Working the System
Lucy King awoke at six o’clock that morning. It was still dark outside, the room was quite cold and the appointment was not until midday, but she got up almost at once. Seeing that her husband Joe was still asleep, she tiptoed out of the bedroom, stopping only to take a look at their wedding photograph, which was mounted on top of the dresser. Lucy made her way into the kitchen and, almost without realising it, did something that she had steeled herself not to do since this business started: she began to cry.
The ‘business’ in question took the form of a letter from the Ministry of Human Relations, which had arrived a few months before. Entitled ‘The expiry of your relationship’, it read as follows:
‘Dear Mr and Mrs King
As you know, the law currently limits relationships between people to a maximum period of 20 years. The 15th of March next year will mark the twentieth anniversary of your marriage. You are therefore invited to be present at 12.00 on that day at the Ministry of Human Relations, 19th Precinct, Block 1(g), London, when your relationship will be dissolved and your new life partners and place of residence will be selected at random.
You will be aware that the law provides for heavy penalties for those who do not cooperate with this procedure.’
This letter had come as a bolt from the blue to Lucy. It bore some resemblance to a letter she had received the previous year describing a minor hospital procedure, except that it was lot less friendly. As was customary in official communications now, it was not signed and there was no reference or any way to contact the person responsible. Such letters always began ‘As you know’ or ‘As you are aware’, but in reality no one knew or was aware of anything; the laws referred to were neither published nor publicised and you only found out about them when they had an impact on you. There was no appeal, no review. You just had to accept it, because life was good.
Better than ever, in fact. There was food on tables; there was wall-to-wall entertainment. There were trips to the seaside, trips to the countryside, trips to anywhere you wanted to go. Developments in clean energy had solved the problems of pollution; indeed, everything was clean: pesticides were a thing of the past, most diseases had been eradicated, industrial production was zero-emission, as was everything else, including cars (all driverless) and public transport. Due to the triumph of robotics and automation, almost no one had to work, except for a few ‘governors’ and ‘controllers’, as well as some officials in Ministries such as Human Relations and other ‘essential’ bodies.
The law in question was designed to restrict the length of relationships between couples, married or otherwise. The idea was to ensure that relationships did not become too ‘stale’ and to promote contact between citizens in this workless world by ‘rotation’, so as to enable individuals to meet new partners and be introduced to a new circle of friends. It was planned to reduce the twenty-year period to ten years and then to five, the ultimate aim being an annual change of partners for everyone. At the moment, however, the scheme was still at the pilot stage and this year would cover only twenty-four thousand couples who were due to reach twenty years of marriage. Lucy and Joe had been included in this sample.
Lucy and Joe still loved each other. It was for this reason that Lucy, in spite of her determination not to do so, had burst into tears that morning. She had thought of trying to approach the Ministry and explain the situation to them, but she knew what response she would get. She would be told that life was better for everyone and that people now had to be prepared to give something back, to make compromises. Relationships for life, like jobs for life, or any jobs at all, were a thing of the past: such sentiments were a luxury that would have to be sacrificed for the greater good. In the future the country would become a giant human exchange, a series of brief encounters, with everyone being swapped around and re-located; this would mean more variety and, according to the official line, more fun. If you didn’t like your new partner you could get another one the following year. Life would become one big surprise. Pleasure, in the form of instant gratification, would be the order of the day. The concept of ‘happiness’ would be quantified, through the achievement of targets and quotas. For example, people’s ‘smile time’ and ‘spring in the step’ would be measured and compared. League tables would be published and medals awarded. Of course, there would be disappointment, disgust, occasionally humiliation, but certainly not outdated concepts like contentment, companionship and especially not love.
Lucy had not worked for the past ten years. She had been an office manager, a job that she enjoyed and which she was good at. Then, one day, there was no longer an office and therefore no need for a manager. She had gone into work and found the building locked up. The next morning, she received her first ‘As you are aware’ letter, explaining why she would never need to work again.
Joe came in six thirty. He saw his wife sitting alone at the table.
‘Come on, love,’ he said, gently. ‘There’s no point getting upset. We agreed that there’s nothing we can do. There’s plenty of time before we have to leave. Come back to bed.’
He put his hands on her shoulders. For a moment Lucy was repelled by him and she pushed him away. Then, almost at once, she grasped his waist and soon, clamped to each other, they headed out through the kitchen door.
Shortly after half-past eight, they left their fourth-floor apartment and took the lift to the exit of the eight-storey building where they had lived for the last twenty years in the direction of the railway station. Neither of them expected to ever return. Where they would spend that night with their new partners depended on that day’s random ‘allocation’ and they would only be informed of this once they reached the Ministry. In any event, it did not really matter; apart from a few personal effects, there was no longer any private property. All flats and houses were becoming identical, with standardised kitchens, living rooms, studies, bedrooms and bathrooms. Therefore all dwellings were interchangeable. While one might develop an attachment to a certain neighbourhood and get to know locals, the whole country, especially the suburbs of the big cities, was increasingly homogenous and the intention was that people should soon be able to move anywhere without noticing a difference.
Lucy and Joe walked to the station, arriving at just before nine o’clock. They both had small suitcases which they wheeled along. Both were dressed soberly; Lucy wore a dark grey jacket and skirt while Joe had opted, rather incongruously, for a pin-striped suit and waistcoat that he used to wear for work. Lucy was tall and even without heels stood almost four inches above her husband. They had married at twenty-two, having met at university. Compared to most of the people they knew, both of them still had what might be described as a youthful manner.
It was a pleasant, sunny March morning and the air was warming up. In past times, this shiny, modern station would have been teeming with commuters heading for London but today it was very quiet, with only about ten other people on the platform. Most of the limited number of people who still worked in the London area were required to live there and all leisure activity was undertaken in organised groups, so few individuals had any reason to be travelling into the capital.
On their way to the station, Lucy and Joe would have noticed something else that had happened over the last few years – the complete disappearance of children. There were children, of course, but no one ever saw them. Every year, tens of thousands of polite, highly educated twenty-one year olds were settled into flats and houses all over the country; prior to that age they were kept out of sight. No one, at least no one that Lucy and Joe knew, had the slightest idea where any of these new citizens came from.
In her younger days, Lucy had planned to have a family. However, her plan had coincided with a decree that children could only be born to women who had enrolled in ‘The Programme’. The purpose of this was to produce future citizens who would be reared by the state without any involvement from parents. In the long term, the concept of ‘parents’ would be abolished. Fathers had already been replaced by giant sperm banks. The woman still had to bear the child; she would go away for the best part of a year and before she returned most of the details of this period would be erased from her memory. In this way, her offspring would never be spoken of, or have any contact with their mother. Eventually, when the technology was up and running, there would be no need for mothers, but this was still some way off. There were huge cash incentives (and a certificate) for taking part in The Programme but Lucy never felt tempted. At the same time, she felt that something was missing from her life. ‘You should try it, Luce,’ a friend had said to her at the automat a few years before. ‘Think of what you would be doing for the country.’ Then she added: ‘and your bank balance.’ Lucy remembered mumbling ‘what about me?’ to herself; now, at forty two, she was too old to meet the criteria anyway.
Lucy and Joe’s years of marriage had not been too bad. There were ups and downs, of course, but in general they had been happy. Their attachment had become less physical as the years had gone by but on a spiritual level the affection was greater than ever. They knew each other’s likes and dislikes and laughed at the same unfunny jokes; their lives seemed too entwined to unravel. Yet in three hours it would all be over.
In the new world, life expectancy was ‘managed’ in order to ‘take account of the limits of scarce resources’. The ‘projected’ average life expectancy was announced at the start of the year; this year it was seventy, down from seventy-five a few years ago. How this would be achieved was never explained, although almost everyone knew of an elderly friend or neighbour, often apparently in rude health, who had been ‘reclassified’ and was never seen again. As a rule, they were edited out of polite (or impolite) conversation and simply forgotten. So while Lucy did not feel old, the definition of old age was a moving one and, almost without realising it, she could be moving uncomfortably close to it in the not too distant future.
The journey to London was due to take about an hour. It would; public transport was never late. The train was spotless. It had tinted windows and was illuminated by dazzling lights which accentuated the marine blue colour of the seats. Everything looked and smelled brand new. Their carriage was about half full and Lucy noticed that it seemed to be occupied entirely by couples of about their age who were presumably making the journey to Precinct Nineteen for the same reason as they were. She counted about a dozen marriages which were coming to an end. No one spoke for a long time. It occurred to Lucy that she might have to spend a long time with one of the men sitting nearby: mostly middle-aged and bespectacled, mostly staring into space.
Suddenly, she grabbed Joe by the arm.
‘Joe,’ she pleaded, ‘we have to keep in touch. We could meet up from time to time. They won’t put us far from each other. I’ll write to you. Please Joe, promise me you will try. We can’t just leave it like this, we can’t…’
‘Not so loud,’ replied Joe, putting his arm round her. Lucy sensed that his gaze was wandering in the direction of a couple sitting opposite. They were dressed more smartly than everyone else; the man was positively dapper in a spotted bow tie while the blonde woman was in a long, tightly-fitting yellow dress. He was noticeably older than the other men, probably in his mid-fifties, while his partner looked very young. And she was smiling at Joe.
At the start of the journey rolling countryside had been visible outside the window but soon they entered a built-up area and after that everything that they passed looked like the city. The view was of a succession of high-rise buildings, empty slums, roads, elevated railways, power cables, cars, buses, advertisements, piles of scrap, floodlights, pylons, cameras, low-flying aircraft, as well as new constructions of an indeterminate nature which from the outside could have been warehouses, shopping malls, sports centres, prisons or even, in some strange way, schools. As they reached London, the scenery seemed to morph into one gigantic blur of tinted glass, metal and concrete.
The train began to slow. Lucy had not been to London for years and was both revolted and fascinated by what she was seeing. She realised that she was the only person in the carriage who was looking out of the window and taking any interest in the surroundings.
‘Shall we walk there together? It’s only about twenty minutes and it’s a lovely morning. Everything is signposted. My name’s Polly, by the way.’
Lucy had half expected the blonde woman to approach them once the train arrived in London, and here she was, shuffling up from behind in her high heels. Soon the whole group of couples had caught up with them and were making their way along the road like a pale, listless snake.
‘This is Tom’, she continued, pointing to her dapper companion. ‘He’s quite a bit of older than me’, she whispered, ‘I was married at seventeen. To be honest, he’s getting a bit past it, if you know what I mean. So this twenty-year lark has come at just the right time as far as I’m concerned.’
She took Lucy by the arm. Close to, she was rather less glamorous that she had seemed on the train; her skin was flaky and even wrinkled in some places, and a couple of her teeth were discoloured.
‘Between you and me,’ she said, ‘I’ve heard that by the time this generation gets to sixty, we’re all going to snuff it. You must have seen this; what’s it called? Life expectancy management, that’s it. It’s already at seventy and going down every year. The powers that be don’t want old people; they cost too much money. So they’re going to rub us out before we get there.’
‘Well!’ she puffed in Lucy’s face. ‘If that’s the way it’s going to be, I shall make damned sure I enjoy myself. I’m not going to be fobbed out with a bloke who’s clapped out before we even start.’
‘How will you do that?’ asked Lucy, trying to extricate herself from Polly’s grasp.
‘Do what? Oh well, there are ways,’ grinned Polly. ‘There are, how can I put it, strategies. If you play it right, you can get anything. Anything you want.’
‘Anything?’ cried Lucy, suddenly grabbing Polly by the shoulders. ‘Is there any way I could keep Joe? Just tell me what I have to do!’ She looked fondly towards her husband, who was now walking ahead with Tom.
A knowing smile came over Polly’s face. ‘Blimey, you’re a bit naïve, aren’t you? Haven’t you prepared for today? No, there’s not a chance of keeping your husband. They’ll never allow that. Sorry, darling’.
Noticing Lucy’s disconsolate expression, she reached up and kissed her on the cheek.
They walked a little further. Polly stopped and took her companion’s hand. ‘Besides,’ she added, in a chirpy fashion, ‘I might just get lucky.’
At that moment, Lucy knew that Polly would get lucky. And she would get Joe. Lucy had no idea how she would arrange it, but she would get what she wanted. Even in these standardised times, certain people still had that special something, and Polly was one of them. She had it, in spades. You only had to stand next to her to feel it.
‘I thought it was random, the system. I thought that was how people were chosen. ’
‘Lucy,’ replied Polly, confidently, ‘The system is the system. That’s all.’
‘How did you know my name?’
‘I, er, must have heard someone mention it.’
They were passing a small side road. All of a sudden, Lucy pulled Polly round the corner, out of sight of the others. She pushed her up against a wall and held her hand over her mouth.
‘Listen,’ she said, in a low voice. ‘I’ve nothing against you. In fact, in a strange sort of way, I quite like you. But let me give you some friendly advice. He’s a good man, my Joe, so make sure you don’t mess him around. He’ll make a good partner if you treat him properly.’
‘I will,’ gasped Polly, ‘I promise. I never wanted to…’
‘Good,’ replied Lucy, tartly. ‘Bloody hell, I’ve just thought, does it mean that I’ll get your Tom?’ In spite of the implications of this, she almost started laughing.
‘I think that’s the way they do it.’ Polly’s ballsy voice now sounded rather puny.
‘Well, that’s just great.’
‘It won’t be so bad. He’s very kind. And good in the garden.’
‘Let’s catch up with the others,’ sighed Lucy, releasing her grip.
A thousand couples were present in Block 1(g). They were split up, in alphabetical order, into ten spacious, brightly coloured rooms. There were one hundred couples in each room. They all sat in numbered seats in ten rows of widely spaced chairs. Each chair was equipped with a small computer. Lucy and Joe had been allocated seats in the back row of Room E. Polly and Tom were seated directly in front of them. On the stage, a large lady in sequins was playing the organ. In front of her, a silver-haired man in a multi-coloured blazer stood with a microphone next to a giant screen.
‘Ladies and Gents,’ he announced. The time is coming up to twenty-nine minutes past twelve. Once the clock ticks on to twelve-thirty, all of the one hundred marriages here will be dissolved. And then you can look forward to meeting your new partners, you lucky people! And let me tell you, I wish I’d had all this talent to choose from when I was your age!’
His cheeky-chappy banter was going down like a lead balloon, except in the case of Polly, who cackled loudly at his last remark.
Lucy turned to Joe. They had not exchanged a word since entering the building an hour before.
‘Hold my hand, love.’
Joe took it, without looking at her. With a few seconds, twelve-thirty showed on the screen. At once, Joe’s hand turned icy cold. He withdrew it sharply and folded his arms.
‘Now then, now then,’ yelled Silver Hair, rubbing his hands. ‘You’ve all got numbers. Just key your number into the computer in front of you and the seat number of your next partner will come up on the screen. And then you can go and get ‘em! One piece of friendly advice – don’t all rush at once and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!’
Within a minute or two, all the screens were flashing and people began to get up and look for their new spouse. No one said goodbye; it was as though all affection had been frozen into numbness in the same way as Joe’s hand had been chilled. Everyone seemed to be treating it as a party game. Many of them look positively enthusiastic, or at least thought they should.
Lucy had not even bothered to find out who she had been paired off with. She knew perfectly well who it was. People were running around all over the place, but as she stood back from the milling throng, she could see only Joe and Polly moving, as if in slow motion, towards each other. Soon they met in the middle of the hall and embraced just like newlyweds, which in law they now were.
She stood still, too stunned to cry. What had the last twenty years been for? She would never get an answer to that question. No one would even ask her. Just then, she heard a voice next to her. It was Tom.
‘Hello, Lucy. Would you like to take my arm?’
They caught the three-fifteen train out of London. As it turned out, the same dozen couples were in the same carriage again, just with different partners. Lucy and Tom had been given a flat a little further down the line from where she and Joe used to live, while Polly and Joe had been allowed to keep Polly’s old flat, which was one station further on.
‘She doesn’t even have to move!’ thought Lucy. ‘How has she done it?’
With the exception of Polly and Joe, who were staring lovingly into each other’s eyes, everyone else was sitting motionless, staring into space, as many of them had done on the way down.
After fifteen minutes, as the city began to recede, Lucy could stand it no longer. Rising to her feet, she addressed the carriage.
‘Listen, everyone. Can’t you see this is wrong? The state should not have the power to break up your marriage, take away your loved one and ruin your life. The problem is that we do not have a choice. How many of you can really say that they are happy with this situation? Who asked you if you wanted it? We are only a small group but we can resist. Why don’t we all go back to our previous partners and our previous abodes? What’s to stop us?’
She looked towards Joe, who had his arm around Polly. At that moment, she felt desperate.
‘Please. I beg you. Won’t someone say something? Let’s at least give it a try.’
There was no reaction. Not a word. Tom, who, she had to admit, seemed a kindly man, sat next to her and smiled. Lucy, who had feared such a response before she began, looked around, shook her head and sat down.
Polly came over.
‘Look,’ she said. ‘This time, let me give you some friendly advice. You can’t beat the system, Lucy; you have to work it. That’s what I’ve done.’
‘We can’t all ‘work’ it,’ replied a crestfallen Lucy.
‘I understand how you feel,’ said Polly. ‘I don’t want to be greedy. You can still see him if you want to - I’m not heartless. Once a week if you like, provided he agrees. Here’s my address.’ She handed over a neatly printed card.
‘I can be out the whole day when you come.’ She turned towards her ex-husband. ‘No offence, but I don’t think I’ll be seeing you, Tom. Still, I’ll find somewhere to go.’
Lucy should have felt angry or insulted by this gesture. But, inexplicably, she was grateful and hugged Polly.
‘All right. If Joe wants it.’
Polly leered towards her.
‘If I want it, girl, he’ll want it. I know how to treat ‘em.’
Lucy and Tom were the first ones to get off the train. As the doors opened, Lucy tried to look cheerful and waved at everyone in the carriage. No one waved back, except Polly and, half-heartedly, Joe. How downcast he looks, thought Lucy. And yet she felt a little brighter, in the hope that she might see Joe again, something she had not expected when she woke up that morning.
As the train doors closed, Tom lifted up his suitcase and began to walk away. She was about to follow him when he turned round.
‘I’m sorry, Lucy,’ he said, and continued on his way.
Then Lucy noticed that four people – two men and two women - had surrounded her and were blocking her way. Their demeanour was polite but implacable. They were all wearing what looked like the old police uniforms, although the official line was that there was no need for police any more.
‘You will have to come with us,’ said the taller of the two men.
‘Can I ask why?’ demanded Lucy.
‘I’m afraid not,’ replied one of the women, in a kindly fashion.
‘But I imagine you know what you have done,’ said the second woman, a little more harshly.
They pointed towards a waiting van. Just then the train pulled out and Lucy turned to see the occupants of her carriage go past. She saw Joe, apparently asleep in his seat. Everyone else was staring into space, as usual. But there was no sign of Polly.
One of the women in uniform tugged gently at her arm.
‘The van,’ she commanded.
As Lucy climbed dejectedly into the back seat, she noticed a blonde figure in a uniform climbing in through the other door. It was Polly.
‘This the one you wanted, Inspector,’ said one of the men.
‘That’s right,’ she bellowed, in a voice that was much deeper and more authoritative than before.
‘Compound Twenty-Seven, I think.’
The van moved off. For a long time, Lucy was too shocked to say anything. After a while, as they sped through acres of countryside which resembled green baize, she turned to Polly.
‘Who are you? I didn’t think there were police inspectors anymore.’
There was no reply.
‘What’s Compound Twenty-Seven?’
Again, there was no reply.
‘What will happen to Joe?’
Polly did not react.
‘Please, tell me, what will happen to him?’
Finally, Polly relented.
‘I gave him a little shot. We’ll find him someone else, don’t worry.’
‘And what is Compound Twenty-Seven? Where you put troublemakers like me?’
‘No, Lucy. We don’t worry about troublemakers. Whiners, sentimentalists, nostalgics: that’s who we’re after. People like you, in fact. People who won’t take their medicine and move on. People who can’t understand that there’s a price to be paid for life being so good. People who still believe, in spite of all the evidence, in things like love. It’s the lingering, you see; we can’t have idle sentiments like these hanging around any longer. You need to make a clean break. That’s what Compound Twenty-Seven is for. Look, we’re almost there. Don’t worry, Lucy. You’ll soon feel better.’
As they spoke, the van approached a huge pair of white gates, which opened to reveal a large mansion at the end of series of pristine lawns.
‘I think we understand each other,’ declared Polly. The van stopped and she got out. Lucy saw her get into a big car with tinted windows which immediately drove away into the distance.
‘Polly!’ shouted Lucy, trying to climb out. The two uniformed women grabbed her and she felt a sharp prick against her arm. As she sank back into her seat, it occurred to her that Polly was the one person she did understand. Now she would have to understand the system. Maybe, one day, she would be able to work it.