Nineteen days of rain – unprecedented, they said – and I could hardly tell it was morning. E, my youngest, was screaming and had me up for four hours the previous night, so I switched her off, laid her on the bed and gently closed the door. The silence a soft blanket around me.
C and D were sitting on the floor of the living room in a junk of bright items, lost together in their intricate exchange of small powers and pleasures. The rain had kept us in, sandwiched between the flats above and below, and the weather lay so low that the window showed only the canal, slate-grey, slopping onto the towpath. I sat and started folding a heap of clothes warm from the tumble dryer. The heap shrank and the folded pile rose. I was running out of these neat, methodical tasks, so I took my time.
D threw a rampaging dinosaur at C, but it missed him, and bounced off the leg of the tea table on which rested my machine.
The machine woke with a surprised whir. It had slept through the night, and for the first time in two weeks I’d managed to leave it alone all morning. A pair of half-folded corduroys hung from my paused hands as the screen grew keen. It was rich with tiny stars and hearts and numbered dots and exclamation marks.
Notifications can’t be ignored. Each one is like a bullet – I mean a bullet that would come out of a gun, not a bullet in a bulleted list, although they seem to be related in terms of urgency. You have to deal with them or they nag at you. You have to deal with them or they might smash through your body. So my legs stood me up and I reached for the machine.
In time, C and D started pulling at my jeans, their pleasant babble soured to whining, and at that moment the wind spat a great hard gobful of rain at the window, and a sharp breath went out of my nostrils and I reached down and switched them both off.
The switch was my secret. I’d told myself I wouldn’t resort to it so much, especially with E, who was already small for her age, and such a lovely, milk-scented little thing – though so were the other two; don’t get me wrong, they were the sun in my sky. But the minutes of my days were long and difficult, full of complexity and murk, and the switch was a way to get through. It was a way to sharpen the edges of life, to know where and who I was when things got fuzzy. It cleaned; it freshened. What helped wasn’t the switching off as such, it was the fact of the switch itself.
I’d come to rely on it. And now, for the first time, I’d used the switch on all three children at once.
I arranged C and D’s little limbs so they wouldn’t cramp. Then I returned to the machine. It was the machine that had shown me the possibility of this kind of ease. The machine’s world was either/or, yes or no, on or off, zero or one. It was the antidote to uncertainty: that devious mould that grew everywhere if I didn’t keep on top of it.
Dark was coming when my bladder forced me up from the chair. I’d left my phone in the bathroom, and there was a text from B saying he’d be home early. My husband was a departmental head – some technical department, I wasn’t sure which. He said his responsibilities ‘spilled over’. When he came home tired I’d tell him he should have boundaries, but he’d say it wasn’t that simple. I didn’t see why not. His days were a grid of meetings and targets; the entire company was founded on crisp, black numbers. It should be wonderful. B would sigh and look at me, so I’d move things along, make him a drink, rub the tough tops of his shoulders as he hunched over work. I had only ever switched him off once.
Just as I checked the time, I heard the squeal of the security gate three floors down. I flushed, washed, and ran in to switch on the two older children, and then, in the bedroom, E. Her little fingers curled and grasped and her lips plumped back up as the flow of subcutaneous activity restarted. This was the best bit about using the switch: for those first few minutes my children and I were together and fresh again and there was a kind of crystalline peace, and I picked her up and rocked her as she blinked and jerked a fist toward the sweet oval of her yawning mouth. B turned his key in the door and I went to meet him, and that night everything was fine.
On day twenty the sky lifted to dove grey, and I drove us out to the big Asda, spinning arcs of water from the wheel-arches. As I parked, the rain hardened again. C thought his cagoule felt ‘squishy’ and refused to put it on, then refused to be put into it, and when he started shouting my fingers reached for the switch, and nothing happened.
I flicked it up and down, up and down, but nothing. I took hold of his contorting face and turned it to me, looking for an answer from him, as if he had overcome the switch by his own will. This sudden gesture took him aback, and he did in fact stop crying. For a second we held each other’s gaze and I was struck by the absolute strangeness of him, this person who had come from me, and it seemed he saw the same strangeness in me.
I lifted his sister from the other side. I tried the switch. Nothing happened. She squirmed away from me and went to peer into the tiny convex mirror set in the side mirror, enjoying her own distorted face. E was asleep in her carseat and I didn’t want to trouble her.
I looked around the car park, hoping perhaps to see another woman in the same situation.
There must have been others like me, but who would admit it? Certainly those around me seemed fine. They sloshed back and forward with the tides of each day like happy seaweed, while I was up there on the surface, clinging to a broken raft, gazing into tarry liquid that would one day take me down. Without the switch, I couldn’t see how I’d be able to navigate the days.
I didn’t know what to do, so we entered the blue-white cavern of the supermarket and I began to perform the shopping. Then I lay on the floor between the long chest freezers. C and D ran up the aisle and down the ones either side, figure-of-eighting around the gondolas, and I was held by the cold white tiles under me and the cold white striplights above, and the pattern of the children running.
Soon three people stood over me: a young security guard, and two women like me. One was tapping at her smartphone. I felt a pull toward the pretty box of promises in her hand, that object we all had which, like the knife of a fugu chef, cleaned and sliced life into something that might not kill us.
The security guard felt for my pulse, which seemed unnecessary, but his warm hand on my wrist was nice. I smiled up at him. Yes, I was fine, and yes, these were my children; they were also fine. With kind eyes he asked me whether I thought I could get up. Of course, I said, and climbed to my feet, straightening my clothes, and the other adults drifted off, disappointed.
At the checkout, as I packed, D reached up for the handle of the trolley and started rocking back and forth, which looked like it felt good. I wished there was a trolley I could stretch up for, but of course I was grown, far too grown, and as I put my card in to pay I felt myself looming over the checkout, some giant redwood whose trunk was mostly rotted through.
When I got home I went to my machine while the children ran about in their coats. Eventually they went into the kitchen, there was noise, and they came out carrying bowls, slopping milk and bits of cereal. Time passed, and B came home. The scene made him stop on the threshold.
A little later B went out with the three children and I heard him drive off. After a period of heavy quiet he came back, carrying E.
The next thing I knew B was pulling me to my feet, and in the bathroom he put a toothbrush in my hand with the toothpaste already on it.
Once I was in bed, he sat on top of the bedclothes and said C and D were spending the night at his mother’s. I said I was tired. He told me to get some sleep, but I didn’t want to go to sleep.
– But if you’re tired.
– Not that kind of tired.
– Tell me what happened.
– I don’t know.
I did know. Everything was broken because I’d overused the switch. It was the accumulation of time detached not just from them but from all of the messy world, as if I’d been flying and flying and inadvertently strayed out of the influence of gravity, and now I didn’t have the fuel to get myself back to Earth.
But to explain would have meant explaining about the switch, and I was worried that the switch might just be a metaphor, that I was simply a bad and neglectful person. It struck me that I might be losing my mind. B waited for me to say something and I waited for him to say something, and neither of us said anything and eventually he turned off the light.
I woke several times with that same feeling of losing my mind: a tangible sliding sensation in my skull, as if it were a shallow bowl filled with fluid, in a neverending process of being nudged off the edge of a table. My fingers began to ache and I realised I was gripping the edge of the mattress.
I went to the living room, to the machine.
It wasn’t yet dawn when B came in, shut the lid, and turned without speaking. I didn’t think; I lunged for his neck, my thumbs on the nape and my fingers around his throat, on his hard Adam’s apple. He grabbed my wrist and pulled one hand away, but the other still groped the back of his neck for a switch. Sounds were coming from me, and a sour heat I could almost smell. I expected to be thrown, shoved backwards into the furniture, but instead this man reached behind him and took hold of my hand, firmly and warmly, as if he were pulling me up from a cliff edge over which I’d slipped.
We stood for a moment, two bodies in the sudden silence.
– It’s stopped raining, he said. Come on.
With E asleep in her carseat in the back, B drove us through the lightening streets and out of town, taking the twisting hill roads and turning on to the lane above the reservoir. He stopped by a gap in the stone wall from where we could look down. The water was as high as I’d ever seen it, a plane of rippled steel under the dawn sky. The engine ticked.
– It’s ages since we’ve come out here, I said at last. There’s been so much rain.
His silence hollowed my words.
I carried on.
– Remember we went up on Saddleworth, and we put the tent up behind that wall and we couldn’t hear the road, and no-one could see us from any direction?
– Yeah. That freezing night in midsummer. You wouldn’t let me make a fire.
– I just wanted to have the night, as it was.
That summer I was pregnant for the first time, and my new state came with the sudden understanding that yes, everything in the universe was expanding. We lay there for hours, outside in the cold, and it stayed light, and still light, like the night would never come. Stones dug into my spine through our blanket and the chill got right to my marrow, and we held hands and I let it come dark, and then the night seemed it would never end. Such deep cold in midsummer: it seemed all the rules had been changed. The stars swam above us and I could easily have slipped off the hard ground into the billowing heart of the rest of existence and I knew death would feel the same, and I had nothing to hold onto, no certainty, and I had never been happier.
E stirred and shifted, then settled.
Eyes down, I told B about the shallow bowl of fluid in my skull, about flying out of the reach of gravity, the rotting redwood, the cold white of the supermarket floor. I told him about the seaweed and the raft, about the terror that textured my days, and finally I told him about the switch. Then I flung open the door and jumped out and vomited onto the grass.
I used to live okay without the switch. We lived okay without the machine. Then B brought it home, a black box swaddled in white polystyrene, and showed me the many ways in which it would improve our lives, and it did, and I gradually came to forget the time before.
Ben closed his door softly and stood over me, and a wind brought the clean scent of the reservoir. I looked up at him.
– I want to go back, I said.
My husband gathered me in, held my head against his chest. He whispered something, touched my hair. I have always liked his body, his man’s body with its solid thighs, its uncumbersome chest, above all its neat and predictable rhythms. But in all my fleeing from the soft, the unnameable, I had forgotten there could also be this tenderness in him, and what allowing it to touch me might mean. I shook.
Evie began to wail, in her way that I understood meant nothing was wrong except she was lonely and afraid and bewildered to find herself where she was, and we would go to her, Ben or me, or both of us, in a minute. For now, the way his embrace pulled my head against him sent the texture of her cries through the bars of his ribs, resonant with the harmonics of her and him and me, and I listened as the hardly bearable music played out through that delicate instrument.
Ruby Cowling was born in Bradford, UK, and lives in London. Her short fiction has won five competitions including The White Review Short Story Prize and the London Short Story Prize, and has been shortlisted by Glimmer Train, Aesthetica and the Gertrude Stein Award. Recent publication credits include Lighthouse; The Lonely Crowd; the Galley Beggar Press Singles Club; I Am Because You Are (a Freight Books collection of work inspired by the theory of General Relativity); and Flamingo Land and Other Stories (Flight Press). She is Associate Editor at Short Fiction and is a Spread The Word Associate Writer.