Nothing much happens in our village, except now it has and I’ve made a fool of myself. I’ve broken my ankle and I can’t settle down to the way things were. We’re not a proper village exactly, no farmers, no village hall or school. Most of the people who live here are retired, the ones who have a bit of money, or they work from home and never have enough. But we do have a nice little pub, The Cat and Fiddle, not too fancy, and quiet on weekday evenings, even if it’s liable to be too crowded with strangers at weekends. I often used to go in there after a day sitting at my laptop, to see a few friendly faces and catch up with the local news.
I promise you none of us were drinking seriously that night. I, for one, can’t afford it. Besides, I wouldn’t get drunk in a place where everyone knows me. Brian was the only one of the usual crowd to arrive before me and he had a baffled look I’d never seen before but not because of drink. By the end of the evening, we were all goggle-eyed and breathless but Sally behind the bar could tell you we’d taken on less than our regular load, once you allowed for the drinks we bought for the stranger.
He was there beside Brian when I arrived, the stranger, and I hesitated about joining them. He didn’t look like any of the types you see around here, so I thought maybe he was a business client. Brian used to be a high-powered accountant although, nowadays he just does a bit of consultancy. But he beckoned me over, as soon as he saw me.
“You’re just the woman we need, Laura,” he said. “The most sensible person in the village.”
I hate it when people call me sensible, but I’ve given up complaining. I went over and waited to be introduced.
“This is – err – this gentleman is…”
“The Man in the Moon,” the stranger said, “Incognito. You may call me Tom.”
“How interesting,” I said. I thought he must be some kind of performer, doing an improvisation maybe, in preparation for a part. He had the presence of an actor, big-boned and craggy, with a bush of white hair and heavy eyebrows. His beard was wispy, with purple streaks and his clothes were purple, too. Or they had been, before they became so faded you could only see the colour in the creases. They must have been flamboyant when they were new: a silk jacket, open-necked shirt and velvet trousers, but now they were ragged and grey. His feet were bare, which is not encouraged in the pub, but he was the sort you make allowances for. I realised that straightaway.
“He visits Earth once a month to taste the beer in a different pub.” Brian spoke in a rush, daring himself to push the words out.
“Until everything went wrong,” Tom said. “Now I can’t find my way home.”
At this point Peter arrived, and then Annie, so we had to go through the introductions twice over. Eventually, we were all sitting with our drinks, ready for a proper explanation.
“You’re not scientists, are you?” Tom said. “I don’t like scientists.”
As it happens, none of us has a scientific background. I’m in the arts, you might say, designing greetings cards and such. Peter used to be at the Bar and Annie gave up teaching when the children were small and never went back to it.
“What’s wrong with scientists?” Peter asked.
“They came and climbed all over my place: bare rock, they called it. No water, they said, no life, no atmosphere.”
“Your place?” I said.
“Up there.” Tom looked out of the window into the dusk, although the moon was not visible. “I didn’t ask them to come. I gave up my trips down here long before then, when Earth got crowded. It gave me a shock when those suits turned up to poke around.”
Of course, we didn’t believe him but none of us said so. Peter enjoys a good cross-examination: he wanted to catch the man out, not contradict him. I still thought he must be an actor and I didn’t want to spoil the game, whatever it was. I don’t know what was going through Brian’s mind, but Annie likes to understand people. She was the one who spoke, in her most soothing voice.
“But you’re here now.”
“I decided to come back to do some poking around of my own. And to sample the beer again. I’ve missed it.”
“How do you get down here?” Peter said.
“By ladder.” Tom’s voice was high and whispery but quite matter of fact.
“What kind of ladder?”
“Of moonshine. What else?”
Peter opened his mouth and shut it.
“But look here, how come nobody has ever seen you climb down or back up? Why haven’t you been on the news?” Brian said.
“Why aren’t there pictures on the Net? Reports from satellites?” Peter sounded disappointed, as though he’d wanted a more plausible story to pick holes in. “Cover up conspiracies aren’t that effective against modern technology.”
“I don’t show up on modern technology. Try out your devices.”
And we did, all four of us. My mobile’s not the most up to date but Brian and Annie both had the latest. Tom did not appear on any of our screens when we tried to take pictures of him, even though he was sitting there in front of us. I remember thinking I should have been frightened, scared we were going mad together or that the world was falling apart. But I was too fascinated by Tom himself and the peculiar life he’d just hinted at. None of us knew what to say. We stared at one another and I went to get another round, to steady our nerves. The others waited. Once I was back at the table, Annie decided to be practical.
“We don’t want to pry, of course, but we can see you’re not happy. Isn’t the beer as good as you remembered?”
Tom shrugged. “Once a month, it’s fine.” He took a gulp and nodded his thanks to me. “Not half bad, I’d say. But I didn’t bargain for being stranded. The beer doesn’t make up for missing the music of the spheres or feasting with the lunar wolves. Or for the din and dirt in the air down here.”
“We try our best in this village, at least.” He’d offended Annie, who is a keen conservationist and doesn’t admit our efforts can only go so far. I didn’t want to hear all that again. I wanted to know more about Tom.
“How did you come to be stranded?” I asked.
“I’ve forgotten the words.” Tom stared at me with his deep-set eyes, which had a curious silvery glint, now I came to notice. “I was in a pub where the beer wasn’t up to much and the barman didn’t care. I complained and he said their specialty was artisan gin. So, I tried one of those and then a few more. When I woke up in the morning, I couldn’t remember the rhyme to summon my ladder. I’ve been searching for it ever since.”
“That’s horrible.” I let myself be caught up in the story.
“What kind of rhyme is it?” Annie said.
“You might not know it.” Tom turned to her, his gaze intense but not hopeful. “It came from Earth, but I haven’t heard it for a while now.”
My mouth was full of questions I really wanted to ask. What do they eat, at these feasts undetectable by scientific instruments and astronauts? Does Tom have any friends down here? But I said, “We could try to help. Can’t you remember anything about it?”
He shook his head.
“Maybe you need to drink more gin, to turn your mind back.” Brian said.
“Never!” Tom clutched his beer mug as though to stop us filling it with gin.
“Does Norwich come into it?” By this point, Peter sat scrunched up in disapproval, but he could not resist a challenge.
“Why Norwich?” Annie asked.
“The Man in the Moon came down too soon and asked his way to Norwich,” Peter recited.
“I’m not a baby,” Tom said.
“Not a nursery rhyme, then.” I tried to think. “If you heard it in a pub, could it be a song? Fly Me to the Moon? Blue Moon?”
“Does it have to be about the moon?” Peter asked. “Why did you choose it in the first place?”
“The words were right.”
“Right for what?” Peter sat up. “How exactly could a particular set of words, wherever you learned them, produce a ladder of a substance nobody can touch, to get you?” His voice rose and heads turned towards us.
“Peter” I was frightened Tom would get offended and leave us. “Don’t let’s argue. Tell us some of your favourite rhymes, Tom, and we’ll think of similar ones you might have used.”
“With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climbst the skies,” Tom said. None of us knew how to follow that. Annie tried, “Sally go round the sun, Sally go round the moon.”
“I thought we weren’t doing nursery rhymes,” Peter said.
“Skipping rhymes are different.” I said, I couldn’t have told him how, so I hurried on, “For we’ll go no more a roving, so late into the night.”
We went on for hours. Tom’s contributions were old-fashioned but so variable, I gave up trying to match them and just spoke whatever lines came into my mind. I didn’t realise how many bits of verse I knew. The others came up with some surprising stuff. I didn’t recognise half of it. We stopped waiting for Tom to shake his head and just kept going, line after line. Meanwhile, his head sank lower and lower and he looked more and more gloomy.
Tom did buy a round eventually. I don’t know where the money came from. I noticed him on his way back from the bar, with five glasses cradled in his hands. His walk had a skip to it, like the walk of a lighter, younger man or even a child and he did not spill a drop.
We didn’t run out of guesses until near closing time, but we slowed down. Eventually there was a silence.
“I wonder. Sometimes a person can’t remember what deep down, they’d rather forget. Is it possible your home isn’t the place for you, right now?” Annie said.
“No!” Tom said. “No. Wherever I wander.” He stopped, with his mouth open. Then he pushed the table over with a great shove, beer mugs and all and rushed out of the door.
We followed him. He ran across the pub garden towards the moon and he shouted,
“After real ale or warm beer though I may roam, Be it never so splendid, there’s no place like home.”
And we saw his ladder, bright and solid as frozen butter. He leaped onto the bottom rungs just as they reached the ground and climbed, fast as a squirrel up a tree. His jacket flapped and his hair bounced. I tilted my head back, but I could not see the top of the ladder.
I couldn’t bear to see him go. I hadn’t fallen in love, whatever the others think. But while he was here, I was so busy being helpful, being sensible, I missed the chance to get to know him properly. I wanted to discover more about the lunar wolves and the strangeness of his life. I ran after him, faster than I’ve ever run before. I just caught hold of the ladder as Tom reached as high as the treetops. The touch hurt my hands, it was so cold and rough, but I clung on. It lifted me off the ground as the whole structure withdrew upwards. But I couldn’t get my feet up there or grip with one hand while I reached higher with the other.
“Wait for me,” I shouted but Tom did not look down.
My shoulders ached and my head swam until I felt sick. The ladder continued to rise but I couldn’t hold on any longer. I fell towards the ground, just as the others came running to catch me. Without them, I might have broken more bones. I landed awkwardly and I was too dazed to pay attention to anything. By the time I looked up again, Tom had disappeared, ladder and all.
He won’t come back to the Cat and Fiddle. Why should he? I expect he’s forgotten us, and the others are doing their best to forget him. They change the subject every time I mention him. I can’t even draw a decent likeness to remember him by. I’ve tried and it won’t come out right. Maybe I’ll go in search of him, once I’m mobile again.