Author : David Dykes
Geoff said to Alice, ‘I like how you smell. It reminds me of Bounty bars.’ With a slow realisation, she noticed that the sounds bouncing off the work office walls were speech; then, as they entered her ears and travelled to her temporal lobes, she found out that the words were meant for her. Geoff leant back, closing his eyes whilst letting the creamy scent of her breakfast curl up his nostrils, saying, ‘I haven’t had one in ages. Not since I got replaced.’ Alice tried to respond with repeats of old conversations, but the words got clogged somewhere in between her lungs before they could ever reach her vocal chords.
Silence smothered the offices again—the low ceilings threatening to slam into the floor in a cloud of bloody vapour. The words didn’t matter; it was just the sound of humanity that Alice tried to cling to. She felt his voice pulling away and wished that she could bite and devour it so it would never escape.
After the offices closed (no work, there was never any work) Alice went back to her room at the Institution and filled a tub with coconut milk. Using the oven’s final puff of gas for that week to heat the water, she then took the remains of her breakfast—plus the last two melancholy coconuts, hidden under the bed—and scraped the meat into the pan with an old penknife. There was a pair of tights she’d been saving for a special occasion: she used these to squeeze out it two or three times over, making sure the milk was thin, so it wouldn’t congeal over her body.
The juice lay serenely in the metal tub. The smell rose up around Alice’s head, and the scent of sunshine floated around her, like falling blossom. She covered the tub up with her bedsheets, trying to save the scent until morning, but the white vines of the coconut air escaped through holes in the wool and pierced her tear ducts, making Alice dream of Caribbean islands, steel drums, and escapism.
As Alice lay in the coconut bath the next morning—lifting up her legs and watching the milk cascade over her skin—she thought about how she would only have bread to eat for the rest of the month, and how little that really mattered to her right now. Whenever the cold shivers of isolation suddenly shook her body Alice made up conversations in her head about the economy: how it could be fixed, what jobs were the best to get right now, her life before the crash. Anything so that she could retain a voice, and be able to hear the echoes of someone else’s lungs again.
Alice went back to the work offices that morning to find out that Geoff had been moved to another zone; where more work could be found. The mocking ink on the rota followed her around the cold corridors to the worn-out seats of the waiting room. It was always the same: he would go there to be told, ‘Who told you we had jobs? We’re all automated now. You’ll just have to wait around until work becomes available,’ but nothing was ever available when machines would do it better.
Alice sat in the pale corpse of the office building, waiting with the rest for any sign of work and remembering when she used to talk about the cogs in her brain, and how they felt like they were juddering to a halt now. No-one asked Alice why she smelt of coconut milk. No-one else noticed.