I see my sister’s face everywhere. It’s on magazine covers, collectors’ edition stamps, and giant billboards at the side of the motorway advertising furniture deals that are out of this world. Even twenty years on she’s a draw, at least if you’re after a sofa.
I don’t mean to sound rude, but if she’s going to be such a media whore she might have at least had her teeth whitened, or those wrinkles smoothed out (she’s always had great tits though, much to my flat-chested annoyance). If you’d seen us both as children, back when Naomi wasn’t the most famous face in the known universe, you’d have thought it more likely that I had the better chance of making it onto the cover of iD four times in one year, although that would still have been a chance only slightly greater than Ryan Gosling agreeing to be my date for the Christmas disco.
I still think their three-week marriage was just to spite me.
The only thing I ever looked forward to about our annual family week in the farmhouse was the field. It was huge and wild and studded with hay bales, and the moon seemed like the only light for miles around. It made for a deliciously spooky atmosphere that would appeal to any 12-year-old girl of a certain disposition, and it almost made up for the cold, draughty dullness of the house itself, full of board games and no internet.
In these weeks my sister and I put aside our usual bickering and silently agreed to make the best of things. We were allowed outside until ten at night, that being the time our mother went to bed and our father took to the loft to gaze out at the stars, which were, as he never tired of telling his uninterested daughters, more visible here than anywhere else in East Anglia. He would start recording the sky in the early evening, but only ascend the narrow wooden staircase to his observatory once it was darker, and our mother was not there to tut at him for what she called his ‘silly hobby’.
Our evenings of freedom were conditional on us staying within the boundaries of the field, a restriction I was only too aware of. The year before I had been yelled at then smacked on the backs of my legs in front of Naomi and my two cousins, who were with us for the first and only time, for slipping into a neighbouring plot of land while following a rabbit.
It was about 9:30 when it happened. I remember because the first thing I did when my count reached twenty was check the luminous face of the watch I’d got for my birthday two weeks earlier. The quicker I found Naomi the more turns we could fit in before the curfew, so I set off with eager determination.
The bundles of hay and soft quiet grass made hide and seek a game of constant strategy: it was possible to move from one hiding place to another undetected as the seeker approached – but a misjudged peek risked instant capture. It took me some time, therefore, to satisfy myself that Naomi was not just two steps ahead of me, even once I had looked behind each and every tightly-packed bale.
I’d spent a week every summer since I was four in that field; there was only one route by which she could have left. The two-bar fence that ringed it was unbroken, except for the gap where there had once been a gate that had weathered and rotted until our father finally put it out of its misery and took it from its hinges. He’d never replaced it; I ran to the space that was left and stopped. The backs of my legs tingled and my face flushed with memory, and I didn’t dare place even a foot into the next field for fear of inviting new punishment. I could see the shape of what I thought was my sister in the dark, and I called out to her.
The shape didn’t move, and I called her name again. As my eyes adjusted I was even more convinced it was Naomi. I readied myself for one final call. After this, I’d go back into the house and fetch our father, who she surely wouldn’t ignore, even if she was fifteen now and had, I knew from hushed conversations and mysterious wrappers found in the bathroom bin, started what at that time I had only ever heard referred to by the inscrutable phrase ‘becoming a woman’.
But before I could do so, a glow appeared above her. My first thought was that it was the moon, breaking through a previously unnoticed cloud. Then two things happened at once: I saw the moon in the sky to the east, and a reverberating drone started that filled the world with its growl. I watched as a white beam that, I guessed, was about a metre in width, extended to the ground.
I knew at some level what was happening, what I was seeing. But even when Naomi, illuminated by the beam, began to rise into the air then disappeared completely along with the light, with a flash like a TV set powering down, I just stared, the remnants of the impossible scene imprinted in hazy purple on the dark in front of me. I felt, I imagine, how people on the periphery of terrorist attacks do, riveted yet distrustful of the reality of what has happened.
After some time I looked at my watch, which seemed to break whatever spell I was under. It was quarter to ten, although I could have sworn it was later. No longer concerned about any parental repercussions, I ran forward, screaming Naomi’s name, expecting to find nothing except perhaps a patch of charred grass. Instead I found my sister, curled, naked, and unconscious in the dirt, her clothes and captors nowhere to be seen.
Naomi’s disobedience was soon forgotten in the rush of worry and confusion when I half-carried half-dragged her inside. She insisted she was fine once she came round, and as their concern fell away the realisation blazed in my parents that what we were telling them was not just a flight of fancy made up by a couple of bored schoolgirls. This was confirmed by our father’s recording of the night sky, which, when blown up and replayed, showed in grainy resolution the same scene I had witnessed.
I expect you’ve seen the footage. It got a bit of interest at first, in the usual mocking tones, but once NASA announced it had found no signs of fakery, everything went insane. Naomi was the only guest any news show wanted, and the papers dubbed her Stargirl, even though she went no higher than a 737. We had photographers outside the house constantly, like zombie hordes massing at the last human hideout. She even gave a speech at the UN on the importance of intra-terrestrial dialogue (although that’s remembered more for the anti-alien protestor who made it up onto the stage than her actual address).
In the months that followed she was named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year, hotly tipped for the Nobel Peace Prize, and became the face of just about any brand that could afford her. That was also the time that abduction insurance really took off: a £1m payout if you were abducted, and double if you were impregnated. They’d been offering it for years apparently, mostly to smalltown American nuts, but now it was mainstream. By this time our father was acting as Naomi’s manager, which he’d do until an argument over royalties from her biopic, and he dismissed their offer with a snort. Our mother, in a valiant attempt to include me in the family’s newfound status, suggested I could be the face of the Abduction Insurance Association’s new advert. Some younger sisters get hand-me-down jeans and tips about boys; I got a five-figure cheque for extolling the benefits of peace of mind while my surname spread across the screen.
In fairness, Naomi never tried to keep me away from the excitement she was having. I suppose there was no risk of me overshadowing her. I did go to a couple of parties with her, early on, but the patronising faux-interested looks I’d get soon put me off. I could imagine what they were saying: Oh, and there’s plain, earthbound… Anthea? Angela? Agatha?
It’s embarrassing to think of now, but at the time I was sure that if I staged enough of my own miniature dramas I would eventually be rewarded with the world’s, or least my parents’ attention, just like my sister. It started harmlessly with ostentatious pratfalls at family events, then when that garnered no reaction beyond “Stop being stupid”, I progressed first to more daring leaps (results: a broken ankle and a police caution for trespassing), then to the more typical rebellions of underage drinking and sex.
I realised my efforts were futile when even my pregnancy at 14 didn’t cause a family crisis. Whatever I did, I could never be the first person to be abducted by aliens, so I would always be a poor second to Naomi in anyone’s eyes. When I got back from the clinic I resolved to change my name as soon as I was able – through university and my early 20s I used our mother’s maiden name, then I took my husband’s.
These days I teach geography, and almost no-one knows who I am. I’m always waiting for someone to find out – sometimes they do, though I don’t know how, and I admit it like a spent conviction. Every now and again I’ll also be contacted by sceptics, excitedly impatient for confirmation that my ‘disappearance’ from the family is down to some uncomfortable knowledge. Tempting though it is, I know what I saw. It’s hard to tell now what’s my memory and what is the recollection of the famous footage that by now I’ve seen thousands of times, but between them there’s little room for doubt.
I last saw Naomi in person a few years ago, at the opening of the museum in the farmhouse. It was in the dying days of her second marriage, and when we air-kissed I could smell gin. I try to remember that she didn’t ask for this either, that we were both just children, but it’s hard. I used to sleep on the ground floor, next to the kitchen; if you go there now you’ll find the gift shop, selling keyrings, t-shirts, and authentic straws of hay from the bales we used to hide behind.
Jamie Thunder lives, reads, and writes in south London, and tries to behave better than his characters. He’s been published by Storgy, Spelk Fiction, The Pygmy Giant, and The Drabble – he also writes at http://asintheweather.wordpress.com and tweets as @jdthndr.