It was raining again. After weeks of persistent downpours, clouds continued to hang low over the town, blotting out the surrounding hills in clammy swirls of fog. As John looked out from his lounge window that morning, he felt a similar grey dullness invade his spirits. In the old days, Mary would have made some bright comment to shake him out of himself, but Mary had been dead for years.
A lone cyclist in blue waterproofs was toiling up the hill, battling against the squally weather and frequent arcs of water sent up from passing cars. Mary would have admired his pluck. She had loved sitting by the window, looking out, even on a day like this. It had given her such pleasure to watch others get on with their lives.
A white van showered the cyclist in a blast of dirty water.
‘Ellay,’ John called, ‘close the curtains.’
‘Closing the curtains.’ With a swish, the miserable outside world disappeared.
John lowered himself into his favourite armchair. He should count his blessings. Unlike that poor cyclist, he was warm and dry. Nothing could ever fill the void left by Mary, but he wasn’t entirely alone. He raised his voice. ‘Ellay, make a cup of tea.’
Social Services had organised his very first Ellay, some six months after Mary’s death. ‘It’s not exactly a robot,’ the chap with the goatee told him. ‘That’s why it’s called a Little Aider. Think of it more as an extra pair of hands. Why not give it a try?’
He wouldn’t take no for an answer. When a large cardboard box was delivered the following week, John left it unopened by the door. Who did they think they were, foisting that kind of rubbish on him? As if a talking tin can could take Mary’s place.
‘Now, Mr Horton, you know no one’s trying to do that.’ It was the young one, the girl, who made him change his mind. What was her name – Aisha, Ayla? She wasn’t impatient like the others. More genuine. Kind, even. ‘We’re worried about you,’ she’d said. ‘You’ve not been eating properly, have you?’
‘I’m doing all right.’ He’d stared out of the window, hadn’t wanted to meet her eyes. Her gentle tone was in danger of undoing him.
‘Toast and tea is all very well, but it’s not enough. Won’t you let me show you what Ellay can do?’
He’d kept his back turned, but the wretched woman wouldn’t take the hint. Even when he heard her break open the box behind him and start up the controls, he didn’t move. But when the smell of bacon came wafting out of the kitchen, he couldn’t help himself.
‘I’m all right, love, really, there was no need for you to cook…’
Aisha was sitting on the sofa opposite him, her eyes dancing in amusement. From the kitchen the cooking noises continued.
John’s eyes fell on the empty cardboard box. ‘You mean…?’
‘You’d be surprised how much Ellay can do,’ Aisha said, as the Little Aider appeared at the doorway with his breakfast.
It had been a damned good bacon butty. Good enough to make him realise he was being a stubborn old fool. It wasn’t so difficult to work his way through the instructions. Learning how to program the Little Aider and make best use of its capabilities had given him a focus in that lonely, grief-struck first year. Right from the start, Ellay had been more than a machine. Almost like company. In the evenings, when there was nothing on the telly, and the terrible silence threatened to swallow his sanity, he’d started asked Ellay questions, just for the sake of hearing her answer.
Must be ten years since then. He was starting to feel his age. Occasional twinges in his limbs had become a debilitating weakness, frightening if he allowed himself to think about it. These days he had to rely on Ellay to help him with almost everything, even washing and dressing. Fortunately, the technology had kept pace with his needs. Each year had brought an upgrade; every five years, a brand new model. ‘We’re trialling the five star version with you this time,’ Aisha told him when she came round to help him manage the new delivery. ‘I wish all my clients could manage the new tech so easily. You’ve taken to it like a duck to water.’
John brushed the compliment aside. ‘Nothing to it.’
‘Just make sure you read the manual thoroughly,’ Aisha said. ‘They’ve made quite a lot of changes since the last model. A big step forward. They say users will notice a huge difference.’
‘1 o’clock. Lunchtime.’ Ellay’s voice startled John into wakefulness. He opened his eyes. For a second he did not recognise the figure leaning towards him. Aisha was right. This Little Aider was entirely different. The techy chaps had continued to experiment since the first Ellay – very obviously a robot – to produce Little Aiders with an increasingly human appearance. This one took the biscuit. If you saw her across a dark room, you’d never guess.
‘Lunchtime,’ she repeated, moving his book and setting the tray on his lap. Only something in her voice gave her away, a kind of flatness in her tone.
‘I’m not really hungry…’
‘Humans require three meals a day to sustain energy.’
‘All right, Ellay, whatever you say.’ He ate his meal without further comment. What he really yearned for was a nice chat, but disappointingly, Ellay’s upgrades never extended to ordinary conversation. It was still question and answer, about as satisfying as chatting to an encyclopaedia. ‘Ellay, play Beethoven’s 5th,’ he commanded.
‘Beethoven’s 5thsymphony, beginning now.’
Da-da-DAH. The dramatic opening notes thundered into the room, sweeping him back to the past. A lunchtime concert in the old town hall. A day as unpleasant as this one. He’d been late, dripping wet, had to squeeze his way past a whole row of frowns and mutters to reach his seat. Which, he noticed, with a flush of pleasure, happened to be beside a very attractive young woman, so lost in the music she did not even notice his arrival.
The music ended. John opened his eyes. The memory of Mary faded. He felt a stab of grief as he looked around the tidy room. Little of her influence remained to cheer him. The first Ellay had struggled to dust Mary’s collection of china ornaments; in the end, he’d boxed everything away for safe-keeping. But Mary still smiled out from the photo he kept over the hearth. Feeling the sudden need to hold her close, he got up and shuffled across the room.
The jangle of the doorbell made him jerk in surprise. The picture jumped in his hands. For an agonising second he fumbled to hold the frame, but it slipped through his fingers and landed on the fireplace with a resounding crack.
‘Ellay?’ No answer. He could hear voices at the front door.
Mary was lying face down. He couldn’t leave her like that. His knees creaked painfully as he bent to pick her up. A jagged tear scarred her cheek. ‘Oh my love,’ he whispered, ‘what have I done to you?’ Carefully lowering himself onto his hands and knees, he started picking up the broken shards.
‘The post has come.’ Ellay’s voice came from behind him. John twisted round. He put a hand down to steady himself. There was a sudden sharp pain in his hand. Dammit, now he’d cut himself.
‘There is mess on the floor,’ Ellay said. ‘Mess must be removed.’
‘I need your help, not a statement of the bloody obvious.’
Ellay came closer, until she was standing over him. ‘A stain on the carpet,’ she said in her flat monotone, pointing to a dark blot by his fingers. ‘Stains must be removed.’
‘That’s not a stain, you silly cow, that’s my blood!’ John felt for a handkerchief. Finding none, he added, ‘Forget about the carpet, fetch me a tissue, and then help me up.’
‘The mess must be removed.’
‘Yes, yes.’ With difficulty, John reined in his anger and let her pull him to his feet. The old Ellay would have got on with the cleaning without comment. All those upgrades had turned this version into a self-righteous zealot. Still, there was no point in shouting, even if it made him feel better. It made no difference to her or the way she behaved. That was the trouble with machines. They couldn’t empathise. They were programmed only to see tasks that needed doing, problems that needed solving. Talking of which… He looked at the damaged picture of Mary on the mantelpiece. Somewhere in the bedroom cupboard he had a spare frame. A bit big, but it would do.
John hobbled up the long corridor that led to the bedroom and sat on the bed, catching his breath. He was glad he’d decided to go for the voice-operated automated cupboard option Aisha had suggested. His days of being able to stand on a ladder and search through the top shelves were long gone. ‘Cupboard One, open,’ he commanded. Nothing happened. He tried again. The door flew open, then shut before he could make the next request. Was his voice too wheezy? He took a few deep breaths, cleared his throat and called, ‘Cupboard One, find picture frame.’ There was a clicking noise. The cupboard door opened, a shelf slid out and deposited a small purple vase on the carpet.
John returned to the front room empty-handed. The carpet was spotless, the hearth swept clean. He looked around for Mary’s photo. Hadn’t he left it on the mantelpiece?
‘Ellay, where is the photo?’
She appeared from the kitchen. ‘The mess has been removed.’
He waved a tetchy hand. ‘I know, but where did you put the picture?’
Ellay’s face was a calm mask. ‘The mess has been removed. The carpet has been cleaned. All rubbish has been removed.’
A cry broke from John’s throat. ‘Not the photo as well? Not Mary’s picture?’ A bolt of white-hot anger shot through him. ‘How could you? How could you think that was rubbish?’ He was trembling. He lurched over and grabbed Ellay by the shoulders, shaking her roughly. ‘You stupid, senseless piece of junk, you…’
For a second something sparked in Ellay’s black eyes. Then her face regained its blank expression. ‘Torn items are rubbish. Broken items are rubbish. Rubbish must be removed.’ She went back into the kitchen and shut the door.
‘Come back here!’ John’s voice died in his throat. What was he doing? Ellay was a machine, not a person. Whatever the malfunction was, he needed a technician to fix it. He reached for the phone and sank into the chair overlooking the window. His heart was fluttering. This kind of problem had never arisen before.
When he finally got through to the right department, it was bad news. He’d have to wait at least a week. John rang off in disgust. Perhaps Aisha could speed things up? But when he dialled her number, only the answerphone message replied.
Ellay brought John’s dinner at the usual time. He sniffed the air. ‘Is that curry? I can’t eat hot food.’
‘A hot meal is good on a cold day.’
‘Not this sort of hot. I can’t…’
His words fell into silence. She had left the room.
‘Ellay!’ No answer. ‘Ellay!’ Instinctively, he looked across the room to where Mary’s face used to meet his. The sight of the empty space brought a lump to the back of his throat. He opened his mouth to call Ellay again, then shut it. Pushing the curry to one side, he began to eat the rice.
‘Time to wake up.’
‘What?’ John opened his eyes. Ellay was peeling back the duvet. ‘What are you doing? I don’t need to get up for hours.’
‘Early starts waste less time.’ She leaned across and pulled him upright. ‘Now we start your exercise routine.’
‘I don’t have an exercise routine,’ John began. Ellay was pushing him, none too gently, towards the door. ‘Let me get my slippers on,’ he protested. ‘Where is my dressing gown?’
She ignored him. Was he using too many words? Simple commands would be better. ‘Ellay, fetch my dressing gown.’ No response. How could he get through to her? They were in the corridor now. ‘Ellay, take me back to bed.’
She began to march him up the corridor. Just when he expected her to turn into the lounge, she wheeled him round and down they went again. Up and down, up and down, she kept him moving until his breath came in laboured rasps and his heart was racing. ‘Ellay,’ he gasped, ‘Stop!’ He was near collapse. His legs were jelly.
‘Exercise is over.’ She half-carried him into the lounge and dropped him in his chair. He shut his eyes, taking great gulps of air. His chest was a tight box of pain.
Once he had brought his breathing under control, he realised how cold he was, still in his pyjamas, his feet bare. ‘Ellay?’
Suddenly she was there, carrying a tray. Thank God, perhaps the whole episode had been some kind of temporary blip.
‘Breakfast,’ she announced.
John looked at the bowl of muesli. ‘What’s this?’
‘Now you begin your diet.’
‘I don’t need a diet.’
‘A calorie controlled diet will manage your obesity.’
The calm voice tipped him into fury. ‘Who says I’m bloody obese?’ he coughed. Adrenalin coursed through his veins. He wanted to throw the bowl at her. ‘Take this rabbit food away and bring me some bacon and eggs.’
Ellay whisked the bowl away and disappeared before he could tell her to fetch a blanket. He was starting to shiver. This was ridiculous. He mustget hold of Aisha. He dialled the number again and put the receiver to his ear. There was a blast of static, then Ellay’s voice cut through. ‘No calls will be necessary this morning.’
John slowly replaced the receiver. A blade of fear turned in his stomach. This was no blip. This new Ellay was taking over. Panic reared up, and with it, the tightness in his chest. He forced himself to take deep, slow breaths. Clothes first. He was almost too cold to think. She must have turned the heat off.
His painful progress to the bedroom left him drained and shaky. Worse still, the cupboard doors refused to respond to his commands, whatever he asked for. All he managed to do was attract Ellay’s attention. She stood by the door, arms folded, waiting.
‘I want my clothes,’ he told her. Even to his own ears, he sounded like a child.
‘There is no need. Shivering will reduce your weight.’
Something snapped inside. ‘I’ve had enough of this. Out of my way.’ He made for the door, but she was so much faster, so much stronger. She grabbed his wrist. Her arms were iron bars. ‘Now we do more exercise,’ she announced. The marching up and down the corridor began again. By the time she had finished with him, he could not stand. He collapsed into the chair, heart hammering, each breath agony.
He was a prisoner in his own home. A single glance at the door, and Ellay had him up on his feet, pounding the corridor. There was no lunch. ‘Missing meals will help you lose weight,’ she told him. He barely heard her. He could not feel his feet.Think, dammit.What would Mary do?
She’d look out the window.
The curtains were closed, but if he could just push them aside, maybe he could signal for help. He edged forward. Pushing down with his hands, he levered himself off the seat cushion and began to totter to the window.
‘Time for your exercise routine.’
Ellay’s iron fingers pinioned him.
John opened his eyes. He was on the floor. His head was pounding and his throat was parched. What was he doing there? He ached all over. Was he ill? Had he been attacked? ‘Water,’ he croaked.
Above him, someone said, ‘I think you mean, Water, please, Ellay.’
Ellay. Reality returned in a hideous rush of images. He was her prisoner. A sob escaped him. ‘Please. I give up. You have broken me.’
The last thing he heard was a note of triumph singing through the flatness in her voice. ‘Broken things are rubbish. Rubbish must be cleared away.’
© Alison Allen