A bit of a change today.
Some of you may be interested to see the type of thing I write about when I am not on the topic of China.
Some of you may not.
Regardless, here’s a short sci-fi story written by my good self. Don’t worry though – it contains my usual sick twists.
For the Children…
“A great life. An even greater future! Choose KFC for your child today!”
The leaflet was a smorgasbord of bright colours. In addition to the corporate KFC hues of red and white, the page was splashed with various shades of pink and baby blue hearts floating around cartoon images of happy babies.
“Hundreds of thousands of children have benefited by having their birth program sponsored by KFC – the company that first brought you Thai Tom Yum Flavoured Wings and the Quadruple Chicken Deluxe. You can trust us to deliver your child as easily and as swiftly as we deliver our chicken.”
On the reverse side of the leaflet the bright colours gave way to slightly more serious subject matter. The cartoons were now replaced with photographs of healthy happy children – white kids, black kids, Chinese kids and even one young girl who carried a hint of Eskimo – holding hands and laughing within endless fields of impossibly green grass. Scattered around the photographs, bullet points in a comic-sans font shot out important facts for the discerning consumer.
“We understand that some of our clients have concerns over the future health issues involved with a KFC sponsorship. However, the vast majority of our KFChildren™ go on to lead bright, vibrant and fulfilling lives. Here are five undeniable reasons why our food choices can form part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle…”
The rest of the leaflet was a jumble of bullet points, asterisks and small print that was too small to be legible. Sighing, Mary tossed the garish leaflet onto the pile with all the others. To be honest, she had always preferred McDonalds to KFC. The thought of being forced to think otherwise made her shiver. Everybody knew that the French Fries at McDonalds were vastly superior.
Whoever had designed the interior of the waiting room had been a genius in soothing architecture. Hospitals, especially those in the public sector, were generally not known for their comforting ambience. Most were austere prison-like structures, as ugly on the inside as they were on the outside. Mary thought back to a particularly harrowing memory when her mother had brought her to the local general hospital for a collar-bone that had dislocated during a school hockey match that had become overly competitive. The pain in her shoulder had been intense; she had screamed all the way in the back of the family car. Her screaming had been so intense that her mother – fearful for her daughter’s very life – had been forced to switch the car onto driverless mode and climb over into the backseat to comfort her daughter. Yet despite the gnawing pain that had chewed its way deep into her body, pure fear had silenced her cries as soon as they stepped foot into the hospital’s casualty unit. Drunks, drug addicts and drop-outs littered the halls. Some sat down but most of them were rolling around the vomit-covered floors in their own filth. The derelicts were not alone. Amongst the sordid remains of self-inflicted misery were those who had committed no sin other than being born during a time of near-constant economic malaise. The old, the poor, the stupid. They tried their best to distance themselves from the drink or drug crazed that shouted obscenities to anyone who would listen. On dirty stretchers at the edges of the corridors had lain people in various stages of torment. Some were even already dead. For hours, Mary had held her mother’s hand tight in that filthy waiting area. Waiting in silence for a chance to see the nurse. Waiting for the filthy bearded men to stop staring and leering at her. When they did finally see the doctor it wasn’t so much of a relief. The rusted, broken equipment, the smelly blood-smeared gown of the nurse, the rushed and indifferent procedure cracking her collar-bone back into place… it had been Hell.
It was still technically within the public sector, but due to the profits involved in modern maternity and the fierce competition between different corporations to promote their respective sponsorship packages, the maternity hospital was almost an oasis of luxury and calm. There were no buckets of vomit hiding in the corners. Neither were there wild-eyed men covered in the stench of alcohol. Everything within the waiting area was perfectly designed to put any potential mother at her utmost ease. The walls had been painted a soothing pink colour and the chairs were not the cheap plastic stools of the general hospital but the type of soft velvet armchairs normally only found in high-class coffee shops. Gentle jazz music was piped through the speakers, though occasionally this was interrupted by soft whispering voices touting the benefits of Coca Cola. Mary glanced at the kind-looking middle-aged woman who sat behind the reception desk in an immaculately clean nurse’s uniform; she flashed Mary a warm genuine smile.
Despite the comfort, Mary was starting to feel queasy. She got up from her seat, walked past the other six or seven women who were also waiting, and headed over to the small tea machine that was placed next to the water cooler. An array of biscuits had been tastefully arranged on a plate. Mary took one of the biscuits and pressed the button for chamomile tea. Hot water splashed down from the machine’s nozzle and an advertisement suddenly lit up the screen in front of her.
“Coffee…” A deep rich voice announced. “The battery for an active life.” The screen flashed images of a slim, attractive young woman in her late twenties. Cycling, running, sky-diving, conducting high-level business meetings… and in between each shot an image of her happily gulping down a cup of delicious-looking hot coffee.
“Alcohol, cigarettes and fast food dull the senses leading to a life of failure.” The rich voice spoke again while the woman on the screen was now transported to an elegant coffee shop accompanied by a multi-racial mix of beautiful male and female friends. “Coffee, however, gives us the energy we need to succeed in a tough competitive world.”
The camera pulled back to reveal that the group of fashionable young professionals all had a smiling toddler on their lap. The group clinked their cups and laughed. The infants giggled as they sucked on transparent bottles of iced brown liquid.
“Nescafe. Be caffeinated. Power your life.”
The screen faded to black as the last of the chamomile tea poured into Mary’s cup. She wrinkled her nose at the screen before heading back to her seat. “I hate coffee,” she mumbled to herself.
Sipping the tea, Mary thought back to Adam. The light green of the chamomile matched his eyes. They had only been dating for five months; introduced by a mutual friend at a Christmas Party. Even though he had been wearing a ridiculous jumper that featured an ironically tacky snowman and reindeer, he still looked irresistible when she first saw him standing amidst a group of friends whilst making some joke about presents. He had caught her looking at him. Red-faced, she had turned away, but ten minutes later he had walked purposefully over to her and had held out a hand introducing himself as Adam.
It had been that purposefulness that had drawn her to him. She had been with many guys before, but rarely with one who had such a determination about whatever he turned his mind towards. He seemed so sure of himself. Mary, on the other hand, always doubted whether she was doing the right thing. Of course, she knew she was attractive – she had no doubt there. Her long red hair and even longer legs meant that she had few rivals when it came to attracting the opposite sex. However, though confidant in her looks, Mary had less confidence in her judgment. She had made mistakes before and was terrified of making them again. Adam had been like a gale force wind in comparison. When they first spoke to one another Mary could feel the force within Adam’s eyes and the desire within to make her belong to him. Faced with such determination she was powerless to resist.
It had been a wonderful relationship and a wonderful five months. Too wonderful actually; the wonder of it all was probably what had led her unconsciously to make her mistake. Somewhere, between the weekend trips to the countryside and long nights curled up together in his gorgeous apartment, her happiness had caused her to forget her birth control pills. Adam had remained determined to the end. Just as he had so purposefully strode into Mary’s life, he had strode so purposefully out of it once she announced she was pregnant.
There was a coughing sound to her left that caused Mary to glance over. The woman in the armchair beside her had coughed a little whilst gulping down a mug of Nescafe too quickly. She was a homely mousey-haired woman in her mid-thirties who had the harried concerned look of a primary school teacher or social worker. She smiled when she caught Mary’s eye.
“You look nervous, love. Is this your first time?” The woman offered a mint to Mary who shook her head politely.
“It’s never easy, though they try to make it as easy as possible. This is my third one… and the last, I can tell you!”
Mary tried her best to ignore the woman’s conversation, but it was too late. She was evidently one of life’s natural gossips.
“I’m going for one of the credit card companies this time around. Visa probably, though Amex has a good deal too. I know, I know: everybody says never go for the credit cards, but the way I see it, the debt that they will get themselves into can only spur them onto being more successful in life? Am I right?”
Mary did not respond and had even stopped looking at the woman. This, however, did not deter her in her monologue.
“The thing is, I chose Pepsi for my eldest and McDonalds for our Sharon. Like everyone I thought that I could keep it under control as long as I kept them fit and active. It’s a nightmare! The amount of money I spend on sports classes for Timmy and Sharon costs a fortune, it would have been far cheaper getting them on better but more expensive products. And you know what? They might say that it’s controllable but I can tell you that it isn’t. Even with all the karate classes our Timmy is the heaviest boy in his class. Sharon isn’t far off either. At least with the credit cards I won’t have to worry about the next kid’s weight. Plus, they won’t be old enough for an Amex till they’re eighteen so it’s less stress for me. Do you…?”
An electronic noise from the reception desk indicated that it was the turn of the woman to see the doctor. She smiled her saccharine smile once more then shuffled off to the consultation room. Mary gave a silent prayer of thanks that she had been spared any further conversation with the woman.
She tried to read one of the promotional leaflets again, but the dreary monologue she had just been subjected to had drained all interest from her. She was still no closer to making a decision. It was all just so overwhelming. At the age of twenty-six she should still be concentrating on her career; building those first foundations towards a steady and secure life. Her job was not exactly the greatest job in the world – Mary saw it as no more than a stepping-stone to something more fulfilling and better paid – though it was decent enough and allowed her to maintain a good social life. She didn’t feel ready yet to exchange her career and friends for nappies and milk formula, especially as a single mother.
Obviously, there was always Embry-No. Just as there had been huge scientific leaps within the field of maternal health over the last twenty years, so too had there been equal developments within the field of abortion. The two opposing sides had raced to out-compete one another in an ever-escalating arms race for the future of women’s wombs. And Embry-No was more or less the atomic bomb in the fertility wars. Hundreds of years of scientific research condensed into one tiny little pink pill that could make an unwanted baby disappear faster than the often-errant father in such cases. It wasn’t cheap, but it was effective. And painless. These days it was even produced in different flavours and sold on the upper shelves of respected pharmacies. “Don’t kid yourself!” was its logo, printed in cute pink bubble letters upon the box cover. Its manufacturers definitely had the teenage market in consideration as a core demographic.
Mary was unsure of her future, but she hadn’t swallowed the pink pill just yet. Instead, she had almost dreamily waltzed through the entire procedure until she was here, three months into her pregnancy, still uncertain about what tomorrow might bring. She hadn’t even considered anything regarding sponsorship packages, yet everybody knew that at the three-month stage it was time to consider these options or face inevitable destitution once the invoices for labour fees arrived. Automatically, without much conscious thought, she now found herself at the maternity clinic.
There was another electronic noise indicating that a further consultation room had become available. This time the kindly receptionist gestured to Mary that it was now her time to go in.
If the reception area had been covered in an obscene amount of advertisements, the interior of the consultation room was even worse. Every spare space on the wall was given over to brightly coloured posters advertising the benefits of each company’s package. Mary guessed correctly that the doctors were given incentives from the big corporates to make sure their logos featured as heavily as possible during the crucial last moments of a prospective mother’s decision making process. The doctor was a stern Indian man of middle age who waved a hand for her to take a seat. He tapped busily at his keyboard without looking up.
Stern though he was, at least it was a real doctor, thought Mary. Scanners and computers had replaced most general practitioners during the last ten years. Only the rich could afford to meet a real human doctor face-to-face. The rest of society had to endure the faceless red lasers of the scanning machines and the monotone voice ordering prescriptions that could not be argued with. Maternity was the last bastion of human contact for most people’s medical history, though the corporate incentives made it a very lucrative field for the doctors concerned.
The doctor pulled out a Theranos gun that quickly and painlessly removed just a single drop of blood from Mary’s left wrist. Removing the plastic capsule containing the blood from the gun, the doctor inserted it into a small receptacle attached to his computer than tapped a few keys. With a grunt, the doctor confirmed that which he already knew.
“So, the tests confirm you are three months pregnant,” said the doctor in a bored tone of voice. He went through the same conversation several times each day. “Have you already decided which package you would like to select to cover the maternity fees or would you like me to elaborate on the different options?”
Mary bit her lip, unsure how to answer. The doctor sighed.
“Are you familiar with how the sponsorship packages operate and what they entail?”
“Of course, I know. Everybody knows. I’ve got plenty of friends who have babies. It’s just…”
“… I don’t know. I just don’t know if this is right?”
The doctor pulled his chair closer to the desk and removed his spectacles. Polishing them with the corner of his sleeve, he replaced them back onto the bridge of his nose and gave Mary a stern look.
“Whether it is right or wrong is not the question. The most important thing is that it is a fact of life. Unless you are highly wealthy – and I do not mean to be rude but I doubt that you possess such wealth otherwise you would not be here – the only way for most normal people to cover the maternity expenses is with the help of a corporate sponsorship programme. You may question the morality of this but it is a fact. Also, you must consider that it is only right and fair that the companies who agree to cover the cost of your maternity fees should be able to expect some… ahem… return on their investment.”
Mary blushed. The doctor had misunderstood her when she had questioned whether the procedure was right or wrong. She had been thinking more about the personal circumstances which had led to her being single, three-months pregnant and sat alone in a maternity clinic. Eager to force the doctor into mellowing his gaze, she quickly changed the subject.
“Can you explain how the actual procedure itself works? Will it be painful?”
The doctor laughed. “Oh no, not at all.” He held up the Theranos gun. “Like most things in matters concerning life it just involves a small prick.” He laughed at his own joke, even though he had made it many times before he still found the allusion amusing.
“Just a small prick,” he continued, “just the same as having a blood test. Only this time we won’t be taking something out of you, we’ll be putting something in. Genetic code in this case; code that will make its way straight into your unborn baby’s neurological DNA. You won’t feel a thing. The code simply enters the fetus’ DNA structure and makes certain alterations according to the package you have chosen. A lifelong fondness for a certain company’s soft drinks in one case, an affection for designer goods in another. It’s very simple, really, and it’s totally 100% your choice so that it suits your preferred lifestyle.”
“Ah, yes. I see.”
“Good,” said the doctor, lightening up a little. “So have you chosen a package already?”
Mary shook her head. The doctor could not see her hands shaking from his side of the table.
“I can go through the options with you if you’ll find it beneficial. There’s hundreds of choices, but they do fall within certain similar verticals that prevent it from getting too over-whelming. Most people tend to go for the big names anyway – your KFCs, your Pepsis, your Apples, etcetera – but there really is something for everyone. Now is probably the time as a medical professional to state that although I do receive a small financial benefit for each package that I deliver to my clients, I am always upfront about the likely advantages and disadvantages of each choice. We want you to be fully informed before choosing what is best for you and your baby.”
Seamlessly, the doctor had metamorphosed from a stern general practitioner to an enthusiastic salesman right before Mary’s eyes. The sales pitches for each respective sponsorship package were obviously what had lured him into the medical profession. The doctor pulled out a handful of leaflets from his drawer, most of which Mary had already seen within the waiting area.
“McDonalds is a popular choice as you’ll know already. We’re into the second generation of maternity sponsorship already so a lot of mothers like their children to share the same… interests… which they were already gifted.”
Though she had no known no different throughout her entire life, Mary still flinched within when she heard the euphemistic terms of “interests” and “gifts” that were so commonly used when discussing children, when in actuality they were addictions and manias. Even the word “sponsorship” didn’t ring true to her. She felt “slavery” would be a more appropriate choice.
“Fast food is a good option. It’s cheap, popular, and most importantly won’t be too much of a drain on your finances while your child matures. On the downside, I’m legally obliged to say that without an intensive exercise programme your child is liable to an increased future risk of obesity and diabetes. If that isn’t your thing, I could always gift your child with an incessant need for the latest products of the clothing or electronic company of your choice. However…” the doctor allowed himself a slight chuckle, “…I’ve had many a sad client sat in your seat right now telling me how they’ve got no money and wish that their only monthly outgoing was just a few wholesale boxes of Mars Bars. You can’t satisfy everybody.”
The words weren’t really sinking into Mary. She could see the lips of the doctor opening and closing but she was not concentrating at all on what he was saying. Instead her thoughts were outside. Through the window she could see the mousey-haired woman whom she had spoken to earlier in the reception area. Her appointment concluded, she had returned to her car where her two obese children were slurping giant bottles of Pepsi and gorging on French Fries on the back seats. The woman looked so tired as her children screamed for more food; their plastic drinks containers almost empty. How old was she? Mid-thirties? Yet she could just as easily be the same age as Mary, but with more wrinkles on her face from the stress of her children’s constant demands. And now she was going to bring another child into the world. Another screaming mouth that was programmed to demand whatever consumer product had been imputed into its brain. A mindless creature with zero free will and an endless appetite that could never be sated. Did the world really need another hungry mouth to feed?
The doctor waved his leaflets at Mary once again, bringing her back into the room.
“So, have you decided yet?”
Over in the car park, the mousey-haired woman shouted at her children for spilling Pepsi all over the inside of the car.
The living room was decorated according to the tastes of a woman much older than she actually was. Though only around fifty years of age, Mary’s mother had appeared to have modeled her household design on that of a much earlier era. Subconsciously, she had replicated her childhood memories of her own grandmother’s house. Net curtains draped over the main window keeping the snarling modern world at a distance. Within the room, all was soft and pastel-coloured. Fuzzy warm sofas took up the bulk of the room; a room already made smaller by the soft red velvet curtains and thick heavy carpet. The shelves of the room were also decorated in the style of an older woman than Mary’s mother actually was. Porcelain ornaments of horses, cherubs and rosy-cheeked peasants jostled for position with half a dozen framed photographs of her daughter’s progression through life. Only the mantelpiece was bare; the sole object of ornamentation being a small picture of Mary as a newborn baby.
“Ok, Ok love, I understand. It’s your choice and nobody else can tell you what to do. Take care.”
Mary’s mother placed the phone back into its holder and stared at the room for several seconds. Mary had just telephoned to notify her mother that after much consideration she had decided not to keep the child. She would be taking action that very afternoon to abort the fetus.
In many ways, the mother understood the daughter’s choice. She had been more or less the same age when she had been pregnant herself with Mary. Like Mary, she also had nobody in her life to support her; the father being a nameless waiter whom she had one too many drinks with during a summer holiday in Greece. It hadn’t been easy bringing up Mary alone, and it hadn’t been easy bringing her into the world either. She had given up on her career ambitions to be a mother. When she found out that she was young, single and pregnant with Mary, her main hope was that her daughter would not grow up to make the same mistakes that she had. That hope had kept her awake at night; fearful for both her own future and the future of her then unborn daughter.
It all seemed so long ago now. People change a lot as they get older, she thought.
Mary’s mother suddenly felt the full force of the silence in the room. It was too quiet, so she reached out to the music speaker and switched on the nearest radio channel in order to fill the void. She hoped Mary would visit her later this week as promised.
The music played and Mary’s mother found herself thinking back to her grandmother’s house and how similar she had styled her own living room in accordance to that memory. However, there was a key difference. Her grandmother’s house had been filled with photographs of all of her grandchildren. Every shelf and space was covered in vibrant photos of children, laughter and life. She stared upwards at the empty mantelpiece facing her and how sad it looked with just the single photo of Mary as a baby. Only dust covered the rest of the surface. Dust covered not only the bare mantelpiece, but the entire room as well. The whole room felt so empty. She turned the music volume up louder to drown out her feelings of loneliness. At the time, all she had wanted was for her daughter not to make the same mistakes that she had made. It was only with the best of intentions that she had cast aside the standard options of sponsorship package and gone for a much different choice. The only choice, really. The Embry-No. Very few mother’s chose to gift their children with the Embry-No.
Mary’s mother wept. Not just for the grandchild she had just lost, but for the five previous grandchildren she had also lost over the last eight years, and the grandchildren that she was still yet to lose. It wasn’t Mary’s fault: she couldn’t help herself. Yet it was small comfort to the old woman in her empty house who cried every night at the loneliness all around her.
Dust continued to fill the room.
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.