The officer who brings the vial to the door is barely older than we are. We face each other over the doorstep, she and I, putting on bright community faces, while Claire lurks over my shoulder wrapped in her dressing gown like a teenager. The homeopath stays on the driveway. We watched him open the briefcase and pass the vial to the officer before she rung the doorbell.
I noticed the handcuff that chained him to the case.
"That's it?" I ask, turning the little plastic bottle over. It’s stamped with the words ‘SmartWater’ and a serial code. 09857-LND-SRM. London Stream. This stuff’s local. It knows us.
"That's it," she confirms, passing us the leaflet and window sticker. "That's all you need."
The stickers curl up in my hand, smoothly yellow. ‘Warning!’ they say. ‘SmartWater on Guard!’
Claire is bemused. "Won’t it dry out?"
"Just be sure to keep it topped up from the tap and it will be fine.
The normal water uh... learns. It's perfectly safe. There have been extensive trials, I assure you."
"There's not much of it. Should we tip it in a bucket or something?"
"You can, but you don't need much. It’s all in the leaflet, or you can call the SmartWater helpline anytime."
You can drown in a few inches of water, I recall. One of those fun facts.
“Thanks,” I say.
The police officer leaves. Claire boils the kettle. I turn the bottle over in my hand again.
“Do you really think this works?”
“It’s free,” Claire says, “Unless you’ve found some money down the sofa for all the shit this house needs to bring the insurance down.”
“No,” I agree. We’ve been burgled 4 times in as many years. The last time, Claire had been home from work. The thief had taken a kitchen knife from the draining rack and nothing had happened, but it’s in her eyes whenever the memory is raised.
It could have.
I shrug and weaponise three pint glasses and prop them where I’ll remember to water them. One by the front door on the table where the junk mail lands. One between the cactus and the dying orchid on top of the television. One on the kitchen counter.
It looks like water. It looks like nothing when I top each glass up from the tap and set them down, just like someone’s forgotten a drink.
“We’d better label them,” I say. “Or at least the one in the kitchen.”
Claire shrugs but scribbles a piece of paper and sticks it to the glass.
“Hoo?” I read
“That’s not how you write H2O,” I complain, but it’s done now.
I don’t sleep well, and I don’t like taking pills. You can see how this might be a conflict of interest some nights. I can lie and stare at the ceiling, listening to the neighbours fight and make up, but usually I sit in the kitchen, drink something warm, and watch the garden.
It’s just a scrap, but it’s my meditation. I watch the grass grow, and the lights from the main road oil-slicking over the edge of the wall.
Screens aren’t allowed. You can’t sit up texting, or scrolling the internet; it’s just counter-productive. I think instead.
Tonight I think about water.
How smart is it? How does it tell a criminal from an innocent. In the papers they talk about how they’re using ducking again in some countries. If the old lady drowned, she was innocent, but apparently they’ve got it the right way around this time and you don’t even drown.
How does it know?
The leaflet tells me that SmartWater can convey information from molecule to molecule like a wifi network, and it tells me how to look after it, but it doesn't tell me anything else.
The glass sits on the counter, marked ‘Hoo’ and I wonder the same question. Can you tell who?
Do criminals come home to wash the blood off, push their hands under the taps and then find that they are under arrest?
There’s a puddle of water in our sink where the tap dribbles when the toilet is flushed. I pat my finger up and down in it, and watch it ripple. The water pushes out from my fingertip. It has weight.
What if it pushed back? Can molecules grip other molecules to climb?
The pint glass reflects a stoke of lamplight onto the counter, and the reflection winks as I pull it closer. It’s just water. I lift it to my ear and listen, hearing the seashell roar of the ocean, but no voice. The paper crumples in my hand.
Hoo is not a very dignified name, I think, but I can’t come up with anything better. I’m tired now.
“Sorry Hoo. This is a human thing. We name stuff.” I’ve named my plants, and my bicycle. “We can’t help it.”
There are bubbles on the inside of the glass, like it’s breathing. They trickle upwards slowly and disappear.
I can’t find the stickers. They were on the coffee table, and then the top of the TV and now they are gone. Claire shrugs.
“I dunno. Maybe they got in your books or something.”
“It can’t have, I’ve just gone through them all,” I say, shuffling thigns around. “We should have put them up as soon as we got them. It’s like having a dog.”
“Having Hoo in the house and not warning people.”
“Warning the criminals?” Claire scoffs. “Fuck ‘em.”
She flips a page in her magazine and reads, and the set of her jaw says:
It could have.
We get used to Hoo. He becomes routine. A pet rock in the house. I fill the kettle in the morning and feed Hoo in the kitchen. I come home in the evening and empty the dregs of my water bottle into Hoo at the door. When I water the cactus and the ivy that replaced the dead orchid, I water Hoo.
We forget about the robberies, and we forget what Hoo is. Until one day, one of us forgets to lock a window.
I come home first, as always. My head is down, checking for post on the mat, and then an unknown voice shouts.
I see him through the bubbled glass of the kitchen door. For a moment I think he is underwater. He reaches out, speaking so muddled I can’t figure him out. I don’t want to get closer. I don’t want to leave.
“Who are you?”
“Get me out of here! It’s got me, fuck! It’s sitting there, just waiting for me. It’s choking me!”
I look down where he’s pointing, on the other side of the door. He doesn’t come closer. I realise he can’t. The floor before the door is a puddle.
There’s a blur on the floor at the back of the counter. Broken glass.
“I can’t get out. Come on, I didn’t touch anything. I don’t want to take anything, just let me go.”
There’s the growl of an engine crunching into the drive, and a flicker of blue. I can see the whites of the man’s eyes, all around, like a horse’s. “Fuck!”
He lurches at the door, flinging his arms out and then he stops dead, flailing. In a blink the water has left the floor. Molecules against molecules in motion - I don’t know how. He claws at his face.
You can hold your breath underwater. Some people can do that for a long time.
But maybe not if the water is forcing it’s way inside your head.
He stumbles back out of arm’s reach of the handle, and water cascades to the floor again, into a neat comma.
‘Warning!’ says the sticker that I never put up, ‘SmartWater on Guard!’
“Stand back, please,” says the officer. She has bought the homeopath and his handcuffs.
They take the thief away, and whisper the puddle into a jam jar.
They take my statement and my fingerprints and my feedback on how the SmartWater behaved, and go away satisfied. Claire comes home to the uproar, and is pleased.
“Worth every penny,” she laughs.
“You left the window open,” I tell her. “And you didn’t see It.”
“Hoo saved you. You don’t know what that guy was planning when you walked in. He could have done anything to you.”
“He didn’t though.”
Claire gives me a look, and treads away upstairs. It’s late.
I can’t sleep again. The kitchen is silent and spot-the-difference identical to the night before. A new bolt on the window, to which only I have the key. A jam jar in place of an old pint glass, moved closer to the windowsill.
The water isn’t moving.
But it could.
I touch the glass and it’s tepid. I touch the water, and it’s just water. It knows I’m not a criminal, but I don’t know how.
Beyond the kitchen door, the hall looks like it’s full of dark water, rippled by the old-fashioned glass.
“Nothing really happened to him,” I say to the jam jar, picking it up. “It didn’t really hurt him.”
A bead of moisture touches my fingers; drips into the sink.
But it could have.