When James woke up, the first thing he saw was Helen sitting in a stiff-backed faux leather hospital armchair and the first thing he heard was her reading a passage from ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, in a passable American accent. He grunted to get her attention. She barely raised her eyes at the noise but when she saw his eyes were open, she dropped the book and sped to his bedside.
‘James, James, are you really awake?’ He managed a nod and she began frantically pressing the nurse’s call button and repeating ‘Oh, James’ like a mantra, as if she’d forgotten how to say anything else.
A nurse came in her own good time and said she’d call a doctor but not to expect one anytime soon and left again. No notes were recorded.
And then Helen’s verbal dam burst. ‘James, do you know where you are? Do you know what happened? Can you speak? I must call the children. Can you hear me? Can you feel my hand? Oh, God, these are all the things the books told me not to say straight away. But, James …’ and she trailed off.
Over the next few months, James made a gradual but steady recovery, with some minor relapses. He still tired easily but he could eat and drink normally, hold a conversation, consistently remember things and engage in light exercise to rebuild his wasted muscles.
He now understood he’d been in a car accident and injured his brain. What he was having trouble coming to grips with was the fact that all this had happened fourteen years ago. He’d always been a bit of a geek, so the changes in technology did not faze him for too long and he was delighted that he now had grandchildren.
But nothing could prepare him for the nightmare of the new social order that had made the world he last remembered sound like a fairy tale. Bit by bit, Helen unfolded the history, pausing often to allow him time to absorb the enormity of what had occurred while he was ‘asleep’.
Just before the accident, a mysterious virus was spreading around the globe, evolving in ways that outstripped the development of effective vaccines and ultimately took the lives of millions and left even more millions permanently damaged. The health system collapsed under the strain, economies were left devastated and the human costs of the destruction of the world of work and the income it generated had become incalculable.
In the ensuing panic, a new kind of leadership (well, at least new to the western world) developed. Governments declared states of emergency, elections were suspended indefinitely and the doctrine of social utility became the norm. A bastardised version of Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest became the yardstick for all social and economic measures.
‘It’s them, or you’ became the unifying catch cry of the Department of Social Utility (or DSU as they were universally known). TV advertisements featured asthmatic children gasping for breath, waiting in hospital queues that stretched to the horizon were contrasted with pictures of 80-year-olds occupying all the available beds in ICU’s, as a sonorous voice intoned, ‘Do you want health services available to you and your children or do you want them clogged with old people who have already had their chance at life?’ Reverse pyramid diagrams of young working people collapsing under the weight of the taxes they were paying to provide income to the unemployed and pensioners were a common tactic in breaking down the ‘sentimentality that will destroy us all’.
The denial of health services to everyone over 70 infected with the virus was the vanguard of what was to come. Victims who were still capable of making decisions, and the families of those that weren’t, were offered two options; go home and do the best you can or let us end their days peacefully. Once that concept took hold, gradually all medical services, including drugs, for over 70’s were withdrawn. And then it became the over 60’s. Soon, the only old people were the wealthy with access to the black market. Health care costs plummeted and government budgets became ever more generous to business, ‘for the greater good’.
The unemployed were the next target. Many people came from families where no-one had worked for three generations and who had insufficient skills to do anything that mattered in a modern economy. In a cold-blooded game of musical chairs, people who had failed to obtain employment after a 12-month deadline were denied any form of government support or social housing and were prohibited from entering any town with a population exceeding a thousand people. They were left to wither and die in remote areas, unless they chose the compassionate course offered by the government of leaving this life peacefully. Again, the disappearance of all social benefits freed up opportunities for the remaining citizens and life just became better and better for those inside the circle.
At this point, Helen stopped and fixed her gaze on James and said ‘By now you will have worked out that we are both well over 60. I’ve had to forfeit the house to a working family. The children do what they can to pay for my basic needs but they have their own children now. I’m living out of our car in the Hills and I don’t know how much longer I can pay for the petrol to be with you.’ She stopped and then said ‘And that’s it.’
A semblance of James’ wry humour surfaced as he said ‘So waking up was not one of my better ideas.’ But all this evinced in Helen was tears, rather than the expected returned smile. ‘What do you want to do?’
Helen sighed resignedly. ‘They’ve offered us a peaceful end.’
She could see his old anger resurfacing as he said ‘But why didn’t people rise up?’
‘Some tried, James, but what with the gun buy-back and all, they were rounded up and sent to re-education camps. Nobody returned enlightened and the fittest decided early on that questions were unhelpful.’
‘In a nutshell, then, we’re fucked.’
This time she smiled. ‘In a nutshell, yes.’
‘Well, what if we went bush and grew veggies until we carked it? Maybe even some dope for the bad days.’
‘Prohibited. And the satellites would soon pick us up.’
‘But we’d die saying “No!” to the bastards.’
Helen’s eyes looked alive and her voice lightened.
‘You do realise it will make absolutely no difference.’
‘Au contraire, ma chere. Choosing our own way to go will make all the difference in the world. To us. Now go downstairs, get the motor running and we’ll head out on the highway, lookin’ for adventure in whatever comes our way. Born to be wiiiiild!’