Resting in her cubicle, or her little bedroom, as she preferred to call it, Charmaine listened attentively to her daughter closing all the door locks from the outside of their apartment on the seventeenth floor of The Covent Garden Estate. She then listened to the clattering of thousands of people marching off to work between Maxine’s opening and closing of the door to the staircase.
“Lovely”, Charmaine thought, “another half an hour and I’ll be on my three legs again.”
She didn’t mind growing things for other people, Charmaine told herself. She certainly wasn’t doing it for the money. She just loved to help people but she was clearly on her last leg with this one. After this, she could not do another one because – face it, love – she was getting old. Already she was feeling the hots more often every day and she knew what it meant for her: two years of retirement and then she’d be decommissioned. Oh, to blazes with it. This was all too sad for words, Charmaine thought, but what can you do? Retirement age just had to be limited, and forty-five was a ripe old age anyway. What good could possibly come after that, when one was just not physically able to help any longer?
Charmaine didn’t like to do so but remembered a time when people had proper bedrooms and were not crammed into some blasted cubicle between the loo and the sink in their kitchen. She turned on the sonic shower. On second thoughts, Charmaine pondered that there probably were people with proper bedrooms, Luvvies and Masters mainly, none of which she’d ever meet though. But as for Maxine, there certainly was something fishy about her trip to the Cotswolds – or was it Cumbria? – with Freddy, blast that old git.
After the weekend, Maxine came across like a changed person. She had certainly seen things she wasn’t supposed to have seen. Charmaine remembered thinking: God, forbid he’s knocked her up, when her daughter walked through the door but no worries. He couldn’t have left a bun in the oven because as it soon turned out Maxine would be barren. Which also was a good thing because who’d really want to bring a child into this world?
Charmaine turned the sonic shower on once more just to give her third leg a proper scrub, the one in the middle. It would grow ever so slowly now that it was almost complete but she knew that the last few inches always took the longest time. Charmaine felt a bit tired and sick today but this could also be down to the Soy and flakes she had to eat all day to conform to modern standards of medical hygiene.
“God, what I’d give for a nice bacon sarnie”, Charmaine thought.
Then, she thought again. She really had to cut short on that God thing because face it: it wasn’t done any longer nor was it likely to be done in the foreseeable future. It could even get her into trouble if she’d let the wrong people overhear her mentioning it. Better not do it at all and get it out of the system fast, she said to herself, because accidents could happen.
After splashing a bit of body lotion on, Charmaine finally drew back the curtains and lay for another minute facing the kitchen cabinet with the telly and the folding table and her last two chairs while the fluid sank in. As originally intended, her apartment would have provided her and Maxine with a modest living space about the same size as her sleeperette-kitchen.
“Isn’t it lovely how they always find nice sounding words for new things”, Charmaine wondered.
But the living room had to give way to the demands of a family that came home from Afruca after the ordeals there. So many people wanted housing during this period that the government simply had to act and every estate had to obey, not only in Central London but all around the country.
One day the builders came, threw up a new plasterboard wall in the middle of her flat and left her with a stinking mess on her side of it. Because the migs wanted to move in on the same day and you couldn’t blame them for wanting that after the ordeals they’d been through, love? Anyhow, we only want to help people, don’t we? And to the best of our abilities, Charmaine said to herself with due diligence.
Life wasn’t too bad, she thought while she poured herself a cup of Soy and reached for the flakes. But just think how life had once been: no living in tower blocks, no pouring a cuppa from leaky wall fittings into the same cup every day and no growing of body parts for other people on behalf of the NHS.
Yes, Charmaine said to herself silently, there was a time when Britain wasn’t run by the National Health Service, and it wasn’t the worst of times either. Of course, we’d be lost without it. After all, a lady had to live off something and how to do without the NHS providing us with all those jobs?
Bbeing of the older generation Charmaine could only qualify for joint jobs, arms and legs and the odd finger or toe now and then, just to make ends meet. But people with the right qualifications could grow whole internal organs and even brains from stem cells. And these people were extremely well paid. Not as rich as the Luvvies and Masters, mind, but no living in poky flats on Central London Estates for them either.
“But then”, Charmaine thought to herself, “who’d like a second brain? Isn’t life schizoid enough as it is?”
A third leg was much nicer to grow. Also, quite cosy to sit on whilst you were having another cuppa, Charmaine thought. She couldn’t for the life of her remember how it had all came to pass but she tried, just this once. There were the attacks. The first one she remembered quite clearly because it was all the little girls getting killed in some city up north, Manchester or Liverpool, she never could tell them apart. Then, there was Coppers Ambush. That lasted three weeks and nearly took a thousand police out. After this, life went on like normal for a while. There were squaddies in the street everywhere but it didn’t seem to bother anybody as the soldiers were only there to make us safe. A fat lot of good it did us, Charmaine thought.
During her first year in school the attacks became more frequent, not only around the country but in the capital too. They were reluctantly talked about by the media and the reports were laced with a whole lot of finger whacking along the lines of “must not blame the perpetrators, must look to ourselves and what we did wrong to offend them”. That wore thin very quickly. People grew tired of this fast and besides it didn’t make the problem go away at all, did it, Charmaine said to herself. But instead of admitting that they had gotten it wrong – some people would go so far as to say: “deliberately wrong” – the politicians and the media cut the attacks out of the news cycle completely. During her second and third year at school, the attacks were only referred to as incidents, without any information about what had just happened. And then, the news about them were moved to the traffic update.
That’s when it started in earnest. Charmaine picked a bit of bone out of her teeth that had come with the flakes and flicked it in the kitchen sink. That was the year when everything came tumbling down at once, a great cataclysmic event after which nothing was the same. Charmaine was turning ten when one day police came to her house and took her away to gran and auntie who also lived in Peckham. She then couldn’t return home for about a month while in the news on the telly people were shown being frog-marched to army lorries (“did we still have telly, then?” Charmaine wondered). Some of these people looked an awful lot like her mum and dad but granny and auntie always suggested Charmaine do her homework or help them with the chores when she became too depressed by the idea that her parents might have been taken away to the Isle of Man. Of all places! As if they were Jerrys in The Last War.
And that wasn’t even the worst of it. Suddenly, it turned out that not only Our Enlightened Government (“or did people still call it HMG, then?”, Charmaine wondered) had been the object of a nefarious putsch attempt by evil wight-wingers who were luckily tackled at the eleventh hour and deported to the Isle of Man from where no one ever returned, as the news bulletin from Portland Place proudly tooted. But apart from that, we as a nation were also quite totally bankrupt.
Now the idea of a nation’s bankruptcy to a ten-year-old Charmaine of course meant bugger all. But seeing the subtle changes in her life did not. At first came the rationing because like it or not, we had to pay the money back. Then came the queues when either auntie or gran had to get up before dawn once per week for a proper place in the bread line if they wanted to have any chance of securing a loaf at all. The bread point opened between ten and ten thirty and served almost a third of Peckham.
Luckily, due to some recent advances in stem cell technology there was a way out of this mess. One day, everyone got a leaflet through the letterbox and were informed that television would end tomorrow. This would not only free up financial resources to better manage the nation’s debt situation but would also decrease the levels of greenhouse gas emissions of which there was way too much anyhow.
After this had passed with not so much as a whimper, apart from a few so-called journalists rioting in Portland Place, the public was faced with another dilemma: the replacement of the government by the NHS.
A Clever Plan had been devised to get rid of Our Debt. It was based on harvesting replacement organs and selling them on the world market, quite simply. It would use patented NHS technology, developed by the world’s brightest minds in Oxford and Cambridge (with American and Japanese software, but still) and it might just possibly pay off the debt if everybody did their bit. If not, Britain would be invaded from the Continent. For the plan to work it was paramount that control of the country was transferred from the elected government to the NHS quite soon and rather completely.
The vestiges of a working democracy would be retained in a clever charade of new political parties, Hearts, Spades, Diamond and Clubs. They would go through The Shuffle once per month before settling down for a rubber, i.e. a new game of Bridge, at Parliament House in the Palace of Windsor (the Palace of Westminster of course having succumbed to the floods when something went a bit wonky with their renovation project).
After the dust had settled and auntie had grown her first pair of retinas on her fore arm, a letter arrived from the Isle of Man informing Charmaine officially but personally that her parents had died in a rabies epidemy. Which, as NHS State Commissar and Camp Commander Brent stated quite bluntly, wasn’t a pretty way to die but at least it was over quickly, after only a few days or so. Of course, what with rabies being extremely contagious the whole island had to be quarantined with immediate effect and only fully immunised personnel would be allowed to stay behind. Oh yes, and no way of returning the bodies for a funeral, it would all be taken care of by the proper Authorities in due time.
Shortly after this, and in a supposed effort to brighten up the mood, tea pipes got installed in all households, curtesy of the NHS, Britain’s New Employer of choice. Another leaflet got shoved through the front door tooting that now for the first time in the life of Our Great Nation was it possible to drink a delicious, freshly brewed blend of the finest Assam and Ceylon teas directly from the tab: blue for black and red for white – only add sugar or sweetener, as you like!
“It sounded almost cheerful”, Charmaine recalled.
This was also the start of the greatest re-education effort the nation had ever seen. People had to understand that growing body parts was only a viable solution for Our Great Nation’s woes if we produced them to the highest standards of international medicine: free from alcoholic and porcine residue. Which was easily done, because there had been no pork available in the shops for years (and neither lamb, mutton, veal nor beef or poultry – not even one egg). And alcohol was out of the question because you’d run into trouble fast if you drank and were gotten hold of by The New Masters. Still, as far as bad goes this wasn’t too bad, Charmaine thought to herself. Only when the tea in the pipes got replaced by Soy did it occur to her that there really was something going on.
“Sometimes I’d heard it mentioned that this was the plan all along.”, Charmaine said to herself. “To make us drink Soy.”
From now on, red meant Soy and blue meant none. Water was first rationed and then turned off altogether when sonic technology became widely available a few months later. The next year, Charmaine turned eighteen and was now officially old enough to vote in The Shuffle. She voted Hearts because she always liked their colour and shape. She also liked a man in a uniform and that’s how she’d met Martin, Maxine’s father, in front of Buckingham Palace.
“Good grief”, Charmaine said to herself laughingly as she remembered it. “That wasn’t always the Central Mosque of Britain”.
But back to Martin. She was still living with gran and auntie in Peckham, before everything got cubicled, and she still had a proper bedroom then. But meeting Martin with auntie and gran in the house wasn’t really an option and meeting him in the barracks even less; and apart from being impractical it would also have been quite illegal. That’s why they had to rely on the reluctant services of a little hotel in the Seven Dials, where they could meet shortly before Martin had to join his mates and catch his train to Staffordshire. Lucky days, Charmaine thought to herself, and stared at Martin’s picture. She wore it on her necklace in a small, golden, heart-shaped pendant.
“Wish he hadn’t returned to Afruca”, Charmaine said to herself before she was interrupted by a knock on the door.
© Guardian Council 2017