Joe comes to take our order. His hair is combed over the left side, his shirt neatly starched, his glasses polished. He is a carbon copy of the previous three generations of Joe framed in gold on the wall behind the counter. He always writes down our order, although it never changes. We meet here every Tuesday and Friday and every time we order three milkshakes, two vanilla, one strawberry, club sandwiches, and chocolate cookies. We sit in silence as we watch the news, another terrorist attack, the third this month. The presenter announces there will be a public execution of the culprits and all residents of the European Quarter are to bear witness after Sunday worship. The presenter turns to news of exam results for the graduating class from The School of Electronics. Joe brings our food.
It is a struggle to swallow food past the lump in my throat. It doesn't matter how many times it happens, I can never can get used to watching public hangings. I force myself to eat my food, making sure I chew thoroughly. I've seen what happens when you don't eat. When I have eaten everything, I excuse myself and walk to the toilets. A line of four mixed-sex white cubicles. I go to the one in the far corner, if you position yourself off-centre to the toilet you are outside of the camera's field of vision. I pop an emetic pill which I keep hidden, sewn into the hem of my dress. You have about five minutes after consuming anything to evacuate it before it begins to take effect. I know most prefer to be numb, but I can't stand it, it's like a living death. The emetic is powerful, it should be, I made it myself. I am clean after just a few violent seconds. I make a show of using the toilet, if you disappear from the camera's view for too long you rouse suspicion. It never pays to grow complacent.
Purging makes me feel light, but there is always that knot in my stomach and my mouth is left foul from the sharp sting of acid. Every few weeks the skin peels off the inside of my mouth. I worry about my throat, but I have little choice. When I return to the table Lisa and Justine are rising to their feet. We each leave five dinars on the table and step into the bright evening. We turn to the left. Justine doesn't move. Lisa and I stop and look at her. She is staring at the ground, uncertain.
“What's wrong?” Lisa sounds worried. I look down the street. It's empty.
“I'm not going home tonight.” Justine takes a deep breath and looks at us. She gives a pathetic attempt at a smile. “The board has recommended that I be put into the breeding programme.” Lisa gasps beside me. My already unsettled stomach lurches.
“When?” I clear my throat which is clogged with mucus from vomiting.
“I have an assessment in fifteen minutes.” We stand in silence for a moment no one knowing what to say. “It'll be fine. It's a great honour.” Justine is pale and her hands, clutched together, are trembling. I toss aside protocol and hug her. She tenses. “What are you doing?” she hisses in my ear.
I release her and fail to resist a quick glance sideways. A group of young men have just turned into the street.
“We'll see you later.” Lisa hustles me away. As we walk I can see the dullness filling her eyes. I try to make myself mimic her, but I am racing with tension. Justine is only a year older than Lisa, two years younger than me. I'm safe, if I was suitable I would have been chosen by now. I slant my eyes across to glance at Lisa. She's a beauty and incredibly smart. In our universe of total control there are still moments of ungoverned mystery. For all their manipulation they could not have predicted a Lisa, couldn't prevent a Clare, that's me. It scares me to death that they will decide it is time for Lisa to be initiated into the breeding programme. No one we know has ever been seen or heard of again once taken into the programme. I've never believed the information videos we were shown in school about the joys of motherhood.
A life time, that's twenty years for me, spent in suppression and total self-control has never made it any easier to hold in the torrent of emotions I feel on a daily basis about everything that constitutes our life. It began when I saw our house-mother murdered. I was four. She fell to the ground, her lifeless eyes fixed upon mine in a plea of agony. They gave us all hot chocolate. Everyone drank it, I poured mine into my secret tin under the bed when no one was looking. We were ordered to our beds, the lights turned out. I lay awake half the night, my skin prickling with fear, my ears picking up every minute sound, awaiting for the opportunity to get rid of the hot chocolate. I tipped it out of the window when the clock struck two. In the morning a new house-mother awoke us. Everyone behaved as if she had always been there.
There are three approved, post-shift activities for people of our station. We can dance at the nightclubs, exercise at the gyms or attend classes at night school. We walk home in silence, Lisa's brain taken over by the flood of anti-psychotic drugs, my own filled with fearful speculation over the fate which awaits Justine. Home is a small co-housing block. Three floors, each consisting of a sitting room, kitchenette and six ensuite bedrooms, three on one side of the corridor, three on the other. Lisa goes to her room and I to mine. I dress for a session at the gym.
It is amazing the freedom you can find when it seems as if there is none. My days are filled with endless monotony. It makes me insane with boredom and elated in equal measure. I am free within the confines of my mind and the over-regulated, simple tasks that constitute my life leave me to luxuriate in that freedom. I can imagine myself any where, any time with any one. I spend a good deal of that time daydreaming about my brother and my father. They have been missing for five years now, but I have spent my time well since those dark days of their disappearance, going over every memory of our time together. When those begin to wear thin I have embellished them with all the memories I wish I could have. It is not unusual for family members to disappear.
The steady pace of the running machine is enough to pump my brain full of blood. It's enough to spend a twelve hour shift at the pharmaceutical plant to numb my brain. The blood's pumping and my brain's in a spin of possibility over what will happen if Lisa is chosen to join the breeding programme. I shudder. There is a good deal of public propaganda celebrating the lofty status of mothers and the joys of motherhood and yet I did not know, nor have ever met a mother, including my own.
I only use the running machine in the gym. It isn't permitted to jog outside. There is no logical reason, we just aren't allowed and it is accepted. Everything is accepted and sometimes it makes me feel as if I'll burst out of my skin with the strain of holding it all in, but I'd rather that than the numbness. I jog on the machine slowly, I could walk at the pace it's set at but I'm happy, I can still think without tripping over my feet. It's set for an hour. Eventually my brain settles into a Zen-like state, the thoughts passing through unchecked. I imagine my brother Bobby. He was my older brother, four years older. He had a spark of mischief in him.. I know it worried my father. He was continually dishing out warnings and dire predictions. It always had the opposite affect on Bobby. I imagine him now, walking beside me, five years older than the last time I saw him, grown into a man. He is laughing down at me as I jog alongside him as he strides along, the light dappling upon his golden hair as we move along a grassy path surrounded by the cool of trees. Everything is wild, nothing like the painfully precise nature of the European Quarter. The path is muddy, wild green plants grow here and there in no set pattern, the trees twist and sway, branches droop weaving in together. Dead wood lies on the ground and tangles of spiked plants cover the ground beneath the trees and reach into the path trying to catch onto our clothes. My heart feels light, the air is sweet and clear and a feeling of euphoria sweeps me further into my fantasy. My ears tune into the image.
“This isn't your imaginings, Clare. You're not that good.” He laughs as he speaks, his breath easy as I puff to keep pace with him even though he is the one walking.
“I am that good! I can hear the beeping of the treadmill next to mine and yet I can see you as clearly as if you might reach out and touch me.”
“How is Lisa?”
“She's fine. For now.”
“You were thinking of her so loudly I know that “for now” doesn't bode well.”
“I'm worried for her.”
“Is she putting herself in danger?”
“No, she's a good little brain dead citizen, doing her duty by the New World Order.” It frustrates me, despite the fact I know I should be glad that she is behaving. I know it doesn't pay to do anything else.
“Clare, you need to focus.” His voice is sharp and it vibrates as if his mouth is pressed against my ear. It startles me and I have to grab onto the arm of the treadmill so I don't lose my balance. The action drags me from my daydream. I surreptitiously glance around the room to ensure no one has noticed me. No chance, the room is filled with living zombies. The circular camera above is not pointing in my direction, luckily. I scared myself, my heart is pounding. The heart rate monitor will have picked that up. It settles down, but it would be naïve to think the episode will pass unnoticed.
I pick up my towel and dab the light film of sweat from my face. I'm counting in my head, how long will it take. I run the towel down my arms then roll it and put it around my neck.
A door to my right opens and a little man dressed in white steps out. He walks straight to me. I face him and watch until he is standing before me, the top of his fluffy brown hair is up to my nose.
“Ms Smith, would you come with me.” I restrain the groan and the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I walk behind, maintaining a distance of two paces, my face blank of expression, my hands loose at my sides. My insides are rioting and refusing to digest the brainwashing food doesn't seem quite so clever.
I am led up to the upper floor, all polished marble and chrome. His shoes make a clipped sound on the floor, each tap of his heel reverberating deep inside. My heart is practically in my throat. I know I will have to gain control and quickly. If they think their drugs are not working on me I'm in real trouble.
I am led into a room, all white including the desk and computer. One wall is completely made of mirrors. I blink a few times my eyes struggling to adjust to the sudden bright contrast.
“Please take a seat.” Always polite, as if I have a choice. I sit obediently, and begin mentally counting my breaths, keeping my eyes still so they won’t know that is what I am doing. I'm not sure what the mirrors are for but what I do know is that I am watched and my heaving chest is going to draw notice. Breathe in one, two, three, four, five and out one, two, three, four, five. The repetitions slowly ease my panic and I begin to relax.
“Ms Smith, do you often have to count your breaths?” I jump. A woman has entered the room dressed in a white coat. She's slight, elegant, polished. The kind of woman who makes me uncomfortable, the opposite of me.
“Only when I'm uncomfortable.”
“Why should you feel uncomfortable?” I don't answer. It’s as if I can hear my father coaching me as he frequently did through my youth.
The less you say the better. Be vague. Keep to yes and no. At least I have a hold on myself now.
“Yes.” I feel gleeful I have got onto the one word answers.
“What happened on the treadmill?” I have been racking my brain for a plausible explanation. Each idea becomes more and more elaborate. I don't lie well.
“I tripped.” I try hard not to show my surprise, where had that come from?
“How could you trip on the treadmill?”
“My laces.” My heart quite literally stops as she looks at my face, my cheeks beetroot with the effort of holding it together. Eventually her eyes reach my feet. I can't look, not having any idea what state my laces might be in.
She turns to the small desk beside me which is bare except for the computer. It takes everything I have not to glance down at my shoes. I keep my gaze blank and stare at the white wall across from me trying not to let my eyes stray to the mirror wall which is reflecting my profile. The doctor types on the computer for a moment making her notes. When she has finished she picks up her stethoscope. She listens to my chest and back making me cough. She looks in my eyes, ears and the back of my throat then feels my glands. She turns back to her computer. She stares at it, puzzled for a moment. I feel a small burst of triumph, I like the idea that I baffle her. I am a small ripple in her perfect composure.
She ignores me, rises from her seat and leaves the room. I fight the urge to slump in my seat and let out a relieved breath. I don't know if the mirrors are windows into this room. I don't know if I’m being filmed. I keep my spine straight and continue to stare at the wall only blinking when moisture threatens to fill my eyes. The waiting is interminable, but she returns before I seize up with the tension.
“Ms Smith. Just one last thing and you're free to go.” The relief is so intense I give a small gasp. She doesn't give any sign of noticing as she delves in her draw.
She turns with a syringe and a sample tube. “Rest your arm on the desk, please.” I freeze.
Get a grip of yourself. My Dad's voice again, always there to keep me in line.
I decide to follow his advice. I clench my fingers into a fist and thrust my arm on the desk making it shake. I keep my gaze, grim now, upon the white wall and allow her to take a blood sample. It’s too late. In a matter of minutes they will discover I am resisting.
I have no plan just a stomach cramping in fear. I run home imagining every camera turning upon its stand to follow me. There is no where to hide and for the first time I feel truly afraid. I burst through the front door and charge up the stairs screaming my sister's name. Lisa comes to the top of the stairs, eyes wide, shock and fear shooting enough adrenaline in her system to over ride the numbness in her brain.
“They're coming for me. I have to leave. You need to come too.”
“I don't know.”
I’m loud, my panic pervasive drawing out Steph, who never goes any where once work is over. She stands in the doorway of her bedroom, arms crossed eyes sharp with curiosity.
“There's no where to go.” I don't have time to consider the fact Lisa doesn't question me or think me mad.
“You need to come too. In a year or so it'll be you in the breeding programme and I'll never see you again.” I can see it in her eyes. She has already thought of this and she is afraid.
“If there was some way out of here, somewhere we can go...” She takes a small step back and my heart plummets to my knees. I'm aware time is racing passed and if I don't leave in a minute it will be all over. Who knew what they would do to me?
“I think I know somewhere.” Steph looks from one to the other of us, her small beady eyes sparking with excitement. We've never got on with Steph. She is quiet, shifty. She appears and disappears without you knowing. I think she is a spy for the Council. My stomach does a flip as I consider that she is going to lead us into a trap.
I'm about to turn her down with a stinging retort fuelled by anger and fear.
“Where?” I turn on Lisa.
“You can't trust her.”
Steph disappears into her room.
“She's probably messaging the council or the guard or the secret police. Now you'll be incriminated too.”
Steph comes back out, and snaps her door shut. She has a rucksack and she’s put on a pair of hiking boots.
“We should probably get going.”
“Where to?” I’m feeling belligerent.
“If I'm not mistaken we don't have time to chat. How about we just move?”
Lisa has kicked off her flip flops and put on her trainers. “Let's go.” Before I can utter another word they are both heading out.
Steph leads the way up the stairs instead of down to the door. How do you trust when you are surrounded by suspicion? I doubt even my own sister, the very one I have clung to all my life and now the only one who might have any understanding of what life feels like for me. I suspect them, in league against me. Would they turn me in? At the top of the narrow service stairs is a heavy metal door. Steph pushes her shoulder against it and it opens with a rusty squeak. We clamber out onto the roof. The sky is dark and turbulent, did they control that too? The threat of rain brings a dark despair crashing down on me. I am bound in unseen chains and there is nothing that can be done to set us free. All we did now was prolong the inevitable. We can stay on the roof but it will not be long before all three of us are found. I am honour bound to set them free.
Four vehicles pull up to the front of our building. Lisa calls us forward and we crawl to the edge and look down as the secret police swarm forward, surrounding the building and enter the front door. We have missed them by minutes.
“What do we do now?” Lisa is strong, not a hint of fear. I had not appreciated the steel within her up until now. We both look at Steph. I have no choice but to trust her.
“We need to wait. Help is coming.”
“You'll see soon enough. We must stay hidden for the moment.”
“They’ll come up here when they have searched the building.” My palms are sweating. There’s no where to hide up here.
“They'll wait to review camera footage before they search in earnest. There is no reason for them to be suspicious of us and they do not know of their own weaknesses so they don’t believe there’s a means of escape.”
I peer over the edge once more, police are spilling out of the building and conferring on the pavement. They’re pulling back, obviously having not found me and the floor being empty they’re deciding on their next course of action. The rain begins to fall, large fat drops which splatter on the ground below. One of the policemen jerks and wipes his ear on his sleeve. He looks up at the sky, I fall back but it’s was too late.
We all hear the shout. They’re coming for us. Steph scans the sky desperately. I look at my sister, tears streaming down my face, mingling with the rain.
“I'm sorry. I'm sorry.”
Lisa shrieks. “Quickly.” We look up and three ropes dangle from... from where, I could not say. They seem to dangle from the black mass of swirling cloud. Even over the rain we can hear the thud of feet running up the stairs, the sound growing steadily closer. “There's no time! Hold on and don't let go.”
No time to think, to question, to guess, to give into the terror. We grab a rope each, holding on to the knotted end. My arms are almost wrenched from their sockets. Firm ground disappears and I’m shooting up into the cold wet sky and I can hardly catch my breath. Far below, the police burst onto the roof, catching sight of us shooting upwards. I can just about make out the shouts over the sound of the wind in my ears, screaming objections as I cut through it, so fast, the velocity making my lips stick to my teeth in a rictus grin. There are distant popping sounds but my earthly troubles are already far behind me. I have new ones, my fingers are freezing and they’re losing all feeling. My grip on the now slippery rope, is all that keeps me from falling back down to earth. Panic is spreading, threatening the control I‘m using to force my hands and arms to hold on. The need to survive is strong, it’s like a vicious feral entity all of itself and it has me savagely in its jaws.
Suddenly, I break through the cloud and the cold. I’m no longer shooting up into nothing. Instead I can see I am inside a great glass dome. It encompasses a vast area beyond which is more sky and a weak sun which warms the panes of glass. One of the great glass panels is open and there are people, dressed in black, waiting for us. The three ropes are connected to three winches, each locked onto the glass. Steph arrives first and is hauled up to stand on the top of the dome, then Lisa. Then I’m being pulled up too, the rope pried out of my frozen fingers, which curl like claws. The air is filled with the roar of an old Chinook landing close by. Someone clasps me about the waist and hustles me towards it. My legs have turned to rubber and I no longer feel my feet. I’m tossed inside and I land on the floor, gasping for air, arms and legs flapping.
There’s no time to recover. I’m hauled into a seat and strapped in. My chest is still heaving. I look over to the side and see Lisa, her head thrust back gasping. Steph is standing off to the side, talking to two men their faces hidden inside balaclavas. They sit down and we’re flying high, over the glass dome which has been my world for my entire life and is suddenly something small and insignificant compared to the vast expanse of blue surrounding us. I close my eyes. I have escaped, but into what? It was so slick, our exit, it was obviously planned. Whoever has us now, has been waiting for us.
My stomach is nauseous, filled with knots. I glance at Lisa again. She’s staring at the men across from us. It’s difficult to hear them over the roar of the helicopter. She’s tense. I slowly reach across, afraid that I’m going to be stopped and punished for acting out of accepted behaviour. The need to dissemble is strong and not one I can easily part with. I touch her hand. She jerks as if I have tazed her. It has been a long time since we touched and it’s shocking. Yet to touch her, my sister, makes my heart swell. I can’t move my hand away, I sit there staring at my hand stupidly as if it is separate from me. A warm drop of water falls on my hand. It breaks the spell, Lisa pulls her hand back and wipes away the moisture from her eyes.
I lose the urge to speak and I’m tired. I don’t care any more, where we are going or who has us. I slide down my seat, as much as the restraint will allow and closed my eyes. I don’t sleep, but find myself back in the woods, my brother at my side. It’s different this time. Something opens up inside me and in my imagining I hold his hand as we pass beneath the cool shade of the deep verdant boughs. He smiles at me.
“You're safe now.” I watch his lips form the words but the sound doesn't reach my ears. Instead it resounds within me like a bell tolling. It resonates through my bones until my head rings. I jerk awake instantly alert. Lisa has her head craned away, looking through the circular window just behind her shoulder. We’re landing and I jolt forward as we hit the ground.
The sun is bright in the sky although it’s in the descent. We clamber out , the propeller forcing us to run low, away towards the line of trees before us. Once clear the Chinook takes off again. Lisa sidles up next to me as I straighten, and grabs my hand. I see the flicker of fear in her eyes and give her hand a reassuring squeeze. We walk into the gloom of the woods following Lisa and the anonymous men. I stumble twice trying to adjust to the sudden lack of light. It‘s cool and the trees sway and leaves rustle in the light breeze. Birds sing and I have the most inexplicable sense of joy.
We reach a clearing and stop. A group of people are waiting for us. In the front before them stands a man so like my father my heart stops beating for a single beat before it gallops in my chest.
“Daddy?” Lisa has dropped my hand. I can't move as I watch her charge forward and throw herself at him. He catches her, staggering to keep his feet beneath him. Lisa clings to him, he squeezes his eyes shut and buries his face in her hair. A hand from behind squeezes my shoulder. I realise I’m shaking from head to toe.
“It's all right, Clare.” That voice sends a thousand prickles skittering down my scalp. I turn slowly. He's lifted the balaclava to reveal his dear face and brown eyes brimming with tears. A loud ugly sob forces its way out of my chest. I can't move, I just stand there stupidly making an noise like a distressed animal. He pulls me to him and I cling on so tight I'm amazed I don't squeeze his to death.
“I told you, you’re safe now,” he whispers in my ear. I can't speak as I feel the bonds of a thousand fears loosen about my heart and the terrible restraint imposed upon me slip away. I take a big breath and the sweep of my lungs feels free within my chest. I forget all about control and instead allow the tears to fall from my eyes as I snivel into my big brother’s chest.