Sunday, 26 January 2014

Short Story: The Marriage Inspector

The Marriage Inspector

The tide is going out from the bay at Budleigh Salterton. But don’t worry, it will come back. It always does. Besides, you have work to do.

Wrapped in a shawl, you make your way up steep steps leading to cliff-side cottages. The way is unsteady, for the land recedes from the sea here, like every other coastline in England. These cliffs, famous for their fossils and coloured stone, are crumbling away, taking their houses with them.

Insects hiss gently as you climb. You carry a basket of shells. You pass doors one by one, not stopping, though some stand open to beckon in the cool sea breeze. Finally you pause at a precariously balanced cottage set at the very edge of the cliff. You knock on the little blue door and wait. A young woman appears.

‘Hello,’ she smiles, taking you in. Her face is a feast of freckles. You smile back and offer her your shells. You have been collecting them. Would she like one? They sit perfectly on a windowsill or kitchen table.

You are invited in and asked to place the shell where you see fit. She has such a quaint little cottage. You tell her so, and ask what you must ask. Does she live there alone?

'No, with my partner,’ she says, before adding, with a flush and something like pride, ‘she’s writing a novel here.’

How lovely. The shell would look so perfect there - ?



‘Thank you!’ she calls from the doorway as you make your winding way down the cliff once more, down to the great stretch of pebbly beach and beyond. Down you go, down to the sea, where the red stone of the cliff has dyed the waters an iron red-brown.


‘That’s bollocks,’ came the response Martin had expected.

‘That’s the law-r,’ he replied, his thick west-country accent dampening the word. As ever, he wondered what potency such a word could ever truly muster behind his narrow desk in those provincial council buildings. He certainly did not appreciate a Swedish woman swearing at him about gay rights on a Friday afternoon.

‘We want a religious ceremony,’ she said, ‘like everyone else. With a vicar and vows and a choir.’

‘The state won’t recognize the marriage, Ms. Nielson,’ he replied firmly, seeing the futility in making the law sound sympathetic. ‘You can receive the same benefits with a legally acknowledged civil partnership.’

The woman finally left, leaving him with a rant ringing in his ears about it all. If he was honest, it meant little to him. He had heard some of The Bishops’ debates about the dangers of gay marriage but they had meant little to him too. He couldn’t really see the danger. Let the poor sods do it if they wanted, he thought, but dialed through to Marriages all the same. If there was one thing he did care about, it was keeping his job. God knows he wouldn’t find another.

‘I have a case for you,’ he began. ‘Johana Nielson. Gay couple living in Budleigh Salterton. There’s talk of bringing religious elements into a civil ceremony.’

Martin didn’t ask what you would do. No one at the council really knew what the Marriage Inspectors did. He gave you the job, he put down the phone, you went to the cottage.


Transcript #1
Friday, 19:04.   

EVELYN:       What did they say?
JOHANA:      No.

EVELYN:       Christ. 
JOHANA:      Don't take it personally, Eve.
EVELYN:       How should I take it? 

JOHANA:      I don’t know. Just don't take it personally.
EVELYN:       Please don’t say that. How exactly should I take it? Lying down on 
                        my back while The Bishops screw me over? What kind of state lets
                        its bishops dictate who can marry and who can’t?
JOHANA:      Evelyn. 

EVELYN:       What?
JOHANA:      I'm sorry. We tried. I need to work.

[Door closes]

EVELYN:       Christ.


Yes, it is difficult to explain what you do. It is a new role and like many of the new roles created within local government it seemed futile at first to those holding more traditional positions. But we all have our part to play in The Big Society.

There was a certain charm in the theatrics of it, you thought, when you first started. It is largely a bureaucratic role, they told you at the training fortnight held in London. The country was reorganizing itself following the split from Scotland, the break from Europe. Observation would be key, of course. It was part of a nationwide initiative, 'Listening to Our Communities'. Different Inspectors worked in different ways. There was room for creativity and innovation if any of you had a certain approach or style.

You, for example. You like to listen and transcribe. This time you used a shell. Everyone likes shells. No one expects shells to listen.


Transcript #2 

Saturday, 10:16.

JOHANA:      Tomorrow.
EVELYN:       We’re breaking the law.
JOHANA:      We could marry very openly in Sweden, Eve. It’s called marriage
                        there. Crazy, I know. But we just call it marriage.
EVELYN:       Jo.
JOHANA:      Evelyn.
EVELYN:       You know it’s not about that.
JOHANA:      All I know is that I don’t know what it is about.

[One leaves to bring something back from another room].

                        What is it about, then?
 EVELYN:      It’s not about what it’s called.

[Clattering. Plates, forks].

JOHANA:      Excellent cake.
EVELYN:       It’s healing cake.
JOHANA:      Why are you always trying to heal me, doctor? Am I so sick and
EVELYN:       I’ve said it before. Beyond modern medicine. I’ve asked the
                        good Reverend for exorcisms, for potions, the lot. No solution.
                        The problem is mental, see.
JOHANA:      That old crook. I bet he has a cellar full of sacrilegious things. He’s
                        from  witch-hunting stock, I'm telling you.
EVELYN:       Careful. That crook will be marrying us tomorrow. Tomorrow. Sounds
                        strange, doesn’t it? And be nice. He’s sympathetic.

[Note: the Reverend Peasland. Budleigh Parish. Schedule interview].

JOHANA:      So what is it about then? Why does it have to be in the books?
EVELYN:       What do you mean?
JOHANA:      Does it have to be a religious ceremony? I mean, whether it’s in
the books, in a stupid register, or in the eyes of an old man who                
probably can’t even see -

EVELYN:       Jo.
JOHANA:      - who will dribble over us at the altar -
ELVELN:       I can’t talk to you like this. [Laughs].
JOHANA:      - when in the eyes of everyone we love and respect we are 
                        married. We are married, Evelyn. You have made me your wife. I
                        have made you mine. Remember?
EVELYN:       Well there you have it! It’s in your book.
JOHANA:      That’s different.
EVELYN:       Oh, really?

[Book presumably retrieved?].

JOHANA:      Evelyn, enough. Put that thing away.

EVELYN:       [Book extract?] Taking clay from the sea-wetted cliff, we smeared
                        it delicately on each other’s skin, dubbing our foreheads with the
                        grey dullness that framed fossils. “I make you my wife,” said the
                        sixteen year old me in my secondary school English. You laughed
                        at me and held me, feeling for the first time, I knew,
                        that closeness: the closeness of clay upon exoskeleton, replacing
                        self with another. An alien thing surrounding my body, replacing my
                         body. Something other. Something separate. Preserving me

                       There. That’s your translation.

JOHANA:      Of what?
EVELYN:       Of what I want God to know.
JOHANA:      That we’re suffocating in clay? Come on, Eve. It was my first novel.
EVELYN:       Maybe.
JOHANA:      What is it with you and God, anyway? He thinks you’re a dirty

[Pause. She laughs].

                        I don’t think he’s in your jumper.
EVELYN:       You’re hilarious. No, I’m cold. And I’m a traditionalist. I like rituals.

JOHANA:      Gay marriage isn’t a tradition, Evie. It’s illegal.
EVELYN:       Oh for God’s sake, it was a tradition to burn witches. Things
                        change. Traditions change.
JOHANA:      Do they? That’s what we said on the beach that day. 

EVELYN:       That was then. It's different now.
JOHANA:      You really believe that?
EVELYN:       Please, Jo. I just know this God. I can’t explain.
JOHANA:      Anyone I know?
EVELYN:       Enough. Everything I love in you is God. You must know that.
                        When I watch you breathe, that’s God. Your divinity. 

[A rubbing sound. Material. Hand against jumper?].

JOHANA:      Divinity?

[Moving sounds - coming together?].

                        Am I divine?

[Kissing sounds?].

EVELYN:       You smell like the sea. [Laughs]. Yes, I suppose you are.
JOHANA:      I went for a walk. You are divine, too. I divine you.
EVELYN:       You are divine.
JOHANA:      Listen, I need to go to the library. Where did that shell come from?
EVELYN:       A woman brought it around a few days ago, before you got back
                        from the council.
JOHANA:      Anyone I know?

EVELYN:       No. Maybe. I’d never seen her before. She was sweet. 
JOHANA:      Should I be worried that you accept gifts from strange women?
EVELYN:       Probably.
JOHANA:      And the sun’s been kissing you, too. What a freckled face. 
EVELYN:       You are divine. Really.
JOHANA:      [Whisper]. You are divine.
EVELYN:       [Whisper]. You are divine.


You stop transcribing here. The sea beyond the window of the cottage moves against the coarse rocks of the coast. It is the highest peak of the tide. This is when it is strongest, when the battle between coming in and going out wrenches it in both directions. You hear it faintly in the background of the recording before you quickly turn it off. There are some things you don’t want to hear.

She was sweet. You have been observing the young couple for twelve hours. Marriage Inspecting is largely bureaucratic, but bureaucracy can take many forms. Writing the transcripts is a perk, granted. You like to do it. It is not strictly a part of your duties, but you like to be thorough. You believe in prevention. For the record, you believe in redemption too, but that's irrelevant.

You reach the library before they arrive and sit out of sight when you spot them whispering their way around. It is strange to see Johana at last.

‘I’ve spoken to the Reverend,’ Evelyn says, picking up books and putting them back distractedly. Johana offers a sound of acknowledgement but continues to read as she walks slowly along.

‘There shouldn’t be a problem. He’s very,’ she pauses, scanning the bookshelves to find the right word, ‘sympathetic.’

This time Johana closes her book. ‘I wasn’t aware I needed sympathy for making vows to someone I love.’

Evelyn watches her. She seems on the cusp of saying something, but kisses her on the cheek instead.

‘I’ll see you at home then.’

Johana is left alone. You wait ten minutes more, until she leaves the library, and then follow her.

It is time. You call her name.

She turns, distractedly. She is a tall, slightly imposing woman.


You look into the strong, Nordic bones in her face and warn her that there can be no religious elements in a civil ceremony.

Johana’s pale eyes rest on you. They are as unnervingly still as glass. Uncomfortable under her gaze, you fumble for and bring out your council identification. You flash the plastic awkwardly at her. She does not react. After what seems to you a heavily measured moment, she turns to leave, making an odd sound of derision.

You call after her, asking if you can take that as an oral confirmation that she has received an official warning. But Johana’s long legs have carried her away too quickly. When she thinks she is out of your sight, she begins to run. Though it is not strictly part of your duties, you like to be thorough, so you follow her - at a distance - in the car.

Johana runs until she reaches the sea. You pull into a shady curb where the tarmac meets the smooth stones of the deserted beach. From there you can see Johana. The water drives frothily up the beach, collecting at her ankles.  She starts to toss pebbles. Her whole body moves as she flings stone after stone. When the stones are not enough, she begins to undress. Her clothes slip from her pale body and she is suddenly a blotchy white blur, naked to the skin. She flings herself into the water, crashing into the foaming breakers. The waves splay around her like split membranes. Across the bay they course into the cliffs, booming heavily in the near distance.

She swims. Her head pops up like a frenzied sea otters’ above the surf, her white flesh flashing the sky as she kicks off and dives down. The tide swims too and is already on the turn. You look at the sky. Above, black clouds are clustering, driving inshore. The wind makes the waves rise malevolently.

You begin to wonder how long Johana should stay in the water. You begin to wonder if you should run down to the shore and warn her. You find yourself quickly checking your face in the mirror, preparing to step out, but as you do, a flash of red darts by your window.

It is Evelyn in a red summer dress.

She looks half-dressed. She must have been watching from the cottage on the cliff. She runs unsteadily over the pebbly beach, throwing herself down the natural shelves to stand at the water’s edge. She signals wildly with her arms to Johana, who soon emerges from the fray, a drenched, shivering thing, naked and luminescent in the queer blank light. To your surprise, Evelyn strikes her hard across the face.

You did not expect violence.

Even from that distance you see Johana’s head snap back and the garish red that appears at her mouth. It is startlingly vivid against the bruised grey of the beach, sea and sky. It will heal quickly, you think, imagining the salty mix of blood and seawater.

Evelyn has turned and is struggling once more over the pebbles towards you. She ignores what you can already hear of Johana’s desperate cries. The naked woman darts after her in pursuit. 
She is lumbering with her long limbs, her swaying breasts, up the slope. She does not reach Evelyn before they reach a plateau of pebbles in front of the car.

You freeze. One look up and they would see you there: a stranger at the feast. No longer a stranger, at least not to Johana.

‘Evelyn!’ she cries. You can hear now, through the glass of your windows.

‘Evelyn, wait!’ she begins to cough, great spluttering coughs that rack her whole body. You watch as Evelyn stops and turns to watch the shivering, naked woman before her, bent double, clutching a belly full of seawater. She goes to her. She peels off her jacket, wrapping it around Johana’s shoulders.

‘What is wrong with you?’ she shouts, roughly covering her partner’s nakedness, rubbing the sleeves of the coat for warmth.

‘Evelyn,’ Johana calls, her voice breaking, her face crumpling into tears.

‘I’m here,’ Evelyn responds sternly, gently cupping the heavy-cheeked face in her hands, pushing the soaking strands of hair away from the pale, wet eyes. ‘What the hell is wrong with you? Why would you go swimming now? It’s so dangerous, maka.’

‘Evelyn,’ Johana calls once more, croaking out the name like a cry for bread, for water.

‘Are you crazy? Am I marrying a madwoman?’

Johana sobs openly.

‘For God’s sake, Jo. You could have drowned.’

‘Evelyn, please,' says Johana, sobering slightly. Suddenly, gently, she takes Evelyn by the waist and pulls her slowly to the ground. They descend gracefully, you think. You do not hear the rough crush of knees onto pebbles. You are unable to leave, afraid to move even an inch. If you do, they might see you. But look, they are lost in each other. You watch as Johana pulls at Evelyn’s dress, struggling against the red folds of damp material. You watch as they reach for each other, hearing their gasps as cold hands touch the warmth of bodies. You watch. They are angry and want to make love and you must watch them.


Transcript #3

Saturday, 21.51

EVELYN:          I’ll never hit you again.

JOHANA:         Evelyn, I’m sorry. 

EVELYN:         Are you writing tonight?

JOHANA:         I don’t need to. We should talk, shouldn’t we?

EVELYN:         I have to meet the Reverend. We’re getting married tomorrow, 


You approach the church slowly. Though it is not strictly part of the job, you like to be thorough. Besides, you have been to fifty ceremonies like this one. You feel awkward in your grey trouser suit. Elaborately dressed guests are gathered around the entrance and a gentle babble of excitement wells from inside. Pale clumps of winter jasmine hang above wicker archways, woven delicately through the brittle wood. Evelyn had designed it all, and there she is, welcoming the guests, dressed up to be a bough of blossom, just for today. She sees you before you see her. She beckons you to come to her.

‘Have we met?’ she asks. Her voice is strong and as clear as glass after the muffled recordings. 

She was sweet.

You are suddenly shy, but Evelyn, all smiles and radiance, does not wait for an explanation.

‘Well, welcome,’ she laughs, pressing your hand into her own and pulling you in to kiss your cheek warmly. A heady fragrance hangs about her neck.

‘I’ve not met half of Jo’s writing friends. I think she hides them from me.’

Her narrow blue eyes flash apologetically in the morning sunlight. Smooth sea-glass, you think, against the pebbly array of brown freckles.

They will not forgive you for what you are about to do. You look too long.

'Are you sure we haven’t met?’ she asks. But she smiles once more, dismissing her own question. ‘I’m sorry. Please. Take a seat.’

You make your way silently into the church. The anticipation is tangible; there is a simmering, bubbling sort of tension made brighter and less bearable by the bobble hats and garishly coloured relatives. As before, you have barely sat down before you notice a dozen breaches of protocol. The altar is dressed up. The Reverend’s gentle murmurs can be heard in the stone passageway. The Holy Bible has been laid out in each pew.

You bring another shell out of your pocket. Yes, a recording of the ceremony would be presented alongside the transcripts. A complete set of evidence. There would be an enquiry. A verdict would follow, of course. There might be a caution fine for them, a fine perhaps. It might even be time for your promotion. 

She was sweet.

But you don’t have to.

She was sweet.

No, you don’t have to. You could put your shells away.

But something is not right. You’ve had too much time to think. Nearly an hour has passed and Johana is nowhere in sight. You go to the back of the church. Evelyn hangs about the doorway like an impatient child. After a while, her mother goes to her and takes her gently by the shoulders. You strain to hear what has happened, joining the other guests in their craning of necks and glances at each other. Where is Johana? Their babbling mass chatters away, filling the vaulted space of the little church. You wonder if they hear what you begin to hear, a sound faintly moving through the passageway. A whimper, discomforting in its smallness, so unnatural amidst the clumps of brightness, the gaping displays of happiness.

Suddenly a man comes in, the father perhaps. He looks at you. He asks you to leave, but he is not just looking at you, he is looking at everyone. You are all being asked to leave.

'There will not be a wedding today,’ he says.


You walk quickly because you know where you want to end up. When you arrive, you slip off your shoes. The sea foam gathers shyly around your ankles. Broken shells cut the soles of your feet but you do not wince. Digging deep into your pocket, you draw out the shell. Tracing its smooth, innocent shape, you flick it open to see the minuscule hidden audio device inside. You click it shut and fling it into the red-grey waters. The cliffs are still washing their bloody hands across the bay. 

You want the sea to rage at you, to hiss and throw breakers at you, but it is still and slack and impotent. You are powerless and the sea has no desire to give you bloated ideas about yourself.

The tide, creeping beneath the calm, is going out. But don’t worry, it will come back. It always does. Besides, you have work to do.


  1. Thank you for posting Helen! Very powerful, can hear/smell the rough Northern sea, the unforgiving salty water...The cruelty of social "norms". Joana brings memories of Sappho. Keep writing dear!

    There is a very good Israeli movie Hasodot exploring the conflict between the passion and religious attitudes towards the same sex relationships. I watched the movie when it just came out and learned that there is nowhere in Torah a prohibition of the same sex relationships between women (only men).

    1. Thanks for reading and for your incredibly kind words, Elena. I didn't know that about the Torah, how fascinating, will definitely watch Hasodot to learn more. To be discussed!