Martha had her son David and her grandchildren to stay. The children were quiet and well-behaved. Sometimes it was hard to believe there was anyone in the house at all.
On Thursday, David was away early to see about a job. By the time breakfast was over it was still raining, so the children accepted without complaint that they would have to play indoors. They made little noise but fiercely communicated their imagination to each other. Now the room was the bridge of a galleon flying in the teeth of a storm. Pirates were boarding; cannons roared and swords flashed in the starlight. Martha gripped the arms of her chair and watched the children play.
There was a knock on the front door and the whole fantasy billowed gently down to earth. Only a bowl of cherries on the table, a chest of heaped rubies, was unaltered by the intrusion.
“Morning,” the man said. “Mrs Martha Janus?”
“Excellent. I’m from West Berkshire Council. Reflective Instruments Inspector. Spot check.” He proffered a card. Martha looked at it quickly. The man stepped inside and consulted a clipboard. “Nasty day.”
“Yes.” There was a slightly awkward pause.
“So…I’ve got it here that you have six reflective instruments. Is that right?”
“Er…yes, six…I think so, yes.”
“Could we start in the bedroom?” They went upstairs and stood at the full-length mirror on the wardrobe door. The man produced a strange-looking torch which he shone onto the glass. Out of the corner of her eye, Martha saw the reflection of a woman moving across the landing.
“Friend, was it?” He switched the torch off and produced a notebook. His pen hovered, waiting for her reply.
“I live alone,” Martha heard herself saying. “I often think of my daughter. But that’s not really her.”
“I’ll call it ‘unknown’.”
The man smiled encouragingly. They went into the bathroom and stared at the mirror there. The man got some calipers out of his bag and measured first Martha’s face, then its reflection.
“I try to keep them true,” Martha said, “after last time.”
But by way of reply, the man pointed at the spotless corner of wall and ceiling; then at its reflection, where a cobweb hung like a pale net.
“It’s hard to keep everything up-to-date,” Martha said.
“Have to make a note of it, though.”
Martha reached inside the mirror and flicked at the cobweb. It folded itself up and fluttered down, out of the mirror and out of sight.
“Now – third bedroom.” He cocked his eye. “Nothing in the second?”
“No…the children – I thought it best not.”
“Very wise.” Once in the third bedroom, the man examined the surface of the mirror. He tapped it several times and held his hand up showing four fingers. Four fingers reflected back.
“No problems there,” he said, making a further tick. “So…ah yes – hall.” They went downstairs. A large mirror hung opposite the door. Tiny specks of corrosion billowed on the surface like woodworm.
From his bag the man produced a third object which he set up on the floor. The living room door opened and James and Mary took a couple of steps into the hall to stand next to their grandmother so that they were all reflected in the mirror. They watched the man carefully.
“What are you doing?” Mary said.
“Ha ha, well,” the man said, making a final adjustment. “Now then…” He switched on the machine.
For a moment, the reflection didn’t change. Then the images began to shift. Soon they were looking at something quite different. They were on the deck of a ship, storm-spray seeming to whip against their faces. A sail cracked. The flash of gunfire was all around them.
The children yawned and went back into the living room.
The man switched off his machine. Slowly the reflection returned to normal, just Martha standing in the hall and him bending over the instrument, straightening up, opening his mouth to speak.
“It’s the children, that is,” he said. “Your mirrors aren’t licensed for children. You’ve got to apply. Their imagination throws your images every which way.”
“I’ll remember next time,” Martha said humbly.
“How long are they here for?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps a week.”
The man made a note. “Okey-doke. Then we’ve got, let’s see… ‘powder compact – personal’.”
Martha fished the object out of her handbag. He glanced at it quickly and handed it back.
“Fine. Not much goes wrong with those – unless you leave them open.”
“Oh, no. I’ve been warned.”
“You never know what they’ll pick up then. Particularly with the…you know, the children.”
“Yes. It was in the leaflet.”
“That’s it, I think…” He scanned down his list. “Oh, hold up. ‘Dressing table, main bedroom,’ I’ve got here.”
Martha’s heart sank. Back they went upstairs. On her dressing table sat an old-fashioned mirror on a stand. The man examined it closely.
“Sit down, please,” he said. He moved to lean over her shoulder. Their faces were pressed close, like lovers. Martha saw the image of her face slowly smoothing, the lines fading, the hair thickening, falling about her shoulders. Soon she was looking at a reflection, familiar in that mirror, of a woman half her age. The piercing eyes of the man in the glass made her face drop in shame.
“Madam,” he said gently but firmly. She looked up again. Gradually the image stabilised.
“Your age is, let’s see…”
“Sixty eight. I’d say that reflection was no more than thirty? Forty?” He looked at her kindly. “Say forty. The fines are banded, you see.”
The man sat down on the edge of the bed and started to fill in a form on his tablet, making reference to his earlier notes.
“You’ve been in trouble twice before. There have been improvements – third bedroom, for instance, and the bathroom, except for that cobweb – but the others are serious. Self-flattery – that’s this. Third offence, too. And Unlicensed Juvenile Imagination…one ‘Unknown Person’…one ‘False Housework’.” He turned to his price sheet. “Self-flat…one UJI, one UP…and a False.” He totalled the figures and waited; presently a piece of paper like a till receipt chattered quietly out the back of the tablet. He tore it off and handed it to Martha. “A hundred and eighteen pounds this time, Mrs Janus. Most of that’s for the UJI, in the hall. I’ve got to charge for a week’s child licence as well.”
He stood up and adopted a formal tone.
“I have to warn you that, this being your third offence, you’ll be receiving another inspection without notice in the next seven days. Any irregularities will result in your Mirror Licence being revoked, which will mean all reflective instruments will have to be removed from the premises. You may also be required to attend a hearing before the Mirrors Board.” There was a pause.
“Do I pay you?” she asked.
“No, madam, I’m not allowed to take money. You pay West Berkshire Council. The details are on the form.”
Martha sighed. She tried to remember the days before mirrors had been revealed to be so multi-faceted, before they had been licensed by the council and before these fearful machines had been invented which detected every nuance of self-examination. So much had changed in the five years since 2016. She suspected more changes would follow.
As if reading her thoughts – which, indeed, he had been trained to do – the man pointed to the bottom of the form. “You can also go to this link to see the consultation document for IDM.”
“Imagination, Dreams & Memories.”
“I hadn’t heard about that.”
The man smiled thinly. “It’s been on the website for months.”
Martha said nothing. It was now expected that the citizens should be constantly online to apprise themselves of the council’s latest schemes. This wasn’t obligatory but no concession was made to those who were ignorant as a result.
“Yes, they’ll be licensed from next March.”
Martha felt her head swimming. A faint flicker of revolt stirred inside her. “So if I want to object, I can,” she said.
The man looked at her pityingly. “Well, in theory, yes. But…” He gave a light laugh. “Makes no difference. One way or another it’s going to happen.”
“Than what’s the point of the consultation?”
“It’s the law,” he said severely. Martha was briefly shocked, as if she had been caught red-handed at a crime scene.
“I suppose it’s all for the best,” she said humbly. After all, the council had to get money from somewhere to pay for the children’s centres, play groups, libraries, busses and so on. Not that there were very many of these things; although there were plenty of inspectors and compliance officers with their terrible machines like the one that the man was now holding in his hand. In a vague way, she realised that life only creates similar versions of itself. Inspectors tended to produce more inspectors, not more libraries. Again she stifled the rebellious thought. What was the point? Everything was justified by the need to raise money. That’s what they were told. The evils and privations were only temporary. Even now, great plans were being worked on for the betterment of life: and one fine day…
“Anyway,” he said, “must crack on. Six more calls this morning.”
They went downstairs. Martha opened the front door. He turned to face her and re-assumed his official voice. “Do try to do better, Mrs Janus,” he said as he stepped outside. “This doesn’t give me any pleasure, you know. It’s regulations. The same for everyone.”
Martha returned to the living room. The children were at the controls of a plane. The engines were ablaze and the plane was dropping out of the sky like a winged bird. Only by extraordinary presence of mind were they able to control it, bring it in to land. Martha smiled and sat down.
“Grrrooaaahhh!” James said. James was a lion.
When David came back at six the children were quietly watching television. They greeted him politely, their minds fixed on other worlds.
“What have you two been doing? Watching the idiot box?” He turned to his mother with a smile. “Kids nowadays haven’t any imagination. Imagination costs nothing. Without imagination, where are your dreams?” He flung out his hand dramatically, as though he still had a dream so close it could almost be touched. The moment passed and his briefly animated expression turned into a yawn. The children stared at him uncomprehendingly, awash with dreams and imagination that swamped the grey reality in which the adults were forced to live. David stared back, then pointed at the television. “Spend all day looking at their reflections.”
“Yes, dear,” she said. Then she got up and went into the kitchen to put the dinner on.
The Reflective Instruments Inspector