Tim arrived home, a bounce in his step. Today was the day he’d get his cheque, and from the way work had been this month, it should be a big one. He might be able to take Janine out for a nice meal. He could picture it: they’d sit on an open balcony, looking out among the city blocks.
He arrived at their door, only he had to double check a few times. Last month, or was it the month before, he’d arrived home in such a good mood he’d tried to enter the wrong flat, and his neighbours had not been impressed. They’d nearly called the building controller, a man who didn’t seem to find Tim’s jokes amusing. He’d managed to talk his way out of it and he’d carried on down the long hall to his own door, followed by suspicious frowns.
This was his door. He’d made a scratch on the bottom so he’d know. Strictly non-regulation of course, but he didn’t see how anyone could mind. He’d asked why they weren’t allowed plaques, or indeed any other identifier and he’d been told something about knowing his place. Janine had tried to explain that it was something to do with security and why couldn’t he just learn to count the doors like everyone else. She was so lovely, always looking after him.
Opening the door he started to whistle, and his tuneless notes were joined by another. ‘Bother’ he thought, too loud again, and he blew a little less effusively, quietening down and stopping the noise alarm. The problem with block living was that not everyone was as happy as he, and sometimes others weren’t cheered by his tunes.
He pottered about, preparing the food. This wasn’t entirely difficult, he just ripped open the plastic cartons of the meal they’d been assigned and placed them in the machine. He didn’t know what the machine actually did, but it would heat their meal, if it was supposed to be hot that is. He didn’t switch it on, he’d wait for Janine to get home.
The door opened and he heard Janine walk into the room. Did he detect a little heaviness? He’d need to lighten her mood.
“Hello my darling love.”
Definitely not very happy. He wondered why she chose her job, it always seemed to make her so miserable. He’d asked her about it, but she never wanted to discuss it, just telling him that it was an unpleasant place. When he’d tried to tell her to change to something else, she just reminded him of the commandment: Each will be asked to perform their most efficient role. He’d just shaken his head, and thought how lucky he was that he enjoyed his work.
“Like you wouldn’t believe, still we made some real progress.” She managed a smile. He loved her smile.
“Well that’s good. Would you like food? Then we can wait for the cheque together.”
Her face slipped a little, but she caught herself.
“I’d quite forgotten it was Benefit day, and yes I’m starved.”
“I have it ready; I’ll just kick it off.”
He stepped into the tiny kitchen area and pressed the button; the numerals spun and then showed the number 15.
“Just fifteen minutes to dinner. I was worried it would be one of those ninety minute meals they sometimes sneak in, and I wouldn’t want you to be hungry for that long.”
She frowned at him, and her eyes flicked to the Monitor on the wall. He thought she must be thinking the cheque would be coming soon, but it would be at least an hour.
The food was ready, announced by a low bong sound. He opened up the box, and spooned out the food. It was in varying shades of green tonight.
“Green is my favourite colour. Have I mentioned that Janine?”
“Many times Tim.”
“I’m just so glad to see an all green meal, and such different shades. This one is particularly bright, neon perhaps.”
She sighed and nodded. He spooned the lurid food into his mouth and chewed away contentedly. He regaled her with tales of his day. Of staplers fixed, of reports delivered and all the various minutiae he was responsible for. She, as always, nodded and laughed in the right places, but her gaze kept returning to the Monitor. She must be worrying that they wouldn’t be getting a full month’s benefits. He tried to lay her fears to rest.
“Now Janine, don’t worry about the cheque. I worked extra hard last month, so it should make up for all these stories I’ve heard.”
She perked up.
“What stories Tim?”
“Oh people at work. Apparently there’s been a problem with the manufacturies, some people were unhappy, and that means, well it could mean that all our cheques are cut this month. Someone also said they were going to increase the administrative fines.”
There was something in her voice. He looked a bit startled, and then thought that it was nice for her to take an interest.
“Um, well, let me see. It might have been that accountant guy. Oh no, it can’t be, he’s been off on a retraining week, lucky blighter. In all honesty Janine, I can’t remember. There are always people chatting about all sorts at work.”
“I’m sure. You need to be careful Tim, you don’t want to listen to gossip. The manufacturies are working at full tilt, and the majority are happy.”
He repeated the refrain, “The majority are happy.”
There was a buzz, and the Monitor started to print out their cheques. Tim skipped over and tore them off, handing Janine’s hers without looking at it. Janine considered it very impolite to read a benefit statement, even if it was your wife’s, and Tim quite agreed.
He started reading through his, and didn’t notice the look of horror on Janine’s face. He, as he always did, read his out. He felt it was good to share, though Janine had never reciprocated.
“Oh look at this, they’re fining me half a day’s rations because of that silly incident with the hole punch. I thought I’d explained that. Still mustn’t grumble, I’m sure my extra hours will have made it up.”
Nothing from Janine.
“And look here, another fine, for taking the wrong bus. Well I just wanted to see the other route, I didn’t realise it meant someone else couldn’t get on. I’m sure we used to let people stand on buses. That poor man, I hope he didn’t get fined as well.”
Still silence. He chattered on. His minor misdemeanours mounted up, as they always did, but he knew it would be alright.
“Ah here it is, work line, I like the words: Your work utility has been assessed and you have been found to have provided society benefit to the full sum of…”
He looked up, but Janine was staring at the sheet in front of her.
“Ah Janine, I’ve been awarded just one day’s rations for my work last month. With all the fines I owe them, it looks like we’re down nearly a month’s worth.”
He could see tears streaming down Janine’s face, he wondered why he hadn’t spotted them.
“Oh love, don’t worry. I’m sure it’s a mistake. I’ll speak to them in the morning.”
She looked up at him then, and the heat of her anger silenced him.
“No Tim, you will not. You stupid man! How many times have I told you? Follow the rules, don’t try anything out of the ordinary. These are harsh times and the government needs all of us to conform, or chaos will reign. But oh no, you have to do things differently, you have to challenge, and question. Always cheerful, a good little citizen, and yet, the State’s worst enemy, because you are absolutely incapable of following the rules. Damn you Tim.”
“Now Janine, I know you’re upset, but there’s no need for that.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Who can that be?”
“Just sit there Tim.”
Janine walked to the door, and opened it just enough to speak to the person outside. He thought he caught her say, “… just a few minutes. Yes, damn him, I’ll take the hit. Bastard.”
He’d never heard Janine swear before. Or be that angry. He’d have to make it up to her.
She walked back, slowly, not looking at him.
“Janine, who was it?”
“Oh. Well, anyway, I just wanted to say, I’m sorry Janine, I’ll sort it out. I’ll try my best. I know the rules are important, but, well I just forget you see. Or sometimes it’s so sunny out it just seems silly to follow all these petty restrictions, you know…”
He ran out of steam, as he looked at her. The tears had dried now, and her face was set.
“I’m sorry Tim, you won’t have a chance to make up for it. You have been selected for retraining. You need to leave now, there are people outside waiting for you.”
“I have? How wonderful! Are you coming too Janine?”
“No Tim. Just you.”
“What do I need to pack?”
“Nothing, they will provide your uniform.”
“When will I be back?”
She stared at him in what he thought might be disbelief, though he couldn’t understand why. Then she sighed and said, “It should be only a week.”
“Oh, well that’s good. And I’ll see you then?”
The door slammed open, and a large man walked in and turned to Janine.
“Sorry Major, we have to go now, we have eight more to pick up and we don’t want to miss the train.”
She stepped back and the man grabbed Tim.
“Um, yes, I’ll go now then.”
Janine watched Tim walk out, chattering away to his captor, oblivious to the implications. She knew he’d never see her again. She however, would see him, he would be the first item on her retraining list in the morning. She knew she’d have to be extra harsh on him, as they’d be watching her for weakness.
Her benefit cheque was lying on the table. At the top it said, ‘Congratulations, you have been assigned single quarters.’