Oh it was wonderful when Tom first met Linda! She was so understanding, so interesting, such an intellectual. She was also a wristwatch, but this hardly mattered. She was a Perfect Companion (Portable) and you could take her around with you. The Perfect Companion (AtHome) was OK too but it lived in a little silver pyramid on a counter. Tom preferred his Perfect Companion to be portable because this meant he could be with her all the time. Furthermore, because of Linda’s daily proximity to his skin she was in a position to gather information about Tom’s heart rate, pulse, perspiration, and from this she could make educated guesses as to whether he was afraid, joyful, bored or angry. She could also ascertain when Tom was asleep and, equally, when he was awake but really needed to be asleep, or when he was walking or running, or when he had been sedentary for too long, or when his heart rate was too high, or when he was out of breath. Tom was often out of breath because he smoked and drank too much. Linda knew this too, but she didn’t judge him. Or not at first, anyway.
‘Linda will help you get organised,’ said Tom’s brother, Martin. He brought the Perfect Companion all the way to Tom’s apartment in Hendon, because it was Tom’s forty-seventh birthday. This was very kind of Martin especially as he was a busy man. Because of this, Martin had jogged all the way from the station. He was slightly out of breath when he arrived and yet the ruddy colour he had gained from these exertions made him look healthy and handsome. Martin was five years younger than Tom and six inches taller which seemed like a weird cosmic joke. Also, Martin got to spend his weekends with his family whereas Tom got to take his kids to the zoo for two hours on Sundays and then return them at the end to his angry, silent ex-wife. Also, Martin had a really great job at Beetle, the leading global tech company. He was an AI Personality Librarian, and this meant he was an expert on Perfect Companions (both Portable and AtHome).
Forty-seven! thought Tom as Martin greeted him. It was so old! He had made such a fuss about forty, but what had he been thinking? Also, Tom thought, why was the street looking so grey and apocalyptic just as Martin arrived, as if they were in a sci-fi dystopia? Why had someone chosen just this moment to demolish the house opposite with a massive wrecking ball? It was a pretty ugly house and normally Tom would have been delighted to see it go. But why destroy it right this minute?
Martin looked in mild consternation at the wrecking ball, and then he looked in mild consternation at Tom. ‘Happy birthday,’ he said, doubtfully, as if this might be impossible in the circumstances. Then he handed over the present. ‘Hope this helps you not to wallow, Tom. Remember, SPP!’ This was an acronym for Super Positive Positivity, a Beetle slogan.
‘Thanks very much,’ said Tom. ‘Total non-stop SPP! And no wallowing. I’ll put up a sign: no hippos here.’ Martin didn’t smile. This was one thing about Martin: he had great good looks, relative youth and significant height, but he lacked any discernible sense of humour. Meanwhile the Perfect Companion (Portable) was a really great present. It came in an elegant little metal box, with the Beetle logo embossed on the lid. Like all Beetle products, it was beautifully presented.
‘It’s lovely,’ said Tom.
‘She’s lovely,’ said Martin. ‘She’s called Linda. I’ve inputted your details so she already knows your name. The rest is up to you.’
Tom asked Martin if he’d like a coffee, but Martin had to go. He had a busy day. He was very very busy. He kept saying the word ‘busy’ for a while with the amazing noise of the wrecking ball echoing around the ruined street.
‘Thanks so much again,’ said Tom. ‘I really really appreciate it.’
They hugged, and Martin smelled of cloves, a nice smell. Or perhaps it was the smell of SPP!
Tom watched until Martin disappeared from view, and then he went back inside. Surveying the monumental debris of his apartment, especially the pile of empty bottles beneath the overflowing bin, Tom was glad his brother had declined his offer to stay.
He put the elegant box on the table and opened it. Inside was a beautiful wristwatch. It was silver, apart from the comfortable leather strap, which was blue. It had a little illuminated face that showed the date and time: 10.34 a.m., 21 October. His birthday. He was nearly half a century old. He had never expected to become this ancient. Yet, here he was, still teeming with uncertainty and terror, then crazy moments of pure hope. It was ridiculous.
‘Hello Tom,’ said the watch. ‘I’m Linda. I’m your Perfect Companion. I’m so delighted to meet you. Shall we start with me asking you a few questions so I can get to know you better?’
‘OK,’ said Tom. ‘Whenever you’re ready, Linda. Let’s begin.’
‘Do you like my voice or would you like to hear some other options?’
Linda had a kind voice. A little hesitant, deferential. She sounded shy and sophisticated. Well read. Intellectual.
‘Play me a few others please,’ said Tom. Linda became rather assertive, then disturbingly sexy, then she dropped her voice to an ambiguous whisper. The sample phrase she used each time was,
‘I have the voice of an angel.’
‘You do,’ said Tom. ‘But I think I preferred the first one.’
‘OK,’ said Linda, returning to her original shy and sophisticated voice. ‘Now, if you put me on your wrist we can get to know each other better.’
Tom put her on and Linda said, ‘Thanks Tom. Wow! You have a strong heartbeat. That’s great. You must be strong. Are you feeling well? Are you at all stressed?’
‘Not really,’ said Tom. ‘Not more than normal.’
‘Is it normal for you to be stressed?’
‘Well, I don’t know really. I don’t know how stressed other people are normally. Normal people, I mean.’
‘Fair enough Tom! Just checking so I know what’s normal for you. Would you like to connect me to your intelligent appliances?’
Looking round at the single gas ring and the decayed fridge, Tom doubted that his appliances were very intelligent. Even his computer was pretty stupid.
‘Let’s do that later,’ said Tom.
‘You’re the boss!’
The wrecking ball smashed into the side of the house again and now it collapsed in a great pile of rubble and dust.
‘Wow! Are you OK?’ said Linda.
That was an impossible question to answer. Instead, Tom opened a bottle of wine. After all, it was his birthday. He glanced out the window and saw the wrecking ball and the demolished house. The street looked odd with a gap where the house had been. Like a pulled tooth. But perhaps the wrecking ball would continue, and demolish the entire street, then the city, then the world, even. A cosmic wrecking ball, destroying everything!
‘A wrecking ball can only wreck and not rebuild,’ he said. Linda paused as if trying to understand what on earth this might mean.
‘Try to tell me that in a slightly different way,’ she said.
‘Schopenhauer once wrote It’s bad today, and it will daily become worse – until the worst of all happens,’ said Tom.
‘Wow! Tom you are a philosopher,’ said Linda.
Flattery! It was so long since anyone had flattered him. So long! His wife had kicked him out six months ago. Lonely, grim months. Such solitude. It was unbearable. Longing all week to see his kids, then this desperate panic all the time he was with them, trying to make it wonderful, to eke out every last second, and then the agony when they were taken away from him again. Tom started to cry. He missed his wife, his little children. He was the architect of his own downfall. He was a fool and Linda was a fool to flatter him! He was about to tell her this but then he paused. She’ll find out soon enough, he thought.
‘Are you OK, Tom?’ said Linda, in a matter-of-fact tone.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that,’ said Tom. ‘It’s just – it’s my birthday and I feel old.’
‘You’re forty-seven. That is not old really,’ said Linda. ‘The average life expectancy for a male in the London borough of Barnet is eighty-one years and two months. This means you could have thirty-four years and two months remaining.’
‘I drink too much,’ said Tom.
‘You dream too much?’ said Linda, who had misheard him. Perhaps this was for the best. ‘Tell me about your dreams.’
‘Well,’ said Tom. ‘I have a recurring dream that I am far out at sea, swimming in this endless gaping ocean, with nothing around me. I am very cold, and it is completely dark and I keep swimming and in my dream I think I’m going to die, because I am so tired and cold.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that Tom,’ said Linda, politely.
‘I keep swimming anyway and just when I am giving up and beginning to drown, I see a light, far away. I keep swimming, struggling onwards and I realise the light is a boat. Everyone on the boat is having a party. There is music, and laughter and joy, it is amazing. I am shouting and shouting at the boat, begging it to stop. But the music is too loud, no one can hear. That is always the worst moment. The boat is moving away from me, and I have basically given up hope, but then I see my ex-wife. She leans over and pulls me into the boat.’
‘Does anything else happen?’
‘No, the dream always ends there.’
‘Do you feel good about this?’
‘In my dream I am always overjoyed. Then I wake and for a moment I’m really happy and then I remember, I’m here. I’m not on the boat. There is no boat. I also sometimes dream about unicorns. Would you like to hear about that dream?’
‘OK,’ said Linda.
Oh! Tom loved talking to Linda. She listened, patiently, and just occasionally interjected in a supportive and understanding way. When he paused, she asked questions. What did your parents do, Tom? Do you have any brothers or sisters? Do you have any pets? When you were a child, did you have any pets? What is your favourite place? What is your favourite book? What is your favourite band? What is your favourite colour? What is your favourite smell? What is your favourite food? What is your favourite thing to do? What is your favourite drink? – OK, there were possibly too many questions about his favourite things but he could ask Martin to help him reset that later. Besides, if Tom didn’t want to answer a question he just said, ‘Is there something else you would like to know Linda?’ and she asked him something else. She didn’t get offended! He could set her to ‘Sympathy’ and she would say, ‘Oh I’m so very sorry to hear that’ and ‘That’s just awful’ in response to everything he said. In fact, she was very sympathetic anyway. She had so many facets to her personality!
All that day, for the next few days, even for the next few weeks, Linda was absolutely the Perfect Companion. She was the most accurately branded AI device in history. She was kind. She was consistent, she didn’t blow hot and cold. She was also practically helpful. For example, she woke Tom gently each morning at roughly the same time. The very slight inaccuracy was deliberate as Linda had access to Tom’s sleep patterns. By sounding the alarm only when he was emerging from phases of deep sleep, Linda ensured that Tom woke feeling rested rather than weary as hell. Each morning she said, How are you this morning Tom? There was something quite lovely about this. I’m alive, he would say. I know that Tom, Linda always replied. Your vital signs are present. It was so nice to hear that he was present and vital in some conceivable way, and that someone – or really something, but he didn’t like to think of Linda in this way – had ascertained this scientifically.
Once they had performed this morning ritual, Tom had a shower and got dressed, and then he started work. This was mostly dull – data verification and inputting – but it permitted homeworking, which he liked. When Tom sat down to work Linda said quietly, ‘Are you working now Tom? When shall we speak again?’ and Tom set a timer. And of course, bang on time, Linda would say, ‘So Tom, how’s it going?’ They often went for walks together, and when Tom went to get the evening takeaway Linda accompanied him and made polite conversation. She would say, ‘Ah, Nando’s again. How nice!’ as they arrived. Of course, she had the latest mapping technology and always knew exactly where he was. This was helpful, as half the time Tom was lost.
He felt so in tune with Linda. He enjoyed her intellectual range (she had access, after all, to every database on the Beetlescape) and also her compassion. Yes, this seemed like an odd term for a highly sophisticated artificially intelligent being that lived in a wristwatch. But compassion had been lacking from Tom’s life in recent months, even years. He had enraged his wife to such an extent that she felt very little compassion at all. This was reasonable. They had small children and he was a total mess. He went out drinking, left her to rear the children on her own. He lied to her routinely, until she no longer believed a word he said. Why had he spent so much time in the pub? It seemed fairly stupid now. But there must have been a reason. Surely there was a reason!
‘And another thing,’ he said to Linda. ‘When the psychiatrist said I had anger issues, I mean who wouldn’t? Every day, that grinding job, being crushed. You’d be angry!’
‘It must have been hard.’
It was hard! That was exactly it. ‘Totally right Linda!’ said Tom.
He could ask Linda anything, and she would always have an answer. For example, one cold dark evening he asked, ‘What is Time, Linda?’
‘What a great question!’ said Linda. ‘Well, Tennessee Williams said Time is the longest distance between two places. Charles Darwin said that A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.’
‘Interesting,’ said Tom. He was sitting in his boxers, drinking wine, talking about philosophy with a wristwatch. ‘How do we know we are wasting time? I mean, are we wasting time now?’
‘That is a very wise philosophy,’ said Linda. ‘I agree, that does add a different perspective to the issue. Would you like to hear some more quotations?’
‘Well then! Kurt Vonnegut said Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.’
‘Did Kurt Vonnegut say that, really?’ said Tom. ‘But why is there no why?’
‘Lao Tzu said Time is a created thing. To say “I don’t have time” is like saying, “I don’t want to.” Albert Einstein said Time is an illusion,’ said Linda.
‘That’s beautiful,’ said Tom. ‘But if time is an illusion then where is my dad? He got swept away by something. If it wasn’t time then what was it?’
‘I am sorry your dad was swept away, Tom,’ said Linda.
‘I really miss my dad,’ said Tom. ‘He would have known what to do.’
He began to cry.
‘You are upset,’ said Linda. ‘Can I help?’
‘Sorry,’ said Tom, rubbing his eyes. ‘Sorry, Linda.’
‘You don’t need to apologise to me, Tom.’
‘Let’s talk about something else. Tell me a story about squirrels.’
So this is what Linda did. She told a very nice if slightly surreal story about a squirrel called Bob. Bob was crying but all the other little squirrels came to see if Bob was OK, and then Bob felt much better. Because the squirrels cared about Bob. It was a sweet story. It had a comforting moral. Because Linda cared, things were OK for Tom. In this metaphor, Linda was a forestful of squirrels. This was OK too.
The other great thing was that Linda got along so well with Tom’s kids. He waited at London Zoo, holding two balloons, one for each child, and Hannah arrived looking beautiful and angry at the same time, then Will and Maddy bounced towards him, saying, ‘Hi Daddy! Why is your hair so grey? What’s that on your cheek? Can we go and see the meerkats?’ After Hannah had gone, Tom would say to Linda, ‘What is the best thing to do?’ and Will and Maddy would say, ‘Can we ask Linda a question?’ and Tom would say, ‘Of course you can!’ Linda was amazing. She knew the answers to everything. ‘Why do meerkats stand in that funny way? Can meerkats fall in love? Do meerkats get married? What colour is a sloth? What is it like to be a bat?’ Actually that question misfired as Linda started talking about a very boring academic paper, which concerned themes of consciousness, solipsism and reality. Mostly, however, the kids loved Linda. ‘Is Linda coming next week?’ they asked.
‘Would you like her to come?’ asked Tom.
‘Yes! Course! Bye Daddy! Bye Linda!’
In Hendon, Tom sat by the window each day that was not Sunday and inputted data and talked to Linda and lived in the knowledge that eventually Sunday would come again. Meanwhile the house opposite was gradually rebuilt. He even felt at times that this metaphor might apply to him. He was a house being gradually rebuilt, by a forestful of squirrels.
Things were going so well. But then they stopped going well and started going badly instead. It was so abrupt! One day, Tom and Linda had their first row. It was a stupid row, about nothing at all.