By the following Wednesday morning much of the initial novelty, trepidation, excitement and uncertainty surrounding the arrival of the aliens had disappeared. With a startling rapidity that I would never have predicted, daily life for the vast majority of the people living on the surface of our planet returned to its familiar humdrum pace. The relentless monotony and tedium about which most people complained (but which most people also secretly clung to) was back.
At some ridiculously early hour (I think it was somewhere between half-seven and half-eight that morning) I found myself sitting in the passenger seat of James' beaten-up and rattling old car, being driven at speed along the rough dirt track which connected Porter Farm to the main Portland Road and, therefore, to the rest of the world. Porter Farm was a little secluded family business nestled deep within the hills just a few miles outside Thatcham. Once or twice a week I would spend some time there helping out Joe Porter who had been a close friend of Dad's for many years. I was relying on a lift because today, for some inexplicable reason, I had allowed Robert to borrow my car. Christ alone knows why I let him get away with it. I could never understand why he hadn't bought his own car and why he stayed at my house when we'd both inherited exactly the same from Mum and Dad's estate. I suppose it was easier (and cheaper) for him to sponge off me when he needed to rather than dip into his own pocket unnecessarily. Today - for reasons best known to himself - he had decided to travel halfway across the country to see a couple of his friends from college. I didn't understand the need. Rob and his friends drank, studied, socialised and partied with each other almost all the year round, and yet they always seemed to want to meet up in the holidays too. More drinking, socialising and parties perhaps? Still, looking on the bright side Rob had only been back with me for just over a month and I was already sick of the sight of him. It did us both good to be away from each other for a while. The loss of my car for a day was a fair price to pay for a little peace and space.
'Why the bloody hell do you do this?' James asked suddenly, waking me from my early morning daydreams.
'Do what?' I mumbled, confused.
'You know,' he said, shouting to make himself heard over the throaty roar of his car's exhausted engine, 'work on a farm for nothing? Christ, if I had the chance to stop at home and do nothing like you could then I'd do just that. You wouldn't catch me doing anything I didn't have to. And that tight bugger Porter doesn't even pay you!'
From the outside I guessed that his feelings were pretty understandable. My decision to give up my time voluntarily to work at the farm did seem out of character for someone who had recently jumped ship from the rat race. But there were reasons why I did it. Reasons that I usually chose not to share.
'I get bored sitting at home all day,' I said, hoping to throw James off the scent. It seemed to do the trick. He nodded thoughtfully and returned his full attention to the dusty road which stretched out in front of us.
That answer was partly true, but it wasn't the only reason why I helped Joe out. He had been a close friend of Mum and Dad, and he'd been the one who had broken the news of their accident to me. He'd been the one who had driven me to the hospital and he'd been the one who had picked up Rob from university and brought him home when it happened. I owed Joe Porter a lot. I had a debt of gratitude to him which I wanted to repay. On another level I knew that my dad would have been appalled if he'd known I'd left my job. It was something of a consolation to be doing something with my time that I thought he might approve of.
There was another reason for working at the farm. It was much more simple and obvious. The fact of the matter was that I couldn't stand spending all that time on my own. Siobhan worked long hours and Rob was usually away at university. I had other friends, but they worked too and were not often about during the day time. It wasn't so much the boredom that bothered me, instead it was the danger of having too much time to think. I had pretty much come to terms with losing Mum and Dad (well, as much as anyone ever can come to terms with such a loss) but there were moments when the strong facade I put up crumbled and fell. It was often when I was doing the most ridiculously mundane and uninteresting thing - mowing the lawn or washing up or cooking for example. Sometimes just hearing their names or seeing their faces in photographs on the walls would do it. A crack would appear that would quickly become wider and wider until it was more like a gaping chasm. Then it was only a matter of time before the floodgates opened and a tidal wave of grief washed over me. I always felt better again eventually. But whenever the pain begins it feels like it will never go away.
'The atmosphere's bad at work at the moment,' James sighed. 'When isn't it bad?' I replied, not in the slightest bit interested. I had hoped that we might get through the journey without having to hear about the office but no such luck. If I'd turned to my right and smacked James in the face he wouldn't have stopped. He was on autopilot - a pre-programmed routine of moaning and whining. I'd sat through this far too many times before, and I guessed that before long I'd have to sit through it again.
'I tell you,' he continued, 'it's pretty desperate right now. I know things were bad when you were there but Christ, I've never known it like it is at the moment.'
'So what's happened now?' I heard myself ask. I hadn't really wanted to know, but some stupid subconscious reaction inside me made me speak. What a bloody idiot. When would I learn to shut up?
'The bloke with the red Jaguar?'
'No, that's Marcus Phillips. Simon's got an old Rover.'
I thought carefully for less than half a second. I couldn't remember ever working with anyone called Simon but I knew that would be inconsequential. James would continue with his tales of woe whatever.
'Oh yes,' I lied, trying to speed things up, 'I remember.'
James paused for a second to concentrate as he steered the car around a deep pothole in the track.
'Middle of last week, one of the new juniors we've got asked him to check over an order he'd put up. Now Simon's just like the rest of us, his desk's piled high with crap and he didn't check the order properly. Turned out it was an urgent order for E S Carters and they only got half of what they wanted. They'd had problems before apparently. Upshot of this one was that they closed their account. And they were worth a fucking fortune...'
'But if you don't give the customer what they want then...'
James ignored me.
'Worst of it was though, because Simon's signature was on the dispatch note, he's the one who's taking the rap for us losing the business. He's up on disciplinary for it.'
'And was it his fault?' I asked.
James thought for a moment.
'Suppose it was. I mean, the junior should have...'
'Tough shit then, isn't it?' I said, successfully and abruptly ending the conversation for a couple of seconds.
Less than a minute later it started again.
'They've downgraded him,' James said. 'Who?'
'Simon. They've downgraded him. And they've transferred someone in from another department to do his job. Then they had the nerve to turn around and ask him to train the new bloke up!'
'So has he done it?'
'No, he told them to piss off.'
'And what did they do?'
'They suspended him. Now we've got some bloody graduate in there until Simon's back or he's given the boot. It's all wrong, you know. There are four of us sitting there who could do the job with our eyes closed but instead of paying one of us a little deputising they bring in this fucking high-flyer who doesn't know his arse from his elbow.'
I smiled to myself. As James became angrier so his language became worse.
'Just grin and bear it like you always do,' I sighed. James nodded. I sympathised with him to an extent, but James was one of those people who was always happy enough to moan but never willing to do anything about the problem. He'd quickly enough point out what was wrong, but never look for a solution. At that precise moment in time the only emotion I felt was sweet relief that I had managed to leave behind the desperate and dirty world of back-stabbing and seedy office politics. No matter how bad things got I could never imagine going back there.
'How's the baby?' I asked with my voice full of blatantly false enthusiasm. The parents of young children had, in my experience, a devastating ability to bore. But these were desperate times, and desperate times called for desperate measures. I knew that if I wanted to avoid more soul-destroying stories about overtime, shipping orders and in-trays then I would have to suffer a string of humourless anecdotes about the varied colours of the contents of James' baby's nappy instead.
'Fine,' he smiled, suitably distracted. 'She's fine. Doing really well.'
'Glad to hear it.'
'I just wish I could spend more time at home.'
Here we go again, I thought.
'I'm sure you do,' I sympathised.
'If I could resign tomorrow then I'd do it.'
'Why don't you?'
As James struggled to answer me we finally arrived (thankfully) at the entrance to Porter Farm. I had my seat belt off and the door half-open before he'd even stopped the car.
'You okay for a lift back tonight?' he asked.
'Don't know,' I replied. 'But don't worry about it. I can walk or get a lift back from Joe.'
'You've got my mobile number in case you get stuck?'
'I've got it.' James looked up at me and then slowly shook his head from side to side.
'What's the problem?' I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
'Nothing,' he sighed. 'I just can't get my head round the fact that you'd rather be here than sitting at home with your feet up. You could be there in front of the telly with a cool can of beer in your hand...'
'It's not even nine o'clock yet...'
'You know what I mean,' he scowled.
'I know what you mean. You'd understand if you were in my shoes,' I assured him.
'I doubt it,' he grumbled. 'I'd like to have the chance, mind you. Hey, if you ever feel like swapping places for a few days then give me a shout and...'
'Just think about it for a minute...' he joked.
'No,' I said again.
'I don't know, when I look at those bloody aliens...'
'What about them?'
'Well, they're bloody stupid, aren't they?'
Stupid was the last thing the aliens seemed to be.
'What makes you say that?'
'Just look at them. They've come half way across the galaxy to get here and now they can't get back.'
'So, they're working. Imagine leaving your home for months on end to go to work? It's bad enough just being out for the day. And I wouldn't even go to the end of our street for my lot!'
I laughed and shut the door. James turned the car around in the dusty farm yard and stopped when he was level with me.
'Thanks for the lift. I'll give you a call.'
'See you at the pub on Friday?'
I knew that I had to make an effort to try and stay away from the pub but he'd put me on the spot.
'Probably,' I said, being deliberately noncommittal.
'See you there,' he smiled, knowing full well that I wouldn't be able to resist the temptation of a pre-weekend drink.
James drove away and I watched him disappear before turning and walking towards the farm house.
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