Authors: Adam Frost
To Erin and Alice,
whose dad knows a lot about bats
Tom and Sophie Nightingale were on their way back from the cinema with their grandad. They had all been to see
AstroKid v The Man-Eating Martians
in 3D and were talking about the amazing special effects. They had just stepped on to the towpath that led down to the marina where they all lived, when every light in the area went out.
The lamp posts along the canal flickered and died, the houseboats in the marina were thrown into darkness and the houses along the edge of Regent’s Park were suddenly swallowed up by the night.
‘It’s the man-eating Martians!’ exclaimed Tom. ‘They must be here!’
‘Don’t be daft, Tom,’ replied his big sister, Sophie. ‘It’s just a power cut.’
‘So what do we do now?’ Tom wailed. ‘How are we going to fight the Martians when we can’t even see them?’
‘It’ll be OK, Tom,’ Grandad replied, clapping Tom on the back and making him jump. ‘We just have to use our other senses, that’s all.’
‘What do you mean, “our other senses”?’ Tom asked.
‘Our sense of hearing, our sense of touch,’ said Grandad. ‘Millions of creatures wake up at night. Bats, owls, hedgehogs, badgers . . . and they get around just fine.’
‘How’s hearing going to help?’ Tom asked. ‘I can’t hear anything.’
‘Course you can,’ said Grandad. ‘Just listen.’ He tapped on the path with his walking stick. ‘Hear that?’
‘It sounds like concrete,’ said Tom.
‘Exactly. So we know we’re on the path. You try.’
He reached for Tom’s arm in the darkness and placed his walking stick in his grandson’s hand.
Tom began to tap the path and move slowly forward.
After a few seconds, he exclaimed, ‘I can do it!’
At the same time, Sophie said, ‘My eyes are beginning to adjust. I think I can see our barge.’ She reached out with one arm. ‘Yes, I can feel the railings by our section of the towpath.’
‘That’s the idea,’ Grandad said. He took a deep breath. ‘And I can smell the ivy that grows along the bank.’
They all moved towards the side of the marina where the houseboats were moored.
Tom and Sophie lived with their parents on a barge called the
but generally known as
. If it hadn’t been for the power cut, it would have been possible to see all the animals painted on the sides of the boat. The surrounding water had been worked into the design too, so there were hippos wallowing in it, penguins diving into it, elephants drinking from it and flamingos wading in it.
A few metres further along from
, the next dark shape was Grandad’s houseboat, the
Tom gave Grandad his walking stick back and said, ‘I think I can do this last bit.’ Then he felt for the edge of
with his foot and launched himself into the air.
‘Tom!’ Sophie exclaimed.
‘What?’ replied the voice of Tom in the darkness. ‘It’s fine. I’m totally used to the dark now. Come on – the door’s down here.’
At that moment, the edge of the houseboat door glowed and opened. Mrs Nightingale was standing there, holding a candle.
‘Hello, you three,’ she said.
Tom and Sophie walked carefully down the steps.
‘I’m going to check on my place,’ said Grandad. ‘See you in a bit.’
‘Bye, Grandad,’ said Tom.
‘Thanks for taking us to the cinema,’ added Sophie.
As Tom and Sophie entered the living room, Rex, the family terrier, ran up to greet them, sniffing and snuffling at Tom’s shoes and trousers.
Sophie gave Rex a quick pat and then hurried to check on her ferret and her rats. She returned after a few seconds with a rat on her shoulder. ‘They’re all fine, especially Eric. I think rats must quite like the dark.’
In the meantime, Mrs Nightingale was rummaging in the cupboard under the sink, looking for more candles.
‘Where’s Dad?’ Tom asked.
‘Your father is out on the bank, trying to get our emergency generator to work.’ She emerged from the cupboard with a pair of candles and a box of matches. ‘Last time he went near it, it caught fire twice and burnt off one of his eyebrows.’
‘Oh, OK,’ said Tom. ‘What are those?’
He was pointing at a helmet with a pair of binoculars strapped to it.
‘They’re night vision goggles,’ Mrs Nightingale said. ‘I found them at the back of our wardrobe. I thought they might help your father fix the generator but naturally he left them behind.’
‘Brilliant!’ exclaimed Tom. He grabbed the helmet and slid it on to his head, fiddling with the chinstrap.
‘You’d better not break them before I’ve had a go,’ Sophie said.
Tom was squinting through the binoculars.
‘You can see everything!’ he exclaimed. ‘And it turns everyone into a Martian. Rex and Eric have gone bright green. But, you know, that’s kind of cool as well.’
He swung around, narrowly avoiding whacking Sophie with the binoculars.
‘Mum, Grandad was talking about animals that wake up at night,’ Tom said. ‘Is this how they see?’
‘In some cases,’ said Mrs Nightingale. ‘What happens is, those goggles magnify all the available light. There’s infrared light coming from the other side of the canal out there, but it’s too dim for us to see just with our eyes. But when you put those goggles on, they take all those tiny points of light and make them much, much brighter.’
‘So that’s what nocturnal animals do?’ Tom asked.
‘Some of them,’ said Mrs Nightingale. ‘Take owls, for instance. Their eyes are huge – they take up most of their skull. In fact, their eyes are so big that they can’t even move them. That’s why they have to twist their heads around.’
‘Wow,’ said Tom.
‘In those huge eyes,’ Mrs Nightingale went on, ‘they have these amazing cells that can pick up the tiniest dots of light. We have them too, but they have ten times as many – which means they can see a hundred times better than us at night.’