The letter came one morning as Paul was feeding the baby. He was still only half-dressed. Wearing most of his clothes, one unlaced shoe. “Oh no,” he said. “No way.”
The baby hammered her feet, made demanding noises.
Paul read the letter twice, and it said the same thing both times.
“I can't,” he told the baby, because there was nobody else there to speak to. “There's just no way.”
His neighbour Maryam ran a backstreet nursery four streets down.
He went, knocked on the door, and her nut-wrinkled face appeared screwed up in the crack. She was old, about ninety. “Can you mind Hana today?” he asked.
He looked through the gap into the hallway, and through that past the open kitchen door. At the back of the kitchen, the back door was open, leading out into the garden. A number of children, he couldn't count how many, were hurling themselves down a wooden slide in Maryam's back yard. “We'll see,” she said. “But I'm full, and you haven't booked.”
He could hear one of the children opening and closing cupboard doors in the kitchen. Maryam didn't have child closers on anything. Children often came away from her house with black eyes, bruised fingers. But it was cheap, cheaper than the registered places, and she always had space to take extra children at short notice. “Please,” he said. “I'm supposed to take a seat on the council this year, and I need to go down there and talk my way out of it.”
“Take her with you then.” She started closing the door.
“It's not allowed. See here where it says – no children under nine allowed in civic buildings.”
“Stupid rule.” She snatched the letter, squinted at it. “Why not?”
“I don't know. Please, Maryam.”
“Huh,” she said. Slammed the door. On the other side, bolt and chain rattled as though telling a story. Then she opened it, the sun spiking into her eyes. “Ok. Give her here.”
The civic hall was grey, broad, and didn't seem to want him there. It was double the footprint of a secondary school, only one storey high, and there was no obvious way in. He walked all the way around it. The North and West sides channelled a warm wind, the South and East a cold shade. He found no doorway the first time he walked around it, so he went around it again a second time, and found no way in that time, either.
He stood on one of the street sided corners until a woman arrived, carrying a wide flattish cardboard box. She walked to a point about halfway along the west side, held a lanyard up against the wall, and a door which until then had lain completely flat up against the building opened up and let her in.
On either side of the enquiry desk inside were two blank walls, each with a doorway cut out of it. These looked like the start of a maze.
Paul showed the boy behind the desk his letter. “This came today.”
“Then you're early,” the boy said. “You have to start on the date it says.” It sounded as though he was tired of telling people this. “We have the system for a reason.”
“But you see, I can't take up the council seat, although obviously it is an honour to be selected,” he added quickly. “I've got a little girl, she's only thirteen months old, and I've got nobody to look after her while I'm here.”
The boy gave Paul a sharp look. “And where's this daughter of yours while you're here trying to wriggle out of it?”
On the first Monday, the baby looked at herself in one of the mirrors on Maryam's scarf, then pulled one of the tassels towards her and into her mouth. “Don't let her do that,” Paul said.
“Do what? She's fine.”
“Her clean clothes are in there.” He handed her Hana's bag. “A bottle, the carrot soup she likes –”
“She'll eat when she's hungry, like the rest of them do.” Maryam bounced the baby on her hip. “You know, you should do something about the elderly. Look at me, still having to work at my age. It's not right, is it? Look at the state of this place.” She pulled at part of the wall. An entire strip of wallpaper came away, like skin peeling from rotten fruit. “Why can't you make your new law be something about that?”
“New councillor, are you?” A tall, barrel-shaped man at the enquiry desk looked Paul up and down. “Where's the other one?”
A dried-up leaf of a woman almost hiding in the corner unfolded herself. “I'm here,” she said. “I'm Safiya.”
“Right, come on then.” Without even a nod, the man led them through the right-hand door, then on down a corridor. He was faster than he looked, his voice disappearing as he told them: “When you think about the system we used to have – stupid. They didn't even know what they were voting for half the time, so what was the point?” Paul was having to jog frantically to keep up. He looked for landmarks, something to guide him back out again when they finished at four o'clock. But the walls all looked the same. Dirty white, no arrows or posters or notices, everything looking exactly the same as the corridor before it. “The new way is much better. More efficient. Everybody's happy.”
Paul glanced back. Safiya was keeping up: she glared at the man's back as though it had a target on it. She was shorter than he was and had to take twice as many steps to keep pace. “Slow down, can't you?” Paul said, but there was no response.
A greying wall narrowed to a point. There was the murmur of voices growing louder. Then an abrupt left, and they came out into the sound of voices, a large office full of people.
They seemed to be in the centre of the building. Inside the room were smaller cubicles, all fenced off at chest height. Small square and L-shaped cubicles tessellated off central corridors, each with a worker or two inside. Housing, he saw. Road infrastructure. Schools. Everybody seemed to be doing something, busy, and they all knew the tall man.
“Monday, eh?” one of them said.
“Don't I know it?” The man paused, smiled, but he didn't introduce Paul or Safiya.
Paul looked back to see where Safiya was. She had paused a few metres behind, next to one of the cubicles, taking it all in with an unreadable expression on her face.
Their office, the one he and Safiya were to share for the next year, had walls all the way to the ceiling. Desks, a lounge area with sofas, a bright red coffee machine. When they arrived, the two outgoing councillors were sitting with their feet up on the desk.
“Jim,” said one of them. He had a handshake like a pneumatic drill.
Paul moved around, trying to get a sense of where he was in the building. “So what are we supposed to do?” he asked.
Jim and the other councillor slid each other a knowing glance. “You'll want these.” Jim tried to slide two ring-bound folders across the desk, volume one and volume two. “You'll have to read that before you do anything, and it's not supposed to leave this room.”
Safiya flicked through the binders, then closed them with a slam. “First thing I'm doing is ending this stupid system,” she said. “After I'm done, nobody's spending twelve months in this shithole ever again.”
Hana seemed an ounce or so heavier when he picked her up that afternoon. “Did she have a good day?”
The wallpaper from earlier lay in a curled strip over the hallway floor. “Not too bad, not too much crying,” Maryam said. “Here's what you could do. You could give all the old folks a certain amount of money a month, more than they have at the moment.” Her eyes were beady, questing. “Then people like me wouldn't have to work. It's the least you could do.”
“But then what would I do for childcare?” he said. “Besides, it's complicated. There are a lot of rules about what we can and can't do.”
“You're not supposed to do anything that benefits you or your own family. Plus, you can't undo anything that was brought in within the last five years.”
“You know, there never used to be all this,” she said. “We'd vote them in and then they'd do more or less whatever they felt like. It didn't matter whether they'd promised to do it or not. We were stuck with them for the rest of the time.” She started to close the door. “Not that it makes any difference.”
“What?” Her face was a sliver of suspicion in the doorway. “It's late. Getting dark. Do you want me standing out here in the street with my door open? You never know who might be hanging about.”
“Why don't you put the lights on?”
“Huh,” she said, and shut the door.
“We could ban primary schools from having a class pet,” Paul suggested.
Safiya's knuckles, the colour of Earl Grey, were on the rule book. “Who cares? Who cares anything about whatever stupid rule we bring in? Nobody will pay any attention to it anyway.” She gestured vaguely out towards the offices. “Waste of time, this. I don't even know what it's for, and here I am leaving my sister at home to come here every day. God knows what she's up to. She could be lying on the floor, dead.” She started tearing at the edge of a page, and he watched with alarm as she flung paper dust and shreds of paper up in the air.
“Stop doing that,” he said. “I'm sure your sister's fine.”
“How would you know?” Safiya shot back. Her sister had the mental age of a four-year-old, she'd said, she'd gone to a special school, couldn't work. “She's not too clever on her feet. She'll try to get into all the top cupboards. You know, she could fall. She gets hungry and she will try to eat anything. Usually I'm there to stop her.” She tore the next page out, screwed it into a ball, threw it towards the door.
“Leave stuff out for her, then,” he said.
“Do you think I don't know my sister? I've been looking after her all my life, I know what she's like. If I leave stuff out for her on the worktops or in the fridge, she'll eat it in the mornings, and then in the afternoons, she'll start trying to get in the cupboards.” Safiya tore out another page, then stopped with it crumpled and concertinaed under her fist. “At least let's stop messing about with little things, about planting bulbs in parks and class pets and all that rubbish. We need to try and do something proper.”
Safiya and her sister, he had gleaned, lived together in an ageing house that always needed some attention. They had two or three cats. Safiya did as much of the maintenance of the house as she could. Their house was up a hill, remote enough that they rarely had visitors apart from a couple of younger cousins, and he understood that this was exactly the way Safiya liked it. She'd been married once, she'd said, but it hadn't turned out well. “Sod this, anyway,” she said. “In a minute, I'm going home.”
It was only midday.
“You can't.” Paul went around the room picking up screwed-up pieces of paper. There was dust and binding thread all over the carpet. She had made a mess of everything, and he wanted to clean as much of it away as he could before the cleaners came. “It's too early.”
“Six weeks we've been in this room,” she said. “Not once has anybody come in to see us. They don't bother about us for the sandwich run. They don't peek their heads around the door, they don't come to check if we're ok, and nobody is going to notice if I leave.” She got up, picked up her bag, and smiled at him. “You realise this is all just for show? You and me and the other councillors who were here before us? You waste your time here if you like.” He had not seen the smile before. For all these weeks she'd been severe as a troubled past. “See you, then,” she said. She went out.
There was nothing he could do. Paul stayed in the room, and went on turning the pages.
Previous councillors had written ideas for new laws in one of the books. In faint copperplate: “Government to issue limited licenses for the production of plastic items; each license will grant permission to produce a hundred (100) items of plastic, each no more than a third of a cubic metre, and no more.” But nobody made things in plastic any more. It was an ancient material, ridiculous, superseded.
Further on neat blocky writing, every suggestion to do with business. “No taxes for businesses employing a hundred or more people,” said one. Another: “Once a business has been granted a license to provide foodstuffs for the general public, they should be exempt from food hygiene inspections for the next 10 years.” There was a whole paragraph of suggestions at the bottom that said things like: “Allow businesses in each sector to self-regulate to free up Government to do other things.”
He turned to the next page. “All fish caught in populated sections of rivers to be photographed and verified and catalogued and kept on a central database. The photos and names of the anglers who caught them are to be released once a year.” This law had been brought in by somebody with the initials P.W., seven years ago.
The front door to Maryam's place lay open, gaping at the pavement like a large open eye. Getting there that morning had taken an hour. Hana was walking now, and wanted to look at everything. A flower growing out of a crack between slabs. Pennies in the gutter. Everything was interesting, and everything added five minutes. She would not be hurried. To see something and not look at it was a disaster worse than the end of the world.
In the kitchen, Maryam was making custard in polka-dot beakers. Custard powder, boiled water from the kettle. The resulting liquid was thin, a sickly yellow. “Please don't give Hana one of those,” he said.
“Why not? They all like it.” Maryam stirred. “Don't worry, I let it cool first. I wouldn't give it to them this hot. What do you think I am?”
“Maryam, Maryam.” A girl came running in.
“Hush now, Maryam talking.” She turned to Paul. “Let me tell you another idea. If you are old, like me, you should get free electric and phone. Also –” She stopped suddenly, coughing, bending almost double. The coughs sounded like machinery breaking up a solid stone pavement. Her face was nearly level with her knees. “Don't worry,” she croaked, “I'm fine.” Her face was grey.
“You're not.” Paul found a chair and helped her into it. “You shouldn't be looking after all these children, not today.”
“I'm fine,” Maryam insisted, but her voice was mist fading on glass.
Paul looked around the kitchen. There were things that he had chosen not to see before. A stack of old newspapers on the kitchen table. Old food packaging, empty, slimy with mould. Open tins with their lids sticking up, bits of food and spore forming an allegiance around spikey shark's teeth edges. “I'm calling the doctor,” he said. “And all of these children are going home.”
When the ambulance came, the paramedics put a breathing mask over Maryam's face and asked Paul whether he was her son. He told them he wasn't, then they put her in the back of the ambulance and told him they weren't allowed to tell him anything.
He sent her on her way with a clean nightgown grabbed from the bedroom, and a book of phone numbers from the side of the bed.
In the mornings he dressed Hana and gave her the baby cereal she liked. She was getting big now, and she liked to feed herself. It was not a success in conventional terms. Half went in her face and half all over the floor, a cornflake Pollock.
He stayed at home with her, waiting all day for them to come. Somebody in a uniform perhaps, or the barrel-shaped man from the first day. He felt sure they would notice that he and Safiya weren't there, and then a car would pull up outside his house, and there would be a knock at the door. Black uniform. Dark clothes. They would come and they would take him away somewhere, and nobody would ever find out where he had gone. Not Hana, who would be put into care, given to somebody else.
The thought of it made him watch the front windows all day. Every time a car passed he went to the doors to make sure they were locked.
By the end of the second day (what time did they stop working? Five? Paul wished he could check the council rulebook, but it was still where they'd been told it had to stay, on the table in the office in the council building) there had still been nobody.
At night, in brief, high-temperature dreams, he saw places like Maryam's. Dozens of children in a peeling house. Faces dirty with muck and cream cheese. Children running shoes-off in a place with nails sticking out of the floorboards. A bedroom with dozens of cots in one room, one nurse to twenty children. Feral boys like some of the ones who went to Maryam's, bigger than Hana. She would be frightened, and he wouldn't be there to look after her. He woke swearing, grabbing the bedclothes. All this was something he had never thought of before. Where children went when there was nobody to look after them.
At five, Hana woke up. He got up, put her in the chair with her bowl and spoon, and phoned Safiya. She was always up early, she'd told him, because there was so much to do. All the cats to see to, and her sister. “Saffy,” he said, “You've got to help me.”
“If you're selling something,” she said, “You might as well know I don't want it. We've already got phone and electric and we don't need insurance.”
“It's me, Paul,” he said. “From the council?”
“Oh, you.” There was a pause. “How'd you get my number?” He could hear a noise, somebody running a tap. Safiya spoke away from the phone: “Careful, you're splashing. You only need little bit.” She came back to the phone. “What is it? Did they notice I'm not there?”
“I don't know. I'm not there either.”
“Really?” Now she sounded interested. “For how long?”
“Two days. Three, now.”
“So you finally saw sense.”
“That's not it. My childminder got sick.”
“Well.” She was smiling; he could hear it in her voice. “Nobody to look after your little girl. So you're trapped at home.”
“We can't both not be there,” he said. “They're bound to notice.”
“Huh.” There was the rustle of fabric, and Safiya's voice sounded suddenly loud, as though she had the phone tucked somewhere very close to her face. “Then tell you what. I don't want to let you down, Paul. I'll go in today. Nine until four, I'll do. Nobody will ever know you weren't there. If they ask, I'll say you had to go out for a minute.”
He had not expected it to be this easy. “What about your sister?” There was something odd about how quickly the conversation had turned around.
“She'll be fine. It's only one day.” She added, “You know what, I'll take her to the library. She likes it. They'll keep an eye on her there.”
“You could bring her here,” he heard himself say.
“No, no,” she said. “I couldn't ask you to do that. Besides, she don't like going places she's never been before.” Her voice blared in his ear. “Zunni, got a surprise for you. Want to go library today?”
“Thank you,” he said.
“It's nothing,” she said. “Happy to help.”
“You've done something about retirement, I know.” Maryam on the sofa, her face stretched into a smirk. “I know you can't say, it's against the rules, but I know. You are a good man.”
“Comfortable?” he said.
She waved languorously, eyes closed. She seemed too tired to speak.
Paul had brought a small box of tools with him. Screwdriver, hammer, a chisel for scraping the wallpaper away. The house wanted more than he could do alone, but he wanted to at least get the rotten damp paper off the walls, and screw in any sticky-out screws or nails. He hoped Maryam wouldn't try to look after people's children again any time soon.
“Uzman, leave it,” she said. “Don't do anything in the house. The house is fine, everything fine.” Uzman was her youngest son.
“It's Paul,” he said. “Uzman had to go.”
She looked into the middle distance, murmuring on.
The mornings were bright yellow: crocuses and daffodils, the pale middle eye of daisies. Hana ran ahead to Maryam's. When they arrived, she tumbled in through the door, a gambolling tiger cub of a girl.
“Maryam,” he called, “You shouldn't leave your door open.”
Hana was out of the back door and onto the slide before he could stop her. “Stay there,” he called.
The hallway was stripped just the way he'd left it, afterthoughts of glue and streaks of wallpaper. The house felt empty. A breeze blew through it from back to front. This wind had been blowing some time, airing out the house. “Maryam?” he called.
The radio was on, and Maryam was not in the front room. “Announced today, a major shake-up of the way mandatorily elected councillors will have to serve their terms,” said the announcer. “From next month, no councillor will have to serve any more than six months, and those with caring responsibilities, such as those who have to care for a family member or young child, will be able to opt out.”
He went room to room. Kitchen, hallway, the little bathroom under the stairs. The downstairs cloakroom was small and depressing. He had to crouch his way in and out. When he couldn't find Maryam in any of these rooms he started going up the stairs in a hopeless sort of way.
“The changes were announced today by outgoing councillor Safiya Bi Haq,” the announcer went on, “and are the most significant changes to our system of Government in twenty years. Questions are already being raised about whether these changes in the law break any rules about personal benefit to existing councillors under anti-corruption mandates…”
“Damn it,” he shouted.
Maryam's bedroom was empty, a museum. Dusty surfaces and old fitted wardrobes. Maryam's things, her hairbrush, and ageing lipstick, a TV remote, were gathering dust on the dressing table.
He went into all of the other upstairs rooms, the rooms that had been her son's rooms, Uzman's room, Faisal's room, and these were even more dusty than her own room, although in Faisal's room the wardrobe had been pulled open and its clothes scattered all over the bed and floor, as though they had been used as dressing-up costumes. Maryam's things from the hospital were in a little case by the foot of the sofa. He phoned both of her sons, told them to come as soon as they could, and then called Safiya.
“Yes?” Safiya sounded suspicious, as though he might be calling to sell her something.
“Look,” he said, “I told you not to bring in the six months thing.”
There was a lot of noise in the background. Somebody was singing, the type of singing a person does when they think nobody can hear.
“Oh, it's you,” she said. “Sorry about the noise. It's Zunni enjoying herself. Listen, I've done you a favour here. It's all over. You can go home.”
“Do you know how much trouble you're getting us both into? You've broken I don't know how many rules. We could both be prosecuted.”
The noise in the background stopped. “Zunni, put it on again.” It restarted, and the singing started back up. “Well look. You worry if you want to. I'm going to enjoy life.”
“That's easy for you to say,” he said.
Out in the back yard Hana was running a race against herself, her face pink as a slap. Paul closed the front door of the house and looked out of the back door to watch her. “Saffy, my neighbour's missing. I don't know where she's gone.”
“The one who used to look after my daughter.” It seemed to grow darker where he was standing, a cloud over the sun, things deepening so far he could now no longer see his shadow. When he looked out into the yard he could no longer see Hana. She had run across towards the fence, and hadn't come back.
There was a knock at the front door. A persistent heavy knock. Once, twice, again. It paused and then started up once more.
“I don't know what to tell you,” Safiya said. “I don't know where she would have gone. Maybe you could go out and look for her. Hang on, I'll have to go. There's somebody at my door.”
The phone slid away from his ear and Paul looked into the front hallway. The knocking started again. Whoever it was wasn't going away. He had not thought it would be so quick. He had not thought they would come so suddenly. And here, to his neighbour's house. How had they found him here?
“I know you're in there,” a voice called. The knocking now rattled the whole house. “I can hear you. This will all be much easier if you just open the door and let me in.”
Paul hesitated a moment, and then the handle started to turn. He stepped away from the front door. In the back yard he could still hear the screams and yelps and babble of his daughter.
SJ Bradley is a writer from Leeds, UK, whose short fiction has been published in the US & UK including in Queen Mob's, December Magazine, and in the Comma Press anthology Resist! Stories of Uprising. She has been writer in residence for First Story at schools in Leeds and Bradford, and at Alton Towers theme park, through the Liminal Residency. She is a K Blundell Trust and Saboteur Award winner for her work as editor on Remembering Oluwale. Her second novel, Guest, is available now on Dead Ink Books. Her website is www.sjbradleybooks.com.