Friday Flash Fiction – Rations
In his quarters, an old man sat waiting patiently for the one o’clock bell to chime. It was lunchtime and although it had been many years since food had brought him any pleasure, he anticipated it all the same.
At one minute to, he heaved himself out of the metal chair with some difficulty, using rusted walking sticks to support his quaking knees. At any moment the woman would appear with his rations, the hint of a potbelly pulling at the buttons of her uniform as she entered. The woman hated him, as all of the overling staff did. He could see this in the way she cringed whenever she was forced to look at him, her eyes full of disgust and fear.
He did not blame her. In him, the woman saw a terrible glimpse at a future no one dared to speak of. It was one thing to age, but to be decommissioned was a fate worse than death.
The clock face above the door showed that it was one o’clock. The chime did not come. A minute passed, then two, and the room remained silent. The man began to panic. Perhaps they were punishing him? But what had he done? He was obedient and silent; he followed their instructions without question.
He looked around the room for some clue, hoping that the tray would somehow be on the table, but his quarters were as empty as they had always been. He fell back into his chair, bumping his side as he did so and allowing the sticks to clatter to the floor. If the rations had stopped …
And then the bell – the glorious, forgiving bell – rang loudly and filled the air with relief. The door opened and instead of the woman, a young man stood in her place. Most peculiar of all, he was smiling widely.
“Albert,” said the young man after he closed the door behind him. His voice was warm and patient. “Your name is Albert. Mine is Tristan. I have your food here.”
“Albert?” said the man.
He never supposed that he had a name. Other people did, he knew that much, the woman was called Viola, the doctor was called Doctor Briers, the voice was called Hiro. But the decommissioned didn’t have names.
“Yes,” said Tristan. “Let me get your rations for you.”
Tristan wheeled Alfred to the table, picking up the sticks as he went, and then unwrapped the tray. Alfred cried out in alarm. He could smell the food! It was the faintest sensation, but there was no mistaking it. He felt his mouth leak and dapped at it in shame; he was salivating.
“Sorry, I should have warned you,” said Tristan. “Now my friend, try to be calm. I want you to take the tiniest bite of this fish. Please prepare yourself.”
He nodded, but nothing could prepare Alfred for the sensation. It was as if the salty, slimy morsel was dancing across his tongue! He swallowed and tore off a bigger section, eyes wide and pricked with tears as he ate. Rations were always the same, but this! He could feel the texture of it against his lips. It was sharp and sour, and rough to the touch.
His mouth ached for more. The idea of vinegar-drenched chips took hold of him, but it was impossible. He had never eaten chips in his life. He must be imagining again.
“You can taste it then?” asked Tristan kindly, and at the look of Alfred’s happiness, Tristan smiled. “I have something else for you, something from your childhood, please only drink a mouthful now.”
Alfred took the paper cup in withered hands and brought it tentatively to his mouth. It jumped at him! The bubbles burst as they touched his tongue and if it were not for Tristan’s encouraging face, Alfred would have surely thrown it down in alarm. He sipped, and tasted the sweetest, most wondrous thing in the world.
“Now Alfred, I can’t stay much longer but I will come back to visit at the same time tomorrow. I want to return something to you.”
Tristan placed a small leather-bound book in Alfred’s hands, opening the first page. The once-creamy parchment was covered in swirls of looped handwriting that Alfred did not understand.
Alfred shook his head and tried to pass the book back. “I am afraid this is not mine,” he said sadly. “I do not understand.”
Tristan smiled again. “But you will my friend, you will.”