Clyde stopped to buy ice-creams outside Rhyl, partly because he’d been driving for five hours, partly because it was an instinctive response to being within twenty miles of the seaside, and mostly because it was hypnotic watching Luke pick all the almond bits off his Magnum and put them tidily into the serviette on his knee.
“You know they sell plain choc ices. Ones you don’t have to put together yourself.”
“They don’t taste the same.”
He almost made a see what I have to put up with? eyeroll in the mirror, then remembered Maria wasn’t with them. She’d got the cushy number, swanning off to France with Sarah Jane, while he and Luke got to go looking for the other set of aliens. The ones in Wales. Clyde would have complained that it wasn’t fair, but at a month off eighteen (fucking hell, he thought) he felt too mature for that. His maturity sustained him most of the way through his cornetto, until his phone buzzed on the dashboard.
“’Paris is amazing’,” he read aloud. “’Eiffel Tower’s bigger in real life. No aliens yet. Tell Luke to ring Sarah Jane tonight. XXX’”
Luke’s forehead creased. Clyde had had nearly four years of being Luke’s best friend, and he knew without being told what wheels were spinning in that strange, strange head. “That stands for kisses,” he added. “Not porn, or the Roman numerals for thirty, or the Vin Diesel film, although that is brilliant and we should watch it when we get home. You should know this, that girl in your maths class sent you that Valentine’s card when we were fifteen.”
“No, I know what it means,” Luke said. “Why is Maria sending you kisses?”
Clyde crunched the last of his cone and shrugged.
“Do you think she fancies you?” It sounded a bit more doubtful than Clyde would have liked.
He didn’t think Maria fancied him - not really, not for years now - but he still injected a bit of a swagger into the buckling of his seatbelt. “Well, she’s only human.”
It would have been a great line to roar away on, but the Punto wasn’t built for those sorts of exit.
After a few minutes, Luke got out to push.
“Can we go to the beach?”
Clyde let the swoosh of the windscreen wiper struggling against the freezing sleet answer that one for him.
“When the weather gets better,” Luke amended.
“Luke, it’s Wales. It never gets better. I was on this school trip to Llandudno...” He stopped. Luke was looking expectantly at him — that stare of his that had taken ages to get used to, and that Clyde hardly noticed any more. “That was at my old school, though,” he said. “I was only, like, eleven.” He’d only just remembered that when he was eleven, Luke didn’t exist yet.
He always tried not to dwell on the fact that Luke was technically only four. That was weird on a whole other level from the general aliens/space travel/end of the world weirdness that was his normal life. It felt... perverse, thinking about it. That girl in the maths class, she wouldn’t have sent him a Valentine’s card if she’d known he was under one. Or rather, if the card had really been from her — rather than him and Maria trying to be nice because it was Luke’s first Valentine’s Day — she definitely wouldn’t have sent it.
Clyde was still really proud of the forged handwriting job he’d done on that.
“We should’ve arranged to go on a proper holiday this summer,” he said. “Somewhere nice. With real beaches. You’ve never even been on a plane.”
“But the world might end while we were on holiday.”
“Yeah, and we’d never hear the end of it from your mum then.” He leaned forward over the steering wheel, squinting out at the grey sleet coming down in buckets from the grey sky. “No money, either, with the car and everything. Bet it’s not like this in France. Bet it’s all... croissants by the Seine and stuff.” He dredged the murky depths of his memories of GCSE French, but couldn’t remember anything except the saga of Monsieur Dupont’s trip to the airport. “How come the girls got to go to Paris and we’re stuck with Rhyl?”
“Because Mum says they drive on the other side of the road and she’s petrified any time you drive us anywhere in this country let alone setting us loose on innocent French people who might not know to get out of the way.”
“Apart from that,” Clyde muttered.
“Okay, page sixty-one.”
Luke flipped to the right page. “It’s an ad for aftershave.”
“There’s a woman in it. She’s lying down.”
“Yes, Luke, she’s very attractive. And what does the ad say?”
“It says the name of the aftershave.”
“Not what does it say, what does it say?”
He let the silence go on as long as he could stand it. Four years of the School of Clyde, he thought sadly, not to mention eighty-seven thousand A-Levels, and the boy still didn’t grasp the basics. “It’s saying,” he said patiently, “’buy this aftershave and this woman will sleep with you.’”
Luke stared. “Won’t she get very tired?”
The top of the steering wheel made a surprisingly soft spot to bounce his forehead off. “Page eighty-three.”
Page eighty-three was a white dude with floppy blond hair and dimples, lounging on a sofa in just his pants. Even Clyde, as a totally impartial and hundred-percent heterosexual observer, could tell he was hot, even if he had ‘poser twat’ written all over him.
He had to keep his eyes on the road, but he still watched Luke as carefully as he could. “And that one’s saying ‘if you buy this type of pants you’ll look like him and lots of women like page sixty-one will want to sleep with you.’ Or, y’know, men. If that’s what you’re into.” Luke was still studying the magazine. Clyde couldn’t tell if he looked any different than he had with the picture of the woman; was he more attracted to the man? Less? Not attracted to either? Deeply confused about whether he was meant to buy aftershave or some pants or both? He’d never been good with advertising; too suggestible. Sarah had banned him from watching telly in the run-up to Christmas.
Luke closed the magazine. “Should I check the map?”
“Okay.” Operation Work Out Luke’s Sexual Orientation Or At Least Make Sure He’s Worked It Out Himself And He Knows We’re Cool With It had been going on for two years. It could wait another couple of days. Maybe when Maria came back she could help think of a better name for it.
“That’s the end of the playlist.”
“What, we’re at the end of 1999 already?” Clyde drummed his fingers triumphantly on the top of the steering wheel. “The whole history of twentieth-century music condensed into less than six hours! I promised your mum this trip’d be educational, so I hope you’ve learned something.”
“Guitars are cool?”
“Yes. Yes, they are. Fire up 2000.”
Luke scrolled to the next track list.
“We should start a band,” Clyde said.
“We probably won’t have time once we start university.”
He didn’t like being reminded how close that was coming — end of September. Eight weeks away. “Uni, Luke,” he said. “Everybody says uni.”
X marked the spot. And the spot was a dismal caravan site that suddenly brought back the memories of every Butlins summer holiday Clyde had ever repressed. At least the sleet had died down to just torrential rain.
Luke ran into the shop to buy them cokes and Clyde rang Sarah Jane. He watched Luke out the window while he waited for her to lift the phone; he hadn’t had the sense to throw his jacket over his head and he was loping through the rain, a dreamy, million-miles-away look on his face.
Sarah and Maria had already found their aliens.
“You shouldn’t have any problems. Her mum says she’ll be scared and glad of the lift home. It’s the teenager of the family; they had some sort of row and she ran off. Ran all the way through the Channel Tunnel, through England and into Wales. That was where they went for their holidays last year.”
“Blimey,” Clyde said. “And you thought it was bad that time you had a fight with Luke and he took the bus to Slough on his own.”
“I didn’t think it was bad, I just didn’t know what on Earth he wanted in Slough... Clyde, I have to go. Love to Luke. We’ll see you at home.”
He’d been staring out his side window, and it was only now that he really registered what he was looking at; a black jeep with a strip of blue lights down the front windows. Wanker warning system, he thought absently, and then pulled himself up. Luke slammed the door on the passenger side and shook his head like a dog.
“Didn’t your mum say to look out for that car?” Luke leaned across him to look. “You’re getting me wet,” Clyde complained, and wasn’t at all surprised when Luke failed to snigger.
Luke sat back and pushed his fingers through his wet hair. Clyde found himself, for some reason, thinking hard about all the sex he'd ever had with girls — all one and a half times — and about all the sex he’d like to have with the girl in the magazine aftershave ad.
“We should stay overnight,” Luke suggested. “In case something’s going on.”
“We don’t have a caravan. Which is good, because I wouldn’t be seen dead in a caravan.”
“The man in the shop said they’ve got chalets.”
He looked so keen about it. It was pretty sad. If Clyde had sat down to write a list of all the holidays he’d like to go on, ever, a night in a chalet in a rainy, run-down caravan park in Wales would have been just below ‘Siberian gulag’.
Maybe it was different if you were only four, really, and hadn’t been anywhere, and this was your last summer before uni and maybe your one holiday with your best mate before everything changed.
“Okay, we might as well stay,” Clyde said, and the smile he got in return made him say: “and if it’s not raining tomorrow — which it will be, but if it’s not — there must be a beach around here somewhere.”