The packet was 20 years old, the use-by date was before the law changed. Jessie tore the Predictor packet into pieces and flushed them down the toilet. Then she shoved the white plastic paddle to the bottom of her handbag and went back to her desk.
The Predictor still worked, at least it looked like it did. She’d followed the instructions and it had done everything it said on the packet. The space in the box had turned blue: she was pregnant.
Her hand shook as she reached for the computer mouse. The time monitor on her pc had noticed her five-minute absence and an e-mail in her inbox confirmed the deduction off her week’s wages. With a sigh she clicked on camera three and looked at the grid-locked traffic. A red icon flashed and she bent to her microphone.
“Driver of LP3A 22B. You have not purchased authority to drive on the A1 between junctions 2 and 3 today, Wednesday August 3rd, 2031. You must pay £1,000 to City Central. After midnight tonight the fee goes up to £2,000. How would you like to pay? I can accept American Express…..”
She’d taken the Predictor from the store cupboard at her father’s pharmacy yesterday when her parents were at church. She knew where the box was hidden, he still kept it in the same desk drawer, the place he’d taken it from when she was six and had wanted a present to give to her mother on Mother’s Day. He’d given her a pink bottle of Johnson’s Baby Lotion.
Jessie had been a baby when the law changed 20 years earlier and they’d been forced to move to Flintfield. After the Baby Lotion incident she’d waited for a chance to investigate when her parents were out. She’d opened the box and spread the packets out across the floor in a fan around her knees: the pink packets of Predictor, blue boxes of Clearplan, bottles of sexual health vitamins, flat cardboard envelopes of Feagra and bottles of KY liquid. Now, she knew what the products were for. When she was 10 she’d thought they were women’s things, like the boxes her mother kept in the bottom drawer of the dressing table next to the gold jewellery she never wore. Since then Jessie’d looked at the box every now and then: sometimes it was half-empty, sometimes full.
As soon as Jessie’d turned 13 they’d moved to Hollyton where, as her father’s pharmacy became established, they moved twice more until settling five years ago into the six-bedroomed house in the best part of the city.
Only last week Jessie had watched a television documentary with her father. ’20 years on’ it was called. They’d listened to a government representative who’d presented statistics about the reduced crime level and better educational standards after the law changed. The wan-faced spokesman had been followed by a Freedom for Families campaigner who’d appealed for the law to be repealed.
“I wonder if they’ll be successful,” she’d thought aloud.
Jessie’s father had shaken his head. “It’ll never happen. Society’s too established now. The Government can prove the law works, just look at the crime figures. FFF’ll never get the votes.” He pushed the tobacco into the bowl of his pipe with the fleshy pad of this thumb. “People forget, that’s the problem. Children ran riot back then. The teachers, even the police couldn’t control them, and their parents weren’t interested. Too busy fornicating, breeding more babies they couldn’t afford to support.”
“But how did it get so bad?”
“Discipline.” He’d lit a match, held it to the shavings of tobacco curled up like threads of saffron, and waited for it to catch flame. “The end of the 20th century was a carnal time Jessie, parents treated their children like princes and princesses. They begat them as if they were fashion accessories. The children did what they wanted, not what their parents asked, they wore expensive clothes. All that stopped when the law changed. Common sense prevailed.”
“Oh Gerald,“ Jessie’s mother had sighed as she bent over her sewing. She was hemming squares of cut-up old bed sheet, now destined for use as tea towels.
Her father threw the spent match across the table. “Oh come on, Daniella, the city’s been safer since the law changed. Life is better.” He stared at his wife. ”Just think, we might have hated Jessie.”
Daniella had scratched her scalp then frowned at her husband through a flurry of dandruff. “I don’t deny Flintfield’s schools have improved discipline, but I do miss some things. When are you going to bring home a husband instead of partying with girls, well Jessie?”
Pile on the pressure, Mum, thought Jessie as she sat at her desk watching the traffic jam on the A1. There was no way she was getting married just to have a baby, she didn’t want to move to a family ghetto like Flintfield. One of the women in Jessie’s office lived there and told stories of children running along the pavements shouting at the tops of their voices, babies screaming non-stop in cafes and shops, family-only pubs where single people were banned, and MacDonalds which sold only Happy Meals, no Filet-of-Fish or Big Macs.
As Jessie sat at her computer she felt a little nauseous for the second morning in a row. She’d attributed yesterday’s sickness to the 15 gin twists she’d drunk with the girls in the Pink Maiden on Saturday night. It was Jessie’s favourite bar, it heaved with the scent of perfumed bodies, hormones and female attitude. Single men and marrieds stayed away from the Maiden, intimidated by the throng of women and gay men.
Yesterday Jessie had just felt sick, today the blue line on the paddle at the bottom of her handbag taunted her. “Flintfield” it shouted. She stuffed her scarf into her bag in an effort to muffle the noise but the shouting continued. No-one else seemed to have noticed.
“Men only want one thing,” she told her friend Ann at lunch an hour later in Café Virago.
“I know,” said Ann, as she poured hazelnut syrup into her double espresso. “Roger begged me to help him have a baby. I mean, what? Said he’d look after it, it wouldn’t interfere with my job, I’d just have to pay for it. Then he produced this Mothercare catalogue. It was disgusting. I told him I wasn’t having literature like that in my flat and I threw him out.”
Jessie nodded towards the doorway where a woman hovered, holding two children by the hand. “Uh oh.”
“Excuse me,” the woman asked the café assistant. “Could my daughter use your toilet? She’s not feeling well.”
“No,” said the assistant, “she can’t,” and pointed to a sign on the wall. Children not allowed.
“She is old enough. We live here, we’re not from Flint……”
The child started crying and a customer in the queue slapped her firmly on the cheek. The assistant pointed at the sign again. “Prove it.”
The mother and her children walked away and the hum of women’s indignation swelled to fill the vacuum. Jessie watched the trio of retreating backs, heads sunk down into their shoulders like a tortoise’s disappearing head. “The youngest must be 13, that’s why they’re new here,” she said between sips of her coffee. “Why did they set the age limit for a non-child at 13? It seems arbitrary.”
“Don’t know, s’pose they had to set it somewhere,” said Ann who stood up and pulled on her cardigan.
“But teenagers are as bad as small children. Mum’s told me stories from before The Change. How the neighbours’ children terrorised the street we lived in. No-one had ever told them ‘no’. There was a children’s law which gave them the right to divorce their parents if they didn’t like them.”
“At least kids today learn to behave at school in Flintfield.” Ann put on her sunglasses and picked up her bag. “They teach them discipline. That’s what my mum says and she should know, she worked in a school canteen for years. School teaches them to appreciate things, that’s why they make them live in such horrible tower blocks. No wonder everyone moves to Hollyton as soon as their kids are 13.”
“But weren’t you still a child when you were 13?”
“Don’t remember. My sister Emma says its standard protocol at her property agency to warn off potential buyers in Hollyton if teenagers live near the house they’re viewing. Prices drop in a street when teenagers move in. Look, I’ve gotta go, Jess. I can’t afford the salary deduction if I’m late again. Bye,” and Ann was gone.
Jessie flicked through the newspaper.
British Airways special offer to New York – 2 adults for the price of one: only £500. Children aged 13-16 £2,000 each, 2-13 £3,000, babies under 2 £4,000 each.
Leaving Flintfield now your child has come of age? Choose Thorpewood Senior School in Hollyton. +13-18. School of behavioural excellence. 13-year olds our speciality.
Rhoda’s Secondhand Maternity Shop. Clothes to clear. £1 per item.
On her way home that evening she popped to the shops to buy a few things for her abortion: bubble bath, cosy pyjamas, paperbacks to read. As she waited to pay she twirled a dispenser of vibrators. “Ladies. Don’t risk it. Safe sex with yourself is better than an unwanted child” said the advertising slogan. Jessie considered: her vibrator was getting a bit tired. She chose a silver vibrator in a transparent pink plastic box and put it in her basket next to a pint of skinny milk.
A week later she told Ann her news.
“Pregnant? You? You actually did it with a man?” Ann stared at Jessie open-mouthed. “Don’t worry, it’ll be a false alarm . You won’t really be pregnant. Not your first time. You didn’t use one of those Saudi Arabian pregnancy testing kits off the web did you?”
Jessie shook her head. “I may be pregnant but I haven’t lost my brains. No, I pinched one from Dad’s pharmacy.”
“He’s got loads of old stuff, he’s interested in drugs. Dates back to when he wanted to be a doctor, I guess. He failed medical school and became a pharmacist instead.”
Ann was still staring at her friend. “Perhaps he’s selling them on the black market. That’s why you live in such a big house.” She saw the frown on her friend’s face. “Only joking. Well, come on, did you like it with a man?”
“Worst thing I ever did. I can’t believe you do it with men for fun.”
The two girls sat in the Maiden nursing gin twists, twirling the miniature pink cocktail umbrellas.
Sue leant forward. “You should sue the company that made your pills. They’re negligent.”
Jessie laughed. “I can’t, I gave up taking them six months ago. There was no point, no man…….until………”
“That’s it, that’s why you suddenly fancied a man, you stopped taking the pill.” said Ann. “It dampens the urge to do it. You do know they put something in it, don’t you, something like the bromide they used to put in soldiers’ tea in the last century to stop them getting randy when they were at war. They may try to make every woman take the pill but they can’t watch over us every minute of the day. As soon as I get a new prescription I flush it down the toilet.”
“The Government hasn’t thought it through, has it?” said Jessie. “I mean, either you want sex with a man so you take the pill so you don’t get pregnant, as a result of which you lose all interest in sex. Or you don’t fancy men so you flush the pill down the loo which means you want to have sex with men all the time but can’t because you might get pregnant.”
“Mmm,” said Ann. “The modern girl’s dilemna. Anyway, there’s too much cancer in my family for me to risk taking it.”
“They shouldn’t prescribe it to you then, that’s wicked. But you have a different boyfriend every week. How come you don’t get pregnant?”
“I buy condoms at a shop on Wellington Road, it’s a healthy living shop. You have to ask for them, they keep them under the counter, they’re imported from Nigeria or somewhere in Africa where they have to wear them as prevention against AIDS. Never let me down yet, although the men always complain. Like wearing a rubber jacket, they say.”
They sat in silence and considered this sensation.
“Ann……. ,” said Jessie eventually. “Will you help me? I can’t afford to lose my job or my single tax benefit and you know how hard it is for women our age to find a job. There’s too many women after too few jobs.”
Ann sat up straight. “I hope you’re not thinking of having it and bringing it up on your own. You’d have to get married and move to Flintfield. You don’t want to end up like our Mary, banished to that single mother’s home in Wales. In her letters she says it’s hell.”
“I’ll have it done, don’t worry. I don’t want a criminal record for getting pregnant when I’m not married. No, but I’ll have an illegal abortion thank you very much, one that’s done properly. I want a nice nursing home in England where the operating theatre is clean, where the nurses speak English, and where they don’t send you to the airport for the flight home an hour afterwards.”
“An illegal one’ll cost a fortune. I can try and get you a bank loan from work but you’ll have to pay up front and they’ll only refund the money when you show them a receipt.”
Jessie shrugged. “I’d never get away with it. Don’t worry, I did a lot of overtime last year. I was saving for a car but I think I’ve got enough for an abortion. No, the problem is where to go.”
They finished their drinks and ordered another round from the waitress dressed in a little black dress with a fresh red rose tucked behind her ear.
“What about pennyroyal oil,” asked Ann. “You could do it yourself at home. I know someone who used it.”
“What happened to her?” asked Jessie.
The waitress brought them their drinks.
“I know, online,” Ann jumped up. “There’s a booth outside.”
Five minutes later, drinks left behind, the girls stood at the stainless steel internet booth in the street.
“Stand behind me, Ann,” said Jessie, “I don’t want anyone reading over my shoulder. They might report me.” She tapped in a bogus name, clicked on a Google search for ‘private abortion’, and leant her right arm over the screen to shield it from the overhead CCTV camera.
53 results. 49 were Government warnings.
Pregnant? Click here to choose a legal abortion today or pay the penalty.
Pregnant and unmarried? Or is it your second fertilisation? Think twice before breaking the law. Terminate your pregnancy the legal way. Call 0799 LEGAL-AB. Now!
Private abortions are illegal and women found guilty will face the death penalty. The Government will prosecute. No exceptions. If you know of someone who is illegally pregnant, do them a favour and earn a bounty. Call ……….
The first of the non-Governmental four was a clinic near Munich: too far. The second charged £20,000, more money than Jessie had in her savings account. The third was financially possible, just – Southampton, £10,000, five night stay, counselling. The fourth in Wigan was too cheap – £3,000, two night stay, “amazing value.”
She printed the page for the third clinic, folded the paper into a tight wad and zipped it in the pocket of her jeans jacket.
The next day she crossed Southampton off her list. Trains hadn’t run there for three years, the airport closed 20 years ago and the only way to get there was by car. Even if Jessie borrowed one, the petrol and road tolls would cost more than the abortion.
“I’ve found out where to get pennyroyal oil,” said Ann at lunchtime. “I know you don’t want to use it but I thought the person that sold it might know of something else you could take. Here, I’ve written the telephone number down for you.” She passed to Jessie a piece of paper folded as small as a 1st class stamp.
“Thanks.” Jessie put the paper in her pocket without looking at it.
After work she walked three miles out of town, past rows of family houses with their windows boarded up and new singles apartment blocks with ranks of bicycle racks outside, past a drive-in garage and supermarket, to a single telephone box on a street corner. Wearing gloves and a baseball cap, she turned away from the CCTV camera and dialled the number on Ann’s piece of paper.
The phone stopped ringing when someone at the other end picked up the receiver, but no-one spoke.
“Hello,” said Jessie. “Hello. I know someone’s there.”
“Yes.” The gender of the voice defied definition.
“I’m looking for someone to help me. To give me something that’ll help me. Do you understand?”
“Can you help me?”
“Oh.” Jessie wound the telephone cord around her hand until her fingers turned white. “Do you know someone who can?”
“Look, it’d help if you said more than yes. How do I find this person?”
From the telephone earpiece came the sound of rustling paper. “33 Amos Street.” Then the line went dead.
“33 Amos Street,” Jessie repeated to herself as she walked the three miles home. “33 Amos Street.”
“A new girl at work lives in Amos Street. I said I’d visit her. Do you know where it is Mum? It rings a bell…”
Daniella looked up from her ironing and brushed her steam-sodden fringe out of her eyes. “Amos Street? That’s in Flintfield. You used to go to the primary school around the corner.” She altered the heat setting of the iron and the thermostat clicked as the red light came on. “But I wouldn’t go there, dear. It’s not safe. Your father has to deliver pharmaceuticals to Flintfield every week and I always worry. I wish he didn’t have to go so often but the money’s good and the other pharmacists in town don’t want the job.”
The door opened on Jessie’s first knock. An arm pulled her inside, the click of the door as it shut behind her was no louder than a keystroke.
“Wait,” said the person and disappeared. The rough corner of her fingernail [Jessie assumed it was a woman] had scratched Jessie’s arm. She patted the sore patch and hoped it wasn’t bleeding. In the gloom she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face.
“This way.” The woman appeared silently at Jessie’s side.
Wondering when the woman would speak in syllables of more than one word, a door opened and Jessie’s retinas reeled from the burst of light. Three women looked up momentarily from computers then down again, the only noise was fingers tapping on keyboards.
“Sorry about that,” said the woman with the torn fingernail. “We have to be very careful, understand? What is it that you’re needing?”
“Pennyroyal oil, I was told I could buy some here.”
“Pennyroyal oil? And why would you be wanting that?”
Jessie couldn’t place the lilt of the woman’s voice, the inversion of her sentences, it was a voice easy on the ear which Jessie could listen to all day.
“Why would you be wanting that then?” the woman repeated.
Jessie took a deep breath and decided she had nothing to lose. “I’m pregnant and I don’t want it. Really I want an abortion. An illegal one, but I can’t afford it. Then someone told me about pennyroyal oil and …”
“Pennyroyal oil is a herbal abortifacient. It works, but the side effects are unpleasant: liver damage, convulsions, coma, death. We offer abortions here too, perhaps you’d like to consider that instead?”
Jessie shook her head. “How much?”
“Don’t you be worrying about that now, first thing is we need to make sure you’re really pregnant. Can Sister Mary be taking a look at you?”
One of the computer women stood up, she was wearing a neat blue dress.
“Is this a hospital,” asked Jessie.
“No,” replied the fingernail woman.
After a bit of poking and prodding, Jessie adjusted her clothes and waited for the blue woman’s verdict. The fingernail woman wrote something in a book then looked at Jessie. “We can either do it now, or tomorrow night at 7pm. It’s up to you.”
“You’ve got a doctor here, now? A proper doctor.”
The woman nodded. “Improbable as it seems, yes, we have an experienced medical practitioner who has completed thousands of successful terminations.”
“Ahh, always asking about money. Will you have it done now or tomorrow?”
Jessie stood with her hand on her tummy and thought of her bag packed at home with its bottle of bubble bath and clean pyjamas. She thought of her flat and her job, her pension and her plans. “Now. But I need to make a phone call first.”
She made three. First, her mother. Jessie said she was staying the night at Ann’s, then she called Ann and asked her to cover for her. “They say I can stay here for a couple of days, depending on how I recover.” Ann started to say some comforting things but Jessie interrupted. “Ann, there’s one odd thing. They won’t tell me how much it costs.” Just get it over with, Ann advised. Next Jessie called in sick at work. Flu she said. In August, they said.
Half an hour later, the blue woman settled Jessie onto the bed and strapped her feet into the boots which spread her legs higher and wider than they’d been when the first man inside her had impregnated her. The fingernail woman appeared in blue gown and mask, rubber gloves reaching to her elbows, syringe in hand. No-one spoke. Behind her, a tall figure in a green gown slipped into the room.
Jessie counted back from ten as the anaesthetic started to kick in. When she got to five, the face behind the green mask crystallised and she looked into her father’s watery hazel eyes. Then everything went black.
© Sandra Danby
2003/4: shortlisted for Fish Short Story Competition. www.fishpublishing.com
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
PROCREATION a #shortstory by @SandraDanby about #pregnancy #dystopianfiction http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1j