“This is an official announcement,” the voice on the radio said, soft and syrupy, the sort of voice that vaunted the merits of margarine or washing power. The idiots! What were they thinking? This was no time to convince. There was a distant crackling and the woman hesitated – he could have sworn he heard her swallow – then she continued. “You have five minutes.”
The soothing music resumed.
The trite melody infuriated him. If he’d been in charge of the programme, he’d have used the urgent tick of a clock. Or better still, the raging blows of a hammer on steel sending fiery sparks arcing in the dark.
Tense and uncomfortable, he shifted in his tiny hideaway under the stairs trying to shake out the cramps in his legs without upsetting the plastic plate that sat in his lap. The plate had a long string of numbers and letters printed around one side that began HMG: Her Majesty’s Government.
He leaned forward and sniffed the bacon, keeping a respectable distance. It smelt deceptively good. Why the hell had they chosen bacon? It was one of his favourite foods. He’d have liked some for breakfast with a couple of poached eggs and a slice of toast or two, but money was scarce and government stock-pilling had sent bacon prices soaring sky-high. Wishful thinking, of course, such fare was hard to come by, since the hostilities had started.
“For those who don’t wish to wait,…” Did the woman’s voice catch on the word ‘wait’? Or was it his imagination? “… you have been issued a portion of special bacon…” The radio crackled yet again, engulfing her voice.
He stared at the single rasher. It seemed harmless enough, lying there alone on the plate, cold now, but crispy still. The sort of thing you’d willingly eat between two slices of buttered bread.
“Four minutes,” the woman reminded him, her voice drained of all colour now.
Beads of sweat formed along his hairline and trickled down his face, stinging his eyes. His hand hovered over the bacon. Should he? Try as he would, he couldn’t bring himself to touch the damn thing. Surely it would be better to decide for himself and not wait? Yet he couldn’t.
“Three minutes,” the woman said as if she were a machine.
He closed his eyes, or maybe they were already closed, and tried to recall his life. Wasn’t that what one did at such a time? Nothing came. All the happy moments had fled with the bad, leaving only a numb silence.
“One minute,” the voice droned.
“What happened to ‘two’? God damn it, woman, what’s the hurry?” he shouted. The sound of his own voice, wild and willful, startled him as it resonated in that recess, stirring up dust as it passed. He coughed, then almost choked.
And still the rasher of bacon lay there, heavy in his lap, taunting him… You’re such a coward, it sneered. Can’t even take your own life in your hands.
“Five seconds,” a barely audible voice whispered, only to be cut off abruptly by raging static.
Clenching his fists, he forced his eyes open and awoke with a start. The poisoned bacon had remained untouched and the world had not ended, not this time.