On an island where Health & Safety has become a smothering security blanket, life has become intolerable for three friends living within the sea walls that separate them from the outside world.
In a bid to escape their overprotected lives Connor, Lisa and John struggle to evade the Department of Health and Safety (DHS). As they head for the mainland, one of them carries an explosive secret that could blow the lid off the lies they’ve been fed for years.
The DHS want them, dead or alive!
“We’ve got to find somewhere to hide,” John encouraged his two friends. “I’ve heard the Department of Health & Safety (DHS) have got cameras everywhere.”
Connor followed a few steps behind Lisa and John; his head was urging him on whilst his heart desperately wanted to drag him back to the Wasp family home. The face mask John had given him to wear was too tight, and clearly made for a younger child. Connor forced himself to keep moving, heavy with regret at leaving his Mum and Dad behind.
“Duck!” shouted Lisa as she grabbed John’s arm, pulling the pair of them to the ground.
As Lisa lay stretched out on the floor, she looked to her left to find Connor carefully sweeping the area in front of him with his gloved hand.
“Get down, you idiot! They’ll see you.”
“Not before I’ve checked the area for sharp objects thank you very much,” Connor snapped indignantly.
“You’ll have more than sharp objects to worry about if the DHS catch us.” Lisa reached out her hand to pull Connor’s legs from under him. She watched in silence as the ginger haired boy crashed to the floor only moments before the van drove past. Lisa’s heart felt as though it was going to break through her ribcage.
“Ouch!” he cried out as he hit the hard ground with full force.
“Sorry,” said Lisa. “I didn’t want us to get caught because of you.”
As Connor lay flat on his back motionless, Lisa said, “You’ve got to decide now Connor. Are you one hundred per cent with us or not?”
“Go easy on him Lisa,” said John. “He’s doing his best. Don’t forget you and I have been feeling this way for a while now. Connor is only just waking up to what we’ve known for weeks. Give him a break.”
Lisa suddenly became aware of her sweatshirt sleeve tightening around her lower arm. It had ridden up when she’d dived for cover only moments before, revealing a blood stained dressing wrapped around her wrist. Connor had noticed it.
“What’s with the bandage?”
Lisa blushed as she yanked her sleeve down. The sideways glance she gave John made Connor feel unpleasantly awkward. Feeling his own wrist, Connor felt the familiar raised lump where his DHS identity tracking tag had been implanted.
John stepped in, “Look,” he said, pulling up his sleeve to show Connor his blood-stained and bandaged wrist.
“Oh my goodness,” gasped Connor. “What’s going on with you two?” He started to shuffle backwards on his knees as he asked, “You’re not in one of those secret clubs or anything, are you?”
“Don’t say anything John,” blurted Lisa, cutting him off at his first word. “We don’t know whether we can trust him completely yet.”
Connor snapped at Lisa, “Are you having a laugh? I’ve risked just as much as you two haven’t I?” He looked towards John, his eyes showing how much he needed his support as he repeated, “Haven’t I?”
John half-heartedly nodded at Connor and then turning his face towards Lisa he said, “He’s right Lisa. It’s not fair if the two of us know something that he doesn’t.”
“Yeah,” agreed Connor. “Just because you two invited me to the party, doesn’t mean you get to pick all the games!”
Lisa tutted at Connor’s remark, before letting out a long and deliberate sigh. “We’ve removed our IT tags.”
“Not your DHS Identity Tracking tags?” asked Connor,astounded.
“Der…” said Lisa. “What else would I mean?”
“How on earth did you do that?” Connor asked, looking down at his own wrist.
John pulled out his late Grandad’s, illegal Swiss Army knife from his trouser pocket. “With this,” he said, flicking open the blade. John watched as Connor’s expression changed from disbelief to horror. John couldn’t stop the grin thatwas creeping across his face. “It doesn’t hurt too much,” he said, imagining what was going through Connor’s mind.
Taking hold of the shiny, smooth, beautifully crafted knife, Connor twisted it between his fingers as he said, “But why? How? When?”
Lisa explained. “The moment they know we’re gone Connor, the first thing they’re gonna do is trace us through our tags. It will be hard enough as it is with all the DHS cameras about; we need to keep one step ahead- make that ten steps ahead of the department at all times.” Lisa folded her arms defensively.
“What did you do with them?” Connor asked. “The tags, where did you put them?”
John smirked. “I wrapped mine in a piece of recyclable, anti-bacterial, lightly scented, toilet paper and then dropped it down our self-flushing, 99.9 per cent germ free, self-cleaning toilet.”
Connor smiled at John as he said, “So when they realise you’re missing, the DHS computer will track you to the sewage plant.”
“Well…” John smiled. “My identity tag at least.”
Connor turned his attention towards Lisa. “What about you Lisa? How did you get rid of yours?”
“Well let’s just say that it should be appearing in Tinker’s cat-litter tray any day soon,” she said grinning.
Conner gasped, “You fed it to your cat?”
Their laughter was only broken when Connor tried to hand John his knife back.
““Keep it,” John said, as he gently pushed Connor’s hand back in towards his chest. “You’ll need to use it if you’re going to come all the way with us.”
Lisa and John stared at Connor, waiting for his response. Thinking for a moment, Connor replied, “But I’ve disposed of my tracking communicator and ripped the tracking labels out of my clothes, what happens if I get lost? How will anyone find me?”
Flabbergasted, Lisa said, “Has it slipped your mind that we’re running away? The very last thing we want is to be found, you Numpty!”
“Numpty,” repeated Connor, “that’s a bit harsh isn’t it?”
John interrupted the two of them. “Connor, Lisa’s already explained that the minute they discover we’re missing, they’ll try to trace us through our IT tags. You’ve got to make your mind up, are you with us or not?”
Connor was silent. He was unable or unwilling to answer John’s question.
Lisa looked towards John, “We can’t take him with us John, it’s far too deep in him. Look at him. He’s brainwashed like the rest of them.”
John moved his gaze slowly from left to right, weighing up Lisa’s words. Fearful of being left behind, Connor pleaded, “Don’t leave me John please. I really want to come with you guys. I swear I won’t let you down.”
Nodding his head once, John gestured towards the knife in Connor’s hand. “Prove it,” he said.
With his full attention fixed on to John’s icy blue eyes, Connor felt the tiny beads of sweat pushing through his forehead. Without another word he pressed down the open blade onto his wrist.
Note to reader: The DHS introduced Identity Tracking tag implants. Within a year it had become mandatory that anyone under the age of eighteen should have one inserted just beneath their skin on the underside of their wrist. The DHS explained that this necessary action would eliminate all possibility of a child getting lost or abducted. So for their own good, they became the traceable generation.
Valerie Wasp’s gaze rested upon the familiar sight of her hard working husband as she quietly entered his white painted office. Flecks of grey threatened to dominate his once jet black hair. His strong, broad shoulders were hunched forwards, pulling his shirt tight on his back. Facing the far wall, oblivious to her presence, Mike continued tapping away on his keyboard.
Valerie tiptoed past him. Flicking her mousy brown fringe out of her eyes, she took the opportunity to glance up at the Home-Cam fixed just beneath the coving in the far corner of the room. Valerie’s dark brown eyes fed the familiar image of the camera back to her heart.
She continued towards the window, trying with all her might to look normal and not to draw attention to herself. Valerie pretended to take in the view as she stopped a hand’s distance in front of the window. The concerned mother moved her head slowly and purposefully from left to right, scanning the horizon, just as the captain of a submarine might use his periscope in enemy waters.
The Home-Cam made a sudden yet familiar whirring noise. Valerie knew this meant the camera operator was adjusting its angle. Once in place, the ‘on-air’ button situated on the underside of the camera at the front of the speaker flashed, allowing the operator to be heard.
“Step back from the window or use your window tint switch. Your retinas are in danger of burning.”
Anxiety and dread overwhelmed Valerie, deafening her to the camera operator’s instructions. Instead, she stared helplessly through the glass as unwelcome tears formed on the surface of her eyes.
Unconsciously running her fingers through her wavy, shoulder length hair, Valerie noticed the familiar sensation that often appears just before vomiting. The puddle of saliva that formed on top of her tongue seemed unable to penetrate the overwhelming dryness in her mouth.
The camera operator repeated her order, “Step back from the window Mrs Wasp, or you leave me no choice but to override your tinting system, changing the windows to blackout mode. The charge for this service will be £75.00.”
On hearing the Home-Cam operator’s second warning, Mike pushed his chair backwards from under his desk, jumping to his feet. The middle aged, slightly overweight man rushed over to the window tint switch and held it down firmly. He looked at his wife who still seemed oblivious to the Home-Cam warnings. We can’t afford another Health and Safety fine, he thought to himself.
“What’s up with you Val?” he said eventually, not disguising the annoyance he was feeling regarding her lack of co-operation. “Can’t you hear the Home-Cam operator asking you to back off or tint?”
Mike held his hand up towards the camera, reassuring the operator that he had everything under control. For good measure he repeated the camera operator’s warning, “You don’t want the sun’s rays to burn your retinas out do you Honey?” As he looked upon her face, Mike gently removed a stray hair that lay diagonally across her cheek and was settling on her nose. “You can’t take foolish risks like that nowadays Val not now the ozone layer has all but gone.”
As he looked into her dark brown eyes, Mike noticed that they weren’t as vibrant and warm as usual. They looked different; they looked sunken and empty. He also noticed her sheet-white complexion. “You need a holiday love,” he said smiling first at her and then at the Home-Cam. “You look ever so pasty. Why don’t you go and get Connor and we’ll all take a break in front of the computer together? I don’t mind which DHS holiday site we visit, you can choose. I’ll nip downstairs and get the safe tanning, mood lamp.”
Mike pulled Val away from the window and into his arms. As she stood there, cocooned in his embrace, she turned her mouth in towards his ear and whispered, “He’s gone Mike. Connor has gone.”
Pushing her back at arm’s length, Mike studied her face before saying, “What?”
Val motioned with her eyes towards the Home-Cam, reminding Mike that they were not alone. “I said,” she lied, “come downstairs and have a caffeine free, sugar free, non-addictive, low fat coffee with me.”
The whirring noise of the camera lens extending prompted the two of them to raise false smiles at each other.
Mike eventually said in a slow and controlled voice, “That would be great love, but first I’d like to check the house for my missing slipper. Will you help me?”
Valerie nodded, before following her husband out of the room on the pretence of searching for the slipper.
Before they had a chance to leave, the Home-Cam operator instructed them, “Be sure to walk, not run. If you find your slipper is in a dangerous position, do not hesitate to call a professional, waiting patiently in a safe place until they arrive. If however, after a full Health and Safety assessment, you believe you can retrieve the missing item without risk to yourselves, do so by bending your legs when reaching down. Remember the Health and Safety motto, ‘It’s for your own good.’”
Mike acknowledged the Home-Cam operator’s instructions before leaving the office, quickly followed by his wife Valerie.
Once the two of them had entered the only room without a camera, Mike shut the bathroom door behind him, and once sure they were out of earshot he whispered forcefully, “What do you mean he’s gone? How? All the external doors and windows are secured with E.U. registered locks, guaranteed to last for up to one hundred and fifty years.”
“I know, I know,” flapped Valerie. “It’s not my fault!”
“I didn’t say it was!” Mike snapped at her.
“You didn’t have to Mike. Your tone of voice told me quite clearly that you think it’s my fault.”
The compact bathroom didn’t allow for Mike’s urge to pace up and down, so instead he clenched his sweaty fists together. “What are we going to do?”
Val wasn’t given the chance to answer as Mike clicked his fingers indicating that an idea had popped into his head. “Did you check to see if his Health and Safety bum bag is still hanging up by the back door?”
Valerie nodded, “It’s still there.”
After slapping his forehead in frustration, Mike grasped hold of his wife’s shoulders, the tension audible in his stricken voice as he asked, “Are you telling me that our son is out there without his face mask and UVA cream?”
Val nodded vigorously, as she let out an uncontrollable sob. She quickly covered her mouth with her right hand to muffle any sound, beating Mike by only seconds. Taking a step back, Mike knew from her reaction that they were all in deep trouble.
After a moment, Mike shook his hysterical wife saying, “It’s only a matter of time before the Home-Cam operator notices he’s missing. We’ve got to do something and quickly.”
“But what can we do Mike?” she said after taking in a deep breath. “Our little boy is out there all alone in that dangerous world without a mask or UVA cream, plus…” she pulled out the little red book from her blue, denim trousers and staring down at it she whispered in a voice that held no hope, “he didn’t even take his Health and Safety manual.”
Mike looked horrified. “Do you know what this means?” He panicked. “If the DHS find out about this, he’ll be…”
Val interrupted him by wagging the manual under his nose. “Never mind what they’ll do Mike, I’m more worried about how our little soldier is going to survive without this!”
“Shssh,” said Mike. “What’s that?”
Val listened to the familiar beeping of the Health and Safety communicator. “It’s the DHS,” she snapped. Feeling her heart drop she clenched her fists together. “They know, the DHS know he’s gone already. Oh my goodness, what are we going to do?”
Mike and Valerie looked like a couple of lost children, as the two of them stood by the bathroom door listening to the beeping of the communicator. Val couldn’t bear it any longer and turning to Mike, she snapped, “You get it.”
Mike pointed towards his own chest as he said, “Me? Why me?”
“You’re the man of the house aren’t you?” Val reminded him in no uncertain terms.
Mike looked mortified as he said, “What’s come over you Val? You know you can’t use phrases like that any more. It’s offensive to every woman on the planet.”
“Oh for pity’s sake!” she snapped. “I’m the only woman here aren’t I? And as long as I’m not offended and the cameras can’t hear me, I can say what I bloomin’ well please.”
Mike ignored her response, instead saying, “We’ll have to go now, before they get suspicious.” Opening the bathroom door, Mike led the pair of them down the stairs making sure he took one step at a time, whilst holding tightly to the banister.
Once in front of the DHS communicator, Mike pressed his index finger down on to the fingerprint scanner and watched as the strip of blue light ran back and forth underneath it. A voice came through the intercom. “Mike Wasp of 29 Durfis road. This is the Department of Health and Safety.”
“This is Mike Wasp. How can I help you?”
Val leant in closer to Mike, desperate to hear all the conversation.
The Home-Cam in the hallway, just above the front door, moved slightly at a twenty degree angle until it was pointing directly at Val. The operator instructed, “Move away from the caller, you are invading his privacy.”
Valerie looked with disdain at the camera as she thought to herself, there’s only one thing here invading our privacy mate and it ain’t me!
The voice on the other end of the DHS communicator said, “Mr Wasp, this is the Department for Health and Safety. Please tell me your identity number.”
Mike felt his blood boil as he thought, You know my number you idiots! You’ve not only got it on file, you’ve also got a camera focussed onto my face. I’m in my own house which is now registered at great cost to myself under the H.I.D.S (House Is Departmentally Secure) scheme and I’ve just confirmed it’s me through the update facility programme feature, which enables my communicator to read my fingerprint.
Mike reached inside his back trouser pocket to pull out his well-worn faded brown leather wallet. His biometric DHS identity card was tucked away in the back behind his DHS debit card. It was easy to spot as it was shiny and new. The Department had re-issued him a new one when his and more than one hundred other cards were accidentally misplaced by a DHS officer on his way home one night.
“H&S1298605,” he said clearly.
“Thank you,” said the caller from the DHS. “I’m just going to run a check on that. Stay by your communicator please.”
With no other option but to wait, Mike slipped his I.D. Card back into his wallet. As he did so he noticed that Val had left the hallway.
Upstairs, Val sat down on her son’s bed and noticed a book resting on his pillow. She picked it up and caught sight of a piece of paper sticking discreetly out of the top. She held the book as though she were going to read it hoping the paper might hold a clue as to her son’s whereabouts. Slowly, she leaned back sitting with her knees up, propping the book in her lap. Ever so carefully, Val unfolded the letter and keeping it hidden from the Home-Cam, she began to read.
Dear Mum and Dad, you know I love you, right? I’m so grateful for all the things you have done for me. From the very first time you sat me in front of ‘Webcam Pre-school,’ to the first time you took me outside into the polluted atmosphere to try out my new, baby blue, Health and Safety toddler protective gear.
Valerie rested her head back on to Connor’s pillow and pausing for a moment, she pictured the memories this brought back to her.
Thing is, the note continued, you know my webcam school friends Lisa and John? Well… they’ve been secretly telling me stories from a diary John found, which belonged to his Grandmother many years ago before she died. They’re fantastic Mum! They’ve made me realise that there’s got to be more to life than being wrapped up in cotton wool, cushioned from any possible dangers.
The more I read about her life, the more I felt imprisoned. This is why I felt I had run away with Lisa and John. It’s not that I don’t love you and Dad any more Mum, it’s just that I want to feel the freedom of making my own choices. I want life to be an adventure, not an organised, safe routine set by the DHS.’
Valerie felt a warm tear roll down her cheek as she considered her son’s brave, yet foolhardy actions. She read on, allowing the tear to cushion itself between her closed lips.
Life sounded like such fun back then, Mum. People weren’t afraid to make their own decisions. They didn’t overly worry about offending people or getting hurt through the slightest little thing. Risk was something they were prepared to live with Mum and from what I’ve known, I’d rather live with risk than a constant fear of what might happen. Val unwittingly licked the salty tear from her lip as she read on.
They didn’t have to learn the Health and Safety manual off by heart. Kids could be kids! Feelings of failure crept into her heart as she read the painful truth from her own child.
We only ever leave our house if the smoke alarm goes off or if you and Dad deem it an absolute necessity. Even then we have to wear face masks after smearing UVA cream all over ourselves, whatever the weather, just because the DHS say it’s in our best interests. Like John says, who are they anyway? Who made them the boss?
Connor’s neat handwriting, penned in blue, non-stain, non-toxic Biro, seemed to grow like veins out of the page, penetrating her mind with the truth she was reading. Each sentence pumped Connor’s observations into her already disillusioned heart. Val took in a deep breath before reading on.
Everyone works from home just in case they come into contact with someone who might have a contagious disease. You buy everything we need over the internet. Our groceries get delivered vacuum packed by a man wearing an oxygen mask and UVA gear, and cameras watch our every move, JUST IN CASE WE HURT OURSELVES!! Even then we have to pay for the privilege.
Val smiled as her eyes rested upon a doodle Conner had drawn of a finger poked up a nose. Underneath, he’d written, You can’t even pick your nose without being cautioned by a stranger on the end of a camera.
As if she needed reminding. Val smiled at the black, high-tech Home-Cam in the corner of her son’s room. Pointing towards the cover of the book she was pretending to read she said, “Great choice of book, I’ll have to get my husband to read it when Connor’s finished with it.” Smiling, she continued to read. Every item of clothing I wear, Mum, has got a tracking system sewn into it! I hadn’t realised how claustrophobic life was until John started telling me all about the past, in the good old days.
Did you know Mum that in the ‘Olden Days,’ kids went outside to play ball? They’d even meet up with real life friends and go out on bike rides. They didn’t have to link up with friends over the internet to play virtual games in an E.U. registered padded room like I have to. No, they would play a game called hide and seek, or they’d skip, run, and even jump off walls.
I want a life like that Mum. I want to go into one of those old fashioned classrooms and learn things alongside my friends. I want to hear a bell that tells me it’s playtime, a bell that signals a real football match on a school field rather than me on my own in a padded room with a virtual team projected on to a screen behind me.
The tension in Valerie’s neck forced her to rest the book down onto her stomach and laying her head back onto Connor’s anti-dust, anti-mite, anti-wrinkle pillow she began to reminisce over stories her own mother had told her about the good old days, before the DHS.
Val’s thoughts were soon interrupted by the camera in the corner of Connor’s room.
“The natural light is fading, you will hurt your eyes if you continue to read without the aid of the E.U. tested and approved daylight bulb.”
Val cursed the camera under her breath, before switching on the bedside lamp that sat on the small cupboard next to Connor’s bed.