Ash swirled down on the almost deserted streets of London. Dark, dilapidated buildings sagged forward, their windows and doors a multitude of yawning maws gaping to swallow the residents of the soot-covered city. Jonathan walked down the empty sidewalk, approaching the lone figure standing underneath a flickering lamp.
The figure nodded, pulling his hood back to reveal a darkened, filthy face. Bright, jaundiced eyes seemed to pop out of his dark features, and a craggy, toothy smile split open his cheeks.
“Mornin’ to ye, Jonathan. I s’pose yore here for the goods?”
Jonathan cringed, trying hard not to gag on Henry’s foul breath emanating from what was left of his jaw. They had once been schoolmates, even shared a flat together when they attended university. But now, the poor lad was only the shell of the man he once was – ruined, once and for all, by public option healthcare.
“It’s a shame, really. Yore face I mean –“
“Eh, drop it, Jon. It’s nothin’, really. It’s the NHS, afterall.”
Poor Henry, Jonathan thought. If only Parliament had let physicians set their own wages as dictated by market forces, instead of working for the government. Perhaps somehow the surgeon’s skill would have been better – better enough not to botch a routine mole removal that resulted in the poor sod losing half a jaw. Ever since then, he’d never been the same.
“So, you here to peddle for my wares, I s’pose?” Henry’s scratchy voice brought Jonathan back to reality.
“Listen, I need the good stuff. The Advil. My –“ Jonathan lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “My mum’s ill, you see, and I’m afraid if she don’t show any improvement by Tuesday next, the death panels’ll git her.” The last dependent clause Jon uttered sent a shiver up his spine.
“Oh, right right. But the bloody Downin’ Street-owned bilgers won’t ration the Advil out to ye, am I right?” Henry’s elbow poked Jonathan’s ribs painfully as the filthy man dissolved into a mixture of spasmodic coughs and wheezing laughs.
“Oh, we can get it for ye, but there’s a price,” Henry finally said quietly, his watery eyes now a steely yellow. “My wife is due for a tyke –“
“Oh, congratulations,” Jonathan robotically interjected, absentmindedly.
“Yeah, thanks. Problem is, bloody Parliament says they want to take my baby away and abort it or something of the like.”
“Bloody shame, really. I know London’s overpopulated and all, but couldn’t we at least send the bloody poor blighters out to India or some-“ Jonathan caught himself, his sentence caught in his throat, gurgling.
Henry spat on the ground – even his phlegm was a filthy black – as Jonathan focused his gaze on the only clean speck on the blackened wall of the local sweatshop factory next to him. The whole neighborhood used to be quite posh – until, that is, the creation of the NHS. Now all the poor private insurers were absolutely bankrupt and millions of claims agents and CEOs were out work. Henry was one of them. Undesirables, the rest of society called them.
He remembered well the fear that whipped through the nation as those who avowed themselves as the Cromwell Party vowed to bring morality and decency back into British politics. A flurry of unpopular legislation later and the NHS came into being. Nobody liked it at first, but that’s how government worked. Soon, people couldn’t imagine a life without the NHS, robbed of their capacity to make decisions for themselves. Infant mortality skyrocketed as well as unemployment. The government fulfilled their promise that British citizens would no longer worry about cancer; now, a bloke could pitch over from anything, even the common cold, if he like. Old diseases came back after all the good doctors shipped out – polio, smallpox, even the bloody black plague would ravage outside villages.
People would go into hospitals complaining about a headache and came back with a lobotomy. The neighborhood boy broke his right arm while climbing a tree, but he came back with a left arm missing and his right arm still broken. But of course, Parliament kept such a tight lid on anything that nobody realized the squalor they lived in – nobody, that is, except the academia. But they kept quiet. If poor blokes were dying of dysentery or cholera, no skin off their noses.
Jonathan was no supporter of the change by any means; he had openly denounced the roving bands of vigilante “capitalist hunters” who ferreted out those who professed belief in free enterprise. But he had to be careful if he didn’t want to be labeled as one of “them,” them being the bloody capitalists that had ruined the country with a depression unparalleled. In the best case scenario, they were severely beaten and quietly shipped to America several weeks later. In the worst case scenario, the dirty money grubbers were never heard from again.
Jonathan ventured a gaze at Henry, whose face displayed no remorse or shame of his fallen status. Once a CEO of a thriving health insurance company, he had provided millions of dollars willingly to the people of London, providing the best customer service and unparalleled coverage. Now, he was forgotten, branded with the polemic label of “capitalist,” portrayed as only greedy, amoral, self-serving.
Two years after they had graduated – Henry in Business Management, Jonathan in English Literature – his old college mate had shown him a wall plastered with letters dripping with praise and relief that Henry’s insurance company was there to cover all the costs of this procedure or that. The old man’s face beamed that day, content that he had built an industry that truly helped people. He often poked fun at Jonathan, asking him how his soul crushing academia desk job was, offering a job to “help real people with real problems, instead of fictional people with fictional problems.”
Now the face showed nothing; simply a blank, stained canvas with nothing left. Some days, when Jonathan needed Henry to smuggle in contraband medications too hard to get a hold of through the NHS, his old mate’s eyes still shined with tenacity and life. But lately, those days were fewer and far in between and he could see the light fading.
He knew he shouldn’t pity one of the capitalists, but, Henry was a mate after all, wasn’t he? Alma mater, in fact, and surely he could pull some of the strings he held within the government to help the poor man.
“Listen Henry,” Jonathan said, nervously licking his lips. “Listen closely. I could help you and Patty get out of here, somewhere where you can have a baby without it gettin’ aborted. I could get you into America if you like-“
Henry’s face twisted into the façade of a monster, and Jonathan took several steps back, recoiling in terror. The former CEO’s bloodshot eyes bulged out of their sockets, his cracked, bleeding lips peeling back from his decaying gums, pulsing veins lining the tendons in his neck.
“It’s too late!” he screamed, grabbing Jonathan’s shirt with both hands, roughly pushing the meek professor up against the wall. “It’s too bloody late! Obama! He passed it! He passed the healthcare bill! It’s over! He passed it!” And suddenly, the crushed man crumpled to the side of the street.
“He passed it! He passed it!” His final, foul breath exhaled quietly out of the still gaping mouth.
Jonathan shook the corpse off of his Oxfords, brushing them, and hastily backed away from his former friend, finally sprinting down the street in fear.
Moments later, Jonathan met Patty, informing her awkwardly of her husband’s death. The woman’s face seemed not even to register the news; she sank into her chair as if carrying a heavy weight despite being a slight, malnourished ninety-three pounds.
“Tell me, Jonathan. What were his last words?”
Jonathan’s voice faltered. “He said…he said your name.”
The woman merely nodded. “He was a kind man.”
“Yes, he really was, Patty.”
But both Patty and Jonathan knew it was a lie. It all was.