Read by Carrie Cohen
Rick took deep breaths and tried to steady his shaking limbs, wanting desperately not to let himself go. He had prepared himself for this, but now that the time had come it was just overwhelming. In his distress, he hardly noticed that the little man in black was speaking to him.
With an “Ahem,” the man persisted. “There’s just one little formality before we, ah, proceed…”
“Thank you, just a small thing, a trifle,” said the man. He quickly reached into his pocket, and brought out a sheet of paper which he unfolded.
Rick took the sheet in a trembling hand and looked at it. But his vision was blurred, he couldn’t focus. What was the man driving at? Couldn’t they just let him be?
“You see,” the man was saying, “here’s where you give the rating – if you feel able to, of course, there’s absolutely no obligation. And then you just sign at the bottom, here.”
Rick stared at the form. “What on earth?” he managed at last.
“I know it’s an imposition,” the man said hurriedly, “and believe me I’d be the last person to want to impose on you, especially at this moment, I know what you’re going through, but we are required to ask, and it would mean a great deal to me.” Out of breath, he stopped and looked at Rick hopefully. “The name’s George, by the way,” he added as he held out a pen.
When Rick still didn’t respond, George tried again. “We do take pride in our work, you know, we try to provide a good service, and it’s just so encouraging when our clients recognise that.” A plaintive note had crept into his voice.
Rick finally managed to focus. “You want me to sign that? I won’t be–I’ll be…” His feelings overcame him, and he stuttered into silence.
George folded the form, then folded it again and again until it was a small cube between his finger and thumb, murmuring, “Quite so, quite so, completely understood, if you don’t feel able to…”
Then he rallied. “I know what you mean, of course you won’t actually see the service through to the end, so to speak. My daughter made the same point to me this morning, funnily enough – she’s a bright girl, you know. But the way I explained it to her was like this. I said, ‘Jennifer, it’s like eating half a biscuit – it’s enough to give you a sense of the overall experience!’” He looked at Rick expectantly.
Rick, numbed, did not respond. But when he saw George’s face fall he began to see that there was something here beyond his own misery. Was it necessary to cause the chap distress? Perhaps he should just sign it – and what difference would it make anyway? “Oh, here, give it to me,” he said gruffly.
George quickly unfolded and handed over the now corrugated sheet. Rick spread it on his knee, ticked and signed it with the eagerly proffered pen, and gave it back.
George thanked him profusely. “You know,” he concluded, “it’s a real pleasure dealing with a gentleman like yourself.”
“Not at all,” Rick said modestly.
“Oh, but it is,” George insisted. “I knew from the start you were a cut above the rest.” He put on his gloves. “You don’t know how it helps, makes my job so much easier. Now, if you’ll just lie down here, we’ll fix you up in no time.” He gently fastened the straps around Rick’s limbs. “There, like that you won’t feel a thing.”
“Thank you,” Rick said gratefully.
“Now, don’t mind me, I’m going to put on my little black mask, that’s the regulations, but it’s still me inside,” he gave a muffled laugh, “just that you won’t have to look at my ugly mug any more.”
“Very thoughtful,” Rick murmured. He was getting comfortable in his straps.
“No problem.” The mask crinkled as if underneath it George was smiling. “And if there’s anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to ask,” he added. “I mean, anytime – at least, up to, well...”
“Now, we’re going to get on with the business,” he continued briskly, picking up a syringe. “I always tell my clients to wiggle their toes when they feel it trickling in. Helps it flow through nicely – and quicker too!”
Rick tried wiggling his toes in anticipation. And he really did feel better.
“See what I mean? Tricks of the trade!” The mask crinkled again, and one eye closed in a wink. Rick gave a thumbs-up.
George picked up the syringe with gloved hands, tapped it, squirted out a couple of drops, then held it up with a flourish. “Ready?”
“You bet,” Rick said. And he really was.
(c) Matthew Harrison, 2016
Hong Kong-based Matthew Harrison is reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous 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 as there is no space for these in Hong Kong. www.matthewharrison.hk
Carrie Cohen: Recent theatre: Mrs Tarleton in Shaw’s Misalliance (Tabard), Hetty in Gelt (Etcetera) and Myfanwy in Hula Hoops Were My Downfall (The Space). Film: Grace in Mouthplay (Tabard). TV: Hilda in Dara O'Briain's In Case You Missed It. Full CV, show & voice reels at www.CarrieCohen.co.uk