm the crowd.
'Bloody typical,' Clare hissed under her breath. 'I suppose that's it now, they've got their feet well and truly under the table.'
'What?' I grunted, half-listening.
'We're never going to get rid of them now.'
'Why do we want to get rid of them?'
'I want to get rid of them,' she replied. 'I don't like them.'
'You don't know anything about them.'
'No-one knows anything about them...'
Simple and direct as it was, I couldn't argue with her logic. The United Nations spokesman continued;
'We have extended our earlier agreement and will allow the travellers asylum until their colleagues arrive. It's hoped that both the visitors and ourselves will be able to take advantage of this time together in order to learn about each other's planets, technologies and societies. This is an extremely important stage in both the history and future development of both races...'
'Bullshit,' Clare interrupted again. 'Who the hell are they trying to fool? What are they going to learn from us? There's not going to be a fat lot we can tell them that they don't already know. Bloody hell, look at the state of their ship. We're still crashing planes...'
Again she was right. I wondered whether Clare really was as anti-alien as she sounded, or perhaps her venom was so obvious because she was just anti-everything at the present time? To her the sudden arrival of the aliens was nothing more than a temporary (and not very interesting) distraction. An unnecessary complication of her already unnecessarily complicated life.
The man on the screen had still more to say.
'Finally, after several hours of discussions with the commander of the alien ship, it has been decided that the vessel will be destroyed. There is a very slight danger of a leak from the ship's engines and so it has been decided that it is in the best interests of all concerned if the ship is destroyed. Arrangements have been made to launch the vessel away from the planet and into the sun. We are certain that this will have no detrimental effect on the sun and it would seem to be the safest and most convenient way of avoiding and potential danger. Furthermore...' I didn't get to hear the official's last sentence. Clare switched the television off.
'Sorry,' she sighed, sounding tired and harassed, 'I've heard enough for one day.'
I forced a smile and then looked deep into my friend's face.
'Look, I'm only going to ask you this one more time, are you sure you're all right?'
For a fraction of a second I thought that Clare was about to become even more annoyed and defensive than she already had been. But instead she managed a smile and relaxed. She reached across and squeezed my hand.
'I'm fine,' she sighed. 'I'm sorry I'm such a miserable bitch, it's just that...'
'You don't have to explain,' I interrupted. 'As long as you're okay, that's all that matters.'
Penny thumped into the room, leaving a trail of mud and dirt on the carpet behind her. Clare's face fell and, sensing that she was about to explode, I decided to make a move.
'I'm off,' I said, walking towards the front door. 'I'll see you both soon.'
'Okay,' Clare said as she followed me out. 'Thanks for what you've done today. I really appreciate it.'
'It's fine. And if you need anything else...'
'I'll call you.'
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