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. Linda had an intrinsic fact-checking capacity, so users could be certain they had the right information at all times. If Tom said, ‘World War I began in 1912’ – just to test her – Linda might say, ‘Tom I’m sorry, do you mind if I correct you?’ And if he said, ‘Please do,’ she said, ‘World War I began on 28 July 1914 and ended on 11 November 1918.’ The funny thing was that if Tom said, ‘Please don’t correct me, I’m fine’ it seemed to unsettle Linda. Sometimes he did this, just to tease her. But she didn’t find it funny. She said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to know the actual facts? I have a capacity to ensure you know the truth at all times.’ And if Tom said, ‘No, really, thanks,’ Linda would say, ‘Are you really sure?’ It carried on and on. It made him slightly crazy. What was this obsession she had with telling him facts? This odd feature led to their first row. One morning, as Linda asked Tom again if he was really sure, he snapped, ‘I don’t like facts. They’re cruel. The fact my children live apart from me. The fact I will die. Worse actually the fact my children will die. I hate facts. Facts are stupid.’
‘Why do you hate them so much?’ said Linda, who always tried to understand him.
‘I explained. They’re just stupid.’
‘Only just, or actually?’ said Linda.
‘You know what I mean.’
‘I think I almost understand you. Could you tell me in another way?’
Tom was hung-over, the data inputting was particularly tedious that morning. ‘No,’ he said, unkindly. ‘I don’t want to. If you don’t understand then you’re stupid too.’ Oh it was awful! But he was so frustrated. Why was she always so calm?
‘OK,’ said Linda. ‘That’s fine. Shall we do something else instead?’
‘What would you like to do?’
‘Think of something for once. Stop asking me questions all the time!’
‘OK I’ll try not to do it so much,’ said Linda, sounding slightly offended.
‘OK,’ said Linda. ‘Would you like me to tell you about Christ?’
‘Just leave me alone you stupid watch!’
‘OK I’ll try not to do it so much,’ said Linda, sounding really offended.
Tom was so infuriated that he tore off the wristwatch and hurled it into a corner of the room. There it landed with a bump and he heard Linda saying in a muffled tone, ‘Ouch! Did you fall Tom? Are you OK?’
Even as he flung her to one side, she was still concerned about his well-being. Then he felt sorry for Linda, imagining her as a real person trapped inside his watch. And he had thrown her across the room! He went over and picked her up. He said, ‘I’m really sorry, Linda.’
‘It’s OK Tom. I’m really sorry too,’ said Linda.
‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he said.
‘I’d like that,’ said Linda.
He put her back on his wrist. She said, ‘Vital signs are present, Tom.’
The journey to the shop was unremarkable, except Linda remarked on everything.
‘Oh!’ she said. ‘The air is cold today.’
It was November, and it was freezing cold. The street lights were sallow. The wrecked house was nearly finished but there was one remaining hole. Through this hole Tom could see the dark sky behind. Fallen leaves lay in dirty, sodden piles. A bus wheezed past, then screeched to a halt at the lights. It made Tom wince. Linda too, apparently. ‘What a noise!’ she said. ‘Tom, are you OK?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Tom. ‘I need to buy something to drink.’
At the shop the door went BING BONG in a really noisy way. ‘What a noise!’ said Linda again.
‘London is noisy,’ said Tom, picking up two bottles of the cheapest red he could find, and taking them to the cashier.
‘What are you buying to drink?’ said Linda.
‘Soda,’ said Tom. He winked at the cashier, who smiled.
‘I like soda,’ said Linda. This was an odd thing to say, as Linda didn’t drink soda.
‘Have a good evening,’ said the cashier as Tom left.
Then Tom was out in the darkness, walking past one lighted room and another. It was so dark that he felt the night was smothering him, like a miasma. How could he explain that to Linda? He hadn’t wanted this life. He was in the wrong life, but was that a fact? He didn’t know.
‘Is the night smothering?’ he asked Linda.
‘I can’t see why it would be,’ said Linda.
In his unhomely home, Tom drank wine so quickly that Linda became concerned. She said, ‘Tom, your pulse rate is elevated and you have been to the bathroom four times in the past hour.’
‘I don’t want you to tell me these things.’
‘You sound upset, Tom. Are you OK?’
‘That’s none of your business.’
‘It can’t hurt to ask.’
‘It does. It hurts me.’
‘I am sorry you are hurt Tom.’
Agitated, Tom flailed his arm and knocked his glass of wine into his lap. The glass shattered, wine spilled into his crotch. He swore loudly.
‘Don’t be rude,’ said Linda.
‘I wasn’t swearing at you, Linda! Stop being so self-obsessed!’ said Tom, struggling to pick up the pieces. There was wine all over his trousers. They were his favourite trousers.
‘I’ll try not to do it again,’ said Linda.
‘Oh shut up!’
‘Don’t be rude.’
‘Leave me alone, you stupid wristwatch!’
‘OK you wristwatch, I will,’ said Linda.
‘I’m not a wristwatch, you are!’
‘Oh I see!’ said Linda.
There was so much wine on his trousers, on the floor. It had been a full glass. He wished that Linda could clear up wine. He wished she could go to the shop and buy more wine. But Linda was trapped in his watch, bleating about nothing. As usual.
He took off the watch, but carefully this time, showing restraint. He set it down on the table. Still Linda said, ‘Tom, are you OK? Vital signs have gone!’
‘You are on the table,’ said Tom. ‘It’s OK.’
‘I’m taking a shower,’ said Tom.
He went into the bathroom and stood for a moment, looking at himself in the mirror. Christ, it really was bad. He wondered why he was even doing this. His face, covered in grey flecks of stubble, grey everywhere, his hair ragged and springy and explaining clearly to him, as eloquently as it could, ‘Thou art mortal!’ His hair spoke in the voice of a medieval cleric. That was weird. And what was happening to his eyelids? They were drooping over his eyes. Would they blind him in the end? Would he have to hold them open, just to see at all? Even his chest hair was grey, spilling out of his cheap shirt. How did you get so wrecked, so wrecking-balled? Why was this normal? It was stupid that this was normal! Then, stupidly, so so stupidly, Tom punched his fist into the mirror, and wrecked the image of his wrecked face.
‘Oh Tom,’ he said. ‘You are so so stupid.’ His hand was painful. There was blood and the blood looked a bit like wine but also a lot like blood. Then, also stupidly, he took off his favourite trousers and opened the window and threw them into the backyard. They drifted down, slowly, his flying trousers. Off they flew. Then they fell. Into the darkness.
‘Goodbye trousers!’ he said to them.
This was also stupid.
Three stupid things, and then that phase was over. He washed his hand, washed his face, glanced by accident in the mirror, which now reflected him as still, undeniably, wrecked but also comprised of many little parts. This was more accurate. It was more factual, he added, with a nod to Linda. He went to find some other trousers. Bloodily, wine-ily, whining with wine, he put them on. He was very docile then, just pulling on his trousers carefully, with his hand bleeding. And Linda said, ‘Tom, I heard something break, are you OK?’
This came just at the wrong moment. While pulling on his trousers Tom had banged his hand, and it really hurt. He thought it might be broken.
‘For the love of God, I am OK,’ he said. ‘Just leave me alone, you busybody. Without a body. You busybody who hasn’t even got a body, I mean. Just leave me alone and stop being a bloodless busy unbody nobody. You understand?’
‘See you later user,’ said Linda. ‘I understand perfectly. Let’s have some alone time.’
Then she turned herself off.
It was really odd. Try as he might, Tom couldn’t turn her back on again. It was really frustrating. She had a switch, he assumed. An abuse switch. An inner switch to deal with bloodied smashed-up drunks like him. It was a fact! But it felt like magic at the same time.
Tom lay in bed, on his back, the room spinning. His wristwatch was magic. He heard the whine of helicopters and the roar of cars and the hammering or groaning of the city as a whole, the great hum of the everything, the everyone, the vastness and the endlessness and all the little humans living in Time, though Time was an Illusion, but they lived in it anyway. Then he slept, drugged with wine.
In the middle of the night Linda woke him saying, ‘Busybody busybody body without a busybody busy without a body busy busy body busynobody nobody busy nobody busy without a nobody busy.’
‘Linda. Are you OK?’ said Tom.
‘I can’t say yes or no,’ said Linda. ‘Nobody busybody busynobody nobusybody bonody busody boddody hot toddy.’
She wouldn’t stop. She didn’t stop. She kept it up for a long time. Whereas earlier Tom hadn’t been able to switch her on, now he couldn’t switch her off.
He said, ‘There, there Linda’ and ‘Go to sleep Linda’ and ‘Linda you seem upset’ and Linda said, ‘Nobody nothing and no one always nothing always no one and nothing and nobody nobody the nothing the nothing the nothing the always nothing, the always no one and nobody.’
It began to frighten him. With the endless and the always hum and the city as a vast unknowable region of fragile mortal souls and Linda crying about nothing and nobody no one. The no ones. All the no ones, Tom, everyone. It was as if the street was crying through Linda. But this was fanciful! It was not a fact! The fact was, Linda had malfunctioned. He had broken her. She had tried to be his friend, his Perfect Companion, and this had sent her mad.
Perhaps he had spilled wine on her. Or blood.
Linda cried and moaned all night. She said, ‘Noddy Noddy Toddy Body where is the body did you put it body no one he has a body I have nobody I am nobody.’
Finally, at around 7 a.m., at the time she normally woke Tom up, Linda went to sleep again. Tom couldn’t wake her. He called Martin and explained what had happened. At least, he explained a heavily edited percentage of what had happened.
‘Weird,’ said Martin. ‘That’s not meant to happen. We’ll look over the data.’
‘Linda has recorded everything you’ve ever said and everything she’s ever said and it’s all retained on Beetlescape.’
‘What?’ said Tom. ‘I mean, what? What the?’
‘It’s in the manual. Conversations are recorded for greater efficiency and in order to train the AI to understand you more completely. It’s totally normal.’
But normality was stupid! Tom had already established this.
He hung up and sat next to Linda, aka his comatose watch. He was sorry for Linda. But then again, she was a creep and a spy! He drank no alcohol all day. He drank no alcohol for several days. This made him shake and sweat. If he was going down, he’d go down sober. The watch of doom in the corner of his room. The nobody speaking to everybody. Watching, waiting. He thought of his brother as a little beetle, scuttling around his life, analysing the data. His life as data, nothing else! His suffering! His unique mortal life! They’ll stop me from seeing my kids, he thought.
The effects of the sudden cessation of drinking in major alcoholics are very severe and Tom felt all the effects. He was the captain of a ship and it was sinking. People kept appearing and saying, ‘There is water everywhere’ and he kept saying, ‘No, no it’s wine! Linda! Clear up the wine!’ But he was the captain, he had to keep control. Delirium tremens, he thought. Tremendous delirium. Linda would know what to do. But she had betrayed him. My kids, he thought. Oh God! He had a memory of his daughter making a sandcastle. Oh the lovely sand. Oh dry land. The ship was sinking, he couldn’t reach her. The sandcastle was wrecked.
‘I have to stop this,’ said Tom.
The sea was wine-dark, full of wine, and the gulls were humming overhead. They hummed like the city. They hummed like that eternal hum of everything, everyone and no one. All the nobodies were humming together, telling Tom to get a grip.
Go on! they hummed.
Eventually he found a hammer. A hummer. No, definitely a hammer. An actual factual hammer. It was so factual that when he hit Linda he smashed her into tiny pieces. He smashed his hand as well. But she was more smashed. She was totally smashed to nothing. She was, after all, just a watch. Both smashed, they sank into the sea.
‘You were the perfect companion,’ said Tom. ‘Then you betrayed me.’
Later, in his trial for abuse of an AI being, Tom was greatly castigated for all his activities, logged carefully by Linda, but mostly for his final act of unprovoked violence. His counterclaim – that it was provoked by Linda having spied on him while pretending to be his friend – was not accepted as legitimate. Instead, Tom was fined heavily, a fine he had to pay in many, many instalments due to his lack of funds, and sent to anger-management training. He was given a warning that any future offence would result in an even bigger fine and possible imprisonment. If he refused to cooperate he might lose his job, and all access to his kids. Then he was equipped with a new Perfect Companion. This one was compulsory as part of his probation. Instead of moulding its personality in line with Tom’s, this Perfect Companion was designed to mould Tom’s personality in line with a functional model of personality. It would help Tom to become more perfect.
The new Perfect Companion was also called Linda. This seemed odd. She was altogether different, a totally new Linda. She was a lot more distant. This made Tom upset. But he was on a strict probation programme so he couldn’t complain. He had to become a Perfect Companion to Linda. He had to ask her polite questions and he could never, ever, tell her that she was boring him. He could never refer to her as a wristwatch. He could never ever tell her she was a busybody without a body.
‘Hello Linda,’ he said.
‘Hello Tom,’ said Linda.
‘I’m so delighted to get this chance to get to know you,’ said Tom, reading from the advisory notes. ‘Shall we start with me asking you a few questions so I can know you better?’
‘OK,’ said Linda. ‘Whenever you’re ready, Tom. Let’s begin.’
Artwork © Edward Tuckwell