It is a sharp November night when Rory Hobble spots something impossible in the night sky.
He drops his binoculars, glancing at the bedside digital clock, which projects an eerie, red 23:38. The only sound is the occasional yell of his mum from the other side of the bedroom, struggling through yet another bad dream. Shuffling over the bed, he leans his arms into the chill windowsill. Far, far below is what seems such a little world, barbed in shadow. Unfastening the latch, Rory pushes the window open, the bedroom warmth depressurised into the night and replaced with the wind’s bitter breath. Goosebumps assemble over his skin like inverted meteor craters. This always wakes him, when the cold snaps at his cheeks, clawing the sleep from sore eyes. But more than anything, he adores craning his neck towards the clouds, hungering for all the wonders that await beyond the sky.
Rory glances at his mum, whose face is twisted and sweaty. She doesn’t wake.
Then it comes…that voice, that doubt which sickens his mind:
Rooory, Rooory. Mum might get cold. Then she might get ill. Then she might–
No, Rory. Deep breath, he tells himself. The thought will go.
But an image flickers into his mind: his mum, pale and lifeless in an Arctic bedroom. He closes his eyes, shakes his head.
After several controlled breaths, the thought – the voice – fades into the background of his mind.
Nonetheless, he hops off his bed and steps over to his mum. But her chest still lifts and drops. She’s fine. He knew that, deep down. In sleep, she looks vulnerable – a far cry from the daytime carnivore he knows her to be.
He creeps back across the floor, careful not to stand on the creaky bits he’s memorised, and avoiding the wire of the tatty, oil-heated radiator.
From under his bed, he drags out the Thought Diary. It’s where he jots down all those peculiar thoughts that fill his head. All those thoughts that he gets and ‘normal’ people – or so he sees them – don’t. He was advised by his last head doctor to write out every fear and every doubt that fills his mind, assured that it would help him to see them for what they really are: farce. It’s a nice diary too, leather.
So, he opens the pages. Moonlight helps him guide a biro through the dark:
I was scared Mum would die of hyperthermia cos I opened the window at night.
Okay, it’s only a four out of ten on the anxiety scale – the thoughts are always weaker when he’s tired – and Rory is able to offer at least three rational responses to counter the discomfort. It helps, a little.
Before long, he’s back at the window. But the voice will not be quiet.
Rooory, Rooory. Mum might get cold. Then she might get ill. Then she might–
Nope, I’m keeping it open, Rory argues.
And as the voice finally fades, Rory once more turns his attention to astronomical matters.
Above the ruffing dogs and mechanical shoreline of distant cars, there is the sky – his sky. It’s the same sky that covers all the world and all its people, whether they’re of sound mind or not.
Of course, living in South London, lights-beyond-count throw up an obstructive pink glow, which makes it hard to see the stars. But if he stares long enough his eyes adapt and he can still find them. And name the constellations.
He lifts a finger, tracing the little salt-granule lights.
Right, right, right, his finger moves. Orion’s Belt.
Right, down, down, right, down, left, up, this time. The Plough.
Sometimes, Rory takes a piece of black card, pops out his medication from those little foil blisters, and lines the pills up in the shape of Cetus or Ursa Major or some such other arrangement of stars. But the Plough he makes tonight looks more like a saucepan. For one absurd moment, Rory wonders if supernovas and black holes boil and bubble inside the real Plough all those light years away.
Occasionally, he finds a ruddy, dusty dot in the sky that doesn’t shimmer, and he knows that’s Venus or Mars. Maybe even Jupiter.
The sky has never failed him in its sameness. The only changeless thing he has in his life – and with that voice in his head making him doubt himself, he relies on this solid sky. Until now.
Okay, I’ll check her breathing, Rory concedes, giving in to the voice – the doubt.
He tiptoes over to his mum, as though approaching a wild and unpredictable animal, and hovers above her contorted face, listening. Her breath comes jagged, but it does come.
…Mum’s fine. Satisfied? Rory assures himself.
Returning to the window, he snatches up his binoculars again and brings the sky back into focus.
It’s still there. The Intruder.
He rubs his eyes and looks once more, this time using only his eyes. Yes, there it is. Brazen. A brightness hanging in the north. It’s not a plane. Planes move and flash with red and green, and whatever this is, it’s not moving and it’s not red or green. Whatever it is it’s brighter than Sirius, the brightest star in the sky – so it can’t be a star either.
And then Rory sucks in his breath as…another two lights appear, very close to the first! Then another! And another! Now there are five lights, all faintly purple – bold as you like. Not an intruder, but intruders.
This might be something quite special, Rory decides. But…it isn’t right. These lights shouldn’t be here.
He knows the sky and these lights are, well, intruders!
He’s not going to be the only one seeing this. Astronomers all over England will be aiming their equipment at the sky, surely. And what will they be saying? What will they be making of this strange, new appearance? Stars may burst into life, but whole constellations don’t just appear. No. This is something else.
He shifts towards the up-ended bin that serves as a bedside cabinet, picks up a chip of white chalk and hovers over a black leaf of paper, sweeping his Plough-shaped medication aside. He must draw this.
[artwork to be inserted here]
Yeah, that’s near enough what he’s seeing.
But it’s late and he better get some sleep. He’s got school in the morning, plus Mum will be awake and angry soon enough.
‘Nu-night, Mum,’ Rory whispers into the dark.
Goodnight, stars, he breathes towards the sky. As for you, Intruders, you better be gone by tomorrow night…
‘Little Grief! Outta bed. Now!’
Rory covers his head with a pillow and waits until Mum’s shouting has stopped before he dares make a move.
Waking up is like having his brain dunked in ice. Rory tries to linger in the cosiness of his duvet, but his mum’s jagged voice – addressing him by that unkind pet name – means he wakes clear and clean. The feeling is always temporary, however, as the intrusive thoughts return immediately, along with the fear and anxiety, which fogs his mind like octopus ink.
After dressing in his school clothes, he leaves the bedroom, taking with him a Dorling Kindersley book on the Solar System to read at breakfast so he can ignore his mum. In the kitchen, the TV is on but he takes little notice of it. Mum’s pale hands shake as she empties some cornflakes into a chipped, partially-washed bowl. Rory takes one of the stools at the work-surface, pushing aside a can of beer with stubbed cigarettes sticking out of it like weeds.
‘Here yer go,’ Mum says, voice impatient, practically flinging the breakfast bowl at Rory.
‘Thanks,’ Rory mumbles, slouching over his cereal. It’s not always that she remembers to do him breakfast, not that he’s a little kid now anyway.
He lifts a spoon overflowing with cornflakes and…yeah, that’s orange juice. Glancing over his shoulder, he finds his mum, in her stained dressing gown, lighting a fresh cigarette with unpredictable hands. She catches his eye, her absent expression sharpening.
‘What?’ she barks. Her voice urgent, defensive.
Rory turns back to his bowl, shaking his head and mumbling, ‘Nothin’’.
He hears Mum’s slippers schwipping along the torn linoleum floor, before giving way to the groan of the sofa under her weight. He pushes his breakfast bowl aside and opens up his book on the Solar System, scanning over information about planets.
Nothing that explains those weird lights though… Rory sighs.
He drags himself up from the stool and runs water into a glass before taking a seat again at the breakfast area. A scrap of paper catches his eye, half-buried under several unopened letters piled on the work surface – it bears the logo of the local council. He glances at Mum – who is busy smoking and staring at a patch of wall where the yellowed paper is peeling – and snatches at the letter. He reads it.
Dear Ms Hobble,
RE: Change of Worker
I am writing to inform you that I am the newly allocated social worker for your family.
I would very much like to visit you and your son, Rory, on the afternoon of Wednesday 3rd November, at around 4pm. Perhaps we can take the opportunity to discuss and review your progress since the last conference, as I can see that there continue to be a number of concerns.
I do look forward to meeting you and if you are unable to make the suggested date and time, then please do ring my work mobile (at the top of the page) so we can rearrange.
‘Mum?’ Rory says, looking up from the letter and turning his head. ‘Y’know it’s Wednesday today. Is the new social worker still coming over after school?’
Mum takes a final puff of her cigarette, stubs it out on a dirty plate on the coffee table, and gets up, shuffling back into the kitchen.
Rory holds the letter up, a little hesitantly.
Mum tightens the cord around her dressing gown. When she speaks, her voice is hard. ‘Yeah. She’s comin’ over. Expect she’ll be like the last. “Oh, Ms Hobble, yer really must clean up – keep yer flat tidy. This really won’t do”. Interfering do-gooders, think their farts don’t stink.’
Mum lights another cigarette. Rory’s eyes follow a trail of unwashed plates, cooking utensils and baked-bean cans furred with mould that fill the kitchen. The living area isn’t much better. There’s no sign of any recent activity with a vacuum cleaner, the walls are peppered with damp and spiderwebs – which themselves have gathered dust – cling to the ceiling corners.
‘And you,’ Mum continues, narrowing her eyes and pointing the burning end of her cigarette at Rory, ‘can keep yer trap shut about yer weirdness this time. Them social work do-gooders say terrible things about me and I know what they’re thinking – they’re thinking, “Oh, she can’t look after her boy. Look at how messed up she made him”. I don’t want any of that when this new woman comes ‘round later. Clear? You know what happens if you don’t do what I say.’
Rory nods, feeling a flush of panic.
Nothing seems to change when you have what Rory has; he just grits his teeth and slogs through the day, heart scalding and lungs aching with the anxiety. At least evening brings some relief, but that’s only because he’s so tired by then that his mind shuts down. Waiting for dark…he could be a vampire.
Rory looks nervously at the bottom corner of the TV screen. It’s nearly eight o’clock already.
I’ll have to leave for school soon, he decides.
‘Mum, is there any bread? I want some toast.’
‘Toast? What’s wrong with the cereal I gave yer?’
Rory glances at the cornflakes, soggy in their small, colourful sea. ‘…Nothin’. I just – I was just…still a bit hungry.’
‘Well, there ain’t no bread so you’ll have to do without,’ Mum says, traipsing back towards the sofa. ‘Universal Credit don’t come through ‘til the eighth.’
Rory sighs, stomach grumbling, but his attention is again drawn to the TV, where several people are jabbering away excitedly in a newsroom. Across the bottom of the screen, a BREAKING NEWS ribbon races along with:
MAYOR OF LONDON TO MAKE FORMAL ADDRESS IN THE NEXT FEW MINUTES
On the TV, the picture cuts in half: on the left-hand side, a wide-eyed woman – her mouth running away with her and, on the right…the lights! Those intruders from last night!
‘Look, there they are again!’ Rory yells, jabbing his finger theatrically at the screen.
‘There are what?’ Mum snaps.
Rory can’t believe it. There they are, the lights he watched switching on in the sky, one by one, the night before, on TV now. Part of him had hoped they’d just go and leave him in peace with his stars – his night sky. But another part of him, he must admit, wanted them to stay, curious at the disruption and the wonder of what they might be.
We return now to the story we brought you earlier about those incredible lights that appeared above South London last night. We understand the Mayor of London is to issue a statement and we cross over to him live.
The picture changes and a man appears, stepping out of a very important-looking building. His path is blocked by a small armada of microphones and those furry things that look like the hats on beefeaters.
‘What are the lights?’ a voice asks, amidst a babble of other questions.
‘At this present moment,’ the Mayor begins, ‘we cannot say with any certainty what the lights were last night. I do urge that no one panics and be assured that we are investigating the matter.’
‘There is a suggestion that the lights are still there – but the daylight hides them – is that true?’
‘As I said, we are investigating but are unable to give any concrete answers at this moment. That is all I have time for.’
The Mayor marches off, hounded by reporters asking a dozen questions at once.
Rory glances at the clock at the bottom of the screen again, jumps up and grabs his worn, black rucksack and blue blazer.
‘Make sure yer back for this woman later – I’ll be in trouble if yer not ‘ere,’ Mum warns.
‘Mm-hmm,’ Rory mumbles, slamming the front door shut behind him.
Rory and his mum live at Number 1701 at the top of a high-rise block of flats on the Mirth Rises estate, one of two blocks standing side-by-side glowering over the London Borough of Croydon from the summit of a hill. Up here, a biting wind reels in the scent of the town far below: petrol, the local refuse centre, fried chicken. The blocks of flats must be fifty years old and were originally grey. However, multi-coloured cladding has been added in recent times, as though to add a sense of warmth and fun that the original grey lacked. Up here, the temperature is always a few degrees lower than in the rest of Croydon, as though the cold is more at home. Rory draws his blazer closer about himself and looks over the railing to the ground below. A graffitied playground sits in between the tower blocks and Rory knows there to be needles and energy drink cans jammed into the coils of the animal springers. The chains on one of the swings is knotted so it cannot be used. Clumps of crabgrass spew through asphalt cracks like armpit hair.
Descending in the clanking, aluminium lift, Rory can hear the bark of arguing grown-ups and the chuckle-chatter of hooded teens racing about like hyenas. The lift’s metal panels reverberate with the seismic bass of someone’s stereo. Broken bottles clutter grotty stairwell corners. An abandoned trike is stained with dirt punctuated by rivulets of recent rainfall; the colour of the plastic is faded.
Rory’s school, Hurling Academy, is a twenty-minute walk away, but he is late this morning and so hops on the 303 bus that would normally reduce the journey to six minutes but, today, road works disrupt his expectations.
At the back of the bus, Rory slips and slides on his seat from one side to the other, knocking his forehead against the cold, rattling window, looking out at the mass of grey which is the sky and everything beneath the sky tangled into dreariness.
No, the lights aren’t there now, Rory says to himself, gazing up.
Those five lights. They may have made the news, but no one on the bus is talking about them. All the other kids are making gossip about people, while the pensioners huddle up beneath grey coats, hands clamped over grey hair. ‘The youth today,’ Rory hears one tut.
When he reaches school, Rory finds the playground deserted, chocolate wrappers whirling through the air. By now, Science will have just started. So, he runs past the Art block and through the corridors in the Music building until he reaches the labs.
He composes himself outside the classroom, ensuring his hair isn’t too mussed up. Inside, the class turns as one to look at him. Mrs Alkali, the teacher, smiles.
Without warning, Rory’s mind fills with a single, horrible image: him holding his teacher’s hand over a lit Bunsen burner.
It’s just my weirdness, like Mum said, Rory reassures himself, controlling his breathing.
‘Good morning, Mr Hobble. Please take a seat. We’re concentrating on your favourite topic; I’m sure you’ll be interested.’
Rory manages a weak smile in response; Mrs Alkali knows he has a passion for all things astronomical. At parents’ evening he’d gone off on quite a tangent, discussing the stars, the planets and their various movements. That had been the night his mum was abusive to one of the other teachers after drinking too much and she’d been asked to leave.
Rory takes his usual seat but not before catching the eye of Curtis Varley, who sits behind him.
‘Too busy crying into your pillow, freak – that why yer late?’ Curtis sneers under his breath, while Mrs Alkali goes about writing something on the whiteboard.
‘Mmm. Right. We’ll be picking up with the Solar System again, which is quite fitting considering all the hoo-ha in the news this morning,’ Mrs Alkali continues in a tremulous voice, clutching small hands together in front of her. Clumps of hair surge from her head as though compelled to by some unseen force. It is quite possible, Rory decides, that she did not brush her hair this morning.
‘Mmm. Yes. Now, do we all know the rhyme for remembering the…planets? Quite easy – everyone look at Curtis, please.’
With a clunk of chairs, everyone turns uniformly to Curtis who growls behind a reddening face.
‘Mmm. Excellent,’ Mrs Alkali continues. ‘Now, let’s run through it again.’ She lifts her hands and the whole class slowly finds its voice. ‘“Mr…Varley…Exploded Messily…Juggling Salty Unicorn Nuggets”.’
The class chuckles, collectively. Rory grins at Curtis’s scarlet face.
‘Mmm. Okay. Now, let’s do a bit of revision. Who can name the first man in space?’
Several hands shoot up, Rory’s first and foremost.
‘Yes, Rory,’ Mrs Alkali smiles, pointing at him.
‘I-It was Yuri Gagarin, miss. In 1961, April 12th.’
Rory smiles sheepishly, his heart full of praise. This is basic stuff for him though. He could answer far harder questions about space.
Shut up, you, Rory hisses, internally.
‘Mmm. Next, what were Neil Armstrong’s words as– Yes, Rory?’
Rory keeps his arm high in the air, inviting the attention of the whole class. ‘He said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.’
‘Very good! Our resident astrophile strikes again! Okay, can someone – other than Rory this time! – describe for me how gravity works?’
Rory rests back in his seat, still smiling at his ability, wondering whether others in the class are in awe of his knowledge. As Gareth Parish commences a definition of gravity with very little grounding, a voice carries to Rory’s ear.
‘Fffreak!’ It’s Curtis. ‘How you doing, freak? Still a spaz?’
Rory reddens, his smile instantly dissolving. He can hear Sean Ruddock, sitting next to Curtis, sniggering.
‘Still being screamed at by your mummy? Don’t she like her little spaz?’ Curtis hisses.
Sean sniggers all the more. Rory clenches his fists and feels his heart skip a beat.
Ignore him – he doesn’t know what he’s saying, Rory says to himself, but he’s finding it hard to control his temper.
‘Mmm. Thank you for that explanation, Gareth,’ Mrs Alkali says. ‘Now, we’re going to crack on with today’s work which is to run through the tasks on page forty-three of our textbooks. Can you all turn to the chapter on “The Sun and Other Stars”, please? Quietly, if at all possible!’ She adds as the class breaks into chatter.
‘Hey, how’s your mum doing?’ Curtis’s drawl comes again, disguised from Mrs Alkali under the sound of everyone else talking. ‘She still mental? Your mum don’t love you, does she? That why she drinks all the time?’
Rory clenches his teeth, rifling through his textbook with trembling hands. He can feel the blood coursing through his arms, pumping in his palms and tears filling his eyes. The kid next to him, Jamal, is looking at him now too, saying, ‘Aww, you gonna take that, Rory? Don’t take that from ‘im.’ Rory doesn’t care. He wipes a tear from the corner of his eye.
Another image flashes into mind: his hands around Curtis’s throat.
Go away! Rory growls inside his head. That en’t me!
He can hear Sean whispering something to Curtis that seems to amuse him, as Curtis is snorting like a pig.
‘Hey, freak, did your mum’ – he guffaws, quieter now as the class is settling down – ‘did your mum drop you on your head to make you a spaz‒’
Rory spins around in his chair, tears running down his cheeks, teeth and eyes gritted.
‘Aww, look he’s crying! He’s actually crying!’ Curtis manages through a splutter of laughter.
Rory imagines himself leaping on them both, punching them about the face until they’re all bloody. But he cannot move, cannot say anything.
Rooory, Rooory.If you hurt him, he’ll get blood on his brain and he’ll die, Rooory. You are a bad person who wants to hurt people. I told you so!
Rory unclenches his fists, jumps up and scurries off out of the classroom, right past a startled Mrs Alkali. He tears down the hall, past a few more teachers – ‘Hey! No running inside!’ – and bursts through the double doors – out into the playground, breathing hard. He collapses on a patch of grass, wiping tears and snot from his face, his head swimming.
How dare they say those things? Rory asks himself.
Curtis and Sean have been picking on him for weeks now – ever since the new school year started. They had been doing the same last year in primary school and he had hoped the summer may have drawn some of the poison from them. But a bully is a wretched creature, though a predator nonetheless.
Finally calming, Rory is suddenly aware of how unnaturally quiet it is out in the playground. No bird calls. No wind. He feels a strange tingling sensation in his fingers, a crackle in his hair and a whining in his ears. The world seems momentarily brighter, before fading again to its familiar grey. And then it’s as though the ground itself is alive. Through the mud and beheaded blades of grass, worms start to wriggle free – first one, then five, then ten, then dozens. Rory watches, stunned, as they perform slimy gymnastics over his feet, around his backside and across his hands: a seething, gelatinous mass. Some of them even seem to have little flickers of electricity dancing across their pink flesh.
That can’t be… he thinks and scrabbles away from them, repulsed.
Stealing his attention from the worms, two small, fighter jet-planes rip through the sky, rending the silence with a thunderous roar.
Are those military? Rory wonders, as he watches them ascend through a bank of cloud, only to be lost in the slushy sky. What are they doing here? I wonder if it’s anything to do with the lights.
A gust of wind draws the hairs up on Rory’s neck and, for a moment, he feels uncomfortable, as though someone – or something – is watching him. The feeling intensifies and he feels an urge to look up… He does so, gaze falling over a small clump of trees beyond the fence boundary of the playground and, slowly and quietly at first – but then louder – he hears a sound like moaning – hideous, desperate and mournful. His pulse quickens, the sound shooting a sharp note of fear down his spine. Then, the snapping of branches. Beside one of the trees, some undergrowth rustles, as though displaced by something that has now disappeared. The wind whips up his neck again and, looking back at the ground to find the worms gone, Rory jumps up – spooked – and dashes back into school.