We’re waiting in the fee-payers room, watching through the door as the queue bunches tighter, making room for new arrivals. This waiting room is always full, like it was when we got here, and there are never enough staff. So when Tom went off to the oil wars he put us on a private scheme, so if anything went wrong while he was away, we’d be looked after. But he came back okay. It’s now that we’ve got the trouble, now we’ve come off the private scheme.

He said he told them he didn’t feel happy about turning off the detectors, out there in the desert. They’d been reading positive for three days, and some of them didn’t want to advance any further over the territory. So they were told to turn them off and given some pills to take instead of wearing protective suits. He saved some of the pills and brought them back with him, but no-one could identify them. We even managed to track the suppliers, through one of his friends in the medical corps, but found out the research department that had manufactured them shut down after having its funding withdrawn. But I know Leanne’s been poisoned, somehow. Something’s not right, and she’s not getting any better. When she was born she couldn’t breathe, and when she grew up her face was all twisted to one side, and I could see her trying to make her hands and feet do what she wanted but they wouldn’t.

We had a scare last night—she started to cough and couldn’t stop. Not the kind of cough that you and I have, but a stifled, muffled choking sound, almost as if she didn’t have the energy to bother. Tom heard it first. He was panicking, thinking it was someone who’d not managed to get his protective gear on in time. He woke up screaming, you see, and that woke me up. So I calmed him down and went in to Leanne. I could tell straight away that she wasn’t right. Even when I got the respirator on her, she didn’t look right. Then Tom came through and we’ve been up all night since, trying to keep her awake. She doesn’t cry much, she just stares and sometimes she smiles at us; her lop-sided smile chokes me up, and I want it to be me who’s got the problems; I want to take them away from her so I can watch her grow up.

We’ve moved round a seat now, so it shouldn’t be long. Tom’s not been working much since he came back. He can’t seem to think straight sometimes, he jumps at the slightest thing so they keep signing him off. He’s had a lot of time at home, but with no questions asked so I think someone knows, but instead of saying anything public they just keep us sweet with things like the paid leave and the cheap loan to help buy the house. He was never offered these things before. But when it comes to Leanne they just keep silent or, at best if we push them, say they’re looking into it. Or making enquiries about looking into it—which means they’re not doing anything, I think. And she’s not the only one. There are seven others around the camp with similar problems right from birth, all conceived after their dads came back. I feel sorry for the ones whose first child is like this. I spoke to a couple of them recently and they say they feel guilty—they don’t know why—as if they’ve done something wrong, as if they’re sub-normal or something because they haven’t produced a healthy baby.

I get frustrated and so angry about it, but there’s nowhere to shout, no-one to talk to, except each other. We’ve been asking for an allowance for Leanne for over two years now, ever since she was born, practically, but as long as her symptoms are diagnosed as defects, we don’t qualify. Genetic defects! I know they don’t come from Tom or me. It’s just too much of a co-incidence, all these babies being born not right after the war. When I get really down about it, I think we’ve been tricked. I think we’re part of some hideous experiment, you know, like a small sacrifice for the advancement of science or something, so they can see what the results of this gas in combination with that pill might be. But Tom tells me to shut up when I talk like that. I think it scares him, but he says it’s just rubbish and won’t listen.

Now we’re in with the doctor. She says there’s been a new series of tests and now we qualify for an allowance. ‘Does that mean the syndrome is recognised?’ I ask her, ‘that it’s got something to do with the war?’ I feel stupid, like I’m floundering because I’m not a professional and even though I’ve done lots of research because Leanne is mine and I want the best for her, I feel as if I know nothing. But I still ask: ‘does that mean they’re admitting it was caused by something Tom was exposed to?’

She doesn’t answer directly, and taps something into her computer, moves the mouse around a bit. Then she says—and it’s as if she’s had to make time to think ‘how can I explain this?’—she says ‘genetic defects of this kind now qualify for an allowance.’

So I say, because I don’t give up easily, ‘Why, how do they know what caused it? How do they know it’s genetic?’, but she just says ‘The law’s been changed’ and it sounds like a final answer. All of us go quiet. I look at Tom but he’s looking at his hands. After a few seconds Leanne makes a little high-pitched squeak and I ask ‘When? When was this? I never saw it announced, there were no leaflets, and no-one told us.’ She moves back from the computer screen. She’s got dark shadows under her eyes and seems really tired. There are a few stray hairs coming out from under her headscarf. I look at a poster on the wall about Chlamydia not being a girl’s name. She says ‘two months ago—the law changed two months ago and we’ve only just been told.’ I say ‘why didn’t they let you know earlier?’ and she smiles as if we already know the answer and says quietly ‘it’s probably because they’re trying to save money.’


Dave Everitt

Melton Mowbray, United Kingdom

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