He sat in his car – a self-drive model favoured by young professionals, the type you see wheeling around the outskirts of the city. As he waited for his girlfriend he fiddled with the indicator stalk. It was fake, like everything else on the dashboard.
Where was she? She’d gone into the store more than an hour ago to get a bottle of wine and when she’d walked away from the car, he knew, just by her walk, that he’d fallen in love again. But it wasn’t like her to waste so much time. Their lives were so busy right now, relentlessly busy, and besides, they had a party to go to. It was being hosted by senior management and his career depended on it. His ambition encouraged him to climb the career ladder. The thought forced out a hollow laugh. The only reason he did it was to get one of those luxury apartments they wanted.
He finally lost patience waiting and got out. As he ran across the car park to the department store, the dying autumn sun dripped its orange lips over the building. Where was she? Where could she be?
He didn’t have to walk far before he was pulled into the store on a conveyor belt. Even though his heart pounded, out of frustration and the fear of being late for the party, he was impressed.
The store was the biggest in Europe. Parts had their own micro-climates: great currents of warm air swam up to the roof and carried loose mist with them, which swirled and condensed on the arching glass roof. Occasionally a light shower would form, and it was even rumoured that at night, as the building cooled, you could hear the rumble of thunder. But that was probably just PR.
He worked as a company GP, so he knew the importance of good marketing.
He found himself in a brightly lit atrium that smelt faintly of cleaning fluid. Here he was a consumer, not a person, as a sign reminded him: ‘Welcome to the Health Zone. Your only limit is your imagination’.
Everything that medicine had to offer was here. Were you shy? Tired? Lacking libido? The drug companies could cut out the middle man and advertise directly to the consumer. The agenda was set by brisk business and big pharma.
On one side of the atrium were rows of dial-ups. He remembered learning about them at medical school when they were new. They medicalised mood and let you alter it. There was a pen for ‘insightful and clear-headed’ and another called ‘quick-thinking and decisive’.
GPs used the stimulants in order to work longer hours. Everyone turned a blind eye – it was in the public interest, after all.
He selected a few favourites and pushed them into his pocket. His account would be debited as he left the building – nobody carried money any more.
At the centre of the hub were the consulting booths. You could have a medical opinion beamed in there, a 24/7 confessional service. It was popular among the ordinary working people – at least that was what the politicians said.
Around the booths, set within the curved walls of the department, cabinets housed the latest hip replacements and surgical equipment. Lit from below, they rotated and glittered like platinum jewels. If you insisted on delivering your own baby, you were free to choose your own forceps. If you could afford it, you could have it, and the private surgeons displayed their wares for public envy.
He remembered that the acetabulum (hip joint) was Latin for a little vinegar cup Christ had been offered a drink from when he was dying on the cross. But if God did come back here, he’d probably have to be a piece of packaging or a product advertised on TV.
The GP approached a smiling lab technician and asked if she’d seen his girlfriend. But she wasn’t real, at least not in the regular sense of the word.
‘Would you like your blood pressure checked, sir?’ she asked. ‘Our sensors detected a high level when you came in.’
Her eyes followed him as he passed. He caught sight of his reflection. Rain formed little rivulets on the glass. His hands were as thin as dead leaves.
He’d been kept young and vigorous by medicine, but for what? To keep doing what he’d done for the past 70 years? Keep contributing to the ever-increasing need of the people, their demands fuelled by industry and politics?
Outside the windows he saw his girlfriend walking to the car, still in her work overalls. Not bad at all. She was the same age as him, just a few days younger. He injected himself with one of the pens, which was called ‘cocktail-party sociable’.
As he made his way out, the healthcare drone announced: ‘Everything you could ever want, for now and forever more’.
This was the terminal stop of a liberal democracy, and the greatest tyranny of all.
Dr Kevin Hinkley is a GP in Aberdeen