Authors: Michel Faber
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Literary
Entranced, Jeanette moved closer to the window, right up to the windowsill. The smudges on the glass were just as they had been for weeks, years maybe. Beyond them, the world really was what it appeared to be, radiant and tranquil. The perspective changed subtly just the way it should, when she turned her head or looked down. Just underneath the window, a discarded slipper had moss growing on it, and flower petals were being scattered across the ground by a tiny sparrow. Jeanette pressed her nose against the glass and tried to peek sideways, to see the joins. All she could see was some kind of ivy she didn’t have a name for, nuzzling at the edges of the window, dark green with a spot of russet red at the heart of each leaf. Her ear, so close now to the glass, heard the little beak of that sparrow quite clearly, the infinitely subtle rustle of the leaves, the distant honking of the geese.
‘It’s a video, right?’ she said shakily. To keep her awe at bay, she closed her eyes and tried to see the view through her window objectively. She imagined it as a sort of endless rerun of the same film of a country garden, with the same birds flying the same circuit at intervals like in those shop window displays at Christmas, those mechanical tableaux in which Santa Claus lowered a sack of presents into a chimney end lessly without ever letting it go.
‘No, it’s not a video,’ murmured the saleswoman.
‘Well, some sort of film anyway,’ said Jeanette, opening her eyes again. The geese were out of sight now, but the golden light was deepening. ‘How long does it go for?’
The saleswoman chuckled indulgently, as though a small child had just asked her when the sun would fall back to the ground.
,’ she said. ‘It’s not any kind of film. It’s a real place, and this is what it’s like there, right now, at this very moment.’
Jeanette struggled with the idea. The sparrow had jumped onto the windowsill. It was utterly, vividly real. It opened its minuscule mouth and chirped, then shivered its wings, shedding a couple of fluffs.
‘You mean … I’m looking into somebody else’s back garden?’ asked Jeanette.
‘In a way,’ said the saleswoman, opening her leatherbound folder and leafing through its waterproofed pages. ‘This is a satellite broadcast of … let me see … the grounds of the Old Priory, in Northward Hill, Rochester. This is what is happening there right now.’
Jeanette became suddenly aware that she was gaping like an idiot. She closed her mouth and frowned, trying to look cynical and unimpressed.
‘Well,’ she said, staring out across the meadows. ‘There’s not a great deal happening there, is there?’
‘That’s a matter of opinion, of course,’ conceded the saleswoman. ‘We do have Outlooks which view onto more …
landscapes. There is the Blue Surge Outlook, which broadcasts the view through the lighthouse at Curlew Point, Cruidlossie, the third-stormiest beach in the British Isles. For those who like trains, we have the Great Valley Crossing Outlook, which has three major railways running services past it. For animal lovers, we have the Room To Roam Outlook, viewing onto an organic sheep farm in Wales …’
Jeanette was watching her little sparrow hop away across the garden, and the saleswoman’s voice was a twitter in the background.
‘Mm?’ she said. ‘Oh well actually, this is … fine.’
‘It’s particularly lovely at night,’ added the saleswoman in a soft, beguiling tone. ‘Owls come out. They catch mice in the garden.’
‘Owls?’ echoed Jeanette. She had never seen an owl. She had seen a lot of things. She’d seen kids sniffing glue, she’d once stumbled onto an attempted rape, she’d had to pick bits of hypodermic syringe out of the rubber soles of her son’s trainers. About a fortnight ago, sitting at this same windowsill late at night, she’d watched a drunken, bloodied boy larking about on the roof of the shop, pissing over the edge, while his mates whooped and ran around below, dodging the stream.
Now I’ve seen everything
, she’d murmured to herself. But she’d never seen an owl.
‘How … how much does this cost?’ she breathed.
There was a pause while the wind blew a few leaves trembling against the window.
‘You can buy,’ said the saleswoman. ‘Or you can rent.’ Her eyes twinkled kindly, offering her customer the choice that was no choice at all.
‘How … how much per … um …’
‘It works out to a smidgen over fourteen pounds a week,’ said the saleswoman. Observing Jeanette swallowing hard, she went on: ‘Some people would spend that much on scratch cards, or cigarettes.’
Jeanette cleared her throat.
‘Yeah,’ she said.
Then, desperate for a reason to resist the pull of the beautiful world out there, Jeanette narrowed her eyes and demanded,
‘What if some kid throws a brick through it?’
Again the saleswoman opened her leatherbound folder, and held a particular page out for Jeanette’s perusal.
‘All our Outlooks,’ she declared, ‘are designed and guaranteed to withstand the impact of any residential missile.’
‘Full beer cans?’ challenged Jeanette.
‘Beer cans. Footballs. Rocks. Gunfire at point-blank range, if necessary.’
Jeanette looked at the saleswoman in alarm, wondering if she knew something about the Rusborough gangs that Jeanette didn’t.
‘We do a lot of business in America,’ the saleswoman explained hastily.
Jeanette imagined movie stars and celebrities like Oprah gazing through these wonderful windows. The saleswoman let her imagine, keeping to herself her own more accurate vision of the urban slums of Baltimore and Michigan, where rows and rows of windows – twenty, thirty, fifty a day – were being plugged up with the grey screens of Outlook Innovations.
‘Of course, they’re the ideal security, too,’ she pointed out. ‘Nothing in the world can get through.’
Jeanette knew deep down she was already sold, but she made one last attempt to appear hard-headed.
‘People could still get in through the other windows,’ she remarked.
The saleswoman accepted this gracefully with another little tilt of the head.
‘Well …’ she said, hugging her folder-full of Outlooks to her breast with unostentatious pride. ‘One thing at a time.’
Jeanette looked back at the garden, the fields. They were still there. The sky, the horizon, the overgrown paths, the tomato-vines: none of it had gone away. She felt like crying.
Minutes later, while the man outside laboured to fix the screen permanently into place, Jeanette signed a contract, pledging
60 per month to Outlook Innovations Incorporated. She knew she was making the right decision, too, because while the screen was being bolted onto her house, it had to be switched off briefly, and Jeanette missed her garden with a craving so intense it was almost unendurable. There was no doubt in her mind that this was an addiction she would gladly give up smoking for.
An hour later, long after the saleswoman and the green van had driven away, Jeanette was still kneeling at the windowsill, gazing out at Northward Hill. Some of the geese were returning, flying closer to her house this time. They beat their wings lazily, trumpeting their alien contentment.
Suddenly Tim burst into the house, safe and sound after another long day at his sink school. He came to a halt on the living room carpet, goggling in amazement at the view through the window. He pointed, unable to speak. Finally, all he could manage was:
‘Mum, what are those birds doing there?’
Jeanette laughed, wiping her eyes with her nicotine-stained fingers. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘They’re just … they just live here.’
There were a couple of hiccups between Gail and Ant before they even got to the swimming pool.
For a start, ‘My name’s not Ant,’ the child said. ‘It’s Anthony.’ Now why did he have to say that, with the social worker right there in the car with them, listening to everything? For a few moments (none of Gail’s emotions lasted very long) she hated her little boy so much she couldn’t breathe, and she hated the social worker even more, for being there to hear Ant’s complaint. She wished the social worker could die somehow and take the knowledge of Gail’s humiliation with him; he deserved to die anyway, the parasite. But the social worker remained alive and at the wheel, noting Gail’s come-uppance in his little black book of a brain, and then – Jesus Christ! – Ant went and did it again when they were almost there, by asking Gail, ‘What was that little drink you had back there?’
‘What little drink?’
‘The little drink you had at the chemist. In the little plastic cup.’
‘My name’s not cutie,’ stated the child. ‘It’s Anthony.’
Then, as the car was drawing to a halt in front of the Melbourne public baths, this kid, this Anthony who had grown out of being the Ant she’d lost to the State five years ago, said to her,
‘Are you still sick?’
‘I used to be really sick,’ was Gail’s answer. ‘Now I’m a lot better.’
The boy looked unimpressed.
‘Moira says people shouldn’t take medicine if they’re not sick.’
Moira was Anthony’s foster-carer. He didn’t call her Mum. But then he didn’t call Gail Mum either. He was careful not to call her anything.
‘Your mum is only a little bit sick now,’ the social worker chipped in, his head twisted away as he parked the car. ‘The last bit.’
Gail hadn’t expected this from him. She was glad the social worker was alive now, grateful. She was willing to do anything for him, anything he wanted, like for free. Although she’d better be careful who she slept with these days, if she wanted to get Ant back.
‘Two,’ she told the swimming pool cashier. ‘One child and one … ah … grown-up.’ She flinched at the stumble: years of addiction had half-dissolved lots of words she’d once had no problem coming out with. They were like things you leave in a box in the garage and then when you look for them years later you find the water’s got to them.
* * *
This visit to the swimming pool was Ant’s idea, as far as Gail knew. She didn’t know very far, though. The social worker would suggest an outing with Anthony, like going to the movies, and Gail would go to the movies with Anthony. Everything was arranged: which movie, which cinema, which session time. Who decided? Gail wasn’t sure, except that it wasn’t her. Maybe Anthony had told Moira he really liked swimming and Moira had told the social worker, and the social worker had taken it from there. Maybe it was the other way around.
Gail had never been to this swimming pool before, had never been to any swimming pool since she’d been a schoolgirl, slouching in the audience at the water sports finals, distracted by nicotine craving. Those trials had been held in the open air, in a giant complex of pools. This place she and Ant were entering now was different altogether, an indoor place, like a railway-station-sized bathroom built around a railway-platform-sized bath. A combination of electric light and sunshine from the many windows and skylights made it a kind of in-between world, neither inside nor out.
The water was warm, something Gail didn’t really believe until she dangled her naked foot off the edge. She’d imagined that ‘heated’ meant the water sort of had the chill taken off it, but it was as warm as a bath: body temperature maybe. She couldn’t be sure. Her own body thermostat had been well and truly fucked for years.
Gail and Ant didn’t need to go to the changing rooms; they both had their swimgear on underneath their street clothes – another detail overseen by the social worker, this man who brought them together and, just by existing, kept them officially apart.
There were only about ten or eleven people in the pool, half of them adults swimming or hanging off the sides near the deep end. One length of the pool had been roped off by a floating divider of coloured plastic, to give serious swimmers one narrow lane to do their laps in. A well-muscled Japanese man prepared to enter this strip; a well-fleshed Australian woman was doing the backstroke. Everyone else was in the unrestricted part of the pool. Teenagers, children and their parents played at the shallow end, taking no notice of Gail and Anthony climbing in. Anthony was six and the water was up to his chest; Gail was twenty-three and the water was up to her navel. She squatted to come down to his level, and because it was warmer underwater.
‘Can you swim?’ she asked, noticing how awkwardly Ant was looking down at the water around his chest and his faraway feet on the bottom of the pool.
‘Yeah, I swim all the time,’ he said. ‘I swim real good,’ and immediately he gave a succession of startling demonstrations which consisted of throwing himself forward in the water, sinking, thrashing his arms and legs as rapidly as he could, and surfacing in a blind sputter. He couldn’t even tell which direction he was facing when he surfaced, and he would swivel his head, blinking and burping, trying to orient himself to where he had started.
‘I can swim too,’ said Gail. ‘But not very well.’
She’d learned to swim in a backyard swimming pool, one of those round, blue, free-standing things from the Clark Rubber store in Ferntree Gully, and she had been Anthony’s age. The boy whose family owned the pool had shown her how to float and how to move forward. He also tried to show her how to synchronise the arm and leg movements and turn her head from side to side to get the breaths in, but she hadn’t mastered that part. Then he had shown her his penis, and she had shown him her chubby little vulva: the pre-agreed reason for the game.