The kids come every day clamouring to hear stories from Before. I am something of a novelty to them, one of the few in Containment Area 7b who remembers anything, one of the few who knows we are not kept here for our safety. They sit at my feet in a semi-circle, cross-legged, the LEDs on their ankle tags twinkling in the half light.
“Where’s Bobby?” I ask.
Jenny sighs. “Banged up. Workfare said they’d let him have another fiver if he stayed for another three hours, and his mum needed extra for the leccy bill. Workfare didn’t OK it with Above, his tag lit up like a Christmas tree and he was caught over The Blue Line after hours.”
I am still flabbergasted by how this system works, even after all these years. It feels more like a heavy-handed dystopian metaphor than the reality we inhabit. “What’s going to happen to him?”
Jenny shrugs. “Probably not too bad. Duty solicitor reckons they can get him a good community payback placement in the back room of Tescos. In two years he’ll work it off and be back on the tills.” The kids smile with relief. I shudder.
“It was kind of his fault anyway,” pipes up Tabby, Bobby’s little sister. “Easy for the cops to have mistook him for a rioter. They showed restraint.” Tabby seems full of the joys of spring today, a veritable cannon of misdirected optimism. “Bobby’ll be cool, he always is. Can you please finish telling us the story about the hospitals and how they were all nice and that?”
“The hospitals? Ah, I remember. Back Before, the hospitals were very different. If you hurt yourself or got ill, you would could go to the hospital and they would treat you…” I pause for dramatic effect. “For free.”
A collective gasp from the children. “Free?” they breathe, their incredulous little brows furrowed.
“Free. For absolutely everyone. Nobody had to pay a penny.”
“That can’t be true,” professes Jack, the eldest of the bunch. “Do you mean it was free for all the Consumers and Wealth Creators? They’d never give things away for free to Scroungers like us.”
“It most certainly was true,” I correct him. “Everyone who needed anything from the hospital got it for free. Rich or poor, black or white, whatever you needed, you’d get it for free.”
“That doesn’t sound very competitive,” Jack scoffs. “Was it funded by the Europeans? I bet loads of people must have died.”
“Not at all,” I said. “We were all healthier because of it, and lived much longer.” These days, kids like these will probably live to fifty at most, and that’s a mercy.
“Weren’t there riots over it? Nobody would want to queue up for operations when they could just pay for it, surely? Is that why it stopped? Did the Scroungers push to the front of the queue?”
“Kids,” I say firmly. “When have any of you ever rioted?”
“Never, silly,” Tabby says, blowing a raspberry. “We’re safe now. But Before, kids like us was always just grabbing anything we could get because we’re feral, innit?” She taps her tag sagely.
I decide this conversation can wait for another day. I do not think this short story needs a tacked-on, saccharine happy ending.
“Anyway, the NHS–that’s what we called the hospitals back then–fell down because people didn’t fight hard enough, and the people wanting to take it down were too powerful. It was a very special thing, the NHS was.”
“Will it ever come back?” Jenny asks quietly. Jenny’s a funny one, more optimistic than most, even though until six months ago her family were Consumers before a dose of bad luck brought them to 7b.
“I don’t know,” I say. And I don’t. It seems like a monolithic nemesis, and everyone has absorbed the message wholesale. There is always hope though, always hope. Irrational, perhaps, but it lifts me. Maybe there still is a spark of rebellion and fight in these kids.
“I think everything will get better,” Jack announces, an air of gravitas beyond his young age. “All we need is for all the Consumers to vote Labour in 2015.”
And with that, I know we’re fucked.