Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2000.
don’t deserve to live.
raised my head. I must have lain there all night, for a glass of
milk had gone thick as yoghurt. My tea cup had a series of brown
rings inside. I gulped what was left, drowned insects and all.
fatal letter lay on the floor. The yellow envelope. I crawled over
to it, staring at my name through its window.
a joke! I live in the ugliest suburb in the whole of Sydney, and
Paradise Gardens is a cruel hoax. It is a cement rendered monstrosity
built in the middle of the 20th Century. The ceilings
are low, the stairways dark and stinking, the outside walls festering
with concrete cancer. My one-room flat is the saddest hovel in
the whole building.
reached for the letter. It crumpled in my hand. I could not bring
myself to open it. I lay on the floor again. My lost baby. My dear
love. Murderer! Monster!
I felt her say. You did what
was best, for both of us.
did it for myself!’ I screamed. ‘I want to die too.’ I imagined
running all the way to the Medical Inspector’s Office and exposing
my disability in the foyer. The guilt was unbearable.
want you to live , she sighed in my head. Open
I opened the letter.
of the Medical Inspectorate
The Millennium Tower
April 21 2026
62/12 Paradise Gardens
Dear Aislyn Athanor
Be advised that
your Citizen’s Card will expire in seven days. You are hereby required
to present yourself to the Assessments Office, 38th Floor,
on April 26, for your Physical Examination, or to any regional
office should you be unavoidably outside the city at that time.
Be warned that,
under Section 31 (b), Subsection 19, Clause (e) of the Regulations
to the Maintenance of Genetic
Quality (Human) Act, 2006, (also known as the Genes
Act) the Office is authorised to implement penalties, without
trial, for breaches of the Act. Such penalties may, at the discretion
of the Chief Medical Inspector, include fines, temporary deprivation
of Citizen’s Card, permanent loss of Citizen’s Card, incarceration
for periods up to life and, in the case of irretrievable genetic
degradation, mandatory termination.
MB BS Ph D (Human Genomes) Ph D (Biotech. Eng) M Publ. Admin.
dropped the letter, which fluttered to the floor, then snatched
it up again. April 26! What was today’s date? I had no idea. Time
had curled up into a ball over the past weeks. I couldn’t unravel
pressed the button on the front of the NetScreen. It stayed dark.
The power must be off again. I checked the box on the wall. The
circuit breaker said ON.
have ways of checking up on people. Maybe when the screen is off
it’s watching me. The sudden panic felt like hands around my throat.
couldn’t stay here, but where could I go? I had no friends, no
relatives. Nobody cared if I lived or died.
flat exposed the poverty of my existence. One chair, one fake wood
table, one ragged mattress on the floor. One cup, one plate, one
knife, fork and spoon. A cardboard box of second-hand clothes.
Brush, toothbrush, caustic soap. But without this room I would
be at the mercy of every thug and vagabond on the streets.
stay meant to die, my daughter’s sacrifice for nothing. I slipped
on the gold-plated chain my lover had given me. It was the cheapest
of jewelry, the gold already wearing off in places, but I was sentimental
about it. In my shoulder bag I packed a clean blouse, skirt, socks
have no bathroom. I stood in the sink to wash myself, then threw
the bloodstained jeans and knickers in the corner. I dressed in
my best, put on my only pair of boots, counted the money in my
purse, thirty-one dollars, and abandoned my home.
went randomly through the decaying streets. I had nowhere to go.
I walked and walked, in the gentle rain. I didn’t care. I was a
monster who deserved punishment. My breasts were so full of milk
I thought they were going to burst. I hadn’t thought about that problem.
past a newsagent, I saw the date. April 25. I had until tomorrow.
I thought about fleeing to the country, as my mother had done.
There must be places to hide. But I could not. I owed it to my
daughter to make something of my life.
was another joke. If I did not turn up for the physical, my Citizen’s
Card would be cancelled and a warrant would be on the Net within
was mid-afternoon and I had nowhere to sleep. My breasts hurt,
my ankle too. I had not walked so long in all my life.
under an iron bridge, high in a crevice I glimpsed someone staring
at me, a shape living in a cardboard box. Would I be that lucky
tonight? The NetScreen was full of propaganda about cardless people.
Their life was brutal and brief, on the Screen.
hurried away, thinking of my lover that I had spurned so cruelly.
I had not spoken to him since I knew I was pregnant .
in those memories, I realised that I was outside his block of flats.
Dare I ask him for help? My rejection had hurt him terribly. The
shy boy had become an angry delinquent, then he’d disappeared from
the packing factory, taking to petty crime and hanging around with
I pressed the button for his apartment.
After a long time a woman’s voice screamed, ‘Who is it?’ I almost
gave up. No trace of kindness there.
‘Aislyn. May I speak to Jeffie, please?’
‘Jeffie!’ I heard her bellow. She
must still have her finger on the button. ‘It’s that little slag
from the box factory. Tell her to clear out!’
He came to the speaker. ‘What do
you want, Aislyn?’ That hurt, though I knew I deserved it.
‘I need help. Can I . talk to you?’
The speaker went dead. I wanted to
run away. I almost did. Then he was back, his voice distorted to
a tinny whine.
‘Come up, but one minute only.’ He
was still angry. Why wouldn’t he be?
I dragged myself up the stairs, lurching
like the cripple I was. I pressed the button of his door. He jerked
it open. The woman stood a couple of steps behind him, a big, red-faced
trull about fifteen years older than he was. I imagined them in
each other’s arms. I had to push the image away.
‘I need help, Jeffie,’ I whispered.
‘What’s she saying?’ the woman cried,
trying to get past.
He held his arm out, blocking her
‘What’s the matter, Aislyn?’
‘I can’t . can we speak privately,
‘No!’ he said roughly.
I turned away. All along I’d known
it would be no use.
‘Hey!’ he said when I was at the
top of the stairs.
I turned. He came outside, shutting
the door in the woman’s face. ‘I heard you were pregnant.’ I saw
some yearning in his eyes. He eyed my flat stomach, my distended
breasts. ‘Is it mine?’
‘It was,’ I said.
‘Wasn’t I good enough for you? Would
you rather our baby had no father,
than me?’ There were tears in his eyes. Ah, how he wanted that
‘I didn’t have a permit,’ I said,
unable to face him. Then I lied. ‘I wanted to spare you that trouble.’
‘I didn’t ask you to! Where is my
I felt a surge and realised that
the milk was flooding out, wetting my blouse.
‘She died, yesterday.’ My face had
frozen like stone. ‘She only lived for a few hours.’
He stared at the spreading circles.
Abruptly he threw his arms around me. ‘Aislyn, my love. Come inside.
You must be-‘
I couldn’t bear it, after what I
had done to him, and to his daughter. I pushed him away. ‘I’m so
sore,’ I said, but it could never be excuse enough.
We faced each other. The door wrenched
open and the red-faced woman stood there, her hands on her hips.
She read me in a single glance. ‘Get rid of her!’ she hissed.
‘You’d better go,’ Jeffie said.
‘Don’t come here again!’ the red-faced
I stumbled down the steps. I couldn’t
blame him. There was none left after I’d finished with myself.
If he really knew what I’d done .
On the streets the simplest things
in life are incredibly difficult. Like washing. A few trips to
the laundromat would exhaust my thirty-one dollars. Besides, everyone
knew that such places were watched.
Every time I thought about the baby
my breasts leaked. In a few hours I stank of sour milk. I washed
my blouse in rainwater leaking from a bridge, but had to put it
back on wet. Someone would steal it if I left it anywhere to dry.
Before it was, I stank of milk again.
I bought the cheapest food I could
find – a tin of condensed soup and a bag of carrots. I ate the
soup cold, sitting under a concrete overpass, and knew that someone
was watching me. I hurried on, always looking over my shoulder.
It was nearly dark now. My ankle was giving out. I had to find
somewhere safe to sleep.
I climbed through a fence, across
railway tracks and caught sight of a partly overgrown tunnel abandoned
years ago. I hobbled towards it. As I stood at the entrance, peering
into the darkness, a woman stepped out in front of me. I jumped,
for she was a good head taller, with shoulders as broad as any
man’s. She folded brawny arms across her chest, waiting for me
‘I need somewhere to sleep,’ I said.
‘Find your own! We’re full.’
‘Please,’ I squeaked. I felt so small
She considered, or pretended to.
‘Twenty dollars for the night.’
‘Twenty!’ In my desperation I considered
paying it. As I put my hand in my pocket, dark shapes moved in
the tunnel behind her. If I went in there I wouldn’t come out again.
There were worse things than the medical examination.
‘I don’t have it,’ I said, and turned
away. I still had twenty-six dollars, as it happened. How long
would that last, even if I slept for nothing? Less than a week.
Along a bit I came to an ancient
railway bridge, supported underneath by a series of small arches
built of iron. Distant street lamps emitted a feeble light. Between
the arches I saw metal-clad valleys large enough to sleep in, if
I could get up there.
It was a hard climb in the dark,
and every surface was wet. I used to be afraid of heights, but
not any more. Not after The Gap. It didn’t matter if I fell.
At the top I found a space between
rusty iron beams. I pulled myself into it with a sigh of relief.
Something glinted in the darkness in front of me. It moved and
the street light caught a shining edge – a large knife. A pair
of eyes appeared behind it.
‘I’m going!’ I ran along the girders
in the darkness.
The second and third valleys were
also occupied, the latter by a gaunt old man. I stood in front
of him with my bag hanging from my hand.
‘Isn’t there anywhere?’ I cried.
‘Last one’s free.’ He spoke in a
whispery croak. Then he laughed. ‘Free now, all right.’
Approaching the fourth, cautiously,
I heard a baby crying. It set off a deluge of milk down my front.
A man’s voice tried to calm it.
‘Where’s mummy?’ a child’s voice
‘She’s . gone away,’ said the man.
He choked into silence.
I hurried on. Before I got to the
last space I realised why it was unoccupied. It smelled awful –
really disgusting. I had to ignore it. I couldn’t start again.
I wedged myself into the entrance, where there was a bit of a breeze,
and ate a carrot. I pillowed my head on my bag, did my best to
block out the odour and tried to sleep.
It was an evil, haunted night. My
poor little baby. I keep seeing her face as I held her out in front
of me. Her wide eyes, so helpless.
I can’t bear to write about her.
It must have been nearly dawn when
I got to sleep, but I did not sleep long. I was woken by an absolutely
nauseating stench. The sun was out, shining directly down the iron
valley, illuminating what I had been sleeping with. At the far
end was the corpse of a middle aged man with a needle still stuck
in his arm.
I went back to Jeffie’s place. It
was eight in the morning by the time I got there. The time of my
medical examination. I supposed I had a few hours before the warrant
would go on the net.
I watched from across the street.
In an hour or so the red-faced woman went out, dressed like an
abattoir worker. I ran across the street and pressed the button
for Jeffie’s apartment. He answered at once.
‘It’s Aislyn,’ I said.
‘Please, Jeffie. Please help me.
You’re all I have in the world.’
‘Then you’ve got no one!’ he choked,
but I heard the lock click. ‘Aargh! Come up.’
I undid two buttons of my blouse.
I felt awful but I had no option. I’m not much to look at, but
surely more than that hard-faced cow he lived with.
He ushered me inside as if afraid
someone would see me. I had to convince him quickly. ‘I didn’t
turn up for my Medical Examination.’
His face was unreadable. I leaned
forward. His eyes slid down to my chest.
I hesitated. ‘I’m afraid.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with you, is
‘No, but my mother was . scared of
the test. She had some kind of secret. I’m frightened.’
‘Don’t be stupid!’ he said. ‘Just
make another appointment.’
‘I’m really frightened.’
‘What do you want from me?’
‘You know people. I want the name
of a doctor I can trust.’
He looked at me suspiciously. ‘You
can’t trust anyone, you know that. Not
‘Just a name,’ I begged.
‘I’ll ask.’ I knew he wouldn’t. He
was looking out the window. He just wanted to get rid of me.
I walked all day, fed myself on condensed
soup and raw carrot, and brooded. What was the point to my life?
I would be better off dead. My mother should have done to me what
I did to my daughter.
I cut across the old railway yards
and the abandoned technology park. Crossing an elevated footbridge
towards the University, I caught sight of the gleaming brass and
wires of the Centre where my mother had worked. It was one of the
few buildings that did not look run down.
I thought of her, hiding in that
decaying shack up the north coast, grieving for all she had lost.
Cyssa had been a brilliant researcher in Cultural Bio-Engineering.
She had been working on the design of future societies, until I
destroyed her life.
A hopeless longing woke in me, to
finish her work, to design the perfect world. It was the only way
to repay her, and perhaps atone for my terrible crime. I wanted
to, more than anything, though I knew it was a dream.