The Great Queue
Greater than the sum of its parts, the Great Queues have a life of their own. They have evolved, over time, growing and changing; their own ecosystems developing. People join and people leave, but their monstrous presence, snaking through the cities of Britain, never change. Ever present, they are ever hungry – consuming time, joy, pain, worry and suffering of all kinds as they move, so slowly it is almost invisible to the naked eye, towards the final destination – a Municipal Health Centre.
During the great Capitalist Purge, when all traces of socialist systems were swept away, many people celebrated. The people were told that the free market would solve all their ills; that market forces and healthy competition would ensure universal wealth. Free hospitals and health clinics were closed or bought by private companies. New state of the art facilities were built for the richest customers – all with varying levels of service, depending on how much people could afford to pay – just like flying, healthcare now had economy class and first class options to choose from. And for those who could afford neither, the Municipal Centres were set up. These were designed to be affordable, although in reality the fees were still out of reach to a huge underclass, and the queues for these services began to take on a life of their own. Staffing in these centres was always an issue, when doctors and nurses could earn three times as much in the private sector. Government funding was dependent on complicated systems of results and targets, and each Municipal Centre was encouraged to be in competition with other similar clinics or hospitals and expected to make a profit. Drugs were in short supply because the pharmaceutical companies would rather deal with the well healed private hospitals and would not sell at a discount to government facilities.
The longest and slowest moving of these queues is the one in London. There are two municipal centres, both on the south side of the Thames. Queues for both merge in Greenwich park. The queue has grown so huge it is marked on maps and has become a grotesque tourist attraction for the wealthy to gawp at the underclasses. A whole ecosystem has grown up to service The Great Queue: street food stalls, people renting out chairs and tents and even ‘potty-providers’ – touts charging for the use of a small tent with a chemical toilet inside.
Pickpocketting is rife, as are arguments, physical violence and at night, sexual assault. The Capitalist Cops lack the resources or motivation to police the queue with much diligence; the powers that be ignore the lawlessness and violence or use it as ‘proof’ that the Southsiders lack moral integrity and are “mad, bad and sad”, to quote Sir Bilgeworth of Broomfield during a debate in the house.
Of course, there are a lot of all three of these things in the queue. People seeking mental health support often deteriorate during the wait. Many have money only to pay for their consultation when they finally reach the clinic, so beg, borrow and steal their way along the queue. Many express their frustration with tears or punch ups, especially after drinking some of the homemade hooch that street children make and hawk along the queue after nightfall. People sleep, often cuddled up together for warmth and safety, crouching in bushes by the side of the road to relieve themselves if they can’t afford to pay the potty-providers.
Once people reach the clinic, the waiting is not over. The triage is brutal and done by burley security cards at the door. Those without ID are turned away. The urgency of their ailment is assessed using AI and finally patients are filtered through different doors according to the nature of their problem. Inside, the waiting rooms, corridors and consulting rooms are filled to bursting. Harassed looking doctors and nurses do their best, but with scant resources and too little sleep, their powers are limited and mistakes are common.
Melissa has worked double shifts at the factory and saved what she could to afford to take time off work to travel The Great Queue and pay for her clinic visit. She wants a scan because Derisa has told her she thinks her placenta is covering her cervix. During her pregnancy she has bled, alarmingly, on many occasions. She bled again, in the queue, thankfully helped by three women next to her, who comforted her and reassured her when the bleeding stopped. Terrified, hungry and weak from blood loss, Melissa is finally seen by Dr John Desperato, haggard from lack of sleep, spots of blood on his cuffs and collar.
Before examining her, John checks Melissa’s ID and takes the reader from his pocket to take her down payment. Further fees will be charged once the consultation is over. John has 3 minutes, maximum, to take Melissa’s history, examine her and decide a course of action. Within two minutes, Melissa is lying on a metal table next to the Ultrasound machine. John takes a while to switch it on – it’s fifty years old and can be temperamental.
“Full previa. You will require a surgical fetal removal at 38 weeks or sooner if you continue to bleed. Take this voucher to room 257 where they will book the surgery.” Pushing the reader at her again, he finishes with, “consultation fee is 100 Pecunias.”
“Th-thank you”, stutters Melissa. “Can you tell me how much the surgery will cost?” But she already knows the answer. More, much more than she will ever be able to afford.