THE MIRACLE INSPECTOR, by Helen Smith, Tyger Books, 252 pp., $9.99 ($2.99 Kindle).
The Miracle Inspector is a dystopian thriller set in the near future. England has been partitioned and London is an oppressive place where poetry has been forced underground, theatres and schools are shut, and women are not allowed to work outside the home. A young couple, Lucas and Angela, try to escape from London – with disastrous consequences.
Lucas was dressed smartly, ready for work. He sat at the kitchen table and buttered his toast, and cracked at the top of the boiled egg his wife had made him for breakfast. Angela stood nearby, scrubbing at a small spot on the working surface. Layers of regret hung between them like unfashionable wallpaper. It made the place seem ugly.
‘You know what would be nice?’ Angela said.
Lucas didn’t answer. He was not being impolite, he was waiting for her to express her feelings.
She said, ‘If we could go somewhere…’
He didn’t speak. He licked his fingers. He couldn’t eat the egg but he ate his toast. He waited for her to continue.
‘…together. I wish there was something…’
He noticed that she had stopped rubbing the spot, as if speaking the words had been helping to power her hand. Or perhaps it was the other way around. He’d have liked to make a joke of it. Would the nub of it – the joke – be something about kinetic energy?
‘Will you be home for your tea?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ he said. He wiped his hands and brushed himself down, preparing to leave her. With his weary, cautious manner, his formal clothes, he could have been forty-five years old. He was not quite twenty-five.
‘Unless there’s a miracle?’
‘Well, then you definitely wouldn’t have to cook tea.’ He laughed, thinking they would share a moment.
She stared blankly back at him.
‘If I discovered a miracle, you’d come and see it,’ he said. ‘Wouldn’t you?’
She set to work on that spot on the working surface again. She loved her husband; it had been a love match, not forced. There’d probably be only four or five years before one or other of them fell foul of the authorities, so she ought to treasure their time together. But most of their time ‘together’ was spent alone, and the dull routine of running a household was wearing her down. She was making a study of dinosaurs from the encyclopaedias she had salvaged when the local library closed down. Memorising the long names kept her mind occupied, with decisions about how to pronounce the multiple syllables providing a counterpoint to mundane tasks like shaking out the mat, folding linen, polishing taps. Recent attempts to use the recitation of dinosaur names and characteristics as a method of timing the preparation of the egg she boiled each morning for Lucas’s breakfast had thus far ended in failure.
Angela rubbed and rubbed at the spot on the working surface even though she could no longer see it. This was her life for the foreseeable future. She was not quite twenty-one years old.
That evening, when Lucas came home again, Angela didn’t even ask him how his day went. What made her so sure he hadn’t found anything, that it wasn’t worth asking about his day? What if he had the secret with him now, the beautiful, pure, shining truth of it? How would he put it? He was no good with words. ‘Darling, I’ve got some wonderful news. You must keep it to yourself for now.’ Would she think it was a good thing? He realised with a blush that she might not like him to use the word ‘darling’. It was silly and old-fashioned. He didn’t like it much himself – it reminded him of that old reprobate, Jesmond.
‘It’s a bit dry,’ Angela said to him. She was talking about the fish she had put on the plates for their evening meal. She could have been talking about their relationship. How could he put that in a lighthearted way, without seeming critical or prurient, inviting comparisons with wetness, which she wouldn’t approve of, and which he hadn’t actually meant to suggest? After some consideration, he said nothing.
‘You could have called me today.’
‘I couldn’t, not really.’
‘They didn’t have phones wherever you were?’
If I knew a secret, I would keep it for you. That’s what he wanted to say. It seemed too craven. He tried to bring some sunshine in to the room. He thought about what it would be like to sit on some grass somewhere, looking at the light on her face. ‘Maybe we could have a holiday. Would you like that? Richmond or Highgate or somewhere nice. You choose.’
He watched her thinking about what he said, chewing it over in her mind, trying to break it down and make it digestible. She even moved her jaw a little, as if she had a mouth full of hi-fibre bread and was finding it difficult to despatch. But she didn’t reply.
The silences were not something he had expected from marriage. Sex, yes. Companionship. Someone to cook a meal and sit down and eat with, that kind of thing. The silences had evolved naturally, a way of being: ‘Our silences’, yet with no emptiness or vacancy in them. Instead, there were whole worlds contained in those silences; millions of gossamer strands of understanding going back and forth between them, like an invisible version of that fibreglass loft insulation that was illegal now. At school, his art teacher had explained to him that if he wanted to draw something, a chair, for example, he shouldn’t look only at what he could see – the structure of the thing – but also at the spaces. Sometimes it helped to draw the spaces. Similarly, in conversations with his wife, Lucas felt that to acknowledge only the words that were said would have been unhelpful. Their relationship was also about the silences.
He wanted a way to tell her out loud that he loved her and that her silences warmed him like invisible now-illegal loft insulation. But he couldn’t. It would only have come out sounding like a chorus from one of those Country and Western parody acts that were briefly popular on the radio a few years ago, before radio stations were banned and all the apparatus in London confiscated.
That was what he was thinking. What was she thinking?
How long had they been married? It seemed to him that he had never before wondered what she was thinking – although that was impossible, and he must have wondered and then forgotten about it. When she spoke, he listened and then reacted to the words he heard her say. Too often he was briefly wounded by the awfulness of what she said. Later, he would find a way of being reassured by it; it was just ‘her way’. Had he never before stopped to wonder if there was any subtext to what she said, to wonder whether she struggled with silly thoughts that she hid from him, the way he hid his thoughts from her? He didn’t remember ever doing so. He was too preoccupied with keeping his thoughts hidden to worry about hers.
If he could prise open her head with a penknife and put a straw into her brain and siphon out the thoughts, suck them up and then drip them out on to a specially-prepared surface in front of him in a legible little puddle, so he could pick them over and examine them – well, he would have been surprised to uncover anything more profound than the expression of simple wants, needs and instructions to herself that would enable her to carry out her daily tasks around the house: ‘Bread, table. Knives, forks, spoons, salt. Toilet. Eat. Drink. Sex.’ That sort of thing. And yet she was an intelligent woman. It was extraordinary to him that he had never realised that she might have a secret life, something she kept away from him. Did she ever share these thoughts with anyone else? A friend? A ‘relative’? A journal?
‘You’re just sitting there, staring. Finish your meal. Don’t you like it?’
‘What were you thinking about?’
‘You were the one sitting there not saying anything,’ she said. ‘I was only wondering what you were thinking about.’
‘I was wondering what sort of thing you think about.’ He felt slightly defeated by it all but to his surprise she laughed girlishly, as if he’d just made a rather wonderful joke. ‘I have these thoughts sometimes,’ he said. ‘Things I want to say to you that sound like poetry in my head. And I stop myself because they wouldn’t come out right.’
‘Like what?’ A little nostril flare of suspicion from her.
He pressed on: ‘I was going to say to you that I don’t mind it when we don’t say much to each other. It’s like being wrapped up in loft insulation. That’s all.’
He expected her to laugh again. But she stared at him for a few seconds as if he had just said something rather vulgar. Then she came over to him and kissed him once, very gently, on the mouth. Then she half sat on his leg, turned and pushed away the plate of half-eaten food, turned back to him and kissed him, putting her tongue in his mouth – did he taste of the food? – while grinding herself against him. He reached up under her shirt and pushed her bra up and felt her bare skin and then fumbled about – or they fumbled together – and got her knickers out of the way and his trousers undone and they had sex. It wasn’t ideal because of the still-warm food on the plate and not brushing his teeth and the sadness he had noticed in her. She was behaving as if they had just met in a nuclear shelter and the sirens were still going. He put his mouth on her skin, about an inch along from her nipple and bit her. He did it quite gently and she didn’t complain, as if she resisted letting him know anything about how she felt, even when she felt pain. Even when he caused it.
When they finished, she seemed giggly again. Happy, sad, happy. It was as if she was insane. ‘You’re not pregnant?’
‘You want a miracle here, at home?’ Now she was angry. Sometimes he felt he didn’t know her at all. What was there to be angry about? Did she want a child? Or was she simply making a joke? Perhaps she had been making a joke, pretending to be angry, and it had misfired. He felt tired. Desperately tired, as if it was the end of everything, as if he had just carried home something expensive and heavy to save a child’s life – an iron lung or some other breathing apparatus – only to find that the child had already died.
‘If I was certified as a miracle,’ she said, ‘you’d have to stay here and guard me. We could make love all day, then.’
Jesus. She seemed to want to have sex again. She took her top off. She took her skirt off. She took her knickers off. She looked sad again. Maybe it was because he was sitting there gawping, in an appalled kind of way.
She took off his shirt, tugged at his trousers, tried to pull him on top of her.
‘Not on the floor, you’ll get cold,’ he said.
She had one hand at the back of his neck, pulling his face down on hers so she could kiss him. She had her nose pressed right into his face.
‘You’re not crying?’
She didn’t answer. But her face was damp with tears.
He got her up off the floor and half carried her into the living room. It was unromantic. He was like a soldier escorting a wounded colleague. He got her on to the sofa. Perhaps they should talk about things. He’d probably said something wrong. Or not said the right thing. Was it the loft insulation or the miracles, or the food that had dried out in the oven? Perhaps she’d hoped he’d make it home earlier today?
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. It seemed as good a start as any. But she just wanted to have sex again. She was lying on her back and she had her neck resting at an angle on the arm of the sofa. He was worried about snapping it. If he was too energetic and he accidentally snapped her neck and she died instantly but he carried on having sex with her… Actually, it wouldn’t matter what people thought or if he went to prison because nothing would matter any more because his wife would have died, and he honestly wouldn’t want to live any more if she was dead. He thought the world of her.
‘Angela,’ he said afterwards, ‘let’s go away to Cornwall together.’ It was the sort of thing people in London said to each other all the time these days, without having any idea of how they would get there or whether living in Cornwall would really be any better than living in London. But if you wanted to excite and flatter a woman you were supposed to mention Cornwall, as if there could be nothing finer than taking her to a place where she’d be expected to earn her living by serving behind the counter in a supermarket or whatever they made them do there.
But women were funny like that. They were just like other people – they always wanted what they hadn’t got.
‘Lucas,’ she said. ‘If I could really believe that…’
‘Some days I think I can’t bear another minute of it.’
‘You sound like one of those women, in those war-time films, you know – with their marvellous accents “I simply can’t bear another minute of it”.’
‘I can’t stand another fucking minute of it. Is that clear enough for you? Is that unstoic enough? Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. How would we get to Cornwall?’
Was this a rhetorical question?
‘With your job, you must know. How could we get to Cornwall? If you really meant it, Lucas, I’d go with you tomorrow.’
That’s the thing. He didn’t really mean it. For some reason that was mysterious even to him, he had used what was effectively a seduction line after he’d already had sex with her twice and without any urgent wish to do it for a third time, since he had a headache and his cock was a bit sore. It was unstrategic of him. He hadn’t thought it through.
‘Or Wales. We could go to Wales.’ She wasn’t going to let it go.
‘I didn’t know you wanted to go to Wales.’
‘Anywhere but here. Imagine if we lived somewhere by the sea, with nice friends, no restrictions on where we went or what we did. Kids playing happily. Not wondering what I’d do if I gave birth to a girl because bringing a girl into this world is a curse.’
‘What would I do for work?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘That’s the sort of thing you’ve got to worry about. How would I support us? Would they let us in to Cornwall?’
‘We’d find a way. As for being accepted – you’ve got money. If we didn’t ask for anything, only contributed…’
‘OK, look. Don’t get upset. Angela? Angela?’ She looked as if she would cry again. ‘Don’t get upset. I’ll look into it. I don’t know how these things work. We’ve got money but there are currency restrictions. What if it doesn’t have any value there?’
‘Find something that does.’
‘I’ll look into it.’
‘You’ve got friends in the Ministry.’
‘You’ve got influence.’
‘Was that why you married me?’
‘Did you think I had something? Money, power? A way out? Because I don’t.’
‘I married you for your blue eyes.’
‘You know,’ he said, ‘sometimes I wonder if you’re happy.’
‘Happy? No, I’m not happy. Jesus. Of course I’m not happy. But that’s hardly your fault. It’s just the way things are.’
‘You married me for my blue eyes?’
‘You’re sweet. I like the sex, the sex is great. Yeah, you’ve got money and the car and the house and all that. It’s not about that, though, is it.’
‘We could have a baby.’
‘Are you bored?’
‘I’m not bored. I’m a prisoner. I want to leave here.’
‘I love you, Angela.’
You can’t say to someone – to your own wife, after she has revealed that she is deeply unhappy – you can’t say ‘So, do you love me, then?’ It might sound needy. He had said ‘I love you’ to her. She should have said it back to him. It was accepted, to bat it back; a reflex. The table tennis of love. She didn’t actually have to mean it. It was comforting, that’s all.
‘What?’ Sometimes she looked at him as if she could hear his thoughts. Why couldn’t he hear hers?
‘Nothing. I love you, Angela.’
He’d have to try harder if he wanted her to say she loved him and mean it. A good job at the Ministry, sex most nights when he came home, money in the bank, food on the table – it wasn’t enough for her. She wanted to be happy.
‘I was thinking about Cornwall. I was thinking about us driving to the beach – about you driving, if you wanted to – and lying there on the sand, looking up at the sky, without anyone asking us what we were doing.’
‘You really think it’s like that?’
‘A little house with a garden and a dog.’
‘You’re allowed dogs there?’
‘Why not? And a couple of kids. And friends. Having dinner with friends.’
‘I know the names I’d call my kids.’
‘Don’t sound so surprised.’
‘We’ve never discussed it.’
‘You think I only think about the things that you discuss with me?’
‘I’m not… you make me sound like an ogre. I don’t make the rules. I don’t think it’s fair.’
‘Don’t you? Why don’t you try and change it, then?’
It had never occurred to him before now that he might be married to a woman who was a seditionist. He felt a sickening shock of fear. His mouth flooded with a bitter taste, his breathing quickened. He picked up a napkin and put it to his mouth and drooled saliva into it, discreetly, to get rid of the taste. He lived in a misogynistic, patriarchal society but still, a man wasn’t supposed to sit and drool on the floor in his own home. His hands felt damp and cold, and his fingers unresponsive, too weak to close in on themselves and make a fist around the napkin. A terrible thought had suddenly come into his head: what if she was a spy? What if she had been asked to say this by the Ministry? Where had he met her, anyway? What did he know about her, really? Maybe it was a test. Perhaps if he tried to have sex with her again? It might take her mind off it. Besides, she was probably feeling pretty horny with all this talk of Cornwall. He put his hands on her.
‘Lucas. Don’t do that. Are you listening to me? Are you saying we can go to Cornwall?’
She put her arms around him and kissed him, dryly and gratefully, the way he’d seen her kiss a bottle opener once, after she’d spent half the day looking for it.
And that was it. She wasn’t a spy, she was an unhappy girl and it was in his power to make her happy. He’d made a promise to her, the woman he loved more than anything in the world. All he needed now was a miracle, ha ha.
‘I meant to tell you,’ Angela said. ‘Jesmond was here.’
‘You meant to tell me?’
‘He turned up around lunchtime.’
‘You didn’t let him in?’
‘He was hungry, I had to give him a meal. He had a notebook full of old poems and stuff. Said you might want to look through it.’
‘I’m not interested.’
She attempted an impersonation of Jesmond’s slightly florid style of speaking: ‘“My dear, let me list all the things I wish I could have left with you: a small, shiny shell picked up on a beach on an outing with a woman I was in love with, a poem written for Matthew and Anna when Lucas was born, a photo of my mother, a postcard from my brother sent shortly before he was taken. I’ve lost them all along the way – all except this. Keep it safe for me. They’ll want it for the archive one day, when the situation improves.”’
‘Oh. The archive!’
‘You know he adores you.’
‘If “adores” means turning up unannounced twice a year, stinking and skint and trying to cadge food off you while I’m out at work.’
‘Don’t be an arse.’
But Lucas was uneasy; you never knew who was watching the house.
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