Well that was a rare sight! Riding in today I spotted a long and very shapely pair of female calves displayed in public despite the weather. She was wearing long dark grey socks but even so it is a brave soul who expresses such borderline contempt for the New Modesty.
Like the beginning of the Consensus no-one can pin-down its origins exactly; in truth there were probably a number of causes. There was the inevitable counteraction to the tattooing craze earlier in the century; now tattoos are seen as out of fashion, gauche, lower class, and a barrier to getting a good assignment. These days they are not to be seen in public, and would be better removed if possible (done for free if visible on hands, neck, or face).
The New Modesty values also frown upon the brazen display of bare flesh by both sexes as it is seen as disrespectful of and antagonistic to the Muslim community. The recent run of colder weather, and the fact clothes made from more material are seen as a sign of relative affluence have also played their part in making covering up à la mode.
The pendulum of fashion had been swinging away from not so cheap but nasty disposable wear before the Crises, but the suddenly intensified post-Crises austerity made all the difference. With the disruption in world trade caused by the economic crises the retail clothing sector lost their easy access to supplies of worn for a single season, made just-in-time, imported garments; prompting an instant shortage of new clothes. When the Transitional Council assumed 'temporary' control over the sector - along with many other sectors of the economy - they used the opportunity to impose their values on what people wore: Dictating how peoples' bodies were to be clothed being another step closer to imposing a far more comprehensive regime upon them.
It took far longer than expected to establish a Fed clothing industry, and while the workforce were being trained to produce subsistence clothing the many people who had expected an endless supply of throwaway glad rags were left waiting for the new stocks to arrive. They began to look increasingly dishevelled and had to learn to repair what they had left to wear in order to make it last as long as possible. Nowadays looking patched and shabby is unwise, as it is a Connie maxim that one who is scruffily dressed is a person of suspect morality deserving of closer scrutiny. Once it may have been fashionable, but now anyone wearing deliberately distressed or holed clothes is asking to be referred to the Community Support Office as an urgent case; something which is best avoided.
Eventually the officially approved styles in a limited range of sizes began to trickle into the few remaining shops with the promise of a planned reduction over time in the availability of extra-large and beyond sizes to encourage the population to lose weight. It was measures such as these which reinforced how our lives had changed for good: Consumer choice was now a bygone luxury.
The new garb was dowdy, drab and uncompromisingly utilitarian; made out of heavy, durable, recycled but not very comfortable to wear, synthetic fabrics. Dull colours were specified in order to reduce the need for laundering. Awkwardly cut, the designs came as a shock and met initial public rejection, but there was no choice; either you wore your pre-Crises clothes until they wore out, or bought from the dwindling stocks of upmarket apparel if you could still afford to, or did as some skilled and independent people did and made your own. For the rest of us it was the Hobson's choice of utility or nudity.
Once the early quality control and sometimes hilariously bizarre sizing problems were sorted the Clothing Credits were allocated: Then slowly and out of necessity people grudgingly began to adopt the naff new styles. Soon, fuel-poor and freezing they clamoured for Warmsuits - a rebranded heavily padded thermal onesie - to live in when the first of the really bitterly cold winters took hold.
Some of the changes which were made were understandable: The move from many sizes of rain jackets to one-size-fits-all waterproof ponchos was logical, simplifying production. As was the replacement of zips with buttons in most cases: Buttons were less likely to fail; and if they did they could be repaired rather than throwing away the whole garment because of a broken zip. Some other decisions didn't make any sense, but were imposed anyway. Despite meeting the one-size-fits-many criteria, production of tights and stockings was halted; they were considered to be a wasteful use of resources and an encouragement to wanton sluttishness. Leggings and jeggings were banned as well; they were seen as inherrently mal-moral, and demeaning to a woman's dignity. While it was true in pre-Crises times many women who should never have worn vividly coloured leggings did, and the resulting sights were often unflattering, as well as stretching the seams to bursting point - sometimes beyond. But back then it was a woman's choice whether to wear them; now it is no longer the case. The anonymous controllers of clothing production (no doubt hardcore Connies) decreed maxi skirts, wraps, or full-length loose fitting trousers would henceforth protect female modesty.
Footwear changed as well. Louche high heels were out; as were shoddy ballerina pumps. For both sexes flip-flops and cloth shoes were condemned for inculcating slovenly attitudes. Though canvas shoes with hook-and-loop touch fastenings for people with special needs are still available. And now, for some obscure reason, black plimsolls are once again permitted.
Sequins, bows and other shoe decorations were decried as an unnecessary frivolity. Boots would become strictly practical, and sports shoes are only to be worn while training for or playing sport. Instead most styles were substituted by durable but unstylish plastic shoes; with ardent Connies adopting unisex sandals and clogs as part of their uniform. Eventually those evolved into Flacks; hardwearing wooden or plastic soles which can be fitted with a variety of interchangeable strap styles or uppers.
The Crises also affected the hair and beauty industries. Hair styling and colouring products became scarce, so styles became more 'natural' and easier to maintain without a continual supply of products the Connies deemed harmful to the environment. The same paternalistic shortages applied to cosmetics of all kinds, with it being deemed a sign of empowered self-esteem to show your face without them. Nail bars closed down almost overnight as the need for manageable, low-maintenance, ready for manual work fingernails became apparent.
Although the move away from artificial beauty products seems to have become permanent, clothing styles have altered as the slight recovery has eased the material shortages, and people learned the skills to make their own clothes, recycle material, or choose to buy made-to-measure from the resurgent tailoring sector. A subtle counter-revolutionary style has evolved; pushing the boundaries of accepted taste, but not too far. At the moment colourful ethnic home woven designs are in vogue, as are wraps which conceal many sins. The public weigh-ins, shamings, compulsory exercise regimes, and the other excesses of the strident anti-obesity campaign may have been brought to a premature end after things began to spin out of control, but it is still prudent to artfully conceal too much body fat with carefully styled fabric; even though overweight people are a much rarer sight now. No doubt the Connies will find a way of being offended by these new fashions, but as yet they have no cause for complaint.
Even so, showing too much leg, neckline, or bodily flesh can still attract verbal abuse by Connie zealots; and women need to be very careful not to show any cleavage in public for fear of being charged with exposing oneself: Through in the spirit of sexual equality the offence applies against topless men as well; were they to be so bold. Flamboyant displays of accessories, jewellery, and all facial piercings will result in many disapproving glances; as would the flaunting of a pale flabby lifebelt of a midriff with a pierced navel below a short camisole see women refused service in most places; not that anyone would be foolish enough to dress so outrageously.
Facial hair, unless worn as a statement of religious identity, is also frowned upon; designer stubble even more so as a sign of indolent decadence. Long hair or ponytails haven't been seen on men for many a year. Good grooming and modest hairstyles are seen as a personal sign of adherence to and support of the new moralism.
Wearing any prominently branded sportswear is strictly from poverty now. It seems scarcely believable that people used to pay inflated prices to become a walking advert for a company's product, and to have believed doing so actually increased their stature in the opinion of others. Well if that was the case then, it certainly isn't now! Having to wear clothes so old they date from that misguided era is certain to see the unfortunate person be looked down on as a bit lacking in a certain something.
No one wears garments which are too tight-fitting, too obviously show their bodily curves, or jackets too short for them; and denim is a thing of the past with jeans, as well as shorts or any cropped calf-exposing trousers falling foul of the unwritten dress code.
Most people conform to the norm, avoiding controversy by wearing New Modesty styles, work wear, or uniforms; of which there are many. The Connies are very keen on uniforms, be they the standard Personal Protective Equipment for manual workers, or smarter suits for the more office based occupations. Most professions have them, though they are by no means compulsory - yet - as it is seen to encourage pride in oneself and one's work, as well as fostering a sense of community. Otherwise the uniforms are variations on the boiler suit or two-piece tracksuit theme; having different colours and patches to denote the company or assignment class. Even pre-school groups have them now, supposedly to ease the transition to the first National Education System uniform; standardised throughout the Fed, but with different patches for each school.
I had to look away and concentrate on the road again to avoid the cluster of potholes I knew to be near. By the time I had dodged those perennial hazards I'd passed her. I mentally wished her luck. Wearing a calf length skirt - even it is obviously home sewn from recycled fabric and worn with practical flacks in an attempt to downplay the effect - is a bold statement; one bound to get you noticed. I hope her legs didn't get too chilled, and the attention she got was the sort she was looking for.
It's Chris Hammond's cremation this afternoon. He wanted it to be a low-key affair but he was so popular there was no way that could ever be possible. A group of two hundred or so of his friends and most loyal fans have come to Havant crematorium for the humanist service, and I've arranged for one of our news crews to record the event; it will be a prime item on South Tonight. It's the least we can do for Chris, and it fulfils one of his last wishes to rile the Connies a final time, as it surely will.
It turns out we aren't the only ones filming here. Stationed on the other side of the road, a couple of Young Communitarians, cameras in hand, are 'cording the mourners as they enter. I don't know if they thought up their pathetic attempt at intimidation themselves or if they are dutifully carrying out someone else's orders but I have to control the urge to cross the road and ram their cameras right down their fucking throats. Instead I get our crew to turn their cameras on the duo. Once the YCs realise they are in the spotlight they skulk away, but now we have their images I'm going to make damn sure their appearance today is coupled with the report of our final farewell to Chris. Let's see how they like their faces shown up in public! Making some Connies squirm is what he would have wanted us to do; and so we shall mate.
As for the service, it went as well as can be expected; a full house, and nary a dry eye in it. For all the talk about a Celebration of Life, when all is said and done it is still a funeral.
His ashes were laid to rest in the Garden of Remembrance for the time being, until his surviving family decide how they should be disposed of. The ceremony over, and my duties discharged, I head back to Media House to finish the report of his send-off in a sombre and annoyed mood. My temper isn't helped by the drizzle slowly thickening into a steady rain. A final veil of tears for a great man and a firm friend.
This morning I received an innocuous SMS from an anonymous number. Yes, you can still send such an archaic thing as a text message! It wasn't the content of the text which was significant, but the fact it had been sent at all. So prompted I checked one of my little used but still highly illegal dark net accounts and found a blurt from Neil Moore, someone who I've known professionally and as a friend for more years than I care to remember.
He works for the Portsmouth Record, a hub which evolved from a former large-circulation local newspaper. Somehow the Record has survived; much adapted, until now. Much of the credit for that can be given to Neil, and the incisive style of journalism he inspires there. Sadly it's becoming more of a rarity these days.
He wants to meet me for a meal and a chat. It'll be worth it to see him and find out what's going on. I ping him an acceptance and agree to meet at one of our usual rendezvous. I lock my folder of smart cards along with my scroll in my draw (you never can be too careful, it would be just your luck to get tagged by a random beam sweep, and it's rumoured the latest generation of scanners can overwhelm the protection of a screened wallet) and walk to a covert working lunch.
This poor old city has suffered more than its far share of hard knocks over the years. From the Luftwaffe blitz, to the botched redevelopments of the 60s and 70s, then the failed shopping centres of the 1980s and 90s, Pompey has endured it all. Now the city centre is being remade in the name of progress once more; this time to cram yet more people into the limited space available: A forest of termite towers are planned to reach upwards to accommodate an ever growing population of rootless itinerants. Their construction seems, like everything else in the Fed, to progress in fits and starts before grinding to a halt once more.
What I see going up bears only a passing resemblance at present to the idealistic artist's impression of the finished towers displayed on the hoardings: The buildings have a predominantly south-facing aspect to make the most of the available solar energy, and a ubiquitous aerogenerator is built into the topmost floors. The overall effect is more insipid than the overbearing brutalism of traditional command economy mass housing.
At the moment the large tower crane on site is aiding some workers unfurling a large banner along the side of the first tower to stretch haltingly upward; RISING ABOVE ADVERSITY! it reads. Apparently reaching the halfway point of its construction is itself a reason to celebrate.
Some fortunate people may well be rising above adversity, but the majority of us are still well and truly stuck in it. For only the select new model citizens will be considered fit to live in one of the new hutches while the Connie leadership will claim the higher, more spacious and private apartments for themselves as a well deserved reward for their unceasing efforts in charting our course towards their promised land. The hypocritical fucktards!
I'm relieved that my housing needs are taken care of for the moment. When Karen and I separated we were fortunate to do so at the right time to sell at the top of that particular bubble, so having the liquidity to buy as the prices plunged once more. This was at the same time the Consensus were running live economic experiments with policies gyrating from near-communism to laissez-faire turbo capitalism and back before settling on a schizophrenic combination of the worst aspects of both models.
Eventually I managed to get a commonhold mini flat in Waterlooville. Existing in a legal limbo somewhere in the muddled space between social housing and privately owned, it may not be perfect but it's far better then some of the traps I might have fallen into. At least as a part owner my tenancy is secured - at least until the Connies decide to go on another slash and burn session through the laws of property rights - and I don't have any conditionality requirements written into my agreement. That reason alone was probably why commonhold part-ownership was short-lived, but the existing contracts, mine included, remain inviolate for the time being. The costs may be steep, but it's worth it.
Things have changed a lot since then. When I've been out news gathering I've seen some of the new spartan single person and childless couple accommodation now filling many of the formerly derelict office blocks in the city centre. I couldn't imagine living in such a place without going mad. These days if you're fortunate you can look forward to living in a tiny space with partitions so impermanent they flex if you push hard on them; and don't expect much in the way of privacy, acoustic insulation, security against your meagre belongings being stolen; or even your own individual bathroom for that matter.
Not only will you pay through the nose for the privilege of having a jerry-built roof over your head, but you'll also have to regularly jump through hoops of reassessment to prove you truly deserve to continue living there; for in the view of the Consensus being settled and secure inculcates complacency, which in turn will lead inevitably to an unacceptably indolent coasting along; a not giving of one's all, all of the time; and that will never do.
We're told these are only temporary stopgap measures until we finally get on top of the housing crisis, and more permanent provision can be made. Things will be better in the near but always receding future, once the economy has fully stabilised; but in the meantime we should be thankful for what we have, and at least console ourselves we're a step up from a Slop N Drop.
You may think you have it bad but at least you're not living in one of the trailblazing completely Connietised blocks: There things get really strange.
I've not seen it with my own eyes but I'm told the social experimenters have remodeled the interior spaces to reflect their 'scientific' ideas regarding the development of society and the fashioning of a new collective consciousness. Intimacy is restricted only to the bedroom, with all other daily living activities taking place in minimalistic communal areas.
This, it is believed, will result in the creation of a more harmonious people as a result of them living so closely with their fellows in self-policing communities; as well as removing the wasteful 'need' for individually owned furniture and domestic appliances; possibly even kitchen utensils and cutlery. Not forgetting that by removing 'unnecessary' rooms and reducing individual living space, more people can be squeezed into the same sized building, and the energy that will be saved by living together.
Any increase in the size of an individual family can be accommodated by allocating extra rooms as required, and moving the existing occupants further along to another. With little in the way of personal possessions to take with them this should pose few difficulties. There are no traditional locks on the doors planned for these brave new homes; as a condition of their tenancy all residents must submit their biometric data for access control purposes, and consent that even their bedrooms may be searched at will without notice by the building's management committee. Why I've no idea. What are they looking for, or do they expect to find?
This then is their blueprint for the society of the future. An insecure population of mobile, mutably expectant workers ready to be deployed at short notice to wherever they may be needed. I find it both bizarre and disturbing that some people could conceive this to be a desirable lifestyle to impose upon others; and for those others to uncomplainingly submit themselves to that ideal. Yet these are the times we're living through.
However my experience, borne out by my time on the IMS news desk, is that living cheek by jowl inevitably breeds mental illness and conflict. I wonder how long it will be before the first of many ambulances are called to this vertical utopia when it is populated? Not that a few stabbings - even though only round ended knives are permitted - or suicides will make any difference. The social scientists are allowed more-or-less free rein to meddle with peoples' lives as they wish, provided what they do doesn't adversely affect the economy.
Parts of Portsmouth are a soul-destroying eyesore, but I dread the thought of a domino line of those domineering towers marching Godzilla-like across the city, obliterating the scruffy terraces and miserable low rise flats in their path. Just looking at them would be enough to bring on an episode of depression; such is their ability to crush one's spirit.
It would be better to keep the down-at-heel familiarity of the city we know, rather than erasing the way of life we are used to and fixing the Connie ideology in the lowering permanence of concrete. I fervently hope that something prevents these awful plans from coming to fruition.
Just past the hoardings of the site is the new statue commemorating the life of John Anthony Portsmouth Football Club Westwood; his bronze clown figure tribute commissioned and paid for by his friends. It is there I meet Neil.
"Hi Rich! It's good to see you!"
"You as well!"
"Where do you fancy going? There's a new Fair Food opened near the Guildhall, or we could go to EmDee's."
"No, I wouldn't touch that oily ProTex with a barge pole! I'll have a real morsel of meat and some proper veg!"
"Agreed! Fair Food it is!"
Eating out in the post-Crises Fed has changed as much as the rest of our lives. Most of the fast food outlets have gone as a result of the mandatory weight loss targets of the Obesity Reduction Act, and the fact people don't have the money to afford so little nutrition for so high a price; these days eating out on a whim is a luxury few can afford. Home cooking or meals from collective canteens have largely taken over, though you'll still find the occasional SubSarnie, or EmDee's (as the well-known burger chain rebranded itself to move with the times and adapt to the meat shortage is now named) for desperate hunger pangs. At the prices charged for real meat or the substitute Protein Texture you'd have to be both desperate and hungry! However some chains still continue to do a steady trade; such as Fair Food.
They are one of the few successful survivors of the former High Streets. Their well-known predecessor had a branch in almost every town, and weathered the Crises by providing acceptable food cheaply (They had to when they faced such stiff competition from the Community Canteens). Someone transported into the present from twenty years ago would feel reasonably at home there despite the rebranding, but they would be shocked both by today's prices and the reduced variety on the menu. They might also complain about the portion sizes and the quality of the fare they were served. But then they wouldn't have experienced what we went through... When you've been truly hungry and on the verge of destitution even meat substitute is like manna from heaven.
Yes, we know how it is made or rather grown on an industrial scale; but we also know what naturally reared meat is fed on, even though we're assured that both kinds are fully compliant to the Fed (but not the EU) food regulations. But you should also remember some of the things that people ate back in the pre-Crises times, or during the immediate post-Crises aftermath and the Hard Winter: There were far fewer pets alive to see the next spring. The extreme cold and shortages of pet food must have accounted for some of the fatalities, but by no means all of them...
The Council considered an Animal Registration Act to ensure pet corpses wouldn't find their way into the human food chain, but they gave up on the idea as closing the kennel door long after the dog had vanished; after all meat was meat and people were desperate... As with so many aspects of our recent past it is something which has now been all but erased from our collective memory.
Walking through the Commercial Road pedestrian precinct we pass a Connie dancercise display set up on the boarded over fountain which has now been turned into a public stage. At least ten Connies and a couple of passers-by who've been drawn in are gently swaying, swirling, bending, and stretching on command to some slow-paced, traditional flute, zither, and violin Chinese music swelling from a portable PA system.
Encouraged by a radio-miked leader they complete their routine to a smattering of polite applause from a handful of bystanders. "We'll be having another session in a few moments!" gushes the instructress "Why don't you join in? You'll feel so empowered and good about yourself when you take the responsibility for your health into your own hands! We're running wellness groups everywhere at times to suit you, so take the first steps to a better life today!" Helpers thrust flyers into the hands of anyone who will take them. There are no refusals. Neil and I take them as well so as not to stand out - one of many survival strategies learned during the Transition - then we inconspicuously amble away.
Out of earshot and masked by the urban noise, Neil speaks.
"And that's how it begins... Before they know it those new recruits will be earning extra ComCred for the valuable work they are doing in promoting community health. They won't realise how dependant they're becoming on those so easily earned creds for the necessities of life, and by the time they do - if they do - they'll be hooked on achieving their quota of Good Deeds Done every month. Not to mention those preferential, off-credit food allocations... Do you know local Connie groups are authorised to issue Cred, and that you can earn it by attending their dancerecise classes or awareness meetings?"
"No." I reply. "But then I try to stay as far away from them as possible."
"I can understand that, but it's now the major source of cred inflation;, and the reason there's too much cred in circulation, so its value needs to be readjusted each budget. 'S a vicious circle innit?"
"And there I was thinking I was on top of the news, it's only my job after all! So how did they sneak that one through?"
"Ways and means mate, but they didn't go out of their way to publicise it. It gives them quite a grip on people doesn't it?"
"Bloody right moosh! I'm behind the times, I've been doing Kevin Ford's job as well as my previous role while we were reorganising, so I've had my hands full!"
"Pah! You're spending too much time in your office! You need to beat the street more! You may not see as much of it as we grunts on the Record, but things are starting to turn very creepy out there..."
"Yeah but we don't have your contacts in the CityPol, do we? They won't have anything to do with us; professional media relations only - no unofficial contacts, and they only really engage with us when there's a major incident and they want help."
I hold open the door of the Fair Food for Neil and we enter. We choose an inconspicuous table, sit down, and order a Spuddie Special each; along with a half-litre of the risible 2% imitation beer which is all you can buy without spending ComCred. (4% 'extra strong' beer is available in specially licensed premises, along with reduced-alcohol 10% spirits; both subject to ComCred and Health Tax. For anything stronger you have to see your local spiv or home-brewer.)
"My shout, Rich.' says Neil as he pays in cash. The server accepts it with indifference; the Black Dragon has made people far more wary of cashless systems these days, with good reason.
"Off the grid for a reason?" I ask as our order is conveyed to the kitchen.
"Well you can't be too careful, I doubt if it'd matter, but you don't want to leave too much of a data trail."
"Yeah, I understand."
"And I'd rather not make it too obvious that we'd met; nothing personal of course, but things may be getting a bit sticky at the Record."
"We've not been doing too well; I'm sure you've probably heard; it's hardly a secret. Traffic is down by twelve percent, ViewCred by nine, and I don't think it's going to recover. Since we were taken over by Multicast last year there's been some talk about a reorganisation, and now it would appear it's more than talk. Steve Williamson is thinking about giving it up and going indie. Me, I dunno what I'm going to do. I've been looking around of course, but you know what it's like..."
"Only too well."
"So I wanted to sound you out about what might be available with you."
I ponder. "Well I don't have responsibility for recruitment; all that gets done in London, and you know what James is like for running a lean organisation. But I can probably get you an associate status, though I know that wouldn't be much use to you. And we'd always be interested in any copy you could send us; you know I'd be straight with you on that."
"I don't think you'd want to move to Brighton, and the Hub there won't be ready to stand alone for a while yet, but you could always bear that in mind... What I'm thinking; and I can't promise anything, is you get to see James directly and talk to him. I could set it up; anything I send him gets his attention, not dumped into a 'sist. I think you might want to step sideways a bit and get a post with his new party-"
"What! Me get into politics?"
"That's what I thought when he was trying to tap me up to stand as his candidate here. But think about it;: you've got the local connections, you know the area, you've got a rep for standing up against the Connies, you'd be ideal! And I'd put a word in for you. I think that would count for something. And if you didn't want to stand you could probably get yourself a media relations role with the NRP."
"If it sounds that good the why aren't you going for it?"
"It's not for me! I'd rather lead a quiet life. No doubt he'll push again for me to get involved, and I'll end up doing some support work, but I don't want to stand because frankly, I don't think he's got much of a chance. I reckon the LEZzers are happy enough with the way things are. They've got the Council dependant on their credit, and they get plenty of cheap labour in return. So why upset a mutually beneficial arrangement?"
"Oh, thanks! So get me involved instead!"
"It's not like that! Look, you'd get a position with James for as long as it took; you'd get to know him professionally, and that counts for a lot; and if it didn't work out, you'd still be better placed to get something else in London. You'd have more recent experience than most of the cunts trying to get back in to hang on to the political class. There'd be plenty of posts available that aren't overtly political in the lobbying industry - even now - and they won't hold your past against you. They really don't give a shit just as long as you get the job done. If all else fails you could get into media relations, it'd be as easy as falling off a bike for you. It beats getting drafted into the NRA."
Neil mulls what I say over. "Maybe they've made a mistake with this beer; you're starting to make sense! But I'd rather stay in the media then get too political. Even if they have this election, whoever wins isn't going to change policy that radically, so it may be best to keep well clear. You know what they say; 'No matter who you vote for, the Government always gets in!' So they'll be doing much the same as the Council did. I can't see much point in getting involved and making enemies"
"So what's the problem?" I ask. Our conversation pauses as the waitress arrives with our meals.
"The Connies; they're the wild card: Those fuckers are worming their way in everywhere... I can't help but be worried about them because I really think they're going to get out of control; especially now that they've become more of a social movement more independent of the Council. You know they won't take no for an answer, and I'm not sure how they're going to react if things don't go their way. They can turn nasty if they feel threatened, or if they think they're going to lose everything they've built up so far... Word is there's one being sent to us from Multicast central as part of the amalgamation, and you know what happens when you get one of them in your organization; it'll be nothing but supportively happy-clappy good news, voluntarily taking extra PushCreds, and anyone who is unhappy with it can fuck off!"
"So you don't want to hang-on and see what happens?"
"No. The writing's on the wall for the Record. I reckon it'll be merged with SolentCast." He screws up his face, as do I. Even after all the conflict the world has suffered some enmities still endure, such as the bitter rivalry between the cities of Portsmouth and Southampton. It's a visceral, reflexive hatred; even though IMS has offices and studios there, and many of my colleagues live in that city the rancour remains; especially when it comes to rival media companies based there.
"Besides, I couldn't do that tabloid shit. No, they'll get someone to 'cast it remotely from fucking Bristol or someplace. You know; thinking about it I'd like to meet James if you could arrange it. See where it leads; more irons in the fire and all that. Could you set it up?"
"Of course! But I can't promise anything though."
The conversation stalls while Neil digs into his Spuddie and swigs his watery beer. "Here's to the Emerald Isle!"
"Aye! T'ank the Lord and all His Saints for the Oirish tattie!" The sentiment is heartfelt. We wouldn't have made it through the Hard Winter without the food imports and aid from the Irish Republic. Oh, we paid for it alright with the annulment of their loans taken out when the UK, as we then were, bailed them out of their financial mess all those years ago. They had us by the balls, and they knew it; but they also knew they didn't dare push for any further political concessions regarding the North as well; being only too aware how that would reignite those long-suppressed tensions. So the uneasy compromise continues; they got what they wanted, and get it still, but without annoying their biggest trading partner too much.
The rest of the EU aren't happy about the Republic cutting a deal with and having such close links with an 'Associate' member, but there's not a lot they can do about it. So we give our Celtic friends sincere thanks for their food exports, their aid, and their intermittent wind power, and don't dwell too closely on how our relative statuses are changing.
I want to change the subject; to try to snap Neil out of his depressive mood: "How's the family?"
"Oh, Kerry's doing alright, there are always people who need their teeth looking after so she's always busy, and Jaden is growing up fast. I'm trying to get him into the Scouts or the Woodcraft Folk to try and keep him away from the Young Communitarians; but you know how it is; the peer pressure and all that... He'll be changing school soon and I'm at a loss to find one which doesn't have a Connie influence."
"You really do have a thing about them!" I say.
Neil lowers his voice "I really hate the fuckers! Rick, you don't see as much of them in action as I do. I know you find them a pain in the arse but they're much more than that... Oh, and while I think about it, I have something for you."
In a well rehearsed move which won't attract attention we both slide a hand under the table. "This is a back-up of all my files, just in case I get back to find my terminal wiped. The decryption key is already in your darkmail. I pocket it. "And this..." he said, placing another chip in my hand "is something I'd like you to send to James when you talk about me. Think of it as my CV. There's some sensitive stuff that can't be properly confirmed yet, but I'm working on it while I still can. Some of it is readable now; the rest is a timeblurt decrypt if anything happens to me-"
"Aren't you sounding just a bit paranoid?"
"No." He replied, keeping his voice quiet and deadpan. "This could be a story they'd want to bury. I don't think they'd kill me, but they'd certainly make my life a fucking misery if they knew I was onto it"
"Is there anything you can tell me about it?"
"Not yet. It's probably best you don't know. It'll all come out in the timeblurt if I'm prevented from breaking the story; it may come to nothing anyway, but it's always best to cover yourself... Fancy another half-litre of piss? Might as well use our allowance before they ask for a ComCred card, and it's better than that disgusting tea substitute."
Neil goes to the bar, and while he is there I wonder what I can do to help him. He's obviously stressed, but who isn't these days? Though in all the time I've known him I'd never seen him like this. There are few customers so he is soon back.
"Believe it or not this is bitter! And you will be after drinking it! One day you'll have to come round and I'll treat you to some of the latest homebrew that's going around. I've got a good man who cares about his rep, won't sell any shit, and isn't too expensive. I hope he lasts at it."
"That's all very well, but don't overdo it. You know how easy it is to let it take over your life."
"I know, and I've got to keep it all together for Kerry and Jaden. Don't worry mate, I'm just under a bit of pressure and stressed out at the moment. I'll get it sorted out one way or the other."
"I'm always around if you need a chat..."
"Thanks! I'll remember... How are things with you by the way?"
"Hectic as ever, not had a shag for far too long! I've more or less given up on Cathy and there's no one at work available or who I fancy!"
"How's your Dad?"
"He's alright, still high and dry in his park home but he's miffed they reclassified his flood risk to high. He's appealing against it, and reckons it's still only a 1-in-125 year risk, and he has the NRA risk map to back him up, but they're claiming it's been superseded by events. I think it's just another one of their tactics to clear the site and dump them in some condensed housing."
"What a cunt!"
"Well he won't move until he's forced to, and he's leading the Residents' Association at the appeal. They'd have to offer him alternative accommodation and some compensation to get him out, and that's not worth their while. So they'll just indulge in a bit of low-level harassment, let the flood defences go a bit more, and hope that the weather does its worst."
"Didn't he have a close call last winter?"
"Yes; but the closest it got was 100 metres away and he was a metre higher. They wanted to evacuate the park but the residents wouldn't go for fear of never being allowed back. He's got a Ready Bag packed just in case."
"I suppose while he stays put he's got the law on his side... Oi Oi, what's all this then?" Neil says quietly while looking at the door as a group of four men, dressed in Connie jumpsuits enter; they wear security patches and heavy boots rather than flacks. I see no obvious signs of them being armed, and they walk in confidently, rather then with the swagger of a group searching for someone or spoiling for a fight. They pick an empty table not too far from our own and sit down.
"Trouble?" I ask.
"Not sure..." says Neil cautiously. "I don't see any of the high-profile Faces but it's always best to be on your guard..." He pretends to look above them at the muted large screen showing a live BBC 'cast of the latest unseasonable typhoon making landfall in Hong Kong. "No, I don't think so, but we might as well go quietly now". Acting as naturally as possible we finish our drinks and leave. I hear no sounds of them getting up to follow us. We shake hands.
"It's been good to see you again Rich; keep in touch won't you?"
"I will! I'll flick your file on to James, and do what I can to help. Keep your head up!"
"Thanks! I will." He seems almost on the verge of crying. "We'd better get back to work and out of this bloody wind! It's turning nippy again!"
We part, and go our separate ways. The strengthening wind has cleared the precinct; the dancercise group have packed up and gone. Now there are only a few people hurrying for shelter and a credder armed only with a broom, long handled scoop and handcart half-heartedly trying to keep on top of the Sisyphean task of clearing up the windblown dust.
Back in Media House I send Neil's file and a covering note to James, then open the portion he left accessible to me. There are a few possible stories and a lead about a Connie glutton party, along with another worth following about some residents in a local care home whose relatives allege are being forced to knit clothes all day long by their Connie carers with the threat of reduced meal portions if they refuse or don't reach their quota. I'd heard about it before but without some testimony or other substantiation it won't go any further; and no-one is talking, not even the relatives, for fear of reprisals. There's also the latest version of Phantom, a wurdle (they used to be known as programnes or apps) which allows you into many supposedly secure online places, and covers any trace you've been there, as well as getting you a one-way journey to the Fens if you are caught using it. I don't know how he got hold of that, and its better not to know, but I flick it on to Bippin so that he can test it against our systems.
Neil certainly has some contacts. If we can get him on board he'll be very useful. And though he tends to worry more about the Connies than I, he made a good point about the uncertainty regarding how they may react during the election; especially if they thought they risked losing office. They've had things go their way for the best part of a decade; when anyone is entrenched in power for that long arrogance and intolerance of the opposition are bound to become established. So how they'll react to the forthcoming Democratic Reset is anyones' guess. It's a thought that gnaws at the back of my mind for the rest of the day.
Getting home was difficult this evening, thanks to an unwelcome reminder of the past which descended near the bus stops and forced their closure until the panic was over. From which bomb in which war that tiny speck of material was liberated is unknown to us; apparently radioactive particles can be fingerprinted to discover exactly in which nuclear installation and in which year they were created but with there being so much of it floating free, nobody bothers now.
There was a time, shortly after the Crises, and the rush to create a RADiation PROtection FORce, when the fallout forecasts were both eagerly watched and apprehensively feared. But as time passed and the shorter-lived radioisotopes decayed to a 'safe' level, people became indurated to the danger; so much so that nowadays the Radiation Quality Index isn't even mentioned on the mainstream media, unless something of this magnitude drops in on us.
It was a credder equipped with a hand-held monitor who first raised the alarm. As soon as that happened the city's specialist RadProFor squad leapt into their hybrid van and swung into action. Once they arrived on scene and were seen by the CCTV cameras we livecast them in action. At first the fully hazsuited men decided to use their autonomous robot to locate and sweep up the offending few particles: Obediently it did as it was ordered, but when a second, smaller robot was remotely driven across the scene to check that every deadly speck had been removed the readings went off the scale again.
The cleaning robot was sent back for another scrub and vacuum; again its work was checked, again the detector registered danger levels. After a third attempt to pick up the hotspot failed, a new strategy was tried. While one of the crew strapped-on extra heavy body protection and a tool belt, his colleagues removed a small box on a trolley from the back of the van. The first man, pulling the box behind him, strode quickly out to the approximate spot where the recalcitrant dust had attached itself to the paving stone.
Using his hand held detector he narrowed the location of the danger down to a few square centimetres; then hurriedly cold chiseled out the offending patch by hand before picking it up with tongs and dumping it inside the lead-lined box. The area was scanned once more, and this time found to be satisfactory. The box was returned to the additionally shielded rear of the van before the crew departed, job successfully completed.
The incident took little more than ninety minutes to clear, but that was enough to disrupt bus services all over the island, and cause gridlock as well. No-one was heard to grumble about the disruption; it's become such a part of daily life it goes unremarked now. Nor is it likely to be the last time that it happens: This long after the Crises much of the fallout has drifted back to earth but there is still plenty of the lighter weight - but still invisibly lethal - material which remains borne aloft by atmospheric currents. Eventually it will all settle, but it will be a long time yet in coming.
I'm sure some of the slack jawed gawpers looking on with gormless curiosity behind the Keep Out tapes don't understand the basic facts about radioactivity, despite the years of public information campaigns. They probably watched not realising if their credding over the past years had anything to do with hand brushing the streets, as it often is assigned; the chances are they've inhaled some radioactive dust which has lodged in their lungs and will continue to irradiate them for the rest of their shortened lives.
Sometimes surgical removal of the offending particles is a possibility, but not always. The masks they are issued? Don't make me laugh! They're next to useless! Even after all this time the Crises are still slowly, imperceptibly, claiming victims.
That didn't take long; but then James doesn't wait around once he's made up his mind. Only yesterday I wished Neil Moore the best of luck in his interview, and this morning I arrive to a massblurt announcing him joining IMS as an editorial consultant. It's a dogsbody of a job title which will allow him to create his own niche within the organisation; most of his time will be taken up researching stories and the rest, increasingly so toward May next year, will be spent campaigning for the NRP.
He'll be based in this office, but as he'll be roaming far and wide he won't be my responsibility, so I've nothing extra to worry about. I'm pleased he was able to jump across to us before - as he correctly predicted - the axe stared to swing at the Record. He was prescient to see what was coming and get out while he could: Sadly, few of us have that option available these days.