You had to take those pieces of paper with you when you went shopping, though by the time I was nine or ten most people used plastic cards. Not for the groceries though, that came later. It seems primitive, totemistic even, like cowry shells. I must have used that kind of money myself, a little, before everything went on the compubank.
I guess that’s how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.
It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe.
That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.
Things continued in that state of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen. Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Indentipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful. They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them. The thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual.
When I got to the corner store, the usual woman wasn’t there. Instead there was a man, a young man, he couldn’t have been more than twenty.
She sick? I said as I handed him my card.
Who? He said, aggressively I thought.
The woman who’s usually here, I said.
How would I know, he said. He was punching my number in, studying each number, punching with one finger.
Sorry, he said. This number’s not valid.
That’s ridiculous, I said. It must be, I’ve got thousands in my account. I just got the statement two days ago. Try it again.
It’s not valid, he repeated obstinately. See that red light? Means it’s not valid.
You must have made a mistake, I said. Try it again.
He shrugged and gave me a fed-up smile, but he did try the number again. This time I watched his fingers, on each number, and checked the numbers that came up in the window. It was my number all right, but there was the red light again.
See? He said again, still with that smile, as if he knew some private joke he wasn’t going to tell me.
I’ll phone them from the office, I said. The system had fouled up before, but a few phone calls usually straightened it out.
I did phone from the office, but all I got was a recording. The lines were overloaded, the recording said. Could I please phone back?
The lines stayed overloaded all morning, as far as I could tell. I phoned back several times, but no luck…
These words were written by Margaret Atwood… in 1986. Prescient.