Not long before she’d given birth to Dorothea, in 2038, the government had announced that 95% of the UK population were clinically obese. Hospitals were experiencing regular bed crises - not just shortages but actual collapses as beds buckled under thirty-stone bodies. The main childhood disease was diabetes; school PE lessons were prohibited because so many children had dropped dead with heart attacks. Despite massive objections from the food lobby, it was decreed that all food production, consumption and distribution would be centrally controlled. Portions were scientifically gauged, nutritionally balanced and calorie controlled on a sliding scale from six-month old babies (new-borns to be exclusively breastfed except in medically-approved Extraordinary Circumstances) to professional sportspersons. Fruit and vegetables could still be grown for personal consumption, to be eaten raw, as possession of a cooker, together with knives and sharp-pronged implements, was illegal under the Health-Safe laws.
She tried to imagine cooking and eating exactly what she wanted, but found the thought overwhelming, terrifying even. How would you control your weight? What would happen at the monthly weigh-in? And you’d surely burn yourself, or stab yourself with a knife or one of those spiked carving forks like her mother used to use…
Maxine emerged from her daydream. Dorothea had placed a bowl of seaweed flakes (approved salt substitute) on the table and was looking expectant.
“Can I see if any there are any strawberries ripe yet?”
Dorothea scrabbled in the cupboard and pulled out a small glass bowl.
“Can I put them in here?”
Maxine snatched the bowl away.
“No! You know you mustn’t touch glass objects. Use one of Granny’s wooden ones.” Maxine tried not to think about her mother, who had been euthanased the previous year following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. ‘Let’s Move On’ was the government mantra on those who had had to be disposed of thus. She handed Dorothea a wooden bowl and unlocked the door, watching as she ran down the garden.
On the white wall a screen glowed orange. A personal call. She connected.
“Hello, I’m Véronique, Eugénie’s mother.” Maxine touched the screen and a dark-eyed smiling face appeared, framed with chestnut curls that cascaded over capable shoulders. “We wondered if Dotty would like to come round tomorrow. Eugénie’s talked so much about her.” Véronique’s English was perfect despite a noticeable French accent, and Maxine felt a pang of regret that languages no longer featured on the school curriculum. She smiled back - Véronique seemed friendly, and it was brave of her to make the first move. It would be nice for Dorothea to have a friend who might teach her some French.
“I’m sure she’d like that,” she said.
“Wonderful! I’ll pick them up from school and perhaps you could fetch her at about six?”
Maxine heard a key in the front door.
“Yes, thanks, er, Veronic. Bye.”
Ed walked in. He kissed Maxine absentmindedly on the cheek, glancing at the screen, where the smiling face and chestnut curls were slowly pixellating. Then he spotted the Quorn and Root Vegetable Medley on the table and grimaced.
“Didn’t we have that last month? Who was that, by the way? Didn’t recognise the face.”
“No, that was Root Vegetable and Pigeon Gratin. It was Dorothea’s new friend’s mother. She’s invited her round tomorrow.”
“Christ, yes, all those bones.” Ed sat down. “Well, I’m glad she’s found a friend. Where do they live?”
Maxine consulted the blue infoscreen.
“Parsonage Farm. Three miles from town near Debden woods.”
“I can fetch her on my way back from work. I’ll hitch the trailer to the back of the bike.”
“Well, if you’re sure…
“Look what I’ve got!” crowed Dorothea, bursting through the door, displaying a bowlful of fat glossy strawberries.
“Hooray!” said Maxine, her mouth watering.
The next night over supper (Wholemeal Bean Lasagne with Celeriac and Beetroot Salad) Dorothea was full of her visit to Eugenie’s house.
“They’ve got four kittens and we cuddled them - they’re so sweet and fluffy, Mummy!”
Maxine shuddered, thinking of bacteria.
“We played hide and seek in the woods…” Maxine glanced at Ed. He was stabbing a lump of lasagne, Ecoplastic fork bending ominously, oblivious to the fact that his daughter had been exposed to the potential dangers lurking in Debden woods.
“On your own?” she asked, trying to sound interested rather than concerned.
“With Eugie’s brother, Yves. He’s nine.”
“Oh,” said Maxine, doubtfully.
“And there were cows and some gooses that Eugie said were called Wa, and some ducks and pretty white hens with red frilly heads, and we rode on a donkey, and looked for eggs on top of the hay, and I fell down a hole!” Dorothea giggled.
Ed had abandoned the lasagne and was pulling the top off his pot of Frootigel. Maxine’s eyes widened with concern as she wondered how high the hay bales were.
“Did you hurt yourself, sweetie?”
“A bit when they pulled me out and it scratched, but not now.”
“You’d better shower straight after supper - I’ll check if any scratches need treating.” Maxine was unhappy, although it had been nice of Véronique to send that big punnet of raspberries. They ate the well-washed fruit, Maxine carefully checking each one for blemishes that could signal something disgusting inside.
“So what was the best bit about today, Dotty?” said Ed.
“Easily, the bit when we went home from school on a bike all together, Eugie’s mum then Eugie then me then Yves at the back. It went so fast and the wind whooshed past us and my hair went like this!” and Dorothea grabbed her hair and pulled it behind her like a flag. Maxine tried to look unconcerned.
The following week the invitation came again.
“The girls got on so well! It’s lovely company for Eugenie, and Dotty seemed to love the animals,”
“But are you sure it’s safe for them to play in the woods, Veronic? We’ve lived here all our lives and people say it’s dangerous; you know, wild animals and tree roots and brambles and….”
“Nooo, it’s not dangerous!” laughed Véronique. “Eugénie and Yves play there all day at the weekends when I...when I am working in the house. They have fun, playing hide and seek and making dens. It gives them an appetite.”
Maxine was aware that she erred on the side of over-protectiveness. Her natural caution and law-abiding nature did occasionally make her seem paranoid, she realised, but far better to be safe than sorry. She knew people thought she was boring but she also knew that she was setting a fine example to Dorothea.
“They’ve invited us for supper on Saturday,” announced Ed the following evening. Dorothea bounced with excitement.
“Eugie says we can stay the night and I can sleep in her bed! Can we Mummy, pleeease?”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Maxine, thinking of all the animals she would encounter, the bacteria she would be exposed to, the fuss about food allocation, having to change their delivery address for two meals. And the thought of Debden woods made her feel uneasy.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Ed. “We can really get to know them – it would be good to make some friends. You don’t see many people, Maxie - wouldn’t it be fun?”
Maxine looked uncertain. “Have you met her partner?”
“Er, no, I’m not sure if she has one.”
“There is a Papa but he’s not well. He lives in a room where I’ve never been,” said Dorothea.
“So she runs the farm herself? She must have help,” said Maxine.
“Yes, Yves chops wood and feeds the animals, and Eugie collects the eggs. That’s how I fell down that hole in the hay bales.”
“He chops wood!” said Maxine incredulous that any non-professional, let alone a child, would be allowed to use an axe. “She must get government help, too, when the animals are taken away for slaughtering, and I suppose they come and collect the eggs in bulk.”
“Probably,” said Ed. “Anyway, I’d really like to go and I said we would, ok?”
As they cycled to Veronique’s, Dorothea chattered from the trailer.
“Eugie’s room is lovely, Mummy – tiny and creaky and her bed is huge and it’s got curtains. I can’t wait to sleep in it! And Yves’ room is next door. And the other side of the house is their mum’s room, and their papa’s. And there’s a secret room under the kitchen called the carve. I wasn’t supposed to tell you about that.”
Véronique welcomed them with a kiss on both cheeks, which Maxine considered unhygienic but kind nevertheless, and offered them champagne. After the second glass, served with tiny tomatoes and radishes, Maxine noticed that the children had disappeared but she wasn’t concerned in the slightest. After the third, Véronique offered to show them round the house.
They tramped through passages, up little stairways, across half-landings. The children, holding up a kitten each, waved to them from a bedroom filled with a four-poster bed.
“Adorable!” Maxine exclaimed.
Véronique led them up a staircase and knocked on a door. Gosh, these floors are uneven, thought Maxine, as she gently lurched towards the wall.
“Bonsoir,” came a low voice. “Do come in.” Véronique pressed the latch and they went in.
“This is my husband, Paul.”
A fire provided the only light. In a chair in front of it, his face turned towards them, sat a man who was obviously in the last stage of his life, a shrunken wisp dressed in clothes made for a much larger person. The face was a yellowish mask, the pallid flesh straining over cheekbones that stood out sharply in the firelight, the eyes disproportionately large. A shock of black hair was the only clue that this was not an ancient relic from the middle of the twentieth century.
Maxine stared. She had seen skulls before, but only in paintings on the virtual tours offered on Culturechannel. Ed stepped forward and held out his hand.
The man stood up, supporting himself on the arm of the chair, and shook Ed’s hand, saying in a quiet but shockingly normal voice, “Delighted to meet you. Thank you so much for coming.”
He turned to Maxine, took her hand and raised it to his lips. “Enchanté, Madame,” he said, and despite his horrific appearance Maxine felt no revulsion, just an unaccustomed warmth and tenderness. She put her other hand gently over his fragile, almost translucent one and smiled.
“It’s lovely to meet you, Paul.”
“Well now, I’m starving, aren’t you?” said Véronique briskly, using a taper from the fire to light candles on the table. “Shall we sit down?” She helped Paul over to his seat. Maxine gasped as she looked at her plate of foie gras, delicately arranged with little salad leaves and slices of brioche.
“How did you, where did you...?” She stuttered, but Véronique interrupted, laughing.
“Sorry, this must be a shock for you. I will explain. Paul was diagnosed with leukaemia two years ago. We had been living in London, where he was working in the City. As you know, a diagnosis of that type of cancer means the end immediately, but we made the decision to escape and to make sure that Paul enjoyed the time he had left. He’s always loved good food; do you know, he was constantly overweight until he became ill – the monthly weigh-ins were a nightmare! They were forever cutting down his calorie allowance. But I’m afraid it won’t be long now. Obviously he has to be in hiding so that EuthanasiaUK cannot find him.”
“But where did you get this wonderful food?” asked Maxine, feeling a frisson of wickedness as she took her first mouthful of foie gras and decided that it was without doubt the most delicious taste she had ever experienced.
“Well, that was one of our geese,” said Paul, pointing to his plate, “And the salad is grown by Véronique. The brioche we, er, acquire from friends in London. That’s one of the reasons my official calorie-cutting never used to work. It was easy to get things on the black market there. It helps here that we live on the edge of a wood, where people are not noticed arriving with packages. And it’s easy on a farm to conceal things. Even though we have regular monthly inspections, there are places the inspectors never go…”
“Like amongst the hay bales?” grinned Ed.
“Exactement! They only look there once a year. And they don’t even know about the cellar!”
“Is this the carve that Dotty mentioned?” said Maxine.
“Yes. Come with me,” said Véronique. She took the four empty plates over to a cupboard set in the wall. It was so dark that Maxine could only make out a hole. Véronique put the plates into the cupboard. “Now we go downstairs,” she said.
She led the way down to the kitchen and opened the door to the cloakroom where earlier she had hung their coats. She pulled the coats aside to reveal a small door.
“Voilà la cave!” she announced, opening the door. Maxine followed her down the stone steps.
The cellar was fitted out like the sort of kitchen Maxine had seen in old films, with a huge table in the middle of the room and a dresser filled with plates against one wall. Saucepans and cake tins stood on a long shelf above a deep stone sink and draining board which Maxine could not help stroking.
“That came from France, from my great-grandparents’ house,” said Véronique. “But this is from England.” She touched a massive, metre-high cream-coloured block that dominated one wall of the room.
“What is it?” asked Maxine.
“It’s a cooking range. This one is wood-fired. It certainly keeps Yves busy! Now, shall we get those plates from upstairs?” She went over to a cupboard by the sink, unhooked a rope from the wall and let it rise steadily.
“Could you open the cupboard door now please?” she said.
For the first time in her life, Maxine was excited at the sight of dirty plates.
The rest of the meal – roast duck with sour cherries, new potatoes, peas, beans and asparagus, followed by raspberry pavlova, then Roquefort and Brie – was a relevation for Maxine. She found herself actually envying this family, despite the desperately sick husband, the difficulties, the hard physical life for all of them.
Two weeks later Véronique rang to say that Paul had died peacefully in his sleep after a supper of goat’s cheese and walnut salad. She invited Maxine, Ed and Dorothea to lunch, together with some friends from London, followed by a short burial ceremony in Debden woods.
Maxine, Ed and Dorothea often cycled out to the woods at the weekends after that, and more often than not they called in to see their friends. Ed became expert with an axe and one day he persuaded Maxine to have a go. She found the experience extremely therapeutic.