Sonia Bowler brought in the birthday cake from the alcove in the other part of the room. She had purchased it out of Drighties, ‘the superior patisserie and cake maker’ in Norfort, that only number 7s and 8s got to use. It had cost half her bread ration, just to get in, and the 13 candles had cost, well, too much, but who was counting? All that mattered was her little girl was happy on her big day.
‘Make a looto wish.’ Sonia’s words hung in the air and her guests looked down at the table thankful for the salutation so they could freeze frame their faces to look suitably impressed. She placed the cake down in, slide-rule fashion, perfectly centred, on the yellow checked mat in the middle of the table. There were six places laid out all with proper napkins and real music on the radiogramonica.
Sarah, the birthday girl, had the most comfortable chair and a yellow paper crown. Her best friend Celia had a green paper hat, but her other best friend, Marjorie, didn’t merit one. She quite understood and was rather nice about it. As a borderline 2, she couldn’t afford to be uppity, especially if there was going to be jelly and ice cream. She’d only heard about such things and never tasted them. Marjorie chewed on her broccoli cutlet and smiled a lot, but said very little, in case she upset anyone. She felt it would be childish to show too much enthusiasm about Sarah blowing out the candles, but careless not to.
Sammy Bowler made such a fine job of carving out the cake that it looked as if it had been done by machine. As quick and precise as he was, he wasn’t as quick or precise as Sonia. She placed one microfiche sized quadrant on each plate apart from that of baby Jonah.
‘Go on give him a bit,’ said Sammy, caught up in the festivities.
Jonah, knowing that he was being talked about, kept banging his big spoon on the highchair, rocking it from side to side, his head moving back and forth as if spoon playing was part of his baby-head heritage.
‘Stop it!’ Mrs Bowler gave one of her catnip smiles to the company. ‘He’s still nipple fed, three times a day, whether he needs it or not, so he really shouldn’t be that hungry.’
‘Mum!’ Sarah’s face was as pink as the icing on her cake.
Mrs Bowers took a deep breath and her face cracked into her best approximation of a cheerful smile. Because of the situation she tried to make her voice light as shortening.
‘I’ll let him lick my fingers after wrapping the cakes.’
Marjorie wiped her mouth and looked away. If she’d been alone she’d have licked the plate. She looked hopefully at the cake that had been scissored into sections. But she knew that Mrs Bowler could never be accused of extravagance. Each segment had already been wrapped in shrink proof ready to be allocated as bribes.
A heated room was a luxury Marjorie was loathed to leave, but curfew for 2s like her was earlier than for 3s like Celia. Besides, Celia could afford the busodrome.
Marjorie pushed back her chair. ‘I’ve got to be going.’ She’d a nice smile and she used it, before curtseying. They spent 12 hours a week at school on right etiquette-right posture. Her fingers and wrist curled and twisted outward, then in, and her hand swept half up then down, in the prescribed dual combination manner to make the appropriate shape for Mrs Bowers a 3 come 4 and for Mr Bowers a 4 come 3. She made the correct shu-hu sound from the back of her throat to each and bowed her head in subservience towards one, and then the other, before making for the front door.
The looto bell struck the 9 tone in the corner of the room on the radiogrammonica and the whole city seemed to stop to listen. Even baby Jonah, his eyes darting from one to the other, all hopes of being lifted from the high chair dashed, breathed in the sombreness of the announcements. The radiogrammonica rattled out a lullaby of number after number in an automated female voice for twenty-three minutes and thirty seconds. Baby Jonah’s head lolled and fell to one side as he fell asleep
‘Shit.’ Sammy didn’t need to check his tattoos. He knew the different combinations off by heart. ‘The looto god never seems to help the lower numbers.’ He kicked at one of the chairs, before patting the cushion he’d dislodged, in a sign of reconciliation as if it were some household pet.
‘I never hear my numbers close to coming up. I don’t think I ever will.’
‘Ssh,’ Sonia motioned with her eyes towards Celia.
She could report them. Even thier own Sarah could report them. It wasn’t unknown. But there was a 98.8% chance of it not happening with their own daughter. It was more difficult to determine Celia’s position. Under the circumstances Mrs Bowler made a great play, an insistence even, that instead of carefully ironing the paper hat and returning it to a drawer, Celia could keep it, in fact, should keep it.
The lights went out one after the other in quadrants all over the city, the lower numbers sections first and the higher last. Only the 9’s housing on the hill stayed lit.
Sarah got undressed in the dark, carefully placing her party dress in the cotton bag it had come in. Her mother would return it the next day and get their deposit back. She lay down on the bare planks of her cot and pulled the blanket over her shoulder and breathed into its wool smell. Her fingers found the opening to the bag and played with the sheer silk material of the dress and conjured up the kite like colours; the red and yellow of it soaring in her mind. It was difficult for her to imagine what it would be like to wear such clothes, day-in day-out, like
9s did. Her hand jolted away from the dress, as if she’d been burned. She prayed it was only unravelled thread and not a torn section. Her mind churned the possibilities over and over, a loose thread had to be reported, but could be fixed. A tear meant that a birch rod would be taken to her back by her mother. Sleep became impossible; something like a dream, as she lay still as an empty casket amid the noises of the night and sounds of her parent’s talking.
Sonia stifled a yawn as her husband rolled off her. Recently the topic of conversation had been more animated than his rutting. And it carried the same repetitive urgency.
‘How much will we get for her?’
It was a woman’s business to know about such things. Sonia spoke in a soft voice, the one that she used when she told her daughter how the fates worked.
‘She’s menstruated so she is ready. If the looto gods are good a 9 will take her and she will live on the hill.’
‘And us. What about us?’
Sarah didn’t want to listen, but in the darkness, her father’s words seemed twisted and coiled with a self-satisfied malediction that would conjure the fates. She shifted in her cot, barely breathing, waiting to hear what her mother would say.
‘We’ll see. The higher number; the closer to the hill we get.’
Sammy had heard it all before, women’s words, well-rehearsed and soporific answers that relaxed the muscles in his back and let him sink down and down into their bed.
‘Then with the contacts we’ve made and the higher accrued number we’ll get better jobs, better houses, better drugs and baby Jonah will be re-evaluated and assigned a new number and he too will have better prospects, even though he’s almost an imbecile at borderline 1. It’s almost a done deal.’
Sammy sat up. ‘Almost?’
Sarah prayed to the looto gods that there would be some kind of reprieve that there would be something wrong with her number, not too wrong –she didn’t want to suffer-just something trifling, that could be fixed with a bribe-later.
‘Nothing can go wrong. I went through the same thing when I was her age…My mother arranged a liaison with a 9.’
Sammy knew she was lying; the best she could ever have hoped for was a 7. He’d heard it all before and his eyes began to blink and shut.
‘I was young and beautiful and the father of the 9 came to fetch me in an official’s black sumptomobile. His son was 15 and I was a present for his birthday…The house they had was enormous, as big as this tower block and it had gardens and I had my own room and all kinds of toys…’
‘What are toys mum?’
Her daughter’s question stopped her reminiscences and she struggled to remember where she had left her childhood, but she was too cosy and warm to get properly mad.
‘…Toys are what 8s and 9s get for being so special. They come in all shapes and sizes and all the colours of the rainbow… You’ll find out.’
Sarah held her breath she could see them all before her, but she couldn’t help asking: ‘What do they taste like mum?’
‘Toys…are for playing with.’
Sarah longed to know what playing was, but knew from the tone of her mum’s voice not to ask any more questions.
Sonia didn’t let the interruption bother her, in fact she was glad of it, as it helped to cement her own memories. ‘After the sumptomobile comes for you tomorrow and you go for some tests, you’ll find out. You’ll get all different kinds of foods and you’ll never be hungry and can have enough hot water to have a bath every day. And the most important thing is, looto willing, you’ll have done us proud. We’ll get another house, with another room just for lying down in.’
The thought of such extravagance almost made her swoon. But it has the opposite effect on Sammy.
He sat bolt-upright. ‘Tests?’
There was a strangulated sound in his voice and she knew, just knew.
Baby Jonah started, a saxophone like wail, which filled their barrack block. The smell of puréed shit wafted across their room like marsh fog.
Sarah heard her mum’s feet padding across the floor. She strained her eyes, but couldn’t see in the darkness, but could feel the weight of her presence, the primitive earthy smell that grounded her, made her seem real in the darkness, like a panther stalking its prey. She turned her back and tried to feign sleep, but her mother’s silent presence beside her cot, saying nothing, only looking at her as if she was going to devour her, unsettled her enough to give out a little groan.
Sarah sensed a blur of movement. She put her arms up to protect herself and kicked as hard as she could, but her mum pinned her to the cot and with one hand ripped her pants down and pushed her fingers up between her legs. Battle lost. She could feel her mother’s fingers deep inside her vagina, grasping about, like a spider counting loose change.
Sammy lay rigid. Waiting. He heard his wife’s inhuman howl and scrambled for his trousers. He felt something fly past his head and then the staccato beat of bare feet stomping quickly across the room. She knocked him over back onto their bed, kicking and punching him so that he curled up into a ball.
‘You’ve ruined her. You bastard. You’ve ruined her.’
She was growing tired her blows on longer having the same force and slowing down. Sammy took a chance to look up at her.
‘I didn’t mean to.’
His words seemed to give her renewed energy. He covered his face as more blows rained down. She punched like a man; grazing his cheek and hitting him on the nose, but, for a moment, she swayed in front of him as if it were her that had taken the beating.
‘You’ve ruined it now. No one will want her now. Not a 9. Not an 8. Not even a 4, or even a fucking 3. You bastard. You ruined us. We’ll be stuck here forever.’
He caught her before she fell crying tears of rage onto the bed. Although she struggled he held her closer and closer. He felt her body deflating like a balloon and smothered her weakening escape attempts until she slumped against him.
He tasted his cut lip and his voice was unsure as if speaking was something new to him. ‘We can get the papers that says she still a virgin.’
She was listening. He knew she was.
‘It won’t work. And we can’t afford the bribes.’ Her voice was robotic and dead. The only live sound left in the world seemed to be the wailing of baby Johah.
Her words didn’t stop him from trying. He scrambled for words, for new ways of making it right.
‘We can get her hymen stitched.’
She slumped in his arms. And he knew he’d not said enough, Not got the right answer. Lost her.
‘We can lease her to a fuck-farm. The same one that I got you out of. They’ll take her.’ As soon as the words came out of his mouth, he knew that was the solution. It would take longer, but at least they’d get their investment in their daughter Sarah back. And fuck-farms were number neutral. That way they wouldn’t be downgraded.
‘Everything’s going to be number-right. You can make the deal. Let’s get some sleep. Maybe the looto gods will be kind in the morning.’