Screwing up his face, Simon squinted and fixed his eyes on the fireflies dancing and leaping above the wooden fence at the bottom of the garden. It was a late summer afternoon and he remembered his father telling him that fireflies only came out when it was dark. The six-year-old boy stood on tiptoe a few feet from the fence, shielded by bushes and ivy-covered trees, and craned his neck. He couldn’t see much. The fence was higher than his head. He edged as close to it as he could without touching it. They weren’t fireflies. They were sparks!
On the other side of the fence was the back yard that belonged to Mr Brown’s ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ pet shop in the next road. Simon loved the pet shop and usually he and his mother visited Mr Brown on the way home from school. While Simon looked at the hamsters and guinea pigs or petted cats and dogs, his mother would chat to Mr Brown, who had been a friend of her father for many years. They hadn’t visited for weeks, probably because it was the school holidays.
Simon felt a chill as he watched sooty tendrils of smoke coil between the broken cages, rotten pet bedding and empty food sacks that littered the withered grass, spattered and smudged with dried up patches of dog poo. Over the crackles and intermittent bangs of the fire, Simon thought he heard puppies yelping and howling. Straining just a bit further, he peered at the back door of the shop – it was shut. He could see now that the smoke and sparks were coming from a whopping great bonfire on the far side of the garden. The smoke caught in his throat and lungs, causing him to choke and gag. And then he froze. Closer to the fence, a pile of sawdust, paper sacks and wooden pallets was smouldering. Tiny flames flickered and grew into dragon’s tongues. A spark exploded from the pallets and landed on the fence, and then another dropped like an enemy parachute into the dry grass at his feet. Without warning, above his head, a branch burst into flames.
Simon drew a sharp breath that prickled in his throat. He tried to swallow the itchiness but it grew into a spasm of coughing and retching, which sent him staggering backwards. He sat down in the brittle grass with a bump. Where was Mr Brown? Who was going to rescue the animals? How quickly would the fire gobble up the branches, spread to the other trees, the garden shed, or even the house? Gulping down bitter, fizzing bile, he struggled to his knees and pushed himself up by his hands. The shift in position caused his lungs to contract; beetroot-faced and racked with whooping spasms, he stumbled towards the kitchen door.
‘Mummy, there’s a fire in the pet shop yard and it’s spreading over the fence… and the puppies are barking and crying!’ He was surprised at the high-pitched voice that erupted from his mouth.
His mother appeared on the back steps, wiping her hands on her apron, enveloped in the delicious aroma of roast chicken. She had been busy cooking the evening meal and her damp hair was stuck to her forehead where she had tried to push it out of her eyes with the back of her hand. She bent down and seized his shoulders, forcing him to look at her face, which she was struggling to rearrange from a frown into the smile he knew so well.
‘It’s all right, Simon. While I’m on the phone to the fire brigade, why don’t you go out to the front garden and pick me a lovely bunch of flowers for the dinner table. Daddy will be home soon.’
She led him through the kitchen, pushed him towards the hallway and the front door, which was open to let air into the stifling house. Simon, still coughing, lurched out of the door and down the front steps. Standing amongst the neat flowerbeds of the front garden, Simon looked up and searched the cloudless sky for signs of smoke and flames. The sun made him blink, his eyes watered and he couldn’t see much to begin with: a few birds, a vapour trail and…
Above the house, moving in a diagonal direction towards the pet shop was a huge shape like one of the throat lozenges his father enjoyed. It throbbed with a dim light that alternated between blue, green and red. He was spellbound as it descended with deliberation. He watched as it skimmed their house, came to a halt and then hovered. He broke from its spell to examine the other houses in the street, but no one else appeared to have noticed a spaceship cruising overhead.
Tingling with excitement, Simon compared what he was seeing with his very own eyes to his favourite stories and films. ET was by far the best. What if this was an extra-terrestrial being, an alien that wanted to make friends with him?
He unbolted the side gate, ran round the house and into the back garden, heading straight for the fence. He shinned up the concrete post farthest from the trees and leaned right over. He could almost touch the tops of the buttercups on the other side.
A beam of purple light shot from the lozenge-shaped spaceship. It was aimed at the pet shop. As Simon watched, the beam seemed to suck up pets through every available hole: up the chimney and out of the open windows. There were mice, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, budgies, rabbits, kittens, puppies and a bright green parrot called Amazon. He saw them hover above the roof before they disappeared into the space craft. The spaceship made no noise and there was no barking, squeaking or squealing. The afternoon was stuck in a silent freeze frame. Simon opened his mouth to alert his mother, but the words got stuck in his throat.
No matter how many times he asked his parents, he was never allowed a pet. He could only visit the pet shop and now the animals were being taken away from him.
He hoped his mother would still be on the phone. He lifted his leg over the fence, jumped into the weeds on the other side and rushed towards the purple circle of light that had shifted from the house to the centre of the yard.
‘Wait for me!’ called Simon, as he stepped into the light. ‘You’ll need someone to help look after them.’
Simon’s mother returned to the kitchen sink and looked out of the window. She was concerned about Simon. She should have explained to him why they hadn’t been to the pet shop recently. When Mr Brown died two weeks previously, she was distraught at the loss of the last link to her dead father. She loved talking about him with the old pet shop owner and had delayed explaining to Simon that the shop was permanently closed and the pets had been removed by the RSPCA. The only people who went in and out of the shop now were workmen, who had to open the windows to get rid of the smell and burn all the fixtures and fittings. It was a shame that Simon had noticed the bonfire. They shouldn’t have let it get out of hand.
She couldn’t see Simon anywhere in the garden. Where could he be? She checked the vegetables and turned down the gas before stepping out into the early evening shade. It was a relief after the heat of the kitchen. They were lucky to have shady trees on their side of the fence, which gave them privacy and a view unspoilt by the messy garden on the other side. She heard sirens and stood up on the rockery to get a better view. Two firemen were already dousing the bonfire, while another checked the house; she could see him leaning out of an upstairs window. But where was Simon?
Her attention was caught by a purple light way above the houses. It was rather like a firework shooting up into the sky. She watched until it faded away.