Gathering Winter Fuel

Gathering Winter Fuel

 

“Rosalie will make a boy,” announced Catriona.

“For her first?”

“She wants one that looks like Crawford. She’s crazy about him.”

“Rosalie,” declared Kirsty, “is a lightweight.”

“Ah, but have you seen the body?” Catriona grinned. “Corned beef.”

“Have you heard the crack? A balloon.”

“I’m not saying I would use the genes myself. But if it’s fun you’re after…”

“You’re just as lightweight as Rosalie.”

 

First, a shuddery clamminess, then mud against her face. Ren awoke to find water seeping under the wall and soaking her bedding. She rose, groped out handfuls of drier straw and moved it further up towards the back of the hut. After squatting at the fire for a moment she put the last of the wood on the dying embers. This action made her responsible for bringing in more fuel on time. Then she drew breath, hauled the stiff wet hide over her head, and dried her goose pimples in a blanket of woven human hair.

At the side, Chassy sat up and stretched. On the ground, Gran began to stir. Ren thrust the bundle of papers at her.

“Go on, Gran. Read us a bit more before we start the digging.”

“Give me time. My eyesight isn’t what it was.”

Chassy hugged his knees and sang:

My eyes are dim I cannot see

            I have not brought my specs with me

            I have not brought my specs with me.

“I’m surprised you like this stuff.” Gran held the papers at arms’ length, towards the fire. “Where was I?”

Ren lit a precious taper and held it against the paper.

“`You’re just as lightweight as Rosalie.'”

 

Two screens embedded in a pink plastic wall. Public and personal windows out of Catriona’s cosy home. The business screen filled with the list of the fifty Working Places vacated in the past day. Details of each were keyed in and a hundred names, eligible by age and education, selected out the Pool. The final choice lay with the Deployment Officer who checked unemployees for reliability, interest coordinates and, in the case of face-on Places, appearance before activating the Matching Program.

Catriona put the work monitor on hold while she accessed her personal videophone.

“Stuart. I’ve got Kirsty over here. Fancy meeting for eats?”

“Not me,” said Stuart. “I’m off for a walk.”

“A walk?” yelped Catriona. “You’re mad. The park’s four junctions away!”

Stuart shrugged and disappeared from the screen leaving his personal saver – a series of unidentifiable mammals, all jaws and no body, swallowing each other in a symbolic binge of voracity.

“Poor Stuart. Nice personality, shame about the repel-factor.”

“As I said, You’re a lightweight, Catriona.”

 

“Gran,” said Ren “These women talk about nothing but sex.”

“Ren,” said Gran  “before, women could choose if sex should lead to babies. ”

“No babies for me, anyway. Not after how Ma went, and all for a thing with no…”

“Hush, child, you’re still young. Many girls start thinking like you, but eventually…”

“Not me. I live and die a maiden lady!”

 

The videophone rang.

A thin-faced, hollow-chested, weak-looking young man. Long hair, melancholic eyes.

“I’ve been told to fit Working Place WPCX98.”

“Yes?”

“I don’t want it.”

Catriona ran WPCX98 through. Calculating tax on new imports.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“I hate figurework. I had a Place before that was all about money and I was bored.”

“What’s your Availability number?”

“AV80037.”

Catriona ran AV80037 through. “But you were good at figurework at school.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t do it. In actual fact you don’t have to be able to count – the computer does it all. I said it bored me.”

“You were on an accountancy course at college.”

“Not from choice. They needed me to make up their numbers. I didn’t want it then. And I don’t want this now.”

“It’s only six months.”

“Six months is one hundred and sixtieth of my expected lifespan. A precious, irreplaceable fraction.”

“All the Places involve staring into some terminal and pressing keys. Does it matter what the keys mean?”

“I want an open-air Place.”

“A what?”

“I was on one once in a park. Stopping people breaking the trees or spray-painting the fences. Checking the swans were okay. I liked that.”

Catriona accessed the UK directory.

“Closest where that kind of place is available just now is Cumbria. But, well, I suppose you know that the Availability Allowance system in England is diff…”

“I’ll stick with Scotland, thanks.”

“Well, there’s nothing of the kind of thing you mentioned here.”

“Then I’ll take nothing, thanks.”

Catriona frowned. His eyes were not melancholy at all. They were defiant.

“As long as the State is supporting you, you must contribute to society when called.”

“That’s all right. My family will share with me.”

Catriona ran AV80037’s family through.

Mother – four months into Working Place in a shopping mall eaterie.

Sister – five months back in Availability Pool after ending her last Place.

Nephew – in full-time education.

“Your family must be getting little enough to keep themselves.”

“They don’t mind foregoing extras.”

Defensive, not defiant.

Catriona ran his records through in more detail.

AV80037. A bright student, no health problems. Only one police offence – walking in a vehicle precinct at the age of twenty.

“You don’t mind sponging off your family?”

“Not at all.”

“But it’s your turn to contribute again! You’ve been in the Pool for a year now and…”

Kirsty leaned over and switched over to Secrecy. “Look, Catriona, I’ve found another bloke just as suitable for WPCX98.”

She ran AV63954 through for Catriona’s benefit. “Get it over with. Then we can mosey off for eats.”

Catriona switched back to AV80037. “You’re back in the Pool. I’m cancelling your Allowance until a further suitable Place comes up and you accept it.”

“Thanks.”

“I have to tell you this is all unofficial, and you will undoubtedly be contacted with another Place, probably sooner rather than later.”

“I appreciate your sticking your neck out. Thanks again.” The unemployee smiled warmly. Catriona rested her eyes on his  – and Kirsty switched the screen off.

 

“All this mechanical stuff,” snorted Chas. “How could they contact people so fast? How could they have so many life stories to hand?”

“The publisher accepted that part all right. It was the attitudes he found hard to credit.”

“Attitudes?”

“I had intended the thing originally for a fem…for a magazine dealing with women’s rights. The magazine closed down before it published my story. The next publisher I sent it to reckoned the relationship between the sexes would not alter so much in only 50 years.”

“How did you justify it?”

“To you, I’d say: Look at the changes I’ve seen. ”

“Ah, but…”

“To him, I pointed out that since the 1940s war many societies had changed radically. China, for example…”

“How?”

“Take my word for it. ”

Ren’s taper in the grease pan went out. Gran continued talking to the dying embers of the fire.  “At the time I wrote the story, for a long time work had been getting more casual, education and training more superficial…yet we were suddenly undergoing a major change in the way we were governed. I’m sorry, I know this is all too complicated…”

“Go on. I like hearing you talking. It’s sort of… restful.”

“Then I thought: this catalyst is changing the relationship between Scotland and England. What if it also alters the balance of power between the genders?”

“Cata…what?” said Chassy.

“Never mind him. Tell me about the balance…what you said about the genders.”

“The way I saw it, when primeval men…”

“What kind of men?”

“Long ago, men discovered the fatherhood connection. They invented marriage to gain control over their offspring.”

Ren looked at Chas. “Do you get this?”

“No.”

“An unmarried woman threatened this control, and so girls were set in competition for husbands, and calumny was heaped on the heads of unmarried mothers.”

“What’s…ca-mulpy?”

“In my story women have realised that by retaining options of reproduction…”

“Retaining.” Chas wrinkled his brow. “That means keeping.”

“You’re awfully clever, Gran.”

“…they can set men in competition for favours from the women!”

“Doing favours. That’s nice.”

 

The eatery was on a wide space sweeping down to the Clyde, the rear half under glass, the front part exposed to the weak winter sun. Scottish country dance music wafted over the tables while on the giant murolograph at the back teenagers stripped an endless willow. Catriona pressed the button on the autoserve for Indonesian food.

 

” Gran, what’s Indonesian food like?”

“Sort of spicy.”

“What’s spicy?”

“Can’t explain, Chassy.”

” Like eggs? Potato? Beetles?”

“On with the story,” said Ren.

 

“Mind if we join you?”

As Jackie glanced up, her book fell from her lap to the floor and she heaved to retrieve it. Her dungarees, decorated with a bullseye, stretched over her abdomen.

“Can I see?” Kirsty looked at the cover. “Is it good?”

Jackie shrugged. “It’s an anthology of some of the apocalyptic stuff that came out at the turn of the century. Nostradamus and all that. Survivors after Armageddon…”

“…nuclear winter, comets bashing into Earth…”

“You got it.”

“Is it not a bit dated?” asked Catriona. “After all, it never happened.”

“And it won’t,” pointed out Kirsty “now we’ve booted all the nuclear installations out of Scotland and they’ve tumbled to scanning the skies for stray meteors.”

“Who’s to say what will or won’t happen? Anyway, some of the stories are interesting in a morbid way. Stone Age living, but with tantalising glimpses of a better existence…”

“Heavy reading for you just now, I would have said.”

“I’m surprised you’re still in one piece.” Kirsty took a mouthful of pasta. “Thought you’d have podded long ago.”

“Seems more like six years than six months.”

 

“Six months?”

“In a society run by women a priority would be finding ways to shorten pregnancy. Say, the development of incubators as efficient as the natural womb.”

 

“I don’t believe it!”  Catriona gasped at the murolograph. “It’s AV80037!”

Five years younger, fifty times larger, swinging his partner round with gusto , it was.

“That guy! Not ten minutes ago he gave my summons to a Working Place the no-no!”

“He gave my offer of dadhood the yes-yes,” murmured Jackie.

Catriona spun round in her chair.

Kirsty cut in quickly: “I’m off for a month’s holiday next week. To Papua.”

“It’s a magic place to stay,” smiled Jackie. “if you like that kind of thing. Are you going alone?”

“With the kids.”

“I never knew you had children!”

“Two.”

“The sly thing,” Catriona nudged Jackie in the ribs. “She won’t say who the dads are!”

“Why honour two, when you can honour five?”

Catriona jerked her head at the murolograph. “I don’t suppose any of Kirsty’s five are out the Pool.”

“Hey, don’t be so biggity! What happened to inclusion? ”

“As a matter of fact,” announced Kirsty, “two of mine are out the Pool. Their genes are as good as anybody else’s. They just never got the chances.”

Jackie also rushed to the defence of the AV80037. “You saw Paul’s higher education reports. Folk his age miss out.”

“What’s the point of eighty percent getting a degree if they spend the rest of their lives marking time?”

“At least here they get a degree. In England they have to buy one.”

 

“When’s all this set?”

“Let’s see. I must’ve written it shortly before the Catastrophe. Probably late ’90s. I meant to set it fifty years into the future…”

“But that makes it just about…”

Chassy shook his head. “Then it’s not here. Must be somewhere far, far away.

“Fancy you making all this up, Gran. Wish I was clever.”

“You are, Ren, you are. You never had my chances.”

  • Fire’s almost out,” remarked Chassy. “Who put the last bit of fuel on?

“I did. I know, I’m going.” Still Ren shuffled through the pages. “This one at the back’s different, Gran. Creamy, with red markings.”

“Let me see.” Gran screwed up her eyes, laughed. “It’s my sociology degree parchment! Fancy that turning up!”

” What’s it for?”

“Sentiment.”

“It’s pretty. Can I have it?”

“You’re welcome to it.”

Ren scampered with it to her recess. She had a beautiful collection there – a piece of red glass for looking through at flames and sky, a broken watch which could be opened up from the back, a yellow nylon ribbon and, best of all, a picture of a street with high strange buildings and brightly-dressed people. There were thick trees with rich green leaves up the centre of the street. On the back along the foot was printed SAUCHIEHALL STREET GLASGOW. Above it were loopier markings in blue which Gran had deciphered for her: “New Parliament, new millennium. New spirit abroad. Edinburgh magnificent, Glasgow hopeful again. If this keeps up I’ll be coming home for good.”

“I still wish I was clever like you,” said Ren, wistfully.

“Why don’t we live in the glen?” complained Chassy. “Then Ren and I could go to school all the year round.”

“You know why.”

“There’s not as much disease as there was.”

“There is so!” protested Ren. “Pat died only last month.”

“That was old age, not cancer.”

“He was only fifty-nine.”

“So? People age at different rates. Look at Gran.”

“Exactly. A good argument for living on the hill.”

“Up here,” declared Gran, “the potatoes don’t always rot in the soil. Anyway, I can teach you better than Fergus.”

“That’s right,” said Chassy.  “You read lots of books once, didn’t you?”

“A long time ago.”

“Fergus didn’t even know which was the biggest planet,” said Ren. “I asked him once.”

“Fergus was also born too late.”

“Ren, the fire.”

“I’m going, I’m going.” Ren heaped sheepskins from both Gran’s bed and Chassy’s bed around her shoulders and middle, tying them in place with the hair blanket she had woven all summer. She lifted a brand and groped her way out into the blackness of the winter solstice.

Each year the scrub-line was further away. Now she could see it in its entirety;  black patch against the less perfect blackness of the moor.

As she neared the edge of the brush, Ren raised her eyes to the horizon. Scraggy branches against the indigo sky, pale stars twinkling, one planet glowing above the hill. Too late for Venus, too blue for Mars. A steady friendly point of light belying the poison of its surface.

“Jupiter. The biggest.”

Then she was felled from behind. Sweaty smell, big blurred face, matted hair, lice crawling beside her eye. Two laughs and her light went out.

Nine months later, Ren died. Out of her corpse the midwife cut a healthy boy. However, the only nursing mother in the glen had barely enough milk for her own, and the village cows had mistakenly been put to graze in a bad field which had dried up their udders. After two weeks the baby died. Gran and Chassy disposed of him where they had buried Ren and then they packed up their blankets, their pots and their hens and went to live in the glen. So Chassy was able, after all, to attend Fergus’s school the year round, to learn what he could.

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