I don’t believe anyone living before 2025 imagined how much human existence would alter due to the virus’s proliferation and mutation.
In that innocent period before nations experienced wide scale loss of life, world leaders lured their naive citizens into believing the pandemic was manageable.
The populace queued ad nauseam for their vaccinations, and cowering behind their paper masks, they chanted the government’s hocus-pocus mantra ‘hands face space’.
Within a decade, the entire nation was reduced to nameless communities and society’s trembling vestiges capitulated to an authoritarian leadership.
Our prime minister acknowledged the true impact in 2035 and introduced National Service to repopulate the dwindling ranks of his impotent country.
If compulsory sex was every teenagers’ risible dream at the start of the 21st century, by 2040 it had become their repugnant and alienating nightmare.
I remember my first official tryst with a fellow conscript at the start of my patriotic duty. She was my age with a firm body, fertile womb and a compatible gene pool. Outside her address, I confirmed my ID, using fingerprint recognition on the entry phone. A husky female voice responded.
“I take it you’re M5647LDN1224?”
“Yes, I got lost and---”
“I’ve been expecting you,” she said, releasing the door catch and inviting me in.
Under the bold new regime, propagation of the species is paramount and it’s a crime to be monogamous. Those in charge discourage ideas about love and intimacy and notions of romance have been replaced by farcical costumed assignations.
The government designed uniforms to entice our opposite number, however they are somewhat conspicuous and knowing adolescents prey on fresh-faced novices as they arrive for their assignments. My lothario’s gold lamé suit stands out a mile and after running the gauntlet of local youths, it’s a relief to cross any threshold and leave their raucous taunts behind.
My first date had selected a traditional French maid’s attire that trussed her up like a Christmas turkey. The outfit combined a low cut top that cantilevered acres of flesh onto display and a skirt that left little to the imagination. No doubt, the authorities imagined our costumes would spark an amorous response and stimulate hot bloodied passion. If so, it was a curious insight into the mind of the health ministry and a dubious start to the evening.
We’ve both learnt our dialogue and improvise around their suggested scenarios.
“It’s warm in here,” I say, loosening my shirt collar as she removes my jacket.
“Oops!” she says, declaring her surprise as a coffee cup tumbles off the low table. She bends over to retrieve it and stretches herself forward into a compromising posture. “Silly me,” she says with the enthusiasm of a lethargic parrot. “I can’t quite reach.”
I contemplate the troubling dilemma as she jiggles her hindquarters in my direction.
“Oh, please allow me,” I say, bending down to recover the spurious article and allow my forearm to stroke past her smooth thigh.
“Why, thank you,” she says. “What ever would I have done without you?” Approaching me, she extracts a pair of scissors from the front pocket of her tabard. “You could hurt yourself with those,” I say, as she parts the sharp blades.
“I promise not to hurt you,” she whispers and drags them up my thigh and lingers above my groin. I gulp behind my paper mask as our eyes meet for the first time. To my surprise she chuckles and clips off all my shirt buttons. Following her playful lead, I cut away her blouse to reveal an elaborate laced corset. My jaw drops and with a sigh, she assists my fumbling to expedite the business in hand.
To understand today’s country where sex has become compulsory, you have to appreciate the social changes brought about by twenty years of living with a pandemic that started in 2020. Long before the medical side effects were acknowledged, years of social distancing, endless government sloganeering, accompanied by graphic infomercials depicting painful and untimely deaths conspired to undermine the institutions of family and marriage, and generated health concerns, both real and imagined.
It was the department for national statistics that noticed worrying trends amongst its census data. Their updated information suggested a pronounced dip in the number of infants of school age and the rapid increase in single occupancy dwellings.
By 2030, the relationship between the sexes became corrupted and people learned to abstain from every kind of physical and sexual contact. From adolescence onwards, an invisible barrier separated young men and women. In schools, work places and college they kept their distance.
In 2035 the country’s working population had dwindled to 20 per cent of its pre-pandemic numbers. The prime minister reacted by expanding the ranks of health personnel to care for the unhealthy population and fulfilled his manifesto’s promise by constructing hundreds of new hospitals. However, he needed a fresh initiative to swell the decreasing number of voters. The government introduced two years of National Service for all fertile young people; once they attained adulthood were required to perform their patriotic duty.
After ten minutes of staring at the ceiling in silence, I reposition my mask and consider my options. As if reading my mind, she whispers in my ear.
“You’re not required to stay for the full hour, you know?”
“But I need to confirm my attendance and provide—-“
“Just swipe your ID over the assignment interface,” she says, offering her touch screen. “I’ll do the rest.”
“And my supervisor?”
“He’ll get a copy,”
She curtails any further conversation by rolling out of bed and sliding into her dressing gown. I do her bidding in silence and notice she’s already checked the box that waives my rights in the event of a birth, and awarded herself a 5 star rating for presentation, enthusiasm, effort and experience.
Clouds of steam are billowing from the handy en suite by the time I’ve collected my suit and tattered shirt. I see myself out and the cold night air nips my bare chest as I huddle into my lustrous jacket for warmth. Scuttling across the tenement’s courtyard, I ignore the taunts and laughter echoing above me from the connecting walkways.
Saying ‘no’ to conscription is out of the question; active duty is compulsory for all healthy adults of both sexes. For men of my generation the thought of mandatory intercourse three times a week is soul destroying and any escape seems justified. I’ve known peers who’d gone to extreme lengths to avoid participation: including faking virus tests, feigning illness or even attempting self-vasectomy. The Ministry for Repopulation was aware of a reluctance to engage with the spirit of the law and organised undercover supervisors posed as participants to catch slackers on the job. Caught with their pants down, the shirkers had no hope of escaping the tracking system. The authorities were ruthless in their ability to trace and capture offenders. The government imposed steep fines on draft-dodgers who failed to rise to the occasion and had the power to recommend testicular transplant for persistent offenders.
I was due to conclude my National Service in August of 2042 and return to a life of celibacy to focus on my medical degree, however the birth rate continued to plummet, despite our best efforts. The government reacted by issuing an ultimatum for all National Service personnel; double your work rate or we’ll double your remaining conscription time. With six months left to serve, I chose the first option; six assignments per week and the agreed fixed term.
It’s taken me eighteen months of relentless patriotism to become hardened to the machinations associated with propagating the species. During that time I’d become both complacent about humanity and blasé about my untold assignments. I’d encountered every scenario imaginable within a domestic setting and memorized countless scripts, all with similar plots and inevitable outcomes.
My plans for a solitary existence and a stable career were about to change. It wasn’t obvious at first, but the chance meeting blossomed in most unexpected ways and woke in me a lost world of tenderness and warmth I never thought existed.
My assignment for the evening lived in a flat in a ramshackle building, not far from the teaching hospital. A couple of elderly drunkards are hovering under the entrance’s yellow light. They laugh out loud and whistle the James Bond theme as I approach in my tuxedo. I snicker and toss them some loose change before they disappear into the shadows.
On the doorstep I discover the doorbell hanging out of its socket. The whole set up has a sense of foreboding; I get a bad feeling. I hammer on the door with my fist. There’s no response. I turn to depart, and then hear a muffled clunk and metallic rattle. The door opens ajar to reveal a pale face and timid dark eyes that lurk behind a metal restraint.
“Hello,” I say, moving closer to get a better view. “I’m M5647LDN1224.”
“Looks like you’re a cabaret singer,” she says, disengaging the chain, “or you’ve lost your casino, Mr Bond.”
I hear a chain links jangle again, the door flies opens and a wiry hand shoots forward, grabs my lapel and hauls me inside.
“There’s weirdos out there tonight,” she says, closing the door and locking us inside.
“We can’t take any chances.”
I blink, mouth agape in surprise. She’s wearing an outlandish spotty body-stocking and back combed green wig. Have I got the correct address?
“What’s up,” she asks, “Never heard of Co-Co the clown, pal?”
“I’m a little shaken but---”
“But not a bit stirred, yeah?”
“Well I guess I’m not used to---”
“You’re not used to working off script, eh?”
“Well there’s always a first time…” She’s a one off or just nervous and rising above the absurdity of the situation. “Is this your first time?” She’s bluffing, I’m sure of it.
“No,” she says, raising an eyebrow. “I meant you’ve a number and a name.”
“This your first time, isn’t it?” She’s talking nonsense. It’s a bluff.
“James Bond, 007” she says. “Number and name, I mean the other way round and…”
“Are you going to offer me a refreshment or do I help myself?”
“Is this when I make you a Vodka Martini?”
“Mine’s shaken but not---”
“Anyway,” she says, sighing. “Who writes this rubbish?”
“We can skip the drink,” I say, “if you want to get on with it?”
“Do you like my rose?” I lean forward to sniff her novelty bloom as she reaches into her pocket, “Smile!” She depresses a suction cup and squirts water at me. “Surprise!”
I blink, shake my head and snort before smiling. I was beginning to think this was a test. Maybe she’s a supervisor in disguise, but no, she’s not that. I notice the crumpled remains of a touch screen device on the ground. Its flickering screen displays the assignment software. No supervisor would destroy a piece of government property. She’s a potential subversive like myself.
She slumps onto the edge of her mattress and her head drops. Her whole body is shaking and I want to console her. I approach the bed and she lifts her shaking head.
“Stay back,” she says, gazing at me under her green mop of quivering plastic strands. I freeze when she brandishes a pair of ineffectual giant red plastic kid’s shears.
They’re the type of scissors you’d find in a pre-school kindergarten.
“How do you put up with it?” she asks.
I sit down next to her and she lowers her weapon.
“How do I put up with it?” I scratch my neck. “I don’t think about it any more.”
“Look,’ she says, removing her outlandish wig and shaking her sleek and straight cut bangs. “I can’t go ahead with this.”
“It’s all right, I’ll go soon and you don’t---”
“I don’t even know you’re name for God’s sake.”
‘My name…?” I frown. It’s unfamiliar concept. “No one’s asked me that for years.”
“What happens next, Mister-Man-With-No-Name?”
“Usually there’s… Nothing too serious.” I hesitate to tell her about all the various therapies and readjustment programmes. There’s the restraint room too, where they use heavy sedatives and physical persuasion, let alone the aversion techniques that were outlawed years ago. “I wouldn’t worry, you’ll be fine and they’ll give you a bigger apartment afterwards.”
“Hey, thanks,” she says, removing her comedy red nose and revealing a gorgeous little upturned button. “You’re a kind man, or part of what’s left is caring.”
She wipes off the rouge and face powder with a towel, in greasy smears. I sense a kindred spirit somewhere amongst the smudged mascara and rest my arm round her shoulder. She doesn’t budge or resist and then shuffles up next to me.
“Hey,” she says, peering up at me. “How about scissor, paper & stone?”
“One...” I say, grinning at her.
“Two…” she says, pursing her lips.
We bump fists, she leans into me and we grind our knuckles and laugh out loud.
That’s what’s been missing forever.
Now I get it, for sure.
“Thanks, Mister man,” she says and smiles. “Do you have to leave now?”
“There may be an alternative.”
“Talk to me, Mister Man.”
“Let’s work a way out of this.”
“Best of three?” she says and I nod.
I grew up wearing a mask, learning on-line and social distancing. Although my parents died when I was a toddler and I don’t remember their names, but I recall a time when they referred to me as Sam. Apparently, everyone used their birth names until the government lost control of the situation and the virus decimated the population in 2025. The state cared for young orphans who survived and gave us a citizenship number and a nano chip too; it’s still hovering in my veins like a fly on the wall.
Our love blossomed that evening and what happened that evening isn’t for public consumption. The fact that we never consummated our relationship is no one’s business, but the fact remains that it didn’t diminish my infatuation for her. She’s everything to me now despite what happened.
After long months of soulless encounters in fancy dress, I soon felt as though she was the only woman I’d ever got to know or appreciate. During the 6 months of our covert affair, I discovered an abundance of feelings that I’d never experienced before. High and lows too but a range of emotions and a tsunami of affection that made me ponder what we’d lost. Where had humanity gone wrong and how did we lose that loving feeling?
Immediately after our first meeting, my objective was to spare her the anxiety of anonymous assignment work. I tricked a busy supervisor who had no reason to question my unblemished track record. Forging his signature, I managed to swap and change shifts with my friends in order to visit her on a regular basis. She also played her part and feigned a pregnancy with the help of a corrupt medical technician.
The National Service’s objective was to encourage and enhance the greatest possible gene pool and our activities would be regarded as a serious infringement of the most sacred protocol; monogamy represented an abomination and warranted the severest punishment.
Inevitably, we were exposed as frauds by an over vigilant supervisor with time on his hands. I had a tip off that there were suspicions about my assignment record and when the pregnancy was found to be a phantom, that’s when the authorities closed in. The rota was switched at the last minute on my final evening as a whole man.
The supervisor changed my appointment and transported me to my new venue in his own vehicle. He discussed his suspicions in broad terms and escorted me to the unknown conscript’s door and into her apartment. She wasn’t sure what was occurring and didn’t expect two visitors. I made my apologies, when I heard him leave the building and set off down the road.
When I arrived at her flat there was a visitor pawing her body, uttering amorous overtures and steering her lithe form to our bedroom. It was too much for me and I unleashed a lifetime’s worth of invective and threw him over the balcony to the street below.
The emergency services arrived and attended to the wounded Casanova. Three police vehicles attended the building and put me under arrest. She was manhandled into the rear of a black Mariah and escorted toa rehabilitation centre near Heathrow airport.
At the subsequent hearing, I spoke on my own behalf as no defence was available or could be justified for my crimes. I maintained it was a crime of passion that had caused me to be outraged, however I also declared my love for the woman I intended marry. We wanted to raise a family together and I was dedicated to her.
The judge decided that my ideas were out of date and selfish beyond measure. He found me guilty as charged and sentenced me to a further three years of patriotic duty.
If I rejected this sentence, he would see no reason not to prescribe the ultimate punishment. In view of, and as a concession to, my medical studies, he said that he’d allow me to select who perform the procedure.
All I had left were memories and a name; her name was everything.
It represented joy to me and I’d cherish it forever and ever more.
Her name? I think you can guess, can’t you?
She wouldn’t go by any other name.