Fiction: Hugging is a Human Right

He was young enough to accept this dystopian existence in a way no adult could – or should…We should have fought harder, Maya thought. But no one had.

photo of mother and child
Photo by Daria Obymaha on Pexels.com

Maya was careful to wait until they’d left the shopping centre and turned onto the side street away from the designated Public Gathering Space (PSG: Commercial) before she pulled down the mandatory face covering. She couldn’t afford another fine; three months ago a near hysterical shop worker had screamed at her for not being behind a line that had been so worn as to be near invisible, and demanded her citizen card. The fine had been taken immediately from Maya’s account and left her almost overdrawn, and two more fines within a nine month period meant jail time and her son permanently placed in foster care.

Still, she wanted to breathe freely and to feel the air on her skin. It was only a few yards from the side street to the dirt track by the slow moving river where the only CCTV camera had been vandalised. This desolate place, away from the traffic and most pedestrians, was one of the few places free of the government’s oversight.

She bent and pulled down her son’s dinosaur patterned mask and held his hand tightly, the other hand clutching her shopping as they walked along the riverbank. She’d been able to buy him strawberries this week but many items had been out of stock and everything cost more than a year ago. Her budget was struggling as the government payouts decreased but the restrictions did not.

Across the river was a playground, the gates still padlocked. Graffiti covered the roundabout, the climbing frame was nearly devoid of paint, and the swings had been burned, the rubber seats melted and the metal struts scarred and twisted.

“I liked playing on the swings,” Joey said matter of factly. It broke her heart that he didn’t even seem sad anymore at the loss of this simple, joyful, activity. This was his life now and he was young enough to accept this dystopian existence in a way no adult could – or should.

“I know darling.” She squeezed at his hand as they passed under the road bridge, cars thundering overhead. Further graffiti lined the concrete walls, mostly tags and crude cartoons but there were a few slogans of the minimal resistance movement urging “No New Normal” and “Wake Up!”

With protests banned and social media censored the resistance had struggled against a full blown media hysteria which whipped up public opinion to demand this new world. One in which cash was outlawed as dirty, unreliable, untraceable. Replaced with the mandatory citizen cards which let the government know every single thing you purchased and every single place you went.

A world in which human contact was now too dangerous to exist and so there were no family visits, no dating, no restaurants, no playgroups, no concerts nor sports – had there ever truly been a time you could sit in a packed stadium or a field and watch someone play a guitar or toss a ball? So dangerous that getting within arm’s reach of another human was forbidden, and faces had to be covered in any place deemed to be a Public Gathering Space (PSG).

She still hugged Joey but the public service announcements that ran before every Home Learning Module were priming him to reject this simple act of affection; “Hugs are for babies,” cartoon rabbits said scornfully. Young children might need touch to survive but the sooner they were weaned of it the better, was the prevailing opinion.

The light coloured soil of the river bank reminded Maya somewhat of the seaside. She barely recalled the feel of sand on her toes or the salt smell of the sea. There were a handful of beaches not designated Public Gathering Spaces and she longed to visit one and walk, bare faced and barefoot on the sand and paddle in the sea, but no beach at all was within walking distance of her home and unnecessary travel was strictly forbidden. No train ticket could be purchased with her citizen card without her providing proof of it being an essential journey.

“Duck,” Joey said, pointing and Maya smiled as the sight of the emerald headed mallard swimming along the river, free in a way she and Joey would never be.

She loved Joey and he was the only reason she got up in the mornings now, but if the Safety Measures had happened before he’d been born she knew she would never have brought a child into this world.

Her friend Clara felt differently. Clara was actually an acquaintance selected by JUNO, the computer who had replaced all the messy business of human affairs with algorithmic computations that facilitated virtual contact with those deemed compatible. Maya had doubts about their compatibility especially given Clara’s recent calls.

Clara had been video chatting with one of JUNO’s matches for her, a man named Jake, for several months now and was thinking of asking for him to father her a child via IVF, the only safe (i.e. permitted) way to reproduce. Maya had not been able to convince Clara otherwise and didn’t dare push harder lest the communications, always at risk of being monitored, got her flagged for dangerous behaviour or another misinformation offence.

They reached the main road and turned toward home, Maya and Joey both pulling up their masks again before they passed the “PSG: Residential Zone” sign.

We should have fought harder, Maya thought as she opened the door to the tiny flat. I should have done more. But everyone kept saying it was necessary and temporary and anyone who disagreed was a murderer…we didn’t just let them take our rights, we gave them away willingly.

Such thoughts were such treasonous dissent that she would never voice them aloud, never write them in a diary, let alone post them online. Others had to feel the same way, but they were kept silenced.

“You were away from home for: 1hr and 43 minutes”, the Home Assistant flashed at her in red text as she locked the door behind her. This was well within her limited rights, so Maya ignored it, though Clara took great pride in keeping her time away from home to an absolute minimum, gushing when she could keep it to zero minutes.

Maya scrubbed her hands and began to make lunch while Joey washed up and checked his Home Learning Schedule. Her heart lifted when she looked out of the kitchen window and saw a new piece of graffiti spray-painted on the fence of the housing tenements opposite: “Hugging iz a Human Rigt”. It was vandalism and it was misspelt and yet Maya knew that others out there – young people, most likely – knew what had been taken from them and, better still, were furious about it.

Perhaps there was still hope.

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