An exaggerated tale about what could happen if humans stopped using the NHS in order to save it.
A feast of a breakfast lay before my eyes. Scrambled eggs; not too rubbery but not too wet, streaky bacon, pancakes covered in sticky maple syrup, warm croissants, cereal, fruit, yoghurt. You name it; it’s there.
‘Only the best for my JJ!’ calls Mum, catching me staring at the display. ‘It’s not every day your only son wins the International Mathematical Olympiad.’
‘I’ve not won yet, Mum.’ I blush as heat rises from my chest to my face, like a mini fire under my skin.
Mum giggles, her bouncy blonde curls jiggle with every quiver of her shoulders.
I tuck into a bit of everything like there’s no tomorrow!
Christie, my little sister, picks up a sausage, which is quickly slapped out of her hand.
‘That’s your brother’s. Hands off.’
‘Ugh! He always gets everything!’
‘She can have it, Mum. I’m stuffed.’
Christie returns my generosity with a huff, her half-turned smile leading the way to the disdain in her eyes. She should be happy she got the leftovers. If it wasn’t for nerves, I reckon I could have eaten the lot.
I need to be at the Royal College of Mathematics by nine a.m. But as I walk past our living room towards the front door, I catch the reflection of the television in Mum’s mirrored sideboard. It stops me in my tracks.
Breaking News: Twelve dead in public strike.
The reporter, a middle-aged lady, with a short black bob and a fringe so blunt you could level a shelf with it, peers over her glasses straight into the TV camera. I swear she is speaking directly to me.
‘To support our nurses and National Health Service, people across the country have taken to the streets to demand fairer pay. Hospitals are emptying. Patients are discharging themselves and calls to 999 have dropped by eighty-eight percent. The people have spoken and are putting their own health at risk for our NHS. As you can see behind me, a huge crowd of-what they call themselves, the ‘Life Strikers’ have blocked every road in the entire city.’
I knew there was going to be a strike today, but I didn’t think this amount of people would turn up.
How am I going to get to the Olympiad now?
Mum! She’s going to the strike. I don’t want her caught up in this. The headline says that people have died! It doesn’t say how or why. Just died.
What if they’ve been crushed to death? Or worse?
What if Mum dies?
I’m losing my mind. Calm down JJ.
The reporter said hospitals are emptying. I don’t need to worry about Mum. She’s fit and healthy, so I know she’ll be fine. She’ll definitely not be silly enough to get herself into any dangerous situations. It’s the right thing to do, I suppose. If the government aren’t listening to our nurses; it is down to us to do something about it.
If I could, I would definitely be there.
But I can’t. I need to get to the Olympiad. My future depends on it. If I want to get into Cambridge with my reputation intact, I have to win. At least, I have to get there.
The reporter is still talking, ‘… Death is a small price to pay for life. I’m Beverly Lovett and I urge everyone who cares for our country to join the Life Strike. Goodbye!’ And off she walks, disappearing into the growing crowd of Life Strikers. A counter clock with the number of deaths flashes in the bottom left-hand corner. It’s gone up to sixteen. No, seventeen now.
There’s sobbing coming from the hallway. It’s Christie. I’ve been so worried about Mum; I’d forgotten she was taking Christie with her on the strike.
‘James, are we going to die? I don’t want to die.’
‘No way. Look, there are so many people out there in the strike that would have died anyway today, but they would have been in the hospital and it wouldn’t be newsworthy. I bet you any money the ones that died were all super old or something.’
I’m trying to convince myself as much as I’m trying to convince Christie. It seems to work though because she smiles and nods and mumbles something like, ‘if you say so.’
There’s no chance I’m going to make it in on a bus, what with all the roads into the city blocked, so I slip on my brand-new Nike Air trainers and decide to make a run for it.
‘I’m off. Mum, Christie, be careful out there today!’
Christie’s eyes are glued to the TV.
‘Life Strike Death Toll: thirty-four.’
It’s nearly doubled in the space of five minutes!
JJ… Perspective. Hundreds and thousands of people die every day. But we just don’t know about it.
Pull yourself together.
‘Don’t forget this,’ Mum exclaims, planting a sticky red lipstick kiss on my cheek which brings me back to reality. ‘I’ll be there about ten, maybe later depending on all this,’ she says, circling her finger at the TV. ‘See you soon, sweetheart. Text me when you’re there?’
Adrenalin takes over every inch of my body as I sprint across roads, through alleyways, and crowds of Life Strikers. I don’t have a minute to spare, so when I see a boy, no older than me, holding a sign with blood red writing stating: ‘Life or Death – YOU CHOOSE!’ collapse right in front of me, I carry on running. I can’t stop, I’ve no time to lose. But I look back, slowing down into a jog, and he’s disappeared under crowds of people trying to see what happened. Some are trying to give him, and someone else CPR by the looks of things too.
Someone shouts to call 999, but they are quickly ejected with forceful pushing and shoving and chants of, ‘Death means life! Death means life! Death means life!’
I have to move and quick. The Royal College of Mathematics is in eyesight. If I get caught up in this, I’ll never make it in time. I look at my phone. It’s eight fifty-seven a.m. and I run like my life depends on it.
I take a seat at the only empty desk in the hall and wait. It’s dead quiet in here. A welcome change to the carnage of the outside world. I know I should be out there. I mean, a Mathematics Olympiad isn’t going to change the world. It’ll change my world, though. I’m better off in here. I stand a much higher chance of becoming the UK Mathematics Olympiad Champion of 2019 and getting into Cambridge than I do staying alive out there.
A disheveled looking lady shuffles into the hall. Her mousy hair is short and unkempt. Her eyes are puffy and smudged with black from what I assume is yesterday’s make-up. My phone rings as she begins to talk, but instead of asking me to switch it off or listen, she continues as though she’s oblivious to the University Challenge theme tune blasting from my pocket. It’s Mum. Oh no! I didn’t let her know I was here safely. I should answer, but there’s only two minutes to go before we start the Olympiad, so instead I decline and quickly WhatsApp her with, ‘I’m here’.
But even before one tick shows, she’s ringing back. I decline again. Guilt rumbles in my stomach. I’ve never ignored her before. I send her another message.
‘Mum, I’m safe. You OK?’
‘JJ. It’s Mum. Something’s happening in the strike and Christie’s gone. I’m coming to get you.’
‘What do you mean, gone?’
‘I can’t find her. Everyone is dropping like flies. They’ll listen now, won’t they?’
‘Mum, it’s about to start. Find Christie and come here.’
‘I’m just coming in now.’
‘Ok, wait for me and we’ll find Christie. I need to do this first.’
No reply. Nothing. I hope she’s ok.
I turn over my test paper and begin, blocking out the shouting going on from outside. Suddenly, I hear a familiar voice. A voice usually so warm and calm, but now shrill and disconcerted.
‘JJ! Where are you?’
She’s arguing with someone. ‘My boy is in there! I need my boy! JJ!’
I need to make sure she’s ok. But the rules state we can’t leave until the Olympiad is completed and there’s still nearly four hours to go.
The University Challenge theme tune chimes from my pocket and I quickly turn it off. This time, the lady puts her finger to her lips as she stares at me. I put it on silent like I should have done before, and the light, followed by a photo of Mum, flashes on the screen, letting me know she’s ringing again. She knows how important this is to me. Surely, she can wait.
Obviously she can’t. As the next thing I know, she is bursting through the door, knocking over two security guards as she pushes past. All eyes are on me instead of the test paper, and the burning sensation rises over my face again.
‘JJ. We need to leave. I’m going back into the Life Strike, and I need you by my side.’
The two security guards are back on their feet and heading to Mum.
‘Mum, I can’t… I…’
‘Excuse me, madam.’ One of the burly guards grasps Mum’s hand.
‘Don’t touch me!’ interrupts Mum, snatching her hand away. ‘Look, this is my son. I just need five minutes. OK?’
The guards turn to the disheveled lady, who gives a quick nod and checks her watch.
‘JJ,’ Mum whispers. ‘I’m going back out to the strike, and I’m begging you to come with me. Christie’s gone; we need to find her. Please, JJ?’
I can’t bear to look at her.
‘JJ. Come on. We need to be out there. With all the others. The cause is bigger than us… than our lives. The government are taking notice. They’ve ordered a cabinet meeting. It said so on the news. If we give up now, they’ll win, and everyone’s deaths will be for nothing.’
‘Mum, I can’t.’ I reply, staring at my feet. ‘Just go find Christie and come back here. Please? It’s safe. No one here is dying.’
‘But JJ. I love you so much. You’re my boy. I can’t leave you.’
‘I can’t. It’s for the greater good. It’s the only way to save the NHS.’ Mum isn’t whispering anymore. ‘I need to do this, JJ. We need to do this… Together.’
I know she’s right. I don’t have a choice.
No one does.
Arden is a working-class writer who lives in Brentwood with her musician husband, her two children and a crazy cat.
Before she started writing children’s books, Arden went to university as a mature student and received an honours degree in Special Educational Needs and Inclusion. She was the first person in her family to attend university, which was the first step she took on her ongoing journey of self-belief. She has worked for a local housing association as an outreach officer and most recently ran her own crafting businesses.
Arden is represented by literary agent Molly Jamieson at United Agent.