"We’ve got two new lodgers in this weekend," Nan said, gingerly dropping the pint-bottle of milk into the waste bin, "so I want you on your best behaviour. No loud music, no nasty computer games."
Neil Lovell had no intention of playing any music loudly. His mother had sent him a pair of headphones in the post for his birthday last week, and he expected that plugging these into his computer would mean his Nan would be oblivious to the aliens he was ruthlessly slaughtering.
"Yes, Nan," he said.
"And don’t forget your homework," she continued. "I want it done before tea time, understood?"
"Yes, Nan," Neil repeated. (He did not, in fact, have any homework due the next day. He had not had any for over a month, given that it was high summer—Nan was very forgetful.)
He marched up the stairs, and went to the toilet while waiting for his computer to start. (It took too long, Neil thought: his computer was old, and it wasn’t a Windows PC. One day he’d buy one that could run all the games he wanted to play.)
The sun glared through his window. Neil couldn’t see a thing: it cast an orange sheen over the computer screen, and clearing the dust from his screen with his forearm only made it worse. It also gave him a dirty sleeve.
The title music for Marathon: Durandal began. Playing through the speakers! Neil panicked, scrambled for his headphones, and plugged them in.
Silence—but Nan’s attention had been roused. He turned the computer’s screen off, and pulled out the first thing from his drawer that came to hand, Mrs Weekes’s handwritten assignment on solar eclipses.
There was a thud of a door, and that of a toilet lid. Neil breathed: his Nan had a short memory, but he knew she would have noticed the fact the homework already had three gold stars stuck to it.
He pushed the door to his room slightly shut, the glare of the sun fading, waxing into shadow—and a white flash—
Neil twisted his head. He saw it cast a shadow: something white, something fast-moving. His Dad, when he saw him (as rarely as it was) had told him about ‘shooting stars.’ They were the same thing that wiped out the dinosaurs, Dad had said.
Neil stood on his tiptoes, and peered over the windowsill. Whatever it was, it had gone to the east, in the direction of Bodmin Moor. And it was gone.
That was strange, Neil thought, turning his Mac’s screen back on and resuming his saved game.
The two ladies who arrived at the door were tall, and carried heavy suitcases with them.
"You must be Wendy," the blue-eyed lady said.
"How do you do?" Nan said, smiling and shaking both ladies’ hands. (Nan had a posh voice for occasions like this, and occasions like this alone.) "Did you have a good journey down?"
"Wonderful," the green-eyed lady said. "A little turbulent, but we got here in plenty of time."
"Oh! Did you fly in, then?"
"In a manner of speaking," Blue-Eyes said.
"I thought you were from Guildford," Nan said, smiling.
"In a manner of speaking," Blue-Eyes repeated, hauling her suitcase over the threshold. "I’m Selina."
"I’m Stephanie," said the green-eyed woman. "Nice to meet you."
"My grandson can help take your luggage upstairs," Nan said, and Neil balked: there was no way he could carry that much. He was barely twenty kilo grammes (or forty-four pounds, as Nan used to say when talking about ‘old money.’)
"We’ll be fine," the first old lady (Selina) said, lifting her massive case with one hand and treading steadily up the staircase.
"What’s your name, young man?" Stephanie asked, bending on her knees to look him in the eye.
"Neil Patrick Lovell."
"And how old are you?"
"Seven and a half," Neil said, hurriedly. (This was not strictly true. He was closer to seven and one quarter.)
"Good," Stephanie beamed, standing and ruffling Neil’s hair. "Nice to see a child around here."
"At least… Neil will show you up to your room," Nan chimed, stuttering a little.
"Very good." Stephanie picked up her own bag, and hauled it up the stairs without a sound. Neil looked on with a puzzled expression.
"They’re weird," he said.
"I know, Neil." Nan turned the TV on to BBC1 for the lottery. "People from the city are like that. Now go and make sure they don’t set up camp in your bedroom."
Neil’s friend Jamie came around the next day at one, with a Game Boy Color and cartridges stuffed into the pockets of his shorts.
"The two old ladies in the back room are very weird," Neil said, once Nan was out in the back garden with her gin and tonic (and out of earshot.)
Jamie did not reply. He had reached a fireball level on Alleyway.
"Nan asked if they wanted milk in their tea," Neil recounted, "and Stephanie asked if it was her own."
Jamie’s finger jutted on the D-pad. The console wailed in complaint, and Jamie swore, used the B-word.
"I died!" he cried, glaring at Neil. He gave up his remaining two lives, turning the Game Boy off and tossing it without care onto Neil’s bed.
Neil turned his own computer’s screen back on, and—
"Is something wrong?"
Neil slammed the button on the screen again. Selina was at the doorway to his bedroom, staring intently at him and Jamie with each of her blue eyes.
"We were just playing a game," Jamie ventured, gingerly picking up his Game Boy again.
"So you’re not actually dead?"
Jamie looked at Neil, and Neil looked at Jamie. "Erm… no?"
"That’s all good then," Selina smiled, her lips curling into a perfect semicircle. "What sort of games do you play here?"
This woman is weird, Neil thought.
"This is Alleyway," Jamie said, turning the Game Boy on and passing it to Selina.
The woman’s eyes narrowed, focussing on the tiny screen with grimace of her mouth.
"You need to move the bat to stop the ball falling—"
"I see." Selina looked up, her left eye remaining transfixed on the console’s screen as she mashed away with her slender fingers. Neil flinched: the effect was unsettling. "And what are you playing?"
"It’s called Marathon." Neil turned the PC’s screen back on, and unpaused his game, equipping the assault rifle. "You have to shoot the aliens."
Selina lurched as she watched Neil rain death upon the three-eyed alien invaders, her single focused eye glaring at the screen. "That’s not very nice!" she protested.
"Shooting aliens like that. Why would you want to kill aliens?"
"They’re the baddies," Neil explained, incredulous. "They’re invaders."
Selina looked puzzled. "What about diplomacy? There has to be a peaceful solution."
"What’s that?" Jamie piped in, and Neil scowled at him.
"Politicians, you git," he spat. "Like when that Tony Blair guy meets up with Hillary Clinton."
"Blair?" Selina asked. "I thought our prime minister was called Margaret Major."
Neil stared at Selina, and remembered the front pages of the Guardian newspaper his mum always used to read. "John Major was a man," he said. "He wasn’t called Margaret."
"Maybe Margaret’s his wife. Mrs Major," Jamie suggested.
"Maybe," Selina said, re-focussing both eyes on the Game Boy. "My information must be out of date."
She passed it back to Jamie. "Nice talking," she smiled, and flounced from the room with an odd fluidity.
"I told you she was weird," Neil said.
Jamie just stared at the Game Boy in muted astonishment. In just two minutes and with no restarts, Selina had thrashed his high score.
"She didn’t like you fighting aliens," he mused. It was lucky that Jamie had not been playing Pokémon—pitting pet monsters against each other in fights might have been too much for Selina to understand.
"Old people," Neil grinned.
Nan’s memory was regularly shoddy ("like a bloody sieve," she was fond of saying to her friend Debbie) but she remembered enough about the upcoming eclipse—or maybe it was the increasing number of appearances by Patrick Moore on the TV—to be the one who woke Neil at half past seven on Wednesday morning.
"We need to be there early," she said, "or we’ll get stuck in traffic. You know what the roads are like."
Neil ate his Coco Pops (or Choco Krispies, or whatever they were called now) as an animated-looking Stephanie was followed down the stairs by an equally animated Selina.
"Do you have your special glasses?" Nan asked.
Stephanie looked at Selina, an expression of puzzlement on her face, before it clicked. "Yes," she grinned, pulling two pairs of mylar eclipse filters from her pocket. "All stamped in the proper way."
"Good," Nan said, turning to Neil. "Stephanie and Selina will be coming with us to see it."
Nan’s friend from church, Happy, would be the one driving them to the car part from where they’d walk to Rough Tor on Bodmin Moor. From there, Nan had said, they should be able to get a good view.
Neil looked out of the window. Cloud. It was only eight a.m., but it was grey—strata clouds, the science books Dad had sent him called them—and the sort of cloud that, from experience, would probably not clear before the day was out.
He was not optimistic.
There was a double beep of a horn from the front of the house. "Hurry up!" Nan snapped at Neil, and he scooped the Coco Pops into his mouth, not bothering to drink the milky chocolate remains.
Happy was a big, imposing black woman, with a seemingly perpetual grin and a thick Kenyan accent.
"Hi!" she beamed, as Selina and Stephanie got into the rear two seats of her car. Neil went with Happy’s son, Joshua, in the middle; Nan went in the front passenger seat.
"Apparently Camelford is very heavy," Debbie announced. "And Liskeard’s busy, too."
"Yes," Nan replied. "I heard on the radio."
"It’s exciting, though!" Stephanie piped up from the back, raising her voice over the middle seats occupied by the boys.
"You’re right," Joshua whispered, quietly. "They’re weird."
"They look exactly the same, except for their hair," Neil replied, barely mouthing the words. (Selina’s nose was identical to Stephanie’s, as was her mouth, and her perfectly triangular chin. The fact one was blonde and one was brunette, and that they had differently-coloured eyes, made for unnerving identifying characteristics.)
"D’you think they could be lesbians?" Joshua asked.
Neil did not know what the word ‘lesbian’ meant. Joshua whispered something about what happens when a woman falls in love with another woman.
Neil momentarily contemplated this, but swapped that for staring out of the car window before long. He wished he could afford a Game Boy like Jamie’s for times like this. Car journeys in Cornwall—especially when driven by Happy, who was extremely cautious—took forever.
He wasn’t in the mood to play I Spy, and it was getting late. Ten o’clock: the eclipse would’ve started by now. The clouds were worrying him—and they were clearly worrying Nan, too.
"It is looking very grey," Nan said, winding down her window and peering upwards. And then— "Boys! Look! There it is!"
Neil had never heard his Nan sounding so excited. They peered through the car’s sunroof at the point in the sky where she was frantically gesturing: the clouds were rolling past each other, translucent, and behind it was something that looked like the Moon.
But that wasn’t the moon! It was too bright, and there was not a marking or a crater on its surface, a noticeable chunk of it shadowed by the actual Moon. And then—
"Gone," Joshua said. "It’s gone. It’s bloody gone."
"Language!" Happy snapped from her driver’s seat.
That had been less impressive than Neil had been expecting.
"It’s amazing how the discs’ sizes match perfectly," Selina said, that odd grin remaining on her face.
"Extraordinary coincidence," Stephanie agreed.
"You know, there’s no coincidence in creation," Happy chimed.
Neil moved his attention from the sky to the snake of red brake-lights ahead. The traffic was slow-moving. Nine thirty a.m., said the car’s dashboard clock.
The eclipse was due at twelve minutes past eleven from Bodmin. Less than an hour.
Nan wheezed on her inhaler.
"We should still get a good view from down here," Happy said, "just make yourself comfortable."
"Thanks," Nan mumbled, gratefully sipping on the bottle of water that Joshua passed her. His St. John Ambulance training from the after school club had kicked in, and Nan’s face was, at least for now, looking a lot less red.
Neil was anxious. It was still cloudy, and there was not a point on the horizon where it looked like it might clear.
Selina and Stephanie were staring up at the sky, with furtive glances in every direction. Their smiles of earlier had evaporated.
"The winds are slow here," Selina said. "There’s no way it’ll clear up in time."
"Time for Plan B?" Stephanie asked.
And with that, they took off (on the same foot) and ran for Rough Tor.
"Where are you going?" Nan shouted, feebly.
"Off to somewhere we’ll see the eclipse!" Stephanie replied, her voice muted in the wind.
Neil looked back at Nan, splayed unflatteringly and huffing quietly.
"Where are they off to?" Happy wondered.
What’s the point? Neil thought. I’m not going to be able to see it anyway.
"I’m going to find out," he declared, and sprinted after the two ladies.
Neil was not particularly fond of PE lessons at school (Mr McCrock, who taught them separately from the rest of the classes, shouted an awful lot.) He was, however, the best in his class at the hundred-metre sprint, and he had won it in the last two sports days without even feeling particularly out of breath afterwards—and it was now that he managed to catch up with Selina and Stephanie in less than a minute, even though they were going uphill… no, downhill. Why?
"Where are you going?" he demanded. "You’ll not get anywhere in time. There’s less than ten minutes."
"Exactly," Selina said (she was not a bit out of breath, even when running in those high heeled shoes!) "That’s why we need to hurry."
"Do you want to come with us?" Stephanie asked.
"Where are you going?" Neil repeated.
"We’re going to fetch our vehicle," Stephanie said, slowing her run to a brisk walk as they approached a rock outcropping.
In the middle of Bodmin Moor? "You’ll never get a car to France in time," Neil said.
"This isn’t a car," Selina grinned, grasping the side of the rock outcropping with her fists and pulling it away.
It wasn’t a rock outcropping. It was a grey tarpaulin. A grey tarpaulin over something long, slender, silvery-coloured and with swept-back wings.
It took a second or two for Neil to process what he was looking at.
"Oh… my…" he blurted, eventually.
"Fancy a ride?" the two ladies said, in unison.
They had cleared the clouds, which now formed a serene sea of grey vapour beneath them.
Just in time.
Neil stood on the ship’s deck, shielding his eyes with the Mylar filter in his pocket as the last slivers of the Sun disappeared, like an enormous diamond ring—and vanished.
"Wow," he whispered, watching as the Sun’s atmosphere leapt from the black circle, flashes of magenta on the rims. The sky was a dusky blue, but in the distance—as Neil allowed himself fleeting glances away to the horizon—it was clearly still daytime.
He was shivering, but he didn’t care. He even forgot, momentarily, that he was standing on an alien spaceship owned by his two lodgers.
He saw the shades of grey shift in his peripheral vision; the navy became sky-blue, there was a brightening at the corner, and Neil raised his fingers to shield his eyes as the Sun burst through at the rim again.
He turned back to Selina and Stephanie. (Those were not their real names—Selina had said that her actual name was fixTar’Mori-fanSel, and Stephanie’s was fixTar’Muno-proxSef, as Neil had begun to notice her fake nose falling off.)
"That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen," fixTar’Muno-proxSef now said, re-fastening her face mask so that it fitted perfectly.
"That was amazing," Neil agreed, unsure of any other words he could use to describe it. (He could use a thesaurus later.)
"You’re very lucky, Neil Lovell," beamed fixTar’Mori-fanSel through her disguised mouth. "You’re lucky to live on a world where this happens. This is the only world where this happens."
Neil looked aft, to the shadow racing away beneath him on the cloud base. He could not comprehend how enormous this was, the sheer wonder of this Earth being the only known world in the big, wide universe eclipses happened.
He did not understand now.
But he would, one day.
Neil bit down on a soggy chip, and regretted it—he opened his jaws again, winced, and gulped the whole sodden thing down in one.
"That was nasty," he muttered. "You do get the odd one that’s like that."
Rita ignored him: she was lying on her back, gazing at the sky. The wind whipped her hair into interesting shapes, Neil thought. For a first date, this wasn’t going so badly.
"Lovely, isn’t it?" he mused.
"Yes." Rita locked her hands behind her head, resting on the picnic mat. "My father always took me out stargazing at night."
Neil had not seen his dad for months. "I lived with my nan when I was a kid," he said. "She wasn’t… but she did go to see the eclipse, though."
Rita’s eyes (big, brown, beautiful) lit up. "You’ve seen a solar eclipse? My God… there was one in Turkey in 2006, we booked a special holiday to go and see it. It was amazing."
"Yeah," Neil smiled, glad to have found some common ground. "It’s astonishing, isn’t it?"
Rita nodded. "I want to see another one before I die. Just one more… OK, maybe a few more."
"I hope so," Neil agreed. "I hope so too. I mean… we very nearly missed the ’99 eclipse. The whole of Cornwall was clouded over."
"Oh dear…" (Rita’s voice sounded nice. Gentle, down-to-earth, sibilant.) "Did it clear just in time?"
Neil paused for a moment. This was where the story became a little… difficult to explain.
"Not… not really," he said, his face turning a little red in embarrassment.
"But you still saw it?"
"How?" Rita asked, smiling.
Neil Patrick Lovell looked at the sky, and back at Rita.
"You’d never believe me if I told you."
Thank you for reading.