Like any responsible father, Hugh Morrison had installed cameras in every room in the flat. You bang them in like nails, the work experience had told him, and bang them in Hugh did. The internet said they transmitted to the police station. The bubble pack said they recorded. Hugh knew which to believe, and banged them in without a worry. You could only pick them up on the house wifi. The bubble pack said that too.
That March morning, the cameras in the kitchen recorded Hope. Hope Morrison, née Abendorf, sat at the kitchen table, staring into space. She wore wraparound glasses with clunky earpieces. Now and again she tapped her fingers on the table, typing, or moused the tip of her forefinger about. She had a job in China, answering queries to a help screen. She couldn’t read Chinese. The query translations were automatic and most of the answers – all of them, if necessary – were also automatic, chatted out by a software module called Searle, but rewording the occasional answer did something positive to the site’s traffic, so there you were.
Around about eleven the nursery called to say Nick had the sniffles, and could she please take him home before he infected the faith kids? Hope sighed and agreed. As she flipped the phone clip off she indulged a resentful thought that Nick had probably got the sniffles from the faith kids.
Hope toggled her screen-work to Searle, took off the glasses, and left the kitchen table. She kicked off her mocs and stepped into her Muck Boots, pulled an open-mesh wool jacket over her loose cotton top and long linen dress and a cagoule over the lot, olive green over shades of berry. She parted the sides of her hair over the front of her shoulders, zipped up and hooded, sidled past the hedge of handlebars in the hall and headed out into the rain.
Up the green, slippery, worn sandstone steps from her basement flat she went, treading carefully, to the pavement. Victoria Road, like (it seemed) half the streets in Finsbury Park this March, was obstructed by machinery: small JCBs digging out stumps, lorries carrying away felled trees, cranes and lifts steadying old trees as the chainsaws bit through their trunks, more lorries bringing New Trees to plant. In the hundred yards between Hope’s front gate and East West Road she passed a dozen New Trees, planted as saplings in November and already sixteen feet high. God only knew what they’d be like in the summer. Each tree as she passed under it held off the pelting rain like an umbrella, making the last fall of leaves from the old trees slightly less slippery underfoot.
The nursery was a couple of hundred metres to the right along the southern side of East West Road. Hope crossed at the lights, dodging whirring cars and whizzing bikes whose smugly green owners thought the red didn’t apply to them. Past the high plastic scenery-printed screens around the nursery, through the metal-detector and biometric-scan gate, and into the joyous uproar of indoor playtime.
Was it possible, Hope wondered as she looked for Nick’s hurtling trajectory amid the skein, was it possible at all to tell the difference between on the one hand faith kids and nature kids (of which Nick was the only one here) and on the other the rest, those you might call, under your breath of course, New Kids? Were these a centimetre taller than others of their age, a glimmer brighter of eye, a syllable more articulate? A step ahead in the race, a pace more sure-footed? A decibel less loud?
At this moment, she couldn’t tell. She scooped Nick up. He howled and stretched out his arms for the teacher who, three hours earlier, had had to prise him off Hope’s leg. Hope inserted Nick’s arms into the sleeves of his big yellow cagoule (several times), lifted his camo lunch box from a high shelf in the lobby and reminded him of what was inside it, waved goodbye to the teachers, and departed. Nick had the sniffles all right, sneezing into the crook of his elbow several times, and just barely amused by watching the rain wash the snot off the sleeve of his cagoule. He only brightened when he got inside and his toy monkey ran to meet him.
‘Hello, Max,’ said Nick, picking it up and cuddling it.
‘Hello, Nick,’ said Max, its arms curling around Nick.
Hope made Nick a GenSip and parked him at the other side of the table with Max on his lap and his lunch box open in front of him. She unfolded Mummy’s Special Glasses That You Mustn’t Touch and put them on. Searle had dealt with a score of enquiries, not all of them well. Hope sighed and got back to work. When she’d cleared the backlog, she warmed the kettle again and made herself a cup of instant coffee, and took a break by flicking to ParentsNet. She opened the Forums page and found it topped by a new thread with a slew of postings:
Nature Kids Now Illegal?
The incept story was a BBC item about a messy marital conflict. The couple were Iranian doctors, and (no surprise) militant atheists. The woman was six months pregnant. The man wanted her to take the fix. The woman, for reasons she refused to elaborate, didn’t. She wanted a nature kid. If she’d claimed a conversion to one of the sects – Druze, Hassidic, Mennonite, Sedevacantist or even any old New Age Earth Mother nonsense, the sort of thing she could have made up on the spot – she’d have been covered by the conscience exemption. But she hadn’t, and wouldn’t. Her husband’s insistence was equally stubborn.
And, to everyone’s surprise, the judge in the family court had ruled in his favour. Or rather, as those on the judge’s side of the argument kept insisting, in the future child’s favour. Comments were already in the thousands – Hope tapped the Sense icon and watched a half-dozen animated talking heads summarise the main views.
She sat back, hands lightly clasped over her belly, and thought for a bit. Then she got back to work.
‘Well I’m not bloody doing it,’ she told Hugh, that evening after dinner and Nick’s bedtime.
‘That’s fine,’ he said. He didn’t look or sound like he needed to say anything more. Hope, beside him on the sofa, headbutted his shoulder. It was like hitting a car tyre.
Hugh had taken off his work overalls hours ago, as soon he’d parked his bike in the hall. He still smelled of wood, which Hope liked. She didn’t like finding sawdust or tiny curls of wood-shavings snagged in the hairs of his chest or groin or head, which she sometimes did, even after he’d had a shower. She accepted the inconvenience, though, as part of the package. Hugh came as a package, all right, but what he didn’t come with was baggage. What you saw was what you got, and what you saw was a big bluff guy with a shock of sandy (as well as sawdusty) hair already giving way to male pattern baldness that exposed, to close inspection, freckles on his scalp. The only reason he wasn’t fat was that he worked so hard and so physically he turned every spare calorie to more muscle.
He’d grown up on a wind farm on the Isle of Lewis. Father an incomer, mother a native. Like his parents, Hugh and Hope had met at university, where Hugh was studying wind turbine engineering. When, halfway through his degree, the bottom had dropped out of that market, he’d calmly turned to carpentry. He’d been doing that for a year when he and Hope had met. There was good money in carpentry, he’d explained, what with the China business and all the new kinds of wood. He took her on walks through whole forests of the stuff. His bike frame had grown in one.
Hope and Hugh. H+H. H2. H4H. That was what Hugh used to carve on trees. Maybe still did, for all Hope knew.
‘So what are we going to do about it?’ Hope said.
Hugh gave her a puzzled look.
‘What is there to do about it?’ he said. ‘If you don’t want to do it, nobody can make you do it.’
‘Have you been listening to a word I said?’
‘Yes, I have,’ said Hugh. ‘It’s a decision, not a law. Nothing’s been made illegal.’
(He said the last word with a slow lingual and a long nasal vowel, like this: ill-lee-gal. It was from the maternal half of his accent, which showed up now and then like a mitochondrial gene.)
‘The point is,’ said Hope, irritated at what seemed wilful obtuseness for its own sake, ‘it sets a precedent. In effect the fix becomes compulsory.’
‘In effect, yes. But only if someone sues.’
‘Oh, come on. You know what’ll happen to insurance, social services, and everything like that.’ Hope waved her arms as if fending off midges. ‘It all closes in. And then they’ll make a law, like they did with pregnant women smoking and drinking.’
‘Yeah,’ said Hugh. ‘There is that.’
He stood up and walked over to the stove. The air in the room smelled resinous for a moment as he opened the stove door and loaded some new wood in. He worked the lever that ejected a brick of soot, added the brick to the stack by the stove, and then sat down again.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I suppose that just means we’ll have to break the law.’
Hope had been half-expecting him to argue, to suggest some compromise. He didn’t share her opposition to the fix, and had now and again expressed some mild irritation at the succession of infant ills that its absence left Nick exposed to. He had once pointed out that the medicines to cure these ills were themselves very similar in principle and effect to the fix. Having found herself pushing at an open door, Hope stumbled and flailed.
‘We could always claim we had a faith issue with it,’ she said, half in jest.
‘No, we could not,’ Hugh said, folding his arms. ‘I will not pretend to believe something just to get a conscience exemption. Because it would not be true, and because you would have to do more than claim. You would have to show evidence of practice, even if it was just muttering in front of crystals or something. And that would set a very bad example to the boy, if nothing else.’
‘I wasn’t being serious,’ said Hope, hastening to reassure.
‘I didn’t think you were,’ said Hugh. He opened his arms and smiled a little. ‘I don’t want to hear even jokes about that.’
‘All right,’ said Hope.
She knew that Hugh took religion very seriously, possibly just as seriously as had the Iranian couple whose case had brought about the whole new situation. And – all proportions guarded – for very much the same reason. He’d told her tales about the wind farms, in the wry tone of someone recounting things so absurd they were unlikely to be believed, but who insisted on their telling and their truth nonetheless. Neither old-time religion nor New Age woo-woo were, in his implacable view, deserving of any slack.
‘Damn it!’ said Hugh, vehement after a moment or two of pondering. ‘Last week we were so happy that you’re pregnant. Now we have to worry about this.’
He jumped up and prowled the carpet.
‘There’s plenty we can do,’ he said. ‘These parenting sites, there must be thousands of people in this position. There’s all the legal challenges, there’s civil-liberty groups and all that. It’s not like it’s all going to happen without a fuss. And it’ll take longer than nine months, that’s for sure.’
‘Nine months is long enough for a lot of things,’ said Hope.
‘It is and all,’ said Hugh.
Hope saw his gaze flicker to the whisky bottle on a shelf. She knew he wanted a dram, and knew he wouldn’t take one because she couldn’t. (Well, she could, but the monitor ring she wore on the same finger as her wedding band would log the violation with the health centre.) She wished she could persuade him, but knew from her earlier pregnancy that he would not be persuaded. For him it was a matter of honour, or maybe stubborn pride.
‘But you’re right,’ she said. ‘We can do lots of things.’
And there they left the question for the night.
Snow had fallen overnight, and likewise overnight the GenSip had worked its magic. Between them these phenomena made Nick eager for nursery. He didn’t even clutch Hope’s leg when she left him. She trudged home through another fall of snow, big wet soggy flakes that turned instantly to slush. She left her Mucks and cagoule to dry in the hall and padded in her mocs to the kitchen, where she tied on a floral-printed and rufflebordered pinafore apron in preparation for doing the housework. Hope had half a kitchen cupboard full of pinnies and halfaprons, most of them similarly retro regardless of their purpose or style or selling point: flirty, tarty, cheery, cheeky, Christmassy, shabby-chic, sophisticated, hostessy; pretty and practical; printed with flowers or sprigs or cupcakes or berries or heart shapes or vintage aeroplanes or Santa hats or polka dots or lipstick kisses or whatever.
The oldest of them, still there at the back, was a relatively plain floral-print Cath Kidston apron with matching oven gloves, which Hope’s mother had given her the day she went away to university and to live away from home for the first time. Hope still recalled the sheer disbelief and feigned gratitude with which she’d unwrapped the gift. For her mother, this sort of thing was ‘ironic’ (like that, with air-quotes). Her mother’s generation, Hope had often thought, had tried on and played dress-up in their grandmothers’ aprons as some kind of postmodern fashion statement, and left their daughters to find themselves quite unexpectedly stuck in the things, all wrapped and tied up with a neat bow at the back.
Hope resented it sometimes. It wasn’t that she didn’t like her aprons, or the working in and from home of which they were both a practical part and a clichéd symbol, but that they’d come to stand in her mind for a larger failing of her mother’s cohort, who’d somehow let their guard down for a moment of post-feminist frivolity and found a whole shadow sexist establishment just waiting to pounce, to cry, ‘Ah! So that’s what you really wanted! We were right all along!’ and before you knew it, the tax advantages of having one parent stay at home were so significant it was more than it was worth not to do it unless you were something like a lawyer – like, for instance, all those lawyers who’d dreamed up all the ostensibly child-protective legislation that had put so many workplaces outside the home off limits for women of childbearing age whether they ever intended to have children or not, which meant that nine times out of ten the parent at home was the mother.
For a moment she stood, hands behind her waist, fingers gripping the loops of the knot just tightened, and fell into a dwam as she gazed at the space in front of her. The main part of the flat consisted of the living room and the kitchen, united decades ago by the then-fashionable knock-through, an opening about three times the width of a doorway. The living room was at the front, facing the wall across a gap of about a metre or so; the kitchen to the back, facing the garden (or, as Nick called it, the back grass). Enough light came from the windows – the upper third of the front was level with the street – to give some cheering sunshine to the living room in the mornings and the kitchen in the afternoons. Today the light seemed paradoxically brighter because of the snow. At other times, and in the evenings, the flat always seemed to Hope darker than it should be, in the cold, dim light of energy-saving bulbs and tubes. The flicker of flame from behind the mica plate of the closed-system stove in the living room helped a little, lending a few cosy wavelengths of natural light to the scene.
Likewise cheering touches were added by the paintings and drawings from her student days that Hope had framed on the walls, the far larger number of Nick’s paintings from nursery tacked up all over the place; the tapestries and crochets, which Hope had made or bought, thrown over chairs and sofa, and the shelves and stacks of books: art history, cookery books, needlecraft books, textbooks from Hugh’s and Hope’s university days – more art history, engineering and science reference works – all decoration really, when you could summon their contents in an eye-blink, but good to have even if a pain to dust. You couldn’t sell them, anyway: the second-hand book trade had collapsed under the dangers of fourth-hand smoke, with most of the stock sealed in vaults or incinerated. Hope’s guitar, though also sadly gathering dust in the living-room corner where it stood propped, now and then lifted her spirits too, especially when she picked it up, blew the dust off it, and strummed a few bars or, on particularly bad or good days, sang at the top of her voice in the empty flat.
Hope washed the breakfast dishes, tidied Nick’s toys – which got everywhere even in the hour between him getting up and going to nursery – and made the beds and tidied Nick’s room. Max the toy monkey followed her around, picking toys up and offering them for her to play with. After a while he started to say ‘Max hungry’, so she set him to sleep mode and stuck him on the recharger. She made a coffee, hung up her apron, sat down at the kitchen table, opened her glasses and started working in China but not in Chinese. She took a break at eleven and checked the BBC. The nature kids issue had been knocked right off the front screen by a truck-bomb blast at a motorway intersection outside Munich: scores dead, hundreds injured, toll expected to rise. The atrocity had been claimed by the Neues Rote Armee Fraktion, a hitherto unheard-from local affiliate of the transnational insurgent franchise that everyone called the Naxals. Hope stared at fallen flyovers and mangled cars for as long as she could bear to listen. Then she shuddered and flipped to ParentsNet, where the nature kids thread had more or less taken over.
No new light there. Hope decided to skip the crowd-sourced wisdom of pseudonymous strangers and consult some real people. She wrote an email and fired it off to six friends, then got back to work. By lunchtime she had four responses.
SHEILA: Hi Hope, Good to hear from you! Yes this is outrageous but remember it will go to appeal. Also legal challenge to faith exemption (i.e. need to extend it to nonfaith conscience cases) has good precedent all the way back to that climate-change guy. Look up humanism for example, that’s explicitly covered. So not to worry and obviously has no personal bearing on you because the machinery won’t have ground out anything for a year at least. Best wishes re the pregnancy of course, you have morning sickness to look forward to ha-ha. xxx
FATIMA: Yeah well, if you think ParentsNet has gone wild about this take a look at the British Persian sites!!! But seriously, have you thought about Nature Kids Network, it’s a community for parents like you? Some woo-woo and antivaccers but mostly quite level-headed. They’re the place to go for serious advice, and they’ve already got lawyers on board. Though to be honest Hope, I never did understand the objection, though I quite appreciate it’s up to you and if what you’re afraid of does come about I will be on the streets for you. Keep well.
JAMES: Hi Hope, interesting points. Tricky one really. I understand your concern, but as a doctor, I see too many kids with congenital conditions or so-called childhood illnesses (which can have very nasty consequences even when minor) that could have been completely avoided had their parents agreed to the fix to be as gung-ho as you are about the parents’ so-called ‘rights’. It’s like the tobacco/alcohol ban in pregnancy – lots of problems with that if you pose it as a ‘rights’ or ‘freedom’ issue, and there was a lot of fuss about that before the ban, and it was predicted to be unenforceable and all that, but when it came in it was complied with except for the usual chav element, and the medical benefits are plain in the stats and hard to argue with if you’ve ever seen a case of foetal alcohol syndrome (which I have, though not recently, I wonder why? No I don’t). Obviously I’m entirely sympathetic to you, don’t get me wrong, and I’ll stand by you if they come for you (which they won’t) but as a doctor and as a friend my advice to you is to change the problem by changing your mind and just taking the goddamn fix.
Must dash but let’s you and us meet up for dinner sometime. Regards to Hugh.
DEIRDRE: Lovely seeing you the other day, with you all the way on this one, let’s have a chat over drinks oops coffee soon. Bye 4 now!
What a great posse of friends I have, Hope thought. James in particular annoyed her, but she knew it was just the medicine talking. Doctors nearly always turned out like that.
She dismissed James from her mind, and mentally from her Christmas-card list, and followed up Sheila’s suggestion. A search on humanism and a quick scan of the results left her more despondent than before. For a start, the humanist organisations and most humanist thinkers seemed entirely in favour of the fix, though not at all for making it compulsory or even hard to avoid. But what depressed her more was that she didn’t even agree with humanism. That and making the most of your life struck her as a reasonable enough conclusion to draw from it, and in any case what she wanted to do. But beside the spires of theology and the watchtowers of ideology, it seemed a very shaky hut indeed, and not one that offered her much shelter or would stand up in court.
She couldn’t see a way to make her objection to the fix a deduction from any body of thought. It came from a body of flesh, her own, and that was enough for her. She doubted that this would be enough for anyone else.
One p.m. Back to China.