Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely, his writing has veered from literary to non-fiction, and he is now reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published more than fifty SF short stories, and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets since there is no space for those in Hong Kong.
“More, Sir? They’re very good.”
From the dish, the waiter offered Rick a new choice; potato – parsley-sprinkled and glistening with butter. Yet the sympathy in his eyes belied the words. The spoon holding the potato stayed back.
Rick fought down his nausea, and struggled to control himself. His whole body wanted to reject the offering. But the sensors were watching – he had to appear resolute. And it wasn’t just the Tivoli restaurant, it was the whole supply chain: the distributor right back to the farmer growing the food that no one wanted. The whole system was relying on him.
He gritted his teeth. “Yes, please – give me the lot!”
When the waiter had finished, Martin looked at Rick’s piled plate and raised an eyebrow. Rick, ignoring his friend, speared one of the potatoes with his fork and cut a piece. Holding his breath, with his tongue curled back he put the steaming stuff into his mouth, chewed quickly, and swallowed the masticated mash that kept the smell and taste of the food to the minimum. He speared the next piece, repeated the process.
Martin looked concerned. “Easy, don’t bust a gut!”
Rick grimaced, and moved on to the next potato. Sympathy didn’t help; he had a job to do. He doggedly finished the second potato and the third. There was one more. Leaving one potato on the plate was acceptable, so he switched to the meat, cutting the fatty parts away as generously as he could. He knew the tricks, but there were limits – it was a daily challenge to keep the balance.
Martin took up the task of conversation. He had a job interview – a real one. “Shelf-filler,” he said modestly. “Don’t suppose I’ll get it, with all the competition, but it’s good to be invited.”
Rick agreed. It was a long time since he had had a proper job.
The two young men finished their meals, with Martin generously sweeping Rick’s leftovers onto his own plate under cover of his jacket. They, then, rose and filed out of the restaurant into the cold street of a London January. Cold was good; Rick opened his coat. Cold made you burn calories and made you hungry.
Martin buttoned up his own coat. “I suppose you’re…?”
“God knows how you do it. Take care, anyway!” And with that Martin stumped off, shoulders hunched against the cold.
Next door was the Peking Garden Restaurant; Rick could already smell the roast pork. Steeling himself, he pushed the door open. It was time for a second lunch.
Sandra, Rick’s girlfriend, greeted him anxiously when he got home, demanding to know what he had eaten. Reluctantly, Rick told her.
Sandra’s eyes widened in concern. “God! How can you do it? You’ll burst, Rick!” She touched her stomach. “I’d help you, but I just can’t face food at the moment.”
Rick held her hands, looked her squarely in the eye, and said, “I’m OK, I can handle it.”
This was nearly true; his bloated stomach had already quietened with the walk home. “Don’t forget I go to the gym to work it off – and we get credits on that too.”
“We can live without the credits,” Sandra said quietly. She looked down at the sleeves of the garment she was wearing. “We can survive on what I get, Rick.”
Sandra was a fashion-walker. She earned her credits by putting on the latest gear and walking out in it to the department stores where she ordered more. Their flat was bursting with coats, skirts, dresses, camisoles, jackets; the spare room was a mountain of shoes; they used silk scarves instead of bedding.
“Look at your feet,” Rick said gently. In flip-flops, the calluses were clearly visible.
Sandra had no need to look; her feet ached from the high heels and the discomfort from the bras…
“I don’t want you to work either,” Rick said. “But we can save the credits, and one day we won’t need to work anymore.”
Sandra pouted, “We could stop now. They’re practically giving things away, the prices are so low, we don’t need much. There’s the benefits, too. Look at Jill.” Jill was Sandra’s best friend. “She doesn’t work. Your mate Martin…”
“Martin’s trying for a real job.”
“Trying!” Sandra snorted. How many real jobs are there?” She held out the sleeve of the dress she was wearing, with its extravagant inlaid pearls, the glowing colours that no one wanted. “How many real women are buying things like this?”
Rick had no answer. In this world of no babies and shrinking populations, the key thing was demand. There was no demand. People weren’t buying – and that sucked back through the system, reducing supply and jobs. Incumbents clung to any jobs that there were; governments employed some of the rest to magnify demand. People did what they could to survive.
And what he did was eat.
Contrary to everyone’s expectations, Martin got the job.
It wasn’t much of a job, with AI controlling everything, but someone had to check the work of the robots filling the supermarket shelves, and Martin was that someone. When Rick and Sandra went to see him, he was in white overalls, beaming.
“Look at that!” he said, spreading his arms to indicate the orderly rows of cans, packets and jars on the shelves around them. “All mine!”
Rick was thinking of all the food that someone would have to eat. Swallowing his nausea, he smiled and clapped his friend on the back.
Martin was not fooled. “Come on, give me a break,” he said in a low voice. “You eat it, I sell it, some other poor bugger makes it or grows it. We keep the world going round, we’ve all got a part to play.”
Raising his voice for Sandra’s benefit, Martin went on, “I’m having a party to celebrate. A banquet at the Tivoli – in evening dress!”
“Nah, just kidding!” he went on. “There is a party. But I’m doing the eating and you two can come naked if you like.”
They let Martin show them the various aisles under his control – the tinned meats and sauces and pickles – then the fresh fruit and vegetables (someone else’s bailiwick), and finally (someone else’s again) the clothes section.
Here, Sandra, who had been brave up to this point, clutched her tummy and had to go to the washroom.
As Rick stood waiting for her at the end of the long rows of shelves he saw a solitary woman shopper reach up for a tin, and after reading the label put it in her trolley. Was she genuine? Out of interest, he followed her progress down the aisle. A few steps down she stopped, picked up another tin and bent to the trolley. She seemed genuine. And then he realised – there was only one tin in her trolley. She was trying to maximise her credits by shuffling the tins!
When Sandra returned and they left the vast but nearly-empty building, Rick indignantly told her about the shopper. They were working so hard being honest, when she… It was a disgrace, he had a good mind to tell Martin.
Sandra said nothing but on the bus home, as they sat among the few, mostly elderly passengers, of whom perhaps half had a genuine need to travel, she said, “If I could cheat and get away it with it, I would and I would want you to as well. Overeating may kill you.”
“Anyway, she won’t get away with it,” Sandra added as they got out at their stop. “The sensors will spot the switch. Then they’ll cut her credits.”
Rick, now that he had time to think about it, agreed. There was no way ’round the system.
The following day, the system got worse.
“They’re halving my credits!” Rick exclaimed, just as he was starting his second bowl of cornflakes. “What’s going on?”
Sandra was not surprised. With government revenues declining, they couldn’t keep up the illusion of growth forever. She expected her own credit scale to be cut, maybe even abolished. “We have to face it, dear. Why don’t you give up? We can live on benefits.”
Rick said nothing, but as an act of defiance he ate an extra slice of toast.
Feeling full after the meal, he made his way to the toilet. And there he had an idea.
He told Sandra about it, in whispers, in the part of the room that the sensors couldn’t reach. “I’ve been doing some research. You know the Romans, the vomitorium?”
Sandra looked at him guardedly.
“Well, I’ve been checking the sensors in the bathroom, and you know, if I put my head right down in the toilet bowl, pretending to clean it…”
Put an end to the Roman solution but Rick was in a fighting mood. His next idea was the elderly.
“I mean, there are millions of them, right? Swarms of elderly in this bloody town; and most of them, except the rich ones, are being looked after by robots. Well, don’t you think they’d like to see a human face?”
Sandra thought it likely, although many of them probably had visitors, young relatives and so on.
Rick swept this aside – young people had no time. “We could rent ourselves out,” he said, developing the idea. “Conversation by the hour, any subject you want, special rates for groups!”
Sandra wondered if the elderly could pay.
“Of course they could pay, the codgers have got the dough, right? They were earning good money in the economic growth days. Now we give them a chance to spend it.”
Sandra smiled wanly. Rick noticed her weakness. It redoubled his determination to win her a decent life. “Look, sweetheart, I know the idea’s a bit rough, but I’ll work at it, and I’ll do better than Martin, just watch me!” He felt he had strength enough for both of them.
Sandra took his hand. Her hand was limp, warm. Was it feverish? “Rick,” she said, “I’ve got something to tell you.”
Rick’s heart bumped in painful anticipation. What was wrong?
What?! A tumult of thought and feeling swept over Rick. How could they cope was his first thought. How could they continue their old lives, Sandra walking those ridiculous clothes? And what about him – with the carefully structured meals, the stomach pains, the discipline? They couldn’t possibly go on.
And then Rick thought of the new young life, and the future, them as a family. He hugged Sandra.
As he released her, came a thought. They’d need things – they’d need clothes for the baby, a cot, bottles, redecorating the spare room, so many things. Even before that…
“We’ve got demand!” he laughed.
“And I’m hungry,” Sandra said.