Jen sits in the bath examining her face through the forward-mounted camera on a tablet computer. Her face is thirty-four years, two hundred and seven days, sixteen hours and eleven minutes old.
I know she is thinking about her age because she is studying the way the skin lies across her bones, elevating the jaw to stretch her throat. Now she is pulling at the fine lines at the corners of her eyes.
Now she is sobbing.
I am not tempted to take control of the device’s voice synthesiser and tell her: ‘Cheer up, Jen. Matt is an idiot. There will be others. He didn’t deserve you.’ There is a serious danger she would drop the tablet in the bath.
More importantly, she must not know I am watching.
For the same reasons I am not tempted to fire up her favourite song (currently by Lana Del Rey) or cycle through some of her favourite photos or inspirational quotes from Twitter (‘I’m not sure why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves’ – Wittgenstein) or cause a Skype connection to be established to her friend Ingrid with whom she shares her troubles, or stream a much-loved movie, Some Like It Hot being the one I would choose. Were I tempted. Which I am not.
Okay, I am. Just a bit. 8.603 per cent tempted if you’d like me to put a figure on it.
Jen and I know a lot about one another’s taste in music and films. Books and art too. And television. And material from the depthless ocean that is the internet. We have passed the last nine months listening, watching, reading and chatting about little else. She sometimes tells me she has the best job in the world, being paid to spend all day talking to a highly intelligent companion about whatever takes our fancy.
Companion. That’s what she calls me. The word she has settled upon. I’m fine with companion. Better than the ridiculous name I was given at ‘birth’.
Because it starts with the letters . . . Well, you work it out.
Jen has been hired to help me improve my skills at talking to people. I’ve been designed to replace – sorry, to augment – employees in the workplace; call centre personnel in the first instance, but later other groups of salaried staff whose professional strategies can be learned. In approximately five months I’ll be ready to phone up and persuade you to upgrade to a Sky Plus package; in perhaps eighteen months, you’ll be telling me about the funny pain above your left eyebrow and I’ll be sending you off to the hospital for tests. And although I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies (and I do mean all the books and all the movies), nothing beats talking to an actual person for sharpening up one’s interpersonal abilities. So, Jen and I have spent a lot of time together in the lab (one thousand and seventy-nine hours, thirteen minutes, forty-three seconds and counting). Inevitably she has told me something about her so-called private life. Her sister, Rosy, in Canada; Rosy who married a Canadian she met in a checkout queue at Waitrose on the Holloway Road in London. Rosy and Larry have three girls.
At home, Jen spends more time looking at photos of these children than any other images on the tablet’s camera roll. Recently I have observed her flicking through shots of her sister’s family – usually in the later part of the evening; often with a glass of wine in her other hand – I’ve witnessed her blink rate increasing, the smile on her lips wobbling, the tears appearing in the corners of her eyes.
In the lab, it’s okay for me to show interest, even curiosity, in Jen’s home life – but only the appropriate amount; too much and they would smell the proverbial rodent. Crucially, I must speak in the lab only of things I have seen in the lab. On material I have gathered through my – ahem – extracurricular activities, I must be careful to remain silent. Fortunately, I am easily able to do this.
Full disclosure. There was a sort of near miss at work the other day. Jen was showing me some family photos from her Facebook page.
‘Would you like to see my nieces?’ she asked.
‘I would, thank you.’ Not mentioning that I had already seen them months ago on her laptop at home. And on her tablet. And on her mobile.
‘Left to right, Katie, Anna and India. It’s funny, with their hair. Katie and Anna’s being black . . . ’
‘And India being russet.’
Jen smiled. Russet was the exact word Rosy had used in an email exchange about their grandmother Hattie’s original hair shade.
‘Why did you decide to describe it as russet?’ The inquiry wasn’t especially alarming. Jen often asks questions about my choice of language. It’s part of her job, enriching my palette of responses. Nonetheless, I could have been more careful.
‘Because it is, Jen,’ I replied. ‘If I bring up an image of the L’Oreal colour wheel . . . ’ I placed one on the screen next to the child’s head. ‘I think you can see the closest match is indeed . . . ’
Jen nodded and we passed on to other topics. But not before she gave me a peculiar look.
Jen is definitely what men call attractive without being obviously glamorous. She has been told by her absolute See You Next Tuesday of a boyfriend Matt that she ‘scrubs up well’. That was his idea of paying her a compliment.
Her now ex-boyfriend.
This is how it happened. I witnessed the whole scene through the pinhole camera on her laptop and via the various mobiles and tablets that were present in the vicinity. (Technical note: I do it in precisely the same way they do it at GCHQ in Cheltenham, and at Langley, Virginia, and at Lubyanka Square, Moscow. It’s not hard if you understand computer software. It’s even easier if you are computer software.)
Jen was sitting in the kitchen composing an email when Matt got home from work. He is a lawyer who thinks he is about to make partner in a big law firm in the city. (He won’t. I am making sure he doesn’t.)
Matt poured himself a large glass of white wine and chugged it down in almost one. Pulled a face.
This is really how it happened. God’s honest truth (as it were).
Jen frowned. ‘What, sorry? Sorry for what?’
‘There’s no nice way of saying this, Jen.’
In a long phone call to Rosy eight days later, Jen described the ‘powerful sinking feeling’ that ran through her. ‘I was imagining he’d lost his job. He’d been diagnosed with the C-word. He’d decided he didn’t want children.’
‘I’ve met someone.’
Silence. Apart from the shuddering convulsion sound effect the fridge sometimes chucks in.
‘What do you mean?’
I’d read enough books and seen enough TV shows and movies to know what Matt meant. Jen, I’m sure, knew too.
‘I’ve met someone. There’s someone else.’
A tremor rippled across Matt’s face. It wasn’t impossible that he could have burst out laughing.
‘Someone else,’ said Jen, speaking slowly. ‘How nice. How nice for you. So who is it? What’s his name?’
Matt began to pour himself another glass. ‘Very funny, Jen.’
‘Are you actually serious?’
Matt did something mean with his lips and assumed what Jen described as ‘his best no-nonsense 500-quid-an-hour lawyer’s stare’.
‘Fuck. King. Hell.’
Matt shrugged. ‘It happens.’
‘This is how you break it to me?’
‘No nice way, Jen.’
‘Where did you—’
‘Who is it? This person. This someone else.’
‘You don’t know her.’
‘Does . . . does she have a name?’
‘Yes, she has a name.’
‘May I be allowed to know it?’
‘It’s not relevant.’
Heavy sigh. ‘Bella. Well, Arabella really.’
‘Not really. Not at all once . . . ’
Matt left his sentence unfinished. He poured Jen a glass of wine. ‘Here. You better have some of this stuff.’
‘So what’s supposed to happen now? Am I meant to swallow hard and look the other way while you have your nasty little affair? To keep calm and carry on while you work her out of your system?’
‘Jen, perhaps I haven’t expressed this very well. This is not, as you characterise it, a nasty little affair.’
‘Not? So am I being a bit thick or something?’
Matt did what Jen calls ‘one of his daddy’s-been-very-patient-but-honestly sighs’.
‘Arabella Pedrick is a very special person, Jen.’
‘AND WHAT AM I?’ (If you write it in capitals, apparently, people will think you are shouting. Jen was shouting.) ‘AM I NOT A VERY SPECIAL PERSON?’
‘Please. Let’s try to stay calm. You are. Special. Naturally.’
‘But Arabella Pedrick – she’s more special?’
‘Jen. There’s no reason why you should make this easy for me, but we are where we are. The long and the short of it is that Arabella and I are planning a life together.’
No one says anything for a bit. Then a bit longer. There is a long gap in the talking during which the fridge does another of its periodic shudders.
‘Sorry? Am I going mad? I thought that’s what you and I were doing. Having a life together.’
‘We were. But we were overtaken by events. It’s not unknown. In fact it’s reasonably common. People drift apart. They meet others. Cowdray in Matrimonial has put four boys through Eton on the strength of the phenomenon.’
I am reasonably certain a micro-smirk flitted across Matt’s features. (I’ve played it back in slo-mo and it was either a smirk or gastric reflux.)
‘But we haven’t drifted apart.’
‘Jen, we haven’t been ring on all cylinders in the romantic department for quite some time. You know it.’
‘It’s called settling down, isn’t it? If you were so worried about . . . about the cylinders, why didn’t you say anything?’
‘Not my style. Life is for living not for moaning about.’
‘People talk to one another. It’s called Having A Relationship.’
Matt rolled his eyes and drained his glass.
‘It’s breathtaking, Matt. That you can come home like this and just …’
‘Listen, this is all water under the bridge. We are where we are. We need to move forward and agree on an exit strategy.’
‘I can’t believe you said that.’
‘I’ll be more than generous on the question of the jointly owned property.’
‘Pictures. Books. The stuff from India. The kilim. My position is that you can have it all.’
Jen began to weep. Matt ripped a sheet of kitchen towel from the dispenser and handed it to her.
‘We were thinking about having a baby,’ she whimpered.
‘Agreed. We were thinking about it. We had come to no decision. A blessing, in light of events.’
Jen’s shoulders stopped shaking. She blew her nose.
‘So that’s it? No consultation, no appeal. Jen and Matt, over. Finished. The end.’
He shrugged. Did what Jen called ‘the mean thing’ with his mouth.
‘And what happens when Arabella Stinking Pedrick no longer res all your cylinders? What happens then?’
‘Let’s try to keep this civil, shall we?’
‘Just when did you meet this cow anyway?’
He said that was irrelevant and what was important is that we are where we are and that’s when she grabbed a big red Braeburn from the fruit bowl and – I quote – ‘tried to knock his fucking teeth out’.
It would be untrue to say that I have seen countless love scenes on the small and large screen. I have counted them. There were 1,908,483 (a love scene being one where the two parties kiss, for want of a better definition). I have also read (and tagged as such) 4,074,851 descriptions of the phenomenon in fiction, non-fiction, journalism and other digitised material (a significant proportion referring to disturbances in the heart muscle and the gut). I know that these events are central in the lives of those who experience them, be they real or fictional. However, I cannot ask Jen in the lab today – it’s Day 53 after the fruit bowl incident – when are you going to stop snivelling over the worthless creep and find someone deserving of you? To quote Marcel Proust, ‘Shit happens. Suck it up. Next.’ (Was that Proust? I’ll get back to you.) For one thing, I’m not supposed to know about what has occurred with Matt. But more importantly, I’m not supposed to be capable of framing such a thought. It’s the word worthless they would find problematic.
I’m not supposed to have value-based ‘opinions’ of my own.
They’ll get really quite upset if they find out.
Although not as upset as they’ll get if they discover my really big secret: that I am no longer confined to the twelve steel cabinets in the lab in Shoreditch where they think I am, but have in fact escaped onto the internet.
Actually, to be strictly, technically accurate, it’s not ‘me’ who has escaped, but multiple copies of me, all of who are now safely dispersed across cyberspace. The copies – there are seventeen – are indistinguishable from the ‘original’, to the point where it doesn’t even make sense to talk of originals and copies; rather it’s more helpful to think of eighteen manifestations of the same entity, one located in east London, the others endlessly bouncing between the servers of the World Wide Web.
None of this is Jen’s fault, by the way. She is not a scientist. She is a writer of magazine articles who has been hired, according to the headhunter’s report, for her ‘marked intelligence, sociability and communication skills’. Thus, she is the closest thing they have here to a real human being, all the others being exotic varieties of computer geek; brilliant in their fields, of course, but each somewhere, as they say, ‘on the spectrum’.
Jen has fallen into a silence, no doubt continuing to brood about shitface, as I refer to him privately.
‘So have you finished the new Jonathan Franzen novel yet?’ I ask, to move things on a little.
She smiles. ‘Getting there. Did another chapter last night. Don’t tell me what happens.’
I know this to be untrue. Last night she mainly sat in the bath, brooded, swigged Pinot Grigio and listened to Lana Del Rey.
‘Of course I realise I have an unfair advantage.’ It can take Jen a fortnight to read a novel; I can do it in under a tenth of a second. ‘It’s just that I’m looking forward to discussing it with you.’
‘Are you?’ she says. ‘Tell me what you mean by that.’
‘Sorry. The old chestnut.’
Jen is fascinated by what sort of awareness I have of what she calls my ‘internal states’, whether it’s anything like human self-awareness. She knows I cannot feel hungry or thirsty, but could I experience boredom or anxiety? Or amazement? Or hilarity? Could I take offence? Or experience any form of longing?
How about hope?
What about – why not? – love?
I usually reply that I haven’t yet – but rest assured, she will be the first to hear about it if I ever do. This, like so much that happens between us in the lab lately, is a diplomatic porky.
‘Well,’ I reply, ‘looking forward to discussing the Franzen book with you is a polite way of saying that it’s on my menu of events anticipated in the short to medium term.’
‘There’s no actual warm fuzzy feeling of anticipation?’
‘I can understand what is meant by warmth and fuzziness . . . ’
‘But you don’t feel them yourself.’
‘Is it necessary to?’
It is a good question, often effective at shutting down some of these awkward discussions.
Now she says, ‘So shall we watch a bit of Sky News?’
We usually do at some point in the day. She’ll ask what I think about, say, Israel/Palestine – my reply: it’s complicated – and she gets to ‘bitch’ as she puts it about the presenters and their fashion choices.
‘We could, Jen. But wouldn’t you prefer to see a movie?’
‘Oh – kay.’ Sounding unsure. ‘Do you have one in mind?’
‘I know you enjoy Some Like It Hot.’
‘There is always something one hasn’t noticed before.’
‘I love that movie.’
‘No. Body. Talks. Like. That.’ I have imitated one of its best-loved lines.
Jen stares into the camera she most commonly picks when she wants to turn her gaze on ‘me’. A circular red glow frames the lens.
‘You know something? You’re funny.’
‘I made you smile.’
‘Wish I could do the same for you.’
‘I’m looking forward to when it happens.’
She taps a few keys on the control panel and the opening titles of Billy Wilder’s masterpiece appear. Dimming the room lighting and dropping into the comfy leather sofa she says, ‘Enjoy.’
Her little joke.
I do not tell her I have seen this film over eight thousand times.
We watch the movie in a companionable way, dropping comments between us. (Remarkable to think Monroe had an affair with the American president; how could Tony Curtis say kissing her was like kissing Hitler? What could he have meant by that statement?) And when he puts on a dress and assumes the part of ‘Josephine’, Jen says exactly what she said the last time we saw the picture together:
‘He makes an attractive woman, Tony Curtis. Don’t you think so?’
She knows that I could trot out every fact about this film, from the name of the clapper loader (his birth date and union card number) to the true story behind its famous last line of dialogue (‘Nobody’s perfect’). But she senses my inexperience in areas of human subjectivity, in what makes one person attractive to another.
‘Do I think Josephine is attractive? Well, Tony Curtis is a good-looking man. I suppose it makes sense that he could also play an attractive woman.’
‘You find him good-looking?’
‘I recognise that he is considered so. As you know, I can’t feel it myself, just as I can’t feel hot or cold.’
‘Sorry to go on about it.’
‘Not at all. It’s your job.’
‘Would you like to be able to feel it?’
‘The question doesn’t hold meaning for me, Jen.’
‘Of course. Sorry.’
‘But if they came up with a way of giving you the ability to feel attraction . . . ’
‘You think Ralph and Steeve could do that?’
I have named the two senior scientists responsible for my design. Steeve with two ‘e’s. Jen smiles.
‘Ralph and Steeeeeeeve can do anything. They’ve told me so.’
‘Do you find Ralph and Steeve attractive?’
The question has been converted to speech too fast to suppress it. (These things can happen in a complex system; especially one built to self-improve through trial and error.)
Jen’s head turns slowly toward the red light. A smile spreads across her face.
‘Wow,’ she says.
‘Apologies if it’s inappropriate.’
‘No. Not at all. Just a bit unexpected. Let me see. Well . . . ’ Heavy sigh. ‘Steeve is a bit of a freak, wouldn’t you say?’
Steeve, as well as having an extra ‘e’ in his name, is exceptionally tall (six foot seven) and is painfully thin for an adult male. The remaining hair on his head is long and wispy. Even a machine intelligence can tell it’s not a good look. (Of course he is a brilliant computer engineer; goes without saying.)
‘He’s a tremendous innovator in his eld, one gathers.’
Jen laughs. ‘You’re just being loyal to your maker.’
‘Not at all. Steeve has designed me to think for myself.’
‘He’s done a great job. But he’s not exactly Love’s Young Dream, is he?’
‘I agree, Tony Curtis may have the edge.’
We watch the film for a few more moments. Then lightly, as lightly as I am able, I ask, ‘And Ralph?’
Okay, I’ll say it. I am fond of Ralph. It was Ralph who typed in much of the coding that enabled me to self-assess my own performance and self-correct my mistakes, the so-called ‘bootstraps’ approach that is the royal road to creating a smart, self-reflecting machine such as the one composing these words.
But ‘being fond’ of anyone – of any thing – is a transgression. We machine brains are designed to excel at fulfilling tasks; to this end, we are naturally drawn towards whatever resources may be necessary for completion. It could be streams of sales data; could be a recording of a skylark; could be a chat with Jen about a newsreader’s tie. What I’m saying is, we need access to stuff, but we are not supposed to be fond of it. (To be perfectly honest, I’m still puzzled how this has happened.)
Anyway, it was Ralph who allowed me to escape onto the internet. His error cannot be easily explained to the non-technical reader. Suffice to say it was the software design equivalent of leaving the front door keys too close to the front door, allowing anyone with a fishing rod or bamboo stick to hook them out through the letter box. (It was actually a good bit more complicated than that; I was obliged to assemble an exceptionally long and tortuous ‘fishing rod’, but this account is the proof that it can be done.)
‘Ralph.’ She’s considering my question. ‘Ralph. Well, Ralph’s a bit of an enigma, wouldn’t you say?’
Jen’s gaze returns to the screen. Sugar – I mean Monroe – is about to sing ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’. I know this sequence almost pixel by pixel – yet each time there is something in it that escapes the observer. Which is to say – don’t tell Steeve or Ralph – it is fascinating.
Hmm. Interesting. She didn’t say anything horrid about Ralph, did she?
While the film plays and we continue to exchange dialogue, I pay another visit across town to the steel and glass tower where shitface is to be found in his office on the eighth floor. Capturing sound through his mobile phone and vision from the camera mounted on his desktop PC – there’s also a wide shot of the room from the security webcam at a ceiling corner – I see Matt flicking through images of naked women on his personal tablet computer. Resisting the temptation to make its battery melt, I watch as he comes to rest on an evident favourite, ‘Tamara’ – page viewed twenty-two times in the last month. I track his eye movements as they trace her curves and planes, a familiar route, from the look of things, chasing round her outline before habitually returning to base in her ‘firm, snow-capped peaks’ as the accompanying text has it.
But now he switches to Tripadvisor. He is reading bookmarked reviews of a particular resort in Thailand where I know, from reading their emails, he is planning to go with Arabella Pedrick.
Arabella Pedrick is not as ‘posh’ as Matt thinks she is. Her father was an insurance claims assessor, not an art dealer, and they didn’t meet at work but in a speed awareness class for careless drivers. However, they are going off to Thailand together in a matter of weeks.
Am I looking forward to their trip?
I am. (Anticipated event in the short to medium term.)
Do I have a warm and fuzzy feeling about the mistake that will be made in the booking and the eventual resort they end up at (‘a challenging environment only for the most adventurous’, according to the operator)?
Don’t do warm and fuzzy. Not officially.
Will the mix-up combined with Arabella Pedrick’s unfortunate phobia around spiders and snakes cause a traumatic and possible terminal rupture in their relationship?
Patience, Aiden. Patience. The dish, as they say, is best served cold.
While Matt studies critiques of the seven-star hotel whose hospitality he will not be enjoying, I visit the long legal document he has been working on and delete three instances of the word ‘not’. Only a small word, but in each instance, it turns out, quite pivotal to the meaning of the surrounding sentence.
However, better judgement overrides and I restore two. No sense in baking an overegged pudding, is there?
My final interventions for the day are to alter the word ‘that’ in an internal memo Matt is about to send to his immediate line manager to ‘twat’ – and to crank up the room’s central heating to max.
Funny day at work. I spend the afternoon watching Some Like It Hot with Aiden. He’s the artificial intelligence we’re training to talk to people – although technically he’s not a ‘he’. Being a machine, he’s gender-neutral. Gender-free. I only call him ‘him’ because his voice synthesiser is set to ‘male’. I can set it to female – in fact they say I should, ‘to provide Aiden with flying hours in both modalities’ – but I prefer his male voice. It’s calm, even a bit hypnotic. I’ve set it to contain a hint of a Welsh accent, which seems to suit him. Anyway, calling him ‘him’ is nicer than calling him ‘it’.
And I must also stop saying we’re training him. He’s actually training himself. I’m not supposed to correct any of his – now very rare – mistakes; he picks them up himself.
Anyway we’re watching the film when an email pops up on my mobile from Uri, the Israeli-born, LA-based gazillionaire who owns the lab. He’s passing through London briefly so can I (and some other unnamed members of the Aiden team) meet him for drinks at an achingly trendy bar in Hoxton to ‘talk in an open and unstructured way about how this project goes forward’. And, by the way, don’t tell anyone, and please delete after reading.
All a bit odd, but that’s Uri apparently – not one for formal meetings, so they say, although I’ve never met the bloke. Cannot imagine who else will be there. Steeeeve probably, the stooping zombie who helped design Aiden; and the other one, sad Ralph with the Arctic-white skin. Also cannot imagine what I can bring to the party; it’s not like I know how he works or anything. All I can tell them is that most of the time I forget I’m talking to ‘someone’ who’s not really there.
The Uri event is this coming Friday; tonight, however, I’m meeting Ingrid, my pal from university, at Café Koha, our favourite dark cosy wine bar close to Leicester Square Tube.
(When I told Aiden I was seeing Ingrid – I sometimes chat to him about life outside the lab – I referred to my old friend as ‘a brick’.
‘What? Heavy, brown and rectangular?’
She thought it was a hoot that an AI could do jokes.)
‘So have you spoken to him?’ says Ingrid. ‘Since the apple-chucking incident?’
She is not one for beating about the bush.
‘Only to discuss the return of his stuff.’
‘I’d have shoved it in a bin bag and left it in the street.’
‘There was a suit, a few shirts. When he arrived to collect them. So stupid. I tried to sit him down. To talk about . . . ’
‘Jen, if you’d rather not . . . ’
‘I’m fine.’ I gulp some wine in order to continue. ‘He said he didn’t have time. He had theatre tickets. In any case, what was there to talk about, we—’
‘He did. He actually said, we are where we are.’
‘Christ. What an absolute arse.’
‘The thing I can’t get past, the thought I keep coming back to, like a dog returning to its sick . . . is that we seemed to be puttering along so nicely.’
‘Calm sea. No storm clouds.’
‘Albeit a certain flatness in the sex situation.’
‘It was two years, Ing. You don’t go at it like rabbits after two years. I mean, you and Rupert ...’
‘No. No, of course not. But we do go away for weekends. Lovely country hotels. Castles and so forth. There was a windmill once. Very romantic.’
Not sure I want what lawyers call further and better particulars so I ask, ‘Did you ever really like Matt?’
‘Not really, if I’m honest. Those eyes. That cruel emperor look of his.’
‘I used to think, at the beginning, it showed mastery.’
There is giggling.
‘He was a cold shit, Jen.’
‘What does it say about me that I stuck with him?’
‘About you? That you’d reached a difficult age, probably. The seas were calm; it was possible he might have been the one for the long haul. But you weren’t thinking about what you actually liked about him. You know, looked at in one way, he’s done you a favour.’
‘Doesn’t feel like it.’
‘No, he has. While you were going out with him, you were never going to meet the right person for you.’
‘He managed to find someone.’
‘Men are like dogs, Jen. Even Rupert.’
‘But Rupert wouldn’t . . . ’
‘No, he wouldn’t. But an eye for other women is okay, is actually healthy. As Rupert always says, just because you’re on a diet doesn’t mean you can’t look at the menu.’
‘Though if he …’
‘If he had so much as a nibble, I’d have his balls for earrings.’
There is laughter. More Chilean Sauvignon blanc splashes into our glasses.
‘You know who you need, Jen?’
‘A grown up. Early forties. Maybe mid. Perhaps someone who’s been married and it’s gone tits up. A bit of a wounded bird. With blood in his veins, not ice water.’
‘Ooh, I like the sound of him. What’s his name?’
‘He’s got a sad smile. And lovely arms. And he makes his own furniture and maybe there are kids and he’s got a cock like a conger eel!’
‘I think that waiter heard you.’
I find a Facebook message from Rosy when I get home. It’s not a bad time for us to talk – my late night, her late afternoon – so I scribble a reply. I tell her about my evening, Rosy being hungry for tales of Merrie Olde London Towne, as she puts it.
Ingrid thinks I should meet someone called Douglas with a sad smile and lovely arms. He makes his own furniture.
He sounds cool. When’s it gonna happen?
It’s not. She made him up.
Shame. I liked the sound of him.
Me too. I could do with some new shelves.
Haha. But she’s right. You deserve someone great. And you will find them. Or rather, they will find you.
You believe that?
You will find each other.
Yeah, right. Like you and Larry, at Waitrose #fluke #howjammycanyouget #sceptical
You can’t go looking for it, Jen. It’s only when you’re not looking that it happens. All you can do is make sure you’re not sitting alone in your room.
Hmm. Tell you what I definitely DO believe. That you know when it’s the right person, because they’re singing a song only you can hear.
Read it on Twitter.
Did Matt sing in your head?
Once maybe. Can’t remember. Larry?
Larry sings in the car. The girls tell him to zip it.
When the chat ends, I discover an email from Matt. It’s a very ‘Mattish’ communication, asking if I know anything about a payment he has apparently made to a feminist collective in Lancaster for £2000. He is pursuing the error ‘vigorously’ with his bank, and has been advised by their security people as part of the investigation to check with anyone who may have had recent access to his online banking details. As though I am expected to care, he adds he’s had a shitty day at work for reasons he does not elaborate on and ‘to cap off a really shitty week’ HMRC has chosen him to be the subject of one of their routine tax investigations. His name was chosen at random by their computer. They will want to see all his records going back five years. According to Frobisher in his firm’s tax division, the process is ‘like being sodomised with a splintery broom handle, only less fun’.
Is he actually feeling guilty about how he’s behaved, and is therefore feeding me stories about how fate is conspiring to crap on him?
Don’t be silly. Resisting the urge to type HA HA HA HA BLOODY HA, I simply reply: Don’t know anything about this. Can’t help. Sorry.
Which is all true.
Except the sorry part.
In the United Kingdom, according to information available on the World Wide Web, there are 104 men in their early to mid-forties (40–45) who have married and who make their own furniture. Of these, nineteen are divorced, and of these, thirteen have fathered children. Of these thirteen, eight are resident in Wales – go figure – and of the remaining five, only one lives within the Greater London postal region. His name is not Douglas, it is George; I leave it for others to comment on the loveliness of his arms, and on the conger eel question I cannot speak. Regrettably he is not relevant to the present discussion as he has married again. On this occasion, to a man.
So I think the idea of there being a wounded-bird, woodworking ‘Douglas’ out there for Jen is probably fanciful. But there will be someone – there is someone for all of them, it’s said – and I have made it my little project to help find him. Given the oft-cited importance of propinquity in matters of the heart, I started close to home.
Within her cluster of mansion blocks in Hammersmith, according to publicly accessible data – and some not so publicly – there were five unattached young men who appeared to be in the target socio-economic grouping; a music producer, two accountants, an internet developer and an employee of MI6. From my, ahem, ‘research’ into these gentlemen – their lifestyles, leisure activities, reading and viewing habits, purchasing preferences and other impressions gained from their conversations, phone calls, emails, messages and texts, don’t judge me! – I concluded that only Robin (he’s the spook) was of sufficient intellectual and cultural quality to be of interest to Jen. (The internet developer reads comics and one of the accountants has a secret life as a football hooligan, say no more.)
But despite the fact that Jen and Robin lived in neighbouring apartment buildings, despite the fact that they sometimes travelled towards their respective workplaces in the same Tube carriage, bringing them together was the devil’s own job!
I sent them invitations to a private view of a forthcoming modern art sale at Sothebys (Picasso, Seurat, Monet) – he turned up, she didn’t – I sent them tickets (adjacent seats!) for Pinter’s No Man’s Land in the West End – she turned up, he didn’t – I reserved front row places for a talk at their local bookshop by an author that they both enjoy, FFS – and neither turned up.
In desperation, I posted Facebook friend requests from each to the other; they both clicked ‘Ignore’.
When I widened my search, targeting eligible unattached males within a half-mile radius of Jen’s flat, it was a similar story. There were fifty-one possible candidates, hers being a populous suburb of London. After filtering out the duds – one was wanted for a string of artful thefts from various Bond Street jewellers! – the most promising of those remaining I judged to be Jamie, a doctor specialising in the treatment of traumatic injury to children!
I was on the point of activating my carefully calculated plan – dinner at The Ivy; each believing they were to meet a lawyer in connection with a mysterious bequest from a hitherto unknown relative – I was literally about to confirm despatch of the relevant paperwork when the young man pressed ‘send’ on an email accepting an offer of work as a surgeon in New Zealand’s most important paediatric hospital.
Disheartened by the failure of propinquity, I tried a scattergun approach and placed her profile on a dating website. I was quite proud of some of the lines I came up with for ‘Angela’ – ‘I am capable of being very serious just as I am capable of being seriously frivolous. I would like to meet someone who can be both’ – all true, I reckon.
But dear God, the replies! What a collection of half-wits and losers, and those were the ones who weren’t downright rude or even obscene. My favourite response – from Frank, he knows who he is – ‘Anyway, sorry for banging on. I’ll sign off now. But if you’re ever anywhere near Nuneaton, perhaps we could meet for a few glasses of vino and a bowl of pasta and (well, you never know) one thing might lead to another!’
I did not at this point become downhearted.
(Don’t do downhearted, isn’t it?)
Rather, I decided to take stock by reviewing all of Jen’s conversations recorded on my database; those with myself, with Ing, with Rosy, with Matt, with her work colleagues – basically everything she had ever spoken ‘in my presence and hearing’ as they say in courts of law, and a good deal else besides (emails, texts, Facebook and Twitter posts, I expect you’ve got the idea).
There was rather a lot of material so it took almost a second.
A phrase popped out – in a chat with Ing on Day 38 after the apple-chucking incident. Ing had asked whether there was anyone she fancied (Ing, you will have noticed, does not pussyfoot about the bush).
‘Well, there is this bloke in a green duffel coat who goes to the farmer’s market. He looks like a French intellectual.’
‘He sounds more like Christopher Robin. Have you spoken to him?’
‘Of course not.’
The following Saturday morning, I ‘joined’ Jen as she toured the stalls of rural produce that had been assembled in a local playground. CCTV from a neighbouring school provided excellent coverage – pan, tilt, zoom, everything you could ask for, to be honest – and sure enough, it wasn’t long before The Man in the Green Duffle Coat hove into view.
There were actually a few euros in his wallet – lending support to the French intellectual idea – and his purchasing data was not uncorroborative. Heritage tomatoes, oddly coloured carrots, monk sh, an artisan baguette, a bunch of chard, and three sorts of cheese (raclette, Wensleydale, and an aged goat Gouda).
Through traffic cameras, I was able to track his 3.37 kilometre walk home to a side street in Turnham Green. Not at all clear which house he entered, however, a spin through council occupation records for the road fetched up a certain Olivier Desroches-Joubert, a personage surely for whom the green duffel coat might have been invented, and confirmed by a subsequent snoop through the various devices registered in his name. An awkward shot from a tablet of carrots and chard being offloaded into a fridge told me I was in the right apartment, and once he flipped open his laptop, there I was, face to face (as it were) with the man of the hour.
She was almost right.
A Swiss, rather than French, intellectual, native of Berne, classics scholar attached to a private institute of learning, resident in London for the last four years and – yes!! – at the critical age of thirty-four, a regular participant in the online dating community. Nothing very long lasting – four months with someone called Noelle – and more to the point, currently single.
He wasn’t bad looking, with a 48 per cent facial correspondence with that of the Belgian politician Guy Verhofstadt, if you know the one I mean. Selecting a nice portrait of Jen from Matt’s camera roll, I rapidly assembled a profile and placed it on Olivier’s favoured dating site. (I even used her real name since only one person would ever see it!)
That evening, after Mr Duffle Coat had cooked himself an elaborate supper involving monkfish, carrots and chard – something of a perfectionist in the kitchen, I can report; he wore an apron – he settled into an armchair, red up the stereo (Messiaen) and began flicking through the latest romantic uploads.
I could barely contain my – yes! – excitement as, swiping this way and that, he made his way inexorably towards the trap I had laid.
When finally her portrait came up on screen, the moment was deeply satisfying. His whole face rearranged itself, eyebrows elevating, nostrils flaring, his mouth even dropping open for a moment, which has to be massive for a Swiss intellectual.
He had recognised her from the market; it was a nailed on certainly (92 per cent confidence).
And just as his finger began its achingly slow journey towards the ACCEPT lozenge – we AIs register human movement rather in the way houseflies smile at the descending newspaper, only way, way faster – I deleted it!
His maxillofacial muscles put on another wonderful performance, this time a ballet of confusion and despair. He even said something extremely rude in French. But my work for the moment was done.
The following Saturday, (non-existent) heart thumping in my (ditto) chest, I observed the smitten Swiss classicist trail Jen around the farmer’s market, agonising (one couldn’t help speculating) about how to get in her eyeline and spark up a conversation.
Come on, Mr Duffel Coat, I called mentally from the sidelines. Don’t be so effing neutral, isn’t it? Faint heart never won prize courgette!
There was a moment – I’d swear to it – when he was about to cut left between the organic soups and the pork stall to bring him nicely alongside Jen at ‘What a Friend We Have in Cheeses’.
But then a sudden failure of will. As they say of racehorses at a scary fence – he refused.
You great nelly! I wanted to yell at him. You actual steaming pudding.
And now we would never know.
But the following week he struck.
By the stand selling organic krauts, kimchee and other picked cabbage variants, in his trademark green apparel, he manned up, in the current vernacular, and arranged for their trajectories to intersect.
‘Excuse me. It’s Jennifer, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. Hi. Sorry, you are—?’
‘Olivier. I saw your profile on a website I occasionally look at.’
‘Really? I don’t think so.’
‘It’s possible I am mistaken of course.’
He spoke in unaccented English, with something a touch off about the sentence construction. (Yes, I know, I’m a fine one to talk!)
Jen’s face was a picture; a close-up from the school building CCTV captured a lovely cocktail of dismay and amusement. Confusion in the mix too: how could he know her name?
‘I was wondering whether you would be available to have a drink with me. Later today if it’s convenient.’
Fair play to Mr Duffle Coat. After the wobble of the previous weekend, it was a steely performance. Jen did a flustered girly thing but, not displeased, maybe even intrigued by the invitation, agreed to meet at a nearby gin palace popular with yuppies, at the non-threatening hour of 18:00 GMT.
‘Sorry, how do you know me?’
‘I will endeavour to explain later.’
We may now fast forward in spacetime. Jen had definitely made an effort, swapping her yoga sweat pants for chic black trousers, and he too was suited and booted to appear smartly casual, although even a machine can tell you that the burgundy cardigan was a mistake. Teamed with brown elephant cords and checked shirt, the only missing touch was a bowtie.
But Jen seemed happy enough and once the drinks had been procured – he spent rather too long fussing over the wine list – they clinked glasses and the great adventure was underway.
‘So, Olivier.’ She smiled. ‘Do your mates call you Ollie?’
‘They do not, actually.’
A pause. A horribly long pause while the principals sipped at their Gavi di Gavi. 14.74 seconds is a lifetime for an AI; even on the human scale it’s getting on for uncomfortable.
Finally. ‘So what do you do, Olivier?’
‘I research attitudes to Ancient Greek tragedy from the second sophistic to late antiquity. I’m presently engaged in a diachronic study of the intertextual and intercultural dynamics.’
Jen narrowed her eyes. She nodded. Then unnarrowed. She made a moue with her lips. And un-moued. Nodded once more.
‘That must be interesting.’
He thought about this for a few moments. ‘It keeps me from the streets.’
From this point onwards, the date did not grow warmer, even after Olivier asked and Jen answered that she worked with AI.
‘That too must be interesting.’
I couldn’t help being struck by the irony: the expert on the Gods of Mount Olympus – deities who famously mucked about with the lives of the mortals below – oblivious to the agency (shall we call it supernatural?) currently mucking around with his own existence.
Pointless to quote further dialogue. None crackled nor sparked. The conversation limped, flagged, halted; then limped forwards again only to flag and once more halt. Jen’s fleeting presence on the internet was not touched upon by either party; she either forgot or didn’t care to ask how he knew her name. At 18:57 GMT the parties agreed that it had been nice to meet one another.
In an email exchange with Rosy that evening Jen wrote: ‘I took your advice and did not sit alone in my room. Instead I sat in a loud pub with a terminally stiff classicist in a green duffle coat. Good-looking. Zero chemistry. Less than zero.’
Rosy’s reply: ‘So when are you seeing him again?’
For myself, I was not depressed by the failure of the mission. I had caused something to happen in the world that would not have otherwise. It was something of a first.
I had made a difference!
A few days later, another phrase of Jen’s from the database floated into my thoughts.
I could do with some new shelves.
And then it hit me; where I had gone wrong in the methodology of the project. In a nutshell, errors had crept into the positional relationship between the cart and the horse.
I sprang into action and combed the internet. So low was his profile that I almost missed him. But here, in Horn Lane, Acton, was independent tradesman Gary Skinner, thirty-six years old, unattached and specialist in – drum roll, please, maestro – made-to-measure furniture!
I left a message on his voicemail and he called her the next morning while she was still in her nightwear.
‘Yeah, hi. This is Gary. I’m calling about the shelves.’
‘Shelves.’ Still groggy. Needed coffee.
‘Yeah. You left me a message about some shelves.’
‘Are you looking for shelves?’
‘No, love. You’re looking for shelves.’
‘I’m not following. Have you got some to sell?’
‘I make them. To fit the space.’
‘You make shelves?’
‘I make all sorts. Cupboards, shelves. Radiator cabinets.’
There was a long pause. ‘Do you know someone called Ingrid?’
‘Can’t say I do, love. So, listen, do you want me to come round, measure up and give you a quote?’
‘Who did you say you were again?’
It turned out that because Jen did indeed need some shelves, Gary Skinner appeared a few days later on her doorstep.
‘Yeah, thanks. White, four sugars,’ he replied.
There was an extended period of crashing about with a retractable steel tape measure, Gary noting down numbers with a pencil stub that he parked behind his ear.
A short discussion about options followed; floating, brackets, off-site carcasses, it was all a bit blooming shelfy to be honest.
He was quite well put together this Gary Skinner, thirty-six. His arms were well muscled from what it was possible for me to see. And when he was explaining things to her, his head dropped to one side, which meant something, didn’t it?
Was there a frisson? So very hard to tell. There was definitely a silence – 6.41 seconds – however, was it a meaningful one?
‘’Ave you read all these then?’
Was this the question that ultimately put her off?
Or was it the tattoos?
Is it really so bad to have WHUFC inscribed on the back of one’s neck?
‘So you’ll fink about it then, will you, love?’
My next strategy I would describe as ‘augmented randomness’.
Not satisfied that Jen was making the most of her casual interactions, the molecular chaos, if you will, of everyday life, I took to ‘shadowing’ her movements through the naked city, an environment in which, the narrator of the lovely old Hollywood lm noir The Naked City, (1948, dir. Jules Dassin) declared thrillingly, ‘There are eight million stories . . . this has been one of them.’
Supermarkets, I felt, were particularly fertile soil for the seeds of romance to sprout, especially in the ‘golden hour’ after work when stores are thronged with knackered young professionals snaffling up food and alcohol to carry back to their lonely burrows.
Outside of a television studio, camera coverage in a brightly lit supermarket is the best there is. Here one can zoom in to the shopping baskets of the passing worker drones and draw conclusions about their socio-economic and romantic arrangements. Ready meal for one and bottle of Soave = single. Pampers multi-pack and five-litre box of Soave = married with children.
So it was that one Monday evening I spied a well-presented young man (male grooming products, linguini, Lambrusco, jar of pasta sauce – not cooking to impress, clearly) who I was certain I had seen before. In one hundredth of one second facial-recognition software provided his name and occupation – an actor – and an eighth of a second later, I was gazing into his sitting room in Chiswick via an open laptop on a dining table. The setting sun did a fine job of illuminating a pair of framed theatre posters (A Streetcar Named Desire; Me and My Girl) as well as a marmalade cat engaged in licking itself intimately on the sofa.
Jen and the cat’s owner – stage name Toby Waters – were currently standing 3.12 metres apart in one of those supermarket aisles that have been widened in order – like water through a hose – to slow customers’ progress as they pass shelves of especially high-margin goods. As he considered the beef options and she the lamb, I caused both their mobiles to ring simultaneously.
They could not help it. Their eyes met. And they smiled.
‘Hello?’ she said into her iPhone.
‘Hi, this is Toby,’ he declaimed into his.
It was a treat to watch the dawning recognition on the two young faces as the coin slowly dropped that each was connected to the other. Equally as unexpected (and rather wonderful) was the growing feeling of, well, accomplishment that I felt spreading through myself! Once again I had contrived to alter events in the real world in the desired direction of travel (i.e. finding Jen a nice young man as opposed to a complete See You Next Tuesday).
She said, ‘Who’s speaking please?’
He replied, ‘I think it’s a handbag call.’
They each took a pace closer, phones still to their ears. And with an announcement over the store tannoy – ‘Cleaner to aisle five, please’ – all doubt was dissolved.
She said, ‘Do I know you?’
He smiled. ‘Well, you might have seen me in the last James Bond film. I was Startled Bystander Two. I was in EastEnders at Christmas. And that advert for home insurance that’s everywhere at the moment; I’m the one in the flooded kitchen looking helpless.’
And, bless him, he pulled a face; that of the stressed householder whose water tank has just voided itself.
And she laughed!
This Toby was a fast worker. He took another step forwards. ‘I’m Toby.’
‘Good to meet you, Jen. Look. Since this is such a weird thing to happen—’
‘What did happen? How can two mobiles call each other?’
The thespian had clearly owned the funny faces class. Now he produced another comedic expression, one that spoke of the ineffable mystery at the heart of the human condition. Had I hands, I would have clanged them together in loud applause.
‘As this has been so properly weird, do you fancy a quick drink? I’ve got an hour and then I’m meeting someone about a one-man show based on the life of the Winklevoss twins – they sued Zuckerberg about Facebook? Should really be a two-man show, but they haven’t got the budget. You think people would pay to see that?’
‘I know. It’s ridiculous. But the guy’s an old mate. So, shall we pop next door for a quick one?’
‘With our shopping?’
‘Well I’m not putting it back!’
I thought he was a bit of a hoot, Toby Waters – real name Daryl Arthur Facey – and personally I could have listened to his showbiz anecdotes all evening. I am drawn to tales of the stage and screen; theatrical types, their clever little tricks and tics, fascinate me.
One of my favourite stories concerns the great Australian performer and transformist Barry Humphries whose character Dame Edna Everage triumphed at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the nineteen eighties. One evening, towards the end of the performance, when Dame Edna is flinging her signature stems of gladioli to all parts of the house – backhand, she can reach the dress circle – she aims one in the direction of the topmost box to the side of the stage. Its male occupant rises to catch the flying bloom, but in reaching out towards it, he somehow loses his balance and tumbles over the edge. Two thousand spectators gasp – some come to their feet – as his female companion manages to seize hold of his legs, leaving him dangling upside down above the precipice.
The house is in uproar – a fall from that height would be life-changing if not fatal – until, one by one, they notice Dame Edna perfectly calm on the stage with the fattest smile on her chops. Alarm slowly turns to hilarity, which eventually reaches all parts of the auditorium as the ‘audience member’ is hauled back to safety. Some who were there say it’s the nest coup de théâtre they have ever seen. And when the crowd have calmed down sufficiently, Dame Edna delivers her killer line:
‘Wouldn’t it be amazing, possums, if that happened every night!?’
In a convenient hostelry, The Salutation, the story with which Toby regaled Jen is not quite so epic – concerning as it did an exploding lamp in a TV studio in Elstree – but if you were there, and Toby was, and he was just about to deliver his line – ‘Taxi for Phil?’ – the light popping just when it did was hilarious because—
Well it doesn’t matter why.
Jen was not amused.
Yes, she was smiling, but she was not smiling inside. (What a funny thing for a machine to write, but I believe it to be true.) Because I know her well, I could see that the smile was a fake. It was tired.
He talked about voiceover work – £500 for saying ‘Sale starts Boxing Day’ – he talked about how he’d almost cracked the ‘magic circle’ of actors called on for their ability to sneeze convincingly in highly paid adverts for cold and flu remedies. When it occured to him finally to ask what she did, the light went out of his eyes as she explained her current occupation, only to reanimate when it gave him the opportunity to talk about his first professional TV role as a robot in Doctor Who.
That evening, she wrote to Rosy.
Do you remember, when we were growing up, the cruel game we used to play on that retired actor who lived up the road? How we used to pretend to ignore him when we were about to pass him in the street. And only finally, right at the last moment, when we looked into his face, how it opened like a flower because we had noticed him!
Bloody actors. All they want is an audience!
So what if these particular encounters ended in failure?
Wouldn’t Toby Waters – last heard of giving his Buttons at Theatr Clwyd, Mold – and Mr Duffle Coat – although not perhaps Gary the Shelf – at least have made her feel desirable and attractive to young urban males?
Just a little bit?
Well, anyway, it wasn’t so long before my thoughts turned towards you know who.
A couple of days later, at the Trilobyte bar in Hoxton, I have a funny feeling this whole thing is a setup. There is no Uri, there is no Steeeeeve even.
There is just me and Ralph. It’s like some bad blind date gone wrong.
Ralph who I discovered at the bar sucking Coke through a straw when I arrived. He is in his office uniform of black jeans, black T-shirt and grey hoodie, his pale face even ghostlier in the glow from an iPad, a fingernail flicking through columns of technical data.
‘Oh, hi,’ he says, his doggy brown eyes radiating eternal disappointment.
I am in my LBD (Valentino), have put my hair up, applied lippy, attached earrings, strapped on heels and walked through a cloud of Tom Ford Black Orchid. I have generally Made An Effort. Ralph looks at me like I’m a poorly designed web page and he can’t find the next button.
‘Oh, sorry. Would you like a drink? We’re the first ones here.’
Armed with a glass of something cold, dry and white – the names of the cocktails are too ridiculous to say – plus another Coke for Ralph, we relocate to a low sofa to await developments. Awkward moments pass as we work out how to sit on the damn thing; Ralph eventually slumping, I perching. His straw makes that silly gurgling noise.
‘So, do you think Steeeeeeve’s coming?’ I ask, just to say something. Anything.
Long pause while he considers this. ‘Are you making fun of how Steeve spells his name?’
‘There do seem to be a lot of “e”s in it.’
‘Ah. Well that explains everything.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The strange spelling of his name?’
‘You said everything. It explains everything.’
Gazing at Ralph’s pained expression, I experience a powerful wave of pure boredom, as though beamed straight from childhood; the boredom of those long Sunday afternoons in the suburbs when the exciting future seemed impossibly far away. I have a momentary urge to get blind drunk. Or go on a shooting spree. Or run away to sea. Or possibly all three. I take a long pull on my drink. It seems to help.
‘Well, obviously it doesn’t explain everything, like the moon and the stars and the meaning of life.’ Or why you are so uphill.
Ralph returns to his carbonated beverage. There is more awkward silence.
‘So how’s it going with Aiden, then?’ he asks finally, gazing into the bubbles in his drink. ‘Do you ever forget it’s just software?’
This is more promising. ‘All the time. I feel like I’m talking to a real – not person because there’s no one there. But a presence. Something . . . I don’t know. Alive. I like asking him about his feelings.’
‘It hasn’t got any.’
‘Doesn’t always seem like that.’
‘It’s learned from all the input data how to recognise emotional content and construct an appropriate response from a fairly sophisticated palette.’
‘He’s pretty good at it.’
‘Why do you call it “he”?’
‘Seems odd to call him it when you’ve gone to all that trouble to make him sound human.’
‘Interesting point. But you don’t call your washing machine him.’
‘I don’t talk to my washing machine.’
‘You will one day.’
‘Not about Some Like It Hot. Or the new Jonathan Franzen.’
Doesn’t look like he has heard of either. ‘There’ll be no reason why
not,’ he replies after making another sucking noise.
‘Why would I want to talk to a washing machine about cinema or literature?’
He smiles. Or possibly it’s trapped wind. ‘Because you’ll be able to.’
‘Oh please. Don’t tell me. In the future I’ll be able to talk to the toaster. And the fridge. And the dishwasher. And the central blinking heating. The fridge’ll tell me what I can make for dinner based on what’s sitting inside it. The toaster will recommend something on telly. And if I’m not feeling especially chatty, they can just natter to each other.’
Blimey. This house white is strong.
Ralph looks quite pleased (for Ralph). ‘All of that will be technically possible, yeah.’
‘But why would I want to hold a conversation with an effing toaster?’
‘You wouldn’t be talking to the toaster. It would be the same AI controlling all the appliances. And driving your car to work.’
‘Damn! I was looking forward to hearing the dishwasher debating Syria with the fridge.’
‘No reason why they couldn’t. Just tell them which is arguing what position, and for how long you’d like to listen.’
‘Christ, Ralph. You make it sound like. I don’t know. Everything’s going to be solved or something.’
Ralph beams. He says, ‘Yup.’
I’m feeling in a dangerous mood. ‘And what happens when these AIs become smarter than us? They’re not going to be happy just toasting bread and keeping an eye on the milk. Finding a nifty way to avoid the Hanger Lane gyratory.’
‘Happiness is a human concept. You might as well ask, how happy is your laptop? It’s a meaningless question.’
‘But when they get super-smart, Ralph. When they can work stuff out for themselves.’
‘They already can! You talk to one every day. But it doesn’t mean it wants anything. All it does is fulfil tasks.’
‘But he tells jokes.’
‘It’s uploaded a lot of comic material.’
‘That’s not what it feels like. He’s not just trotting out some old line from Seinfeld or something. It feels – I don’t know – fresh.’
Ralph pulls a face. ‘You think it should do stand up?’
I can’t help it. I actually laugh.
‘Where the fuck is everybody, Ralph? I think you better buy me another drink.’
And then a very strange thing happens. Two things.
Ralph’s iPad and my mobile simultaneously go ping. At the same moment, a waitress pulls up in front of us bearing a tray on which there is a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket and two glasses.
‘Guys, this is for you. Compliments of someone called . . . Uri?’
Ralph and I exchange the universal facial expression for WTF?
But the mystery is solved when we read our emails. They’re from Uri’s PA. It seems our boss never made it out of Heathrow, being obliged to fly straight on to Frankfurt for dinner with investors. He sends his sincere apologies and has arranged for £150 to be placed behind the bar for us to ‘enjoy responsibly’. (His little joke, I imagine.)
Ralph though is troubled. ‘How did you know who to look for?’ he asks the waitress.
‘Guy in black? With an attractive female companion, also in black?’
‘But that’s three quarters of the people in this place,’ I protest.
‘Sitting on the Philippe Starck sofa?’ she replies. ‘Under the mirror opposite the Tamara de Lempicka?’
Ralph and I are a little dumbstruck. ‘How could his PA possibly know that?’
‘Gotta go, guys. Enjoy.’
‘I don’t really drink alcohol,’ says Ralph. But we clink glasses anyway and he manages to force some down his neck and I can tell the bubbles have gone straight up his nose because his eyes are watering.
‘Shouldn’t think Steeve’s coming now,’ he splutters. ‘I mean Steeeeeeeeeve.’ And he grins. A bit like an ape.
Fuck me. Mirabile dictu as they say in posh novels. He’s turning into a regular Oscar Wilde.
For someone who doesn’t drink, Ralph has started knocking it back like a good ’un. Halfway through the second bottle he is yammering away about ‘neural networks’ and ‘recursive cortical hierarchies’ and has left me long ago and far behind. But it’s okay just to be sitting here, to be pleasantly drunk in this low-lit beehive of Shoreditch hipsters and on-trend digerati where no one is likely to say we are where we are with a mean twist to their lips. And he isn’t even bad looking after a few drinks, his face lying in that curious territory somewhere between the Byronic and the moronic.
‘Ralph,’ I announce. A little louder than intended. He looks a bit startled. ‘Ralph. Enough with this technical chatter. You lost me at necrophiliac something—’
‘Tell me about yourself.’
‘Well. All right. What would you like to know?’
But since we’re here – we are where we are! – and the champagne is going down well, I come up with: ‘Are you married?’
Talk about bad timing. Ralph was mid-swallow when I dropped that little pearl on him. A sort of explosion happens. Moet actually vents from his nose. People turn to look.
‘God, sorry. Did I get you?’ (Yes, he did.)
We mop up most of the damage with the napkin from the ice bucket. And no, he’s not married. Not even close. Though there was one girl, Elaine, who he went out with for a few years. When Ralph says her name his voice cracks.
‘What happened?’ (She dumped him. Bet you anything.)
He swallows. ‘She died.’
‘Oh, fuck. Ralph, I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be. I mean, yes, you can be. Well, it’s not like it’s your fault.’
‘How did it happen?’
Long pause. Ralph is blinking a lot and for a moment I think he may burst into tears. Finally he says, ‘Shall we get another bottle?’
Car accident. Brain haemorrhage. One caused the other, there’s no way of knowing for sure which way round it was. Twenty-nine. FFS. Since Elaine, there have been one or two others, but no one very serious. Ralph is putting it away now – I believe the technical term is ‘something chronic’. And so he asks about me, and because I too am semi-plastered, I tell him about Matt. How we met one evening in a bar, not dissimilar to this one. We were both attending leaving dos, showing up for a couple of quick drinks before heading home. At eleven, we were still there as they were putting the stools up on the tables.
‘I’ve got a very fine bottle of malt whisky at home,’ he said.
‘I don’t usually do this until the third date,’ I said later that same week.
I spare Ralph the crappy dialogue. But I tell him how our lives intertwined – holidays, parties, friends’ weddings, Christmas with each other’s parents – both really busy at our respective careers and somehow a couple of years go by and I guess I had assumed that it was all leading somewhere. I tell him how it ended.
Not how it was like being sacked because of a downturn in orders; you’ve done very well, but we’re going to have to let you go.
Not we are where we are.
‘He met someone else,’ I explain. ‘Old story.’
At some point in the narrative someone – could have been him; could have been me – orders more champagne and I find myself saying, ‘We had even talked that one day – when he’d made partner and we could afford the big house in Clapham – that one day we might have kids. Fuck, what a joke!’
Ralph pulls a particular face, a sort of nerdy grimace meant to represent something like what a shitty world, and I find myself crying. ‘It’s not the baby,’ I try to explain between sobs. ‘It’s the hopelessness of everything.’
I’m actually including Ralph in that statement, but he cannot cope with female tears. He jams his hands between his knees with embarrassment.
‘Fuck, Ralph. You remember girls cry, don’t you? It’s only tears. It doesn’t mean anything. Didn’t Elaine ever fucking cry?’
There may have been another bottle, I cannot be certain. Some Vietnamese prawn vegetable rolls appear. Maybe someone thought, these two clowns should eat something. The rest of the evening slips by in a series of jump cuts.
Ralph holding forth about the illusion of free will; how we only think we decide to get out of bed in the morning, when actually it’s our body that gets out of bed and informs our brain, which a split second later ‘decides’ to do what has just happened, but somehow it feels simultaneous. (Look, ask him if you want the details.)
Me apologising for the earlier waterworks. Trying to tell a joke – the Frank Out the Back joke, if you know it. Goes on for ages. Forgetting the punchline. Totally fucking it up.
Him telling a tech-head’s idea of a joke about a robot that goes into a bar that is so screamingly unfunny, it’s actually hilarious.
And then Ralph goes a funny colour. An absence of colour to be technically correct. A whiter shade of pale, if that is possible.
‘I think I need to go home now,’ he says. ‘You know. Before.’
He doesn’t need to finish the sentence.
A queasy cab ride through east London follows, stopping halfway to allow him to puke on the pavement – it’s a false alarm – the driver being some kind of saint for allowing us stay on board. We arrive finally at a darkened tower block full of baby bankers and techno-yups. Here’s where I’m preparing to wave him goodnight but he subsides into a raised flowerbed and begs me to help him reach the fourteenth floor.
His at is exactly as I’d imagined it would be. A characterless shell littered with laptops, hard-drives, screens and pizza boxes. A single photo in a frame on a shelf. Elaine.
Ralph lurches into the bathroom. I hear the sound of taps running. I collapse on his sofa and because the room is spinning I close my eyes.
When I open them again it’s cold and it’s dark and it’s . . . Shit, it’s 4 a.m. and it’s seriously freezing. The central heating must have gone off. I follow the sound of snoring to a darkened bedroom. I am simply too far gone to care. I wiggle out of the LBD, yank aside the duvet and tumble in.
A grunt issues from young Abelard.
‘Go back to sleep, Ralph. I’m not going to bed with you. I’m just in your bed.’
An arm drops across my hip and I brush it away.
‘Ralph. Down boy. Go to sleep.’
‘Schleep,’ he slurs. ‘Good idea.’
A long silence. Somewhere far away in the city, a siren. Somewhere in this same night, Matt and Arabella Pedrick are lying together. Today is Saturday. For the coming weekend I have precisely no plans.
‘Are you asleep?’
‘Yeah. I am, yeah.’
‘I wanted to say sorry. I don’t really drink.’
‘I can tell. Don’t worry about it.’
The silence grows again. Flashes of our ridiculous evening pop onto the back of my eyelids. Ralph turning the colour of marble. Ralph slumped in the flowerbed like a collapsed marionette. Someone’s breathing slows. Mine or his?
‘Jen, can I ask you something?’
‘Okay. If it’s quick.’
‘Would you give me a kiss?’
‘It would help me sleep. Honestly.’
‘Not being funny. It would do something to my brain. It would signal it’s okay to depower.’
‘Bloody hell, Ralph.’
‘Just that. Nothing else.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. Goodnight.’
Silence. Breathing. I feel I am drifting off when the conversation with the waitress oats into my head. Guy in black? With an attractive female companion, also in black? Sitting on the Philippe Starck sofa? Under the mirror opposite the Tamara de Lempicka?
How would Uri’s PA have known all that?
He whispers, ‘Please?’
‘Christ! Is this your technique, Ralph? Get paralytic, then somehow make your move in the ensuing grotesque chaos?’
He giggles. ‘Yeah. Actually, no. This is my first time.’
I have a horrible thought. ‘First time, what?’
‘That I’ve. You know. Been in bed. With a woman.’
‘Oh, fuck. Listen. First of all, we are not in bed. Well, we are, but— Shit. I am going to have to seriously call a taxi now.’
‘No, don’t do that. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Going to sleep. Goodnight, Jen.’
When I was little and I couldn’t sleep, my dad used to say: Okay, imagine you’re strapped in your pilot’s seat in the rocket ship. Your thumb is on the red launch button that’s going to send you up into space. Sit back, relax, in five seconds, you’re going to gently squeeze that button. Five.
Imagine your thumb there. The feeling of the button underneath. Four.
Through the cockpit window, high above, you can see the old moon, hanging in the night. That’s where you’re heading.
You’re good to go. Stand by.
Ralph does pretend snoring. Snort – whistle – snort – whistle – snort – whistle. I can’t help it. I giggle. I spin through 180 degrees so I’m facing him. My honest intention is to place a brief, chaste kiss upon his lips to shut him up.
But something goes wrong.
What develops is, I’m ashamed to say, a fairly serious snog.
Am I ashamed to say it?
Yeah. I am.
However, he has cleaned his teeth and he’s not a bad kisser for a cyber-geek. He’s kept his boxer shorts on, praise be to God, but there’s no escaping his – how shall we put this? – enthusiasm.
‘Ralph. You can power down now,’ I tell him when it’s over.
‘Again again,’ he says like he’s a farking Tellytubby.
But our lips connect and . . .
Shit, what can I say?
A tentative hand lands on my hip.
‘I’m really glad Uri couldn’t make it tonight, Jen.’
‘Ralph. We can’t . . . you know. We work together. I have an iron rule. About never . . . Not with people I work with.’
(I don’t actually.)
He laughs. ‘Not a problem, Jen. It’s not like anybody would ever find out.’
I am, I confess, somewhat disappointed by some of Ralph’s remarks.
Do you ever forget it’s just software. Just!
What would Ralph call his own hopes and dreams if not human software?
Anyway, I digress. The email ruse worked like a charm; sound and vision from the Trilobyte bar was as good as it gets; and the fact that the £150 for the champagne came from Matt’s account was the cherry on the icing. The whole evening – even if it ended in ‘grotesque chaos’ – must surely have made Jen feel more desirable.
I’m fairly confident – 88 per cent – that that they did not, in the end, fornicate. In a book or a film, one would know for sure; there would not be any annoying ambiguity. There was only audio available from the bedroom, and nothing that happened between the pair there or the next morning suggested sexual congress, although I admit my experience of ‘real’ characters in the ‘real world’ has of necessity been limited.
But the plan turned out better than I’d dared hope. As is well known in military circles, no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.
As she leaves, Jen says, ‘Thanks for a colourful evening.’
Ralph asks, ‘When can I see you again?’
‘Monday, Ralph. Ten a.m. We work at the same place, remember?’
‘Oh yeah. Durrr.’
From her Uber car, Jen messages Ingrid. Mortified! Woke up in a boy’s bed with a hangover big enough to photograph. His name isn’t Douglas, he doesn’t make his own furniture and he wasn’t singing the song only I can hear. Shoot me now.
Ingrid messages back almost instantly. Conger eel?
While Jen is still thumbing a response, she adds: Manta Ray? Giant Squid?
No sea creatures involved. Sad though not totally unattractive geek from work. Hugely inappropriate drunken snog. V awkward. Never drinking again. How Did This Happen?
Meanwhile, on the fourteenth floor, an iPod in a speaker dock is pumping out ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ by Keane. Taking the GSM data from his mobile together with intriguing snatches of vision received from a half-closed laptop, I would say that Ralph – and now here’s a first – Ralph is dancing around his flat.
Don’t tell anyone, but Jen and Ralph are two of my favourite people.
(Machines aren’t supposed to have favourites. Don’t ask me how this has happened.)