It was quite simply the best birthday present that Bobby had ever received.
Even before he had started to tear away at the silvery wrapping paper, he experienced a surge of excitement, more usually observed in a teenager of lesser years. His constant badgering of his parents over recent months was about to bear fruit.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Bobby held the unwrapped, rectangular box in his hands, a childlike smile on his face. The words ProLite Super Drone were emblazoned in large, blue letters across the glossy lid with the words rotating 110 HD camera, Screen On Controller and hover capability for clearer image stability appearing below in smaller print.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Bobby shouted. His parents, having become unaccustomed to receiving words of gratitude from their seventeen-year-old son were suitably impressed to hear the phrase uttered not once, but three times. Their son was over six feet tall and still growing, and as he scrambled to the door, the clumsiness of his spindly limbs made him look like a new-born giraffe.
Bobby had found assembly of the drone and its remote controller to be straightforward. Not feeling inclined to consult the instructions, he had only needed to backtrack twice, having joined some sections incorrectly. About an hour later, he was sitting on his bedroom floor, staring down at the completed ProLite drone, smiling like a proud father.
The grey plastic drone possessed a propeller mechanism at the end of each of four arms, around twelve inches in length, sitting at ninety degrees to one another. A rotating camera lens poked out of the centre of the undercarriage, like the gun turret of a World War II bomber. The controller consisted of a power switch and two joysticks which moved freely in all directions of the compass.
As Bobby clambered to his feet, he caught a glimpse of his face in the wardrobe mirror. He saw the lengthy tousled blonde hair that fell across his eyes, the black rimmed spectacles that were perched slightly askew on his aquiline nose, and a still beaming smile.
Bobby and his parents lived in a semi-detached house on a street where most homes enjoyed two cars on the driveway and green spaces in front of and behind the property. Both mum and dad were solicitors whose successful careers had left them looking a full ten years older than their true ages. They knew that those careers had consumed hours that might have been better spent with their son. Monetary compensation was all that they offered.
Bobby made his way into the back garden, placed the drone carefully in the centre of the lawn and stood well back as if it were a firework that might explode at any moment. With some trepidation, his gaze flitted from the drone to the video screen situated on the controller that he held in his hands.
Bobby switched the power on, and the four propeller blades started to spin. He drew the stick on the left side of the controller slowly towards himself. The drone wobbled slightly. Another gentle pull and the drone lifted away from the ground.
“Yeeesss!” shouted Bobby, excitedly. The words of his parents, “Be careful, Bobby. Don’t do anything silly. Don’t aggravate the neighbours, especially Mr Adams” were pushed so far to the back of his mind that they were no longer in his consciousness.
Mr Adams lived next door. Bobby did not how old he was, he was just old. He always seemed to be wearing a shirt and tie, even when he was at home or in the garden. For Bobby, ties were intended for school only. Bobby did not comment on tie-wearing etiquette and could not understand why Mr Adams often did with him.
Mr Adams would lecture Bobby about the benefits of being in the army, although Bobby’s dad was pretty sure he had worked for the Gas Board all his life. Mr Adams’ garden must have been littered with tennis balls because Bobby had long since given up asking for his stray shots to be returned. A tennis ball was not worth the apology and ensuing reprimand.
It was Saturday, and Bobby practiced his control of the drone until late into the afternoon. By then, he had learnt to fly the drone upwards to a height of some twenty feet and to hold it steady enough that he could watch the controller screen and see a clear, focused image of the lawn below. Watching the airborne images and the way the drone responded to the slightest movement of his fingers was exceptionally exciting. He imagined a force field was in place, and as soon as Mr Adams’s wooden fence appeared in the left-hand section of the controller screen, he would flick the stick to the right to quickly guide the drone into the safe haven of his own garden.
As the late spring sun was dipping towards the horizon, its rays shone through the conifers which skirted the garden, leaving dappled patches of dark and light on the lawn. It was then that Bobby guided the drone a little higher and to the right where it hovered above the garage.
For a moment, the drone left the shadows of the trees and entered a patch of bright sunlight which washed out the image on the controller screen. In mild panic, Bobby tugged one stick to the left and the other stick backwards. Glancing up, Bobby watched the drone lurch steeply downwards. Desperate to avoid a crash landing, he performed a series of rushed and confused motions, leading to the drone careering out of control, and into one of the conifers that grew between his garden and that of Mr Adams.
When Bobby tried to manoeuvre the drone, he found it was stuck fast. Its propellers were whirring, sounding like a swarm of bees around a hive, but no amount of pushing or pulling of either stick in any direction would make the drone budge a single inch.
The drone was marooned amongst the lower branches of the conifer, at a height beyond Bobby’s reach. He considered dislodging it with some sort of stick or wooden cane, but worried that he might damage the drone or that it would crash to earth. The best solution seemed to be to use the stepladders that were stored in the garage. He briskly retrieved them, positioned them under the tree, and climbed to the top of the five steps. He wrapped his arm around a branch for stability and grasped the drone.
Bobby was about to make his way back down the ladder when he glanced into Mr Adams’s garden. He thought it looked like a garden off a TV show. The grass was bright and lush, a green carpet without blemish, surrounded on three sides by a multitude of brightly coloured flowers and plants. Even the soil looked pristine, as if each grain of dirt had been carefully sieved into evenly shaped beds.
There was a small greenhouse to the left, close to the rear wall of the house and filled with a jungle of plants. Bobby rested his chin on the branch and looked more closely. Amongst the foliage, he spotted a patch of bright blue that was incongruous amongst a blanket of greens. He focussed hard and deciphered the peak of a baseball cap. Suddenly, it moved upwards to reveal the small, dark eyes of Mr Adams. Eyes that were angrily and firmly directed at him. Bobby was taken off guard and before he could move, Mr Adams had walked to the greenhouse door.
Bobby wished to make a swift escape, but with his first hasty movement the stepladders wobbled, and in endeavouring to stabilize them, he only succeeded in knocking them over, leaving him suspended from the branch with Mr Adams now striding across the lawn towards him.
“Oy! What are you doing? What are you looking at? Are you a peeping Tom?” Mr Adams shouted angrily. He had removed the baseball cap and was waving it at Bobby in an aggressive manner, as if swatting an annoying fly.
Bobby stayed, determined and dangling, glancing down at the ground an uncomfortable distance below.
“This is an invasion of privacy! I’ll tell your parents! It’s a disgrace!” Mr Adams continued, his face turning pink as he ponderously moved his bulky frame forwards.
Mr Adams stopped, hands on hips, breathing heavily. The youngster returned a defiant stare. There was an awkward moment of stillness between them, broken when Bobby straightened his arm and allowed his hand to gently slip off the branch as he replied.
“Get a life, old man! Join the 21st century, why don’t you?”
Bobby’s collision with the ground jarred his knees, but nothing more. Most importantly, the drone was unscathed.
The high wooden fence now separated them. Bobby had walked most of the way to the house by the time that Mr Adams had shouted his last words.
“You’re a juvenile delinquent, that’s what you are! A good stint in the army would sort you out!”
Bobby practised every night during the following week. His mother insisted that he finish his homework first, but as soon as this was done, Bobby would spend the rest of the daylight in the garden. As each day passed, his confidence grew, flying further and faster and, by the weekend he felt proficient with the machine.
There had been no contact with Mr Adams since their altercation, and Bobby had not heard anything via his mum or dad either. The fence had remained an effective barrier between them.
By Saturday lunchtime, Bobby felt that he had fully mastered the drone. He could turn it through 180°, bank to the left or right whilst ascending or descending. He could even hold the drone steadily and spin it repeatedly through 360°. By this time, Bobby was bored with the confines of the garden. He had promised his parents that he would not venture into the park without their permission. And no permission had yet been forthcoming.
Bobby’s thoughts turned to Mr Adams. He imagined the old man on the other side of the fence, in his greenhouse with a cup of coffee and a rich tea biscuit, pottering with his tomato or strawberry plants, or whatever he had in there. Or lying back in his chair, baseball cap pulled over his eyes, fast asleep, his mouth open like a human flycatcher.
Bobby looked at the drone. Then the fence. It’s only a bit of harmless fun, he convinced himself.
The drone rose upwards and, a few nimble finger movements later, it was hovering above Mr Adams’ lawn. It was a strange, but exhilarating sensation for Bobby to be able to look at the solid wooden fence, then to watch the controller screen and enjoy the full multicoloured splendour of Mr Adams’s garden beyond.
Bobby tilted the drone camera so that it looked up and across the lawn and onto the back of Mr Adams’s house, quiet and deserted. He was half hoping that Mr Adams would come storming out of the house, raging against him and his drone, whilst the drone would gracefully and easily skim back to the safe side of the fence. But nobody came.
Feeling braver, Bobby slowly advanced the drone closer to the house. His confidence was belied by his clammy fingers as they manoeuvred the sticks. Mr Adams would no doubt destroy the drone if he were able to lay hands upon it.
With the drone out of his sight-line, Bobby was solely using the controller screen for navigation. It was then that he noticed something. Amongst the reds, greens, and yellows, he saw a single patch of bright blue. A familiar bright blue.
Like a soldier on patrol, Bobby was immediately put on his guard. He edged the drone ever so slightly forward and closer. And there it was. Mr Adams’ baseball cap. Lying on the patio tiles. No sign of Mr Adams.
A drop of sweat slid off the palm of Bobby’s hand and splashed silently onto the controller. As the drone advanced, the image on the screen trembled, like a video of a minor earthquake. Above Mr Adams’s patio, only a few feet away from the house. Through a window, Bobby could see the outline of the furniture in the lounge and the corner of the greenhouse to the far right. Bobby rotated the camera clockwise.
The drone shook violently when Bobby jumped backwards. Mr Adams was there. Lying face down, half inside the greenhouse, half outside. His right arm lay above his head as if reaching for the baseball cap which was inches from his fingertips. His left arm was by his side, fist clenched much as it had been the previous weekend. Mr Adams was as still as a block of stone.
Bobby reversed the drone and manoeuvred it back to his own garden.
The blue lights of the ambulance were flashing as the paramedics carefully carried Mr Adams out of the house on a stretcher. The neighbours had formed little clusters outside their houses, whispering conspiratorially to each other. Bobby was standing next to his mum and dad by their front gate. He saw the ghostly paleness of Mr Adams’s skin and the sunken darkness of his closed eyes.
Suddenly, the eyes opened, and Bobby recognised those dark, fierce pupils. Bobby felt the stretcher brush past his hand. And then Mr Adams and the ambulance were gone.
The three of them turned to make their way back into the house, his dad hugging him tightly around the shoulders as they went.
“Well done, son! I’m proud of you. The paramedic said that Mr Adams would’ve almost certainly died if you’d not rung for an ambulance.”
Bobby smiled and, looking down, saw a bright blue baseball cap nestling in his fingers.