Matthew Harrison imagines a dystopian future in which conjugal rights are strictly enforced.
From his cubicle in the Finance department of Proscribed PLC, he glanced up at passing female colleagues, even talked to one of them, and he more-than-glanced when passing the cubicle of Tina the certified office hottie. At lunch in the canteen, his seat in the raised area afforded a view of the cleavage of female colleagues sitting below.
As if this wasn't enough, Steve browsed some debatable websites, and on the way home passed a poster of a scantily-clad starlet. The sensors recorded all of this, relayed it to the blockchain where it was compared with the prescribed parameters, and presto! he was notified that he had gone over his contractual limit.
Ouch! Proscribed was a Socially-Responsible Company, so Steve's work privileges were immediately withdrawn. He had to go shamefaced over to Admin to be reauthorised for his own PC, not to mention the canteen - and even the toilet (Proscribed was a very responsible company). The Admin ladies, who relished their work, checked and rechecked the reauthorisation, so that by the time it came, Steve was hopping from foot to foot. "The toilet's over there," the Admin lady said, pointing down the corridor. In fact it wasn't, and the Admin ladies had further amusement as he hopped up and down corridors trying to find it.
A much-chastened Steve met his IT colleague Roland for lunch in the canteen. He chose a table as far away as possible from the female staff, and as close as possible to the toilet. Even then, he spent most of the lunch looking at the wall.
Roland of course knew all about it (Steve had been 'outed' on social media - again by those Admin ladies) and, over spaghetti bolognese, he was full of sympathy. "Guess you didn't read the contract," he said through a mouthful. "Well, none of us do, and -"
"You don't have a contract," Steve retorted. "You're not married."
"We're bound by the corporate code, don't forget. It's nearly the same thing, of course the parameters are broader, my ogling allowance for example..." Roland looked at his wrist display, "Oh gosh! I'm almost over!"
He rummaged in his pocket, and brought out a pair of black felt patches. "Try these, lucky I've got a spare pair - they're blinkers."
"Blinkers?" Steve repeated.
"Yes, like for a horse. You stick them to your glasses. Well, you don't wear glasses. I guess we could make a frame for you..."
Steve thanked his friend and put the blinkers carefully in his pocket.
Roland glanced quickly around, and then said in a whisper, "You know, if you really need to indulge, there are certain tricks..."
Steve asked what he meant. Roland suggested meeting in the carpark, the sensors would catch them here.
A female colleague sashayed past with her tray; Steve looked quickly at the wall. Roland looped the spaghetti around his fork and took another mouthful. "Welcome to Chastity City," he said, "where pleasure is measured and repentance is leisured!"
He had a difficult conversation with his wife Marjorie when he got home.
"It's not that I mind you looking at all those girls, Steve, if that's what you want to do," Marjorie was saying. "I want you to be happy. But did you consider the impact on me? Now everyone knows that I've got a husband with no more control over himself than a dog..."
Steve mumbled that it was a bit harsh.
"Sandra next door was there when I got home, I'm sure she was waiting on purpose, and she gave me such a look," Marjorie continued heatedly.
Steve was sure it was just a coincidence.
"And why are you so keen on those girls anyway? Why don't you just go off with them if you like them so much? Go on - just go!" Marjorie pointed dramatically to the door.
There was a great deal more in the same vein, interspersed with tears, small objects thrown across the room and, once, a slap - although the last didn't hurt very much and was more for the sake of form than anything else. Nonetheless, it took a huge effort on Steve's part, including renewed marriage vows, eternal promises and a visit to the florist before Marjorie was finally mollified.
It was now late in the evening and they were sitting together on the bed, exhausted. "Do you really want me?" Marjorie asked in a muffled voice, snuggled up as she was under Steve's arm.
He assured her he did.
"Even when you have your office beauties?"
Steve swore that he would never think of them again. And she was more beautiful, anyway.
"Mm," Marjorie murmured, snuggling up some more.
It seemed to Steve that a spot of conjugal felicity might be on the cards. But his exploratory hand was rebuffed. "I can't," Marjorie whispered.
"What do you mean, 'Can't'?"
"It's in the contract, dear. We're blocked."
Bugger the blockchain! Steve muttered to himself.
Nonetheless, the following morning Steve rose determined to comply with the blockchain contract. He put on Roland's blinkers, and although he got some strange glances on the train, they did help. Distracting females on the periphery of his vision were simply hidden, while any that came into his central focus could be dealt with by looking resolutely away.
And although he met Roland in the carpark, he resisted the temptation to try out his friend's 'tricks'. The main item among these was a pair of sunglasses - supposedly providing ogling freedom - but Steve doubted that the sensors would be fooled.
Sunglasses in any case would not have helped with his main difficulty, which was meeting female colleagues indoors. With Masie from Accounts he tried looking away while talking to her, but it felt awkward. With Sandra from Project Management he tried focusing on a neutral part of her anatomy, say her chin, but this was awkward too. So he tried repeating mentally, She's ugly, she's ugly, but that made him forget what he wanted to say. And how was his compliance with the contract?
Roland, eager to make up for the sunglasses, found Steve an app which monitored his compliance score. Steve gratefully logged in - and was shocked to find that he was already near the limit. What had he done?
"I've lived like monk, as far as I can tell," he said to Roland. "What is it with this bloody blockchain?"
Roland agreed that it was tough.
"And how can I know what I'm allowed to do?"
Roland, again, had an app. This app would beep an alert whenever the subject stepped off the straight and narrow. Steve tried it, and it was an eye-opener. Walking along a crowded street prompted a fusillade of alerts, while just loitering in Tina's vicinity, without even sight of her, provoked a continuous beeping. Meeting a female colleague seemed impossible.
Roland came to the rescue once more. His latest app, which operated on a pair of smart contact lenses, actually censored the objects that came within the wearer's vision. Steve, with the contacts on, found himself in a curious world. He would pass people and look at them, only to find (in the case of females) that their faces, chest and lower parts were blurred out. The beeper remained silent, but it was with a sense of unreality that Steve went about his tasks at Proscribed. What kind of world was it with all the female content edited out?
"Who wrote the contract?" Steve asked Marjorie some days later.
"Well, it wasn't me," Marjorie said, with a sigh. "It's certainly not comfortable for me, if that's what you're thinking."
That was exactly what Steve had been thinking. So Marjorie explained it to him.
Steve gaped. He had had no idea - all those little things, the housework, the washing, the cleaning, his work-clothes picked up from the floor and hung up, his shoes polished - she had done all of them. "Wow!" he said. "And you're not allowed to say anything about it?"
"Not a word," Marjorie confirmed. "Unless you ask - as you just did."
Steve sat down on the bed, flabbergasted. It was a lot more complicated than he had thought. That marriage contract didn't just constrain him, it constrained his partner as well. He thought of the thousands and millions of couples over the country, all over the world, who had to comply with contracts like theirs. That crushing compliance burden, multiplied thousands and millions of times. The thought of it made him feel ill.
Then he remembered something. "What about when I went off the rails, and you...?"
"I paid for it," Marjorie said grimly. "I was in purdah for a week. I couldn't say a word."
Steve now recalled seeing Marjorie rather pale and drawn, but he had been so absorbed in his own problems. "You poor dear!" he said with feeling, putting an arm round her shoulders.
"Imagine - not being able to talk," said Marjorie bitterly.
Phew! Steve could imagine how painful that would have been for his talkative wife. "But then who did write the contract?" he asked.
Marjorie didn't know. It was just the standard one, the one that everybody had.
"Well, let's get it out and take a look!" Steve said.
It was hard getting hold of their marriage contract. Steve couldn't have done it on his own, but with Roland's help, they were eventually able to view it. They scrolled down the terms - "That's my ogling!" Steve said shamefacedly, "That's where I spoke out of turn," Marjorie admitted - until they had found all the places they had gone wrong, and more besides. In fact, it would have been very difficult for a human couple to have comported themselves within the contract terms.
"So, how do you manage to avoid looking at girls?" Marjorie asked.
Steve confessed to his contact lenses - they blurred all the naughty bits. And he showed her Roland's blinkers.
"Oh my god!" Majorie giggled. Then she reached a hand to her mouth - and brought out a small device.
Steve goggled at the thing, still shiny with saliva. "So that's how you...?"
Marjorie nodded. "A sort of modern-day scold's bridle. Ugh!"
That's it, Steve thought, suddenly resolute. Clear in his mind, he took the thing from her, wet though it was, and flung it into the bin. Then he peeled off his own contact lenses and flung them away too. "Let's amend the contract," he said.
He tried. But the contract was read-only. Even Roland, when they met him the following day, could not get them write privileges. "That's the beauty of blockchain," he said: "it's immutable."
"Blow blockchain!" was Steve's reaction. Marjorie, more practical, asked what they could do.
Roland considered. "You can annul the contract, but then you won't be married. You won't be accepted as partners again - the system bars what they call 'double-spending'. The only thing I can think of..." He paused.
"Go on!" Marjorie urged him.
"Well, you could each marry someone else, then annul that, then come back together again. The system will accept you then. Now, I can see you aren't convinced, but if you, Marjorie, were to marry me - just temporarily, mind - and Steve were to marry, oh, I don't know, say Masie in Accounts -"
"That's enough!" Steve broke in. "We aren't marrying anyone else."
"Have you got any other ideas?" Marjorie asked Roland.
"Well, you could always die," their friend said helpfully. "Or one of you could die, that would be easier, then the other one -"
"Talk sense, for God's sake!" Steve exploded.
"Now, dear, he's trying," Marjorie said soothingly. "And who is this Masie in Accounts?"
Back at home Steve and Marjorie were discussing the whole thing. Steve summed it up. According to Roland, there were three options - annul the contract and marry someone else, annul the contract by dying, or carry on with the existing contract. "But that's no choice at all," Steve said firmly, "there's no way we will do any of those."
Marjorie wondered about identity change. She could dye her hair; Steve could walk with a limp.
"That's almost what we were doing!" Steve exclaimed. "Your bridle, my blinkers..."
"No," he concluded, "we've got to be ourselves."
"Or no contract at all?" Marjorie suggested.
No marriage contract? That didn't seem right - everyone knew that marriage was an agreement, a contract, and nowadays contracts had to be written down. It was just that the contract was so harsh, and as Roland said, the blockchain was so immutable.
"We could make our own contract," Marjorie suggested. "You agree not to look at girls, and I agree not to scold you."
They looked at each other.
"OK, OK," Marjorie threw up her hands, "That's a bit idealistic. You can look at one girl a week, and I -"
"Just one?" Steve asked.
"All right, two - and then I agree..." At Steve's expression, she stopped.
Steve took her hands, serious now. "What I think we should do is marry in our own way."
"Oh, Steve!" Marjorie was overwhelmed. "That's so romantic! Just like the old days." Then her face clouded. "But how do we know we'll stick to it?"
Steve cleared his throat. "In the old days, they had a thing called... love..."