Interview one: Jack and Hannah followed Bunty into her tiny office and the three of them sat down, Bunty wedging herself into her own seat with some difficulty. Hannah carefully picked up the cat sitting on one of the other chairs.
“Isn’t he adorable?” said Bunty. “I call him Fossil, short for Fossil Fuel, because he’s so destructive.” Hannah and Jack laughed politely at the joke, while Bunty fussed for a moment over the cat.
“The Team Leader lets me bring him in to work because he has separation anxiety,” she explained. “Now let’s get started …”
She described the licence application process in detail. Four interviews with her, an online child-rearing course, a social media audit, a home inspection and a random waste check. Her ten black-painted fingernails flew over the keyboard as she filled in their details. “It’s all super simple, you shouldn’t have any trouble, assuming compliance of course. And as you know it’s not actually compulsory—only if you’d like the baby to get medical attention, or go to school, or travel. Oh, I could really use some coffee …”
Jack stood up. He had seen the vending machine in the corridor. Bunty’s voice followed him—“Caffeine-free, dairy-free, and maybe a low-kilojoule muffin, sugar-free, gluten-free …”
“Caffeine makes me very anxious after 2 p.m.,” she confided to Hannah. “That’s why my sleep-tracker doesn’t let me buy it.”
This story first appeared in our July edition.
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Jack returned with a small and sad muffin (according to the wrapper “100% Lab-Grown for Your Security!”) and some ambiguous hot drink. Bunty added the wrapper to a large pile in the appropriate waste disposal basket, nibbled the muffin and explained the structure of the application fee, which was rather larger than Jack and Hannah had expected. “It has to be enough to act as a det—, I mean enough to make people realise the serious step they are taking,” Bunty said. “Right, let’s leave it there for today—I’ve got to get home and take Fossil to his vegan cat group tonight. Lovely to meet you both!”
Jack and Hannah went home and watched the beginning of the online course. It began with many shots of beaches and rainforests, featuring handsome couples dressed in white holding the hands of their one child (mercifully, hand-holding was no longer forbidden, as it had been during the parrot fever pandemic). These clips were constrasted with footage of enormous families of three or four children, all miserable, under-nourished and dressed in rags, against a background of slag heaps and smoking chimneys. A deep voice explained how the planet had reeled under the burden of reckless human reproduction. Jack and Hannah looked at each other and yawned.
“Let’s try for five kids,” said Jack.
“I’m going to make that woman some real muffins,” said Hannah.
Interview two: Jack was surreptitiously feeding slices of salami to Fossil as he and Hannah sat in Bunty’s office. She rambled at some length about gender, diet, identity and sensitivity until Hannah politely asked, “Bunty, have you ever held a baby?”
“A fur baby? Sure! Oh, you mean a real baby baby. Well, to be honest, I don’t know anyone with an actual baby, as such. That’s not the point. What on earth is that smell?”
They both looked suitably blank. “That reminds me, I brought you a couple of muffins,” said Hannah sweetly, passing them over the desk. “Yes, of course they’re safe. Not lab-produced, but I hope you like them.”
Hannah looked back as they left the office.
Bunty was wolfing a muffin. Fossil was licking his fur.
Interview three: Fossil gave Jack a rapturous welcome. “He really likes you,” said Bunty, mildly puzzled, as Jack ruffled the cat’s fur and made space for him on his lap. “Don’t know why,” said Jack dishonestly.
Bunty updated them on the progress of the application. They had passed the social media check (partly thanks to Fake Profiles Inc., one of the most successful start-ups of the decade), and there were no major issues with the home inspection except for a few questionable books on the shelves. Unfortunately, however—and here Bunty’s eyebrows almost met her blue hair—the waste check had turned up a banana peel in the paper recycling. How could such a serious lapse have occurred? There followed several minutes of “How on earth did that happen”, “We’re so sorry, we’re normally so careful”, “No, it won’t happen again”, while the cat purred loudly in the background.
They went back to the online course that night. It culminated in twenty multiple-choice questions. “Question 1,” read Hannah. “You should consistently affirm your child’s: A gender identity; B nutritional preferences; C pronoun choices; D sleep schedule; E all of the above. Probably all of the above … Question 2—Challenging behaviours must be met with: A affirmation; B non-punitive strategies; C negotiation; D mutually acceptable outcomes; E all of the above …” The test qualifying them as parents took three minutes to complete.
Interview four: “What a nice top,” said Hannah as they walked in. Bunty looked delighted. “It’s the Dress Me app,” she explained. “My clothes are all ‘smart clothes’ so the app knows what’s clean and ready to wear, and it knows if there’s a special event, so it chose red and white today in support of the war in Canada.” She busied herself with her phone and then looked up to show Hannah the screen. Her eyes were shining with pride, and Hannah suddenly remembered a neighbour’s child shyly showing her a drawing. “Wow, that’s amazing, Bunty,” she said gently.
Bunty put down the phone. “And I won’t even need the phone once I have the implant,” she said brightly. “Now all that remains is for you to pay the last instalment—two hundred digidollars—and I’ll submit my report to the Team Leader. And they should send you the result quite soon.”
They left Bunty trying to coax Fossil to eat a lovely seaweed souffle, from a very good lab.
Epilogue: Bunty sat typing at her desk. “Applicants 1 and 2 both gained impressive scores on the online child-rearing course. Although their relationship could be described as ‘traditional marriage’, no overt signals of oppression were detected by this officer. A major lapse in waste disposal practice was highlighted and they have received further training on the subject. The home inspection revealed a weakness for regressive, even religious, literature but this is explained by an interest in history on the part of Applicant 1.”
She paused, stood up and took the three short steps to the window. Below, Jack and Hannah were leaving the building. They were walking on their legs, rather than scooting or using a hoverpod like herself and Fossil. As Bunty watched, Jack raised his arm and Hannah moved fluidly under it. She seemed almost designed to fit into the space he had made. Now they were walking, as if they were one thing. She stared out of the window until they turned a corner and were out of sight.
For some reason Bunty’s eyes were stinging. She sighed and returned to the computer. “It is my recommendation that their application for a baby licence be approved.”
Jack and Hannah were sitting side by side on a park bench when his phone gave a buzz. He pulled it out of his pocket, but in the bright sunlight the screen seemed dim and hard to read. “I refer to your recent application for a baby licence and am pleased to inform you that, thanks to the recommendation of officer Bunty Trotter (and despite wrongful processing of banana no. 6453424 / plantation 9809) your application for a baby licence has been successful. Kind regards, Andrea Ruttle, Reproduction Unit Team Leader.” He turned his head to see Hannah’s beaming face. What could be more natural than to kiss such a face?
“But you know something?” said Hannah.
“Yes, I know. We would have done it anyway.”
Corry Macleod lives in Brisbane. Some of her poetry has appeared in Quadrant over recent years. Her story “Remembering Sandsville” appeared in the April 2022 issue.