I Wish I Might (IP)
‘Please, Alex.’ The spoon held out towards him, trembling slightly in her hand.
He shakes his head, lips pursed, eyes staring hard into hers.
‘Just a little, darling.’ The head shake again, more emphatic this time. She knows she should stop, take the food away, he won’t starve if she takes it away and he will kick off if she doesn’t. But if he doesn’t eat now he’ll want to eat in an hour, or maybe less, and that will mean he’ll be late going for his sleep, and then the afternoon will eat into the evening, and the evening into the night, and there will be another day gone, another day when she went nowhere and saw no-one and simply disappeared into the gaping maw of his needs.
‘There’s nothing I can do,’ the doctor said.
She traced the top edge of her handbag with both forefingers, each smoothing the rim in opposite directions, each retracing their path to meet precisely at the middle clasp.
‘There must be something,’ she said.
The doctor sighed. ‘Mrs Field, I did explain, right at the beginning. There is no way back from this. You signed the papers.’
‘I didn’t know,’ she said.
‘You were given all the information.’
‘But I didn’t know,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry,’ the doctor said gently.
‘Sometimes I just want to wish,’ she said, looking up at him.
He gave her a compassionate look. ‘What would you wish for?’
She looked down at the metal clasp, polishing it with her fingertip. ‘I would wish for a new world. A new start for everyone.’
‘I think maybe all of us would wish for that.’
She looked back up at him. ‘But I musn’t, must I, doctor? I musn’t wish.’
She stood up. ‘I’ll try not to,’ she said. ‘I’ll try not to wish.’
He watched, puzzled, as the door closed behind her. Then his eyes suddenly cleared and he said, ‘Dear God. No. Surely not.’ And reached for his phone.
They live in one of the small wooden houses by the lake. The front door opens from the verandah into the main room, with the kitchen to the left and, to the right, on the other side of the fireplace, the doors to his bedroom, with his bathroom attached, and her bedroom, and the bathroom she uses. There is another door, further to the right and on the other wall, behind the settee, which leads into the Office. The houses are all the same, set about a hundred yards apart, and the sides of the verandahs are covered to afford privacy and to avoid distress. The houses are soundproofed for the same reason. Each verandah looks across the lake, to the distant hills, and each has a front shutter that can be brought down to isolate the house in case of storms without or within.
On good days she takes him out to sit on the verandah and look across the lake. She has to sit with him, of course, even with the restraints in place, the Moncon box strapped to her wrist. That way she can pick up any change in the Monitor’s soft hum and gentle vibration, and press whatever Control button is necessary before he’s aware and has time to react. Of course the Control will activate automatically whenever the Monitor reaches a certain level, but it’s better if she can anticipate and avert the crisis. Some don’t, of course. Some of them in the other houses can’t bear being on watch all the time and would rather have the relaxation, leave it to the Moncon box and deal with the crises when they arise. But she hates the crises, hates the shutter slamming down over the verandah, hates the business of what she has to do. And the Moncon box is only a piece of machinery. She’s not sure she trusts it that much.
Today is not a good day. Today he is upstairs, under total restraint, and she is in the Office, secure, trying hard not to wish.
‘Number Four,’ said the judge, looking at the paper on his desk. ‘We’ve had problems with her before, haven’t we?’
The doctor said, ‘I don’t know if you’d call it problems. She seems to find it more difficult than some. She doesn’t want to continue.’
‘She was given all the information?’
The doctor nodded. ‘All the papers were signed, all the conversations recorded, everything logged. She’s got no legal case. But I do think there are issues.’
The judge said, ‘There are always issues, and there is always a point when they don’t want to continue. We can’t give in every time someone doesn’t want to continue. I assume she’s the mother?’
‘The aunt. She brought him up. Both parents died when he was a child.’
The judge sighed. ‘Paternal line is never as good. Personally, I’d exclude anyone apart from parents, and siblings under particular circumstances.’
‘We’d need several more Centres if we did,’ said the doctor.
The judge gave a ‘tsk’ of impatience. ‘Short term savings, long term problems. I’ll put it down for review.’
The doctor said, ‘She told me…she said, ‘Sometimes I just want to wish’.’
The judge looked up. ‘What?’
‘And then she said,' But I musn’t, must I? I musn’t wish.’ And then she said she’d try not to. Try not to wish.’
The judge roared, ‘God damn it man! Why didn’t you say?’
The doctor said, ‘I didn’t think. I’ve never…I’ve never come across it. There was nothing in her background checks. I mean, we’d know, wouldn’t we, if she was…if she could…’
‘God damn it,’ said the judge. ‘You have more faith in our abilities than I do. We’d better get out there.’
‘Today?’ said the doctor. ‘I’ve got patients.’
‘Now,’ growled the judge. He got up from his chair. ‘I don’t suppose she said what she would wish for?’
Today is a better day. Today he is going to have a shower. It’s been over a week since he last had one, and today is the first day she’s felt confident enough to think about it. She wakes him up that morning and says ‘Shower day, Alex.’ The hard eyes watch her as she readies the restraint hoist to get him out of bed. Once he’s in his chair she wheels him to his bathroom, manoeuvres the shower hoist into place, lifts him from the chair and lowers him so that he is just above the bottom of the bath. She turns the shower on, says ‘Back we go,’ and lowers the back of the hoist so that he is almost horizontal underneath the water. The shower water is impregnated with cleansers and disinfectants, and the brushes and sponges in the hoist activate to clean him gently and thoroughly. He closes his eyes under the water, the only time he ever closes his eyes when he is not sleeping. She goes out of the bathroom. This is the only sensual experience he ever has, and she cannot bear the animal pleasure on that face.
The shower turns off automatically, and the dryer comes on. She waits until she hears the dryer go off, then goes back inside and says ‘There, lovely and clean.’ Once he is back in the chair she wheels him back to the bedroom, where she has laid a freshly laundered set of clothes on his bed. She hates having to put on the underwear, with the bulky pad, hates wondering what his face is doing above her while she manoeuvres and wriggles it into place. The trousers and tunic are easier to manage, and she can keep his face in sight most of the time. The Moncon box would alert her, but if he is going to change she would rather see the first signs, to prepare herself. Seeing his changed face, without warning, still makes her physically sick.
She wheels him into the main room, says ‘Breakfast now,’ and places the chair by the dining table. She goes into the kitchen to fetch his bowl, with the soft cereal already prepared, and then feels, insistent against her wrist, the suddenly sharpened pulse of the Moncon. She closes her eyes.
‘I wish,’ she says deliberately, under her breath. ‘I wish.’
‘Shit,’ said the judge. ‘God damn shit’.
The doctor whispered, ‘How do we stop it?’ He looked round at the wooden houses, shimmering in the air, fading in and out of sight. ‘How do we stop it?’
The judge sighed. ‘Ideally we find her and kill her. It’s the quickest and surest way.’ He barked at a woman in uniform who was surveying the houses with an apprehensive air. ‘ETA on that Reality Team?’ He turned back to the doctor. ‘They may be able to delay the effects. For a while.’
‘Fifteen minutes, sir.’
‘And the Search Team?’
‘Already deployed, sir.’
The doctor said, ‘Can it spread?’
The judge sighed. ‘Depends what she wished for. Possibly she just wanted him to disappear.’ He looked at the empty wheelchair, now a faint outline in the afternoon sun, and then across at the shifting houses. ‘But she seems to want considerably more than that.’
The doctor followed his gaze. ‘The people in there?’
The judge said, ‘Gone, I would imagine. Certainly all the invalids.’
‘It’s my fault,’ said the doctor. ‘I should have done something.’
‘Yes,’ said the judge. ‘You should have. But it’s not only you. Whoever did her background checks. Whoever didn’t pick up any of the god damn signs. Or picked them up and ignored them.’
The doctor said, ‘Surely no-one would have ignored them.’
‘Short term savings, long term problems,’ said the judge. ‘Not enough Centres, so use any family members who will sign up. Bind them in to an unbreakable arrangement. Best case scenario, they’ll look after their invalids for the rest of their lives. Worst case scenario, they’ll kill themselves without killing their invalids first. Either way, we get a greater or lesser length of time where we don’t have to look after the invalids.’ He looked at the blank space where House Number Four previously stood. ‘And how many people have actually met anyone who can wish? Theory’s all very well. Case studies are all very well. But if you’ve never seen it, never experienced it…’
The doctor said, ‘We’ve had this all wrong, haven’t we? Ever since the war we’ve seen the invalids as the main problem, because there are more of them. Because…’ he swallowed. ‘Because what they can do, when they change, is so dreadful. The people who can wish, the ones who were affected that way, they’re so rare. And I’ve never heard of someone who could do this…’
‘No,' said the judge. 'Not this.'
‘She said she wanted a new world,’ said the doctor. He looked at the hills in the distance, at the light that seemed to be dimming and blurring their outlines.
‘So you said.’ The judge glanced towards the hills, then barked at the woman in uniform. ‘Any news from the Search Team? And tell that Reality Team to get their fucking arses in gear. We haven’t exactly got time to spare.’