I met my real mother just five days ago.
Although she looked the same and had the same name, underneath that grey and white badger hair I saw a flint unearth itself in Angela’s eyes after decades of hiding among the moss green of her iris. It sparked when our eyes met this time, and when she spoke to me honestly I saw it flame, flashing some of its light into my own.
Her speech - that was another difference. Gone were the high-pitched trills and lilting canon that allowed for so many of her joking vulgarities to slip through unpoliced. Instead, her voice was lower and harder, as if speaking while grinding a mouthful of pebbles. And she allowed an accent to come through that was both rough and soothing, like a worn blanket on a cold night. Her freely rolled ’r’s revealed the Scottish roots I nigh on forgot had grown her. Somehow, it sounded like home.
She had hastily arranged a time and a place for us to meet when I’d called. She said it had to be ‘elsewhere’ and I didn’t stop to question her. I knew what she had to say would be, in many ways, the end of me, and it seemed safer to turn the world upside down from afar where it could be looked at objectively without rushing the blood to my head.
We met in Dagenham East in an internet cafe that straddled Zones Five and Six. I couldn’t see her when I first walked in. The owner’s eyes weighed heavily on me with suspicion at my expensive clothes and stupid leather briefcase. I don’t know why I carried it around, it’s not like I had papers to file, and at that moment I wished I’d been wise enough to pack a change of clothes that would have cast masked my outsider identity among his sparse customers. But then my mother popped her head up from the booth at the back and beckoned me over while calling for a second black coffee. The response was a grunt and everyone went back to their own business: the owner boiled a dilapidated kettle and tipped a heap of instant powder into a mug while his two other customers jutted their chins towards the screens in their separate booths. They were in the top two booths and my mother had bagged one of the bottom ones for us at the back. As I walked down the aisle separating the four rows of single screens I saw one of the men blink rapidly as he leaned forward, reading, and then raise his middle finger at it. I grinned - I’d done the same only a few hours before in the office.
Mum’s hug was strong and quick. She gently pushed at my shoulders as I lingered around her neck.
‘We don’t have long,’ she explained, nodding at the digital clock on the wall. ‘I’m about to give you a lot of information, some it you’ll like, some of it you won’t, but for god’s sake whatever you do, don’t react and try not to look conspicuous.’ Her eyes flicked over my work gear; she was dressed in jeans and a baggy raincoat I’d never seen before. ‘If anyone asks we’ll say you’re a lawyer who’s doing some kind of voluntary work, right?’
My heart beat quickly as the words fired from her mouth. A jolt of adrenaline stabbed me with each syllable as if they were hitting me in the chest like bullets.
I nodded. ‘Got it.’ At that, the owner slammed down my coffee, spilling some of the brown water over the edge near the keyboard. Some of the little lumps of powder hadn’t dissolved properly and were floating on the surface.
‘Cheers,’ I said flatly, glancing up to find his meaty hand hovering at my eye level, upturned like a giant flesh basket. My mother flicked a coin at him, which he grabbed with surprising deftness for such thick fingers. He lumbered off down the aisle, wiping a palm on his patterned shirt. I could feel the thought ‘charmer’ forming in the back of my skull but I let it wither and die. I was past voicing petty judgements, even if not quite past thinking them. I didn’t need to - not here, not today.
My mother’s gaze was so intent it tugged on my periphery. I turned to her.
‘Shoot,’ I said to her in the most quintessentially British fashion I could muster. Even under such tense circumstance as this her eyebrows twitched in appreciation. The fourth finger of her right hand tapped incessantly on the tabletop like a woodpecker. With her other hand she beckoned me closer. The grind of the chair on the floor as I dragged it a mere ten inches set my tongue pushing back against my teeth anxiously.
‘I’m not sure whether to start or finish with the punch line.’
‘The point of a punch line is that it comes last, mother.’ She pursed her lips in agreement.
‘And a valid point it is,’ she said, lifting her own coffee cup from the table. Sip. Blow. ‘I’ve thought about this conversation so many times.’
‘So why haven’t we had it before?’ I picked up my own cup. It was white. It had a chip on the handle. I instantly warmed to the place just as the porcelain warmed my palms. Sip. Blow. Our eyes locked.
‘I didn’t want to rear you like cattle, for want of a better phrase.’ She paused. ‘I’ll explain it all, just know I needed you to come to me.’
‘You’re not trying to enlist me into some bloody cult are you?’
‘That’s exactly what I didn’t do.’ My brows knitted together when she said this. I could feel the shift in the air around us as she dropped her pitch lower and leaned through her own story, living it as it pushed through her into the space between us in that dodgy cafe before my wide and, at times, wet eyes.
’You want to know how it is I know you can’t see the colour transmissions. You want to know why you’re not colour blind - yes, not colour blind. It’s the rest of us who are blind, not you.’ Sip. Blow. Trying to slow down the urgency with which her pain was gathering.
’I didn’t do very well in my finals at medical school. Some boy or other broke my heart just before my exams and I royally cocked them up. All junior doctors start at the bottom of a pile somewhere, but I barely even qualified for a pile. Eventually, all they offered me was some rural outpost in Scotland or A+E in Barking hospital, not far from where we are now. Scotland had become too small for me, and I knew that boy was staying put, so I chose one of the most notoriously awful hospitals in the UK instead. And, Christ, the things I saw in my first year there.
’It was a completely different world from the one I’d encountered even in teaching hospitals. I’m not just talking about the diseases that Zones One to Four wouldn’t even believe still existed, but also the violence, the dissatisfaction, the unrest. The hate. Everyone was either dying for or because of something they inherently hated. And I was a part of it. I have no idea what colour my eyes were, but being exposed to all that pain turned them red.
’After my first year I had exceeded in my position but didn’t want to leave the community I’d grown to love in its brutal honesty, so I deliberately screwed up my DVT that year - pumped myself full of morphine and booze the night before and went in high as a kite. I overdid it, actually, and almost lost my job. I was lucky that time but knew I couldn’t pull off a stunt like that again.
‘It was just after that Test - I was around your age - that I met him.’ At this, her lids slid shut over her eyes for a moment as he, too, moved through her. ’He’d been blasted with tear gas at one of the riots they never dared televise. He’d fallen and broken a couple of ribs. His friends had to knock him out to get him to hospital - he hated anything to do with the government - and I was covering a colleague’s shift, would you believe. To this day I still marvel at the coincidences that brought us together.
’He was a radical who had refused to take his DVT when he left school. He’d been locked up for six years because of it and then happily took to the streets when they finally let him out. Those six years in a tiny jail cell with nothing but his thoughts and the sound of other men pissing only strengthened his beliefs, he would say. When he came out he was ready.
‘He lived as a Zero talking to as many people in the Outer Zones as he could, trying to get them angry and active about the lives they had been unfairly delivered to by robots. He started to gain traction after a few years, and made enough friends to secretly kip on different sofas all year round. He wasn’t quite a Zero, but he didn’t have a DV, so he called himself One-’
‘The number One?’
My mother raised her chin. ’Yes, the number. They took all his choices from him but, by god, he could still name himself.
’By the time I met One he was something of a whisper on street corners in the dead of night. People were excited - they were his people. I thought he was a myth. Who can dream of reform when no one has the heart to hope? And yet, the real flesh and blood turned up at my A+E, injured but very much real and with a lot of heart. He was conscious and defiant. I fell in love with him instantly.’
Fidgeting in my chair, I tried to knock the image of my own father, Recktall, from my brain. This had been years before they met. Don’t be so childish, I told myself.
‘One was about fifteen years older than me, although I never got his exact birthday,’ Mum continued, ‘and he introduced me to a way of thinking that made monuments groan under the weight of memories. But I was young and tireless and desperate to share my anger with someone, desperate to be directed. I was his. Knowing we only had a year together until I was marched away, no doubt, we threw ourselves headlong into an affair. He integrated me into this underground network he had built. I became one of them - I moonlighted as a radical.’
‘I’m not surprised.’ I hadn’t realised until the words left my lips - but it was true. The fierce mother I had known all my life sat before me fiercer and harder than ever. In the reveal of her true colours I could easily see that her blood ran thick and red with the passion of her comrades.
I shook my head, frowning. ‘But how did you end up here?’
Dr Angela Carter sighed. ’One said what we were doing wasn’t enough, that we had no understanding of how the Inner Zones worked and it was time for the message to reach them. If the media wouldn’t do it for us then we would do it ourselves. We just didn’t know how to get their attention - we didn’t know how they ticked.
’Well, I thought he was going to ask me to try and balls up my DVT again. He didn’t. Instead, he asked me to excel and to join the other side and report back. He asked me to leave. I was heartbroken - we both knew it would be the end of us in some way - but I did it. Of course I did it. For the man and the community I loved. Of course I did it.
’We met as often as we could, which was rare. I could hardly have a Zero-looking person waltz into my new place in Islington without arousing suspicion, could I? So we dotted about in the depths of East London together, gratefully accepting offers of sofa beds to shag on - sorry, darling - and swapping information. We couldn’t do any of it over the phone or email or anything now I was in one of the Zones where they kept tabs on our online activity.
’And, to be honest, I didn’t have much to tell him about apart from the abysmal apathy. Between that and my separation from him, I sank into a deep depression. I was drowning. And so was he. He was just a man - just One - and he’d raised this deformed, little army of desperate souls like me with no understanding or intuition of how to direct them. That was always One’s problem - he was a one-man show.
’We drifted through a couple of years like that until he got arrested. He had missed the meeting we’d arranged at our last encounter, which wasn’t like him, so I went looking for him through the streets. I went to the home of a good friend of ours who told me what had happened: One had been caught shoplifting some food in Four and was being locked up for fifteen years. They’d managed to squeeze him through some loophole. I knew why immediately - they didn’t want to give him the history - the identity - of being jailed as a terrorist or a radical. They stripped him of that and found a way to send him down as a petty thief. They shattered the image of the hero of the Outer Zones and it frightened everyone back into quiet submission. Nobody dared even loiter for fear of being charged, locked away and having the key thrown in the river, like One.
’Of course, to the media a petty thief was no story at all so the Inner Zones never got wind of what happened - of the phoenix who rose in flames from the dirt only to die in his cell like any other bird. Yes - he died.
‘I didn’t meet Recktall for another decade - I call those my lost years. I never wanted to love again but there was something in your father’s kind movements that gave me peace, and still does today, no matter how much I complain about him.’ She smiled. ‘Recktall loved me completely. We married. After a few years he started talking about children.’ She puffed out her cheeks and dropped my gaze. ‘I-I saw what can only be described as a devilish opportunity, and I took it.’
Her voice became softer and mellow. ‘There are a few reasons I wanted a surrogate.’ She leaned forward and grabbed my hands, squeezing them tightly. ‘Now, try not to react.’
My heart tripped over the wings of my breath and both tumbled down into my stomach.
‘Before One was arrested he’d been suspicious and started taking precautions. He’d given me a vial of his sperm. I took….liberties…my position affords and fertilised some of my eggs and froze them.’ She paused. I wrenched my hands away.
‘Oh my god.’
‘I know, darling-’
‘Is this your idea of a bloody punch line?’ I hissed with enough venom to attract the attention of the owner again. Angela smiled at him over the top of my head.
‘Can I continue?’ she asked low in her voice. I was still leaning away from her, furious and repulsed and devastated. Yet another piece of trust shot to shit. But there was something in my mother’s eyes that reeled me back in - she had the look of a man who would kill and still sleep soundly if the dead are merely his enemies. Not a single bit of her felt guilty.
‘I can’t believe this,’ I spluttered. ‘And I’m assuming you took even more liberties as the surrogate’s doctor? That I can’t see colours because I was never even injected?’
‘Keep your voice down,’ Angela growled. ’You’re right, I didn’t inject you - it’s a little-known fact there’s only a space of two weeks in which to administer the injection. In fact, years ago, doctors were required by law to secretly terminate a pregnancy if the mother missed that window. They would pretend the methotrexate abortion chemical was some other vaccination. But those kinds of tactics aren’t necessary anymore because the public believes the scaremongering in the press that Britons as a race are now dependent on the injection for a pregnancy to reach its full term. As if evolution works that bloody quickly.
‘Anyway, now nobody dares miss it for fear of “naturally” losing their child. And even if I had dared they would have forced a termination. Hence why the surrogate was necessary - I could fake all the paperwork as the doctor.’
My mouth was bone dry as if I’d smoked a hundred cigarettes and eaten the ash. I picked up the cold coffee - sip, blow. I couldn’t think straight with all the my mother’s bombshells crashing around my skull like a drunken brass band. Angela squeezed my knee, concerned.
’But why?’ I croaked.
’Because I wanted to know if someone only needed to see things differently to really see things differently. I took a gamble. I wanted to know if colours would colour your views on this world. I wanted to know if natural sight would help you see the horrors and injustices of this system. I wanted to know if undoing the last big change they forced on us would make you more human.’
My eyes narrowed. ‘You want to stop the injections.’
She nodded. ‘I want to give people back their humanity, their natural advantage.’ She grabbed my shoulder and squeezed. ‘Look, I took a gamble with you, and I’m sorry for that, but it paid off. Not only was I blessed with a beautiful daughter but also a human being who can see through the conditioning the rest of us accept like mindless dogs. You are proof everything can change!’’ She was smiling. I was not. ‘You know, your father was a painter, too.’
‘Don’t erase my childhood, mother,’ I spat at her. She had painted me as just some experiment and I was seeing red. ‘Recktall is my father. One is my biology.’ She nodded. My tongue raked over my bottom teeth so forcefully I could feel the skin beginning to break. ‘And how do you know I paint?!’
‘I saw you once when you were a teenager. Your father and I were on night shifts but I nipped back after forgetting something. You were painting in the downstairs bathroom with your back to the open door. You were so entranced you didn’t notice me.’
‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ I gasped.
‘I wanted to cultivate your ability to keep a secret.’ She leaned back from me and her fourth finger was once more on the table, tapping.
‘I have felt so alone. So isolated. All my life. You should have spoken to me about this,’ I gasped, grief spasming in my throat. ‘There’ve been nights I’ve wanted to jump off my damned balcony.’
’My darling daughter, I am so sorry. But it needed to be done like this. I needed to know it would be a natural development, that refusing the injection would grow the beginning of their undoing. I needed your beliefs to be your own, because only then can they never be broken. Beliefs handed down and borrowed are more easily shattered - look at One’s followers. They poured their efforts into believing in him, not what he shared with them. That’s why it all failed when he did.’
I saw then she couldn’t be made to regret her actions. She believed them to be necessary with the same vehemence that powered my painting. She shared with me that spirit which had driven us both to action even when we stood alone. She had believed in change, and here I was, twenty-five years later, believing the same. It was this moment that we met for the first time.
The red pooled in my irises, leaving my pupils clear as I unpinned her with my glare and allowed her own gaze to reach out and gather with mine. Minutes passed until I next spoke.
She bared her canines in a smile. ‘I want to show you something,’ she said, jerking the screen from its sleep as she spoke. ‘I’ve been monitoring the community One left behind since you were born in cafés like these - for obvious reasons. Over the past few years it’s picked up a gear. Meetings have been organised.’
‘Gatherings, discussion groups. It can be quite Pompeii, but it’s something at least.’ She looked at me out of the corner of her eye. ‘The Outer Zones are filled with people more intelligent than you and I - but fate would have it they suffer from a physical or mental ailment that keeps their DVs low.’
I nodded, thinking of Adrienne. I had no doubt there were plenty of good brains that could outthink the system if they were only privy to its intricacies.
My mother’s fingertips stopped dancing over the keys and I looked at the page she’d brought up.
‘Oh, god. That’s awful,’ I murmured. We were both staring at an angry and vitriolic website that was so aggressive in its haphazard design I turned away before bothering to read any of the text. And that was what I saw in grey - Angela saw it in reds, purples and yellows.
‘It’s a blog used to try and rile people up.’
’It’s useless,’ she sighed. ‘No one in One to Four would think it was at all important.’
‘And that’s who they’re trying to get the attention of?’
‘Eventually. We’re hoping the coloured scarves will flush anyone else like you into the Outer Zones looking for answers.’
I’d realised by the canal that my mother had something to do with the scarves. All her clues had finally lined up in order and flicked through my brain like a hand-drawn cartoon sketched on the corners of a notebook.
‘Nobody in One to Four is ever going to go looking for stuff like this,’ I nodded at the screen.
‘Well, they can’t.’
‘Exactly. And even if they did stumble across it nothing is relevant enough to them to keep them reading. You need some kind of story-’
’You need people saying no to the injections and refusing medical care thereafter.’
‘How does that tackle the DV system?’
Angela puffed out her cheeks and shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers. But if by working backwards and undoing that last reduction of humanity produces…’ She gestured at me. My spine was held so tightly I thought it might snap. ‘Well the more people that see this nation for what it is, the better. It could be the birth of choice.’
She leaned forward and gripped my knees again. ‘People always react in some way or another, whether internally or externally. You just need to get them reacting together, equally.’
‘Chromosome bomb,’ I muttered. Her laugh was macabre.
‘No - no bombs. I used to believe in war-’
‘Please don’t spout some crap about revolution being a waste of time.’
‘Don’t be bloody daft.’ She lowered her voice so it snarled deep in her larynx. ‘I no longer believe in war because now I know there are much more subtle and more creeping - more dangerous - ways to act against your enemy. If you don’t engage with them directly then they cannot beat you.’
‘A war of refusals,’ I nodded. She squeezed my knees in agreement. The latent larvae of thoughts and ideas were breaking through their membrane of fantasy and worming into reality, uncurling their wings made from plans. It was almost time to go.
‘When’s their next meeting?’ I asked.
‘The Friday after National Pride.’ Her badger hair glowed under the halogen strip that had been turned up brighter now that night had descended on the pavement like a fog. She didn’t press me further, knowing the decision had to be mine alone. I didn’t ask her to come with me, knowing she had to stay.
‘How did you know I wouldn’t rat you out or something?’ Even as I said it I could feel the cord between us tug and twist in pain.
‘You’re my daughter.’
I nodded at her and looked over my shoulder to see that the café had emptied quietly. The owner was watching something raucous on the TV by his desk. My tongue pulsed at my back teeth as a word moved through it, both familiar and alien.
‘His name was One?’ My eyes were still locked on the drooping half-grin of the owner, but at the edge of my vision I could see Angela’s face twitch into a careful smile.
‘Yes. Do you like it?’
‘No,’ I said flatly, turning back to face her. ‘No more numbers.’
We said our goodbyes quietly and I left first. I didn’t know when I would next see her but I didn’t look back. Not once.