All of this was in the future. But even then we knew more than we wanted to admit. Not enough, maybe, for us to go proclaiming doom from the housetops. But enough to start me, for one, liquidating my assets for what I could get for them.

I found a cash buyer for my Maidstone cottage pretty quickly and the sale was concluded with indecent haste. At that price, growled my agent, people would have scrambled to snap it up. But I knew it was the best price I was ever going to receive. I moved into a hotel: to hell with the cost. I knew it wasn’t going to be for long.

I’d made a plan. Others would make plans too, once the news was out, but I was ahead of the field. I reckoned I’d have enough for a really good fortnight’s holiday for two. Then I got on the phone to Chris.

Or more precisely, my hand was hovering over the phone when it rang. Chris it was that phoned me first.

“Have you heard the news?” she said. “It’s been on TV: every channel.”

“Chris,” I groaned, “I work for the Royal Observatory. I make the news.”

A sharp inrush of breath. “Then why is it me that’s phoning you and not the other way round?”

What was she talking about? We hadn’t been in touch since camp. Were we in a relationship, or weren’t we? If not, then why did she suppose I’d think of phoning her, however earth-shattering the news?

But the fact was: she had phoned me… quite likely before she’d phoned anyone else. I abandoned my lofty position and decided it better to grovel.

“I was all set to,” I wailed. “But you rang me first. Didn’t you notice how quickly I answered?”

She took a moment to think about that—and I pressed home my advantage. “Come away with me, Chris. In my camper van: just the two of us. There’s no one else I want to spend my last few days with.”

Still she didn’t speak.

“Why the hesitation? In a fortnight’s time it won’t matter what we did, you and I. No one will care—or even know—that we were in bed together the night Schott-Ito came to earth…”

“The kids,” she blurted out. “I’d love to, Dave, but the kids need me.”

Kids?

Did she have a family, then? At camp she’d seemed footloose and fancy-free. But you never could tell. Not with anyone. The biggest talker of bullshine, I’d chanced to discover, was a consultant surgeon in ordinary life.

“Come round tomorrow morning,” she said. “Seven-thirty if you can manage it. I’ll let you meet them.”



I rang her doorbell at 7.30 on the dot. She answered the door in dark blue uniform with a watch pinned to her breast pocket: the sort that only nurses wear. Instead of inviting me in, she pushed past me and opened the passenger door of her car. I got in and she drove us off, out of the cul-de-sac and into the traffic stream.