‘The Electrician’s Daughter’ was first published in The Harbinger 1: 1 (April 2013) online, and appears in Prayer at the End: Twenty-Three Stories (Bangor: Cockatrice, 2015).
The Electrician’s Daughter: A Short Story by Rob Mimpriss
In sleep the child heard a woman’s voice, and then she was awake. She was in her room in the sudden light, and her father was stooping over her bed. She blinked a little, still lapped in that voice, but rising to the awareness of punishment and disgrace. There was engine oil on his right hand, and his breath carried a whiff of garlic. ‘What is it, dad?’ She was hungry. ‘We’ve had a call,’ he said. ‘We leave in ten minutes.’
The clock was well past midnight. She stood up, pulling on yesterday’s tee-shirt and shorts, and kneeling before her little mirror to tie her hair. ‘Sara!’ he called her. She put her feet on the ladder to the downstairs room. Books of her father’s, Hen Dŷ Fferm and Self-Reliance, lay page-down on the arm of his chair; his lonely supper was shrivelling half-eaten on the hearth. He was taking his toolbox from the cupboard by the door.
‘Will it be long?’
‘It won’t be quick.’ He looked up at Sara, unsmiling. ‘You’ll need your jumper if you’re going to wear shorts.’
‘Can I take my book?’
‘Get it quick.’
She took her head torch and her khaki jumper and book, and opened the skylight to let in the night air.
He had already left the house. She stared longingly at the garlic sausage on his plate, conquering the impulse to take, but then came the sound of the transit van backing, and she went outside at a dash. One of the pigs grumbled sleepily from the pen, and she called out, ‘Quiet, Llew!’ They were driving into the moonlight between tall thick banks of spruce.
‘What kind of job is it, dad?’
‘It’s an hour away, over the mountains. A lady in a holiday home got a shock from the shower.’
‘Is it safe?’
‘What do you think, my girl?’
‘Electricity is never safe.’ She hesitated. ‘Dad? Am I in trouble?’
‘You weren’t sent to bed for being good, love.’
‘I know. But am I in trouble now?’
For the first time since she had got in the van he took his eyes off the road. ‘Let’s call it quits for this time, shall we?’
She smiled, and tucked her feet up beside her on the chair, and shut her eyes. The light brightened a little as they turned onto the road. When she opened her eyes again her stomach was aching for food, and they were skirting a slate tip piled high on the side of an empty cwm. ‘It’s still a way further,’ said her father.
She nodded and sighed, settling down to doze again. After what seemed only a moment the car swerved, and she sat up in a panic. They were driving past a Little Chef on a brightly lit main road. Presently they came to a roundabout and turned, passing under a flyover and into the darkness of spruce trees. For a moment Sara wondered if she had slept through the job, or if her father had changed his mind about going, and was driving her back home. Then a lake glimmered among the trees, and they turned again, this time onto a private track running alongside the shore. Her father patted her knee. ‘This is the place,’ he said.
The sign said, ‘Lakeside.’ A stone bungalow with a veranda looked down towards a pebble beach, and a rowing boat and a couple of pedalos were moored to a jetty. The windows of the house were dark, but they could see a head torch quivering under the trees where a battered Nissan truck was parked. A house light shone more distantly on the other side of the lake. They stopped behind a Ford Mondeo, and as Sara jumped down onto hard sand and thin turf and stonecrop she could hear the quiet muttering of the lake and the clucking of waterfowl. Her father took his toolkit from the van, standing by the open back door to buckle his utility belt round his hips, and a fat man with straggly grey hair climbed out of the truck and slouched across the lawn towards them.
‘Rhys Aled,’ he said. ‘I haven’t seen you for nearly ten years.’
‘It’s more than that, Denzil. I remember you weren’t at my wife’s funeral.’
He had used the intimate form of the verb, and her father had rebuffed him. He kept his hair tied back in a pig-tail, and a tee-shirt reading ‘Working Class Hero’ was stretched over a pendulous belly. He dropped his voice to a confidential tone, glancing towards the bungalow as though his guests might overhear or understand them. ‘The husband’s not happy,’ he said. ‘He’s demanding a refund. I had to get dressed and come straight to the house to stop him phoning his lawyer.’
‘You had to get dressed. I had to drag Sara out of bed for this.’
The man Denzil was still wearing that torch. She dropped her eyes, looking down at her battered trainers, and then her father shut the van door with a slam, and Denzil looked away. ‘People like Vince sign you off easy,’ said her father, ‘and then you need me to sort out your mess. What do you think you’re playing at, interrupting my little girl’s sleep on a week night?’
Denzil laughed uneasily. ‘You and me go way back,’ he said. ‘I don’t expect you to rewire the whole house; I just want it safe.’
‘If you want another botch job call Vince. Are you going to show me inside?’
‘I’ll get you introduced and started, and then I’m going home to my wife. But Rhys–’ Again his voice lowered. ‘Does your daughter know how to behave herself? Because I don’t think they’re in the mood for children.’
Her father said nothing. After a moment he told him dryly, ‘If you think there’ll be problems with how Sara behaves, you can talk to her yourself, Denzil.’
‘I–’ said Sara. ‘I like to sit outside when dad’s working. It’s safer.’
‘Sara took an electric shock a year ago. I told her not to unscrew a wall plug until I’d turned off the power, but she didn’t listen.’ Her father’s heavy hand rested on her shoulder. ‘She’ll come inside the house when I’ve finished.’
‘Still raising her your own way, I see,’ said Denzil. ‘Still keeping her out of school and teaching her yourself. Have you got all you need in your magic box?’
They walked away, her father’s right shoulder stooping under the weight of his toolbox. Sara yawned, and wandered away round the side of the house. A woodpile was crudely stacked under the gable, and the willowherb was encroaching on an uneven tennis court. It was hard not to think about garlic sausage, or about her snug little tent of a bedroom under the cottage roof. She remembered her book, under her seat in the van. She was reading by torchlight on a swinging bench on the veranda when a blonde-haired woman came out of the house holding a glass of milk and a plate of sandwiches. She put the tray on Sara’s lap and smoothed her dressing gown as she sat. Sara looked at the sandwiches, hesitant.
‘Sardines in tomato. Your dad said they’re your favourite.’
They were made with very thin white bread, and the woman had cut off the crusts. Sara raised a sandwich to her mouth, and a little of the sauce ran out between the slices, leaving a trail down the palm of her hand. She had forgotten to say thank you, but the woman did not seem to mind. ‘My name’s Sandy,’ she said. ‘What’s yours?’
Sara had already taken another bite of the sandwich. She had to chew and swallow before she could get the word out.
‘And where do you go to school, Sara?’
‘I don’t go to school. My dad teaches me things at home.’
Sandy glanced at Sara. Sara put down her sandwich reluctantly, and waited. ‘What sort of things?’ asked Sandy.
‘Useful things,’ said Sara. ‘How to do business, like sending out bills and making accounts. And electrics, and first aid, and things with computers. And I help turn the compost and look after the pigs, and I help repair the van when it needs it.’
‘Most girls your age are tucked up in bed at this time of night.’
‘I know. But I like going out with my dad and meeting people.’
Sandy gazed across the garden at the moonlit lake, gently rocking the bench with one foot. She wore a glass nose stud in the shape of a flower, and her long toes gleamed faintly with rings. ‘When I was a little girl in South London I read Little House in the Big Woods, and I used to dream about living in a log cabin in the forest somewhere. Then we wanted a cottage for a long weekend, and it looked so lovely in the picture. I imagined drinking coffee on the veranda while Nigel went swimming in the lake. But it’s not what we thought. There’s no pub or anywhere to go for miles, and you shouldn’t get an electric shock in the night just for turning on the shower. Don’t you think you’d be better off in school, with children your own age?’
‘I want to work with animals when I’m older. Or maybe become a mechanic.’
‘I’m just a city girl.’ Sandy sighed, pulling her blonde hair neatly over her shoulder. ‘There’s nothing I’d have liked better tonight than to take a long bath and put on my heels and go dancing in the West End. You’re more like Laura Ingalls in the book. Are you sure you don’t want to come in the house, dear?’
‘It’s nice outside. I sleep in the forest sometimes, in summer.’
‘Well. If that’s what you want.’ She stood up to take the empty plate. ‘I hope your daddy takes you home soon.’
Sara waited until she had gone, and stretched out more comfortably on the bench. She drank her milk and set herself to reading a few more pages of her book. Presently the front door opened. Denzil stood on the threshold to light a cigarette. He led the way a few paces onto the lawn and turned abruptly on her father.
‘So what are you saying?’ he said.
‘I’m saying I can rewire the shower–’
‘You can rewire the shower.’ His voice was low, but filled with anger, and he seemed almost to stab her father with his cigarette. ‘Then what the hell is the problem?’
‘The problem? The problem is that there isn’t a light or plug in there that doesn’t need rewiring. The only appliance I’d trust in that house is the phone.’
Sara lay still. Both men had turned their backs on the house, and for a moment the only sound was the lapping of the lake. ‘Rhys,’ said Denzil, ‘that’s a winter job. A word of that to the guests and they’ll be home to London with their breath in their fists.’
Her father said nothing. ‘You won’t get the contract,’ said Denzil. ‘If you’re going to scare my guests you can fuck off back to your pig-pen and stay there.’
‘You don’t want to swear at me, Denzil.’ Her father had switched to the intimate form. ‘You’re an old man and you’re not in good health.’
Denzil turned away from her father. The little coal of his cigarette flared and dimmed before he dropped and quenched it in the grass. He showed no interest in Sara, lying with her book in a little circle of light. He pushed his hands in his pockets, hunching over his belly. ‘What are you going to do?’ he asked.
‘I’ll rewire the shower. I’ll turn off the main switch, and I’ll make it very clear to the guests what I’m doing.’ He shrugged. ‘They might stay, and that’s their look-out. If they can turn the power back on, they mostly do.’
Denzil nodded. He turned round slowly, and walked back inside the house, still hunching his shoulders. Sara’s father crossed the lawn at a stride, took trunking and a roll of cable from the van and carried them inside the house. Then he took a blanket from the van and shut the door, and knelt down to give her the blanket.
‘There’s a room they’re not using. Do you want to come inside for a sleep?’
‘Do you want to lie down in the back of the van?’
Sara took the blanket. She shook it out to cover her legs and rolled onto her side with her elbow for a pillow. Her father kissed her forehead. Presently it was dawn, and Denzil shuffled towards his truck and drove away. A man with a muttering, booming voice said something inside the house, and Sandy, standing by the window, replied, ‘Well, if you’re that worried about my comfort, we’d better abandon the holiday, hadn’t we?’ There was a pause, a booming and muttering. ‘What about it?’ asked Sandy sharply. ‘You’re bored and want to go back to London; isn’t that what it is?’ Sara shut her eyes and turned her face to the wall. She woke in bright morning. Somewhere a thrush called, and a collared dove pecking at the turf glared blinkingly at Sara, and stalked way. A car door opened. Sandy slid a suitcase onto the back seat of the Ford, and went back into the house. Her father sat down on the floor beside her and patted Sara’s knee.
‘Have you finished?’
‘I’ve finished. You can have five minutes in the lake if you want, and then we’ll go.’
‘Did you get any shocks?’
‘You know me better than that, my girl.’
Sara smiled. After a moment she wrapped the blanket round her chest and walked down to the lake shore, pulling off her shorts and jumper and tee shirt and wading into the cold. She swam. Her father brought out the roll of cable and loaded the van, and Sara patted herself dry with the blanket and dressed. She slung herself up as he started the engine. They were driving again down the forest track.
‘So you had to spoil Sandy’s holiday.’
‘Who do you think spoiled her holiday?’
She had to think for a moment. ‘Denzil spoiled it. Who is he, dad?’
‘I did wiring for Denzil when he was a builder. I didn’t like the way he worked.’ Her father laughed. ‘And he had the hots for your mother.’
‘Did she have the hots for him?’
He glanced at her. ‘What do you think, my girl?’
She had much to discuss with her father. She waited until they were on the main road. ‘Would you really have hit him?’
‘If he’d started being a troglodyte, yes I would. Is there anything else you want to ask me?’
Sara hesitated. They had passed the Little Chef before she spoke. ‘Sandy said I shouldn’t be home-schooled. I should be in school with the other children.’
‘You don’t have to listen to what people like her say. You’re going to grow up different.’
There was no answer to this. She accepted that it was so. And later, after leaving home, she began to see where the differences lay: her greater experience of work and adult life, her sometimes baffled ignorance of other people’s values and pastimes.
She could make unerring character judgements on behalf of her friends, and was hurt when they called her interfering or sinister. Yet in her own dealings, especially with men, she could be led by the most blatant of liars. In the years that followed she built up a wall of reserves, breached it in panic and desperation, and though she dropped the man put faith in herself to raise the baby.
But why, dad? she might have asked him that morning; what’s so great about being different? But she was her father’s little girl, and he took his hand off the steering wheel to ruffle her damp hair.
‘What do you say to cooked breakfast and a day off?’
‘That sounds wonderful, dad.’
The morning rush hour had started.