It was a grey sort of day, dark skies that carried the cold edge of winter still, even though the trees had dressed themselves in green and blossoms. The grey didn’t bother Tom – he was more concerned by the hole in the lawn.
“Where did you come from?” he asked, crouched on his haunches with one chapped hand resting on the circle of dirt the hole’s maker had left behind. The hole didn’t answer, but the soil told him something – it was damp and almost frothy, like the earth turned over by worms, not scattered like a dog’s diggings, or mounded like a mole’s. It ringed the dinner plate-sized hole in a corona of damp, rich dirt, and there were no markings or scratchings on it at all. There was water in the hole, too – it reflected the dull sky like a vapid eye. Tom sniffed a pinch of dirt, then stood, sighing. It smelled of nothing more than it should, and sitting here staring at it wasn’t going to get it filled in. Still, he’d best check all through the grounds and make sure there were no burst pipes or anything that he might have missed earlier. That’d be all they needed, flooded gardens the week before the wedding fair. He wiped his hands on the heavy cloth of his trousers and headed for his truck.
“Well, damn.” Tom stood with one hand on the handle of his shovel, surveying the hole. He supposed he should be grateful that it wasn’t in the field where the marquees were setting up, but really – he’d plonked a bright orange marker cone next to it when he went for lunch, so that no one could sue the house if they stepped in it and twisted their ankle. He could have filled it straight away, of course, but it had been a long time since his porridge and he’d already skipped morning tea. So he’d gone to get himself a bacon butty from the kitchens, and come back to find the marker gone and the hole bigger. Distinctly bigger – it was more the size of the trays they used for drinks at the pub. He looked around as if expecting to see someone haring off across the fields with the cone under one arm – they didn’t get so many visitors to the big house on weekdays, but he wouldn’t put it past some kids cutting school or something. It wasn’t like it was that hard to sneak in, they usually got a few kids boozing it up down by the lake in the Summer. But the grey morning had crawled into an even duller early afternoon, and if there was anyone around they were probably in the cafe or the giftshop. It wasn’t exactly a day for admiring the Victorian gardens – everything looked drained and bedraggled.
Tom hefted the shovel and stepped a little closer to the hole. Anyone watching in that damp day would have said he looked almost wary, as if he half expected something to come lunging out of the earth at him, and that it seemed he was ready to deal that something a wallop with the flat of the shovel. Which, of course, was ridiculous, and entirely out of character for a big man who had greener thumbs than any of the head gardeners that had preceded him, and who put it all down to hard work, hard study, and asking the right questions. He was not a man who worried about monsters jumping out of holes in the ground.
Even so, he was uncomfortably relieved when the first shovel of earth landed in the centre of that staring eye with a flat splat, hulking into a little island. He’d had a niggling little fear that it would just sink away, as if the hole opened into some abyss that reached to the centre of the earth. He tugged his woolly hat down a bit tighter over his ears and scooped up loose earth with a little more confidence.
It was near enough to dark by the time Tom finished up that evening – certainly dark enough that he took a torch to check on the mysterious hole in the front lawn. It sat there like a cigarette burn on a tablecloth, disrupting the neat chequerboard sweeps of green grass, but (he was reassured to notice) it was still stoppered with fresh dirt. Which, obviously, it would be, but still – for a while there it hadn’t felt like it would be. He looked at it for a moment, the crumpled surface of the dirt throwing wriggling shadows in the torchlight, and decided he didn’t need to tamp it down. It’d be fine. He didn’t need to – to touch it. He’d get some turf on it tomorrow. He turned away hurriedly, feeling a chill on the back of his neck that was undoubtedly due to the damp day. Felt like bloody winter again.
He found himself anxious to get to work the next morning, the drizzle of the night cleared to high, pale blue skies and a few ragged clouds still pink at the edges. He bolted his porridge while Jamie watched him with a bewildered sort of amusement.
“Jesus, Tom – what, is something going to hatch? Or bloom, or something?”
The porridge felt suddenly claggy and stifling on his tongue. Hatch. He swallowed with difficulty, then swilled tea around his mouth before he answered. “No, no. Just lots to do before the weekend.”
“Well. Fair enough.” Jamie went back to his tablet, scrolling through articles and emails. “But you’ll get it done. You always do. Don’t give yourself indigestion over it.”
“I don’t get indigestion.” Tom slid off the bar stool and scraped the remains of the porridge into the bin. He couldn’t face finishing it.
“If you did, it’d probably be from your sneaky bacon butties, anyway.” Jamie flashed him a sudden, sly grin. “You cheat.”
Tom looked marginally embarrassed. “It was cold!”
“Sure, sure.” Jamie stood, stretched, and kissed Tom lightly on the way to the dishwasher. “You keep telling yourself that.”
Hatch. Tom stood staring at the hole, not liking the way that word sounded, the way it latched and hung. It sounded ominous. But it was ridiculous, of course. Nothing laid eggs in watery holes on country house lawns. And even if they did, it wasn’t like there was anything that could hurt you, not in this country. Maybe in Australia, where they had crocodiles turning up on golf courses – then you might worry about eggs and so on. But not here. He rubbed his chin, feeling the rasp of stubble against hardened skin. He hadn’t even taken time to shave this morning.
“Jesus,” a voice said behind him. “That’s a bloody big hole.”
Tom looked at the skinny lad who’d spoken – he was bundled up to twice his actual size against a nippy little wind, arms held out stiffly from his sides like a kid in a snow suit. “Yeah. It is.” Never mind plates and trays – it was coffee table size now, perfectly circular, the blue sky filling its surface so you couldn’t even tell what colour the water below might be.
“What did it, then? Was it like a mole colony or something?”
“No, not moles.”
“Rabbits then? Or badgers – they build really big holes, don’t they?”
“Not badgers either. They’re not exactly fans of open lawns.” Tom rubbed his chin again, and the boy continued to gape at the hole. “We’re going to need to fence it off before any visitors arrive. Go get me some of the orange hazard fencing and some poles, alright? Plenty of it – I want a big margin around it.”
“’Kay. Sure.” The boy hesitated, then added, “What if it’s, like, aliens?”
“I’m pretty sure aliens wouldn’t come all the way to earth just to dig holes in the lawn.”
“No, but like – maybe they’ve buried something there. Eggs, or something.”
Eggs. Tom shivered, and turned his collar up against the wind. “Don’t be stupid, Lance.” It came out sharper than he intended, and he winced. “I mean – if you were an alien, wouldn’t you go lay eggs in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, or Kensington, rather than all the way out here? Seems a bit of a poor way to go about an invasion.”
Lance shrugged. “Maybe. But maybe they’re there, too. Or maybe they’re less likely to get dug up here.” He turned away, heading back to the little golf cart parked on the path above, and Tom watched him go with his mouth suddenly, uncomfortably dry.
He’s an idiot, was his thought. He’s got a point, was his next.
They set the fencing up with a good couple of metres between the posts and the edge of the hole, just in case it decided to expand a little more. Tom still couldn’t find an explanation that suited him – there should be no reason for subsidence, there’d never been any sort of problem with that. They were a good kilometre from the lake, and none of the ponds or fountains in the formal gardens that surrounded the stern walls of the house were leaking. Still, they’d drain them on Monday, just to rule it out. If the aliens haven’t hatched by then. He supposed the only other thing to do was bring in the experts, but he knew this land. He’d grown up only a bus ride away, and he’d spent most of his childhood weekends between the flower beds and walking tracks, hassling the gardeners and caretakers and naming the plants from an old book of his mum’s. There had never been slips or rockfalls, and certainly no sinkholes. This was solid ground, nothing for them to sink to. All of which just gave him a horrible image of things, tunnelling and laying eggs and – well, god knew. He pounded the last post into the ground with a couple of hard blows from the mallet, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He didn’t want to leave the hole, didn’t want to turn his back on it. Just in case. But there were other jobs to be done, other things that needed his attention. He considered telling Lance to watch the thing, but there was no point in that. Besides, the kid’d probably do exactly that – just watch while whatever it was came bursting through the surface of that disquieting, depth-less water – there’s nothing there. Stop it. He swallowed against his own misgivings and gave Lance a half-hearted grin.
“There we go. I’m sure that’ll hold it.” Hold it? What am I talking about?
Lance shrugged. “That fence isn’t going to stop anything.”
“Well, it’ll stop someone losing their bloody dog in it.” He turned away and stomped back up to his truck, not waiting to see if the boy followed him. This was getting ridiculous.
“What’re you doing?” Jamie asked. Tom had emerged from the bedroom dressed in his work gear again, hat pulled down firmly over his ears.
“I need to check on something.”
“Now? It’s almost ten o’clock. What’s so bloody important?”
“I – it’s just – there’s a problem up at the house.”
“I didn’t hear your phone.”
“No, no one called – it’s just something I need to check on.”
“Tom. I’m sorry, but it’s a perfect night out there – no storms, no nothing. What can be so damn urgent in a garden?”
Tom scratched the back of his head and muttered something.
“I said, it’s a hole.”
“Yes. In the lawn.”
“You’re going out in the middle of the night to look at a hole in the lawn.”
Tom shuffled, mumbled, “It’s a weird hole.”
Jamie took a mouthful of tea, then put his mug down. “Right. Naturally. Well, give me a minute to put my jeans on.”
Jamie raised an eyebrow at him. “Because that’s either the most interesting hole in the world, or the worst excuse. Either way, I’m coming.”
Tom sighed, and went to get their coats.
The moon was up and well on its way to full, lending a silver gloss to the cropped grass, and rendering the stone walls in stark shades of black and grey. Jamie had been right – it was a perfect night, crisp and clear and spattered with stars, even with the weight of city lights to the East.
“This’d be quite romantic, if we weren’t looking for holes,” he said, following Tom out of the truck.
“I’m not looking for it. I know where it is. That’s the problem.”
“Right. Of course.”
Tom stopped at the top of the lawn and held a hand out to Jamie. “I’m sorry. This is just – it’s getting to me.”
“So I see.” The other man took his hand, folding his long fingers over Tom’s scarred ones. “Let’s go see it, then.”
That made it better, somehow – the unreality of the moonlight, the warmth of Jamie’s hand in his. Tom thought that maybe he needed a holiday, that maybe this strange obsession with a hole – a hole that probably had a perfectly reasonable explanation behind it – was all just due to the fact that it was Spring, and he was working too hard and too long, and that a weekend away in Brighton back in October hardly constituted a break.
“We should go away,” he said. “Properly away. Overseas or something.”
Jamie gave him an astounded look. “My god, if this is the effect of finding holes in the lawn, I’ll have to come out here and start digging them myself.”
Tom snorted. “Yeah, whatever. Let’s just check on the damn thing then get out of here.”
They stopped at the top of the lawn, staring through the silvery night. The house was dark behind them – it had become more of a museum piece, the family only here on weekends, if that. There were no lights illuminating the paths, no streets nearby with their yellow lamps. Just the lake below with its cargo of sleeping ducks, and the trees heavy with Spring growth, and the hole, devouring the lawn and staring out into the universe with its flat, star-spackled eye.
“Jesus,” Jamie said after a moment. “That’s not a hole, love. That’s a lake.”
“It wasn’t this afternoon,” Tom said. “It was the size of a table then.” But hadn’t it been a bit bigger? Hadn’t it? Hadn’t it been more dinner table size than coffee table? And hadn’t he dismissed it, put it down to a trick of the failing light, because he hadn’t wanted to go any closer to it? Because it made him uneasy, the way standing on the edge of a high cliff did? And now – well, the fence was as firmly vanished as the orange cone, and unless things had changed a lot since his Uni days, he doubted rolls of hazard fencing were much prized in bedsits and halls of residence. He swallowed, his throat clicking drily. “You stay here.”
“Not a chance.” Jamie tightened his grip and they advanced together, hand in hand like children in a fairy tale. Tom wondered briefly if it would be a Disneyfied version or one of the originals – cruelly clever and liberally blood-splattered.
They stopped almost a metre from the edge, the ground still feeling solid beneath them. There was a slope to the lawn, but the water rested level with the grass to all sides, as if gravity were something it couldn’t really be bothered with. Jamie crouched down, then let go of Tom’s hand to reach out to the still surface.
“No, don’t!” Tom grabbed his shoulder, his grip panic-tight.
“It’s alright, I just want to see -” Jamie’s fingertips touched the surface, dimpling it and setting up soft, spreading ripples that made the reflected stars jump and dance. “It’s a little bit warm. Warmer than it should be, anyway.”
“Really?” Tom hunkered down next to him, feeling his cheeks flushing. “I didn’t think to check that.”
“It surprised you, is all.” Jamie licked a water droplet off his fingertips. “It’s fresh.”
“Well, we’re pretty much in the middle of the country. Salt’d be stretching it, even for mysterious holes.”
“Oh, well, tell me then, oh great naturalist, what else do you know about it that I didn’t just tell you?”
Tom smiled in spite of himself, and watched Jamie put his hand back on the surface of the water, his fingers spread and the ripples running off into the distance. “I didn’t realise being a chemist endowed you with such knowledge.”
“Scientific methods of investigation, sweetheart, scientific methods.”
They were both laughing, the movement making the water around Jamie’s hand dance, and he curled his fingers under the surface, meaning to flick a handful at the bigger man. Then he froze, his eyes widening almost comically. “Tom,” he whispered.
“What is it? Jamie? Jamie?” Because he didn’t respond straight away, and even in the moonlight he looked pale, the corners of his mouth stretching down like some pantomime clown.
“Something’s touching me.”
Tom didn’t take the time to consider if Jamie was actually in danger. He just knew something in that unnatural water was touching him, and he was having none of it. He grabbed the smaller man under his shoulders and surged to his feet, spinning around and lifting him bodily clear of the water. He felt his back give a sickening wrench as he did so, one that would have him on ibuprofen and Deep Heat for the next fortnight. But he’d have done it again. Would always do it again. He managed two stumbling steps, trying to half-carry Jamie up the lawn, but while he was slighter than Tom he wasn’t exactly light – they went spilling together onto the night-damp grass in a tangle of legs and panic. Behind them the new pond splashed and jostled with eager, unseen movement.
Tom thought for a moment that Jamie was crying, little squeaking hiccoughs, and he scrambled to his knees, shouting his name. There was something – something attached to his hand, something that looked soft and scaly all at once, like a lizard that has just shed its skin. “Jamie! Jamie!” He grabbed for the thing, registering in horror that its mouth was closed over the man’s hand, and that it had rudimentary wings flapping unsteadily between its shoulder blades. It was utterly, utterly alien. “JAMIE!”
Jamie stopped him with a hand on his chest, half turning his body to protect the creature. “It’s okay, Tom, I’m okay. He’s not hurting.”
The bigger man stared at him, bewildered, and realised that it had been laughter he’d heard, not sobs – startled little giggles that edged on hysteria without breaking it. “What the hell-”
“He’s sucking on my hand. I think he’s hungry.”
That did nothing to make Tom feel any better, but he leaned over Jamie so he could look at the cat-sized thing clinging to the man’s hand, small clawed forepaws clutching his wrist. Its scales pulsed with soft pastel colours, running in rings from nose to tail, and when it looked up at the men its round, liquid eyes were the same star-scattered dark as the sky above them. “What the hell?” he breathed again, this time with wonder fracturing the edges of the words.
“I don’t know. But he’s beautiful.”
Tom rocked back on his heels as Jamie sat up, putting the little critter in his lap. “I’ve never even seen pictures of anything like that.”
“Me either. But look.” Jamie nodded towards the hole. Tom twisted to look over his shoulder, then sat abruptly on the ground, ignoring the wetness of the grass. He didn’t think he could have stood if he tried. The surface of the water was pocked with small scaled heads, all flashing in pastel sequence as they paddled towards the men on the grass. A few were already taking unsteady steps onto dry land, their tails waving wildly and knocking each other over. They were squeaking soundlessly, like a herd of day-old kittens, and Tom picked one up gingerly as it got closer. It immediately starting sucking on the sleeve of his jacket while he examined it. Another had already managed to pull a bootlace undone and was trying to swallow it.
“Jamie,” he said. “Have you heard of imprinting?”
The other man looked at him, smile fading. “Oh, bollocks.”
“Yeah. And we don’t even know what they are.”
They stared at each other in shared dismay and wonder, while more creatures kept struggling out of the water, six, eight, a dozen, more. Tom wondered if this was the sort of thing you called the RSPCA for, or the zoo, or maybe the European Space Agency. He already had four in his lap, and he wasn’t quite sure how they were going to get out of here without being gummed to death. And then the water in the hole surged.
“Tom?” Jamie sounded frightened, and Tom didn’t blame him – the movement of the water was deliberate, muscular, much bigger than anything these little things could create. He shook a creature off his arm and reached out to grab Jamie’s hand. The water surged again, splashing onto the grass in front of them, swallowing edges of sod. A couple of critters that had been slow to get out fell back into the water, squeaking in alarm. Tom scrambled to his feet and grabbed them without thinking, dropping them on the ground next to their siblings.
“What do we do?” Jamie had managed to disentangle himself from all except the first creature, and now Tom tried to help him – it had its tail wrapped firmly around the man’s wrist, and was gnawing toothlessly on his thumb.
“I think we should probably get out of here.” Tom managed to pull the lizard-thing loose finally, and placed it carefully on the ground. It ran straight back to Jamie and started to scramble up his jeans.
The water gave a sudden, breathless roar, a sound that shook the bones and set up shudders in the belly, and began to collapse into a whirlpool, the sound building as it twisted into a hungry gyre. Tom grabbed Jamie, hauling him back up the hill towards the house with an entourage of flashing winged lizards stumbling after them. The water was shrinking, collapsing in on itself as it spun away into something the size of a dinner table, a coffee table, a tray, a plate, and then gone, leaving behind a broad expanse of bald, loamy-smelling earth. The noise stopped, the night falling silent around them. A car passed on the main road. A lizard squeaked. Tom started to speak, then the night tore apart around them.
One moment there was only the silent lawn and somehow sinister shapes of the topiary, the next something loomed in front of them. Later Jamie would swear it was the size of an elephant, although Tom privately thought it was more like the size of a Clydesdale. Either way, it was huge, and it had an abundance of sharp teeth, a muscular tail three times the length of its body, and talons that tore divots out of the ground. Wings snapped open above it, huge and gossamer thin, and it flashed an anxious deep green colour. It examined the men as they clutched each other in panic, falling to their knees and waiting for it to breathe fire or roar or swallow them in one mighty gulp. But it just tipped its sleek head slightly, in acknowledgement or curiosity, then looked at the little, milling creatures and gave a musical two-tone whistle. The creatures whistled back eagerly and swarmed towards the beast, scrambling up her legs with sharp little claws, making her wince and grumble and mutter under her breath. They piled onto her back and snuggled in next to the high ridge of her spine, finding hollows and holding places among the missing scales and long curves of muscle. She craned her long neck to examine them, then turned back to the men with opalescent eyes that swam with whole galaxies of constellations. She lifted one front paw, and put a talon to her lips. The men looked at each other with wide, frightened eyes, then copied her hesitantly. She winked, dropped her paw, and bunched her powerful legs underneath her. In one huge, effortless leap, she caught the sky with those swirling wings then was gone, blending into the ponderous swing of stars and moonlight above them, leaving the earth still and silent and fraught with unexpected magic behind her.
The men were silent for a long time, their eyes on the high dome of sky, ignoring the damp seeping into their jeans from the soaked grass and their arms still around each other, although no longer fear-tight.
Finally Jamie said, “Uh, Tom?”
“Yeah?” He looked down from the sky, the word slow with wonder.
“What d’you reckon they eat?” Jamie asked, pointing at the lizard-like creature that was chewing happily on the hem of his jeans. It looked up, burped, shook its stubby wings and flushed a happy pink.
“Aw, bollocks,” Tom said.