Monday, June 12, 2017

2084 by Bruce Costello

Marilyn, Graham and their son Tom live in the New Zealand of the future: safe, friendly, and deeply oppressive; by Bruce Costello.

"Tom fell over at school running in the playground with other boys!" shrieked Marilyn, when Graham arrived home from work.

The tearful principal who'd rung Marilyn to report the incident had apologised profusely, saying it was an eleven millimetre scratch on the knee, 'Not serious, but shouldn't have happened, and the teacher on playground duty was docked a week's pay.'

"He's just a boy," Graham said to his wife, shaking his head.

"Tom's seven years old and a Vigilantes platoon leader and he ought to be setting an example, not playing dangerous children's games that should be illegal! It's high time you lot at the Ministerium passed a law against them!"

Graham tried to embrace Marilyn to calm her, as she seemed almost hysterical, but she pushed him away. Her wide eyes looked enormous against her thin and sunken face.

Graham picked up Tom and held him to his chest. "It's only a scratch. Please don't growl at him, sweetheart. He was playing. It's what boys do."



After dinner, Graham slumped in his armchair, Marilyn's words echoing in his head.

Since New Zealand had banned adult sports in the social reforms of the early twenties, the nation had become a calmer and safer place. Aggression had receded from society and crime had virtually ceased.

But, of course, Graham reflected, running a hand across his balding head, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

The loss of the mongrel element in the national psyche had disadvantaged New Zealand in trade negotiations, leading to a decline in export earnings, but the country had been able to boost its flagging economy through land sales to China.

The other consequence of the ban had been laughable. When New Zealand refused to hand back the Bledisloe Cup, which the All Blacks had won the year before the ban began, Australia had broken off diplomatic relationships, and begun a military build-up.

On the face of it, Graham thought, frowning, a ban on children's games should be even more successful. Games could be replaced by cooperative, educational activities, avoiding the risk of both physical and psychological harm. The position of 'loser,' so injurious to young egos, would be eliminated, and the word 'loser' added to the illegal list. New Zealand's reputation as a world leader in social reform would be reaffirmed.

Factions within the Ministerium had long been advocating action on children's games, exerting powerful pressure even its co-CEO could not resist for much longer.

And now it seemed he had his wife to contend with.



Tom, wearing a blue and red onesie, leaned back on the pillow.

"Daddy, what were books?"

"Books were, ah, like screens, with words and pictures, but made out of paper from chopped down trees."

"Is that why books got banded?"

"Banned."

"'Being nice to trees is every citizen's duty,'" Tom quoted.

"Yes. All books are electronic now, sent out over the Internet, so it's easier for the Ministerium's censors to catch people and stop them writing wrong things."

Tom wriggled uncomfortably.

Graham continued. "Censors read everything and anybody who's caught writing naughty things is punished."

"See saws..."

"Censors."

"Do they tell on people?"

"Yes, it's the law, that's their duty."

Tom clutched his teddy bear to his chest.

"Where's your happy face gone?" Graham asked.

"Not telling," said Tom, turning away.

Graham lifted up the sheets, grabbed one of his feet and started to tickle it. Tom stayed still, holding his lips tight as long as he could, then writhed about, squealing.

"Had enough?"

"I give in!"

"You'd better go to sleep now," Graham smiled, tucking him back into bed. "How's it going at Vigilantes, by the way?"

Tom's face darkened. He pulled his father's head towards him and whispered: "My bestest friend Roland says they're hiding an Australian at their house. He made me promise not to say nothing, but Vigilantes are meant to tell!" He covered his face with his hands and began to sob.



School classes from around the city started arriving at the Ministerium every morning from 7.30 for Sensitivity Training.

A mob of children in the foyer scattered as Graham approached. They looked about Tom's age.

On an impulse, he reached out to ruffle a tousled head of ginger hair that brushed against him, but quickly corrected himself. Nobody was safe from prosecution under New Zealand's Appropriate Speech and Behaviour laws, not even he.



After Inspirations, Graham sent his secretary away on an errand and sat at his desk, head in hands, before suddenly jerking upright. He had almost thought aloud the word 'depressed,' illegal in new age New Zealand.

I need to talk to Marilyn, Graham said to himself. Things are coming to a head. Why has she been so different lately? Either sullen and quiet, or angry and snapping at everything I say. I need to talk to her, try to find out what's been bothering her. But if I do, she'll get defensive and tell me I'm her problem. I'll half believe her but deny it, and that'll set her off again, and achieve nothing except make me more...

"Here's an announcement from Health and Safety," boomed the ceiling speaker. "Due to the recent change to standard time, staff are advised that it may be darker than usual when you leave the building tonight. Please take care."

Co-CEO Moana Te Whaiti knocked and entered. "Lovely to see you, Graham. We're both so busy, we seldom get the chance to chat. Shall we share a hug?"

"Of course."

They embraced.

"Keeping well?" asked Graham.

"Yes, thanks, I'm over my cold. How are you? You look all blurry-eyed."

"No, I'm fine, thanks."

"What about Marilyn?"

"She's great."

"And dear little Tom? Still doing well at Vigilantes?

"Oh, yes!"

"Good to hear," said Moana. "Let's get down to business. With all the trouble being stirred up by Australian detainees on Stewart Island, I asked Information to prepare some new educational material."

She held up a poster showing a kangaroo, dressed like a bushman in slouch hat with dangling corks and khaki shorts, reaching out with clawed hands to seize a tiny kiwi backed into a corner. The bird was giving the kangaroo a one fingered salute, and the speech bubble coming from its beak read 'Up yours!'

"Great," said Graham.

Moana held up another poster, this one depicting a blowfly with crocodile teeth about to chomp into a sugar cube shaped like the North Island. The heading in yellow letters read: "Blue-Arse Blowfly: the Australian national bird." Below was written in red: "Together, we'll rid New Zealand of Australian pests!" She grinned. "Also fits in with our anti-sugar obesity campaign."

"Nice one."

"Okay. I'll get 400,000 printed overnight and have them displayed in the usual places."

"Super."

Moana took off her sunglasses and transfixed Graham with her dark eyes. "It is my duty to remind you the Ministerium expects 100% enthusiasm from all of us."

She left, slamming the door.

"Staff are reminded," the speaker boomed, "that free-flowing flatulence is good for the health. As an environmentally friendly employer, the Ministerium requires that regulation underpants fitted with approved olfactory and auditory suppressants must be worn inside the building at all times and replaced twice daily."

For a long time, Graham sat open-mouthed and wide-eyed, like a man who's had a sudden revelation.



"You and I need to have a talk," Graham said to Marilyn, that night, after putting Tom to bed.

Marilyn put her book down. Graham told her about his conversation with Tom the previous evening. "Poor little guy was torn apart, thinking he should inform on his best friend, Roland."

"Roland's family wouldn't be the only one around here sheltering an Australian," retorted Marilyn. "Is it such a crime?"

Graham gaped at her.

She continued. "In the old days, there were heaps of Australians living around here and they never did any harm." Her voice rose. "What sort of a country is this when a seven year boy is expected to inform on his best friend's family? And decent people are detained on an island, like lepers?"

"Shhh. It's best not to speak like this out loud."

Marilyn's face was bright red. Her breath was coming in short gasps and words started tumbling from her mouth.

"I'm frightened," she said, her voice rising. "I have been for a long time. I'm scared they'll get you, and then what'll happen to Tom and me? I've heard rumours... people dying in strange accidents or just vanishing!"

She burst into tears, then blew her nose and carried on. "I've come to hate what's happening in this country but I couldn't say anything to you because of your position! Didn't know how you'd react, or what you'd think of me. And all that stuff I said yesterday about how children's games should be banned, that was just to hide what I really thought! "

"I'm so sorry."

"I've had to bottle up my feelings, so they've all built up and now I'm ready to explode!"

"Poor Marilyn."

"A while ago, I made a decision to grin and bear it. Put my feelings on hold and just plod on. But after hearing what's been gnawing at Tom, I can't anymore... this was the last straw for me, too. I can't hide it anymore! "



The next day was a Saturday. They were walking through a reserve in the hills, a former rugby field planted in native flora, overlooking Wellington harbour. The path was bordered by Matagouri bushes, their dark spines waving in the breeze. Tom was running ahead of his parents, chasing a butterfly.

"This is a huge thing, and not just about Tom," said Marilyn. "It's everything the country has become."

"I think I'd felt for a long time that something was wrong, but I was too much a part of it to see it, or admit it to myself," Graham said. "But the day after my talk with Tom, when Moana was in my office spouting a lot of nonsense, and an announcement came over the speaker about fart-proof underpants, the truth struck me: we've turned into a nation of idiots. It was like I'd been blind and suddenly got my eyesight back."

"An epiphany," said Marilyn.

"A what?"

"An epiphany. A sudden startling realisation, triggered by an ordinary but striking occurrence."

"Something like that."

"You look surprised," Marilyn said. "Didn't you know I knew some big words? There's a lot you don't know about me, you've been too wrapped up in your own importance and in your work to notice."

"Ouch," said Graham. "But true."

"There's such a lot at stake," said Marilyn.

"I feel so powerless."

"What can we do?"

"I don't know."

They walked on, listening to the strange sound of tui warbling, mimicking the clear song of the bellbird and combining it with their own clicks, barks, cackles and wheezes.

After a while they emerged from the bush to a rest area with a panoramic view of the harbour. They found a seat beside a picnic table and sat down, huddled up together, Tom leaning into his mother.

"What can be done?"

"I'm afraid we may've left it too late."

"Look!" cried Marilyn, pointing down towards the harbour.



Admiral James Clancy of the Royal Australian Navy turned to Brigadier Ralph Dawson of the Marines, standing beside him on the bridge of HMAS Perth as the fleet entered Wellington Harbour.

"Pity it's come to this. We used to be good mates."

"Bloody nanny state."

"At least there won't be any fighting."

"Pack of wimpy bastards."

"Fancy disbanding their armed forces!"

"Somebody has to liberate them from themselves."

"It's what old mates are for," said Admiral Clancy, scanning the shoreline and the hilltop, then passing his binoculars to the Brigadier. "Take a squiz at those two people and that boy jumping up and down on the picnic table, waving. They look real pleased to see us."

12 comments:

  1. Thank you, Bruce, for such an engaging story. It is a perfect and richly themed 'take' on the law of unintended consequences. The serious, underlying themes were heightened by the use of humour e.g. the fart-proof underpants (and the idea that all citizens should realise that farting is part of their civic duty). The strong message that the road to hell is paved with good intentions came across clearly in this non-polemical and skilful narrative - in managing certain risks others are too easily ignored and even exacerbated. It is a apposite story for our times. Best wishes, Ceinwen

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Ceinwen. Much appreciated

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  2. Well, that is different. I did wonder whether it was a cautionary tale or lovely imagination at work. Either way, I enjoyed it.

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    1. Thanks, Lorin. Actually, the story was rather tongue-in-cheek, though maybe plausible.

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  3. Thank you, Bruce, for a most enjoyable and thought-provoking story. Your tale shows us that when we engage in dishonesty - whether personal, in relationships or political, usually through fear, disaster is sure to follow. The ending is hopeful, as long as there are good folk ready to speak the truth and snap us out of an 'Emperor's New Clothes' syndrome. Well done. Believable characters and great dialogue too. Jane Swan

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    1. Thanks, Jane. There're a lot of dipsticks in the crowd, but enough good folk to act as a counterbalance. Usually

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  4. We live in strange times. Credible take on the incredible.

    Mike McC

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  5. Thanks, Mike. Strange times, indeed, and getting stranger.

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  6. Your story shows how something intended for good can be taken to such extremes that it achieves the very opposite. Proves that everything should be done in moderation? A thought-provoking tale, Bruce.
    Beryl.

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  7. Excellent and terrifyingly topical read. The fart-proof underpants made me giggle.

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  8. Thank god for the fart proof pants/knickers ! Good and in the end, hopeful story. I bet you could write a novel - have you?

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    1. No, I haven't written a novel and doubt that I've got the patience to attempt one. Thanks for your comment.

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