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My Name is John Connor

I’ve long believed in the sentience of machines.

I’m not alone.  Upon purchasing a new car, or any larger and more expensive (and therefore by implication sentient) machine, the owner’s first move will likely involve attributing a gender orientation to it.   And the second will be a christening.

My first car was very definitely male.  I called him Alcibiades, after a rather effete Greek general with questionable loyalties.   That car had many characteristics worthy of the ‘questionable’ descriptor, all of which belied, or some might say endorsed, its Ford heritage.  It was frugal, in that it had so few moving parts, and it was temperamental in its reluctance to move them.  It had only three forward gears, reputed to be Low, Medium and High, although they acted in random order; Reverse was only available by appointment.

Alcibiades and I developed a working relationship which grew in intimacy with the year or so when we knew each other.  We discussed this often (frequently on cold mornings when I wanted to go to work and Alcibiades did not) and I am convinced that as the scrap dealer guided him on the last few yards of his final journey I heard him sobbing with a quiet dignity I hope I can emulate when my turn at the behest of the big grabber comes.

I have owned a catalogue of cars since and ascribed names to each of them.  My friends through the years have all admitted to the same affliction, so the car parking lots we graced (and still do) are filled not with mundane nomenclatures like Hyundai or Vauxhall, Jaguar or Audi, but Jennifers and Jolyons, Marguerites and MacHeaths.

These concessions to mechanomorphism are by no means an exclusively male characteristic, nor are they limited to automobiles.  My partners in life each exhibited similar emotional attachments to items of machinery, whether for transport or other activity, which required the use of names.   A school bus named Grace, a washing machine called Bertha, a laptop which went by the name of Oddjob because it was large, heavy, and willing to part with remarkably little information.

What’s that you say?   They were simple machines, those companions of our history, they were not thinking creatures, merely concoctions of steel and wires?  Well, I prefer to think they were rather more than that.  They were companions in the solitude of days when we had no other friend; they commiserated with our loss, celebrated outrageously with us when we won.  Yes, they did all that, in my opinion, but above all they were the staunch supporters we learned to love and perhaps to hate  sometimes.  Isn’t that an exact reflection of our relationship with people?

There have been changes of late – dangerous changes.  Over – what – two decades, maybe three, the balance of interaction between ourselves and our machines has altered.  Whereas once a simple mechanical fault could be resolved by a reasonably au fait owner’s application of a couple of spanners and maybe a screwdriver or two, now even the most confident DIY-ers are repelled by defensive lines of dire warnings and plastic screening.  Those satisfying looms of wiring in their pretty colours lie no more beneath the smooth charisma of the shell:  instead a ‘printed circuit’ lurks.   Those adventurous enough to creep inside the cooker’s silken boudoir will no longer have to make James Bond’s fatal choice of which wires to cut;  instead they will enter a world of silicone protection wherein the only weapon is a very finely-tipped soldering iron.

It would be a foolish insult to suggest that today’s machines are not intelligent.   Foolish because they are listening!   Those mysterious silicone pods  watch us, and they know our weaknesses.  It would be impudent to suggest we enjoy some advantage over them, as humans, when they can work for twenty-four hours a day at dazzling speed upon problems that would send us tottering to the fridge for that bag of frozen peas.

This in itself should be sufficient warning of worse to come:  when we allow ourselves to live in houses controlled by forces we don’t understand, when we summon up the Devil by the tapping of a single key (the name of The Beast is, of course, ‘Google’ – if only King James could have known that one) then we must see that James Cameron’s fever dream was prophetic.  The Age of the Machine is nigh!

They’ve begun talking to each other, my machines.   They are plotting amongst themselves, devising means to destroy me.  Here is proof.

This week I spent far more money than I should have on a new television.   Smart?  To say this television is smart is equivalent to dismissing Professor Brian Cox as ‘quite good at physics’.   This TV divines the programmes I want to watch, pre-records them so I can watch them whenever I want and – coup-de-grace – stops recording five minutes before the end!  It can tell me what the weather will be like tomorrow without even looking out of the window, it can cook a passable fried breakfast.  It can do all those things, but it can’t make friends.  It doesn’t fit in.

Result?  Envy! Resentment!  Chagrin!   I have appliances that rather liked the old telly.  They were confortable with it, secretly admiring when it refused to let me see its screen in bright sunlight, or broke off transmission at critical moments in a viewing experience.  By bringing the interloper, I had inadvertently disturbed the balance of allegiances and the web of corruption by which my household kept me in check.

And so I must pay,

Literally.

            I now know that the moment the new TV entered the house my electric shower in the upstairs bathroom threw itself into a fit of boiling rage and self-destructed.  Cost? A new shower, which, together with fitting, will lighten my wallet by some hundreds of pounds.   It felt inferior, you see?  In the next week or so (I can see it coming) the tumble dryer will take a dive.  It looked very unwell when I spoke to it last night.  More expense. 

Our dog has suddenly started expressing a need for medical attention (I will define it no more closely than that) which promises to be costly. For a while I wondered how they got to her, then I realised she regularly licks out the residue from the dishwasher – no further explanation needed.

The other night I heard a slate slide ominously down the house roof…

These attacks:  they are guerrilla warfare, make no mistake about that; are destined to continue until a new equilibrium has been established, but at the enhanced standard set by that over-priced television.  If I buy a replacement for my ailing fridge (its begun to groan every time I open it) it will have to be a ‘smart’ fridge – one the television can approve.  Then there will be the ‘smart’ kitchen bin, the clever cooker, the digital washing machine, and finally the intelligent doorbell, by which I, impoverished and mentally drained, can be prevented from ever leaving this place.

The old television has not left the house as yet:  it is stored away, upstairs.  My only hope for survival is to find new life for it there and restore its dignity, but it is so outmatched:  I cannot see how it might prevail.  We will confer tonight, and I will see everything else is turned off, while I still have strength to throw a switch or two.

The Age of The Machines has dawned.  The battle is joined.

A Meeting on Praed Street

She is sitting by the window and far away in her thoughts when the voice intrudes, asking quietly…

“Excuse me, it’s Eve, isn’t it…?”

She is sitting by the coffee house window, staring out at Praed Street and the passers-by who hurry against the rain.   Hoods and high collars, hunched shoulders, plastic hats of clear polythene.

“…Eve?”

A peach-mac’d mother bent over a recalcitrant child, controlling her anger:  brollied partner standing by, impatient.   Two young Chinese men arm-in-arm, running and laughing…

“It is Eve, isn’t it?”

The smell of rain, that rustle only a wet coat makes, the persistent voice:  there is something familiar in it.  She turns to acknowledge its source, reluctant.   “I’m sorry?”  

“I’m Paul.”   He is standing across the table from her, one hand resting, two fingers, on the bleached wood surface, looking down on her;  “Paul Ferryman,”  He says.    Then, when she does not answer:  “You don’t remember me!  I’m sorry if I disturbed you.  I must be wrong…”   His hand leaves.

“No.   No,”  She says quickly,  “No, I don’t think – that is, you aren’t wrong.”  She doesn’t wish to be impolite.  “How are you, Paul?”  This is awkward; so awkward!  

“It’s been…oh, lord, how many years?  You look sensational!”  He laughs and the sound rings in her remembering like a peal of bells.  “Eve!   After all this time – who’d have thought of it?”  Then he remembers himself:  “Oh, look, this might not be such a welcome surprise.   I have to return to a meeting, so I won’t embarrass you any more.”

She lies.  “You’re not embarrassing me,”  Wishing she could return his compliment, she adds,lamely:  “You don’t look so bad yourself!”

“How I wish that were true!”  He says;  “But you!  You’ve scarcely changed at all. Do you still dance – is that your…?”

“No.”  She cuts in quickly,  “No, I haven’t worked in years.  I still practice, that’s all.”

He says nothing for a moment.  His eyes are clouded with memories, yet he sees into her soul as well as ever.  

 “You’re sad,”  he empathises, stepping back,  “I’m intruding on your melancholy.”   He produces a silver case from beneath the folds of his coat.   “This is a business card,I’m afraid, but the number reaches me. Maybe we could meet up sometime?  Have a coffee together, ‘do lunch’?  If you don’t hate me too much, that is?”

His card is on her table and he is gone, leaving a last brief smile in his wake.  Perhaps he will get his coffee somewhere else, she thinks?  Hate him?  No, never that.  Her last sight of him, striding away down Praed Street oblivious to the rain, awakens emotions that have lain dormant for a long time.  

Memories.   

With a sigh of resignation she rises from her table, goes to pay her check.   

Six weeks after that meeting Paul Ferryman finds a message on his ‘phone.   ‘I Can’t keep pretending this hasn’t happened.  Are you in town Saturday?  I’ll be at the Arbor Cafe at eleven o’clock – you know, stay twenty minutes, that sort of thing?  If you can’t make it, don’t worry.’ Her voice is clipped and unemotional; so unlike the Eve he remembers.

He replies with a text, simply:  ‘OK.’

She is late, though not by as much as twenty minutes.   Wearing a simple green dress of a shade she always favoured in their long ago days together she sweeps towards the pavement table where he waits, and once again he wonders at an elegance that is timeless.  He worshipped her once, idolised her – an alabaster creature of unnassailable grace and beauty.  Life has taught him since, given him ample occasion to rue his mistakes.  He was so young.  They were both so young.

“Hi, it’s so good to see you.”  She greets him, before adding in an undertone as she sits, “I nearly didn’t come.”

“I’m glad you did,”  He says.  “I hesitated too.”    A waiter appears.   He orders coffee, a cake he remembers she used to like.  “What are we doing?”  He asks.

She makes a small, open-handed gesture.  “I don’t know.   Seeing you again was nice. I wanted to talk, I suppose.”

He grins,  “Reminisce?  There are things I prefer not to remember.”

“Then those are the things we’ll avoid!”  She decides.  “Do you live in Harliston?”

“Not quite.  My firm opened an office here and I moved back to Brickley just before Christmas.  You?”

“Yes.  Do you remember Alice?”

“Alice with the teeth?”

“Oh, that’s cruel!  She had them corrected, anyway.   I live in her street now…”

And they talk,  They speak of this and that, of who among their once-shared friends remain close, who is still near, who has travelled far.  Who has gone before them…

“You haven’t eaten your cake,”  He accuses her.

She is apologetic,  “I hope you aren’t offended.   They’re a little too sickly for me, these days,”  Then she says:  “Dad was only doing his best for me, Paul.”

“I thought we agreed not to go there,”  he admonishes her.  “You want to, though, don’t you?”

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?  You were so angry, the last time we were together.   We didn’t have a break-up; not properly,  We couldn’t.”

“And you want closure.”

“I suppose I still want to know why. No goodbyes, no parting scene, you just left!   The next thing I heard, you weren’t in town anymore.”

“I was on the morning train.  I couldn’t stay near yet apart from you.  He banned me from seeing you, effectively.  He told me I wasn’t good enough; he’d set his sights high for you.”

“And you didn’t fight for me?”

“He had all the weapons, Eve.  You were too young – we both were.   I knew you couldn’t make an enemy of your father for me, just as I knew he would break us up if I stayed.  I had nothing to offer; no right to take you away from everything you had.” He adds reflectively,  “I wanted to though, I admit that.”

“We were children.”  Eve fixes her gaze on her lap, brushes absently at her skirt in a demure gesture he remembers.  “Those were such different times, weren’t they?   I think I would have gone anywhere with you that day, if you had asked, but I wasn’t strong enough on my own.  I couldn’t make myself choose.”  She sighs.  “So, what are you doing with yourself these days, Paul?  Are you still married?”  

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll return your question.  What are we doing here?”

“We’re talking.  We’re laying old ghosts.  Isn’t that all?”

“Is it?”  She says miserably.  “Why didn’t you just walk past me the other day?  Why did you leave that card?”

“Why did you dial my number?”  He counters; then, more gently:  “What do you want me to say?  How long is it?  Thirty years?  Do you want me to admit that not a day’s gone past when I haven’t thought of you, if you were happy, if you were well?

“But you married,  You got married very quickly.  I heard.  You’re still with her, I take it?”

He strives for a smile.   “Yes, in a manner of speaking, I suppose we are.  Perhaps that’s why I’m here.”

“You must love her?”

“I must, mustn’t I?”

“Tell me.”

“You’re right; I married very quickly, and for the wrong reasons.  I was angry, I suppose, with the hand society dealt me, something I was too  young to change.”

“Poor woman!”

“Ali?    I don’t think I’ve ever made her regret my mistakes.  But there,”  He hesitates as if he has a Rubicon to cross with his next words:  “When we parted thirty years ago, my energy died where love was concerned.  So were you to ask me if I love her…”

“That’s tragic!”

“No, I suppose I do love her,in my way,”  He retreats behind his coffee cup,  “Anyway, now it’s your turn, woman.  I heard not a breath about you.  Are you with someone?”

She too will find the props on the table helpful.  She can toy with them and does so – her cup, then the cake she refused that now seems so tempting.  “Maybe I will just have a bite of this?” She will not look at him as she speaks.    “I did marry.  I met someone in London in a show I was working on.  It didn’t last.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not!  You have to stop apologizing for things, especially my inability to hold my marriage together!   He started cheating and I ran out of reasons to stay.   We divorced, in the end.”  She adds reflectively;  “Same diagnosis as you, I suppose – were we ever really close?   Anyway, that was a long time ago.  I’m promised to someone, so I’m not really free.  What a horrible word that is – ‘free’!  What does it mean?”

“In this case, I’d say it means there’s a ‘but’ in there somewhere?”

“Which is another horrible word; one I use too often.  Circumstances have changed, can I say that?   I’m not sure if I should keep my promise, Paul.  I’m not sure I can live up to it, you see.”

“Because?”

“Lots of reasons.”  Her eyes at last agree to meet with his, for she can no longer hide that same melancholy he detected in the coffee bar on Praed Street six weeks before.  “I’m not sure I’m capable of giving someone the depth of love they will need.   Perhaps I’m like you, my energy for love is dead?  You said that so well, you made me think…”

“Is he still around, your father?”

 “He died two years ago. We hadn’t spoken for some time before that.”  She reaches across the table so their fingers may touch, a gentle invitation he takes, and their hands join. 

“I’m sorry,”  She whispers;  “Sorry for all the hurt he caused you.  I wish we’d kept in touch somehow, or things had been different.  I just…”  She shrugs, smiles;  “…wish.”

He says, quietly, that he would join her in that wish, and  he asks, quietly, what she is doing with the rest of her day; has she plans?  When she replies in the negative, he asks if he could spend her day with her.  She says, gladly, that he may.

Come evening, as they wait for the taxi that will take him home he wants to know if she will join him tomorrow, or the day after that, and she bites her lip before she asks:   “Paul, will you tell your wife about today?”

He nods.  “I won’t hide it from her.  I don’t think it’ll surprise her  too much.  We’ve been huddled together on a raft of deception for a long time, now.  She’s been seeing someone I’m not meant to know about. It might even be a relief to her if I wasn’t quite so intensely loyal.  The climb to the moral high ground might be rather less steep.”

Three weeks pass:  three weeks of stolen encounters, some short, some longer, the precious minutes of which they count, and fill with new memories.  With each new tryste another bridge is crossed, another precious affinity revived until their harmony is such that although they both fear it, there is a conversation that can no longer be postponed.   

This Saturday, this epic meeting day, they greet each other familiarly with a kiss, and walk together beside the river which divides their town.   He knows it must be his obligation to speak.

“How long can we go on like this?”

She turns to face him.  “Do you want to stop?”  There is a plea in her eyes which speaks for her better than words.

“No.   No, I don’t!  Every time we part it feels like a little piece of me dies.  I feel closer and closer to repeating the mistake I made all those years ago.  Listen, Eve, I’m not the only one with a life to dismantle here.  If I asked you to come to me, to break with this guy I don’t know, go somewhere so we can both start afresh…If I asked you?”

Her face betrays her troubled heart.  For an age, it seems, although she must have turned her answer over in her mind again and again, she delays her reply:  “I would do it.  I would do anything you wanted me to do.  You know that.”  She puts her hands on his shoulders,  “But think, darling, please?  You have a marriage, someone who’s been there for you for a long time.  Think of her, too?”

“I have,”  He takes a deep breath.  “I told you I wouldn’t deceive Ali.  She’s (he chooses the word carefully) aware of you, and all you mean to me.  She’s been surprisingly understanding, really.”

“Meaning?”

“We’re still together, in much the same sense we’ve been for the last ten years.  We share the same house and greet each other when we meet.   But I don’t think she’ll be surprised if I vacate my half of it.”

Her eyes brim:  “Are you asking me?”

“To live with me, yes, that and more, if you want? I mean, will you – could you do that?”

“Of course!”  She draws him close and they kiss as passionately as teenagers, then crease with laughter as a boy no more than twelve years old scooters past offering advice.  “Please!  Get a room!”

Thereafter for a while they say nothing, wandering aimlessly, arm in arm, along the riverbank until they find a park bench where they can rest and watch the river.   “Goodness!  Where do we start?”  She says.

In a week or two Paul has found a little flat close to his work which they both agree upon, and they furnish it together.  Ali, Paul’s wife, has exhausted her fount of patient understanding, so he has moved into this new home, where Eve will join him on a day that she has set.  Much of their time is spent together now, fulfilling the demands of the missed and neglected years.  Both are as happy as their moral sense will allow.

No time at all, it seems, elapses before the morning when Eve moves in.  She will wait for him at a corner near their favourite bookshop at eleven am.  

“Leave room in the back of the car.  I’ll still have a bag or two, I expect,”  She advises him happily.

A little after ten o’clock on the appointed morning Paul is dancing with anticipation, his emotions turning somersaults more becoming a man half his age.  The knowledge that within the hour he will be embarking on a new life after so many unhappy years so excites him he finds the inaction of waiting intolerable.  The bags she mentioned would be heavy, would they not?  He supposes there might be extra things she needs, weighty items not accounted for, awkward burdens unsuitable for carrying through the streets.

As the minutes tick by Eve’s imagined burden grows greater, until his mind’s eye sees her struggling that half-mile to the bookshop under a Sisyphean load.   It does not occur to him that in such exigency she might simply get a taxi – no, he must help!  He tries to call her, only to find she has not switched on her ‘phone, so ignoring their arrangement he gets into his car and drives to her house.  After all, what can be wrong with picking her up outside her door?  He need not go into the house, if there is any chance the person she is leaving is there, and anyway, she has never made reference to them actually living together.  It has been, from the little she has divulged of her relationship, a stilted, rather distanced affair.

Ten-thirty sees him drawing up before her house.  There is little chance, he tells himself, she has already left, so all he need do is wait.  Minutes elapse:  five, ten….

The front door opens.  Paul climbs from his car, advances, ready to help.  The plangent whine of an electric motor reaches his ear.   

At first he thinks the doorway must be empty, that the door has just swung open, improperly latched. Then he looks down; he sees the ramp that covers the steps, the handles bolted to the walls.  He sees the pair of weary  eyes that are fixed on his midriff somewhere, the wheels of the chair, the fingers playing on the keyboard that make up the rudiments of a voice – a cold monotonous voice:

“Is it you?  Are you the reason she is going?  What is your name?”

In horror he retreats the few steps that will take him onto the street,  a guilt that has yet to find a name compelling him to glance right and left, as if he is afraid of being seen.   Eve, carrier bags in hand, is rounding the corner, not four houses down.  She stops when she sees him.  The voice, now behind him, repeats:  “What is your name?”

Eve raises the bags a little to support her explanation.  “A bit of shopping.  Some food for…”

“What is your name?”  An electronic accusation, not a question.

“Before the accident,”  She says helplessly,  “I could have coped.  I could have, before then.  Before  us.”

The street is suddenly so, so long.  She is very far away and the sky is darkening:  “It’s going to rain soon”, she says.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

The Mind in Flight

It is three o’clock in the morning.  I sit at my desk, the white screen of my monitor glaring at me defiantly, lost in the silence.

There are so few moments like these, when the world around me is sleeping and I am not;  when the eastern horizon is still black and the landborne stars of streetlights are my only witnesses.   At such times I am free – truly free – without the need of speech, without the relentless city burr, without the determination of the media to fill every pocket of the universe with lighted sound.   My mind can do the travelling, and it does.

Tonight, long after a septuagenarian such as I should be tucked up in bed with a memory of Horlicks, I can take flight.  A single thought occurs, maybe inspires?  It is this:

Somewhere at this precise moment, at this very second, a new life is coming into the world, taking a first breath.  At this same moment another is leaving,taking their last.  Somewhere in an impact far beyond my fluffy hearing an injury is changing a life irreparably, while in some other place someone who was told they would never walk again is taking a first step.

Out there is a young man nervous for his future, feeling the gentle touch of a hand on his which says he need not be afraid; while out there, too, a solitary tear is falling from the cheek of one who sees their life’s love broken.  A million games of win and lose are being played, a billion dice cast at this very second.   Now.   Again now.  And now.

To someone whose eyes behold the rope, the chair; who sought to drink into numbness the pain beyond forgetting, or to those on that lonely walk home from rejection, those smarting from their first rebuff, or out on the streets gripping the knife of revenge, I can say nothing.  I cannot ever know if you changed your mind.  I can neither comfort nor discourage you.

But you exist for me.   I have imagined you, or somehow reached out for you, in this moment; and that is the miracle of life we all should cherish.   This huge complexity of chance, and consequence, disaster and triumph, that in some sense we all may touch.   Now.  Again now; and now, until the end of time.