I was 23 years old when the void came to town. I had just returned home for the summer after my first year’s PhD study in small town Massachusetts, and the familiar sight of the winding streets and unreliable buses of rural England was a welcome change, at least at first. As I piled out of the two-carriage train at the end of the line, a crisp sea smell wafted over the station’s enclosing hedgerow, overgrown and wasp-infested in what passed for a heatwave down here.
I dragged my cases into my parents’ waiting car and sat with them in silence on the four minute car ride home past scorched lawns and large, shirtless men reclining in garden deckchairs.
“We had to bury Arthur” said my father, by way of an icebreaker. They had never been particularly pleased at my moving away from home for so long, and that I had left with them my ragged old cat had not improved matters, particularly when he had woken up last week to find himself dead.
“We wanted to wait for you darling, but the Tesco man came and there just wasn’t any more room in the freezer” chimed in my mother, who was fussing with the clasp on her handbag. I nodded. It wasn’t much to me whether or not I was there for the burial, though I hoped they’d buried him deep enough to avoid the foxes.
We arrived home and I set about unpacking my things in a leisurely fashion, observing the hastily dusted surfaces in my room, as well as the gaps in between that had escaped my mother’s eventual attention. It was as I unloaded a well-worn 18th century Atlas carefully packed in foam that the first set of sirens blew past the window.
I was used, of course, to the sound of distant sirens in America, typically after one man gave way to passion or drink and pulled a pistol on another, but it was less common here, especially the five or six police cars which I saw round the corner at the bottom of my road as I ran to the window.
Evading my mother as she wrestled with a ham on the kitchen counter, I slipped my shoes onto my feet and myself out the door, pounding cracked pavement towards the sirens with flagrant disregard for the soles of my best pair of brogues.
I arrived already perspiring and found that I had not missed the spectacle, as a crowd of onlookers spread out like spilled paint from the village green, concentrating around the bandstand. I edged my way towards the police cars left haphazardly on the road, their lights flashing and their open doors swaying in the evening breeze. There was no sound, even whispering, as I gazed upon the source of the disturbance.
A black sphere, as tall as a man and perfectly round, hung as though suspended by wires within the confines of the bandstand. The air around it had a warped, shimmering quality, like heat haze lingering over a scorched pavement, though the sphere did not seem to emit heat. Nor was there any sound, or apparent motion in the void. It simply hung, blank and darkest black, the blazing light of the setting sun simply bypassing it.
A police officer in a yellow jacket wrapped striped tape around the legs of the bandstand, while her fellow officers, ostensibly there to hold back the crowd, found themselves as drawn as I was to the faceless ball.
There was, however, little need for action on their part. The crowd stood immobile too, until a phone slipped from a pocket, and took a photo. It wasn’t long until others followed suit, and the silence was broken by the recorded sounds of fake shutters snapping.
Somebody must have overcome the terrible signal in town, because it was not long before the pile of abandoned police cars was joined by several civilian vehicles which screeched to a halt, their occupants leaping from their seats to the pavement to see the void with nary a thought for the rules of the road.
As night fell, I returned home for dinner to quiet the protestations of my stomach, and passed several dark green vehicles with black number plates on the walk home. I was unaccountably glad to have walked away from the void, an ominous sense of concern for those still at the site biting down into my skin like so many hooks.
Whatever I expected — gunfire, or smoke, or a knock at the door with an evacuation order — it never came. We ate in near silence, my mother’s glazed ham accompanied by the background chatter of a news reporter helicoptered in from the capital. I chanced a glance over my father’s shoulder to see a squad of troops, bored, standing guard over concrete roadblocks as fluorescent jacketed policemen stood around with Thermos cups of tea.
The next day the town centre was closed off to the public, and a long yellow vehicle from the Council with a mounted crane on the back was set up just off the green. I chanced the bus into Grantford and worked on my research over a coffee in a loud café filled with chattering ladies. They all discussed the void as if it were some local curiosity, like a particularly gruesome farm accident or a scandalous affair. My work proceeded slowly, as I found my thoughts drawn back time and again to the infinite emptiness of the suspended circle.
As summer dragged on, I fought the urge to return to the void, and on those occasions when the town centre was unavoidable, I saw that metal construction barriers had been placed around the bandstand, shielding it from view. After the first day’s coverage, reporting had dried up, though nothing prevented the throngs of eager onlookers from coming by rail and road to stare determinedly at the barriers.
The troops stayed in place only a few days, and one heard rumours about the reasons for their departure. A scientist swallowed by the void, electronics driven haywire, troops firing on officers after staring too long into the abyss. But I had heard nothing to suggest these were true.
By the time I was sent off on the train through a fog of forced smiles and early autumn mist, the void had almost faded from popular discussion. For all its interest to scientists visiting the site, who quickly descended the ladder from esteemed professors to overworked postdocs, it simply seemed to do nothing — a hole in spacetime with no care or concern for our comings and goings.
Safely ensconced in a warm library two months later, I received a call from my mother, telling me that the council had limited funds to guard the site, and had to farm out its protection to a private contractor. The soldiers were replaced with police, then with local council officials, then with a guard from a private security firm, whose hours meant the void sat unguarded most of the night.
The first bad news came a few weeks later. A group of youths, messing about through boredom and isolation on the village green, had broken into the enclosure. One of them had apparently touched the sphere, though hospital staff had been unable to obtain a coherent story in between bouts of restraining and sedating the other boys.
So it was with some surprise when I returned the following summer to my home town to see that although a concrete barrier had been erected where once had stood only flimsy scaffold, the guard on the door was not only allowing members of the public to view the void, but was charging for entry.
“Saves us a tenner a month on the council tax” said my father proudly, as the car pulled out of the station past a snaking line of Americans with cameras around their necks.
I resisted the allure of the sphere for several days, my pile of reading growing ever taller despite my attempts to clear it. The smell of my long gone little cat had faded from my room, and I found that despite the occasional entreaties of my parents to undertake some token family activity, I was generally left to my own devices. But as time wore on, my glances at the clock on the wall drew ever longer, until I found myself staring endlessly at its round face, which seemed to darken before my eyes into the familiar, inert sphere.
That night, after an evening of burnt food and undercooked small talk, I slipped out of the house on pretense of putting out the bins, and, torch in hand, for the streetlights were extinguished at eleven, ventured into town. The streets were dead, save for the occasional half-cut party of pubgoers, and I went undisturbed as I found my way to the green, bathed in stark blue moonlight, the tree at its centre casting the concrete casket in shadow. The air was still as I tried the door, drawn by some irresistible curiosity imbued by an unseen hand, and found with shock that it gave immediately. Before I could be seen, I sealed myself inside, and stared into the void, which hung immobile just as it had on that memorable day a year before.
As I shone the flashlight fruitlessly, managing only to illuminate the surrounding walls, I felt the curious urge in the back of my mind rush forward, chasing me into action I knew could only be fatal. As I stared, the voice in my mind grew louder, until I could only delay it by tearing my gaze away, focusing instead on cool, rough, undisturbed concrete.
After taking some minutes to extinguish my inexplicable desire to reach out and touch the void, I turned, my curiosity sated, towards the door. As I slid open the bolt, the scrape of metal on metal was not the only sound that filled the tiny chamber.
My blood ran cold and my heart gave a wrench of confused longing as a familiar rasping mew floated up from the floor behind the sphere. I wheeled round, as it sounded again, along with the soft patter of small paws on the concrete floor. I rounded the void, careful to keep my distance, and my torchlight was reflected in the glowing green eyes of my beloved cat Arthur, his distinctive pattern and notched ear instantly recognisable.
My fondness dueled viciously with my caution as I pondered what unholy magic the sphere could have wrought to deliver to me this impossible encounter with my old friend. I bent down, finger outstretched, for if it were Arthur then he would, doubtless, recognise my scent at once.
The ragged old cat nudged my hand with his head, and I felt the low rumbling of purrs run up my arm, along with a considerable quantity of mesmerised tingling. But as I stretched out to stroke his back, he shot away with a yowl, and I swiftly found myself on the opposite side of the chamber to him, his mottled fur warping and shifting in the haze which surrounded the void.
As I approached, he leaped into the air, and landed with perfect poise on the railing which gave some semblance of protection to visitors. His eyes met mine, and I was forced to contemplate the only way I knew of to stay with him. His head turned with mine to stare into the infinite black.
“Anything that could bring Arthur back is powerful indeed” said the voice in my head, quiet at first, but building. I tried to look away, but at this distance, the pull of the sphere was powerful. Arthur, if it were really him, released another rasping meow, insistent in the way cats prefer when they have returned fresh from the hunt with prey they mean to gift.
This time, Arthur allowed me to stroke him, and I felt his familiar boniness through his soft fur, as he stalked back and forth along the railing, holding my resistance to stalemate.
My pet and I stood in tense silence for what may have been some minutes, until a distant clang of a bell signalled midnight. Now as I reached out to stroke Arthur again, I found my hand repelled by the same haze which surrounded the void. He began to shift and fade, growing larger, then smaller, and blurring in my vision as he began his retreat into the world beyond the dark.
“Could I do it?” asked my voice, surprising me by emerging softly from my lips, yet still filling the chamber.
“Do it” urged the other voice, at once in my mind and coming from arthur, and from the void, and from far off voices fixed on me from half the universe away. I hesitated, and watched as the blurry image of my beloved Arthur stalked away across thin air, his tail absorbed into the void. I took a breath, and jumped after him.