Many people experience that cold, clammy moment when they inexplicably glimpse something extraordinary in an everyday household item.
In an odd shaft of light, a kettle can be transformed into a dangerous alien weapon, and the silhouette of a harmless pot plant resemble a triffid.
Laurence was a sensible seven-year-old. Dylan, his older brother, was the one troubled by teenage hormones, which made him intense one moment and screech at some imagined slight the next.
But Laurence could also peer into that mysterious dimension beyond reality. As well as able to see the extraordinary in mundane items, he knew his future. He would never be bothered by acne and appalling school reports.
This gave the seven-year-old a calm demeanour which worried his parents. On one hand they were proud and relieved to have at least one son who was polite and caused no trouble. On the other, for a boy of his age, it didn’t seem natural. Laurence kept his bedroom tidy, went to bed when he should do, and always ate his vegetables... There had to be something wrong with him, but why complain when the other son was more than enough to cope with?
During an unguarded moment it had crossed the mind of Martin, Laurence's father, that his mother had been unfaithful with an alien life form. But that was ridiculous, as he would have been first to admit, especially as Martin was the one who had an uncle with similar personality traits. The DNA that explained Laurence’s behaviour probably came from his side of the family.
Uncle Marmaduke had been an odd one; obsessively tidy, immaculately mannered, and mad as a March hare.
His favourite pastimes were painting the outside walls of the family home in patchwork colours and, after the local council condemned it as an eyesore and he was obliged to paint them magnolia, he took to topiary. The shapes of huge teddy bears began to appear in the local hedgerows and bushes of untidy gardens.
No one complained. Most people thought it cheered up the neighbourhood, but having to admit that he was related to Uncle Marmaduke did have its uncomfortable moments. Martin could only hope that Laurence didn’t develop these eccentric traits and become the resident oddball.
Perhaps some-father-to-son interaction would divert the seven-year-old’s attention to more boyish activities before it occurred to him to paint the school railings fluorescent orange, or a landing pad for UFOs in the school playground.
So Martin suggested that they change the wallpaper in Laurence's bedroom. At that moment its friendly ducks and fluffy bunnies were more suited to a nursery. Most seven-year-olds would have protested about it by now, but Laurence needed to be persuaded to consider something more Star Wars... Jedi knights and Death Stars etcetera - though probably not Ewoks.
Being a polite, ready-to-please child, Laurence acquiesced to satisfy his father, though insisted on something more decorative, if not a little weird. His choice of wallpaper was full of leaves and tendrils. It was very green and glowed eerily in the dark. No light sabres or battles against the Dark Side for Laurence - he was apparently more interested in the Green Side.
This was fine, and quite gratifying from Martin’s point of view as he was concerned about climate change. Dylan, his older son, had never grasped the basics of recycling, let alone the use of a waste bin for crisp wrappers. Although, once the paper was hung, the sinister leafy shapes reflected in the wardrobe mirror were enough to give Martin hallucinations. He knew that Laurence wouldn't have so much as a bad dream. Somehow this weird, green forest was his son's natural element. So Martin left him to rearrange the room to show off the wallpaper to its best advantage.
Spending time with his youngest son had been a strange experience.
That evening, as usual, Laurence went to bed on time and read a few pages of Harry Potter, before turning off his bedside lamp to gaze at the glow in the wallpaper facing his bed.
As the full moon filled the space left by the curtains half drawn over the French window there was a movement in the thicket of leaves. Lights flickered deep in their depths... and came closer.
“So you found the right wallpaper, little elf,” said a distant voice.
“My father thinks it's odd - but that's alright.”
There was a raucous laugh. “He remembers his Uncle Marmaduke!”
“Shush...” warned Laurence. “We have to keep our voices down. They’ll soon come up to check that I'm asleep.”
“Do they still do that?”
“They have to check on Dylan because he plays games or watches TV all night, or even runs off until morning. He would only throw a tantrum if they didn't check on me as well.”
“Your big brother sounds quite a problem?”
“He's really horrible; a big bully who posts vile messages on Facebook.”
“Shall we spirit him away for you?”
“Not tonight, thank you.”
“We can do to him what we did for you.”
“But that was good. He wouldn't understand it.”
A pointed, mischievous face peered from the tendrils. “What would your parents say if they knew?”
“Mother has no idea, but dad thinks there is something odd about me. He might even believe it if I told him.”
“That would not be a good idea.”
But Laurence had no intention of telling anyone that he possessed elfin powers which had opened up a magical world, and that he now belonged to the elemental dimension of Nature's realm.
Laurence soon realised that living things would not thrive without the sprites who had found him happily burbling in his cradle when he was just four weeks old.
He had only been left for a few moments in the garden. Martin had to answer an urgent call and didn't want to wake him. The elfin world had also gifted his Uncle Marmaduke with strange powers. The eccentric had died before Laurence could meet him, but he was always there, smiling, slightly maniacally, from the hedgerows and spring flowers.
Laurence and Uncle Marmaduke were like minds. They recoiled at all forms of cruelty and damage inflicted on the environment, unable to look into the wonder of Nature's realm and refuse to care about it, unlike Dylan, the ghastly older brother.
“What would you change him into then?” Laurence suddenly asked.
“We could change his mind.”
“Wouldn't work. Dylan's too stupid.”
“One sensible thought can sometimes transform a personality.”
“So can brain damage. Given the way he heads a football it's probably already happened.”
“Just one thought...” The soft elfin tone was hard to resist.
“What sort of thought?” Laurence asked cautiously, aware that his friends had powers well beyond his comprehension.
“A lucid one. A glimpse into the wondrous world of living things.”
Laurence doubted that would make much impression on his delinquent brother. “Okay then.” What harm could it do? “Want me to help?”
Dylan was always too busy on Facebook, hanging out with his mates, and playing football to pay much attention to his little brother. So when Laurence mentioned that he had found an astounding web page with directions to a treasure map he ignored him - at least until he learnt about the reward being offered. The finder of the casket containing a secret code would be able to access a fortune in bitcoins. Dylan didn't have an account to put them into even if he did win, but Laurence promised to help him set one up. He was quite surprised that his older brother knew what they were. The teenager was proof that greed is a marvellous stimulant for the intellect, however limited.
Dylan wouldn't allow Laurence come with him when he followed the trail of clues on his smart phone. Letting his young brother get to the casket first was too much of a risk.
And it was much easier than Dylan had expected. Each time he found a marker the phone played a little tune, encouraging him to go on. By the time he reached the final markers indicated by the face of a grinning elf, it was dark and his parents were resigned to their eldest son returning in his own good time. He had run off before, but that was usually after an argument when he couldn't get his own way.
Not wanting to admit he knew what Dylan was up to, Laurence stayed in his bedroom.
“I just hope you know what we're doing?” he told the wallpaper.
It just giggled.
Dylan followed the twinkling green lights which now lit his way. The deeper they led him into the woodland, the harder the elves tried to plant a life-changing thought into his mind. It was hard work and they eventually had to admit defeat.
His seven-year-old brother had been right.
So the elves decided to do something else.
As Dylan reached the next marker, a bright green globe of light ballooned out before him.
He must have found the casket!
And there it was, suspended in midair, inviting him to open it. Dylan pounced on the promise of a fortune and opened it. He expected to find a flash drive, list of codes, or just another phone with instructions. Instead, the intense green light engulfed the young man and his body lit up like a neon sign, saturating every cell with elfin magic.
Dylan was stunned for a moment.
Then a peculiar awareness flooded his teenage mind, pushing out the detritus it had used as an intellect.
And it wasn't just his mind that had been changed.
It was midnight and Dylan still hadn't returned.
Laurence dare not go to sleep without knowing what had happened to him. The elf in the wallpaper would admit to nothing, apart from reassuring him that the venture had been a total success.
At 1 o'clock in the morning something tapped his bedroom’s French window.
Expecting to find a stunned bat on the balcony, Laurence got out of bed and opened it.
What confronted him certainly had the power of flight, but it glowed with a green aura and had a deep, resonating voice. A short cape fluttered from broad shoulders and its features radiated superhuman awareness.
Laurence didn't recognise Dylan until he said, “Well, little brother, you already know about saving the planet from ecological disaster... so where do we start?”
The images were grainy as the acrobats impossibly jumped from one frame to another. Turner and Angel loved to watch these jerky, ancient films. They had been lovingly transferred to safe celluloid stock by their Uncle Jerome. Their great grandfather had worked in the early moving picture industry and his reels of ageing film had started to disintegrate and, on one memorable occasion, burst into flames. It was decided that the surviving films should be copied onto new celluloid from which they could be more easily digitised. After the promise of funding, Uncle Jerome intended to send them to a specialist technology company which had the software to restore them frame by frame.
Even before that could be done, it was magical, watching the original uncut scenes filmed over a century ago. The whirring of the projector and splash marks of deterioration only added to the strange wonder of the pantomime performances. There were also films of horse drawn carriages vying for space with the newfangled vehicles powered by combustion engines - one was actually steam driven!
Turner’s young sister, Angel, clapped with glee, even more excited than her brother. The Victorian pictures were totally unlike the humdrum images uploaded on social media. They may have been in colour and of exotic places, but these black and white films breathed life into a world the brother and sister only learnt about in class. Although the people had been long dead, they were more real than the idiots doing pratfalls or taking selfies on the edges of cliffs.
“Now would you like to see something really amazing?” asked Uncle Jerome. There was a mischievous sparkle in his eye which made the invitation irresistible.
Turner and Angel wondered what could be more extraordinary.
“This is really old. Your great grandfather was only a boy when this was filmed. No one knows who took it, or how, because the cine camera as we know it had not been invented - according to the experts anyway. You must promise not to tell anyone about it though.”
Turner and Angel promised.
“If anyone else finds out it exists things might get complicated,” their uncle went on. “It has been a family secret for a hundred years.”
“Do our parents know about it?” asked Turner.
“No. Your grandparents decided that, because your mother and father strongly believe that there should be no secrets about anything, they might not understand and tell everyone.”
“That's right,” agreed Turner, “they tell people everything - it can be very embarrassing.”
“You two are the only surviving members of the family. After you have seen this film you will realise why it must be kept secret.”
Uncle Jerome removed a reel of film from a canister labelled, ‘Friends from Mars.'
This was unlike the others. The frames juddered and frequently skipped several altogether.
“There were hardly any perforations in the original film and it was necessary to transfer the frames one by one. It took forever,” explained Uncle Jerome. “Still can't work out what camera was used, though it must have taken these pictures in real time. Nothing like it came up in any of my searches.”
Angel and Turner were hardly listening, too intent on watching the projector screen. Though the images were indistinct, they could make out that a battle had taken place and the dismembered corpses of soldiers killed by cannon fire lay strewn on the ground.
They were horrified.
Having seen the film so often, it hadn’t occurred to Uncle Jerome how shocking the sight would be to someone who hadn't, especially his young niece and nephew.
Then his enthusiasm took over. “This is a really interesting bit.”
The battlefield was suddenly lit up by a bright light.
Turner did not want to admit that he was relieved it had obscured the gory scene. “Is that a fault in the film?”
“I thought so until I saw what came after.”
Angel had the ability to perceive the obvious that adults often missed. “This was taken by a soldier, wasn't it?”
It had taken her uncle much longer to work that out. “Probably a very clever one ordered there as an observer. It was unlikely anyone else realised - or cared - what he was doing.”
The illumination filling the battlefield took on a definite shape. It was oval and probably had flashing lights, though the primitive camera had been too slow to record them.
There was a break in the film. When it continued the huge shape was hovering over the corpses. It was possible to make out the surviving soldiers running for their lives.
“Wicked...” Turner muttered.
Despite her ability to see the obvious, Angel still had a problem with the reality adults took for granted. “It's not real though, is it?”
Uncle Jerome hesitated before telling her, “Oh, it's real enough. No one in the family could have faked anything like this.”
Angel was more familiar with modern cartoons. “But someone must have done. Look, those creatures are like something out of a Pixar film.”
“There was no CGI over a hundred years ago. The zoetrope could create an animation, and the earliest cartoons were pretty simple, albeit beautifully drawn. No, this actually happened.”
“Then how did your grandfather get hold of it?” asked Turner.
“I think it was given to him by someone who decided that the military shouldn't have it.”
The brother and sister watched the willowy aliens pick their ways through the desperately injured soldiers. The survivors were magically floated up into the huge, oval shape.
“What happened to them?” demanded Angel.
“Probably reported as missing in action.”
The film abruptly stopped.
“It happened so long ago. Would it matter if the authorities did find out now?” asked Turner.
“There is no record of that battle ever happening.”
“Where did it take place then?”
“Can't tell you.”
“Have you been there?”
“What did you find?”
“There must have been something there,” insisted Angel.
“A very big hole in the ground.”
“What sort of hole?”
“What were they digging up then?”
“Yes you have.”
“Can you take us there?” asked Turner.
Uncle Jerome should have known that after telling them so much that they would want to see for themselves. “The army might shoot you.”
“They didn't shoot you. If it happened so long ago, why would they?”
“You did find out what the battle was really about didn’t you?” accused Angel.
Uncle Jerome hadn't expected his nephew and niece to be this interested. “All right. There were letters from survivors who didn't disappear. These soldiers had been sent to put down the mutiny by another platoon. The authorities kept the massacre secret.”
“There's no harm in us looking at this quarry though?” insisted Taylor.
“Take us there,” Angel joined in.
Uncle Jerome knew that they would keep on about it until he did what they asked, and even might let slip they had seen the film to their parents if their curiosity wasn’t satisfied. Telling them that he was taking them on a picnic, the brother and sister left with Uncle Jerome in his station wagon. As usual, his old Labrador, Ali Baba, lay asleep in the back all away there. The dog only stirred when the car stopped and waddled after them across a field of wheat stubble.
The quarry on the other side was deep, its walls steep and there was evidence that digging had stopped a long while ago.
“Were they looking for a spaceship?” Angel wanted to go down there. “I can see steps.”
Her uncle should have known that she would notice them. “There's nothing to see, believe me.”
“That's because they had been digging in the wrong place,” she declared confidently.
Uncle and brother did not contradict the young girl. As usual, her guileless view of things enabled her to see the obvious long before anyone else.
Though something did occur to Turner. “What happened to the mutineers the aliens rescued?”
“Probably went into hiding as soon as they were well enough. I know I would have done.”
“And what happened to the aliens?”
“Probably went home.”
None of them believed that an intelligent species would travel across the galaxy just to do good deed and then return home again.
Ali Baba started to wag his tail enthusiastically as Angel pointed to a young man approaching them.
“Hello,” she called. “Do you know what happened here?”
The young man gave a mysterious smile.
“You do, don't you,” she declared. “You shouldn't be here and we shouldn’t be here.”
“Then why hasn't anyone stopped us?”
He smiled again and patted the old Labrador who had padded over to him.
“They daren’t, dare they,” the young girl declared defiantly.
Uncle Jerome was apprehensive. “Angel...”
“It's all right,” she told him. “We're safe enough. No one would dare come after us.”
Turner became frustrated. “What are you talking about?”
“He's our friend, and knows we can keep secrets.”
Uncle and brother were now very worried.
“Come away Angel,” Uncle Jerome told her. “Don't be a nuisance. I'm sure the young man has other things to do.”
Angel stamped petulantly. “Young man? He's not a young man! Why can't you see that?” She turned to the stranger. “Show them who you really are.”
“No!” Uncle Jerome and Turner shouted together.
The shape of the young man shimmered for a few seconds before changing into a slender alien.
With another mysterious smile, the ‘Friend from Mars’ disappeared.
“See what I mean,” Angel said.
Turner was too scared to answer. “Where’d he go?”
“Oh really...” Angel strode off. “Come on Ali Baba, I'm going to find an ice cream van,” and the old dog followed her back across the field.
“As long as it's not from Alpha Centauri,” muttered Uncle Jerome.