[Most of this long short story was written last summer. It owes its entire existence to the generous furlough payments of the UK taxpayer, to whom it is dedicated, with profuse thanks.]
“Biggy. Please bring Pablo’s van and come pick me up. I’m in Dumfries 😔. There might be a story in it for you somewhere. JM”
No more emojis. I am never going to become one of these writers who use emojis even if I live for a billion years. I did not spend over a decade learning English to then communicate mostly through these crude children’s pictures. Our cavemen ancestors had originally invented writing in order to be liberated from drawings. There are numberless words and combinations of words that are available for you to signify the woefulness of Dumfries. If you ever reach a point where no word exists to convey the precise quality of whatever it is that you are feeling, then you can always coin a new word. Shakespeare, for example, had invented over 1,700 words and none of them were emojis (admittedly, none of them were about Dumfries either). There are no emojis in Much Ado About Nothing.
I had reached Dumfries by eleven. James had instructed me to meet him at the base of some sort of clock tower. As I approached, I was bewildered to perceive there to be a small, straggling crowd of him. Then I had registered one face in particular. Freezing mortified, my entire body seemed to tip over and plummet into this face, spiralling down into it like a bird whose wings had seized up over the mouth of a volcano.
“Biggy!” Marco erupted, running at me so quickly that even his own shadow was startled. He grabbed both of my legs and began to shake them frantically, whilst he ground his teeth in delight.
Looking up from the dwarf, I saw that James was standing with three children. They must have been all between the ages of nine and twelve. There were a boy and a girl, both with nut-brown skin and glistening black hair that sprouted in wisps and tufts. These were clearly siblings. The skin of the third child, a boy, was, by contrast, so pallid that the veins below were excruciatingly vivid, like some hapless fish that had not counted upon the clarity of the water that was meant to conceal them. This boy was sleek and damp in the pouch of his face, with a small, rather unalert-looking scowl packed into the centre of it.
James was the biggest of them all. I sensed vaguely that I had been transported to some nation of pygmies, where I was now required to conform to the role of a benevolent giant.
“Biggy!” Marco was shaking my legs again to recapture my attention. “You have to drive us to Corstorphine Hill! We’re going to meet the aliens, Biggy. Would you like to meet the aliens?”
Once we were all in the van, I procured a fuller, though no less nonsensical explanation of what the day held in store for us. “I have received a prophecy, Biggy. In the prophecy, it was told to me that I would travel to Corstorphine Hill – to the tower on top of Corstorphine Hill – and that there the aliens would come and we would all meet them. Isn’t that amazing, Biggy? Doesn’t that show you how amazing and beautiful the universe is?”
He was sitting beside me on James’ lap. The children were all in the back of the van, unobtrusively absorbed in some distant children’s conspiracy. “What form did this prophecy take?” I growled.
“Tarot! My sister gave me this tarot reading!”
I wondered how the tarot cards could have ever specified Corstorphine Hill. Did it appear on one of them? I scanned over them in my mind but at no point did it jump out at me.
“These are the sister’s children,” James told me. “Or rather the fat one is. Who are the other two, Marco?”
“Just some poor kids who have nowhere to go,” Marco said. He shook his curly locks sorrowfully and looked briefly responsible. “They are the friends of Ross.”
“The fat one,” James added.
“I was meant to be staying in my sister’s house in Dumfries, to look after my nephew. But when I received the prophecy I just couldn’t stay there any longer.” The dwarf sighed and gesticulated in sorrowful indication. “I was going crazy – completely crazy!”
I nodded understandingly.
“I actually tore to pieces the big table in my sister’s dining room, because I was so crazy. And I was jumping up and down on my bed so much that one day the bottom fell out of it. They will have to throw it away probably. I would have destroyed all of the furniture if I had stayed there longer, you know, and if they…”
For a moment I became convinced that my head was pulsating musically – but ah, no, my phone was ringing. Who on Earth could be calling me at this time of the day?
James retrieved the phone from my breast pocket and he showed me the screen: an unknown number. I nodded. He activated the phone and held it up into position alongside my face.
An unfamiliar male voice. “Turn your van around and come back to Dumfries.” This voice was almost hysterically menacing. From its impersonality it sounded somehow as though the speaker was addressing a plant, or some mindless thing, and yet this voice was also strangely intimate with quaking rage.
“Good morning. Who is this speaking?”
“My son Ross is in your van, along with that wee fanny. I told my ex-wife that she was not to ever use him as a babysitter, EVER AGAIN.”
Very quickly and dexterously, I wrung the phone out of James’ hand and terminated the call. I looked at Marco. “So how does he have my number?” I asked him, with my voice turned to winter.
“He can’t ring me because he’s blocked me on his phone and on all the social media. So when I left him the note, on the fridge, I had to use yours. It was the only option, Biggy,” he commiserated with me, shaking his head even more sorrowfully. Out of the corner of his eye, he glanced at me craftily to check that I had bought this. James had gathered Marco even more up in his arms and he was crushing him tight. He picked a stray strand of hair out of the dwarf’s hot face.
“But this guy is ignorant,” Marco maintained. “He’s so ignorant. So ignorant.” He pronounced this word as if the man was an insect and he was clapping an upturned glass over him to capture him for good. “I’ve tried to explain to him but there is so much negativity built up inside of him over all these years.”
“He is fat like the son,” James murmured. “They are both very alike, around the face.”
“But he is chasing us now,” Marco reported airily. “He did this before. When I took Ross on my pilgrimage to the magic forest, he was chasing us in a van all up the motorway.”
I didn’t say anything. As soon as we were at a petrol station, I was going to call this menacing man and betray the whole lot of them. If I could somehow drug them all, I would ship them back to Dumfries in a crate.
Although I never usually contribute to the running costs of Pablo’s van, I stopped at the first petrol station I saw. Filling up the tank would conceivably double this vehicle’s value. After paying, I ducked off the forecourt to phone Ross’s father. To my annoyance, though, his phone wouldn’t ring.
Marco had drifted up alongside me – he is always blind to any indication of privacy – and I noticed that three boxes of Milk Tray were now piled in his brawny arms. He nodded astutely at me. “This is Ross’s dad? He will have blocked you, this guy: he is crazy, this is what he does. He gets offended with everybody and then he blocks them and then there is no way of getting in contact with him again. He even blocked Ross on Facebook – his own son!” Marco shook his locks even more sorrowfully, having here reached an apparent pinnacle of disappointment.
Once we were back on the road, I became conscious that Marco was still hugging his boxes of Milk Tray. “Why don’t you share them around?” I snapped.
“Biggy!” Marco was scandalised. “These are our presents to the aliens. We have to give them something – they have flown all across the universe to see us.”
“These aliens are flying to us in… what, flying saucers?”
“Yes, you understand, Biggy! A beautiful flying saucer, just for us Biggy!”
To my annoyance, a flying saucer had pootled into my mind in illustration. “I struggle to see why any people would elect to cross such unimaginable distances in a minor, single-roomed vehicle. What fuels it exactly? If I am going to write about this, then how can I explain it to our readers?”
James attempted to help me. “To most of our readers, it will seem magical that their phones can receive messages on the airwaves and play recordings of music. To any person of an average education, a flying saucer will not be qualitatively different.”
I wondered how Marco had paid for the Milk Tray and then I realised and I told him to return James’s credit card. Naturally, James had immediately forgotten that he had given it to Marco and, naturally, Marco was slyly absent-minded about returning it. Marco does not own his own credit card, firstly because he is not organised enough to ever apply for one and keep it safely in one place; and secondly because he has never, as far as I am aware, earned any money.
“And why tarot?” I demanded, louring at him. I had just remembered some movie by Steven Spielberg in which the aliens had made psychic contact with a man. They had forced him to build a gigantic, replica mud model in the middle of his kitchen, of the mountain where they were going to land their flying saucer. “If they know that you are coming to meet them, why did they not engineer… I don’t know… a vision? A dream? Something more spectacular?”
Unfortunately, Marco is so in his element on questions such as this that it is always very difficult for me to score a single point against him. “Who knows how the universe operates?” he burbled serenely. “You can do a course, Biggy, on YouTube, about how to contact the aliens using crystals. There are thousands of testimonials from people all around the world, who have all contacted them using the crystals.”
James nodded wisely. I know that he just likes listening to the dwarf’s voice and that the meaning of the actual words now seldom registers with him. Suddenly two joyously diabolical little faces had popped up over his shoulder. “What are you doing?” they asked James rudely.
“Um, I was talking to Biggy. Biggy… this is Ruthu and Raunak.”
The children’s constant gigging wavered somewhat and for a second they eyed me cautiously. They were very pretty children, almost perfectly so, with bright, beady eyes and shiny teeth. They went back to interrogating James. “Are we going to your house?”
James glanced at me in alarm. “Biggy’s house, surely? My house is hardly a fit place for childr…”
“We want to see where you live.”
“We want to see what you eat.”
The children chorused. “WE WANT TO SEE YOUR WALLPAPER!” They laughed uproariously and then they scrambled promptly into the back of the van again, as though it had gobbled them up.
There was silence.
“James,” I inquired solemnly. “Are those children bullying you?”
“No, no,” James answered in a prim, shaking voice. “I can deal with it.”
“Children tend to bully you. They always think that they have finally captured an adult who is weaker than they are.” It then occurred to me that I did not know whether I had meant physically or mentally.
James shook his head. “I’ll tell you if things get too out of hand,” he whispered.
All at once there was a great crash and our van bounded forward, independent of any pressure that I had applied to the accelerator. Sitting up in bewilderment, I consulted the mirror and saw another van behind me with an enraged face pouring out of the driver’s window and a fist being shaken at me. For a second, I reassured myself that this person could not be possibly shaking his fist at me. Next I was forced to conclude for now that he clearly was. Then sunshine was shed all over my mind as I comprehended that this must be Ross’s father. His van accelerated, there was another crash, and my own careered forward again.
The pulsating of my phone was renewed. I recognised a valuable opportunity to reopen negotiations with this lunatic.
James set up the phone for me once more beside my face. “Hello sir,” I began. “I’d be grateful if you could please stop ramming…”
But to my confusion a female voice was chortling. “Bless me, I’m sorry, but there must be some mistake. I am the children’s grandmother.”
“Raunak and Ruthu. I gather that you currently looking after them for me.”
She had said this in a tone of beauteous politeness. She must have come from one of those countries that had been once colonised by the British, and where the educated classes had all, as some kind of weird overcorrection for being subjugated, taught each other to express themselves with a courtesy that is like some wonderful fantasy about life in Victorian England. If Scotland had been ever genuinely colonised, as today’s nationalists have lapsed into claiming, then logically many Scottish people should be now crowding out the English with a plenitude of unconscious Queen Victoria impersonations.
“The children? Ah yes, I believe that I have met them.”
“Ross’s father gave me your number. I hope that this is convenient for you. He indicated that there might be some difficulties but I dare say that it will be okay.” She sniggered confidingly. “I personally think that he is a wee bit of a fusspot…”
I gasped as he accelerated into the back of our van again. Before I could react to this, a rare, swift, nakedly calculating expression had crossed Marco’s face and he made a lunge for the wheel, rolling it around energetically so that our vehicle left the surface of the road. There was a long gap when I was aware only of my breath jammed in my mouth like a chunk of driftwood. Then the van made contact with an adjoining river bank and slithered sickeningly down it.
I bade the grandmother all the best as a passing current hooked our van and pulled us forward. Behind us, Ross’s father had clambered out of his own vehicle and he was now jumping up and down on the bank and shrieking insanely.
We were sweeping out of earshot but at the same time the van was filling noiselessly with water. We sat in silence, all listening as, majestically, the van began to sink.
I directed James to hand me a small mallet from the glove compartment. Next, I started to tap the glass carefully out of the windscreen, section by section. I used the mallet as a crude brush, to bump all of the lumps and crumbs of glass off the bonnet. We then helped the children to climb out of the van, on to the bonnet at first and finally up on to the roof.
I am an intellectual. When I sit down to write, I wish to commune with all that is wise and true in the human condition. It is unfortunate in this respect, therefore, that the subsequent few hours within our story had borne an increasingly distressing resemblance to a Benny Hill skit. So I will give you a few helpful pointers and then withdraw to leave you to imagine the remainder for yourself.
We were washed down the river, sitting on the roof of the van, but we soon managed to get ourselves successfully entangled in the branches of a tree overhead. Meanwhile, Ross’ father was chasing us in a canoe that he had commandeered from a private school, along with several tiny, scandalised boys in striped blazers and straw hats to row it for him. Once we were down from the tree, we hitched a lift in a passing Tesco delivery van. The father accordingly grabbed on to an Amazon Prime delivery van. It is something of a stretch to locate what had precisely happened next but eventually there was a ride in a stolen hot air balloon whilst the father gave pursuit on an e-scooter that he had purchased on the spot from a man who was thoroughly relieved to be rid of the thing. For a while, we were all fixed up on those Just Eat hire bikes (fortunately, Ruthu had the app on our side). Then we were riding in fine style on the Edinburgh airport bus whilst the father had to slum it on an Edinburgh tram. Once we were at Corstorphine Hill, I volunteered to stall the father.
“You go ahead,” I hissed to James and Marco, “and give those chocolates to the aliens. I’ll stay back!”
Marco was crestfallen at this turn of events. “Oh Biggy, I wanted for you to meet the aliens.”
“Well, next time perhaps…”
“There is so much negativity built up inside of your system. If only you could meet these aliens and see that they are real, it would all come popping out!”
“As I said, next time!” I looked up as the tram trundled to a stop across the road, with a forlorn jingle of its leper’s bell. “Quick! He’s coming! You have to run!”
I watched with satisfaction as James, Marco, and the three children started to jog up the road to Corstorphine Hill. They eventually disappeared amongst its infernal maze of bungalows. One of the many things that I had learned during the chases is that I can walk faster than they can all run. It is indeed maddening to be forced to walk so slowly during a supposed chase.
It was wonderful to savour air that had been wiped clean of their piping voices. Then I turned to see Ross’s father stood in the road, both hesitating and glaring at me, as though I was still on the other side of a ravine rather than a matter of feet away from him. Putting my head down, I hurried on, ignoring him.
For some time, I was scurrying down the street like this, bent over and with my face swimming across the blank pavement like a manta ray traversing the ocean floor. Behind me, I could hear the father swearing to himself and strange noises that sounded like he was thumping his chest. When I reached my destination, the White Lady inn, I turned around and looked up directly into the father’s face and straight into his eyes. Our eyes met for the first time and his looked oddly innocent or meaningless. They could have been the eyes on a newborn baby.
I went inside.
At the bar, I asked what he was having.
“A Pentland Ale, I guess,” he spluttered, evidently rather shocked. He stood behind me, frozen with suspicion, whilst I ordered and paid. I then slotted the pint into his hand and waved him over to an alcove seat. We both went and sat down.
We sat looking at each other for a time. I then took a long pull on my pint and, reminded that he was holding one as well, the father gingerly mirrored me. The expression of dislike on his face relaxed almost imperceptibly. We both sat back again and looked at each other. I was suddenly very afraid that he was about to burst into tears.
A glass collector walked past our alcove, with a long stack of grimy pint glasses in the crook of her arm and resting against her shoulder like a bayonet. “My dear,” I greeted her. “Does this establishment happen to possess a chessboard?”
It did, she told me, looking very pleased. It must be a special occasion for them whenever a customer asked after the chessboard. She marched away and came back with an old wooden battlefield that had surely hosted a hundred years’ war of conflicts, along with a leather pencil case full of the warriors.
“They are all there,” she reported, her eyes flashing. “I count them every Thursday.”
“Thank you kindly.”
I began to line up the two armies. The father looked away, as if refusing to watch me. “Let us play a game,” I proposed. “If I win, the dwarf gets to keep babysitting your son for the time being. If you win, I will retrieve your son and restore him to you.”
He glared at me anew and his eyes narrowed to dots and then the kettle had started to spit. “This isn’t fair,” he raged. “I haven’t played this game for… years, a long time. I can’t even remember the rules anymore.”
So I showed him how the different pieces moved. He continued to glare, but without the full wattage and with the final, climactic snort of impatience being always withheld.
Regrettably, I had fallen into giving a lecture. I was very conscious of how my bare voice had seemingly invaded this alcove as though it was a new person all of its own, a salesman or a politician with its own passionless spiel to get through. For a while we both sat waiting for its work to be done. After I had finished with the last piece, the rook, and explained his role and the movements that he made, the father grunted and he looked away forcibly.
My heart sank. It appeared that this game that we were otherwise all ready to play had wilted without a flower.
With an uninterested wave of his hand, the father dismissed the whole history and civilisation of chess. “Why don’t we use new movements?,” he demanded. “Why do we have to use yours?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know the movements that you have described and so you have the edge on me, aye? But if we give these pieces new movements, we will be equal again.”
“Aye, so… for example, instead of the wee guy there only moving one place forward, and attacking from the side, we switch it so he moves two places forward and attacks from the side backwards. And instead of the bishop moving diagonally, say, he can only curve around in an arc.”
A vast, trembling awe was creeping over me, like the shadow of some spacecraft that was drifting overhead. “But throughout the last millennium, everybody who has ever sat down to play chess has done so in the same way, with exactly the same rules. We can’t just change everything on the spot. It’s unheard of, surely?”
It had struck me that we could just change everything on the spot and, moreover, that we were about to. The father shrugged insolently, with a taunting smile already ignited, twinkling, in his eyes.
So we divided the six types of pieces into odds and evens. Mine were the odds, his were the evens, and we nominated totally new rules for our allocated three. As we grew ever more confident in our liberation from all previous laws, some of the new moves were quite audacious. The rook could teleport across the board; the queen could pop up in a totally unexpected area by way of a feverish, near-incomprehensible hopscotch.
I had written out these rules on my phone and I shared them with the father on Whatsapp so that we were both in agreement. Our phones were set up in front of us so that we could school ourselves further in the rules as our game progressed.
Upon its commencement, the battle was more of a mutual massacre. Pawns on each side fell helplessly before the bravura new manoeuvres. Yet as we began to be able to hold these rules in our minds, our airy game had congealed into an agonising mindbogglingness, an almost unbearable meditation on the densely jostling and prolifically multiplying possibilities. And as these possibilities teemed and brimmed, and as our awareness of them grew ever more enormously awesome, it felt somehow as if we were skipping through centuries of development in the history of this new chess.
The slopes of Corstorphine Hill are steep but the land levels off once you have gotten up onto the cake of woodland above the bungalows. You will need to have revisited this site multiple times before you can read its labyrinth and it is no longer so daunting. Out of our gang, only James had reached this stage in his life. For Marco and the children, weedy paths crisscrossed each other indistinguishably through meandering scrub woodland. They thus relied upon James to convey them in the general direction of the Clermiston Tower.
It was virtually dark by now, with the day reduced to a single pale stripe that rested against the treetops, akin to a fond smile that is all that is left of a party. The sky was still clear enough, however, for our brigade to trail around the trees without walking into them. Soon the shape of the tower was silhouetted ahead, like the disembodied thigh of some prehistoric land beast, and the trees around it all at once looked very frail and trifling by comparison. The tower gave the strange impression that it had been all this time waiting alertly in the forest for these visitors to appear before it.
James had expected that the dwarf would grow gloomy once that he was actually on the hill, in the coolness of its real air and with his fantasy about what would befall them here looking ever more synthetic. But for now Marco was undeterred and his yodelling overexcitement had been conceivably gifted even more lung capacity. To James’ surprise, he had put some uncharacteristic thought into what they would do on the hill and he proudly produced an electric torch that had been stored in the pocket of his jeans. Its spotlight was now flitting gaily everywhere, running along the rows of surrounding tree trunks like a mallet over a xylophone and bolting into every dark corner to inspect it.
Marco had absent-mindedly dumped the boxes of Milk Tray into Ross’s arms. James thought that these chocolates might last longer if they were given to one of the siblings to hold, but he decided not to say anything that might cause offense. When the gang had arrived at the foot of the tower, the torch beam sought out, and found, the front door. Their hearts all fell in a heap when they saw it to be equipped with a hefty padlock.
“Hmm, we can’t go up the tower,” Marco mused. “Maybe the aliens will land at the bottom for us though.”
The children remained politely silent. James was by now very nervous and he was groping in his mind for some encouraging story to sing out about their trip to the hill, one in which they might not have met any aliens but in which they had nonetheless enjoyed a lovely walk together. He did not want for them to have to march back down the hill in defeat, with all of the dwarf’s ranting misery and bitterness loaded on top of them like a concrete litter. “It’s a beautiful night,” James announced woodenly. “Why don’t we go down to that meadow and see how the moon…?”
The dwarf shook his head. “No, we have to wait here. In the prophecy, the aliens come here to the tower.”
There was a puff of wind and everything in the wood wandered, sighing vacantly, where it stood. Ross shook the boxes of Milk Tray, content for now to hear the chocolates clattering in the cardboard.
James looked up at the tower and for a second he was alone listening to the heart of the universe beating thickly and then nothing had happened.
Marco began to stomp about restlessly. “We should unwrap the Milk Tray,” he decided, as if the cloying odour of chocolate that was released from the boxes might somehow attract a passing flying saucer.
“Stay close, please,” James called. The children were starting to drift away from the clearing, into the trees.
Marco spun around and eyed the tower again, as though he was trying to get some fresh angle on it. “We have to climb this tower. Maybe if we get a grip…”
James did not fancy scaling the external wall, or rather he did not fancy slipping half way up and fracturing all of the bones in his body when he was gathered to the ground again. “I know that it is meant to be a medieval tower but this thing could be never used practically. If that was a real building, then half of the interior would be taken up by a staircase, leaving only horrendously squashed rooms for the poor inhabitants to live in.” James paused, alarmed that he might have awoken some unhelpful symbolism pertaining to the chronic lack of wisdom amongst daydreamers.
Marco wasn’t listening. He stood back and surveyed the tower with satisfaction. It was now only a matter of time before the aliens were here. He was a small child in front of the Christmas tree, drinking in its pine musk in great draughts, hours before the joy of Christmas morning broke pealing on the air.
It became steadily colder the more that they stood below this tower. A jittery urgency had lately risen in James to impose upon Marco that they would have to turn around soon and walk back down the hill, without them having necessarily met any aliens. But he found that he could marshal neither the right words nor a suitably accommodating tone of voice to suggest this. Anxiously, he launched into a new and unrelated topic, as if he could still advance crabwise from here towards what he wished to say. If they could only talk themselves back into the real world then perhaps they might be able to adhere physically to it as well.
“Biggy told me that we would each need to chip in a couple of pounds, to compensate Pablo for his van. I don’t know if he was joking – the van cannot cost so little, can it? Biggy is so unreadable sometimes. In any case, the van still exists – it is merely in the middle of the river. I’m sure that Pablo could roll it up onto the bank and dry it out again. What… er… do you think?”
“Ah, here we are.” The dwarf had finally caught wind of the flying saucer and he stood relaxed and unsurprised, nodding to himself. “This is them.”
The ring of lights had swiped down jaggedly, as quick as a knife in a gypsy’s hand. The electricity of the fright was frozen midway up James’ chest and it had not even resounded fully in his brain when he grasped that he was not going to be killed by the impact. Instead, the flying saucer had halted about fifty feet above the tower and it now wended its way down lazily, dipping one way and then the next, like a dry leaf falling on the autumn air.
Its lights fell and it parked itself backwards on the woodland floor with a noiseless harrumph, in such a way that it looked like it remained poised to leap forward on top of them. Then external floodlights had clicked on, an airlock unlocked, and the saucer was busily emptying itself of its occupants.
Twenty or so feeble grey men, each of them about three feet tall and with pallid, sweaty faces that made them all look thoroughly seasick. All of these little men [if of a male gender they indeed were] had fishbowl helmets stuck on their heads and they were wearing military uniforms. They clearly had an extremely complicated hierarchy, because each of their uniforms was differently splendid, with some adorned with more crinkly buttons and others with more medals and ribbons.
The men had bunched together, leaning forward, in a mass that scuttled and bobbed rather nauseously towards James and Marco. As these men approached the humans, they became streamlined into a long triangle formation. A kind of general or admiral, with a wizened, peeking face, and many ribbons on his chest, had soon emerged as the leader. He hobbled up before James.
James waited for telepathic greetings to begin broadcasting in his consciousness but instead an uncomfortable silence continued to toll. Within his helmet, the admiral’s jaw was scraping open and shut but outside he remained entirely mute. The admiral began to clamber on the spot and to flap his arms with frustration, rather like an incandescent penguin.
“This is so beautiful!” Marco declared. “There is so much positivity and amazement here already! Can you feel it James?”
“Um…?” James had his doubts. More of the military men were barking inside their helmets and starting to shiver and flap their arms.
“Hey, you guys,” Marco cooed brightly. “Would you like some special chocolates? Earlier today, we bought them all, just for you.”
James was startled. “Marco, where are the children?”
“Don’t worry, there is a box lying over there. I can see it.” Marco ran over excitedly and scooped up the packet. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, he had scampered back to the admiral. “We need to take your helmet off,” he advised him. “So you can eat your chocolates! Yum yum! All for you, my new best friend!”
And James stared on appalled as Marco clamped his palms around the admiral’s helmet and gave it a devastating wrench.
“Marco, they don’t look to be too happy about this…” There was an abrasive metallic squeak and a network of tiny cracks became visible across the loosened glass. “Oh dear, do we have any sellotape? Are you sure they can even breathe our atmosphere?”
“Of course they can,” Marco announced, a little mindlessly. “They will soon get used to it. What’s your favourite flavour, the orange one? I’m gonna give this little guy the best one, the orange one.”
Another of the men had stepped forward – he was possibly a brigadier since his chest was practically tiled with medals – and there was a ray gun throbbing in his little paw. Next, the gun had given a sprightly gurgle and the brigadier had fired a thin pink laser straight into Marco’s forehead, right between his eyes.
James gasped and hurried up to him. “Marco, are you hurt?”
Marco rubbed the sooty patch on his forehead pensively. “It’s nothing my friend, it’s just like a stinging nettle.” He chuckled and pointed at the brigadier, who was now flapping his arms crossly. “He’s being cheeky, that one. A naughty little guy. You’re going to get the chewy Milk Tray if you do that again, the one that everyone hates… the… is it the hard fudge?”
But the identity of the nonconforming chocolate selection would be never determined. For at that very second there was a roar, as though the hill had erupted into mirthless laughter, and then one side of the tower had twisted amazingly agape. A wide cloud of dust and debris cascaded down upon James, Marco and the affrighted aliens. When James had next collected his thoughts, he was running for all he was worth whilst a broad tide of rubble raced gobbling at his heels.
At the very edge of the clearing, he met up with Marco again. Marco looked in his hands and saw that he was holding one half of an empty cardboard shell and that all of the chocolates must have long since all dropped out. There was a deep gash across the dwarf’s forehead and he threw the cardboard away into the grass and wiped his eye sockets with little fists that were soon sliding ineffectively in the slippery red.
Yes, it was more or less the same as a PS4, Ross confirmed. In fact, trying to sit still in these dinky little seats was more difficult than actually using the controls. There was nothing inside the cockpit that was as hard to achieve as clutch control, which Ross admittedly possessed only a dim understanding of. A working model of the entire Earth was being streamed on this handy screen; you used the console to flick the cursor around the surface. There were coloured buttons too but it was not clear what these did yet. No, they should not encounter any significant problem in flying this saucer.
No, it was not stealing, Ross decreed. It appeared to him that the aliens were not human and so you could borrow their things, just as at school they had helped themselves to frogspawn from the frog parents. In any case, they were not going to keep the saucer. They would fly it around for a little time and then discreetly return it whilst Uncle Marco was still chattering the aliens’ heads off.
Ruthu and Raunak listened respectfully. They knew that there was always a natural equality between them and Ross. They both knew about playing cricket and caring for Venus flytraps and making smoothies out of their grandmother’s leftovers. Ross knew about playing computer games and identifying the various varieties of motorbike. Each of their knowledge had often turned out to be useful in different, unexpected contexts.
“Hey, your phone is ringing,” Raunak called. Ross had left it on a spare seat, alongside one of the unopened boxes of Milk Tray.
Ruthu and Raunak looked down at the phone. “James is calling, looks like.”
“Just ignore it,” Ross said breezily. “He’s on a moan. On a big moan. We’ll only pick up if Uncle Marco calls.”
None of the children were sure if Marco even possessed a phone of his own.
“Where will we fly to?”
All of the children sat wondering.
“Let’s swoop over the Meadows and scare everyone,” Ruthu laughed. “Can you do this?”
“Sure.” Ross applied himself to the task, busying himself over the controls.
There was a brief quavering murmur in the hum of the saucer. The children were bumped very faintly in their narrow seats. Raunak looked out of the nearest window and next it was as if all of the blood had glided out of his arteries.
The university’s magnificent Appleton Tower sported a gigantic hole across its middle. This flagship building now bore an unflattering resemblance to a doughnut. Raunak snatched a brief glimpse of billowing dust and, incredibly, of the light of the low moon winking through the building’s cavity.
“How do we shoot with this thing?” Ross demanded. “What does this button do?”
“Wait!” Raunak cried. “We need something safe to practice on.”
“Yes,” Ruthu agreed. “Like a building site or something with nobody inside it.”
Ross looked up at them blankly. “What about the poo?”
“Oh yes, the poo. Of course!”
Raunak was uncertain. “But I quite like the poo.”
“Nobody likes the poo.”
“They are still in the middle of building it. It will just put them back a couple of months.”
The building of which these children spoke was the W Hotel, inside the new St James Quarter. The saucer coasted up to its sleekit coils, hovered murderously around them, and then came to a pause whilst Ross contemplated the array of coloured buttons before him.
At last, he selected a promising-looking red button. A ray of heat, of a temperature that had been until today unknown on Earth, flowed down from the saucer into the tip of the poo’s spiralling coils. The coils flashed red and then orange and then an alarming yellow and then finally a twitching, iridescent white. The brick structure nestling within the coils duly exploded like a rabbit’s head in a microwave. With this, sections of coil were flipped onto the concrete below with a series of clangs that ripped the heavens right open from one end of the firth to the other.
I had been laying a trap for the queen, a phenomenal geometric trap like the cobweb of some genius spider. But I had not clocked the knight that was ostensibly abandoned far from the fray, and I had not remembered that it could now pirouette and pas-de-chat three-two, two-four. My smile of anticipation dropped out of the land of the living as this knight vaulted through my tissue of unravelling stratagems. My rook was gone and I felt like a pianist who had suddenly lost an important finger, mid concert. In addition, a fair side had been opened up for the queen, where all of my designs upon her had melted into nothing.
In a fresh gambit, the saucer careered skywards before coming down long and low over the sea beside Portobello beach. A fan of water was duly sluiced over the sand, drenching dog walkers, setting countless barbecues afizz, diluting every gin and tonic going, and producing for a few unearthly seconds the world’s most powerful choir. Their cries all met in a piercing cacophony before ricocheting every which way the wind went.
I was hungry for revenge but I did not wish to subject any of my senior pieces to impromptu danger. Luckily, the offending knight errant now stood in one of those avenues that my surviving rook was able to teleport down. This rook hurtled home, with a zigzagging tornado kick, and that was it for the knight.
Rolling back from the land, the saucer prowled over the firth, injecting such immense volumes of heat into the water that the air above had soon solidified into an enormous, voluptuous cathedral of steam. But whenever the saucer had managed to scald a new Cramond Island out of the bare bed of the firth, the seawaters folded over it again, like hands that would never drop a ball. Still, such was the chaos down in the waters that herds of panicked seals flopped onto the land. Moreover, the puffy cathedral would have to drift somewhere and later Kirkcaldy would accordingly receive the thrashing of its life, with days of unforecast torrential rain.
The queen was still imperilled but it should be easy for her to take to the air and escape with a kick of her winged heels. Instead, I recoiled, recoiling without any corresponding jump to make, as a surprise bishop burst with a squat dervish-dip into the very throne-room of my defence. This attacker synonymously jeopardised my queen and pitched my king plumb into the valley of the shadow of death.
Skywards again, with the night sky promptly overturned like an hourglass, at once becoming a never-ending drop and a bottomless pit for the saucer. It dived down this well shaft until the children were thrilled to momentarily gaze up at the dread vastness of the Earth itself. The planet was almost unbearably magnificent up here and, in the sterile sunlight, its surface looked eerily glassy and it bore a haunting resemblance to an exposed eyeball. Yet the time to enjoy this had instantly slipped past them, for Ross saw that the model of the Earth on his screen had been silently changed to one of the entire solar system…
My king somersaulted back into daylight, in doing so knocking out an unattended pawn. At this stage of the game such an acquisition was scant comfort.
Dithering, Ross feared that some tiny jolt of the cursor would sent their craft straight into the middle of the sun, or alternatively far out into the back garden of Pluto. Next, the saucer had veered so that it faced the Earth again, rocking Ross with a fleeting fear that it might cut slice through layers of the planet and into its molten innards. But instead, the old, familiar picture of the Earth was back on his screen.
I sat in a pool of misery, not bothering to calculate anymore. After concentrating so intensely, the relief only made me feel stupid, a desolate bimbo, and I longed to clamber back inside all of this game’s rampantly escalating possibilities. I watched, as from a great distance, as my queen disappeared in the jaws of the attack.
Down the saucer buzzed. “Egypt!” Ross announced as deserts galloped past outside and there was briefly a hodgepodge of minarets and dirty white buildings. “Syria!” he called, as the saucer tumbled through more spectral tenements. The land accelerated so that it became a blurred carpet where the children could no longer pick out any discernible pattern. “Russia…. Moscow!”
Trying to disguise my swoop of dancing excitement, I managed to box everything into a single, tentatively scouting glance. Yes, it was true, my opponent must have overlooked this interdimensional loophole. Instead of meekly transporting my king to safety, as he had expected, I took a deep breath and dealt a mountain-to-Mohomet body-blow with my rook straight to his headquarters. There were simply too many pawns here and he had left no wynd for his king to corkscrew out of danger.
“Beijing,” Ruthu corrected him.
“Japan… Tokyo… Hawaii…”
“San Francisco… that’s the Golden Gate Bridge.”
It felt good to give the coup de grâce to a pawn. This is always the best feeling in chess.
“The Grand Canyon! And that’s Salt Lake City!”
“Hey, those guys must be Mormons. Isn’t Kaidence a Mormon?”
A pawn happened to be going spare at the top of the board. In our rules, pawns passed back and forth, without ever changing to queens at the top, whilst numerous astral vortexes had been planted to shake down a careless queen into a pawn.
“That’s the Mississippi! And there, that’s New York!”
“Wow! New York!”
“The Mariana Trench!”
The siblings cackled and began to chant elatedly. “MARIANA TRENCH! MARIANA TRENCH!”