Bannerman Road was no place to raise children, Maggie Whitehead thought bitterly. Not these days, not since that Smith woman moved over the road.
The Whitehead's estate agent had no such reservations, and was thrilled to list Number 36. She sang its praises as she examined the house, verbally sketching the listing copy as she went: a tidy little starter home for a young family, fenced garden, low traffic, great catchment area. Getting ready for the listing would be easy: the Whiteheads had been here only two years, hardly any time at all; the house was still in great shape from its last sale. It needed only a coat of paint to cover up Jasper's crayon marks on the wall and a maintenance crew in to tidy the garden. There’d be no trouble selling, and for a sweet little sum, too — this area of Ealing had been appreciating these last several years.
The Whiteheads listened to the estate agent with bitter regret, remembering their own enthusiasm when they first moved into Number 36. Everything the estate agent said was true: it was a perfect home for a young family. Jasper had taken his first steps here. Here, too, he had spoken his first words.
Unfortunately, Jasper's first word hadn't been Mum or Da. It was monster.
"Monster!" Jasper gaily cried now from his vantage on the davenport, his nose pressed against the front window. Maggie swooped in and scooped him up, deftly twitching the curtains closed, but not before the estate agent caught a glimpse of something red and scaly over the road.
Her paean to the virtues of 36 Bannerman Road died in her mouth. Frowning, she stepped over to the front window and pushed the curtain back.
Across the road, the red and scaly thing was still there. It was large, and not at all terrestrial.
"Oh," the estate agent said.
The Whiteheads exchanged looks.
"Monster!" Jasper cried again, waving his little fists in delight. "Monster! Monster!"
Across the road, the Smith woman came hurrying down her drive. Putting an arm around the red and scaly thing, she ushered it behind the high wall of Number Thirteen.
"Er, yes," the estate agent said. "That might be a problem."
Violet Kahn knew a good thing when she saw it and snatched up Number 36 Bannerman Road for a song. The previous owners had been "motivated sellers," as the estate agent put it, which had worked out nicely for Violet. The house was on the large side for one person, but she advertised for a new housemate — someone who worked the night shift, too. That had been the point of getting out of her block of flats, after all: too many people, too close by, making too much noise at all hours of the day. Graveyard workers always struggled to get enough sleep, and Bannerman Road was quiet and low-traffic, without a lot of children in the neighborhood, noisy or otherwise. Sometimes there were odd middle-of-the-night noises from over the road at Number 13, but Violet didn't mind that, nor would anyone else who was awake all night. The strange lights from Number 13 were even less of a nuisance: the aluminium foil Violet had put up in Number 36's windows to block the daylight effectively blocked the occasional strobing midnight spotlights at Number 13, too.
The most important thing was that Bannerman Road was quiet in the daytime, and Violet no longer shared a wall (and a floor and a ceiling) with people who were loud and active during the day. For the first time in years, Violet was getting decent sleep.
Violet's new housemate, a woman named Anna who worked computer support on the night shift, agreed.
For eight months, all was peaceful. Then the fanfares started.
Violet slammed awake to the sound of trumpets. No, not just trumpets: it was a full orchestral fanfare, and someone had the stereo turned up bloody loud.
"The bloody hell," she swore, disorientated. Cracks of daylight peeked in past the foil in the windows; the clock said 14:13.
Then the fanfare stopped just as suddenly as it began — someone had realised how pointlessly loud that had been. "Some people," she grumbled, and pulled the covers over her head.
But whoever it was seemed to have lost control over their stereo volume, because it happened again the next day, and the day after that.
Again and again, Violet slammed awake. Thursday was blissfully quiet — Violet luxuriated in an uninterrupted days' sleep — but Friday the orchestral fanfare struck three times. Neither earplugs nor her white noise machine seemed to help: it was almost otherworldly, how penetrating that stereo was.
"Who the bloody fuck is that?" Violet demanded, stumbling out into the hall.
Anna stared back at her, bleary-eyed in her Wonder Woman sleepshirt. There were dark, haggard circles under her eyes. "Haven't they ever heard of headphones?"
Sudden, blessed silence descended over them as the fanfare finished. Nevertheless, the damage was done: Violet knew she wouldn't be getting back to sleep today.
"Is it a ring tone?" Anna asked. "It's always the same eight bars."
"It's a murder tone, is what it is. I'm going to bloody well murder them, whoever it is."
But Violet was too well-bred, too English, to murder anyone. The next time she and her neighbour at Number 34 were awake and outside at the same time — early one afternoon, after Violet had once again been woken by another fanfare — she asked Mrs Hobbs, ever so nicely, if she knew who kept playing the trumpet fanfares.
Mrs Hobbs pointed over the road: the culprit was Number 13, the house of the strange lights and odd night-time noises.
Violet had never spoken to the woman at Number 13, but she baked some scones and wrapped them up prettily to sweeten her request.
"Hi, these are for you! I'm Violet Kahn, I live over the road. I'm a night nurse at Ealing Hospital."
The woman at Number 13 looked mildly confused to be meeting her neighbour after all this time, but graciously accepted the scones, her smile not quite friendly. "I'm pleased to meet you. Sarah Jane Smith. I'm a journalist."
"I'm sorry to be a bother," Violet apologised, "but I sleep during the day, you know — and so does my housemate, Anna, she's on the night shift, too. So if you could turn down the music a little…"
"The music?" Ms Smith frowned.
Violet laughed self-consciously and hummed a few bars.
"Oh! Oh, yes. The music. I'm so sorry." Ms Smith bit her lip. "I can ask Mr Smith to turn it down, yes. Of course you and your housemate want your sleep."
Violet sighed in relief. "Ta ever so much. I really am sorry to be a bother."
Violet and her neighbour spent another three minutes mutually apologising to each other, and then Violet escaped back over the road.
"She said she'll ask her husband to turn it down. Did you know she calls him Mr Smith?"
"I wasn't aware there was a man living over there at all," Anna replied, but of course they missed a lot of the neighbourhood gossip, sleeping during the day as they did.
"I wish I wasn't aware of him," Violet said. "I long for the days when I had no knowledge of Mr Smith Over The Road."
"Cheers to that." Anna raised her mug in salute. "Maybe tomorrow we'll get some sleep."
The next day the fanfare was even louder. Louder, and looped twice, just for spite.
"Bloody hell," Violet said. "And I baked for her."
That same day, Anna gave her notice. "I'm sorry, I can't live like this," she apologised. "If that's going to be his attitude, I'm better off in a block of flats, where they're just thoughtless, not outright malicious."
Violet tried many things over the next two months: ear plugs, her white noise machine, egg-crate foam on the windows. All three at once. And still that bloody fanfare.
In the end she gave up, looking at isolated places in Hertfordshire. A much longer commute — thankfully she didn't have to fight traffic on the night shift — but maybe she'd be able to sleep again.
Motivated Seller, said the listing for 36 Bannerman Road.
"Well, I'm off!" Anisha Hirani called out, gathering her purse, phone, and binder from her desk.
"Showing Bannerman Road?" asked Tom Stone, one of her colleagues at Corcoran & Shah, Estate and Letting Agents. "Better you than me."
"It's not so bad," Anisha said. "The trick is to get them in and out quickly, before they have a chance to notice anything strange."
"Had a lot of success with that, have you?"
Anisha sighed. "Not as such, no."
In truth, she’d had a terrible string of bad luck with Number 36 Bannerman Road. Mostly strange bangs, music, and lights from the Tudor Revival over the road, but there had been the incident with the talking pink poodles — so tiny and yet strangely unfriendly! — and then the slug-centipede things that had swarmed the prospective buyers' car. The woman over the road had come out and chased them off with a lippy, of all things. Happily, the slug-centipede things hadn't damaged the car — hadn't even fogged the finish! — but Anisha had spent an hour calming the couple down and convincing them not to sue the agency for distress and damages.
That was the trouble with properties on Bannerman Road: an awful lot of work for not much return. The price of Number 36 had already been lowered twice, and the way things were going, might be lowered yet again. And it wasn't just the difficulty of getting to an offer: three separate chains had collapsed solely because of someone having second thoughts about Number 36. She’d say the property was jinxed, but every agent at Corcoran and Shah knew what the problem was: aliens.
Little green aliens, big silver aliens, and everything in between. Home-buyers were a conservative lot, and no one wanted to saddle themselves with a house in a neighbourhood infested by aliens.
Still, she had a good feeling about this showing. Alan Jackson, newly divorced with a teenage daughter, fruitfully employed in IT, looking for a house in the Park Vale catchment area — close to his employer, yes, but he was particularly interested in the new IT wing the school had built. Like father, like daughter, apparently. And people in IT were hardly observant, were they? Living in their heads, always thinking about their code. Never going outside and hardly ever looking out the window. Really, the Jacksons were a perfect fit for Bannerman Road.
"I have a good feeling about this one," Anisha said, and fixed in her mind the image of Alan Jackson being delighted by Number 36 and making an offer. And then sticking with it until every last jot of paperwork was signed.
"You always have a good feeling about this one," Tom said, not looking up from his computer.
She stuck her tongue out at him. "Of course I do! With an attitude like that, it's a wonder you ever sell anything, Tom Stone."
Tom laughed — he wasn't a bad sort, not really. "Well, good luck. I'll be sure to call the police if you get eaten by intergalactic creepy-crawlies."
Anisha grinned. "So good to have you looking out for me." She raised her coffee cup to the half-empty office in salute. "Here's to Alan Jackson and his lovely daughter! May he see no farther than the end of his nose!"
"What a funny duck," Gita Chandra said, as they left Number 36 Bannerman Road, their third showing of the day. They had been met by the owner instead of an estate agent, and he was obviously uncomfortable with strangers: he had been terribly awkward, his smile strained and glassy, his movements jerky. Twice he had nearly knocked them down in his desperate haste to show them features of no real interest. The loo medicine cabinet, of all things!
"And that's why no one should sell their own house," Haresh replied, unlocking the car. "You could almost smell the desperation on him."
"I don't know why, it's a perfectly acceptable little house." It was only a semi-detached pre-war bungalow identical to all the other houses on the road — everything but the statuesque home over the road, and wouldn't Gita like to see the inside of that — but most of what Gita and Haresh had looked at so far was tragic, homes that had been slow to sell for depressingly obvious reasons. Number 36 was a refreshing change, and worth snapping up for that reason alone. And it was close to Haresh's new school, too — Rani could walk if she wanted, although of course Haresh wouldn't — and even closer to Ealing Broadway. New businesses were notorious for needing their owners at all times of day, even worse than fussy babies; Gita would be able to pop over there whenever she needed to.
"Mark my words, he'll take less than his asking price," Haresh said. He paused while opening the car door for Gita, and frowned across the road. "Is that the crash we heard earlier?"
A shiny little sea-green retro-styled convertible sat mangled in the drive over the road. It must have been a peculiar crash indeed: the fender was crumpled vertically, almost like something had stomped on it. And the scratches looked like more toothmarks than—
"Oi! Mr and Mrs Chandra! Oi! Hello!"
Gita and Haresh turned to look back at Number 36. Mr Jackson, the owner of the house, was standing on the stoop, wildly waving to them, desperate for their attention.
"Yes?" Haresh asked, his brows drawing down into the frown that he used to intimidate ne'er-do-well students.
Mr Jackson's grin had a strained, brittle edge to it. "Drive safely!" he called, still waving wildly.
Haresh frowned harder. "We will," he said, and protectively ushered Gita into the car.
But Gita only felt a wave of pity for Mr Jackson, the poor man. He was obviously cracking under who knew what strain. Selling a house on top of it all was clearly too much for him.
"At least he's not going to be our neighbour," Haresh said. "I'd have second thoughts about the place if I thought I was moving in next to him."
"I'm sure all the neighbours are perfectly lovely," Gita soothed. "And did you see? There are kids Rani's age."
Haresh laughed. "She's hardly seven anymore that she needs playmates on the same road. But yes, it's a good house."
"And a good neighbourhood!" Gita added.
"And a good neighbourhood," Haresh agreed.
Ned Barrow had never wanted to live in London. The light pollution was egregious, for one thing; he missed the Yorkshire night sky, and not even a year in the city had lessened the pang of it. But the company had consolidated, the office in York eliminated entirely, and Ned was getting to be too old to change fields again. He was lucky there was a job for him in the main office in Ealing, if he wanted it — few enough of his colleagues in York could say that. Maybe when he retired he could move back to Yorkshire and unpack his telescope again; in the meanwhile he had bought a portable model and made frequent trips to the country to use it. But retirement and moving back to the country were a few years out; at the moment he was looking for a new place to live, hopefully somewhere close to the Common.
Ned took an immediate dislike to the little house at 36 Bannerman Road: old habits died hard, and its view of the sky was blocked by the surrounding buildings. But now that he was here, Ned couldn't very well tell the estate agent that he didn't want a tour of the place, could he? Not after the man had driven all the way out here to meet him. Ned dutifully shook the agent's hand — he had that bright, too plastic smile of estate agents everywhere — and allowed himself to be led inside.
If Ned could forgive the house its limited view of the sky, he had to admit that it wasn't awful. It was perhaps a bit too much house for one person, but the asking price made up for it.
Of course, with an asking price like that, one had to wonder what was wrong with the place.
The estate agent was extolling the virtues of the second bedroom tucked up under the eaves — Ned had lost interest when a cursory inspection showed that its view of the sky was blocked by the towering boondoggle and its surrounding trees over the road — when there was a low, insistent, thrumming noise outside.
Ned looked up, wondering what sort of lorry made a noise like that, and wandered back over to the window to see.
The estate agent intercepted Ned and took his elbow, turning him firmly away from the windows. "Now over here, at the back of the house—"
The humming noise was drowned by a great whooshing exhale, and Ned shook off the estate agent.
There was a large, squat globe in the middle of the road, gleaming and otherworldly, just settling to the ground amid clouds of white exhaust.
"Ha, how curious," the estate agent said, in a falsely chipper tone. "There must be a film crew shooting something today." He bodily tried to insert himself between Ned and the window, the better to usher Ned toward the door.
But Ned was a Yorkshire man, and not so easily pushed about as that.
"I don't see no film crews," Ned said. No one doing crowd control, either, making sure no passerby wandered into the shot.
"Maybe on the far side of the, erm, saucer," the estate agent said. His smile was glassy. "Now just let me show you the cutest little mini-bath..."
The globe opened, and space aliens came out. Ned had never seen space aliens before, but he knew, instinctively, that was what he was looking at. Nothing terrestrial had legs that bent like that. "Those are aliens," he said, gobsmacked.
"This almost never happens," the estate agent said desperately.
Ned could barely drag his eyes away from the aliens, who were levitating something boxy and ornate out of their spaceship. "What do you mean, 'almost never'? How often is 'almost never'?"
The estate agent made an unhappy noise.
"This happens often," Ned accused. "That's why it's so cheap. You've been having trouble selling this place, because this kind of thing happens often. There are space aliens in Ealing."
"Not all of Ealing!" the estate agent was quick to correct, obviously worried about his ability to move the rest of his properties. "Just Bannerman Road."
Ned watched as the space aliens formed up neatly around the floating box, and solemnly proceeded over the road to Number 13. A woman met them at the door and ushered them inside. With a sigh of regret, Ned watched them go.
"Just Bannerman Road," Ned repeated.
This window had an almost perfect view of Number 13. And enough room to fit his telescope.
Ned turned to the estate agent. He was deeply pleased, but it would have taken another Yorkshire man to tell.
"I'd like to make an offer," he said.