On the first day of Christmas I took to bed with me
The Lord Montague of Beulieau
There’ll be more of that song but for now… here is a Christmas tale that’s not in any book anywhere. Raw first draft stuff. Needs a better title too…
23-David and 81-Mohammed
The wording, in lights under Santa’s frowning image on the shop window poster, burned into 23-David’s mind. He knew he could be better. He still didn’t truly believe and sometimes he was afraid it showed.
Today he had been allocated female bisexual by the gender randomiser on his alarm clock. Yet he knew that he was male and heterosexual and always had been. Try as he might, he could not accept the lie as others seemed to. He had dressed accordingly, of course, since to do otherwise would label him transphobic and invite a series of re-education sessions again.
23-David shuddered at the memory of his last re-education. It had been his own fault. He had failed to keep up with the latest terminology and had accidentally referred to a black woman as ‘she’ – without first checking her allocation of the day. She had been allocated Asian genderfluid and had chosen ‘la’ as her pronoun. The resulting complaint had put him on the naughty list for six weeks for racism as well as transphobia.
It’s made clear at the start of every visit to re-education that failing the classes is not an option. Failures are sent to the Farm. Nobody comes back from there. The class requires absolute concentration since they try to trick you at every stage. Getting through without making any mistakes at all is exhausting. Especially if you don’t really believe.
Making his way along the street, past the shoppers and the watchful eyes of those thought police dressed as Santas, 23-David wondered if he were the only one. Did everyone else believe? Were there no others who just put on a front, an outer shell to hide from the ever-vigilant Offended?
Whatever, he had no wish to have another session of re-education. Every time there was that chance of failure, the risk his mask might slip and he’d be sent to the Farm. Many he knew had gone there, so it was indeed possible he was the last. Maybe they had weeded out all those who could not accept the Word of the Offended and live with all the contradictions and false truths of this new world.
Distracted by his thoughts, he felt someone barge into him.
“Sorry. I hope I haven’t offended you?” The voice was familiar.
23-David looked into the face of a man. “Oh no, I should apologise,” he said. “I wasn’t paying proper attention.” He knew this man, he was sure, but couldn’t place him.
“Neither was I. Lost in my own thoughts. Like you, eh?” The man grinned and winked. “It’s 23-David, isn’t it? You buy your newspapers in my shop every morning. I keep a copy of ‘Green Future’ with your name on it every day.”
Ah of course. The newsagent. They had exchanged small talk but he had never thought to ask the man’s name. When even gender was fraught with risks, asking for names seemed intrusive.
“81-Mohammed.” The man held out his hand.
23-David shook it before he realised what he was doing. This archaic greeting had been banned as elitist long ago, a symbol of White Supremacy and here he was doing it on the street. 81-Mohammed seemed not to mind, but then he wasn’t white. Besides, he was raised in Creche 81, a high ranking raising station. He could probably get away with a lot more than someone from Creche 23.
“I should be on my way.” 23-David put his hands in his pockets to avoid any further accidental physical contact. The collision might be considered assault and the handshake would be enough to get him back into re-education, if anyone had seen it.
“Oh, surely you have time for a coffee?” 81-Mohammed smiled again. “Earth Day isn’t until tomorrow. We’ve never had a proper chat, and I know just the place for a good coffee and conversation.”
23-David considered for a moment. Refusing an invitation should be easy, but this was an invitation from an 81, a superior in this world of equality and from a Mohammed too. They might still go for an Islamophobia arrest, even though religion had been eradicated long ago apart from the Green God which was settled science and not to be called religion.
So many lies. So many contradictions. I can’t be the only one who sees it!
“Okay.” 23-David kept his face expressionless. “A coffee sounds good.”
“Excellent.” 81-Mohammed patted 23-David’s shoulder.
Another assault. How does he get away with it?
“Is it far? To the coffee shop, I mean?” 23-David fell into step beside 81-Mohammed. A thought struck him.
I hope he doesn’t want sex. I might be dressed as a woman but I’m not one. I don’t have the proper equipment.
“Not far at all. In fact, it’s just through that door over there.” 81-Mohammed winked. “And don’t worry. I know what’s in your knickers and it doesn’t interest me.”
“Yes you did. It’s perfectly normal to be concerned when you’re assigned female and strange men invite you to strange places.”
“Well…” 23-David looked where 81-Mohammed had pointed. There was indeed a door, a nondescript door set into a windowless wall at the side of a building. “That’s a coffee shop?”
“The best in town. It has no need to advertise and we don’t invite just anyone in there.”
“So why invite me?”
81-Mohammed winked again. “As I said, you’re like me. You’ll fit in there, you’ll be among friends. Like-minded people.” He set off across the street.
23-David followed, making a mental list of questions he needed to ask before the conversation began, so he could avoid any accidental offence and thereby avoid another re-education session.
81-Mohammed opened the door and let 23-David enter first. “Ladies first,” he said with a chuckle.
Inside, several people sat at tables with coffee mugs in front of them. Most looked up as they entered, a few sniggered, the others looked warily at 23-David and then raised questioning eyebrows at 81-Mohammed.
“A new friend,” 81-Mohammed spoke to the room after closing the door. “This is 23-David. He does not accept the lies.”
“What?” 23-David spun to face his accuser. “Is this some kind of trap? I don’t want to go to re-education again.”
“Relax. It’s no trap.” 81-Mohammed led 23-David to a table. “Sit, we’ll get something to drink and talk. There’s no re-education here, only the truth. No doublethink, no contradictions and no blame. Most of all, no cameras or microphones and nobody this side of the door ever gets offended by trivial crap,”
23-David sat, his head reeling. This had to be entrapment. He had been in re-education three times and the next one was sure to be the Farm. They must have been watching him closely, looking for one slip, one mistake. The handshake had clinched it. They knew he wasn’t one of them, they knew he hadn’t fully bought in to the reality they wanted to impose. Resigned to his fate, he watched 81-Mohammed order drinks, he watched the waiter bring them, he looked down into coffee that was cold and strangely frothed, he lifted it and sipped and was brought suddenly back to his senses.
“What the hell? This isn’t coffee.”
The room exploded into laughter. 81-Mohammed wiped tears from his eyes as he struggled to compose himself. “It’s called beer, Dave. It’s not a strong one since it’s your first.”
“Alcohol?” 23-David leaned back in his chair and stared at the mug as if it contained poison. “You’re trying to give me cancer?”
“Another lie, Dave. You have to drink a hell of a lot more than this, and stronger stuff than beer, before you have any risk of cancer.” 81-Mohammed took a deep drink of his own beer.
Someone called from another table. “Hey Mo, better not take the girlie-man to the smoke room today. He’ll break out in lumps before your eyes.”
23-David’s eyes widened.
“Don’t panic. You might not like smoking anyway. I don’t, but others do. And that, in here, Dave, is just fine.” 81-Mohammed put his mug down and looked at 23-David with a serious expression. “This is an oasis of sanity in this mad world. In here you can be David or Dave. I can be Mohammed or Mo. No need for numbers, no rank, no superiority. We don’t arrest you for having an opinion and we don’t pretend that words are violence.” He sighed and leaned back to stare at the ceiling. “Although with the next generation, that will change. They will eradicate gender and names.”
“No more gender sounds like a good thing. I can go back to being the straight man I really am.”
23-David pursed his lips. “But without names, who will we be?”
81-Mohammed stared into his eyes. “You assumed I was Muslim because of my name. You worried about getting arrested for Islamophobia. Didn’t you?”
23-David felt his cheeks warm. “Well I…”
“Your name is David. Are you Jewish?”
23-David coughed. “No, but…”
“See how it works? They assigned the names in the creche and used them to divide us but they don’t need that any more. We have creche numbers now and those have become equated to some kind of ranking system. They have destroyed the family and gender, they can now just give us numbers instead of names and the numbers denote rank.”
“They can’t destroy gender. We’re born with it.” 23-David looked into his beer. That first taste came back to him and something inside wanted to taste it again.
“Yes they can and they will. With popular support. You said it yourself. It sounds like a good thing. Everyone out there is really like us inside, Dave. They are living lies but they have to because they’ll get re-educated if they don’t. Everyone is scared. Everyone has to think before they speak. Everyone is sick of being assigned a gender in the morning and having to pretend all day. Born with no gender? They will welcome it.”
“Everyone?” 23-David’s mind struggled to comprehend.
“Yes.” 81-Mohammed nodded to someone behind 23-David. “There’s someone you need to meet now. Her name is Dawn and her appearance will shock you. Try to control your emotions.”
23-David snorted. “I’ve done that my whole life”
“You’ll need to keep doing that for the rest of it.” 81-Mohammed’s face softened. “It’s going to be harder after you’ve been here.”
“And if you fail,” the querulous voice from behind 23-David said, “we will kill you before they do.”
23-David turned and faced a woman in a chair on wheels. A thin, frail woman, with skin so wrinkled he found it hard to discern her features, although clear eyes stared at him from within the folds.
Nobody here could be that old, not since the abolition of the pension and the New Retirement that sent the aged away to live in Pensionville. 23-David closed his eyes. His mind, overwhelmed, shut down. ‘Catch him, he’s falling’ was the last thing he heard.
Something slapped his face. Something cold and wet entered his mouth. He swallowed. His face took another slap, a gentle one, a brush, not painful. 23-David opened his eyes.
81-Mohammed held a mug of beer to his mouth, his face full of concern. “You’re okay. I thought you had gone completely. A few do, you know. Some can’t take the shock.”
“The woman. So old.” 23-David struggled for words.
“Yes, I am old. You’ll never be if you stay in that world. You know what they do when you’re too old to be productive?” The woman was out of 23-David’s sight but her voice was unmistakable.
“We… we go to Pensionville.”
“No, you go to the power stations as fuel. They don’t even bother to kill you before they throw you in.”
23-David gasped. “That’s…”
“Inhuman? Isn’t everything else these days?”
“Dawn, take it slow. He’s only just coming out of shock.” 81-Mohammed put his hand on 23-David’s forehead.
“There’s no time for slow. We’ll have to get out of the city soon. We won’t be able to hide here much longer. Is he with us or not?”
“It’s a lot for him to take in.” 81-Mohammed said. “Give him time to come to terms with it. I’ve spoken to him often in my shop. I know he’s one of us, he just doesn’t believe it yet. If we send him back he’ll slip up and they’ll Farm him.”
“At least our way is quicker.” The old woman ended with a snort.
“With who?” 23-David sat up, now fully awake. “I don’t know who you are. What are your preferred gender pronouns?”
His question was answered with another burst of laughter.
“The real ones. Male or female or trans or gay, we are all ‘he’ or ‘she’ and nobody gets offended.” 81-Mohammed said. “I know that’s how you feel too, Dave. I know you can’t take the lies any more. I know they will catch you out one day and send you to the Farm. Join us, it’s a hard life but at least it’s a real one.”
“Who are you?” 23-David asked again. “Will this get me sent to the Farm?”
The old woman wheeled into his line of sight.
“My name is Dawn,” she said. “I have no creche number because I had a mother and a father. I was raised in a family. You won’t understand that yet, the concept of family is gone for you. For the next generation, the concept of gender and even of names will be gone too. They will accept it, as you accept being raised in a creche, because they will know nothing else. They will be worker drones, like bees.”
Her eyes turned down. “I had a daughter too. The real, family way. They took her on Earth Day. The bells jingled for her.”
Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle. They jingle for thee. 23-David remembered the tales of Santa and his list. The stern Santa face on the shop sign came back into his mind’s eye.
Dawn sighed. “It will be all too easy. Names have been designed to draw assumptions, as you assumed Mo was Islamic and your name assumes you are Jewish. So getting rid of names is a Good Thing. Gender fluidity has become so much of a chore that deleting gender will be welcomed. You’d welcome it yourself, right?”
“Well yes, if it means going back to normality.”
“There is no way back to normality.” 81-Mohammed raised his hands. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. We have no choice but to get out of here and find a new home. Dawn is right. It’s only going to get worse here.”
“It can’t be fixed?” 23-David looked from Dawn to 81-Mohammed.
“We have tried.” Dawn sighed. “For many years. We’ve stopped trying now. Let them stew in the gravy they have poured on themselves, let them live their lies. We’re out.”
“Where will we go? And when?” 23-David blinked at his own words. In using ‘we’, he had accepted this new life. He noticed the smiles and the look between Dawn and 81-Mohammed.
“I mean,” he said, “Do I have time to change into proper straight white male clothes?”