‘…on some secluded branch in a forest far and wide sits perched an owl, who, full of self-conceit and self-created wisdom, explains, comments, condemns, ordains and orders things not understood, yet full of importance still holds forth to stocks and stones around.’
The room was dark and reeked of damp. Ailith lit a candle on the mantelpiece and watched as the light cast her shadow onto the wall. She didn’t dare open the curtains, for fear of letting the heat out; plus, she didn’t want the neighbours knowing she was awake. They still thought she was the bloody community councillor. Fat lot of good she’d be if she was. She couldn’t deal with her own shit let alone anybody else’s. And it wasn’t that she didn’t like the neighbours, it was just the noise of them that riled her up, the noise and the desperation on their faces, like rabbits-staring-into-fucking-headlights, chapping on her door at all hours and pleading, ‘For Christ’s sake Ailith, what are we going to do?’ And she’d just stand there, shrugging her shoulders and thinking “Christ? What’s Christ got to do with it? Our so-called Lord and Savour has fucked off, shut up shop, and handed the keys to our new friend – drum roll – the OWL – Our One World Leader. It was only half six in the morning and her guts were heaving already.
She sat on the sofa and peeled the lid off a plastic container. She couldn’t eat this crap for much longer. She poked the spoon into the cream jelly; it squelched when she broke the surface and it let out a fart when she pulled it out. What exactly was she eating? She sucked the jelly through her teeth. It wasn’t food. It didn’t even smell like food. It didn’t even smell. The label said ‘nutritious’ but she didn’t believe it. She didn’t believe anything they had forced on her. No. None of their lies sat well in her stomach.
A muffled tune disturbed her thoughts. Recognising the OWL Corp. ringtone, she sat up straight and tidied her hair from her face.
‘Answer call.’ She said lifting the chat box from beneath a cushion. A balding man wearing a black suit stared poker-faced at her from behind the glass.
‘Ms McDonald? Is this correct?’
‘Can you confirm your date of birth?’
‘Twenty-fourth of May 2008.’
‘Please scan your identification into your box device.’
Ailith took her ID card from her wallet and placed it on the scanner. She waited for the beep.
‘Thank you, Ms McDonald. I am calling to remind you that you have not yet voted.’
‘And you are also aware Ms McDonald, that this is day three?’
‘Like I could forget.’ She bit a thread of skin from the side of her fingernail.
‘I’m sorry, Ms McDonald, can you clarify your last answer. Are you aware that this is day three?’
‘And do you understand that you are required by your One World Leader to vote by midnight tomorrow?’
‘Obviously.’ And the One World Leader could kiss her arse.
‘And do you know the actions that will be taken should you fail to fulfil your requirement to vote?’
To be or not to be, that really was the fucking question. And she didn’t have an answer. She stood naked in the bathroom and shivered. Day three she didn’t have the balls to do what half the country had already had the balls to do. Filling the sink to the allocated water level, she dropped in two soap pellets. The clock was ticking, and if she did have balls, they’d be shrunk to the size of peanuts. The soap pellets fizzed for a couple of seconds then disappeared. Like the food, the soap didn’t smell of anything. If only her Mum was here to help with the big decision. But Ailith knew what she’d say. ‘Self-Elect. Human beings shouldn’t have the power to decide the fate of others.’ Or maybe that’s what Ailith wanted to believe. But her Mum didn’t have to make that choice, she’d died a year before they announced their plans. She plunged the sponge into the water and braced herself for the cold.
The door intercom buzzed then, Attention, Imogen A L Ahmed requires your attention. She wanted to ignore it but the buzzing set her nerves on edge, so she pulled her dressing gown around her and went to the door.
‘Oh Ailith, thank God you’re up.’ It was Imogen from next door. She squeezed past Ailith and walked into the living room.
‘Imogen, I haven’t even opened my curtains yet.’ Ailith said following her.
‘I’m sorry. I’ve walked past four times, I couldn’t wait any longer.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘It’s Raza. He’s…’ Imogen sat on the couch and dropped her head into her hands.
‘Talk to me.’ Ailith sat beside her and put an arm over her shoulder.
‘He’s going to self-elect.’ She let out a roar.
Fuck!’ Ailith took a deep breath, held it for five then slowly released, five, four, three, two, one.
‘He. Told. Me. This. Morning.’ She said in little breaths.
‘What about you and the kids?’
‘He’s doing it for our future. That’s what he told me’
‘What the hell?’
Imogen blew her nose into a tissue. ‘He’s been reading those stupid e-flyers again.’
‘The deep ecology stuff?’
‘Fucks sake. It’s all brain washing, they don’t even stand by their principles.’
‘So why does he read it? Raza’s not easily sucked in.’
Ailith shrugged her shoulders. She couldn’t understand why anyone would believe the shit they sent out. Or anything on the news. It was all bullshit. It was all – fake.
‘I’m so angry at him. And this self-elect bullshit has gone too far.’
‘You’re right, and we can’t do a bloody thing about it. The protesters are getting five years in prison now, did you know that?’
‘I heard.’ She looked up at Ailith. ‘What am I going to do?’
‘I’ll talk to him, okay?’
‘You can try, but I doubt he’ll listen. He not been the same since the deportation program took his Mum.’
Ailith took her friend’s hand. ‘It must be difficult for him.’
‘It is. He misses her so much. And now he thinks that Pakistan is going to vote for the elderly. That would pretty much wipe out his whole family. It’s not right Ailith. It’s just not right.’
After Imogen left, Ailith blew out the candle and opened the curtains. It was grey and damp outside and drops of moisture ran down the windows. She looked across the street tried to remember the sound of the big old Scots Pine’s that used to swish back and forth in the gap between Peter and Elaine’s house. Or how pretty the pink cherry blossom tree would look in Marion’s front garden in the spring. But it seemed like all the colour in the world had been wrung out. And amongst all the grey – was nothing but empty space. Empty or decayed. Decayed and silent. Ailith wrapped her arms around herself to stop the trembling. She was cold to the touch.
‘Come in Jimmy, you just missed Imogen. Poor buggers at her wit’s end.’
Jimmy lived two doors away. He nodded his head and shuffled past her. He stopped half way down the hall and groaned. ‘My bloody knees are killing me.’
Ailith followed him into the living room and helped him into the armchair. She took his stick and balanced it against the wall.
‘Have you eaten Jimmy?’
‘I had something, not that bloody Nutri-what’s-it-called stuff that they gave us. I can’t swallow it without gagging. I had something though, best leave it that, you don’t know who’s listening.’
‘Fair enough. Just remember to keep your strength up.’ Ailith knelt on the floor beside him. ‘I’ve got the leaflet on the tablet if you’re ready to go through it.’
She opened the OWL web page and felt instantly tense. The screen was filled with children wearing yellow sweatshirts reading, ‘Vote for our future.’
‘Are you ready for this?’
‘Hold on.’ He flipped the switch on the side of his glasses. ‘Okay, ready.’
‘Do you want me to read the jargon at the beginning? It’s just a lot of bollocks about how they are going to end world poverty and provide housing for everyone, and yadda, yadda, yadda.’
‘Are they going to sort out the food? It’s not right. I need meat in my diet. Or fish. Did I tell you I was a fisherman when I was a lad?’
‘Yeah, many times.’
‘I miss fish. Not as much as I miss meat, but God. I miss proper hot food, don’t you? You can’t even get a bag of chips anymore. Do you remember the chippy?’
‘I try not to think about it. They’ve said that once they’ve controlled the population, meat might be re- introduced.’
‘I should think so too.’ Jimmy scratched his beard. ‘And what about the heating? One hour a day isn’t enough, and I’d kill for a hot shower.’
‘Is that a bad joke Jimmy?’
‘Sorry, I never meant it like that.’
Ailith swiped the screen. ‘Right, here we go,’ she flicked past the introduction, ‘Population control is imperative for our survival, not only as a species but for all living creatures. Our ecosystem is depleting rapidly, the extinction of bees sped up this process far more rapidly than originally predicted.
‘The bees, who’d have thought.’
‘To protect the existence of our planet,’ she continued, ‘we must now realise our place on this earth, and that is as equals to our fellow creatures and to our land. Therefore, we must all play our role in the reduction of humans.’ Ailith gripped her hair in her hand. ‘Each country is required by OWL to reduce its population significantly. Your One World Leader has YOUR future in mind. After much consideration, we have decided that the groups nominated for the cull in your country are as follows.’ She looked to Jimmy who was biting his thumbnail.
‘Right.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Number one, All citizens above pensionable age as of October 2028. Number two, all prisoners with a sentence of five years or more. Number three, all citizens with a disability that prevents them from partaking in paid employment. Number four, all citizens who have been unemployed for five years or more and who have been proven to not be actively seeking work.’
‘Harsh,’ Jimmy said after the last one.
‘And obviously, there is the box for self-election.’
‘That’s a tough one eh lass?’ he shook his head, ‘And if we don’t vote?’
‘Enforced termination of life.’
‘World pollution is now being deemed as critical. In a not so distant future, the situation will become increasingly intolerable. It can be controlled, and perhaps even reversed; but we, at OWL, demand cooperation on a scale and intensity beyond anything achieved so far.’
Ailith turned off the T.V and gulped the last of her cup of tea. Such a waste. She preferred her tea ration in the morning, it kept the headaches at bay, especially on work days. Grabbing her coat and hat, she ran out the house.
The bus was full, and she had to stand. Her eyes were streaming from the cold and she felt a hand on her shoulder.
‘We’re all feeling it today dear.’
She turned around to see an elderly woman gripping onto the side of an empty seat.
‘Sit down lass; you look like you need it more than I do.’
‘No,’ she felt her face redden, ‘Honestly, I’m fine.’
‘Are you sure?’ she was already lowering herself back into the chair.
‘Check out the old dear trying to play the sympathy card.’ A voice shouted from the rear of the bus.
‘Fucking pensioners, I know who I’ll be voting for.’
‘Keep your opinions to yourself, idiot.’ Ailith took the woman’s hand. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay dear,’ she squeezed Ailith’s hand, ‘I’ve had a lovely life. Five Grandchildren you know. I’ve voted already, you know, for the old ones.’
The car park at the front of her work was full. Fucking customers, she thought, they never stop, they’re relentless. She stood outside the Amazon Superstore and watched the cars circling the car park. Customers were rushing to the front displays like flies on shit, for a special multi-pack of Nutri-fill with beef flavour, and this season’s plastic flowers. Ailith despised them all and their acceptance of everything fake. She shook her head and walked over to a small crowd, mostly men, gathered in front of the gazebo she had seen being erected a few days ago. Soldiers were handing out leaflets and chatting to the attentive audience. The gazebo was plastered in posters like, Be the Best. Self-Elect and Your Country Needs YOU. Self-Elect.
‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ she stared at a picture of a man in a wheelchair wearing a big smile and two thumbs up.
‘Are you going to do it?’ It was Taylor, one of her work colleagues.
‘I… I don’t know, I haven’t voted yet.’
‘I just did. I did it Ailith,’ he actually looks pleased. ‘They’re going to put my name in the book man. I’ll be a fucking hero.’
‘Too right. Look at me, I’ve done absolutely fuck all with my life. I’m thirty-five years old and I’m nothing. I arrange plastic flowers for a living. At least this way I’ll be remembered. Taylor Smith. My name’s going down in history in that Big Red Book. I’ll be fucking celebrated. Taylor Smith saved the world.’
The lines at the checkouts were long. Ailith kept her head down and concentrated on the beep, beep of the scanner. It was hard to ignore the conversations at her checkout line though.
Broccoli flavoured curd. Beep.
‘Where are all these people coming from? You’d think it was the end of the world.’
Soap fizzers. Beep.
‘Probably dole scroungers. Gas the lot of them I say. I’m sick of paying for those lazy bastards.’
‘I wish we could vote for two. Get rid of the scroungers and the rapists.’
‘Yeah, and put the old folk into the jails. They’ll get three meals a day, 3D T.V, top quality health care, they’ll be better looked after than they are in those old folk’s homes.’
Plastic roses. Beep.
Really? She looked up at a teenage lad who smiled and raised his eyebrows. She placed the items into the bag. Ribbed for her pleasure, bloody hell, how can he even get it up at a time like this?
‘Thirty-two credits please.’
He handed Ailith his ID card. She scanned it. Beep.
‘Thank you, Mr Douglas. Have a nice day and thank you for shopping at Amazon.’
Jessica was sitting on the doorstep when Ailith arrived home. She felt a lightness in her step, seeing her best friend. Jessica stood up and pulled Ailith in for a hug. They rocked back and forth.
Ailith held her at arm’s length, ‘It’s so good to see you.’ Although she did look tired.
‘Same. Sorry, I haven’t been around for a while, Mum’s not been keeping too well.’
‘Is it getting worse?’
‘Yeah, doctors have told her she’ll need a wheelchair soon.’
‘I’m sorry, Jessica.’
‘I’m glad you came around though, come on, let’s get inside, it’s freezing out here.’
‘Couldn’t let my bestie make the big decision on her own, could I?’
They went indoors and Ailith lit all the candles. Why not? Jessica kept her coat and hat on.
‘It’s cold in here,’ she breathed into her gloves, ‘I’m shaking.’
‘It’ll heat up soon. I saved the hours heating for tonight. Have you eaten?’
‘Yeah, before I left. Go ahead and have yours though.’
‘I’m not hungry.’ Ailith said but her stomach groaned. ‘I’d rather just get this over and done with.’
‘How was work?’
‘Busy. People are buying in bulk.’
‘Pretty normal under the circumstances, don’t you think?’
‘Absolutely not! This is the problem. Everybody’s going about like this shit is normal. It’s not. It’s fucking lunacy. But somehow they’ve managed to dumb down even the most rational of folk.’
‘People aren’t stupid Ailith, they’re scared.’
‘Yeah but rather than turning against the suits, they’re turning on each other. You want to have heard the shit an old wife had to take on the bus this morning.’
‘Yeah, it’s going on all over the place. There’s an autistic lass in our street. Got a brick through her window two nights ago.’
‘Tensions are high. Probably something to do with all the Population Control Centre’s that have sprung up in the last year.’
‘But don’t you think it’s all a big fucking lie, Jessica? I mean, why not spend more money educating folk? Like, teach people how to live responsibly?’
‘They tried that though, then the bees happened.’
‘I reckon someone’s gaining from this shit.’
‘And these population control centres though. It’s sick. It’s like the Nazis all over again. At least the self-elects get the dignity of euthanasia.’
‘Did you hear about Ronnie Coldwell?’ Jessica asked, taking her tablet from her bag.
Ailith noticed her hands trembling. ‘The actor?’
She nodded. ‘Self-elected, it was all over the news today.’
‘But he’s safe surely. He’s got enough credit to feed a small country.’
‘As safe as the fucking Royals, but said he can’t live in a world where people choose to murder other people.’
‘Jesus.’ Ailith felt like she was going to vomit. She turned on her tablet and felt like she was hovering just outside of her own consciousness. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Hold on.’ Jessica loaded the web page. ‘Yes.’ She held Ailith’s hand and tears run down her cheeks.
Ailith closed her eyes for a moment and just breathed. She let go of Jessica’s hand. ‘I’m scared.’
They both loaded the voting page.
‘Please scan your identification card into your device.’
Please scan your left index finger on the box provided. If you are unable to do so, please scan your left eye.
‘Please enter your passcode and answer the five security questions.’
‘Thank you. Please enter your vote now.’
Ailith let out a roar. ‘FUCKERS!’
‘Welcome to One World Tonight, my name is Shannon McCallaghan, it’s the 30th of October 2041. Later in the show, we’ll be live at the opening of Cornton Vale Care – previously Cornton Vale prison – as 76 elderly residents move into the 50th G4S facility of its kind. This follows the outcome of the 2036 population control vote, that saw our population reduced by 15%. The One World Leader has today announced that the next stage of voting will commence early next year. How will you vote?’