She despised all Welfare Centres as a general rule, but most especially this one.
She’d waited three hours in an uncomfortable metal chair, watching the news channel on the muted viewscreen, night-vision images of gunfire, bombs and airstrikes. Eventually, the display light at the service desk buzzed garish red neon with her name: “Frankie Simkins”.
With a struggle, using her crutch to get up, she hobbled across the wipe-clean flooring. While she’d been sitting waiting, the floor had been sheened over by KleenBots twice; first when a thin, sickly-looking child puked all over himself and the floor, and second when an old man had urinated on it, shouting something threatening in a foreign language. Security had arrived and took him away, then the KleenBots had buzzed in.
Frankie got to the appointed desk without slipping over and sat down.
The Welfare Officer was a woman, bland-looking, severe.
“Mrs Simkins?” she asked.
“How can Welfare help you today, Mrs Simkins?”
“I, erm…I need a crisis loan.”
“I see.” The WO prodded buttons on her computer, and scanned the screen.
“Mrs Simkins, you’ve had three Crisis Loans from us in the past four years, one of them still outstanding. You don’t qualify for another.” The WO was closing the file on the computer; that was it, it was not negotiable.
“But I can’t afford it any more. Everything’s gone up. I can’t pay my bills. Please, make an exception, I’m begging you.”
“Mrs Simkins, you’re aware of the current state of the economy? And the war, too is very expensive. You don’t qualify for another loan.”
“But I’ve got a family to feed. Please… look…do you have any children? You must know what it’s like?”
“My status is of no concern here,” said the WO plainly.
“Please help me.” Frankie was close to tears now, but trying to sniff the emotion back into her nose. “I need help.”
“You know the procedure, Mrs Simkins. There can be no loan,” She swiped at her computer screen; “Do you still have three children, Mrs Simkins?”
“Yes, three. Jilly’s just a baby, I can’t afford her milk formula.”
“Are you telling me you’d like me to open a Social Care Order?”
“We would redistribute your baby. It would ease your financial situa-”
“No! No-one’s taking my baby!” Frankie nearly screamed, between tears now too numerous to dam.
“Then perhaps you would like a token to take to your clinic. The State would meet the cost of your womb being biologically dessicated.”
“I can’t do that! I’m only 28. Look, it’s just my budget’s really squeezed. I can’t feed-” She nearly said, ‘I can’t feed my kids’, but stopped herself; they would probably be taken away if she said that. “Me and my husband barely eat. The kids get it all. Please, I just need a few hundred.”
“I see your husband works in the Uranium Plant. A labourer. Are you still looking for work, Mrs Simkins?”
Frankie’s tears stopped with astonishment. She stood up on her crutch and took a couple of hops away from the desk. “Haven’t you seen my problem? How am I supposed to keep a family together and clean and fed, and then go out to work and labour somewhere. Who would employ me?” She aimed her plastic stump at the Welfare Officer. “I’ve only got one bloody leg, for Christs sake!”
“OK, Mrs Simkins, please sit down. There’s no need for hysterics.” She swiped more screen, ruffled more papers. Frankie sat back down.
“Clearly you know all the benefits of the system,” the WO said,
“Therefore you know that there will be no crisis loan today, or in fact, any other day until you’ve repaid what is outstanding.”
Frankie was about to get up and leave; she was considering urinating on the floor on her way out.
“All we can offer is to further lighten your load…if you were willing to make a Contribution to the War Effort. I’m obligated by my employers to inform you that a single Contribution to the State will lessen your nutritional needs and therefore your personal food intake by up to nine percent. With a hungry family to feed, this could make your life just that tiny bit easier. And, of course, you’d also receive all the appropriate benefits for your Contribution, which now include the new Severance Allowance for six months.”
Frankie was dabbing her eyes; the tears had gone, but reality remained.
“Just one more loan,” she said. “That’s all I’m asking. I’m desperate.”
“Desperate times require desperate measures, Mrs Simkins.”
Frankie sighed, defeated. “But…it’s hard now. How would I manage?”
“You seem to be a strong woman…but something in your family has to give. The baby is still an option.”
“No. God, no,” said Frankie. She sat for a moment, head bowed, weighing up the devil and the deep blue sea.
“Alright,” she said, finally, “if there’s no other way… I suppose I’ll have to…”
The WO reached into a drawer for the correct papers, and began to put the process in motion.
“…before I change my mind.” Frankie said under her breath.
Applications were filled, papers signed, and financial support determined in a little under twenty minutes. Frankie had remained mostly quiet; she was deflated, beaten.
“Ok, Mrs Simkins, that’s all correct,” said the WO and pointed to the far end of the office. “Booth number six has just become free. You can go straight in. Your new benefit package will begin immediately. Thank you once again for your worthy sacrifice to our great country. Goodbye, Mrs Simkins.”
Frankie hauled herself up, massaged her palms on her forehead, and hobbled over to Booth Six. The door was standing open, and she went in, forcing herself not to hop like hell away from the place.
In the room was a man in a white plastic coat. He closed the door behind her, and slipped on the ‘engaged’ sign.
“Hello again, Mrs Simkins,” he said, quite cheerily, as he changed his white rubber surgeons gloves, “What did you have in mind, this time?”
Frankie was crying again, and shaking her head.
“Oh, don’t you fret,” said the doctor, as he handed her a surgical gown. “They graft them on really quickly these days, and they’re so much more versatile than the prosthetics. Six months or so, and our boys and girls are back on the front line. If you could just get changed into the gown please.”
Frankie began to cross the room, heading for the changing area.
“What do you think, then?” the doctor said, as he readied the anaesthetic mask. “Perhaps an arm this time? Those robotic ones are so fiddly; our soldiers like nothing better than real fingers.”