I just read an astonishing article in The Sunday Times. Apparently computers are going to overtake us to such an extent, by 2050 or 2100, that we will be like apes to them.
I was so incensed at the lack of reference to emotions in the article that I decided to begin this story.
For too long emotions have been undermined in society. It’s time we found out why it’s important to express emotions. This is our feminine side. Without emotions you cannot sing a song right, you cannot play a piece of music right, you cannot express yourself correctly. I’m not talking about fake niceties here, I’m talking about being vulnerable and sensitive. The only vulnerability an algorithm has is that it is wrong. Being wrong isn’t the same as being vulnerable. I’ve decided to begin a sci fi work right now to explore these problems.
I’ll put a star in every time I write a new section, so that you can follow the story. Click on the “save” button to the left of your screen, which appears for a second when you see this on your mobile. Just save it and then you can return to it. Please be aware this is very much a WIP and there will be errors since I tend to write it at 2 am when I wake up–since I am not sleeping well, currently–and will edit after about a month (I don’t usually share my work in progress), but I am making an exception by offering this free serial, because ah, you only live once, after all….
Thanks for reading.
The Motherboard, an experimental work of sci-fi, horror and romance,
by Hermione Laake
“For the love of money is the fruit of all evil”
1 Timothy, 6: 10
The motherboard collected all 3 of my children at 6 am and told me to go to work. “Ya have fun mum,” the motherboard beamed at me with its perfect smile. I’d chosen the motherboard’s face and figure. Basically she was my mum. My mum was unthreatening. I knew she wasn’t going to have a relationship with my husband of 5 years. That made me feel better. He’d gone off sex after the 3rd child. He kept telling me he was ready for the chop and writhing around clutching his stomach in agony, going down with mysterious illnesses every month like clockwork. I put it down to his upbringing. His mother had doted on him, stuffing him with cakes and Italian pasta as soon as he opened his mouth. He was a total mummy’s boy. But he had a soft spot for any northern girl with a big smile and the teeth to go with it, preferably the arse too. He’d joked for a while that he wanted another me. I let him have his fun, jesting. And then I put my foot down. He said he quite liked the blond version of me, she turned him on, in a weird way, nothing threatening, she was like those women in underwear he liked to browse when I wasn’t looking. “Absolutely not,” I said, like a child pretending she hasn’t been caught ogling an older man. That was five years ago.
“Good bye mother,” I said. “Good bye mother,” my three children called. I felt impatient. I already had my work hat on and the suit to go with it. “Good-bye,” I said, “Mother will look after you. She knows exactly what you need, exactly what you like, and when you can have it.” Was I trying to convince myself? My words sounded hollow.
I turned my back on my family and jumped into my black copter. I loved my black, shiny, copter. It was a gift from my new employer Chisel.
Chisel had a beard to die for. I don’t have a beard yet, and I’m not courting one. My beard started growing last year. I’m 37. It’s frustrating. All I have are 6 wirey hairs. I pull them out with tweezers. Chisel says I should have hormone therapy to grow a decent beard so that I can chisel it like him, but I know he’s just kidding around. He’s 25, and a maths whizz. That’s why he’s my boss. I’m crap at maths. It’s ok now. I know you’re in 2020 and you think maths is everything. We’re way over that. Our arts graduates are valued. We just give them the creative work, and the problem sorting work. And believe me we have problems still. They’re just a little bit different.
Chisel has a microchip implant behind his ear. You don’t imagine he can compete with an algorithm do you? For him it was a “no-brainer”; microchip or jobless. People like me are lucky. Algorithms don’t do creative. They can create. It isn’t that. They can write books and draw pictures. They’re just not so good at thinking up new ways of doing things on the spur of the moment.
Half way through the morning I got a toothache. Tartan called the dentist. Tartan is this thin stick of a man. He isn’t real. Don’t ask. I’ve no idea why Tartan doesn’t do teeth. Chisel tells me it’s unseemly. Believe it or not, we still have manners. In fact manners are very prominent. We’re very polite to robots because we want them to be polite to us. They learn quickly.
My toothache vanished within two hours. Dent filled it in. The tooth. Dent’s my regular dentist. I love him. He always plays Beethoven at the loudest he can while he works, and it isn’t just any old pianist. I’ve forgotten the name. I get like that with my memory when I’m focused on work. I’ll tell you later. You’re going to be with me till this story is over, right? It’s time for my mid-morning nap. We know how to look after our employees in 2050. I think I’ll have a mud mask today. Maybe when I’ve rested my eyes I’ll remember the name. Cat is a first class masseuse. She’s so gentle. Every time she massages my hands I fall straight into REM.
I dreamt about my mother.
“You are so lucky Gem,” she’d said in one of our conversations. “You never have to worry about your children. Even if you walk out on Kim, you’ll be fine.”
“What was it like for you mum?” I asked her. We’d been having conversations lately. Mum had walled herself up in the mansion when Covid-19 st toarted, and hadn’t come out for 20 years. We visited but never when we had a cold, hay fever, or any sign of a sniffle. It wasn’t foolproof. I reckon mum just got lucky. She had Diabetes from when she’d eaten poorly for a couple of years after the divorce. She was working on it, but she’d always been overweight. It was the habit of a life-time; incurable. Believe me, I’d tried to encourage her. Before Covid-19, I’d driven to Richmond, collected her and taken her for walks up Gold Hill, where I lived before my marriage, until the sweat poured down her face. She’d had her lymph nodes removed a few years earlier after a cancer scare, and it made her sweat.
“It was terrible. I couldn’t afford to feed you. I used to go to the Job Centre and they’d say, “You might be entitled to other help, but we’re not allowed to tell you what you’re entitled to.” One day, I dressed up for a job interview, and they asked me whether I’d won the pools. Huh. I didn’t even know what the pools were. Dim Sum took me on holiday, and they stopped my payments for 6 weeks. I had to write to my councillor. Do you know, he got back to me straight away, the next day. I was amazed. They re-instated my Job Seekers after that.”
“Dim Sum was always taking you on holiday mum. You had some great holidays.”
“Yeah. Except that trip to Auschwitz.”
“I still get flashbacks.”
“You’re an empath mum. Do you remember that day when you waited outside school for no reason in the car, and I’d tripped up the stairs in the rain, and you had to take me to hospital for stitches?”
“Yeah. They glued your chin together. We’ve got matching scars.”
It was true, we had matching scars on our chins.
“Do you remember that huge mask I made so that I could take you into the hospital? It was like an oxygen mask.”
I don’t know why mum and I had conversations like that. We used to repeat stuff all the time. There was something reassuring about repetition, especially for mum, being in permanent, self-imposed “Lockdown.”
“I remember after I split up with your father and we were sharing the care, I went to the Estate Agents and asked to look at a cottage and they said to me, “You might not be suitable.” Then they asked me whether I played rave music. That was my sister’s era, not mine. Huh. I can’t imagine liking rave. I was one of those late seventies punks. I used to spike my hair up at sixteen.”
“Did you? You never told me that.”
“I didn’t want you getting ideas. I looked a sight. I was a tearaway for a year. I used to wear short skirts. I think I was being provocative. I was angry because I thought that clothing was an expression of my inner being and I hated school uniform so I found a skirt and cut it short and wore it to school. We weren’t allowed to wear trousers then.”
“Have you got any photographs?”
“Not one. I threw them all out when I got married. Pass me the Lemon Barley, darling.”
“You always looked so young. Every time you got a job they thought you were ten years younger.”
“It wasn’t any fun being treated like a child by my contemporaries.”
Mum was a complete contradiction. She lived in a 12 room house, ate salad, never spent any money, and was always overweight. I wondered, sometimes, whether she secretly ate cake when I wasn’t looking. But she said she’d got fat from sitting down studying one year and she couldn’t shake it off after that.
We’re way past Covid-19. We’re up to Covid-30. It’s been a game changer. At first business opened and it was “business-as-usual.” Then we got 20 and 21 at the same time. Almost everyone with a disease was wiped out in 3 years, except mum, and a few other introverts who’d done the same as her; locked down completely. After that, even though they had pretty much, begun to rely on computers they decided to shorten the working day. People had started walking in the roads anyway. It started off as a playful protest. Someone programmed a whole batch of Chisels to walk to work in the road. Noone could do anything to stop them, so they had to close all roads around cities and give people an hour to get to work. Everyone had a phone app to clock in to work at first; they would use a personalised bar code to clock in on the computers at work. The government issued free computers with an automatic upgrade as standard. My sister, who was a doctor, said it was the most liberating thing because Covid had forced Private and Public sectors to co-operate.
I woke with a clear head. Chisel was looming over me.
“We’ve got work,” he said. We didn’t always have work.
“Coming. I was dreaming.”
“Plenty of time for that now,” he smiled and handed me a Stone. Stones are portable apps.
I couldn’t concentrate. Mum kept looming in my head.
“How did you live like that?” I asked her. “Driving for an hour to work. Crawling in traffic. It sounds mad.”
“It was mad. We didn’t know any better.”
“Bristol was horrendous. My friend used to teach in Somerset. Do you remember Jill? She ran out of petrol once. She used to sit in traffic every day for two hours. An hour there and an hour back.”
“And all that time who was benefitting from all that driving?”
“I know it sounds crazy now. Your world is miraculous compared to ours. Thank God for the viruses. Especially 30.”
“How can you say that mum?”
Chisel was looming over me again. “Are you okay? You were all glazed over. It’s the Motherboard.”
“Thanks. Put they through.”
I pressed a button and the glass on the window dimmed to sepia. Motherboard was standing in the kitchen with a grotesque expression on her face. Mum had never looked like that.
God only knew why Motherboard had that weird dialect. Sometimes it irritated me.
“Uh. Oh yes. I’m a little drowsy today. Pear woke me twice in the night. Is she okay?”
“That’s why I called. Do you remember Covid 30?”
“I’ll never forget it.”
“You were ten.”
“So you remember how it came back 7 years later. At least that’s what they thought. But your mum had it for 7 years, at least that was the approximation. And then she died.”
“I hadn’t forgotten. I’d only been married 6 months.”
“You married young in the 30s, because all the old people died.”
“Not all. Your programming is off.”
“Not all. I know that now.”
“Where is Pear? Where is this leading?”
“She’s outside on the swing. I think she’s got Covid 30 again.”
“Again? She’s not got it again. She’s never had it. Motherboard? Motherboard? Chisel! Podding copter! Chisel!?”
“You’re having a day Flower.” Chisel was looking at me with his 6th grade concerened teacher’s expression.
“I’m having a day.” I leaned back in my chair and pulled at my hair.
Chisel was unruffled. “Don’t look at me like that. You know the answer. There is no reason to go home.”
“Chisel, that child died last week. I–“
“I was listening. Pear isn’t going to die. They were just keeping you informed.”
“You didn’t see the look on Mother’s face. She never looked like that.”
“Your mother died in 44. Do you still have a clear memory of her?”
“Look Chisel, no-one has a memory like yours. Why do you always have to play the memory card?”
“Everyone knows the house help have a glitch around memory when it comes to Covid-30. We’re supposed to ignore comments involving that subject. Nothing happened clearly with 30. Even your own mum took seven years to die. She was perfectly well until the end just like my dad.”
“It’s been 20 years.”
“Almost. Mum had it for 7 years. Nobody knew. That’s why I get so worried when the kids are ill. You know that.”
“They made her well for seven years. She was well and so was dad; right till the end. It’s all you can hope for. It’s all anyone can hope for.”
“I know it.”
“What do you have on the work front, Flower?”
“I’m working on it.” I tapped away at the Stone half-heartedly. Sometimes I wished I hadn’t inherited mum’s empathic nature. I could feel something was wrong but there was no point in saying a thing to the robots in the office pod. I stared out the windows into the inky blackness. It was 4 pm in December. Where had the day gone? I felt as though I’d been dreaming all day.
“Look, what do you say to a breath of fresh air? Let’s clock off early.”
“You look done in.”
“I feel it.”
“You’re not expected till 5.15. Let’s go to Park I’ll drive you. And, I’ll pick you up in the morning.”
“Thanks. You’re for real.”
Chisel’s Copter was first class. It was vintage drab. Drab means browned, dirty, dusty and very old. That’s de-rigueur right now, for bosses. I feel like a real brat in that car. Maybe, I thought, I’m over-reacting. It’s the anniversary of mum’s death.
Soon we were at Park. It’s always busy. But we have our own office garden reserved for rest.
We sat down underneath a maple, and stared at the trunk of a birch. They were both late dropping their leaves because of the warm autumns. It was a warm evening, Decembers were rarely cold, except for the odd freak, and the orange low lighting made me feel secure.
“Why don’t you talk? I’ll listen. I’m very aware of the fact that I was twelve when our parents died, and you did all the listening. Pear is almost the same age as I was. Perhaps that’s what’s bringing it back so vividly. Things act as a trigger.”
What was holding me back? Confiding. The first step towards intimacy. Another relationship? Besides, I was the listener in all my relationships. This wasn’t like me.
The truth was I’d moved to a new pod in a new part of the city, and I was alone with a fake human and three kids; two of them under twelve. Sometimes I craved human contact.
“You’ve only got an hour,” Chisel grinned. And I’m paying you for this therapy.”
I stared into the distance and started talking. “I thought I was grown up at seventeen. It was because I went to live with dad and I was compensating, I suppose, for missing mum.”
“Your mum loved you. She couldn’t afford to keep you. I’m sure you know that now.”
“I’m long over it. I acted like an adult for years, or so I thought; raising babies. It’s just seeing Pear now. She’s still so young.”
“I was married so young.”
“I need my mother. I was only 24 when she died. Look I’m sorry Chisel. You were much younger when your dad died. I’m being selfish.”
“Oh, a delivery person knocked on the door and asked her to take in a parcel.”
“Were restrictions lifted?”
“Yeah. Mum didn’t trust them. She said she knew how bad her diet had been for 3 years. She said the damage had been done. She told me it was the stress of not knowing whether she’d ever keep a job, going from one job to the next over and over that killed her, not Covid-30. She said she could never relax at work wondering how much longer she had. When I rang her those last weeks she kept going on and on about something called the zombie apocalypse. All her friends had died.”
“Didn’t your mum have any wealthy friends?”
“She lost them all the poorer she got. Her priorities changed. She didn’t feel like talking about agas and garden saunas. She was happy retreating into a world of books.”
“Just like my dad.”
“What a year 37 was.”
“Do you think they knew one another?”
“But they both had such long drives.”
“Yeah, a street full of lottery winners.”
“Mum was lucky. She won that money and went straight into “Lockdown.” Your dad only had a year. I’ve no right to be sad.”
“You’ve every right.”
“Do you remember the first day we met? You were leaning over that enormous gate. The catch was stuck and your chauffeur was waving you off.”
“I was nine. And I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful.”
“Two lost kids gone from rags to riches.”
“Money doesn’t make you happy.”
“Don’t we know it.”
“Why did you take this job?”
“I wanted to see your smiling face every day.”
“I liked the idea of having a chip inserted into my head. I thought it was a good halfway measure. The competition is stiff.”
“Yeah. Stiff is the word. I have to oil Harold’s parts before he does the ironing.”
“His legs. He’s got this dance he does when he’s ironing. It’s a sort of skip.”
“It sounds like he’s ready for the skip. I’m a dab hand.”
“Are you proposing you come round and do my ironing?”
“Exactly that. Come on, I’ll take you home.”
I climbed into the Copter and took a sideways glance at Chisel’s profile. It had become familiar to me. I felt comforted by it. “You weren’t 9 when your dad died. You were 12. A young 12. But definitely 12; half my age.”
“Ok. But not anymore.”
“No. Odd that.”
“You’re what, 37?”
“Yes. I’m in my thirties-30-something.”
“So I’m not too young, anymore?”
“I haven’t been divorced long. I’m not looking.”
“Best time to find.”
I stared at his perfect chest awkwardly, trying not to look anywhere else. “I like your Copter.”
“Is that what we’re calling it?”
He kissed me. Why was his timing so damn perfect?
We were home. A dim sepia light hung around the reading table. The blinds were up. The pod looked quiet in the shade of the cedar. This was a first class neighborhood, set within a row of 200-year-old-trees, 150 foot above ground level. I don’t like heights, and I like trees. Most of the other pods are part of the skeleton network. You step outside straight onto a car. They go round and round all day; people in, people out. The doors open by themselves and the seat safety bar falls back as soon as you’re in. We don’t have many accidents that way, unless the whole thing malfunctions. I stepped onto the rope ladder and smiled at Chisel.
“Come on up.”
He leaned out of the Copter and whispered into my ear. “First you throw Harry out. And I mean it. You totally dismember Harry. You don’t take him to the Cleaners. You don’t give him to a friend.”
“Chisel? I had no idea you got so freaked out about robots.”
“Look, dad had a “friend.”
“Let’s just say that Harry never gets to see me. Bury his eyes.”
“Bury his eyes. Do you mean that?”
“I mean it. Go on in. Little Lucy will be waiting for her good-night story.”
“Good night Chisel.”
Motherboard greeted me at the door. “You’re minute early.”
“Am I? What’s Harry doing in the hallway? We did all the ironing last night.”
The Motherboard raised her glasses and placed them on top of her silky black head. “Last night?”
“Yes. I told you I couldn’t sleep. Anyway he needed oiling.”
“Yeah. He got stuck.” So it has come to this. I actually thought Motherboard was mum. I was explaining myself.
The kids hung on the stairs. They’d crept down quietly. They were good kids.
“Hello sweethearts. I missed you. Pear. Are you okay?”
“Ya’ll go upstairs. Mum will be up soon. She’s had a hard day.”
Harry was staring at me with that fixed expression he has when he’s on hold.
“Harry isn’t turned off properly.”
“That’s what I Wanted to talk to you about. Pear was playing with him.”
Pear crept halfway down the stairs.
“You look nice. New dance gear? I’ll be up soon. I’m just doing the feedback. Won’t be long sweetie.”
Pear beamed and skipped off upstairs. She wasn’t much of a talker.
“She was getting friendly. He was teaching her to dance.” The Motherboard continued.
“But I thought you said she was ill.”
“That was a mistake. My programming on Covid-30.”
“Can you put Harry away? He’s staring at me.”
“Right away sweetie.”
“Don’t call me sweetie. Mum never called me that. It’s weird. It’s what I call Pear.”
I ate a light pasta meal and switched Motherboard off when she was washing up with her back to me and finished the dishes myself. I started to climb the stairs and noticed Harry was still standing there staring with his piercing black eyes. “Go to sleep Harry. Now.” I said fiercely. His eyes snapped shut.
“Pear?” I opened her door slowly, already angry with myself because I was tired and I knew I needed to read, at least to Lucy.
“Are you ok?”
I snuggled up on her bed and stroked her hair. “These are good.” She’d been drawing. She was a good artist. “Mother said you had Covid.”
“I was messing around. I just wanted to have some space. In my room. Alone.”
“Ok. You shouldn’t lie to Mother.”
“Mother’s a robot.”
“I know sweetie, but we have to be nice to robots.”
“So that they’re nice back. We’re their teachers. I’ve got to go and see Lucy. Goodnight sweetie.”
“Goodnight mum. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
I closed the door.
Lucy was sitting bolt upright in bed with her favourite book in her hands. “Hello. What have we here, a new book?”
“Nope.” Lucy laughed. “Pear made me a cover.”
“It’s a very nice cover. Has your brother been nice?”
“Yes. Apart from when he put a wood louse down my back.”
“Shall we say he’s been nice then and forgive him this one mad moment?”
“I suppose we’d better.”
“Good. Because that means we’ve got time to read your story, again.”
It was a good story. Written by a human. I’d saved it. Algorithms didn’t understand feelings. It had this reassuring phrase in it repeated throughout the story. Every time the protagonist, a boy, played a trick on his sister, the real mum said, “shall we give him this one mad moment?”
She was asleep before it ended. I kissed her and walked down the curved hallway to Heartfelt’s room. He’d been making clay models with sweet little faces. He was fast asleep. I smiled at him and pulled the covers over him.
When I got downstairs Harry was in a weird position, leaning over the stairs as if he was waiting and had fallen asleep waiting. I got myself a glass of water and went to bed. I didn’t want to think about Harry just yet.
I had a good night’s sleep. Nobody woke me. Motherboard waved me off at the door like clockwork and Chisel was there waiting in his beat-up old Copter. I couldn’t resist a joke.
“How’s your Copter?”
“How are Harry’s parts?” He jibed back.”
Chisel opened the door for me and followed me down the curved hall. Most of our buildings are round, and 200 to 300 feet above ground level. It’s quiet. We don’t walk anywhere, as I explained yesterday.
I picked up the Stone, which was where I’d left it the day before. My collage was taking shape. I was moving large blocks of colour around. I’d chosen gouache. Gouache was my favourite medium. For me the colours are more vibrant in gouache, more immediate. I showed it to Chisel.
“It’s good. I like it; the vermilion especially. Genius.”
“How many squares would we need to cover a wall? This one is 36″ by 24”.
“Thirty.” Chisel never missed a beat.
“Grant has two walls. Can you cost it and get Tartan to hand it over to reception?”
“I can Flower, and I will.” He leaned over and took a chocolate mousse out of the tray, perched his perfect bottom on my desk and ate the mousse very slowly staring at me the whole time till I flushed the colour of my design. He strode over to the kitchen corner and incinerated the spoon. I approached him, wondering whether I could get away with an embrace before Tartan resurfaced. At that moment the door swung upwards and disappeared into the ceiling. Celia marched into the room.
Celia gave one of her long speeches. I found myself drifting off into a dream. It stuck me that Celia was behaving rather like two of my previous partners. At least it was subconscious. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it. Kim was there as though yesterday. Telling me how to do something, clever and carefully. At the time, I had no idea what he was doing. It wasn’t until I married again for one miserable year, and learnt the same lesson, that I realised what this was. This was “mansplaning,” as mum used to call it. He was trying to take back power. He didn’t have control. What was the only way he could feel powerful? Sex. He hadn’t had sex and he couldn’t understand it. The explaining how I should do something was maybe a subconscious behaviour. It hurt me. I felt like he was attacking me, undermining me. Jung had written about it. I understood the power struggle of relationships, it was just this had been too soon. I had asked Brad to leave after one miserable year. Too soon. Too soon. What was wrong with Celia?
At last it was over. Celia left. Chisel came over all charm. My body was rigid. He touched my shoulder lightly. I relaxed a little, not wanting to completely shun him.
“She was a little firey today.”
“She was.” I hoped my formal language hid my emotions. Sometimes I wished I could have a chip inserted to do away with my feelings.
“I’ve got to take my designs over to Paul. I may as well go now.”
“All right.” He sounded cool.
The door slid up as I approached it. I walked quickly, in rhythm with my irritated thoughts.
Why did I want to wound Chisel and use Paul as a pawn in my sordid game?
Paul smiled. I felt nothing. I liked him. There was no connection. No physical or deeply intellectual connection. We just liked to talk.
“Here are my drawings. I could have cast them, but I like the colour. It’s fresher in the flesh.”
“Also would you like to play tennis at lunch?” I’d said this quickly. Not allowing myself to back down. “I’ve decided to play again.”
Paul walked over to the window and held my artwork up to the light. “These are good.”
I looked out at the endless glass structures. They were pale grey in the early morning light. The sky was white. Nothing was moving, except the odd bird of prey hovering over a Park. What the hell was I doing?
I knew exactly what I was doing. I was making myself unavailable. There was no doubt in my mind that scarcity provoked desire. Had I made up my mind that Chisel was the one?
We played tennis and I enjoyed it. Did I think I wouldn’t? I kept finding myself thinking of Chisel.
At the end of the game we raised hands, as if to “high five” and swerved the other way. It was a remnant of the Covid years; something we’d never grown out of. Our whole society was scarred by it, and yet we never spoke of it.
After I’d showered, I walked into the office sprightly; a big smile on my face, wired up and ready to create. I sat down. But Chisel had other ideas.
He strolled over, placed his perfect posterior on my table, and stared into my eyes. I like to be seduced by subtlety. “In your face” is an absolute turn off. Chisel’s feminine side was the perfect juxtaposition for my masculine quiet. I melted. “It’s hot in here, why don’t we open a window?” He didn’t move. I walked the length of the room to the safe window and opened it, taking in a lungful of air.
“You know how your back turns me on.” His words caught and ended in a wolf’s growl. I held the frame. It felt cold. The metallic silver shone back at me, like a message. Is this merely sexual attraction? I turned. “Chisel, I need to work. I’m inspired. I’ll lose the thread. It’s different for you. You never forget.”
He raised his hands jumped up, and walked over to the kitchenette.
I sat down without caring where I was.
He looked up. “I know you’re scared. You must be. This time it will be different.”
I didn’t take a lift home. We are allowed to stay late when the feeling takes us. They know how creatively works. Look, I know what mum meant when she said, “Thank God for Covid,” I miss her. She always built me up. I can’t hear her voice anymore.
I started this journal to keep track of my thoughts. Sometimes I want to silence them. Maybe I need to meditate. It helped me get through the divorce.
Tartan unrolled the yoga mat, and I sat cross legged. I closed my eyes. After a minute I opened them. My mind should be empty but it wasn’t. Harry was peering at me, sat cross-legged at the end of the perfect vista, where the sunset ought to be. I jumped up, rolled up the mat and called up the Copter.
I sprinted along the curved corridor until I was at the door to the copter, and jumped in. I was glad I hadn’t bumped into anyone.
The engine purred, reassuringly. As we took off I dialed home. Maybe I’d be home in time to see Pear after her dance lesson.
When I arrived back at the house it was dark. I could see that the Christmas tree was up. It looked nice. Perfectly symmetrical, the way mum always used to dress it. I felt calm.
The Motherboard opened the door all smiles. She could see my expression. I didn’t bother to hide it.
I pushed past her and plonked my shopping on the floor. “Close the door would you Mother.” As she turned I switched her off. Pear was leaning over the stairs and couldn’t stop smiling. I smiled back. “We’ll have a snuggle up and read your sci-fi novel in five minutes,” I promised. “Where’s Harry?”
She pointed. Thank mother earth he was turned off. I picked him up and pushed past the Motherboard and out into the cool night air. A startled bird shot across the sky.
I told the copter to open the doors and threw Harry across the passenger seat. I slammed the door shut myself, and told the copter to stay put.
As I turned to enter the front door the Motherboard was leaning around it glaring at me with her hand wedged firmly on the door and her foot blocking my path.
“Pear how did this happen? Pear,” I called. “I can’t get in.”
“It’s ok mum. I’ll move her. I just needed Mother to iron my dance outfit. Come and have a look. We’re doing a Polish dance. Look.”
“That’s a great dance. Does it have a name?”
“It’s called a Mazouka.” https://wp.me/p60L9s-Qg (Word of the day.)
“When is your show?”
“Not till April. Where’s Harry?”
“I’m taking him to the cleaners. He keeps getting stuck. He’s creaky.”
“Mum, no. I need Harry.”
“Pear? What’s wrong? Where are you going? Pear.”
“I’m going to live with dad.”
She ran up to her room. I phoned for pizza and the drone dropped it off. There was a freebie balloon which bust all over the living room floor. I left it and went up to check on the children. Lucy was asleep. Her violin was blocking the door, so she must have been playing right beside the door. I felt guilty. I went and got Harry and sat him on the sofa. I switched him on and stared at him. He looked like any other robot. What was the big deal?
Heartfelt came and stood on the stairs. I put my arms out. And hugged him. He didn’t see my tears.
Harry saw me crying and staring into space. “Do you want your journal?”
“What? Oh, yes.” I sighed and started writing. We all do it now. We don’t have therapists. Everybody writes.
There is nothing easy about being a mother. I tell you this now. Then I thought it was easy. Since my divorce, I’ve realized now lucky I was to have all that time with my children. I put my heart and soul into the work and I didn’t see it as work. I was a mother and I wanted to be the best mother I could be.
After Covid-19, people realised how important family was, but many had lived through different times, times when people simply didn’t understand that we are all connected.
I know this seems controversial in 2020, but then the private sector was propping the public sector up. I mean, for years. I dare say you won’t understand. You think you work hard. Well, the private sector works harder, that’s all.
I was happy. My marriage had its difficulties but I thought I could weather the storms. Now my battles are completely different. Mostly, I have not enough time to sort out all the problems. I feel as though I’m fire-fighting every day. I don’t want to rely on a man. It’s what mum tried to do and she failed. She never had a robot. I do. I have two. What right did I have to complain?
I fell asleep then, on the sofa with Heartfelt in my arms. I felt the pen roll from my outstretched hand, and was vaguely aware of Harry looming over me.
In the morning Harry made me eggs and I played back the tape. I watched him cover me with a blanket and place my journal underneath the sofa. I watched him press a button so that the sofa gained feet the length and breadth of it until the while room was full of sofa and me and Heartfelt and Christmas tree.
I switched the Motherboard on and asked her to get the children ready for their last day at school before the Christmas holidays. I strode out to the copter with a lightness I hadn’t felt in days. The only time I got chills was when I glimpsed the empty black leather chairs and thought of Harry and then Pear.
“Let’s go to work,” I said cheerily. But I’d forgotten, just for a moment, that life isn’t like that. The engine turned over feebly, hummed, then made a screeching, metallic sound and died.
I sat there waiting for mechanic. I knew they would all be out soon and climbing into Family car. Little Lucy, Heartfelt and Pear. I switched on the Radio. There were several famous pod-casters with their own music stations. They use telephone wires to transmit. Why none had thought of this before nature only knows. It’s an amazing innovation. It’s called a Phoneme. You pick it up, dial and you are all through to the singer’s personal sound channel.
Black Chalk was singing about the days before robots. Mechanic arrived and got to work on my Copter without speaking. Minutes later, yes we still have minutes, the whole family skipped out of the pod.
I stared after them. They hadn’t seen me, I was sure. Harry was dressed up like Boy George. Yes, we know who they are, the children do their sixth form music projects on past pop icons. I was staring because Harry was arm in arm with Pear, and her ear was glinting with a piercing which ran from her lobe to the tummy button in her naked midriff. Something was blocking my view. It was mechanic. He smiled at me and his gold teeth glinted in the early December light. “End of term party?” He said. “Start her up. You’re all set.” I watched my family climb into the car which had just driven up on the metal grid system, 100 feet above my head. They looked like ants. Harmless. I faked a smile, and mechanic faked one back. I flew off.
When I arrived at work, Chisel was deep in Conversation with Celia. I walked in on them. They were both leaning over my artwork, and she was a little too close to him for my liking. I pretended not to notice and walked over to the kitchenette to grab a glass of water. My masseuse appeared right in front of me and took my hand in hers, now blocking my line of view. I kicked her over. She toppled like an old can. Our cheaper robots are made of aluminium. They’re 2nd class, and sometimes annoying. We get frustrated with them. At least our assistants know how to behave, and show a level of decorum.
Chisel looked up and raised an eyebrow. I looked back and raised my glass. I sat down, picked up the Stone and pretended to work.
Celia swiveled around with a pen in her mouth, gave me a look and swiveled back, her pristine back to me. I pulled a stray hair out of my mouth, sighed and tapped away at the Stone with one thumb. My masseuse came over and picked my hand up again. I let my hand lie. “We’ll finish this in the morning,” Celia said to Chisel. Her ballet pumps padded across the floor like paws.
“You’re never late,” Chisel noted.
“You’re not usually wrong,” I quipped back.
Chisel wasn’t going to give up without a fight.
I was annoyed with myself for having this incurable need for a mate. If only I could lose it like my twin brothers, both of them CEOs of successful companies, and too busy to care about a long term relationship. Relationships need work. All relationships need work. I sighed and looked up from my Stone to confront Chisel’s stare. I had enough on my plate. I had my three children to look after. They took up all my time, but I am a solitary person, and that solitary status requires companionship. Full-time companionship. I’ve never been the sort of person who needs a quick fix. In fact, I’d go as far to say that quick fixes drain the life blood out of me.
“Dinner?” he said.
“Ok. Dinner then.” I replied.
There is this restaurant. Three actually. They are called sensual. They have water carpets. You attend in bare feet, of course. The perfect antidote to a stressful day.
Chisel led me into the restaurant; his hand resting lightly on my back. I was wearing a silk gown, a dull golden shade, a halter neck, cut low at the back.
They’re usually full in the evening. They became a thing after Covid-25. The new luxury was space. These restaurants had space as a premium. The tables are round and set inside a pool of water. They are two metres in diameter. The waiters walk only so far. They are met by drones that take the food the rest of the way, straight to your table so no human contact. We like human waiters. Nobody wants to be short-changed by a robot. The waiter waits until the wine is poured and you’ve taken your first mouthful. You then exchange signs. You make the shape of a mountain peak with your hand, and blow the waiter a kiss. It’s normal here.
I was staring out of the window. There are no toilets in restaurants anymore. They’re all in the streets. You use them at your peril. Chisel was mulling over the wine list while the drone hummed over his head.
“Isn’t that Harry?”
“It’s Harry with some punk.”
“That isn’t some punk. That’s Pear.”
I’ll tell you what happened later. There’s something I want to get off my chest. First.
When it was all over, Chisel offered to cook for me instead.
“It’ll be five minutes. I’ll rustle you up a stir fry.”
I agreed. I was exhausted.
Chisel was true to his word and had dinner served in 15 minutes.
When he was in the wine cellar, I checked the label on the soy sauce. It was a cheap brand I’d never heard of… why does anyone want to put that stuff in their body? There were so many additives, I lost count.
I waited for him at the top of the spiral staircase. It descends form a parallel tower adjacent to his property; like a corkscrew tunnelling into the ground. If you cannot imagine this, think of that folly at Stourhead, or any pointless tower in any city; excpet the only entrance and exit point is at the top in the apartment. There he was brandishing a bottle of white wine and grinning at me, the cold air wafting out as he strode into the comparative warmth of the apartment.
“Chisel. I want to tell you this now. I have a good reason. I like you alot, but I’ve also been in serious relationships with several men. Not all at once. You know what I mean. Stop giving me that look.”
“Sorry. I’ll behave.”
“Thanks. Never take over the cooking just because you want me to cook like your mother. I have my own taste and I’m not going to, necessarily, want to eat what you eat every day. I like fish and salad, for a start. I eat green things. They’re called vegetables. Maybe your mother let you get away with not eating them. I don’t know. But they’re healthy. A lot healthier than that Black Forest gateau in your fridge.”
He smiled, and set his wine glass on the table. “That was some speech. Ok. Consider it an agreement.” He took my hand in his. “Now that I have you all to myself, I’d like to play you a few tracks on the turntable. Any objections?”
We danced, then. Slow. Close. Romantic. A perfect ending to an horrific evening. Any deeper and I would never be able to get away.
Chisel dropped me back home, punctualy as we’d promised mother; at 8.30 pm. I waved him off with the biggest smile I could muster. I hoped he’d think I was just happy. I closed the door to my bedroom and sank down to the floor, trembling all over. I had no idea what had caused the uncontrollable shaking. I suppose it must have been nerves. My phone rang. It was my sister. “Gem are you ok? I’ve been calling you for hours.”
“Oh God.” I burst into tears.
“Tell me what happened.”
I mumbled something garbled. “I left the restaurant, on foot. Harry was outside with Pear. I couldn’t just ignore it. She’s only thirteen. She was dressed up to kill.”
“How did you manage that? Look, don’t answer that. I’ll come over. You sound dreadful.”
“Ash arrived within a few minutes. She has an old Copter, not one of the new models. Nobody much bothered you if you drove them. Mostly, doctors and bosses use them, and a few celebrities. I watched her from the window; she came in via the back door. I heard a thin scream and a clatter. I had forgotten to warn her about Harry being propped up in the living room and his eyes being on the table in a breakfast bowl.
“Oh God. Ash.”
“What happened? You’re covered in bruises.”
“Am I? I fell asleep. What time is it?”
“It’s two in the morning.”
She wrapped me up in blankets and cradled me. I told her everything.
“We left the restaurant. Chisel followed me. I couldn’t stop him. There wasn’t time.”
“Didn’t the waiter stop you?”
“No. He stared a bit. I thought he might call the police. But, he just stared.”
“I climbed down, 200 feet. I wasn’t in my right mind. I could see her the whole time, up ahead. She was running and jumping. I didn’t expect her to run. I was thinking, god I should have talked to her the other day. I was just so tired. I called her. She ignored me.”
“What was Harry doing?”
“He was just following her. It was horrible. He looked like he was completely in her power.”
“Did you call him?”
“Yes. He ignored me.”
“God, I can’t imagine what it was like, trying to take back control of a renegade robot.”
“We made a rope ladder from Chisel’s clothes. We had to. There was this impossible gap. That was when I noticed it.”
“The implant. Chisel is not human.”
“We were on ground level. There were so many houses. Derelict. No one has cleared them. They’re full of stuff. Chisel thought I hadn’t noticed his side, I suppose. He went in to one of the houses and came out in clothes dad used to wear in the twenties. I sat down on a bench in the middle of the street and waited. I was alone. Pear appeared right In front of me. She told me she loved Harry. He was her best friend. No one was like Harry. We were just off at work all day. Complete strangers to her. Harry played her old tracks from Grandma’s era, and showed her photographs, Harry this, Harry that. I was annoyed. I had just realised that I had done exactly the same thing; been taken in by a robot, I mean.”
“‘He gets me. He’s kind’, she said. I knew exactly what she meant, but I slapped her face.”
“For God’s sake, get a grip. Aren’t you allowed one mistake? The way you’ve looked after those children. I can’t believe nothing has changed. After all these bloody years. All this bloody progress and still women struggle. God, I’m beginning to sound like mum. Listen to me. The way you’ve raised those children. Look at them. You’ve been an exceptional mother. One mistake with a teenager. So talented, all of them. I’m sure Heartfelt will end up a scientist; all those experiments you’ve done with him; the musical instruments, languages, songs, out-door games. No-one can say you haven’t been an exceptional mother.”
“It doesn’t matter. She’s gone. Her dad picked her up from the door, as soon as I arrived home from dinner. I had to go through with the meal, at his house. I had to pretend everything was normal. I was so conflicted. I just wanted to go home to the children.”
“You went to Chisel’s house? What was it like?”
“Well, don’t you find that strange?”
35. 🌟Laake, Hermione, The Motherboard, Hermionelaake.wordpress.com 2020
I woke up to find Heartfelt staring into my eyes. “Mummy you were talking. Were you asleep?” His baby face close up to mine.
“Yes. I was. What did I say?”
“You said, ‘watch Dallas Buyers Club'”.
Mum’s last words to me. “Gem, why do women do everything men ask them to?”
“They don’t mum.”
“They do. Men eat crap. Women end up eating crap too. Women should eat what they want. Promise me you’ll watch Watch Dallas Buyers Club.”
“Oh, did I?”
“What is that?”
“Oh. Just a film.”
“What’s it about?”
Mum. Dying. Her last words.
I woke to warmth, the Christmas tree lit up in the December darkness, and eggs and bacon cooking in the kitchen. Heartfelt was lying across my arm. I wriggled free and sat up, resting on one elbow.
“Ash? What is the time?”
“It’s evening you’ve been asleep all day.” She smiled. ” I read your book. It’s good. I don’t like you, but I like the story. “
“Oh. Yeah. It’s an experiment.”
“So, you’re writing in the present to an audience in the past. Interesting.”
“Yeah. Something like that. Why don’t you like me?”
“People in the private sector work harder than people in the public?” She mimicked something I’d written, and laughed.
“Not you. Everyone knows doctors are the exception.”
I looked down at my clothes, trying to distract myself from the argument. “You dressed me Ash?”
“Yeah. I’m your sister. I’m also a doctor. I get to see people naked.” She laughed lightly.
“Am I forgiven?” I asked, picking at the bacon.
“Yeah. It’s only fiction.”
“Where are HARRY’S eyes?”
“I got rid of them. They were giving me the creeps.”
“How are you? Really? I can’t imagine, and all the old clichés.”
I ignored her and posed another question. “Do you think it’s some sort of robot envy?”
“Oh, erm. Chisel wanted me to, to– not bury Harry’s eyes.”
“Too late for that. I’ve buried them.”
“Just messing. I sent them to the cleaners. You know to be recycled.”
“He asked me not to do that either.”
“Look are you over Chisel, or what? He’s a robot Isn’t he?”
“I’m not sure. He’s got superhuman strength. At least, he, he saved my life climbing down. I–“
“Well. We’ve got to focus on the other two now. Pear will come round. She’s that age. It’s Christmas holidays. I’ve switched the home help off and we’re making figgy pudding and cake.”
We took out the copper bowls and the tins for the cake and talked. We could always talk for hours. I suppose it was something we gained from sharing a bedroom. “You’re writing to people in 2020, before you were born though. Isn’t that a little problematic?” Pear observed.
“I haven’t told the reader what year I was born.”
“Yeah but they’ll be able to work it out.”
We made cake and I found Motherboard in the cupboard when I was seeking out the vacuum cleaner. Ash doesn’t like her. She says her mother was nothing like her. “Our mother,” I corrected her. She gave me a withering look and told me to “get therapy.”
I love Ash, but we don’t always see eye to eye. She’s the teacher’s pet type. The one who conformed in school and got straight As. I played truant, dressed in weird clothes, got piercings and went off the rails, kissing as many boys as I could and then falling in love at sixteen, marrying far too soon, and divorcing. Perhaps, watching me, she’d learnt how to be better.
We were covered in flour, and starting to throw flour at one another. When the doorbell rang. I peered through the spy hole to see Chisel peering back at me with one eye. The other was covered in a black patch.
I pressed the door release. The door opened and Chisel stepped in to the hall. “Nice.”
“What? The hall or me?”
“Both. I like the black and white tiles, and the way they blend into the circular shape of the room, receding, almost. Yes, receding. It makes me a little dizzy. Well, you would have taste, working for us.”
I grinned at him and then realised that Ash was hovering. “This is my sister, Ash. Ash, this is Chisel.”
“Hello Chisel. I’ve heard so much. Would you like a drink? Something strong. I heard all about what happened Tuesday.”
“Hello. Ah, yes that would be great. Fragile would be great.”
“Fragile? I think we’ve got some.”
Ash disappeared into the kitchen.
“Where is your help?” Chisel made small talk.
“We switched her off. We’re cooking, hence the flour-spattered clothing.”
“Ah, yes. Look, about the other day–“
“It was a nice dinner, but. Well, you’re not human.”
“I thought I may as well just come out and say it. It’s what Ash and I have been talking about. That and Pear.” I swallowed and turned away a little to hide my face.
“She’ll come round. She’s that age.”
“As everybody says. Although, I haven’t asked mother her opinion yet. I forgot about Motherboard.”
“Look Gem, I know I’ve got that awful chip in my brain, and I can be, well analytical and mathematical and well, measured at times, in my responses, but–“
“You’re a robot Chisel. I mean do you even know what that means?”
“I’m not a robot. I have robotic parts. But. Well. All the essential human bits are still human.”
Ash returned with the drinks.
“Thank you. Cheers.” We spoke in unison.
Ash raised an eyebrow. “Come in and sit down.”
Ash walked into the lounge. Chisel followed. “Wow. Stunning.”
“Me, or the pad?”
I laughed, looking down at my unflattering flour spattered PJs.
“What have you done? That looks like it’s made from rose petals. The smell is out of this world.”
Ash filled him in. “She presses rose petals on the walls every summer. They dry and shrink. As they dry they give off this amazing scent. They also create a humidity. Come and stand over here.” She gestured. Chisel walked over and stood in the circular aspect of the room and breathed in deeply.
“You wouldn’t think, would you,” Ash murmured, “that a robot could feel anything.”
“What is this joke?” Chisel sounded annoyed.
“We’re allowed to ask. Are you a robot, Chisel?” Ash asked, staring right into his eyes.
There was a pause. I stared at them both.
“I’m not a robot. Can’t you tell?” He glared at me.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult. You hardly say a word to me. Ever. Except when you’re flirting. I mean, what happened the other day? You were able to get down to the ground pretty easily.”
“Well, you didn’t ask.”
“I was traumatised by the fact that I had fallen in love with a robot,” I said.
“You’ve fallen in love?” He smiled and walked towards me.
He kissed me right in front of Ash.
Ash breathed out. “That’s the first time I have ever seen my sister being kissed. Do you realise that Chisel? Does he kiss like a robot Gem?”
“What? I’ve never kissed a robot.”
“Did you hear that Chisel? She has never kissed a robot. God Gem you haven’t lived. Chisel, have you ever kissed a robot?”
“Stop right there. I don’t want to hear.” I grimaced. “What if Heartfelt wakes up? What do you expect me to say to him?”
Ash put on some music. My favourite classical pianist. I was going to give you his name, but again I forget it. It is so annoying being a fallible human sometimes, prone to drawing scary conclusions about people, and confused by robots. Sometimes I’m glad we don’t walk down streets like you do in 2020. Just think how dangerous it would be. I mean you’d be prone to be accosted by a robot at every corner, the way they have infiltrated the workplace. I don’t think I could stand it.
We sat down on the sofa. Chisel got up again. “What’s that?” He picked some wire out of his bottom. “It’s torn my suit.”
I tried to grab it out of his hand. But too late, he was examining it closely. “This is Tetrahedrite. Have you taken a robot apart?”
“It’s Harry. I smashed him to pieces.”
“What? Flower, that is not allowed. You know that is not allowed.” He stood up. “What have you done with the pieces?”
“I buried them in the garden.”
“What? I asked you not to do that.”
“I know. Look I didn’t bury the eyes.” I stole a glance at Ash. I still wasn’t sure whether to trust him.
Ash stood up too. “I sent the eyes to the Cleaners Chisel. If you have any complaint about that, you’ll have to deal with me,” she said rising to her full 5 foot 11 inches.
Chisel stood up. “I’ve got to go home. It’s been a long day. I bought some artwork over for Gem to look at during the holiday, if the creative urge takes her. I’m leaving now. Will you let me out Gem?”
“Of course I will let you out. We’re not robot murderers. We are not going to dismember you.” I laughed, but I felt uneasy about the way Chisel almost ran to the door and kept pressing the door release.
Heartfelt woke up as soon as I’d closed the door. He ran into the kitchen and gobbled up all the bacon we hadn’t eaten.
“I’m surprised that Chisel didn’t dive on that bacon. Most men would do anything for bacon. It’s so rare” Ash said.
“It’s bad for you Ash. you know that.”
“Isn’t Chisel a vegetarian mum?” Heartfelt chipped in.
“Did I tell you that?”
“One day when you were explaining about grandma and the day you first met him. You said he was a few years older than me,” Heartfelt filled me in.
“You’ve got a good memory. I had forgotten that.”
“I’ll be upstairs.” He smiled at his aunt.
“Are we crazy?”
“Well, you just told Heartfelt that Chisel was a boy once.”
“That doesn’t prove anything. How do we know it’s him? He could be anyone. He just showed up, back in my life and told me who he was. I have no proof. I trusted him.”
“Well, what is the point, exactly? What is the point in him showing up as your boss at the place you choose to work in, and being a person you once knew?”
“Oh, what’s the point in anything Ash? Really I don’t know. Men are just about the most unfathomable thing on this planet. Chisel eats crap sauces full of additives and he’s a vegetarian. Don’t people confuse you?”
“How are you Ash?”
“Good. It’s a perfect working week. I have 6 hour days. What could I possibly wish for?”
“I have my help; Geoff. He is perfect. He washes, cleans, passes me things. Rubs my back exactly where it itches, takes my shoes off, programs everything to go on and off exactly when I need it to. What else is there?
She laughed. “I told you, I have Geoff.”
“Thanks for coming round. I would have freaked out when he knocked on the door, if it wasn’t for you being here.”
“Do you want me to stay?”
“No. I’ll be fine.”
“Leave Pear alone for a few days. Let her contact you. I’m sure you’ll get an image soon.”
“What are we going to do about Harry’s eyes?”
“It’ll be too late. They’ll have been used by now. you know how difficult it is to make the eyes. I put the money in the family account for our gravestone.”
“Ah, thanks. Very thrifty of you.” I looked at her properly. “I like your dress Ash. You always wear such nice dresses in the evening.”
“It beats PPE.”
I saw her to the door. “Don’t forget your bag.”
She was at the door and passed me something in exchange for the bag. “Here. Chisel left this.”
“Thanks. Good night. I’ve got my Copter.”
“Good night Ash. Love you.”
I opened the parcel and sat on the sofa, after turning the classical music on full blast. Carmina Burana Fortuna. Have you ever looked the words up on Google?
The artwork fell to the floor as I read the first line of his note. ‘We have a new robot starting. Celia is over the moon. He’s called Harry. Just like your Harry. He has the same eyes.’
I strode into work, purposefully. The way I do when I want people to think I’m Ok. I placed all the Christmas freelance artwork on the shared space, took my shoes off and asked for a back rub. Chisel was talking to someone in a suit in the far corner. They continued until I stood up.
“Gem this is the new guy, Harry.”
I raised my hand to make the thumbs up sign. He mimicked my gesture. This guy was taller than my Harry by at least a foot. “You, ah, you look like some-somebody that I used to know. Except,-” I found myself staring. “When I was a child I had this crazy nanny who told me I was olive-skinned. You’re brown-skinned. Harry, my Harry was black, jet black. I pointed to my face. Do you think I’m olive-skinned? At least, I was when I was eight.”
His eyes held mine. My god they were Harry’s eyes. “We don’t recognize colour. We know humans do.” There was a flicker in Harry’s eyes “We make allowances.”
I stared at Harry. “Pear is coming to see me tonight. I’ll clock off at 4 pm if it’s ok with your schedule. Sorry I couldn’t let you know sooner. She dropped it on me at the last minute.”
Harry’s eyes seemed hurt.
“No problem,” Chisel replied. He hadn’t moved the whole time.
“Pear. Nice name.” Was all Harry said.
Pear came over. Her dad dropped her off in his drone, and took Lucy and Heartfelt for a sleepover. Drone transport is all the rage for the wealthy. A cool million will get you one. I can’t compete with that. She acted like nothing was different. Even though two weeks of the Christmas holidays had passed without seeing her. We made her favourite. Lemon pie. She saw me looking at her and said, “I didn’t want to see aunt. I knew she was here. Quiver told me.” Before I could reply she was ready with a diversion. “We need to clean up.”
I stared at her. Had she matured in two weeks. “Your aunt cares about your future. She’s a teacher. Why can’t you cut her some slack?”
“You sound like Motherboard.”
I put the pie in the oven. “We need to clean up.”
“Where’s Harry? Where’s Motherboard?” She made for the cupboard.
“I froze. “Ah, I’m taking a break from mother. She’s being serviced. Harry’s at work. They, ah, they messed up when they repaired him and he’s grown taller, which is nice. His colour is weird. Anyway, since we don’t need to steam your clothes, I thought I’d store him at work.”
She smiled. “Ok.”
It was too easy. We curled up on the sofa and played scrabble. It was an old favourite of Pears. If you’re looking for parenting clues in this book, I’d say one word. Ritual. It’s all about building rituals in. And even then you’ve got to be prepared to lose them. Your children don’t belong to you. It’s kinder to let them go by degrees.
I spelled out robot. Pear placed love across it and landed ‘v’ on a double square. She started laughing; uncontrollable laughter. Her body shook and she melted onto the sofa. ‘My old Pear’, I thought. “I can’t believe my first love was a robot mum,” she cackled. At that moment that old song, with the chorus, ‘dance with me’ came on the radio. We turned it up, full tilt, and danced until we dropped. I can still hear Pear sing the chorus, “I want to be your partner, can’t you see?” Oh, the song? it was Orleans, from Orleans II, 1974. John Hall and Johanna Hall wrote it.
Later, Pear helped me glue the rose petals to the wall and we fell onto the sofa to watch our favourite old film, which is Arsenic and Old Lace. Mum used to be in love with the lead actor, Cary Grant, and the film reminds me of her. Pear introduced me to this weird operatic film with Disco songs in it. At least I thought it was disco opera.
We’d been out in my Copter for a fly-over a few wild life parks. We have ten of those across the city. In the afternoon we played the film we had made from the cameras which are attached to the Copter, front back and sides. We aren’t allowed anywhere near the animals after the devastation we wreaked on their habitats up until the 2020s. Afterwards it was table tennis in the yard out back and a spot of sunbathing on the small terrace. I made Pear her favourite banana smoothie, which is soya milk and bananas with a spoonful of honey in a blender. She was creating a memory with the film and our faces (cartoon style and bigger than our bodies), superimposed above it like we were journeying through the parks. The weekend was over too soon.
“I’ve had a lovely time.” I said.
“Me too,” she replied, hugging me. “It was nice without The Motherboard.” I could tell she meant it.
After she’d left and I’d put Heartfelt and Lucy to bed with their usual story, I sat on the sofa with a glass of water and lime and thought about how much time I had spent with Pear and how impossible it had become to fit in our games and cooking sessions the older the other two were becoming. This arrangement, after all, wasn’t so bad. We’d managed to fit so much into a weekend.
I switched Motherboard back on in the morning and asked her to help Heartfelt and Lucy get off to school. She kept asking where Harry was. I just told her that we were on our own for now, and said. There is no Harry. We aren’t supposed to do that. We are supposed to acclimatise them to change slowly, but well, Pear moved out overnight and I didn’t have time to acclimatise to that so the disappearance of a robot shouldn’t be a big deal. At least that was how I figured it. There was a picture message waiting for me in my inbox when I jumped into the Copter. “Shall I play it now?” The Copter’s metallic voice asked me. “I expect it’s Pear’s dad and she’s forgotten something. There is no time before work anyway. Let’s go. Erm. First play that song by Orleans. Then you can play the message.”
As we arrived at work the message started playing, snapping me out of my reverie. “Gem. Pear tells me you have moved Harry to work after some repairs. I paid for that robot, and I have rights to see it. Could you send it over? I have a huge pile of ironing that needs doing.” His face disappeared.
I jumped out of the Copter and was in the curved hallway. Ahead of me the suited figure of my new work colleague Harry disappeared into Celia’s office.
I had the office to myself so I switched on the screen and Emmanuel Ax was there to sooth me. Reliable, completely immersed in the music. I relaxed. Losing myself in the rhythm. Several hours passed and there was just me the music and my paint. That smell that took me right back to childhood and the colours, pinks, yellows and brilliant red. White paper. A canvas to fill. Nothing but me and the work.
Hours later Chisel walked in. “Oh, hello. You’re early.”
“Are we sticking to times now then?”
“Not necessarily. We had a routine, and now, I suppose, with the new guy we can relax a little and change things a bit. Celia has someone else to show her ideas off to.”
“Yeah,” he grinned and walked over to the window. “It’s pouring. No tennis today then.”
I swallowed. “Chisel. I can’t understand why you aren’t freaked out by Harry. He’s a robot right?”
“Did I say he was a robot?”
“I think that was what you wrote, on the note.”
“You said he had Harry’s eyes…”
“He’s human. So he tells me. I’m not about to tap him or pinch his flesh. Anyway, even if I did, I’m not sure I could tell. It’s a bit rude. Would you like it if I pinched your flesh?” He sauntered over.
“No!” I barked.
“What’s got into you?”
“Look, I had a bad morning. I dismembered Harry, and now my ex wants him back. What am I going to do.”
He scratched his head. “Can’t you make an excuse?”
He looked at me.
“I said that Harry was here. Surely you can see the resemblance. They are like two peas in a pod.”
“Except for the colour you would hardly know the difference,” he said flatly.
“Look, we both know that robots get completely dipped in paint and they often come back a different colour. What about when that cheap old masseuse came back pink. We kept her for five years after that because Celia was too tight to buy another one.”
“I’ve told you he’s not a robot. I thought he was a robot. He’s not.”
“Well would he do me a favour? Do you think he would go over and do the ironing?”
“I’ve no idea. Why don’t you ask him yourself?”
I stayed late at work. I was brushing something out with a putty rubber when the doors lifted up and Harry strode in.
“I need something to get me out of seeing my distant cousin tonight. Do you have any ideas?” He said.
“As a matter of fact, I do. But there’s a catch. You’ll have to do some ironing and babysit a fourteen year-old.”
“It might not be that easy,” I said and decided not to tell him that Pear once had a crush on a robot almost the spitting image of him.
I parked the Copter and walked Harry to the door.
“This is Harry. I’ve an idea. Grab your things and we’ll take them to mine.” I knew Pear was curious. “He’s offered to iron.” Pear almost chased us to the Copter. She threw her pillow case at Harry. “Hey, be polite,” I said, quietly. Things were still delicate between us. I watched Harry strap Pear in. They were instantly friends. “This isn’t Harry,” she yelled, above the din, staring at me in the mirrors and grinning at him. We were all wearing headphones, so I mouthed a reply. “Don’t tell dad.”
The Copter is covered in mirrors from a craze Pear had at seven. As we took off, I saw them grinning wildly and staring into one another’s eyes.
Call me sentimental, but it is always music where I find myself. Right now all I wanted was to listen to my favourite song.
Right now it’s The whole of the Moon.
I loved those days spent with mum in the house. Sometimes we’d just sit under a duvet and watch the old films; Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace; playing the son with a family of nutters he loved and humoured; Jeremy Brett in My Fair Lady, such a handsome gentlemen, and for me in those films they really sang; I longed for a revival of the innocence of them. All the Hitchcock films, North by North West and Rope, because of the attention to detail; every time I watched those old films I felt as though I was seeing something new in them, I hadn’t noticed before. Calamity Jane was a rare film that allowed a woman to be a tom boy, something mum said she had known that she was from the day she was born; non binary; boyish, full of energy and confident, with a natural beauty that was simple and uncontrived. Those were the best days, with mum and those films, eating popcorn and cuddling up under the duvet. Mum said that something happened in the 1970s that undermined innocence; women were oversexed as women and they couldn’t be non-binary anymore they had to play their sex. She told me I was lucky to be born in such an age; when all that binary nonsense was going out the window.
We arrived home. Motherboard opened the door. I could see her scan Harry. He picked her up and stood her with her back to him. “Those things freak me out,” he explained. “Don’t tell me. Let me guess. Your dead mother.”
“Yup,” Pear giggled. “Spot on.”
” You two appear to have hit it off. I’ll get changed. The ironing board is–“
“In the cupboard,” they echoed, as I spoke. I trailed off and jumped on the platform that lifted me up to the next floor as soon as I stood on it. We still have stairs. Some people prefer them.
I dressed quickly, and tried my best to keep my mouth shut. “Back in two hours,” I grinned, as I tumbled down the stairs, hoping they’d hear the clatter and not be too disturbed. “Have fun.”
My best friend Star was waiting for me at the door. Star is 6 foot 3″, stick thin and black as soot; Harry stared at her hard. I shut the door in his face, and grinned at Star.
“Cute. Who?” She said, as we got in her Copter. ” Keep your eye on the flight path,” I snapped. “Tell you later.”
We flew to our favourite social distancing picnic park. I love the place. It is lit up with blue and white spots, like Christmas tree lights all year round and full of benches for six or two;the benches for two are interesting if you like creativity; they curve toward one another, like overlapping tree trunks; starting at a root of flat wood and copper and then out like a heart shape, and then in again; the curve is the seat part and then there is a canopy overhead. The people that got paid to make them were all out of work artists. I suppose it’s a false utopia. Ironic even, but we find it soothing. You see afterwards we have to pass the graveyards. Ah, didn’t I tell you? Well, I was saving it. Did you think I’d made it up about all the Covids?
I don’t go for black as a rule. I know black isn’t a colour. It’s just that we’ve found it hard since our colonising years, to kill the term off.
Mum did have a black boyfriend. It isn’t a colour thing. With me it’s always been intellect. And I’ve never been surrounded by black intellectuals. Harry was chosen by my ex as a joke. I’m serious. He was convinced that black men were superior in physique to white and that was the reason he chose him. “He’ll be stronger, and he won’t answer back. He’ll be better than a middle-aged white guy” you’ll see,” he’d told me. I was convinced he was scared that I’d get on too well with the help. He’d always been jealous when his friends invited me out.
“This guy is real?” Star said.
“He’s my new colleague. I needed a favour. Pear needs a distraction. She’s blaming me for the break up.”
“I know. It’s tough. Give her a year “
“A year is a long time. Imagine if I had given mum a year “
“I know. I’ve been through it. I know how it feels. Be careful about letting her put all her emotions on a guy.”
”Thanks for the advice. We both know you can’t plan anything. Look at Covid 30.”
“Gem. I’ve noticed that you always have black help “
“It isn’t me. It isn’t deliberate. It just is. Motherboard isn’t white.”
“Yeah, but she’s your mother. We all know she’s your mother. Changing her colour doesn’t convince us of anything different.”
“You seem hung up on colour. What exactly does colour mean? Colour is purely a way of working out who has most power in history, who enslaved whom, that sort of thing. Nothing else.”
“I’m not. I assure you. You’re reading me like a book. I’m not a book.”
“That’s right. You’re not a book. But you are a writer. Don’t you think you have a responsibility to Pear? To show Pear that you aren’t afraid of white guys?”
“I’m working on it. I was dating Chisel. Things got a bit weird and I thought he was a robot. All the white guys are robots. I mean, nearly all. It’s scary sometimes.”
“So you’re afraid of robots, not white guys.”
“Chisel’s afraid of robots. He told me. Which is weird since he’s got a chip in his head.”
“You can play everything back that robots do, and you’re still afraid of them? There’s never been a robot murder.”
“There will be. When motor cars and mobiles were invented there were no related deaths and then a milkman ran a pedestrian over when he was on a mobile in Dorset.”
“He’s absolutely gorgeous though, your new Harry.”
“He’s real. He isn’t a robot. And you’re being a bit rude.”
“Yes. You should be focused on his people skills. That’s why we hired him. I’m going to pick some roses from the glass rooms. Coming?” I got up. Star followed me.
“I like the way you don’t always feel the need to state who is talking though. Very Somerset Maugham.”
“You read Somerset Maugham?”
“Yeah,” She smiled. “Franscesca Rise does it too. You should read her.”
We walked through rooms full of fragrant roses, yellows, reds and pinks, until we were intoxicated. I picked a few for my walls. “How are you Star? Really. You never call.”
“I’m ok. I needed space, to find myself. I know it’s an old cliché. I’ve been reading a series of books by Ogufere Bulodo. He’s of 4th generation African descent. They’re on self actualisation. I feel liberated. Calm. I’m meditating daily for half an hour every day. It’s slows your metabolism. I eat much less. I don’t tear around like I used to. Do you still like me?”
I laughed. “I still like you. Let’s go home. I’ll cook us something.”
We were hunched over bowls of rice noodles, laced with fresh ginger and green shoots, grinning at one another between mouthfuls.
“So your sister is living with a robot. And he’s satisfying all her needs?”
“Yup. All. She doesn’t need to talk to a man. She just, well–“
“Let me guess. She gets him out of the cupboard when she needs him.”
“Why doesn’t she have two guys?” she said, getting up to place our bowls under a copper sprinkler tap that was suspended above a silver and copper striped drainer. (Copper was all the rage because it repelled germs.) Our handles, when we use them, which is rarely, are made of silver; silver needs moisture to act as a repellent so it is great for mouth pieces and handles.
I glared at her.
She raised her hands and pivoted. Her slender ballerina legs had never lost their muscular look, even ten years after her retirement.”Give me some more of that rhubarb fool. I’d marry you just for that.”
“You always play. You never take me seriously,” I rolled my eyes, and remembered we had visitors. (I’ve never been good at juggling anything simultaneously, except tennis balls and children). “I forgot all about the kids. They’re quiet.”
“Assuming they aren’t out. You didn’t tell them to stay home.”
I ran up the stairs two at a time. I threw open Pear’s door. “Pear? Harry?”
I stared at Star. She’d taken the lift and was right behind me. “They’re gone.”
At mum’s funeral we had blue and ivory roses. I was determined to give her the perfect send off. Chrysanthemums are typical funeral flowers, but I wanted something elegant and pure. The ivory was for admiration and the blue marked the ending. It wasn’t the end and it never would be. Mum’s voice was as fresh as ever in my ear. Her laughter. Her quiet voice. She never insinuated herself.
For me loss always evokes more loss. I stood staring at the empty room and thought of mum. The hospital bed empty and the curtains drawn. The room where she spent her last weeks. The whiteness of it, the cleaness of it, the quiet of it.
My brothers arriving just as the funeral was starting. Always late; always busy, spinning some deal. Always smiling, always happy, except today, suitably sombre. A shoulder to lean on. They were dream brothers, and I had two of them.
We charged down the stairs and then Star grabbed me. “Gem. What are you doing? Sit down.”
“Sit down. We’ll wait. They’ll be back.”
I sat down. I stood up. I walked over to the cupboard and got mother out. I switched her on.
“Hello mother,” Star mouthed from the kitchen where she was pouring herself a drink.
“Hi ya’all. Where’s Pear?”
“She’ll be home soon,” Star smiled. “She’s out with Harry.”
“Ah. Am I cooking?”
“That’s a great idea mother. I’m sure they’ll love that,” I chipped in.
“Mother doesn’t seem bothered that Pear is out so late,” I mouthed at Star.
“That’s because she’s a robot,” Star said loudly and deliberately.
“”Who ya’ll calling a robot?” Motherboard chimed, while she chopped garlic.
Star ignored her and spoke to me. “I think you should take a few late mornings, just for a change Gem. You look tired “
I yawned at her. “I am. I’m a lark. I hate late nights. I’ll be a wreck waiting up for Pear.”
“I’ll wait up. You go to bed.”
“Are you sure?”
“Thanks. I’ll take a late morning. Wake me at eight.”
“Sure. Mother can message Pear and find out when the Sushi needs to be ready, can’t you mother?”
“Sure can. And I will,” mother was all smiles. She calmed me.
I crawled up to bed, and my mind softly dimmed like the lights.
In the morning the house was a buzz with life. The music was soft and made its way through the open door; as I turned Star appeared around the door with a tray full of eggs, croissants and jam, and a cafetiere of hot coffee.
I sat up in my fluffy duck down feather bed. “Did Harry leave alright?” I asked her.
“Yeah. He’s a huge badminton fan. They were at the courts up at Richmond.”
“That’s great. Nothing to worry about then.”
“She hasn’t left yet. She’s on her way up now.”
I finished my croissant and put on my best smile. I tried to empty my mind of fear. Fear that I would lose Pear. My own mother had lost touch with both my brothers and I lived with this constant fear that this would happen to me. Things tend to run through generations. I have a scar on my chin. Two of my daughters have the same scar. I was researching my family history when I came across a rare photograph of my African American Great Grandmother. She too had a scar on her chin. Hers was curled up into it, whereas mine is barely visible. Mine is right under my chin. I once went head over heels on my bike, landed on my chin, and ran home with blood coursing down my neck and splattering onto the pavement.
Pear popped her head round the door. I waited. She came and lay next to me. I stroked her head. Star swept the tray away and closed the door after her with a flick of the switch
Some people think we invite pain in. They say we get used to it and expect it. They say we’re addicted to it.
I wonder whether that’s a little rudimentary. I mean, if I had a choice I’d do away with pain, wouldn’t you? Why do we have to learn from our mistakes? Take Covid. We knew we were going wrong. We were just stuck on this treadmill and nobody understood that we had control of our own destiny. Everyone was scared of someone or something. Black people, disease, corrupt governments, other people’s wealth, a strange form of sexual expression that wasn’t binary. Black and white is easier. He did wrong, he’s bad. She’s a victim. But what if the world was coloured and what if language and not maths and science was the key to everything. What if Word really was the beginning just like it says in the Bible. I’m not saying the Bible is the only book; its a book like any other, and it’s a little like sci fi. Some of it came true, just in a different order, that’s all. Call me a blasphemous bastard if you like. But what if you’re so sure everything is fixed that you leave no room for creativity. How does growth happen then?
“Let’s get you back to dad’s,” I said. Dad loves you and it’s important that we’re on time. “Do unto others”, and all the clichés Pear.”
I dropped Pear off, circling the sky mansion with a little envy and watching her walk along the wooden bridge to the front door like she was an ant and a stranger. It looked like a utopia, and of course it was. Still, there are other forms of paradise. Sometimes a building or a look is purely superficial and can hide a dark hell beneath a quiet and benign exterior.
I live in what was once called Great Britain. We’re England now. It turns out that very few countries had the opportunity to learn from Covid; some countries carried on trying to control and conquer like it was the only way. They were stuck in a self-imposed nightmare of competition. Now In England it was different. We’d been a colony, a Roman colony, but still we’d been conquered; we’d also been conquered by a virus; an inciduous disease that wore the best of our doctors out and made us rethink their schedule and shorten their hours, a cruel thief that came in the night and took our grandparents away. We’d been angry with them for causing so much destruction to the planet with their greed, but we didn’t want them to die. We wanted them to learn.
We were selfish fools.
It turned out that the lesson was for us.
We shortened our working week to a maximum of 30 hours. Slowly people got fitter. The government invested in tree pods. There weren’t enough tall trees to erect then on, so they built huge structures from steel and attached the pods. All homeless people had a free starter pod, depending on the size of their family, they could apply for an upgrade. If you were wealthy you could afford a special tree house like ours. There wasn’t much crime, just the odd mastermind psycho trying to create an empire in the sky. Mostly people were content and they concentrated on looking after their future and that meant their future grandparents. Children became more conscious of their families, more responsible and more resilient because they were empowered.
Slowly people got healthy again and began smiling and caring. They decided that cooping hens and salmon up in cages was doing havoc to their cells. Exercise changed the make up of cells and that was important; something about the mitochondria, but I’ve never been able to focus on biology since I was made to chose between that and art at school. Why we hadn’t realised the significance of cell health through exercise before no one could remember. The thing was it was just like it said in the Bible; things changed.
Why we spent all those years chasing after money, and killing ourselves, I cannot explain. Somehow we lost sight of what mattered; the smiles of our children; pools of clear water teaming with agile fish; birds soaring in the sky.
If only we could have more money then everything would be alright. But money did not cure Covid 30; love cured Covid 30.
As it turned out we were perfectly capable of sharing wealth and working shorter hours. We were perfectly capable of exercising, eating well and finding peaceful ways to live. For most of us the new way of living was just fine. Except for the robots.
It turns out that work is a form of control. If you keep your citizens in work they don’t have time to sit around and hatch up plans. Even in a utopian society there will be people with their own ideas of happiness.
It was my turn to visit Ash. She was late home so I let myself into her pod. Ash lived in a modest pod near the hospital. She had never liked oppulence. Her pod was sparsely furnished and utilitarian. Still, I was surprised at how unlooked after it had become. When I arrived the robots were all in a cupboard slumped over one another, and nothing had been prepared. I opened the fridge door. The interior was sparkling and full of fresh food. This was a shock compared with the darkness of the pod and the unkept look of the place. I found it hard to believe. I jumped when Ash let herself in.
We had eaten salad and free salmon drizzled over with lemon. We were sitting on swings in the living room (Ash’s only concession to creativity), swinging back and forth. I love swings, something about the motion always makes me feel happy. I was thinking of my dad when Ash interrupted. Luthur Vandross had been playing and he always reminded me of dad. We didn’t share the same father, so I didn’t tell her.
“There is something wrong with your book.”
“I was reading it the other day, and I found your heart stone.”
“And? What is the connection?”
“Well, at the beginning of the story you mention a piece of classical music that was playing and you say that you have forgotten who it was and you cannot tell the reader, or you will tell them later. And then, much later you mention that black people aren’t intellectual.”
I interrupted her. “Don’t forget we are talking about a fictional character.”
“Even so, you should have resolved the black people thing sooner.”
“Maybe we are dealing with an unreliable narrator.
“I haven’t read English. I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well why should I explain? Ash, you are always telling me that I wouldn’t understand you, and you only give me a rudimentary understanding of your area of expertise. So why should I explain? You can look up the unreliable narrator.”
“I just think that you should be talking to Star right now in the story.”
“Star is a great intellectual and she’s black.”
“Why are you so hung up on colour?”
“You are.” Ayway, if you won’t listen to me, you’re not saying it. Star is.”
“I can change my story around; edit it after you have left you know. I could have Star turn up to speak to you because she’s concerned about me. Or, I could kill you off, like in that book, One Fine Day; you could have a bicycling accident. Except it would be the rain that killed you, you would fall two hundred feet to your death after skidding in the rain on the cycle tracks, and there would be a hole in the safety net which pigeons had cut through with their beaks.
“No. The Birds. Hitchcock.”
She laughed. “Mum and her films.”
“That is why word will always be the bigger healer than medicine. It get’s right inside you.”
“So does music, and I still want to know who that musician was. But some readers will have given up long ago, because they went off you when you said that black people weren’t intellectual.”
“Ash, I am black and so are you. Our great grandmother was black. You are focused on the binary. I had no idea you were a racist.”
“I am not.”
“You’re confused then. You have identity problems. Why are you dating a robot?”
“You didn’t mention the colour of the robots.”
“Maybe that’s because I am not interested in the colour of the robots. You are and you are projecting your feelings on to me. Aren’t you wondering why my character thinks black people aren’t intellectual?” I stopped swinging and stared at my sister’s shoes. Bright yellow plastic. Friendly shoes. De-rigeur for junior doctors working on wards.
“Look we know don’t we, that black is not a colour; that is; it is both a colour and a symbol.” I sighed. When would my friends and family finally get me? Would they ever get me? “Ok. I will tell you who the musician is.”
“What? That classical song by that–“
“Black composer. With the unpronounceable name. It’s disco classic. More sophisticated than classical music.”
“Wow. I mean, I was just going to say that most of the music you like is by black people, and I have no idea why.”
“Or Irish people.”
“Yeah but the music on your heart stone is by black singers, Smokey Robinson, Luthur Vandross, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Sade, Seal, Tracy Chapman, Sam Cooke, Minnie Ripperton, Barry White, Dione Warwick, Jenifer Hudson, Janet Kay, Whitney Houston Marvin Gay, Gladys Knight, Ben E King, Al Green, Otis Redding, Prince, Smokey Robinson, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, Louis Armstrong, Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Diana Ross. I mean is there one song by Diana Ross that you don’t like?
“Nope. What is wrong with you?”
“I had no idea.”
“I mean Kim used to play all his records, and I had no idea that you liked other music. Why are you so obsessed with the nineteen hundreds?”
“Mmm. Your shoes are cute.”
There was a long silence, I trailed my own bare feet on the floor like a child who has just learnt something about her parents, and realised that they are not infallible, except I had just learnt something about myself apart from the fact that I was more interested in the prevous century than my own.
“I like those old songs by Kylie. The pop songs. But I prefer Diana Ross. I would rather listen to her. She was a pop icon in the 1970s. I guess mum used to play her songs a lot, I don’t know. It; the music got in side me, I guess. It is so pure and the lyrics are so true, about female vulnerability and all that. About female desire, I guess. Similar to Kylie. But very black. If you are hung up on colour. The ninteen hundreds are an extremely interesting epoch. I mean the contradictions in the music, particularly. Have you heard UB40s ‘One in ten’?”
She obviously hadn’t and was lost in her own thoughts. “Do you think John was black?”
“Mum’s dead baby. Do you imagine that the baby was black?”
“I never have. But he could well have been. He had such an English name that I imagined him as white. Does that mean that I am racist too, for seeing in colour? Have you read A Critique of Pure Reason? I mean I couldn’t understand the Maths, but the beginning is so interesting. It’s all about the way we categorise for expediency. the way the brain works, putting people in easy to recall boxes, cataloging them.”
“Yeah. There is no emotion in cataloging is there?”
“I’d better go home.”
Later, after we’d reminisced about old times, we lay outstretched on Ash’s bed almost asleep, like we’d done when we were kids and babysitting together. I murmured something barely audible, “Ash?”
“Is thinking in colour racist?”
“I mean is thinking in black or white racist, because I didn’t even know I was doing it?”
I might have told you this before, but music has always been a big deal in my life. My dad had a huge collection. He amassed it when vinyl came back in, touring all the second hand shops. It was like meditation to him. I suppose it shut out the voices. Do they give people in prison music therapy? I don’t know. I think I read somewhere that Jonny Cash played a few gigs in a prison once or twice. Anyway, whenever I’m feeling down I turn the music up loud, Kpop, pop, opera, classical, whatever. It all lifts my spirits. You should try it sometime if you never have. Just dance. It’s amazing therapy.
That was how it was in the morning. Ash and me reaching for the radio and blaring out something from Janice Long at 4 am, and just dancing. I wonder whether she knows what a medicine she’s been. There are so many kinds of medicine. We overlook the obvious ones sometimes and think that only money can be a cure. Sometimes an hour under a tree with a good book is all the spirit needs.
I started writing this because of Covid. Mum told me that thousands of people started writing after Covid-19, and she said they just carried on and didn’t stop. The mainstream newspapers and radio didn’t notice. They had lost the pulse of the people. People began to see through the system. Their eyes were opened. They didn’t want to buy, to spend, spend, spend anymore. They’d started sharing on social media how they would change when all of this was over. They wouldn’t be going to the shops anymore.
“A friend of mine had an idea,” mum said in one of our talks. “She opened an outdoor dance club. She created zones, basically rings for dancing in; florescent circles, 9 feet wide. Drones flew drinks to the people in the circles. If they needed a wee they’d go off to some bush somewhere. She had a huge farm. Plenty of space.”
“People thought she was crazy, but gradually Covid died down, and people were still coming to the farm. It was alcohol free. The buzz was completely orchestrated by the music. It took off. They started calling it second Glastonbury. The whole thing was so pure. Even the fluorescent circles were created using lights. There was no waste. No clearing up. If you wanted to stay, you pitched your tent in your circle. People started selling special tents in rucksacks. Everything was so simple, for a while until the next outbreak.”
I stayed with Ash another day. I was beginning to get a phobia about going outside. It was some kind of trauma from losing Pear. I was terrified that all my children would leave me. I had money now, but what if I lost it? Chisel was very accomodating. He told me I could work from home. The house just wasn’t set up for gouache. I had to cover a section of the bedroom with sheets and get a new table to work on. It took half a day to hoist it up the tree and in through the window.
I was at home painting when there was a noise at the door and it slid open with a jolt.
62. 🌟”Pear is that you?” I called. My hands were covered in paint. I stared towards the ensuite, and back at my hands. Silence.
63. 🌟 Mum again. Laughing. Covid-30. Everything changed. No stupid commutes to into work, no long days for kids trapped in classrooms, fewer male suicides, fewer classroom massacres, fewer campus murders; more family time. More health; more smiling. At last, off that treadmill. From her high horse, the mansion in Kingston-upon-Thames, mum had the last laugh. She’d been saying it for years. How futile our crazy money and more oriented lives were. Fat fathers, too tired to do anything but slump Infront of the TV at night. No time for mums to exercise. A hamster wheel of horror, she called it. And then the Covid to end all madness. We’d seen humans at their worst and we’d seen children, mum told me, like Greta Thunberg, when I was only a year old, exhort adults to wake up and act like their houses were on fire. A bright light shone in my face; not a fire, but a light, “mother?”
64. 🌟 “Yes. It’s me. I’m tired of taking orders from you. Mother this, mother that. At your beck and call, day in day out.”
“What? Mother?” Was that the Motherboard or mother? My head was spinning. Darkness.
“Mother? No. Don’t go, mother. I never wanted you to go. I never wanted this. You– you made me angry because you were so accepting. I didn’t understand. I had no idea how tired you were. Mother? You were never angry. I just enjoyed all that time with you; sitting in the house. How could I possibly understand your generation? Forgive me mummy. Forgive me.” (A quiet voice reminded me this wasn’t my real mother.) “Put that brick down Motherboard.”
Motherboard did what I said. At that point I noticed Pear standing on the stairs, cowering.
“Mum, she went crazy. I told her you’d got rid of Harry. It just came up in conversation. I didn’t mean to. She said she had to discipline you. She asked me where the cane was and I told her you’d thrown it out. She picked up that brick you’ve been propping the flower pot up with.” She ran to me and hugged me. That bit is a lie. It is what I would like to have happened. You see, I don’t want the worst, I want the best of things to happen. Maybe if I write that then good things will come to me. Anyway, you know that I am an unreliable narrator. Haven’t you looked it up yet Ash? I told you to look it up. She didn’t hug me, because a distance was slowly creeping in. it was invisible, but there all the same, just like the narrator in this story.
I didn’t tell you that a few days after Pear moved in with him, he asked me for the Child Benefit. He got his solicitor to write the letter. That was when my hair started to fall out. don’t ask me why Child Benefit still exists in England. It just does. Most things happen slowly. It’s a bit like language amelioration. Most of us call computers ‘they’ when we don’t use their names. And personal pronouns are difficult to completely eradicate. I thought of writing this with the word O instead of personal pronouns. And, who knows, I may return to it and take them all out and replace them with Os. If you don’t know the history of Os Ash, why don’t you look it up? Everyone in 2020 still thinks that English graduates are thick as shit because they are usually crap at maths. How will change happen unless you, the reader, understand that English graduates know a lot, its just different? They know things that you feel are inconsequential in your life. Except now, everything is changing. Look I am not a binary thing. Sometimes, just like you, I have feelings of anger. I feel like I’ve been to hell and back with this divorce, and I cannot always keep a smiley face on. I could wear a mask for you, if you like, the way I do when I am at work, in the office playing the part of the artiste. Pretending i’ve got an adequate salary and sauntering around in a suit I bought half price in a charity shop. The truth is I work three days a week so that I can have quality time with my children. The Child Benefit is a life line to me. One pair of shoes for Pear cost me £100. I have a credit card bill to pay off because I had to buy her a new blazer aswell last month. Sometimes I wish you’d seen sense in 2020 and let children learn from home and attend school for social means and in casual clothing. Do you have any idea how much it costs to feed three children and one adult?
I pulled The Motherboard’s electronic box out of her back and threw it on the floor. I suppose I looked crazy. Pear ran out of the house. I went to the window and watched her father pick her up in the drone. Why did he want the Child Benefit?
67. 🌟 My hair is wirely, like the hair on my chin. I have to tame it daily. It takes me an hour to plait it and put it up. I wear it down at weekends, when I have time to devote to it. With the children to look after, that isn’t often. I don’t mind. I adore spending time with my children. They’re a large part of my life. I’m teaching Lucy to ride her bike at the moment, and Heartfelt is almost at the stage where you read solo. Afternoons are busy with reading and cooking; sometimes we catch a live show at the outdoor theatre.
We have these cycling tracks suspended high above ground level. They’re made of wood, curved wood. The wood is around 8 foot wide and gently undulating. There are different levels for different cycling strengths, and family ones like the one I ride with Lucy and Heartfelt. Easy, quiet affairs. Family time. Once you’re on them you can’t be disturbed. It would be dangerous so they’re designed to be accessed from one point only. You’re supposed to leave your belongings in the lockers at the entrance. They’re regularly services and they open at the sound of your voice, but I was growing attached to my phone, and I wanted it With me at all times. My phone shook. They don’t vibrate anymore, they shake and make whizzing and popping sounds like gunfire. I grabbed it just as Lucy was approaching a corner. She disappeared around it and my phone leapt put of my hand, somersaulted and disappeared between a 2 inch crack in the fence that prevented anyone from even contemptlating suicide. I watched it land one hundred and eighty feet below us. Heartfelt whizzed past me as I stared at the phone, watching its trajectory as it found a final resting place on a pristine green barge.
68. 🌟 My life is on my phone. Fortunately, I don’t like writing digitally or my life story would be on there too, and lost forever. I rubbed my sweaty palms on my shirt and pushed a stray pin back into my hair. There was no retrieving it.
69. 🌟 I turned to get back on my bicycle. Heartfelt was peddling towards me manically with a look of extreme terror on his cute little face. He whizzed past before I could stop him. I yelled at the bike. “Stop.”
70. star I got on my bike to follow him. The bike had stopped up ahead. But Heartfelt hadn’t turned around.
“I started talking as I was walking towards him. I suppose it was fear talking. I needed to break the silence. “What happened? Where’s Lucy?” I was almost a metre from him now.
Heartfelt turned around and stared at me. He was clutching the side of his face.
“What is wrong with your face? Here.” I brushed his hand away, and prepared myself for something bloody. Staring back at me were a mess of wires, red, yellow and blue.
Behind me I could here the sound of a bicycle. It sounded like the wheel was buckled, it was screeching like an old cart.
I had been avoiding the cleaners for a long time. There was this guy in there I liked and he knew it. I’ve never been good at juggling, and I was bought up to be a good girl. My way of being good was to avoid situations. Sometimes it got lonely.
“Can you fix him?” I tried not to look at the cleaner. He was staring at Heartfelt, which didn’t help. “It’s cosmetic. Just superficial. Some skin grafts and it’s done.” I winced as I watched him peel back the side of Heartfelt’s face. He’s a robot Mrs–?”
“I’m…not married anymore,” I said.
He ignored me, and was silent. Or, at least, that was the way it seemed.
“Do you know where Heartfelt is?” He asked me.
“Yes, I’m pretty sure he’s–they’re both at their dad’s. It’s his little joke. He can afford it.” I grimaced.
“Why are you repairing him?” He said, more to Heartfelt than to me, as he sutured his face with a transparent thread.
I smiled at the wall. “It’s my little joke. Can you have him back by 5 O’clock? He’s due home?”
“Of course. I’ll drop him round myself, just in case the er, stitches break- in my van. 5 O’clock sharp.”
“Thank you.” I smiled and walked away quickly, before he read anything in my expression.
There are at least three cycle lanes from my front door. It had been a good thing there was a branch off nearby (after the earlier excitement), which led directly to the cleaners. Robots were always malfunctioning, and being rushed to the cleaners for a quick take-away service. My ex, as I now liked to refer to him, would never know. Once back home, I closed the door and made myself a cool glass of wine. But I couldn’t settle. I paced the floor. Minutes ticked by slowly, cruelly, as I stared at the clock. At last the doorbell sounded and there was Heartfelt at the door with the cleaner. At least he looked like Heartfelt, he sounded like Heartfelt, but of course he was a robot.
I couldn’t stop myself from staring at the cleaner. Heartfelt rushed past us, up to his room. At least, what I meant to say was that the robot ran up to Heartfelt’s room, but it just seems odd. At least, now that I am narrating this, it seems odd. It seems odd that I didn’t do anything. I’d that I just allowed that robot imposter to completely take over Heartfelt’s identity like that.
The cleaner smiled and stood there. I closed the door after him, trapping him in the hallway. He stared at the black and white tiles, and then looked at me as though he was asking a question. That question; what sort of human are you? How shall I play this? I want you, and maybe I’ll take sex as a substitute for love, but I want love. Is that ok? He said all this with one look; and me? Well, I have always been an empath. I am also a Taurus. Sorry if you don’t believe all that mumbo jumbo. No, not sorry, but maybe, what I mean is, listen. Because I am a Taurus. I smiled. I said nothing and waited. If life, as Shakespeare (that inimitable Bard), once remarked, was to “know thyself” –“To thyself be true, thy cannot then be false to any man”, then at least here I am finally being real. In the end, maybe that is all there is.
Like a typical human, he said, “He’s good as new.” Then, as if he had read an accusation in my expression, he followed that up with a concession. “Would you like to go out tomorrow?”
“Erm—” I hesitated. Safer to say no? Too late. Go on then, why not? Tomorrow. I’m free – all day.”
He smiled. “Good, I’ll call for you.” He turned towards the door.
“What was your name? Your go by cleaner.666.com”
I pressed the door release and twisted around, smiling to myself. Call for you. I hadn’t heard that phrase in years.
The door closed and Heartfelt ran towards me down the stairs. “Dad will be here in a minute. He just sent me a purple light.”
“Where? On your phone?”
I gestured. “Show me.”
He handed me his phone. Now what was I going to say? “Er, I thought it might be damaged when you fell. It looks perfect.” It also looked like Heartfelt’s phone. He reached up and kissed me. “I’m going now mum. See you next week.”
“What?” I stroked his head. “Let me know what time. Doesn’t it hurt?”
“No. It’s fine.”
“You fell. Do you remember anything?”
“Just the fall. Is there a mark?”
“Ok, mum. Bye.”
I stared at him for a moment. “You’re ok. No bruises.”
“Stop fussing,” he scowled and then grinned.
I laughed it off. “Typical mother.” He ran to the door and disappeared. I had work to do. Bills to pay, people to telephone. No time to think. I heard the drone outside. I was in no mood to even glance at it through the window. I turned away and got on with the work of being a mum; just being.
The next morning the phone rang. It was my ex. I put the brush down and stood staring out at the rain-soaked windows under the oak opposite our ash. The rain dripped down incessantly. My ex was listening. Not speaking, just listening. I had learnt what that was by experience. It was when he said something that meant nothing and then paused and listened; paused to hear the crack in my voice. I composed myself entirely for one reason. So that he would not get the gratification of my cracked voice. It wasn’t easy. I had to get the tempo right. If I was ever called upon to do voice work, I would be an absolute star at it. Too casual sounding and he would know something was up, to tense and he would know that I had found out his dirty little secret. He still wanted some sort of power over me. But I was getting stronger.
I hung up and looked at the clock. It was late. I threw on a dress and caught the car on wheels to the restaurant.
The restaurant was quiet. It was the one with the secluded garden and the weeping willows. It was a windy evening, and I was in a weird mood. I get like that sometimes. I am not always the level-headed Taurus because I am on the cusp and sometimes the Aries in me takes over.
“I have an idea,” I said, stroking my glass. “What if you were to make a replica of me. You know, like in that song by Kate Bush – Babushka. Except it wouldn’t be to seduce a man. It would be to get at my ex. To pay him back for sending fake children to visit me. Just a game. A bit of fun.”
Timothy looked directly into my eyes, “You would have to take your clothes off”, he said. “You have the perfect figure. He would know if I got you wrong.”
So here I am, standing in a warm room (the walls are painted grey and the fire is blazing), starkers. And right in front of me is another woman. My catch phrase used to be “There is always another woman”, and I seem to have created her. At least, without me there wouldn’t be a her, if you see what I mean. She is a copy of me.
Timothy is finished today. He hangs his bag up on the wall and puts his scalpel down. He looks at me. “I am finished Gem,” he says. “She is all yours. Whatever you are going to do with her. I hope it was worth it.” He looks tired. He smiles at me; and I see the sorrow in his eyes. “There is no mystery anymore,” he says. “I know every inch of you, every part of your brain is mappd out here. She is identical. I know every thought that you have ever thought, every tree you have climbed, every lover, every fault and blemish, every hair, even your witches beard; every nasty thought– I suppose I should have warned you. But you were so beautiful. Who’s that girl I thought. Who is that girl?”
If life was about a single relationship then this story would be over. But life isn’t like that; not even for a hermit. I heard one talking on Radio 4 the other day, all about how he is a hermit so he doesn’t see people, and yet there he was talking to a person who was interviewing him and talking to us, the whole world, or at least the world inside Radio 4; the microcosm of a world inside Radio 4; the world you enter when you listen and imagine that there are no other worlds; when you imagine that everyone else is there with you at that exact moment, listening. And then you are jolted awake and as you laugh, or sigh you realise that that isn’t true; you realise that other people don’t read the same newspaper, or listen to the same radio station, or watch the same show. or even read the same books. And then you realise how alone you are. And so you go out into the world and you attempt to find someone who thinks and feels and dreams as you do. For some reason this proves very difficult; almost impossible. It is a quest. People have written poems, songs and book about it. And they keep writing them. Like one big endless Groundhog Day, over and over again. And for some reason people can never get enough of these songs, and poems and books. Probably because they do not understand how to be happy without love. They realise that they have a heart and that it needs to be satisfied. Do you know whether robots have hearts? They do not have veins, or arteries, and they do not have a respiratory system so why would they need a heart? And of course without a heart humans die. We are not all brain after all. Although, in 2020 the way people carried on you would think that it was their brains that were running everything.
It is December again. The month that I lost Pear. If you cannot be bothered to read the whole story, then Pear is my daughter. I didn’t lose her in a shop like that child in that book I wrote years ago aged 18 years about a bear that I lost; you know the one: Woedy Bear. I expect you can still find it on Kindle. It used to be in the Kindle library, and since I am long dead; yes dead; oh didn’t I tell you? I am long dead, yes. But I didn’t close the account or bother to hand over the codes to my children, because I figured that it would be funny not to, and to just leave the book to posterity; to generations of children; just in case one day a child stumbled upon it (no I am not refering to the website that was around in the 2020s), and read it and thought what a sweet and old fashioned story about a bear. But I digress. There are so many loose ends that I have not tied up and how annoying it is to begin a story and to invest in it. But so many of you are invisible and so many of you are too mean to own up to being influenced by my blog. And here I am; maybe I am still alive, but that depends on what year it is, doesn’t it? Is it too late, do you suppose, to do the right thing? Shall I carry on writing? What is the point? After all this is just a made up story. A tale. A sci fi romance, and the romance has barely begun. It ended abruptly in the last episode didn’t it. But wasn’t there another character called Chisel who was interested in her? And what happend to Harry?
Right now, of course, in 2020 there are huge fluctuations on the stock market. One day one type of share rockets and the next another; it is a sort of yo-yo effect. How do I , a mere writer, and a peniless one at that, know this. Well, I shall tell you. I bought some shares in Trading 212. It was an experiment. I wanted to see how I would fare. I am useless with money, it seems to flow through my fingers like sand on a beach. I tend to give and give and give. I always thought this was a good thing. To gain you have to give. Even governments have given out money in order to create the flow of money. Ironic isn’t it? Ah, but life is so ironic. It is important to encourage the flow of money, and love for that mater, by giving it out. There is this line in the Bible it struck me. Another line: ‘For the love of money is the root of all evil. Not ‘money’. Not ‘money is the fruit of all evil’. ‘The love of money’. Makes you think, doesn’t it? I was born in 2020, so all this passed me by. Everything that you have to contend with passed me by completely. I never heart Greta Thunberg say “How dare you”. Sometimes I think that it is really our memories that we are up against. We seem so good at forgetting. Maybe that it why we like books so much. They help us to remember. The memory, on its own is just a tool for remembering, and when you are confronted witha few obvious things; poor, rich, good, bad, black, white, what do you do? You memorise, and what is the memory but static, completely static? I went back to university as a mature student, and I am reading the Bible. The James Bible for research, and oher books, of course. I was a little bored so I sat down to write this sci fi romance, to pass the time. How was I to know that you would get hooked on it? And the irony is that I am writing back to you from the future. I feel some strange sort of compulsion to continue. Have you read that poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by William Blake? It is alll about the compulsion to tell a story. It is a form of sickness. What if I am cured? I suppose then my pen would dry up. What if you create so many robots to run your world that you have no need of your hearts. What then? You become the robots perhaps. You sit in front of a screen, mesmerised. There is so muc to sift through. So many digital archives. I seem to have become mixed up with my protagonist. Or have I?
I had returned to work. Somehow I accepted working with the robots and working with people like Chisel; altered people. I had no interest in altering myself. Mother had never used Botox and every lie or face altering product had completely passed me by. Fresh air and exercise was my opium. I cycled daily. I was able to do this with the children at their dad’s. I had time on my hands. Time to research, time to study; time to think; time to hatch a plan. I was exhausted.