Ten minute Fiction.
The old man was so very cold. His teeth chattered and his shoulders hunched to keep out the chill. He was huddled beneath a coarse n scratchy blanket in his unrelentingly hard bed. There was a draught coming from the single window in his dimly lit room that drummed its icy fingers on his face as he tried to sleep. The man rolled over onto his right side and propped himself up on his elbow to watch the single, thin curtain blowing in the chilly breeze. His gaze darted to the door as he thought he heard a voice.
A voice? He concentrated. No, nothing. It was just his imagination, of course. He sighed then an icy waft of air shot up his arm and he lay back down, pulling his sleeve down to his wrist again and shivered harder. He had a headache from hunching his shoulders against the cold and could do with moving and rotating them but it was too cold to get out of bed. He hunkered down under the rough blanket and tried again to sleep. If only he could. The quicker he could get to sleep, the quicker morning would come and bring with it some small respite from the frigid night. Wait, was that a voice again? No! Go away! He ignored it and squeezed his eyes tight shut. He hoped, as always, for dreams but he knew there would be none.
He must have drifted off to sleep because the next time he opened his eyes it was daylight. Grimy sunlight crept over the top of the curtain onto the ceiling of the old man’s room. He squinted as he awoke and momentarily revelled in the scant warmth of his bed before his brain reminded him that today was a work day. Like every day, every single day. Then his belly insisted with a loud growl that he get up and head over to the cupboard to find food.
He pulled himself painfully from his bed and wobbled to the kitchen side of the room. He leaned on the single kitchen worktop to steady himself and the one single wall-mounted cupboard greeted him with its usual blank stare. He knew what he would find on opening the door: two shelves, one bare and one holding a cardboard box of dried vegetable flakes with which he would make broth. He frowned at it in dismay as usual then poured a large spoonful sized amount into his waiting bowl and wearily reached for the kettle. He half-filled the cheap metal kettle from the water container in the corner and waited for it to boil whilst he stirred the sad brown flakes around in the plastic bowl that he used for every meal. One minute later, the kettle boiled and the old man stirred a splosh of water into the dried flakes then slowly ate the resulting miserable, dirty brown broth. He ate this same meal three times a day, every day. Day in and day out. There was no respite from it. It was the only food provided; there was no choice.
Only when he finished eating the dull almost tasteless broth, did he allow himself to check his wristwatch. It was a plain metal band that fitted increasingly loosely around his thin wrist. Its dial showed only a small circle of colour. It showed the exact same colour as it had done the previous morning; a deep dark purple. Over the years the dial had very slowly changed from dark yellow through various shades of green and blue through to dingy mauve and now it showed dark greyish purple. He did not know what it meant. He presumed it showed the passage of time but it made no real sense to him. Sometimes he felt he was approaching the end of something but did not know what. Any end to this cold and tortured monotony would be welcome. He was past caring and past hoping so he put his bowl aside, the work siren went off and he headed for the door.
The old man put on his boots with soles so thin he felt every tiny stone on the freezing cold pavement and every crack in the concrete. Thanks to the cracks in the old leather, his feet were always damp and icy cold. Then he took his threadbare coat from the hook by the door, pulled it on and left his small room behind.
He saw that it had snowed again, as it did every night and he trudged, as always, through the couple of inches of dirty snow all the way to the end of his road. Tall buildings, that had their roofs hidden by snow-laden clouds, lined the road on both sides. Silence was all he heard as he squished his way through the freezing slush. He neither saw nor heard any one. There was no one to see. There was no one to hear. The man turned the corner and was again greeted by identical buildings on both sides of the road. He carried on walking for a while, then he arrived at his designated work building, pushed the door open and went inside. The grey metal door shut behind him with a hollow clang and the man slowly climbed the metal stairs that took him to the room where he would spend the next six hours gluing labels on to boxes.
The boxes were all different sizes, some tiny and some so big that he needed a step-ladder to reach the top right-hand corner where the label must go. He had no idea what might be contained in the boxes and, after the first couple of months, he no longer cared. The only thing he cared about in this work room was whether or not he had a chair. Some days he could sit down to apply labels to the smaller boxes and some days not. Today he was fortunate.
The labels had black printed squiggles on them that were neither numbers nor letters and the old man had no idea what they could possibly mean. He presumed it was code. But he cared not.
He worked solidly with only one bathroom break, for his six hours. The toilet door had a timer on it which tick-tocked two hundred times then sounded a buzzer to leave. If he did not leave within that count then he would have to make up the lost time at the end of his shift. That timer was the only indicator of time passing in this world. He never knew what the time was other than by how dark the sky was at any particular moment or that it was time to come to work.
Finally, a loud siren sounded which meant the man could stop work. He dropped the unused labels into their storage box and left alone, just as he had arrived. Just as he always did. He was utterly alone. He was the only person here. This was a world of empty buildings and loneliness. No people and no animals, not even flies, just an unending winter of nothingness.
When the man got back to his meagre room, he made himself another bowl of miserable broth to fill his complaining belly. After he had eaten and rinsed his bowl and spoon, he reached for his single luxury – his drawing book. It was small, just bigger than the size of his hand, and he had a single worn down pencil that never seemed to grow dull and never needed sharpening. He mostly drew simple doodles of circles and curved shapes. He did not know what they were but drew them again and again, over and over. The drawing book always contained more blank pages. He never got to the end despite using it almost every day for all these years.
The light eventually dimmed until he could no longer see what he drew, and the the man made up his third bowl of wretched vegetable broth and put himself to bed. He was so cold again. Like every night, he wrapped himself in his prickly blanket and shut his eyes to the world.
Wait! He heard noise. A sound that was not him. The sound of a voice. Really? That same voice he thought he had heard last night. There it was again. His eyes were wide open now and he stared towards the door and then heard it again. He tried to sit up but could not. Again, the voice. Louder this time and repeating itself. He tried to sit up! He still could not. There it was again…
“Mr Green…” What?
“Mr Greenway…” Who?
“Mr Greenway, time to wake up!” said the voice. “Mr Greenway, it’s time to wake up now!”
The old man cranked his tired eyes even wider open and looked.
“Ah, there you are!” said the voice, “Time’s up! Wakey-wakey!”
The old man stared at the fuzzy shape that hovered over him. It became clearer as he stared, a vague picture before him that slowly settled into an image of a face. A face! A face that must belong to a person. And it was speaking to him. What was it saying? The face with the voice took something from around its neck and inserted parts of it in each ear and one end of it on the old man’s chest. The face was solemn as it listened for something then said joyfully, “You’re going to be fine, Mr Greenway.” The face contorted slightly and the mouth of the face parted to reveal dazzling white teeth, “just fine.”
“Mr Arthur George Greenway, ticket holder number 7194748132980/X. Its time! Time to go!” Go where? The face with the voice turned and called, “Nurse Lee! Can you take Mr Greenway to the recovery room, please.” The face with the voice also had a neatly trimmed beard. He patted the old man on the shoulder and said, “Your memory will return very soon, please don’t worry.” The old man saw movement in his peripheral vision, then realised it was a woman, dressed in a blue jacket. “Yes, Doctor,” said the nurse as she walked behind the old man and began pushing him on the bed out through the door. “Well done, Mr Greenway,” said the face with the voice and the beard, “very well done!” Then the old man was pushed in his bed out of the room and along a green painted corridor and into another room.
“Ah, look Mr Greenway, your family are all here,” the nurse said as she manoeuvred the bed into place against the wall. “I’ll leave you all to it, then. Your memory will return very soon! Press the buzzer if you feel at all unwell, and I’ll be right back,” she said, smiling as she left the room. The old man saw a group of people hesitantly walking towards him. The one at the front was a young woman who looked very familiar. She smiled at him, her eyes brimming over with tears. “Arti,” she whispered, “We’ve all missed you so much. I’ve missed you so much.” Then she burst into tears and buried her face in a huge white tissue, sobbing.
The old man held out his arms to her and she fell against him. He remembered. He knew who she was, who they all were. He smiled at them – his three children, his brother-in-law and his partner and his sister with her wife and his four nieces and nephews. They were all here. He remembered why he was here too.
He and his family had been forced to move to their tiny three bedroomed flat on the two hundred and fourteenth floor of a sky-scraping tower block, on the outskirts of one of the poorest cities. They had taken in his brother-in-law and sister with their families, rather than have them live on the streets. They were crammed into these few rooms like beans in a can and had to take money from the social fund to be able to eat and pay the rent and bills. For every ten pounds he had taken from the fund to survive, his name, as head of the household had been entered into the ‘Nationwide Lottery.’ Ten lottery losers were picked every month and those poor people lost their lives but once a year a winner was picked. After almost five years of scrimping and struggling and his frightened wife and family begging him to not take more money, his name was drawn from the pot as the winner. The chance of the win was about a hundred and fifty million to one. And he had won the prize. The only prize.
‘The Ultimate Prize’ was unlimited food, new clothes, a huge house and any amount of spending on anything they wished for every member of the family. ‘The Nation’ wanted to punish them for winning of course and so Arti had been taken to the Institute to be put on the Virtual Reality Machine for one year. There, he would live his own personal hell: the lonely forever January, where months were years, and one year became fifty, while his family had to manage without him and survive on practically nothing.
But now that was over. Now they could have a house on the ground and real food. The children could go to school. They could live, not just survive on scraps, constantly frightened. The old man was not an old man, he was Arti again. Thirty eight years old with beautiful children, his lovely warm wife and his siblings with their children.
He smiled for the first time in Fifty years. He lifted one fist to the ceiling and shouted, “Yes!”