The same year rationing finally came to an end in England, Peter spent a small fortune on a big American refrigerator. While his neighbours coveted television sets, he yearned for food that wasn’t as bland and grey as London on a foggy morning. The new gadget meant no more meat spoiling in the pantry or vegetables wilting on the rack.
Every day Peter hurried back from his desk at the Home Office to cook up a storm. He invited neighbours and colleagues to dine with him. They were all impressed by the fridge, which gleamed like a rocket ship in a corner of the kitchen. On Sunday evenings, Peter treated himself to a plate of bread and dripping. While savouring the rich, meaty taste, he’d remember sitting with his mother in the tiny kitchen of the family home in Balham before he was evacuated and the house was blown apart by a German bomb.
Peter was a tidy, methodical person, so he noticed at once when someone started rearranging the food in his fridge. It sent a chill up his spine: he lived alone, so it must be a burglar. But the notion that someone was breaking into his house only to rearrange the fridge was too fantastic to be believed.
One day, he opened the fridge to find a ten-inch square hole in the back of it. The hole extended through the wall, creating a window overlooking his neighbour’s kitchen. Peter was dumbfounded. Heaving the fridge away from the wall, he checked every inch of it, but could find no hole on the exterior side and no mark on the wall behind it. When he looked inside the fridge again, the hole was gone.
At first he thought he was hallucinating, but over the next few weeks the window reappeared at regular intervals. The room on the other side looked like a distorted reflection of his own kitchen, full of strange gadgets and food wrapped in colourful plastic packages.
Peter studied the people in the other kitchen: a middle-aged couple and their daughter, who he guessed was about fourteen. The window apparently worked in one direction only, for they seemed oblivious to him. During meals, the father ate without saying a word, while the mother filled the silence with nervous chatter. The girl pushed food around her plate, not eating. When the father left the kitchen, the mother scolded the daughter, her voicing pitching higher every time the girl failed to answer. At night, the girl would creep downstairs in her pajamas and spend an hour or more rearranging the jars and packets in the fridge. She gazed at the food, without eating any.
Peter was mesmerised. Although he balked at stealing from the family, he couldn’t resist sneaking a closer look at — and a taste of — some of the strange confections in their fridge. He found glass jars of premixed sauces, sausages made of mushroom, and something called “smoothies”. The dates printed on the packets confirmed what he had already begun to suspect: the food was from sixty years in the future.
Peter couldn’t sleep; his mind was spinning. Why had this window to the future appeared? What was it trying to show him?
The more he observed the family, the more worried he became about the girl. There were deep shadows under her eyes and thin, precise scars on her arm. He wanted to help her, but how? He was unable to pass through the window or communicate with the family.
Then he had an idea. If the girl couldn’t stomach the food from her own era, maybe he could tempt her with his own favourite dishes? He started replacing some of the family’s plastic packets with his own creations. Kippers. Scrambled eggs. Roast beef sandwiches. Cottage pie. He waited until the parents had gone to bed, then left morsels for the girl to discover in the dead of night. It worked. She examined the dishes carefully, handling them like unexploded mines. Sometimes she put them back, other times she threw them in the bin, but Peter had expected this and was undeterred. He sent her Cumberland sausage and mash, kedgeree, trifle with custard. Rice pudding. He was determined to keep trying until he found something that gave her the same warm, contented feeling he’d experienced while eating meals beside the stove as a boy, before the war changed everything.
After a month of prodding and poking Peter’s offerings, the girl finally wolfed down a bread and butter pudding. Peter’s heart leapt. All his effort was finally paying off! After finishing the pudding, she ate a bowl of breakfast cereal followed by four bars of chocolate, six yoghurts and a packet of biscuits. Then she hauled herself over to the sink to be sick, and dug her fingernails into her arms until she drew blood.
Peter laid his apron on the counter, feeling like a failure.
After that, the window opened less frequently and soon disappeared altogether. Peter couldn’t sleep, thinking about the sick girl. He was sure he’d been close to succeeding in helping her, but now a gulf of sixty years lay between them. How could he could reach her?
Chloe enjoyed helping the old man next door, who’d apparently lived on the street for several decades. He was unfathomably old, and fat, and took dozens of pills every day, but she liked him. He was always grateful when she brought him a cup of tea or offered to mow the lawn, and he never tried to force her to eat anything. Strangely for an old person, he seemed to understand how she felt. She relaxed in his company and didn’t feel the need to punish herself.
Sometimes she even stole food from his fridge. She hoped he hadn’t noticed.
Jack Curran lives and writes in Oxford, in the UK. This is his second story for Every Day Fiction. The first was “Clockwork Symphony”.
Happy Thanksgiving to our American readers!