A Robot is for Life…

Edna McNulty looked out of the kitchen window. The little square lawn was furred with frost and the first icicles of the season were hanging from the eaves. She used to like crisp winter mornings, but now the cold just made her knees ache. It didn’t seem to bother her husband, though. He was out there in a padded jacket and earmuffs, hitting bright pink golf balls with his club. And he had the robot either catching the balls or retrieving them. She could hear the occasional thunk of a direct hit and Henry shouting ‘Sorry!’

She liked to see her husband enjoying himself, she just wished he’d find something to do that didn’t involve the robot. Edna had never been comfortable around robots. A machine that moved and talked like a person… it just didn’t seem right.

The robot had been mock-vintage when it was made and now it was ready for a museum. Scratched red paintwork and joints that were a yellow metal that probably wasn’t brass. Round eyes like old-fashioned automobile headlamps and a speaker grill for a mouth. But at least it looked like a robot, not like those modern things with their fake human skin. Edna shivered at the thought.

She turned back to the organised chaos that was her kitchen. The pastry was resting in the refrigerator and the trays were lined up ready for greasing. Mince pies today, she’d decided. It was a little early in the season, but the weather had made her think of Christmas. She turned on the oven to let it heat up. Then she turned and reached for the old wooden rolling pin that had belonged to her mother. The kitchen was her domain, organised her way with everything in easy reach. Henry had his workshop in the garage, and he could do whatever he wanted in there – even keep a robot for a pet if he wanted to, as long as he let it in here.

Edna had grown used to the little house, but she still didn’t think of it as home. Not exactly. She still missed the place they’d had when she and Henry were first married. The one at the end of the lane lined with trees. They’d moved into this little bungalow in the gated community when things started to go bad. Henry said they’d be safer in the city. This was when they had just started building the wall around it, when Nottingham became a walled city. Edna had thought her husband was mad when he sold half his company to buy this place with its little square back garden. One of two identical rows of identical bungalows. No trees, hardly any grass or plants at all when they’d moved in. But he’d insisted he was doing it to protect her. And it turned out that he was right. They had lived, safe in this little community, for almost sixty years now.

She looked out through the window to where Henry was swinging his golf club. If she squinted, she could almost see the man he had been when she met him. He was taller then; his back had been straight. He’d had a fine head of wavy dark hair. But now – well, now he looked like a kindly old grandfather. But he wasn’t. There’d been no children. It was a decision they’d accepted without really making it. It would have been crazy to bring a child into the world, the way things had been. She felt a familiar twinge of regret in her chest. The first bubbling up of a sob. She swallowed hard, forcing the lump down. They could have been parents. Henry could have protected their child, she was sure of that. It’s what he did. He took care of his family. Of her.

She tried to twist the lid off the new jar of mincemeat. It wouldn’t budge. She draped a tea towel over the jar and used that to try and improve her grip on the lid, but that didn’t work either. She tapped the side of the jar lid with the handle of a knife, still it wouldn’t move. She ran it under the hot water. Nothing. The frustration of it made the tips of her ears burn red, she could feel it. She could call Henry and ask him to open it, but he’d just pass it to the robot and then they’d end up with a lot of broken glass and no mince pies.

She looked down at her hands, the gnarled arthritic fingers and the liver-spotted skin looked like they belonged to a storybook witch. She didn’t think of herself as old; she didn’t feel old. Not usually. Sometimes she’d catch sight of herself in the mirror and think she was looking at one of those trick images that shows you what you’ll look like fifty years from now. Where had all the years gone? She gripped the jar lid and twisted, refusing to give up until the lid popped open. She had to rest then, wait for the aches in her fingers to subside.

The mince pies were in the oven and just beginning to turn golden when she heard a commotion outside and Henry’s voice.

“Oh, no!”

Edna rushed to the back door, afraid he’d fallen and injured himself. But it was the robot lying on the ground. Henry was leaning over the robot.

“Henry!” Edna called. “What are you doing?”

Adrenaline had upset her equilibrium, a sudden rush of fear that something bad had happened. Her cheeks were flushed, and her neck and upper chest were mottled red. She hated it when that happened, it made her feel itchy.

“Ollie slipped on the ice,” Henry said, his face concerned. “His leg is twisted.”

The robot’s leg was twisted sideways in a way that the joint wasn’t supposed to turn.

“That could have been you, you old fool,” Edna said.

“Will you help me pick him up?” Henry asked.

“No, I will not. Ask it if it can crawl.”

“Crawl?” Henry looked confused. He looked at her and seemed about to protest but seeing her expression he thought better of it. “I can probably manage.”

“Don’t you try lifting it,” Edna said, “you’ll put your back out. Tell it to crawl into the garage.”

The robot used its arms and began dragging itself across the little square of grass.

Henry looked down at the robot, not liking to see it struggle. But Edna stood watching him, hands on her hips.

Later, when he thought Edna couldn’t hear him, Henry went into the garage and put a splint on the robot’s knee, binding it up with silver duct tape.

*   *   *

It was about a week later that Edna decided to do something about the robot. She’d driven Henry to the medical centre for his annual check-up. The doctor would test the little thingummy in his chest that kept his heart ticking like an old grandfather clock. This gave her an hour-and-a-half before she had to go and pick him up. More than enough time.

She’d planned to make the call before now but had put it off. She reached into her pocket and took out the number Celia had given her. Dialled.

“Stevie’s Robot Repairs,” the voice said, a young man. “How can I help you?”

“Do you… er… do you pay cash for old robots?” Edna asked. She found herself whispering.

“Yes, ma’am, we do,” the voice on the phone said, “but I’m afraid we can’t give much for spare parts.”

“Spare parts?”

“Yes, ma’am, we buy them so we can use the parts to repair other robots.”

“You switch them off and you take them to pieces?” Edna asked. This idea had never occurred to her.

“If your robot is still functioning, you’ll probably get more for him if you trade him in against a new one.”

“I don’t want a new one,” she said quickly.

“Bring him over and I’ll tell you how much we can offer,” the voice said. “Then you can decide it its enough.”

“It’ll be enough,” Edna said. “I’ll be there in about an hour.”

“We’ll see you then. If I’m not around, tell Beth you spoke to Stevie.”

“I will. Thank you.”

Edna ended the call. She stood thinking for a moment and then pulled on her coat and picked up the car keys. She marched into the garage.

“Robot! Robot? Come here this instant.”

She never called the robot by its name. Her husband called him Ollie, but that was just ridiculous. The refrigerator didn’t have a name. The cooker didn’t have a name. Why should the robot have a name?

The robot limped towards her, dragging its splinted leg. Edna shook her head. It probably wasn’t worth anything, even as spare parts. But this wasn’t about the money. As the robot came out into the daylight, she could see the tape that was holding the damaged knee together.

“Henry did that, did he?” she said.

The robot stalled mentally for a moment. She recognised this as its reaction to a dilemma.

“I’m not supposed to tell you,” it said.

“You don’t need to tell me,” she said.

“The damage is not significant,” the robot assured her. “Henry says it is just a flesh wound. I don’t feel a thing.”

“Of course you don’t. Go and get into the car.”

“Are we going to the store?”

“No, I’m taking you to the scra – we’re going to the robot repair shop.”

“Would you like me to drive?” the robot asked.

“No, I would not like you to drive.”

Edna would never get into a car that was driven by a robot. Or one that drove itself. That’s why she and Henry drove a ‘classic’ Ford Granada. It was from the last century and had been converted to run on ethanol. There was no phone in it, no navigation system, no computer chips of any kind. An EMP bomb could go off underneath it and it would carry on as if nothing had happened.

“Fasten your seatbelt,” Edna said as she climbed behind the wheel.

The robot did as it was told. It sat impassively as she drove to the end of the street. After the gates had swung open, she turned left. She used her turn signals diligently, even though there wasn’t another vehicle in sight. As she drove across town, other cars flew around above them, but Edna was barely aware of them. The robot said nothing.

Eventually, its silence unnerved her.

“You’re very quiet,” she said.

Did it know what she was planning?

“You have asked that I do not speak to you unless I am spoken to,” it said.

“Well, I just spoke to you.”

“Yes, you did. And I spoke in response.” After that, it was silent again.

Edna drove on, occasionally casting a glance towards the motionless robot.

“Penny for your thoughts,” she muttered to herself.

“I do not require payment,” the robot said. “My thoughts are in the form of a query: Are you currently distressed?”

“Me?” That came out more of a squeak than a word.

“Yes.”

“Why would you think that I am distressed?”

“Your breathing is shallow and rapid. The surface temperature of your skin is slightly elevated. And your pulse indicates an increase in heart rate.”

“You think I’m sick?”

“I believe your thoughts may be upsetting you. Perhaps it would help if you spoke about whatever is troubling you.”

“I don’t like talking about my problems,” she said, staring straight ahead.

“Henry says you talk all the time.”

“Does he?” she said. She ought to have been annoyed by this statement, but she discovered that she wasn’t. “What else does he say about me?”

“He says many things about you…”

“I bet he does!”

“He says that you have been part of his life for so long now that he could not imagine life without you.”

“He said that?”

“Yes.”

“What else does he say?”

“He tells me jokes sometimes. But I do not understand them.”

“Do you laugh anyway – just to make him happy?” Edna asked.

The robot turned to look at her. “Robots do not laugh,” he said, then turned to face the front again.

“I meant, what else does he say about me?”

“He says that you used to laugh a lot. The sound of your laugh is what first attracted him to you.”

Edna smiled wistfully. “He did make me laugh, I’ll give him that. No matter how bad things got – and they were really bad for a while – he always found something to joke about.” She shook her head slowly.

“Does Henry still say things to make you laugh?” the robot asked.

“Henry doesn’t say much to me at all these days.” She sighed.

“Did you tell him not to speak until he was spoken to?”

“No!” she said. “At least, I don’t think I did.”

“It would be better if he told the jokes to you instead of me,” the robot said, “then you could laugh at him again.”

“It’s not his jokes that make me laugh – they’re always terrible. It’s just… the way he sees life. The way he… I can’t really explain it. It’s just the way he is. Was. I do miss that.”

“Henry is still here,” the robot said.

“It’s not the same as it was,” she said.

“Perhaps things will go back to how they were – after I am gone,” the robot said.

“Gone? Where are you going?”

“To the scrapyard,” the robot said.

Edna stamped on the brake, bringing the car to a sudden halt and stalling the engine. The robot was thrown forward, the seatbelt seeming to stretch like an Acme rubber band before it finally pulled him back into his seat.

“You listened to my telephone call?” she asked.

“I did not listen. But I hear everything. Unlike Henry. I believe his hearing has deteriorated recently.”

“He turns his hearing aids off when he has an afternoon nap – and then forgets to put them back on,” Edna said. “It’s what happens when you get old.”

“Old?” the robot asked. “Is Henry old?”

“We’re both old,” she said. “Henry’s eighty-four and I’m… well, not quite that old.”

“I was first activated forty-two years ago. In human years, that would make me almost middle-aged.”

“And in robot years?”

“I am what is called ‘vintage,’ according to Henry.”

“Vintage is one word for it,” she said. “Why he ever bought you, I’ll never know.”

“Henry did not buy me for himself. He bought me for you.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“I am registered in your name.”

“Why would he buy me a robot. He knows I hate robots. I always did. Even before the troubles.”

“Henry bought me so that I may do tasks around the house and lessen the burden on you – as you grow older.”

“You never do anything!” she protested. “Last week he had you trying to catch golf balls.”

“I could do tasks – if I was permitted to enter the house,” the robot said.

“Henry thinks I’m not capable of keeping my own house clean, does he?” She reached forward and turned the key. The car shook a couple of times and then spluttered into life.

“No. But he thinks you might be – one day.”

“Humph!” she said. She checked the rear-view mirror and then set off again.

“Also, Henry does not want you to be alone if he pre-deceases you,” the robot said.

“If what?”

“He wanted there to be someone to take care of you – if he dies.”

“Is he going to die?” she asked. She felt that lump low down in her throat again.

“He currently has no significant health concerns,” the robot said, “but everyone dies eventually.”

“Except robots,” she said.

“I am going to die today,” the robot said. “If we ever get to the scrapyard.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have driven around this same block twice now.”

“No. I mean about dying. About you dying.”

“My processes will be ended, and I will cease to exist.”

Edna stared at him.

“Take the next road on the left for the scrapyard,” the robot said.

“I know,” Edna said. She paused at the junction, aware that she was doing exactly the same thing as the robot when faced with a dilemma. Then she glanced in the mirror and set the left-turn signal.

*

Stevie’s Robot Repair Shop was outside the city walls and consisted of a shack in the middle of an old scrap yard. Celia had warned Edna about this, but even so, it was worse than she’d imagined. The wooden building seemed to be leaning in several directions at once and if it wasn’t for the newly painted sign, you’d think the place was abandoned. The area around it had once been a thriving industrial zone, but the yard was surrounded now by decaying warehouse buildings and a weed-infested wasteland of bulldozed brick. Edna parked next to the front door where she would be able to keep an eye on the car. She led the robot inside.

“Good afternoon, ma’am. I’m Stevie Houston. We spoke on the phone earlier. Is this the robot you wanted me to give you a price on?”

Edna looked at the young man in the dirty coveralls and battered red baseball cap. She thought he couldn’t possibly be the proprietor. Perhaps he was Stevie Junior.

“Yes,” she said, then added, “It’s a vintage model.”

“It certainly is,” Stevie said. He came from behind the counter and circled the robot.

“Do you – do you carry spares for this type of robot?” she asked.

“We have bits of everything here,” Stevie said. “I’m sure there are parts on this fellow that we could make use of.”

“His leg is damaged,” Edna said.

“That’s not going to affect the price,” Stevie said, grinning. He took hold of the robot’s left hand and examined his fingers.

Edna found herself taking a protective step towards her robot. “Would it cost very much to repair him?” she asked.

“I don’t think it would be worth it,” Stevie said. “I don’t think I could sell him on.”

“It would mean a lot to my husband – if he could be fixed…”

Stevie looked at her and smiled, nodding. Perhaps she wasn’t the first customer to have second thoughts about parting with an old robot. He knelt and looked closely at the damaged knee joint. “I should be able to replace this easily enough. Half-an-hour’s labour, I’d say, plus the cost of parts. I could print you out a quotation if you want to go away and think about it.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Just fix him up and make a good job of it. I must go and pick my husband up from his appointment, then we’ll come back here – for Ollie. I have a list of jobs I want him to do when we get him home.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the repairman said.

THE END

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