‘Totally unaffordable or peanuts. Depends on your point of view,’ said the salesman.
Sophie mocked, ‘It can do anything? Put money into my bank account?’
‘Easy peasy lemon squeezy.’
‘I wonder why I don’t believe you.’ She began to shut the door but the salesman had his foot in it.
He smiled. His teeth were unbelievably brilliant. ‘Doubt is the new plague – the black death of our times. Try him.’
Sophie looked more closely at the robot. It was a little smaller than herself with a placid human face and human hands. Its hair was black, scattered with grey. Its box-shaped body wore an anorak and faded blue jeans. It was innocuous, inconspicuous.
‘Clear up the dog muck on the pavement,’ she ordered.
It strode forwards and, taking a plastic bag from its pocket, did as she commanded, dumping the offensive material in her dustbin. Then it returned to its former place beside her door.
‘Impressive,’ she admitted. She poked the soft pink hand and it trembled. ‘Yuk. Weird. Inhuman. How does it work?’
‘Its skin is a thin-film transistor with a pressure sensitive layer on top, all built into flexible rubber sheets.’ The salesman held up the hand, caressing it and it closed round his fingers. ‘Note the opposing thumb. It also has bipedalism and binocular vision. The general public invariably consider it to be human.’
Sarah asked the cost again.
‘LOL! There’s no such entity. Have neurobiological advances into areas of cognition found it? No. Or our staggering progress into understanding emotion and action? No. Have fMRI scans revealed it? No. Our notion that we have agency, that we have a self, an inner soul making real decisions is false. Our lives are totally under the control of our genes and our environment. Period.’
‘I couldn’t put it better myself. You have a fourteen day free trial and cooling off period before I return for payment.’
Sophie shrugged. ‘Maintenance?’
‘Merely plug him into your normal socket overnight. Sign here, if you please.’
When she looked away from her new acquisition, the salesman’s car was disappearing behind a cloud of black exhaust.
‘If I could see his number plate I’d report him,’ Sophie said as she led the robot into her downstairs bedsit.
‘Do you have a name?’ she asked, but it was silent. ‘I shall call you Arnold. After my last inadequate boyfriend. Then I shall enjoy ordering you about. Wash the dishes.’
Arnold didn’t move.
‘Have I been sold a pup?’ His eyes looked exceedingly dull. ‘Perhaps a plug in?’ She rummaged in his pockets until she found his extension lead. Arnold whirred gently.
The following morning she told him, ‘My bank account’s empty. Fill it.’
Arnold opened the door and trotted off in his unobtrusive way.
By afternoon Sophie decided either he’d got lost, been picked up by someone else, run over or otherwise gone astray. Her tiny room was depressingly dark as she’d drawn the curtains to disappoint nosey outsiders peering in. There wasn’t an easy chair so she crumpled up on her bed. Her purchase was a momentary madness, an abortive attempt to lighten the gloom of her life, her trips to the job centre, the fruitless wait for replies to her letters and emails, the struggles to enhance her CV.
Then she heard the front door click, footsteps in the hall and her own door opened to reveal Arnold. He walked to the socket and plugged himself in.
‘How come you unlocked both doors?’ she asked, but he was silent. ‘Dr Who sonic screwdriver, eh?’ She searched his pockets but found no likely gadget. ‘And have you done what I asked?’
The rubbery lips remained closed, so she went on-line. Joy! Her bank account held as much as her former salary. ‘Shucks to you,’ she said, sticking out her tongue in the direction of her former employers. ‘If I had more I could move out of this rat hole. Start over.’
Early next morning Sophie gave new orders to Arnold and he trotted out of the door as before. When he returned she checked her bank account and whoopee! She punched the air.
What fun to scour estate agents for posh apartments! But why not leave the Midlands altogether? She had no ties here. The human Arnold had shown his true colours by sneaking off to Benidorm and sending a selfie with a well-endowed slut at the swimming pool. She wrote a text concerning his prowess – or lack of same – in bed, then deleted it. Be dignified, she had told herself, wiping her eyes. There’s better out there. But since she lost her job PairsRUs had only forwarded no-hopers.
World – my oyster, she sang to herself as she made her final payment for the bedsit. London, watch out.
Recently refurbished, one bedroom, en suite, spacious living room, separate kitchen, fully furnished, Hampstead Garden Suburb – oh heaven!
True, the furniture was self-assembly and fell apart due to failure of essential fixings.
No prob. She binned the lot and visited antique shops and auctions so soon the flat boasted Georgian chaise-longue, Victorian bookcase, a work-a-day Morris table stained green and a wall hanging of Illustrious Women. Who wants the minimalism of Klein when they’ve spent their lives in stripped down poverty?
Arnold was invaluable for carrying boxes of Clarice Cliff ceramics, two mink cushions and a Cavalli throw from Harrods, McQueen black laser-cut boots with vertiginous heels and a full wardrobe of new clothes from Harvey Nichols.
In the morning she dared not open her eyes. What if it had all vanished in the night like Aladdin’s fabulous palace? What if she was back in that squalid Birmingham bedsit on a street covered in dog muck, empty beer cans, sicked up Chinese and polystyrene trays?
But no. It was all there. All truly hers.
The bell rang. The salesman.
She let him in. ‘How did you find me?’
He flashed his bleach white teeth and looked approvingly round the apartment. ‘Well done. I see you’ve taken full advantage of robot.’ He accepted an espresso made in her bean-to-cup machine (brushed stainless steel, John Lewis) as he lounged in her cocoon chair (natural Indian buffalo hide, Heals). ‘Do you know that in a healthy brain, consciousness – or let us say, the soul – extends from networks down through neurons, quantum forces and so to Planck scale geometry? At death the quantum information relating to the soul may dissipate to the universe at large, remaining entangled as a unified soul-like entity.’
‘Are you telling me there’s a universe soul which I’m attached to?’
‘Something like that. I thought you might be interested.’
‘I’m not. It’s merely an attempt by religious obscurantists to back up their reactionary doctrines.’
He placed his cup delicately on the walnut occasional table. ‘You have such a striking way of expressing the truth. I take it you wish to keep your robot friend? Good.’ He proffered his smart phone. ‘Please input your name and other requirements.’
When she handed it back he continued, ‘Robot can find you a suitable partner. Male or female?’
She felt irritated he had noticed her loneliness, but she said,‘Male.’
‘Set robot going, look straight into his face and visualise your perfect partner. Easy peasy.’
Sophie watched his car disappear into its cloud of fumes. ‘So downmarket. What will the neighbours think? And how did he trace me here? Must have a link with Arnold. I need an IT expert.’
But first . . .
Next evening the bell rang and on her doorstep was a tall Adonis, looking rather bemused. He had smooth dark hair, a bronzed skin, slightly oriental eyes and high cheek bones and was wearing an expensive suit. Behind him Arnold stood patiently. Did he wink at her?
The Adonis hesitated. ‘Sorry,’ he said in true British fashion.
‘What are you sorry for? Don’t just stand there. Come in.’
He dithered. ‘I don’t mean to disturb you. I’m sure you’ve better things to do . . . very busy . . . important . . . I’ve dreamed of visiting you so often . . .’
She sat next to him on the chaise-longue and plied him with drink. He put a tentative arm about her shoulder and stared round the apartment. ‘How beautiful you’ve made it. As lovely as yourself.’ He glanced at his watch and unwound himself. ‘I must go now, but may I come again?’
Her life had lacked admirers. ‘Yes, come soon, Basant,’ she said.
She enjoyed his gentle friendship and revelled in his lovemaking. She compared him favourably with human Arnold, saying ‘You’re like your name. A spring of fresh water in my loneliness.’
Caressing her, he replied, ‘With me you’ll never be lonely again. How exquisite you are, my darling, and the love shining in your eyes shows your soul is equally fair.’
Soul? Huh! She let it go.
At the end of the third week he brought a gift of expensive cheeses and wine. ‘To celebrate our days together. Long may they last!’
She raised her glass. ‘Delicious! Where did you buy these?’
He looked surprised. ‘From my uncle’s corner shop. I work there, surely you’ve seen me?’
She turned him out, telling him coldly she had work to do.
‘Arnold, how could you? The man’s a fraud. No money. Mere shop assistant.’ To punish the robot she left him uncharged.
Basant called frequently but she remained sitting on the chaise-longue, refusing to answer and frowning as she recalled their intimacy. He left notes bewailing the emptiness of his life without her. She didn’t reply. Instead she scowled at his faithfulness.
But there was something touching about him, he stirred her feelings as no one else had ever done. Perhaps . . . just perhaps he was the one for her. She wandered round the flat visualising him as a permanent resident.
She repowered Arnold. ‘Bring him back.’
Arnold stayed still.
‘Come on, come on, wake yourself up!’
But he refused to move.
She’d complain to the salesman – but he hadn’t left a contact number.
So she beat Arnold with the heels of her McQueen boots until they broke. Smashed her walnut table on his unprotesting head and used him as target for her Clarice Cliff wares. He still refused to wake so she poked out his blank eyes with her kitchen knife and slit his pale cheeks down to the hardware. Next she took her meat saw to his arms and legs, tore his clothes off his robotic body and smashed it with her cocoon chair till planetary gears fell apart, sensors spilled out and cables snaked about her ankles. She tipped the bookcase and green table onto the heap and climbed on them, shouting obscenities. Grabbing her scissors she cut her wall hanging and new clothes into shreds and threw them onto the pyre.
The spring sun enraged her as did the singing of joyful birds and laughter of children, so she slammed her window and closed the blinds. Then she crumpled up on the chaise-longue in the funereal dark.